The Prince Corruption, cruelty, leadership, manipulation, politics, ethics, and war

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Augie Reads 2012

Augustana College, Rock Island, IL

Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince


Corruption, cruelty, leadership, manipulation, politics, ethics, and war. Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince has all of these elements, but above all, The Prince is still read in every university and college in the United States—indeed, across the world—because it is a masterwork on the exercise of power. As members of Augustana’s class of 2016, you have the opportunity to share with your class and with the entire campus a deep, informed understanding of this masterwork. While you read this text, please consider the following questions. When you arrive on campus in August, you will participate in a small group discussion and other activities related to this text.  

  1. In The Prince Machiavelli advises current and potential political leaders. Which aspects of Machiavelli’s texts are still relevant pieces of advice for leaders today? Are there any suggestions that seem particularly outdated? Do you think that certain current political leaders learn methods for gaining power but miss some of the other important messages of the book?

  1. Machiavelli claims that unlike other similar arguments, his has the virtue of being grounded “in a real truth, rather than as they are imagined” (50). Do you agree? For example, is Machiavelli’s view of human nature “truthful,” in your opinion?

  1. Machiavelli famously states that as a leader, “it is far better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both” (54). Do you agree? Why or why not? Can you think of some examples of contemporary leaders who have used fear to motivate people? Is a fearful reputation effective, in your opinion? How do these leaders contrast with others who seemingly have not employed fear, such as Mahatma Gandhi or Dr. Martin Luther King or, for that matter, Jesus?

  1. Machiavelli argues that nothing is more difficult for people to accept than change; in his words, “The innovator makes enemies of all those who prospered under the old order, and only lukewarm support is forthcoming from those who would prosper under the new” (21). Is this accurate, in your view? Consider any organization you have been part of that has considered change. Does Machiavelli effectively describe how that change was resisted and accepted?

  1. Does Machiavelli believe than ethics have a place in politics? What is his view on the leader’s responsibility to act rightly and to gain power over citizens and other leaders? Do you agree with his position?

  1. Experiments have been performed on behaviors that can be called “Machiavellian.” In one such experiment, “high-Mach” individuals tend to agree with a statement like this one: "Never tell anyone the real reason you did something unless it is useful to do so." On the other hand, “low-Mach” individuals would tend to agree with a statement like this one: "Most people are basically good and kind." When both “high-Mach” and “low-Mach” people enter a game in which the point is to come out with more of the money from a common pot, high-Mach people usually come out with significantly more money. Yet the experimenters have concluded that these high-Mach people are often “narcissistic” and even “psychopathic.” What does this tell you about both the benefits and dangers of adopting Machiavelli’s theories of governing as personal theories of behavior? (See Gunnthorsdottir, A., McCabe, K. & Smith, V. 2002 "Using the Machiavellianism instrument to predict trustworthiness in a bargaining game." Journal of Economic Psychology 23, 49-66.)

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