Niccolò Machiavelli lived in a time before the internet, before radio and television, before drones and weapons of mass destruction. Thus one naturally questions the relevance of his political theories to the twenty-first century. Yet in discussions about the dynamics of power, no name has endured as long as Machiavelli’s. His reputation as a theorist rests mostly on his 1532 treatise Il Principe, or The Prince, in which he pioneered a way of analyzing power as it was actually wielded, not as people would have liked it to be. How, he asked, does a ruler — a prince — attain his position in a state, and even more importantly, how does he maintain it?
You can hear Machiavelli’s answers to these questions explained, and see them illustrated, in the 43-minute video above. It breaks The Prince down into seven parts summarizing as many of the book’s main points, including “Do not be neutral,” “Destroy, do not would,” and “Be feared.”
These commandments would seem to align with Machiavelli’s popular image as an apologist, even an advocate, for brutal and repressive forms of rule. But his enterprise has less to do with offering advice than with describing how real figures of power, princes and otherwise, had amassed and retained that power.
The video comes from Eudaimonia, a Youtube channel that has also featured similarly animated exegeses of Stoicism and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Its creator makes these ancient sources of knowledge accessible with not just his cartoonish illustrations, but also his inclusion of illuminating examples from more recent history. In the case of The Prince, these come from eras like the Russian Revolution, World War II, and even our own time of instant global communication, attention-hungry media, and a seemingly weak political class. In much of the world, we live in a time much less nasty and brutish than Machiavelli’s. But looking at the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of our own leaders, we have to admit that the principles of The Prince may not have gone out of effect.
To delve deeper into the world of Machiavelli, you can watch a BBC documentary on the Renaissance political theorist below.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.