This short slender work marks a landmark in Western Civilization and made the name of the author a synonym for Satan. In 26 short, crisp essays, Niccolo Machiavelli lays out the precepts whereby a nation may be subjugated to the will of a leader, whether prince, dicator or president. Machiavelli was born in 1469 and served the republic city-state of Florence as a high-level diplomat and minister of miliatary affairs for 13 years, undertaking at least 24 crucial foreign missions. When the Medici returned to power, Machiavelli was exiled from the city and he turned his mind to authoring a massive treatise titled THE REPUBLIC. Out of that larger work, these short essays were condensed. Machiavelli had one goal in so creating THE PRINCE; he desired the unification of Italy.
However, he authored the first and one of the best works of political science ever penned.
Unlike previous works of political thought, THE PRINCE is not philosophical in nature. The author is focused on the obtaining and the maintaining of power. "Morality" is not the intent. See chapter 15:
"A man who wishes to make a profession of goodness in everything must necessarily come to grief among so many who are not good. Therefore it is necessary for a prince...to learn how not to be good, and to use this knowledge and not use it, according to the necessity of the case."
Or chapter 18: "Thus it well to seem merciful, faithful, humane, sincere, religious and also to be so; but you must have the mind so disposed that when it is needful to be otherwise you may be able to to change to the opposite qualities."
The language of this is quaint and a little stilted. It stems from the translation done by Luigi Ricci in 1903, now in the public domain. Various revisions have been done on this basic translation and there are newer and fresher translations, each with their own merits and each costing a little more. Machiavelli backs up his proverbs with allusions to classical history and to events contemporary to his own time, but while the examples he cites are dated and obscure the thoughtful reader will easily be able to see these principles working in our modern era.
For example, Machiavelli argues in Chapter 17, that while fear and love are both powerful motivations for men to support a leader, love comes from the people and the leader can not control it. It is easier to inspire fear. An American reading this argument some 470 years later can reflect on how the political opponents of George W. Bush were vilified by political smear campaigns, how the wife of a policy critic can be exposed as a CIA agent to the risk of other's lives and how a decorated war hero can be "Swiftboated".
I recommend this edition because it is cheap. The formality of the language seems appropriate and simple statements are expressed with simple grace: "The first impression that one gets of a ruler and of his brains is from seeing the men that he has about him." (Chapter 22) However, shop around and if a fresher translation takes your fancy, do not hesitate. THE PRINCE will do more to explain the conduct of those in power and enable you to judge them, better than any number of television ads. It should be required reading in any political season.