The book itself is quite short. My copy ran only 71 pages, but there's a lot of fascinating stuff crammed into it. Machiavelli covers everything from conquering and acquiring new kingdoms to maintaining a standing army. Concerning the former, he has this to say:
He, therefore, who acquires such a State, if he mean to keep it, must see to two things; first, that the blood of the ancient line of Princes be destroyed; second, that no change be made in respect of laws or taxes; for in this way the newly acquired State speedily becomes incorporated with the hereditary.
Now, whatever you might say about his comment regarding annihilation of the former monarchy, he does make a really pragmatic point: if you're going to invade for the purpose of conquering, you have to do something with the previous rulers. And leaving an eligible member of the family lying around probably isn't going to do much for guaranteeing peace and stability. No, it's not a friendly and gentle approach by any means; but I appreciate that Machiavelli just comes right out and states the obvious. (I also love the bit about laws and taxes; in other words, citizens are far less attached to their rulers than to their laws and their tax codes. It's really true, you know...)
The book is filled with interesting little tidbits like this all the way through. He recommends that princes should pursue solid education as well as strong military training. He argues that a prince needs to give the impression of morality but that he shouldn't avoid having some little quirks. His reasoning in this case is that a prince should aim for respect among his people but shouldn't pretend that he can be perfect. They're more likely to appreciate him if he has a few small flaws that make him unique. This is more than a little intangible to quantify as a successful trait, but I suppose Machiavelli makes a good argument from the perspective of human psychology. And his understanding of human nature is evident throughout the book. I wouldn't say that he offers much of a Christian point of view, but he does seem to have a sense of what drives motives and desires among mankind. He is perhaps a bit cynical in places, but cynicism doesn't overwhelm his arguments.
This is definitely an interesting -- and even a fun -- read, largely because I don't think it's quite what people expect it to be. The term "Machiavellian" seems so extreme in its current negative connotation that you'd think Machiavelli recommended weekly infant sacrifices. But that isn't the case at all. He's just coldly practical about the nature of ruling and very cognizant of human foibles. As a medieval political treatise with strong modern application, this is definitely one piece of literature that I recommend. You might be surprised about how much of a "Machiavellian" mindset you recognize in the US government today.
Year of publication: 1532
Number of pages: 71