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The Prince

The Prince


by Niccolò Machiavelli

Analysis: Writing Style

Aphoristic, Epigrammatic, Dry

We're sorry to come at you with these big words that mean nearly the same thing, when we could have used simple words like "brief," or "concise," but that's just not nearly as fun and you'll thank us when the SAT rolls around.

So, what's with all this linguistic hubbub? Both "epigrammatic" and "aphoristic" refer to memorable, concise, and original statements. It's sort of like on TV when a character has a sudden moment of brilliance, or Confucius-say style statements. Machiavelli is famous for these sorts of statements. In fact, they're so popular that you probably know a bunch of them already.

What's the difference between the two? An aphorism is more like a definition, or a statement of truth. These are the down to earth, matter-of-fact statements like, "So you have to play the fox to see the snares and the lion to scare off the wolves" (18.3). Or, "All the same, while a ruler can't expect to inspire love when making himself feared, he must avoid arousing hatred" (17.6).

Machiavelli just tells us how it is. Something is one way, or another, and he puts it bluntly with no fluff in between. Using these kinds of statements makes Machiavelli seem like he knows what he's talking about. Long explanations and qualifying statements, while maybe more nuanced than some of Machiavelli's writing, aren't as authoritative. When was the last time you heard a drill sergeant explain an order to a lowly soldier? Right, never. They don't have to, because what they say goes.

And then we have the epigram. An epigram is just like an aphorism, except it is surprising or funny. Try this one on for size: "A man will sooner forget the death of his father than the loss of his inheritance" (17.6).

Here, Machiavelli plays with what we assume to be the norm, that a person would always be super sad about their parents dying, and flips it on its head. Epigrams leave you laughing, shocked, or scratching your head. These statements are where the big M-man gets his reputation. People remember them easily, and they're often scandalous, so of course they'd be the topic of all the gossip.

The cool thing about this writing style is that it actually helps you remember what Machiavelli said. You might not remember all the boring stuff, but you're sure not going to forget the juicy bits. Since you need to remember what Machiavelli wrote in order to do it, we'd say mission accomplished.


We're really not sure if Machiavelli has a funny bone in his body. We can't think of a single funny thing in the whole text of The Prince, and trust us, we'll laugh at anything. On top of that, before Machiavelli starts talking about Cesare Borgia and the blood and gore start coming out, he is super boring. Some of the text reads just like a teacher just going on and on about some piece of history that no one cares about.

We don't have to go very far to find an example of Machiavelli's dry prose. Here's the very first chapter:

All states and governments that ever ruled over men have been either republics or monarchies. Monarchies may be hereditary, if the ruler's family has governed for generations, or new. New monarchies can either be entirely new, as when Francesco Sforza captured Milan, or they could be territories a ruler has added to his existing hereditary state by conquest, as when the King of Spain took Naples. (1.1).

When we read this, all we hear is trombones.

There is reason behind Machiavelli's madness, even if you don't quite buy it. Like he says in his dedication, "I haven't prettified the book or padded it out with long sentences or pompous, pretentious words, or any of the irrelevant flourishes and attractions so many writers use; I didn't want it to please for anything but the range and seriousness of its subject matter" (1.2). For him, this is serious business. Serious business isn't fun, or pretty—it's serious.

Besides, Machiavelli is basically trying to come up with a formula for being an awesome ruler and not depending on luck, so he categorizes and analyzes each topic methodically. That's good for him, but for us it can read a bit, well, dry.

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