A summary of Machiavelli, his life, and The Prince

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Machiavelli and the context in which he wrote The Prince

 

In the sixteenth century, when Niccolo Machiavelli wrote The Prince, Italy was not a unified country.  Instead, it was a collection of city-states, each with its own court and ruler, each attempting to gain power over the others.  In addition to being a place of domestic intrigue, Italy was also a battleground for the power-hungry French, the Spanish, the Germans, and the forces of the Catholic Church under the Popes (who were, in essence, as powerful as secular kings at this time).  One of the major Italian city-states, the republic of Florence, had long maintained an alliance with the French, and when Pope Julius II defeated the French in 1512,  Florence was defeated too.  Pope Julius declared that he would not agree make peace unless Florence ceased to be a republic and accepted the Medici family as their rulers.

 

These political developments had a serious impact on the life and career of Machiavelli.  Hardly a dyed-in-the-wool supporter of princes, Machiavelli had actually served for the past thirteen years as a counselor and diplomat for the former rulers of Florence, the anti-Medici republicans (his first book, The Discourses, presents a theory of republican government). 

 

When Florence fell into the hands of his princely enemies, Machiavelli narrowly escaped execution and found himself exiled instead.  Formerly a man who lived in the center of political power, Machiavelli was now unemployed and disgraced (not to mention bored!) in the countryside outside Florence.  He began to write a series of letters, begging the new Medici rulers in Florence to allow him to return to his beloved city.  He continued this unsuccessful effort for fourteen years, until his death in 1527.

 

We must read The Prince, written in 1513, as one of the first of the documents that Machiavelli wrote in order  to ingratiate himself with the new Florentine prince, Lorenzo de Medici.  Is Machiavelli insincere?  Is he a hypocrite?  After all, his first book declared that a republic was the ideal form of government, not a state governed by the authority of a prince.  And yet, we must note that Machiavelli never says anywhere in The Prince that he likes the notion of government by princes.  He merely states that if a country is going to be governed by a prince, particularly a new prince, he has some advice as to how that prince should rule if he wishes to be great and powerful.  In other words,

 

Machiavelli’s book is absolutely practical and not at all idealistic.  Leaving aside what government is “best” in an ideal world, The Prince takes for granted the presence of an authoritarian ruler, and tries to imagine how such a ruler might achieve success.  It is, of course, also entirely topical as well:  Machiavelli offers Lorenzo an expert handbook that deals with precisely the situation of Florence at the time.  He seems genuinely interested in using his political experience, as well as his wide reading in history and philosophy, to help Lorenzo be the best prince he can be.  But he also obviously expected some personal gain from the book as well –  Machiavelli clearly hoped that Lorenzo would find The Prince so helpful that he would immediately bring its author back to Florence where he could be a political counselor once again!

 

Unfortunately, Machiavelli’s cunning plan didn’t work.  Despite the lavish praise for Medicis and Popes that continues throughout The Prince, Lorenzo did not seem to like the book very much, and certainly never called Machiavelli back from exile.  Ironically, shortly before Machiavelli died, Charles V of France defeated the Pope and removed the Medicis from power.  Florence became a republic once again, and Machiavelli surely expected his long exile to end at last.  There was one slight problem, however:  Machiavelli had written a short book dedicated to Prince Lorenzo de Medici, advising him on how best to acquire and maintain power – not a very republican thing to do!  And so, that very book that Machiavelli had hoped would bring him back to Florence – The Prince – finally kept him away for good.

 

 

Important Persons

 

List of Persons Mentioned in or Relevant to Machiavelli’s Prince

 

 

 

Lorenzo de’Medici

 

Machiavelli dedicated the first printing of The Prince to this man, duke of Urbino and ruler of Florence in 1516.  He had originally dedicated the book to Lorenzo’s uncle, Giuliano de’Medici, but Giuliano died before the book appeared.  (Confusingly, Giuliano’s father, and Lorenzo’s grandfather, was also named Lorenzo de’Medici, and known popularly as Lorenzo the Magnificent.)

 

 

 

Pope Sixtus IV

 

The first of three popes who figure prominently in Machiavelli’s argument.  Sixtus, whose real name was Francesco della Rovere, was pope from 1471-1484.  He led the papacy to unprecedented wealth and power by waging wars against the Turkish Empire, and by fomenting domestic wars within Italy.  Sixtus was responsible for commissioning the famous Sistine Chapel, with ceilings decorated by Michelangelo, in the Vatican.

 

 

 

Pope Alexander VI

 

Originally named Rodrigo Borgia, this pope succeeded Sixtus and led the Catholic Church from 1492-1503.  Like Sixtus, Alexander increased the power of the papacy and of the Church generally.  He notoriously used his wealth and power to advance his relatives (particularly his numerous illegitimate children) into high offices in the religious and political institutions of Italy.

 

 

 

Cesare Borgia

 

One of Alexander’s sons, Cesare provided Machiavelli an ideal historical example of a crafty prince.  Pope Alexander’s original plan was to send Cesare into the church.  Cesare actually became an archbishop – at the ripe old age of 17! -- because of his father’s influence.  After several years of this, Cesare left the “religious” life and entered the world of politics, eventually rising to dominance by cunningly manipulating strife among the Italian city-states.

 

 

 

Pope Julius II

 

This pope succeeded Alexander VI (after the hiccup of an eight-week reign by another man), and ruled the Church from 1503-1513.   Julius led the papacy in a number of intimidation campaigns against Italian city-states, such as Venice and Florence, trying to get them to join him in his war on the French.  His policies were bold, but ultimately unsuccessful.  Eventually Julius’ ongoing feud with the Borgias contributed to the utter collapse of most Italian alliances.

 

 

 

Agathocles of Syracuse

 

Machiavelli took the story of the cruel ruler Agathocles from the ancient historians Justin and Diodorus Siculus.  Agathocles was ruler of Sicily from 361-289 BC, and his evil rise to power provided Machiavelli with an example of a man who achieves political domination through unvirtuous action.

 

 

 

Points to Ponder

 

Machiavelli’s political allegiances were a matter of some dispute in his own time.  After working for the Florentine republic, he attempted to gain a political position at the court of the men who destroyed that system.  He wrote a treatise on republics, The Discourses,  as well as his handbook for single rulers, The Prince.  Are there suggestions, even within The Prince itself, that Machiavelli doesn’t actually like princes very much?   If not, should we consider Machiavelli a hypocrite?  If so, then should the entire book be taken ironically?

 

 

 

From his time up until the present day, Machiavelli has often been considered an immoral theorist, one who was prepared to suggest that the ends always justify the means.  But readers who wish to spare Machiavelli from accusations of “immorality” cite his example of Agathocles the Syracusan as an instance when the ends do not seem to justify the means.  Since Machiavelli presents Agathocles in such a negative light, does this suggest that there is some political behavior that is simply unacceptable on any terms?  Does Machiavelli object to the cruelty of Agathocles on ethical grounds?  If so, does this destroy his notion, expressed elsewhere, that there is no absolute standard for judging political action?

 

 

 

The word virtu, so prevalent in The Prince, never seems to mean the same thing twice.  How many definitions for this term can you find implied in Machiavelli’s argument?  Do any of these definitions contradict each other?  Why do you think that Machiavelli placed so much emphasis on a word which resists stable definition?   What implications does the slipperiness of this term have for his larger argument?  What is the point of writing a “how-to” that avoids making concrete recommendations?

 

 

After leaving Florence, the banished Machiavelli wrote a letter to a friend in which he described his evening activities alone in the countryside:  every night, apparently, he would take off his work clothes (remember, he was living on a farm), and would put on the “royal and curial robes” he used to wear at court.  Only when he was so splendidly attired, Machiavelli told his friend, did he feel ready to join in the company of ancient kings and princes – in other words, to sit down and write about them in The Prince!

 

 

 

Renaissance dramatists frequently used a stock character in their plays when they needed a villain.  This character, meant to exemplify the extreme of irreligious wickedness and immorality, was called the “machiavel.”  Shakespeare’s cunning Iago in Othello is one of his most famous machiavels;  the evil Richard III goes even further, declaring onstage that his villainy will “set the murderous Machiavel to school.”

 

 

 

Machiavelli devotes a great deal of The Prince to praising powerful popes. Rather than appreciating such flattery, however, the Catholic Church considered Machiavelli’s book an enemy to religion – from 1557 onwards, The Prince has been on the Catholic Church’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum, or list of forbidden books!

 

 

 

Summary of the Argument

 

Machiavelli wrote The Prince in an attempt to ingratiate himself with the Medici princes who had recently taken over the government of his native city, Florence, in the early sixteenth century (see the rather overstated flattery in the prefatory letter to Lorenzo de’Medici).  He intended this book to be a kind of “how-to:” a short, pithy handbook for princes who have gained power and wish to keep it.  Accordingly, it begins by dividing all governments into two kinds:  republics and “principalities” (those ruled by a “prince,” or single ruler).  Machiavelli swiftly dismisses the first kind of government as being outside the scope of his argument.  He then goes on to subdivide the latter kind.  Principalities, he writes, are of two kinds:  there are those which have been ruled by a family for a long time, and those which are newly conquered.  It is this last kind, obviously, that concerns Machiavelli most, and he spends the rest of The Prince sketching ways in which the “new prince” can acquire and maintain the greatest amount of power.

 

Machiavelli first considers “mixed principalities,” or new territories annexed to older ones.  The new prince of such a state, he writes, should wipe out the family of his predecessors in the, and should take care not to change the old laws –if need be, he should live there himself, and learn the customs of his new subjects, so they won’t consider him a “stranger.”   He should also set up colonies of his own men in the new lands, and should weaken any strong neighboring enemies so that he will have no rival conquerors.  In all things, Machiavelli writes (as he does many times in the book), the new prince should not only keep an eye on present dangers, but on possible future dangers – a good example of this is the Roman rule of new provinces.

 

When a new prince takes over a state governed by an absolute ruler, the process of acquiring power is that much more difficult.  However, once such a kingdom is conquered, it is much easier to rule, since its subjects are used to oppression.  Darius, for instance, took over lands from Alexander the Great, and was able to rule them without fear of revolt, since his new subjects were accustomed to having no voice in government.   Republics, by contrast, are very easy for a new prince to conquer, but almost impossible for him to rule.  Once a new prince has gained control over a former republic, Machiavelli implies that he really has no choice but to destroy it entirely and rebuild it.

 

Machiavelli then proceeds to consider relationship between luck and skill in the gaining and keeping of power.  He introduces two key terms:  fortuna, which means “luck,” “chance,” “accident,” or “fortune,” and virtu, which means, literally, “manliness,” and which can also be defined as “skill,” “cunning,” “power,” “ability,” or “strength.”  Which is more important for a prince to have on his side?  Machiavelli suggests, over and over, that a prince is better off relying on virtu than on fortuna.   However, one of the key advantages of virtu is that it enables a prince better to exploit and master fortuna..  He will say later that fortuna e una donna (“fortune is a woman”) and must be dominated.  Here, though, he stresses the connections between fortuna and virtu as necessary for successful rule.  A prince must be able to seize opportunities through skill in what Machiavelli calls a “lucky shrewdness.” 

 

What kind of actions should a virtuoso (skillful) prince take?  Well, he avoids using other princes’ troops or hiring mercenaries to do his dirty work – such a reliance on outside help makes a prince the helpless victim of fortune .  He does not come into power through overt crime, nor does he allow himself to gain a reputation for cruelty – but he is able to use crime and cruelty when he needs to, carefully concealing his guilt.   A virtuoso prince will not alienate the people he governs, but he will not let the need to be loved by them take precedence over the necessity of being feared by them.   In order to maintain his power, a  prince must earn the loyalty of his subjects, and he can best do this by protecting them.  And any prince who shows himself to be strong enough to protect his subjects must also show himself to be strong enough to be feared by them – though, of course, never gratuitously cruel to them.   Above all (and here’s where Machiavelli got a little shocking for his Renaissance readers), a virtuoso prince must acknowledge the fact that he does not live in an ideal world.  He should therefore “learn not to be good” when a particular occasion (fortuna again!) renders it more advantageous to be bad. In subsequent chapters, Machiavelli describes how a prince can break promises, commit crimes, and generally behave nastily for political advantage.  But he also insists that a prince should learn to avoid the hatred that would result from exposure of his bad behavior.  He should instead cultivate a reputation for “goodness,” even if that reputation is false.  In other words, for Machiavelli’s prince, it’s better to look good than to be good.

 

According to Machiavelli, a prince learns such virtu by particular kinds of study:  first, and most importantly, the study of warfare.  He should spend lots of time strategizing, exercising, and preparing himself for battle.  Such  training makes a man more likely to achieve power through conquest, and less likely to succumb to laziness once he achieves it.   In addition, any prince who wishes to be powerful should also study histories of successful princes, in order to understand what has worked for men in the past and model his behavior on them.  In a sense, The Prince itself is a kind of history book, compiling short examples of good (and bad) rulers throughout history for the edification of its princely readers.  

 

 

Prefatory Letter

 

Prefatory Letter to Lorenzo the Magnificent

 

 

Machiavelli begins his treatise on the ideal Prince with a dedication to an actual prince, Lorenzo de’Medici. He declares that courtiers who wish to earn a prince’s favor do so by presenting the prince with items which they themselves hold particularly dear: usually gold, jewels, horses, etc. Machiavelli tells Lorenzo that, after racking his brain for an appropriately valuable gift, he decided that what he felt was most precious was his knowledge of great men, knowledge gained from history books, as well as from current events. He will present Lorenzo with this knowledge, in the form of the treatise to follow. Machiavelli claims to worry a bit about whether Lorenzo will be pleased with such a gift, but then reminds himself that any prince would be glad to receive, in short handbook form, knowledge which the author has taken years to acquire. Machiavelli promises that his will be a “small volume,” written not in pretentious academic language, but in the common language of men. He then excuses himself for having presumed to write about princes at all, since he is simply an ordinary man; furthermore Machiavelli actually suggests that being a commoner is actually an advantage to one who wishes to write about princes, since that distance of rank gives the commoner a perspective that princes themselves lack. Machiavelli, then, is an outsider looking in – offering deliberately common-sense explanations for how particular men are able to become and to remain great. Lest we forget, though, that the Prince was intended as a gift to earn Lorenzo’s favor, this preface concludes with a specific, pointed request: if his noble recipient likes the gift of this book, Machiavelli gently suggests, then he might best show his appreciation by helping the author return to court from his current position of exile and disgrace. Rather than considering this simply a work of political theory written for its own sake, we should realize that the suffering Machiavelli had some very practical reasons for writing this book and dedicating it to Lorenzo!

 

 

Chapters 1 and 2

 

Chapter I: The Various Kinds of Government, and the Ways By Which They Are Established.

 

 

Machiavelli begins The Prince with a crucial distinction of political categories. There are, he writes, only two ways in which a state can be organized: as a republic, or as a monarchy. After making this distinction, Machiavelli immediately, without a pause or comment, simply drops the discussion of the “republic.” This doesn’t mean that Machiavelli doesn’t like republics -- republics, after all, are the subject of his other major work of political theory, The Discourses. Rather than accuse Machiavelli of anti-democratic bias, we should note that in this particular book, which meant to describe the proper conduct of a prince, any discussion of princeless republics would be entirely irrelevant. After bracketing the idea of a republic, then, Machiavelli moves on to divide the category of “monarchy” into further sub-categories. Monarchies, he writes, can be either hereditary and governed by the same family for generations, or recently founded. Again, Machiavelli follows one division with another. Leaving aside hereditary monarchies for the moment, he distinguishes two different kinds of recently founded monarchies – those which are entirely new, and those which are new annexations of territory added onto pre-existing hereditary monarchies. As we might expect, within this latter category (the annexed state), there are also two subcategories: Machiavelli points out that some annexed states were previously subject to another ruler, and some were formerly free. And finally, there is yet another kind of subcategory within annexed states: those which were conquered by a prince in war, and those which simply fall to him through luck or skill.

 

 

Chapter II: Of Hereditary Monarchies

 

 

This chapter begins with Machiavelli’s apology for not discussing republics in this book – in what seems to be an explicit reference to Discourses, Machiavelli notes that he has “treated of them fully in another place.” After making that disclaimer, he moves ahead with his discussion of how the various kinds of monarchies are best governed and maintained. He starts off with the hereditary monarchy. This kind is pretty easy to handle, according to Machiavelli, because political circumstances in such a monarchy have been relatively stable for a long period of time, and subjects are used to the way things are under a ruling family. All a prince has to do, if he inherits his state, is not to change anything too violently. Even if some “exceptional and excessive” force were to disempower the hereditary monarch, the countervailing force of political habit would soon restore him to power at the slightest opportunity. Machiavelli gives the example of the Duke of Ferrara, who was able to withstand attacks by Venice and Rome simply because he was part of a long-standing family of Dukes. Unless such a ruler goes out of his way to alienate his people, they will usually love and honor him as a part of their own traditional way of life

 

 

Chapter 3

 

Chapter III: Of Mixed Monarchies

 

 

Problems arise, as you might imagine, in non-hereditary or “new” monarchies, governments in which habit, or political inertia, cannot be counted on to give stability. Take, for instance, the “mixed monarchy,” or a state which has changed its ruler. Let’s say that a prince has taken over a kingdom with the support of some of the people in it. Since these people have already proven themselves critical enough to abandon their old ruler, Machiavelli reasons, they are very likely also to grow dissatisfied with their new one. Moreover, when a new prince takes over an existing state, he is inevitably going to alienate those subjects who had been opposed to transition, creating a certain amount of ill will. In other words, a new ruler, even if he successfully takes over a state, is vulnerable to the anger of his new subjects – his supporters as well as his opponents. An example of this is Louis XII of France, who was able to occupy Milan, but not to keep it.

 

What about rulers who reconquer a territory that has rebelled? Machiavelli feels that such situations are less dangerous: when France, for instance, took Milan a second time, Louis was in a much more stable position, and lost it again only when virtually the entire world opposed his rule. Still, he did eventually lose Milan again, and for good. Why? And how could a prince in a similar situation avoid such a double loss? First, Machiavelli suggests that it is easier for a conqueror to maintain control over a territory which shares his language and nationality, and which is used to being ruled in a similar way by previous rulers. If a man, like Louis, were to take over a land which differs from him in language, nationality, custom, and political organization, then his rule will be difficult. One good way for a prince to deal with this, Machiavelli counsels, would be to take up residence in his new territory – thereby learning the ways of his subjects, and making himself constantly aware of the current state of their feelings toward him. Another solution would be to plant colonies of loyal subjects from the prince’s original territory in key parts of this new land, thereby maintaining surveillance as well as destroying the unity and potential opposition of the newly acquired territory. Finally, the new ruler should make himself out to be the protector of the new territory, rather its conqueror. He should conciliate with smaller powers within, while annihilating large rival powers that threaten from without.

 

The Romans followed these rules when they conquered Greece, Machiavelli points out. They established colonies of Romans there, they befriended the Achaeans, and they defeated Greece’s other enemies, the Macedonians. Above all, the Romans were always able to take the long view of their government of Greece, planning ahead to avoid difficulties. Louis, by contrast, did none of these things, and lost Milan and his other Italian holdings as a result. Machiavelli lists five crucial mistakes made by Louis: 1) he crushed small powers rather than large ones, 2) he allowed one man in Italy to gain power rather than dividing authority among lower officers, 3) he allowed a very powerful foreigner to have influence in Italy, 4) he did not live in Italy, and 5) he did not establish colonies there.

 

 

Chapters 4 and 5

 

Chapter IV: Why the Kingdom of Darius, Occupied by Alexander, Did Not Rebel Against the Successors of the Latter After His Death.

 

 

After discussing the almost insurmountable difficulties in holding onto a newly-acquired state, Machiavelli asks a logical question: How on earth did Alexander the Great not only successfully subdue most of Asia in a few years, but pass it on to his successors without any danger of rebellion? By way of an answer, Machiavelli first distinguishes between two kinds of government: the rule of a prince and his servants (who have no power independent of the prince’s permission), versus the rule of a prince and his barons (who have their own hereditary titles, lands, and subjects). Machiavelli gives two examples of these two kinds of government: on the one hand, the Turkish monarchy has one ruler and many servants. On the other, the King of France governs with the help of an ancient class of hereditary nobles. He concludes that, obviously, the prince in the first kind of government has much more power located in himself – and it would be much harder to take power away the Turk than it would be to oust the King of France. In Turkey, there would be no possibility of using the nobles to assist a rebellion, and intrigue would have to be abandoned in favor of sheer military force. However, though it would be harder to take the Turkish kingdom away, it would actually be much easier to maintain – once a new prince was in, he’d be pretty much invulnerable since there would be no rivals to power, and no need to share authority with petty nobility. By contrast, it would be much easier to dethrone the King of France, but much harder to maintain this new monarchy unless one had the unwavering assistance of the nobility – not a sure thing to rely upon!

 

Having set up this framework, Machiavelli concludes that Alexander’s conquering of Persia fell into the former category. Like the Turk, Darius maintained absolute control over his kingdom. Once Alexander had completed his conquest of that kingdom, there was virtually no way he, or his successors, could be dislodged.

 

 

Chapter V: The Way to Govern Cities or Dominions That, Previous to Being Occupied, Lived under Their Own Laws.

 

 

What if the people of a conquered territory had no king previously? What if they are used to political liberty and government under their own laws? In other words, what if a prince wishes to annex a republic? There are three ways, Machiavelli argues, to govern a newly-conquered republic. First, by utterly destroying it. Second, by going there to live. Third, by allowing the pre-existing laws to continue, and creating allies among those citizens who had been governing. Turning to examples, Machiavelli contrasts the Spartans and the Romans. The Spartans governed Athens in the third way, allowing their laws to exist and attempting to rule through them. The Romans, by contrast, took the first option, and utterly devastated Carthage in order to control it. Machiavelli points out that the Spartan conquest was a miserable failure, while the Romans did not lose their territory. He concludes that the only way successfully to subdue a newly conquered republic is to destroy it first. Republics, he argues, because they are used to freedom, will never simply lie back and be ruled by a prince. If a prince wishes to govern, then, he must do it by force. (It is this kind of argument that gives Machiavelli a reputation for ruthlessness!)

 

 

Chapter 6

 

Chapter VI: Of New Dominions Which Have Been Acquired by One’s Own Arms and Ability

 

 

Machiavelli asks his reader to forgive his frequent use of examples from history – in matters of politics, he asserts, men usually follow the examples of earlier men, whether they realize it or not. The key, then, is to learn from precedent, imitating successful examples while avoiding unsuccessful ones. If a prince attempts to follow examples that are “excellent,” Machiavelli reasons, even if he fails he will certainly achieve some tinge of greatness.

 

After discussing the need to aspire to greatness, Machiavelli suggests that men who achieve dominion over states through skill and ability (the famous Machiavellian concept of virtù, meaning literally something like “manliness” and not to be confused with “virtue”) have a greater chance of successfully governing than do men who simply luck into their power (relying on fortuna, which is the opposite of virtù) . Those who rely on fortuna the least, he argues, tend to govern best – examples of this are Moses in Israel, Cyrus in Persia, Romulus in Rome, and Theseus in Athens. These men did not simply rely on fortune. Instead, they used fortune to find opportunities to come to power (this notion of using fortune rather than accepting fate passively is key to Machiavelli). For instance, Moses had the fortune of finding the Israelites enslaved by Egypt. Because they were oppressed, they were easily persuaded to follow him as he led them out of servitude. Cyrus had the fortune of finding the Persians discontented with the government of the Medes, and had the additional fortune of finding the Medes weakened through laziness. Given these circumstances, he was able to intervene and become the new, powerful ruler of Persia.

 

All of these men – Moses, Theseus, Romulus, and Cyrus – had difficulty obtaining their kingdoms, but were able to maintain them easily. Why? Because, Machiavelli says, they were innovators. Innovators establish an entirely new order of things, establishing laws, customs and ways of governing. Because they wish to make so many changes, they are inevitably feared and mistrusted at first. . . but once they succeed in their plans, they have made themselves entirely secure. To achieve this success, a would-be innovator must have not only a powerful vision, but also the practical ability to compel obedience to his new order – this is Machiavelli’s figure of the “armed prophet.”

 

Chapter 7

 

Chapter VII: Of New Dominions Acquired by the Power of Others or by Fortune

 

 

Machiavelli here returns to the stated aims of his book: to describe how a prince may best both acquire and maintain power. The “armed prophet,” as we remember, will have incredible difficulty acquiring power, but once he has it, will be able to maintain it easily. By contrast, the ruler who comes to power through the efforts of others (i.e. by buying or bribing one’s way into office), or the ruler who gets his position through sheer fortune, or luck, has a very easy time acquiring power – but will find it almost impossible to maintain.

 

This latter way of coming to power results in a state with very shallow roots, and usually means that the new prince has no native ability as a ruler.

 

Machiavelli introduces two of his most famous examples in order to make this contrast vivid: Francesco Sforza and Cesare Borgia. Francesco came to power in Milan “by appropriate means and through great abilities.” He achieved power after many difficulties, but stayed there easily. By contrast, Cesare Borgia became Duke because of the influence of his father, Pope Alexander VI (apparently, vows of celibacy were not really taken very seriously back then!). No political stability could be built on such a flimsy foundation; once his father was out of the picture, Cesare could not stay in power, as much as he tried to do so.

 

You would think that the introduction of the example of Cesare Borgia would be meant purely negatively; after all, he is supposed to be an example of how not to become prince. And yet, Machiavelli goes into great detail describing both Alexander VI’s actions in achieving power for his son and Cesare’s own efforts to govern, not in order to condemn these but to suggest that they are often admirable. For instance, Machiavelli describes the incredible political savvy of Alexander as he plotted the future success of his son by creating and manipulating political intrigue and unrest in Italy. One of his most ingenious moves (and one of the most famous passages in The Prince ) concerned the government of the Romagna province. Alexander knew that weak government had allowed all manner of crime and violence to flourish there, and knew that it needed cleaning up so that he could govern it more easily. He appointed a harsh deputy governor, Remirro de Orco, to punish criminals and crack down on law-breakers of all kinds. Remirro did his work well. Alexander, however, knew that his deputy’s harsh measures were both necessary and hated by the people (no one likes a cruel enforcer of the laws). So, after Remirro had successfully wiped out most of the crime in the Romagna, Alexander “had him cut in half, and placed one morning in the public square. . . with a piece of wood and a blood-stained knife by his side.” In other words, Alexander used Remirro to take care of his dirty work, then earned the “thanks” of the people by executing him. Suddenly, Romagna was both free of crime, and well-disposed toward Alexander’s rule.

 

After Pope Alexander died, Cesare his son took over – and Machiavelli has just told us that such a manner of achieving power is not to be desired. However, Machiavelli asserts that the only thing that prevented Cesare from successfully governing was his poor health and his bad choice of pope, and tells us that he should be in “imitated” in most of his actions. This is not the contradiction it seems, though. Machiavelli is, after all, offering a handbook for all kinds of princes. While he acknowledges that coming to power in the way the Cesare did is not desirable, nevertheless Cesare is an example of the best a prince can do, given such circumstances.

 

 

Chapter 8

 

Chapter VIII: Of Those Who Have Attained the Position of Prince by Villainy

 

 

We have so far been presented with discussions of princes who have come into power by skill (virtù) and by luck (fortuna). There are, however, other ways of gaining power. Machiavelli moves on to discuss princes who come into power through villainy on the one hand, or through election by fellow citizens on the other. Leaving aside election for the moment, Machiavelli gives examples of power gained through villainy. He declares that he will not discuss the “merits” of this method – and while Machiavelli explicitly omits any praise of villainy, what many readers find shocking is his equal refusal to condemn villainy. Instead, he simply notes that some men will find themselves “obliged” to use such tactics – a tremendously practical, and deeply amoral, vision of politics!

 

So, the examples. The first, from ancient history, is that of Agathocles the Sicilian, who became King of Syracuse although he was born the son of a potter (you can’t really get much commoner than that!). From his earliest childhood, Agathocles demonstrated a wickedness matched only by his vigor of body and mind. He joined the militia, rose through the ranks, and one day decided he wanted to be prince. One day, he called a meeting of the Syracusan senate. Once all the people were assembled, he gave a signal to his soldiers, who instantly killed all the senators and rich men of the state. From that point on, Agathocles ruled without any serious threat to his power. A success story? In terms of power, yes – but Machiavelli refuses to call Agathocles’ behavior virtù. This is not because Agathocles was a bad guy – after all, virtù has nothing at all to do with Christian “virtue.” Rather, Agathocles did not act with virtù because his actions brought him greatness (grandezza), but not glory (gloria) which is the main goal of acting with virtù. While Agathocles achieved political power, he did not achieve renown as a ruler, and so cannot be termed an exemplary prince.

 

The second example Machiavelli offers comes from recent Italian history. Oliverotto da Fermo was an orphan in the reign of Pope Alexander VI. He was sent by his uncle to a military school, and eventually became a leading soldier. Like Agathocles, however, Oliverotto decided he didn’t wish to serve, but to command. He and his allies decided to take over Fermo. He wrote to his uncle, telling him that he wished to visit. When he arrived in Fermo, his uncle greeted him with much fanfare. Oliverotto invited the important men of the town to a feast, and entertained them with stories of Alexander and his son Cesare Borgia. Mid-conversation, however, Oliverotto pulled an Agathocles – his soldiers rushed out of hiding and killed all the guests. Oliverotto then besieged the town, killed the magistrates, and seized power. He would have maintained it, too, were it not for the superior political skill of Cesare Borgia himself – who eventually had Oliverotto executed.

 

How, Machiavelli asks, were such villains able to hold power so successfully? The answer, he suggests, lies in whether they exploited their crimes well or badly. A good cruelty is done all at once, and ends – no need for more supplementary crimes. A bad cruelty sets in motion a need to repeat crimes, and makes ruling a rather messy business. Note, again, that Machiavelli’s grounds for praising government has nothing to do with “morality” – and only to do with what seems to work most efficiently. It’s not that you shouldn’t commit crimes, but rather that you should commit them well.

 

 

Chapters 9 and 10

 

Chapter IX: Of the Civic Principality

 

 

Now we turn to the other alternative to the virtù/fortuna method of achieving power: election in a civic principality by which a private citizen is made leader by his fellow citizens. Machiavelli describes this method as a kind of “cunning assisted by fortune,” since such a leader is skilled enough to make himself an appealing candidate, and then simply lifted up by others to a position of power. There are two ways (as usual) by which a man can be thus elected: by the nobles who wish the prince to oppress the people, or by the people, who wish the prince to help them avoid oppression by the nobles. According to Machiavelli, it is better for a man to be put into power by the populace, since this usually means that he will have no rivals to his power and will be generally loved by his subjects. If he is elected by the nobles, he is obligated to them, and will often be the victim of their intrigues. (See Chapter IV for a similar idea). Regardless of how a prince is elected, Machiavelli argues, it is indispensable for him to have the good will of the people – the good will of the nobles is much less essential. And in order to have the good will of the people, it is necessary that the prince make himself indispensable to them. In other words, here Machiavelli gives a theory of interdependence between the people and the prince that differs dramatically from the model of cruel exploitation often attributed to him.

 

 

Chapter X: How the Strength of All States Should be Measured

 

 

This chapter points out a different distinction between kinds of principalities (states governed by a prince): there are those that have the money and manpower to defend themselves against attack, and those that do not, consequently needing to hide within their walls when they are assaulted by an enemy. Machiavelli does not feel the need to discuss the former case, which is obviously to be preferred. If a prince finds himself in the latter case (without the power to fight back against enemies), Machiavelli counsels him to concentrate his efforts on fortifying his own town, and to forget about the outlying country, which will be too difficult to protect. The cities of Germany, for instance, follow this strategy – and as a consequence are rarely attacked, since it would be hard for any enemy to get past the urban fortifications. Machiavelli concludes by affirming that strong walls around the city, and the good will of the people within the city, are the two best protections a prince can have. If a prince has both these things, it is almost guaranteed that no enemy will be able to prevail against him.

 

Chapters 11 and 12

 

Chapter XI: Of Ecclesiastical Principalities

 

 

At the time when Machiavelli wrote The Prince, Italy did not simply have dukedoms and kingdoms and cities, but also had territories governed by the Pope and Catholic Church, or “ecclesiastical principalities.” This chapter considers some of the difficulties of conquering and ruling such territories. Machiavelli argues that a prince can gain power over an ecclesiastical principality either by ability (virtù) or chance (fortuna), but he will be able to maintain it by means of neither of these. This is because the subjects of such principalities are used to obeying ancient religious customs, rather than ordinary political customs or laws. Such religious customs are so incredibly powerful that princes don’t really need to do anything at all to keep their subjects in line. Nor does a prince need to do anything to defend such a kingdom, because no one will attack a holy state. In other words, ecclesiastical principalities are the only truly secure states for a prince to govern, according to Machiavelli. As soon as he says this, however, he cuts himself off – since these states are “maintained and exalted by God,” he says, “it would be the work of a presumptuous and foolish man to discuss them.”

 

Machiavelli does allow himself some space to discuss how the church came to possess any temporal (political) power in the first place. How was the Pope able to gain such great authority in non-religious matters like government? Machiavelli explains that a long time ago, power in Italy was divided among many potentates (princes and lords), and one of them was the Pope, who controlled the Vatican City in Rome. As long as there were many of these potentates, no single one of them was able to have any greater power than any other. When Alexander VI became Pope, however, things changed; as we have seen (in Chapter V), Alexander was a supreme politician, and was able to manipulate both domestic politics and foreign policy in such a way that his own political power increased, along with that of his son, Cesare Borgia. Alexander was followed by Julius, who increased papal wealth and territories. Machiavelli ends this chapter by praising the current pope, Leo X, suggesting that since his predecessors had increased the power and wealth of the papal office, Leo might be able to add “goodness” so that the office of the pope will be “both great and venerated.” In other words, Machiavelli describes the power of the Pope without ever assuming that he is, as the servant of God, necessarily a holy and good man – another way in which The Prince might seem remarkably controversial to religious readers!

 

 

Chapter XII: The Different Kinds of Militia and Mercenary Soldiers

 

 

After discussing how various states are best acquired and maintained, Machiavelli moves on to consider methods of government. He declares that in all governments, of whatever kind, the best foundation is a combination of good laws and good arms – i.e. political and military strength. Machiavelli further asserts that the latter necessitates the former. There cannot be good laws where there are not good arms, and once there are good arms, there will inevitably be good laws. After making this claim, he drops the discussion of laws, and spends the rest of this chapter discussing military matters.

 

There are three kinds of armies a prince can maintain: an army made up of citizens, an army of mercenaries (paid soldiers), or a mixed army. Mercenaries, Machiavelli argues, are worthless and dangerous, impossible to rely on. This is because they have no love or loyalty to the prince, but are simply paid to fight for him and are therefore ready to turn against the prince if anyone pays them more. Indeed, Machiavelli points out that Italy’s current political ruin has resulted largely from the fact that mercenary armies have been used there for many years. A better idea would be for a prince to be captain of his own soldiers, and in the case of a republic for citizens to lead the armies themselves.

 

 

Chapters 13 and 14

 

Chapter XIII: Of Auxiliary, Mixed and Native Troops

 

 

Machiavelli declares that “auxiliary troops,” or armies borrowed from another prince, are as useless as mercenaries. In fact, auxiliaries are even worse than mercenaries. Mercenaries, as we recall from the previous chapter, are hard to motivate – a paycheck is not enough to make a man willing to fight and die for a prince they care nothing about. In the case of auxiliaries, they are actually loyal to someone else – and so, even if they win the battle, they may hand the victory over to their actual leader instead of the prince who has borrowed them. As Machiavelli cleverly puts it, the danger with mercenaries is their cowardice, while the danger with auxiliaries is their courage. It is always better to fight with your own men – Cesare Borgia, for instance, used a small troop of his own men rather than a larger auxiliary army. . . and was victorious!

 

 

Chapter XIV: The Duties of a Prince with Regard to the Militia

 

 

In a rather bold piece of advice, Machiavelli counsels the prince to “have no other aim or thought” than the proper conduct of war, and to study nothing else besides military matters. The best way to gain and maintain power is through this knowledge, he claims, and without it a prince is sure to lose whatever he has. Again, Machiavelli brings up Francesco Sforza (see Chapter ). Francesco became Duke of Milan because he was well armed, but his sons saw no need to study warfare, and soon lost their power. Machiavelli argues that no unarmed prince can ever be safe, because no armed man ever obeys an unarmed one. Thus, an un-military prince will always fail to have the support of his soldiers, his soldiers will then fail to protect him, and soon he will be prince no longer.

 

For this reason, a prince must practice the arts of war even more seriously in peace-time. Machiavelli describes the kind of training he has in mind: a prince should hunt, he should become as physically fit as possible, he should learn every detail of the landscape (so that he can draw up battle plans better), and he should study military histories, particularly of great commanders (Alexander the Great read about Achilles, Caesar read about Alexander, Scipio Africanus read about Cyrus).

 

 

Chapters 15 and 16

 

Chapter XV: Of the Things for Which Men, and Especially Princes, are Praised or Blamed

 

 

Machiavelli begins this very notorious chapter by acknowledging that what he is about to write might surprise, and even offend people. However, he continues, it is better to give advice based on what the world is actually like, and the way that politics actually works, than to give idealized advice based only on what sounds nice. In a well-known passage, Machiavelli declares that the man who “abandons what is done for what ought to be done, will rather learn to bring about his own ruin than his preservation.” Here, Machiavelli admits that he is a political realist, and finds conventional standards of morality useless as practical advice. Since so many people fail to act according to these standards in reality, he argues, continuing to be “good” can only weaken a ruler. Instead, he writes, “it is necessary for a prince. . . to learn how not to be good” according to the circumstances.

 

He then lists a number of the qualities that can bring a prince praise (liberality, mercy, trustworthiness, wisdom, etc.), or blame (viciousness, greed, cruelty, lust, atheism, etc.). Obviously, he writes, it is better for a prince to be praised than blamed, and a prince would be loved completely by all his citizens if he actually possessed all of those praiseworthy qualities. However, he writes, let’s get real: no prince will have every good quality, and most princes will have at least a few of those bad ones. The key, then, is that the prince should hide from the people those vices that he may have, and to make sure that he seems to have as many virtues as possible.

 

 

Chapter XVI: Of Liberality and Niggardliness

 

 

Of course, always eager to shock, Machiavelli points out that quite a few of those so-called “virtues” would be politically disastrous, while many of the “vices” would actually benefit the state – and if committing a “vice” is ever necessary for the safety of the state, the prince should commit it without shame. Machiavelli examines more carefully one of his oppositions of virtue and vice: liberality (free giving) and niggardliness (unwillingness to give, or miserliness). Every prince would love to be considered liberal – but if a prince were really to give up his possessions freely, he would quickly ruin himself. In fact, the more liberal a prince is, the poorer he will inevitably become – and then he’ll have to tax his citizens, making them hate him in the end anyway. Better, Machiavelli writes, for a prince to be considered a miser for a while, so that he will be able to govern better and give his subjects more in the long term. The best case scenario, however, is for a prince to be miserly with his own kingdom’s wealth, but free and lavish with the money he steals from other countries in wartime. That way, he can have the reputation for generosity without breaking the bank! If a prince doesn’t have that last option, though, Machiavelli advises him to give up the ideal of “liberality” in the interest of practicality. The people will understand.

 

 

Chapters 17 and 18

 

Chapter XVII: Of Cruelty and Clemency, and Whether it is Better to be Loved or Feared

 

 

Every prince, Machiavelli points out, would rather be considered merciful than cruel. However, cruelty can have its advantages: Cesare Borgia, after all, committed numerous cruelties – but the end result was a united and strong principality. Machiavelli concludes that what seemed like Cesare’s “cruelty” was, in fact, actually his “clemency” (mercifulness), since by that cruelty he spared his people the worse fate of political turmoil. A prince who cruelly punishes is not cruel if these punishments help to create political stability; a prince who is merciful is not really merciful if he allows disorders and crime to flourish, injuring everyone.

 

What about the difference between being feared and being loved? Obviously, every prince would prefer to be loved than to be feared. Taking the realistic view, Machiavelli says that it is best to be both feared and loved, but the two do not often coincide. If one had to choose, he argues, it is better and safer to be feared than to be loved. If a prince is feared, he is much less likely to have his subjects revolt; Machiavelli is not afraid to say that men are generally selfish, and will not hesitate to break the obligations of love when it is to their advantage. Fear, however, keeps people in check. It certainly also possible for a prince to be feared and not hated, Machiavelli also points out, particularly when the prince uses his power to protect his citizens and does not interfere too often in their lives. Since love is too insecure a foundation for government, this fear without hatred is the best a prince can hope to have from his citizens.

 

 

Chapter XVIII: In What Way Princes Must Keep Faith

 

 

Like the previous two chapters, this one begins with a platitude: it is good for princes to keep their word. Again, though, Machiavelli writes this commonplace down only to question it. Yes, obviously a prince should not lie or act hypocritically and should also live with integrity. However, it is also the case that many princes who have not kept their word have accomplished great things, and have even conquered other princes who have kept their word faithfully.

 

Machiavelli points out that there are two kinds of fighting: according to the law and according to force. The former is the way of men, the second the way of beasts – but the best princes know how to use both the man and the beast in order to achieve political goals. The prince, he writes, should be able to imitate the cunning fox and the mighty lion – able to defend himself against attack, but also sneak around traps. If a prince is to be fox-like, he must not be afraid to break his promises when keeping them would be harmful to him. Machiavelli knows that this advice doesn’t sound too noble – but, he says in his own defense, men are not all good. If they were, it would always be best to keep one’s word. Since they aren’t, it is sometimes necessary to lie and cheat – because otherwise, you’ll be tricked yourself. It is not only a good idea to cheat and lie like the fox, but it is also crucial that the prince be able to disguise the fact that he is doing so. Men are easily deceived, Machiavelli writes, and gives the example of our friend Pope Alexander VI: he was so willing to break his promises when he needed to, that he was the most outspoken promiser there ever was. He had a reputation for making promises, and always took care so that he wasn’t caught breaking them.

 

This chapter ends with one of the most striking passages of political realism in the entire book: Machiavelli claims that a prince should always seem to have virtues, even if he doesn’t actually have them. Moreover, he asserts that seeming to have virtues is actually better than really having them, since a prince is therefore not tied by the bonds of morality. If he does not feel any constraint of “virtue,” a prince is better able do what he needs to do in any given situation. He must, Machiavelli writes, have a mind “disposed to adapt itself according to the wind,” able to do good when he can but also do evil when he must. Still, even though on the inside he is able to scheme, he should be “mercy, faith, integrity, humanity, and religion” on the outside.

 

Chapters 19 and 20

 

Chapter XIX: That We Must Avoid Being Despised and Hated

 

 

A prince should above all avoid being hated, Machiavelli repeats. He can guard himself against the hatred of his citizens by never seeming frivolous, changeable, or shallow, and instead seeming to follow certain unwavering principles of upright morality (exactly what Machiavelli warned the prince not to do in the previous chapter!). By behaving in this way, a prince will avoid the greatest political danger: revolt from within. Machiavelli argues that conspiracy and internal unrest is much more dangerous to a prince than attacks from external enemies. If a prince does not take care to avoid the hatred of his citizens, then, he will live in a state of constant fear. In contrast, if a prince manages not to be hated, he can count on the goodwill of the citizens and ensure political stability.

 

Machiavelli offers the example of France, where the parliament acts as a buffer between the king and the people, as well as a buffer between the king and the nobles. By placing a certain amount of power in the parliament, and by making the parliament take over many of the most unpopular duties of rule, the king of France ensures that he never earns the hatred of the nobles or the people himself. He then moves on to discuss the examples of various Roman emperors -- all of whom, he claims, prove his point: that rulers are most in danger when they are hated by the people. Machiavelli reiterates that avoiding hatred should be a ruler’s main goal. This means, as we have seen, avoiding the reputation for doing evil deeds (even though the prince will need, in actuality, to do such deeds). Here, he adds another tricky point: that sometimes doing good deeds can also result in being hated by the people (for example, being nice to a cruel army leader who is popularly loathed). Typically, Machiavelli has moved from what appears to be a stable, simple “rule” – avoid being hated the people – and then qualifies and redefines that rule so that it becomes almost impossible to understand without reference to particular circumstances.

 

 

Chapter XX: Whether Fortresses and other Things Which Princes Often Contrive are Useful or Injurious

 

 

Is it a good idea for a prince who comes into power in a state to take arms away from the citizens there? Surprisingly, Machiavelli says no. By taking arms away from the people, he reasons, a prince will make himself look cruel and harsh, encouraging discontent among his subject. By doing the opposite – giving arms to the people – the prince will actually make himself safer, since the people will be grateful and more loyal. However, as usual, there are some exceptions to this rule. When a prince adds a new territory to his old state, he must disarm all the citizens in that annexed territory, except those who helped him to gain power – and he must also make sure that his own soldiers are more powerfully armed than any of his new subjects.

 

Machiavelli offers some additional advice about governing a newly-annexed territory. A prince in such a position, as we remember, can never be entirely safe. There are, however, some ways in which he can make himself more secure. For instance, he might try to provoke an enemy attack intentionally – that way, by defeating the “enemy,” he can make himself look like a great leader. He might also try to earn the friendship of those who were his greatest opponents when he came into power (friends who used to be enemies, he argues, are often more trustworthy than others, because they wish to compensate for their earlier hostility). The flip side of this, of course, is that the prince must always suspect those men who rebelled against their previous ruler to help him gain power, since they are usually the kind of men who will always be dissatisfied with their prince.

 

What about fortresses? Should a prince build them around his state? Machiavelli begins by saying “yes,” since many rulers in history have become strong by building strong fortresses. However, he also points out that some rulers have actually become more powerful after destroying their fortresses. Once again, the best strategy is to do what works best in a particular circumstance. But as a general rule, Machiavelli argues that princes who fear foreigners most should not have fortresses, while princes who fear their own people most need fortresses. Doesn’t that seem backward? What does he mean? Well, he argues that if a prince has the support of the people, he will have no need of fortresses against the enemy, since the people will help him fight. If the prince does not have loyal subjects, he must then use fortresses to protect himself against attack, since he cannot rely on the people’s help.

 

 

Chapters 21, 22, and 23

 

Chapter XXI: How a Prince Must Act in Order to Gain a Reputation

 

 

This chapter begins with a seemingly obvious point: a prince gets a reputation for greatness by doing great things. King Ferdinand of Spain, for instance, turned himself into a famous and powerful king by undertaking extraordinary projects: he attacked the Islamic Moors, and by building up his military and waging a holy war, he augmented his own power and reputation for greatness. Other rulers have given demonstrations of greatness in their conduct of domestic politics. As a general rule, Machiavelli advises the prince to avoid neutrality in domestic and foreign affairs – neutrality often leads to weakness, and it is better to support one side or the other. Nor should a prince ever join forces with another prince more powerful than himself – such a tactic nearly always results in the more powerful prince’s domination.

 

 

Chapter XXII: Of the Secretaries of Princes

 

 

A prince’s reputation has a lot to do with the character of his officers. If he has competent and fair secretaries and ministers, he will usually be thought of as wise and good himself. How can a prince know who to choose as a minister? Machiavelli offers a rule of thumb: if a man is selfish and seeks his own profit above all things, he will probably not be a good minister. Good ministers must be willing to think of the prince first, always and in every case. This works two ways, however; the prince, if he wishes to keep his good minister, must always be willing to give the minister honors, riches, and other kinds of gratification. Like the prince and his people, the prince and his ministers should exist in an ideal interdependence, since each needs the other.

 

 

Chapter XXIII: How Flatterers Must Be Shunned

 

 

A prince should take care to choose as ministers men who love him above themselves – but not men who are flatterers. The court, writes Machiavelli, is full of flatterers, and it is hard for a prince to avoid them. One way to guard against flatterers is for the prince to encourage all men to tell the truth without fear of giving offense – but if all men are permitted to speak the truth to the prince, they will no longer respect him. Better, then, for the prince to allow certain wise men in his council to speak freely – but only these men. That way, the prince will demonstrate his willingness to listen to men who do not flatter him, but will be in no danger of losing the respect of the rest of his people . Moreover, the prince should only allow people at court to give him advice when he asks them for it – although he should ask for advice frequently.

 

 

Chapters 24, 25, and 26

 

Chapter XXIV: Why the Princes of Italy Have Lost Their States

 

 

If a new prince follows all of the advice in this book, Machiavelli claims that he will not only seem like the ancient ruler of a state, but will actually be more secure than an ancient ruler would have been. This is because more people have their eyes on a new prince, expecting him to make mistakes. If a new prince is a good ruler, he will actually impress many more people than a hereditary prince would. He will also have what Machiavelli calls a “double glory:” the glory of founding a kingdom and the glory of governing it well. In contrast, a prince who is born into power and loses his state earns a “double shame.”

 

Why have princes (such as the King of Naples, the Duke of Milan, etc.) lost their thrones? Either they lacked military strength, did not have the good will of the people, or did not have a loyal nobility. Machiavelli insists that men should never blame fortune for their loss of power. Fortune is never an adequate explanation; princes lose power not because they have bad luck, but because they did not have enough skill to deal with the circumstances that fortune presented.

 

 

Chapter XXV: How Much Fortune Can Do in Human Affairs, and How it May Be Opposed

 

 

Machiavelli ended the previous chapter by declaring that princes must never blame “fortune” for the loss of political power. He begins this chapter by acknowledging how many people believe in a universal fortune that rules all things (or in an all-powerful God, a belief which he says amounts to pretty much the same thing – once again, Machiavelli comes close to an atheistic position!). While admitting that circumstances do change frequently in ways that are outside human control, Machiavelli does not see this as a reason to reject free will. Fortune, he says, rules half our actions – and the other half is determined by our skill and ability.

 

After making this statement, Machiavelli offers some metaphoric descriptions of fortune. Fortune, he says, is like a mighty river – when it is at its fullest, no one can cross it or stop it from flooding. When the river is calm and the water is low, however, men can do things like build bridges and dams which will make the floods easier to deal with. This is how we should regard fortune: although we cannot control it, we can use our ingenuity to better handle what it brings. In terms of princes, Machiavelli argues that it is foolish for a ruler to base his power entirely on fortune; such a man cannot hold power once fortune changes. The man who skillfully handles fortune, however, will prosper. This is Machiavelli’s crucial point: the prince must be willing to adapt to fortune, altering his behavior with skill in order to exploit circumstances. This means that an action that is successful on one day will be unsuccessful on another day – it all depends on the circumstances.

 

This is why Machiavelli is so reluctant to give strict rules for the prince’s behavior; what matters is not following the rules, but being willing to break them when necessary. He counsels the prince to resist caution, since the cautious man is often reluctant to deviate from the safe path, even when his fortune requires it. Better to act swiftly and suddenly, according to the moment. An example of a prince who acted in this way is Pope Julius II. Julius always succeeded in his endeavors because he always acted quickly and boldly. By making war when others were not ready either to assist him or to oppose him, Julius ended up extremely powerful. Had he waited until his friends and enemies were ready to fight, Machiavelli points out, Julius would have either lost his war, or else had to share his victory with allies. Machiavelli concludes, in one of the most often quoted passages of the book, that fortune is like a woman (the word fortuna, in Italian, is a feminine noun, so this makes a little more sense in the original); if you wish to master her, you must conquer her by force. Moreover, she is more “willing” to be conquered by forceful men of ability than by timid cowards (remember that the word virtù means, literally, “manliness”).

 

 

Chapter XXVI: Exhortation to Liberate Italy from the Barbarians

 

 

Nearly all of the previous chapters have concentrated on advising the “new prince” who has recently come into power in a territory. This is no accident. In the final chapter of the book, Machiavelli addresses his reader, presumably Prince Lorenzo de’ Medici, urging him to wage war against the “barbarians” (the forces of Islam), and to reclaim Italy as his own. Machiavelli assures Lorenzo that Italy is ready to follow a new leader, if only one would appear who is bold enough to seize power. He tells Lorenzo to bear in mind the examples he has just read about, and to follow the counsel given in The Prince, so that he might acquire and maintain power in Italy. Lorenzo should raise troops (his own men, not mercenaries or auxiliaries, of course), and strike swiftly against the barbarian rule that “stinks in the nostrils of every one.” In the end, The Prince has a very practical, and very specific, goal in mind.

 

 

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