The Morals of the Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli

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The Morals of the Prince

by Niccolo Machiavelli

The first great political philosopher of the Renaissance, Niccolo Machiavelli was born in 1469 in Florence, Italy. He was a politician whose fortunes mirrored those of the republic that was founded in the absence of the ruling Medicis and ended upon their return to power in Florence. The Prince, written in 1513 but not published until 1531, is the work that earned Machiavelli his lasting reputation and is a seminal text of political philosophy still widely regarded—and read—today. It is a study of leadership and an argument that leaders must do anything necessary to hold on to power. It is this message that turned Machiavelli's name into an adjective. As you read the following excerpt from The Prince, observe the different qualities of Machiavelli's ideal prince and compare it to those qualities we refer to when we call something or someone “Machiavellian."

It remains now to be seen what style and principles a prince ought to adopt in dealing with his subjects and friends. I know the subject has been treated frequently before, and I'm afraid people will think me rash for trying to do so again, especially since I intend to differ in this discussion from what others have said. But since I intend to write something useful to an understanding reader, it seemed better to go after the real truth of the matter than to repeat what people have imagined. A great many men have imagined states and princedoms such as nobody ever saw or knew in the real world, for there's such a difference between the way we really live and the way we ought to live that the man who neglects the real to study the ideal will learn how to accomplish his ruin, not his salvation. Any man who tries to be good all the time is bound to come to ruin among the great number who are not good. Hence a prince who wants to keep his post must learn how not to be good, and use that knowledge, or refrain from using it, as necessity requires.

Putting aside, then, all the imaginary things that are said about princes, and getting down to the truth, let me say that whenever men are discussed (and especially princes because they are prominent), there are certain qualities that bring them either praise or blame. Thus some are considered generous, others stingy (I use a Tuscan term, since "greedy" in our speech means a man who wants to take other peoples goods. We call a man "stingy" who clings to his own); some are givers, others grabbers; some cruel, others merciful; one man is treacherous, another faithful; one is feeble and effeminate, another fierce and spirited; one humane, another proud; one lustful, another chaste; one straightforward, another sly; one harsh, another gentle; one serious, another playful; one religious, another skeptical, and so on. I know everyone will agree that among these many qualities a prince certainly ought to have all those that are considered good. But since it is impossible to have and exercise them all, because the conditions of human life simply do not allow it, a prince must be shrewd enough to avoid the public disgrace of those vices that would lose him his state. If he possibly can, he should also guard against vices that will not lose him his state; but if he cannot prevent them, he should not be too worried about indulging them. And furthermore, he should not be too worried about incurring blame for any vice without which he would find it hard to save his state. For if you look at matters carefully, you will see that something resembling virtue, if you follow it, may be your ruin, while something else resembling vice will lead, if you follow it, to your security and well-being.

Let me begin, then, with the first of the qualities mentioned above, by saying that a reputation for liberality is doubtless very fine; but the generosity that earns you that reputation can do you great harm. For if you exercise your generosity in a really virtuous way, as you should, nobody will know of it, and you cannot escape the odium of the opposite vice. Hence if you wish to be widely known as a generous man, you must seize every opportunity to make a big display of your giving. A prince of this character is bound to use up his entire revenue in works of ostentation. Thus, in the end, if he wants to keep a name for generosity, he will have to load his people with exorbitant taxes and squeeze money out of them in every way he can. This is the first step in making him odious to his subjects; for when he is poor, nobody will respect him. Then, when his generosity has angered many and brought rewards to a few, the slightest difficulty will trouble him, and at the first approach of danger, down he goes. If by chance he foresees this, and tries to change his ways, he will immediately be labeled a miser.

Since a prince cannot use this virtue of liberality in such a way as to become known for it unless he harms his own security, he won't mind if he judges prudently of things, being known as a miser. In due course he will be thought the more liberal man, when people see that his parsimony enables him to live on his income, to defend himself against his enemies, and to undertake major projects without burdening his people with taxes. Thus he will be acting liberally toward all those people from whom he takes nothing (and there are an immense number of them), and in a stingy way toward those people on whom he bestows nothing (and they are very few). In our times, we have seen great things being accomplished only by men who have had the name of misers; all the others have gone under. Pope Julius II,1 though he used his reputation as a generous man to gain the papacy, sacrificed in order to be able to make war; the present king of France has waged many wars without levying a single extra tax on his people simply because he could take care of the extra expenses out of the savings from his long parsimony. If the present king of Spain had a reputation for generosity, he would never have been able to undertake so many campaigns, or win so many of them.

Hence a prince who prefers not to rob his subjects, who wants to be able to defend himself, who wants to avoid poverty and contempt, and who doesn't want to become a plunderer, should not mind in the least if people consider him a miser; this is simply one of the vices that enable him to reign. Someone may object that Caesar2 used a reputation for generosity to become emperor, and many other people have also risen in the world, because they were generous or were supposed to be so. Well, I answer, either you are a prince already, or you are in the process of becoming one; in the first case, this reputation for generosity is harmful to you, in the second case it is very necessary. Caesar was one of those who wanted to become ruler in Rome; but after he had reached his goal, if he had lived, and had not cut down on his expenses, he would have ruined the empire itself. Someone may say: there have been plenty of princes, very successful in warfare, who have had a reputation for generosity. But I answer; either the prince is spending his own money and that of his subjects, or he is spending someone else's. In the first case, he ought to be sparing; in the second case, he ought to spend money like water. Any prince at the head of his army, which lives on loot, extortion, and plunder, disposes of other people’s property, and is bound to be very generous; otherwise, his soldiers would desert him. You can always be a more generous giver when what you give is not yours or your subjects'; Cyrus,3 Caesar, and Alexander4 were generous in this way. Spending what belongs to other people does no harm to your reputation, rather it enhances it; only spending your own substance harms you. And there is nothing that wears out faster than generosity; even as you practice it, you lose the means of practicing it, and you become either poor and contemptible or (in the course of escaping poverty) rapacious and hateful. The thing above all against which a prince must protect himself is being contemptible and hateful; generosity leads to both. Thus, it's much wiser to put up with the reputation of being a miser, which brings you shame without hate, than to be forced—just because you want to appear generous—into a reputation for rapacity, which brings shame on you and hate along with it.


Continuing now with our list of qualities, let me say that every prince should prefer to be considered merciful rather than cruel, yet he should be careful not to mismanage this clemency of his. People thought Cesare Borgia5 was cruel, but that cruelty of his reorganized the Romagna,6 united it, and established it in peace and loyalty. Anyone who views the matter realistically will see that this prince was much more merciful than the people of Florence who, to avoid the reputation of cruelty, allowed Pistoia7 to be destroyed. Thus, no prince should mind being called cruel for what he does to keep his subjects united and loyal; he may make examples of a very few, but he will be more merciful in reality than those who, in their tenderheartedness, allow disorders to occur, with their attendant murders and lootings. Such turbulence brings harm to an entire community, while the executions ordered by a prince affect only one individual at a time. A new prince, above all others, cannot possibly avoid a name for cruelty, since new states are always in danger. And Virgil, speaking through the mouth of Dido8 says:

My cruel fate

And doubts attending an unsettled state

Force me to guard my coast from foreign foes.

Yet a prince should be slow to believe rumors and to commit himself to action on the basis of them. He should not be afraid of his own thoughts; he ought to proceed cautiously, moderating his conduct with prudence and humanity, allowing neither over-confidence to make him careless, nor overtimidity to make him intolerable.

Here the question arises: is it better to be loved than feared, or vice versa? I don't doubt that every prince would like to be both; but since it is hard to accommodate these qualities, if you have to make a choice, to be feared is much safer than to be loved. For it is a good general rule about men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, liars and deceivers, fearful of danger and greedy for gain. While you serve their welfare, they are all yours, offering their blood, their belongings, their lives, and their children's lives, as we noted above—so long as the danger is remote. But when the danger is close at hand, they turn against you. Then, any prince who has relied on their words and has made no other preparations will come to grief; because friendships that are bought at a price, and not with greatness and nobility of soul, may be paid for but they are not acquired, and they cannot be used in time of need. People are less concerned with offending a man who makes himself loved than one who makes himself feared; the reason is that love is a link of obligation which men, because they are rotten, will break any they think doing so serves their advantage; fear involves dread of punishment, from which they can never escape.

Still, a prince should make himself feared in such a way that, even if he gets no love, he gets no hate either; because it is perfectly possible to be feared and not hated, and this will be the result if only the prince will keep his hands off the property of his subjects or citizens, and off their women. When he does have to shed blood, he should be sure to have a strong justification and manifest cause; but above all, he should not confiscate people's property, because men are quicker to forget the death of a father than the loss of a patrimony. Besides, pretexts for confiscation are always plentiful, it never fails that a prince who starts living by plunder can find reasons to rob someone else. Excuses for proceeding against someone's life are much rarer and more quickly exhausted.

But a prince at the head of his armies and commanding a multitude of soldiers should not care a bit if he is considered cruel; without such a reputation, he could never hold his army together and ready for action. Among the marvelous deeds of Hannibal,9 this was prime: that, having an immense army, which included men of many different races and nations, and which he led to battle in distant countries, he never allowed them to fight among themselves or to rise against him, whether his fortune was good or bad. The reason for this could only be his inhuman cruelty, which, along with his countless other talents, made him an object of awe and terror to his soldiers; and without the cruelty, his other qualities would never have sufficed. The historians who pass snap judgments on these matters admire his accomplishments and at the same time condemn the cruelty which was their main cause.

When I say, "His other qualities would never have sufficed," we can see that this is true from the example of Scipio,10 an outstanding man not only among those of his own time, but in all recorded history; yet his armies revolted in Spain, for no other reason than his excessive leniency in allowing his soldiers more freedom than military discipline permits. Fabius Maximus11 rebuked him in the senate for this failing, calling him the corrupter of the Roman armies. When a lieutenant of Scipio s plundered the Locrians,12 he took no action in behalf of the people, and did nothing to discipline that insolent lieutenant; again, this was the result of his easygoing nature. Indeed, when someone in the senate wanted to excuse him on this occasion, he said there are many men who knew better how to avoid error themselves than how to correct error in others. Such a soft temper would in time have tarnished the fame and glory of Scipio, had he brought it to the office of emperor; but as he lived under the control of the senate, this harmful quality of his not only remained hidden but was considered creditable.

Returning to the question of being feared or loved, I conclude that since men love at their own inclination but can be made to fear at the inclination of the prince, a shrewd prince will lay his foundations on what is under his own control, not on what is controlled by others. He should simply take pains not to be hated, as I said.

How praiseworthy it is for a prince to keep his word and live with integrity rather than by craftiness, everyone understands; yet we see from recent experience that those princes have accomplished most who paid little heed to keeping their promises, but who knew how craftily to manipulate the minds of men. In the end, they won out over those who tried to act honestly.

You should consider then, that there are two ways of fighting, one with laws and the other with force. The first is properly a human method, the second belongs to beasts. But as the first method does not always suffice, you sometimes have to turn to the second. Thus a prince must know how to make good use of both the beast and the man. Ancient writers made subtle note of this fact when they wrote that Achilles13 and many other princes of antiquity were sent to be reared by Chiron14 the centaur, who trained them in his discipline. Having a teacher who is half man and half beast can only mean that a prince must know how to use both these two natures, and that one without the other has no lasting effect.

Since a prince must know how to use the character of beasts, he should pick for imitation the fox and the lion. As the lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves, you have to be a fox in order to be wary of traps, and a lion to overawe the wolves. Those who try to live by the lion alone are badly mistaken. Thus a prudent prince cannot and should not keep his word when to do so would go against his interest, or when the reasons that made him pledge it no longer apply. Doubtless if all men were good, this rule would be bad; but since they are a sad lot, and keep no faith with you, you in your turn are under no obligation to keep it with them.

Besides, a prince will never lack for legitimate excuses to explain away his breaches of faith. Modern history will furnish innumerable examples of this behavior, showing how many treaties and promises have been made null and void by the faithlessness of princes, and how the man succeeded best who knew best how to play the fox. But it is a necessary part of this nature that you must conceal it carefully; you must be a great liar and hypocrite. Men are so simple of mind and so much dominated by their immediate needs, that a deceitful man will always find plenty who are ready to be deceived. One of many recent examples calls formention. Alexander VI15 never did anything else, never had another thought, except to deceive men, and he always found fresh material to work on. Never was there a man more convincing in his assertions, who sealed his promises with more solemn oaths, and who observed them less. Yet his deceptions were always successful, because he knew exactly how to manage this sort of business.

In actual fact, a prince may not have all the admirable qualities we listed, but it is very necessary that he should seem to have them. Indeed, I will venture to say that when you have them and exercise them all the time, they are harmful to you; when you just seem to have them, they are useful. It is good to appear merciful, truthful, humane, sincere, and religious; it is good to be so in reality. But you must keep your mind so disposed that, in case of need, you can turn to the exact contrary. This has to be understood: a prince, and especially a new prince, cannot possibly exercise all those virtues for which men are called "good." To preserve the state, he often has to do things against his word, against charity, against humanity, against religion. Thus he has to have a mind ready to shift as the winds of fortune and the varying circumstances of life may dictate. And as I said above, he should not depart from the good if he can hold to it, but he should be ready to enter on evil if he has to.

Hence a prince should take great care never to drop a word that does not seem imbued with the five good qualities noted above; to anyone who sees or hears him, he should appear all compassion, all honor, all humanity all integrity, all religion. Nothing is more necessary than to seem to have this last virtue. Men in general judge more by the sense of sight than by the sense of touch, because everyone can see but only a few can test by feeling. Everyone sees what you seem to be, few know what you really are; and those few do not dare take a stand against the general opinion, supported by the majesty of the government. In the actions of all men, and especially of princes who are not subject to a court of appeal, we must always look to the end. Let a prince, therefore, win victories and uphold his state; his methods will always be considered worthy, and everyone will praise them, because the masses are always impressed by the superficial appearance of things, and by the outcome of an enterprise. And the world consists of nothing but the masses; the few who have no influence when the many feel secure. A certain prince of our own time, whom it's just as well not to name, preaches nothing but peace and mutual trust, yet he is the determined enemy of both; and if on several different occasions he had observed either, he would have lost both his reputation and his throne.

For Discussion and Writing

1. Draw a line down the middle of a sheet of paper and make two lists: things for which princes are praised on the left and things for which they are blamed on the right. Try to match up those qualities that are in opposition to each other.

2. "You must be a great liar and hypocrite," Machiavelli advises (par. 15); how, here as elsewhere, does Machiavelli argue against traditional moral values? How does he show that the commonly assumed effects of "doing the right thing" are not the results toward which the prince must work?

3. Machiavelli writes, "Men are so simple of mind and so much dominated by their immediate needs, that a deceitful man will always find plenty who are ready to be deceived" (par. 15). Compare his view of human nature to that implied by Thomas Jefferson in the final version of the Declaration of Independence. How does each writer’s view correspond to his view of the relationship between leaders and the people.

4. Think about a time in your life when you might have done something that could be called “Machaivellian.” Describe the incident. How do you feel about it now?

1 Pope Julius II [5 December 1443 – 21 February 1513], nicknamed "The Fearsome Pope" and "The Warrior Pope," born Giuliano della Rovere, was the head of the Catholic Church from 1 November 1503 to his death in 1513. His papacy was marked by an active foreign policy, ambitious building projects, and patronage for the arts—he commissioned the destruction and rebuilding of St. Peter's Basilica, plus Michelangelo's decoration of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

2 Gaius Julius Caesar [July 100 BC– 15 March 44 BC] was a Roman general, statesman, Consul and notable author of Latin prose. He played a critical role in the events that led to the demise of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire.

3 Cyrus II of Persia [ c. 600 BC or 576 BC–530 BC], commonly known as Cyrus the Great, also known as Cyrus the Elder, was the founder of the Achaemenid Empire. Under his rule, the empire embraced all the previous civilized states of the ancient Near East, expanded vastly and eventually conquered most of Southwest Asia and much of Central Asia and the Caucasus.

4 Alexander III of Macedon [20/21 July 356 – 10/11 June 323 BC], commonly known as Alexander the Great, was a king of Macedon, a state in northern ancient Greece. Born in Pella in 356 BC, Alexander was tutored by Aristotle until the age of 16. By the age of thirty, he had created one of the largest empires of the ancient world, stretching from the Ionian Sea to the Himalayas.

5 Cesare Borgia [13 September 1475 or April 1476– 12 March 1507], Duke of Valentinois, was an Italian condottiero (mercenary soldier leaders (or warlords) of the professional, military free companies contracted by the Italian city-states and the Papacy), nobleman, politician, and cardinal. He was the son of Pope Alexander VI (r. 1492–1503) and his long-term mistress Vannozza dei Cattanei.

6 Romagna is an Italian historical region that approximately corresponds to the south-eastern portion of present-day Emilia-Romagna.

7 Pistoia is a city and commune in the Tuscany region of Italy, the capital of a province of the same name, located about 30 km (19 mi) west and north of Florence and is crossed by the Ombrone Pistoiese, a tributary of the River Arno.

8 Dido was, according to ancient Greek and Roman sources, the founder and first Queen of Carthage (in modern-day Tunisia). She is best known from the account given by the Roman poet Virgil in his Aeneid. In some sources she is also known as Elissa

9 Hannibal, son of Hamilcar Barca, [247 – 183/182 BC] was a Punic Carthaginian military commander, generally considered one of the greatest military commanders in history

10 Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus [236–183 BC[, also known as Scipio the African, Scipio the Elder, and Scipio the Great was a general in the Second Punic War and statesman of the Roman Republic. He was best known for defeating Hannibal at the final battle of the Second Punic War at Zama, a feat that earned him the agnomen Africanus, the nickname "the Roman Hannibal", as well as recognition as one of the finest commanders in military history.

11 Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus Cunctator [ca. 280 BC – 203 BC] was a Roman politician and general, born in Rome around 280 BC and died in Rome in 203 BC. He is widely regarded as the father of guerrilla warfare due to his, at the time, novel strategy of targeting enemy supply lines in light of being largely outnumbered.

12 The Locrians were an ancient Greek tribe in Greece.

13 In Greek mythology, Achilles was a Greek hero of the Trojan War and the central character and greatest warrior of Homer's Iliad. Achilles was said to be a demigod; his mother was the nymph Thetis, and his father, Peleus, was the king of the Myrmidons.

14 In Greek mythology, Chiron was held to be the superlative centaur among his brethren. Chiron was notable throughout Greek mythology for his kourotrophic (bringer up of boys) nature.

15 Pope Alexander VI, born Roderic Llançol i de Borja [ January 1431 – 18 August 1503] was the head of the Catholic Church from 11 August 1492 to his death in 1503. He is one of the most controversial of the Renaissance popes, and his Italianized Valencian surname Borgia became a byword for libertinism and nepotism, which are traditionally considered as characterizing his papacy.

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