Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince details Machivelli’s advice to Lorenzo de’Medici on how to administer an effective state Machiavelli suggests the Prince allow the people of a territory to dictate what traits the prince should display publicly. However, as I will argue, Machiavelli views good and evil as socially constructed and less important than a peaceful and stable state. Thus, the prince must be ready to be cruel to maintain his territory. I will first examine the historical context of The Prince. I will then argue that Machiavelli’s primary reason for writing the book is to counsel the prince on how to attain glory. Next, I will contend that while Machiavelli believes the prince often must use cruelty to achieve his ends, cruelty without the guise of morality is ruinous to the prince. Finally, I will discuss Machiavelli’s metaphor of the prince possessing qualities of a human, lion, and a fox to represent the tension between cruelty and morality. Machiavelli’s fundamental advice to the prince is to adopt a moral façade while using necessary cruelty to achieve glory.
I will first address the historical context of Niccolo Machiavelli’s most famous work. Before writing The Prince, Machiavelli performed a variety of roles for the Republic of Florence from 1494-1512, chiefly as an emissary to other European territories. While holding this position, Machiavelli learned the statecraft he describes in The Prince from the examples of the leaders he encountered executing his duties. However, on September 1, 1512, Pope Julius II reinstated the Medici to the throne of Florence. The Medici tortured and exiled many of the Republican officials, including Machiavelli. It is while in exile that Machiavelli wrote The Prince, possibly in attempt to gain a position in the Medici regime. However, Machiavelli’s advice must be carefully examined, as it is directed towards Lorenzo de’Medici, an individual responsible for a formerly-renowned statesman’s torture and exile2. It is impossible to know for certain whether Machiavelli’s advice is legitimate, or if he is trying to undermine the Medici regime. Still, I am willing to speculate that Machiavelli’s advice is legitimate as he seems desperate to regain his former prestige, albeit under a new regime.
The knowledge of the geopolitical climate of the early 1500s is also essential to a full understanding of The Prince. Italy was comprised of independent city-states constantly engaged in war with each other, while also exposed to the rapacious appetites of other European powers. In such a perpetual state of conflict, it is no surprise Machiavelli writes that “A prince ought to have no other aim or thought, nor select anything else for his study, than war and its rules and discipline”3. Thus, Machiavelli sees the opportunity for an ambitious prince to expand his territory.
I will now address Machiavelli’s principle reason for writing The Prince. In the Dedication section, Machiavelli tells Lorenzo that “this little gift [The Prince]….if it be diligently read and considered by you…you should attain that greatness with fortune and your other attributes promise”4. Similarly, Machiavelli explains his use of only the greatest men in his examples: Moses, Alexander the Great, Julius Caeser, etc: “I adduce the highest examples both of prince and of state…a wise man ought to always follow the paths beaten by great men, to imitate those who have been supreme”5. Though these statements could be taken as tongue-in-cheek insults of Lorenzo’s abilities, it reveals Machiavelli’s ultimate goal for the prince, attaining “greatness.” Any discussion of morality is therefore merely a prudential means to the end result of achieving glory. Machiavelli believes that by following his advice, the reader can become a “great man” of history.
Machiavelli’s path to glory beings with effective governance of a state. He counsels Lorenzo to ignore tradition concepts of “good” and “evil” in his actions, instead recommending a system of amoral pragmatism. Machiavelli is insistent that the prince must be willing to use force. In addition to his statement that a prince’s only area of study must be war, Machiavelli calls to mind some of the great leaders of antiquity- Moses, Cyrus, Romulus, and Thesueus- and writes that “all armed prophets have conquered, and the unarmed ones have been destroyed…it may be necessary to make [one’s people] believe by force”6. Here, Machiavelli is arguing that when a prince conquers a new territory, he must use force to convince the population of the superiority of your rule. Similarly, when consolidating one’s rule, Machiavelli writes that one “ought to examine closely into all those injuries which it is necessary for [the prince] to inflict, and to do them all that one stroke so as not to have to repeat them daily”7. Machiavelli is advocating a mass execution of any elites of the previous regime that could conceivably challenge the prince’s rule. There is no discussion of the morality of such an action, simply an analysis of the efficacy of such action in securing the prince’s rule.
Despite Machiavelli’s willingness to use cruel methods conventionally considered “evil,” this does not mean an effective prince is unconcerned with ideas of morality. Machiavelli counsels the prince to be a just leader whenever possible. In the section on how to avoid being hated, Machiavelli writes “It makes him hated above all things, as I have said, to be rapacious, and to be a violator of the property and women of his subjects“8 Here, Machiavelli cautions the prince to avoid abusing his power and becoming a praetorian dictator. Even if the prince must use the power at his disposal, Machiavelli frequently mentions the importance of maintaining a righteous façade even while performing the cruel actions he outlines as “necessary.” When discussing whether a prince should keep his promises, Machiavelli writes:
“it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them…a prince ought to take care that he never lets anything slip from his lips that is not replete with…five qualities, that he may appear to him to sees and hears him altogether merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious”9.
Machiavelli is very clear that as necessary as cruelty is, it must be tempered by a just pretense or the prince will never achiever glory. To illustrate this point, Machiavelli uses the example of Agathocles the Sicilian. Rising from a low station to become a Praetor of Syracuse, Agathocles gained the princedome of the city by murdering the Syracuse Senate and wealthy during a session ostensibly called to discuss the future of the Republic. Despite Machiavelli’s respect for Agothocles’s impressive ascent to power, Machiavelli writes that “it cannot be called talent to slay fellow-citizens, to deceive friends, to be without faith, without mercy, without religion; such methods may gain empire, but not glory”10. Agothocles followed the first half of Machiavelli’s recommendations- effective use of cruelty to gain power- but his failure to use cruelty while maintaining the guise of morality precludes him from being “celebrated among the most excellent men”11.
The dichotomy of good versus evil is a difficult question for Machiavelli because it is impossible to achieve power by being entirely good and impossible to achieve glory while appearing evil. This leads to the prince leading a double life: a public life of refined morality while being cruel and ready in his private affairs. When pressed Machiavelli will concede the latter is more vital to a stable state than the former. In his chapter discussing whether it is better for a prince to be loved or feared, he writes:
“Therefore a prince, so long as he keeps his subjects united and loyal, out not to mind the reproach of cruelty; because with a few examples he will be more merciful than those who, through too much mercy, allow disorders to arise, from which follow murders or robberies; for those are wont to injure the whole people, whilst those executions which originate with a prince offend the individual only”12.
In this quotation, Machiavelli gives a classic argument that the ends justify the means-regardless of one’s thoughts on the prince’s methodology, it is impossible to argue against his results. Thus, it is more important that would-be transgressors fear the prince’s retribution than to be loved by a majority of the population
A Machiavellian must be willing to do anything necessary to achieve glory. Still, conceptions of good and evil are still vital to be considered among the “great men” of history. If you are viewed as cruel or evil by your populace, you will never be glorified- only feared. Thus, the Machiavellian prince must use cruelty to enforce the laws only in the shadows. At all other times, he must appear to be the 16th century Italian conception of “good”: nothing but merciful, upright, and religious. Only by balancing both of these aspects of his personality can the prince hope to achieve glory.
Machiavelli characterizes this duality by advising the prince augment his human form with that of two beasts- the lion and the fox. Machiavelli writes that that as “praiseworthy” keeping one’s word can be,
“those princes who have done great things have held good faith of little account , and have overcome those who have relied on their word. You must know there are two ways of contesting, the one by the law, the other by force; the first method the one by law, the other by force; the first method is proper to men, the second to beasts, but because the first is frequently not sufficient, it is necessary to have recourse to the second”13.
The human side of the prince is involved in the conventional administration of the state, where the prince gains an advantage from the law and an understanding of his population’s norms. However, Machiavelli recognizes that while law and morality are not necessarily sufficient recourse for the prince, and force is often needed. To Machiavelli, force is characterized by two beasts, the lion and the fox. Both beasts are necessary for success: “A prince… out to choose the fox and the lion, because the lion cannot defend himself against snares and the fox cannot defend himself against the wolves Therefore, it is necessary to be a fox to discover the snares and a lion to terrify the wolves”14. Machiavelli faults unsuccessful monarchs with only utilizing one of these beasts. The worth of the lion is self-evident: a prince must be a strong leader in combat. This is the foremost requirement of successful use of force: “the first cause of your losing [your state] is to neglect this art [of war]; and what enables you to acquire a state is to be a master of the art”15.
Still, those who exclusively rely on the lion’s strength and honor are prone to being exploited by dishonest adversaries. Therefore, “a wise lord cannot, nor ought he to, keep faith when such observance may be turned against him”16. Thus, the prince must be like a fox to avoid these traps. For this reason, Machiavelli writes that “he who has known best how to employ the fox has succeeded best”17. Successful administration of a territory, and by extension glory, can only be achieved by combining the traits of a human, a lion, and the fox.
I have argued all of Machiavelli’s advice is given to help the prince in the pursuit of glory. Glory, to Machiavelli, is joining the pantheon history’s greatest heroes. A glorious prince must manage to both maintain a tranquil domestic sphere and be an effective military leader. To achieve glory, the prince must balance two conflicting necessities- the necessary use of methods traditionally believed to be cruel in order to be the effective warrior and enforce law, and the necessity of maintaining the visage of a upstanding moral leader. Machiavelli’s advice to Lorenzo can be summarized by the metaphor of the beasts and humans: the prince must be a human with a competent understanding of law and custom, a lion with martial ability and strength, and a fox with the ability to manipulate and deceive his adversaries. If the prince follows all of Machiavelli’s advice, he may achieve glory.
1 I would like to thank Christopher Sardo for his help in editing this paper.
2 Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. Trans. William Marriott. BN Publishing, 2008. (Hereafter referred to as The Prince). Pg. 13.