Machiavelli Extracts:

                                                                                                                                                                                                            LINK: Machiavelli Notes

Machiavelli is best known for “The Prince”, which advocates cruelty and ruthlessness on the part of would-be rulers. But it is important to note that he was not opposed to democracy or justice:


From the Discourses on Livy:


“For a prince, who knows no other control but his own will is like a madman, and a people that can do as it pleases will hardly be wise. If now we compare a prince who is controlled by laws, and a people that is [restricted] by them, we shall find more virtue in the people than in the prince; and if we compare them when both are freed from such control, we shall see that the people are guilty of fewer excesses than the prince, and that the errors of the people are of less importance, and therefore most easily remedied. For a licentious and mutinous people may easily be brought back to good conduct by the influence and persuasion of a good man, but an evil-minded prince is not amenable to such influences, and therefore there is no other remedy against him but cold steel… The excesses of the people are directed against those whom they suspect of interfering with the public good; whilst those of princes are against apprehended interference with their individual interests. The general prejudice against the people results from the fact that everybody can freely and fearlessly speak ill of them in mass, even whilst they are at the height of their power; but a prince can only be spoken of with the greatest circumspection and apprehension.” See Ball and Dagger 1999. p 30.


From The Prince:


1. Above all, The Prince is a study in the nature of power-relationships:


“to comprehend fully the nature of the people, one must be a prince; and to comprehend fully the nature of princes one must be an ordinary citizen”. (Letter to Lorenzo de’ Medici – Machiavelli’s dedication of The Prince).


2. It is also a “manual” for would-be conquerors:


In taking over a new state the prince should expect opposition: “difficulties may arise” – “men willingly change their ruler, expecting to fare better… but they only deceive themselves, and they learn from experience that they have made matters worse.”  This is because “you are opposed by all those you have injured in occupying the principality, and you cannot keep the friendship of those who have put you there.”


Consequently “a prince is always compelled to injure those who have made him the new ruler.” (Ch III, first paragraph) and “whoever is responsible for another’s becoming powerful ruins himself, because this power is brought into being either by ingenuity or by force, and both of these are suspect to the one who has become powerful.” (Ch III, last sentence).

If the prince “wants to keep hold of his new possessions, he must bear two things in mind: first, that the family of the old prince must be destroyed; next, that he must change neither their laws nor their taxes.” (Ch III, third paragraph)


“For always… to enter a conquered territory one needs the goodwill of the inhabitants” (Ch III, paragraph 1) and “it is a very easy matter to hold on to [the people] when they are not used to freedom.” (Ch III, paragraph 3) whereas: “in republics there is more life, more hatred [of a conqueror], a greater desire for revenge; the memory of their ancient liberty does not and cannot let them rest.” (Ch V, last paragraph).


“So long as their old ways of life are undisturbed [viz. by a conqueror] and there is no divergence in customs, [i.e. so long as a conqueror does not try to change the way they live] men live quietly.” (Ch III, paragraph 3)


“A city used to freedom can be more easily ruled through its own citizens… than in any other way.” (Ch III First paragraph). And: “Whoever becomes the master of a city accustomed to freedom, and does not destroy it, may be expected to be destroyed himself; because, where there is a rebellion, such a city justifies itself by calling on the name of liberty and its ancient institutions…”


If new territories with different languages etc are acquired, “… to hold them one must be very fortunate and very assiduous. One of the best, most effective expedients would be for the conqueror to go to live there in person”!! If he does this, “the subjects are satisfied because they have direct recourse to the prince; and so they have more reason to love him…”  “being on the spot, one can detect trouble at the start and deal with it immediately…” (Ch III, paragraph 4).


But it is better to “establish settlements in one or two places.” “Settlements do not cost much, and the prince can found them and maintain them at little or no personal expense. He injures only those from whom he takes land and houses to give to the new inhabitants, and these victims form a tiny minority, and can never do any harm since they remain poor and scattered.” (Chapter III, paragraph 5).


3. Machiavelli displays a negative (or realistic?) view of human nature:


People are: “creatures of circumstance…”


“… men must be either pampered or crushed, because they can get revenge for small injuries but not for fatal ones. So any injury a prince does a man should be of a kind that there is no fear of revenge.” (Ch III, paragraph 5).


A ruler whose country has other powers on its borders should “make himself the protector and leader of the smaller neighbouring powers, and he should endeavour to weaken those which are strong”?! (Ch III, paragraph 6).


There is a deep human motivation for power: “The wish to acquire more is admittedly a very natural and common thing; and when men succeed in this they are always praised rather than condemned. But when they lack the ability to do so and yet want to acquire more at all costs, they deserve condemnation for their mistakes.”(Ch III paragraph 12).



“there is nothing more difficult to arrange, more doubtful of success, and more dangerous to carry through than initiating changes in a state’s constitution. The innovator makes enemies of all those who prospered under the new order…” To deal with this, the ruler should use force: “all armed prophets have conquered, and unarmed prophets come to grief.” “The populace is by nature fickle; it is easy to persuade them of something, but difficult to confirm them in that persuasion” – so the ruler should try to arrange things so that “they can be made to believe by force.” (Ch VI, paragraph 4) (See further on “arms” below)


“One can make this generalisation about men: they are ungrateful, fickle, liars, and deceivers, they shun danger and are greedy for profit; while you treat them well, they are yours… Men worry less about doing an injury to one who makes himself loved than to one who makes himself feared. The bond of love is one which men, wretched creatures that they are, break when it is to their advantage to do so…” (Chapter XVII, paragraph 3)


4. Machiavelli is perceptive about the nature of effective political power:


“Governments set up overnight, like everything in nature whose growth is forced, lack strong roots and ramifications. So they are destroyed in the first bad spell.” (Ch VII Paragraph 1).


Cesare Borgia laid “strong… foundations” for power by “destroying all the families of the rulers he had despoiled, thus depriving the pope of the opportunity of using them against him; second, by winning over all the patricians in Rome… in order to hold the pope in check; third by controlling the College of Cardinals as far as he could…” etc!  He is praised because “if he could not make whom he wanted pope, he could at least keep the papacy from going to one he did not want.”


5. But power is different to glory, and cruelty must be used “economically”:


Conquering a state by crime (e.g. murdering the existing political leaders!) is risky, and “it cannot be called prowess to kill fellow citizens, to betray friends, to be treacherous, pitiless, irreligious. These ways can win a prince power but not glory.” (Ch VIII Paragraph 2).


“For I believe it is a question of cruelty used well or badly. We can say that cruelty is used well (if it is permissible to talk in this way of evil) when it is employed once and for all, and one’s safety depends on it, and then it is not persisted in but as far as possible turned to the good of one’s subjects.”  (Ch VIII Paragraph 4).


“Violence should be inflicted once for all; people will then forget what it tastes like and so be less resentful. Benefits should be conferred gradually; and in that way they will taste better.” (Ch VIII Last paragraph).


6. A ruler needs the support of people:


“A man who becomes prince with the help of the nobles finds it more difficult to maintain his position than one who does so with the help of the people… The people are more honest in their intentions than the nobles are, because the latter want to oppress the people, while they only want not to be oppressed.” (Ch IX Paragraph 2)

“Therefore a wise prince must devise ways by which his citizens are always in all circumstances dependent on him and on his authority; and then they will always be faithful to him.”


So the best fortress that exists is to avoid being hated by the people.” (Chapter XX: On Fortresses, last paragraph).


7. On religion:


Using religion one can take over a state, because religion holds the people and the ruler together. “These (“Ecclesiastical”) principalities alone are secure and happy. But as they are sustained by higher powers which the human mind cannot comprehend, I shall not argue about them; they are exalted and maintained by God.” (Ch XI)


8. On the role of “arms”:


“The main foundations of every state… are good laws and good arms; and because you cannot have good laws without good arms, and where there are good arms, good laws inevitably follow…”  (Chapter XII, paragraph 1)


“Mercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous… Mercenaries are disunited, thirsty for power, undisciplined, and disloyal; they are brave among their friends and cowards before the enemy…” and so on! (Chapter XII, paragraph 2).


(Opening of Chapter XIV): “A prince, therefore, should have no other object or thought, nor acquire skill in anything, except war, its organisation and discipline. The art of war is all that is expected of a ruler…”



9. On utopias:


“Many have dreamed up republics and principalities which have never in truth been know to exist; the gulf between how one should live and how one does live is so wide that a man who neglects what is actually done for what should be done learns the way to self-destruction rather than to self-preservation.”



10. How a ruler should behave – the importance of appearing to be moral:


A prince must “learn how not to be virtuous, and to make use of this or not according to need.” (Ch XV, first paragraph).


Machiavelli warns a ruler “to escape the evil reputation attached to those vices which could lose him his state” – (Ch XV, paragraph 2)


“A prince should try to avoid, above all else, being despised and hated…”  (Chapter XVI end)


“…a prince should want to have a reputation for compassion rather than cruelty… but a prince should not worry if he incurs reproach for his cruelty so long as he keeps his subjects united and loyal. (Chapter XVII, paragraph 1)


“[then there is the question] whether it is better to be loved than feared, or the reverse. The answer is that one would like to be both one and the other; but because it is difficult to combine them, it is far better to be feared than to be loved, if you cannot be both. (Chapter XVII, paragraph 3)


“The prince should nonetheless make himself feared in such a way that, if he is not loved, at least he escapes being hated.” (Chapter XVII, paragraph 4).


Chapter XIX is also concerned with the need to avoid contempt and hatred. This includes the cynical suggestion that rulers should “delegate to others the enactment of unpopular measures and keep in their own hands the distribution of favours”. (Ch XIX)


11. There must be a different standard of morality for rulers than for ordinary people.


“There are two ways of fighting: by law or by force. The first way is natural to men, and the second to beasts. But as the first way often proves inadequate one must needs have recourse to the second. So a prince must know how to make a nice use of the beast and the man.” (Ch XVIII paragraph 2)


“One must know how to colour one’s actions and to be a great liar and deceiver. Men are so simple, and so much creatures of circumstance, that the deceiver will always find someone ready to be deceived. (Paragraph 3)


“In the actions of all men, and especially of princes, where there is no court of appeal, one judges by the result. So let a prince set about the task of conquering and maintaining his state; his methods will always be judged honourable and will be universally praised. The common people are always impressed by appearances and results.”  (Paragraph 6)


“Nothing brings a prince more prestige than great campaigns and striking demonstrations of his personal abilities.” (Chapter XXI, first paragraph).

12. Machiavelli on rulers and “fortuna” and “virtu”:


“I believe that it is probably true that fortune is the arbiter of half the things we do, leaving the other half to be controlled by ourselves.” (Chapter XXV, paragraph 1).


“As fortune is changeable, while men are obstinate in their ways, men prosper so long as fortune and policy are in accord; and when they clash they fail. I hold strongly to this: that is it better to be impetuous than circumspect; because fortune is a woman and if she is to be submissive it is necessary to beat and coerce her.” (Chapter XXV last sentence).


See also Chapter VI: “the less a man has relied on fortune the stronger he has made his position.” (Paragraph 2)


The reason that leaders such as Cyrus, Romulus and Theseus were great was that “they do not seem to have had from fortune anything other than opportunity. Fortune, as it  were, provided the matter but they gave it its form; without opportunity their prowess would have been extinguished, and without such prowess the opportunity would have come in vain.”



Learning outcomes:


As a result of this session, learners should be able, when questioned, to:


- situate Machiavelli historically

- describe Machiavelli’s ideas on:

the problem of the acquisition and retention of power in different circumstances; human nature, and how it contributes to the success or failure of a ruler;

the morality of rulers;

the role of the military in politics;


- give their own opinion of Machiavelli’s stance

- give an opinion on the relevance of Machiavelli’s ideas in the modern world.