At this point one may note that men must be either pampered or annihilated. They avenge light offenses; they cannot avenge severe ones; hence, the harm one does to a man must be such as to obviate any fear of revenge.
This passage from Chapter III is an example of logical reasoning conspicuously devoid of ethical considerations. A prince must realize that he has two options: benevolence and destruction. Because the latter option will cause resentment among the people, he should choose it only if he is absolutely sure there will be no ill consequences—that the destruction he incurs will eliminate or disable any parties that might seek to revenge themselves against him. Feelings of pity or compassion are meaningless. Self-interest and self-protection are in this case the motivating factors and are to be pursued ruthlessly.
[P]eople are by nature changeable. It is easy to persuade them about some particular matter, but it is hard to hold them to that persuasion. Hence it is necessary to provide that when they no longer believe, they can be forced to believe.
This passage from Chapter VI is an example of Machiavelli’s use of assumptions about human nature to justify political action. This quotation follows a formula used throughout The Prince: because people are X, a prince must always do Y. Whereas Machiavelli laces his historical points with a wealth of evidence and detail, he tends not to provide significant explanations for many broad statements he makes about human nature. We may assume that when Machiavelli writes a statement such as “people are by nature changeable,” he is uttering a belief generally accepted in sixteenth-century Florentine society.
A prince must have no other objective, no other thought, nor take up any profession but that of war, its methods and its discipline, for that is the only art expected of a ruler. And it is of such great value that it not only keeps hereditary princes in power, but often raises men of lowly condition to that rank.
This quote from Chapter XIV highlights warcraft as both an academic discipline that can be studied through historical examples and as a matter of practical experience. For Machiavelli, all affairs of government are viewed through a military lens, because the ultimate goal of a government is self-preservation; military defense—embracing ideas of strategy, diplomacy, and geography—is the means by which governments preserve themselves. Machiavelli does not conceive of the prince as a man skilled in many disciplines, but rather as one whose sole responsibility is to ensure the stability of the state that he governs.
Only the expenditure of one’s own resources is harmful; and, indeed, nothing feeds upon itself as liberality does. The more it is indulged, the fewer are the means to indulge it further. As a consequence, a prince becomes poor and contemptible or, to escape poverty, becomes rapacious and hateful. Of all the things he must guard against, hatred and contempt come first, and liberality leads to both. Therefore it is better to have a name for miserliness, which breeds disgrace without hatred, than, in pursuing a name for liberality, to resort to rapacity, which breeds both disgrace and hatred.
This passage from Chapter XVI illustrates Machiavelli’s attitude toward virtue and statecraft. Machiavelli advises the prince to disregard the principles of virtue when acting on behalf of his state. Instead, while it is desirable for a prince to act virtuously when he can, he should never let perceptions of virtue interfere with statecraft. Even though generosity seems admirable, it is ultimately detrimental to the state, and therefore should be avoided. A prince will never be hated for lack of virtue, he will be hated only if he fails in his duty to maintain the state. Virtuous action, in that it often promotes self-sacrifice, often conflicts with that duty.
Here a question arises: whether it is better to be loved than feared, or the reverse. The answer is, of course, that it would be best to be both loved and feared. But since the two rarely come together, anyone compelled to choose will find greater security in being feared than in being loved. . . . Love endures by a bond which men, being scoundrels, may break whenever it serves their advantage to do so; but fear is supported by the dread of pain, which is ever present.
This passage from Chapter XVII contains perhaps the most famous of Machiavelli’s statements. Often, his argument that it is better to be feared than loved is taken at face value to suggest that The Prince is a handbook for dictators and tyrants. But a closer reading reveals that Machiavelli’s argument is a logical extension of his assessments of human nature and virtue. In the first place, people will become disloyal if circumstances warrant. In the second, the prince’s ultimate goal is to maintain the state, which requires the obedience of the people. From these two points, it follows that between benevolence and cruelty, the latter is the more reliable. Machiavelli never advocates the use of cruelty for its own sake, only in the interests of the ultimate end of statecraft.