Machiavelli describes three ways to hold states that have been accustomed to living freely under their own laws. The first is to devastate them. The second is for the conqueror to occupy them. The third is to allow the state to maintain its own laws, but to charge taxes and establish an oligarchy to keep the state friendly. The third option is advantageous because the newly imposed oligarchy will work hard to secure the authority of the conquering prince within the conquered state because it owes its existence to the prince and cannot survive without his support. Thus, as long as the goal is not to devastate the other state, it is easiest to rule it through the use of its own citizens.
Complete destruction is the most certain way of securing a state that has been free in the past. A prince who does not take this route places himself in a position to be destroyed himself. No matter how long it has been since the state was acquired, rebellions will always revive the legacy of ancient institutions and notions of former liberty, even if the state has benefited from the prince’s rule. This sense of tradition will unify the people against the prince.
On the other hand, cities or provinces that are accustomed to being ruled by a prince are easy to take over once the ruling family has been destroyed. People in such states are accustomed to obedience and do not know how to live in freedom without having someone to rule over them. Therefore, the new prince can win the province and hold onto it more easily.
In republics (or former republics), sentiments of hatred and revenge against the conquering prince will run strong. The memories of ancient liberty never die, so a prince will be better off destroying the republic or personally occupying the conquered state.
[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.
Princes should strive to imitate the examples set by great rulers of the past, even if that means setting lofty goals. This way, if a prince fails to meet those lofty goals, his actions will nevertheless enhance his reputation as a great or powerful ruler.
One way that rulers acquire states is through their own prowess, meaning their own abilities, rather than the good fortune of noble birth, inheritance, or lucky circumstances. Relying on one’s personal prowess is a very difficult method of acquiring a state. However, a state acquired by a ruler’s natural skill will prove easier to maintain control over. Examples of rulers who triumphed on the strength of their own powers include Moses, Cyrus, Romulus, and Theseus.
Rulers who rely on prowess instead of fortune are generally more successful in holding power over states because they can meet the challenge of establishing a new order. Nothing is more dangerous or difficult than introducing a new order. This is because those who benefited from the old order will fiercely oppose the prince who tries to introduce a new order, whereas those who stand to benefit from the imposition of a new order will offer only lukewarm support. A prince who relies on his ability to persuade others to support him will be unable to succeed against such opposition. However, a prince who relies on his own prowess and can “force the issue” will usually succeed. At times, “forc[ing] the issue” might literally mean the use of force. This can be dangerous, but if the ruler succeeds in his use of force, he will become strong, secure, and respected.
Sometimes private citizens become princes purely by good fortune. Such people buy their way into power, receive favors from someone else in power, or bribe soldiers. Such princes are weak not only because fortune can be capricious and unstable, but also because they do not know how to maintain their position. They do not have loyal troops who are devoted to them. They do not know how to deal with problems, command troops, or keep their power in the face of opposition. Princes who succeed on their own prowess have built a strong foundation for themselves. Princes who succeed due to the sway of fortune or the goodwill of others lack such a foundation from which to rule and will have difficulty building a foundation quickly enough to prevent power from slipping out of their hands. Thus, although princes who rely on fortune reach their position easily, maintaining that position is extremely difficult.
Laying a solid foundation is a crucial prerequisite for maintaining power. A prince must eliminate rival leaders and win the favor of their followers. Machiavelli cites the life of Cesare Borgia (also called Duke Valentino) as an example. The son of Pope Alexander VI, Borgia was a man of great courage and high intentions. He was made duke of Romagna through the good fortune that his father, as Pope Alexander VI, had amassed a great deal of power. However, he was unable to maintain his rule, even though he made competent attempts to consolidate his new power. His efforts included the use of force in the strategic conquest of foreign lands. He tried to make himself loved and feared by his subjects. He wiped out disloyal troops and established a loyal army, and he maintained a friendly yet cautious relationship with other kings and princes. Despite all his efforts, he was unable to complete the consolidation of his power when his father died, and his good fortune was reversed. He did, however, lay a strong foundation for future rule, as only a man of great prowess could.
The coldhearted, calculating logic for which Machiavelli is renowned shines through in Chapter V. His argument that devastating a region is often the most reliable way of securing power does not even attempt to address the moral or ethical objections to his advice. His rationale is strictly pragmatic: the only reason to spare the institutions of newly conquered states is that keeping old institutions alive might help keep citizens happy, subdued, and submissive under the new ruler.
Moreover, in Chapter V, Machiavelli sets out his conception of the natural state of a populace. He writes that most subjects are “used to obeying” and that they cannot live as free subjects without someone telling them what to do. This argument echoes Machiavelli’s assertion in Chapter III that men are naturally disposed to “old ways of life” and therefore harbor an inclination to follow tradition. These passages underline the assumption that men are, by nature, followers. Even rulers are followers to some extent: Machiavelli notes at the start of Chapter VI that aspiring princes are always inclined to “imitate” the examples of great men.
Machiavelli imagines subjects who are self-interested, but not to an extreme degree. They are not concerned with forms of enlightenment or self-improvement, yet they still notice (and appreciate) improvements in their overall well-being. Though generally obedient and complacent, they will not hesitate to rise up against their ruler should he offend them. The Prince devotes little space to the concerns of subjects, and Machiavelli’s picture of the common people, though detailed, is not complex. Louis XIV’s famous statement, “L’Etat, c’est moi” (“The state is me”), accords with the philosophy espoused in The Prince: The ruler is the state, and the state is ruler. The people hardly matter.
This idea does not necessarily contradict Machiavelli’s view that the effectiveness of government depends on the firm support of its people. Rather, it implies that Machiavelli is not concerned with understanding what motivates the people to lend support to a ruler. The only important question is whether such support exists.
The primary virtue of Machiavelli’s prince is self-reliance. A prince who manages to gain power by relying on his own prowess will succeed at maintaining power because his prowess will have built him a firm foundation for ruling. He will have the loyalty of his army and the respect of those he has conquered and the leaders of surrounding principalities. He therefore will be better equipped to deal with problems and difficulties, without relying on the help of others. Thus, the more self-reliant the prince, the more he will prove capable of success.