Machiavelli continues to describe the ways that a man can become a prince. In addition to fortune and prowess, criminal acts or the approval of his fellow citizens can facilitate a man’s rise to power.
Those who come to power by crime kill fellow citizens and betray friends. They are “treacherous, pitiless, and irreligious.” Princes who commit criminal acts can achieve power, but never glory.
King Agathocles of Syracuse is an example of a man who rose to power through crime. Agathocles was a common citizen who joined the militia, rose to a leading rank in the army, and then assembled a meeting of the senate at which he ordered his men to kill all the senators and to install him in power. Agathocles’ reign was characterized by constant difficulties and threats to his power. However, he withstood them and maintained his rule. Once in power, Agathocles proved as competent as any eminent commander, but the severity of the crimes he committed during his ascension preclude his being considered great. Cruelty, which is itself evil, can be used well if it is applied once at the outset, and thereafter only employed in self-defense and for the greater good of one’s subjects. Regular and frequent perpetration of cruel actions earns a ruler infamy. If a prince comes to power by crime and wishes to be successful, he, like Agathocles, must only use cruelty in the first sense.
Therefore, when a prince decides to seize a state, he must determine how much injury to inflict. He needs to strike all at once and then refrain from further atrocities. In this way, his subjects will eventually forget the violence and cruelty. Gradually, resentment will fade, and the people will come to appreciate the resulting benefits of the prince’s rule. Most important, a prince should be consistent in the way he treats his subjects.
The other way a prince can come to power is through the favor of his fellow citizens. Princes who rise through this route are heads of what Machiavelli calls constitutional principalities.
Machiavelli argues that every city is populated by two groups of citizens: common people and nobles. The common people are naturally disposed to avoid domination and oppression by the nobles. The nobles are naturally disposed to dominate and oppress the common people. The opposition between the two groups results in the establishment of either a principality, a free city, or anarchy.
The power to form a principality lies with either the nobles or the people. If the nobles realize they cannot dominate the people, they will try to strengthen their position by making one of the nobles a prince. They hope to accomplish their own ends through the prince’s authority. The people will follow the same course of action; if they realize they cannot withstand the nobles, they will make one of the people a prince and hope to be protected by the prince’s authority.
A prince placed in power by nobles will find it more difficult to maintain his position because those who surround him will consider themselves his equals and his selection as prince arbitrary. However, a prince created by the people stands alone at the top. Not only are nobles much harder to satisfy than the people, they are less honest in their motives because they seek to oppress the people. The people, on the other hand, only seek to be left alone. If the people are hostile to the prince, the worst that can happen is desertion. However, if the nobles are hostile, the prince can expect both desertion and active opposition. Nobles are astute and cunning and always safeguard their interests.
Nobles will either become dependent on the prince or remain independent of his control. A prince should honor and love those nobles who have become dependent on him. Nobles who remain independent are either timid or ambitious. Timid nobles are benign, but a prince should be wary of ambitious nobles, since they will become enemies in times of adversity.
A prince created by the people must retain the people’s friendship, a fairly easy task. A prince created by the nobles must still try to win over the people’s affection, because they can serve as protection from hostile nobles. Benevolence is the best way to maintain the mandate of the people. If people expect hostility from a prince but instead receive kindness and favors, they feel a great obligation to their prince.
Principalities usually face difficulties when switching from a government with limited powers to one that is more absolute. To make this transition, a prince can either rule directly or through magistrates. The prince is more vulnerable in the latter case because he is dependent on the will of his magistrates. In times of adversity, the magistrates may depose him, through direct action against him or simply by disobeying his orders. Moreover, if the magistrates do revolt, the prince will be unable to assume absolute power, because the people are accustomed to obeying the magistrates rather than the prince. In prosperous times, it is fashionable to declare allegiance to a prince. But during times of danger, trusted men become scarce. A wise prince must find a way to ensure that his citizens are always dependent on his authority. Thus, they will always remain loyal.
These chapters describe how different types of princes should establish power, within a state’s environment of fluctuating power dynamics. Machiavelli makes an eloquent argument for the importance of a domestic power base. He does not hesitate to acknowledge the necessity of cruelty and crime in establishing this power and even explains how to use cruelty most effectively. He does not advise moderation in the degree of cruelty used, but rather a limit on how long extreme cruelty is to be employed. That is, Machiavelli does not say that princes must be cruel but not extremely cruel. Instead, he argues that cruel acts must be committed as necessary, but all at once and then ceased, so that the populace will forget them. This kind of argument is extremely pragmatic and ignores all questions of right and wrong. Taking historical examples as the basis for his argument, Machiavelli simply describes how power has effectively been deployed and consolidated in the past, and does not assume that human nature will take a turn for the better in the future.
Even when princes do not need to rely on cruelty, Machiavelli still describes a necessary, dangerous game of internal politics, which involves the pitting of one group of citizens against another. As a guiding principle, a prince’s power invariably depends on internal support. Whether a prince uses cruelty or benevolence to obtain that support is secondary to the necessity of gaining the support itself.
Machiavelli is more than the amoral pragmatist he is sometimes made out to be. The distinction made between power and glory indicates that, in Machiavelli’s view, some princes are better than others. While any prince can achieve and maintain power, glory remains a more elusive goal. Although Machiavelli is primarily concerned with how princes perform as rulers, he also gives an assessment of the different kinds of princes. Machiavelli’s view is that the prince who rises and survives by means of treachery and the prince who succeeds by his innate prowess are both technically princes. But he also admits that the two are not equal in honor or glory, and, perhaps, even moral worth.
Moreover, Machiavelli also characterizes the use of cruelty as “evil.” In some cases, cruelty is a necessary evil, and using it can be justified in the interests of some greater public good, like internal stability or protection from invasion. Yet Machiavelli’s very recognition of the intrinsic immorality of cruel behavior contradicts the depiction of The Prince as a completely amoral book.
Machiavelli’s description of class conflict in Chapter IX, which states that there is an inevitable tension between common people and nobles, is also worth noting. Superficially, this statement brings Machiavelli in line with political philosophers such as Karl Marx, who view class conflict as an inevitable aspect of civilized society. But Machiavelli’s description of “classes” is much less sophisticated than that of Marx. More fundamentally, Machiavelli does not see class conflict as a driving force behind political structures. Rather, it is one of a number of challenges that a prince must learn to negotiate if he is to be successful. Consequently, in describing the great struggle between commoners and nobles, Machiavelli does not side with either group. Instead, his stance is more detached, focusing only on a hypothetical prince’s relationship with these groups.
One of the most significant components of Machiavelli’s argumentative style is his use of definition by division, a rhetorical device that can be quite convincing. This device can be described schematically as “A prince must accomplish X. Accomplishing X entails either method Y or method Z. Y is preferable to Z, so a prince should choose method Y.” It is a logical and practical line of reasoning, but if the original assumption linking the chain of logic is fallacious, then all the conclusions that follow are necessarily questionable. If Y and Z aren’t the only way to accomplish X, then the course of action that Machiavelli proposes for a prince is not necessarily the best possible option. One might ask, for example, whether there are other ways of becoming a prince besides prowess, fortune, crime, and favor. And it may be possible that there are other, more various factions within cities besides commoners and nobles. For that matter, it can be argued that there are other more subtle ways to win support than cruelty and benevolence.