Machiavelli turns the discussion from the strength of states and principalities to the correct behavior of the prince. Machiavelli admits that this subject has been treated by others, but he argues that an original set of practical—rather than theoretical—rules is needed. Other philosophers have conceived republics built upon an idealized notion of how men should live rather than how men actually live. But truth strays far from the expectations of imagined ideals. Specifically, men never live every part of their life virtuously. A prince should not concern himself with living virtuously, but rather with acting so as to achieve the most practical benefit.
In general, some personal characteristics will earn men praise, others condemnation. Courage, compassion, faith, craftiness, and generosity number among the qualities that receive praise. Cowardice, cruelty, stubbornness, and miserliness are usually met with condemnation. Ideally, a prince would possess all the qualities deemed “good” by other men. But this expectation is unrealistic. A prince’s first job is to safeguard the state, and harboring “bad” characteristics is sometimes necessary for this end. Such vices are truly evil if they endanger the state, but when vices are employed in the proper interests of the state, a prince must not be influenced by condemnation from other men.
Of all the things he must guard against, hatred and contempt come first, and liberality leads to both.
Liberality, or generosity, is a quality that many men admire. But if a prince develops a reputation for generosity, he will ruin his state. A reputation for generosity requires outward lavishness, which eventually depletes all of the prince’s resources. In the end, the prince will be forced to burden his people with excessive taxes in order to raise the money to maintain his reputation for generosity. Ultimately, the prince’s liberality will make the people despise and resent him. Moreover, any prince who attempts to change his reputation for generosity will immediately develop a reputation for being a miser.
A parsimonious, or ungenerous, prince may be perceived as miserly in the beginning, but he will eventually earn a reputation for generosity. A prince who is thrifty and frugal will eventually have enough funds to defend against aggression and fund projects without having to tax the people unduly.
In history, the actions of Pope Julius II, the present king of France, and the present king of Spain all support the view that parsimony enables the prince to accomplish great things. Some might argue that successful leaders have come to power and sustained their rule by virtue of their generosity, such as Caesar. But if Caesar had not been killed, he would have found that maintaining his rule required moderating his spending.
In sum, generosity is self-defeating. Generosity uses up resources and prevents further generosity. While parsimony might lead to ignominy, generosity will eventually lead to hatred.
Compassion, like generosity, is usually admired. But a prince must be careful that he does not show compassion unwisely. If a prince is too compassionate, and does not adequately punish disloyal subjects, he creates an atmosphere of disorder, since his subjects take the liberty to do what they please—even to the extremes of murder and theft. Crime harms the entire community, whereas executions harm only the individuals who commit crimes. Some measure of cruelty is necessary to maintain order. But a prince should be careful in his exercise of cruelty, tempering it with humanity and prudence.
Machiavelli then asks whether being feared or loved is preferable. Ideally, a prince should be both loved and feared, but this state of affairs is difficult to attain. Forced to make a choice, it is much better to be feared than loved. This is because men, by nature, are “ungrateful, fickle, dissembling, anxious to flee danger, and covetous of gain.” In times of remote danger, they are willing to take risks for their prince, but if the danger is real, they turn against their prince. It is easy to break a bond of love when the situation arises, but the fear of punishment is always effective, regardless of the situation.
When inducing fear, however, a prince must be careful to avoid inducing hatred. He must make sure that any executions are properly justified. Above all, a prince should never confiscate the property of his subjects or take their women, since these actions are most likely to breed hatred. If a prince must confiscate property, he must make sure he has a convincing reason. With one’s army, however, there is no such thing as too much cruelty. Keeping an army disciplined and united requires cruelty, even inhuman cruelty.
Chapter XV attacks the conceptions of virtue proposed by classical philosophers. Machiavelli criticizes the concept of a “good life,” the Aristotelian doctrine that demands virtuous actions in all types of behavior. Machiavelli debunks Aristotle’s metaphysical approach to politics by arguing that metaphysics is inconsistent with the real world. Ultimately, a philosophy must be judged by its practical consequences. Because virtue, as an abstract concept, does not concern itself with such consequences, it can never serve as an effective guide for political action. Machiavelli’s definition of virtue is not the same as that of classical philosophers. While Aristotle and others define virtue in relation to a highest good, Machiavelli defines it simply as that which receives the praise of others. Thus, generosity is a virtue only because other people praise it.
From this premise, Machiavelli builds a case for the necessity of committing certain crimes. A prince, if he truly wishes to safeguard his state, will inevitably be forced to act in a manner that others consider evil or deplorable. Although Machiavelli only mentions cruelty and stinginess in Chapters XVI and XVII, the argument could extend to other so-called vices, such as stubbornness or cowardice. The mind of Machiavelli’s prince is cold and calculating, concerned with ends rather than means. Virtually any action that contributes to the overall goal of maintaining control of the state is acceptable to him.
Unlike the previous chapters, which contain specific instructions regarding domestic, international, and military affairs, these chapters deal with general trends of popular opinion that might affect the prince’s actions. Machiavelli urges the prince not to worry too much about what others might think of his actions and to act only in the way that will result in the best practical advantage—which will often garner greater approval from other people in the long run. In most cases, the prince must favor miserliness over generosity, and cruelty over benevolence. But Machiavelli does not advocate wholesale cruelty or a complete lack of generosity; it is possible for a prince to be too miserly or too cruel. A prince might choose cowardice over courage—for example, fleeing a palace under siege instead of remaining and rallying the people—but the effectiveness of either option depends on the surrounding circumstances. The advice put forth in these chapters is substantially less concrete than that offered in previous chapters.
Machiavelli’s oft-quoted line “Anyone compelled to choose will find far greater security in being feared than in being loved” is sometimes misinterpreted to suggest that a prince need not worry about public opinion. But Machiavelli explicitly argues the contrary: it is critical that a prince avoid the hatred of his subjects. The statement is less radical than it might seem. People, states Machiavelli, are all self-interested to a certain degree. During difficult times, this sense of self-interest is stronger than any sense of obligation toward the ruler or the state. No matter how strongly they might love their prince, people will not follow orders if it means sacrificing their own well-being. The only motivating factor that can guarantee citizens’ obedience to a prince’s orders is the threat of punishment.
Although Machiavelli’s conclusions may seem disturbing, if we consider contemporary society, we might conclude that little has changed since the era of The Prince. Even today, while some people certainly follow laws because they feel that they have a moral obligation to do so, or because they respect the institution that makes the laws, many others follow them simply because they fear the punishment that comes with breaking those laws. Supporters of the death penalty in the United States usually argue that the use of capital punishment acts as a deterrent, discouraging the general populace from committing capital crimes.