Machiavelli believes that good laws follow naturally from a good military. His famous statement that “the presence of sound military forces indicates the presence of sound laws” describes the relationship between developing states and war in The Prince. Machiavelli reverses the conventional understanding of war as a necessary, but not definitive, element of the development of states, and instead asserts that successful war is the very foundation upon which all states are built. Much of The Prince is devoted to describing exactly what it means to conduct a good war: how to effectively fortify a city, how to treat subjects in newly acquired territories, and how to prevent domestic insurrection that would distract from a successful war. But Machiavelli’s description of war encompasses more than just the direct use of military force—it comprises international diplomacy, domestic politics, tactical strategy, geographic mastery, and historical analysis. Within the context of Machiavelli’s Italy—when cities were constantly threatened by neighboring principalities and the area had suffered through power struggles for many years—his method of viewing almost all affairs of state through a military lens was a timely innovation in political thinking.
To remain in power, a prince must avoid the hatred of his people. It is not necessary for him to be loved; in fact, it is often better for him to be feared. Being hated, however, can cause a prince’s downfall. This assertion might seem incompatible with Machiavelli’s statements on the utility of cruelty, but Machiavelli advocates the use of cruelty only insofar as it does not compromise the long-term goodwill of the people. The people’s goodwill is always the best defense against both domestic insurrection and foreign aggression. Machiavelli warns princes against doing things that might result in hatred, such as the confiscation of property or the dissolution of traditional institutions. Even installations that are normally valued for military use, such as fortresses, should be judged primarily on their potential to garner support for the prince. Indeed, only when he is absolutely sure that the people who hate him will never be able to rise against him can a prince cease to worry about incurring the hatred of any of his subjects. Ultimately, however, obtaining the goodwill of the people has little or nothing to do with a desire for the overall happiness of the populace. Rather, goodwill is a political instrument to ensure the stability of the prince’s reign.
Machiavelli often uses the words “prowess” and “fortune” to describe two distinct ways in which a prince can come to power. “Prowess” refers to an individual’s talents, while “fortune” implies chance or luck. Part of Machiavelli’s aim in writing The Prince is to investigate how much of a prince’s success or failure is caused by his own free will and how much is determined by nature or the environment in which he lives. Machiavelli applies this question specifically to the failure of past Italian princes. In Chapter XXV, Machiavelli discusses the role of fortune in determining human affairs. He attempts to compromise between free will and determinism by arguing that fortune controls half of human actions and leaves the other half to free will. However, Machiavelli also argues that through foresight—a quality that he champions throughout the book—people can shield themselves against fortune’s vicissitudes. Thus, Machiavelli can be described as confident in the power of human beings to shape their destinies to a degree, but equally confident that human control over events is never absolute.
Machiavelli defines virtues as qualities that are praised by others, such as generosity, compassion, and piety. He argues that a prince should always try to appear virtuous, but that acting virtuously for virtue’s sake can prove detrimental to the principality. A prince should not necessarily avoid vices such as cruelty or dishonesty if employing them will benefit the state. Cruelty and other vices should not be pursued for their own sake, just as virtue should not be pursued for its own sake: virtues and vices should be conceived as means to an end. Every action the prince takes must be considered in light of its effect on the state, not in terms of its intrinsic moral value.
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.
Machiavelli asserts that a number of traits are inherent in human nature. People are generally self-interested, although their affection for others can be won and lost. They are content and happy so long they are not victims of something terrible. They may be trustworthy in prosperous times, but they will quickly turn selfish, deceitful, and profit-driven in times of adversity. People admire honor, generosity, courage, and piety in others, but most of them do not exhibit these virtues themselves. Ambition is commonly found among those who have achieved some power, but most common people are satisfied with the status quo and therefore do not yearn for increased status. People will naturally feel a sense of obligation after receiving a favor or service, and this bond is usually not easily broken. Nevertheless, loyalties are won and lost, and goodwill is never absolute. Such statements about human nature are often offered up as justifications for the book’s advice to princes. While Machiavelli backs up his political arguments with concrete historical evidence, his statements about society and human nature sometimes have the character of assumptions rather than observations.
More main ideas from The Prince
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