When he writes in The Prince that a ruler must emulate the lion and the fox, Machiavelli means that great leaders are willing to use both force and cunning to get what they want. Throughout his tract, Machiavelli alternates between advocating a leonine and a fox-like style of leadership. He urges rulers to act with the ferocity and determination of a lion, yet he also encourages rulers to take a more thoughtful, flexible approach to statecraft. By introducing the metaphor of the lion and the fox, Machiavelli makes concrete an idea that appears and reappears throughout his writing: Successful princes are both decisive warriors and subtle thinkers.

The lion/fox pairing reminds us that politicians should possess equal measures of cleverness and brute strength. Machiavelli presents Achilles as an ideal leader—a literary figure who was tutored by Chiron the Centaur and so ruled with the intelligence of a man and the instincts of a beast. Like a lion, Achilles could get past the “wolves” he encountered on the battlefield, but like a fox, he could also get past the subtler snares of rival politicians. Lions are associated with nobility and straightforwardness, but Machiavelli points out that an effective governor must occasionally lie and commit sins of omission. Like Pope Alexander VI, great men will deceive their followers if the deception is in the followers’ best interests. Thus, Machiavelli’s prince combines boldness and sly wordplay, force and diplomacy.

The rest of The Prince builds on the opposing images of the lion and the fox. Repeatedly, Machiavelli encourages princes to mimic the uncomplicated resolve of a lion. When taking over a new principality, a prince should simply kill the existing royal family—without trying to win the family’s favor, strip them of their power, or send them into exile. A strong prince should not attempt to use words to restore order to a scene of international chaos; instead, he should immediately declare war. If pressed, a prince should choose impetuousness over caution, for, as Machiavelli memorably writes, fortune is “a woman” who wants to be dominated. In each of these cases, shocking, leonine bloodlust is Machiavelli’s enthusiastic prescription.

At other times, Machiavelli counsels more cautious and clever tactics for solving political problems. It’s hard to picture a lion consulting an adviser, yet Machiavelli urges princes to seek out smart, well-intentioned men who will not hesitate to offer unflattering opinions. Lions do not often cultivate friendships with their enemies, yet Machiavelli writes that a prince’s best allies are those among his subjects who seem to distrust him. (Skepticism is a sign of intelligence, and a thoughtful dissident is a worthier colleague than an earnest and brainless supporter.) Lions aren’t known for their duplicity, yet Machiavelli encourages rulers to make false statements; your subjects will not care if you have lied to them, as long as the lie promotes the peace and stability of your kingdom. By advocating conferences, elaborate tactical maneuvers, and dishonesty, Machiavelli endorses the habits of a fox over the habits of a lion.

The dueling images of the lion and the fox have captivated readers for centuries because they quickly illustrate the complexity of Machiavelli’s politics. It isn’t fully possible to be both a cunning schemer and a beast, and yet political longevity depends on both subtlety and resolve. A great prince drowns out his critics and kills his rivals; a great prince also displays humility and tolerance. The difficulties implied by the fox/lion metaphor may account for the pessimism of Machiavelli’s second to last chapter, in which the great thinker admits that every man is powerless before the “violent torrents” of fortune.