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The desire to acquire things is truly very natural and ordinary, and when men who can do so are successful, they will always be praised and not blamed, but when they cannot and want to do so at all costs, here there is error and blame.
Machiavelli believes that the common people tolerate the constant jockeying for power among princes and aspiring rulers because they identify with the desire to acquire more. They would do the same if they could. People relate to ambition and accept its strategies. However, the ambitious prince needs to truly assess whether he can attain his goal. When princes don’t recognize their own or their military’s limitations, they make unwise and dangerous decisions. As detailed elsewhere, Machiavelli views failure as immoral.
[P]eople are by nature fickle, and it is easy to persuade them of something, but difficult to keep them persuaded. And therefore, it is necessary to arrange things so that when they no longer believe, they can be made to believe by force.
Machiavelli discusses the challenge of taking power over a new principality and imposing a new order. People change their minds, and though a new prince may have earned their initial loyalty, he can’t rest secure in that power. Therefore, he must prepare to use force. In Machiavelli’s philosophy, armed visionaries succeed where unarmed ones fail. He attributes the problem of keeping power in a new principality to the fickleness of the people, not to the injustice of the system of arbitrary transfer of power.
[M]en are so simple and so obedient to present necessities, that he who deceives will always find someone who will let himself be deceived.
Machiavelli does not have a very high opinion of human intelligence or character. Here, he discusses the importance for a man aspiring to high position to make his subjects believe in his trustworthiness while exploiting them, in fact, “to be a great hypocrite.” People prioritize their own needs and will accept a lie that serves their interests. The blame for the deception then lies with the deceived, not the deceiver. As always with Machiavelli, the overall goal of getting and keeping power trumps widely accepted standards of morality.
[M]en in general judge more by the eyes than by the hands, for everyone can see, but few can feel. Everyone sees what you appear to be, few feel what you are, and those few do not dare to oppose themselves to the opinion of the many[.]
Machiavelli believes that most people cannot judge a person’s inner self or true intentions. Perhaps worse, those few who can see the real person will not stand up for their viewpoint, knowing that most people will not agree with them. Machiavelli sees these weaknesses as more aspects of human nature that a prince can and should exploit to his advantage. A prince should appear to have all of the typical virtues, such as mercy, sincerity, and especially, religion. Whether he actually has those qualities won’t be perceived by the majority. Like weapons in his arsenal, he should only really deploy those virtues if they help him rule.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Prince!