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.