Machiavelli acknowledges that a prince who honors his word is generally praised by others. But historical experience demonstrates that princes achieve the most success when they are crafty, cunning, and able to trick others. There are two ways of fighting: by law or by force. Laws come naturally to men, force comes naturally to beasts. In order to succeed, the prince must learn how to fight both with laws and with force—he must become half man and half beast.
When a prince uses force, he acts like a beast. He must learn to act like two types of beasts: lions and foxes. A fox is defenseless against wolves; a lion is defenseless against traps. A prince must learn to act like both the fox and the lion: he must learn, like the fox, how to frighten off wolves and, like the lion, how to recognize the traps. In dealing with people, a prince must break his promises when they put him at a disadvantage and when the reasons for which he made the promises no longer exist. In any case, promises are never something on which a prince can rely, since men are by nature wretched and deceitful. A prince should be a master of deception.
However, a prince must be careful to exude a virtuous aura that belies his deceitful mind. Pope Alexander VI was one ruler who excelled at this art. A prince should present the appearance of being a compassionate, trustworthy, kind, guileless, and pious ruler. Of course, actually possessing all these virtues is neither possible nor desirable. But so long as a prince appears to act virtuously, most men will believe in his virtue. If the populace believes the prince to be virtuous, it will be easier for him to maintain his state. Moreover, men will judge their prince solely on appearance and results. Thus, it doesn’t matter to the people that a prince may occasionally employ evil to achieve his goal. So long as a prince appears virtuous and is successful in running the state, he will be regarded as virtuous.
A prince must avoid being hated and despised at all costs. A prince may be criticized for a lack of virtue, but he will never be hated for it. However, a prince will be hated if he takes the property or women of his subjects. A prince must also avoid robbing his subjects of their honor. A prince will be despised if he has a reputation for being fickle, frivolous, effeminate, cowardly, or irresolute. If a prince is regarded highly by his subjects, he will be shielded from conspiracies and open attacks.
A prince should worry about two things: internal insurrection from his subjects and external threats from foreign powers. Defending against foreign enemies requires a strong army and good allies. A strong army always leads to good allies.
A prince can defend against internal insurrection by making sure he is not hated or scorned by the people. This is a powerful defense against conspiracies. A conspirator will have the courage to proceed with his conspiracy only if he believes the people will be satisfied when he kills the ruler. But if the people would be outraged by the ruler’s death, the conspirators will never have the gall to carry out the conspiracy. By default, conspiracies are at a disadvantage. They require the support of many people, each of whom faces severe punishment if the conspiracy is discovered. Furthermore, each of these people can profit richly by informing the prince about the conspiracy. A prince has on his side the entire government, his allies and the laws of the state. If he secures the goodwill of the people, he seems invulnerable in the eyes of conspirators.