Summary: Chapter 18: In What Way Princes Should Keep Their Word

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.

Summary: Chapter 19: The Need to Avoid Contempt and Hatred

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.

Whenever possible, a prince should delegate the administration of unpopular laws to others and keep in his own power the distribution of favors.

Sometimes it will not be possible to avoid being hated by some members of the populace. If it is not possible for the prince to avoid being hated, he must make it his first priority to escape the hatred of the most powerful parties. In many instances, this will mean ensuring good standing within the ranks of the military. But a prince should not worry too much about satisfying the demands of the troops, especially if it comes at the expense of the people. A number of later Roman emperors were overthrown due to excessive cruelty performed for the sake of their army. The exception was Septimius Severus, who, emulating both lion and fox, overawed both his army and his people. Most present-day princes need not fear their armies and should be attentive to the people.

Analysis: Chapters 18 & 19

The argument in Chapter 18 that princes should be prepared to break promises for practical advantage develops Machiavelli’s position on virtue and vice. Machiavelli does not argue that a prince should actively avoid doing what is good but that, if necessary, a prince must be prepared to act unethically. He does not advise ruthlessness for its own sake, but rather indicates the perhaps unfortunate necessity of ruthlessness in leadership.

Although the proposal that a prince must exude a false aura of virtue may seem merely one more kind of deception that the prince must learn to master, Machiavelli’s advice here remains valid even in contemporary politics. Although some of Machiavelli’s writing might be dismissed as irrelevant to democratic political life, his perceptive analysis of the importance of image is still accurate. Machiavelli points out that image is as important as action, and that rulers must manipulate the perceptions of the populace to appear as other than who they really are. A prince should eagerly take credit for successes and place responsibility for unpopular laws on the shoulders of nobles or lesser officials. Of course, the prince’s aim is not to be loved, but merely to avoid being hated. Although Machiavelli’s prince rules in an autocratic state, he must nonetheless practice the kind of politics of image demanded within republics and democracies.

These chapters give us further insight into Machiavelli’s view of human nature. Men are naturally deceitful and untrustworthy. They are likely to break promises. They are easily impressed by appearances and results. They are selfish but somewhat naïve. They respect and praise virtue, but most do not possess it themselves. These assumptions about the basic behaviors and attitudes of the general population underlie all of Machiavelli’s suggestions for the actions of princes. If the populace is intelligent, well-educated, and acutely aware of history, the prince will not be able to generate the deceptive image that Machiavelli argues is integral to successful leadership. Although these assumptions may or may not be true, Machiavelli is much more willing to make unsupported generalizations about human nature than about history. His historical examples are painstakingly accurate and demonstrate Machiavelli’s great erudition. But he does not support his descriptions of human behavior with the same wealth of evidence.

Machiavelli consistently refers to the ruler as “he” and assumes that his gender is male. One could dismiss this fact as simply a consequence of history—rulers during Machiavelli’s time were almost always men. But Machiavelli’s association of leadership with masculinity extends beyond simple historical context. He also writes that a prince should avoid behaving effeminately at all costs, and associates effeminacy with cowardice and fickleness. The implication is that manliness is a prerequisite for ruling. Machiavelli notes that Alexander was thought to be ruled by his mother, and therefore deemed effeminate, a perception that led to his downfall. Machiavelli’s definition of manliness encompasses the “harder” virtues, such as courage and decisiveness, in contrast with “softer” virtues like compassion and generosity. In this sense, although cruelty is not a virtue, the ability to act cruelly whenever necessary can be considered manly, and, therefore, virtuous.