The Prince
Niccolò Machiavelli
Contributed by Joslyn Justiniano
Chapter 15-17
Summary

Chapter XV: Concerning Things for Which Men, and Princes Especially, Are Praised or Censured

Machiavelli transitions from discussing state or principality strength to the correct way a prince should behave. While he concedes that others have addressed this subject, Machiavelli contends that it is necessary to have an original (as opposed to theoretical) set of rules. Other philosophers have written on their ideas of what an idealized notion of how people should live (rather than how they actually live) is. However, the truth is far different than the ideals that philosophers imagine. It is argued that men’s lives are never lived in ideal way in every area. The author believes that princes ought to act in a way that will achieve the greatest amount of practical benefit rather than preoccupy himself with the issue of living virtuously.

While possessing certain person characteristics will gain praise, others will earn condemnation. Praise is generally earned by qualities such as faith, compassion, courage, generosity, and craftiness. Condemnation usually meets characteristics such as miserliness, stubbornness, cowardice, and cruelty. Princes should ideally have all the qualities that are generally deemed to be “good.” Yet this expectation can be unrealistic. It is important to understand that the prince’s most important job is to safeguard his state. It is possible that some “bad” qualities might be necessary to achieve this goal. It is only when these vices endanger the state that they are truly evil and a prince should not possess them. We must not condemn princes that have vices that are employed to protect the well-being of the state.

Chapter XVI: Liberality and Parsimony

Many men admire liberality, also known as generosity. However, it can ruin the state when a prince has a reputation for generosity. This is because such a reputation can require displays of lavishness, and these displays can lead to depletion of resources. If the prince feels obliged to be lavish in his generosity, he might be compelled to burden the people of his state with excessive taxes so that he can cover the costs. This means that the prince’s generosity could ultimately cause his people to hate and resent him. Additionally, if a prince who already has a reputation for generosity tries to change that, people will think he is a miser.

While an ungenerous or parsimonious prince may be seen as miserly at the start, he can eventually gain a reputation for being generous. Additionally, princes who are frugal and thrifty are better able to save the funds needed to effectively defend the state against aggression as well as properly fund necessary projects without excessive taxes.

Machiavelli points out that in history, the actions of Pope Julius II and their results demonstrated how useful parsimony can be. He also points to the kings of France and Spain as being examples of effective parsimony, as they have great accomplishments. It is possible that some could argue that successful leaders have achieved power and kept up their rule through their generosity. Caesar could be an example. However, it is known that is Caesar had not met an early death, he would have been forced to moderate his spending in order to maintain his rule.   It seems clear that generosity can be self-defeating. It can use up current resources, thus possibly preventing future generosity. While parsimony can lead to ignominy, generosity is likely to lead to hatred.

Similar to generosity, compassion is usually seen as an admirable characteristic. However, princes need to show discretion to ensure that he refrains from showing compassion unwisely. When princes are too compassionate and they fail to mete out adequate punishment, it is possible that an atmosphere of disorder will result. This is because his subjects might think they have the liberty to do whatever they please, even perhaps going to the extremes of theft and murder. The entire community is harmed by crime. On the other hand, executions harm only the people who have committed the crimes. In order to maintain order, a measure of cruelty is necessary. However, it is important that the prince temper the exercise of cruelty with prudence and humanity.

Machiavelli then poses the question of whether it is preferable to be loved or feared. While the ideal would be for the prince to be both loved and feared, it is difficult to achieve this state of affairs. If compelled to choose between the two, the author believes that being feared is better than being loved. He reasons that this is the case because by nature men are “ungrateful, fickle, dissembling, anxious to flee danger, and covetous of gain.”  In times when danger is only a remote possibility, men show willingness to undertake risks for the sake of their prince. However, if there is real danger, they will turn against their ruler. Bonds of love are easy to break when a dangerous situation arises. The fear of being punished, however, never loses its effectiveness.

It is important that the prince avoid inducing hatred when inducing fear. He needs to ensure that there is proper justification for all executions. Most importantly, princes ought never to confiscate his subjects’ property or abuse their women, as such actions will lead to hatred. If the confiscation of property becomes necessary, the prince must ensure that he has a compelling reason. When it comes to disciplining one’s army, however, the prince will need to use more cruelty. The discipline of an army and the need to keep the men united requires cruelty, including even cruelty that could be considered inhuman.

Analysis

Chapter XV shows the author’s disagreement with the ideas of virtue that have been put forward by classical philosophers. Machiavelli does not believe in the validity of the concept of the “good life,” an Aristotelian doctrine that calls for virtue in one’s action in all areas of life. Machiavelli dismisses Aristotle’s metaphysical take on politics with his argument that metaphysics and the real world are incompatible. Machiavelli believes that all philosophies must be judged by their practical consequences. Virtue is an abstract concept, it fails to concern itself with the question of practical consequences. As a consequence, it is unable to ever serve as a guide for a prince’s political action. The author’s definition of virtue is different than that of classical philosophers. Classical philosophers such as Aristotle use the concept of the highest good in defining virtue, Machiavelli defines virtue only as whatever receives others’ praise. It is the fact that other people praise generosity that makes it a virtue.

This is the premise from which Machiavelli builds his case for how it can be necessary to commit certain crimes. For the prince to truly safeguard his state, he will have to act in ways that others might believe are deplorable or evil. While the author only talks about stinginess and cruelty in Chapters XVI and XVII, this argument could be used in relation to other vices, such as cowardice or stubbornness. Machiavelli believes that the prince should be calculating and cold, focusing on ends rather than means. Almost any action that helps to achieve the goal of control of the state is considered acceptable.

While the previous chapters set out instructions with regard to military, international, and domestic affairs, these chapters address the issue of popular opinion. It discusses how trends in popular opinion can affect the actions of a prince. Machiavelli says that the prince ought not to worry excessively about what other people might think of what he does. He believes that the prince should act in whatever ways are necessary to secure the best possible practical advantage. He points out that in the long run, this result will lead to stronger popular approval in any case. In most circumstances, the prince should choose miserliness instead of generosity, and cruelty instead of benevolence. However, the author refrains from advocating unnecessary cruelty or an entire lack of generosity. He knows that it is possible for princes to be excessively miserly and cruel. The surrounding circumstances are always very important. In certain circumstances, it might be wisest for a prince to opt for cowardice over courage. For example, he might flee from his palace while it’s under siege instead of being brave and rallying his people. It is the surrounding circumstances that will determine whether or not this is the best course. These chapters offer advice that is quite a bit less concrete than that presented in earlier chapters.

One of Machiavelli’s most well-known quotes is: “Anyone compelled to choose will find far greater security in being feared than in being loved.” This is often misinterpreted and thought to mean that the author believes that princes don’t need to be concerned about public opinion. However, Machiavelli is explicit in his argument to the contrary. He believes it is critically important for princes to avoid inspiring hatred in his people. Machiavelli points out that people are always self-interested in a degree. In times of difficulty, individuals’ sense of self-interest is more prominent than any feeling of obligation they have towards the state or ruler. Regardless of how much people might love the prince, people are not willing to jeopardize their own well-being in order to follow orders. It is the threat of punishment that is the only factor that will motivate citizens enough to guarantee their obedience.

While some might find the author’s conclusions a bit disturbing, when we think about the world today, we may quickly conclude the not much has really changed since Machiavelli’s time. It’s true that some people follow laws simply because they feel it is their moral obligation or because of their sense of respect for institutions, there are many whose only real motivation to be lawful is the fact that they will be punished if they aren’t. Those who support the use of the death penalty in the United States often say that the use of capital punishment is a deterrent that makes people less likely to commit capital crimes. 

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