The Prince
Niccolò Machiavelli
Contributed by Joslyn Justiniano
Chapter 18-19
Summary

Chapter XVIII: In What Way Princes Should Keep Their Word

The author acknowledges that people generally praise a prince who honors his promises. However, it is shown that history demonstrates that princes can be most successful when they trick others and are cunning and crafty. It is clear that there are two methods for fighting: fighting by law or fighting by force. Force is natural for beasts, while laws come naturally to men. The prince needs to know how to fight using both force and laws. In this way, he needs to learn to be partly man and partly beast.

Princes behave like beasts when they use force. Princes need to know how to act like two kinds of beast: foxes and lions. A fox cannot defend itself against wolves, while a lion is unable to defend itself against traps. Princes must have the skills of both animals. He must be like a fox in that he can frighten away wolves, and he must be like a lion in being able to recognize and avoid traps. When dealing with people, princes must know to break promises when keeping them would put him in a disadvantageous position and when the reasons that were the premise for the promise have ceased to exist. It must be recognized that princes can never rely on promises. This is because men are naturally deceitful and wretched. Princes must be masters of deception.

It is also necessary, however, for princes to create an aura of virtue that hides the deceit that hides in his mind. This art was mastered by Pope Alexander VI. It is best for princes to give the impression of being pious, kind, trustworthy, compassionate, and even guileless. Obviously, possession of all these virtues is impossible. It’s not even desirable. It is just important that princes appear to be virtuous. It will help him more effectively maintain his state. Additionally, it is the prince’s appearance and results that he will be judged upon. Therefore, if the prince occasionally resorts to evil to accomplish his goal, it will not matter to the people. The appearance of virtue is all that is important. And if the prince is successful in running the state, he will be seen as being virtuous.

Chapter XIX: The Need to Avoid Contempt and Hatred

It is vital that princes avoid being hated or despised by their people. While princes may attract criticism as a consequence of a lack of virtue, he will never attract hatred as a result of it. However, princes will be hated by their subjects if they steal property or women. It is crucial that princes avoid at all costs depriving their subjects of their honor. Subjects will despise their prince if he is seen as being irresolute, cowardly, effeminate, frivolous, or fickle. Princes who are highly respected by their subjects will be protected from open attacks and conspiracies. There are two main threats that princes should take very seriously: external threats posed by foreign powers and internal insurrection posed by his subjects. A strong army and allies are necessary to defend the state from foreign enemies. Strong relationships with allies will be a result of having a strong army.

Princes are able to defend themselves against internal insurrection by ensuring that the people do not hate him or hold him in scorn. Understanding this will help to defend the prince against the threat of potential conspiracies. Conspirators will have the courage to go ahead with their conspirators only if he has reason to believe that the people will be pleased when the ruler is killed. The conspirators are unlikely to proceed with their plans if the people would be angry about the ruler’s death. This means that conspiracies will by default be at a disadvantage. Such plans need the support of a multitude of people, and each person would endure severe punishment should their involvement be discovered. Additionally, each person who knows about the conspiracy would profit significantly from telling the prince about the conspiracy. Princes have their entire governments, the laws of their states, and their allies on their sides. Having the goodwill of the people as well will make him appear invulnerable to any potential conspirators.

Princes have employed many different strategies in defending against internal insurrections. Some of these strategies have included building or destroying fortresses, working to gain the favor of disloyal subjects, disarming the people, and dividing towns. Each of these approaches’ efficacy depends on the specific circumstances and conditions. However, there are some generalizations that can be made.

As we examine history, we see that princes have refrained from preventing their people from possessing weapons. Allowing subjects to be armed can encourage loyalty from the people. It can also help to defend the prince. Distrust can be bred by disarming subjects, and this can cause civil animosity. However, when annexing a state, it is necessary for the prince to disarm the people newly under his rule. In a new state, princes can allow supports to hold arms. However, it is necessary that they eventually be weakened. It is best to have soldiers of the prince occupy the new state. However, to encourage factionalism to attempt to weaken an annexed state will make the territory more vulnerable to invasion by foreigners.

It is by defeating opposition that princes are able to achieve greatness. It is therefore true that one way that a prince can improve his stature is by encouraging the development of opposition that they can easily subdue. This must be done in a cunning way. This approach can help in a new state also by making it easier to identify potential conspirators.

Building fortresses to deal with rebellion has been an approach taken by some princes. Other princes have chosen to destroy them for the purpose of more easily keeping control of newly acquired states. It is the specific circumstances that determine the effectiveness of fortresses. It is clear that if a prince is hated by his people, a fortress cannot protect him. The question is not whether princes ought or ought not to build fortresses. Instead, we should understand that princes ought not to place all of his trust in the strength of a fortress. The attitudes of his subjects are much more important.

Analysis

In Chapter XVIII, Machiavelli argues that princes sometimes need to break promises if doing so will bring practical advantage. This relates closely to Machiavelli’s overall opinions on virtue and vice. He never says that princes should try to avoid doing good actions, but he argues that princes are sometimes obliged to act unethically. He never advises that princes be ruthless for its own sake. He rather argues that ruthless is sometimes necessary in leadership, perhaps unfortunately. 

While the idea that princes need to give the false impression of virtue may appear to be another kind of deception, Machiavelli’s ideas in this respect are valid even in todays’ world. It is true that some of the author’s work might be set aside as irrelevant to modern life in democratic countries, but his insightful perceptions on the significance of image is still highly accurate. He puts forth the idea that image is just as significant as action, and that princes are required to manipulate the populace’s perceptions so that they seem to be something other than what they really are. Princes ought to be eager to take credit for successes that are not his own, and he should make sure that responsibility for unpopular laws is seen to be on the shoulders of lesser officials or nobles. Remember that the prince’s goal is to avoid being hated, not to necessarily be loved. While it’s true that the prince described in this book rules in an autocratic state, he is still required to practice the type of image politics that are necessary in democracies and republics.

Machiavelli’s perspective on human nature is clear in these chapters. We see he feels that men are untrustworthy and deceitful by nature. They are prone to breaking promises, and they are readily impressed by potentially superficial things such as results and appearances. They tend to be rather naïve yet selfish. He believes that men might praise and respect virtue, but they fail to possess it themselves. All of the author’s suggestions with regard to how princes should act are based on his assumptions about the natural attitudes and behaviors of the populace. It is true, though, that well-educated and intelligent populaces that have an understanding of history will not be deceived by Machiavelli’s suggestions for the image of the prince. While the author’s assumptions may not be true, Machiavelli is eager to put forth unsubstantiated generalizations about the nature of human beings. However, he is very accurate in his portrayal of history. The examples he puts forward are very accurate and demonstrate Machiavelli’s high level of learning. He fails to provide the same kind of evidence for his ideas about human nature.

Machiavelli always assumes that the ruler’s gender is male, always referring to them as “he.”. It might be easy to dismiss this tendency as a consequence of the realities of history. In the author’s time, rulers were almost without exception always male. However, his association of masculinity with leadership has significance beyond his historical context. He additionally says that princes need to avoid being seen as effeminate, and he sees effeminacy as being related to fickleness and cowardice. It seems he feels that one is required to be manly in order to rule.  Machiavelli asserts that Alexander’s mother was believed to rule him, and he attributes his eventual downfall to this fact. The author has a definition of masculinity that focusses a great deal on “hard” virtues, including decisiveness and courage. This is in contrast to virtues seen as “softer,” such as generosity and compassion. It is in this way that while cruelty is by no means a virtue, the prince’s ability to be cruel when it is necessary can be seen as manly. As a consequence, it can be perceived as virtuous.

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