Section 6: Chapters XV-XIX
In Chapter XV, “On the Reasons Why Men Are Praised or Blamed – Especially Princes,” Machiavelli argues that a prince should be good as long as that goodness is politically useful. It is impossible for a prince to be perfect and to exercise all virtues; therefore, he should not worry about guarding against vices that will not cost him his state. He should avoid those vices that lead to the kind of disgrace that could precipitate a fall from power, but while he should try to avoid those vices that are not as damaging, if he cannot prevent them, he is allowed to indulge them.
In Chapter XVI, “On Liberality and Stinginess,” Machiavelli complicates what initially seems like a relatively unfettered apologia for unscrupulous politics. His underlying point seems to be that virtue in office is often just a sham; true virtue is not seen and has no ulterior motive, whereas visible virtue is often exhibited only so that the prince may be loved and maintain a virtuous reputation. For example, the ostentatiously generous prince, in order to keep his “generosity” up, will have to burden the people with “exorbitant taxes and squeeze money out of them in every way he can” once he has used up his own revenue. This will in turn make him hated, so that his generosity will have backfired. What Machiavelli seems to object to is careless spending; better for a prince to be thought a “miser,” for his parsimony will enable him to live on his income, not raise taxes, and defend against enemies, all of which will in turn earn him greater respect in the long run. “Hence a prince who prefers not to rob his subjects,” Machiavelli writes, “who wants to be able to defend himself, who wants to avoid poverty and contempt, and who doesn’t want to become a plunderer, should not mind in the least if people consider him a miser; this is simply one of the vices that enable him to reign.” Machiavelli concludes that when a citizen is trying to rise to princedom, generosity is important; thereafter, it is harmful.
Chapter XVII, “On Cruelty and Clemency: Whether It Is Better to Be Loved or Feared,” posits the seemingly simple argument that, though it is ideally better to be merciful than cruel, clemency should be handled in moderation. Again, Machiavelli complicates the notion of good as purely subordinate to power, invoking utilitarian reasoning to argue that an excess of “good” can actually lead to harm. In this case, too much clemency can lead to uprisings and civil war. Machiavelli cites the example of Florence, which was afraid to intervene with the required force in Pistoia and was in turn destroyed through civil conflict. If a prince needs to be cruel to keep his subjects united and loyal, so be it. Cruelty can serve the greater good.
There are two ways of fighting, Machiavelli asserts in the following chapter, “The Way Princes Should Keep Their Word”: with laws, and with force. The first is the human method, and the second belongs in theory to the beasts. That said, there are times when the first method does not suffice, in which case a prince needs to rely on force. Therefore, a prince should study the art of both laws and war, the methods of both man and beasts.
When it comes to beasts, two models exist: the lion, which represents brute force and strength, and the fox, which represents wiliness. A prince needs both, for one without the other will lead only to ruin. Machiavelli, as might be expected, proceeds to focus on the fox: “a prudent prince cannot and should not keep his word when to do so would go against his interest.” To be crafty and to be able to deceive, the mythical hallmarks of the fox are key skills for any ruler. You can break promises and treaties as long as you can hide your duplicity; you must therefore be “a great liar and hypocrite.”
A prince need not possess all the virtues listed in Chapter XV. He need not be giving, merciful, faithful, spirited, humane, chaste, straightforward, gentle, but he needs to seem to possess these virtues. Admittedly, it is good to follow virtues both in appearance and in reality, but a prince must be able to switch to the contrary at a moment’s notice if necessary, while maintaining a consistent front.
Chapter XIX, “On Avoiding Contempt and Hatred,” brings this line of reasoning full circle, noting off the bat that a prince should be sure not to be hated, for conspiracies fail if the prince is loved. A prince should delegate unpleasant jobs to others and keep the pleasant ones – the ones that look good – for himself. France’s use of a third judicial force which was not the king’s direct responsibility is an example of such a tactic.
If The Prince is often characterized as a treatise on unscrupulous politics and a manual of ruthless power games, Chapter XV, “On the Reasons Why Men Are Praised or Blamed – Especially Princes,” is a particularly crucial chapter. It is here that Machiavelli directly addresses the question that has been bubbling underneath the surface of his book thus far – namely, to what extent does being good matter. Machiavelli’s answer: as long as it contributes to holding onto power. The key notion here is that good is a relative concept; surface virtuosity, of the kind often showcased by rulers, is often but a disguise, and the greatest good lies in the end – the all-inclusive goal of maintaining the state and securing the reins of power. In other words, good is good insofar as it is politically expedient. The categorical crumbles in the face of efficiency, for the latter is the only true barometer. The ends justify the means, and utilitarianism (this is centuries before Mills and Bentham, one should note) is the dominant mode of reasoning.
If a prince needs to indulge a vice to save his state, so be it. “For if you look at matters carefully,” Machiavelli writes, “you will see that something resembling virtue, if you follow it, may be your ruin, while something resembling vice will lead, if you follow it, to your security and well-being.” One might compare this argument to the thrust of Chapter XIII, “On Those Who Have Become Princes by Crime,” which measures when and to what extent a prince’s cruelty can be justified. Machiavelli is arguing something far more complex than a call to disregard morality. His example of the generous prince begins as a seemingly hard-lined argument and emerges as a humanist consideration of the faults of man. A prince should not be miserly just for the sake of it; miserliness, by resulting in the safeguarding of funds and greater financial security, winds up helping the people in quite direct ways. It is up to the prince to see beyond short-run desires and superficial appearances and to not give away money he cannot afford to spend just to put on a lovable face and to curry favor, but instead to weather the occasional criticism and plan for the future.
It is all about the greater good. Machiavelli sublimates the individualistic treatment of the prince as solitary agent into a larger view of society as contingent on long-term planning and sacrifice. The Prince reads here as less a how-to for the aspiring prince than a social manifesto; Machiavelli puts faith in the people’s judgment, arguing that they will come around to loving the miserly prince who saves money out of necessity. As in his earlier distinctions between the common people and the nobles, he emerges as more of a populist and democrat than popular conceptions of The Prince tend to allow for.
That said, Chapter XVII, “On Cruelty and Clemency,” presents a thoroughly pessimistic view of humanity. Men are inherently “rotten,” Machiavelli argues, explaining that they are “ungrateful, fickle, liars and deceivers, fearful of danger and greedy for gain.” For this reason, it is safer for a prince to be feared than to be loved: “love is link of obligation which men, because they are rotten, will break any time they think doing so serves their advantage.” Fear, on the other hand, “involves dread of punishment, from which they can never escape.” As always, Machiavelli tempers what seems at first like a thoroughly cynical position, noting that moderation is the key, and that a prince should try to make himself feared in a way that does not make him hated. More specifically, he should only shed blood when he has good reason to, he should not confiscate property, and he should keep his hands off his subjects’ women. Certain lines cannot be crossed.
As Machiavelli writes a few pages later, a prince “should be ready to enter on evil if he has to,” but he must have to. (At least Machiavelli implies this last point.) In any case, virtues are often difficult to define; they are only virtuous insofar as they help people. Virtue for its own sake can be harmful, and for a prince to possess and exercise all virtues at all times is a mistake. Appearances are a different matter: the masses are impressed by the superficial appearance of things so long as the prince’s ends are achieved. It matters little, therefore, who the prince really is.
Machiavelli closes Chapter XVIII with a reference that deserves mention. “A certain prince of our own time,” he writes, “whom it’s just as well not to name, preaches nothing but peace and mutual trust, yet he is the determined enemy of both.” This seems to be a condemnation, but Machiavelli continues: “if on several different occasions he had observed either, he would have lost both his reputation and his throne.” The prince in question is Ferdinand of Spain, and the passage is something of a swipe at him. The first line suggests untempered scorn, while the second modifies this position and recasts Ferdinand as an example of how hypocrisy can be useful. These last few words are perhaps the veil Machiavelli uses to hide a more acute criticism of Ferdinand, who secured his power through often bloodthirsty tactics, expelling the Muslims and Jews from Spain, waging war, and persecuting the masses. These repellent maneuvers, Machiavelli is forced to admit, did work. We can sense here the writer having reached a sort of theoretical impasse: how to both condemn and praise? How to reconcile a need for human goodness (Machiavelli repeatedly states that cruelty should only be used when necessary) with the demands of power and the vicissitudes of international relations? Ferdinand provides a particularly difficult case, since Machiavelli, writing of him as a “determined enemy” of peace and trust, seems to disapprove of him, while his own writings provide a framework whereby Ferdinand’s actions are thoroughly justifiable.
What is perhaps most important is that Machiavelli faces Ferdinand head-on. Contradictions may abound as Machiavelli maps out his philosophy, but he seems to implicitly acknowledge this. The Prince is more than a simplistic argument for cold-heartedness in politics, and these chapters reflect Machiavelli’s efforts to grapple with the various problems his more cynical positions engender.