Philosophy Political Philosophy Politics

Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” Part II

As we continue examining Machiavelli’s The Prince, we turn to Chapters 10-19 which contains his most famous phrase of it is better to be feared than loved.  Well, Machiavelli didn’t exactly say those specific words in that order, but his recommendations to the Prince is that it is better to command fear than to be loved and we’ll get into why in a moment.  Building off from the previous chapters, chapters 10-19 continue to build on the themes of power and sovereignty which dominate the chapters we’re about to cover and – it is within the confines of power and sovereignty, that we will make better sense of Machiavelli’s advice about being feared rather than being loved.

The Strength of Princedoms: Chapters 10-11

Chapters 10 and 11 deal with the internal strength of principalities.  For Machiavelli, it is best for principalities to be internally strong; that is, not dependent on others for assistance or strength.  In other words, contrary to what students of economics learn, it is best for a state to strive for self-efficiency.  While a state may not be able to be as self-sufficient as it would like, its power is premised on its internal capabilities.  States that have internally strong and robust economies, a strong population base, strong points of interest and military centers, will ward off possible invasion from outsiders more easily than states that are internally weak.

Machiavelli is not suggesting a sort of fortress isolationism, the type of “Splendid Isolationism” of the United Kingdom in the 19th century or American isolationism prior to the Second World War.  On the contrary, a wise and prudent prince also makes alliances and forges deals with other leaders to strengthen himself through alliances.  However, one should not have to be dependent on others for their strength.  One should be able to rely on himself, his territory, his state, and his people, for strength.

Strength and Military Arms: Chapters 12-14

Considering that Machiavelli advises a state to be internally strong, he logically transitions to commentary on the nature of military forces and what a prince should seek in military forces.  It was commonplace in the Renaissance era to have small standing armies.  Most rulers looked outside of their kingdoms and territories for mercenaries to produce their armed forces.  Machiavelli advises against this type of outsourcing military duties and responsibilities.  His reasons are straightforward: “Mercenaries and auxiliaries are at once useless and dangerous, and he who holds his State by means of mercenary troops can never be solidly or securely seated.  For such troops are disunited, ambitious, insubordinate, treacherous, insolent among friends, cowardly before foes, and without fear of God or faith with man.  Whenever they are attacked defeat follows”  Machiavelli proceeds to give examples throughout history of mercenary armies failing their masters in battle.

The question of mercenaries is not necessarily whether mercenaries are good warriors.  They may very well be.  The problem with mercenaries is that they are loyal to no one but themselves, and their promised dividends for their service.  In other words, being loyal to self (and money), they are not invested with the national cause.  By not being invested with, or to, the national cause, they are unreliable at best.  When the going gets rough the mercenaries will desert.  They have their own lives and families, far away, to attend to.  If not that, then they will quickly turn on their overlords to save their own skins.  Much like a prince who is dependent on other states for his strength, a prince who is dependent on mercenaries for his military strength is dependent upon others rather than himself.  In this manner he has less power and sovereignty than he thinks.  His power and sovereignty is vested in the hands of outsiders.

Machiavelli turns the mercenary dynamic on its head here.  It is not mercenaries who are at the beck and call of their foreign master or overlord, rather, it is the master (or overlord) who is really at the beck and call of his mercenaries.  The mercenaries are whom the master has placed all his trust and hopes and prospects in.  If they desert, if they renege, or even if they engage in treachery, all that the prince has worked and strived for is lost.  Quite the opposite of conventional logic, but Machiavelli has a point here: in hiring mercenaries you are dependent on them.  They don’t need you, but you need them.  The hope was that by paying them they would serve you.   But money only goes so far.

By chapter 14 Machiavelli argues for strong national armies as the only responsible and reasonable practice of military affairs.  National armies are invested with the public weal.  They embody the esprit de corps and are more willing than mercenaries to fight and die for their country and family than mercenaries.  Furthermore, while auxiliaries and allied dependency is better than pure mercenaries, only a national armed force embodies internal strength and sovereignty.  One is not dependent upon cowardly mercenaries or allies who, naturally, will seek to defend their land and nation first rather than yours.  Thus, the prince must be internally strong militarily if they are to be sovereign and powerful.

At the same time, the importance of concentrating on military affairs is about concentrating on political and foreign affairs.  One never knows when he will be threatened.  The survival of his state is always at stake.  Thus, since concern for the political is the upmost concern of the prince, he ought to always be concerned with military affairs.  A strong military represents a strong national weal.  It represents the determination of the State, and its people, to endure and survive.  A weak military represents that the State, and its people, along with its leaders, are no longer that concerned with their own national sovereignty.  As such, they are not really that concerned about their survival.  Therefore, the prince who enlists and establishes a strong national military is a prince who is concerned with sovereignty, self-survival, and displays to the rest of the world he is serious about maintaining his sovereignty and power through the powerful national army he has constructed and now maintains.  One never knows when Fortuna, or Fortune, may turn against him.  Thus, he always needs to prepare for the worst.  Machiavelli firmly believes in the old maxim: “In times of peace, prepare for war.”  Virtu, or some form of political excellence, is necessary to counteract Fortune.  Political excellence takes on the character of “always prepare for the worst.”

The Character of the Prince and Princedom: Fear and Avoiding Hatred, Justice and Cruelty, Chapters 14-19

Chapters 14-19 are among the most infamous from The Prince.  Here Machiavelli outlines the general characters and qualities that a prince should embody.  Again, it is important to remember that the actual theme of the entirety of the prince is about sovereignty and power.  Thus, chapters 14-19 must be read with this in mind.

What unites these chapters is about how a prince should be feared rather than loved, and how a prince is to avoid hatred (or contempt) from his subjects but not appear weak and effeminate at the same time.  Thus, Machiavelli is very Aristotelian in arguing for a sort of mean between excesses.  At the same time Machiavelli is also suggesting something that often baffles readers.  He does suggest that fear does not necessarily lead to hatred.  Fear and hatred are not synonymous to each other.  Furthermore, Machiavelli comments on justice and cruelty and outlines a philosophy of consequentialism.

The reason why a prince ought not to be loved is because his power now rests in the hands of others.  Again, a theme should become very apparent to readers of The Prince: Sovereignty always should rest in the hand of the prince and not be dependent on others.  This also stems from Machiavelli’s ‘low view of humanity.’  As he writes, “Men are a sorry breed.”

Love is premised on obligations and mutual duties.  The problem with love is that, since men are a sorry breed, you can never be sure if those who claim to love you will follow up on their obligations to you.  Since man is entirely self-interested, the moment others see it in their advantage not to oblige you their duties and obligations based on love or fealty, they will reject you.  Thus, if one is too overly loved, one is once again under control of the lover or lovers.  One is not free in of himself in his own power and sovereignty.

Thus, it is better to be feared rather than loved because in being feared, the people (others) see in you the power and sovereignty necessary of a prince to maintain the power and sovereignty of the state.  As Machiavelli also explains, fear is not identical with hatred.  He again highlights examples of history between Hannibal and Scipio where Hannibal, who was feared, never suffered mutiny of his multi-national army but was never hated.  Scipio, on the other hand, faced several uprisings from his soldiers because of his leniency.  While not hated by his men, they did not fear him so they felt that they could get away with certain actions because of Scipio’s liberality.  “I sum up by saying, that since his being loved depends upon his subjects, while his being feared depends upon himself, a wise Prince should build on what is his own, and not what rests on others.”

Because sovereignty and power are the two intertwined themes of the Prince, Machiavelli advises that a prince should always choose his own sovereignty and power (which depends on himself) whenever possible.  The moment one outsources, to use modern language, responsibilities to others, one is weakening their own sovereignty and power.  One becomes dependent on others rather than dependent on himself.

This theme of self-power and self-interest extends to honesty and truth.  A prince should only “keep his word” when it suits him to do so.  If a prince could get away with being a liar or a fraud, then that is what he should do.  One only ever needs to maintain the illusion that he is honest.  Politics is a brutal game, as Max Weber noted more than 400 years later.  Politics is not about honesty.  Politics is about power.  Thus, whatever allows one to keep power and attain more power is the course of action the prince (e.g. politician) should take.  Sometimes that does mean keeping one’s words and promises.  Many times, however, one will have to break those words and promises to maintain power.  Since this is the reality of politics one should strive to maintain the illusion of honesty.

To avoid hatred Machiavelli notes, in one of his longer chapters (Chapter 19), that people are base animals and will not hate the prince if they are not deprived of their property and women (or sex more generally).  Building from chapter 9, Machiavelli recognizes and advises the prince to see the two groups (constituents) that comprise every nation: the aristocracy (e.g. the “ruling class”) and the commoners.  The prince must court both sides when it suits him just as he said in chapter 9 about how having the people on your side allows for greater centralization of power (at the expense of the aristocracy) while having the aristocrats on your side allows you to generally have access to the more enlightened and refined segments of the population.  Nevertheless, just like he suggests in chapter 9, Machiavelli again states that the prince should always be on friendlier terms with the majority population (the commoners) rather than the nobles or aristocrats because the majority is always more powerful than the minority (not to mention, again, that the aristocrats try to hobble the prince’s power by retaining as much power for themselves).  It is fair, though anachronistic, to consider Machiavelli’s politics to be one of national populism.

Here is one of the keys, and often misunderstood, points of Machiavelli’s political theory, “To be brief, a Prince has little to fear from conspiracies when his subjects are well disposed to him; but when they are hostile and hold him in detestation, he has then reason to fear everything and everyone.”  For Machiavelli it always better to be on the side of the “masses” because they are the ones who hold real power if they are ever organized to exert their power (in number).  Thus, it is best to either be on the side of “public opinion” or to appear to be a benefactor of the commoners. Hence the anachronistic, but accurate, description of Machiavelli’s politics being one of national populism or sovereign “republicanism.”  In modern contexts, this might help explain why politicians turn with the tide of public opinion on many issues (or if they’re in the bag of the elite – aristocrats – why they hate the people, and in this show why they’re not very good Machiavellians).  By being ‘on the side of the masses’ one avoids hatred (or contempt) from those who are the real threat to political power (the common majority).  One doesn’t necessarily need to be loved by the masses, but one should not alienate the masses to the point of them having nothing but hatred and contempt for the prince.

Thus, the prince must always be aware of threats internal and external to his rule.  One needs to strike that balance between taking away too much and giving too much.  In taking away too much, he will be hated and risks being assassinated like many of the Roman emperors.  In giving too much, he will be seen as weak and effeminate and others will try to seize the day for themselves in the prince’s weakness.  In some sense Machiavelli is Aristotle without justice.  He advocates finding the mean, but the mean is always for one’s self-power and sovereignty.

At the same time Machiavelli’s comments on justice, cruelty, liberality, and clemency, is all about consequentialism.  Prince ought to be merciful and not cruel.  But cruelty is necessary.  Mercifulness is also good, but sometimes mercy can lead to one’s downfall.  When it suits the prince to be just, in order to maintain power, the prince should be just.  When it suits the prince to be liberal, in order to maintain power, the prince should be liberal.  When it suits the prince to be cruel, in order to maintain power, the prince should be cruel.  And so on and so on.

Machiavelli is an instrumental consequentialist.  Since the art of politics is about maintaining (and expanding) power, which is necessary for sovereignty, Machiavelli is advising the prince to adopt consequentialist ethics.  This is crucial to understand and never forget about Machiavelli!  Machiavelli says there are times to be just and honest.  There are also times to be cruel and fearsome.  Machiavelli is not as “harsh” as the “Machiavellians” make him out to be.  There are moments when being just, honest, and virtuous (in the classical sense) are to be acted upon by the prince.  But when it becomes necessary for the prince to adopt cruelty, break promises, and be deceptive, then the prince must do that as well.  The prince must understand the moments to be just, honest, and virtuous, but the prince must also understand when it becomes necessary to be cruel, break promises, and be deceptive when the state demands it.  In other words, what are the consequences of the actions the prince will take?  If justice is to enhance power and maintain power, be just.  If it is necessary to be cruel (temporarily), then one must be cruel.  What Machiavelli never states is that one should always be feared and cruel or unjust.  He merely says times will arise when the prince must be feared or cruel or unjust in order to safeguard the sovereignty of the state.

In Part III we will finish our reading of The Prince by examining chapters 20-26.  One thing should become clear in reading The Prince.  Machiavelli’s text is one about power and sovereignty.  It is advice about how best to attain, retain, and strengthen, power and sovereignty.  This is what the prince, and the State, should always and primarily be concerned with.

This was originally published on Hesiod’s Corner, February 16, 2018.


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