Niccolò Machiavelli: Thoughts on Many Subjects, 1513

Niccolò Machiavelli: Thoughts on Many Subjects, 1513
Niccolò Machiavelli

Considered the father of modern politics, Niccolò Machiavelli wrote The Prince in 1513. Noted for its amorality and singular focus on maintaining power through deception and force, The Prince is replete with thought-provoking concepts.

I have added my own subject titles so that readers may scan and read what interests them most; however, all excerpts offer some interesting insight into Machiavelli's thinking.

August Glen-James, editor

Overcome Troubles when they are Merely Brewing

The Romans acted in these circumstances as all wise rulers should: for they have to deal not only with existing troubles, but with troubles that are likely to develop, and have to use every means to overcome them. For if the first signs of trouble are perceived, it is easy to find a solution; but if one lets trouble develop, the medicine will be too late, because the malady will have become incurable. And what physicians say about consumptive diseases is also true of this matter, namely, that at the beginning of the illness, it is easy to treat but difficult to diagnose but, if it has not been diagnosed and treated at an early state, as time passes it becomes easy to diagnose but difficult to treat. This also happens in affairs of state; for if one recognizes political problems early (which only a shrewd and far-seeing man can do), they may be resolved quickly, but if they are not recognized, and left to develop so that everyone recognizes them, there is no longer any remedy.

The Romans, therefore, because they perceived troubles when they were merely brewing, were always able to overcome them. They never allowed them to develop in order to avoid fighting a war, for they knew that wars cannot really be avoided but are merely postponed to the advantage of others. This was why they wanted to wage war against Philip and Antiochus in Greece, so that they could avoid having to fight them in Italy; it was possible for them to have avoided fighting both of them in Greece, but they were resolved not to. Moreover, the Romans never accepted the maxim heard every day on the lips of our own sages, to seek to benefit from temporizing. They preferred to enjoy the benefits that derived from their own strength and prudence; because time brings all things with it, and can produce benefits as well as evils, evils as well as benefits.

The Vitality and Hatred in Republics

When states that are annexed have been accustomed to living under their own laws and in freedom . . . there are three ways of holding them: the first, to destroy their political institutions; the second, to go to live there yourself; the third, to let them continue to live under their own laws, exacting tribute and setting up an oligarchical government that will keep the state friendly towards you. . . .

However, when cities or countries are accustomed to living under a prince, and the ruling family is wiped out, the inhabitants are used to obeying but lack their older their older ruler; they are unable to agree on making one of themselves ruler, and they do not know how to embrace a free way of life. Consequently, they are slow to resort to arms, and a ruler can more easily win them over, and be sure that they will not harm him.

But in republics there is greater vitality, more hatred, and a stronger desire for revenge; they do not forget, indeed cannot forget, their lost liberties. Therefore, the surest way is to destroy them or else go to live there.

The Interchange between Persuasion and Force

And it should be realized that taking the initiative in introducing a new form of government is very difficult and dangerous, and unlikely to succeed. The reason is that all those who profit from the old order will be opposed to the innovator, whereas all those who might benefit from the new order are, at best, tepid supporters of him. This lukewarmness arises partly from fear of their adversaries, who have the laws on their side, partly from the skeptical temper of men, who do not really believe in new things unless they have been seen to work well. The result is that whenever those who are opposed to change have the chance to attack the innovator, they do it with much vigor, whereas his supporters act only half-heartedly; so that the innovator and his supporters find themselves in great danger.

In order to examine this matter thoroughly, we need to consider whether these innovators can act on their own or whether they depend upon others; that is, whether they need to persuade others if they are to succeed, or whether they are capable of establishing themselves by force. In the former case, they always fare badly and accomplish nothing. But if they do not depend upon others and have sufficient forces to take the initiative, they rarely find themselves in difficulties. Consequently, all armed prophets [i.e., new rulers] succeed whereas unarmed ones fail. This happens because, apart from the factors already mentioned, the people are fickle; it is easy to persuade them about something, but difficult to keep them persuaded. Hence, when they no longer believe in you and your schemes, you must be able to force them to believe.

Rulers Should Concentrate on what Really Happens rather than Theories

It remains now to consider in what ways a ruler should act with regard to his subjects and allies. And since I am well aware that many people have written about this subject I fear that I may be thought presumptuous, for what I have to say differs from the precepts offered by others, especially on this matter. But because I want to write what will be useful to anyone who understands, it seems to me better to concentrate on what really happens rather than on theories or speculations. For many have imagined republics and principalities that have never been seen or known to exist. However, how men live is so different from how they should live that a ruler who does not do what is generally done, but persists in doing what ought to be done, will undermine his power rather than maintain it. If a ruler who wants to act honorably is surrounded by many unscrupulous men his downfall is inevitable. Therefore, a ruler who wishes to maintain his power must be prepared to act immorally when this becomes necessary.

A Parsimonious Ruler can come to be seen as Generous

I maintain that it would be desirable to be considered generous; nevertheless, if generosity is practiced in such a way that you will be considered generous, it will harm you. If it is practiced virtuously, and as it should be, it will not be known about, and you will not avoid acquiring a bad reputation for the opposite vice (i.e., meanness or miserliness). Therefore, if one wants to keep up a reputation for being generous, one must spend lavishly and ostentatiously. The inevitable outcome of acting in such ways is that the ruler will consume all his resources in sumptuous display; and if he wants to continue to be thought generous, he will eventually be compelled to become rapacious, to tax the people very heavily, and raise money by all possible means. Thus, he will begin to be hated by his subjects and, because he is impoverished, he will be held in little regard. Since this generosity of his has harmed many people and benefited few, he will feel the effects of any discontent, and the first real threat to his power will involve him in grave difficulties. When realizes this, and changes his ways, he will very soon acquire a bad reputation for being miserly.

Therefore, since a ruler cannot both practice this virtue of generosity and be known to do so without harming himself, he would do well not to worry about being called miserly. For eventually he will come to be considered more generous, when it is realized that, because of his parsimony, his revenues are sufficient to defend himself against any enemies that attack him, and to undertake campaigns without imposing special taxes on the people. Thus he will be acting generously towards the vast majority, whose property he does not touch, and will be acting meanly towards the few to whom he gives nothing. . . . Therefore, a ruler should worry little about being thought miserly: he will not have to rob his subjects; he will be able to defend himself; he will avoid being poor and despised and will not be forced to become rapacious.

There is nothing that is so self-consuming as generosity: the more you practice it, the less you will be able to continue to practice it. You will either become poor and despised or your efforts to avoid poverty will make you rapacious and hated. A ruler must above all guard against being despised and hated; and being generous will lead to both.

Is It Better for a Ruler to Be Loved or Feared?

I maintain that every ruler should want to be thought merciful, not cruel; nevertheless, one should take care not to be merciful in an inappropriate way. . . . If a ruler can keep his subjects united and loyal, he should not worry about incurring a reputation for cruelty; for by punishing a very few he will really be more merciful than those who over-indulgently permit disorders to develop, with resultant killings and plunderings. For the latter usually harm a whole community, whereas the executions ordered by a ruler harm only specific individuals.


A controversy has arisen about this: whether it is better to be loved than feared, or vice versa. My view is that it is desirable to be both loved and feared; but it is difficult to achieve both and, if one of them has to be lacking, it is much safer to be feared than loved.

For this may be said of men generally: they are ungrateful, fickle, feigners and dissemblers, avoiders of danger, eager for gain. While you benefit them they are all devoted to you: they would shed their blood for you; they offer their possessions, their lives, and their sons . . . when the need to do so is far off. But when you are hard pressed, they turn away. A ruler who has relied completely on their promises, and has neglected to prepare other defenses, will be ruined, because friendships that are acquired with money, and not through greatness and nobility of character, are paid for but not secured, and prove unreliable just when they are needed.

Men are less hesitant about offending or harming a ruler who makes himself loved than one who inspires fear. For love is sustained by a bond of gratitude which, because men are excessively self-interested, is broken whenever they see a chance to benefit themselves. But fear is sustained by a dread of punishment that is always effective. Nevertheless, a ruler must make himself feared in such a way that, even if he does not become loved, he does not become hated. For it is perfectly possible to be feared without incurring hatred. And this can And this can always be achieved if he refrains from laying hands on the property of his citizens and subjects, and on their womenfolk. If it is necessary to execute anyone, this should be done only if there is a proper justification and obvious reason. But, above all, he must not touch property of others, because men forget sooner the killing of a father than the loss of their patrimony. Moreover, there will always be pretexts for seizing property; and someone who begins to live rapaciously will always find pretexts for taking the property of others. On the other hand, reasons or pretexts for taking life are rarer and more fleeting.

Good Deeds can be Inimical to You

What will make [a ruler] hated, above all else, as I said, is being rapacious and seizing the property or womenfolk of his subjects: he must avoid doing these things. If the vast majority of men are not deprived of their property and honor they will live contentedly, and one will have to deal only with the ambition of a few men, which can easily be restrained in various ways.

What will make him despised is being considered inconstant, frivolous, effeminate, pusillanimous and irresolute: a ruler must avoid contempt as if it were a reef. He should contrive that his actions should display grandeur, courage, seriousness and strength. . . . For rulers should have two main worries: one is internal, and concerns his subjects; the other is external, and concerns foreign powers. Against the latter threat, good troops and reliable allies are an effective defense; and possessing good armies always results in having allies who are reliable. If external relations are solidly based, internal affairs will give no trouble unless they have already been disturbed by conspiracy.

It should be remarked . . . that good deeds as well as bad may incur hatred. A ruler who wants to maintain his power is often forced to act immorally. For if a group (whether it is the people or the soldiers or the nobles) whose support you consider necessary for maintaining your power is corrupt, you are forced to indulge its proclivities in order to satisfy it. In such circumstances, good deeds are inimical to you.

Rulers Should Honor those of Talent and Excellence

No government should ever believe that it is always possible to follow safe policies. Rather, it should be realized that all courses of action involve risks: for it is in the nature of things that when one tries to avoid one danger another is always encountered. But prudence consists in knowing how to assess the dangers, and to choose the least bad course of action as being the right one to follow.

A ruler should also show himself a lover of talent, and honor those who excel in any art. Moreover, he should encourage the citizens to follow quietly their ordinary occupations, both in trade and agriculture and every other kind, so that one man is not afraid to improve or increase his possessions for fear that they will be taken from him, and another does not hesitate to begin to trade for fear of the taxes that will be levied. Rather, he should offer rewards to anyone who wants to do such things, and to anyone who seeks in any way to improve his city or country. Furthermore, at appropriate times of the year, he should keep the people entertained with feasts and spectacles. And since every city is divided into guilds or family groups he should pay due attention to these groups, meeting them from time to time, and performing acts that display his own affability and munificence. But he should always be careful to preserve the prestige of his office, for this is something that should never be diminished.

Concerning the Dangers and Handling of  Flatterers

I do not want to leave undiscussed an important subject, about which rulers easily make mistakes, unless they are very shrewd and are skillful at choosing men. I refer to flatterers, who are found everywhere in courts; for men are so wrapped up in their own affairs, in which they are so liable to make mistakes, that it is hard to defend oneself from this plague. Moreover, some ways of trying to protect oneself from flatterers involve risk of becoming despised.

For the only way to protect yourself from flattery is by letting it be known that being told the truth does not offend you. However, if anyone may speak frankly to you, respect for you will soon disappear.

Therefore, a wise ruler will follow another way, and choose shrewd men for his service, permitting them alone to speak frankly, but only when he asks them and not otherwise. But he should ask them about everything, listen carefully to their views, and then make his own decisions. He should so conduct himself with his advisers that they will all realize that the more candidly they speak the more acceptable they will be. Apart from those he has chosen, he should refuse to listen to anyone, but pursue his aims steadfastly and not waver about decisions he has taken. Any ruler who does not act in this say either comes to grief among flatterers or changes his decisions often because of the conflicting advice he receives; as a result, he will be held in little esteem.

A ruler, then, should never lack advice, but should have it when he wants it, not when others want to give it; rather, he should discourage anyone from giving advice uninvited. Nevertheless, he should be very ready to seek information and opinions and listen patiently to candid views about matters that he raises. Indeed, if he learns that anyone is reticent for any reason, he should be angry.

Although many hold that a ruler may properly be considered shrewd because of the high quality of his advisers, and not because he himself is shrewd, this is undoubtedly a mistaken view. For it is an infallible rule that a prince who is not himself wise cannot be soundly advised, unless he happens to put himself in the hands of a man who is very able and controls everything. Then he could certainly be well advised, but he would not last long, because such a governor would soon deprive him of his state. But if a ruler who is not shrewd takes advice from several men, he will always  hear conflicting opinions, and will be incapable of reconciling them. For his advisers will all be thinking primarily of their own interests; and he will not understand this tendency or be able to control them. And this is inevitable because men will always prove of doubtful loyalty unless compelled to be faithful. Therefore, it should be concluded that good advice, from whosoever it may come, must have its source in the shrewdness of the ruler; the ruler’s shrewdness cannot derive from sound advice.