The Tactics of Politicians - Excerpts from Chs. 1, 15 -19, from "The Prince" by Niccolo Machiavelli

Political Tactics 

This excerpt from the Prince exemplifies Machiavelli's ideas of the nature of ruling. Human beings are corrupt, and thus leadership needs to be able to do what is pragmatic to achieve the necessary ends, even if breaks the mold of traditional virtue. Whatever it takes to keep power is permitted, and its even better if you can do it while still maintaining the façade of goodness and virtue. 

Machiavelli begins by pointing out that he is going to be giving advice for monarchs on how to rule and preserve their power. He says that often people theorize about governments that don't really exist, in that they write about a system that is guided by its ideals and moral norms which in reality cannot always be followed. In fact, to try to follow virtue all the time will lead to an early downfall, he says. While people all admit that virtue is to be admired, the state of human affairs just doesn't allow such things. 1 Therefore, for the good of his kingdom or state, a prince must be pragmatic and judge the morality of an action by its effects. Is it really a vice if it produces a good effect for him or the state? Is it really a virtue if it leads to bad effects and an unstable state? 

Stinginess Versus Generosity

Machiavelli gives a more palatable example at first, that of stinginess versus generosity. He says that to live the virtue of generosity as a prince would ultimately mean being a bad king because one would have to tax his subjects to continue to pay for his generosity to a few people. Rather, he should embrace stinginess so that he can save the money and provide for his citizens when they need it without undue burden. Thus the vice appears more helpful than the virtue. 2 If someone were to object that there have been many rulers in history who were generous in order to bring themselves to power. Machiavelli says, though, that someone like Julius Caesar would not have been able to sustain such generosity had he lived longer. Rather, a prince should be frugal with his own money and those of his subjects, but generous with plundered money and treasure. With that which he takes from other kingdoms, give it away freely to be considered generous. But that which is his own, keep it close so that one can sustain themselves. 

Cruelty Versus Mercy

Regarding the subject of mercy or cruelty, a prince should again consider what is actually "cruel" or "merciful" by the effects of his actions. If he is too lenient on the population, then crime will rise and many will be affected. Likewise, if he decides to be cruel on those who commit crimes and execute them, only the individual suffers while the many enjoy safety and peace. Thus which is really more cruel? Now he should still desire to be considered merciful, but in practice must really be cruel, especially of his kingdom be newly founded. 3 

To Be Feared or Loved

Then he comes to the famous line, "... it is much safer to be feared than loved." Of course, he says, to be both is best, but if one must do away with one of them, it is better in the end to have the fear of the people than their love. This is because people are wicked and selfish, and only are your friend if you benefit them. When there is no problem in their life they will make all sorts of promises of their friendship to you, but when difficulty hits their life they will turn on you. Especially if those friendships are bought and not out of honest friendship. Likewise, people will more willingly offend someone who they consider a friend than someone they are afraid of, resulting in more disobedience. 4 "For we can generally say of people that they are ungrateful, inconsistent, deceitful, cowardly, and selfish. But as long as you benefit them, they are your entirely. They will offer you their blood, property, life and children (as I noted above) when the need is far off. But when the need approaches, they turn against you." 5

Even though it's better for the people to fear the prince, the prince doesn't want to go so far as to be hated by them. If he takes their property unjustly, or their women, then surely they will hate him. People do not forget the loss of their property. And in taking life too, he must be cruel in order to keep order, but he also must have a "proper justification ... and clear cause" when he does this. Machiavelli mentions two examples here, Hannibal and Scipio, both leaders of armies. Hannibal was revered and feared by his soldiers because of his cruelty, who dared not to cross him, while Scipio's army revolted though he was such a lenient man. 6 He did not provide the discipline to keep his army in check. When it comes to being a prince, one can control a response of fear, but one cannot necessarily control the evoking of love from the people. Therefore, go with fear which is a more sure foundation, according to Machiavelli. 

Truth or Lies

Next, the prince is guided about the nature of lying and deceit. A prince cannot be successful if he is too honest. Rather, like a lion and a fox, he needs to be able to get around the truth when it is needed for him. If people were honest and good, then the prince would have to be honest and good. But people aren't, therefore the prince is justified in doing what he needs to do. Like a fox, he must use lies and deceit to try to trick those who hear him in order to get ahead. Like a lion, he can also use intimidation of brute force to get others to submit to him, though the way of the fox is superior. 7 "If people were entirely good, this rule would not hold. But because they are bad, and will not be honest with you, you too are not bound to observe it with them." 8 In summary, the most useful trait of a prince is deception. To appear to have all the virtuous on the outside, but to be able to at any time do the opposite in secret in order to achieve your aims is the methods of a successful prince. 9 

"Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the virtuous qualities I have enumerated. But it is very necessary for him to appear to have them. I will dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful. Thus one should appear merciful, honest, humane, religious, upright, and also be that way. But your mind should be framed so that if you are required not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite." 10

Most importantly, it is necessary to deceive people with religion. By saying so many good words you will be able to deceive the masses because most cannot really get close enough to you to see who you really are. Those who can are not likely as they will have to go up against the opinion of the many and the power of the state. As long as the prince produces an end favorable to the people, they will not care. 11 Again, as long as he is not greedy with the people's money or dishonor them by defiling their women, then for the most part the majority of people will be content. Thus, project a powerful and positive image of himself that makes him hard to attack by other adversaries. 12 "It makes him contemptible to be considered indecisive, frivolous, weak, mean-spirited, irresolute, from all of which a prince should guard himself as from a rock." 13 Having such a positive image, and being pleasing to the people in his outcomes, he will make himself hard to conspire against as his overthrow would become very unpopular. Thus, a prince cannot afford to be hated or despised by his people. 14

"... I say that, on the side of the conspirator, there is nothing but fear, jealousy, and prospect of punishment to terrify him. But on the side of the prince there is the majesty of the monarchy, the laws, the protection of friends and the state to defend him. Adding to all these things the popular goodwill, it is impossible that anyone should be so rash as to conspire. For whereas in general the conspirator has to fear before the execution of his plot, in this case he has also to fear what will occur after his crime. Because of this he has the people for an enemy, and thus cannot hope for any escape." 15


1 - Fieser, James and Samuel Stumpf. A History of Philosophy With Essential Readings 10th Edition. Machiavelli Nicollo, The Prince. Ch. 1, 15-18. pg128

2 - 129

3 - 130

4 - 131

5 - 131

6 - 131

7 - 132

8 - 132

9 - 133

10 -133

11 - 133

12 - 134

13 - 134

14 - 134

15 - 135