The Prince, decoded

CHAPTER XV — CONCERNING THINGS FOR WHICH MEN, AND ESPECIALLY PRINCES, ARE PRAISED OR BLAMED

Most people who write about politics write about kingdoms of the imagination, places that have never existed but which we wish had. I will write about how how a prince ought to rule in a real kingdom. A prince who focuses on what should be done instead of what is done will soon end up dead.

A prince who wishes to hold his own ought to know how to do bad things, even if he chooses not to. It would be nice if a prince could be liberal, kind, faithful, bold, chaste and sincere—but nobody is perfect. A prince who was not good—but not bad either—would be second best. And, if that is not possible, a prince should try to be bad in the best way: some vices will get a man killed and pushed from power. Others are just kinks. Finally, a prince should never worry about doing evil things, if that means saving the state; some virtues will get a man killed, too. Other things, which look like vices, will make a man rich and safe.

CHAPTER XVI — CONCERNING LIBERALITY AND MEANNESS

Starting with the first of the characteristics above, I say that a prince should have the reputation of being generous. However, there is no point in being generous if it does not improve your reputation. If you give money away as it should be given away (honestly and silently), nobody will know, and you run the risk of a reputation for being cheap. There is a problem, however: as soon as you stop being generous, everybody will certainly think you are a miser. You will impoverish yourself trying to maintain a reputation for generosity—and, therefore, you will end up taxing your people and weighing them down. They will hate you for that, and you will be poor; thus, by trying to be liberal, you will end up angering many, pleasing few, and putting yourself in danger.

It is better to just be cheap from the start. Eventually, the people will love you for it. You will be able to defend the country; you will have the money for enterprises.

Only frugal rulers have achieved great things. The Pope had a reputation for being generous, but as soon as he got in power, he became frugal. He was able to go to war with France and others and still not raise taxes. The King of Spain would never have been such a great conqueror if he had been thought generous. A prince, therefore, should hardly worry if people think he is cheap.

What about Caesar? He became the emperor by being generous. He became emperor. Once he had achieved his position, he became more frugal. If he had not, he would have endangered himself. And what about those princes who have been liberal and successful? A prince either spends his own money and his subjects, or someone else’s. If he it is the former, he ought to be sparing. If it is the latter, he should spend every cent he can get his hands on. If, for instance, a prince is conquering other countries, sacking and extorting along the way, then he ought to be very generous with his soldiers. If you are spending other people’s money, spend it like Cyrus the Great. Just do not spend your own money like that.

Generosity is dangerous: the more you do it, the less you can keep it up. You either end up poor and despised—or hated, because you must steal from others to support your spending. Therefore, it is better to start off frugal and get a reputation for being cheap than it is to get a reputation for generosity that ends in being hated.

CHAPTER XVII — CONCERNING CRUELTY AND CLEMENCY, AND WHETHER IT IS BETTER TO BE LOVED THAN FEARED

Every prince should want to appear forgiving and not cruel. Nevertheless he ought to be careful using clemency. Cesare Borgia was considered cruel; but his cruelty reconciled the Romagna, unified it, and restored it to peace and loyalty. Seen rightly, Borgia was actually kinder and more merciful than the Florentines, who allowed Pistoia to be destroyed in a riot, rather than crack down and seem cruel. Therefore a prince, as long as he keeps his subjects united and loyal, should not mind it if people call him cruel; he will almost always end up being more merciful than those who are soft-hearted and allow their citizens to get away with murder and robbery. Murder and robbery affect everyone; executions only kill one person.

New princes will have to seem cruel because new states are dangerous places. The great poet Virgil says,

Against my will, my fate

A throne unsettled, and an infant state,

Bid me defend my realms with all my powers,

And guard with these severities my shores.

Nevertheless a prince should act slowly and consider all the facts. He should not take pleasure in causing pain, but should always act with humanity. Otherwise his citizens will think that he is untrustworthy.

Is it better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It would be lovely to be both, but few people are. Most people are jerks, and they will promise the moon until the time comes to deliver. It is easier to break a promise to someone you love than someone you fear; for that reason, it is better to be feared than loved.

It is possible, though, to be feared and not hated. A prince who is feared, not hated, and who does not touch the property of women of his subjects, can stay in power for a very long time. People will forget the death of their father faster than they will forget the loss of the inheritance he left, so it is crucial that a prince keeps his hands off his subjects’ property. Besides which, there are infinite pretexts for stealing, and once you are known as a robber, you will always find a reason to continue.

When you lead an army, however, you must be cruel. Armies can only be kept united by fear. Hannibal, who led a huge army of many races across many foreign lands, had no dissension in the ranks. He was inhumanly cruel and incredibly brave. His soldiers revered and feared him, and his cruelty held the army together. Other writers disparage his cruelty while lauding his victories; they do not see that his cruelty lead to his victories.

Finally, you cannot make someone love you. You can make someone fear you.

CHAPTER XXI — HOW A PRINCE SHOULD CONDUCT HIMSELF SO AS TO GAIN RENOWN

Nothing is better for a prince than doing something flashy. The King of Spain, for instance, is one of the greatest kings in the world. As soon as he took power, he attacked Granada, and that victory laid the foundation for his other wars. He always uses religion as a cover; with pious cruelty, he drove the Moors out of Spain. This is the perfect example. Yet, under this same cloak, he attacked Africa, Italy and France; and, in doing, kept his people in suspense and admiration. He has made all these attacks so quickly that nobody has had the time to work against him.

A prince ought to do some remarkable things inside the country too. Never miss the opportunity to reward or punish someone lavishly. This kind of thing will make people think you are a great and remarkable person.

A prince should also always be either a true friend or downright enemy. Never take a middle ground or nuanced position. You have nothing to gain by being neutral when your neighbours are at war. If you choose the wrong side, and your allies are defeated, then, yes, your country may be destroyed. But if had remained neutral, your country would still be destroyed; your conqueror has no reason not to destroy you if you did not support him.

If you fight strenuously and gallantly beside your allies and they win, they will likely not destroy you. Your victorious neighbour will be indebted to you, and no ruler wants to be known forever as the ungrateful king.

If two of your smaller neighbours are at war, and you know for certain who the victor will be, there is no doubt that you should join in the fight on the side of the victor. When you win, your ally will owe you. However, if at all possible, you should avoid the help of more powerful countries if you are at war. If you win, you will owe your larger neighbour, and princes should try to avoid owing anyone.

You will never be able to choose perfectly safe paths. You will always have doubts and troubles. The trick is to take the lesser of evils.

You should also try to encourage talent. Never let your citizens feel afraid that whatever they gain will be taken away from them. Instead, reward the successful.

Further, a prince should have festivals and spectacles throughout the year. He should make friends with unions and groups and associate himself with them now and then. A prince should, though, always appear courteous and generous while remaining dignified. Retaining your dignity is critical.