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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 5 - Renaissance Literature 

PASSAGE FOR STUDY

The Prince

Medieval feudalism presupposed that God had vested earthly power in the members of noble families, the kings and lords who owed loyalty to Him and to whom in turn their social dependents were expected to entrust themselves. However, the bloody history and complicated political arrangements of the Italian states, where feudalism never took root, belied the medieval ideal. Lacking a framework that placed a premium on loyalty and cooperation, dukes and princes instead competed fiercely with each other.

Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), often called the first modern political scientist, wrote two major books that forced people to reconsider how states really were governed. Like so many of the great Renaissance figures, Machiavelli was a classical scholar. In the Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius, which draws on the Roman historian known as Livy (see pp. xx), who praised the free institutions of Republican Rome (5th and 6th centuries B.C.), Machiavelli looks back at a moment when an ideal form of government seemed to have flourished on Italian soil. In the Discourses, he points to the glories of the democratic past to underscore the shortcomings of the present.

The present is the subject of Machiavelli's better known work, The Prince, a book based not on history but on his own unhappy experience as bureaucrat and diplomat in the service of the Republic of Florence. When the Medici family overthrew that republic in 1512, Machiavelli--as Dante had done two hundred years earlier--went into exile. Dedicated to one of the Medicis, The Prince is a book of advice to the non-hereditary ruler of the sort which flourished in unsettled Renaissance Italy.(1)

Machiavelli's book illustrates the benefits of practicing pragmatic ruthlessness to cement the right to rule. Because he did not preach godly morality in government, Machiavelli's name became synonymous with diabolical plotter. Like Galileo, whose version of astronomy was unacceptable to the Church, Machiavelli's version of government was considered so objectionable that his works were condemned and placed on the Church's Index of Prohibited Books.(2) Condemned or not, Machiavelli's descriptions were so clear that he was, and still is, read by all courtiers, rulers, and students of political science.

In the following passages, translated by Luigi Ricci and revised by E. R. P. Vincent, Machiavelli instructs the would-be prince on the importance of adjusting oneself to actual political situations. Human nature does not, in other words, act as a God-given constant. Our own intelligence can determine the way we present ourselves to the world.

From Chapter 18: In What Way Princes Must Keep Faith

How laudable it is for a prince to keep good faith and live with integrity, and not with astuteness, every one knows. Still the experience of our times shows those princes to have done great things who have had little regard for good faith, and have been able by astuteness to confuse men's brains, and who have ultimately overcome those who have made loyalty their foundation.

You must know, then, that there are two methods of fighting, the one by law, the other by force: the first method is that of men, the second of beasts; but as the first method is often insufficient, one must have recourse to the second. It is therefore necessary for a prince to know well how to use both the beast and the man. This was covertly taught to rulers by ancient writers, who relate how Achilles and many others of those ancient princes were given to Chiron the centaur(3) to be brought up and educated under his discipline. The parable of this semi-animal, semi-human teacher is meant to indicate that a prince must know how to use both natures, and that the one without the other is not durable.

A prince being thus obliged to know well how to act as a beast must imitate the fox and the lion, for the lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. One must therefore be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves. Those that wish to be only lions do not understand this. Therefore, a prudent ruler ought not to keep faith when by so doing it would be against his interest, and when the reasons which made him bind himself no longer exist. If men were all good, this precept would not be a good one; but as they are bad, and would not observe their faith with you, so you are not bound to keep faith with them. Nor have legitimate grounds ever failed a prince who wished to show colourable excuse for the non-fulfillment of his promise. Of this one could show how many times peace has been broken, and how many promises rendered worthless, by the faithlessness of princes, and those that have been best able to imitate the fox have succeeded best. But it is necessary to be able to disguise this character well, and to be a great feigner and dissembler; and men are so simple and so ready to obey present necessities, that one who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived.

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. . . it is well to seem merciful, faithful, humane, sincere, religious, and also to be so; but you must have the mind so disposed that when it is needful to be otherwise you may be able to change to the opposite qualities.

From Chapter 25: How Much Fortune Can Do In Human Affairs and How It May Be Opposed

It is not unknown to me how many have been and are of the opinion that worldly events are so governed by fortune and by God, that men cannot by their prudence change them, and that on the contrary there is no remedy whatever, and for this they may judge it to be useless to toil much about them, but let things be ruled by chance. This opinion has been more held in our day, from the great changes that have been seen, and are daily seen, beyond every human conjecture. When I think about them, at times I am partly inclined to share this opinion. Nevertheless, that our free will may not be altogether extinguished, I think it may be true that fortune is the ruler of half our actions, but that she allows the other half or thereabouts to be governed by us. I would compare her to an impetuous river that, when turbulent, inundates the plains, casts down trees and buildings, removes earth from this side and places it on the other; every one flees before it, and everything yields to its fury without being able to oppose it; and yet though it is of such a kind, still when it is quiet, men can make provisions against it by dykes and banks, so that when it rises it will either go into a canal or its rush will not be so wild and dangerous.

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I would point out how one sees a certain prince to-day fortunate and to-morrow ruined, without seeing that he has changed in character or otherwise. I believe this arises in the first place from the causes that we have already discussed at length; that is to say, because the prince who bases himself entirely on fortune is ruined when fortune changes. I also believe that he is happy whose mode of procedure accords with the needs of the times, and similarly he is unfortunate whose mode of procedure is opposed to the times.

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I conclude then that fortune varying and men remaining fixed in their ways, they are successful so long as these ways conform to circumstances, but when they are opposed then they are unsuccessful. I certainly think that it is better to be impetuous than cautious, for fortune is a woman, and it is necessary, if you wish to master her, to conquer her by force; and it can be seen that she lets herself be overcome by the bold rather than by those who proceed coldly. And there, like a woman, she is always a friend to the young, because they are less cautious, fiercer, and master her with greater audacity.

Questions for Discussion

  1. What kind of behavior is foxlike and why is it sometimes necessary, according to Machiavelli?
  2. How are theatrical gifts useful to a prince?
  3. "Fortuna" was a Roman goddess. What attitudes toward women are spawned by the view that "fortune is a woman"?
  4. Machiavelli suggests that fortune, like a woman, will prefer "the bold" and "the young" to the cautious and the restrained. What are the consequences of thinking about women in this Machiavellian way?

Footnotes

(1) The title refers to the leader of a state, not necessarily to the son of a royal house.

(2) Actually, Machiavelli preferred the republican government memorialized by Livy; and he thought it better to have stability and order under the rule of even a tyrannical prince than chaos of the sort brought upon Renaissance Italy by ambitious foreigners.

(3) A centaur was a mythological creature, a man from the waist up and a horse below.