Niccolò Machiavelli Counsels Julia, Kevin and Tony

The ghost of Niccolò Machiavelli was stirred to action by the Australian elections. The Prince, his DIY manual for rulers on how to gain power and, more importantly, how to keep it, slips neatly into the breast pocket of any modern politician. Scholars and pedants have argued as to its worth; some say it is the work of an evil man, while others believe it to be satire. But as we shall see, its prescience still lights our understanding of the struggle for power.

The first to essay a science of politics, from study of the ancient Romans and shrewd observation of the warring states of popes, kings and dukes circling his beloved Florence, Niccolò offered pragmatism to cool the hot blood of ambition. Any reader of his little book can discern how unjust it was to dismiss it as a mere manual for tyrants. Indeed, we may surely recognise the pejorative attaching to his name as the first destructive application of political spin.

Personal armies and foreign mercenaries may be of the past, but ambition, the greatest of the vices, remains with us. So too do its handmaidens—envy, the whisper, conspiracy—which can lead to the caucus knife, and political death. Our Commonwealth is in truth Niccolò’s principality, his Prince is our Prime Minister; today’s party factions are sprung from his devious nobles; independents and minor parties which can determine balance of power are as his mercenaries and auxiliaries.

So now, after five hundred years, I have conjured his spirit from his tomb in the Basilica di Santa Croce, Florence, where he sleeps beside his esteemed countrymen—Galileo, Michelangelo, Rossini, Marconi—to illuminate our minds on the universal truths in recent events so far from his Florentine Republic. 

* * * 

Although I view these scenes as from afar, yet is it manifest to me that I must not be silent on them, so great are the similarities. The advices I had written in my little volume dedicated to Magnificent Lorenzo di Piero dè Medici, and expanded in Discourses, its companion treatise, hold well in the Antipodes; allow me now to extract the observations most pertinent to events in your Commonwealth:

Where a leading citizen becomes the prince of his country, not by wickedness or any intolerable violence, but by the favour of his fellow citizens—this may be called a civil principality; nor is genius or fortune altogether necessary to attain to it, but rather a happy shrewdness.


Those who solely by good fortune become princes from being private citizens have little trouble in rising, but much in keeping atop; they have not any difficulties on the way up, because they fly, but they have many when they reach the summit.

And in that first ballotta1 three years past, I did observe the presence of the nobles behind the curtains: 

I say then that such a principality is obtained either by the favour of the people or by the favour of the nobles. Because in all cities these two distinct parties are found, and from this it arises that the people do not wish to be ruled nor oppressed by the nobles, and the nobles wish to rule and oppress the people.

As you perceive, my advices could have been drafted for Messer Kevin:

 A wise man ought always to follow the paths beaten by great men, and to imitate those who have been supreme, so that if his ability does not equal theirs, at least it will savour of it.

And it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things, because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.

Concerning the Secretaries of Princes: youth has its place, but young men cannot offer wisdom:

The first opinion which one forms of a prince, and of his understanding, is by observing the men he has around him; and when they are capable and faithful he may always be considered wise, because he has known how to recognise the capable and to keep them faithful. But when they are otherwise one cannot form a good opinion of him, for the prime error which he made was in choosing them.

Had he but accepted my counsel, he would have seen:

The worst that a prince may expect from a hostile people is to be abandoned by them; but from hostile nobles he has not only to fear abandonment, but also that they will rise against him. Besides this, one cannot by fair dealing, and without injury to others, satisfy the nobles, but you can satisfy the people, for their object is more righteous than that of the nobles, the latter wishing to oppress, while the former only desire not to be oppressed.

So it came to be as I foresaw; that his debt to the nobles must needs be repaid:

You have enemies in all those whom you have injured in seizing that principality, and you are not able to keep those friends who put you there because of your not being able to satisfy them in the way they expected, and you cannot take strong measures against them, feeling bound to them.

But Messer Kevin was somewhat too confident of himself. He attended too closely on the teachings of German pastors, impervious to my warnings:

It has always been the opinion and judgment of wise men that nothing can be so uncertain or unstable as fame or power not founded on its own strength. No principality is secure without having its own forces; on the contrary, it is entirely dependent on good fortune.

The common citizen might well ask: Why? Because:

A prince cannot rely upon what he observes in quiet times, when citizens have need of the state, because then every one agrees with him; they all promise, and when death is far distant they all wish to die for him; but in troubled times, when the state has need of its citizens, then he finds but few.

For it is proven that:

The prince who relies entirely on fortune is lost when it changes. I believe also he whose actions do not accord with the times will not be successful.

The cautious man, when it is time to turn adventurous, does not know how to do it, hence he is ruined.

But my precepts went unheeded:

Well-ordered states and wise princes have taken every care not to drive the nobles to desperation, and to keep the people satisfied and contented, for this is one of the most important objects a prince can have.

For it may reasonably be assumed, that when a prince has drawn upon himself this universal hatred, he must also have given special offence to particular men, which they will be eager to avenge. And this eagerness will be augmented by the feeling of general ill-will which the prince is seen to have incurred. A prince ought, therefore, to avoid the load of public hatred.

I affirm it to be shown by history that all such plots have been contrived by men of great station, or by those who have been on terms of close intimacy with the prince, since no others, not being downright madmen, would ever think of conspiring.

So the moment came. Sua Signoria Julia responded to the nobles’ complaints. But neither did she heed my words:

Every prince ought to desire to be considered clement and not cruel. Nevertheless he ought to take care not to misuse this clemency.

Hence it is to be remarked that, in seizing a state, the usurper ought to examine closely into all those injuries which it is necessary for him to inflict, and to do them all at one stroke so as not to have to repeat them daily; and thus by not unsettling men he will be able to reassure them, and win them to himself by benefits. He who does otherwise, either from timidity or evil advice, is always compelled to keep the knife in his hand.

Yet it cannot be called talent to slay fellow-citizens, to deceive friends, to be without faith, without mercy, without religion; such methods may gain empire, but not glory.

Nor did she answer fairly my question: “Whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved.” I had written:

It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with.

Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated.

And: “Concerning those who have obtained a principality by wickedness”:

 A prince ought to take care that he never lets anything slip from his lips that is not replete with the five qualities, that he may appear to him who sees and hears him altogether merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious. There is nothing more necessary to appear to have than this last quality, inasmuch as men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, because it belongs to everybody to see you, to few to come in touch with you. Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are.

 Thus Sua Signoria Julia should not have been surprised when her forces were almost decimated in the great ballottaggio2 of MMX:

Because this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely. They will offer you their blood, property, life, and children, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you. Because friendships that are obtained by payments, and not by greatness or nobility of mind, may indeed be earned, but they are not secured, and in time of need cannot be relied upon.

Men change their rulers willingly, hoping to better themselves, and this hope induces them to take up arms against him who rules; wherein they are deceived, because they afterwards find by experience they have gone from bad to worse.

 With dismay I saw the many untruths in the barbs of language flung with such abandon in the great campaign. Do princes not learn the lessons of history I had distilled for them?

The use of dishonouring language towards an enemy is mostly caused by an insolent humour, bred by victory or the false hope of it, whereby men are oftentimes led not only to speak, but also to act amiss. For such false hopes, when they gain an entry into men’s minds, cause them to overrun their goal, and to miss opportunities for securing a certain good, on the chance of obtaining some thing better, but uncertain. And this, being a matter that deserves attention, because in deceiving themselves men often injure their country.

When the outcome of a battle is at risk, the arms with which a prince must defend his state are either his own, or they are mercenaries, auxiliaries, or mixed:

Mercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous; and if one holds his state based on these arms, he will stand neither firm nor safe; for they are disunited, ambitious, and without discipline, unfaithful, valiant before friends, cowardly before enemies; they have neither the fear of God nor fidelity to men, and destruction is deferred only so long as the attack is; for in peace one is robbed by them, and in war by the enemy.

I wish to demonstrate further the infelicity of these arms. The mercenary captains are either capable men or they are not; if they are, you cannot trust them, because they always aspire to their own greatness, either by oppressing you, who are their master, or others contrary to your intentions; but if the captain is not skilful, you are ruined in the usual way.

Auxiliaries, which are the other useless arm, may be useful and good in themselves, but for him who calls them in they are always disadvantageous; for losing, one is undone, and winning, one is their captive.

But with the battle finely balanced, and the contender for the principality Messer Antonio possessing the advantage in numbers, Sua Signoria Julia was saved only by the charge of mercenaries and auxiliaries arrayed on her left flank. Again, she risked my truth:

One always finds malcontents and such as desire a change. Such men, for the reasons given, can open the way into the state and render the victory easy; but if you wish to hold it afterwards, you meet with infinite difficulties, both from those who have assisted you and from those you have crushed.

Nor is it enough for you to have exterminated the family of the prince, because the lords that remain make themselves the heads of fresh movements against you, and as you are unable either to satisfy or exterminate them, that state is lost whenever time brings the opportunity.

Nor had those auxiliaries in green livery who had entered into accord with her given thought to their danger:

He who is the cause of another becoming powerful is ruined; because that predominancy has been brought about either by astuteness or else by force, and both are distrusted by him who has been raised to power.

As to the mercenaries who exulted that their independence of mind gave them power of the moment:

There are three classes of intellect: one which comprehends by itself; another which appreciates what others comprehended; and a third which neither comprehends by itself nor by the showing of others; the first is the most excellent, the second is good, the third is useless …

And as if for Sua Signoria I had written:

I must not fail to warn a prince who by means of secret favours has acquired a new state, that he must well consider the reasons which induced those to favour him who did so; and if it be not a natural affection towards him, but only discontent with their government, then he will only keep them friendly with great trouble and difficulty, for it will be impossible to satisfy them.

He has only to take care that they do not get hold of too much power and too much authority, and then with his own forces, and with their goodwill, he can easily keep down the more powerful of them, so as to remain entirely master in the country. And he who does not properly manage this business will soon lose what he has acquired, and whilst he does hold it he will have endless difficulties and troubles.

For the despised, bloodied and unhorsed in the battle for the principality, I had little comfort:

Those who have lost their states some one of them will be seen, either to have had the people hostile, or if he has had the people friendly, he has not known how to secure the nobles.

Therefore, do not accuse fortune for the loss after so many years’ possession, but rather their own sloth, because in quiet times they never thought there could be a change.

Messer Antonio, take heart from the histories:

After a strong prince, a weak prince may maintain himself; but after one weak prince, no kingdom can stand a second.


Glory may be won by any action; for although, commonly, it follows upon victory, it may also follow on defeat, if this defeat be seen to have happened through no fault of yours, or if, directly after, you perform some valiant action which cancels it. The other point to be noted is that there is no disgrace in not observing promises wrung from you by force; for promises thus extorted when they affect the public welfare will always be broken so soon as the pressure under which they were made is withdrawn, and that, too, without shame on the part of him who breaks them.

As for the new prince, Sua Signoria Julia: be advised to consider the wisdom of those who have studied the successful principalities, if you wish to prosper:

It is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall 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; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite.

For a man who wishes to act entirely up to his professions of virtue soon meets with what destroys him among so much that is evil.

It makes him contemptible to be considered fickle, frivolous, effeminate, mean-spirited, irresolute, from all of which a prince should guard himself as from a rock; and he should endeavour to show in his actions greatness, courage, gravity and fortitude; and in his private dealings with his subjects let him show that his judgments are irrevocable, and maintain himself in such reputation that no one can hope either to deceive him or to get round him.

Therefore a wise lord cannot, nor ought he to, keep faith when such observance may be turned against him, and when the reasons that caused him to pledge it exist no longer. If men were entirely good this precept would not hold, but because they are bad, and will not keep faith with you, you too are not bound to observe it with them. Nor will there ever be wanting to a prince legitimate reasons to excuse this non-observance. Of this, endless modern examples could be given, showing how many treaties and engagements have been made void and of no effect through the faithlessness of princes; and he who has known best how to employ the fox has succeeded best.

Nevertheless, at risk of the paradox, act with circumspection:

I would not have it understood that any fraud is glorious which leads you to break your plighted word, or to depart from covenants to which you have agreed; for though to do so may sometimes gain you territory and power, it can never, as I have said elsewhere, gain you glory. 

Be advised to avoid flatterers, those who gather groups in circles to test opinions that you call pollsters, and the pompous utterings of popular scribes:

A prince, therefore, ought always to take counsel, but only when he wishes and not when others wish; he ought rather to discourage every one from offering advice unless he asks it; but, however, he ought to be a constant inquirer, and afterwards a patient listener concerning the things of which he inquired; also, on learning that any one, on any consideration, has not told him the truth, he should let his anger be felt.

Therefore it must be inferred that good counsels, whencesoever they come, are born of the wisdom of the prince, and not the wisdom of the prince from good counsels.

Sua Signoria Julia: my appeal for the liberation of Italy from the barbarians is apt:

To all of us this barbarous dominion stinks. Let, therefore, your illustrious house take up this charge with that courage and hope with which all just enterprises are undertaken, so that under its standard our native country may be ennobled.

I leave you with this advice as serving well all triumphant princes in a commonwealth: beware the dangers of unintended consequences, and the sting from an unfulfilled promise made from the cuore3:

Never let any government imagine that it can choose perfectly safe courses; rather let it expect to have to take very doubtful ones, because it is found in ordinary affairs that one never seeks to avoid one trouble without running into another; but prudence consists in knowing how to distinguish the character of troubles, and for choice to take the lesser evil.

And never forget the words the great Roman historian and moralist Sallust put into the mouth of Caesar:

Quod omnia mala exempla ex bonis initiis orta sunt.
All ill actions have their origin in fair beginnings. 

Buona fortuna!


1. Ballotta election

2. Ballottaggio second ballot

3. Cuore heart, core

Excerpted verbatim from Project Gutenberg E-Books:

The Prince, translation by W.K. Marriott, 1908;

Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livius,
translation by Ninian Hill Thomson, 1883.


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