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THE NOVEL - SUMMARY AND NOTES
There are historical and classical examples of noble leaders who have gained new principalities by their courage and ability, rather than by the benevolent hand of good fortune. Machiavelli believes the study of these examples is important. His second golden rule advises:
A wise man should ever follow the ways of great men and endeavor to imitate only such as have been most eminent; so that even if his merits do not quite equal theirs, yet that they may in some measure reflect their greatness.
The examples of powerful princes who used their courage and ability-what Machiavelli calls their virtu-to advance their careers are drawn from history, and include Moses, Romulus (the legendary founder of Rome), Cyrus (founder of the Persian Empire), and Theseus (mythological king of Athens). According to Machiavelli, Moses, the biblical figure who liberated the Jews from Egypt, was fortunate that the people of Israel were slaves in his time, or they might not have chosen to follow him. Machiavelli skips over Moses fairly quickly because Christians would be likely to attribute his success, not to his own ability, but to the help he was believed to have received from God. Romulus was lucky that he was expelled from his native Alba, or he would not have become the founder of Rome in 753 B.C. Likewise, if the Persians had not been discontented with their Median rulers, Cyrus might never have gained power. Even Theseus was favored by the gods when the Athenians fled without engaging his advancing armies in combat.
Each of these leaders was presented with unique opportunities, but could not have succeeded without also having exceptional personal ability. They had no other favor from fortune but opportunity, which gave them the material to mold into whatever form seemed to them best.
It was these opportunities, therefore, that made these men fortunate; and it was their personal courage and talents that enabled them to recognize the opportunities by which their countries were made illustrious and happy. Those who by similar noble conduct become princes acquire their principalities with difficulty but maintain them with ease. The difficulties they experience in acquiring their principalities arise in part from the new ordinances and customs they are obliged to introduce to found their state and maintain their own security.
When leaders depend upon their own strength, they rarely incur danger. Thus it was that the leaders who came with arms in hand were successful, while those who were not armed were ruined. Neither Moses, Cyrus, Theseus, nor Romulus would have been able to enforce their laws and institutions for any length of time if they had not been prepared to enforce them with arms. To further reinforce his point, Machiavelli introduces the story of Girolamo Savonarola.
Savonarola was a Dominican friar who had much influence in Florence from 1494 until his death in 1498. Admired by the people, he was a reformer who advocated high standards of personal morality. However, Savonarola failed in his attempt to establish a new order of things as soon as the people ceased to believe in him. He didn't have the means to keep his believers firm in their faith, nor did he have the power to make skeptics believe. Without a powerful military to protect him, Savonarola was soon overthrown and his reforms were swept away.
In contrast to Savonarola, Machiavelli cites Hiero II of Syracuse, a figure from the third-century. He began as a private citizen of considerable ability. After the people of his city, located on the coast of Sicily, made him ruler because of his demonstrated talents, Hiero disbanded the old military force and created a new one loyal to him. Then he abandoned his old allies and alliances. Although he had much trouble in winning a principality, once he had done so he had little difficulty in maintaining it. Here, Machiavelli declares, is an example of a prince who relies more on his own strength and ability, than on good fortune, to achieve his objectives.
The example of Savonarola is interesting. Machiavelli is said to have witnessed Savonarola's execution and to have openly wept. If Machiavelli were really the diabolical person that popular opinion considers him, would he have done this? It's also important here to understand Machiavelli's definition of fortune, especially when he later contrasts it with virtue. Fortune presents opportunities. A prince may be presented with several opportunities, but the superior prince will unhesitatingly take full advantage of each opportunity. "Strike while the iron is hot" is Machiavelli's advice.