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THE NOVEL - SUMMARY AND NOTES
In the next nine chapters, Machiavelli outlines the basic characteristics of a successful prince, details the nature of leadership, describes the potential rewards resulting from power, and recommends criteria for choosing advisers.
As you read these chapters, you may need to review the first two parts of the book, especially chapters 4, 8, and 10. Those three chapters present Machiavelli's initial arguments that are fully developed in Part III. Do you have the feeling that Machiavelli is revising his point of view in the later chapters, or is he just as confident as he appeared at the beginning of the book? What might account for any similarities or differences you have noticed?
Machiavelli begins the discussion in Part III by pointing out that earlier
writers have discussed the manner in which a prince ought to conduct himself
toward his subjects and allies. He says that he will differ from the rules
laid down by others who wrote before him, because his aim is to write
something useful for his intended reader (Lorenzo de' Medici), rather
than to follow the approach of previous authors who only "imagined"
republics and principalities that never existed in reality.
Some of the previous writers who had described an ideal state or ruler included Plato, Polybius, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and Dante. What makes Machiavelli's approach in The Prince different is that it's a direct and practical blueprint, avoiding purely theoretical issues. He limits himself to the topic of how things are, rather than speculating on how things might be. His examples are carefully drawn from personal, authentic experience and observation rather than from fanciful literary imagination. The result is an honest and frequently candid evaluation of politics, its relationship to ethics, and the rewards of power (as Machiavelli saw them in his own time).
The manner in which men live, says Machiavelli, is so different from the way in which they ought to live that even a good man may be ruined. In discussing the manner in which a prince can avoid being ruined by the many who are evil, Machiavelli presents the fifth of his golden rules:
A prince therefore who desires to maintain himself must learn to be not always good, but to be so or not as necessity may require.
The significance of this rule lies in its suggestion that a prince who wishes only to be honest may himself come to ruin. In other words, Machiavelli warns the prince to take whatever steps might be necessary to achieve his objectives, and not to rely on high ideals alone.
Although Machiavelli admits it would be praiseworthy for a prince to possess all good qualities, such an abundance would be contrary to human nature. Therefore, a prince should at least be prudent enough to know how to avoid those vices that would rob him of his state, and if possible, to guard against the vices likely to endanger it. It will be found, he says, that some things that seem like virtues will lead to ruin if you follow them, while others that appear to be vices will, if followed, result in well-being and safety.
NOTE: MORALITY AND THE PRINCE
Is Machiavelli suggesting in this chapter that evil men as well as good may profit from a reading of The Prince, or that it's impossible for a prince to be completely good or completely bad? Or is he simply being frank by saying that all men, even princes, are only human and there will be both good and bad traits in their character? It seems obvious in the Discourses that Machiavelli regrets that men are neither perfectly good nor wholly wicked, but prone to a middle course in their moral conduct. He does advance his belief that anything may be done if the welfare of the state is in danger, that cruelties in a prince may be justified if the ultimate aim is the restoration of order and the safety of society, and that it's permissible to deceive an enemy when such deceit preserves the state. And if a prince commits cruelty or dishonesty for the sake of the public welfare, Machiavelli's argument is that men do forgive him afterward, posterity does approve the act, and historians do accept and applaud it. You need to evaluate Machiavelli's views here and come to your own conclusion on these questions. Your interpretation here will influence your view of what follows, especially when Machiavelli describes in detail the true character of an ideal prince.