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THE NOVEL - SUMMARY AND NOTES

CHAPTER 17

This chapter is concerned with Machiavelli's answer to the question, Should a prince appear to be cruel or merciful in his quest for power? Machiavelli also discusses the nature of being "loved" and "feared" by the people and warns against the misuse of mercy.

Some of Machiavelli's response is a restatement of views regarding the role of cruelty made in Chapter 8. Here, he again uses Cesare Borgia as the model to reveal the distinction between cruelty and mercy. Cesare was considered cruel, says Machiavelli, yet by his cruelty he united Romagna and brought order, peace, and loyalty to that region. If we carefully examine his course of actions, says Machiavelli, we find it much more merciful than the course the people of Florence took when, to escape the reputation of cruelty, they allowed Pistoria to be destroyed.

A prince, therefore, shouldn't mind being thought cruel, especially when he can keep his subjects united and loyal. A few displays of severity will be more merciful than to allow, by an excess of mercy, disorders to occur. For these injure a whole community, while the executions ordered by a prince fall only upon a few individuals.

A prince should recognize that any new ruler must act swiftly to consolidate power. In acting swiftly, however, he may create the impression that he is cruel-but that is to be expected.

NOTE:

The subjects of mercy and cruelty were favorite topics among the ancient Roman moralists. Seneca's essay "On Mercy" was the most celebrated treatment of the theme, and we may assume, in light of his interest in Roman and classical literature, that Machiavelli was familiar with it. According to Seneca, also a distinguished playwright known for his "blood and thunder" tragedies, a prince who is merciful will always show how reluctant he is to turn his hand to punishment. He'll resort to violence only when repeated wrongdoing has overcome his patience. Machiavelli, however, takes the opposite point of view. He says that if you begin by trying to be merciful-so that you "let evils continue"- and only turn to punishment after murders or plunder result, your conduct will be far less merciful than if you have the courage to begin by inflicting a little cruelty. A government should not worry about incurring reproaches for those actions which maintain public order.


Machiavelli then turns his attention to a related question: Is it better for a prince to be loved or feared? It would be better to be both loved and feared at the same time, he says, but since that's difficult, it's safer to be feared than loved. In his view, people are generally ungrateful and fickle. As long as you shower favors and benefits upon them, they are loyal. They offer to give their blood, lives, or children-provided the necessity for it is far in the future. When necessity is at hand, they revolt. A prince who relies upon words from such people, without having provided for his own security, is ruined. Thus, friendships won by rewards rather than by greatness and nobility of soul are not real and cannot be depended upon in time of adversity.

Besides, people have less hesitation in offending one who makes himself beloved than one who makes himself feared, for love holds by a bond that is broken whenever it's in the interest of the obliged party to break it. But fear holds by the apprehension of punishment, which never leaves men.

In defending his point of view, which at first glance you may think is harsh, Machiavelli advances the sixth golden rule of The Prince to support his interpretation of human nature: And if you should be obliged to inflict capital punishment upon any one, then be sure to do so only when there is manifest cause and proper justification for it; and, above all things, abstain from taking people's property, for men will sooner forget the death of their fathers than the loss of their ancestral land.

There will never be any lack of reasons for taking people's property, says Machiavelli, but finding reasons for taking life are not so easily found and are more readily exhausted.

According to Machiavelli, when a prince is at the head of his army, it's necessary for him to disregard the reputation of cruelty-for without such severity no army can be kept together.

Hannibal was able to command a large army and a vast empire, says Machiavelli, because he instilled fear of his cruelty in his followers. Without the reputation for inhuman cruelty, all his virtues would not have sufficed to produce that result. For example, Scipio, an outstanding captain in the Roman army, faced rebellion because of his excessive kindness and generosity, which allowed his soldiers more freedom than military discipline should permit. Had Scipio been living under the Roman Empire instead of the Republic, which tolerated mercy, Machiavelli suggests, his kindness and generosity would have been considered a fault rather than a virtue.

NOTE: MACHIAVELLI'S VIEW OF HUMAN NATURE

The classical answer to Machiavelli's question, "Is it better to be loved than feared?" had been furnished by Cicero in his "Moral Obligation." Cicero believed that "fear is but a poor safeguard of lasting power," while love "may be trusted to keep it safe forever." Again, Machiavelli disagrees with this outlook. Why? Perhaps because of his acute psychological analysis of human nature as he observed it in his time. He sees people as greedy, fickle, and treacherous. If people are corrupt and greedy for profit, Machiavelli argues, the wise prince should exploit those weaknesses to gain control over them. Subsequently, the successful prince can use fear to maintain power.

As you continue reading, keep in mind the portrait of human nature that Machiavelli has sketched in this chapter. Given Machiavelli's views of human nature as seen in The Prince, you should more easily understand the power system he advocates to ensure political stability.

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