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THE NOVEL - SUMMARY AND NOTES

CHAPTER 18

To many readers, this is the most important chapter in The Prince. It contains Machiavelli's most specific recommendations on the actions a prince must employ to gain power, maintain good faith, and practice integrity rather than deceit. Some readers see the chapter as alarming, because Machiavelli spells out vices and crimes a prince may be permitted in pursuit of power.

Machiavelli begins the discussion here by pointing out that there are only two ways of carrying on a contest. The first is to use the law to encourage proper conduct and rational thinking. The second is to use force to intimidate and frighten. The first is practiced by men, and the second by animals. Sometimes, when the first proves insufficient, it becomes necessary to resort to the second.

To reinforce his view that a prince should know how to employ the natures of both man and beast, Machiavelli cites the example of Achilles, who is said to have been raised by Chiron, the centaur, half man and half beast. This is the most frequently quoted example in The Prince:

It being necessary then for a prince to know well how to employ the nature of the beasts, he should be able to assume both that of the fox and that of the lion; for while the latter cannot escape the traps laid for him, the former cannot defend himself against the wolves. A prince should be a fox, to know the traps and snares; and a lion, to be able to frighten the wolves; for those who simply hold to the nature of the lion do not understand their business.

Understanding this, says Machiavelli, a wise prince should not fulfill his pledges when their observance is contrary to his interests, or when the causes that induced him to pledge his faith no longer exist. If people were all good, this advice would not be helpful; but since people are naturally bad, and will not keep their faith with the prince, he should not keep his, either.

In listing the characteristics of the prince who is both fox and lion, Machiavelli points out that the prince should be a great hypocrite and dissembler, for people are so simple and ready to respond to immediate necessity that the deceiver will never lack dupes. Pope Alexander VI, for example, was a master at using this technique to further his power. He deceived his followers, broke his pledges, and failed to keep his promises. Nevertheless, he was successful in his deceits because he knew the weaknesses of men.


It's not necessary, then, for a prince to possess the generally admired qualities; it's only essential that he "seem" to have them. To have them all and to practice them constantly can be destructive. To appear to have them, however, is very useful. Therefore, it's sometimes necessary for a prince to have a versatile mind capable of easily changing with the winds of fortune. He should not swerve from good if possible, but he should know how to resort to evil if necessity demands it.

NOTE:

Machiavelli's rhetorical use of the myth of Chiron is not a typical reading of the ancient story. Traditionally, Chiron is used as an example of the harmony, or balance, that is possible when man is ruled by both reason and strength. The combination of man and beast, like the example of Chiron, is a positive force that promotes a keen mind (man) and a strong will to survive (beast). Machiavelli, however, uses the image of half man and half beast to defend the concept of cunning and brute force. You can guess that his interpretation is slanted toward reinforcing his own point of view.

Some readers find it curious that this chapter makes only a fleeting reference to the role that religion might play in helping a prince maintain good faith. Machiavelli wrote at length about religion in The Discourses, but here he makes only brief and veiled references to the organized church. Is his reticence deliberate? Do you think he's suggesting that religion might be a threat to his political theory of absolute power because it unites the people in a common cause, thus making it more difficult for a prince to assume control of them? Think about these questions. Remember, though, that Machiavelli has already stated his belief that religion should be subordinate to the prince and the state, and that religion represents a powerful threat to a prince seeking absolute power. How would these thoughts have been received by Lorenzo, whose uncle was the pope? Does this help explain Machiavelli's apparent decision to skirt a discussion of religion in this chapter?

Machiavelli also says it's important that a prince never say anything that does not reflect charity, integrity, humanity, uprightness, and piety. Of all these qualities, it's most important that a prince appear to be pious, because people usually judge more by what they see than by what they feel. Everybody sees what a prince seems to be, but few really know who he is.

Therefore, a prince should look mainly to winning and to the successful maintenance of his state. The means he employs for this will always be considered honorable and will be praised by everybody. The common people are always taken in by appearances and by results-and it is the "vulgar" masses that constitute the world.

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