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Chapter 8

Chapter VIII: Of Those Who Have Attained the Position of Prince by Villainy

We have so far been presented with discussions of princes who have come into power by skill (virtý) and by luck (fortuna). There are, however, other ways of gaining power. Machiavelli moves on to discuss princes who come into power through villainy on the one hand, or through election by fellow citizens on the other. Leaving aside election for the moment, Machiavelli gives examples of power gained through villainy. He declares that he will not discuss the "merits" of this method - and while Machiavelli explicitly omits any praise of villainy, what many readers find shocking is his equal refusal to condemn villainy. Instead, he simply notes that some men will find themselves "obliged" to use such tactics - a tremendously practical, and deeply amoral, vision of politics!

So, the examples. The first, from ancient history, is that of Agathocles the Sicilian, who became King of Syracuse although he was born the son of a potter (you can't really get much commoner than that!). From his earliest childhood, Agathocles demonstrated a wickedness matched only by his vigor of body and mind. He joined the militia, rose through the ranks, and one day decided he wanted to be prince. One day, he called a meeting of the Syracusan senate. Once all the people were assembled, he gave a signal to his soldiers, who instantly killed all the senators and rich men of the state. From that point on, Agathocles ruled without any serious threat to his power. A success story? In terms of power, yes - but Machiavelli refuses to call Agathocles' behavior virtý. This is not because Agathocles was a bad guy - after all, virtý has nothing at all to do with Christian "virtue." Rather, Agathocles did not act with virtý because his actions brought him greatness (grandezza), but not glory (gloria) which is the main goal of acting with virtý. While Agathocles achieved political power, he did not achieve renown as a ruler, and so cannot be termed an exemplary prince.

The second example Machiavelli offers comes from recent Italian history. Oliverotto da Fermo was an orphan in the reign of Pope Alexander VI. He was sent by his uncle to a military school, and eventually became a leading soldier. Like Agathocles, however, Oliverotto decided he didn't wish to serve, but to command. He and his allies decided to take over Fermo. He wrote to his uncle, telling him that he wished to visit. When he arrived in Fermo, his uncle greeted him with much fanfare. Oliverotto invited the important men of the town to a feast, and entertained them with stories of Alexander and his son Cesare Borgia. Mid-conversation, however, Oliverotto pulled an Agathocles - his soldiers rushed out of hiding and killed all the guests. Oliverotto then besieged the town, killed the magistrates, and seized power. He would have maintained it, too, were it not for the superior political skill of Cesare Borgia himself - who eventually had Oliverotto executed.

How, Machiavelli asks, were such villains able to hold power so successfully? The answer, he suggests, lies in whether they exploited their crimes well or badly. A good cruelty is done all at once, and ends - no need for more supplementary crimes. A bad cruelty sets in motion a need to repeat crimes, and makes ruling a rather messy business. Note, again, that Machiavelli's grounds for praising government has nothing to do with "morality" - and only to do with what seems to work most efficiently. It's not that you shouldn't commit crimes, but rather that you should commit them well.

Browse all book notes

Historical Context
Important Persons
Points to Ponder
Did You Know
Summary of the Argument
Prefatory Letter
Chapters 1 and 2
Chapter 3
Chapters 4 and 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapters 9 and 10
Chapters 11 and 12
Chapters 13 and 14
Chapters 15 and 16
Chapters 17 and 18
Chapters 19 and 20
Chapters 21, 22, and 23
Chapters 24, 25, and 26


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