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Chapters 17 and 18

Chapter XVII: Of Cruelty and Clemency, and Whether it is Better to be Loved or Feared

Every prince, Machiavelli points out, would rather be considered merciful than cruel. However, cruelty can have its advantages: Cesare Borgia, after all, committed numerous cruelties - but the end result was a united and strong principality. Machiavelli concludes that what seemed like Cesare's "cruelty" was, in fact, actually his "clemency" (mercifulness), since by that cruelty he spared his people the worse fate of political turmoil. A prince who cruelly punishes is not cruel if these punishments help to create political stability; a prince who is merciful is not really merciful if he allows disorders and crime to flourish, injuring everyone.

What about the difference between being feared and being loved? Obviously, every prince would prefer to be loved than to be feared. Taking the realistic view, Machiavelli says that it is best to be both feared and loved, but the two do not often coincide. If one had to choose, he argues, it is better and safer to be feared than to be loved. If a prince is feared, he is much less likely to have his subjects revolt; Machiavelli is not afraid to say that men are generally selfish, and will not hesitate to break the obligations of love when it is to their advantage. Fear, however, keeps people in check. It certainly also possible for a prince to be feared and not hated, Machiavelli also points out, particularly when the prince uses his power to protect his citizens and does not interfere too often in their lives. Since love is too insecure a foundation for government, this fear without hatred is the best a prince can hope to have from his citizens.

Chapter XVIII: In What Way Princes Must Keep Faith

Like the previous two chapters, this one begins with a platitude: it is good for princes to keep their word. Again, though, Machiavelli writes this commonplace down only to question it. Yes, obviously a prince should not lie or act hypocritically and should also live with integrity. However, it is also the case that many princes who have not kept their word have accomplished great things, and have even conquered other princes who have kept their word faithfully.

Machiavelli points out that there are two kinds of fighting: according to the law and according to force. The former is the way of men, the second the way of beasts - but the best princes know how to use both the man and the beast in order to achieve political goals. The prince, he writes, should be able to imitate the cunning fox and the mighty lion - able to defend himself against attack, but also sneak around traps. If a prince is to be fox-like, he must not be afraid to break his promises when keeping them would be harmful to him. Machiavelli knows that this advice doesn't sound too noble - but, he says in his own defense, men are not all good. If they were, it would always be best to keep one's word. Since they aren't, it is sometimes necessary to lie and cheat - because otherwise, you'll be tricked yourself. It is not only a good idea to cheat and lie like the fox, but it is also crucial that the prince be able to disguise the fact that he is doing so. Men are easily deceived, Machiavelli writes, and gives the example of our friend Pope Alexander VI: he was so willing to break his promises when he needed to, that he was the most outspoken promiser there ever was. He had a reputation for making promises, and always took care so that he wasn't caught breaking them.

This chapter ends with one of the most striking passages of political realism in the entire book: Machiavelli claims that a prince should always seem to have virtues, even if he doesn't actually have them. Moreover, he asserts that seeming to have virtues is actually better than really having them, since a prince is therefore not tied by the bonds of morality. If he does not feel any constraint of "virtue," a prince is better able do what he needs to do in any given situation. He must, Machiavelli writes, have a mind "disposed to adapt itself according to the wind," able to do good when he can but also do evil when he must. Still, even though on the inside he is able to scheme, he should be "mercy, faith, integrity, humanity, and religion" on the outside.

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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