How does Machiavelli think a ruler should act?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Niccolo Machiavelli’s early-sixteenth century The Prince is considered a treatise on how rulers should conduct themselves and handle affairs of state, should they wish to survive. Machiavelli was the product of turbulent and dangerous times, having observed first-hand the intricacies and brutality seemingly inherent in ruling Florence. The Borgias and the Medici were both prominent families and their successes and failures deeply influenced this high-ranking Florentine official. Having been influenced by such regimes and by his own travails, he wrote a manual on leadership that remains widely studied today, 500 years after he completed The Prince.

Machiavelli’s principal concern was the survival of the ruler, whoever that might be at any given time. His experiences and observations did not lead to a series of simplistic recommendations. On the contrary, The Prince is a sophisticated analysis of the precise qualifications and policies needed, he believed, to remain in power. Toward that end, his recommendations cross back and forth between benevolence and evil, between the need, when possible, to be loved by one’s people and the equally important need to be prepared to do whatever is necessary to retain one’s position. Note, in the following quotes from The Prince, Machiavelli’s warning that “the prince” (i.e., the ruler) had better be determined to act ruthlessly for his or her own survival, especially when that ruler assumes control over a populace accustomed to liberty:

and he who becomes master of a city accustomed to freedom and does not destroy it, may expect to be destroyed by it.

“Hence it is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong and to make use of it or not according to necessity.”

These are the words of an individual who believes very firmly that one of the principal virtues of a ruler is ruthlessness. The imperative of survival, Machiavelli understood, also required careful attention to the types of people the ruler chooses to have around his or her court. Specifically, he argued, the ruler should be careful to surround himself or herself with a small, loyal group of trusted advisors who possessed the capacity to tell the ruler what they believe he or she needs to hear:

there is no other way of guarding oneself from flatterers except letting men understand that to tell you the truth does not offend you; but when everyone may tell you the truth, respect for you abates.

The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him.

Machiavelli’s The Prince is a guidebook on how to retain power. It discusses such issues as the requirement to be present among one’s people whenever possible without straying too far or too long from one’s center of power—a difficult task when ruling over a vast expanse such as Russia or China. While Machiavelli emphasized the more mercurial aspects of leadership, however, he also recognized the imperative of staying in the good graces of those over whom he or she rules:

He who becomes a Prince through the favor of the people should always keep on good terms with them; which it is easy for him to do, since all they ask is not to be oppressed.

Therefore the best fortress is to be found in the love of the people, for although you may have fortresses they will not save you if you are hated by the people.

The bottom line for Machiavelli, then, was try to be loved by those over whom you rule, but be prepared to kill them if you must.

Read the study guide:
The Prince

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