What, according to Machiavelli in The Prince, were the basic criteria essential for a good prince?        

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Scott David eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Machiavelli, in The Prince, espoused qualities of initiative and calculated ruthlessness: this second part is particularly important, because Machiavelli is sometimes misunderstood on this account. Probably the most oft-quoted bit of Machiavelli is itself a severe simplification: "it is better to be feared than loved." This part is true (Machiavelli certainly said it), and it is an important aspect of Machiavelli's political analysis, but at the same time, there are two critical caveats that are often left out (and which are central to the message Machiavelli is trying to give). First: if at all possible, the Prince will want both fear and love. Second: while it is better to be feared than loved (because to Machiavelli popularity on its own is fickle and can't be counted on to ensure a stable power base), one must never let that fear turn into hatred. For Machiavelli, everything comes down to pragmatism and political calculation.

Anyway, the primary interest of a Prince, as Machiavelli understood it, was to maintain and expand political power, and The Prince does read as a kind of handbook concerning the most effective tactics of doing so. Machiavelli champions a politics of deception, where appearance is more important than reality. Thus Machiavelli suggests that it is more important to give the appearance that one upholds the traditional virtues--honesty, generosity, piety, mercy, etc. is more important than the reality, and in fact so long as the prince could maintain the illusion, it will often be to their benefit to break with those traditional virtues when the chance arises. Finally, for Machiavelli, the Prince was most of all a militaristic figure, whose primary task lay in the waging of war.

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In many ways, Machiavelli sums up the ideal characteristics for a good prince with his famous "lion and fox" analogy. A leader should be wily and tough, willing to use force but always looking for a way to maneuver out of a situation. Overall, he should be "prepared not to be virtuous, and to make use of this or not according to need." More specifically, Machiavelli says a good prince should be the following:

  • not excessively generous, it is better, in fact, to be miserly.
  • feared by his people, but not to the point he will be hated.
  • willing to use bad faith, while appearing to be honest.
  • successful in military campaigns.
  • able to avoid an "evil reputation" though he may have to carry out evil deeds.
  • willing to be blamed for things that, while bad, will be good for the state.

The important point, again, is that princes should not be governed by a universal code of morality, but by the exigencies of maintaining power.

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