What is Machiavelli's take on human nature in The Prince?

In The Prince, Machiavelli famously judges that roughly one-half of political reality lies beyond the ability of rulers to directly control. This is precisely why he insists that they act so decisively. At the same time, however, The Prince does not seem particularly interested in the perspective of the ruled. Machiavelli's primary question involves how political power is most effectively wielded and maintained, and this means focusing his analysis from the perspective of rulers rather than their subjects.

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Always a controversial figure, Machiavelli is perhaps at his most polarizing in his account of human nature. In general, Machiavelli argues that human nature is primarily based upon self-interest. Thus, even if a person does something that is often perceived to be virtuous, such as donate to charity, he or she is not doing so out of a general desire to do good. Rather, according to Machiavelli a person only acts virtuously if there is something to be gained by doing so.

This idea is manifest in much of Machiavelli's political policy. For instance, while Machiavelli encourages politicians and statesmen to seem virtuous, it's important to recognize the importance of the trivial verb "to seem." Machiavelli does not think a politician should concern himself with truly being virtuous; instead, he should seem virtuous to bolster his political reputation, as the perception of virtue often wins over the loyalty of the state. As such, the root of Machiavelli's concept of virtue is a prime example of his theory of humans as self-interested animals. 

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What is Machiavelli's perspective on human nature and free will (the will of the ruler versus the will of the subjects) in The Prince?

I would suggest that, at least where The Prince is concerned, the will of a ruler's subjects does not much enter the equation at all. This work is first and foremost written from the vantage point of the rulers, as it addresses the question of how power is most effectively wielded and maintained. In this sense, Machiavelli speaks very little from the perspective of the ruled; this should not be entirely surprising, given Machiavelli's focus on power. After all, aside from the extremely risky option of rebellion, or perhaps through various measures of non-compliance, how much real influence or agency can most commoners be expected to assert within a monarchical system of government?

Ultimately, then, for Machiavelli's analysis in The Prince, the only will that truly matters is the ruler's, and so long as a ruler follows Machiavelli's advice, they should expect that the risk of rebellion on the part of their subjects should be mitigated and contained (at least, this is what Machiavelli would have them believe). Of course, at the same time, Machiavelli is clear on his assertion that the prince can never enjoy absolute control of his political destiny: indeed, as he suggests in chapter twenty-five, "Fortune is the arbiter of one half of our actions.." By this assertion, much of political reality ultimately lies beyond any one human being's ability to control. This is precisely the reason why Machiavelli places such a focus on political decisiveness: since so much of politics are outside of a ruler's ability to directly influence, this means they need to be actively engaged whenever the unexpected occurs, whether it be to take advantage of opportunity or to mitigate potential dangers.

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