What are the qualities of the ideal prince, according to Machiavelli?
According to Machiavelli, the ideal prince should be ruthless and willing to eschew conventional morality to maintain his power. In fact, they should not allow themselves to be govern according to any principle other than the willingness to do what is necessary to deal with whatever issues that fortune throws in his path. He should be willing to be dishonest, telling people what they want to hear, but it is equally important that he be shrewd enough to make people believe that he is honest:
It is not essential, then, that a Prince should have all the good qualities [of leadership], but it is most essential that he should seem to have them; I will even venture to affirm that if he has and invariably practises them all, they are hurtful, whereas the appearance of having them is useful.
Similarly, he should be frugal while appearing to be generous, and even though he should be ruthless, he should also appear to be just. Indeed, in Machiavelli's politics, appearances are everything, as is flexibility. The prince's virtue lay not in his obedience to some abstract moral code, but rather in his willingness to do whatever the situation called for. Machiavelli's hard-headed realism is summarized by the following quote:
[I]t seems to me better to follow the real truth of things than an imaginary view of them. For many Republics and Princedoms have been imagined that were never seen or known to exist in reality.
A leader, he claimed, must be like the lion and the fox, in other words, both mighty and forceful, but also sly and duplicitous when the need arose.
The ideal prince makes it his priority to maintain power. To do so requires him to put realpolitik—the pragmatic aspects of ruling—ahead of moral considerations.
The ideal prince, therefore, puts an emphasis on appearing virtuous rather than actually being virtuous. An effective prince who wants to stay in power must be willing to put virtue (traits such as generosity, loyalty, honesty, and mercy) aside when necessary in order to instill fear in both his enemies and his followers, as fear generates respect. He works to keep the common people on his side by taking care of their needs and appearing strong and resolute, but must be careful as well not to be too generous. Otherwise, the state might not stay financially solvent, and, for the wise ruler, it is imperative the state never suffers from insolvency.
The ideal prince is a risk-taker who puts a premium on military action, as the people respect a warrior. He thinks for himself rather than relying on the judgment of others, knows how to read character, and does not surround himself with flatterers. He lives in reality, not fantasy. He works hard, utilizes his own mind, and makes survival his guide.
In Machiavelli's The Prince, the ideal leader is neither loved nor hated, but respected. He cannot be too generous, because that increases people's expectations of him and it is impossible to keep buying the people's love; the price gets too high. Yet, the prince should not be hated due to his violent nature, because that encourages revolt. The prince should act in ways that keep him in power and maintain his own power. He should be able to read the character and motives of others in order to use them for his own ends. A good prince is able to secure wise counsel who can advise him on things that he does not know. Of course, these councilors must be entirely faithful to the prince and should be replaced when they seek to overstep their authority. The prince should also be his own military expert; it is only through arms and preserving the kingdom that the people's trust and respect can be earned.