Morals in ‘The Prince’

A portrait of Machiavelli

“The Prince” is a text by Machiavelli, an Italian poet, philosopher and diplomat. This text has a common theme of morality amongst the chapters. It often discusses the role that the prince must take on, along with what he should and shouldn’t be doing. Machiavelli spoke a lot about the dichotomy between sticking to one’s morals and doing what helps them stay in power; he states that the prince should be doing things to his own accord, whether it’s good or bad.  For example, in Chapter  15, Machiavelli states that “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.” He says this because he believes that the prince should take all precautions when it comes to gaining and maintaining any power. Machiavelli also discusses how the prince needs to have a balance between acting like a man and acting like a beast. He states that there are two methods for this, “the first method is proper to men, the second to beasts; but because the first is frequently not sufficient, it is necessary to have recourse to the second. Therefore it is necessary for a prince to understand how to avail himself of the beast and the man”. In chapter 18, he explains that this is necessary because if men were good, then there would be no need to consider being bad, however,“because they are bad, and will not keep faith with you, you too are not bound to observe it with them”.

Cruelty in The Prince

See the source image
by: R Solow. A picture of the fox and lion Machiavelli uses to describe when it’s necessary to be cruel.

In Machiavelli’s The Prince, he mentions countless themes and topics such as free will, cruelty, and virtue. Machiavelli believes that cruelty should be advised only in instances where it’s necessary. His views were more clearly shown in chapters 8 and 17. In chapter 8 he advises the prince against injuring his peasants on a regular basis, as this will make him loathed. Instead, he must only be cruel when it is absolutely essential to avert worse wrongdoing. In The Prince, it wasn’t a matter of whether cruelty was wrong or not it was a matter of whether it is used well or not. In Chapter 17 he mentions the instances where being cruel is necessary. In Chapter 17 he states, “You must know there are two ways of contesting, the one by the law, the other by force; the first method is proper to men, the second to beasts; but because the first is frequently not sufficient, it is necessary to have recourse to the second. Therefore it is necessary for a prince to understand how to avail himself of the beast and the man.” In this Machiavelli basically shows his view on cruelty, he believes that the amount and severity depend on the person and situation you are dealing with. In his metaphor when dealing with someone who is a snare you must act like a fox, and for those who are wolves, you must act like a lion. The more power the person has the more necessary cruelty is.  

Generosity in The Prince

Portrait of Niccolo Machiavelli

The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli, specifically in Chapter 16, begins by examining generosity in a ruler. While Machiavelli believes that a prince’s reputation for generosity is “splendid,” he also believes that a ruler who is truly kind “will come to grief.” To gain a reputation for generosity, a prince must be “ostentatiously lavish” to draw the public’s attention. Any ruler who spends extravagantly “will soon squander all his resources” and be compelled to “not mind being called a miser” on his subjects. If a ruler imposes enormous financial demands on his subjects, his subjects will despise him and detest his bad judgment. As a result, a wise ruler “doesn’t mind being dubbed a miser.” His “parsimony” will be perceived as generosity eventually since it relieves the people of the burden of heavy taxation. 

Nonetheless, Machiavelli advises princes to keep up the image of giving while avoiding genuine generosity. People will eventually perceive a prince’s stinginess as a type of charity since it protects their own property while also ensuring the state’s wealth and effectiveness. 

Pericoli dell´Estremismo

Niccolò Macchiavelli, Santi di Tito

Penso che sbagliamo nel giudicare Machiavelli come l’estremista immorale che conosciamo. Dopo aver fatto parte della Seconda Signoria di Firenze come consigliere, ha solo approfondito la sua comprensione di come funziona la politica. Nella maggior parte dei casi, Machiavelli offre consigli realistici su come un leader dovrebbe agire e pensare. La crudezza dell’esempio nel confrontare Oliverotto da Fermo e Agatocle di Siracusa mostra una certa mancanza di empatia per la vita umana. In tutta onestà, in nessun punto Machiavelli invoca la violenza; si limita a presentare che è comunemente noto che il modo più efficace per conquistare uno stato passa attraverso la violenza necessaria. Gli esempi nel capitolo 8 mostrano il sorpasso attraverso l’inganno. Solo una cosa li separa l’uno dall’altro, l’uso corretto e l’uso scorretto della violenza. Oliverotto, come Agatocle, inganna i capi di stato e li uccide. Questa prima mossa è quella che Machiavelli chiama violenza necessaria. Oliverotto abusa della violenza perché continua i suoi atti violenti e alla fine viene ucciso da Cesare Borgia. D’altra parte, Agatocle governò con successo Siracusa molto tempo dopo aver comandato l’omicidio del senato siracusano perché si era astenuto dal commettere atti inutili. Oliverotto diventa così l’esito negativo se un principe usa misure estreme per troppo tempo o troppo spesso.

Fortune In The Prince

Raging River Photograph by Janet Kopper
One of the images that Machiavelli places in our heads as fortune; which is that fortune is like a raging river, representing bad fortune

Early in “The Prince”, we see that Machiavelli believes that personal ability is very important, determining how well they can rule. In chapter 5, he talks about those who have risen the ranks through their own ability, and those who haven’t, rising through fortune. “where there is a new prince, more or less difficulty is found in keeping them, accordingly as there is more or less ability in him who has acquired the state”. With those who have risen only through fortune, Machiavelli believes that they will have difficulty keeping that power. Machiavelli talks more about fortune later on, and more on why fortune shouldn’t be relied on too much.

In chapter 25, Machiavelli uses a river to describe fortune. He talks how fortune can be a raging river that floods the plains and sweeps away anything in its path, but “when the weather becomes fair… their force be neither so unrestrained nor so dangerous.”. Later in the chapter, he talks about the prince determining their actions based off their circumstances; and how if their actions are not suited for the situation, they will not succeed. If their fortune is like a “raging river” and do not react properly, they will not succeed, and may even end up losing their power. Machiavelli believes that fortune is the first half of what your actions are, and that the other half is your free will, or what can be seen as your own ability. The prince’s ability to react to their fortune will determine whether or not they will successful.

Virtue in “The Prince”

Pope Alexander the Sixth, who Machiavelli mentions in chapter 18 of “The Prince” as someone who “never did what he said”.

One of the core themes of Machiavelli’s “The Prince” is that of virtue. In particular, “The Prince” stresses how important it is for a leader to appear to be virtuous. This is exemplified in chapter 18 especially, as seen in the quote “Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them”. In this passage, Machiavelli focuses on the balance between a leader’s appearance and his actions. He believes that in order to secure his power, a leader must appear to have various virtuous qualities (some of these qualities include being “merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright”) to his subjects, but he also needs to be prepared to act the opposite way if the time calls for it. Machiavelli even uses Alexander the Sixth, who “did nothing else but deceive men, nor ever thought of doing otherwise”, as an example of someone who mastered the art of deceiving people with his image. 

To help the reader better understand this concept, Machiavelli uses a simile in the first paragraph, as seen in the quote “ A prince, therefore, being compelled knowingly to adopt the beast, ought to choose the fox and the lion…Therefore, it is necessary to be a fox to discover the snares and a lion to terrify the wolves”. In this quote, Machiavelli likens a leader’s behavior to that of both a fox and a lion (which represent a balance of intelligence and violence), and when a leader must adjust his behavior according to the circumstances. This particular chapter of “The Prince” is interesting because Machiavelli takes a different approach to the concept virtue than most would expect; While most people believe that a leader should be purely good and only exhibit humane traits, such as being merciful, Machiavelli acknowledges that this is unrealistic if a leader wants to maintain his power. Instead, he presents his opinion that actually being virtuous and having good qualities isn’t as important as appearing to have them, and that a leader’s behavior should be able to “turn itself accordingly as the winds and variations of fortune force it”.

The Prince: Cynicism

A painting of Hannibal and his army on the wall of the Capitoline Museum, Rome.

A painting of Hannibal and his army on the wall of the Capitoline Museum, Rome. In The Prince, Machiavelli praises Hannibal and the cruel tactics that he used to keep his enormous army together.

In hopes of obtaining the good graces of Lorenzo Medici, Machiavelli constructed a treatise that advised rulers how to secure and maintain power. Rooted in Machiavelli’s ideas was a poor impression of humanity and justifications for the unvirtuous acts that leaders may take. In chapter 17, he famously writes that “it is much safer to be feared than loved” if you cannot be both because men are “ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, [and] covetous.” All of these descriptions stem from a belief that people are inherently evil and motivated by self-interest. Furthermore, he uses this to say that a good leader should be equipped to fall back on their honesty and act immorally if they must. Therefore, in his mind, it is a good thing to “appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, [and] upright,” while also being fully prepared to do the opposite at any given time.

Destiny/Fate in The Prince

In The Prince, Machiavelli uses very vivid examples and descriptions to support his point of view on how actions and destiny determine a prince’s success. In chapter 25, destiny refers to circumstances that are currently happening, which is not always in the prince’s control. Instead of taking the route that you should not work toward a particular outcome because all events are controlled by destiny, Machiavelli’s point of view in this chapter is that only half of human’s actions are controlled by destiny, and the rest is free will. Machiavelli believes that destiny is a set of circumstances that can lead to success or failure. He uses a river flood as a metaphor, stating that if the Italian princes had more suitable preparations, the “flood” of foreign invitations would not have swept over the unprotected country. Machiavelli implies that virtue is a natural quality that a prince cannot change, therefore if a prince is trying to change their actions to suit the time, they most likely will not because it is not in their nature. Machiavelli’s use of the word destiny was very notable because of the way it led to the rest of the story. When Lady Fortuna was mentioned, Machiavelli said that it is important to treat destiny like the woman she is and approach her with boldness.

The Prince: Leader

The Prince: (Netcomics Edition)

In “The Prince,” Machiavelli discusses what a true leader should be. Throughout the book, he talks about how a prince should behave in order to be a successful ruler. He believes that a prince should rely on himself and should not be overly kind or violent. For example, Machiavelli states in Chapter 8 that it is acceptable for a prince to use violence, but only when it is absolutely necessary. He believes that unnecessary violence will turn the people against him. Machiavelli also believes that a prince must do anything to secure and ensure prosperity in the state. In Chapter 18, he argues that a prince should adapt to a circumstance in order to deal with it effectively. He uses an ancient Greek myth to show the characteristics of an effective prince. In the Greek myth, there were centaurs who are half-man and half-beast. The man was the noble portion, while the beast represented the bad part. This is used by Machiavelli to demonstrate that a prince must be both parts depending on the scenario.


In “The Prince”, Machiavelli believes that good laws and good rulers are derived naturally from a good military. He talks about the topic of war as an almost necessary thing to go through for the development of countries. Machiavelli insinuates that successful countries/rulers are built upon their success in wars. Machiavelli’s description of war touches on more than just the direct use of military force. When he talks about war, he touches on different topics such as, tactical strategy, prowess, geographic mastery, etc. Alongside wars is obviously violence, and Machiavelli talks about that tremendously in the Prince. He discusses ways to become a successful prince, using violence (chapter 8), and then goes on to give an example. He mentions the military commander, and Greek tyrant of Syracuse, Agathocles. In order to become a ruler, he called the leading citizens and the Senate together for a meeting, and then proceeded to massacre them. To Machiavelli, Cruel and evil acts could be justified when done (but not repeated) to establish a prince’s power and to benefit his subjects.