The Prince: How to Gain and Keep a Kingdom

In Chapters 5-8, Machiavelli surveys, without a trace of moral indignation, the various ways by which a prince may gain power and, perhaps more importantly, how his long-term success is at least partly conditioned by the means he used to establish his rule.  In chapter 5, the subject is how to govern a free city one has conquered.  The three methods generally adopted are to demolish the city, to go there and stay, or permit them to live by their own laws.

The first method may be terrible, but it is effective.  Machiavelli  mentions the conspicuous examples of Capua and Carthage, and  he does allude to Greek cities that had been destroyed, notably Corinth.  He also fails to consider the possible fall-out or what is now termed blow-back.  How much Greek resentment was created by the destruction of Corinth and the devastation of Syracuse?  We only have the accounts of the victorious Romans, so it is difficult to make an estimate.  We do know that when the Greek cities of the East were stirred up by Mithradates, the Greeks eagerly slaughtered Italian businessmen and profiteers.

One might also learn a few lessons from the occupation, looting, devastation, and ten plus years of theft and plundering the South suffered under "Reconstruction."  By the way, what a a sinister expression.  Superficially, of course, it could have meant only the rebuilding of a war-torn society and reintegration into the Union.  What it meant in reality was a social and economic revolution that was intended to destroy the cultural identity of a people and turn them into the servants of their former slaves.  The term reconstruction brings to mind Mao's re-education camps in which elderly teachers and cultivated people were starved and worked to death.   Now, the object of all the petty movements--BLM, Antifa, etc--created and sustained by the American ruling class is to do the American people what the Mao and the Grand Old Party did to the South.

The most humane way of maintaining a conquered city or province is to entrust it to local prominent men who swear loyalty to the regime.  This was in fact the standard Roman practice, and we have the example of Athens as a great success.  The Roman authorities encouraged the restoration of an aristocratic government in Athens and even restored the ancient court of the Areopagus to its ancient and even to greater than its ancient power.  As a Florentine, Machiavelli cannot help lamenting the example of Pisa, brutally conquered and humiliated by Florence, but even so, the ungrateful wretches dreamed of regaining their ancient liberty and rebelled after 100 (actually 88) years of servitude.

Men who conquer by means of their own arms and skill are more likely to remain in power than those who must rely on others.  Interestingly, for his first category he names mythical characters like Nero and Romulus.  Even when, as in the case of Moses, the leader's authority is religious, he will not long stay in power if he lacks the means of punishing and eliminating challengers as happened to Savonarola.  Why?  The simple answer--and absolutely correct-- is that people are generally unstable.  That is why they fall for the promises of revolutionaries, but they soon become dissatisfied.  Elsewhere (in his Discourses on Livy), M. says that the victor in a civil war should get his mass-killing done immediately, lest his subjects begin to suspect him of bloodthirstyness.

In chapter 7 he contrasts two men of ability, Francesco Sforza and Cesare Borgia.  Both were skillful and ruthless, but Sforza, who rose from the bottom, used his own wits and ability to become, first, the greatest condottiere in Italy and then Duke of Milan, while Borgia had to depend on his father the Pope, whose death at an inconvenient moment--Cesare had not consolidated his hold over the cardinals and was very sick--proved his undoing.  Machiavelli had met and spoken with Borgia and admired him, partly for his ability to use a ruthless subordinate to bring order to the Romagna and for his ruthlessness in executing the lackey as a scapegoat.  For a time, the people of the Romagna actually had a more just and efficient government.  Cesare also knew how to play off foreign powers, particularly Spain and France, in his quest for a unified Italy undisturbed by barbarians.  He blames him for naivete in trusting cardinals he had offended and M. insists it is a mistake to think proud men will forget or forgive a slight.

In 8 he surveys men who have risen to great power through criminal behavior and cites the examples of  Agathocles, tyrant of Syracuse and of his contemporary Oliverotto of Fermo, who tricked and murdered rivals and consolidated his military control..  M. asks how could such cruel men be successful in holding onto power, and his sensible answer is that they only cheated and murdered to gain power, and once their object had been achieved they ruled temperately.   To compare great things with small, one might consider the careers of Bill Clinton, a fairly amiable man who stole, cheated, and perhaps murdered for the sake of power but was content to hold the power he gained, with Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton whose actions and decisions were gratuitous expressions of contempt for ordinary American people.


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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

2 Responses

  1. Allen Wilson says:

    This part of the book reminded me of some Byzantine history which I don’t remember much about in the way of details. If memory serves, an emperor went off the deep end and started killing people. He was overthrown by a man who was hailed as a liberator. This I believe was a man named Andronicus. He then meted out justice to all the previous emperor’s murderous henchmen. So far so good, but then he seems to have developed a taste for it and didn’t stop. He turned everyone against him because practically no family was left unscathed. So he was dragged out into the street by an enraged mob who tore him to pieces alive when another man came to the rescue. This new emperor had enough sense to kill the henchmen and his own enemies and stop there, so he stayed in power for a while. But I think this emperor was Isaac II, who eventually was imprisoned and blinded until his son managed to bring the fourth crusade to the rescue. Some rescue that was. If we want to talk about depending on others for power, there was the example of examples.

    Every would-be ruler and usurper should keep these two extremes in mind: Andronicus on one hand, Julius Caesar on the other. The golden mean should rule.

  2. Joe Porreca says:

    Machiavelli has a reputation as being amoral because he advocated cruelty, but it seems that for him the moral person is not one who committs no cruelty, but one who does it well, whcih includes, as he says in Chapter 8, commiting cruelties quickly, once and for all, and then ruling benignly. He writes, “Well committted [cruelties] may be called those (if it is permissable to use the word well of evil) [this parenthetic is Machiavelli’s] which are perpetuated once for the need of securing one’s self, and which afteeerwards are not persisted in, but are exchanged for measures as useful to the subjecs as possible. Cruelties ill committed are those which, although at first few, increase rather than diminish with time. Those who follow the former method may remedy in some measure their condition, both with God and man.”

    Commenting on accusations that Machiavelli was unethical, James Burnham in “The Machiavellians” said that Machiavelli was not only not lacking in ethics, but that his ethics wer better than those of his critics.