by Nicolo Machiavelli
comments by Maarten Maartensz
Go to the Table of Contents | Previous Chapter | Next Chapter
Go to the Text
Concerning New Principalities Which Are Acquired Either By The Arms Of Others Or By Good Fortune
Note 1: Here one of Machiavelli's points is this: It happens and is entirely possible to obtain power in a state by riches, favors, or other means not depending on one's real abilities and own efforts - but such holders of power that was imposed or given rather than that it was due to their own abilities and efforts, generally - in times of trouble at least - very soon loose it to others, who are better equipped for the seizing and holding of political leadership.
Moreover - and this one of Machiavelli's main motives, it would seem to me:
The uniform consequence of leaders without the requisite abilities to lead is great misery or death for many of the population they incompetently lead.
Indeed, normally the fighting and suffering supposedly done by leaders, according to books of history and people's way of talking, in fact was done and suffered by their followers, and the fields of battle generally are filled with corpses felled in the fight for anothers' ambitions and pretensions. Back.
Note 2: The same point of the previous paragraph restated.
It is well to repeat the sort of remark I just made: It may be so that weak leaders who come to power by some coincidence of fortune (usually an economical crisis, with many poor willing to support whoever seems to offer them a way out to a better life) normally rapidly fall - but as the history of the previous century shows, with such "Princes" as Idi Amin, Pol Pot, the Duvaliers, and Mao, the reign and fall of weak leaders may destroy many of their subjects and much of the culture and civilization they took the power in. Back.
Note 3: These are examples of leaders of Machiavelli's own time. It is noteworthy that Cesare Borgia (the son of Pope Alexander VI) by Machiavelli's own principles was to be distrusted as a capable leader, for he owed his position to the help of his father.
It is also noteworthy that Machiavelli knew Cesare Borgia personally (and was Florence's ambassador to him, in 1502) - and that his letters about this meeting are far more scathing than his praise of Borgia in "The Prince".
Below I shall give my reasons for these two different appraisals of the same man. Back.
Note 4: What is noteworthy in this passage are especially its beginning and end:
"THOSE who solely by good fortune become princes from being private citizens have little trouble in rising, but much in keeping atop"
"the duke decided to depend no more upon the arms and the luck of others."
Another remark that needs to be made is that even if the Borgias were each and all monsters of cruelty, deception and ambition, still they also were remarkably constant in their family loyalties (indeed, including incest, if these stories can be credited).
This is well worth noting, for there is a zoological and animal side to the actions and beliefs of men that men generally do not wish to see: Human loyalties, such as they are, are mostly based on family loyalty or indeed a kind of personal infatuation. The latter the discerning reader may see on party conferences of all kinds and parties, where political leaders or would be leaders are venerated - treated, talked about, addressed, praised - by their followers as if they were divinities or supermen. Back.
Note 5: Here a little of this history - that took place in December 1502, in Machiavelli's presence - that was much discussed at the time, has to be clarified. What happened in fact is that Cesare Borgia succeeded, by careful flattery, by deception and by presents, to lure his political opponents to the village of Sinaglia - where he had them strangled.
Incidentally, one main reason why Cesare Borgia could take over the territory of Romagna is stated by Machiavelli in the next paragraph's start:
"When the duke occupied the Romagna he found it under the rule of weak masters, who rather plundered their subjects than ruled them"
Also, Machiavelli's own consideration that it is far better for most of his subjects to have a cruel but competent leader than an affable but incompetent parasite also plays an important role in his assessment of Borgia and other leaders of his time. And the reader who may think otherwise should keep in mind that affable incompetent leaders as a rule are the figure-heads of ruthless crooks, and that where political leadership is weak, ordinary criminality and corruption are usually strong. Back.
Note 6: In fact, this murder was a very cruel murder of a very cruel man, that also illustrates a principle most political leaders have followed in fact:
To let most of cruelty one needs in order to obtain and secure power be done by underlings, and to punish or kill these underlings if they get too powerful or if this is convenient to placate the population.
One reason this is often successful is that most men seem to find it very hard to conceive of their leaders as if they were ordinary men, and that veneration of leaders seems to arise naturally in the average human breast: While e.g. Stalin and Mao were cruel brutes, most of their subjects kept believing, against all evidence, that Stalin and Mao were not responsible for the cruelties of their underlings, but that their underlings were, and indeed that these venerated leaders, who let themselves be propagandized into universal geniuses of superhuman benevolence, did not know what happened under their rule and would not have approved had they known. Back.
Note 7: Since we shall have to make up our minds on Cesare Borgia and on Machiavelli's presentation of him, as a supposed example of a most excellent political leader (or Prince), it is well to note here his
"and this he would have quickly accomplished had Alexander lived."
because by Machiavelli's own stated principles this reliance of Cesare Borgia on the continued health and well-being of his father the pope was a weakness rather than a strength by Machiavelli's principles of politics, that imply that the only real strength one has and can rely on is one's own, and was itself a mistaken and unrealistic judgment. Back.
Note 8: What's noteworthy in this list of Cesare Borgia's acts to obtain power and influence is this factual sum up:
"he had killed as many of the dispossessed lords as he could lay hands on, and few had escaped; he had won over the Roman gentlemen, and he had the most numerous party in the college"
which shows that generally men follow leaders rather than principles. Human loyalties are nearly always to persons, not principles, whether moral or otherwise.
Incidentally, "the college" is the Roman college of cardinals, and Cesare Borgia ruled in Rome also by murder and terror (and seems to have had strong sadistic inclinations himself: he much liked to see others in pain because of his acts). Back.
Note 9: Here the following things are noteworthy:
(1) "Yet there were in the duke such boldness and ability, and he knew so well how men are to be won or lost, and so firm were the foundations which in so short a time he had laid, that if he had not had those armies on his back, or if he had been in good health, he would have overcome all difficulties. "
(2) "On the day that Julius II was elected, he told me that he had thought of everything that might occur at the death of his father, and had provided a remedy for all, except that he had never anticipated that, when the death did happen, he himself would be on the point to die."
The first remark is highly dubitable given the historical facts, but cannot be decided, since Cesare Borgia failed in his aims. What matters most is Machiavelli's judgment that Cesare Borgia - especially he, in that time of contesting princes - had "such boldness and ability, and he knew so well how men are to be won or lost" compared to others.
It would seem to me that Machiavelli was right in stressing Borgia's boldness and ability, and also right in stressing Borgia knew how to win over men, but also that he was mostly satirical and willfully disingenuous in presenting Cesare Borgia (to a would-be prince and member of the Medici family, that Machiavelli had good grounds for despising) as an example of an excellent prince and political leader.
The second remark is especially interesting in Machiavelli's saying "he told me":
Indeed, the scene of Machiavelli and Borgia talking for hours on the issues of how to obtain and maintain political power is fascinating, and happened in fact. However, at that time Machiavelli was much less impressed with Cesare Borgia than he pretended to be in "The Prince". I shall discuss his reasons for pretending this in the next note.
Another reason this remark is interesting is the mentioning of Pope Julius II, who succeeded Cesare Borgia's father Pope Alexander VI. These were two atheistic popes, and both were quite extra-ordinary characters, the Borgia-pope for greed, duplicity, cunning, and the use of any means whatsoever to gain his ends, and pope Julius for his interest in the arts (he set Michelangelo to work on the St. Peter and in the Sistine Chapel) and for his impetuous soldiering. Back.
Note 10: Here the most interesting point is Machiavelli's saying that
"When all the actions of the duke are recalled, I do not know how to blame him, but rather it appears to me, as I have said, that I ought to offer him for imitation to all those who, by the fortune or the arms of others, are raised to government."
which has shocked many people who admired Machavelli's acuity of intellect:
How could such a capable man as Machiavelli come to support such a monster of duplicity, ambition, cruelty and perfidity like Cesare Borgia undoubtedly was, as the prime example of political leadership, who he does "not know how to blame"?
My answer is a simple one: In fact Machiavelli was mostly satirizing the persons he addressed with "The Prince", who themselves were would-be princes of the Medici family, who Machiavelli had very good cause to dislike.
What he is telling them is in fact this:
If you want to be successful in politics - in these times, with men as they are - you should emulate the duplicity, cruelty, duplicity and pure result-directed ambition of a Cesare Borgia. Look into the mirror, and behold yourself: Princes, and leaders of men, only can succeed in the world such as it is, with men such as they are, if they behave as monsters.
Of course, Machiavelli also believed that one needs strong leaders, and that in politics one cannot do without lies, duplicity, dishonesty, unfaithfulness, and trickery, if indeed one wants to get power or remain in power.
But - having read his other texts as well - I find it personally quite incredible to believe Machiavelli could have been completely serious in recommending such a character as Cesare Borgia as an example of a political leader to be followed.
And indeed there is in Machavelli's writings an interesing pen portrait of another Italian strong, bold and highly gifted political leader, who lived some 150 years before Machiavelli: "The life of Castruccio Castracani of Lucia", which can be found in "Machiavelli - The History of Florence and Other Selections", ed. M.P. Gilmore.
What Machiavelli in fact was doing was painting the portrait of the leaders of his and earlier times as they really were, while trying to motivate his contemporary Italian leaders to do what he thought supremely necessary: To get good government, to oust foreign troops, and to unify Italy.
Machiavelli was quite sure this could only be done by one or a few men of superior ability, who also were willing to use such means as were required, and he was no believer at all in either human equality or in do-gooders, while he also much desired to see Italy freed from foreign usurpation and foreign troops, and to be united under one competent leader, but it seems to me a virtual certainty that he depicted Cesare Borgia (of all men!) as the prime example of an effective leader because he believed in fact that most leaders tend to be or become pretty monstrous. (Lord Acton's sum-up of the lessons of history applies: "All power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. All great men are bad.") Back.
Note 11: To support the previous remark, one should note Machiavelli's
"Only can he be blamed for the election of Julius II"
which indeed was a great mistake on Cesare Borgia's part. And indeed, if one reads Machiavelli's text carefully, that ends with
"Therefore, the duke erred in his choice, and it was the cause of his ultimate ruin."
one sees that in fact Machiavelli considered Borgia an able and ruthless man, born with a golden spoon in his mouth, and brought to primacy through the help of his father, and who through his own mistaken judgments ruined his chances for satisfying his ambitions.
On the other hand, one should add that even so, Machiavelli would probably have supported Cesare Borgia had he succeeded in realizing Machiavelli's desires for Italy: An Italy not dominated by foreign powers, nor pillaged by foreign troops, and unified under one competent leader, in the interest of all Italians.
Finally, it makes sense to hold on to
"men injure either from fear or hatred"
"He who believes that new benefits will cause great personages to forget old injuries is deceived."
which seem to be correct. As a rule, the weak find it far easier to forgive and forget than the strong. Back.