A chapter from The Prince, which is reproduced in part above.
This is a commentary that I wrote. Pages in this essay relate to the Penguin Classic edition of The Prince.

This chapter seems fairly typical of Machiavelli's outlook on such matters. He speaks of the choice to be cruel or merciful as if one's morals and conscience should have no bearing it. To him the issue is merely whether a prince will enjoy greater and more stable power if he is loved or feared.

A point that must be kept in mind closely while thinking about this whole issue is one that is made on p56. that men are fickle and unreliable. It is important not to place the foundations of one's own principality upon that which is dependent upon the easily changed opinions of people. Instead it should have some more material backup. While probably very sound in the sixteenth century this point cannot be applied to politics today. Temporary influence and popularity are the only tools of the political party system, and politicians are not "allowed" anything else.

The sixteenth century context in which The Prince was written fits the ideas in this piece of text much better than the twentieth or the twenty-first century. Nowadays, within a democracy being feared is not a solution, as power can be moved around with such ease according to the whim of the populace. In the sixteenth century however the people had to put up with the ruler they had (unless they fell to the drastic measure of rebellion) and follow his policies. The mood of the people could however make a great impact upon the prosperity of a principality, and it was probably for this reason that Machiavelli considers this a point worth making.

Towards the beginning of the chapter (on page 55) Machiavelli illustrates the practical necessity of a stance that takes both fear and respect into consideration. This is consistent with Aristotle's idea of a "Golden Mean" where a temperate virtue lies between two vices (courage is the perfect position between cowardliness and foolhardiness). As a political and educated man it is reasonable to expect that the major ideas of classical philosophy has influenced his upbringing. He very sensibly advises that compassion is not taken too far, as this will lead to disorder amongst the people, who lack the order that fear and the control associated with it can bestow. Of course an excess of fear is likely to lead to feelings of resentment, and repression. This is a situation in which Machiavelli's prince would not want to find himself. This part of the chapter is one that is sensible both in its context, today and then and also in virtually all parts of life to some degree.

Perhaps the most convincing point that is made in this chapter is one that cannot be made more elegantly then by Machiavelli himself.

"And men are less hesitant about harming someone who makes himself loved than one who makes himself feared, because love is held together by a chain of obligation which, since men are wretched creatures, is broken on every occasion in which their own interests are concerned; but fear is sustained by a dread of punishment which will never abandon you."

This seems a very logical and practical point to make, because in a situation in which someone loves or admires another, all that holds then true with that other person and his plans is their conscience, whereas if they are in fear of someone they will do his bidding due to the possibility of punishment. The hold of conscience is one that can easily relinquished, and with few real consequences, whereas punishment is certain, and doubtlessly unpleasant. While this point could not be used by a politician today it could be employed in other circumstances, and would doubtlessly hold true.

The other point that Machiavelli has to say in favour of fear is one that while certainly relevant in the situation of warring Italian principalities would be of no use today. He says that a general should strive to be viewed as cruel and brutal, as this will colour the view of his troops as to his battlefield prowess, and make him seem impressive, and hence even respected or loved, allowing him to be both loved and feared, enjoying the best of both situations. This could have been true up to the nineteenth century, but since then both the face, and the actuality of warfare have changed unimaginably. A general is now just a source of orders, a tactical coordinator and a logistician, not a leader who commands from the front, or anything approaching it.

Machiavelli has a further point to be made about ruling with fear, although this goes nowhere towards resolving the debate as to whether fear or love is the better tool for influencing people, and ensuring a successful principality. He essentially says that it is easy for hatred to be a consequence of fear, and this is obviously to be avoided, and the objective of this mental exercise is to determine how to make a prince's people obedient and efficient. The two options presented are not flip sides of the same coin, they are ways of approaching a problem that have their own characteristics and problems. He says that it is important to avoid offences against a man's property, as he will hold these against an offender more seriously than the demise of a loved one. It seems to me here that Machiavelli is being rather "Machiavellian" in his opinions of other people. I am unable to be sure as to whether Machiavelli is correct in this point, which should hold true today as it did in the sixteenth century (unless the regard for life has truly increased more than I can imagine), and so I am dubious. The point that it is important to avoid hatred is nevertheless an important one, and one that Machiavelli considers sufficiently important to reiterate in his conclusion to the chapter.

A strength of this chapter, from my point of view is the absence of reliance upon examples. While examples are present they are just that, and do not make the chapter more confusing by incorporating them into the same space as theory. The example of Scipio is slightly unnecessary, as it deals only with the comparatively minor point of the cruelty that generals must display. It was however an excellent example to reinforce that point.

Sources: The Prince
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