The Annotated Prince - The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli with notes by Gene Gessert

Chapter 18: Concerning the Way in Which Princes Should Keep Faith

Every one admits how praiseworthy it is in a prince to keep faith, and to live with integrity and not with craft. Nevertheless our experience has been that those princes who have done great things have held good faith of little account, and have known how to circumvent the intellect of men by craft, and in the end have overcome those who have relied on their word. 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. This has been figuratively taught to princes by ancient writers, who describe how Achilles and many other princes of old were given to the Centaur Chiron to nurse, who brought them up in his discipline; which means solely that, as they had for a teacher one who was half beast and half man, so it is necessary for a prince to know how to make use of both natures, and that one without the other is not durable. A prince, therefore, being compelled knowingly to adopt the beast, ought to choose the fox and the lion; because the lion cannot defend himself against snares and the fox cannot defend himself against wolves. Therefore, it is necessary to be a fox to discover the snares and a lion to terrify the wolves. Those who rely simply on the lion do not understand what they are about. Therefore a wise lord cannot, nor ought he to, keep faith when such observance may be turned against him, and when the reasons that caused him to pledge it exist no longer. If men were entirely good this precept would not hold, but because they are bad, and will not keep faith with you, you too are not bound to observe it with them. Nor will there ever be wanting to a prince legitimate reasons to excuse this non-observance. Of this endless modern examples could be given, showing how many treaties and engagements have been made void and of no effect through the faithlessness of princes; and he who has known best how to employ the fox has succeeded best.

Pope Alexander VI
Pope Alexander VI (1431 – 1503). Attribution: Cristofano dell'Altissimo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

But it is necessary to know well how to disguise this characteristic, and to be a great pretender and dissembler; and men are so simple, and so subject to present necessities, that he who seeks to deceive will always find someone who will allow himself to be deceived. One recent example I cannot pass over in silence. did nothing else but deceive men, nor ever thought of doing otherwise, and he always found victims; for there never was a man who had greater power in asserting, or who with greater oaths would affirm a thing, yet would observe it less; nevertheless his deceits always succeeded according to his wishes, because he well understood this side of mankind.

In his dealings during the League of Cambri Wars, Julius II proved himself a master of deceit and treachery, and at least as mendacious as Alexander VI.  There are two reasons why Machiavelli probably singled out Alexander. 

First, according to Hale (- Florence) (p 180) Machiavelli was writing The Prince in 1413, the year in which Pope Julius died and the cardinals elected Giovanni de’ Medici, Leo X.  Julius had gone to extremes to blacken Alexander’s name. In addition, Alexander VI (Borgia) was Spanish, and it was probably safer to criticize a Spanish pope than an Italian one. 

Second, Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia) was known to be a charmer.  Mallett (- Borgias) (p84) quotes his tutor Garpar da Verona, as saying of the young Rodrigo that “He is handsome; with a most cheerful countenance and genial bearing. He is gifted with honeyed and choice eloquence. Beautiful women are attracted to love him and are excited by him in a quite remarkable way, more powerfully than iron is attracted by a magnet.”  From a man’s point of view, Rodrigo was clearly already a young villain.  In addition, Machiavelli was in office at the time of Alexander’s pontificate and during the time when his son Cesare threatened Florence.

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. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite.

And you have to understand this: that a prince, especially a new one, cannot observe all those things for which men are esteemed, being often forced, in order to maintain the state, to act contrary to fidelity, friendship, humanity, and religion. Therefore it is necessary for him to have a mind ready to turn itself accordingly as the winds and variations of fortune force it, yet, as I have said above, not to diverge from the good if he can avoid doing so, but then, if compelled, to know how to set about it.

Ferdinand II (the Catholic) of Aragon.
Ferdinand II of Aragon (1452 – 1516). Attribution: Michael Sittow (circa 1469-1525) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

For this reason a prince ought to take care that he never lets anything slip from his lips that is not replete with the above-named five qualities, so that he may appear to him who sees and hears him altogether merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious. There is nothing more necessary to appear to have than this last quality, inasmuch as men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, because it belongs to everybody to see you, but given to few to come in touch with you. Everyone sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of all men, and especially of princes, which it is not prudent to challenge, one judges by the result.

For that reason, let a prince have the credit of conquering and holding his state, the means will always be considered honest, and he will be praised by everybody; because the vulgar are always taken by what a thing seems to be and by what comes of it; and in the world there are only the vulgar, for the few find a place there only when the many have no ground to rest on.

One prince of the present time, , never preaches anything else but peace and good faith, and to both he is most hostile, and either, if he had kept it, would have deprived him of reputation and kingdom many a time.

Ferdinand II of Aragon (1452 – 1516) was still on the thrown when Machiavelli was writing The Prince. A few highlights of his military resume indicate that he was not a man of peace:

  • United Aragon and Castile.
  • Reconquered Spain from the Moslems.
  • Expelled the Moslems and Jews from Spain.
  • Was an active participant in the League of Cambri (and Holy League) Wars (1508 to 1516). ]

In Chapter 21, Machiavelli does name Ferdinand and paints an unflattering picture of how he used the pretense of religion to hide his imperialistic enterprises.

Deception: a necessary vice

In this chapter Machiavelli continues his account of what he believes are potentially detrimental virtues.   with his advice to fulfill bargains only so long as it continues to be advantageous to do so.  His reasoning is the same as in Chapter 15, where he begins the discussion of conventional morality.  That is, other princes will not keep their word when it ceases to be in their interests to do so. Note that Machiavelli does not counsel disregard moral virtues.  In fact, he says that a prince should not “diverge from the good if he can avoid doing so, but then, if compelled, to know how to set about it.” 

Here he adds a corollary, which is that since a prince cannot afford moral virtue, but also cannot afford to be hated or despised, he must be deceitful.  He must pretend to be merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious.  Every modern election cycle reminds us that politicians do not need Machiavelli to teach them to observe this corollary.