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

Chapter 25: What Fortune Can Effect in Human Affairs and How to Withstand Her

It is not unknown to me how many men have had, and still have, the opinion that the affairs of the world are in such wise governed by fortune and by God that men with their wisdom cannot direct them and that no one can even help them; and because of this they would have us believe that it is not necessary to labor much in affairs, but to let chance govern them. This opinion has been more credited in our times because of the great changes in affairs which have been seen, and may still be seen, every day, beyond all human conjecture. Sometimes pondering over this, I am in some degree inclined to their opinion. Nevertheless, not to extinguish our free will, I hold it to be true that Fortune is the arbiter of one-half of our actions, but that she still leaves us to direct the other half, or perhaps a little less.

I compare her to one of those raging rivers, which when in flood overflows the plains, sweeping away trees and buildings, bearing away the soil from place to place; everything flies before it, all yield to its violence, without being able in any way to withstand it; and yet, though its nature be such, it does not follow therefore that men, when the weather becomes fair, shall not make provision, both with defenses and barriers, in such a manner that, rising again, the waters may pass away by canal, and their force be neither so unrestrained nor so dangerous. So it happens with fortune, who shows her power where valor has not prepared to resist her, and thither she turns her forces where she knows that barriers and defenses have not been raised to constrain her.

And if you will consider , and which has given to them their impulse, you will see it to be an open country without barriers and without any defense For if it had been defended by proper valor, as are Germany, Spain, and France, either this invasion would not have made the great changes it has made or it would not have come at all. And this I consider enough to say concerning resistance to fortune in general.

Here Machiavelli is speaking of the two invasions of Italy. First, that of Charles VIII, which caused massive change in Florence, including: the collapse of the Medici government, the loss of Pisa, and the establishment of a new republican government, of which Machiavelli was a Secretary.  Second, the invasion of Louis XII, which touched off a power struggle among Spain, France, and the Empire together with Italian allies for dominance in the peninsula.  Among these struggles was the League of Cambri Holy League, which was a coalition of Spain, Venice, and Pope to drive France out of Italy.  The success of the League enabled the Pope to force Florence to restore the Medici regime, which ended Machiavelli’s political career, after which he wrote The Prince.

But confining myself more to the particular, I say that a prince may be seen happy to-day and ruined to-morrow without having shown any change of disposition or character. This, I believe, arises firstly from causes that have already been discussed at length, namely, that the prince who relies entirely on fortune is lost when it changes. I believe also that he will be successful who directs his actions according to the spirit of the times, and that he whose actions do not accord with the times will not be successful. Because men are seen, in affairs that lead to the end which every man has before him, namely, glory and riches, to get there by various methods; one with caution, another with haste; one by force, another by skill; one by patience, another by its opposite; and each one succeeds in reaching the goal by a different method. One can also see of two cautious men the one attain his end, the other fail; and similarly, two men by different observances are equally successful, the one being cautious, the other impetuous; all this arises from nothing else than whether or not they conform in their methods to the spirit of the times. This follows from what I have said, that two men working differently bring about the same effect, and of two working similarly, one attains his object and the other does not.

Changes in estate also issue from this, for if, to one who governs himself with caution and patience, times and affairs converge in such a way that his administration is successful, his fortune is made; but if times and affairs change, he is ruined if he does not change his course of action. But a man is not often found sufficiently circumspect to know how to accommodate himself to the change, both because he cannot deviate from what nature inclines him to do, and also because, having always prospered by acting in one way, he cannot be persuaded that it is well to leave it; and, therefore, the cautious man, when it is time to turn adventurous, does not know how to do it, hence he is ruined; but had he changed his conduct with the times fortune would not have changed.

Pope Julius the Second went to work impetuously in all his affairs, and found the times and circumstances conform so well to that line of action that he always met with success. Consider being still alive. The Venetians were not agreeable to it, nor was the King of Spain, and he had the enterprise still under discussion with the King of France; nevertheless he personally entered upon the expedition with his accustomed boldness and energy, a move which made Spain and the Venetians stand irresolute and passive, the latter from fear, the former from desire to recover the kingdom of Naples; on the other hand, he drew after him the King of France, because that king, having observed the movement, and desiring to make the Pope his friend so as to humble the Venetians, found it impossible to refuse him. Therefore Julius with his impetuous action accomplished what no other pontiff with simple human wisdom could have done; for if he had waited in Rome until he could get away, with his plans arranged and everything fixed, as any other pontiff would have done, he would never have succeeded. Because the King of France would have made a thousand excuses, and the others would have raised a thousand fears.

Here is how Machiavelli described this incident in The Discourses “Chapter 27 of That Men seldom know how to be wholly good or wholly bad:”

When in the year 1505, Pope Julius II. went to Bologna to expel from that city the family of the Bentivogli, who had been princes there for over a hundred years, it was also in his mind, as a part of the general design he had planned against all those lords who had usurped Church lands, to remove Giovanpagolo Baglioni, tyrant of Perugia. And coming to Perugia with this intention and resolve, of which all men knew, he would not wait to enter the town with a force sufficient for his protection, but entered it unattended by troops, although Giovanpagolo was there with a great company of soldiers whom he had assembled for his defense.  And thus, urged on by that impetuosity which stamped all his actions, accompanied only by his body-guard, he committed himself into the hands of his enemy, whom he forthwith carried away with him, leaving a governor behind to hold the town for the Church. All prudent men who were with the Pope remarked on his temerity, and on the pusillanimity of Giovanpagolo; nor could they conjecture why the latter had not, to his eternal glory, availed himself of this opportunity for crushing his enemy, and at the same time enriching himself with plunder, the Pope being attended by the whole College of Cardinals with all their luxurious equipage. For it could not be supposed that he was withheld by any promptings of goodness or scruples of conscience; because in the breast of a profligate living in incest with his sister, and who to obtain the princedom had put his nephews and kinsmen to death, no virtuous impulse could prevail. So that the only inference to be drawn was, that men know not how to be splendidly wicked or wholly good, and shrink in consequence from such crimes as are stamped with an inherent greatness or disclose a nobility of nature. For which reason Giovanpagolo, who thought nothing of incurring the guilt of incest, or of murdering his kinsmen, could not, or more truly durst not, avail himself of a fair occasion to do a deed which all would have admired; which would have won for him a deathless fame as the first to teach the prelates how little those who live and reign as they do are to be esteemed; and which would have displayed a greatness far transcending any infamy or danger that could attach to it.

I will leave his other actions alone, as they were all alike, and they all succeeded, for the shortness of his life did not let him experience the contrary; but if circumstances had arisen which required him to go cautiously, his ruin would have followed, because he would never have deviated from those ways to which nature inclined him.

I conclude, therefore that, fortune being changeful and mankind steadfast in their ways, so long as the two are in agreement men are successful, but unsuccessful when they fall out. For my part I consider that it is better to be adventurous than cautious, because fortune is a woman, and if you wish to keep her under it is necessary to beat and ill-use her; and it is seen that she allows herself to be mastered by the adventurous rather than by those who go to work more coldly. She is, therefore, always, woman-like, a lover of young men, because they are less cautious, more violent, and with more audacity command her.

The goddess of Fortune

Machiavelli pictured chance as the goddess Fortuna, seen here. Attribution: Vatican, Rome, Italy. Statue of Fortune; Vatican, Rome. Brooklyn Museum Archives, Goodyear Archival Collection (S03_06_01_020 image 2557). William Henry Goodyear [No restrictions or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Fortune, Chance, and Contingency Planning

Machiavelli, like his contemporaries, was totally ignorant of the mathematics of probability, the study of which does not commence until Pierre de Fermat (1601 – 1665) and Blaise Pascal (1623 – 1662).  Consequently, he views chance, not as something that, while totally unpredictable in the short term, may nonetheless show long term regularities.  Hence he pictures fortune, in much the same way as did ancient writers, such as Thucydides, as a sort of primary force, the internal workings of which may be somewhat anthropomorphic, but remain for human intellect a black box.

Aside from his somewhat superstitious, poetic, and sexist musings about the nature of chance, he makes two sensible observations.  First, that chance comes into play in the prominence of leaders who succeed because of a coincidence of their temperament and the needs of the moment. Hence we can guess that the leaders themselves probably do not understand the true reasons for their own success.  Second, chance does not imply helplessness.  In his river-flooding analogy, Machiavelli notes that victims of chance can, nonetheless, do contingency planning and take countermeasures.

Among his other comments is a throwaway line in which Machiavelli tells us that “the end which every man has before him” is “glory and riches.”  It is a reminder of why Machiavelli is still in print.

Machiavelli probably intended this chapter as a preparation for his final one and as a pep talk, encouraging the prince (Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici in particular) to make sensible contingency plans and to resist the counsels of despair.