Chapter VIII, “On Those Who Have Become Princes By Crime,” is one of the key chapters of The Prince. In it, Machiavelli seems to distinguish between outright cruelty and the kind of clever ruthlessness he describes earlier in the work (as exemplified by Cesare Borgia). He makes use of two examples: the first ancient, and the second modern. Agathocles massacred all the senators and richest citizens of Syracuse, and thereby became prince. Oliverotto da Fermo murdered his uncle and other citizens, and forced Fermo to make him its prince. An interesting side-note: Oliverotto was later killed by Cesare Borgia at Sinigaglia, having fallen victim to another statesman’s trickery. How, Machiavelli asks, did these two men “live long, secure lives in their native cities, defend themselves from foreign enemies, and [manage to] never be conspired against by their fellow citizens?” His answer: because their cruelty was put to good use.
Cruelty can be considered well-used if carried out in one stab, the wicked deeds executed all at once, and if it can be interpreted as necessary for self-preservation. This distinction leads Machiavelli to the following argument: “We may add this note that when a prince takes a new state, he should calculate the sum of all the injuries he will have to do, and do them all at once, so as not to have to do new ones every day; simply by not repeating them, he will then be able to reassure people, and win them over to his side with benefits.”
The next chapter, “On the Civil Principate,” concerns another kind of prince: one who gains power “not through crimes or other intolerable violence, but by the choice of his fellow citizens (and this may be called a civil princedom, success in which depends neither completely on skill nor completely on fortune, but rather on a kind of lucky shrewdness).” A prince can rise in this fashion in one of two ways: either by the will of the people, or by the will of the nobles. “In every city,” Machiavelli goes on to argue, “there are two different humors, one rising from the people’s desire not to be ordered and commanded by the nobles, and the other from the desire of the nobles to command and oppress the people.” If nobles see they are having trouble with the people, they make one of their own a prince; he becomes their puppet, and therefore they get what they want on a larger scale. If the people feel that the nobles are oppressing them, they will try to make one of their own a prince; he then becomes their shield against the nobles.
As nobles are particularly difficult to deal with, a prince of any kind should try to win the favor of the populace and keep it dependent on the state. Machiavelli rejects the notion that “The man who counts on the people builds his house on mud,” though he does concede that a prince should not let “himself think that the people will come to his aid when he is in trouble.” As with so much else, it is all about balance.
Machiavelli has a reputation, largely based on The Prince, for a cold-hearted worldview, political cynicism, and philosophical ruthlessness. However, this reputation is largely exaggerated. As influential as Machiavelli’s ideas may have been on future generations of totalitarians, realpolitik maestros, and Kissinger think-alikes, his own approach is far more complex: it reflects a taste for expediency and an emphasis on ends over means, but is muted by a concern for human needs and a genuine interest in human nature.
Consider the following sentence, from Chapter IX: “In fact the aim of the common people is more honest than that of the nobles, since the nobles want to oppress others, while the people simply want not to be oppressed.” Machiavelli adopts an altogether bitter tone when describing the nobles – their greed, their power-lust, their selfishness – and seems to argue that a good prince should rise above such petty wants and lowly attributes. If anything, a prince should pay more attention to the people than to the nobles. While such a formulation may seem to be common sense, it reflects an almost democratic view: the will of the many over the will of the few, protection for the powerless against the threats of the powerful.
That this chapter follows a chapter exclusively devoted to criminal princes is telling. Machiavelli seems unsure whether to condone what he labels as “cruelty” or to condemn it. He seems to take a certain pleasure in recounting the wicked deeds of an Agathocles or an Oliverotto da Fermo; what these men did is indefensible, and yet it worked. Machiavelli, ever the theoretician, proceeds to meditate on why it worked. He nearly traps himself in a philosophical cul-de-sac when, about to explain what he means by well-used cruelty, he writes: “if it’s permissible to say good words about something which is evil in itself.”
Why are the actions of Agathocles and Oliverotto evil, while those of Cesare Borgia are not? We are reminded of Borgia, since it was he who lured Oliverotto to his death. Never would Machiavelli refer to Borgia as a criminal prince, yet he murdered the leaders of rival factions to clear the way for his own ascent, much as did Agathocles and Oliverotto, and he made an example of his lieutenant general after using him to pacify his kingdom, just to save face. To Machiavelli, this is cleverness at its best: actions justified by their very brilliance. It’s not hard to see why everyone from Macbeth to the Corleone family to Stalin have been labeled Machiavellian at various junctures. But would Machiavelli approve? It seems that because the deeds of Agathocles and Oliverotto reflected not so much urgent necessity as a kind of deep-seated bloodlust, they are distinguishable from Borgia’s moves. Whatever the reasoning, Machiavelli’s distinction is notable.
Machiavelli has not touched the bottom of this particular well, in later chapters continues to examine the line between justifiable and unjustifiable cruelty. Nonetheless, what emerges at this juncture in The Prince is the simple assertion, fundamental to the book’s argument, that some cruelty is good and some is not. This rejection of the categorical in favor of the relative or comparative is an important one: there is a sense in which the contradictions in Machiavelli’s theorizing may reflect his own uncertainty as to when cruelty can be excused. It is worth remembering that he was imprisoned and tortured prior to writing The Prince; without lashing out at the Medici family, he does, in his introductory letter, suggest that the cruelty he experienced was unjustified: “you [Lorenzo de Medici] will recognize how unjustly I suffer the bitter and sustained malignity of fortune.” The exile rails against the cruelty carried out against him while defending the cruelty of past princes. At the same time, he refers to historical figures such as Agathocles as wicked men; he writes that people should either be “caressed or destroyed,” and then later turns around and argues that the common people are honest (therefore autonomous human beings with their own virtues) and more noble in their sentiments than the nobles. None of these various positions constitutes a complete about-face vis-à-vis an earlier position, but the shifting of rhetoric and the slipperiness of Machiavelli’s tone does suggest that he himself has not finished grappling with what is perhaps the most fundamental question of all: when do the ends no longer justify the means?