Machiavelli Answers: Commentary

This page provides a commentary on the excerpt from Machiavelli.

In the first, long, paragraph Machiavelli sets forth the idea that in a civic principality – what in our own times would be a democracy – is a city or state in which the leader is chosen by others, either the populace or others with political power, the aristocracy. He notes that the prince whose power rests in the people will find it easier to retain that power as the people are easier to please. Moreover, Machiavelli argues that their favour is more important to the prince than the favour of the nobles, for several reasons. First, because their demands are more easily met, and second, because they tend to be more honest and less self-serving than the nobles. Machiavelli offers no reason or argument for this assertion, but it might be suggested that the populace are rather more constrained by public morality and common cause than the nobles, whose machinations are likely to receive far less scrutiny. Thirdly, the favour of the people outweighs that of the aristocrats since the prince may rid himself of unfavourable elements in the aristocracy, who are few, but he can never rid himself of the people as a whole.

The second paragraph seems straightforward enough, but is noteworthy for its useful insight and categorisation of the motives of those who refuse to join common cause with a leader. Machiavelli discerns two types: the cowardly, who perhaps may still be hedging their bets as to whether the prince’s reign will be long enough or influential enough to be worth uniting with, and the ambitious who will always remain a danger.

In paragraph three, Machiavelli makes the case that it is the people’s favour that the prince must curry, regardless of how he came to power. His chief point is that he will need to rely on them ‘in times of adversity’. Principally, what Machiavelli has in mind here is that when the state is attacked – either externally by foreign enemies or internally by usurpers – the people will be more ready to fight against a foreign enemy or put down a rebellion if they are in favour of the current ruler.

The following paragraph lays down support for this by citing a historical example and by refuting a common saying ‘He who builds on the people, builds on mud’. The adage may be true of the private citizen, but no so a prince. The difference would seem to lie not only in their qualities – for a private citizen may possess both courage and a measure of leadership – but also by their position. The people may return the support of a courageous and inspiring leader as they invest in him not just for patronage but more importantly for protection from oppression, as pointed out in paragraph one.

In the final paragraph, Machiavelli points out that when a leader uses delegates such as magistrates to carry out his orders, this can cause him great difficulty, particulary in times of trouble. When the people become used to receiving their orders through certain channels, they will be more likely to trust those channels in times of emergency. The chapter ends with Machiavelli’s advice that the prince should make sure that it is he, and he alone, who is responsible for their welfare and that, consequently, it is to him alone that they owe their loyalty.

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