True, Machiavelli’s work has, for the past 500 years, become both the source of bedtime stories for all the great despots and the source of countless groans for countless 11th graders. And taken out of context, The Prince may seem like a Ruling Tyrannically for Dummies book, in that it teaches that it is better to be feared than loved.

 

The thing is, Machiavelli doesn’t really promote cruelty. He simply says that if a ruler’s ultimate goal is to keep the principality together, then fear will generally do the trick. He writes that “[a] prince … must be indifferent to the charge of cruelty if he is to keep his subjects loyal and united. Having set an example once or twice, he may thereafter act far more mercifully than the princes who, through excessive kindness, allow disorders to arise from which murder and plunder ensue.” And why does he say that? Maybe it’s because that’s what he figured rulers wanted to hear. Consider that Machiavelli himself was fired right before writing The Prince. When the Medici family came into power in Florence, it seems they felt that Machiavelli, who was a public servant at the time, would best serve the family by not working for them. Since Machiavelli desperately wanted back into politics, he figured the best way to please the powerful was to tell them, unapologetically, how best to stay in power. So, maybe Machiavelli was a ruthless political philosopher who condoned evil dictatorship. Or maybe he was just a bureaucrat who wanted a new job. — J.D. Reid