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The Prince | Study Guide

Niccolò Machiavelli

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Chapter 17

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Chapter 17 of Niccolò Machiavelli's philosophical text The Prince.

The Prince | Chapter 17 : Cruelty and Compassion; and Whether It Is Better to Be Loved Than Feared, or the Reverse | Summary



Machiavelli discusses the relationship between cruelty, compassion, and the behavior of an effective prince. He returns to Cesare Borgia as an example of effective behavior. Cesare, states Machiavelli, ruled a prosperous and stable domain despite a reputation for cruelty.

An effective prince must try to gain a reputation for compassion but also be willing to be cruel when the stability of his domain calls for it. However, even when a situation requires cruelty, Machiavelli warns that the prince should not act too quickly. Even if a prince has a reputation for cruelty, Machiavelli claims that this will not lead to his downfall.

Whereas being cruel to the people is acceptable if it cannot be avoided, Machiavelli claims that being cruel as a military leader is indispensable. Being lenient toward soldiers can lead only to bad consequences, according to Machiavelli. To illustrate this, he gives the contrasting examples of the famous Carthaginian general Hannibal and the famous Roman general Scipio Africanus. Hannibal's troops endured great hardship under his command because they knew to disobey him meant death. In contrast, Scipio's armies disobeyed and mutinied because they knew that he was hesitant to punish them.


Machiavelli states, "It is far better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both." Thus, if the people do not obey because of their loyalty, it will be an acceptable substitute if they obey because they know the consequences of disobeying are harsh. Again, the stability and prosperity of the prince's domain is what is important—whatever supports this goal is acceptable to Machiavelli.

The core of Machiavelli's arguments concerning compassion and cruelty rely on his picture of human nature. Machiavelli believes that humans are motivated by the desire to minimize harm and maximize benefit to themselves. As such, he believes that people will more quickly do harm to someone who they believe will not harm them in return. Further, being overly compassionate will lead people to believe that a prince will not harm them if they harm him. This is a situation that Machiavelli advises a prince should avoid at all costs. Hence, people must believe that a prince will fatally harm them if they harm him first.

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