The Prince | Study Guide

Niccolò Machiavelli

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The Prince | Chapter 18 : How Princes Should Honor their Word | Summary

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Summary

The topic of this chapter is to what extent a prince should be honest, and to what extent he should be deceitful. Machiavelli cites a myth from ancient Greece to illustrate the characteristics of an effective prince. The story is that famed princes of the ancient world, such as Achilles, were sent to the centaur Chiron to be trained. Centaurs, being half human and half horse, represent the dual nature of people: part human and part beast. The distinctively human part of people's nature is the one that makes them honorable and good, whereas the distinctively bestial part is the one that makes them dishonorable and bad. Hence, an effective prince, who must deal with the world the way it actually is rather than the way it should be, must be able to be both man and beast.

The animals Machiavelli chooses to represent the bestial characteristics a prince must cultivate are the lion and the fox. "So, as a prince is forced to know how to act like a beast, he must learn from the fox and the lion; because the lion is defenseless against traps and a fox is defenseless against wolves." As an example of a ruler who succeeds in showing these bestial traits, Machiavelli points to Pope Alexander VI.

Analysis

The lion represents ferocity and might, and the fox represents cleverness and deceit. In actual practice, the lion-like prince is skilled at warfare, while the fox-like prince is skilled at manipulation. Machiavelli specifically notes Pope Alexander VI's amazing ability to manipulate others, showing how he exemplifies the fox. Machiavelli also notes Alexander VI's military prowess in previous chapters.

Machiavelli's statements in this chapter can be confusing. He says that a prince should "appear compassionate, faithful to his word, kind, guileless, and devout. And indeed he should be so." In the next sentence, Machiavelli says, "But his disposition should be such that, if he needs to be the opposite, he knows how." This sounds contradictory, advising that a prince should have certain character traits but be able to act contrary to those traits without difficulty. Critics of Machiavelli have argued that he requires that an ideal prince have a mindset that no person can actually possess. If this criticism holds, then Machiavelli is violating his own rule—he is ignoring how people actually are in favor of how they should be.

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