The Prince | Study Guide

Niccolò Machiavelli

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The Prince | Chapter 8 : Those Who Come to Power by Crime | Summary

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Summary

Machiavelli identifies two nonstandard ways in which a man might become a prince: through criminal activity, and through being made prince by the will of the people. The subject of this chapter is the criminal path to becoming a prince. As examples of rulers who rose to power through crime, Machiavelli cites Agathocles of Sicily and Oliverotto of Fermo. In both cases, these treacherous men assembled important citizens of the city and killed them all at once. Then, taking advantage of the fear and disarray they created, both Agathocles and Oliverotto seized power.

While their actions were cruel, Machiavelli points out that these men exercised their cruelty only in the beginning of their reign, in order to establish and secure it. In the case of Agathocles, he did not make a habit of cruelty at all times during his reign. It is for this reason, Machiavelli concludes, that Agathocles was not overthrown. He was feared due to his initial use of cruelty, but he was not hated, as none were left alive to whom he was cruel. (Oliverotto was strangled to death at the order of Cesare Borgia.)

While Agathocles and Oliverotto are considered to have demonstrated the effectiveness of criminal activity for obtaining and sustaining a principality, Machiavelli claims it is incorrect to say that they came to power by prowess. The apparent difference between the behavior of Agathocles and Oliverotto and that of Cesare Borgia is a matter of context. Cesare killed and deceived only those who were already a threat to the stability of his existing domain; Agathocles and Oliverotto deceived and killed those who had done them no wrong and posed no threat to an existing domain (because neither of them yet had a domain).

Analysis

Machiavelli uses the term prowess in a specific way. There is a difference between interpersonal relationships (relationships between individual, private citizens) and interstate relationships (relationships between the governments of various states and those individuals acting as representatives of those states) that is crucial to understanding Machiavelli's arguments. Whereas the mere existence of another person does not constitute any threat to another person, the mere existence of another state does constitute a threat to another state, at least according to Machiavelli's way of seeing things. Thus, a prince will always have some reason to subvert, attack, or control the neighboring states, whereas a private citizen will not always have some reason to subvert, attack, or control neighboring citizens. This difference in context explains the difference in treatment given by Machiavelli to the behavior of rulers like Agathocles in contrast to that of Cesare. The fact that Cesare already had a domain makes his actions an example of prowess, rather than criminality.

Furthermore, Machiavelli elaborates on how a prince can make the people fear him without hating him. Machiavelli states earlier in the text his argument about when cruelty can be used effectively. If a prince is to be cruel and harm someone, he must make sure that he fatally harms that person. Add to this Machiavelli's claim that people are motivated by maximizing their own gain and minimizing their own harm, and it can be seen why a prince like Agathocles could be effective. People will not risk their lives to oppose a prince who has not given them direct cause for revenge. Agothocles was feared for what he did to win power, but his subjects did not hate him. Those he harmed were dead. Those who remained were not harmed, but they lived with the knowledge that Agathocles was capable of killing those who opposed him.

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