BE FEARED | The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli

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When discussing whether it is better to be feared or loved, Machiavelli talks of two great military leaders: the Roman General Scipio Africanus and the Carthaginian General Hannibal.

Scipio was seen as a great commander and was held in high esteem by his men, but even though they respected him, they did not fear him. Machiavelli said that one of the implications of having such a reputation was that Scipio was limited in the range of actions available to him. Some military and political strategies and tactics he could not use as it would damage his reputation, which was seen as spotless among his soldiers and the wider population.

While he was in Spain, the troops under Scipio’s command, rebelled. This mutiny occured because of the discipline being too slack, rather than too tough. Scipio was not willing to punish them for their behaviour.

At the time, when Rome was a republic, kindness, generosity and showing mercy were seen as virtues rather than faults. Scipio was forced to be merciful in this situation to keep himself popular as a leader. This led to his army not fearing him as much and as a result, they were more prone to mutiny.

By enforcing some forceful discipline and instilling some fear into his men, he could have brought them under control, but he didn’t, and Machiavelli criticises him for it.

No prince should mind being called cruel for keeping his subjects peaceful and loyal.

Hannibal was described as a cruel leader by Machiavelli, who believed this character trait was an asset in his position. The general’s army was far more diverse than Scipio’s and they travelled a further distance to foreign lands. To avoid internal conflicts and mutinies amongst the troops, a feared but respected leader like Hannibal was needed.

In The Prince, Machiavelli argued that it was better to be feared than loved, and in this regard Hannibal had a strong advantage over Scipio. His ability to instill fear into his men and followers helped him to command a huge army and an expansive empire.

Among the wonderful deeds of Hannibal this one is enumerated: that having led an enormous army, composed of many various races of men, to fight in foreign lands, no dissensions arose either among them or against the prince, whether in his bad or in his good fortune.

This arose from nothing else than his inhuman cruelty, which, with his boundless valour, made him revered and terrible in the sight of his soldiers, but without that cruelty, his other virtues were not sufficient to produce this effect.

Being brave or good at your job as a leader or boss is not enough to secure the loyalty of your workers. Strength and discipline is required to keep them under control. Good leaders are admired, but strong leaders are obeyed and respected. Being over-compassionate enables unrest and disorder.

This theory from Machiavelli has been used throughout history, from the likes of Genghis Khan to your typical modern-day drill instructor. Fear and intimidation has often been an effective means of motivation. In Machiavelli’s era, Cesare Borgia inspired fear by committing several cruel acts, but the eventual result was order and peace in a state that was powerful and united.

Machiavelli points out that every Prince would prefer to be thought of as merciful, but he believed a Prince should not mind being thought of as cruel. Borgia’s wicked behaviour was, in fact, actually merciful, as through his acts of cruelty he spared his people the even worse fate of political chaos.

A prince such as Hannibal who enacts cruel punishment is not cruel if his behaviour helps to create stability. A prince such as Scipio who shows mercy is not really merciful if it allows turmoil and disorder to flourish, which hurts everyone. A limited number of severe punishments will affect a small amount of individuals, whereas being excessively merciful can cause disorder which damages an entire community.

On this a question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved if you cannot be both.

Because this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will shed blood for you, risk their property, life, and children, when the danger is removed, but when it approaches they turn against you. And that prince who, relying entirely on their promises, takes no other precautions, is ruined; because friendships that are bought rather than achieved by greatness or nobility of mind, may indeed be earned, but they are not long-lasting, and in time of crisis cannot be relied upon; and men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by a bond which due to the failings of men is broken at every opportunity to their advantage, but fear is strengthened by the dread of punishment which is always effective.

That was arguably the most famous statement Machiavelli made. It is also often one of the most misunderstood. Firstly, in an ideal world, Machiavelli said that it is best to be feared and loved, but his realism points out that the two do not coincide very often.

Many take his argument that it is better to be feared than loved at face value and out of context, giving the impression that it is simply encouraging tyrannical and dictatorial behaviour. This has led to centuries of abuse by bullies throughout history. However, when taken in the context of what Machiavelli advocates as a Prince’s ultimate goal - to maintain the state - we can see that this goal requires the people to be compliant, which fear helps to achieve. Machiavelli does not support using cruelty for its own sake, only to benefit the Prince in preserving the state.

Make them fear you but not hate you

By using his power to protect his citizens and by not interfering too much in their lives, a prince can be feared but not hated. It is important for a prince to avoid being hated at all costs as Machiavelli believed it is deadly for a leader, because hatred could result in them being overthrown by their subjects.

Alternatively, if the people fear their prince, the fear acts as a more powerful commitment of support. This is due to the people’s fear of what a lack of support could lead to. 

To achieve fear but not hatred, a prince must only be cruel when absolutely necessary and should not injure his people, nor should he confiscate their property. The threat of punishment should be made clear though, as a leader that does so has a far easier time of keeping control of his own subjects.

The people are more likely to comply so long as the prince does not affect their lives or their land. If he must impose discipline, then there must be clear and obvious cause and proper justification if lives are to be taken. Machiavelli advises against the taking of people’s property, as he had the dark view of human nature that people would forgive the death of somebody they loved more quickly than they would the stealing of their assets.

Men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony.

Why not rely on them loving you?

Girolamo Savonarola was a friar who became extremely popular in Florence. While he was in power, he was greatly loved by his followers. However, once his grip on power weakened, he was abandoned by his people.

Machiavelli thought that humans are largely selfish and generally in it for themselves. They will only support a prince if it provides a benefit to them. They will support someone they love a lot of the time, but once the prince’s power declines, the people can soon forget about their affection. In other words, when the going gets tough, the people will abandon him.

If Moses, Cyrus, Theseus, and Romulus had been unarmed they could not have enforced their constitutions for long - as happened in our time to Fra Girolamo Savonarola, who was ruined with his new order of things immediately the multitude believed in him no longer, and he had no means of keeping steadfast those who believed or of making the unbelievers to believe.

The fear of punishment for people is a constant. The feeling of affection is unreliable. Therefore, when ordering rulers by their strength:

  1. The weakest depends only on love
  2. A stronger commander inspires fear in his people
  3. The strongest prince instills both fear and love (or at least is not hated).

So it is important as a prince to behave in a strong and decisive manner (which may even involve being cruel), but not to a point so that people hate you for it.

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