Stephen Holmes
Loyalty in Adversity
The struggle to attain and preserve political power is a voyage into the unknown. Radical
unpredictability is a challenge confronting all rulers, the ethically scrupulous and unscrupulous,
the hereditary or usurper prince as well as the elected republican leader. This is true because all
rulers, bar none, aspire and cling to power “in good or in adverse fortune” [“o in buona o in
avversa fortuna”] (D.3.41, p. 301).1 Unforeseen circumstances regularly make a mockery of
their best laid plans. To say that the future cannot be predicted is to say that dramatic reversals of
fortune can and do occur with no regard for the wishes of even the most gifted wielders of
How political rulers and political communities respond to contingencies and especially to
erratic cycles of good and bad luck is a theme running throughout Machiavelli’s works. Before
discussing how virtù confronts fortune with variable success, however, we need to distinguish
among fortune’s three different faces or dimensions. Machiavelli depicts fortune variously as a
woman who must be impetuously beaten, as a periodically overflowing river that must be safely
contained and channeled by levies built in advance, and as an arbiter who capriciously elevates
and casts down men of virtù, thereby unilaterally bestowing success or failure on human
endeavors while somehow permitting men of virtù to exert residual control over their own
destinies. Reconciling such mismatched metaphors is no easy task. All we can hazard at the
outset is that the first two suggestions of how virtù should confront fortune—judiciously
constructing institutions versus rashly resorting to violence—seem to echo the contradictory
imperatives that every ruler who hopes to survive must follow: to learn how to be good and to
learn how not to be good according to the necessities of the situation at hand.
The third image of fortune as an otherwise all-controlling despot who intermittently
lapses into benign neglect is introduced less as an empirical generalization than as an hypothesis
that, if accepted, rescues human agents from fatalism and despair: “so that our free will not be
eliminated, I judge that it might be true that fortune is arbiter of half of our actions, but also that
she leaves the other half, or close to it, for us to govern” [“perché el nostro libero arbitrio non sia
spento, iudico potere essere vero che la fortuna sia arbitra della metà delle azioni nostre, ma che
etiam lei ne lasci governare l'altra metà, o presso, a noi”] (P.25, p. 98). Credit for worldly
success can be shared by fortune and virtù, presumably, if fortune supplies the opportunities that
men of virtù will immediately recognize and exploit. But what else does this tantalizingly
elusive passage imply?
Empiricism provides a poor guide to political action because human behavior is
invariably dominated by something that cannot be seen, namely the future. Statements about the
unknowable future cannot be confirmed or refuted on the basis of what we currently observe.
Machiavelli emphasizes the decisive political import of empirically unfalsifiable statements
English translations are from Niccolò Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, translated by Harvey C. Mansfield and
Nathan Tarcov (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996) and Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, Second edition,
translated by Harvey C. Mansfield (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).
about the future when he discusses the way Roman military commanders instilled selfconfidence in their troops by convincing them, through presumably rigged auguries, that the
gods promised victory: “Nor did this mode of taking auspices tend toward any end other than to
make the soldiers go confidently into the fight, from which confidence victory almost always
arose” [“di fare i soldati confidentemente ire alla zuffa, dalla quale confidenza quasi sempre
nasce la vittoria”] (D.1.14, p. 42).
Stripped of metaphorical elaboration, fortune is experienced by human beings as
uncertainty, unpredictability and undirected change. The only thing predictable about her is her
unpredictability. But just as an empirically baseless prophesy can be self-fulfilling, so can a
well-designed strategy for approaching the unforeseeable future make possible, as a praiseworthy
human achievement rather than as an inexplicable divine gift, a degree of human freedom and
control. The recommended approach, distilled from Machiavelli’s reading of history and labeled
“virtuous,” accepts the fundamental unpredictability of historical events. Those who smugly
assume that, contrary to all of recorded history, good luck never runs out are inevitably
destroyed: “the prince who leans entirely on his fortune comes to ruin as it varies” [“quel
principe che s'appoggia tutto in sulla fortuna, rovina, come quella varia”] (P.25, p. 99). When
formulating the point anthropomorphically, Machiavelli depicts fortune as a conscious agent who
aims to sweep away human resistance to its gathering force by blinding men to the certainty of
uncertainty (D.2.29). So how should those rulers who wisely recognize that fortune is
chronically unstable prepare for unpredicted bouts of adversity in a way that maximizes their
chances for survival?
Emergency Preparedness
Every attempt to boil down Machiavelli’s richly imaginative reflections on political
power to a catchphrase will miserably if not ludicrously fail. Yet it can be a useful exercise to
see how far one can push a single formula. In this spirit, I will ask what we can learn if we
identify Machiavelli’s leading concern with emergency preparedness. That he is preoccupied
with emergency preparedness is clear from many passages, such as his remark in The Prince that
“all wise princes . . . not only have to have regard for present troubles but also for future ones,
and they have to avoid these with all their industry” [“tutti e' principi savi . . . non solamente
hanno ad avere riguardo alli scandoli presenti, ma a' futuri, et a quelli con ogni industria
ovviare”] (P.3, p. 12). Also illustrative of the centrality of this theme is the passage in the
Discourses where he discusses rulers who find themselves unable to defend themselves “nelle
avversità” because they have not taken advantage of their previous good fortune to make
adequate preparations. Machiavelli expresses contempt for “those who are unprepared for any
defense because they have used good fortune badly” [“quelli che, per avere male usata la buona
fortuna, sono ad ogni difesa impreparati”] (D.3.31, p. 281). No respecter of persons, the stopand-go cartwheel of fortune will occasionally topple even the best prepared rulers. Their fall
must be blamed exclusively on the malice of fortune. Personally blameworthy, on the other hand,
are rulers who lose their grip on power because they foolishly failed to look ahead, “never
having thought that quiet times could change” [“non avendo mai ne' tempi quieti pensato che
possono mutarsi”] (P.24, p. 97) and therefore never having taken even the most elementary
2 Emergency preparedness is risk mitigation, the way virtuosi rulers insure themselves, to
the extent possible, against the vagaries of fortune. This approach to unpredictability and
uncertainty is most vividly conveyed in Machiavelli’s picture of fortune not as a woman to be
impetuously and violently assaulted but as a river whose own impetuosity and violence must be
safely cabined and channeled by the human virtù carefully constructing dikes and locating them
in the right places well in advance. No one can resist the force majeur of a torrential river that
breaks her banks, uproots trees, destroys houses, tears up the earth and forces everyone in its
path to abandon their possessions and flee. Yet when the water recedes, men can learn from the
damage, make an after-incident report, and rebuild in a more flood-resistant way. In other
words, defending against the wild river of fortune requires not audacity but emergency
preparedness, preparing for the storm when the sea is calm: “it is not as if men, when times are
quiet, could not provide for them with dikes and dams so that when they rise later, either they go
by a canal or their impetus is neither so wanton nor so damaging” [“non resta però che li uomini,
quando sono tempi quieti, non vi potessino fare provvedimenti, e con ripari et argini, in modo
che, crescendo poi, o andrebbono per uno canale, o l'impeto loro non sarebbe né si licenzioso né
si dannoso”] (P.25, p. 98).
Machiavelli supplments and reinforces his metaphor of fortune as a flood by comparing
fortune to the swirling gusts of a storm. The ruler “needs to have a spirit disposed to change as
the winds of fortune and variations of things command him” [“bisogna che elli abbi uno animo
disposto a volgersi secondo ch'e' venti e le variazioni della fortuna li comandono”] (P.18, p. 70).
Virtù is displayed not by spitting in the wind, or futilely deploying violence against ever-shifting
fortune. On the contrary, virtù requires tacking to the wind. The activity of the genuine virtuoso
involves an element of passivity. It is more fox-like than lion-like. To succeed, the ruler must
rely less on brute force than on his skill as a chess-player, always alert to new challenges and
open to innovative responses, always thinking several steps ahead.
The most interesting passage in Machiavelli’s discussion of fortune as an overflowing
river is the one where he says that “fortune . . . demonstrates her power where virtue has not been
put in order to resist her and therefore turns her impetus where she knows that dams and dikes
have not been made to contain her” [“della fortuna . . . dimonstra la sua potenzia dove non è
ordinata virtù a resisterle, e quivi volta li sua impeti, dove la sa che non sono fatti li argini e li
ripari a tenerla”] (P.25, pp. 98-99). Two points are worth stressing here. First, to resist fortune,
virtù must be “put in order.” This suggests that the prescient ruler will engage in constitutionmaking. He will design and build political and military institutions that somehow routinize the
adaptability to changing circumstances and long-distance vision associated with virtù. The
metaphorical swerve in the passage cited is from dikes that mitigate the destructive consequences
of a flood to dikes that somehow deter the river of fortune from overflowing. The avversità that
can be deterred by virtù comes in the shape of avversarii who consciously consider the
opportunity costs of an attack and, impressed by the impressive ramparts, decide to direct their
belligerence at a softer target. If Italy, prior to 1494, “had been diked by suitable virtue, like
Germany, Spain, and France, either this flood would not have brought the great variations that it
has, or it would not have come here” [“s'ella fussi reparata da conveniente virtù, come la Magna,
la Spagna e la Francia, o questa piena non arebbe fatte le variazioni grandi che ha, o la non ci
sarebbe venuta”] (P.25, pp. 98-99).
3 The emphasis that Machiavelli places on emergency preparedness substantially qualifies
his famous claim that, during a political emergency, conventional moral restraints must be tossed
to the winds: “where one deliberates entirely on the safety of his fatherland, there ought not to
enter any consideration of either just or unjust, merciful or cruel, praiseworthy or ignominious;
indeed every other concern put aside, one ought to follow entirely the policy that saves its life
and maintains its liberty” [“dove si dilibera al tutto della salute della patria, non vi debbe cadere
alcuna considerazione né di giusto né d'ingiusto, né di piatoso né di crudele, né di laudabile né
d'ignominioso; anzi, posposto ogni altro rispetto, seguire al tutto quel partito che le salvi la vita e
mantenghile la libertà”] (D.3.41, p. 301) Tearing up conventional moral codes when adversity
strikes and resolving to do whatever it takes, while it sounds good in theory, turns out to be fairly
useless in practice. Emergencies can be successfully confronted only by those who have
prepared for them in advance. When they are underway, it is too late for underhandedness,
injustice and cruelty to save an embattled regime: “when necessities come in adverse times you
will not be in time for evil” [“venendo per li tempi avversi le necessità, tu non se' a tempo al
male”] (P.8, p. 38). But if a willingness to flout conventional morality is useless when adversity
strikes, what role do morality and immorality play in readying a political regime for adversity?
Does the form of emergency preparedness that Machiavelli identifies with putting virtù in order
or embodying virtù in stable institutions require the kind of immoral or amoral behavior that
shocks the conscience? And if the answer to this question is “no,” which it seems to be, what
does that tell us about Machiavelli’s flirtations with shocking immoralism?
Although beyond human control, the random cycles of good and bad luck do not leave
wholly defenseless those rulers who, anticipating reversals of fortune, prudently prepare
themselves to ride out the storm. But how can they pull off such a feat? One example is
provided by the “cities of Germany” which “always keep in their public stores enough to drink
and to eat and to burn for a year” [“Le città di Alamagna . . . tengono sempre nelle cànove
publiche da bere e da mangiare e da ardere per uno anno”] (P.10, p. 43) on the off chance that
they will be unexpectedly placed under siege. Machiavelli also describes an institutional method
for maintaining political stability despite the ups and downs of fortune. Republics, he remarks,
can keep pace with the wheel of fortune by sometimes placing bold and sometimes placing
cautious rulers in power, depending on what the situation demands: “Hence it arises that a
republic has greater life and has good fortune longer than a principality, for it can accommodate
itself better than one prince can to the diversity of times through the diversity of the citizens that
are in it” [“una republica ha maggiore vita, ed ha più lungamente buona fortuna, che uno
principato; perché la può meglio accomodarsi alla diversità de' temporali, per la diversità de'
cittadini che sono in quella, che non può uno principe”] (D.3.9, p. 240).
Stockpiling materiel in case of emergency and maintaining the flexibility to choose
whatever governing team is warranted by the situation at hand are two ways to prepare for
adversity. But Machiavelli devotes much more attention to a third approach to mitigating risk,
namely instilling citizens or subjects with the kind of loyalty to their ruler that will not melt away
in a crisis. Rulers can repel the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune by mobilizing and
maintaining the support of citizens or subjects long enough during a regime-threatening crisis so
that fortune has a chance to shift unexpectedly again. These citizens or subjects, significantly,
must have their own slings and arrows, that is, they must be armed. Vegetarian versions of civic
humanism and de-bellicized portraits of the republican tradition, therefore, bowdlerize the
4 concept of virtù, for “without its own arms no principality is secure; indeed it is wholly obliged
to fortune since it does not have virtue to defend itself in adversity” [“sanza avere arme proprie,
nessuno principato è sicuro; anzi è tutto obligato alla fortuna, non avendo virtù che nelle
avversità lo difenda”] (P.13, p. 57). An obvious but important implication is that virtù can never
be exercised autonomously, by a solitary ruler, but must always include the loyalty of battleready followers.
There is no guarantee that his own good luck (or, what amounts to the same thing, the
bad luck of his enemies) will reappear in time to allow an embattled ruler to exit unscathed from
a bout of adversity, of course. But luck shifts unpredictably, and holding one’s armed supporters
together as long as possible increases the chances of surviving what may turn out to be only a
temporary setback.
Because fortune can always take a turn for the better, fatalism in adversity is chronically
short-sighted. This is at least one way to read Machiavelli’s advice for riding out, not trying to
halt, the gales and gusts of fortune: “men can second fortune but not oppose it, that they can
weave its warp but not break it. They should indeed never give up for, since they do not know its
end and it proceeds by oblique and unknown ways, they have always to hope and, since they
hope, not to give up in whatever fortune and in whatever travail they may find themselves” [“gli
uomini possono secondare la fortuna e non opporsegli; possono tessere gli orditi suoi, e non
rompergli. Debbono, bene, non si abbandonare mai; perché, non sappiendo il fine suo, e andando
quella per vie traverse ed incognite, hanno sempre a sperare, e sperando non si abbandonare, in
qualunque fortuna ed in qualunque travaglio si truovino”] (D.2.29, p. 199).
Giving up prematurely is a mistake commonly made by those who, in adversity, fail to
realize that their bad luck may change for the better. Conversely, failing to prepare for adversity
in times of prosperity reflects a fatal unawareness that good luck, too, always runs out. Lacking
virtù, most people are prisoners of the present and near-term future. They fail to prepare for
emergencies, oblivious to the reality that reversals of fortune are inevitable. It is “a common
defect of men, not to take account of the storm during the calm” [“è comune defetto delli uomini,
non fare conto nella bonaccia della tempesta”] (P.24, p. 97). Rulers who are genuinely virtuosi,
by contrast, whether they are republican or autocratic, prepare in advance for reversals of
fortune. The reasonable supposition that, at one time or another, he will need popular allegiance
and cooperation will dissuade the prudent ruler from treating his people abusively today:
whoever holds a state, whether republic or prince, should consider beforehand what times
can come up against him, and which men he can have need of in adverse times; and then
live with them in the mode that he judges to be necessary to live, should any case
whatever come up. The one who governs himself otherwise— whether prince or republic,
and especially a prince— and then believes in the fact that, when danger comes up, he
can regain men with benefits, deceives himself; for not only does he not secure himself
with them but he hastens his own ruin (D.1.32, pp. 70-71)
[“debbe qualunque tiene stato, così republica come principe, considerare innanzi, quali
tempi gli possono venire addosso contrari, e di quali uomini ne' tempi avversi si può
avere di bisogno; e dipoi vivere con loro in quello modo che giudica, sopravvegnente
5 qualunque caso, essere necessitato vivere. E quello che altrimenti si governa, o principe o
republica, e massime un principe, e poi in sul fatto crede, quando il pericolo sopravviene,
con i beneficii riguadagnarsi gli uomini, se ne inganna: perché, non solamente non se ne
assicura, ma accelera la sua rovina”]
Preparing for emergencies in the midst of a comforting normality requires out-of-the-ordinary
foresight and an ability to resist the temptation to lower one’s guard when lulled into
complacency by peace and prosperity. It also demands long-gestation investment in the neversay-die loyalty of supporters, a loyalty that will not dissolve when tempi avversi strike. This is a
large part of what Machiavelli means by his advice to any and every political leader: “A wise
prince should observe such modes, and never remain idle in peaceful times, but with his industry
make capital of them in order to be able to profit from them in adversities, so that when fortune
changes, it will find him ready to resist them” [“mai ne' tempi pacifici stare ozioso, ma con
industria farne capitale, per potersene valere nelle avversità, acciò che, quando si muta la fortuna,
lo truovi parato a resisterle”] (P.14, p. 60). Instilling unflinching fealty, not merely discipline
and skill, into armed fighters must be a principal peacetime objective of any ruler who wishes to
navigate his way successfully through perilous times.
A ruler who fights “with his arms and not with alien arms” [“con le arme sua e non con le
aliene”] (P.13, p. 56) fights with the help of troops who will remain tenaciously loyal in
adversity. The possessive “his” [“sua”] in the expression “his arms” [“le arme sua”] refers not to
David’s own sling, that is, the weapons wielded personally by the ruler, but to the willingness of
followers to fight with and for their ruler through thick and thin. Supporters who refuse to jump
ship when the ruler’s luck, perhaps temporarily, turns sour are “his arms.” These can compose a
citizen army in a republic or an army of loyal subjects in a kingdom; but they cannot be
mercenaries who fight only because they are “soldati” (rented on a short-term basis for a handful
of soldi), and who are therefore highly unlikely to remain loyal when the chips are down. The
fighting capacity of mercenaries is purchased but cannot be spent. Nothing is more likely to
destroy a ruler than such a “milizia infidele” (P.7). Thus, in the phrase “uno principe nuovo in
uno principato nuovo sempre vi ha ordinato l'arme” (P.20), the verb ordinare (to “organize” or
“constitute”) does not refer only to chains of command, orders of battle, rules of engagement and
so forth. It also and most essentially refers to instilling and maintaining the loyalty of the troops.
Similarly, the word “good” in the adage, “the foundation of all states is a good military” [“il
fondamento di tutti gli stati è la buona milizia”] (D.3.31, p. 283) includes the soldiers’
dependability, in the sense of semper fi even when their ruler’s enterprise seems to be coming
But how do they do this? How exactly can a ruler preemptively defend against the
permanent proclivity of fair-weather supporters to abandon their leader opportunistically or in
panic when he looks to be heading for a smashup? How can he “gain friends to himself”
[“guadagnarsi delli amici”] (P.7, p. 32), friends who will be reluctant to desert? How can he bind
them to his cause by “a chain of obligation” [“uno vinculo di obbligo”] (P.17, p.66) that they will
not break as soon as they perceive an advantage in so doing? These are perennial questions
because most men are “ungrateful, fickle” and “evaders of danger” [“ingrati, volubili” and
“fuggitori de' pericoli”] (P.17, p. 66). By nature, they stick with their ruler only so long as it
serves their interests. In times of peace and prosperity, when the ruler treats his subjects or
6 citizens well but does not especially need their support and cooperation, they promise him “their
blood, property, lives, and children” [“el sangue, la roba, la vita e' figliuoli”] (P.17, p. 66).
Whether ingratiating or heartfelt, such promissory notes cannot be cashed. Many of those who,
in prosperous times, swear that they will always support their ruler, will perfidiously or
pusillanimously turn against him in adversity. Inferring from professions of loyalty offered in
easy times how followers will behave in hard times is a classic example of false empiricism. The
central challenge for surviving adversity, in any case is that the ruler “will always have, in
uncertain times, a shortage of those one can trust” [“arà sempre, ne' tempi dubii, penuria di chi si
possa fidare”] (P.9, p. 42).
The people, unlike the grandi, do not desire to command and oppress. The remarkable
lack of libido dominandi among the majority of the population does not reflect moral restraint,
however. Not moral precepts but capacities and opportunities shape motivations and intentions.
Only the few are in a position to command and oppress for the simple reason that collective
action problems make it impossible for the people as a whole to rule: “For in all republics,
ordered in whatever mode, never do even forty or fifty citizens reach the ranks of command”
[“Perché in tutte le republiche, in qualunque modo ordinate, ai gradi del comandare non
aggiungono mai quaranta o cinquanta cittadini”] (D.1.16, p. 46). As a result, only the few, not
the many, aspire to rule. So what can the many realistically wish to do? Because doing it
requires scant coordination, abandoning a sinking ship is a feasible popular goal. Citizens in
republics and subjects in principalities alike are prone to desert their ruler when his lucky star is
about to crash and burn.
That defection in adversity is a permanent human possibility is a truth that rulers can
learn only second-hand from books, not from first-hand experience, because rulers whose
followers defect in adversity seldom survive to do better next time: “this test is all the more
dangerous since one cannot make it but once” [“tanto più è questa esperienzia periculosa, quanto
la non si può fare se non una volta”] (P.9, p. 42). So what can a ruler do to avoid surrounding
himself with “suspect friends who may not help him in adversity” [“amici sospetti e che non lo
aiutino nelle avversità” (P.21, p. 89)? He must somehow induce followers to entwine their
fortune with his own. Ideally, if he adopts the policies and practices that Machiavelli has
distilled from his study of political success and failure, a ruler can make his people “obligated in
everything to your fortune” [“che si obbligano in tutto alla tua fortuna”] (P.9, p. 40). The
emotional-habitual allegiance of partigiani amici will buffer him to some extent from the
gyrations of fortune. There is nothing utopian about a hope to cultivate supporters who will not
scramble for the exits at the first hint of adversity because loyalty in adversity, too, is a
permanent human possibility.
But how can it be excited or instilled?
Other things being equal, Machiavcelli implies, followers will ordinarily ditch their
leader when dutiful allegiance no longer serves their rational calculating self-interest. To create
loyalty in adversity, therefore, “a wise prince must think of a way by which his citizens, always
and in every quality of time, have need of the state and of himself; and then they will always be
faithful to him” [“uno principe savio debba pensare uno modo per il quale li sua cittadini, sempre
et in ogni qualità di tempo, abbino bisogno dello stato e di lui: e sempre poi li saranno fedeli”]
7 (P.9, p. 42). But how can a ruler make his subjects need him in bad times as well as good? How
can he inextricably bind their fortunes to his? To do it, the ruler must, at a minimum, provide the
ruled with benefits that make them “obligated to their benefactor” [“si obbligano più al
beneficatore loro”] (P.9, p. 40). When contemplating what methods will serve this purpose,
however, Machiavelli provides few details: “The prince can gain the people to himself in many
modes, for which one cannot give certain rules because the modes vary according to
circumstances, and so they will be left out.” [“e puosselo el principe guadagnare in molti modi, li
quali, perché variano secondo el subietto, non se ne può dare certa regola, e però si lasceranno
indrieto”] (P.9, pp. 40-41). Indeed, his comments on the legerdemain a prudent ruler must
perform to this end seem both rhetorically overblown and intentionally cryptic: “when a prince
who founds on the people knows how to command and is a man full of heart, does not get
frightened in adversity, does not fail to make other preparations, and with his spirit and his orders
keeps the generality of people inspired, he will never find himself deceived by them and he will
see he has laid his foundations well” [“sendo uno principe che vi fondi su, che possa comandare
e sia uomo di core, né si sbigottisca nelle avversità, e non manchi delle altre preparazioni, e tenga
con l'animo et ordini sua animato l'universale, mai si troverrà ingannato da lui, e li parrà avere
fatto li sua fondamenti buoni“] (P.9, p. 41). But what “other preparations” does Machiavelli
have in mind? How can an institution “inspire” or animate the people? And how can the
spiritedness of a “man full of heart” do the same?
To decipher this telegraphic and somewhat nebulous account of how rulers can create
loyalty in adversity, we should perhaps look into the history of the Roman Republic. One of the
things Machiavelli admires most about Roman behavior during the Punic Wars is that “in
qualunque più nimica e avversa fortuna,” the Romans never sued for peace and never showed
any fear.2 So how did they manage to sustain their undaunted resolve, essential to their eventual
triumph over Carthage, while riding fortune’s rollercoaster?
We should not be surprised to discover that a key to Rome’s survival through the worst of
times was the loyalty of citizens, especially but not only armed citizens, to the Roman leadership
even in the wake of devastating defeats at the hands of Hannibal’s forces. Rome survived
adverse fortune because its citizens were willing to risk their lives against overwhelming odds.
This was, again unsurprisingly, the result of emergency preparedness: “For the Romans did in
these cases what all wise princes should do: they not only have to have regard for present
troubles but also for future ones, and they have to avoid these with all their industry” [“Perché e'
Romani feciono, in questi casi, quello che tutti e' principi savi debbono fare: li quali, non
solamente hanno ad avere riguardo alli scandoli presenti, ma a' future, et a quelli con ogni
industria ovviare”] (P.3, p. 12).
To prepare in advance for future troubles, moreover, the Romans were “liberal to the
people” [“liberali al popolo”] (D.1.32, p. 70). The benefits or public provisions that the Roman
authorities conferred on the people were savored with greater pleasure and appreciation because
doled out slowly and flowing regularly over time (P.8, p. 38). But the point that needs stressing
is that Roman policy was designed to build up the kind of milizia fidele, consisting of citizen
soldiers whose fidelity to Rome could be counted on in troubled times. The emotional basis for
“Dell’arte della guerra,” Opere I, edited by Corrado Vivanti (Torino: Einaudi-Gallimard, 1997), Libro settimo, p.
681; see also D.3.31.
8 this kind of loyalty in adversity, which non-republican rulers also need to inspire, seems closely
related to feelings of friendship: “for a prince it is necessary to have the people friendly;
otherwise he has no remedy in adversity” [“a uno principe è necessario avere el populo amico:
altrimenti non ha, nelle avversità, remedio”] (P.9, p. 41). So how can a ruler win the friendship
of his people?
Two Faces of Loyalty
Reconstructing Machiavelli’s view of popular loyalty as a, or perhaps the, key component
of emergency preparedness is complicated by his infamous remark that astute rulers without a
shred of moral integrity have consistently prevailed over naively moral rulers who have been true
to their word, that is, “who have founded themselves on loyalty” [“che si sono fondati in sulla
lealtà”] (P.18, p. 69). A ruler who keeps his promises as a matter of honor, he tells us, has little
chance of surviving in an international environment where peer competitors feel free to act in
bad faith and even feign loyalty to gain a tactical advantage. This contrast between the loyalty of
the ruler as a problem and the loyalty of the ruled as a solution cries out for commentary.
Given the devious and duplicitous behavior of rival rulers and factional leaders, the norm
that pacta sunt servanda is just another “trap” by which schoolbook morality charms and then
destroys wielders of power. The impulse of rulers to court popularity by visibly conforming to
other socially inculcated ideals, such as generosity and leniency, can be self-defeating. The road
to hell is paved with conventional moral teachings because political hell is being hated by the
people and their “hatred is acquired through good deeds as well as bad ones” [“l'odio s'acquista
cosí mediante le buone opere, come le triste”] (P.19, p. 77). Improvident generosity, for
instance, leads through state insolvency to resentment at heavy taxation. Excessive leniency by
the ruler permits factional violence to spin out of control and thereby excites public contempt for
the ruler’s squeamish indecisiveness. The impulse to split the difference between pampering and
crushing potential enemies exposes the ruler’s party to vendetta by those who are injured but not
incapacitated (P.3, pp. 10-11).
For rulers who are not foxy enough to think two steps ahead, the social ideals of
generosity, leniency, and so forth are as addictive as candy. They go to your head at first and the
damage they cause becomes apparent only gradually: “lack of prudence in men begins something
in which, because it tastes good then, they do not perceive the poison that lies underneath” [“la
poca prudenzia delli uomini comincia una cosa, che, per sapere allora di buono, non si accorge
del veleno che vi è sotto”] (P.13, p. 57). In certain contexts, this pattern also applies to loyalty.
It too can be just another sugar-coated poison pill. In particular, unscrupulous rivals can exploit
a ruler’s feeling of being honor-bound to remove him from power and even take away his life:
“one sees by experience in our times that the princes who have done great things are those who
have taken little account of faith and have known how to get around men’s brains with their
astuteness; and in the end they have overcome those who have founded themselves on loyalty”
[“si vede, per esperienzia ne' nostri tempi, quelli principi avere fatto gran cose che della fede
hanno tenuto poco conto, e che hanno saputo con l'astuzia aggirare e' cervelli delli uomini; et alla
fine hanno superato quelli che si sono fondati in sulla lealtà”] (P.18, p. 69). Political power is a
magnet for disinformation to an extent that never afflicts the powerless who are not worth
manipulating. Ingratiating flattery and gift horses are typical methods by which maliciously
astute rivals can twirl the brains of a ruler they are seeking to outwit or depose. But the most
9 interesting form of strategic deceit, for our purposes, is the feigning of loyalty. It is interesting
because no ruler would bother to feign loyalty to another ruler unless a shared code of honor
created the strong presumption that every plighted faith will be scrupulously respected, even if it
requires a smothering of rational calculating self-interest.
What all this suggests, at a minimum, is that Machiavelli’s treatment of loyalty is both
complex and ambivalent. While the ruler’s naïve but culturally reinforced fidelity can expose
him to ruin, the unquestioning fidelity of his followers protects him from ruin. Far from being a
trap that endangers rulers, the unwavering allegiance of followers, although it too is a
conventional pillar of schoolbook morality, remains an indispensable resource for any leader,
good or bad. More specifically, only rulers who can rely on the loyalty of armed supporters have
a chance to survive adverse fortune. The ruled will be unflinchingly loyal to their ruler,
however, only if the ruler manages to convince them that, whatever happens, he will remain
loyal to them. In dealing with peer rivals, the ruler is sometimes forced to betray sworn loyalties,
that is, he is sometimes forced not to be good. In dealing with the people, by contrast, a ruler,
unless he commands a large standing army, is always forced to be good.
The reason for the asymmetry is simple to state. The ruler has no permanent friends or
enemies among the people. To win them to his cause and retain their loyalty in hard times, he
must treat them in a generally respectful and benevolent way. Among i grandi, the ruler has no
permanent friends, only the partigiani amici he has won by by favoritism. But he does have
permanent enemies or “partigiani inimici” (D.1.16, p. 45), namely those elites who either nurse a
grudge for some past humiliation or covet his wealth and power. The ruler’s partisan enemies
are a serious problem because “in adversity they will always help ruin him” [“sempre, nelle
avversità, aiuteranno ruinarlo”] (P.9, p. 40). He should treat such men as open enemies and
liquidate them without wincing. It may be the case that the people, too, resent an abusive or
negligent ruler. But in their case, the ruler does not have the option of extinguishing them: “the
prince always lives of necessity with the same people” [“È necessitato ancora el principe vivere
sempre con quello medesimo populo”] (P, 9, p. 40). He is therefore compelled to be good, or
forced to try to win them over with new benefits. This is possible because the people have a
shorter memory than the nobility and as a result do not nurse grudges for long. With the people,
new benefits erase old grievances, a result doubly beneficial from the ruler’s point of view.
Two Faces of Fear
Although it goes against the grain of human nature, the loyalty of the ruled to their ruler
during periods of hardship and danger is politically indispensable. So, once again, how exactly
do rulers foster loyalty in adversity? Delving deeper into this question requires us to reconsider
Machiavelli’s thoughts on fear, hatred, and love. Bush-league Machiavellians recite the slogan,
“it is better to be feared than loved,” as if it were a wedding vow. But Machiavelli was more
interested in the ruler’s fear of being assassinated or betrayed by vindictive and ambitious
subjects, especially among the upper classes, than in the fear felt by the governed in the presence
of their governors. Rulers are good, in the sense of benevolent to the people, only when they are
forced to be so. They will keep “el popolo amico” only because of their own primordial fear.
Their most important and lasting fear is the fear of being abandoned by the people when under
attack by rival factions within their city or by rival rulers from other cities. The ruler’s fear of
10 being abandoned in adversity will create a chain of obligation that binds the ruler to the people
so long as his power is threatened by political rivals. This is the real liberalism of fear.
Rulers may have greater reason to fear popular defection than popular rebellion. Not the
threat of revolution, but the threat to withhold the cooperation a leader knows he needs in order
to deter coups and assaults is the most effective leverage by which the people can extract
privileges and immunities from the ruler: “The worst that a prince can expect from a hostile
people is to be abandoned by it” [“El peggio che possa aspettare uno principe dal populo
inimico, è lo essere abbandonato da lui”] (P.9, p. 39). Only power can check power; and the
power of the people rests mostly on the people’s ability to credibly threaten to withdraw the
cooperation that the ruler expects to need in case of adversity. Popular fear of the ruler’s revenge
will not prevent the people from remaining passive and disobliging when adversity strikes.
The ruler’s fear of being deposed and killed by an ambitious or disappointed faction is
compounded by his fear of being abandoned by the people. This is because “a prince should take
little account of conspiracies if the people show good will to him; but if they are hostile and bear
hatred for him, he should fear everything and everyone” [“uno principe debbe tenere delle
congiure poco conto, quando el popolo li sia benivolo; ma, quando li sia inimico et abbilo in
odio, debbe temere d'ogni cosa e d'ognuno”] (P.19, p. 74).
As this passage reminds us, rulers encounter adversity most frequently in the guise of
adversaries, foreign and domestic. The importance of not being hated by the people is never
more obvious than when a foreign enemy is hammering at the gates and/or domestic conspirators
are slinking around palace hallways. To discourage plots against his life, a ruler must take care
that the majority is not inclined against him: “one of the most powerful remedies that a prince
has against conspiracies is not to be hated by the people generally” [“uno de' più potenti rimedii
che abbi uno principe contro alle coniure, è non essere odiato dallo universale”] (P.19, p. 73).
Assassination plots are deterred not only by the majesty of office and the regular machinery of
law enforcement, but also by “the protection of friends” [“le difese delli amici”] (P.19, p. 73),
and that means by support from ordinary citizens and subjects. When the prince also has “la
benivolenzia populare” on his side, then “it is impossible that anyone should be so rash as to
conspire” [“è impossibile che alcuno sia sí temerario che congiuri”] (P. 19, p. 73). Against a
ruler who is well-respected by his people, “against whoever is reputed it is difficult to conspire,
difficult to mount an attack, provided it is understood that he is excellent and revered by his own
subjects” [“con difficultà si congiura, con difficultà è assaltato, purché s'intenda che sia
eccellente e reverito da' sua”] (P.19, p. 72). A prince or chief magistrate in a republic
government can effectively deter secret domestic conspiracies if he avoids being hated and
despised and keeps the people “satisfied with him” [“satisfatto di lui”] (P.19, p. 73).
Catering to the people is a long-gestation investment aimed at reducing, over time the
ruler’s natural fear of assassination and betrayal. True, Machiavelli says that a prudent ruler will
“make himself loved and feared by the people” [“farsi amare e temere da' populi” (P.7, p. 32).
Yet ratcheting up the people’s fear of their ruler will not necessarily diminish the ruler’s
paralyzing fear of potential assassins and malevolent turncoats. If the ruler has built his
“fortress” in the people’s respect and loyalty, by contrast, not the ruler but the conspirators will
be the ones paralyzed by their fear of being tricked by feigned professions of undying loyalty.
11 They will dread being outed to the authorities by fellow conspirators ready to betray their
confidence for personal advantage. Even if their assassination plot were to succeed, moreover,
they will be afraid of being torn limb from limb by an irate public.3 They will have no refuge:
“For whereas a conspirator ordinarily has to fear before the execution of the evil, in this case
(having the people as enemies) he must fear afterwards too, when the excess has occurred, nor
can he hope for any refuge” [“Perché, per lo ordinario, dove uno coniurante ha a temere innanzi
alla esecuzione del male, in questo caso debbe temere ancora poi, avendo per inimico el populo,
seguíto lo eccesso, né potendo per questo sperare refugio alcuno” (P.19, p. 73). If he thinks he
will not satisfy but rather offend the people, few would-be assassins, even if they luck upon a
handful of allies they think they can trust, will have the courage to carry out the deed.
Assassination avoidance, being “una delle più importanti materie che abbia uno principe,”
requires, among other things, a concerted effort “to satisfy the people and keep them content”
[“di satisfare al populo e tenerlo contento”] (P.19, p. 74).
Without the tenacious loyalty of subjects and soldiers, a recently installed prince will be
unhorsed when the first storm or “the first adverse weather [or time]” [“el primo tempo
avverso”] (P.7, p. 26) strikes. A usurper resembles a plant that sprouts overnight and therefore
initially has shallow roots. Operating precariously in a domain where he lacks traditional bases
of support, he must scurry to get his “roots and branches” [“barbe e corrispondenzie”] (P.7, p.
26) entwined with the hearts and minds of the people. Making the people fear his punitive wrath
is not necessarily a clever way to make them stick by him when his back is to the wall. For
instance, instilling fear does not automatically guarantee loyalty when a foreign adversary is on
the march. If escape routes are not closed off, their fear of the about-to-be-victorious enemy may
trump their fear of the about-to-be-defeated ruler. In that case, fear will result not in last-ditch
loyalty but instead to en masse desertion or running away.
Actions that instill fear, incidentally, also risk triggering hatred. Hatred incites a craving
for vengeance more quickly than fear can inhibit it. Fear of backlash is why the need to avoid
hatred can cancel out the advantage of ruling through fear: “Among all the things that a prince
should guard against is being contemptible and hated” [“intra tutte le cose di che uno principe si
debbe guardare, è lo essere contennendo et odioso” (P.16, p. 65). It is true that Hannibal’s
ethnically mixed forces remained obedient and united while fighting in a foreign land, “in bad as
well as in his good fortune” [“cosí nella cattiva come nella sua buona fortuna”], in part because
they feared his “inhuman cruelty” [“sua inumana crudeltà”] (P.17, p. 67). But Hannibal was
ruling not a city but an army for which killing was a way of life. In cities, cruelty must be used
sparingly and gotten over quickly so that citizens can be convinced that it will not return. This is
a decisive consideration because “he who has the collectivity as enemy never secures himself;
and the more cruelty he uses, the weaker his principality becomes” [“chi ha per nimico
l'universale non si assicura mai, e quanta più crudeltà usa tanto più debole diventa il suo
principato”] (D.1.16, p, 45.).
Here Machiavelli offers a republican anticipation of Tom Schelling’s doomsday machine, whereby one country
can allegedly deter another from launching a first-strike nuclear attack by arranging in advance for a devastating
nuclear counterattack to be launched after the attacked country’s leadership is killed. The Strategy of Conflict
(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981), p. 37.
12 One piece of evidence that “the best fortress there is, is not to be hated by the people”
[“la migliore fortezza che sia, è non essere odiato dal populo”] (P.20, p. 87) is that even the ruler
of a fortified town who stockpiles firewood and other necessities for the winter on the off chance
that his townsmen will be unexpectedly placed under siege will retain power only if, in addition,
he “does not make himself hated” and “is not hated by the people” [“non si facci odiare” and
“non sia odiato dal populo”] (P.10, pp. 44, 43). This central Machiavellian imperative is implied
by his most general definition of government, namely: government is nothing other than a way of
treating subjects so that they have either no capacity or no compelling reason to hurt you [“uno
governo non è altro che tenere in modo i sudditi che non ti possano o debbano offendere”] (D.
Fortifying the principal town in a region will help the ruler deter enemies or, if it comes
to that, parry “an enemy thrust” [“uno impeto inimico”] (D.2.24, p. 190) until help arrives or the
winds of fortune call off the assailant. Building stand-alone forts, by contrast, is
counterproductive because the safe harbor they offer creates an incentive for the ruler, and
especially his sons born to, and spoiled by, privilege, to treat the people with obnoxious
insolence, not fearing an immediate backlash. This is the worst possible education for a future
ruler. Insulation from the consequences of popular resentment prevents apprentice rulers from
learning the advantages of self-control. It also allows the people’s hatred of their ruler to swell
unnoticed to the point where his subjects will have no qualms about abandoning him when
adversity strikes. Writing of the Sforzas of Milan, Machiavelli comments: “For, judging that by
means of it they could live securely while offending their citizens and subjects, they did not
spare any kind of violence, so that having become hateful beyond measure, they lost that state
when the enemy first assaulted them” [“Perché giudicando mediante quella vivere sicuri, e potere
offendere i cittadini e sudditi loro, non perdonarono a alcuna generazione di violenza; talché,
diventati sopra modo odiosi, perderono quello stato come prima il nimico gli assaltò”], (D.2.24,
p. 186). The Sforzas “would have been able to resist the French thrust more spiritedly with
friendly subjects and without a fortress” [“arebbono poi potuto più animosamente resistere allo
impeto francioso, co' sudditi amici sanza fortezza”] if only they had “uncovered the danger [of
treating their subjects harshly] sooner and have withdrawn from it” [“arebbono scoperto il
pericolo più tosto, e sarebbonsene ritirati”] (D.2.24, p. 186). Disconnectedness from reality is
the greatest threat to power. Rulers who inhabit a well-upholstered bubble, insulated from all
signs of popular discontent, will gratuitiously alienate potential supporters and fail to notice the
deficit of loyal followers until it is too late.
In “tempi avversi,” moreover, “the good that you do does not help you, because it is
judged to be forced on you, and cannot bring you any gratitude” [“il bene che tu fai non ti giova,
perché è iudicato forzato, e non te n'è saputo grado alcuno”] (P.8, p. 38). Benefits and
concessions that rulers confer on the people at the last minute are also distrusted because they
can easily be withdrawn after the danger passes: “the collectivity will judge that it has that good
not from you but from your adversaries; and since it ought to fear that when the necessity has
passed, you will take back from them what you had been forced to give them, it will not have
any obligation to you” [“l'universale giudicherà non avere quel bene da te, ma dagli avversari
Exceptionally, I have here replaced the Mansfield-Tarcov translation (“a government is nothing other than holding
subjects in such a mode that they cannot or ought not offend you”, [D.2.23, p. 182) with my own.
13 tuoi, e dovendo temere che, passata la necessità, tu ritolga loro quello che hai forzatamente loro
dato, non arà teco obligo alcuno”] (D.1.32, p. 70).
This claim that concessions judged to be forced cannot help the ruler survive adversity
needs to be juxtaposed to Machiavelli’s famous remark that men are good only when forced to
be: “men will always turn out bad for you unless they have been made good by a necessity” [“li
uomini sempre ti riusciranno tristi, se da una necessità non sono fatti buoni”] (P.23, p. 95). That
such a formula applies to rulers as well as to the ruled is obvious to anyone viewing the
mountaintops from the perspective of the plain. What this suggests is that the self-restraint of
far-seeing rulers derives from a future necessity that they anticipate but that remains beyond the
horizon of ordinary people who live mostly in the present. Rulers who abuse the people and
thereby encourage popular defection in adversity also tend to be myopic. Necessity does not
make them good because they do not see it coming: “lack of prudence in men begins something
in which, because it tastes good then, they do not perceive the poison that lies underneath” [“la
poca prudenzia delli uomini comincia una cosa, che, per sapere allora di buono, non si accorge
del veleno che vi è sotto”] (P.13, p. 57). By contrast non-myopic rulers are good to their citizens
or subjects because they fear being assassinated by domestic conspirators or having their domain
snatched away by foreign rivals. The prudent anticipation of such unwelcome eventualities and
the felt need to store up political support to survive them give teeth to the constitutional limits
that can moderate the behavior of the ruler.
To say that concessions which appear forced do not produce a reliable “vinculo di
obbligo” tying citizens and subjects to their ruler is to imply that concessions which appear
unforced may do so. The stress here is on appearance. Prudent rulers are actually forced to be
good, in the sense of striving to win popular good-will by benevolence and self-restraint, by the
future necessities that they correctly anticipate. Because they live largely in the present, on the
other hand, and do not usually take distant consequences into account, ordinary people will
interpret the prudent ruler’s forced self-restraint and benevolence as signs of his spontaneous
good-will. They will even be right to the extent that they correctly assume that these benefits and
concessions, doled out slowly over time, will not be withdrawn when times are good.
The Self-Restraining State
Only rulers who have long-distance vision will be motivated to exercise the prudent selfrestraint that helps keep the people on their side. Fortune’s capricious ups and downs cannot be
regularized or evened out, therefore, but they can be ridden rodeo-style if rulers overcome their
natural myopia. Machiavelli stresses the importance of focusing on long-term consequences for
retaining power by his famous medical analogy: “in the beginning of the illness it is easy to cure
and difficult to recognize, but in the progress of time, when it has not been recognized and
treated in the beginning, it becomes easy to recognize and difficult to cure. So it happens in
affairs of state” [“nel principio del suo male è facile a curare e difficile a conoscere, ma, nel
progresso del tempo, non l'avendo in principio conosciuta né medicata, diventa facile a
conoscere e difficile a curare. Cosí interviene nelle cose di stato”] (P.3, p. 12). A ruler who
wishes to nip problems in the bud, before they get out of hand, must live among his subjects,
rather than retreating into palatial luxury while assigning day-to-day governance to magustrates.
Only first-hand exposure to the public mind will alert the ruler to the dangerous backlash that
government policy often provokes. An absentee ruler who governs through magistrates will also
14 expose himself, “especially in adverse times” [“massime ne' tempi avversi”] to having these
magistrates “take away his state with great ease” [“tòrre con facilità grande lo stato”]. This is
once again because there is no time for wickedness when necessities come in adverse times. In
particular, “the prince does not have time in the midst of danger to seize absolute authority
because the citizens and subjects, who are accustomed to receive commands from the
magistrates, are not ready, in these emergencies, to obey his” [“el principe non è a tempo, ne'
periculi, a pigliare l'autorità assoluta; perché li cittadini e sudditi, che sogliono avere e'
comandamenti da' magistrati, non sono, in quelli frangenti, per obedire a' sua”] (P.9, p. 42).
The self-restraint of the ruler is experienced by his subjects as the rule of law.
Machiavelli’s aside in The Prince that “I shall leave out the reasoning on laws” [“io lascerò
indrieto el ragionare delle legge”] (P.12, p. 48) is therefore quite misleading. For instance,
Borgia’s pacification of the Romagna included an important component of legality. This is
natural since “to fight . . . with laws . . . is proper to man” [“combattere . . . con le leggi . . . è
proprio dello uomo”] (P.18, p. 69). Given that “it is necessary for a prince to know well how to
use . . . the man” [“a uno principe è necessario sapere bene usare . . . lo uomo”] (P.18, p. 69), we
can assume that it is also necessary, some of the time, for a ruler to know how to rule through
laws known in advance and reliably enforced.
Preserving one’s state requires respecting the property of your citizens and subjects: a
ruler “above all . . . must abstain from the property of others” [“sopra tutto, astenersi dalla roba
d'altri”] (P.17, p. 67) in order to avoid being hated. This is perhaps the most important
illustration of legimation through self-restraint, presented by Machiavelli as the opposite of
ruling through fear. Citizens and subjects must be relieved of any fear of confiscation. Wives,
sisters and daughters should also remain untouched, less perhaps as property than as neuralgic
points of male honor. Acquisitiveness is perfectly natural; but if it involves seizure of what
others believe to belong to them it will be bitterly resented. A prohibition against arbitrary
takings is more important politically than a prohibition on arbitrary killings because motives for
capital punishment are rarer and disappear more quickly than reasons for confiscating private
property. Unlike capital punishment, property confiscation is a slippery slope because “he who
begins to live by rapine always finds cause to seize others’ property” [“colui che comincia a
vivere con rapina, truova cagione di occupare quel d'altri”] (P.17, p. 67). If a ruler begins on this
road he will become addicted to confiscatory measures and will end up turning the majority of
his citizens or subjects against him. The reason why “men forget the death of a father more
quickly than the loss of a patrimony” [“li uomini sdimenticano più presto la morte del padre che
la perdita del patrimonio”] (P.17, p. 67), incidentally, is that no change in rulers will restore an
executed kinsman back to life. The restoration of an expropriated farm, by contrast, might very
well be accomplished through a palace coup. The pain caused by one’s father’s murder can be
blunted by resignation in the face of the irreversible, whereas the chance of recuperating
confiscated property keeps the wound of expropriation green.
A ruler who does not control his own and his magistrates’ libido habendi, as well as his
own and their sexual libido, will store up disgust and rancor in the hearts of his people: “What
makes him hated above all, as I said, is to be rapacious and a usurper of the property and the
women of his subjects” [“Odioso lo fa, sopra tutto, come io dissi, lo essere rapace e usurpatore
della roba e delle donne de' sudditi: di che si debbe astenere”] (P.19, p. 72). Machiavelli makes a
15 special point of warning the ruler against allowing one of his provinces to be “despoiled by your
officials” [“spogliata da' tua officiali”] (P.3, p. 10), for the hatred that this spoliation will
inevitably excite will be redirected toward the ruler himself who will find the rug ripped out from
under his feet when capable adversaries move in for the kill.
It is worse to be feared than loved if fear includes the people’s fear that the ruler will
arbitrarily confiscate their property or rape their wives and daughters. A ruler will weaken his
city and therefore himself if he rules by this kind of fear. Moreover, citizens will exert
themselves economically only if they have a reasonable chance of capturing some benefits from
such exertion: “each willingly . . . seeks to acquire those goods he believes he can enjoy once
acquired” [“ciascuno volentieri . . . cerca di acquistare quei beni, che crede, acquistati, potersi
godere”] (D.2.2, p. 132). They will not create taxable wealth and improve their property without
the kind of legal certainty in acquisitions and transactions that can be supplied only by the rule of
law. To say that a prudent ruler must encourage economic activity by making his own behavior
predictable is, once again, to deny that he should rule through fear. Riches multiply only when
property rights become secure against confiscation by the authorities.
Knowing how to “use the man” or rule through laws, the polymorphic ruler will also
know how to “use the beast” or prevail through murder when the occasion arises. Borgia’s
agent, Messer Remirro de Orco, certainly knew how. He ruthlessly and extralegally repressed
the squabbling and predatory signori of the Romagna—whose spoliation and neglect of the
inhabitants had left the region in an uncivilized state of nature, “quite full of robberies, quarrels,
and every other kind of insolence” [“tutta piena di latrocinii, di brighe e di ogni altra ragione di
insolenzia”] (P.7, p. 29). But after this was achieved, Borgia quickly resorted to a human or
humane style of rule through law, establishing a legal tribunal where grievances could be aired
and disputes resolved: “he set up a civil court in the middle of the province, with a most
excellent president, where each city had its advocate” [“uno iudicio civile nel mezzo della
provincia, con uno presidente eccellentissimo, dove ogni città vi aveva lo avvocato suo”] (P.7, p.
30). The spectacular murder of Remirro thereafter served to channel popular hatred away from
Borgia onto his now bisected surrogate, to distance Borgia from extra-legal punishments, and to
reduce popular fear of government by making clear that a certain convocation of politic worms
are e'en at the once-dreaded extra-judicial enforcer. Like Agathocles, Borgia used cruelty well
by getting it over quickly and going on “to secure men and gain them to himself with benefits”
[“assicurare li uomini e guadagnarseli con beneficarli”] (P.8, p. 38). By repressing violent
anarchy and then establishing that civil court, Borgia thought “that he had gained all those
peoples to himself since they had begun to taste well-being” [”aversi acquistata amica la
Romagna e guadagnatosi tutti quelli popoli, per avere cominciato a gustare el bene essere loro”]
(P.7, p. 29). Government through law was an essential element in the “very good foundations for
his power” [“buoni fondamenti alla potenzia sua”] (P.7, p. 29) that Cesare built to gain the
friendship of Romagna.
A prudent ruler must be especially careful to satisfy the interest of citizens or subjects in
legal certainty in their business affairs or “private concerns” [“maneggi privati”] (P.19, p. 72).
He must bring to a swift and unshakable conclusion disputes about who owns what and who
owes what to whom in order for the economy to function smoothly. Stare decisis must prevail
and the ruler must protect himself against disinformation that economic losers are apt to feed
16 maliciously into the dispute resolution system. That is to say, the ruler “should insist that his
judgments in the private concerns of his subjects be irrevocable. And he should maintain such an
opinion of himself that no one thinks either of deceiving him or of getting around him” [“volere
che la sua sentenzia sia irrevocabile; e si mantenga in tale opinione, che alcuno non pensi né a
ingannarlo né ad aggirarlo”] (P.19, p. 72). More particularly, the ruler “should inspire his
citizens to follow their pursuits quietly, in trade and in agriculture and in every other pursuit of
men, so that one person does not fear to adorn his possessions for fear that they be taken away
from him, and another to open up a trade for fear of taxes” [“debbe animare li sua cittadini di
potere quietamente esercitare li esercizii loro, e nella mercanzia e nella agricultura, et in ogni
altro esercizio delli uomini, e che quello non tema di ornare le sua possessione per timore che le
li sieno tolte, e quell'altro di aprire uno traffico per paura delle taglie”] (P.21, p. 91). Rulers can
foster economic prosperity, once again, only if their citizens or subjects do not fear arbitrary
confiscation and excessive taxation. The private wealth accumulated in a state under the farseeing protection of its ruler, moreover, is an essential component of emergency preparedness.
By catering to the “utilità de' sudditi (P.8, p. 38) in this sense, the ruler can also swell the tax
base on which he will draw in times of war and factional strife.
Other ways in which the ruler gains by governing by and through laws should be
mentioned briefly at this point. Judicial independence, for one thing, provides a very effective
form of political deniability or responsibility avoidance: “ordinary punishments are imputed not
to the prince but to the laws” [“le punizioni ordinarie non sono imputate al principe, ma alle leggi
ed a quegli ordini”] (D.3.22, p. 266). The infliction of punishment necessarily excites a desire
for revenge, and the creation of independent criminal courts guarantees that “the offense one
does to a man should be such that one does not fear revenge for it” [“l'offesa che si fa all'uomo
debbe essere in modo che la non tema la vendetta”] (P.3, pp. 10-11). This fits perfectly with
Machaivelli’s explicit advice: "princes should have anything blameable administered by others,
favors by themselves" [“li principi debbono le cose di carico fare sumministrare ad altri, quelle
di grazia a loro medesimi”] (P.19, p. 75).
All this brings us back to the incongruity, in Machiavelli’s presentation, between the
ruler’s loyalty to peer competitors as a deadly trap and the ruler’s loyalty to the ruled as a key to
his salvation. The ruler is allowed, or even compelled, to be disloyal to peer rivals, foreign and
domestic, who regularly resort to deviousness and duplicity in attempts to take away his state and
his life. His own citizens and subjects present no such threat and therefore he should never
betray their trust. Since the only harm he can expect from his own citizens or subjects is
abandonment in adversity, the prudent ruler’s uncompromising loyalty to them, too, is a solution
not a problem. Thus, Machiavelli paints the social contract, or exchange of obedience for
protection, as an exchange of believable loyalties between ruler and people. The question we
now need to answer is why the people would trust a ruler who so easily welches on his sworn
promises to his peers.
The Upside to Dependency
A ruler who observes no self-restraint in his dealings with the people is not necessarily
thinking straight [“un principe che può fare ciò ch'ei vuole, è pazzo”] (D.1.58, p. 118). A
limited state can be more powerful than an unlimited state because the former can mobilize
greater and more reliable public support than the latter. To avoid the kind of popular hatred that
17 will encourage defection in adversity, the ruler will restrain himself and his magistrates from
stealing the property and violating the women of his subjects or citizens. This protoconstitutional self-binding of political authority is the flip-side of the well-grounded belief of
citizens and subjects that their property rights are going to be reliably enforced. In a world ruled
by unpredictability, the modest sphere in which the ruler guarantees legal certainty in
acquisitions and transactions is a benefit doled out to citizens and subjects slowly, over time, so
that it tastes better and is appreciated more (P.8, p. 38). From his own perspective, the ruler’s
contribution to legal certainty and economic prosperity pays off not only because it prevents
hatred and wins friends, but also because it swells the tax base on which effective defense
against foreign rivals depends.
Absence of popular hatred for the prince and popular appreciation for his steady support,
deliberately fostered by far-seeing rulers when times are calm in preparation for an inevitable
reversal of fortune, are necessary conditions for loyalty in adversity. But they are not sufficient,
not by a long shot. So what else is required?
A clue can be found in Machiavelli’s paradoxical remark that “the nature of men is to be
obligated as much by benefits they give as by benefits they receive” [“la natura delli uomini è,
cosí obbligarsi per li benefizii che si fanno, come per quelli che si ricevano”] (P.10, p. 44). The
subconscious need to reduce cognitive dissonance may be involved here. People tend to invent
ex post justifications for sacrifices made: if it was so costly, it must have been worthwhile. But
Machiavelli himself places greater stress on a different dynamic. The context is that siege,
mentioned above, in which the people, having retreated behind city walls on the approach of the
marauding enemy army, look on helplessly as their farms and fields are burned:
the enemy reasonably would burn and ruin the countryside on his arrival, at a time when
men’s spirits are still hot and willing for defense; and thus the prince should hesitate so
much the less, because after several days, when spirits have cooled, the damage has
already been done, the evil has been received, and there is no more remedy for it. At that
time they come to unite with their prince so much the more, since it appears he has an
obligation toward them, their houses having been burned and their possessions ruined in
his defense.
“el nimico, ragionevolmente, debba ardere e ruinare el paese in sulla sua giunta e ne'
tempi, quando li animi delli uomini sono ancora caldi e volenterosi alla difesa; e però
tanto meno el principe debbe dubitare, perché, dopo qualche giorno, che li animi sono
raffreddi, sono di già fatti e' danni, sono ricevuti e' mali, e non vi è più remedio; et allora
tanto più si vengono a unire con il loro principe, parendo che lui abbia con loro obbligo
sendo loro sute arse le case, ruinate le possessioni, per la difesa sua”] (P.10, p. 44).
The besieged citizens “unite with their prince” [“vengono a unire con il loro principe”], that is,
are loyal in adversity, because they know that he owes them an enormous debt which must, in all
honor, be repaid. Their fortunes are now intertwined. Expecting to be repaid, according to the
principle of reciprocity between ruler and ruled, they have an enormous stake in his victory,
which encourages them to fight with unrelenting ferocity of his/their own behalf. Those rulers
18 who fail to found themselves on such reciprocal loyalty, to rephrase Machiavelli’s point, are
invariably ruined.
But what makes these citizens so confident that their ruler will honor his obligation
toward those who defend him in adversity? How will he convince them that he willcontinue to
treat them decently after they put their lives at risk to help him repel an existential threat? The
people are not stupid. They realize that their ruler will not keep his promises to them unless he
needs their cooperation over time. The ruler will “always and in every quality of time” [“sempre
et in ogni qualità di tempo”] (P.9, p. 42) be loyal to the ruled only because the international and
domestic environment will almost certainly continue to be populated by rivals who would like to
take away his state and his life. If the people believed that their ruler could survive and flourish
without them, or if they thought that he thought he could, they would cease to trust him and
would therefore be strongly disposed to abandon him in adversity.
The people will willingly tie their fortune to the fortunes of their ruler only when
convinced of the ruler’s existential dependence on the people. To emphasize the role of foreign
danger, especially, in creating pacts of mutual loyalty between ruler and ruled, Machiavelli
explains why new princes, desperate to secure popular support, invariably arm the people:
“There has never been, then, a new prince who has disarmed his subjects; on the contrary,
whenever he has found them unarmed, he has always armed them. For when they are armed,
those arms become yours; those whom you suspected become faithful, and those who were
faithful remain so; and from subjects they are made into your partisans” [“Non fu mai, adunque,
che uno principe nuovo disarmassi e' sua sudditi; anzi, quando li ha trovati disarmati, li ha
sempre armati; perché, armandosi, quelle arme diventono tua, diventono fedeli quelli che ti sono
sospetti, e quelli che erano fedeli si mantengono e di sudditi si fanno tua partigiani”] (P.20, p.
83). The best way to make the people into the ruler’s active partisans is to give them the means
to defend themselves against abuse by the ruler’s officials and to involve them in the joint
defense of the city from dangerous foreign conquerors.
A ruler’s virtù is revealed, at a minimum, by his ability to avoid being hated. This is only
the first step toward his nailing down loyal support when adversity strikes. At one point,
Machiavelli flatly denies that “being able to enjoy one’s things freely, without any suspicion, not
fearing for the honor of wives and that of children, not to be afraid for oneself” [“potere godere
liberamente le cose sue sanza alcuno sospetto, non dubitare dell'onore delle donne, di quel de'
figliuoli, non temere di sé”] (D.1.16, p. 45) is capable of making citizens feel any obligation at
all to their ruler: “For no one ever confesses that he has an obligation to one who does not offend
him” [“perché nessuno confesserà mai avere obligo con uno che non l'offenda”] (D.1.16, p. 45).
This cannot mean that avoiding hatred no longer tops Machiavelli’s to-do list for princes. It
must simply be pointing out that the absence of obstacles does not imply the presence of
conditions. Popular hatred makes loyalty in adversity impossible. So what else is required to
bring it about?
The best place to start looking for an answer to this question is Machiavelli’s statement
elsewhere that rulers who lack virtù are characteristically “insolent in good fortune and abject in
bad” [“insolente nella buona fortuna ed abietto nella cattiva”] (D.3.31, p. 283). This claim
presupposes a distinction between the ill-fortune than not even a virtuoso prince can avoid and
19 the ill-fortune that virtù can successfully resist: “great men are always the same in every fortune;
and if it varies—now by exalting them, now by crushing them—they do not vary but always
keep their spirit firm and joined with their mode of life so that one easily knows for each that
fortune does not have power over them” [“gli uomini grandi sono sempre in ogni fortuna quelli
medesimi; e se la varia, ora con esaltarli, ora con opprimerli, quegli non variano, ma tengono
sempre lo animo fermo, ed in tale modo congiunto con il modo del vivere loro, che facilmente si
conosce per ciascuno, la fortuna non avere potenza sopra di loro”] (D.3.31, p. 281). But can
steadiness under the assaults of outrageous fortune help the man of virtù inspire a loyal following
that will stick with him in adversity?
Machiavelli first approaches this point negatively, by explaining how unsteadiness in the
face of cycles of good and bad luck alienates public support: “Weak men . . . grow vain and
intoxicated in good fortune by attributing all the good they have to the virtue they have never
known. Hence it arises that they become unendurable and hateful to all those whom they have
around them” [“gli uomini deboli . . . invaniscono ed inebriano nella buona fortuna, attribuendo
tutto il bene che gli hanno a quella virtù che non conobbono mai. D'onde nasce che diventano
insopportabili ed odiosi a tutti coloro che gli hanno intorno”] (D.3.31, p. 281). To avoid being
hated, therefore, a ruler must, among other things, openly acknowledge the role played by good
luck in their worldly successes and the role play be bad luck in the failures of others. Because he
“does not get frightened in adversity” [“né si sbigottisca nelle avversità”] (P.9, p. 41), the
virtuoso ruler will neither surrender prematurely nor fail to prepare for a storm when the sea is
calm. His rock-steady attitude stems from his realistic appreciation that both good luck and bad
luck come and go
Free from both puffed-up vanity and lachrymose self-pity, the virtuouso ruler will freely
acknowledge the power of fortune to pick political winners and losers. In the Dedicatory Letter
prefaced to The Prince, Machiavelli subtly contrasts the great malice of fortune which he has
recently suffered and the situation of the mediocre scion of the Medici clan to whom he dedicates
the book, emphasizing “my extreme desire that you arrive at the greatness that fortune and your
other qualities promise you” [“uno estremo mio desiderio, che Lei pervenga a quella grandezza
che la fortuna e le altre sue qualità li promettano”] (Proemio). The ironic suggestion that fortune
is one of this princeling’s personal qualities, for which flattering courtiers will sing his praises,
brings out the contemptible narcissism of those who attribute the success that they actually owe
to good luck to a personal merit which they lack.
The genuine virtuoso, by contrast, will keep steady in the face of shifting fortunes
because he recognizes that “men who live ordinarily in great adversity or prosperity deserve less
praise or less blame. For most often it will be seen that they have been brought to ruin or to
greatness through a great advantage that the heavens have provided them, giving or taking away
from them an opportunity to be able to work virtuously” [“gli uomini che vivono ordinariamente
nelle grandi avversità o prosperità, meritano manco laude o manco biasimo. Perché il più delle
volte si vedrà quelli a una rovina ed a una grandezza essere stati convinti da una commodità
grande che gli hanno fatto i cieli, dandogli occasione, o togliendogli, di potere operare
virtuosamente”] (D.2.29, p. 198). Acknowledging the decisive role played by good and bad luck
in human life, the virtuoso ruler will “rejoice less in the good and be less aggrieved with the bad”
[“meno rallegrare del bene, e meno rattristare del male“] precisely because he is “a better knower
20 of the world” [“migliore conoscitore del mondo”] (D.3.31, p. 283). His unflappability under fire,
derived from his better knowledge of the world, will presumably inspire his troops. By
developing a reputation for “entering into and escaping from dangers” [“nello intrare e nello
uscire de' periculi”] and displaying “the greatness of his spirit in enduring and overcoming
adversities” [“la grandezza dello animo suo nel sopportare e superare le cose averse”] (P.8, p.
35), he will be able to induce his troops to follow him into battle even against unfavorable odds.
By making sure that “greatness, spiritedness, gravity, and strength” are always visible in his
actions [“che nelle azioni sua si riconosca grandezza, animosità, gravità, fortezza”] (P, 19, p. 72),
a ruler can excite the kind of we-will-follow-you-anywhere loyalty and partisan devotion that
would be impossible to achieve through the rule of law or the establishment and protection of a
free market in goods and services, however necessary and important these admittedly are.
The Exception
Shortly before he wrote The Prince, Machiavelli was flung to the ground and thrashed by
ill-fortune in Medici jails. Thus, as David Wooton nicely remarks, thoughts of lady fortune’s
unprovoked malevolence probably stimulated his “fantasies of revenge.”5 This biographical
detail does not mean that his metaphor of fortune as a woman who needs to be roughed up by an
impetuous young man need not be taken serious, however. The virtù that expresses itself in
emergency preparedness and especially in the ruler’s constitutional self-restraint and guarantees
of non-confiscation is not the whole of virtù. The ordinary primacy of institution-building does
not dispense with the occasional necessity of spectacular coups de main.
The two sides of virtù, one proper to man and the other proper to beasts, are illustrated by
the challenge presented to rulers by class conflict. The lavishly praised French constitution
allows the ruler to manage class conflict in the human manner, institutionally, without exciting
resentment at his favoritism:
Among the well-ordered and governed kingdoms in our times is that of France; and in it
are infinite good institutions on which the liberty and security of the king depend. The
first of these is the parlement and its authority. For the one who ordered that kingdom,
knowing the ambition of the powerful and their insolence, and judging it necessary for
them to have a bit in their mouths to correct them, and on the other side, knowing the
hatred of the generality of people against the great, which is founded in its fear, and
wanting to secure them, intended this not to be the particular concern of the king, so as to
take from him the blame he would have from the great when he favored the popular side,
and from the popular side when he favored the great; and so he constituted a third judge
to be the one who would beat down the great and favor the lesser side without blame for
the king
[“Intra regni bene ordinati e governati, a' tempi nostri, è quello di Francia: et in esso si
truovano infinite constituzione buone, donde depende la libertà e sicurtà del re; delle
quali la prima è il parlamento e la sua autorità. Perché quello che ordinò quel regno,
conoscendo l'ambizione de' potenti e la insolenzia loro, e iudicando esser loro necessario
uno freno in bocca che li correggessi e, da altra parte, conoscendo l'odio dello universale
David Wooton, “Introduction,” in Machiavelli, The Prince (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1995), p. xxx.`
21 contro a' grandi fondato in sulla paura, e volendo assicurarli, non volse che questa fussi
particulare cura del re, per tòrli quel carico che potessi avere co' grandi favorendo li
populari, e co' populari favorendo e' grandi; e però constituí uno iudice terzo, che fussi
quello che, sanza carico del re battessi e' grandi e favorissi e' minori. Né poté essere
questo ordine migliore né più prudente, né che sia maggiore cagione della securtà del re e
del regno”] (P.19, p. 75).
Noteworthy in this passage is the assumption that a political system can be stabilized if the
commoners’ pent-up resentment at their social superiors is appeased by seeing the insolent
nobility taken down a notch, not slaughtered Agathocles-style. The classical example of a
constitutional mechanism that had this function was the Roman Tribunate, “useful in checking . .
. the ambition that the powerful used against the plebs” [“utile a frenare l'ambizione che i potenti
usavano contro alla Plebe”] (D.1.50, p. 102). Roman history, as reconstructed in the Discourses,
suggests that the Tribunate checked the powerful by serving as an aide memoire. It prevented
the natural development of elite amnesia by reminding the patricians at every moment that the
Tribunes could stir up deadly urban riots if upper class insolence and overreaching went too far.
To be sure, the Tribunate never destroyed the Roman patriciate. It simply placed a bit in their
mouths. This makes sense because, in “well-ordered states,” not only are the people kept
satisfied and content, but the constitution-maker will have “thought out with all diligence how
not to make the great desperate” [“con ogni diligenzia pensato di non desperare e' grandi e di
satisfare al populo e tenerlo contento”] (P.19, p. 74). Both the French and the Roman
constitutional systems were ordered to strike this balance between the people and the grandi.
Machiavelli concludes this discussion by asserting that “that a prince should esteem the
great, but not make himself hated by the people” [“concludo che uno principe debbe stimare e'
grandi, ma non si fare odiare dal populo”] (P.19, p. 75). But it may not always be possible to
retain the good will of the people while treating the somewhat chastened nobility with a degree
of respect. In a totally corrupt city, where the few wallow in the humiliation of the many and the
poor nurse unbearable grievances against the rich, it is impossible to satisfy the wishes of the
great without harming the people and thereby indirectly provoking popular hatred of the ruler. In
such corrupt circumstances, “a prince who wants to maintain his state is often forced not to be
good” [“uno principe, volendo mantenere lo stato, è spesso forzato a non essere buono”] (P, 19,
p. 77). Treating the nobility decently under these conditions would simply ruin the ruler. His
only option is therefore to allow the commoners to vent their rancor against the nobles, to
“follow their humor to satisfy them” [“seguire l'umore suo per satisfarlo”] (P, 19, p. 77).
In Rome, popular resentment against the particians was vented institutionally in public
trials where ordinary citizens, feeling injured, could openly lodge accusations against members
of the elite who had purportedly injured them. This system provided a safety valve, preventing
revolutionary violence and stabilizing the class system: "when these humors do not have an
outlet by which they may be vented ordinarily, they have recourse to extraordinary modes that
bring a whole republic to ruin"[“quando questi omori non hanno onde sfogarsi ordinariamente,
ricorrono a' modi straordinari, che fanno rovinare tutta una republica. E però non è cosa che
faccia tanto stabile e ferma una republica, quanto ordinare quella in modo che l'alterazione di
quegli omori che l'agitano, abbia una via da sfogarsi ordinata dalle leggi”] (D.1.7, p. 24). By
inviting the plebs’ potentially destabilizing desire to avenge wrongs allegedly perpetrated by
22 patricians to vent itself inside the system, a forum for public accusations reduced the poisonous
influence of anonymous denunciations and the demand for back-street ambushes. It cauterized
class resentment and the desire for vengeance before they spiral out of control.
Machiavelli’s most shocking examples of cruelty well-used are introduced in contexts
where such institutional safety valves are missing. It is best to appease both patricians and plebs,
but when this proves impossible, “a prince is compelled of necessity to know well how to use the
beast” [“uno principe necessitato sapere bene usare la bestia”] (P.18, p. 69). In a corrupt city, the
ruler cannot balance class interests and must therefore take his stand with the people: “since
princes cannot fail to be hated by someone, they are at first forced not to be hated by the people
generally” [“non potendo e' principi mancare di non essere odiati da qualcuno, si debbano prima
forzare di non essere odiati dalla università”] (P, 19, p. 76). After using cruelty to cut down the
rich and prominent, the prudent ruler will return quickly to the human path of legal self-restraint
in dealing with the people because the momentary enthusiasm for the ruler brought by his
willingness to use the beast in slaughtering their obnoxious social superiors will soon fade.
Retaining their support will require the ruler to use the man.
Extra-legal violence against the insolent nobility momentarily increases the popularity of
the ruler of a corrupt city because, under conditions of class oppression, the people at large
always seek “to be avenged against those who are the cause that it is servile” [“vendicarsi contro
a coloro che sono cagione che sia servo”] (D.1.16, p. 46). It also allows him to eliminate rivals
claimants to his power. Machiavelli makes this point in a passage already cited where he says
the prince should fear some grandi “as if they were open enemies, because in adversity they will
always help ruin him” [“come se fussino scoperti inimici, perché sempre, nelle avversità,
aiuteranno ruinarlo”] (P.9, p. 40). Similarly, “from the great, when they are hostile, he must fear
not only being abandoned but also that they may come against him, for since there is more
foresight and more astuteness in the great, they always move in time to save themselves, and
they seek rank from those they hope will win” [“da' grandi, inimici, non solo debbe temere di
essere abbandonato, ma etiam che loro li venghino contro; perché, sendo in quelli più vedere e
più astuzia, avanzono sempre tempo per salvarsi, e cercono gradi con quelli che sperano che
vinca”] (P.9, pp. 39-40 ).
The Upside to Adversity
To say that reversals of fortune are a challenge to political rulers is not to deny that they
also present a precious opportunity. Without the unpredictable spin of the wheel of fortune, for
one thing, we would be unable to distinguish clearly between those who have enough virtù to
preserve a steady demeanor as fortunes change and those whose lack of virtù is displayed by
galling insolence when times are good and despicable abjectness when times are bad. More
importantly, bouts of adversity provide occasions for men of virtù to exercise and exhibit their
inherent prowess. Political action can only be as spectacular and praiseworthy as the challenges
to which it responds. This is why adversity, for the virtuoso, is not equivalent to bad luck.
Indeed, the worst fortune for a man of virtù is to live in a time when no adversity that is
sufficiently grave and threatening occurs. Uninterrupted prosperity deprives him of all occasion
to display his superhuman capacity to overcome adversity.
23 The dormant and frustratingly under-utilized nature of virtù in times of peace and
prosperity means that the virtuoso individual can make a splash only under conditions of
adversity: “it was necessary for anyone wanting to see the virtue of Moses that the people of
Israel be enslaved in Egypt, and to learn the greatness of spirit of Cyrus, that the Persians be
oppressed by the Medes, and to learn the excellence of Theseus, that the Athenians be dispersed”
[“era necessario, volendo vedere la virtù di Moisè, che il populo d'Isdrael fussi stiavo in Egitto,
et a conoscere la grandezza dello animo di Ciro, ch'e' Persi fussino oppressati da' Medi e la
eccellenzia di Teseo, che li Ateniensi fussino disperse”] (P.26, p. 102). For the virtuosi,
paradoxically, their community’s good luck can be their personal bad luck and vice versa.
The first reason why the bad luck of a community can be the good luck of its rulers is that
popular adversity encourages the people to seek shelter under the protective wing of public
authority. Without shared adversity, in fact, there would be little psychological motivation for
loyalty in adversity. For example, “a powerful and spirited prince” [“uno principe potente et
animoso”] can “keep the spirits of his citizens firm in the siege” [“tenere . . . fermi li animi de'
sua cittadini nella ossidione”] by, among other things, “giving them fear of the enemy’s cruelty”
[“dando . . . timore della crudeltà del nimico”] (P.10, p. 44). Fear of a common enemy will help
create a chain of obligation binding citizens or subjects to their ruler and vice versa.
A prudent leader can perform political alchemy to convert other popular emotions, too,
into popular support for his authority. The most important of these, as previously mentioned, is
pent-up rancor at class subordination. In particular, the frustrations of servitude and
subordination incline citizens and subjects to throw in their lot with a leader who promises and
manages to liberate them from their degraded state. A savage illustration of this psychological
mechanism is Agathocles’s slaughter of Syracuse’s patricians. He was able to mobilize the
support of the city’s plebs by giving vent to their resentment and envy of the rich. He benefited
the lower class being allowing it “to be avenged against those who are the cause that it is servile”
[“vendicarsi contro a coloro che sono cagione che sia servo”] (D.1.16, p. 46). The legitimacy of
his political authority seems to have been born from the bitter adversity of class oppression,
although it was sustained by a subsequently bestowed stream of benefits to the people. A more
politically palatable example, because the savagery involved is downplayed by tenderly Christian
readings of the Hebrew Bible, is Moses: “It was necessary then for Moses to find the people of
Israel in Egypt, enslaved and oppressed by the Egyptians, so that they would be disposed to
follow him so as to get out of their servitude” [“Era dunque necessario a Moisè trovare el populo
d'Isdrael, in Egitto, stiavo et oppresso dalli Egizii, acciò che quelli, per uscire di servitù, si
disponessino a seguirlo”] (P.6, p. 23).
This leads us back to our opening question: Under what conditions, putting aside the
absence of hatred, are citizens and subjects disposed to follow their ruler into the breach (“si
disponessino a seguirlo”)? It may seem circular or tautological, but the popular loyalty that a
ruler needs to survive adversity can best be created by adversity itself, including the intolerable
adversities of oppression and enslavement.
Machiavelli introduces a final twist in his understanding of the multilayered relation
between adversity and virtù in his remark that “princes become great when they overcome
difficulties made for them and opposition made to them” [“e' principi diventano grandi, quando
24 superano le difficultà e le opposizioni che sono fatte loro”] (P.20, p. 85). But do rulers have to
wait for fortune to drop adversity, and its accompanying opportunities to display virtù and
mobilize loyalty, into their laps? Perhaps the ability of virtù to master fortune includes the
ability to create covertly the kind of emergency or crisis that will allow the virtù of the ruler to
shine overtly. Indeed, Machiavelli considers this possibility quite explicitly: “many judge that a
wise prince, when he has the opportunity for it, should astutely nourish some enmity so that
when he has crushed it, his greatness emerges the more from it” [“molti iudicano che uno
principe savio debbe, quando ne abbi la occasione, nutrirsi con astuzia qualche inimicizia, acciò
che, oppresso quella, ne seguiti maggiore sua grandezza”] (P.20, p. 85). To say that adversity is
an opportunity for virtù to shine is to say that adversaries, so long as they can be beaten, provide
a stepladder on which the ruler can climb ever higher in public esteem. To be sure, firemen will
not win praise for putting out a fire if everyone believes that they set the fire themselves. The
same must be true for the virtuoso who creates an opportunity to display his virtù by fomenting a
resolvable crisis or provoking an enemy attack that is powerful enough to raise popular alarm but
weak enough for him to repel. Virtù, in this case, again includes a capacity to throw up a
smokescreen of deniability, keeping the man of virtù’s fingerprints off a crisis that he has
deliberately manufactured.
The unrecognized or under-appreciated virtuoso can secretly deploy his virtù to gin up an
opportunity to demonstrate his virtù publicly, to the onlooking world. Such virtù is therefore a
massively destabilizing force that afflicts republican governments, especially those Machiavelli
commonly calls corrupt. Far from preparing for the storm when the sea is calm, corrupt
republics in peacetime routinely promote mediocre personalities to high office and sideline their
most talented citizens: “excellent men in corrupt republics, especially in quiet times, are treated
as enemies, either from envy or from other ambitious causes” [“gli eccellenti uomini nelle
republiche corrotte, nei tempi quieti massime, e per invidia e per altre ambiziose cagioni”]
(D.2.22, p. 179). The envy which deprives the virtuosi of their due recognition in peacetime is
not so much the envy of the people as the envy of the virtuosi’s less talented social peers: “It has
always been, and will always be, that great and rare men are neglected in a republic in peaceful
times. For through the envy that the reputation their virtue has given them has brought with it,
one finds very many citizens in such times who wish to be not their equals but their superiors”
[“Egli fu sempre, e sempre sarà, che gli uomini grandi e rari in una republica, ne' tempi pacifichi,
sono negletti; perché, per la invidia che si ha tirato dietro la riputazione che la virtù d'essi ha dato
loro, si truova in tali tempi assai cittadini che vogliono, non che essere loro equali, ma essere loro
superiori”] (D.3.16, pp. 254-255) The consequences of this unfair treatment of the genuinely
talented can be ruinous:
in republics there is the disorder of giving little esteem to worthy men in quiet times. That
thing makes them indignant in two modes: one, to see themselves lacking their rank; the
other, to see unworthy men of less substance than they made partners and superiors to
themselves. That disorder in republics has caused much ruin, because those citizens who
see themselves undeservedly despised and know that easy and not dangerous times are
the cause of it strive to disturb them, starting new wars to the prejudice of the republic.
[nelle republiche è questo disordine, di fare poca stima de' valenti uomini, ne' tempi
quieti. La quale cosa gli fa indegnare in due modi: l'uno per vedersi mancare del grado
25 loro; l'altro, per vedersi fare compagni e superiori uomini indegni e di manco sofficienza
di loro. Il quale disordine nelle republiche ha causato di molte rovine; perché quegli
cittadini che immeritamente si veggono disprezzare, e conoscono che e' ne sono cagione i
tempi facili e non pericolosi, s'ingegnano di turbargli, movendo nuove guerre in
pregiudicio della republica](D.3.16, p. 255)
The talent for overcoming adversity is perverted, in times of peace and prosperity, into a talent
for inciting near-disasters.
Machiavelli naturally asks what remedies can be applied to counteract this pathological
tendency of men of virtù to foment crises in order to repress the envy of inferiors, charm
potential loyalists, and open up opportunities to strut their stuff. The answer most interesting for
our purposes is to organize the city for ceaseless war as during the early Roman Republic. This
solves the problem because a city always at war “always has need of reputed citizens” [“sempre
si avesse bisogno di cittadini riputati”] (D.3.16, p. 255). Unlike peacetime, wartime favors
meritocracy. In the Roman army of the republican period, at least, “there was always a place for
the virtue of men; nor could rank be taken away from one individual who deserved it and given
to another individual who did not deserve it” [“sempre vi era luogo alla virtù degli uomini; né si
poteva tôrre il grado a uno che lo meritasse, e darlo ad uno che non lo meritasse”](D.3.16, p.
In the absence of war, idleness will make the citizenry effeminate. Bickering factions
will also arise. By contrast, common sacrifices against a shared adversary, especially when the
ruler throws himself fearlessly into the conflict, will excite personal devotion to the ruler as well
as feelings of community solidarity. But the most important advantage of expansionistic war,
besides satisfying the virtuosi’s need to confront formidable challenges, is that it helps dampen
conflict between rich and poor by inducing the grandi to acquiesce in arming the people, with all
the inducements to class compromise that an armed citizenry entails.
On the other hand, endless war, satisfying the reputational longings of the virtuosi, also
has several unintended and unwelcome consequences. The most devastating of these is the
creation of a standing army. A standing army, because of “the particular goodwill that [the ruler]
acquires with the soldiers” [“la particulare benivolenza che colui si acquista con i soldati”]
(D.3.22, p. 267), destroys the original logic that induced the prudent ruler to prevent himself and
his staff from preying upon the population in order to avoid being hated and to secure popular
loyalty in adversity. If he can secure the loyalty of the army in adversity, he will be willing to
brave the hatred of the people that will predictably result if he allows soldiers to abuse civilians
they way they are prone to do. In other words, virtù itself destroys the original bargain between
the ruler and the people by creating a large group of political supporters, namely the legions,
whose allegiance some Caesar can secure while throwing the people under the elephants’
hooves. The number of Roman Emperors between 193AD and 238AD who were murdered by
the Praetorian Guard or the army not only confirms that an unarmed ruler cannot remain secure
among armed servants but also that political virtù’s struggle to free itself from the power of
fortune is ultimately futile. Even the men of virtù who Machiavelli admires most end up playing
unintentionally into fortune’s hands.
26 Conclusion
The random alternation of good and bad luck is a prison from which political virtù offers
a possible if only provisional or temporary escape. The strength of character that prevents an
individual virtuoso from being dismayed by adversity also prevents him from being foolishly
elated in prosperity. To maintain his grip on power, a ruler must convert his manly refusal to be
disheartened by bad luck into the willingness of his armed supporters to continue fighting on his
side even when defeat seems imminent. They will stand their ground, inspired by the virtue of
constancy they admire in their leader. If his troops remain loyal to him even in adversity, they
are “his arms,” and he has a chance to hold out until fortune once again shifts unpredictably and
his good luck returns. This is how loyalty in adversity, instilled in the ruler’s subjects or citizens,
frees the man of virtù to some extent from the cycles of fortune he cannot otherwise control.
Rather than basking hedonistically in the pleasures of prosperity, when fortune happens
to smile, the virtuoso ruler will invest single-mindedly in institutions, policies and civic
disciplines that will induce his subjects or citizens to close ranks in a crisis. He does this because
virtù includes foresight, especially the expectation of reversals of fortune will occur. Knowing
that adversity will eventually strike, the virtuoso ruler is “forced to be good” by the fear that, if
his subjects or citizens come to hate and despise him, they will readily abandon him in adversity.
To encourage loyalty in adversity, a prudent ruler will benefit the people, making them taste
well-being slowly and reliably over time. He will not hand out benefits like candy at the last
minute when the enemy is on the verge of breaching the city walls. The people will attribute
concessions granted to them while the enemy is at the gate to the ruler’s fear of the enemy not to
the ruler’s good will toward them.
Surrounding himself with loyal followers is the best way to deter foreign attacks and
domestic conspiracies. The first condition for mobilizing such tenacious support among the
public at large is self-restraint, symbolized by the ruler’s refusal to allow his magistrates to
indulge in predatory acquisitiveness or sexual lust at the expense of his subjects or citizens.
Although the self-restraint of the ruling power is motivated by the ruler’s fear of losing popular
cooperation when he needs it most, its consequence is to lessen the public’s fear of government
confiscation and spoliation. Thus, the self-restraint of the ruler lays the groundwork for popular
loyalty in adversity less by making the people fear his wrath than by offering them benefits
which taste best because doled out slowly over time. Property rights, fostering psychological
certainty in acquisitions and transactions, are the first and most fundamental of these benefits
doled out gradually and appreciated all the more because understood as just today’s installment
of a continuous stream of benefits. Citizens and subjects are fairly confident that the immunity
from confiscation they receive from a self-restraining state will not be suddenly withdrawn. The
ruler’s credible commitment to refrain from seizing the property and women of the ruled
provides the latter with a stable point in a churning world. Confidence in this governmentally
guaranteed stability is largely justified because non-confiscation is an enduring policy anchored
in the ruler’s ongoing fear of being abandoned in adversity rather than being a sudden benefit
handed out in panic when the ruler’s rapacious enemies appear at the gates.
27 Avoiding popular hatred is only the first step to be taken by a virtuoso leader who hopes
to cultivate the kind of popular loyalty that will help him survive adversity and stave off threats
to his power. He must also deepen their confidence that he will not betray them. He can do this
by making perfectly clear that he depends upon them to survive adversity. The best way to
communicate this message is for the ruler to arm his subjects or citizens. Once armed, the trust
that citizens or subjects feel for their ruler will be mightily reinforced. Now they will know for
sure that he will not dare violate their property rights. They will also understand fully that he
needs their assistance in prevailing over foreign rivals. His fortune and theirs will be visibly knit
together. They would trust him much less if they thought he were able to survive without them.
His palpable dependency on their help provides the solid grounds for their trust and everything
built upon it.
Power wielders need supporters who will remain loyal in adversity in order to survive the
ups and downs of fortune. But men of virtù not only need loyalty in adversity. They also need
adversity itself. Only adversity, logically enough, provides them with an opportunity to display
their capacity to overcome adversity. Because they feel disrespected and useless in times of
peace and prosperity, men of native virtù have a powerful incentive to manufacture political
crises and emergencies. The politically destabilizing consequences of frustrated virtù can best be
countered by putting the state on a wartime footing. This is true because forever war provides
limitless opportunities for the naturally virtuosi to exercise and display their virtù in a way that
stirs public celebration and increases their chances to win posthumous fame. Unfortunately,
expansionist war also leads to imperial overstretch as well as the replacement of the people by
the army as the basis of support on which rulers depend when facing adversity. This tragic
pattern by which republican virtù in particular can be satisfied only by a process that destroys
republican government is the most important illustration of what we might call Machiavelli’s
Law of the Conservation of Trouble: “in the order of things it is found that one never seeks to
avoid one inconvenience without running into another” [“perché si truova questo nell'ordine
delle cose, che mai non si cerca fuggire uno inconveniente che non si incorra in uno altro”]
(P.21, p. 91). This anti-perfectibilist conclusion does not necessarily mean that virtù invariably
succumbs to fortune, however. It could have been fortune but it was actually virtù that, in
Machiavelli’s reading, caused the collapse of the Roman Republic. This may be something of an
ironic consolation, since “wounds and every other ill that a man does to himself spontaneously
and by choice hurt much less than those that are done to you by someone else” [“le ferite ed ogni
altro male che l'uomo si fa da sé spontaneamente e per elezione, dolgano di gran lunga meno, che
quelle che ti sono fatte da altrui”] (D.1.34, p. 75).

Stephen Holmes [draft] Loyalty in Adversity The