Summary and Analysis Chapter 21


Nothing enhances a ruler's reputation more than undertaking great conquests. Ferdinand of Spain's career provides a good example. He had attacked Granada; driven the Moors out of Spain; and attacked Africa, Italy, and France. These activities kept his subjects amazed and preoccupied, so that no one had time to do anything against him.

With regard to internal affairs, princes should always find noteworthy ways to reward or punish any extraordinary actions.

Rulers must never remain neutral. If neighboring rulers fight, you must take sides, because if you do not, the winner will threaten you, and the loser will not befriend you. Whether or not your ally wins, he will be grateful to you. However, if you can avoid it, you should never ally with someone more powerful than yourself, because if he wins, you may be in his power.

A prince should show that he loves talent and rewards it. He should encourage his citizens to prosper in their occupations. He should keep the people entertained with festivals at appropriate times. And he should give attention to the various civic groups, attending some of their activities, but without appearing undignified.


Reputation and public image are the topics of this chapter. Conquests and daring deeds are the first way to enhance one's reputation. King Ferdinand of Spain is Machiavelli's exemplar, but he gets ambiguous treatment. Although Machiavelli calls him the most famous and glorious prince in Christendom, he also has harsh words for Ferdinand's expulsion of the Moors from Spain, calling it a despicable act done under a religious pretext. In Chapter 18, Machiavelli made a not-very-subtle reference to Ferdinand's penchant for trickery and deceit. Clearly he admires Ferdinand's boldness and energy, but deplores his actions. The emphasis on Ferdinand's ability to keep his subjects amazed and preoccupied recalls the description of Cesare Borgia's execution of Remirro de Orco, which left the people stunned and satisfied. Machiavelli specifically mentions public spectacles at the end of this chapter, and there is a suggestion that spectacle, whether in the form of entertaining festivals, dramatic executions, or daring schemes, is one of the prince's most important tools for controlling public opinion. In the same way, rewarding citizens' achievements or punishing their misdeeds should have an element of spectacle. It should make people talk, and when they talk, it should be about how remarkable the prince is.

Machiavelli's other recommendation has to do with decisiveness. Not surprisingly, given his preference for bold action, Machiavelli deplores princes who try to remain neutral in disputes. He presents this as a practical consideration: If a prince fails to take sides, he may find himself without friends when the dust settles. In this discussion, Machiavelli makes one of his few positive statements about human behavior, remarking that men are not so dishonorable nor ungrateful that they will immediately turn on their allies. Given Machiavelli's own advice to the prince in Chapter 18 to break his word when it suits his goals, the reader may have difficulty taking seriously Machiavelli's assurances in this case.

Returning to his theme of maintaining good relationships with one's subjects, Machiavelli says that a prince should reward merit and encourage prosperity, because achievements by the citizens improve the state. Princes should show themselves to be friendly to their subjects but without compromising the dignity of their office. Maintaining a certain distance keeps an air of grandeur intact.


Moors Islamic residents of Spain, the Moors had invaded from north Africa in the early eighth century and controlled large portions of Spain until Ferdinand drove them out during the Reconquest, completed by 1500. Ferdinand expelled the Jews at the same time, in his desire to make Spain a pure Christian nation. Machiavelli implies that this was a purely political maneuver done under a religious pretext.

Bernabò Bernabò Visconti (1323-1385), ruler of Milan, was famous for giving bizarre punishments.

Pop Quiz!

A prince risks being despised if he does all but which of the following?


I'm trying to understand Shakespeare's play, King Lear. Can you explain these quotes from Act 1, Scene 1?

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