Summary and Analysis Chapter 15



The proper behavior of princes toward subjects and allies remains to be discussed. Many others have treated this subject, but Machiavelli bases his observations on the real world, not on an imagined ideal. There is so much difference between the way people should act and the way they do act that any prince who tries to do what he should will ruin himself. A prince must know when to act immorally. Everyone agrees that a prince should have all good qualities, but because that is impossible, a wise prince will avoid those vices that would destroy his power and not worry about the rest. Some actions that seem virtuous will ruin a prince, while others that seem like vices will make a prince prosper.


In this chapter, Machiavelli introduces the theme that will occupy much of the rest of the book: how princes should act. He announces his intention to turn the reader's expectations upside down by recommending that princes be bad rather than good. He was consciously going against a long tradition of advice books for rulers, the "Mirror for Princes" genre, which predictably recommended that leaders be models of virtue, always upholding the highest moral standards and being honest, trustworthy, generous, and merciful. Machiavelli declares that this is fine if you are an imaginary model prince living in a perfect world, but in the real world, a prince is surrounded by unscrupulous people and must compete with them if he is to survive. To put it in modern terms, he must learn to swim with the sharks. Therefore, the prince must know how to behave badly and to use this knowledge as a tool to maintain his power. Machiavelli recognizes that princes are always in the public eye. Their behavior will affect their public image, and their reputation will affect their ability to keep power. With this in mind, Machiavelli advises that it is fine to avoid vices, but because no one can avoid them all, the prince should be careful to avoid those that will most severely damage his reputation and, therefore, his power. His consciousness of a prince's need to control his public image would not seem out of place in the media age, where public relations experts carefully groom and prepare politicians for public consumption. Apparently flaunting all conventional moral advice, he says that many things that appear good will damage a prince's power, while those that appear bad will enhance it.

The contrast between the imaginary world of virtues and the real world of vices could not be more plain. Now that he has everyone's attention, he proceeds to dissect these so-called virtues in the next three chapters.


Tuscan the variety of Italian spoken in Tuscany, the region of Italy where Florence is located.