Summary and Analysis Chapter 17



Every prince will want to be considered merciful, but mercy should not be mismanaged. Cesare Borgia, by being cruel, restored peace and order to the Romagna. No prince should mind being called cruel for keeping his subjects peaceful and loyal. Punishing a few, and thus averting disorder, is better than allowing troubles to develop that will hurt many. New rulers cannot avoid seeming cruel, because their states are insecure. Still, a prince should not be too rash or too fearful.

If you cannot be both loved and feared, then it is better to be feared than loved. Men are generally fickle, afraid of danger, and greedy. When a prince benefits them, they will do anything for the prince, but when trouble comes, they will desert the prince. People will break ties of love if it is to their advantage, but fear of punishment they will never transgress. A prince must be careful not to make himself hated, even though he is feared; to do this, he must keep his hands off his subjects' property and their women. People will sooner forget the death of a father than the loss of an inheritance. However, when a prince commands an army, he must be cruel in order to control his troops.

In conclusion, people love at their own wish, but fear at the prince's will, so a wise ruler will rely on what he can best control.


Continuing his discussion of virtues that are not virtues, Machiavelli considers mercy and cruelty. As with generosity and miserliness, he comes down on the side of the supposedly bad quality. He bases his judgment on consideration of what benefits the most people. It is no use to be merciful if by doing so, a prince allows disorder in his state to get out of control. A controlled amount of cruelty, which harms a few, can avert widespread violence and lawlessness, which harms many. Mercy that allows the majority to suffer cannot properly be called mercy. This is an extremely old idea in Western jurisprudence, and one can still hear it cited as a justification for the imposition of punishment for crimes: Failing to punish wrongdoers penalizes the innocent people who would be harmed by the criminal's future actions. As an example, Machiavelli praises Cesare Borgia's policy of subduing the lawless Romagna region, described in Chapter 8. He also criticizes the Florentine government for failing to intervene when civil war broke out in Pistoia, a Florentine possession. Though the Florentines sent Machiavelli to investigate the situation, they did nothing, and as a result, many citizens died in the fighting.

Machiavelli is careful not to advocate cruelty for cruelty's sake. As in Chapter 8, he warns the prince not to constantly injure his subjects, because this will make him hated. Instead, he must be cruel only when necessary to avoid greater wrongs. Even his assertion that the leaders of armies must be cruel is based on the maintenance of discipline, for undisciplined armies harm innocent citizens—or even the ruler himself. This philosophy leads him to the logical conclusion that if a prince has to choose between being loved and being feared, being feared is at least safer, for both the ruler and his subjects.

Machiavelli's typically dark view of human nature is on display in this chapter, as seen in his warning about those who swear they love you in good times, but then desert you in bad times. The most cynical of Machiavelli's statements in this chapter is his assertion that people are quicker to forgive the death of a loved one than the confiscation of their property—there could be no bleaker assessment of raw human selfishness. Surrounded by people like these, a prince is indeed safer if he can control them by fear, because love is so fleeting and unreliable.


Dido founder and queen of Carthage: in the Aeneid she falls in love with Aeneas and kills herself when he leaves her.

Hannibal (247-183 B.C.) Carthaginian general: crossed the Alps to invade Italy in 218. He was defeated by Scipio Africanus in 202 B.C. Fabius Maximus, more conservative in his tactics than Scipio, also fought against Hannibal.

Locri a city captured by Scipio and brutally treated by one of his commanders.