Summary and Analysis Chapter 6



The difficulty a new prince will have will depend on his ability. Private citizens become princes either through luck or through ability, but it is best not to trust luck. Those who become prince through their own strength have difficulty gaining power, but keep it easily. Establishing new states is always troublesome, because everyone who was happy under the old order will oppose change, and most people will not support new things until they have seen them work.

The question is whether innovators must rely on others in order to succeed, or whether they can rely on their own forces. Armed prophets succeed, but unarmed prophets must fail. The people are fickle, and when they no longer believe in you, you must force them to believe.


Chapter 6 elaborates on a theme begun in Chapter 5—that of personal ability. The Italian word Machiavelli uses is virtù, which does not have an exact English equivalent. He uses this word to mean many things, but usually not "virtue," which in English implies goodness and moral behavior. Virtù is closer in meaning to the Latin word for masculine strength, virtus, from which English gets the word "virility." Exactly what Machiavelli means by virtù is a subject of debate among scholars. Virtù can be ability, skill, energy, forcefulness, strength, ingenuity, courage, or determination. Virtù is the quality that distinguishes successful princes—or more accurately, successful innovators and conquerors. The examples Machiavelli provides are all legendary founders of great civilizations. When they found opportunities, they had the virtù to make the most of them. Machiavelli makes a point of observing, however, that virtù without opportunity to use it is wasted, but without virtù, opportunity is wasted.

The other theme of this chapter concerns the use of force. Machiavelli assumes that force or violence is an integral part of the state, and a ruler cannot do without it as a tool of government. He observes that after your followers lose faith in your innovative schemes, you must force them to have faith, or at least, to act as if they do by obeying you. His comment about unarmed prophets is based on the meteoric rise and fall of Savonarola, whose career Machiavelli had observed, and whose failure had led to the reestablishment of the Florentine republic in which Machiavelli served.


Moses prophet and lawgiver who led the Israelites out of captivity in Egypt, as recounted in the Biblical book of Exodus.

Cyrus "the Great," founder of the Persian Empire, beginning with his conquest of the Medes (circa 549 B.C.).

Romulus with his brother Remus, the legendary founders of Rome.

Theseus legendary hero of Athens who killed the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull monster, in the Labyrinth of Crete.

Savonarola Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498). Dominican monk, charismatic preacher, and reformer. (See the List of Characters.)

Hiero also called Hieron II, King of Syracuse (circa 271-216 B.C.). He was made commander of the Syracusan army and was so successful that he was elected king by the citizens.