Summary and Analysis
When private citizens become rulers through the favor of their fellow citizens, these may be called civil principalities. One can reach this position through the favor of either the common citizens or the nobles, because the two classes are found in every city. The nobles want only to oppress the people, and the people want only to avoid oppression. From these opposing impulses can come three results: a principality, a republic, or anarchy. When the nobles feel pressure from the people, they try to make one of their own the prince in order to protect their privileges. When the people feel they cannot resist the nobles, they try to make a fellow citizen prince in order to protect their rights. You can never satisfy the nobles by acting honorably, but you can satisfy the people.
Regardless of how a prince comes to power, he should make every effort to win the good will of the people, or in times of trouble, he will have no hope. A prince must not delude himself about the reliability of the people, but nonetheless, a prince who makes good preparations and knows how to command will never be betrayed by them. A wise ruler will contrive to keep all his citizens dependent on him and on the state, and then he will be able to trust them.
Machiavelli's theme in this chapter is the relationship between the people (the ordinary citizens) and their opposites, the nobles (the upper classes from aristocratic families). Machiavelli portrays these two groups as constantly at odds, but his sympathy is clearly with the people, who only want to live free under the rule of their own laws. Machiavelli himself belonged firmly in this group, having been prevented from holding high office because he was not an aristocrat, and having served his entire career in Florence's civil government. The Medici, to whom he was writing, were members of the nobility, and this makes his advice somewhat more daring than it may sound at first. As in Chapter 5, Machiavelli can be seen reminding the Medici how much free states like Florence value their freedom and how justified they are in doing so.
Machiavelli emphasizes how necessary it is for a prince to win over the people, because they are many, while the nobles are few, and a prince can never live safely without being able to trust the people. On this subject, Machiavelli was going against prevailing opinion, which he acknowledges by quoting the proverb "He who builds on the people builds on mud." In fact, he is able to find only one example to support his argument (Nabis the Spartan), but two that disprove it (the Gracchi and Messer Scali). Machiavelli had many opportunities to observe the fickleness of the Florentine people, as they had alternately supported the Medici, Savonarola, the Republic, and then the Medici again.
In another pessimistic observation about human nature, Machiavelli says that everyone is ready to die for you when the prospect of death is far off. The key, he maintains, is for the prince to keep his subjects dependent on him for all their benefits, because dependency is the only way to ensure loyalty. Characteristically, Machiavelli advocates a particular behavior not for its moral qualities, but because it accomplishes a specific goal for the prince: A prince should treat his subjects well and do all he can to benefit them, not necessarily because it is right to do so, but because it ultimately consolidates the prince's power.
Machiavelli also insists on the importance of self-interest as a motivator throughout the chapter: He notes that all parties, whether princes, nobles, or common people, come into conflict or make alliances primarily to protect their own rights and privileges. Throughout the book, self-interest and a concern for one's own comfort level can be seen as the driving force in human behavior.
Nabis ruler of Sparta (circa 207-192 B.C.). Machiavelli is probably exaggerating Nabis' success, but Nabis did introduce many social reforms.
Gracchi brothers Tiberius (166-133 B.C.) and Gaius Gracchus (154-121 B.C.). Roman officials who instituted many social reforms and were killed by aristocratic opponents.
Giorgio Scali a leader of the Ciompi (wool workers) revolt in Florence in 1378. The wool workers' guild briefly held some political power, but its leaders, including Scali, were quickly overthrown and later executed.