Machiavelli broaches the "important subject" of flatterers, who "swarm the courts." Machiavelli writes that wise princes who "choose their ministers well" can escape this pitfall, while less able rulers can only avoid it with great difficulty. Because most men are "so happily self-absorbed" and "indulge in .... self-deception," many "fall victim" to the "plague" of flattery. Equally dangerous, Machiavelli states, "Some efforts to protect oneself from flatterers involve the risk of becoming despised." This stems from the fact that "the only way to safeguard yourself against flatterers is by letting people understand that you are not offended by the truth." Thus, if everyone is permitted to speak the truth to a prince, he risks losing the respect that secures his position.
Machiavelli warns rulers to avoid the vice of "self-deception," which makes them vulnerable to the "plague" of flattery. Flatterers "swarm" and infect a prince's court, weakening the state by artificially inflating a ruler's ego. A prince must use prowess to extract truthful advice while also maintaining the dignity that secures his position. If a prince heeds all advice, then he gains a reputation for weakness, which earns him hatred. Interestingly, a prince must maintain his standing above the masses or else incur their disrespect and scorn.
As a solution, Machiavelli suggests that a ruler "adopt a middle way," choosing able advisors and "allowing only those [men] the freedom to speak the truth to him, and then only concerning matters in which he asks their opinion." Rulers should question their advisors thoroughly and rigorously and listen to their opinions. An able prince will encourage his ministers to speak freely in his presence. However, when it comes to making a decision, a prince should "make up his own mind, by himself." Aside from his ministers, a ruler "should heed no one" and he should put the agreed policies into effect "straight away," adhering to them closely.
As in other matters, Machiavelli urges rulers to opt for moderation, striking a balance between alternative courses of action. A prince must ensure that he receives truthful advice from his ministers, but he must firmly set the guidelines for this exchange of opinions. To secure his position, a prince must make his final decisions independently, forcefully enacting his laws and policies. A prince must know when to listen and when to act.
Machiavelli offers a "modern illustration" of this principle, citing Maximilian, the Holy Roman Emperor, who "never [consults] anybody and never [does] things as he wanted to." Machiavelli writes that Maximilian, a "secretive man," never tells his advisors of his plans and "accepts no advice." As a result, when he puts his plans into effect, they "meet with opposition from those around him; and then he is too easily diverted from his purpose." Thus, his plans are never clear and "no reliance can be placed on his decisions."
With this example, Machiavelli explains that princes must endeavor to include their ministers in their decision-making process. A ruler must possess the prowess to balance his ministers' counsel with his own opinions and instincts. A prince who avoids advice and guards his plans too secretively risks weakening his state, since confusion will distract from his policies.
Therefore, a ruler must "never lack for advice," although he must "take it when he wants to, not when others want him to." A prince "must listen patiently to the truth" when he asks for it, acting as a "constant questioner." Machiavelli adds, "If he [a ruler] finds that anyone for some reason holds the truth back he must show his wrath."
A ruler must have the prowess to set firm but reasonable guidelines for the actions and advice of his ministers. An able ruler is a "constant questioner," although once he reaches a decision, he must resolutely adhere to his policy.
Machiavelli declares a universal rule: "A prince who is not himself wise cannot be well advised, unless he happens to put himself in the hands of one individual who looks after all his affairs and is an extremely shrewd man." Machiavelli states that the latter scenario is unlikely, since "the man who governs" for the unwise prince "would soon deprive him of his state." Furthermore, a prince who seeks the advice of more than one minister and is not himself wise "will never get unanimity in his councils or be able to reconcile their views." In this situation, an unwise prince will similarly come to ruin. Therefore, because men "will always do badly by you unless they are forced to be virtuous," the value of advice rests on the intelligence of the prince who asks for it, and not the other way around.
A prince must possess wisdom in order to appreciate and apply the wisdom of his ministers. Lacking prowess, a prince will face betrayal at the hands of his more cunning advisors. To govern, a prince must have the ability to synthesize the varied advice of his ministers, managing councils and helping them, if possible, to reach consensus. Rulers must use this fox-like cunning as a safeguard against the unvirtuous and self-serving actions of others. With his cynical view of human nature, Machiavelli expresses the inevitability of such unvirtuous behavior.