The Prince

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Fortune and Prowess Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Laws and Arms Theme Icon
Fortune and Prowess Theme Icon
Goodwill and Hatred Theme Icon
Virtue vs. Vice Theme Icon
The Masses and The Elite Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Prince, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Fortune and Prowess Theme Icon

According to Machiavelli, the twin forces of fortune and prowess conspire to determine the outcome of history and, therefore, the success or failure of all princes and states. With the term "fortune," Machiavelli refers to the unpredictability of fate, meaning the ways in which chance, opportunity, and pure luck often influence the course of life. In opposition to fortune, Machiavelli places the idea of "prowess," referencing the skills and abilities that men possess and use to exert control over their circumstances. Machiavelli states that some new princes may gain their states through prowess, and others through fortune; however, a prince cannot maintain his hold on a state without a certain degree of skill and prowess. When the actions of a prince "are marked by prowess," he may easily "capture" the allegiance of his soldiers and citizens. Nonetheless, even the ablest ruler, if met with bad fortune or the wrong set of circumstances, may lose his state. Machiavelli argues that a prince needs both fortune and prowess to maintain his power, stating that fortune is "probably . . . the arbiter of half the things we do, leaving the other half or so to be controlled by ourselves." Rulers prosper as long as fortune and their prowess are "in accord."

Machiavelli uses a variety of metaphors to refer to fortune, most notably calling it a "violent river" and a "woman." Machiavelli states that a wise ruler must "take precautions" against abrupt changes in fortune, in the same way in which people construct "dykes and embankments" to tame rivers in anticipation of future floods. When comparing fortune to a woman, Machiavelli declares that to make fortune womanly and "submissive," it is necessary "to beat and coerce her" in order to exercise one's will. According to Machiavelli, fortune, like a woman, is fickle, but she responds better to a ruler's strength and conviction than to cautiousness. While Machiavelli's metaphor likely strikes a modern reader as sexist, it would have been unlikely to trouble his sixteenth-century male audience.

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Fortune and Prowess Quotes in The Prince

Below you will find the important quotes in The Prince related to the theme of Fortune and Prowess.
Chapter 2 Quotes

The fact is that the natural prince has less reason and less need to give offense; and so it follows that he should be more loved; and if he does not provoke hatred by extraordinary vices, it stands to reason that his subjects should naturally be well disposed towards him. And in the antiquity and persistence of his rule memories of innovations and the reasons for them disappear; because one change always leaves a toothing-stone for the next.

Related Characters: Niccolò Machiavelli (speaker)
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Machiavelli describes the ideal situation for a powerful ruler: to be part of a family that has ruled the area for a long period of time. It's best for a prince to be in such a situation, because he won't have to prove his worth or importance to his people--the mere fact of his family connection is enough.

It might seem odd to think that family connection could be such an important part of a monarch's popularity--surely the fact that he's incompetent or unlikable should count for something. Machiavelli doesn't deny either possibility--nevertheless, Machiavelli lived in a time when family was a near-sacred institution, and heredity was seen as being far more important than it is today. To be the son of a great man meant being a great man oneself.

Nevertheless, it is the absence of the perfect conditions described in the passage that leads Machiavelli to write his book. In a time of civil war and widespread distrust of government, Machiavelli will show new princes without family connections how to dominate their new subjects.


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Chapter 3 Quotes

For always, no matter how powerful one's armies, in order to enter a country one needs the goodwill of the inhabitants.

Related Characters: Niccolò Machiavelli (speaker)
Page Number: 8-9
Explanation and Analysis:

Machiavelli describes two basic ways for a prince to stay in power: hard and soft power. A prince has the huge advantage of controlling a large army--he can always use "hard power" of this kind to dominate his people, arrest disloyal subjects, intimidate people into submission, etc. Yet it's not enough for a prince to use hard power--even the largest army in the world can't quell every potential rebellion. Instead, a prince needs to appeal to his people's positive desires and needs: he has to convince his people that he is a likable person, and that it's in his people's own best interest to accept him as a ruler. By using "soft power" in such a way, the prince can count on the longstanding loyalty of his people, eliminating the possibilities of civil war and rebellion.

If the ruler wants to keep hold of his new possessions, he must bear two things in mind: first, that the family of the old prince must be destroyed; next, that he must change neither their laws nor their taxes.

Related Characters: Niccolò Machiavelli (speaker)
Page Number: 9-10
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section, Machiavelli draws a distinction between the vast changes that sometimes take place at the highest levels of government (i.e., when a prince defeats his opponents and gains control of new territory) and the banality of the average citizen's life. The point is that a new prince stands the best chance of keeping his new territories when he interferes with his new subjects' lives as little as possible; i.e., when he doesn't increase taxes or laws in any substantial way.

There's an old adage in politics: as long as there's no draft and no depression, the people will obey. In this passage, Machiavelli makes a similar point: people will willingly accept any new leaders, provided that their day-to-day lives stay the same. The best way to avoid a rebellion? Don't give the people a reason to rebel.

Chapter 8 Quotes

So it should be noted that when he seizes a state the new ruler must determine all the injuries that he will need to inflict. He must inflict them once for all . . . and in that way . . . win them [his subjects] over to him when he confers benefits. Whoever acts otherwise . . . can never depend on his subjects because they . . . can never feel secure with regard to him. Violence must be inflicted once for all; people will then forget what it tastes like and so be less resentful. Benefits must be conferred gradually; and in that way they will taste better.

Related Characters: Niccolò Machiavelli (speaker)
Page Number: 32
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Machiavelli describes how a prince should inflict punishment on his people: quickly and decisively. By contrast, a good prince will offer benefits to his people very slowly, so that they're especially grateful to the ruler for providing them in the first place.

Machiavelli describes the ruler's subjects as if they're animals that need to be trained to be obedient. Like the owner of a naughty dog, the prince must punish his people immediately after they've disobeyed him, so that the lesson he teaches will be crystal-clear: disobey me and I'll hurt you. On the other hand, a prince must reward his people gradually, recognizing that he's trying to make his people grateful to him and dependent on his generosity. In short, Machiavelli shows that pain is a far better motivator than pleasure: pain's lessons are immediate and shocking, while pleasure's lessons are slow and gradual.

Chapter 9 Quotes

I shall only conclude that it is necessary for a prince to have the friendship of the people; otherwise he has no remedy in times of adversity.

Related Characters: Niccolò Machiavelli (speaker)
Page Number: 34
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, in one sentence, is the basic message of The Prince: a successful ruler needs to convince his people to like him, by any means necessary. The reason is simple: there will come a day when a prince's position is insecure, and in such situations, the prince will need to rely on his people's support. By convincing (or conning) his people to love him when he is powerful, a good prince will buy some "insurance" for the future.

Machiavelli's point is both deeply cynical and strangely optimistic. On one hand, Machiavelli treats government like an amoral activity with only one goal: maintaining power at any cost. And yet the unspoken message of the passage is fundamentally democratic: Machiavelli acknowledges that the people are powerful and dangerous--that's why a good prince needs to get the people on his side.

Chapter 17 Quotes

From this arises the following question: whether it is better to be loved than feared, or the reverse. The answer is that one would like to be both the one and the other; but because it is difficult to combine them, it is far better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both. One can make this generalization about men: they are ungrateful, fickle, liars, and deceivers, they shun danger and are greedy for profit. . . . Men worry less about doing an injury to one who makes himself loved than to one who makes himself feared. . . . but fear is strengthened by a dread of punishment which is always effective.

Related Characters: Niccolò Machiavelli (speaker)
Page Number: 54
Explanation and Analysis:

This is the most famous passage in The Prince. Machiavelli poses a question: is it more important for a leader to be loved or feared? In the end, Machiavelli argues that it's better for people to be frightened of their leaders, because fear is a more powerful motivator than love. When people love their leader, they'll be loyal, but in the end, they'll prioritize their own self-interest and disobey. On the other hand, when the people fear their leader, their own desire to survive will compel them to obey at all times, ensuring a stable society.

Notice that Machiavelli doesn't advocate love or fear; he argues that both are necessary for a successful prince, even if fear is ultimately more powerful. Critics have pointed to the passage as an example of Machiavelli's deification of the head of state. In Christianity, there is a long tradition of both loving and fearing God--here, Machiavelli essentially argues that people should treat their leader like a god, to be obeyed at all times. (Some critics have argued that Machiavelli's suggestion that leaders should be like gods was deliberately intended to provoke outrage in his readers.)

The prince must none the less make himself feared in such a way that, if he is not loved, at least he escapes being hated. For fear is quite compatible with an absence of hatred; and the prince can always avoid hatred if he abstains from the property of his subjects and citizens and from their women.

Related Characters: Niccolò Machiavelli (speaker)
Page Number: 54-55
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Machiavelli clarifies his controversial argument that a leader must be both loved and feared. While it's more important for a leader to be feared than loved, Machiavelli argues, it's important for a leader to refrain from complete tyranny. A leader should ensure that he's feared, but he should never try to be hated. Leaders who are hated run the risk of stirring their people into rebellion. The combination of love and fear in a leader, on the other hand, is powerful because the people will never rebel against such a leader: love acts as a check against real hatred.

Many think of Machiavelli as advocating outright tyranny and total deviousness in leaders. Such an interpretation of The Prince is a caricature of Machiavelli's beliefs. Instead, Machiavelli argues that princes should try to engender some goodwill in their people (who, it should be noted, are all assumed to be men), if only to avoid outright rebellion.

But above all a prince must abstain from the property of others; because men sooner forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony.

Related Characters: Niccolò Machiavelli (speaker)
Page Number: 55
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Machiavelli argues that princes must never steal their people's property. Property is the most sacred right of the people; therefore, to infringe upon it is a surefire way to provoke the people into rising up against their ruler.

Although Machiavelli is often interpreted as an opponent of democracy, the passage shows that Machiavelli has considerable respect for certain democratic values, even if his respect is purely pragmatic. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Machiavelli doesn't believe that a monarch has automatic ownership of his people's possessions. Rather, he acknowledges that the prince's power is greatly limited--a prince can't just seize his people's property at the drop of a hat. So even if Machiavelli is writing The Prince to ensure the supremacy of tyrants and dictators for years to come, his arguments presuppose a certain amount of respect for people's natural rights, reflecting the fledgling democratic values in Italian society at the time. (The right to property would later form the core of the arguments of important political thinkers like Rousseau and John Locke, who openly criticized the kinds of rulers Machiavelli supported.)

Chapter 19 Quotes

Princes cannot help arousing hatred in some quarters; so first they must strive not to be hated by all and every class of subject; and when this proves impossible, they should strive assiduously to escape the hated of the most powerful classes.

Related Characters: Niccolò Machiavelli (speaker)
Page Number: 62
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Machiavelli warns Lorenzo of alienating the most powerful classes in society. As always, a prince should avoid the people's hatred, but if necessary, it's better for a prince to be hated by the lower classes than by the middle and upper classes.

The passage is interesting because it draws a clear distinction between the different strata of society. Early on, Machiavelli has drawn a rough distinction between a prince and his people. Here, though, Machiavelli's account of society is much more complicated: there are poor, weak people; wealthy, somewhat powerful people; and one wealthy, powerful prince presiding over everything.

The passage reflects the rise of the middle classes in Italian society in the centuries leading up to Machiavelli's life. Middle-class people in Italy enjoyed an unusual amount of independence and economic clout--indeed, some middle-class people eventually rose to become rulers (including Lorenzo's family, the Medicis!). In short, Machiavelli recognizes that all commoners aren't created equal--some are more powerful, and therefore more dangerous, than others. So it's always best to have the middle and upper classes on your side, even if it means sacrificing the loyalty of the lower classes.