The Prince

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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.
Virtue vs. Vice Theme Icon

In The Prince Machiavelli blurs the line between virtue and vice, arguing that, for princes, the value of an action rests solely on the context and end result of its performance. Virtue and vice are not fixed terms, and Machiavelli states that a prince "will find that some of the things that appear to be virtues will, if he practices them, ruin him, and some of the things that appear to be vices will bring him security and prosperity." In his extremely pragmatic approach to princely conduct, Machiavelli says that rulers "must be prepared not to be virtuous," since the performance of certain vices is "necessary for safeguarding the state." In Machiavelli's opinion regarding virtue and vice, a prince must hold himself to a different standard, apart from the rest of society. Contrary to typical morals, a wise prince must often "act in defiance of good faith, of charity, of kindness, [and] of religion," sometimes breaking his word or inflicting pain. A prince must know "how to do evil, if that is necessary," but must also strive to maintain the appearance of virtue in front of observers. Opponents of Machiavelli have referred to his methods as ruthless, although Machiavelli defended his "practical" advice as representing the reality of the world and human nature.

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Virtue vs. Vice Quotes in The Prince

Below you will find the important quotes in The Prince related to the theme of Virtue vs. Vice.
Chapter 15 Quotes

The gulf between how one should live and how one does live is so wide that a man who neglects what is actually done for what should be done moves towards self-destruction rather than self-preservation. The fact is that a man who wants to act virtuously in every way necessarily comes to grief among so many who are not virtuous. Therefore if a prince wants to maintain his rule he must be prepared not to be virtuous, and to make use of this or not according to his need.

Related Characters: Niccolò Machiavelli (speaker)
Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage Machiavelli makes a point he's been implying throughout the entire book. Morality, he claims, is more or less irrelevant to good government.  A good ruler must be willing to break the rules of religion, "sinning" in order to maintain his power. For Machiavelli, the highest value isn't good; it's survival and power. Therefore, when confronted with a moral dilemma, a clever prince will always sacrifice the lesser value (morality) in favor of the higher goal, his own power.

Critics have offered many different interpretations of this passage. Is Machiavelli really advocating for amoral, nihilistic rulers? Most say that he is--hence the word "Machiavellian," still synonymous with the ruthless drive for power and control. But some have argued that Machiavelli is making a more subtle point. Perhaps Machiavelli does believe in right and wrong; instead of arguing that princes should break the laws of Christianity to maintain power, he's just illustrating the basic conflict between power and morality. Some have even suggested that Machiavelli is satirizing the tyrants of his day, exposing their fundamental lack of principles.


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Chapter 18 Quotes

So it follows that a prudent ruler cannot, and must not, honor his word when it places him at a disadvantage and when the reasons for which he made his promise no longer exist.

Related Characters: Niccolò Machiavelli (speaker)
Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Machiavelli argues that the best prince will not keep his word unnecessarily. Objectively, there is no rational reason for a prince to keep his word when doing so will weaken his position in the state. Therefore, a ruler should not keep his word--as always, he should prioritize power and control over honor and morality.

The passage reinforces Machiavelli's rejection of conventional morality. The average person would say that there is a clear reason to keep one's word: religious morals, or the intuitive rules of right and wrong, say that one should be honest and trustworthy. Machiavelli has no patience for such ideas--it's pointless for a prince to be honest, if his honesty endangers his position.