Discussing fortune, Machiavelli states that many believe that events "are controlled by fortune and by God in such a way" that men's actions cannot possibly influence the course of history. Machiavelli explains that this opinion is "widely held in our own times," leading people to "submit to the rulings of chance." Machiavelli concedes that he himself has sometimes shared this belief. However, seeking a theory that includes "free will," Machiavelli states his conviction that "fortune is the arbiter of half the things we do, leaving the other half or so to be controlled by ourselves." Machiavelli compares fortune to "one of those violent rivers," which floods the countryside and destroys everything in its path. Over the years, people have learned to take "precautions" against future floods while rivers are flowing quietly, building "dykes and embankments" to limit rivers' destructive potential. Machiavelli urges rulers to approach fortune in a similar manner.
Notably, Machiavelli refuses the idea that all events "are controlled by fortune and by God," instead arguing that men influence about half of their fate. While Machiavelli acknowledges the power of chance, he limits the impact of fortune and God, a bold but rational statement that hints at his humanist roots. Machiavelli's theory, which evenly divides influence between fortune and "free will," fits with his other statements regarding the union of opposites. Machiavelli urges rulers to take precautions against the unpredictability of fortune, doing their best to prepare for unforeseeable calamities. A prince must fortify his state with legal and military "embankments."
Machiavelli asserts that Italy "is a country without embankments and without dykes," to which he attributes her present problems. If Italy "had been adequately reinforced, like Germany, Spain, and France," then the floods that currently torment it would not have proved so destructive.
While it is impossible to keep rivers from flooding, one can take steps to lessen their destructive power. Machiavelli chides Italian rulers who failed to guard their states against inevitable changes in fortune.
Analyzing fortune in more specific circumstances, Machiavelli declares, "Those princes who are utterly dependent on fortune come to grief when their fortune changes." A ruler who can adapt "his policy to the times" will prosper, while a ruler whose policy "clashes with the demands of the times" will fail. Machiavelli discusses the various ways in which princes attempt to achieve their goals, some acting with "circumspection" and patience and others proceeding "impetuously" with violence or stratagem. Despite "this diversity of method," Machiavelli asserts that all can reach their objectives, given the proper circumstances. On the other hand, two similar rulers, depending on variances in their situations, can arrive at two different outcomes, one achieving success and the other failure. According to Machiavelli, "This results from nothing else except the extent to which their methods are or are not suited to the nature of the times."
Machiavelli again emphasizes that rulers should not rely entirely on fortune for the continuance of their rule. Rather, princes must adapt their policies and methods to their specific situations. As he argued with regard to virtue and vice, Machiavelli declares that a prince's personal qualities will bring him success or failure depending on the circumstances in which he uses them. What functions as a princely virtue may become a princely vice if applied to an unfavorable situation. As much as possible, Machiavelli urges rulers to guard against changes in fortune by tailoring their policy "to the times." To survive, a prince must be agile and learn to carefully assess the character of his era.
Machiavelli declares that "prosperity is ephemeral" because rulers succeed or fail to the extent that their individual prowess and the demands of the times coincide. If circumstances change and a ruler does not modify his behavior, then he can expect to meet ruin. However, Machiavelli cautions, "Nor do we find any man shrewd enough to know how to adapt his policy in this way; either because he cannot do otherwise than what is in character or because, having always prospered by proceeding one way, he cannot persuade himself to change."
Rulers prosper when fortune and their prowess align. These forces must work in concert for a ruler to succeed. While Machiavelli advises rulers to adapt their methods to fortune, he nonetheless states that this is a nearly impossible deed. Machiavelli argues that men cannot easily act out of character, exchanging virtues and vices as the times dictate. A ruler who loses good fortune will most likely come to grief.
Machiavelli introduces the modern example of Pope Julius II, who "was impetuous in everything." Because "he found the time and circumstances so favorable to his way of proceeding," he always achieved success. Machiavelli cites Julius' first campaign against Bologna, which succeeded because Julius' impulsive invasion caught the Spanish and Venetians off guard and prompted France to rashly enter the fray on the papacy's side. If Julius had delayed his decision, he never would have succeeded, since the Spanish, Venetians, and French would have had time to prepare for and counteract his actions. The "brevity" of Julius' papal reign "did not let him experience" circumstances that opposed impetuous behavior. However, if times had changed in favor of "circumspection," then Julius certainly "would have come to grief," since he "would never have acted other than in character."
Discussing the "impetuous" and rash behavior of Julius II, Machiavelli demonstrates the prosperity of rulers whose fortune and prowess coincide. With fortune and prowess on one's side, a prince can accomplish unimaginable feats. While fortune determines if a prince's talents will fit with the character of the times, a prince must nonetheless possess prowess to take advantage of such favorable opportunities. In Julius' case, impulsiveness functioned as a virtue, complementing his prowess. However, in another age with a different character, it may have ruined him as a vice.
Machiavelli closes by stating that since "fortune is changeable" while rulers are firmly set in their ways, princes will prosper "so long as fortune and policy are in accord." Machiavelli asserts his belief, though, that it is "better to be impetuous than circumspect." He attributes this to the fact that "fortune is a woman and if she is to be submissive it is necessary to beat and coerce her." Continuing the metaphor, Machiavelli says of fortune, "Always, being a woman, she favors young men, because they are less circumspect and more ardent, and because they command her with greater audacity."
While Machiavelli concedes that rulers may succeed with a variety of different virtuous and unvirtuous methods, he recommends rashness over cautiousness. Describing fortune as a woman, Machiavelli urges rulers "to beat and coerce her," compelling her to remain in their favor. It is worth noting that Machiavelli's metaphor here hints at the second-class status of many Renaissance women, who were often regarded as property.