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