Highlights for Be Like the Fox

His design ‘was to write for a tyrant those things that are pleasing to tyrants, bringing about in this way, if he could, the tyrant’s self-willed and swift downfall’.

Pole warned; beware of this two-faced writer. ‘For it is the aim of his doctrine to act like a drug that causes princes to go mad,’ making them attack their own people with ‘the savagery of the lion and the wiles of the fox’.

They become characters on a stage where he, Niccolò Machiavelli, probes their minds, sizes them up, tries to conceal his misgivings, or holds back his irritation for diplomacy’s sake.

When someone’s game is rotten, Niccolò often suggests – even if it looks like the main one in town, the only one where real men can prove that they are winners – don’t let them force you to play it. Better to make and play by your own rules.

Whoever seeks to act according to others, he later tells his more convention-bound friend Francesco Vettori, will accomplish nothing, because no two men who think alike can be found.

The ideal Medici leader had to seem born to rule while also seeming to think of himself as one of the people. His every move needed to project a double illusion: of natural superiority to every other citizen and a total, easy-going unawareness of that superiority.

Soderini, who was among the first citizens of Florence and by far superior to the others, a man whose prudence and authority were known not only in Florence but among all the princes of Italy, responds: What you call a great victory looks to me like a loss. If you’d won over Volterra by treaty and agreement, you would have had advantage and security from it. But since you have to hold it by force, in adverse times it will bring you weakness and trouble, and in peaceful times, loss and expense.

Plots to overthrow governments, Niccolò often observes, are almost always betrayed by one of the plotters.

And don’t rush to proclaim any policy a great success, for often gain is seen and widely praised in policies at first – especially when they appear bold, surprising, risky – even though there is the ruin of the republic concealed underneath.

The struggle to overcome great difficulties teaches people self-discipline and self-knowledge, not least knowledge of their own resources of mind and spirit, which might go untapped if they had it easy. This makes them tougher than those who have too many hereditary advantages: they are thicker-skinned against those who try to pull them down, more tolerant of the setbacks that face everyone at some time or another.

Whatever the quality of their brains, advisers live in constant fear of saying too much or too little, or the wrong things at the wrong time.

The Machiavelli family win the case, proving on a small scale a point Niccolò will make over and over in his writings: weak families, individuals, cities and peoples should never shy away from fighting those who put them down or take what is theirs.9 Even if they lose some battles, their efforts do them proud, and make life harder for their oppressors.

If you want to maintain your state over time, the only sure way is to arm your own people and keep them satisfied; it’s always safer to found yourself not upon fortresses but upon the benevolence of men.

For when one foresees from afar, one can easily find a remedy for future troubles. But when you wait until they come close to you, the medicine is not in time, because the disease has become incurable.

Niccolò speaks from very personal knowledge when he says that freedom, one knows, is often restored in a city by those who have never tasted it but who loved it only through the memories of it left to them by their fathers. And thus, he continues, once recovered, they preserve it with all obstinacy and at any peril.

Founders of new institutions should assume that a large part of human nature inclines most people to behave badly, at least now and then: to take more than their share of power or wealth, to profit from other people’s weaknesses, to cheat, lie, betray promises. Inclinations like these can’t be rooted out of our species; human nature itself cannot be reformed so that more and more people become reliably angelic.

Sheltered by his patrician family name, Agostino can afford not to take seriously men like della Valle, with their popular or recent peasant origins; social rank trumps official rank. While Ser Antonio’s tantrums make Biagio cringe behind the heap of portfolios on his desk, Agostino merely stares at their office superior as if he were a stray farm animal that has somehow wandered into the city and, stumbling into the refined halls of government, panicked and run amuck.

the two essential, unwritten rules of Florentine diplomacy. One: give them words, good words, be a veritable fountain bubbling over with sweet words; but use every industry to avoid offering them deeds. Two: have at the tip of your tongue a ready arsenal of excuses for not spending money.

But the surest way to win esteem, Niccolò writes in the Prince, is to be a true friend and a true enemy.

Nonetheless, it was hardly a civil thing to violate the laws. For if ignoring legal procedures may do good in one particular case, nonetheless the example does ill. And if one sets up a habit of breaking the [legal and political] orders for the sake of good, then later, under that colouring, they are broken for ill.

The French are more eager for money than for blood.

In adversity they are abject, and in prosperity insolent. If you can resist the fury of their first onslaught, you will find them depressed and so entirely discouraged, that they become cowardly like women.

The cardinal has grown indulgent towards this odd young Florentine, who has no air of inherited greatness yet speaks boldly, with the confidence of sound judgement rather than of birth or rank.

He would later advise envoys to princely courts that they should observe the nature of the man: whether he rules for himself or lets himself be ruled; whether he is stingy or liberal; whether he loves war or peace; whether desire for glory or any other passion moves him, whether the people love him.

This matter is very important; there are men who, through being clever and two-faced, have so completely lost the trust of a prince that they have never afterwards been able to negotiate with him.

One needs to be a fox to recognize snares, and a lion to frighten the wolves.

This, for Machiavelli, is the real test of any statesman’s quality: his virtue. And while good fortune can help you conquer states, virtù is what lets you hold them securely.

Those who become princes solely by fortune have it much easier at first, rising to power with little trouble. But when the time comes to consolidate their newfound power, then all the difficulties arise, since these impetuous high-flyers seldom take the time to build up solid foundations for their state. Because of this, princes of fortune tend to be moody, fickle in their policies, even manic – now acting as if nothing could stop them, then losing all confidence at the first failure, as if failure weren’t a normal part of life. Virtuous leaders are far steadier, more trustworthy. They refuse to become arrogant with success or dejected with failure and, if their luck changes for better or for worse, they do not vary but always keep their spirit firm, showing that fortune does not have power over them.

That’s another thing about fortune-dependent types: they tend to think that they’re the only shrewd operators in the room. They can easily deceive others, but never be deceived.

For Niccolò, virtù can mean spiritedness, especially in battle. But the highest-quality virtù includes an aptitude for organization, industry, and far-sighted prudence. It further includes an unclouded knowledge of one’s own limits, the wisdom and self-discipline not to overreach them, and the ingenuity to use whatever opportunities and resources one has, however scarce they might be. Virtù doesn’t need good luck, or even much freedom, to work wonders. On the contrary, it is most admirable, even most effective, where there are obstacles to overcome.

Give men secure work that allows them to feed their families and win public respect, in employments that are the nerve and life of the city, and they’ll become its stoutest defenders.

the knowledge that whatever defects you find in a particular set of men, or in human nature generally, well-designed laws and institutions can hold their defects in check and cultivate virtues you – and perhaps they – didn’t know they had.

Everyone wants to be coddled and esteemed, so that is what someone who finds himself where you are has to do.

A statesman needs to know when to use clemency and when severity.

He did not know, Machiavelli would later write, that one cannot wait for the time, goodness is not enough, fortune varies, and malignity does not find a gift that appeases it.

They committed one of the commonest, most devastating mistakes made in politics and war: when peoples do not know how to put limits to their hopes and measure their own capabilities, they are ruined. In this way, the insolence that victory or the false hope of victory arouses makes men lose the opportunity of having a certain good through hoping to have an uncertain better.

A man’s mind, he muses in The Ass, can’t easily be turned against his nature or habits. Though his brain might warn him of the dangers in honest criticism, his nature forces him to see – and point out – human errors in hopes of correcting them. And in the present age so grudging and evil, one always sees bad more quickly than good.

We lie to each other and start believing our own lies. The ones who come out best are the noisiest babblers and flatterers. They spout platitudes and say nothing. For the herd and their herd-masters only hear what is easy to hear, what they think they already know, keep repeating the same badly reasoned blandness to flatter themselves and their herd-chiefs.

For it is not enough to say: ‘I do not care for anything; I do not desire honours or useful things; I wish to live quietly and without quarrel!’ These excuses won’t be believed if they come from a man notable for his quality, even when such men choose the quiet life truly and without any ambition.

Neither money nor sheer numbers of men make strong armies, he tells his readers, but only people who are motivated to fight to the death. And they’ll be motivated only when they have a real stake in the government they’re expected to defend: when they can make a decent living, feel that they’re treated with public respect, perhaps even take part in politics.

In any city, ancient or modern, one finds an enmity between the great, whatever they call themselves – nobles, patricians, the rich – and the people. This arises because the great everywhere want to dominate, while the people want not to be dominated. The people’s desire is more reasonable than the desire of a few to dominate the many. It follows that governments that seek to satisfy the popular desire are firmer and last longer than those that let a few command the rest.

Moreover, to cure the illness of excessive ambition among the people words are enough ; while for curing the prince’s, steel is needed.

So they should indeed never give up. They have always to hope and, since they hope, not to give up in whatever fortune and whatever travail they may find themselves.

Look at the Germans and the Swiss: they live more simply than we do, and are free and well-armed. Our rich Italians live lavishly and aspire to live even more lavishly, but what freedom we have is constantly threatened by unrest from the poor.

Don’t push your luck when you’re clutching at your last desperate hopes, compromise to cut your losses, save what you can; what you lose now you can recover later.

I’ve had a letter from you that has given me the greatest pleasure. If God grants you and me life, I believe that I may make you a man of good standing, if you are willing to do your share. But you must study hard and take pains to learn letters and music – for you know how much distinction is given me for what little ability I possess. Thus, my son, if you want to please me and to bring profit and honour to yourself, study, do well, and learn, because everyone will help you if you help yourself.

Instead of attacking Florence, imperial forces rapidly move to Rome. On 6 May, they sack the Holy City, the bloodiest attack in living memory, with famished German troops shouting, ‘Vivat Luther Papa!’ as they smash sacred relics and plunder houses, shops, banks.

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