Appearance versus Reality in Machiavelli’s The Prince

Machiavelli’s The Prince, is one of the most widely disputed books to come out of the Renaissance, due to the controversial opinions, and moral ambiguities it contains. In it, Machiavelli clearly and concisely outlines what he considers, from analysis of the rise and fall of certain historical kingdoms, the best way for a prince, or any monarch, to approach their rule. One of the key points he addresses is how a prince should appear to the the public; how he should always maintain a strong image. Underneath the facade, Machiavelli says, there may be a difference between how a leader appears and who they are in reality. Machiavelli suggests that a stable ruler should be praised by all, and should certainly appear to be praiseworthy through his competent actions. For example, a leader who has proved himself in battle, either by fighting or strategies, would be much lauded by Machiavelli. But a prince,according to Machiavelli, should have the semblance of a wise man, even if he is not one. At least through the hiring of wise ministers he will, through association, be deemed wise himself. He should be feared and loved by the people, though to be feared is more effective in the long run, Machiavelli thinks. It is clear that the image of a ruler can be quite different from the truth, but in the end Machiavelli believes the image is what counts. In The Prince, there are certain qualifications as to how a ruler should appear. If he is actually how he appears that would be best, but if he is not, he will probably get by if he follows Machiavelli’s advice.

Early on in the book it becomes clear that Machiavelli strongly recognizes the power of the people. Therefore, he says, it is of the upmost importance to gain their support by whatever means possible. Machiavelli brings up the question of whether it is “better to be loved than to be feared, or the reverse” Machiavelli deems that “every prince should strive to be considered kind rather than cruel.” However, if a prince is called cruel he should be “indifferent to the charge”. Machiavelli is saying that, although it is best to be loved and feared, if it comes down to one or the other, it is best to be feared. All this is considering how a ruler should appear. His appearance is the important thing. Even if the ruler is not kind, if he has the appearance of kindness and of charity, he will be seen as such by most. Similarly, if a ruler is feared by the common people, this has just as much to do with their perception of him, as to what measures he might actually take if they anger him. Machiavelli always says that it is not advisable to be called overly generous, or that is advisable to gain the reputation of trustfulness. He does not necessarily say that the reputation has to be the reality. It could be implied then, that Machiavelli is saying that it does not particularly matter if a ruler has a certain virtue or vice, and it would only matter if they gained a reputation for it. For “the mob is always impressed by appearances, and the world is composed of the mob.” There is no end to how manipulative politics are as Machiavelli understands them. Machiavelli follows his writings on fear versus love with historical examples as well as a list of guidelines of what to do and what not to do, and always in his mind are the perceptions of the citizens of the land. He says that one can be feared yet escape hatred if one “will not touch the property of his citizens and subjects.” As long as a ruler keeps up his strong appearance, and leaves his citizens certain liberties as to their personal wealth, he will not be despised by the majority.

Machiavelli, in his writings, outlines why and how a ruler should be seen as wise. The most important aspect of being seen as astute, he believes, is the hiring of competent ministers because “the first estimate of his intelligence will be based upon the character of the men he keeps about him.” So the astuteness of a ruler does not have to be his actual intelligence, but his ability to hire wise people to make the intelligent choices for him. In keeping wise people close to him, a ruler will be considered wise himself, as he has demonstrated that he knows how to appreciated talent in people. This goes to show how much a ruler’s own reputation can actually based on those people who he employs. Machiavelli believed completely the idea that some men are naturally smarter than others. He said that there are three kinds of minds: “one is capable of thinking for itself; another is able to understand the thinking of others; and a third can neither think for itself nor understand the thinking of others” According to him, though the first type of mind would be the most excellent, the second can more than suffice for the average ruler. This is the type of ultra-practical thinking that is constantly present throughout the Prince. As long as the rulers have no illusions about their own character, they can spread whatever misconceptions about themselves they want.

Machiavelli gave much attention to how a ruler should be praised and gain praise. However, Machiavelli warns against some kinds of praising as he believes that to be overly generous with how one treats others initially will eventually become an impediment to one’s rule. This thought gives light to the idea that not all types of praising are good, which leads to the assumption that the ruler need not try to seek praise all the time, but only when it is convenient for him to do so. In Machiavelli’s writings he says that to be seen as overly generous will lead to bankruptcy but that to be seen as a miser who becomes generous is much better than to be seen as a generous ruler who, through indulgences, must tax everyone much more in the end. In the same vein of thought, Machiavelli turns to whether princes should keep their word or not. Machiavelli believes that is a noble thing to keep one’s pledge, but the practical thing to do is often not the noble one. He uses examples of cruel rulers who, through lies and deception, rose to power and stayed there for a notable amount of time. An especial favourite of his is one Alexander Pope VI, whom Machiavelli seems to have a very high opinion of. “There was never a man who made promises so persuasively or swore to them so solemnly, yet kept so few of them as he.” A man after Machiavelli’s own heart! But though a perfect prince, according to Machiavelli, should not always keep his word, he should always seem to. Similarly, having noble, just, and tolerant attributes is not particularly desirable in a ruler, but appearing to have them is. A ruler must always seem to the be the “very soul of clemency, faithfulness, frankness, humanity, and religion, to all who see him.” Keeping up appearances is very important, because a ruler’s image is essential to making people praise him or not for “Everyone can see what you appear to be, whereas few have direct experience of what you really are.” This is the key thing that Machiavelli may be trying to convey; that the image is what matters, not the real person. The illusion is what everyone will see.

In the Prince, Machiavelli delves into many things, not least the vast differences between how a prince should seem, and how he should actually be. By recognizing the power of the people, a ruler should create his image for them, playing off their fears, and their desires. He can be a man of many vices, but as long as he hides the ones that could potentially harm him from the public, it will be like they don’t exist. A ruler who gains the right kind of praise, will be stronger than one who gains the wrong kind. Throughout the book, Machiavelli shows us that appearance and reality are two different things when it comes to people; this can be applied not just to rulers, but also to anyone, for even the most seemingly open of persons have their secrets; things that they would rather keep hidden. It just becomes more obvious when that person is in a position of power.