A prince who will make a straight profession of a good man cannot long endure in this world, in the company of so many others that are so bad. (The Prince, chapter 15)
Many have written books to instruct a prince and to bring him to perfection in all virtues, as Xenophon did at the institution of Cyrus. There are also philosophers and others who have formed ideas and figures of monarchies and commonwealths, whereof there were never seen the like in the world, because there is a great difference between the manner in which the world lives and the manner in which it ought to live. He who will amuse and stick upon the forms of philosophers, monarchs and commonwealths, by despising what is done and praising what ought to be done, shall sooner learn his own ruin than his conservation. Leaving behind all that can be imagined of a prince’s perfection, and staying ourselves upon that which is true and subject to be practiced, by experience I say that the prince who will maintain himself ought to learn how he may sometimes not be good, and so ought to practice according to the exigencies of his affairs. For if always he will hold a straight profession of a good man, he cannot long endure in the company of so many others who are of no value.
This maxim merits no other refutation than that which results from the points handled before; for we have at large demonstrated that the truth is clean contrary to what Machiavelli says here, and that princes who have been good men have always reigned long and peaceably, and have been firm and assured in their estates. And the wicked have not reigned long, but have violently been deposed from their estates. And as for ideas and forms of perfect monarchs and commonwealths, whereof some philosophers have written, they handled not that subject by saying there were any such, but proposed a pattern of imitation for monarchs and government of commonwealths. For when a man will propose a pattern to imitate, he must form it the most perfect and make it the best he can; and after, every man who gives himself to imitate it must come as near it as he can, some nearer, others less. But a prince who proposes to himself Machiavelli’s patterns, such as Cesare Borgia, Oliver de Ferme, Agathocles, how can he do any good thing or approach to any good, seeing the patterns hold nothing thereof? Patterns then which men propose to imitate must be set down as best as can be, so that if in our imitation we happen to err from a perfect image of virtue, yet we may in some sort express it in our manners. But what means Machiavelli when he says that men must leave behind what authors have written of a prince’s perfection, to draw us unto that which is nowadays practiced? What is this but in a word to tell us we must leave the good precepts of virtue, to abide and stay ourselves upon vices and tyranny. For those who have written of a prince’s perfection have set down nothing which may not well be practiced, and if a prince cannot fully do and practice all the precepts which are written, he may at least practice part of them, one more, another less. But we must not say that if a prince cannot be perfect, that therefore he must altogether forsake and cast off all virtue and goodness, and take up tyranny and vice. For as Horace says:
He that in highest place cannot abide,
Let not the meanest place him be denied.
So that it seems Machiavelli knows not what he should say, when he holds that we must not stay upon what authors have written of a prince’s perfection, but upon what is practiced and in use. For if he means that vice alone is in use, he then gives wicked counsel and advice; and if he will confess that good and virtue is in use and practice, then it will follow that we must not reject what is written of a prince’s perfection, although a man cannot come to the perfection thereof; for always it is good and praiseworthy to come as near thereunto as we can.
And touching what Machiavelli says, that a prince who is a good man cannot long endure among so many others that value nothing; I see well that he means hereby to persuade a prince to apply himself to the wicked, and do as they do, and be wicked with them who value nothing. But if Machiavelli had well considered that goodness and virtue are always in price and estimation, even with men of no value, who are constrained to praise that which they hate; and if he were resolved, as it is certain, that subjects commonly apply themselves willingly to imitate their prince – Dion witnesses that in the time of the emperor Aurelius, a philosopher, many studied philosophy to be like him – he would never have given this precept to a prince, to accommodate himself to the vices in fashion and use. Contrary, he would have taught him to follow goodness and virtue, to draw his subjects thereunto, and to receive honor and good reputation in the world. But in truth we need not marvel if Machiavelli holds opinions so discrepant from the way of virtue, for that is not the path whereby he pretends to guide and conduct a prince. His way is that which leads to all wickedness and impiety, as we have in many places demonstrated.
The ancient Romans one day found certain verses of their prophetess Sibylla, where it was said that the Romans would always chase out of Italy every foreign enemy, if the Mother of the Gods were brought to Rome. The Romans, who were very superstitious in a vain religion, sent ambassadors to the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, to know where they might find the Mother of the Gods. The oracle sent them to King Attalus of Pergamum; Attalus led them into Phrygia and showed them an old image of stone, which in those quarters they had always called the Mother of the Gods. The ambassadors brought the image to Rome, and the Senate fell into deliberation who should go to the gates to receive the Mother of the Gods; it was concluded that it must be the best and most virtuous man in the city. When then it came into question, who was the best in all the town, every man (according to Livy) desired the lot might fall upon him; and there was not any but loved better to be elected the best man of the city, than to be chosen either consul or dictator, or into any other great estate. The election fell upon Scipio Nasica, cousin of the African, who was a young man but very good, and the son of a good father; he went out to receive that old goddess of stone, Mother of the Gods. But I demand of you, if those good Romans had been instructed in the doctrine of Machiavelli and had learned of this maxim, that it is not good to make a straight profession of a good man, would they have so much wished that this election had fallen upon them, and preferred this title of a good man before so high dignities of a consul or dictator? Certainly no; but they who hold contrary to the doctrine of Machiavelli make more estimation of goodness and virtue than of the greatest riches and dignities.
And indeed, there is nothing more certain but that it is the best and most honorable title that a man can possibly have, to be a good man. And let it not displease great lords, who are embarked in the highest title of honors, of constables, marshals, admirals, chancellors, presidents, knights of the order, governors, and lieutenants of the king, and other like great states. For all those titles, without the title of a good man, are worth nothing, and indeed are but smokes to stifle those who have them. But I confess that if they have the name of a good man, along with these titles, then they are worthy of double honor, and to be beloved and respected by all the world.