He who has always carried the countenance of a good man, and would become wicked to obtain his desire, ought to color his change with some apparent reason. (Discourses, book 1 chapter 42)
When a man desires to change from one quality to another, as when he will become wicked for some cause, having always before carried the countenance of a good man, he must do it discreetly and seek occasions to lean upon new friends in place of the old, who abandon him. Herein a great fault was committed by Appius Claudius, who was one of the ten sovereign potentates of Rome. Having always showed himself a lover of the people, humane, kind, communicative, of easy access, and going about to usurp the sovereign domination of Rome, he too suddenly changed his qualities into those clean contrary, turning his robe from white to black; which was why the world discovered his hypocrisy and malice, and pointed at him with their fingers. So he could not attain his purposes, which he might have if little by little he had changed, always seeking some apparent occasion to become cruel, fierce, rigorous, and unsociable; and had provided himself friends of like qualities to maintain him, as is said.
This maxim is like that of foxlike deceit, whereof we have spoken before. For this is a precept for a good man to become wicked while the world does not perceive it. And (says Machiavelli) he must not be so gross as to change from good to evil at the first arrival, as from white to black, because this change may be perceived by the world; but he must proceed unto it by a subtlety, seeking palliations and colors to hide his change, and to give apparent reason thereof. As if a man will become cruel, he must cover his cruelties with some appearance of justice. If he will become ravenous and a catchpoll, he must cover his rapines with some appearance of necessity and public utility. Thus he changes himself little by little, and so from good shall he become wicked, and none perceives it. And it is good to be noted, the comparison which Machiavelli makes of the change and variety of manners, by the change of colors. For as black never takes white well, unless first white be tainted with some other color, as blue or red, so the change from good to wicked is never made to any good purpose without some pretext and show, which gives to a man an appearance between good and evil.
Here is a singular precept in the art of wickedness, to become wicked while the world does not perceive it. For if the world knows it, then it is an ignorance of the art which wills a knowledge to dissemble well, and that a man should be apt to know handsomely to feign and deal, with his visage and countenance, to deceive men. By joining then together these two precepts, to be a dissemble and to be wicked, to do evil, it will follow that this maxim is very proper for this art. For it teaches how to become wicked yet not to discover himself to be so, but always to observe the pretext of dissimulation.
You see then – and he who sees is not very blind of sense and understanding – that this abominable Florentine perseveres still to teach a prince the art of wickedness. But because we have before disputed against all the kinds thereof, as likewise against hypocrisy and dissimulation, I will speak no more hereof. And as for the example of Appius Claudius, one of the ten potentates of Rome, it serves nothing for Machiavelli’s purpose. For Appius, exercising an office which endured for but a year, carried himself well for that first year; which was the cause that he and his companions were continued in their estate another year. But with great difficulty they obtained that continuation, for it was as it were a breach of their law to continue an office to any person more than a year. Seeing that it would be impossible to obtain from the Roman people a continuation for a third year, Appius thought it good now to make himself feared, by seeking to obtain his estate by force. And likely enough he would have gotten again his office had there not happened a war against the Romans. Appius and his companions could do no less, if it were but to defend themselves, than levy an army; but none would obey them, because the time of their offices was expired, and they no longer acknowledged them for lawful magistrates. For want of obedience they were constrained to forsake their offices, and to submit themselves to the people’s mercy; Appius Claudius and Spurius Oppius were set in prison, where they died, and the other eight were banished and their goods confiscated. The cause then why Appius could not obtain the tyranny he had enterprised was not that he had changed too suddenly from good to wicked, but because the time of his office being expired, he could not be obeyed. And herein all the dissimulations and foxlike dealings of Machiavelli could have done him no good; for as soon as any man’s office was expired in Rome, he who held it must come out, whether good or wicked, because such was the law.
Moreover, this maxim here is not only wicked, but also hard to practice. For it is very difficult for a man to change from good to wicked and not be perceived, though in his actions he uses many palliations and dissimulations. For among people there is always someone who is not a beast, but (as the proverb is) can know flies in the milk; and who straight can discover the dissimulations of those Machiavelizing foxes, and can cry, the fox! that men may take heed of him.