Is it truly better to be feared than loved? Why does Machiavelli think so?
This assertion from The Prince has become an adage over the centuries. You’ve probably heard it, but you might not know what Machiavelli means and what his argument is.
Continue reading to understand why Machiavelli believes that it is better to be feared than loved.
Being Feared, Rather Than Loved
Machiavelli’s contention that it is better to be feared than loved is one of The Prince’s most infamous lessons. His justification for this idea is simple: Obedience due to love and affection is unreliable, while obedience due to fear is not. People are inherently disloyal, and, no matter how much love they have for a prince, they may betray him if they believe it’s in their best interest or even in the best interest of the state.
(Shortform note: This is essentially the conflict faced by Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Brutus loves his friend Caesar but conspires to kill him out of his belief that doing so will preserve the republican government of Rome. This plan backfires, and Rome is embroiled in a civil war that ends with the establishment of the Roman Empire under the first emperor, Octavian. For his part, Brutus is remembered by various writers as either a tragic hero (as in Shakespeare’s telling) or the ultimate betrayer, as in Dante’s The Divine Comedy, which places him in the lowest circle of Hell. How Machiavelli would have seen him is unclear.)
That said, Machiavelli warns that fear can easily turn to hatred and advises princes to never act against someone without good reason. Cruelty might be necessary for the running of the state, but, just as a prince should not appear to be a liar, they should not appear to be cruel for cruelty’s sake. People should fear the state’s power without resenting it.
He also suggests, as much as possible, getting all necessary brutality out of the way at the beginning, so a prince’s rule can become more lenient over time. This allows the prince to relax their rule without compromising their safety or the principality’s stability since any threats will have been crushed out of existence early. It also helps to win the loyalty of the people, now living relatively free lives in peacetime.
Machiavelli’s ideas about princes were co-opted in the 19th and 20th centuries by Italian fascists, who believed that government should be run as an authoritarian, ultra-nationalist project where the most important concern was the security and prosperity of the state. One of the most famous fascists, Benito Mussolini, was an outspoken admirer of The Prince. He shared Machiavelli’s hope that Italy would one day be restored to the glory of ancient Rome—though he admired the Empire, while Machiavelli admired the Republic.
Fascist leaders frequently rule through fear and enact repressive politics that restrict human rights in the interest of the state. They also, as Machiavelli suggests, institutionalize their violence so that it becomes a “new normal,” and people then interpret an end to some but not all of the brutality as leniency. Fascist leaders often risk being hated but can avoid this by directing the people’s hatred outward at some foreign “other” and insisting that all brutality is necessary to protect the people.
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