This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Prince" by Niccolò Machiavelli. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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What’s fortuna? How does a successful leader keep it at bay?
According to Niccolò Machiavelli, fortuna (fate) affects us all. But, great princes don’t let it get the best of them. They have qualities that help them beat the odds.
Read more to learn how to keep fate from ruling your life.
Machiavelli on Fortuna
Throughout The Prince, Machiavelli sets up a dichotomy between fortuna, meaning fortune or fate, and a prince’s innate skill or ability. According to Machiavelli, fortuna is a universal reality; everyone is subject to the whims of luck to some extent. What sets successful princes apart from their peers is that they act decisively against the odds and don’t let bad luck defeat them.
Machiavelli contends that up to half of all human events are subject to chance, implying that half are subject to our own will. He argues that what makes a prince truly great is their refusal to let their life be dictated by fortuna, either through their adaptability or their caution and foresight.
A successful prince must be prepared to act differently according to the particular needs or threats that their state faces. Two princes could behave exactly the same way, but because one rules Rome in the third century and the other rules France in the 12th, one will fail where the other succeeds. Machiavelli advises that, when a principality is prosperous and at peace, the prince can be lenient. However, when the principality is at war or suffering economic hardship, the prince may need to be controlling and harsh.
|Is Adaptability Possible?Machiavelli contradicts himself several times in his discussion of adaptability. On one hand, he believes that princes must change with the times to succeed. On the other hand, he suggests that people are fundamentally fixed in their ways and can’t change with the times. Writing that people “cannot deviate from what nature inclines [them] to,” he argues that the most successful rulers are those who live extremely short lives, since they’re able to have a great impact on their time before circumstances change so drastically that they fall out of favor. In short, Machiavelli doesn’t believe that princes are capable of the adaptability he says they need to have. Why, then, does he include this advice? Does he want the reader to understand that principalities are fundamentally unstable? Is he arguing in favor of constant regime change or for a kind of government that allows different people to rise to power at different times, rather than being subject to the will of a single ruler? If so, that suggests that The Prince was intended as an ironic or satirical work, subtly criticizing princes rather than instructing them.|
In Machiavelli’s view, pre-planning and foresight are the most important tools a prince can wield against chance. No matter how stable a principality appears, the prince should never become complacent in times of peace or economic prosperity. They should always anticipate future threats, provide for followers, and be prepared for war at any time—Machiavelli advocates for having either a standing army or a militia that can be summoned at a moment’s notice so princes are never caught off guard.
|The Value of a Standing ArmyIn the modern day, the vast majority of states have some kind of permanent military force that can be called into action at any time, as Machiavelli recommended. This was not the case historically, since the constant recruitment and training of soldiers was considered too costly and unnecessary to ensure regional stability. The first standing armies appeared in empires, which were constantly expanding and so needed soldiers on hand to defend their newest borders. Today, standing armies are considered a common-sense part of national security, though just how large and well-equipped such an army needs to be is debated. Even tiny and peaceful states maintain an army or form agreements to share forces among neighboring nations as a way to avoid political pressure from larger states. Today, the military isn’t considered just a wartime necessity, but also a way for states to defend themselves against the possibility of war in the future.|
How Fortuna Can Destroy a Prince
Princes often meet their downfall due to bad luck, but Machiavelli argues that a lack of skill also plays a role in their failure. If the prince had planned ahead better or anticipated threats, they could have endured whatever bad luck came their way. As an example, he cites Cesare Borgia, a notorious Italian prince of the late 1400s and early 1500s.
Borgia was unprepared for a change in his fortunes. As the son of a pope, he had enormous success manipulating his enemies and establishing his own state in central Italy. For a time, it seemed like Borgia might succeed in conquering the entire peninsula, but, soon after his father died, his state crumbled. He failed to either foresee the danger or to adapt to the times, and all his cunning and brutality could not protect him from being overthrown. Machiavelli argues that, if he had better prepared for the inevitability of his father’s death, he might have held onto power longer.
Exercise: Combat Luck
Machiavelli argues that not just politics, but all of life, is a struggle between luck or fortune and a person’s abilities. At least half of all events exist outside of our control, but that leaves half for us to manipulate through our own skill.
- How has luck played a role in where you find yourself in life today? Have there been times when you overcame bad luck in order to achieve success? Were there times when luck itself was responsible (at least in part) for your success?
- List some goals you have for the future. What role do you anticipate luck playing in your achievement of those goals (positive or negative)?
- How can you prepare now for what impact luck may have in the future? How can you use Machiavelli’s principles of foresight and adaptability to thrive through whatever challenges life may throw at you?
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