Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government


A Communication between Two Great Philosophers in History

Res Publica

December 1997

by Anna Beth Rankin

This piece was written as a letter to Aristotle from Machiavelli. He is responding to Aristotle’s statements regarding The Prince.

Esteemed Aristotle,

Thank you for your letter written in response to my "little work." I am pleased that you thought enough of my book to write me a letter concerning it. I am aware of the reputation I have garnered because of The Prince as "the most depraved and shameless of human beings," a teacher of evil, "the discoverer of ambition and revenge, the original inventor of perjury." I am pleased that my teachings have sparked your interest and that of Princes, to whom the book was intended. However, I am concerned with your letter in response to my book, and therefore, I am writing this summary in order to further explain my positions to you.

My book is filled with teachings that rulers must follow in order to be successful. The main concept of the book is the virtue of Prudence. A ruler can not be successful without mastering the virtue of Prudence. Prudence is determining what is good or bad depending on the individual situation and what one’s own ends require. A Prince can not be successful if he is good all the time and always works for the sake of the people, nor can he be successful if he is constantly unjust.

Prudence is necessary in every part of a Prince’s career in order for him to be successful, but there are a few areas where it is especially important. Prudence is a vital element for the art of war, and the art of war is necessary for acquiring and maintaining the state. A Prince must arm himself for the sake of defense, but also use prudence in deciding when and how to use his weapons for being armed can bring contempt from his people. Prudence is also required in the area of liberality. A Prince must use prudence in deciding when to overtly tax his people and when to do it in a fashion where they will not realize he is taking their money. This presents the idea of appearances which I will elaborate on later. In all areas of his life, a Prince’s success depends upon his ability to use prudence in deciding between vice and virtue (your definition of virtue.)

Virtue is a word which we both use, but we use it quite differently. You say in The Politics, "There is no noble deed either of a man or of a city that is separate from virtue and prudence. The courage, justice and prudence of a city have the same power and form as those things human beings share in individually who are called just, prudent and sound" (33-35). Your writings refer to virtue in the traditional sense of justice, honesty, courage, and so on, but you speak of prudence as being separate from virtue. My definition of virtue is more conventional. Being virtuous means to act with spiritedness and most importantly prudently as I have previously mentioned (acting good or bad as necessity demands.) The virtues you speak of are good qualities, but it is unrealistic to think that human nature would allow someone to be totally virtuous all of the time.

The measure of prudence according to my teaching is success. If a Prince acts prudently in all matters, he will no doubt succeed, unless of course fortune, or shall I say misfortune, is his downfall. Fortune and opportunity play a strong role in the success of every person. Fortune can also be called necessity whereas opportunity can also be termed chance. In my book, I refer to the example of Moses who had the fortune of finding the people of Israel enslaved and oppressed in Egypt which gave him an opportunity to form a safe place for his people. "Such opportunities, therefore, made these men successful, and their excellent virtue enabled them to be recognized"(23). Success requires fortune, opportunity and virtue. Virtue is needed so that the opportunity can be seen and then fulfilled.

Appearance, as I mentioned previously, is another key idea of my teaching. It is imperative that a Prince appear to be good at all times, but he must not act in that way all of the time or he will not be successful.

Thus it is not necessary for a Prince to have all the above-mentioned qualities in fact, but it is indeed necessary to appear to have them. Nay, I dare say this, that by having them and always observing them, they are harmful; and by appearing to have them, they are useful. (70)

It is useful and necessary for a Prince to appear generous and charitable, but he must not be so constantly. If he is, he will be loved by his people, but they will always expect those actions. On the other hand, if he is stingy and makes them live in a state of poverty they will rebel against him. Therefore, he must appear to be charitable, meanwhile maintaining a well-organized and financially sound society. Prudence is the key to appearing as such since the Prince will have to decide between what is good and what is bad, act on his decision, and do so in such a way that does not make him appear badly.

This talk of appearance brings me to another point in my book. It is much better for a Prince to be feared rather than loved if he can not be both. It is possible to be feared but not hated. This is achieved by abstaining "from the property of his citizens and his subjects, and from their women; and if he also needs to proceed against someone’s life, he must do it when there is suitable justification and manifest cause for it"(66). The reason that being loved is not always what is best is because men are not trustworthy. A Prince can not depend wholly on his people or he will fail miserably.

The ability to change is another important characteristic for a Prince to have. If a prince is adaptable, he will not be conquered. However, both nature and habits make it extremely difficult for people to change. A Prince must change his mode and proceedings as the times and affairs change. In my book, I use the example of a cautious and patient Prince whose government is successful. If things change and he continues to rule in the same way, he will come to ruin. People naturally have difficulty making changes. They are either accustomed to doing things a certain way and nature will make it so they cannot deviate, or they do not want to stray from a path that has proven successful before. This type of person is called a cautious man. "And so the cautious man, when it comes to impetuosity, does not know how to do it, hence comes to ruin; for if he would change his nature with the times and with the affairs, his fortune would not change"(100). This ability to change means
that a ruler must be able to depart from good into bad. Prudence is needed to decide when that step is necessary. "And so he needs to have a spirit disposed to change as the winds of fortune and variations of things command him, and as I said above, not depart from good, when possible, but know how to enter into evil, when forced by necessity"(70).

Aristotle, you teach that in order to be fully human one must be virtuous. I do not feel that human nature allows individuals to constantly act in the best interest of the many as you proclaim. Instead, I think that individuals naturally strive for their own interests and happiness. People follow their desires, and human nature leads individuals to do what is in their best interest, not the interest of society. I teach princes how to rule by explaining the importance of acting prudently at all times. Excellence for a prince is defined by necessity, which means that he must do what he must in order to make himself and his society a success. The use of prudence in determining what each individual situation requires will bring about excellence.

Our teachings vary, but we do agree that there is a difference between the people which consists of the few and the many. My book is written for the few who are the smart, wise, and prudent men. It is only they who can understand the concepts of my book. The few are so smart that they can fool the masses. The few can create the perception that they are great while they are really pursing their own agendas. It is only the few who are capable of acting prudently, appearing to be something they are not and having the ability to change when change is needed. The many or the common people who I frequently refer to as "the vulgar" do not understand our teachings. They merely understand the concept of being ruled. A prince can have either the support of "the people" (the many) or of "the great" (the few.) To have both in one’s favor is impossible. This is true because when a prince rules he works for the good of one group while the other suffers, but it is
important that the prince distribute the good fairly equally. A wise prince will find that "the people’s" only desire is to not be oppressed while "the great" want to oppress "the people." If he constantly lets one group suffer, they will turn against him because he is not putting on the appearance of goodness.

In your book The Politics, you say "ruling and being ruled belong not only among things necessary but also among things advantageous" (Book 1, Chapter 5, 22-23). We agree that the element of ruling and being ruled is necessary in a society. We merely differ on how a person should rule. If you would examine my teachings, especially concerning the use of prudence, I am certain that you would find agreement with much of it. Thank you again for allowing me the opportunity to express my teachings to you on a more personal basis.

Be Prosperous.
Niccolo Machiavelli, in Florence

Anna Beth Rankin is a junior from Concord, Ohio majoring in Political Science.


Aristotle. The Politics. Trans. by Lord Carnes. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1984.

Machiavelli. The Prince. Trans. by Harvery Mansfield. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1984.

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