This time it’s a Machiavellian mis-quote.


Machiavelli, The Prince, Ch. XVWhilst perusing the Net for some material for my book on Machiavelli, I came across this maxim: “Never attempt to win by force what can be won by deception.”

It’s attributed on many, many sites to Machiavelli in his most famous work, The Prince.

Sounds pretty Machiavellian, doesn’t it? Well, it isn’t. Machiavelli never wrote those words.

Sun Tzu wrote that, “All warfare is based on deception.” (Book 1, 18), which is close. Sun Tzu went on to add in the next two lines (19 and 20),

“Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.
“Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.”

In The Art of War, Book 4, Machiavelli wrote, “It may also be well to do with cunning that which happened to Fabius Maximus at home,” which follows with the example of Fabius’ cunning use of cavalry to beguile an enemy encampment.

And in Book 7, he wrote, “Those who are besieged must also guard themselves from the deceit and cunning of the enemy, and, therefore, the besieged should not trust anything which they see the enemy doing continuously, but always believe they are being done by deceit, and can change to injure them.”

Neither quote is close to the one at the top.

In his History of Florence, Machiavelli wrote, “If you watch the ways of men you will see that those who obtain great wealth and power do so either by force or fraud, and having got them they conceal under some honest name the foulness of their deeds.” Close, but still no cigar.

In The Prince, Ch. 18, he wrote, “Nevertheless our experience has been that those princes who have done great things have held good faith of little account, and have known how to circumvent the intellect of men by craft, and in the end have overcome those who have relied on their word.” Cunning is not used here as a counterpoint to force. I was sure Machiavelli never penned those words in The Prince.

In The Discourses, BK. II, Ch. 32, Machiavelli even described how deception was problematic when trying to capture a town:

“The capture of towns by stratagem combined with force is effected, as by the Romans at Palæopolis, through a secret understanding with some within the walls. Many attempts of this sort have been made, both by the Romans and by others, but few successfully, because the least hindrance disarranges the plan of action, and because such hindrances are very likely to occur.
“For either the plot is discovered before it can be carried out, as it readily may, whether from treachery on the part of those to whom it has been communicated, or from the difficulties which attend its inception, the preliminary arrangements having to be made with the enemy and with persons with whom it is not permitted, save under some pretext or other, to hold intercourse; or if it be not discovered while it is being contrived, a thousand difficulties will still be met with in its execution.”

Nowhere in any of the various translations I have does the phrase “Never to attempt to win by force what can be won by deception” appear.

In Book III, Chap. XL, titled “That Fraud is Fair in War,” Machiavelli writes,

“Although in all other affairs it be hateful to use fraud, in the operations of war it is praiseworthy and glorious; so that he who gets the better of his enemy by fraud, is as much extolled as he who prevails by force.”

And in Book II, Chapter XIII, titled, “That Men rise from humble to high Fortunes rather by Fraud than by Force:”

“We see, therefore, that the Romans, from the time they first began to extend their power, were not unfamiliar with the art of deceiving, an art always necessary for those who would mount to great heights from low beginnings; and which is the less to be condemned when, as in the case of the Romans, it is skilfully concealed.”

Which is the closest that I can come to that saying.

I’ve searched both online and through my printed copies of The Prince, Discourses and Art of War for the exact phrase. Nada.

It might be a from a translation of a work I don’t own (and I own many), but if so I would be hard pressed to figure where it should be found. Chapter XVIII of The Prince, is the only possibility I can imagine, but then it would change the message of the entire chapter. It doesn’t fit, at least as I read Machiavelli.

I believe it can be traced back to a 1982 article on disinformation by Edward Jay Epstein, in which he paraphrases Machiavelli but does not identify any source for the comment. In an email to me this week, Epstein himself suggested it may have been a paraphrase. And I suggest it comes as a paraphrase from The Discourses, not The Prince.

I chalk it up as another of the thousands of bad mis-quotes floating around online.

One thought on “This time it’s a Machiavellian mis-quote.

  1. Ian Chadwick Post author

    Similarly, this quote:
    “I’m not interested in preserving the status quo; I want to overthrow it.”
    does not appear in any of his works that I have examined – at least not in The Prince or The Discourses in any translation I have. It doesn’t read like anything he would have said.

    So I searched (as should those who repeated it blindly) and found on Don MacDonald’s site that it’s really from Newt Gingrich:
    Gingrich has dismissed the House as a “corrupt institution,” its Democratic leadership as “sick” and its last three Speakers as “a trio of muggers.” “A tin-horn Joe McCarthy,” harrumphs Democratic Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin. “He’ll stab you in the back in a New York second,” states Alexander.
    Such jabs don’t faze Gingrich. “I’m not interested in preserving the status quo; I want to overthrow it,” he says. “Of course people are going to resent that.”

    It’s like this one: “the ends justifies the means” – which Machiavelli also never said.

    Nor did he write: “History is written by the victors.”

    All of these appear on what I call the Bad Reads website, which is similar to the “stupid unsourced internet quotes” website.

    Yes, some of them ARE actual quotes, but none is properly attributed as to the source work, let alone the translation.

    Sigh.