Chapter 18: The Subtle Art of Lying

Appearances not only can be deceptive, as Machiavelli points out in Chapter XVIII: Concerning the Way in Which Princes Should Keep Faith, but appearances also should be deceptive. He was keenly aware, from his years as a diplomat, that there was one way a ruler should appear and another way a ruler should act. A little deception could go a long way:

“Everyone admits how praiseworthy it is in a prince to keep his word, and to behave with integrity rather than cunning. Nevertheless our experience has been that those princes who have done great things have considered keeping their word of little account, and have known how to beguile men’s minds by shrewdness and cunning. In the end these princes have overcome those who have relied on keeping their word.”

Like Machiavelli wrote in Chapters 15 and 16, it’s fine to look like a good and compassionate ruler, but you have to act the way circumstances dictate to stay in power and maintain the state. Keeping your word simply for the sake of appearances isn’t very wise, especially if it threatens either your position or the state.

“Occasionally words must serve to veil the facts. But let this happen in such a way that no one become aware of it; or, if it should be noticed, excuses must be at hand to be produced immediately.”
Machiavelli’s instructions to diplomat Raffaello Girlami

A good ruler, as he wrote in The Art of War, must both,

“…love peace but know how to wage war…”
The Art of War: I, 12

That requires a more complex personality than most of us have. Machiavelli explains why we need it to be more than just ourselves: civilized people use the law to settle their differences, but the law doesn’t always work to our benefit. In that case, it’s prudent to put a bit of stick about and behave in a different, more forceful manner to get your way:

“There are two ways of fighting: one by the law, the other by force; the first method is natural to men, the second to beasts; but because the first is frequently inadequate, it is necessary to resort to the second. Therefore it is necessary for a prince to understand how to make use of both the nature of the beast and the nature of man… one cannot prevail without the other.”

The Fox and the Lion

Maybe you need some animal instincts to guide you. Machiavelli used the metaphor of the lion and the fox as the exemplary bestial natures to mimic. A lion is strong and brave, but not very cunning, and the fox is cunning and easily escapes snares, but isn’t very strong:

“A prince, therefore, who is forced to act like beast, ought to learn from the fox and the lion; because the lion cannot defend himself against traps, and the fox cannot defend himself against wolves.”

The fox is not merely clever: it can recognize traps; it sees through the deceptions of others. Machiavelli suggests that the wolves aren’t just predators: they lay snares for the unwitting, too.

The lion doesn’t merely brawl; by its size and reputation, it keeps other predators at a distance. You can’t be one without being the other, and survive in the political wilderness.

You need to be a bit of both; cunning and strength, fraud and force combined:

“Therefore, it is necessary to be a fox to discover the snares, and like a lion to terrify the wolves.Those who rely simply on the lion do not understand matters.”

When you can’t win your argument by civilized debate, you may try a little arm twisting. Strength alone won’t accomplish everything, however. No matter how many the wolves, people will just see you as a bully. You need some craft to mix it with.

This is an important concept throughout The Prince: situational ethics. Machiavelli was not a blind ideologue, cleaving to one path, or a moralist who demanded rulers obey fixed precepts. He recognized that a ruler had to behave as circumstances dictated. Be bold when boldness is required; cautious when caution is prudent. Be benevolent when times require it; be cruel when cruelty is necessitated. Be able and willing to change.

Do what is required to stay in power and protect the state. Be both cunning and be strong: the fox and the lion combined. But be careful how you present your inner fox: cleverness is not as well appreciated as strength in today’s anti-intellectual climate.

You need to be the more cunning fox in a municipality where the people are the stronger force, and the more powerful lion where the staff are the stronger, as you see in the next chapter.

Machiavelli reasoned that, acting as a fox, a ruler cannot – and should not – keep his or her word when either it places the ruler (and thus the state) at a disadvantage, or the reasons for the promises no longer exist. Your word is not your bond: it’s a choice you make.

This is one of the more controversial comments in The Prince because it challenged all traditional concepts of honour and morality:

“A wise lord cannot, nor ought he to, keep his promises when such observance would place him at a disadvantage, and when the reasons for which he gave his word no longer exist.”

Basically he’s saying it’s okay to lie under some circumstances. We all know that some campaign promises are lies. Politicians make them knowing they cannot or will not fulfill them, but they’re what the public wants to hear. No one ever got elected promising to raises taxes, to cut services, or to increase municipal spending. You get elected by promising the opposite.

Voters expect campaign promises to be a bit dodgy, and that some just will fall by the wayside once the election is over. Machiavelli, however, says that even off the hustings, it’s still okay to break your word.

He doesn’t say it’s right to make a promise knowing you have no intention of keeping it. Rather he’s saying that, if you make a promise you intended to keep, and later renege on it, it’s not really lying if there’s a good justification for breaking it. Then hypocrisy becomes a valid political survival technique.

He’s not saying it’s okay to lie all the time, either, or to break every promise, just when it’s necessary to do so. And that depends on the circumstances. What effect will keeping your promise have on the welfare of your municipality? Will that new arena you promised benefit people more than the higher taxes will hurt them?

You can get away with breaking your promises if that’s what prudence and the situation dictate you should do. Machiavelli justifies this by saying that, if people were always good, and everyone kept their word to you and to everyone else, this would be a bad rule. But since,

“…they are bad, and will not keep their word to you, you too are not bound to keep yours to them.”

Most people won’t keep faith with you because they are bound by their personal needs, while you have to see to the state’s as well as your own.

No ruler ever lacked excuses for breaking his or her word. But, Machiavelli acknowledges, even in a world where no one can be trusted, you can’t succeed as an outright cad. So, you need to hide your real intentions. Like a fox.

NB: Folk tales using lion and the fox as metaphors for strength and cunning were told in ancient Greece. The animals were also used by Horace in his Satire II.3 when he wrote about “the cunning fox striving to be like the noble lion” (also translated as “masquerading as a noble lion”). Horace was a popular poet during the Italian Renaissance, and Machiavelli likely encountered some of his works.

The Great Pretender

Obviously, you can’t walk around telling people you plan to break your promises, so you have to convince them you intend to follow through. This will work because people are willing to be deceived:

“It is necessary to know how to conceal this characteristic well, and to be a great pretender and dissembler. Men are so simple, and so subject to prone to be won over by necessities, that a deceiver will always find someone who is willing to be deceived.”

People who want to deceive will always find someone willing to be deceived. While he warns you to avoid flatterers (Chapter 23), it doesn’t hurt to be one yourself, if it helps convince others of your worth and sincerity.

As Machiavelli also wrote in The Discourses:

“Men deceive themselves in respect of their own affairs, and most of all in respect of those on which they are most bent; so that either from impatience or from self-deception, they rush upon undertakings for which the time is not ripe, and so come to an ill end.”
The Discourses: III, 8

Witter Bynner wrote that:

“Everywhere men yearn to be misled by magicians.”
Introduction to the Tao Teh Ching

In the same vein, we want to believe in our leaders and our politicians because that confirms we made the right decision to elect them. When we believe our leaders to be unfaithful and unjust, it reflects badly on our own judgment. So, we are willing to be deceived by them.

“Occasionally words must serve to veil the facts. But let this happen in such a way that no one become aware of it; or, if it should be noticed, excuses must be at hand to be produced immediately.”
Machiavelli’s instructions to diplomat Raffaello Girlami

We’re disappointed when our leaders break their promises, maybe even angry, but we hold faith with them because to do otherwise would make us – not them – seem like fools.

“The worst that can happen is that the man to whom you have made a false promise is angry.”
Quintus Tullius Cicero: Commentariolum Petitionis

All you need to be loved and respected by others, says Machiavelli, is the appearance of being good. That’s enough for people to love you:

“It is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have mentioned, but it is very necessary to appear to have them.”

You don’t actually have to be good, just look like it, and people will happily believe you are because it confirms their own wisdom for electing you. When they stop believing in their own fantasies about you, they will send you packing.

Actually being good all the time is harmful in the long run, he warns, and you need to know how not to be good – how to be bad – to survive:

“That to have them and always to observe them is harmful, and that to appear to have them is useful. It’s all very well to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so disposed that should you need to be otherwise from those qualities, you will be able to become the opposite.”

In other words, it’s all very well to appear good, but you have to be capable of being bad when necessary. When the time comes to act, you have to act as circumstances demand, not according to a fixed moral compass.

This concept set Machiavelli aside from his contemporaries.

Notice that he doesn’t say you have to be bad, just that you have to know how and when to be. How you act depends on circumstances.

Machiavelli understood that no one is wholly good and wholly bad. But, nonetheless, you should assume others are bad so you’re not surprised by them or their actions:

“Presuppose that all men are bad and that they will use their malignity of mind every time they have the opportunity; and if such malignity is hidden for a time, it proceeds from the unknown reason that would not be known because the experience of the contrary had not been seen, but time, which is said to be the father of every truth, will cause it to be discovered.”
The Discourses: I, 3

You cannot survive in politics if you assume all people are basically good, because you will always be disappointed in them. If you assume people are basically bad, they will never disappoint you. They may even pleasantly surprise and delight you by not being as bad as you expected.

Newcomers ride into office on promises of change and improvement. You can’t achieve any of these unless you know how and when to act the villain, and use some force to get your way:

“A prince, especially a new one, cannot exhibit all those qualities for which men are esteemed, because in order to maintain the state, the prince is often compelled to act contrary to loyalty, friendship, humanity, and religion.”

It’s great for your reputation to be seen sitting in the pew on Sunday morning. Or being a good party member and attending those boring riding meetings. Religion can also mean ideology of every sort. Political correctness is a religion itself.

Being good is the high road and everyone praises it. But, Machiavelli says, it’s okay to take the low road if no other viable option exists:

“It is necessary for him to flexible and ready to act accordingly as the circumstances and fortune demand it, yet he should not diverge from what is good if he can avoid doing so. But, if compelled to act bad by circumstances, then he must know how to do it.”

So talk the good talk even if you don’t walk the good talk. Let your appearance and speech be benign and gracious, tell them what they want to hear so the people will believe in you:

“A prince ought to take care that he never lets anything slip from his lips that is not replete with the… qualities, that he may appear to everyone who sees and hears him as a paragon of mercy, loyalty, humanity, integrity, and scrupulousness.”

Never question the popular ideology in public. Don’t go against the popular trends openly. Pretend to be just like everyone else.

Appearances Matter

Appearances, even when deceptive, matter because most people look at the surface, not into the depths:

“Men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, because everybody can see you, but few can come close enough to touch you.”

What you can touch, what you can hold in your hand has more validity that what you see, because your eyes can be deceived. However, adds Machiavelli, because they can’t get close enough to touch you, everyone…

“…sees what you appear to be, but few really know what you are…”

Those who really know the fox that lies behind your mask of righteousness don’t dare oppose the many who think you’re that wonderful, compassionate person you appear to be.

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, was the message to Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, and we say just that to the electorate about ourselves. Be the Wizard. Make your public persona something special.

On the other hand, you should pay attention to those who know you better: they are potential enemies. You will need to be the lion with them; roar a bit to make them fear your bite.

As long as you appear to be honest, upright and compassionate to the majority, everything you achieve will also appear as good as you pretend to be. Conversely, if you achieve good results, then people will think well of the methods you used to achieve them:

“The actions of all men, and especially of princes, for which there is no court of appeal, one judges by the result.”

There’s that end-justifies-the-means concept again. One can rarely overturn a mayor’s or council’s decision, just comment on the result it produces. There is no ‘court of appeal’ for the public outside the ballot box. As a result, the public can’t challenge the means, just the final result, and only every few years.

Machiavelli gets more specific, throwing in a line about how much winning matters to the result:

“When a prince wins victories and upholds the state, his methods will always be considered honourable, and he will be praised by everybody. The common people are always impressed by what a thing seems to be and by results. In a world full of common people who applaud the prince’s achievements, only a few can see past appearances.”

The common people, wrote Machiavelli, are willingly deceived and are always impressed by both appearances and results, not necessarily the truth. Most people don’t look to causes, just the effects. Since they’re the majority, don’t worry about those few who see past appearances.

“So true it is that men are more taken by look and words than by actual services.”
Quintus Tullius Cicero: Commentariolum Petitionis

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