One of the earliest things most newcomers do when they get into office is to find a way to reward their friends and supporters, and thus both repay debts and make supporters obligated to you. In turn these supporters become your defenders in the community, because their rewards depend on you staying in office and being able to continue to benefit them.
“By very small favours men are induced to think that they have sufficient reason for giving support…”
Quintus Tullius Cicero: Commentariolum Petitionis
In Chapter XX: Are Fortresses, and Many Other Things to Which Princes Often Resort, Advantageous or Hurtful?, Machiavelli called this business of rewarding allies, “arming your subjects.” He wrote that,
“A new prince …has always armed his subjects, because, by arming them, those weapons become yours, those men who were initially distrusted become faithful, and those who were loyal remain so, and they become your ardent partisans.”
Arms are more than military weapons: it can mean power, authority, status, privilege and position. Giving select people authority to act as your representative is to arm them.
Those you favour will appreciate your patronage, and help you secure the rest. Even those who don’t benefit from it will understand the necessity of your favoritism, he adds:
“All subjects cannot be armed. Those whom you do arm receive benefits, so the rest can be handled more securely. They understand their favoured treatment, and it makes them obligated to you. The rest consider it necessary that those who take on the most danger and duty should have the most reward, so they excuse you.”
It’s also true that those who don’t benefit may support you in hope that, seeing how you rewarded others, believe they, too, can gain some benefit from being supportive of your cause.
All you have to do is make sure you don’t take back what you give them, because that will cause those supporters to lose face and they will become your enemy:
“When you disarm them, you at once offend them by showing that you distrust them, either for cowardice or for lack of loyalty, and both of these attitudes breed hatred against you.”
Where possible, put your own people in place to watch your back: on boards, committees, or even on staff, especially those who are your long-time allies and supporters. Those who became your allies inside the municipality before you came to office you want to keep, but slowly weaken and sideline them over time, so only your staunchest supporters have any authority:
“When a prince acquires a new state, it is necessary to disarm the men of that state, except those who have been his supporters in acquiring it. These, with time and opportunity, should be rendered soft and weak; things should be organized so that all the armed men in the state shall be your own soldiers who, in your old state, were at your side.”
Avoid encouraging factions within your supporters, and don’t play groups off against one another. While this might seem to be a useful way to distract people from conspiring against you, or draw their attention from other issues, having divided allies is a weakness. Machiavelli had no use for factions.
Others will use these divisions against you, and some within your own camp who feel slighted will side with a challenger against you:
“I do not believe that factions can ever be useful. When the enemy sees your city divided by factions, you are quickly lost, because the weakest group among those factions will always assist the outside forces, and the rest will not be able to resist.”
Encouraging factions in your opponents, however, is a good tactic because it will keep them busy too fighting among themselves to turn on you. Just don’t think it means you can rout them while they are balkanized.
It’s a common tactic to attack a factionalized opponent, thinking that a divided city or group is weak. Machiavelli says no; that will only unite the factions against the attacker. Instead, he suggests in The Discourses, the attacker should surreptitiously side with the weaker faction, to collectively neutralize or even defeat the stronger:
“Render some aid to the weaker side, so as to plunge them deeper in hostilities, wherein both may exhaust their forces without being led by your putting forth an excess of strength to suspect you of a desire to ruin them and remain their master… The city of Pistoia… was won over to the Florentine republic… For the town being split by factions, the Florentines, by now favouring one side and now the other, without incurring the suspicions of either, brought both to such extremities that, wearied out with their harassed life, they threw themselves at last of their own accord into the arms of Florence.”
The Discourses: II, 25
Be Seen Being Great
You have to be strong to reduce the threats against you, and deal with challengers decisively, but in such a way that others recognize your achievement. Doing it in secret brings no glory. The people respect a ruler who overcomes adversity:
“Without doubt, princes become great when they overcome the hurdles that are placed in their path…”
But what happens if there isn’t any serious opposition to overcome? How do you overcome adversity when everything is smooth sailing?
“See also, if possible, that some new scandal is started against your competitors for crime or looseness of life or corruption, such as is in harmony with their characters.”
Quintus Tullius Cicero: Commentariolum Petitionis
Make something up, Machiavelli says. If things are too peaceful people will treat you with contempt and ignore you. You won’t have a chance to display your greatness in quiet times:
“The great and admirable men of a republic are neglected in peaceful times…many citizens… envying the reputation these men have justly earned, seek to be regarded not merely as their equals but as their superiors.”
The Discourses: III, 26
Maybe you can invent some ‘weapons of mass destruction’ to accuse your enemies of hoarding, then make yourself look greater when you crush them:
“A wise prince, when he has the opportunity, ought to cunningly foster some opposition to himself, so that, by crushing it, his reputation may rise higher.”
Keeping people busy with battles elsewhere keeps them from looking too closely at how you’re governing. This is similar to the advice the dying Henry IV gave to his son in William Shakespeare’s play:
“Be it thy course to busy giddy minds
With foreign quarrels.”
William Shakespeare: Henry IV Part II, Sc. IV
Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer, then defeat them, is the gist of what Machiavelli says.
“Never put too much trust in friends, learn how to use enemies: Be wary of friends – they will betray you more quickly, for they are easily aroused to envy… a former enemy will be more loyal than a friend because he has more to prove.”
Robert Greene, 48 Laws of Power: 2
Use Your Enemies Wisely
Machiavelli suggests new politicians can best use those who initially opposed them, because when they come to office, these opponents find themselves in need of a political defender:
“Princes, especially new ones, have found more loyalty and assistance from those men who they distrusted in the beginning of their rule than among those were trusted friends. If men who were initially opponents need assistance to maintain their position, they can always be easily won over. They will be forced to serve the prince with loyalty, because they know it is necessary for them to cancel by their deeds the bad impression the prince had formed of them. Thus the prince always extracts more use from former enemies than from those who, serving him with too much confidence to feel fear, may neglect his affairs.”
In order to retain their position, they will have to work extra hard to prove themselves to you. Those who were already supporters may take their position a little too much for granted to be that useful.
But not all enemies are worth winning over or can be satisfied with mere favours. Beware of those who wanted you in office not for what you stood for, but because they wanted the incumbents out so they could prosper. They’re just trouble waiting to happen for your administration:
“Consider the reasons which convinced those to favour the prince; and if it be not a natural affection towards him, but only discontent with their former government, then he will only keep them friendly with great effort and difficulty, for it will be impossible to satisfy them.”
So, Machiavelli concludes, you may find more strength and usefulness among your former opponents than among your friends:
“It is easier for the prince to make friends of those who were contented under the former government, and were therefore his enemies, than of those who, being discontented with it, were instant friends with him and encouraged him to seize control.”
Machiavelli warns against depending on those who were discontented under the former government because they only want to use you to redress their own grievances and further their own cause.
Be careful with those who seem discontented under the current mayor or council. By sympathizing with them, you may give them material they can use to garner favour with that mayor by exposing your own discontent.
“If you gauge a man’s fidelity by his discontent with the prince, you may easily deceive yourself; for so soon as you have taken this discontented man into your confidence, you have supplied him with the means whereby he may become contented.”
The Discourses: III, 6
Fortresses: Good or Bad?
So where do the fortresses in the original title come in?
We often get elected by taking a stand on some pressing issue. Sometimes it’s a motherhood issue, other times it’s a local issue like a proposal to build an expensive facility, or it could be a controversial development. High taxes and raising taxes are always hot-button campaign topics.
Those issues are our fortresses, our castles. We raise them to defend ourselves during campaigns, and climb inside them to defend ourselves when issues arise at the table. We retreat into them when an argument gets too heated.
Like rigid party or personal platforms, like election promises you doggedly try to fulfill, like obstinate decisiveness at the table that can’t bend with the winds of circumstance, fortresses are vertebrate defences; hard points meant to keep both foe and friend out.
“…fortresses are built either as a defence against foreign foes or against subjects…”
The Discourses: II, 24
But are they really useful? Or are they harmful to us in the long run?
“Fortresses… can be useful or not, according to circumstances; if they do you good in one way they are harmful in another,”
Machiavelli says their value depends on the circumstances. Sometimes, he says,
“Fortresses provide a safe refuge from sudden attack.”
Fortresses like campaign platforms are useful for making a stand at the table, and establishing yourself as a resolute politician who keeps his or her word. For example, that “no tax increases” fortress can be your defence when council debates the budget, hears requests for more staff or for additional services, or during other similar debates with financial implications.
Fortresses, however, are rigid, inflexible, immobile. They can’t be rebuilt without dismantling them; they can’t adapt or change to the circumstances. They are solely for static defence, not attack, not maneuver.
Just keep in mind: you are not your fortress. Fortresses, like party platforms and election promises, are places to stand, but not life rafts in a storm. They provide support when you need them, but prove fragile when circumstances change. Machiavelli warns leaders that, as Pope Sixtus IV learned,
“… it was not by fortresses, but by the good-will of the people, that he could be maintained in his government.”
The Discourses: II, 24
Fortresses have no part to play when dealing with issues outside those you made a stand for or against when campaigning. You don’t cower inside your “no tax increase” fortress when you debate active transportation, urban design standards or site development issues.
“A prince who has more to fear from the people than from foreigners ought to build fortresses; but he who has more to fear from foreigners than from the people ought to leave them alone.”
In other words, use your stand – your fortress or your platform – when dealing with those specific local issues that arose in the campaign and are appropriate, but be more open and flexible when dealing with other issues. No one respects an ideologue.
“The best fortress in the world is simply to be loved by the people, because no fortress will save you if the people hate you. Once the people take up arms against you, there will be no shortage of outsiders eager to come to their aid.”
Hiding inside your fortresses too often or at the wrong time will be seen as a sign of weakness, not strength, by the public. If you always try to defend yourself from an inflexible platform, you will be defeated at the table by other councillors whose arguments can overcome yours. Then your fortress is useless to defend your position in future. Your platform and defences will have lost their credibility.
Just remember that your allegiance should be to the electorate, and not to an arbitrary platform or even to your campaign promises:
“I shall praise both the prince who builds fortresses as well as he who does not. I shall blame the prince who relies on fortresses, but cares nothing about being hated by the people.”
As he reminds us in other chapters, be flexible, not rigid.
Previous Chapter – Next Chapter
- Machiavelli and Sejanus - October 14, 2022
- A Meeting of the Minds? - July 3, 2021
- Machiavelli’s Prince as satire - June 8, 2017
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