In early sixteenth century, Machiavelli asks, “Of cruelty and mercy, and whether it is better to be loved than to be feared or the contrary?”
Here is his answer, from The Prince:
Turning to the other qualities mentioned above, let me say that every prince must desire to be considered merciful and not cruel; nevertheless, he must take care not to use such mercy badly. Cesare Borgia was considered cruel; nonetheless, this cruelty of his brought order to the Romagna, united it, and restored it to peace and loyalty. If we examine this carefully, we shall see that he was more merciful than the Florentine people, who allowed the destruction of Pistoia in order to avoid being considered cruel.
Therefore, a prince must not worry about the infamy of being considered cruel when it is a matter of keeping his subjects united and loyal. With a very few examples of cruelty, he will prove more compassionate than those who, out of excessive mercy, permit disorders to continue from which arise murders and plundering, for these usually injure the entire community, while the executions ordered by the prince injure specific individuals. Of all the types of princes, the new prince cannot escape the reputation for cruelty, since new states are full of dangers. Thus Virgil, through the mouth of Dido, declares: ‘Res dura et regni novitas me talia cogunt moliri et late fines custode tueri’ [‘The harshness of things and the newness of my rule make me act in such a manner, and to set guards over my land on all sides’].
Nevertheless, a prince must be cautious in believing accusations and in acting against individuals, nor should he be afraid of his own shadow. He should proceed in such a manner, tempered by prudence and humanity, that too much trust may not render him incautious, nor too much suspicion render him insufferable.
From this arises an argument: whether it is better to be loved than to be feared, or the contrary. The answer is that one would like to be both one and the other. But since it is difficult to be both together, it is much safer to be feared than to be loved, when one of the two must be lacking. For one can generally say this about men: they are ungrateful, fickle, simulators and deceivers, avoiders of danger, and greedy for gain. While you work for their benefit they are completely yours, offering you their blood, their property, their lives, and their sons, as I said above, when the need to do so is far away. But when it draws nearer to you, they turn away. The prince who relies entirely upon their words comes to ruin, finding himself stripped naked of other preparations. For friendships acquired by a price and not by greatness and nobility of spirit are purchased but are not owned, and at the proper time cannot be spent. Men are less hesitant about injuring someone who makes himself loved than one who makes himself feared, because love is held together by a chain of obligation that, since men are a wretched lot, is broken on every occasion for their own self-interest; but fear is sustained by a dread of punishment that will never abandon you.
A prince must nevertheless make himself feared in such a way that he will avoid hatred, even if he does not acquire love; since one can very easily be feared and yet not hated. This will always be the case when he abstains from the property of his citizens and subjects, and from their women. If he must spill someone’s blood, he should do this when there is proper justification and manifest cause. But above all else, he should abstain from seizing the property of others; for men forget the death of their father more quickly than the loss of their patrimony. Moreover, reasons for taking their property are never lacking, and he who begins to live by stealing always finds a reason for taking what belongs to others; reasons for spilling blood, on the other hand, are rarer and more fleeting.
But when the prince is with his armies and has a multitude of soldiers under his command, then it is absolutely necessary that he should not worry about being considered cruel, for without that reputation he will never keep an army united or prepared for any action. Numbered among the remarkable deeds of Hannibal is this: that while he had a very large army made up of all kinds of men that he commanded in foreign lands, there never arose the slightest dissension, either among themselves or against their leader, both during his periods of good and bad luck. This could not have arisen from anything other than his inhuman cruelty, which, along with his many other virtues, made him always venerable and terrifying in the eyes of his soldiers. Without that quality, his other virtues would not have sufficed to attain the same effect. Having considered this matter very superficially, historians on the one hand admire these deeds of his, and on the other condemn the main cause of them.
That it is true that his other virtues would not have been sufficient can be seen from the case of Scipio, a most extraordinary man, not only in his time but in all of recorded history, whose armies in Spain rebelled against him. This came about from nothing other than his excessive compassion, which gave his soldiers more license than is suitable to military discipline. For this he was censured in the Senate by Fabius Maximus, who called him the corruptor of the Roman army. When Locri was destroyed by one of his legates, the Locrians were not avenged by him, nor was the arrogance of that legate corrected, all this arising from his easygoing nature. Someone in the Senate who tried to excuse him declared that there were many men who knew how not to err better than they knew how to correct their mistakes. In time such a character would have damaged Scipio’s fame and glory if he had long continued to command armies, but, living under the control of the Senate, this harmful quality of his was not only concealed but also contributed to his glory.
Let me conclude, then– returning to the issue of being feared and loved– that since men love at their own pleasure and fear at the pleasure of the prince, the wise prince should build his foundation upon that which is his own, not upon that which belongs to others: only he must seek to avoid being hated, as I have said.