Machiavelli differs from the many political theorists who offer conceptions of a “natural state,” a presocial condition arising solely from human instinct and character. But while Machiavelli never puts forth a vision of what society would be like without civil government, he nonetheless presents a coherent, although not particularly comprehensive, vision of human nature.
Machiavelli mentions explicitly a number of traits innate among humans. People are generally self-interested, although their affections for others can be won and lost. They remain content and happy so long they avoid affliction or oppression. They might be trustworthy in prosperous times, but they can turn selfish, deceitful, and profit-driven in adverse times. And so is a prince wants to maintain his reputation for generosity among men, it is necessary for him not to neglect any possible means of lavish display. They admire honor, generosity, courage, and piety in others, but most do not harbor these virtues. Ambition lies among those who have achieved some power, but most common people are satisfied with the way things are and therefore do not yearn to improve on the status quo. People will naturally feel obligated after receiving a favor or service, and this bond is usually not broken capriciously. Nevertheless, loyalties are won and lost, and goodwill is never absolute. For a prince who wishes to maintain his position to learn how not to be good, and to use this knowledge or not to use it according to necessity.
These statements about human nature often serve as justification for much of Machiavelli’s advice to princes. For example, a prince should never trust mercenary leaders because they, like most leaders, are overly ambitious. At the same time, while many of Machiavelli’s remarks on the subject seem reasonable, most are assumptions not grounded in evidence or popular notions and can easily be criticized. For example, a Hobbesian might argue that Machiavelli puts too much faith in...
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