This is one of the top 100 movie quotations according to the American Film Institute. It is spoken by Michael Corleone in a scene from The Godfather: Part II, when he reminisces about things he learned from his father. The quotation, in fact, may be a paraphrase of a concept first proposed by Machiavelli in “The Prince.”
Niccolò Machiavelli (1469 – 1527) was a Renaissance statesman, historian, philosopher, writer, playwright and poet. He is often called the father of modern political philosophy and political science. For many years he served as a senior official in the Florentine Republic with responsibilities in diplomatic and military affairs. He was renowned for his good humor and wit, but he was banished from political life when the Republic of Florence fell to the returning Medici and the old form of autocracy. It was a tumultuous era in which popes waged acquisitive wars against Italian city-states, and people and cities often fell from power as France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire battled for regional influence and control.
Machiavelli was imprisoned and tortured but eventually released. Even though he had written passionately in advocating republics over autocracies, he wrote “The Prince” in 1513 to curry favor with the Medici. He hoped to show that he could be a worthy counselor to the new rulers—a spectacularly unsuccessful attempt to land a job. The Medici family disregarded him.
In the slim volume of “The Prince,” which was published posthumously, Machiavelli wrote about what a leader should do to consolidate power. “It is necessary for a prince, if he wants to maintain his realm, to learn to be able not to be good.” He justifies the use of violence and military intervention. Machiavelli writes that a prince should certainly hope to be considered merciful and kind but that cruelty could be ‘well-used.’ Further, while it is difficult to be loved and feared at the same time, “it is much safer to be feared than loved if one has to lack one of the two.” He adds that princes who have readily broken their word have done great things and have triumphed over princes who have kept their word….in other words, he advocates for a prince who knows how to win. He encouraged political leaders to engage in evil when it was necessary for political expediency.
The word Machiavellian is widely used today to characterize unscrupulous politicians who use deceit and deviousness for their own purposes. Some of Machiavelli’s ideas might have been acceptable in the 16th century, but one would hope are no longer acceptable today. Yet we still see these principles visible in how politics work today.