Follow TV Tropes


Machiavelli Was Wrong

Go To

"Divide and rule, a sound motto. Unite and lead, a better one."

Achieving power through positive emotions such as love is preferable to using negative emotions such as fear. Worlds that operate on this philosophy often see fear-using villains fail to inspire any loyalty in their subjects, or at the very least inspire inept loyalty, because fear is not a good motivating force. It can keep your minions in line, but the second they don't have reason to fear you, they'll turn on you without a second thought.

Bands of heroes are generally held together by The Power of Friendship, Love, or just general loyalty to the hero. Indeed, The Leader who acts as A Father to His Men gains more loyalty from them than one who acts as a tyrant. Bands of villains tend to be held together by fear of the head villain. Eventually, villains often discover to their surprise that while fear might be easier to establish, love has a lot more staying power. If the villain is especially unlikeable, this can culminate in a Heel–Face Turn.

The trope name comes, obviously, from the popular reputation of Niccolň Machiavelli's The Prince, which is often paraphrased as saying that it is better to rule by fear than by love. People (and fictional villains) often forget an important thing Machiavelli pointed out, however — it is preferable to be both feared and loved, choosing fear over love only when you can't have both, and that in any event it is vital to avoid being hated, since if you are hated people will be willing to suffer just to oppose you. Best of all is to command obedience through respect. In essence, it'd be more true to form to say "Machiavelli was right" if not for this popular misunderstanding.

"Whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with. [...] Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated."
Niccolo Machiavelli (of all people), The Prince, Chapter 17

While we're on the subject, it's also worth noting that some scholars think The Prince was a satire of dictatorship since everything else he wrote directly contradicts The Prince — in other words, Machiavelli Was Joking. The misunderstandings are due to the early English translations, which were Blind Idiot Translations that turned the line "look to the consequences before you act" into "the ends justify the means."

Often used as part of an Aesop. See also Villainous Demotivator. Contrast Bread and Circuses, which Machiavelli actually supported. It may be because Rousseau Was Right.


    open/close all folders 

    Anime & Manga 
  • In Naruto, most of Orochimaru's followers are fanatically loyal to him due to him taking them under his wing when they were vulnerable.
  • In Pokémon: The Series, evil trainers generally treat their Pokémon cruelly, while good trainers treat them well.
    • The most extreme example was the Iron Masked Marauder. He was so abusive to his Pokémon, they left him on their own, something that is usually unheard of.
    • Jessie and James are the exception; while they play the role of antagonists (sort of), they get emotionally attached to their Pokémon. In turn, most of them are extremely loyal to them, even refusing to abandon them when they try to evacuate or release them.
  • Inverted with Chizuru Aizawa of Squid Girl. The reason she can suppress anyone from the titular squid to the series' resident mad scientists is thanks to invoking her role as The Dreaded. That she uses fear to achieve her desired results is never brought up In-Universe, in part because the show is a Slice of Life Comedy, and she is, otherwise, a sweet girl.
  • Played with in From Eroica with Love; the antagonist Klaus is both feared and loved. He is gruff with his men, expecting perfection from them, and is constantly threatening to send them off to Alaska if they fail (and he actually goes though with it at least once), but he also acts like he's the only one allowed to insult them and lets them known that they aren't just Red Shirts, admittedly by yelling at them.
  • In One Piece, this depends on the commander. While most pirate crews run on fear, only two of the Emperors (the most successful crews in the world) do. Marines are mixed; most of them use discipline and respect, but the ones that rule through fear rule hard. Captain Morgan's entire base hates him, and they cheer when he loses to a pirate. Admiral Akainu tries to kill a skilled, loyal soldier not for calling to end the fight, but because that call wasted a few non-critical seconds of the battle. He was a named character who wouldn't have been easy to replace, and who got stronger in the two years since. Also, even though Akainu was extremely important to that battle, he wasted his own precious seconds killing a rank-and-file deserter earlier.
    • That was what Marines were originally meant for in real life: they served aboard naval vessels and kept the crew from mutiny and desertion (and for Boarding Actions, but that's less important here).
    • It's also a constant theme in the Whole Cake Island arc. The sheer fear Big Mom puts in the hearts of her subjects and children is the main thing that allows her to control them all, as she's both immensely powerful and volatile and letting her fly off the handle (be it by mistake, not providing her with exactly the meals she wants, open defiance, or simply being in the way and trying to tell her to stop) is a deadly proposal, forcing everyone to do as she says and generally appease her. However, the many years of this have set up a situation where many of her children are either mentally broken from their abuse, secretly plotting against her due to sheer hate, plotting against each other to save their own skins or simply willing to lie to her face just for the sake of keeping her pleased. Thus, it all comes to a head during the wedding and the Strawhats' incursion, which cannot be handled with brute force as usual and gets out of hand for the few competent individuals in the group: What should have been a clean assassination becomes a clusterfuck of mythical proportions for everyone involved as long-awaited betrayals, people cracking over being shown actual kindness for the first time in their lives, unwarranted arrogance being challenged and towers of lies building on each other only to fall apart spectacularly finally bubble to the surface after building up for years. This leaves the Big Mom pirates desperately trying to catch up and grasp any chance of shutting it down (usually making things worse), if only for the sake of saving face.
  • In Liar Game, Akiyama explicitly points out that his and Nao's team runs on trust, while Yokoya's team runs on fear. Guess which team always wins?
  • Played with in Fullmetal Alchemist at Briggs Fortress. The soldiers are scared of their commanding officer, Major General Oliver Armstrong, but also extremely proud of 'our Ice Queen'. While she is definitely worthy of that title, she still has a soft spot for her soldiers. In regards to this trope, one could say they love her because she's scary.
  • JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Golden Wind has The Don of Passione, Diavolo, whose goal to rule from complete anonymity ends up accomplishing nothing besides turning pretty much his entire organization against him, specifically because he leads through fear and otherwise makes no attempt to make his underlings respect him. When his squad of top assassins send two of their members to find out more information about him, he just mails them back to their headquarters in pieces, burning bridges with all of his elite hitmen simply for questioning him. On top of that, the brutal and insane lengths he's willing to go to to secure the anonymity he wants culminating in tricking Bucciarati's group into helping him murder his own long-lost daughter (who for the record knows nothing about him anyway) just leads to another group under him betraying him.
  • Fruits Basket: Akito runs the Sohma family through fear, inflicting physical and emotional abuse upon the Zodiac members to make them afraid to leave her, in direct contrast to Tohru, who helps them heal from their traumas and treats them far more decently than Akito ever did; needless to say, the Zodiac all gravitate towards Tohru over Akito and grow to view her as family, leading Akito to freak out because it means the Zodiacs' bonds with her aren't eternal or immutable after all.

    Comic Books 
  • Sonic the Hedgehog (Archie Comics): Anti-Sonic/Scourge assumed control of the Anti-Freedom Fighters/Suppression Squad by brutally beating them all into submission and they really only continue to follow his lead out of fear. Naturally, they have no true loyalty to him, and whenever an opportunity arises to betray him, they take it without hesitation.
  • Depending on the Writer, Doctor Doom sometimes works to ensure his people love and adore him to stay in power. Other times he’s a brutal tyrant who rules with an iron fist, both methods seem to work for him.
  • Wonder Woman Vol 1: Diana uses this against Paula in order to help start unconditioning the poor women Paula tortured and brainwashed into being her slave agents. As the women have already spent months on Reformation Island under the care of the warden Mala, the plan is to have Mala intentionally allow Paula to take her captive and try to escape. When Paula does so her slaves turn on her, as their fear of her is outweighed by their love for Mala.

    Fan Works 
  • A Brighter Dark: Played straight to the detriment of Ryoma, who tries to use force to keep the self-indulgent and prideful lords under his command in line long enough to win the war against Nohr. This comes back to hurt him when 12 of them band together and declare their independence, their total armies out-numbering his own, thus removing his power over them.
  • Inverted according to Emperor Leo V in Prodigal Son:
    Leo: [Alexander the Great] was a brilliant tactician, and a brutal tyrant. A good ruler must be nothing less.
  • Lampshaded by Roman Torchwick in In the Kingdom's Service who claims that terrorizing and killing his men would get him a knife in his back the moment he turned around. Instead he makes sure to reward competence and loyalty rather than punish failure. Though Roman does say that anyone who gets caught, especially if they go off on their own, is on their own.
  • Aria T'loak in Alpha and Omega is derided by a former subordinate for no longer ruling through fear. Aria dismisses his insults, citing that ruling through respect is more profitable and that she doesn't have to terrorize her subordinates because only idiots like him are stupid enough to break Omega's one rule: Don't fuck with Aria.
  • Bequeathed from Pale Estates has many rulers try this, and find out just what happens when people hate them more than fear them.
    • Cersei takes the servants' terror of her as a sign of their loyalty. She's shocked that Gwyn and the other servants would air Cersei's secrets once they're free from her.
    • Tywin ruled by making everyone fear House Lannister for years. But now that his vitality has been sapped by Greyplague, he's already sunk so much money keeping the royal family afloat with winter coming, and been unable to stop the royals from spending even more money, nobody has any respect for him anymore. Anytime he tries to bribe or terrify into doing his bidding, it doesn't work anymore.
    • Roose ruled Dreadfort by fear. That directly backfired on him during The Plague, because the Mountain Clans refused to trade their goats to his people and many of his smallfolk left.
  • Equestria Girls: Friendship Souls: Definitely subverted by Tirek and the Arrancar. In the Death World that is Hueco Mundo, the reason that Las Noches and the Espada haven't devolved into petty in-fighting is because no one can question the Hollow King and Primera Espada when he puts his foot down and all are in fear of his wrath and power. The only person in Las Noches who could possibly challenge him is the Dos Espada Chrysalis, and even she admits while their battle would destroy the whole city fortress he would still win as things are. Despite this, Tirek used both his power and his people's fear to forge them into a competent faction and the closest thing the Hollows have to a government/ruling body. Without him Hueco Mundo would basically be squabbling weaker factions of Arrancars and Vasto Lordes carving out territories while being vulnerable to attacks from the infinitely more organized Soul Society and Quincy, and while definitely feared and envied he is not a hated king as he understands the value of powerful subordinates and does not go out his way to treat them cruelly or make life worse for them just because. Adagio Dazzle even admits he's actually a competent ruler and there are certainly worse options even among the Espada to be his replacement, even as she schemes to either gain enough power to break away to form her own faction or possibly topple him.

    Films — Animation 
  • In 101 Dalmatians, Horace and Jasper are reluctant to kidnap and then kill the puppies, and are always asking to get their pay and be done with it, but they cower in fear at the sight of Cruella de Vil (and who could blame them) and go about their grim business. They don't exactly turn against her at the end, but as Cruella rages at her defeat, they dismiss her with an "Aw, shut up!"
  • The Transformers: The Movie: The Autobots show concern, and reverence for Optimus Prime even in his dying moments when he’s a liability to them. This is contrasted with Megatron who when wounded, has to beg his second in command Soundwave just not to leave him behind. When his Decepticon minions realize they could jettison the wounded on AstroTrain to make him go faster, Megatron is Thrown Out the Airlock despite his pleas, no one lifting a finger to help him.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Star Wars uses this as one of the many contrasts between the Rebellion and The Empire. In fact, ruling by fear seems to have been codified into Imperial policy as of the construction of the first Death Star:
    General Tagge: How will the Emperor maintain control without the bureaucracy?
    Grand Moff Tarkin: The regional governors will now have direct control over their territories. Fear will keep the local systems in line. Fear of this battle station.
    • It's called the Tarkin Doctrine: "Rule through the fear of force, rather than force itself."
    • Leia invokes this trope just before Alderaan is destroyed:
      Princess Leia: The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.
    • The kicker? Alderaan was a Core World known for artisans, philosophers, rich traditions, was respected by many interplanetary governments across the Galaxy, and was one of the founding worlds of the previous Galactic Republic and a prominent member of the Galactic Empire. Tarkins' destruction of Alderaan definitely sealed the Empire's fate. Palpatine was shocked when he heard of what Tarkin did, he had agreed to have the Death Stars' Superlaser fired upon a world as a demonstration of its destructive power; but he didn't think that Tarkin would use it on such an important Core World. Anger over the atrocity sent a lot of neutral worlds and a fair number of Imperial worlds over to the Rebel Alliance. Nascent rebellions on other worlds, instead of being cowed into fear, figured "Screw it! If we're dead anyway, might as well die for a reason!" The fragmented rebellion now had an atrocity to rally behind and unite them, and a ton of Ex-Imperial officers and pissed-off Alderaanian expats automatically signed up; looking to avenge their lost world and families. Nice Job Breaking It, Tarkin! Even better; one of those Alderaanians was the head gunner of the Death Star's main weapon. As Leia says in the Star Wars Radio Dramas:
      Princess Leia: Tarkin, if ever there was a shred of humanity in you or these twisted creatures of yours, it's dead now. You're at war with life itself.
    • In this case, it's a subversion of an invocation. The Empire has the trope written into their laws, but the Empire fell, so it's a subversion. However, Machiavelli's real statement was right, as fear of the Death Star might've worked, except it was destroyed, so the fear of the weapon turned to hate about the atrocity, and "in any event it is vital to avoid being hated, since if you are hated people will be willing to suffer just to oppose you" (or if you prefer, "Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering"). This perfectly describes how this starts to bite the Empire in the rear, and this leads to a parallel two episodes later. Before the Death Star 1, they have a few squadrons of fighters opposing them; when they try to rebuild the Death Star a few years later in Episode VI, they find an entire armada waiting.
    • When Palpatine returns and attempts to once more rule the galaxy through fear (by means of an entire fleet of Star Destroyers capable of blowing up planets), the remnants of the Resistance are summarily joined in Exegol by civilian ships from across the entire galaxy, who do not stop fighting until every last Final Order ship in Exegol is destroyed. Apparently, you can only frighten people into submission for so long before they get sick of it.
  • In A Bronx Tale, the question "Is it better to be loved or feared?" is openly discussed between the young protagonist C and his mobster mentor Sonny. Sonny had read Machiavelli during a stint in jail and is well aware that the key thing is to not be hated... Unfortunately for Sonny, killing people tends to lead to their kin developing a hatred for the murderer.
  • In Alice in Wonderland (2010), the Red Queen debates the question of whether it is better to be feared or loved. She ultimately decides on fear, because love can be used against her. It turns out badly for her, however, because no sooner is the Jabberwock slain and she loses the one thing that lets her cause fear, her entire army refuses to support her any longer.
  • In Iron Man, during his demonstration of the Jericho missile, Tony Stark asks whether it is better to be feared or respected, answering his hypothetical question with, "I say, is it too much to ask for both?" Later, after he escapes the Ten Rings with his prototype Iron Man armor (and realizes that his own weapons were being sold to America's enemies), he takes the side of "respect" and makes plans to steer Stark Industries away from the arms business.
  • This quite aptly describes the difference between Vito and Michael Corleone in The Godfather. Vito built his criminal empire with an equal mixture of fear and respect, Michael doesn't quite seem to grasp that fear isn't all a Don needs and ends up in ruins.
  • The core message of X-Men: Apocalypse is that ruling through love (as represented by Professor X) is more effective than ruling through fear (as personified by Apocalypse) because the former inspires loyalty while the latter encourages betrayal. The X-Men win the Final Battle because they're united, unlike Apocalypse, who has no-one on his side in the end. This even forms the basis of Charles' Badass Boast when Apocalypse is about to "crush" his mind.
    Xavier: You will never win.
    Apocalypse: And why is that?
    Xavier: Because you're alone, and I am NOT!
  • Big Fat Liar: The film's lesson is that being a self-serving liar will not work out in the long run. After using a web of lies to get out of trouble, Jason is dumped into summer school when his parents and teacher don't believe him when he says that some Hollywood producer stole his homework. That producer, Marty Wolf, has spent his whole life being a lying, abusive jerk to his employees. When Jason plans one last glorious revenge scheme, all of his employees jump at the chance to do it. The specific moment when Wolf's secretary turns on him is when Wolf gets Jason arrested, despite Jason helping him out.
  • Rope: Played with. This is a rare variety where the proverbial "Machiavelli" himself admits he was wrong. Rupert has always felt distant toward his other people, and has tried to cope with it through rhetoric about how murder is an art form that only the few should be allowed to practice. But when he finds that his own student was pointlessly murdered by his two other students inspired by that rhetoric, it turns his stomach and proves to him that no one has the right to decide who lives and who dies.

  • A big part of why villains in A Practical Guide to Evil tend to fail. Not only do hated oppressors have a harder time governing, they produce stronger and more numerous Named opponents. While Black is a brilliant tactician and Malicia is an equally brilliant politician, the real reason that they have done as well as they have is because they have worked to improve quality of life rather than just intimidate their followers through force of arms.
  • Made blatantly obvious in Harry Potter, and the contrast between Harry and Voldemort. Voldemort also suffers the adverse effects of this.
    • Dumbledore's philosophy of love and trust clashes with a number of his actions that are very manipulative. His manipulations often cause more harm than good, which he acknowledges, for example at the end of Order of the Phoenix.
    • A more subtle, yet direct example, would be the Malfoy family, particularly Narcissa, who betrays Voldemort to save her son in Deathly Hallows.
  • Played With in Discworld:
    • Lord Havelock Vetinari acknowledges that you don't have to be feared or loved... just irreplaceable. Although anyone claiming to be unafraid of him is either lying, insane or Captain Carrot.
    • Several villains show that Vetinari Job Security isn't foolproof either: occasionally the ruler will be presented with an adversary who is too stupid to be afraid of him and too stupid to understand the consequences that getting rid of him would have. It is mentioned in Feet of Clay that no-one sane has ever tried to kill Vetinari, but a lot of people have tried and keep trying.
  • Extensively examined but never explicitly mentioned in The Bartimaeus Trilogy in the relationship between Bartimaeus and Nathaniel, and the contrast between it and the relationship Bartimaeus had with his former master Ptolemy. Also near the end their relationship improves significantly, mostly because Nathaniel starts treating him with the respect Bartimaeus deserves. He even compares Nathan to Ptolemy near the end. In fact, in the end, Nathaniel sacrifices himself to save Bartimaeus, something unthinkable for most magicians.
  • In The Phantom of the Opera (Gaston Leroux's novel, at least), Christine has to choose between Erik, who loves her but uses fear to control her, and Raoul. Love proves a stronger motivator than fear... which means Erik simply has to resort to the Scarpia Ultimatum... The musical version emphasizes the differences between Christine's suitors. Compare "Music of the Night", sung by the Phantom, where love is dark and controlling, to Raoul's love song "All I Ask of You", where love is bright, liberating and a duet with the reciprocating Christine rather than a solo in which she is silent and passive.
  • This is actually averted by The Prince itself, especially if one subscribes to the school of thought that sees the work as a scathing satire against monarchical societies masquerading as a guide on how they should be run.
  • In Frankenstein, the creature only becomes monstrous after trying unsuccessfully to find someone who will love him.
    Frankenstein's Monster: If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear.
  • Star Wars Legends:
    • The Thrawn Trilogy: Grand Admiral Thrawn understands the distinction, but also adds to it the difference between fear and respect. He doesn't execute underlings for failings that are not their fault; he's lethally stern but not murderous, and he commands his men more through respect than either fear or love. That said, he also is entirely willing to use terror tactics against the Nogrhi, and uses mind control on his own men without remorse.
    • X-Wing Series: Lara turns after realizing that all the important parts of the Empire are just that bad. It's mentioned that TIE pilots are kept in a constant state of paranoia so they can be loosed on the enemy.
  • Played With in Dune: the Harkonnens clearly ruled Arrakis through fear and Duke Leto capitalized on that by portraying himself as a far kinder ruler to gain the people's love and adoration. Not that it did him any good when his popularity aroused the other Houses' jealousy and the Harkonnens invaded and re-captured the planet. And the Baron's Batman Gambit to pacify the populace of Arrakis after recapturing it—letting his least favorite nephew Rabban rule Arrakis as cruel despot, so that his favorite Feyd would be more welcomed when he takes over—was straight out of The Prince, and might have worked had Paul not provoked the Fremen into going on a Jihad.
  • British statesman Lord Chesterfield wrote in Letters to His Son: "a private man who can hurt but few, though he can please many, must endeavor to be loved, for he cannot be feared in general." - "But this truth from long experience I assert, that he who has the most friends and the fewest enemies, is the strongest; will rise the highest with the least envy; and fall, if he does fall, the gentlest, and the most pitied." (letter 181 and 184)
  • A Song of Ice and Fire:
    • The Lannisters, who rule primarily by fear, are despised by the smallfolk. On the other hand, the smallfolk completely adore the Tyrells (with Princess Classic Margaery as The Face), who spend time with them, hand out food donations and the like. Renly Baratheon, who was fostered by the Tyrells, had a similar philosophy in his brief campaign to become king and thus had a lot of support among the peasantry.
    • Sansa also comes to this conclusion after spending time with paranoid queen mother Cersei.
      Sansa: If I am ever queen, I will make them love me.
    • Then there are the various Northern Houses, who love their liege lords the Starks. They loved the Stark family so much that they, lord and commoner alike, are prepared to march through blizzards or bone-chilling cold in a state of near starvation, or keep on fighting even when all hope is faded, for the sake of the Starks. Even after being usurped by the Boltons, the North would not bend the knee to them, and House Manderly are conspiring against the Boltons to bring the Starks back as liege lords. It's made clear several times that Ned Stark inspired this level of loyalty not through a cynical PR effort like the Tyrells but through an earned reputation for scrupulous justice, even if you were on the sharp end of it.
    • Stannis himself was able to walk the fine line between respected and disliked. He isn't the most charming individual, and is willing to use a religion that encourages fanaticism to its followers. Still he has a strict code of honor, and always listens to his advisors who give him reasonable and pragmatic advice. When Night Watch call for help against the Wildlings, and the Others, he is only one who heeds their call and make his way to North. Eventually he starts a campaign in conquering the North from the Boltons, and this results in several Northern houses to pledge their aid to him, as they consider him to be a better option than the sadistic Boltons.
  • In Wings of Fire, adult dragons around the main characters are always telling them that dragons have no empathy, especially for other tribes. The dragonets themselves don't follow this, and it leads to them being able to escape from their guardian Kestrel by working together, something she never accounted for. This is also shown in terms of the queens — Burn loses support in the civil war quickly despite being the presumed rightful heir with the largest initial base of support, while Blaze and Glacier's side have no trouble gaining loyal supporters despite their respective flaws.
  • The Malwa Empire in the Belisarius Series depends on fear and oppression in order to rule, as the superhuman artificial intelligence guiding them, Link, has no use for compassion or any similar emotion, thinking them pointless. Belisarius, on the other hand, while ruthless when he has to be on the battlefield, uses kindness and mercy with as much efficiency and effectiveness as he does sword and lance. In the end, what brings the Malwa and Link down isn't Belisarius's brilliance on the battlefield; it's the alliance he's built up through acts of kindness, trust, and uniting people for the greater good.
  • A secondary Aesop to the chapters of Uncle Tom's Cabin set on Simon Legree's plantation is that rule by fear stops working when the tyrant fails to break a subject's spirit. Legree is unable to destroy Tom's faith and character, and Tom supplies a desperately-needed ray of hope for the rest of Legree's slaves.
  • Deconstructed in How a Realist Hero Rebuilt the Kingdom. Protagonist Souma Kazuya was a humanities undergrad before being Trapped in Another World as the King of Elfrieden—previously ruled by a king who was likable but no great master of rulership, before he betrothed the summoned hero Souma to his daughter and abdicated—and has extensively studied The Prince among other historical texts. His narration often quotes Machiavelli directly, including explaining the popular misunderstandings of its various theses and why Souma's actions are Truer to the Text and what makes them superior courses of action. In essence, this series argues that The Prince is a very good guide to rulership if you study it well enough to actually understand it properly: for example, "cruelties" are a useful tool, but you must wield them precisely, decisively, and rarely, as Souma does when he concludes the Civil War arc by having a remaining cabal of nobles who conspired against him extrajudicially killed by his secret service.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Band of Brothers:
    • This is presented by two different leaders. Winters clearly loves his Easy Company, treats his men well, and as such the soldiers respect him and would do anything for him. Speirs develops a reputation for being such a Badass that the soldiers in Easy fear him, but respect him because he gets the job done. Played with in that Speirs knows all about the chatter going on behind his back:
      Speirs: You want to know if they're true or not... the stories about me. Did you ever notice with stories like that, everyone says they heard it from someone who was there. But then when you ask that person, they say they heard it from someone who was there. It's nothing new, really. I bet if you went back two thousand years, you'd hear a couple of centurions standing around, yakking about how Tertius lopped off the heads of some Carthaginian prisoners.
      Lipton: Well, maybe they kept talking about it because they never heard Tertius deny it.
      Speirs: Well, maybe that's because Tertius knew there was some value to the men thinking he was the meanest, toughest son of a bitch in the whole Roman Legion.
    • Captain Sobel is not loved and more hated than feared, which Machiavelli warned against. He is unnecessarily harsh with his recruits, and a terrible commander to boot. He got his men lost in his first field training exercise because he couldn't read a damn map so he can't even claim that his jerkass behavior is justified by extreme competence.
  • In Breaking Bad Walter decides to stop cooking meth for his distributor Gus Fring, and Fring is asked by Mike why he doesn't directly threaten Walter to continue his work (either with the threat of exposing his identity as 'Heisenberg' to the DEA, or with good old-fashioned violence). Gus responds that fear is not a proper motivator in their business; instead, he finds far more success in playing to Walter's pride. But when Walt turns out to be too unpredictable and arrogant to control in this manner (able to manipulate Gus into a position where he's unable to kill him), Gus is forced to fall back on fear to keep him in line. Played straight all the same; when Gus threatens to murder Walt's family, and his children, it finally makes Walt desperate enough to take extreme measures in getting rid of him, leading to Gus's downfall.
  • Discussed in an episode of Due South, when a local Mafia don is going on about the importance of respect, Fraser mentions that he has known many men who thought they were respected, when in fact they were merely feared. And fears can be overcome.
  • In Farscape, Magnificent Bastard Scorpius takes care to reward his useful mooks (most particularly his eventual pseudo-Dragon Braca). Of course, they're still scared of him, because horrible things happen to his enemies and prisoners, but he's the lesser of several evils, and as a result his minions are very loyal indeed.
    • Which is exactly what The Prince advises: make it clear that everyone should be very careful to stay on your good side. The key mistake tyrants need to avoid is not having a good side to stay on.
  • Mal Reynolds of Firefly lives and dies by the idea that he can count on his crew and they can count on him.
    Mal: You've got all kinds o' learnin' and you made me look the fool without even trying. Yet here I am, with a gun to your head. That's 'cause I got people with me. People who trust each other, who do for each other, and ain't always lookin' for the advantage.
  • Game of Thrones:
    • This seems to be the general ethos of House Tyrell. Loras thinks Renly would make a good king because the smallfolk like him and he would rule through love and respect rather than through strength and fear. In a case of Informed Attribute, the minute the North and Riverlands hear of his claim, they denounce Renly for usurping Stannis on the line of succession, and declare Robb Stark King in the North. Margaery tries this in Season 3 with the people of King's Landing by being kind and generous to the poor, causing them to adore her. This makes them a foil to the Lannisters, who are utterly ruthless and will trample over anybody if it means getting more power for the family, to the extent where it ultimately works against the Lannisters because everyone hates them and the Tyrells are quickly growing powerful enough to rival them. By Season 4 they marry into the royal family. However, come Season 7, several of their bannermen, including Lord Randall Tarly, their most loyal bannerman, turn against them and support Cersei Lannister out of xenophobia because Daenerys Targaryen has come with an army of foreigners. Highgarden, their seat, is burned, and their line is ended. It is rather convoluted writing, though.
    • Played With with Roose Bolton. Roose understands that ruling only through fear and tyranny is a good way to get people to rise up against you. Especially since the only reason he is Warden of the North at all is because he usurped the senior House Stark, and other noble houses in the North still hold allegiance to them. Tyranny only works if you have the numbers to back up your threats.
      Roose: We can't hold the North with terror alone.
    • Of course, averted entirely by Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish, who routinely demonstrates the virtues and rewards of cold-blooded social climbing, scheming, betrayal, carefully-timed assassination and exploiting others' crises to further his own position. Until Season 7 when his devil's luck runs out, he's caught out with no friends or exits and he's executed by the Stark sisters.
  • House of the Dragon: Discussed Trope by Ruling Couple Rhaenyra and Daemon in the episode "Driftmark". Daemon (like Machiavelli himself) councils that it's best to be loved and feared. They decide that leading people to think they're more murderous than they actually are by way of Faking the Dead is a good idea.
    Rhaenyra: I will not be a tyrant and rule through terror.
    Daemon: A tyrant rules only through terror. If the king isn't feared, he is powerless. If you are to be a strong queen, you must cultivate love and respect, yes, but your subjects must fear you.
    Rhaenyra: [...] The realm will whisper that I was somehow responsible.
    Daemon: Let them whisper. We will know the truth of it, and our enemies won't.
    Rhaenyra: They will fear what else we might be capable of.
  • In Kings, Vesper Abbadon advises Silas that it is better to be feared than loved. Later he tells David that it is better to be loved than feared.
  • Discussed in the Parks and Recreation episode "Article Two". Ron and Chris attempt an experiment to see how their respective leadership styles affect Jerry's work performance. Ultimately, Chris' positive attitude actually causes Jerry to file fewer folders ("He was so happy when you told him he was doing a great job that he spent 20 minutes on the phone telling Gayle about it.") However, after being intimidated by Ron, Jerry was such a mess that he made many more mistakes.
  • SeaQuest DSV invokes this multiple times. At one point, Captain Bridger scolds Lucas Wolenczak for even quoting Machiavelli on his ship.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Generally held out in BattleTech.
    • Rulers who are oppressively authoritarian are usually end up hobbling their nation as a result, such as Hohiro Kurita I, whose "Dragon Renewal" policies ended up crippling his industrial base so hard that the Draconis Combine was a hotbed of depression, dissent, and crappy workmanship for decades after his assassination. By contrast, more even-handed rulers such as Katrina Steiner (the properly named one circa 3009, not her granddaughter who took her name) ended up with a strong popular support base and thriving market economies (some estimates say up to triple the GDP of their neighbors in the Combine).
    • An even better example exists in Malvina Hazen and her control of Clan Jade Falcon, along with her interpretation of the Mongol Doctrine—that is, terrify enemies with overwhelming force and sheer barbaric depravity. While it worked in some cases, encourging some planets to surrender out of fear, it also caused rebellions to constantly crop up by people who felt they had nothing left to lose and for Jade Falcon to be hated by everyone on a scale not seen since the Word of Blake Jihad. By the time Malvina was finally put down, Jade Falcon had nearly annihilated itself, and ultimtely ended up subordinate to their hated rivals Clan Wolf.
  • Warhammer 40,000:
    • Konrad Curze's philosophy was that terror was the only way to create order and peace, and practiced it on his own homeworld by leaving the disemboweled corpses of gang bosses and corrupt nobles on display. Much to his regret, as soon as he was no longer around to dismember rapists and murderers, Nostramo slipped back into the same Wretched Hive he had fought against. Meanwhile, the Ultramarines under Roboute Guilliman, who wished to be respected and showed their people respect in turn, built a thriving kingdom of proud but good-hearted citizens.
      Kurze: There was no other way.
      Sevatar: Oh? What other ways did you try?
    • His brother Fulgrim, as shown in Fulgrim: The Palatine Phoenix knew that using fear would never work as fear would lead to resentment and then open rebellion. Therefore he used his cunning mind and natural people skills to cultivate Chemos from a dying Mining World to a thriving, self-sufficient Civilized planet without shedding a drop of blood. In one scene, Fulgrim, a 9-10 foot tall man clad in armor actually helps a victim to his feet to show that Fulgrim is someone to be trusted.

    Video Games 
  • Used pretty sensibly in City of Heroes with the Alternate Universe Praetorian Earth, in which all the named heroes are instead Machiavellian fascists, and in the America Korps Alternate Universe where the evil twins to the heroes are instead Nazis. The Big Bads Tyrant and Reichsman are individually a perfect match for Big Good Statesman, but the lesser heroes easily overcome their evil counterparts; the Big Bad intentionally sabotaged their training so they didn't become threats to his leadership.
  • Taking the Open Palm Path in Jade Empire lets you throw this one right in the face of the Big Bad. Sun Li knocks out your party and traps you in a mind prison. You summon your friends to help fight off the demons of doubt and fear...even Sagacious Zu, who gave his life in a Heroic Sacrifice at the 2/3 mark of the story. After breaking out, Sun Li is left scraping his jaw off the floor — eat it, "Glorious Strategist" Closed Fist characters can get through just the same, but if they've killed their party members in order to steal the Water Dragon's power, they'll have more demons of doubt to fight, and thus a more difficult time.
  • While the Machiavelli seen in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood never actually states any beliefs like this outside of mild cynicism, it is shown that the Borgia's reign of oppression has no chance against Ezio's more enlightened perspective. He does however openly criticize their methods, so they clearly didn't read his book — which may have been due to the fact that it was written fifteen years after the game's start and quite a few events of the game obviously inspire him to turn his worldview around and write the actual The Prince rather than The Theme Park Version. In fact, Machiavelli implies that the subject of The Prince is actually Ezio, not Cesare, and exemplifies its true message: while the Borgias are hated tyrants, Ezio is feared and loved by the people of Rome, and welcomes every Assassin recruit with the statement, "The liberation of Rome has begun."
  • Total War:
    • Subverted in Total War: Shogun 2, where a ruler's ability to rule is determined by the Repression Rating and must enact harsh policies to maintain authorities (such as sword hunts to disarm the rebellious population for example). No bread and circuses here folks or noble in rule traits.
    • Played straight in Medieval II: Total War. Chivalrous generals (ones that fight fairly, release prisoners, keep taxes low and city happiness high etc) give cities a bonus to happiness and population growth when they're stationed in them, and they give a morale bonus to troops when on the battlefield. Dreaded generals (ones that hire assassins, raises taxes, execute prisoners etc) give a public order bonus in cities, but it's just not as effective.
  • Mass Effect 3: Paragon Shepard, who relies upon playing fair, being friendly, earning respect, and giving everyone a fair shake, tends to accumulate a lot more War Assets than Renegade Shepard, who's a down-and-dirty ruthless bastard who tends to default to intimidation and violence. Mostly because gathering War Assets tends to involve ringing up everyone who ever owed you a favor and calling it in, and most of the people Renegade Shepard deals with are laid up with a bad case of dead.
  • In Dragon Age II, your companions get bonuses of different kinds depending on whether they like you or not, based on a sliding friendship-rivalry meter. Usually (but not always) the more useful bonus is on the Friendship end of the scale. Also, if you don't get the right companions into the right areas on the meters, you might wind up having to kill some of them in the endgame.
  • Pokémon:
    • The cheapest medicinal items, labeled as Bitter, hurt your Pokémon's Happiness points. So much for getting that Espeon (which evolves via level-up during the day only when it is extremely devoted to you), but if you love your Pokémon, you'll pay a bit more money to buy the medicine that doesn't taste bad. (Except for the Max Revive, which can't be bought save for the Bitter variety. Tough call?)
    • One attack (Frustration) does more damage the less the mon likes you. It's generally considered one of the least useful moves in the game, while the attack that does more damage the more the mon likes you (Return) is a good backup move.
  • Transformers:
    • In the Transformers: Prime prequel Transformers: War for Cybertron, Sentinel Prime, Optimus Prime's direct predecessor, is a cold, harsh leader who dismisses Megatron's revolt as insignificant and thinks nothing of throwing troops at the Decepticons despite heavy losses. As a result, Autobot forces will break and run fairly often. In the sequel Transformers: Fall of Cybertron, Optimus Prime's A Father to His Men tendencies inspire them to fight to the death for him, some troops even wanting desperately to go back into the fight despite grievous wounds.
    • Ironically, despite being a rather Bad Boss (his first cutscene involves him blasting a soldier who questioned him), the Decepticons genuinely admire Megatron for being the sort of leader who will march at the head of his troops into battle.
  • In Metal Slug, this is why the Rebel Army are so fanatically loyal to their boss, General Morden, and why they keep fighting even after getting slaughtered countless times by the Peregrine Falcons. As he was A Father to His Men during his days in the Regular Army as a Vice Admiral, they all followed him out of sheer loyalty when he defected from the army over the death of his son.
  • Civilization: Beyond Earth Rising Tide has two Relationship Values between other civilizations and yours, Fear and Respect. Respect is gained by doing things the other civilization likes, such as keeping your populace healthy or having a strong trade network, while Fear is gained by having a stronger military and encroaching on the other's territory. A sufficiently high value of either is needed to establish a cooperation agreement or alliance, but a civilization constantly pushed to high Fear levels will eventually snap and declare war.
    • Notably, having max Respect and Fear at the same time gives you the "The Prince" achievement.
  • In Horizon Zero Dawn, Sylens admonishes Aloy about the "folly" of Trust and that mutual interest is a far better framework of alliance. However, after all his usage, disposal, and betrayal of people... he is alone, and he himself was betrayed. Meanwhile, Aloy has earned the adulation, trust, and loyalty of many within the Nora Sacred Lands and Carja Sundom, culminating in her winning the day at the Battle of The Alight with all those aforementioned rallying to her, succeeding at cleaning up Sylens's mess as well.

    Web Comics 
  • Mob Psycho 100: Shigeo Kageyama is a 14-year-old boy with psychic powers. He chooses not to hurt others with his psychic powers, even his enemies, because it is against his morals. He tries to win a battle with another enemy rationally until he gets pressurized to aggression, but that is rare for him. In battle, the emotions he displays at 100% are mostly positive emotions, like confidence, gratitude, friendship and trust.
    • ONE goes out of his way to illustrate that those who attempt to control others by means of fear, force, blackmail, etc. can never hold up against those who work together willingly as friends and comrades. For instance, Hiroshi Shibata is an angry, brutish man whose Esper power turns him into a Hulk expy. However, even with the obscene power he can call upon, Shibata is unable to overcome the combined strength of Mob's friends, the hard-working and forthright Musashi Goroh and the weird, impish but otherwise well-meaning Dimple, as they seek to protect their friend from Shibata's abuse.

    Web Original 

    Western Animation 
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender: Azula believes "fear is the only reliable way" to control people, and it always works for her. Then Mai turns around and betrays her because she loves Zuko. Ten seconds later, Ty Lee also betrays her to save Mai from Azula's retribution. Azula considered both Mai and Ty Lee to be her "best friends" (read: the ones most under her control), and their betrayal out of love for others leads directly to her Villainous Breakdown.
    Azula: The thing I don't understand is why? Why would you do it? You know the consequences.
    Mai: I guess you just don't know people as well as you think you do. You miscalculated. I love Zuko more than I fear you.
    Azula: No, you miscalculated! You should have feared me more!
  • Somewhat of a subtle overtone in Beast Wars. While The Power of Love is a huge part of why the Predacon Black Arachnia eventually defects to the heroic Maximals, another major reason was the fact that Megatron (despite being a Magnificent Bastard) is a firm believer in keeping his troops in line through fear. For someone as free-spirited as Black Arachnia, Megatron's desire for absolute control chafed.
  • Transformers: Prime plays with this; Megatron's violent insanity and callous disregard for the lives of his own men means he maintains command of the Decepticons almost entirely through fear and Soundwave. However, the problems in this are rife, as the Starscream is only the most prominent The Starscream in his crew; if Soundwave wasn't around or didn't intervene on Megatron's behalf, the rest of the Decepticons would turn on Megatron in an instant if he were ever incapacitated. That said, many Decepticons (such as Skyquake and Shockwave) remain loyal to Megatron even after long absences.
  • In Ed, Edd n Eddy, Eddy tries to "rule" the cul-de-sac with respect, but on occasion he's resorted to fear (see: the episode where he lies and tells everyone that his brother's coming home). It doesn't really work because everyone knows he's a greedy Jerkass, which results in him (as well as the other Eds) being the local punching bags. Eddy's brother is much more successful at this, as shown in the previously mentioned episode, though he's an astronomical Jerkass far beyond anything Eddy ever did. This trope kicks in in the movie when the kids see how badly Eddy's brother treats him, as well as Eddy apologizing for acting like a jerk, which finally wins him the respect of the other children and sees his brother getting some well-deserved comeuppance.
  • Inverted in the "Justice Lords" episodes of Justice League. In the alternate world where the Flash died and the Justice League became an authoritarian force, the populace were in fear of the Justice Lords. Even Hawkgirl brings up the fact that nobody seemed to like them anymore. However, while the world is not exactly paradise, the Justice Lords do have things under control much better than the Justice League. In the end, they are defeated when one of their own, Justice Lord Batman betrays them because they rule through fear and tyranny.
  • Star Wars Rebels has Rex, a veteran of the Clone Wars from Star Wars: The Clone Wars, dismiss the Stormtroopers as inferior to the Clone Troopers of his era. A big part of that is the fact that the Clones were taught to fight and support each other in battle, while episodes of Rebels establish that Stormtroopers are specifically trained to only care for themselves.
  • In the final episode of Samurai Jack, this trope is played very straight when Aku tries to crush the hopes of any would-be resistance by broadcasting Jack's execution on television. It has the opposite result he intended, with an army of Jack's allies assaulting his palace in a Roaring Rampage of Rescue. That said, because only Jack's sword can harm him, Aku is still a One-Man Army against them.

    Real Life 
  • Stalin in the Soviet Union actually pulled this off near perfectly, being simultaneously adored via his cult of personality while terrifying his subordinates. Many people executed during the Terror died with Stalin's name on their lips, professing their loyalty (either in the belief this might save them, or in denial that Stalin was actually responsible). Molotov, Stalin's second-in-command who likely was soon to be purged himself (and he knew it), nonetheless wept at Stalin's deathbed.
    • There is however a story that this led to an ironic death: his aides and staff were so scared of him that nobody was willing to go wake him up when he was "oversleeping" one day. Turns out he had suffered a stroke, one that might not have been fatal if he had been discovered sooner rather than left alone on the floor for hours. That, or they just outright lied about it, and pretty much let him die. It's also claimed by some he may have been poisoned, and if so that means someone was desperate enough to risk being caught for the chance of killing him.
  • The success of Cyrus the Great is attributed to the fact that (unlike most emperors, especially the Assyrians whom he conquered) he wasn't a dick to the citizenry (the opposite in fact). He was revered by the Jews for letting them (among other people forced into exile from their country by the Babylonians) to return home. It became a kind of tradition among Persian emperors. Cyrus is also known to history for mostly abolishing slavery in the empire (the exception being any captured soldiers).
  • This can play out in any popular uprising against a dictator who ruled through fear, but becomes more hated than respected.
  • Avoided with the books written by the titular Niccolň Machiavelli - unlike characters this trope is about, Machiavelli thought that the most important thing is to avoid hatred, and that the most effective way to remain in power is to use both fear and love - like most great rulers did. The Prince was mostly about means to avoid assassination, all too common in Italian city-states of the time, assuming it was ever meant to be good advice rather than political satire.
  • Frederick the Great actually wrote an essay called the Anti-Machiavel shortly before ascending to the throne of Prussia. He quickly had it translated and then spread throughout Europe as fast as he could. Modern speculation goes that he was concerned with the "arm the loyal peasants" portion of The Prince, as Prussia was mostly maintained by the rather thorough oppression of the lower classes.
  • During World War I the Italian commander-in-chief Luigi Cadorna ruled his troops with harsh discipline, unnecessary punishments, and the threat of being gunned down by the barrier troops if they didn't attack, the only exception being the Carabinieri (military police, who were acting as said barrier troops) and the Third Army (led by the Duke of Aosta, a relative of the king, second in the line of succession and A Father to His Men). When the Austro-Hungarians broke through at the Battle of Caporetto, the soldiers of the Second Army shot their officers, routed the Carabinieri and started retreating, discussing whether to start the revolution then and there or just return home and transforming the defeat in a Curb-Stomp Battle, with the Third Army forced to retreat before being surrounded. To better drive home the point, when Cadorna was replaced with Armando Diaz (a pupil of the Duke of Aosta, and A Father to His Men like him), the soldiers (who during the retreat had also seen Italian civilians running from the invaders) stopped retreating and stopped the invasion cold, while the First Army, that included forces raised from local populations and was supported by enough artillery to realize Cadorna was a Well-Intentioned Extremist (and was less tormented by the Carabinieri for that), resisted.
  • This was the end of the Brigate Rosse (Red Brigades) terrorist group: feared enough that one man could rob a bank by walking in and telling the director he was from the Red Brigades (to this day it's unknown if it was a bluff from a lone robber or an actual member of the Brigades), their murder of popular right-wing politician Aldo Moro alienated them from both parts of their left-wing support base and their own founders (who had been already caught and convicted years before), who provided the police and the Carabinieri with the information they needed to track down and arrest numerous members of the Brigades and cut off some of their sources of revenue. Their reprisal murders that targeted, among others, a popular leftist union leader, only caused further hatred and even defections from members that had grown to despise the Brigades' indiscriminate violence more than they hated the Italian government, and the Italian magistrates (who offered lowered sentences and protection to any defectors and kept their word) and police forces were finally able to dismantle the previously unassailable organization thanks to the defectors' information.
  • The contrasting fates of the chimpanzee brothers Freud and Frodo are an example of this. Freud built good relationships with the other chimpanzees (although he could be tough too) and when he was unseated as the alpha male, he was able to go into retirement as a middle-ranking male and lived to a ripe old age. Frodo was a large and aggressive chimpanzee who ruled by fear. He was violently unseated when he became ill and was then largely isolated, eventually dying of an infected bite wound to his groin.


Video Example(s):


The Destruction of Alderaan

Tarkin overestimated the effectiveness of his Tarkin Doctrine to command the Galaxy through Fear.

How well does it match the trope?

4.93 (14 votes)

Example of:

Main / MachiavelliWasWrong

Media sources: