Therefore, putting on one side imaginary things concerning a prince, and discussing those which are real, I say that all men when they are spoken of, and chiefly princes for being more highly placed, are remarkable for some of those qualities which bring them either blame or praise; and thus it is that one is reputed liberal, another miserly, one is reputed generous, one rapacious; one cruel, one compassionate; one faithless, another faithful; one effeminate and cowardly, another bold and brave; one affable, another haughty; one lascivious, another chaste; one sincere, another cunning; one hard, another easy; one grave, another frivolous; one religious, another unbelieving, and the like. And I know that every one will confess that it would be most praiseworthy in a prince to exhibit all the above qualities that are considered good; but because they can neither be entirely possessed nor observed, for human conditions do not permit it, it is necessary for him to be sufficiently prudent that he may know how to avoid the reproach of those vices which would lose him his state; and also to keep himself, if it be possible, from those which would not lose him it; but this not being possible, he may with less hesitation abandon himself to them. – The Prince, Machiavelli
Machiavelli is saying that the qualities that society deems good or bad may be so, but no individual can be true to any of them. You can never be completely sincere or completely cunning. And if even if you somehow managed to do that, other people wouldn’t notice. Even if you were always sincere, others will think that you are probably not. What he advocates instead is the need for practicality. It’s not about thinking virtuously, it’s about getting results. Tasked with running a state, a prince must understand how to take advantage of his vices when the time calls for it.
And again, he need not make himself uneasy at incurring a reproach for those vices without which the state can only be saved with difficulty, for if everything is considered carefully, it will be found that something which looks like virtue, if followed, would be his ruin; whilst something else, which looks like vice, yet followed brings him security and prosperity. – The Prince, Machiavelli
There is no reason to feel guilty for doing this. Often, ‘no good deed goes unpunished’. Behaving in a way to please others, and to maintain your astute reputation among your peers, can result in your eventual ruin. Not only that, but if you are responsible for others, then your ‘virtue’ may ruin the lives of the people around you. And yet, if you acted capriciously, in a way that others consider evil, you may emerge as the hero.
Machiavelli focuses a lot on appearances, on how others perceive you. He is not saying that it is a bad thing to be virtuous, but that it is not a quality that can be advertised, and is thus ineffective. People will always doubt your intentions, no one will completely believe in your sincerity unless they are gullible.
This also reminds of the idea of the ‘greater good’ or the ‘lesser of two evils’. When you are young, it is difficult to understand these concepts. The world is black and white. People are either good or bad. But reality isn’t so. Billionaires may deceive, but they feed their families and thousands of other people. Politicians may dupe their constituents and each other, but they resolve major diplomatic tensions, and preserve security.
It is important to see both sides of every coin. It is not useful to bluntly categorize people or nations into good or evil. This oversimplification is the cause of many disputes going on today. One group yells to the other, and claims that they are pure and virtuous. The other sends back obscenities and then makes the same statement about themselves. This comical parody never ends.