Let's suppose the title question applies especially (but not exclusively) in the context of a leadership role (where the goal is to sustain power) and for simplicity let's say the choice is strictly binary. What advantages and disadvantages does fostering each feeling offer in keeping power according to political philosophers?

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    Is the goal just to sustain power, with no other goal to speak of? Can you specify what you mean by "power," beause there's many different metrics people will use, all of which are called "power," but which can have greatly different answers here.
    – Cort Ammon
    May 3 '18 at 23:19
  • @CortAmmon I'm afraid I cannot specify what I mean by «power» (understand the term it in its broadest sense). I really do not wish for us to get caught up in semantics as a preamble, typical of philosophers.
    – useranonis
    May 3 '18 at 23:35
  • Then you put people in a difficult bind. You ask for a discrete binary answer for a question which is not phrased in a clear way. Much of the fun of philosophy (for me at least) is in exploring how to clarify the question. Often we realize the question wasn't actually the question we wanted to ask in the first place.
    – Cort Ammon
    May 3 '18 at 23:49
  • Consider that, in the real world, these emotions are not exclusive. "Respect" is a word which captures elements from both emotions, and is sought by virtually all leaders I know of.
    – Cort Ammon
    May 3 '18 at 23:50
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    @MichaelK, that actually is power: they can do more than an average person. The problem is that some leaders do not feel their responsibility for their actions. Even more, being in power no way contradicts being in office or on post.
    – rus9384
    May 4 '18 at 14:45

The question was made famous by Machiavelli's Prince, where he also provided the answer:

"The answer is that one would like to be both one and the other; but because it is difficult to combine them, it is far better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both... So, on this question of being loved or feared, I conclude that since some men love as they please but fear when the prince pleases, a wise prince should rely on what he controls, not on what he cannot control. He must only endeavor, as I said, to escape being hated."

Machiavelli's position is motivated by his dim view of human nature ("One can make this generalization about men: they are ungrateful, fickle, liars, and deceivers, they shun danger and are greedy for profit") and psychological observations about influencing human behavior ("fear is strengthened by a dread of punishment which is always effective"). Bismarck, the unifier of Germany, declared in the same spirit in a speech from 1862:

"The position of Prussia in Germany will not be determined by its liberalism but by its power... Not through speeches and majority decisions will the great questions of the day be decided... but by iron and blood (Eisen und Blut)".

Russian poet Tyutchev responded romantically:

"From Lord's chalice overflowing with wrath The blood pours over the edge, and the West is drowning. The blood will gush on you as well, our friends and brothers! — Pull closer together, the Slavic world… “Unity, proclaimed the Oracle of our days, — Can only be soldered with iron and blood…” But we will try to solder it with love, — And we shall see what’s stronger…"

Alas, the Slavic world saw it soon enough, the hard way. But even Machiavelli already noted limitations of force and fear, for even they can be overcome by intense enough hate. This sentiment is seconded by a Spanish proverb anecdotally attributed to another political cynic mentoring a ruler, Talleyrand to Napoleon:"Sire, you may lean on the bayonets, but you can not sit on them!"

From modern perspective, Machiavelli perhaps underestimated,understandably for his simpler times, the possibilities of mental manipulation on a mass scale, which can instill "love" just as readily as fear. That realization was left to dystopias, like Orwell's 1984, the Nazi propaganda minister Goebbels and his communist counterparts. If we accept Machiavelli's core thesis, that a ruler should rely on what he controls, but take into account the last century's achievements in propagandistic brainwashing, with its more lasting effects and reduced resentments, we should probably take "love" over fear. But practitioners of such "love" never neglected fear either, as Orwell describes it:

"A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledgehammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one's will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic."

  • I wanted to present this is in a very similar manner, but looks like you already did it very well. As a general conclusion: human nature is destructive, so it will respond better to fear.
    – Overmind
    May 4 '18 at 5:11
  • @Overmind, it all boils down to how you treat humans.
    – rus9384
    May 4 '18 at 8:58
  • If you treat them naturally, you'll have to resort to a baseball bat way more often than to nice words.
    – Overmind
    May 4 '18 at 9:50
  • @Conifold I'm not pleased with the addendum to my question according to political philosophers. My intention was to bear witness to original insights from each contributor, not classical (and often outdated) knowledge I could've consulted myself.
    – useranonis
    May 4 '18 at 11:50
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    @useranonis Unfortunately, your intention conflicts with the policies of this site, questions soliciting personal opinions of users are considered off-topic. Without the change the question would have been closed as "primarily opinion-based", there are still 3 votes to close it for that reason, with 5 needed.
    – Conifold
    May 5 '18 at 20:14

Since Machiavelli has quite naturally come up (se sia meglio esser temuti piuttosto che amati) let's develop his line of thought. Machiavelli does not address this question in isolation but in the context of his concept of human nature informed as usual by reflection on Roman history and the Medici.

Human nature is also depraved and short sighted. 'As is demonstrated by all those who consider the well-ordered state - and history is full of examples - it is necessary for him who lays out a republic and arranges laws in it to presuppose that all men are evil and they will always act with the wickedness of their spirits whenever they have the chance.' For Machiavelli, human wickedness is a consistent axiom that informs all of his analyses.

The certainty of selfishness is not only something a lawgiver should bear in mind in a republican context but also equally central to the maintenance of princely governments. In II Principe, Machiavelli observes that princes should not always practise the traditional virtues because they are an ethical code that invites self-destruction in a world of permanently self-interested citizens. He concludes that it is better to be feared than loved 'because we can say this generally about men: they are ungrateful, fickle, simulators and dissimulators, shirkers of danger, eager for gain ... [and] because love is held by a chain of duty which, since men are bad, they break at every chance for their own profit, but fear is held by a fear of punishment that never abandons you'. The conviction of permanent human weakness is central to the Istorie florentine, the Capitolo dell ambizione and La Mandragola.

Because men never do good except by necessity, fear becomes a crucial element in the proper configuration of the city. Machiavelli argues that the tyranny of the Tarquins had the beneficial effect of keeping the nobility humble, since they feared the Tarquins and therefore had to respect the people, who might not take the noble's side if treated badly. The people realised this only after the expulsion of the Tarquins. Since the people no longer had a powerful ally, the nobles were no longer compelled to respect them and spat 'out against the people the poison they had kept in their breasts, and injured them in any way they could'. In place of the expelled Tarquins, Rome needed an institution that the nobles would fear as much as they had Tarquinian autocracy - hence the creation of the Tribunes of the People, who not only had the power to forbid decrees by noble magistrates but also had the authority to have put to death anyone who obstructed the proper exercise of their office - in short, people whom the Roman nobles had very good reason to fear. Without such fear, they could always be counted on to rule according to destructive factional interests.

Machiavelli returns to the constitutive role of fear in his discussion of the importance of political renovation. By 'renovation', he refers to the process by which people's fear of transgressing the law is periodically re-established, and the most reliable process is draconian punishment, whether in ancient Rome or contemporary Florence. He praises the salutary effects on the Roman people of the republic's frequent use of the death penalty. In the Florentine example, Machiavelli notes that the Medici and their partisans often remarked that every five years they needed to retake the state or risk losing power. He then elaborates on the meaning of 'ripigliare': as the Mediceans used the term, it meant restoring that same sense of terror and fear in the people as they had initially inspired on first seizing the government. 'When the memory of such punishment disappears, men take courage to attempt innovations and to speak evil ...' John Najemy has argued that this passage parodies the concept of cycles, but nothing about it appears satirical - it is merely an extension of Machiavelli's frank recognition of the necessity of fear in a well-ordered state. (Mark Jurdjevic, 'Machiavelli's Hybrid Republicanism', The English Historical Review, Vol. 122, No. 499 (Dec., 2007), pp. 1238-9.)


Note that Machiavelli does not address his question to politics in a crude or blank way. He weaves it through a variety of situations. His answer, he thinks, namely that it is better to be feared than loved, applies to republics as well as to princedoms and to conditions both of stability and of renovation.


Mark Jurdjevic, 'Machiavelli's Hybrid Republicanism', The English Historical Review, Vol. 122, No. 499 (Dec., 2007), pp. 1228-1257.

J. M. Najemy, 'Machiavelli and the Medici: The Lessons of Florentine History', Renaissance Quarterly, xxxv (1982), 551-76.

L. Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli, Glencoe, 1958. (Don't be put off by the book's age; Strauss was an acute scholar whose work retains a good deal of value.)


If a ruler is to be loved by his people, then there would be a more sustainable community because if you love your ruler, you must love what he does, and therefore he is doing good with the community. If a ruler is feared, there would be a revolt in the people, sooner or later it must happen, that is how it has always happened. Yes, if you are loved by your people there can still be a few people that don't like you and want to harm you whether it be sabotage, physically, mentally, etc. But you have the majority on your side. Kindness = Key. Am I wrong?

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    I agree with portions of your answer. However, it isn't true that beloved rulers must be doing good with the community. Through the art of propaganda, a ruler can make people THINK he's doing good even as they're losing their shirts. Nor is it true that people inevitably revolt against rulers who are feared. Finally, while it's nice to have the majority on your side, it's often the minority that has the most power. May 5 '18 at 0:56

Your question is a good one, but there are several definitions that need to be clarified.

For a political ruler is it better to be loved or feared (hated?) [by whom?]?

It sounds like you mean better for the ruler rather than better for the people. But how do you define "better"? Are you simply asking which ruler has the better chance of staying in power, one who is loved vs one who is feared?

And did you really mean to say "loved or feared" or "loved and hated"? A ruler can be loved and feared at the same time.

Finally, loved or feared by whom? The majority of a ruler's subjects, or a minority that may hold even more power? What about foreign leaders?

In modern history, a number of countries have embraced socialism as an alternative to capitalism, which is commonly seen as a parasite on poor, developing countries. Salvador Allende was the first socialist elected president of a Latin American country. He obviously had popular support in his country, but he was hated by the West and soon wound up dead. He was replaced by a military junta led by Augusto Pinochet, who was a widely feared and hated tyrant. Yet Pinochet spent seventeen years in office and was never prosecuted for a wide variety of heinous crimes.

Salvador Allende's fate was shared by Patrice Lumumba, a socialist who became the first prime minister of the Republic of the Congo.

Under Muammar Gaddafi, Libya boasted the highest standard of living in Africa, but Gaddafi was reviled by the West, which eventually invaded and destroyed the country, murdering Gaddafi in the process.

George W. Bush was one of the most feared and hated presidents in American history. But he was beloved by the plutocrats he represented and served two terms in office.

In contrast, Obama was greeted as a conquering hero, largely because he was a Democrat who replaced a widely reviled Republican president. Yet Obama's policies were a virtual carbon copy of Bush's policies. Still, Obama served two terms, similar to Bush. Obama was loved by many citizens, including the very people his administration sold out.

So here we have two frighteningly corrupt and destructive presidents, one widely feared and hated by the people, while Obama enjoyed widespread support (though he was still feared and hated abroad), both of which were allowed two terms.

On the other hand, a corrupt leader who wants all the power might court the people rather than the plutocrats. Julius Caesar and Caligula were among the emperors who sought to downsize the Senate, at the same time appeasing the masses with entertainment or propaganda.

Towards the end of the Roman empire, authoritarian emperors found themselves at the mercy of the feared Praetorian Guard, who assassinated emperors with increasing frequency. So if a Roman emperor wanted to survive, who did he want to be loved by, the people or his bodyguard?

Politics can be awfully similar to a juggling act.

In summary, political leaders often have to walk a tightrope, appeasing 1) the majority, 2) a powerful minority and 3) other countries. They may even have to deal with more specific entities, like the Praetorian Guard or J. Edgar Hoover. If a modern leader wants to help the poor, boost literacy or protect the environment, he or she needs a powerful bulwark against the almost inevitable attacks that will come from the U.S.


You have stated in comments that you were not a fan of the edits made to bring the question more in line with Philosophy.SE's question formats. You say you want original insight. I think I can offer my insight on that question:

Your question is mu. It is a question that should be unasked.

  • There is no situation where one can be only loved or only feared. In all practical leadership situations, there are mixtures of both. Answers which focus on only these binary extremes do not necessarily say anything about what happens in the mixed situations which approach these extremes. At best, the answers are misleading because they only reference situations that cannot exist.
  • The stated goal of retaining power is a poor choice of goal without something else making this goal of retaining power rational. Only when one explores what one would do with that power is the discussion rational. However, we do not have such information. Whether to be loved or to be feared is the preferred solution depends on what one wishes to do with the power in the first place.

An answer to this question would not lead to making better decisions in life, due to its extreme phrasing. It is better to be unasked, and a less extreme question be asked instead.

  • I almost got the impression the question was rephrased in order to fit the specific answer you gave. About your second point: not all rulers behave rationally.
    – useranonis
    May 5 '18 at 20:57
  • @useranonis If the discussion is not rational, then justifications and reasons become less important, and extreme hypothetical become less useful for shaping peoples actions.
    – Cort Ammon
    May 5 '18 at 22:07

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