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The following sentence is from Il Principe by Niccolò Machiavelli. What does this 'which' refer to in this sentence? And what does this sentence mean?

I thought this 'which' might refers to punishment, and this sentence might mean 'fear preserves you by a dread of non stopping punishment.

but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.

And also I'm happy if I find the way how to paraphrase this sentence.

...........

The following is the whole sentence.

And that prince who, relying entirely on their promises, has neglected other precautions, is ruined; because friendships that are obtained by payments, and not by greatness or nobility of mind, may indeed be earned, but they are not secured, and in time of need cannot be relied upon; and men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails. (source)

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  • Hi, welcome to ELL! I have edited your question and applied better formatting. This is a good question with an appropriate amount of details and context. +1
    – Eddie Kal
    Jan 31, 2021 at 20:11

2 Answers 2

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but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.

This line should be understood as

but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails you (or never fails to serve this purpose)

"Which" refers to the noun phrase immediately preceding it: a dread of punishment. Machiavelli is saying here that love is only maintained by obligation and can be easily broken if breaking it is to the advantage of the person claiming to love the prince. But fear is much more reliable because it instills in people fear of punishment, and that fear reliably helps keep people in line.

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  • Thanks for you answer. "which never fails your"....Is this correct to stop sentence with 'your' ? Do you mean 'which never fails you'?... that means ' you always remind people of punishment, and people will follow you because of your dreadful punishment'? Jan 31, 2021 at 20:56
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    @JapaneseEnglishteacher Nice catch. I actually edited that part several times and thus a typo was introduced. The prince should be feared, so people will think twice before offending the prince.
    – Eddie Kal
    Jan 31, 2021 at 21:01
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    Another translation uses wanes in the place of fails, which may throw a different light on it. Someone fluent in (16th century) Italian might have a view on this; for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity when their self-interest intervenes; but fear preserves you because a dread of punishment never wanes.” ianchadwick.com/machiavelli/chapters-15-21/… Jan 31, 2021 at 22:59
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    @RonaldSole Interesting, I think that is indeed more likely. Someone else posted another answer that they quickly deleted where they interpreted "fail" to mean "end". I think it is a valid reading, probably more so than mine.
    – Eddie Kal
    Jan 31, 2021 at 23:03
  • It's a shame that we no longer repeat the thing that "which" refers to, as they did in previous centuries: "...by a dread of punishment, which punishment never fails". So much clearer and more elegant.
    – John B
    Mar 4, 2021 at 19:49
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In a complex sentence: "Fear preserves you because a dread of punishment never wanes", "a dread of punisment" is the subject of a subordinate clause and therefore it is "a dread of punisment" that never wanes.

In a complex sentence: "Fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails", "which" is the subject of a subordinate relative clause that modifies "punishment". You may switch over from "which" to "that", i.e. "Fear preserves you by a dread of punishment that never fails" - "Fear preserves you by making you dread the punishment that never fails". A man dreads the inevitability of the Punishment.

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