The idea of a ruthless leader with the ability to focus on his "end" which justified the "means" appeared when facing instability and social disadvantage, assuming that people would bear cruelty (from just one leader, though!) in place of stability and economical prosperity. Even in modern times we have such examples.
Browsing through the pages of "Il Principe", it's fun to find some hints to what Nobunaga did and how he acted in certain periods of his life, making all those "historical jump" anime almost plausible.
First, a few excerpts related to the ability of governing people and keep the lands well administered, peculiarly fitting the behaviour of Nobunaga during his campaigns in Owari and Mino:
"Whenever those states which have been acquired as stated have been accustomed to live under their own laws and in freedom, there are three courses for those who wish to hold them: the first is to ruin them, the next is to reside there in person, the third is to permit them to live under their own laws, drawing a tribute, and establishing within it an oligarchy which will keep it friendly to you."The "support" of the citizen to Nobunaga made me think of the support of the ji-samurai, the little "feudatories" that technically operated under the protective wing of a daimyo, but in reality were pretty much independent themselves. These guys constituted a good part of the so-called Ikko Ikki confederates, too.
"[...] and therefore he who would keep a city accustomed to freedom will hold it more easily by the means of its own citizens than in any other way."
"For, although one may be very strong in armed forces, yet in entering a province one has always need of the goodwill of the natives."
"Now I say that those dominions which, when acquired, are added to an ancient state by him who acquires them, are either of the same country and language, or they are not. When they are, it is easier to hold them, especially when they have not been accustomed to self-government; and to hold them securely it is enough to have destroyed the family of the prince who was ruling them;"
"Upon this, one has to remark that men ought either to be well treated or crushed, because they can avenge themselves of lighter injuries, of more serious ones they cannot; therefore the injury that is to be done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge."
"Therefore a wise prince ought to adopt such a course that his citizens will always in every sort and kind of circumstance have need of the state and of him, and then he will always find them faithful."
"And it has always been the opinion and judgment of wise men that nothing can be so uncertain or unstable as fame or power not founded on its own strength. And one's own forces are those which are composed either of subjects, citizens, or dependents."
Nobunaga, whenever he could, profitted of the support of these landlords for his military ends: think of the Battle of Okehazama or the attack on Saika.
About the "good habits" of a "prince", Machiavelli stress the importance of the art of war, even as an exercise to keep your mind "flexible":
"And therefore a prince who does not understand the art of war, over and above the other misfortunes already mentioned, cannot be respected by his soldiers, nor can he rely on them. He ought never, therefore, to have out of his thoughts this subject of war, and in peace he should addict himself more to its exercise than in war; this he can do in two ways, the one by action, the other by study.The image of Nobunaga riding his horse around Owari or rushing to hunt in his newly acquired lands reminded me of this short excerpt.
As regards action, he ought above all things to keep his men well organized and drilled, to follow incessantly the chase, by which he accustoms his body to hardships, and learns something of the nature of localities, and gets to find out how the mountains rise, how the valleys open out, how the plains lie, and to understand the nature of rivers and marshes, and in all this to take the greatest care."
The exercise of war, the study of the (history) manuals but even the knowledge of the lands. Machiavelli, as Nobunaga, after all is thinking "locally".
There are some obvious limits to the military suggestions of Machiavelli, afterall he wasn't a soldier but a mere "bureaucrat", yet his observations were quite keen, even if a bit naive.
The most "entertaining" bits are, though, those revolving about the use of violence and how to "administer" it:
" I believe that this follows from severities being badly or properly used. Those may be called properly used, if of evil it is possible to speak well, that are applied at one blow and are necessary to one's security, and that are not persisted in afterwards unless they can be turned to the advantage of the subjects. The badly employed are those which, notwithstanding they may be few in the commencement, multiply with time rather than decrease."
"Hence it is to be remarked that, in seizing a state, the usurper ought to examine closely into all those injuries which it is necessary for him to inflict, and to do them all at one stroke so as not to have to repeat them daily."
"For injuries ought to be done all at one time, so that, being tasted less, they offend less; benefits ought to be given little by little, so that the flavour of them may last longer."
Further interesting sparks can be noted in the "qualities" that a governor should have for a successful reign:
"[...] for a man who wishes to act entirely up to his professions of virtue soon meets with what destroys him among so much that is evil. Hence it is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity."Machiavelli has a very low opinion of people. He doesn't hesitate to say that "they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life, and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you", and for the most of times (expecially the times of Nobunaga and Machiavelli) it's true.
"Coming now to the other qualities mentioned above, I say that every prince ought to desire to be considered clement and not cruel. Nevertheless he ought to take care not to misuse this clemency."
"Therefore a prince, so long as he keeps his subjects united and loyal, ought not to mind the reproach of cruelty; because with a few examples he will be more merciful than those who, through too much mercy, allow disorders to arise, from which follow murders or robberies; for these are wont to injure the whole people, whilst those executions which originate with a prince offend the individual only."
"Upon this a question arises: 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."
"[...] 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."
"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, which will always be as long as he abstains from the property of his citizens and subjects and from their women. But when it is necessary for him to proceed against the life of someone, he must do it on proper justification and for manifest cause."
"But when a prince is with his army, and has under control a multitude of soldiers, then it is quite necessary for him to disregard the reputation of cruelty, for without it he would never hold his army united or disposed to its duties."
"You must know there are two ways of contesting, the one by the law, the other by force; the first method is proper to men, the second to beasts; but because the first is frequently not sufficient, it is necessary to have recourse to the second. Therefore it is necessary for a prince to understand how to avail himself of the beast and the man."
"A prince, therefore, being compelled knowingly to adopt the beast, ought to choose the fox and the lion; because the lion cannot defend himself against snares and the fox cannot defend himself against wolves. Therefore, it is necessary to be a fox to discover the snares and a lion to terrify the wolves. Those who rely simply on the lion do not understand what they are about."
"Nothing makes a prince so much esteemed as great enterprises and setting a fine example."
Nobunaga had to deal with all kind of rivalries, betrayals and constrasts even since childhood: he stopped the internal turmoil within his clan by killing his very own younger brother and he brought stability to his country through a series of blatant massacres--But after these first massacres, he had no need to make them a second time against the same enemies.
A few other parts are worth a note, concerning "secretaries" of the Prince and the flatterers:
"And the first opinion which one forms of a prince, and of his understanding, is by observing the men he has around him; and when they are capable and faithful he may always be considered wise, because he has known how to recognize the capable and to keep them faithful. But when they are otherwise one cannot form a good opinion of him, for the prime error which he made was in choosing them. "This part is extremely interesting as it focuses on a point which is usually ignored: it's the lord that picks good councelors, not the opposite.
"A prince, therefore, ought always to take counsel, but only when he wishes and not when others wish; he ought rather to discourage every one from offering advice unless he asks it."
"And if there are some who think that a prince who conveys an impression of his wisdom is not so through his own ability, but through the good advisers that he has around him, beyond doubt they are deceived, because this is an axiom which never fails: that a prince who is not wise himself will never take good advice, unless by chance he has yielded his affairs entirely to one person who happens to be a very prudent man. "
"Therefore it must be inferred that good counsels, whencesoever they come, are born of the wisdom of the prince, and not the wisdom of the prince from good counsels. "
If a lord is not good at discerning a good from a bad advice, he's the one that he is to blame.
Nobunaga was indeed surrounded by great generals and strategists, but the fact that those people imposed themselves in a meritocratic system, rather than their qualities, it is a clue of the far-sightedness of Nobunaga himself, who offered a chance to the right persons.
Speaking of bad advisers, we can close this article with a few words on Mitsuhide.
On 1582 he killed Nobunaga at Honnoji, trying to impose himself as the new "prince".
The sudden death of Nobunaga right before the start of the campaign in the West, avoided this new conflict, but obviously didn't end well for Mitsuhide: "[...] a blunder ought never to be perpetrated to avoid war, because it is not to be avoided, but is only deferred to your disadvantage."