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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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3. Machiavelli. Machiavelli was heir to the humanist
discussions of virtue. In his intellectual formation and
in his chief occupation—as a secretary in the Floren-
tine chancery—he had many ties with the humanists.
But the situation of Italy in his time was much more
troubled than before. Machiavelli's lifetime (1469-
1527) saw a new stage in the crisis of the Church and
the invasion of Italy by foreign armies, bringing the
rapid rise and fall of individual and group political
fortunes there, and the increasingly apparent subjection
of the peninsula to foreign powers. In this situation
the problems of virtù, of morality and power, grew
more intense. Much ink has been spilled on Machi-
avelli's use of the word virtù, and a great deal of
confusion about it remains. Some of the difficulties can
be cleared up if the linguistic and intellectual back-
ground discussed above is remembered, and if two
different facets of Machiavelli's approach to virtù are
kept separate. These are, in the order we shall discuss
them: (1) the confrontation between traditional moral
virtue and the non-moral sense of virtue as capacity
for action; (2) the development of a theory of human
action through the analysis of virtue in the second
sense. The discussion of these two topics and of the
relationship between them should show that, while
Machiavelli had no “doctrine of virtù” (that is, he did
not always use the word to the same effect), he did
have a sustained concern for its meaning which raised
the consideration of it to an entirely new level.

Machiavelli used the word virtù in many of the
senses current in his day. When he said that “A prince
should show himself to be a lover of the virtues, and
honor men excellent in every art” (Prince, XXI), the
virtues he had in mind included the standard moral
and intellectual ones. When he said that “The virtù
of infantry is more powerful than that of cavalry,” he
meant military capacity or capacity for effective action
in general (Disc., II, xviii). His declaration that the
fortune of a city depends on the virtù of its founder
(Disc., I, i) may seem less traditional, but it is not; here
“virtue” means what it meant to Dante in Convivio:
“Everything is virtuous in its nature when it does that
which it is ordained to do.” Machiavelli attributed
virtue to the admittedly wicked Roman Emperor
Severus (Disc., I, x), but even Savonarola had admitted
the virtù (talent or capacity) of a tyrant. The most
common sense of virtù in all Machiavelli's writing is
military. Most of the men described as virtuosi by
Machiavelli are military leaders; very often, the virtù
of an individual or a city is simply his or its military
prowess. Sometimes the connotation is military even
when on the surface it does not seem to be. For in-
stance, the virtue despised in a corrupt city (Disc., I,
xviii) is revealed as military when Machiavelli explains
that it was the city's security against its enemies which
led to the diminishing regard for virtue.

Of all the specific meanings of “virtue,” military
virtue is the one which best embodies the general
notion of capacity for effective action. In Machiavelli
as in no other Renaissance writer, we see the other
meanings of “virtue” measured against this funda-
mental one, and often discarded when they do not meet
the standard. Machiavelli's rejection of traditional mo-
rality has sometimes been questioned, but he himself
quite frankly admitted—indeed insisted on—it.

My intention being to write something of use to those who
understand, it appears to me more proper to go to the real
truth of the matter than to its imagination;... for how
we live is so far removed from how we ought to live, that
he who abandons what is done for what ought to be done
will rather learn to bring about his own ruin than his
preservation. A man who wishes to make a profession of
goodness in everything must necessarily come to grief
among so many who are not good

(Prince, XV; trans. L.

There is an echo here of Petrarch's comment about
those who live in “the common human state” accepting
“public ways of acting,” but Machiavelli's moral stance
was far more radical. His reason for rejecting a strict
philosophical morality was not, as in Petrarch, the


acceptance of ordinary human life, but the require-
ments of effective action in a world fraught with evil
and danger. Consider Machiavelli's most general axiom
about moral virtue: “He who ponders well the whole
question will find one thing that looks like virtue, which
to follow would be his ruin, and another that looks
like vice, which when followed brings his security and
well-being” (XV). Following this principle, Machiavelli
argued that, in Hannibal, cruelty was a virtue. It was
his “inhuman cruelty [condemned by Livy] which,
together with his infinite virtues, made him always to
be revered and fearful in the eyes of his soldiers; and
without cruelty, his other virtues would not have
sufficed for that effect. Imperceptive writers admire
his action while condemning its principal cause. And
that it is true that his other virtues would not have
sufficed can be observed from [the comparison with]
Scipio...” (Prince, XVII). The repetition of “his other
virtues” makes the point quite clearly. The sense of
virtue as what is morally right has been forced out by
Machiavelli's overriding concern for effective action.

Machiavelli was not able to hold to his own conclu-
sion with perfect consistency. Some princes had to be
regarded as wicked despite their success. Machiavelli
was puzzled by such men, as his account of Agathocles
the Sicilian, tyrant of Syracuse, makes clear.

He who considers the actions and virtues of this man will
see little or nothing that can be attributed to fortune....
Yet it cannot be called virtue to kill one's fellow citizens,
betray one's friends, be without faith.... For all that,
considering the virtue of Agathocles in getting in and out
of dangers, and his greatness of soul in bearing with and
overcoming adversities, there seems to be no reason for
judging him inferior to the most excellent leaders. Nonethe-
less, his ferocious cruelty and inhumanity, together with
infinite acts of wickedness, do not allow him to be enshrined
with the most excellent men. Therefore, what was accom-
plished without either fortune or virtue cannot be attributed
to either one

(Prince, VIII).

“Yet... For all that... Nonetheless...”: this is the
grammar of uncertainty. Remembering the general
statement about virtue and vice and the praise of
Hannibal's cruelty already noted, it is hard to see what
made Machiavelli hesitate about Agathocles. Cesare
Borgia, whose place in Machiavelli's pantheon is so
famous, was also guilty of cruelty, betrayal and lack
of faith; besides, Machiavelli specifically justified each
of these qualities in general terms elsewhere. It would
seem that Machiavelli was himself somewhat awed by
his own conclusions about the true nature of virtue.
At least this passage shows that Machiavelli had a
reluctance to give up some traditional moral standards;
to understand what overcame this reluctance we must
examine the second facet of his analysis of virtue.

Several writers on Machiavelli have compared his
use of the word virtù to the sense defined by the physi-
cian Galen: potestas quaedam efficiendi (the power to
do or accomplish something). Machiavelli's criticism of
traditional moral virtue stemmed from its lack of this
ability. Yet how could Machiavelli be confident that
the virtue he envisioned would be effective in the
world? To answer this question, we must examine the
connection between Machiavellian virtue and five
closely related topics: fortune, necessity, animality,
audacity, and order.

The limit of Machiavellian virtù can be described
in a word: fortuna. Like other Renaissance writers,
Machiavelli sometimes described fortune's power as
irresistible. “All the histories show that men can act
in accord with fortune but not oppose themselves to
her; they can weave her webs but not break them”
(Disc., II, xxix). This gave no justification for despair;
fortune's plans were never known, and men could
always hope that their own purposes would fit them.
Still, in this passage at least, Machiavelli spoke of
fortune and “the heavens” with the respect due the

Yet many other statements in his writings show that
Machiavelli did not think men's lives were wholly
under fortune's sway. In a famous place in The Prince
he limited her control to “half our actions, or
thereabouts.” What is most significant about
Machiavelli's view of fortune's boundaries, however,
is not their limits but their nature. Unlike other
Renaissance writers, Machiavelli refused to accept
fortune's strange power as a mystery beyond man's ken
and separate from his nature. On the contrary,
Machiavelli made fortune derive from human nature
almost to the same extent as virtù. In Chapter XXV
of The Prince, and in a nearly contemporaneous latter
to Piero Soderini, Machiavelli attacked the perplexing
question why the same actions at different times
yielded opposite results, and why the same results
followed at separate times from contrasting acts. The
answer lay in the harmony or discord between men's
ways of acting and the conditions of their time. “A
family, a city, each man has his fortune founded on
his style of action” (modo del procedere).

I believe that just as nature has given men differing faces,
so has she given them differing minds and imaginations.
From this it arises that everyone directs himself according
to his mind and imagination. And because on the other side
times and situations differ, those accomplish their desires
and are happy who fit their style of action to the time,
and those on the contrary are unlucky who argue with their
time and situation by their actions

(Lettere, ed. F. Gaeta,
p. 230).

A man's fortune thus depended first of all on himself,
on his personal style. This perspective sometimes led


Machiavelli to a strong affirmation of the power of
virtù. The Romans were successful because of virtù,
not fortuna; it was their reputation for valor that
earned them the good fortune of having others fear
to attack them (Disc., I, ii). The men discussed in
Chapter VI of The Prince had founded states by their
own virtue, without the help of fortune. “Examining
their lives and actions, one sees that they had nothing
more from fortune than the occasion, which gave them
material to shape in whatever way they liked.” With-
out an appropriate occasion their virtue would have
been wasted, but without their virtue the occasion
would have passed unrecognized. “Their virtue made
the occasion known.”

Yet, the idea that those men succeed whose style
of action fits the times defined the limitations of human
action as well as its potential strength. In fact, Machi-
avelli's most consistent deduction from the idea that
those men are happy whose character fits the time was
not that men should change to fit the times, but that
they are unable to do so. The fundamental notion in
Machiavelli's theory of human action is not the flexi-
bility of human nature but its rigidity. The man pru-
dent enough to change his actions to suit the time will
never be found, Machiavelli declared in The Prince,
“both because one cannot deviate from the path to
which nature inclines him, and because having always
prospered by going in a certain way, one cannot per-
suade himself to depart from it” (XXV; see also Lettere,
p. 231). Piero Soderini always acted with “humanity
and patience,” and succeeded as long as those qualities
corresponded to the needs of action in his time. Julius
II did everything with “force and fury”; luckily for
him the situation required just his temper while he
lived. Knowing how to act well in a certain way
allowed men to succeed in their purposes when the
times were right. But since this ability came from
nature, not choice, it contained the seeds of failure as
well as success.

Fabius Maximus proceeded with his army carefully and
cautiously, removed from any fury and from Roman
audacity; and good fortune made his style fit well with the
times.... And that Fabius acted in this way from his nature
and not by choice is apparent, since when Scipio wanted
to take the armies into Africa to finish up the war, Fabius
spoke much against it, like one who could not cut himself
off from his own style and custom

(Disc., III, ix).

Speaking in this way, Machiavelli made fortune weigh
more heavily in the balance than virtue.

There is only a rough consistency at best in
Machiavelli's view of the relationship between virtue
and fortune: he tempered his shifting emphasis from
one to the other with the reflection that each had
control about half the time. Yet he did not really mean
(as the above quotation might imply) that virtù was
only a fit between natural necessity and fortune.
Everyone by nature had a personal character, but not
everyone was a virtuoso. One thing that distinguished
the man of virtue from others was precisely his ability
to overcome the defects that the rigidity of nature
entailed. Hannibal was a great general through making
himself feared by his men, Scipio by making himself
loved by them (Disc., III, xxi; Machiavelli's choice for
fear over love is not so clear here as in The Prince).
Yet both these courses of action had inescapable dan-
gers; the man who made himself feared would also be
hated, the man who was loved would be despised.
“Thus it matters little for a military leader which of
these paths he takes, as long as he is virtuous and his
virtue makes him respected among the men. For when
the virtue is great, as it was in Hannibal and Scipio,
it cancels out all the errors that are committed through
making one's self loved or feared too much.” This is
not to say that these men were free of the necessary
rigidity of human character: they were subject to the
general rule that “No one can take the middle path,
precisely because our nature does not allow it.” But
they were able to “make up for their excesses by an
extraordinary virtue.”

The other side of virtue's relationship with fortune,
then, was her relationship with necessity. But whereas
fortune was a limitation on the effectiveness even of the
virtuoso, necessity was not a limitation on virtue; it was
rather a precondition for it. Machiavelli was intensely
preoccupied with necessity; by one count, the word
(necessità) appears seventy-six times in The Prince
alone. His acceptance of its place in man's life is strong
and clear: soldiers who go to foreign countries “have
more necessity to fight, and that necessity makes virtue,
as I have said more than once” (Disc., II, xii). Other
writers had thought necessity strengthened virtue; to
Machiavelli necessity created virtue. “Men never do
anything well except through necessity. Where there
is an abundance of choice, and where license can enter
in, everything is immediately filled with confusion and
disorder” (Disc., I, iii). Because “virtue is greater where
choice has less sway,” wise founders of cities establish
laws that prevent citizens from softening under the
influence of prosperity (Disc., I, i).

We can better understand the dimensions of
Machiavelli's emphasis on necessity if we see that it
is closely tied to another of his favorite themes: the
animal or bestial element in human nature. In contrast
to some other Renaissance writers (such as the Neo-
Platonists), Machiavelli thought that man must not
attempt to escape his animality. Not only did he use
the well-known metaphors of the lion and the fox, and
declare that “a prince must know how to use bestial
conduct as well as human” (Prince, XVIII); he also


wrote an allegorical poem which made clear his
acceptance of human bestiality and its connection with
necessity. The poem, The Golden Ass, derives from a
classical legend Apuleius popularized, but its themes
included those of Machiavelli's major works: the rise
and fall of political units and the general affirmation
that “evil follows good and good evil, and the one is
always the cause of the other” (lines 103ff.). The real
moral of the work was that man cannot escape his
nature (lines 88-90); it was for this reason that the hero
had to assume the guise of an ass in order to find a
way out of his difficulties. In the poem a pig explains
why animals are happier than men: “We are more
friends of nature than you; thus she bestows her virtue
more on us, making you beggars for all her goods.”
Whatever the allegory of the golden ass meant to other
Renaissance writers, to Machiavelli it meant that man
must accept his own natural necessity, of which bes-
tiality is both a metaphor and a part.

The animal element in human necessity brings this
theme close to another of Machiavelli's favorite topics,
audacity. In a famous passage in The Prince, Machi-
avelli said that, since fortune is a woman, the audacious
and impetuous have a better chance to master her than
the cautious or hesitating. A chapter title in the Dis-
reads: “Many times one achieves with
impetuousness and audacity things that could never be
achieved by ordinary means” (III, xliv). Machiavelli's
stress on audacity was sometimes tempered by his
general principle that action must fit the times: after
all, Fabius Maximus had success with his waiting game.
Yet this should not be seen as a contradiction. Holding
back one's forces might be good military strategy, but
it was not the same thing as the hesitation that followed
from indecisiveness. It was indecisiveness to which
audacity was most strongly opposed, and this links it
most clearly to the necessity which creates virtue in
Machiavelli's mind: both are opposites of choice
(elezione), and virtù dissolves in the realm of choice.
“Let everyone do whatever his spirit tells him, and
with audacity” (Lettere, p. 229). The virtuoso acts in
accord with necessity, and with animal naturalness. “To
Machiavelli, animals possess the pristine genuineness
which, in man, is weakened by reason. Man's control
over his world depends on his attaining a level of
instinctiveness where he becomes part of the forces
surrounding him” (Felix Gilbert, Machiavelli and
p. 197).

Machiavelli would not make man so purely animal
as to destroy the reason which distinguishes him from
the beasts. On the contrary, ragione and prudenzia are
often close to virtù. But whereas in most traditional
ethics reason's task is to oppose or temper the passions,
in Machiavelli man's distinguishing and most useful
quality is his ability to order his passions so as to use
their power more effectively. The difference between
the Roman army and its barbarian enemies lay not in
superior forcefulness but in superior order; this allowed
the Romans to fight longer and more effectively than
their opponents. “Where an ordered virtue (virtù
) uses passion with method and plan, no
difficulty weakens the army or makes it lose heart....
The opposite occurs in those armies where there is
passion but no order” (Disc., III, xxxvi). “Order”—this
word is close to the heart of Machiavellian virtue. It
had many more senses in Machiavelli's language than
in ours. An ordine was a method, an institution, a
procedure; it was the ordini of the exemplars of virtù
which Machiavelli told his readers to follow (Prince,
XXVI). Fortune held sway where there was no virtù
to resist her (Prince, XXV). What distinguished
the Roman Republic (and the Roman army) from others
was its ordine (Discourses, passim). Where there is good
order there is virtue.

But order is also related to necessity. In a well-
ordered army, soldiers have no choice but to fight; in
a well-ordered state, the laws force citizens to virtuous
conduct. Order is the main principle of political life
for Machiavelli, because it is the bridge between the
human world and the world of natural necessity;
through political organization man creates his own
world of necessity—the only environment in which his
virtù can flourish.

In the theory of human action which emerges from
Machiavelli's reflection on virtù, the idea of necessity
is central. Only when we have surveyed the dimensions
of Machiavelli's belief in the power of necessity are
we prepared to appreciate the full extent of his rejec-
tion of traditional moral virtue.

We noted earlier that Machiavelli hesitated to give
the title “virtuous” to Agathocles the Sicilian—despite
his talent, spirit, and success—because of Agathocles'
wickedness. But the category of necessity makes
Machiavelli's hesitation irrelevant. The men described
in The Prince are given as examples of conduct, and
the question of whether the wicked ones are also
virtuosi had no bearing on whether they were to be
imitated. It was enough to give the examples of
wickedness “without entering into the merits of their
kind, because in my judgment it is sufficient that one
driven by necessity imitate them.” In the light of
Machiavelli's enthusiasm for necessity, his hesitant
declaration that the deeds of Agathocles “cannot be
called virtue” seems to arise simply from an unwilling-
ness to proclaim the most revolutionary implications
of his new point of view.

This conclusion is strengthened by one element in
Machiavelli's attitude toward virtue as he conceived


it: his awareness that virtue could be dangerous. In
quiet and peaceful times, virtue was valued less than
in perilous and difficult ones; wealth and influence were
valued more than personal merit. To give outstanding
men less honor than was due them was a “disorder,”
Machiavelli said, “which has caused the ruin of many
republics. For those citizens who see themselves
despised, and who know that the cause of it is the times
being easy and not dangerous, think up ways to disturb
things, promoting new wars to the damage of the
republic.” There were only two ways to deal with this
problem: either keep everyone poor so that wealth
could not have unmerited influence, or else keep the
state always at war or ready for it, in order to provide
continuous opportunities for “the virtue of man” (Disc.,
I, xvi). Thus virtue as Machiavelli understood it had
a threatening aspect: if not given satisfaction, it became
a harmful force.

All this underlines one of Machiavelli's most per-
vasive traits: his fundamental pessimism about human
nature. Yet the discussion of his meditation on virtue
would not be complete if we failed to recall that, side
by side with this pessimism about man Machiavelli
nurtured a spark of optimism about nature at large.
His belief that good could come out of evil had a
definite optimistic edge in times as bad as his own.
Several times he affirmed his belief that virtue can
shine most brightly when the night is darkest; one of
these was the famous last chapter of The Prince,
exhorting the Medici to unite Italy and drive out the
foreign invaders. Despite his general pessimism, he did
not believe that the total quantity of virtue in the world
was less in his own day than it had been in Roman
times; it was only so scattered about that its effects
were felt less, and not at all in Italy. In affirming this
belief, Machiavelli personified “the world” in a reveal-
ing way. In ancient times, he said, “the world” had
moved its virtue successively from the Syrians to the
Persians to the Romans, but after their time “the world
no longer kept its virtue all together” in one place
(Disc., II, preface). The personification of “the world”
in this passage recalls the medieval idea (still present
in a quotation from Savonarola given above) that virtue
came from God. Here, however, the notion has been
secularized, so that virtue in a political body derives
from “the world” instead of from God. The implica-
tions of this are optimistic, since Machiavelli entrusted
man's destiny to “nature” with the same willingness
that medieval men had entrusted it to the divinity.

Perhaps it is from the point of view of this optimism
that we should consider one of the most characteristic
elements of virtue in Machiavelli's thought: inde-
pendence. To preserve ones independence is the first
rule of politics. “A wise prince should build on founda
tions that are his, not on other people's.” “Only those
defenses are good, certain, and lasting, which depend
on you yourself and on your virtue” (Prince, XVII,
XXIV). Cesare Borgia's most significant accom-
plishment was establishing his independent power de-
spite the fact that he had received his state by the
power of the king of France. Certainly the celebration
of independence has obvious immediate and practical
import. But for Machiavelli it had a more philosophical
meaning as well. In Machiavelli's day the political crisis
of Italy and the moral crisis of the Church led men
to lose confidence in themselves and in their power
to live well in the world. Machiavelli's stress on inde-
pendence was a response to this condition. He saw trust
in outside powers instead of in one's own as the sickness
of Italian politics; his basic objection to Christianity
was that it turned men's efforts to a world beyond their
own. In opposition to both, Machiavelli recalled men
to a fundamental trust in themselves and in the natural
world of which they were a part. The most enduring
aspect of Machiavelli's message was his defiance of
despair, his insistence that even in the worst of times
men must trust in themselves: only to do so was virtue.