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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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2. Early Renaissance Virtue. It is not surprising that
the age of the Renaissance in Italy saw a lively interest
in the idea of virtue. A concern for understanding and
evaluating human action was fostered by the many and
often novel activities of Renaissance men. The citizens
of the various towns witnessed more political activity
than most other Europeans; each independent town
was a political nucleus, organizing its own internal life
and its relations with other towns. Economic activity
was also more varied than in nonurban areas. Banking,
trading, and manufacturing raised many questions
about the effectiveness and the morality of human
action. Yet the great traditional source of moral stand-
ards, the Church, was in the throes of a long and deep
crisis, involving the “Babylonian captivity” of the
papacy in Avignon and the scandal of the Great Schism
which followed. Men were turning elsewhere for moral
counsel, above all to the great traditions of Greece and
Rome. It is significant too that many of the humanists
who led the revival of antiquity were not professional
philosophers or theologians in the tradition of the
medieval schools, but poets, politicians, and rhetori-
cians with little commitment to systematic philo-
sophical thought. They were therefore freer to develop
the implications of living in the urban and secular
society of the day.

In the period from Dante to Machiavelli, both the
“moral” and the “non-moral” senses of virtue (virtú
or virtù in Italian) were in general use. All the tradi-
tional virtues were denominated as such, but the same
writers who regarded faith or justice or courage as
prime virtues also used the term in the other sense.
Dante, echoing Aristotle, wrote (Convivio, I, v) that
“Everything is virtuous in its nature when it does that
for which it is ordained.” Following this definition, he
regarded human speech as virtuous when it “makes
clear human thought,” since this was its purpose in
the divine scheme. For Boccaccio too, a virtuous
speech was an effective one; neither of these writers
thought a speech had to be edifying to be virtuous.
Using a similar definition, Dante attributed virtù to the
devil as well as the saints: “He moved mist and wind
by the virtù his nature gave” (Purgatorio, V, 114). Such
connotations survived into the fifteenth century. When
Savonarola said that Florence had become the instru-
ment of the “virtù divina,” he meant God's power and
purpose manifested in activity, not the realization of
particular virtues. Savonarola regarded tyrants as the
most vicious of men, but he attributed virtù—in the
sense of ability or capacity—to them also. Observing
that the tyrant will try to excel other men in every
activity, Savonarola added that “when he cannot do
it by his virtù, he will try to be superior by fraud and
deception” (Prediche e scritti, 171, 183).

In these citations—especially the last—glimmerings
of Machiavelli's usage of virtù are visible. Yet there
is a definite gap between these writers and Machiavelli.
It is the space between accident and purposeful
awareness. Both the moral and the non-moral senses
existed in Renaissance Italian, and the two came to
the minds of the period's writers with nearly equal
facility. But one sense did not interfere with the other,
a reference to the devil's or the tyrant's virtù neither
reflected nor created any crisis of moral action or
theory. This would come later.

Several currents of Renaissance thought demonstrate
that the understanding of virtue was a matter of con-
cern during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and
that the world's meaning was changing. First, some men
began to evolve a conception of virtue as a generally
admirable quality in human action, rather than the sum
of particular qualities (“virtues”) which conformed to
religious or philosophical prescriptions. Artists sought
to represent not only the traditional individual virtues,
but “virtue in general” (virtus generaliter sumpta), and
some complained that the existing iconographical tra-
dition offered no models for them to follow. It is not
entirely clear what these artists—Giovanni Pisano,
Francesco da Barberino, Filarete, whose chosen name
meant “lover of virtue”—meant by “virtue in general,”
but their use of Hercules to represent the quality they
had in mind gives an indication. Herculean virtue is
first of all manliness, courage, strength; what Petrarch
thought about when he wrote (in lines that would be
quoted by Machiavelli) “Virtù will take arms against
violence,/And let the fight be short!” (Italia Mia, lines
93-96). Yet this may not have been all that was meant
by virtus generaliter sumpta under the aspect of
Hercules. In the early Renaissance, the story of
“Hercules at the crossroads” returned to popularity
after being practically forgotten during the Middle
Ages. Hercules' choice, which Cicero had described
as being between virtus and voluptas was recalled first
by Petrarch, who compared it to the fundamental
moral choice he thought all men faced. Moreover,
following Cicero, Petrarch remarked on the closeness
of “virtue” to the Latin word for man, vir, and thought
that one probably derived from the other (Fam., XXIII,
2, 28). Thus the “virtue in general” symbolized by
Hercules could represent a wide range of admirable
human qualities. From this point of view the lines
between such usually distinct conceptions as “virtue,”
“humanity,” and “virility” might become obscured.

The difficulty of keeping these notions separate ap-
pears clearly in one very common theme of Renais-


sance literature: the opposition of virtue and fortune.
The theme had its source in antiquity, when fortune,
either as an abstraction or as a goddess, was thought
to have considerable control over human life. Livy tells
that Fortuna (“fortune”) was the favorite goddess of
the Romans. Yet some classical writers—especially
those in the tradition of the Stoics—preserved one
realm of life free of the dominion of fortune: the realm
of virtue. Seneca wrote that “Fortune can only take
away what she has given; but she does not give virtue”
(De constantia sapientiae, V, 2). The virtue he had
in mind was moral worth, honestas. The man who
recognized honestas as the only good worth seeking
was free of fortune. “He who reckons other things as
goods comes under fortune's power” (Epistles, 1, xiv,
1). The virtue which thereby triumphed over fortune
had a highly moralistic coloration, but at the same time
it connoted personal strength: the power to find fulfill-
ment within one's self and remain indifferent to exter-
nal rewards. Cicero often referred to the Stoics as the
most manly or most virile of philosophers.

Both the element of moralism and the element of
personal strength are present in Renaissance discussions
of the power of virtue over fortune. Petrarch noted
that fortune is “the ruler of all human things except
for virtue” (Fam., I, 2, 24). He wrote a whole work
(De remediis utriusque fortunae) with the intention of
providing men with material for strengthening their
inner defenses against fortune. He also distinguished
between “fortunatos” and the “outstanding men”
whose lives he described in De viris illustribus: “Out-
standing men overcome all things by the power of
virtue.” Leon Battista Alberti also wrote of virtue's
dominion over fortune in terms derived from the
Stoics. Virtue alone brings men happiness, he said; it
is more than content with itself, worth far more
than all the things subject to fortune (Della famiglia,
24, 80, 149).

At the same time that the traditional notion of virtue
as moral worth was being merged with the separate
sense of virtue as inner, personal strength, the human-
ists were also engaged in raising broad questions about
the nature of moral virtue, and whether particular
qualities should be accepted as virtues. These Renais-
sance debates about moral virtue also had an important
classical background. Several of Cicero's writings re-
port the disagreements between followers of the various
ancient philosophic schools represented at Rome, and
particularly between the Stoics and the Peripatetics.
The Stoics regarded honestas, moral worth, as the only
genuine good, and instructed the wise man in indiffer-
ence to everything else. The Peripatetics agreed that
moral worth or virtue was the chief good, but they
thought that human nature required other supports if
a man were to live well: health for one thing, and
favorable circumstances for another. The Peripatetics
thus recommended a different line of conduct than the
Stoics, and as Cicero several times observed, it was
a life much more in accord with the notions of ordinary
men than the Stoic ideal. Cicero supported the Stoics
in some of his writings and the Peripatetics in others,
but for the public orator or statesman, addressing ordi-
nary men in the language of everyday life, Peripatetic
ethics was the most appropriate.

Petrarch recalled these themes in Cicero's writings.
He often sought to approach the Stoic ideal of conduct
(to which he gave a Christian coloration), and he
addressed Stoic counsels both to himself in his Secret,
and to friends and readers in his letters and other
works. Yet he regarded the level of virtue to which
the Stoics aspired as unattainable in this life. Stoicism
made a fine philosophic ideal, but who could actually
live according to it? “You will act differently as a
philosopher and as a man,” he wrote in one of his
letters. “No one is so given to wisdom that he does
not, when he returns to the common human state,
condescend also to public ways of acting” (Fam., XXI,
13, 1). The “public ways of acting” Petrarch sanctioned
here were anything but libertine; they were the mores
of the best public figures, not the worst. Yet in some
other places (notably the Secret) Petrarch seemed to
regard any lapse from philosophical morality as a
descent to the level of the despised “crowd.” Certainly
he was aware that the morality of philosophers con-
trasted sharply with the way most men—even the best
intentioned ones—actually lived their lives.

The separation between a strict philosophical mo-
rality and some Renaissance ideals of conduct was
widened by later writes. Matteo Palmieri argued that
anger (ira) could be an aid to the virtue of courage
rather than a vice, “provided that the choice of the
danger to be faced is made with virtue.” To assert this
was to remove some restraints on sheer human activity
which had been proposed in the name of moral virtue.
Comparing the active life and the virtues appropriate
to it with the contemplative, the speaker in Palmieri's
Della vita civile concluded that “The solitary life is
placed after the active” and flatly declared that the
“higher” forms of virtue, “being heavenly things, are
not proper to men” (1529 ed., p. 34r). Palmieri went
further. One of the features of Stoic morality as Cicero
had presented it was the affirmation that there was
no distinction between what was morally good,
honestum, and what was useful for man. Man pursued
his utility by pursuing morality. Matteo Palmieri
agreed that according to “subtle philosophy” this was
true enough, but pointed out that it did not fit the
common opinion of ordinary men, who saw quite


clearly the distinction between what was morally good
and what was good for themselves. Since he was writ-
ing about ordinary life, Palmieri accepted the reality
of the distinction between what was good and what
was useful (ed. cit., p. 91r). A later humanist writer,
Giovanni Pontano, also thought it necessary to separate
the two, at least in the political sphere. Other
humanists used the notions of common sense and the
observation of ordinary life to push the criticism of
traditional ideals of virtue further. Poggio Bracciolini
was aware that “vice” might sometimes play a positive
role in the world. He recognized that simple force was
responsible for much of human accomplishment. A
speaker in one of his dialogues asserted that empires
had been established by force rather than by law; it
followed that everything achieved within them
depended on force too. “Everything excellent and
worthy of remembrance has been achieved by wrong-
doing, injustice and contempt for law,” was the
admittedly highly rhetorical conclusion (Utra artium,
medicinae an iuris civilis, praestet,
ed. Garin, p. 29).
In such declarations as these, the gap between the early
Renaissance concern for virtù and Machiavelli's devel-
opment of the idea—the gap between accidental con-
fusion of the two basic senses of the word and the
purposeful confrontation of them—narrowed. Yet only
Machiavelli would close it completely.