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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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4. Modern Virtue. The history of the idea of virtue
in the centuries since Machiavelli's time belongs in part
to the vast history of ethical theory (a subject dealt
with elsewhere in this work), and in part to the topic
Machiavellism. Yet some indications about how later
perspectives on virtue relate to Machiavelli may help
to place Machiavelli's thought in a broader context,
and suggest its wider importance.

Men's attitudes toward virtue have continued to be
shaped by changing circumstances, and especially by
the pressures on conduct and action which derive from
the political situation in the widest sense. In post-
Renaissance Europe the disorder Machiavelli had
lamented gave way to something like the order he had
desired. The agency of this change was a creation of
which Machiavelli has often been called the prophet:
the modern state. The governments of Europe gained
more effective control of their territories, expanding
and improving their administrative bureaucracies, and
gaining a monopoly of violence through a centrally
organized and controlled army. In this new situation
the maintenance of political order seldom required the
kind of unrestricted and audacious action for which
Machiavelli called. By the eighteenth century, as
Friedrich Meinecke has observed, there reigned in the
European monarchies “deep peace, order and disci-
pline. To continue making use of... Machiavellian
methods within the state was now entirely superfluous,
and therefore seemed hateful” (Machiavellism..., p.
284). Of course, rulers and governments still dealt with
each other in ways that recalled Machiavelli's precepts,


but this was true only of relations between states, not
of political life within them. While Machiavelli's
thinking might be applauded with regard to foreign
policy, his ideas were not likely to be seen as relevant
to other spheres of conduct; because of this, the notion
of virtue as effective action was restricted to one realm
of human affairs—war and diplomacy—and was not
apt to challenge the idea of virtue as morality. In the
absence of this challenge, the discussion of virtue did
not lead to a general consideration of human action
as it had in Machiavelli's thought.

Most post-Renaissance writers simply affirmed the
traditional notion of moral virtue in opposition to
Machiavelli. What was happening to the idea of virtue,
however, is best understood not with reference to one
of these thinkers, but in connection with a man who
has sometimes been compared to Machiavelli, Thomas
Hobbes. Hobbes's political theory was based on a very
stern recognition of the realities of early modern poli-
tics, but he did not generally consider virtue from a
Machiavellian perspective. In Hobbes's view,

The sum of virtue is to be sociable with them that will be
sociable, and formidable to them that will not. And the
same is the sum of the law of nature; for in being sociable,
the law of nature taketh place by the way of peace and
society; and to be formidable, is the law of nature in war,
where to be feared is a protection a man hath from his
own power

(Elements of Law, Part I, Ch. 17, para. 15).

For Hobbes, “force and fraud are the two cardinal
virtues” in time of war, but the same is by no means
true in time of peace or within a peaceful state (see
John Laird, Hobbes, pp. 180-81). Hobbes saw a clear
separation between a peaceful realm of moral virtue
and warlike realm of virtue in the non-moral sense;
the second presented no Machiavellian challenge to
the first. The same observation applies to the views
of Frederick the Great of Prussia (1712-86). In his
Réfutation du Prince de Machiavel (1739; Voltaire
altered the title to Antimachiavell), Frederick rejected
Machiavellian virtue as meaning only the skill of a
rogue. True virtue, he implied, is eternal and unchang-
ing, and needs no favorable circumstances to make
itself known. Frederick later questioned some of the
harsh criticisms he had made of Machiavelli in his
youthful Réfutation, but his change of heart regarded
only foreign policy, not conduct in general, or the
consideration of virtue.

Thus by the eighteenth century the moral sense of
virtue reigned unchallenged by the alternative of “the
power to act effectively.” The article on “Vertu” in
the famous Encyclopédie of Diderot and d'Alembert
reflected this purely moral sense. There virtue was
described as “one, simple and unalterable in its essence,
the same in all times, climes and governments” (p. 517).
It was “the constant observation of the laws that are
imposed on us.” Virtue was an inner light, a sentiment
given to all men by God, the foundation on which all
human societies and all laws were built. The author
of the article noted that the original sense of vertu had
been strength or courage, and suggested that accord-
ingly the word virtue retained a connection with effort
and will which distinguished it from goodness: “We
say that God is good, and not virtuous, because good-
ness is essential to his nature, and because he is fully
perfect by necessity and without effort” (ibid.). But this
statement was a mere gesture; in the rest of the article
there is nothing to prevent our reading virtue as a
synonym for goodness.

The Enlightenment's conviction that virtue was
equivalent to morality and that its eternal essence was
not threatened by the vicissitudes of fortune was a
tribute to the high level of civilization and order
achieved by the ancien régime, but the vertu of the
Encyclopédie had lost the compelling drive to compre-
hend man's power to act in the world, the drive that
shaped Machiavelli's meditation on virtù. It should be
no surprise that when something like the Machiavellian
approach to virtue reappeared, its spokesman was a
man in revolt against the social and political order
which had grown up in Europe since the Renaissance:
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Nietzsche's concep-
tion of virtue arose from his search for man's true self
under the many layers of convention and coercion that
hid it; his new man or “overman” (Übermensch) was
the man who has “become what he is,” as the subtitle
of Nietzsche's book Ecce Homo put it. True virtue
contributed to this human growth, but it had to be
sharply distinguished from conventional morality.

Virtues are as dangerous as vices, in so far as they are
allowed to rule over one as authorities and laws coming
from outside, and not as qualities one develops one's self.
The latter is the only right way: they should be the most
personal means of defence and most individual needs—the
determining factors of precisely our existence and growth,
which we recognize and acknowledge independently of the
question whether others grow with us with the help of the
same or of different principles.... The extent to which
one can dispense with virtue is the measure of one's
strength; and a height may be imagined where the notion
“virtue” is understood in such a way as to be reminiscent
of virtù—the virtue of the Renaissance—free from moralic
[sic] acid

(The Will to Power, Secs., 326, 327).

Nietzsche's notion of virtue revived some of the
essential elements of Machiavelli's; virtue was power
over one's self and one's environment; it depended on


the harmony of the self with the natural, biological
world, and one of its major components was the indi-
vidual's freedom or independence. Yet Nietzsche went
beyond Machiavelli. Nietzsche admired the out-
standing individuals of the Renaissance (he knew Jacob
Burckhardt, in whose work the concept of the Renais-
sance became inseparably linked to the notion of indi-
vidualism), but Nietzsche's own individualism was
much more radical than Machiavelli's had been. In part
this was due to the nineteenth century's developmental
or historical conception of human personality, which
stemmed from Hegel and the romantics, and which
permitted a much greater attention to the uniqueness
of the individual than Machiavelli's more static and
typological psychology allowed. Yet Nietzsche's indi-
vidualism and his conception of virtue also drew
strength from his rejection of the very institution whose
discipline Machiavelli required for most virtue: the
political community or the state. Whereas Machi-
avelli's sense of human requirements always took him
into the realm of politics, Nietzsche was convinced that
only the individual, the “single one” could find human
self-realization. The state blocked the way:

Now almost everything on earth is determined by the
crudest and most evil forces, by the egotism of the purchasers
and the military despots. The State, in the hands of the
latter... wishes that people would lavish on it the same
idolatrous cult that they used to lavish on the Church

(Schopenhauer as Educator, Sec. 4; Kaufmann, Nietzsche,
p. 166).

Earlier the development of the State had put an end
to Machiavelli's political kind of speculation about
virtue; now Nietzsche saw in the dominance of the
state a force which stunted the development of real
virtù. In this there was both great insight and great
irony, for however brilliantly Nietzsche illuminated the
condition of modern European man, he seems to have
been unaware that his idealization of virtù was a
celebration of one of the sources of that very condition.
In Machiavelli's hero, Cesare Borgia, Nietzsche saw
only a man of power and will whose self-control sepa-
rated his virtù from vice (The Will to Power, Sec. 871);
that the action of men like Cesare contributed to the
oppressive growth of state power escaped him. The
apolitical Nietzsche fixed his gaze on a virtue whose
worst enemy was tyranny and whose political implica-
tions were anarchistic; he did not see that the
Machiavellian virtù he invoked was an antidote to
anarchy and that it contained a willingness to counte-
nance tyranny in anarchy's place. Nietzsche's revival
of Machiavellian virtù was not the result of an identical
aim, but of the dialectical union of opposites; both
anarchy and tyranny render ordinary moral virtue in-
valid and demand that men seek within themselves a
new foundation for their action. This is the moral of
the history of “virtue.”