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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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1. Introduction. The word “virtue” (and its counter-
parts in most other languages) is used to attribute some
kind of value to conduct or action. Its meanings are
therefore potentially as various as the bases on which
men value their acts. The predominant meaning in
English has become moral virtue; a virtuous man is
one who lives in accord with certain moral standards.
Even in our language, however, other senses of the
word survive. When we speak of the virtue of a partic-
ular course of action, we mean its power to achieve
certain results. We also speak (slightly archaically,
perhaps) of the virtue of a drug, meaning its inherent
potency or efficacy. These latter senses have in com-
mon their attribution of value to action (or to the
potential for it) on the basis of power or efficacy,
whereas the concept of moral virtue derives value from
intent or result. This is the fundamental division among
meanings of virtue: on the one hand, a “moral” sense
which focuses on the conformity of actions to approved
standards or ends, on the other a “non-moral” sense
concerned with the power of an action (or an actor)
to be effective or to achieve a desired end.

The history of the idea of virtue is the history of
both these senses of the word, and of the relations
between them. Often the two senses have existed side
by side, and men have not been troubled by the differ-
ences between them. In times of moral crisis, however,
the contradictions potentially present in “virtue” have
come to the surface and have been employed by
thinkers to criticize old values and aid in the devel-
opment of new ones. The ambivalence of “virtue”
provides a means to challenge dominant moral values
through an emphasis on other values also inherent—
while perhaps submerged—in existing language. This
is what occurred during the Italian Renaissance. After
a period in which the idea of virtue came increasingly


into men's minds, Machiavelli set out a critique of
traditional moral virtue through a reemphasis on virtue
in the purely active sense.

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.

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.

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.”


Before Machiavelli, texts: L. B. Alberti, I Libri della
ed. Cecil Grayson, in Opere volgari, Vol. I (Bari,
1960). Matteo Palmieri, Libro della vita civile (Florence,
1529). Petrarch, Le Familiari (Familiarium rerum libri), here
cited as Fam., ed. in 4 vols. by Vittorio Rossi, the last
vol. by Umberto Bosco (Florence, 1933-42). Girolamo
Savonarola, Prediche e scritti, ed. Mario Ferrara (Milan,

Before Machiavelli, commentary: Werner Jaeger, Paideia:
the Ideals of Greek Culture,
trans. Gilbert Highet, 3 vols.
(New York, 1939), on the Greek idea of virtue (aretē).
Theodor E. Mommsen, “Petrarch and the Story of the
Choice of Hercules,” Medieval and Renaissance Studies, ed.
Eugene F. Rice, Jr. (Ithaca, N.Y., 1959). Erwin Panofsky,
“Artist, Scientist, Genius: Notes on the Renaissance—
Dämmerung,” The Renaissance: Six Essays (New York and
Evanston, Ill., 1968), esp. p. 169 and n. (and the other works
of Panofsky cited there).

Machiavelli, texts: The most recent edition in Italian is
the Feltrinelli Edition, Vol. I, Il Principe e Discorsi, ed.
Sergio Bertelli (Milan, 1960), here cited as Prince and Disc.
respectively; Vol. II, Arte della Guerra e scritti politici
ed. Sergio Bertelli (Milan, 1961); Vol. VI, Lettere,
ed. Franco Gaeta (Milan, 1961); Vol. VIII, Il teatro e scritti
ed. Franco Gaeta (Milan, 1965); all vols. contain
bibliographical essays. Translations, unless otherwise
identified, are by Jerrold E. Seigel. The best English
edition of the Discorsi is The Discourses, trans. with intro.
and notes by Leslie J. Walker, S.J. (New Haven, 1950). The
most recent translation is Machiavelli, The Chief Works and
trans. Allan Gilbert, 3 vols. (Durham, N.C., 1965).

Machiavelli, commentary: Eric W. Cochrane, “Machi-
avelli 1940-1960,” Journal of Modern History, 33 (1961),
113-36, is a bibliographical article. Felix Gilbert,
Machiavelli and Guicciardini (Princeton, 1965); idem, “On
Machiavelli's Idea of Virtuù,Renaissance News, 4 (1951),
53-55, and the discussion by L. C. Mackinney and Felix
Gilbert, ibid., 5 (1952), 21-23 and 70-71. R. de Mattei, Dal
premachiavellismo all'antimachiavellismo europeo del
course of lectures at Rome University, 1955-56
(Rome, 1956). Eduard Mayer, Machiavelli's Geschichts-
auffassung und sein Begriff virtù
(Munich and Berlin, 1912).
Friedrich Meinecke, Machiavellism: The Doctrine of Raison
D'Etat and Its Place in Modern History,
trans. Douglas Scott
(London, 1957). Gennaro Sasso, Niccolò Machiavelli: Storia
del suo pensiero politico
(Naples, 1958). Neal Wood,
“Machiavelli's Concept of Virtù Reconsidered,” Political
15 (1967), 159-72.

After Machiavelli, texts: Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire
raisonné des sciences
(Berne and Lausanne, 1781), Vol. 35,


art. “Vertu.” Frederick the Great, Réfutation du Prince de
(Antimachiavell), Oeuvres (Berlin, 1846-57), Vol.
8. Thomas Hobbes, Elements of Law, Natural and Politic
(Cambridge, 1928); idem, Leviathan (London, 1651, and
subsequent editions). Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power,
trans. Anthony M. Ludovici, 2 vols. in The Complete Works
of Friedrich Nietzsche,
ed. Oscar Levy (New York, 1964),
Vols. 14 and 15.

After Machiavelli, commentary: the works of de Mattei
and Meinecke cited above. John Laird, Hobbes (New York,
1934; 1968). Leo Strauss, The Political Philosophy of Hobbes
(Chicago, 1952). Walter Kaufmann, Nietzsche (Princeton,
1960; 1968).


[See also Fortune; Happiness; Machiavellism; Necessity;
1">Relativism in Ethics; 9">Renaissance Humanism; Right and
Good; State; Stoicism.]