The dialectic between virtue and Fortuna is central to Machiavelli’s thought. What does he mean by virtue? What does he mean by Fortuna? How does their relationship influence human politics? Can humans ever overcome Fortuna? If so, how? If not, why not?
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Niccolò Machiavelli’s writings show Renaissance ideas in their most original forms, especially his realistic and objective approach to human characters. Many critics believe that Machiavelli has a great influence on the new political system in which politics and ethics have a great rift. Machiavelli expressed his political arguments based on his observations and ideas. In his views, Machiavelli developed the political principles of virtù and Fortuna.
Machiavelli provided opportunities to scholars and readers to understand a political system purged of irrelevant influences of ethics in order to comprehend the basis of politics in useful use of power. Virtù captures Machiavelli’s idea of power and politics. The Italian word, virtù would mean ‘virtue’ in English and would express the usual meaning of moral goodness (Mansfield, 1996). However, Machiavelli had a completely different meaning of virtù when he addressed the Prince. Specifically, Machiavelli uses the idea of virtù to reflect different personalities that the Prince will acquire in order to “maintain his state and achieve great things” (Fischer, 2000).
From this statement, we can note that Machiavelli did not relate virtù with conventional virtue in society. According to Machiavelli, the Prince had to behave in any fashion as the situation required. Under a given political condition, the Prince could not divorce a moral viciousness from the scope of possible actions in which he had to undertake. In general, Machiavelli’s idea of virtù rests on his recommendation to the Prince that the Prince had to acquire a “flexible disposition” in order to protect his state and conquer new territories. Therefore, a leader could only suit the role by adopting different conduct of good and evil “as fortune and circumstances dictate” (Machiavelli 1965, 66).
The concept of virtù is also in Machiavelli’s The Art of War in which he highlights “the strategic skills of the general, which change in various battlefields as the prevailing war circumstances dictate” (Machiavelli 1965, 66). Machiavelli viewed politics and war as one in which the same virtù could apply. The ruler had to possess the same virtù as the war general. In other words, a ruler should know the suitable strategies for any prevailing circumstances.
In this regard, Machiavelli viewed virtù as power, which rulers had to possess for practical aims. The ruler had to use power competently. Thus, any ruler who had virtù must have mastered all methods, which involved the effectual use of power. Therefore, Machiavelli’s virtù was political power and not the conventional virtue of people who believed in moral good. In other words, virtù represents the core of success in politics.
Machiavelli introduced another principle of Fortuna in order to relate the effective use of power and virtù. In normal translation, Fortuna would mean ‘fortune’. However, Machiavelli viewed Fortuna as a threat to the safety of a state and could not support a political course. Scholars have debated the idea of Fortuna without much success or agreement. It is appropriate to claim that Machiavelli intended to use Fortuna in the same manner as virtù (King, 2004).
Conventionally, people considered Fortuna as benign and could provide both good and evil to people like a goddess of human beings. Machiavelli’s Fortuna is a harmful and rigid source of chaos, suffering, and misery to human subjects. Human Fortuna could help a man achieve success. However, Machiavelli noted that a man could not achieve success if the goddess opposed him (Machiavelli 1965).
Machiavelli explored the idea of Fortuna in Chapter 25 of The Prince. In this approach, Machiavelli recommended two concepts when faced with an event. In the first approach, Machiavelli claims that fortune is like:
“one of our destructive rivers which, when it is angry, turns the plains into lakes, throws down the trees and buildings, takes earth from one spot, puts it in another; everyone flees before the flood; everyone yields to its fury and nowhere can repel it” (Machiavelli, 1965, p. 92).
However, Machiavelli believes that people have the ability to control the furor of a raging river. In other words, people can take precautions and divert unwanted effects from nature. Machiavelli made the same observation about Fortuna as follows, “She shows her power where virtù and wisdom do not prepare to resist her, and directs her fury where she knows that no dykes or embankments are ready to hold her” (Machiavelli 1965, 90). Machiavelli shows that people can resist Fortuna, but only in situations where virtù and wisdom have prevailed and ready to face it. Therefore, Fortuna is like a woman whom rulers must control (Pitkin, 1984).
Machiavelli draws a strong comparison between Fortuna and blind forces of nature in order to reinforce the concept and show that success in politics relies on the effective control of the concept of Fortuna. Machiavelli claims, “it is better to be impetuous than cautious because Fortuna is a woman, and it is necessary in order to keep her under, to beat and maul her” (Machiavelli, 1965, p. 92). According to Machiavelli, rulers must keep Fortuna under control through violence because that is what it demands.
In fact, Machiavelli goes ahead and claims that “She often lets herself be overcome by men using such methods than by those who proceed coldly, therefore always, like a woman, she is the friend of young men, because they are less cautious, more spirited, and with more boldness master her” (Machiavelli 1965, p. 92). Therefore, such reckless behaviors of Fortuna need violence in order to control it or else, it will take advantage of men who cannot dominate it.
Machiavelli believed that Fortuna was a constant threat to humanity. Therefore, only effective measures could protect humans from the cruelty of Fortuna. In this respect, virtù provided the ruler with options of responding to Fortuna as circumstances dictated (Nederman, 2009).
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Politics, according to Machiavelli and Plato, has two opposing approaches. Plato believed that a ruler must rule through moral virtue. Conversely, Machiavelli believed in virtù i.e., whatever was best for the state was acceptable. In The Republic, Plato shows that ethics and politics are one. On the other hand, Machiavelli believed that rulers had to protect and conquer new territories. This assertion justified the ruler’s action by doing whatever is appropriate to protect the state regardless of ethics (Skinner, 2002). However, Plato did not support unjust rulers.
In The Republic, Plato opposes a ruler who has absolute authority over the subjects:
“In practicing a skill, we do not aim to go beyond, but only to hit the right point. Virtue is a kind of skill, and this requires knowledge of what is the right measure. The unjust man, therefore, is not exercising much of a skill, is he? Nor is the tyrant doing much of a job at ruling” (Plato, The Republic. 349E, p. 35-36).
Plato insisted that a good ruler had to know the proper note whereas unjust rule often went beyond it, which often led to self-destruction and destruction of states.
In dealing with the idea of ethics and state, Machiavelli adopted earlier works of Latin and Greek scholars. Machiavelli believes that the duty to protect the state is paramount for leaders. For instance, he claims, “A Prince, therefore should have no care or thought but for war, and the regulations and training it requires, and should apply himself exclusively to this as his peculiar province; for war is the sole art looked for in one who rules” (Machiavelli, p. 70).
Contemporary leaders have adopted the ideas of Machiavelli in order to facilitate the utilitarian needs of their states. According to Machiavelli, virtù is important than virtue in relation to the needs of the state. We have to recognize that Machiavelli looks at elements of successful leaders and the consequences of failure to protect the state. He also presents mercy and cruelty in a manner that makes subjects believe that what may appear cruel is necessary for the state.
Virtù may facilitate violence in a society if it has to justify the end. In his explanation, Machiavelli warns leaders to separate moral issues from politics. From the arguments of Machiavelli, we have to note that cruelty and politics are one, and politicians may be dishonest for the sake of their own good or the state. Therefore, absolute honesty cannot help politicians, and Machiavelli tells the Prince to shun it. He notes, “for there is no way to guard against flattery but by letting it be seen that you take no offence in hearing the truth, but when everyone is free to tell you the truth, respect falls short” (Machiavelli, 1965). Machiavelli notes that a good leader should have some advisors, who can speak freely about issues and advise him on matters of the state. However, the leader must only make a self-judgment on such issues.
Machiavelli raises moral dilemmas to leaders but wisely avoids a trap by providing alternatives to rulers (Deitz, 1986). For instance, Machiavelli considers whether subjects should “fear or love a ruler, but he notes that it is difficult for a leader to be both feared and loved” (Machiavelli 1965). This suggests that a leader must not be in this dilemma. In this case, a leader must exercise self-control in relation to subjects in order to maintain power.
Politicians must understand what is off-limits for them i.e., subjects’ women and property. In other words, leaders who seek subjects’ women and property for their own benefits are actually brewing hatred and contempt from subjects, and such actions ruin leaders. However, this does not make Machiavelli a moral advocate. Instead, this is a moral obligation, which aims to protect the ruler from the wrath of its citizens.
Therefore, Machiavelli’s political ideas are far from ethics that a good leader should possess, at least according to Plato. Plato warns that the “creation of evil is not an accomplishment of justice, but a failure of justice” (335 D, P. 15-16). According to Plato, leaders should not advocate for war. Instead, war indicates a failure of the justice system. On the other hand, Machiavelli believes that leaders must protect and conquer new territories.
Plato and Machiavelli express two different political views because they lived in different times. During Plato’s time, ideals and principles of society created utopia conditions in which leaders focused on how states could be and not how they were. This created an ideal society.
On the other hand, Machiavelli presented the reality of his time. Thus, there was no ideal world in Machiavelli’s time that Plato discussed. Machiavelli is an unethical political thinker who looks at politics in terms of necessities of the state rather than issues of ethics in his political thoughts. If we have to look at the way and the end of Machiavelli’s political thoughts, then we have to note that such political thoughts of Machiavelli lack moral virtue.
Machiavelli notes that leaders must establish their principality, and this should be their ultimate goal. Such political thoughts are precise because they show what a leader can do in any given situation rather than advocating for good or bad moral while the situation demands otherwise. Therefore, a leader will act in the best interest of the state and preserve its principality. In this scenario, issues of good or bad conducts do not have any relevance in state affairs. Therefore, the conventional virtue of moral good that leaders should possess changes to the concept of Machiavelli’s virtu’, which can put a leader in a moral dilemma.
The relationship among virtu’, Fortuna, and political thoughts show that principality demands whatever is necessary from a leader, which can be at odd with virtue and fortune. Fortuna is a dangerous force that a ruler must overcome because it has the ability to destroy anything regardless of moral or immoral attributes. Therefore, a good political leader must not abide with the moral virtue, but use virtu’ in order to control Fortuna for the best interest of the state.
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Fischer, M. (2000). Well-Ordered License: On the Unity of Machiavelli’s Thought. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
King, R. (2004). Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power, New York: Harper Collins. New York: Harper Collins.
Machiavelli, N. (1965). The Chief Works and Others, A. Gilbert (trans.). Durham: Duke University Press.
Mansfield, H. (1996). Machiavelli’s Virtue. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Nederman, C. (2009). Machiavelli. Oxford: Oneworld.
Pitkin, H. (1984). Fortune is a Woman: Gender and Politics in the Thought of Niccolò Machiavelli. Berkeley: University of California Press.
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Skinner, Q. (2002). Visions of Politics: Renaissance Virtues, Volume II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.