Virtu and Fortuna
Virtu and Fortuna
Under close scrutiny, The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli is seen to be a mind-baffling construct of many levels of meaning, and, many might say, enigmatically so. It is hard to determine where Machiavelli is writing in earnest and where in sarcasm or self-condemnation. As John Plamenatz says, the perverse Machiavelli "likes to make himself out worse than he is. He likes at times to shock his contemporaries..." No doubt he succeeds. The important message here, though, is that the reader can never be positive of Machiavelli's real views. The same is true in considering the significance of the terms virtu and fortuna (and their several translations), so often used by Machiavelli to drive home his points. But by looking at many possibilities for their frequent and seemingly suggestive usages, and at some of the ancient thought with which Machiavelli was supremely familiar, we can arrive at a satisfactory speculation, we can discuss the web weaved by Machiavelli in his profes!


The first, most obvious purpose of The Prince is stated by the author himself, addressing Lorenzo de' Medici:
If you will read [this book] over and study it carefully, you will recognize in it my most earnest desire that you may achieve that summit of grandeur to which your happy destiny and your other capacities predestine you. And if from that summit Your Magnificence will occasionally glance down at these humble places, you will recognize how unjustly I suffer the bitter and sustained malignity of fortune.

Clearly there is a sizeable amount of cajolery occurring here (and also foreshadows the following discussion of fortune and virtue), and this same stroking of Lorenzo's ego continues through the book, with slight references to how fit to rule this prince is, how "virtuous," how fated to be the incredible Prince for whom Machiavelli writes. It could easily be said that with this book the author may have trying to ingratiate himself to all the local nobility; on the other hand, knowing what follows might also suggest that Machiavelli was really attempting to play off the nobility's fears of chaos and insecurity, guaranteeing safety if they read his short piece.

The second possible purpose--definitely an outcome--is the creation of a learned historical discourse. I will leave out examples; it suffices to say that The Prince encompasses many centuries of human history, many deeply researched examples of politico-military events, and so on. True, they serve enforce his ideas on "virtuous government," but they also seve the modern historian in his search for original sources.

A third possible purpose of The Prince might be to outline the ideal government or, if not the ideal, the most virtuous or the best possible. It is in this purpose, the same goal pursued by countless political thinkers in history, that we extract much of what the current age considers Machiavellian. The lord most would consider ruthless and cold, but whom Machiavelli names a virtuoso, is but one (probably Cesare Borgia, son of Sixtus IV) character in the book. The author's supposedly cruel way of equating bad with good is traditionally what has gotten him into hot water. The fact is, however, that Machiavelli never truly addresses the issues of bad and good, right and wrong, these absolute judgments most people would, I think, claim him to make. Machiavelli, in laying out the "best" government, does so from a completely political and pragmatic point of view, by what works, what is possible, and, really, what for his prince results in the most power and security. The auth!

or carries out this investigation using two parameters in particular, the Italian virtu and fortuna. They can be translated in many ways (Robert M. Adams has done it very nicley so I shall not repeat them here) which is part of what gives the book its depth. In general, though, the spirit Machiavelli attaches to these two crucial words resembles the following. Virtu embodies a paragon or paradigm; the virtuous man takes action, he anticipates and exhibits resolve, shrewdness and aptitude. Above all, he commits himself to politically sound, whole-hearted efforts. Politics here reign supreme; while he does acknowledge that there are ideals in the world, he asserts that it is futile to discuss them because in real-world situations they are never applied. Only what is practical, what is tangible and real--these are his subjects.

Virtuous action, Machiavelli implies,