Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Concept of Virtue in Machiavelli's The Prince

In The Prince, Machiavelli's concept of virtue departs from the conventional meaning associated with the word, indicative of moral excellence. Machiavelli uses the Italian word virtù, which does not have an exact English equivalent. It seems to be closer in meaning to the Latin word virtus or manliness. Translators have difficulty in rendering virtù, often using several words referring to amoral qualities that skirt the question of evil, such as ingenuity or boldness. Virtù, simply put, is the ability of a ruler to do whatever must be done in order to achieve success.

In Chapter VI, Machiavelli praises leaders like Cyrus, Romulus and Theseus and illustrates how these men rose to be princes without being dependent on fortune. Such men may face initial difficulties establishing their governance but once they do, they attain security with ease. However, Machiavelli is quick to state that fortune brought these men the opportunity to make use of their 'powers of mind'. Romulus would not have become the King of Rome if he had not remained in Alba and been abandoned at birth. It was necessary for Cyrus to find the Persian people discontented with the government of the Medes. Theseys too, could not have shown his skill had he not found the Athenians dispersed. Thus, virtù without opportunity to use it is wasted, while opportunity is wasted without virtù.

In Chapter VII, Machiavelli considers how certain 'private citizens' become princes through good fortune, by luck or by the aid of others. Such rulers may acquire principalities with ease, but they encounter problems in maintaining their position. It is important that those who acquire states unexpectedly by fortune, are also men of great ability such as Fransesco Sforza, in order to lay a solid foundation. Cesare Borgia became a prince greatly dependent on the influence of his powerful father, Pope Alexander VI. He used force in the strategic conquest of foreign lands, established a loyal military force and developed cautious yet friendly relationships with neighbouring states. A man of great courage, Borgia radiates virtù but it is not enough to save him from an unfortunate end. The sudden death of his father and his own unexpected illness left him incapable of fully consolidating his power. It is worth noting that Machiavelli is approving of Borgia's tactics of deception and cruelty which led to a brief period of success.

From Chapter XV, Machiavelli begins a discussion of the qualities that an ideal prince should possess. In contrast to the idea of leaders upholding the highest moral standards in their daily lives, he believes that a ruler should have knowledge of what is wrong and look to necessity for its use. Vice must not be reproached if it will benefit the state as a whole and virtue must be sacrificed if it will be harmful to the prince and his state. All recommendations of virtuous action are tempered by the argument of their efficacy. They are good only if they have certain definite and desired ends. Chapter XVI focuses on the virtue of liberality or generosity and how much it is beneficial for the prince. Machiavelli warns rulers against squandering away their wealth through unnecessary lavish displays as this will adversely affect the citizens of their states. Citing the King of Spain and Pope Julius the Second as examples, he observes how new princes must appear liberal while they are securing a firm base but once they have acquired power, they should curtail their spending. The prince must get the people to expect the worst; then, virtue will appear as bringing relief in contrast. In Chapter XVII, Machiavelli tackles whether it is better for a prince to be 'loved than feared or feared than loved'. He says that a prince should inspire fear among his people in such a manner that even if he does not win love, he avoids hatred. Mercy is useless when it will bring about a situation of disorder in the state. If those who commit wrong are spared their punishment, the innocent remain at risk from the future actions of such a criminal. The way Cesar Borgia subdued the lawless Romagna region is considered praise-worthy. A pessimistic view of mankind is brought to the fore when Machiavelli states that men are 'ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely'. Although he does not advocate cruelty for cruelty's sake, Machiavelli feels that it is justified in certain cases.Taking Hannibal as an example, he observes how a combination of inhuman cruelty and bravery inspired respect and awe among his soldiers. On the other hand, too much forbearance in the case of Scipio resulted in his army rebelling against him at Spain. Chapter XVIII concludes the discussion of virtues that must be displayed by a prince. The most successful outcomes are a result of actions which may seem unscrupulous- "How praiseworthy it is for a prince to keep his word and live with integrity rather than by craftiness, everyone understands; yet we see from recent experience that those princes have accomplished most who paid little heed to keeping their promises, but who knew how to manipulate the minds of men craftily". Sebastian de Grazia in Machiavelli in Hell, refers to Machiavelli's justification of deceit as the 'Un-Golden Rule', whereby one may do unto others as he can expect they will do unto him.

The classical concept of 'civic virtue' put forward by philosophers like Aristotle as a moral code applicable to rulers and subjects alike, is critically transformed in Machiavelli's concept of virtù, which pertains to rulers of states and can be at odds with moral virtue. According to Harvey Clafin Mansfield in his book titled Machiavelli's Virtue, the phrase verita effettuale in The Prince, when applied to virtue says that virtue is what it gets one. But virtue may get "ruin rather than preservation" unless one learns "how to be able not to be good". Machiavelli's notion of virtue, which welcomes the vices, must continue to coexist with the old notion, which is repelled by them. To create the contrast between virtue and vice, the prince must practice both; this being what it means to use virtue.

- Tanuka Mukherjee
   PG II
   Roll Number: 73


  1. Thank you for the descriptions.

  2. Interesting insight. Read also an Interview with Niccolo Maciavelli (imaginary) in

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