Virtù e Fortuna

Niccolò Machiavelli, an influential Italian politician, writer, and historian, wrote his political treatise The Prince during a politically unstable time in Italy. When the previously exiled Medici family returned to power in 1512, Machiavelli lost his position in Florentine politics. Although he was innocent, he was implicated in a conspiracy against Medici rule, so he was imprisoned, tortured, then confined to his home. In an attempt to regain a political position, Machiavelli wrote The Prince and dedicated it to the ruling Lorenzo II de’ Medici in hopes that Lorenzo would read it and give him employment. Although Machiavelli presented his work as a “mirror of princes,” a book meant to instruct and advise a ruler, there are some who see Machiavelli’s work as a satire, criticizing the principality as a form of government in favor of the republic. However, as he wrote The Prince intending for a prince to read it, any elements of satire or criticism would have to be cleverly concealed. Machiavelli uses the structure of his book to alter his arguments in order to subtly mock the principality.

Generally, Machiavelli structures the chapters of The Prince by presenting an initial argument about the nature of a prince’s power or the way a prince should rule, or by introducing and defining a concept. After this, he gives lengthy and detailed examples that prove or add to his initial argument. At times, these examples change his initial arguments or add new, unstated definitions of previously defined concepts. Two of the first concepts he discusses, which he later redefines using a deceptive example, are “virtue” and “fortune.” Machiavelli uses “virtue” in the same sense as the phrase “by virtue of…” or by one’s own means. He described the Romans as virtuous, saying they “did… what all wise princes should do” (Machiavelli 47), because when they “saw problems at a distance [the Romans] always remedied them” (47). This allowed them to “enjoy the benefit of their own virtue and prudence” (47). Using the Romans, he describes virtue as good leadership qualities. It involves being observant and careful to fix problems before they become threats. Here, and in other places, he uses the words “wisdom” and “prudence” together with virtue, showing that a strong and virtuous leader is wise and cautious. One who becomes a prince through virtue does so using his own arms rather than relying on others. While it is difficult to become a prince virtuously, it is easy to maintain the position. Machiavelli proves this point with the example of Hiero the Syracusan who “endured much labor in acquiring and little in maintaining [his principality]” (57). Hiero was elected as captain and used that power to become the ruler by eliminating and reforming the military, abandoning old alliances and forming new ones, and using his soldiers to create a foundation on which to build his rule. With this example, virtuous leaders are presented as strong and self reliant. Using Hiero, as well as the examples of Moses, Cyrus, Romulus, and Theseus, virtuous rulers are shown as men who came to their positions through their own means and arms, and got nothing from “fortune” other than the opportunity to exercise their virtue.

Machiavelli defines fortune as chances or opportunities, things that can lead an man to a position of power that are out of his control. This complicates virtue’s definition. It is useless without fortune, because without the proper opportunity a virtuous man will not be able to exercise his virtue in a way that will gain him power. Cyrus’ fortune was finding “the Persians discontented under the empire of the Medes, and the Medes soft and effeminate because of their long peace” (56). Theseus’ fortune was that he “found the Athenians dispersed” (56). Without these opportune conditions, these men would not have been able to use their virtue to gain power. But Machiavelli also makes it clear that fortune is useless without accompanying virtue. Were Cyrus and Theseus not virtuous leaders, they would not have been able to do anything with the opportunities they were presented with.

Machiavelli starts chapter seven of The Prince by arguing that those who become princes through fortune alone come into the position easily but face difficulty when trying to maintain their position. In this situation, he explicitly defines fortune as “when a state is granted to someone for money, or by the grace of whoever concedes it” (58). If a man came to power through fortune, he may not have had the virtue required to gain the position on his own. Once in power, the prince will have to “lay… the foundations that others lay in advance of becoming princes” (58) which, if the prince is not virtuous, will not be possible. However, if the prince does have virtue, he will be able to do this and maintain his position. After this argument, considering what was emphasized the most, readers would expect to see examples of men who became princes through fortune and either lost power due to lack of virtue or kept power because of virtue. However, his example of Cesare Borgia, which takes up the rest of the chapter, opposes his original argument. Borgia was a man who gained his position through fortune, yet was very virtuous as a leader, and still lost his position. By providing this example that at first seems in line with his original argument but actually opposes it, he is able to subtly change his argument and give new unstated definitions to the concepts of virtue and fortune. It is possible that Machiavelli does this to criticize the concept of a principality, as well as the Medici family who rule over him.

The initial argument itself warns against the failures princes who take advantage of fortune without having any virtue, and says that princes who take advantage of fortune but have virtue as leaders can be successful. However, the example presents a third argument: No matter how virtuous a prince is, if he relied on fortune to become a prince, a change in fortune can take his position away. Cesare Borgia was fortunate in that his father was Pope Alexander VI, and that his father raised him to a position of power. Though he became a prince through fortune, he “took every care, and did all those things that ought to have been done by a prudent and virtuous man to put down roots in those states that [fortune] had granted him” (59). Machiavelli presents a long list of the things Borgia did while in power, which all agree with his previous definitions and examples of the traits and actions of a virtuous leader. After deciding not to rely on his father anymore, he went about weakening and eliminating political factions and gaining favor for himself. To subjugate an unruly region, he gave power to Remirro de Orco, described as “cruel and expeditious” (61). After the region was made peaceful and he saw that de Orco’s cruelty may have caused feelings of hate toward Borgia, he had de Orco publicly executed. Machiavelli described Borgia as “very powerful and… secure against present dangers, since he was armed in his own way and had eliminated those arms which… might have harmed him” (62) showing him as a prudent leader who was careful to solidify his power. Borgia is cunning, able to use deceit when necessary to destroy factions. Borgia is also presented as cunning when he has a man killed, whom he had previously appointed, to improve his citizens’ opinions of him. Cunning and prudence are both attributes that Machiavelli had defined as virtuous. Above all, these are things that Borgia did by his own arms, showing Borgia to be a virtuous leader. At first, this seems to be in line with Machiavelli’s argument that “those who, through fortune alone, pass from being private persons to being princes do so with little labor, but they maintain themselves with a great deal of labor” (58) in that Borgia rose to power because his father gave him that position, but was able to maintain it by working to solidify his power and avoid having his people hate him. Machiavelli argues that new states such as these fall apart quickly unless the men “who have unexpectedly become princes, are of such virtue that they know right away how to prepare themselves to keep what fortune has placed in their laps” (58) and lay foundations for the continuation of their power. This is what he shows Borgia to have done. Considering this, the reader would expect Machiavelli to be making the argument that virtuous leaders will be able to maintain positions they gained through fortune. It is not until the last part of his example that Machiavelli presents the idea that fortune can harm a ruler as well. Borgia only became a prince because he was give the position by his powerful father. When Pope Alexander VI died and a new pope was appointed, Borgia was unable to maintain his position, despite his great virtue.

This example gives a second definition of fortune that Machiavelli does not directly state. While fortune was previously seen as something good, as opportunities or chances that can lead to power, it is now seen as something unpredictable and potentially harmful. Virtue can now be seen from a new perspective. Virtue and fortune were previously seen as meaningless without the other; virtue does not matter without the opportunity to express it, and fortune does not matter without the virtue to properly take advantage of it. Chapter seven’s argument said that a leader who gained power through fortune would not be able to keep it without virtue. But this example gives a new definition to the interplay of virtue and fortune: fortune can change regardless of virtue, so if a prince gains power through fortune alone, fortune’s changes can actually make virtue meaningless. This alters Machiavelli’s argument presented at the beginning of this chapter. While he seems to be arguing that a man who becomes a prince through fortune can keep his position through virtue, all he truly states is that a man who becomes a prince through fortune can lay the foundation for his continued rule through virtue. That does not necessarily mean that he will be able to maintain his position. In reality, Machiavelli is arguing that if a man becomes a prince through fortune, a change in fortune can just as easily take him out of power. Though he can lay the foundations of his power through virtue, a change in fortune may dethrone the prince regardless of whether he had laid foundations to solidify his power or not.

When it is considered that the prince who Machiavelli dedicated this book to was part of a hereditary principality, appointed to his position because of his family, it can be said that Lorenzo II de’ Medici came to his position through fortune, not through virtue. In this way, Lorenzo II is similar to Cesare Borgia. When considering his initial argument in chapter seven, it could be argued that Machiavelli is warning Lorenzo, as a man who became a prince through fortune alone, to be sure to act wisely and prudently. Earlier in The Prince, Machiavelli argues that hereditary principalities are easier to govern than new ones, so he is not threatening Lorenzo with the idea of imminent loss of power. But by presenting the idea that no matter how virtuous a prince in his situation is, he may lose his position through a simple change in his fortune, he appears to be mocking Lorenzo, the Medici family, and the idea of principalities. Also, the way he emphasizes new principalities and the positive qualities of men who go from being private citizens to princes through their own virtue, in a book directed toward a hereditary prince who did nothing at all to get to his position, he may be mocking Lorenzo and hinting that he is not a legitimate or adequate leader. Machiavelli is also the author of Discourses on Livy, a political treatise about republics, which many believe he favors over principalities. The way he changes his arguments and conceptual definitions using deceptive examples, such as that of Borgia, make him seem to be mocking the idea of principalities, which would confirm the idea that he favors a republican form of government.

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