Definiton of Virtue in Macchiavelli

Hey everybody. I realize that I have been missing for a while, so I have decided to post here a paper that I had to write not too long ago for one of my classes. I would appreciate it if you do not plagiarize (cheating is bad for your soul). This is a little different from all of the other posts that I have on this blog, because it does not include an analysis of whether Machiavelli’s point is correct or not, I am simply pulling out of the text what Machiavelli argues.

Machiavelli uses the word “virtue” in two distinct ways. For the purposes of this paper, it will be marked when the word is used in the ancient sense and when Machiavelli uses it in the sense that he wants it to be used, at least on the part of the Prince. Machiavelli’s argument is that, distinctly from what ancient philosophers and the Bible believes about human nature, it is fallen, rotten, and bad and, therefore, that a new moral code and a new corresponding set of virtues is necessary to prosper in this fallen, rotten world (at least from his point of view). For this reason he creates a new definition of virtue which is pertinent to the Prince, i.e. whoever will take it upon himself to rule over the masses. In Machiavelli’s eyes, virtue is the tools by which a Prince gains power (i.e. imperium) and maintains his power over his people.

Before examining the nature of Machiavelli’s new sense of virtue, it is appropriate to see why he believes this new set of virtues is necessary, considering the nature of men. He starts from the premise that it is rather futile to have as the end goal “republics and principalities that have never been seen or known to exist…” (NM, pg. 61) referring to Plato’s Republic and the Christians’ understanding of the Kingdom of God. It is quite clear that he is not an optimist about what humans are, hence he says, “one can say this generally of men: that they are ungrateful, fickle, pretenders and dissemblers, evaders of danger, eager for gain.” (NM, pg. 66) Because of these qualities of men, and because, “it is a very natural and ordinary thing to desire to acquire, and always, when men do it who can, they will be praised and not blamed…” (NM, pg. 14) he is a realist in the sense that he would rather have one conform to reality and work from there rather than have them try to change the world around them.

Machiavelli puts forth the view that a person who sets himself to rule over other men, i.e. a Prince, should not appeal to traditional moral codes, but should rather seek a new, more macabre means of ruling. Understanding the instinctual repulsion that most people would have to his new teaching, he adds, “… if all men were good, this teaching would not be good; but because they are wicked and do not observe faith with you, you also do not have to observe it with them.” (NM, pg. 69) Having these as his guiding principles, Machiavelli sets up a new system of thought, where many of the principles of ancient philosophy are simply reversed.

Machiavelli’s set of new virtues—his moral code if such a word can be associated to him— concentrate not on a conversion or shaping of the soul (which was their older sense), but in the conversion and shaping of the people around the Prince, so as to facilitate the Prince’s rule over them. His top eleven virtues, though he does say that there are others like them are: meanness as opposed to liberality, rapaciousness as opposed to a nature of giving, cruelty as opposed to mercy, faithlessness as opposed to faithfulness, fierceness and spiritedness as opposed to being effeminate and pusillanimous, pride as opposed to humanity, lasciviousness as opposed to chastity, astuteness as opposed to honesty, hardness as opposed to being agreeable, gravity as opposed to lightheartedness, and unbelief as opposed to religion. (NM, pp. 61-2) The language of necessity is very prominent in The Prince, as was mentioned above, Machiavelli says that this new teaching would not be good in the theoretical world, but such behavior is necessary in the day-to-day world of humans.

Of the eleven virtues, Machiavelli decides to drive the first virtue the most, i.e. the importance of being rapacious rather than liberal or generous. He points out that a Prince who is generous with his resources—though, in truth, they are not his resources, rather the resources that he has gathered from the people—can only upkeep his generosity by eventually increasing taxes, which will cause him to be hated, a most undesirable feeling. Therefore, Machiavelli puts forth the idea that a Prince should always be tight-fisted or even stingy with his money, so as to make sure that, though he may get a reputation for stinginess, he does not cause a revolt among his people because he has to keep giving back and in greater amount each time.

Just below this quality, Machiavelli puts forth the importance of the virtue of cruelty. Even before he has formally introduced the new virtues, he spends a lot of time speaking about examples of cruelty and of cruel men throughout history and pointing out that when cruelty is used effectively and for a necessary cause, it helps and does not harm Princes. Machiavelli stresses that there are two kinds of cruelty, cruelty that is necessary and used properly and cruelty for the sake of cruelty, which brings only hate. (NM, pp. 37-8) He argues that no action is evil in itself, but rather that there are always extenuating circumstances which make actions that the ancients would call “evil” be proper, hence his annoyance with the writers that, on the one hand, praised Hannibal for his military success, but, on the other hand, blamed and looked down upon its principal cause, i.e. his “inhuman cruelty.” (NM, pg. 67) Machiavelli also points out Cesare Borgia, whose cruelty in dealing away with Remirro de Orco gained him at the same time, both the satisfaction of the people and stupor at his ferocity. (NM, pp. 29-30) Cruelty well used, he would suggest, makes a new Prince even more cemented into his throne than inheriting the position.

The case of Agathocles seems, at this point, pertinent for examination. He was an ancient tyrant of Syracuse, who gained his way into the throne with much violence, crime, and cruelty. Since his case comes before the introduction of  the new virtues, Machiavelli says, “… whoever might consider the actions and virtue of this man will see nothing or little that can be attributed to fortune… Yet one cannot call virtue [in the ancient sense] to kill one’s citizens, betray one’s friends, to be without faith, without mercy, without religion,” (NM, pg. 35) though, of course, all those virtues are mentioned in his list. However, Agathocles is banned from the highest tier of rulers because all his less-than-pleasant actions can be traced back to him. In this instance, Cesare Borgia may be of further help, in that he appointed De Orco, “a cruel and ready man,” (NM, pg. 29) to clean out Romagna in his name, which he did, but with much—albeit necessary—spilling of blood. Yet, Borgia set up a trial for him with an excellent (in the old sense) judge and executed him for his cruelty, so as to disconnect himself from the dirty work.

Machiavelli says that the most excellent tier of Princes are able to commit unspeakable cruelty and yet, by one means or another, move it away from their own person. Whether they use the excuse of being inspired by God to do so (as in the case of Moses in Chapter VII) or otherwise by simply choosing an arbiter and then executing him (as in the case of Borgia above), they are able to, “… appear all mercy, all faith, all honesty, all humanity, all religion.” (NM, pg. 70) For Machiavelli, it is very important to, while following his new moral code, to appear to follow the old moral code to a fault, thereby making the vast majority of his subjects believe that he is most excellent (in the old sense) while being able to keep his dominion.

For this reason Machiavelli introduces an animalistic example for all Princes to follow. Having implicitly argued throughout the Prince that a divine being does not exist, Machiavelli would have his students understand that the old metaphor of Chiron, the half-man half-beast is too optimistic and that, rather, they should understand that they are completely beastly and should take as their examples the lion and the fox. Whereas the lion is useful in “driving away the wolves” and the fox to “recognize snares” (NM, pg. 69), Machiavelli does concede that either or the animals could work, as in the case of Agathocles above (i.e. the lion) and in the case of Pope Alexander VI (NM, pp. 46-7), the fox. However, the most excellent men are those that can master both and switch from one to the other when it is necessary.

In the end, virtue (in the new sense) serves a second purpose, that of thwarting fortune or luck. Even in the case of Borgia, whom Machiavelli praises much over the course of the book, he made one false choice in the end i.e. he allowed the election of Pope Julius II, who was not friendly to him), which made him lose everything. However, if one could reach an inch further than Cesare, one could be successful in protecting himself from fortune, as enough dams and dikes could protect one’s property from any swelling river. (NM, pg. 89) Of course, Machiavelli recognizes that is impossible to control fortune completely, but that aiming to do so would allow one to do so much more than most people think they could do.

By the way, the version of the Prince used is:

Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince. Trans. Harvey Claflin Mansfield. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, 1998. Print.


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