Throughout history there have been two main kinds of virtue. One is Plato’s, in which virtue is associated with attributes such as justice, wisdom, courage and moderation, and the other is Machiavelli’s, in which is associated with being the best at any given task. Many reasons could account for this drastic change in the definition of virtue put forth by Machiavelli, but the most important would be found in a consideration of the time period in which Machiavelli lived. This paper will explore how and why Machiavelli’s concept of virtue came to be so different from the one Plato had originally put forth.
There is ample evidence to suggest that Machiavelli was familiar with the works of Plato. He was an avid reader of many subjects, especially those of a political nature. He was also an admirer of Ancient Roman society and must have been exposed to many ancient authors. There was also the fact that for all their intellectual advances in art, law, philosophy and medicine, the Renaissance Italians were indebted to the ancients. Their practice of imitating those thinkers of ancient history led the Italians to rediscover many facts about the world, which were once only known to the ancients. Even so, Machiavelli chose to radically change the concept of virtue to an idea that is nearly the opposite of what Plato had in mind. (Wootton xiii)
The concept of virtue that Plato had in mind was most readily laid out in the Republic. Although it is mentioned several times throughout the book, virtue generally comes to mean an attribute of the concepts already explained above. Specifically, with regard to justice, which the Republic is most concerned with, virtue means being just. For the citizens of a state to be virtuous, they must be just to their fellow citizens and the state itself, and for the state to be just, it must attempt to run the most virtuous state as possible.
In the beginning of Book I, Socrates gets into a debate with some of his fellow citizens about the meaning of justice. After Polemarchus picks up where Cepalus’s argument left off, Thrasymachus, who is getting fed up with Socrates consistently refuting the arguments of all who try, attempts to give his own definition of justice. He demands that Socrates give his own account of justice. But after some words, Socrates persuades Thrasymachus to put forward his concept of the virtue of justice. The account of justice that Thrasymachus finally gives is that “justice is the advantage of the stronger.” It is a sort of “mite is right” argument in that whoever is ruling, and whatever they demand of their subjects must be obeyed. If the citizens do not obey, then they are being unjust. (Grube)
The view of Thrasymachus is somewhat similar to Machiavelli’s view. In The Prince, Machiavelli lays out his concept of virtue (which he calls virtú) in chapter 6, which is entitled “About new kingdoms acquired with one’s own armies and one’s own skill [virtú].” In the chapter, one is left with the impression that virtú means that quality which one is endowed with when they are the best at what they are doing. Thus a soldier is virtuous when he is successful in defeating an army, or gaining a new principality.
As Machiavelli put it, “The virtuous man is the man who has those qualities that lead to success in his chosen activity.” For Machiavelli, a person need not be “good” to be virtuous. After all, Machiavelli condoned lying, treachery, cowardness, murder, anything necessary as long as it leads to victory in the chosen field. This idea of virtue is a far cry from that of Plato or Christianity, which had been the official religion of Italy for twelve hundred years. (Wootton)
In the same chapter, Machiavelli highlights certain people who, in his opinion have been the most virtuous throughout history. He lists, “Moses, Cyrus, Romulus, Theseus, and others like them,” to make his case. He dismisses Moses skill because it is a skill derived from following the direct instructions of God. But he then goes on to discuss the others because they have all “acquired existing kingdoms or founded new ones.”
Machiavelli admits that, “the founders of new states have immense difficulties to overcome, and dangers beset their path, dangers they must overcome by skill and strength of purpose.” But as he then goes on to say, the most virtuous, “once they have overcome [the dangers], and they have begun to be idolized, having got rid of those who were jealous of their superior qualities, they are established, they are powerful, secure, honored, happy.” (Wootton)
To understand why Machiavelli’s concept of virtue may have been so different from that of Plato, one need look no further than to Machiavelli himself and the time period in which he lived. In the sixteenth century, Italy was divided into many different, competing states. There was a near constant shift in alliances between the differing states that lead to having to be constantly aware of the possibility of danger from a neighboring state. There was no real security in Italy; there were powerful people constantly vying for more power, and many of them willing to gain that power by any means necessary. Under this system of chaotic statehood, diplomatic officials, and military and political advisors had to constantly be alert for any new crisis that might move previously friendly states to war. (Wootton)
In most of these states in Italy, torture was accepted as a legal means of obtaining confessions for crimes, or pursuing investigations into crimes. In 1513, Machiavelli had the unfortunate circumstance of finding himself under question in regards to his supposed plotting against the Medici family, who were then in control of the new government in Florence. He was tortured on a contraption known as a strappado. This device is, at its simplest, a rope thrown over a high beam.
The prisoner’s hands are tied behind his back and he is then lifted up several feet in the air. If allowed to hang there for several hours or several days, he considers himself lucky. The other way of using the strappado is to allow the prisoner to fall until his feet almost touch the ground and then pull the rope tight. The result is generally two dislocated shoulders, and extreme pain. Machiavelli had this happen to him six times in the same investigation. Italy in the sixteenth century was not a pleasant place to live. (Wikipedia)
Machiavelli’s political career had mostly to do with military planning. As a civil servant, his most important achievement was in 1505-6, when, in Florence, he organized a militia to replace the mercenaries upon which Florence had traditionally relied. He was at the same time a diplomat and responsible for traveling to several different neighboring states in attempts to keep the peace. (Wootton)
In 1494, Italy was invaded and continued to be invaded on and off throughout the rest of Machiavelli’s life. And as diplomat and war advisor, his job was to find alliances in any way possible. This is the reason Machiavelli thought it so important not for a ruler to live his life by principle, but powerfully.
The Prince is an example of the way a tyrant would hold on to power. In modern day democratic theory, some people would argue that the need for all information to be made available to the public is necessary for the public to be able to decide which path in a particular situation the state should follow. According to The Prince the people should have no say in the direction of government and should never influence the rulers thinking, unless it would add to the ruler’s virtue.
When considering the age in which Machiavelli lived and the events and responsibilities he had in life, it is easy to understand why he would view virtue so radically different than Plato. When Machiavelli was so involved with the planning stages of military strategy, doing his best to not have Florence invaded by a hostile power, it may have been necessary to do and say things he knew were lies. And being in an environment like that, and trying to be good at what he was doing, led Machiavelli to develop a concept of virtue that was completely distinct.
Grube, G.M.A., ed. Republic. 1st ed. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992.
“Strappado.” Wikipedia. 08 Apr. 2006
Wootton, David, ed. The Prince. 1st ed. Indianapolis : Hackett, 1995.
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