The good, the bad and the political

Machiavelli’s war on virtue

Niccolò Machiavelli
Italian statesman, philosopher and writer Niccolo Machiavelli, circa 1500. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
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Every reader of The Prince and the Discourses notices that Machiavelli redefines the meaning of virtù as effectiveness, a kind of manly competence equal to all circumstances. The full consequences of this demoralizing redefinition are not always recognized, however, and the contrast with traditional humanistic conceptions of virtue may help bring them out.
In the traditional conception, worked out theoretically in Aristotle’s Ethics, human life may be lived at a pre-political and subhuman level, at a political and fully human level, or at a godlike level, in the polity but not of it. To move from the subhuman (or potentially human) to…

Every reader of The Prince and the Discourses notices that Machiavelli redefines the meaning of virtù as effectiveness, a kind of manly competence equal to all circumstances. The full consequences of this demoralizing redefinition are not always recognized, however, and the contrast with traditional humanistic conceptions of virtue may help bring them out.

In the traditional conception, worked out theoretically in Aristotle’s Ethics, human life may be lived at a pre-political and subhuman level, at a political and fully human level, or at a godlike level, in the polity but not of it. To move from the subhuman (or potentially human) to the human is to move from physical survival in villages to the good life in cities — from vivere to bene vivere as the Latins put it — or from mere existence to flourishing existence, also called eudaimonia or felicity.

To achieve bene vivere, the fully human or active life requires formation of habits or fixed dispositions of virtue, including courage, temperance, prudence and justice, that lie in a mean between excess and defect. Those citizens who acquire these mean dispositions (as clarified in the Politics) make the best magistrates. To achieve the godlike or contemplative life requires further perfections, the intellectual virtues. The sort of deep or scientific wisdom that would be necessary to found a new polis or reorder a failed one, the wisdom to recognize the best patterns in human polities and the prudence to apply them to particular cases, would have to come from the contemplatives, also called philosophers.


Machiavelli’s political science has no room for philosophers, whom he considers oziosi, armchair emperors, and impractical, corrupting influences. States should be reordered by experienced men of action who are also students of history and have the analytical skills to take the correct lessons from history and experience. Machiavelli also has no interest in rising from mere survival to a life where higher and finer human capacities are actualized by the virtues.

Instead of vivere and bene vivere he offers, as alternative ends of human government, survival and glory. The divine life of the mind is reduced to entertainment. Fixed habits of virtue for him are foolish and lead to ruin: the good prince must learn how to be bad when the situation calls for it, and the tyrant must learn to use the arts of good government tactically to hold on to his stato. Instead of fixed dispositions to virtue, Machiavelli recommends a toolkit full of modi, some traditionally associated with good government and others with tyranny. The wise prince or republican leader should learn to set aside whatever moral attitudes he has been educated to have towards these modi and use them as circumstances dictate, in the interests of power.

The Aristotelian mean, the ‘golden mean’ of moralists, which Machiavelli calls the via del mezzo, the middle course, is one of his bugbears. It is recommended only by witless people, unfortunately numerous in civic and princely counsels, who lack understanding of politics. The middle course, according to Machiavelli, is almost always the wrong one.

In Discourses 3.9, for example, he raises the question of whether a general should act in an impetuous or a cautious ‘mode’. Aristotle saw this as a moral problem concerning the virtue of courage, and counseled those who wished to form a fine character to develop a mean disposition between rash audacity and fearful hesitation. Machiavelli says that in military affairs the mean (which he ironically calls ‘the true way’) cannot be followed, and that one has to be either impetuous or hesitant as circumstances dictate. Fabius Maximus (known as Cunctator for his delaying tactics) was hesitant and cautious by nature but in the circumstances Rome found herself after her initial defeats at the hands of Hannibal, Fabius’ risk-averse modes matched the times. He won glory as a result, but in other times his hesitant modes would have brought disaster. By the same token, the impetuosity of Caesar was the right mode in his circumstances.

Cautious modes have their time and place, but Machiavelli on the whole favors bold, audacious, risky enterprises over half-measures and defensive thinking. Cautious modes are represented by the use of fortifications, which Machiavelli thinks are sometimes necessary but in general over-rated. Real power is won on the field of battle.

Another example that allows comparison with virtue politics may help bring out the blind spots in Machiavelli’s realist assumptions about power and virtue. Consider the famous story of Camillus and the Falisci in Livy, where the Roman general’s noble refusal to profit from betrayal by the Faliscan schoolmaster induces them to submit to Rome as to a morally superior polity. For humanists this was an archetypal example of charismatic virtue, showing how the Romans built their empire as much by the noble way they conducted themselves abroad as by their military prowess.

Machiavelli discusses the case of Camillus in Discourses 3.20 while addressing the celebrated Ciceronian question of whether it is better to be loved than feared. Machiavelli chooses to take the Camillus story at face value as a ‘true example of how much more a humane act full of charity is sometimes able to affect the spirits of men than a ferocious and violent act’. The key word is ‘sometimes’, signaling that for Machiavelli, humanity is just another tactic. Like the liberality of Fabricius and the chastity of Scipio, it was successful only because of the circumstances.

In the next chapter (3.21) Machiavelli goes on to explain why Hannibal, ‘using modes contrary to these’, such as ‘cruelty, robbery, violence, and every type of faithlessness’, had as much success in Italy attracting the loyalty of allies as Scipio with all his virtues had in Spain. Circumstances were different, so different modes were required. Leaders who became fixed in their modes would fail. Those who tried to stick to the golden mean would fail, because that mode is simply unnatural:

‘…for he who desires too much to be loved becomes despicable, however little he departs from the true way [i.e. the golden mean]; the other, who desires too much to be feared, becomes hateful, however little he exceeds the mean. One cannot hold exactly to the middle way, for our nature does not consent to it, but it is necessary to mitigate excessive conditions with an excessive virtue, as did Hannibal and Scipio.’ 

Machiavelli then comments that Scipio’s generosity to the Spanish population made his troops cease to fear him, so he was forced to move to the opposite extreme and treat them with ‘part of the cruelty he had fled from’ before.

Here Machiavelli’s realist analysis seems to fall short, and he provides no answers to questions that might, hypothetically, have been put to him by a humanist in the tradition of virtue politics such as Francesco Patrizi of Siena. How could behavior so inconsistent be a basis for mutual trust, and how could allies who distrusted each other work together effectively? And how can one expect to make new allies after betraying old ones? Trust in leadership comes from constancy and good will. How could a prince make effective use of the mode of Camillus if he was obliged to change modes when his circumstances changed? If the Falisci had submitted to Rome because they admired noble behavior in a Roman leader, wouldn’t that change once his nobility was revealed to be an imposture? Wouldn’t that justify the Falisci in rebellion?

And how can we know what our true circumstances are and how long they will last? Are the prince’s advisers really so cunning that they can see which way the wind will blow tomorrow?

Given his Epicurean view of nature as radically subject to chance, how could Machiavelli, or any other political adviser, claim to know what necessity dictates from moment to moment? Machiavelli advises the tactical use of virtues and vices where appropriate, cloaking vice in virtue as much as possible, but those who observe the prince closely over time will hardly be unaware that he follows a different rule, and consistently chooses his own utile over the bonum. That will make him predictable rather than unpredictable; perhaps not hated, but despised. Others will treat him instrumentally as he treats them: serving him when it is to their advantage, abandoning him when it is not.

Furthermore, lack of fides casts a shadow on all the prince’s other virtues and doubt on all his achievements. Faithlessness makes it impossible for a king to be admired, something all kings and other honor-seeking principes desire. The way of trickery, deceit and rash arrogance was the way of the barbarous Parthians, not the Romans. Even Machiavelli admits that the desire for onore e riputazioni motivates political elites, but are mere titles and empty honors enough to earn princes the admiration they seek? Did Caesar with all his power and that of his dynasty succeed in blotting out the memory of his crimes?

Just as law is insufficient to motivate good behavior in the absence of a good will, so shared interests, however sealed by contracts and treaties, are incapable of motivating cooperation in the absence of fides. Where there is no trust, force will have to take its place. Where there is no guidance from conscience, there can only be calculation, which in a world of shifting circumstances is bound to go wrong. Corrupt laws corruptly enforced by persons without virtue are morally indistinguishable from mere force and will restrain only the weak and gullible, those caught in the spider’s web of Anacharsis. Machiavelli presents himself as a champion of the people but his emphasis on law inevitably empowers the interpreters of the law, who will always side with the powerful individuals who pay them.

Machiavelli’s attitudes to virtue, law and religion thus present a striking contrast with those of the humanist advocates of virtue politics. The humanists inherited from the ancients the paradox of philosophical politics. This was exposed most clearly by Plato in the Republic. The Greek philosopher had a vision of an ideal order in the state, but ultimately it was an order that could never be realized in the world of time and change thanks to human ignorance and vice. Political philosophers had to be content with approximations of the ideal in states, or live the ideal in their own lives, awaiting a rectification of moral accounts in the afterlife.

This was the paradox of the ancients. Machiavelli was the first to explore the paradox of the moderns: that evil must be done in order to safeguard the good. This is a paradox of statesmen, not of philosophers, and it acquires moral gravity because, even in democracies, statesmen must choose not only for themselves but for others. Humanist statesmen in the tradition of virtue politics were required ‘to take a vow of goodness in every circumstance’ because of their commitment to the classical ideal of virtue. They believed, or hoped, that virtue and the good life, bene vivere, once achieved by individual principes, would lead to happiness for states. Machiavelli sees bene vivere as the enemy of vivere, the survival of the state. Statesmen cannot aim at nobility and personal integrity but must be ready to choose baseness in order for the state to survive. For Machiavelli that is another reason to prefer a popular regime, because its ordini, properly formulated, demand virtù but not nobility in its leaders.

The belief that power is necessary for the survival of the state is not of course false or morally wrong. Aristotle knew that military power was a condition of the higher flourishing of the polis, just as health, wealth, and respect in one’s community were for an individual. But these were ‘external goods’, preconditions of eudaimonia, not constitutive of it. External goods existed to enable higher human flourishing in the soul. Through politics those living the active life could achieve the full human good, and those following the contemplative life could approximate the gods. Machiavelli had no such perfectionist aspirations in politics: for him a successful republic was one that was rich, powerful, glorious and long-lived.

The gap between the humanists and Machiavelli is thus a gap between ancients and moderns: a gap between two visions of a good state, and between two ways of using the past. The humanists admired the Romans because at their best they were noble and godlike. Machiavelli admired them because they were powerful and dominated other peoples for a thousand years. As Leo Strauss noted long ago, Machiavelli’s brand of politics implies a certain declension in the moral aspirations of states and statesmen. Machiavelli preferred being a live dog to a dead lion, forgetting that in the long run we are all dead. He believed that a powerful dog could win glory, even become top dog, forgetting that a glorious dog was still a dog.

James Hankins is a professor of history at Harvard and the general editor of the I Tatti Renaissance Library. This essay is taken from his latest book Virtue Politics: Soulcraft and Statecraft in Renaissance Italy (Harvard University Press).