Machiavelli's Virtue

Machiavelli's Virtue

by Harvey C. Mansfield

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Uniting thirty years of authoritative scholarship by a master of textual detail, Machiavelli's Virtue is a comprehensive statement on the founder of modern politics. Harvey Mansfield reveals the role of sects in Machiavelli's politics, his advice on how to rule indirectly, and the ultimately partisan character of his project, and shows him to be the founder ofSee more details below


Uniting thirty years of authoritative scholarship by a master of textual detail, Machiavelli's Virtue is a comprehensive statement on the founder of modern politics. Harvey Mansfield reveals the role of sects in Machiavelli's politics, his advice on how to rule indirectly, and the ultimately partisan character of his project, and shows him to be the founder of such modern and diverse institutions as the impersonal state and the energetic executive. Accessible and elegant, this groundbreaking interpretation explains the puzzles and reveals the ambition of Machiavelli's thought.

"The book brings together essays that have mapped [Mansfield's] paths of reflection over the past thirty years. . . . The ground, one would think, is ancient and familiar, but Mansfield manages to draw out some understandings, or recognitions, jarringly new."—Hadley Arkes, New Criterion

"Mansfield's book more than rewards the close reading it demands."—Colin Walters, Washington Times

"[A] masterly new book on the Renaissance courtier, statesman and political philosopher. . . . Mansfield seeks to rescue Machiavelli from liberalism's anodyne rehabilitation."—Roger Kimball, The Wall Street Journal

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Editorial Reviews

Roger Kimball
[A] masterly new book on the Renaissance courtier, stateman and political philosopher. . . . Mr. Mansfield seeks to rescue Machiavelli from liberalism's anodyne rehabilitation. -- Wall Street Journal
Mansfield (government, Harvard U.) analyzes Machiavelli's radical notion of virtue, arguing that Machiavelli intended to rule the world with his ideas. He reveals the role of sects in Machiavelli's politics and looks at his individual works as wholes, showing him to be the founder of later modern institutions such as the impersonal state and the energetic executive. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Hadley Arkes
[Mansfield] emerges from this writing, exquisitely patient and refined, with lessons for our current politics that are both apt and unsettling. The ground, one would think, is ancient and familiar, but Mansfield manages to draw out some understandings, or recognition's, jarringly new.
—Hadley Arkes, New Criterion

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Machiavelli's Virtue

By Harvey C. Mansfield

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1966 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-50372-1


Machiavelli's Virtue

Everyone knows that there is something remarkable about Machiavelli's use of the word virtù. Almost every book on Machiavelli discusses virtù, and a number of scholarly studies are devoted to explaining the Machiavellian meaning of that word. It needs explanation because Machiavelli's usage is at first blush both shocking and inconsistent.

A quick look at the best-known instance of virtù in Machiavelli will introduce the problem that commentators seek to explain. In the eighth chapter of The Prince, Machiavelli considers "those who have attained a principality through crimes." From his account it appears not only that the wicked prosper but also that their success may be, at the least, "accompanied" by virtù, or at the most, caused by virtù. Machiavelli's example from ancient times is "Agathocles the Sicilian," who became "king" of Syracuse (Machiavelli does not call him "tyrant") while always keeping to a life of crime at every stage of his career. In considering this criminal Machiavelli says that "one cannot call it virtue to kill one's citizens, betray one's friends, to be without faith, without mercy, without religion"—all of which Agathocles was or did. Yet in the very next sentence Machiavelli, doing what he said one cannot do, proceeds to speak of the "virtue of Agathocles." Later he says generally, stating the principle behind the attribution of virtue to a particular criminal, that a prince must "not depart from good, when possible, but know how to enter into evil, when forced by necessity" (P 18).

What is one to make of this? Machiavelli seems to deplore the need for a prince to be evil, and in the next breath to relish the fact. He alternately shocks his readers and provides relief from the very shocks he administers: Agathocles has virtù but cannot be said to have virtù, It is not enough to say that he uses the word in several "senses"; he uses it in two contradictory senses as to whether it includes or excludes evil deeds. What could be more clear, more essential, and more inconsistent than that?

It is no wonder that Machiavelli's translators have difficulty in rendering virtù. Sometimes they simply leave it untranslated, as if to isolate it in the sixteenth century, where it cannot affect us today. More often, skirting the question of evil, they use several words referring to amoral qualities, such as vigor, ingenuity, or boldness, which treat virtù technically, as the means to an end. Both ways of translating the word betray unease with the question of evil: one can treat it historically as a concern of the Renaissance or scientifically as a description of behavior on which the observer passes no judgment. But these are evasions unauthorized by Machiavelli. He does not confine his view to his own time, nor does he respect the conventional opinions of that time; and he frequently speaks of virtù transhistorically, as pertaining to the nature of man. He also passes judgment himself on the necessity of evil for virtù, though he does so inconsistently. And he seems aware, as many today are not, that to speak amorally in a moral context is to give a moral lesson nonetheless, and not one favorable to morality. For when Machiavelli advises a tyrant on how best to proceed—first become friendly to the people so as to bring down the nobles, then betray the people (D I 40)—he encourages tyranny and does not merely describe it. This is all the more true if some men have a natural inclination to tyranny, as seems to be the case according to him; and it is nonetheless true if all government, not merely that traditionally or conventionally called "tyranny," can be understood as oppressive or tyrannical, as he also seems to believe.

Thus the difficulty of translators in rendering virtù reflects a more general squeamishness not confined to them, a reluctance to face the problem of evil. After all, the translators translate for us, and in any case their attitude can be found among those who read Machiavelli in the original. We do not want to join the pack of hounds—the anti-Machiavellians—who chased the fox when he first appeared; that seems too simple and unsophisticated, as well as futile, in our time. Yet we are also uneasily aware that Machiavelli was, to say the least, present at the origin of a revolution in morality, which can be defined loosely in our terms as a change from virtue protected by religion to self-interest justified by secularism. The revolution is known to us, again using our word, as "modernity." Our involvement in modernity makes us skeptical of claims of virtue at the same time that it stirs a certain guilt in us for trying to live without virtue. So we would rather not use the word, and Machiavelli's use of it makes us uncomfortable.

To get to the bottom of our discomfort—I do not promise to allay it—it is necessary to face this question squarely: Do human necessities require us to compromise with evil? That is the question of Machiavelli's virtù. To facilitate the inquiry, I shall speak of Machiavelli's virtue because the literal translation helps to preserve our sense of shock that someone might use that word to describe the misdeeds of Agathocles, for example. Moral shock does not often provide a motive for calm investigation, rather the reverse; but in our situation the danger that we might regenerate the uncomprehending moral indignation of the early anti-Machiavellians is minimal. We moderns are all too cool, and we need a spark to sustain our interest in a question that used to stir serious passion.

There is another reason for speaking of Machiavelli's virtue, and that is to think about his virtue, not merely his notion of virtue. If Machiavelli was present at the origin of modernity, in what capacity was he there—as reporter, participant, leader, or perhaps even founder? To investigate these possibilities one must begin with the last one, the most ambitious and the one that accords with his promise at the beginning of the Discourses on Livy to work things he believes will bring "common benefit to each" (D I pr). It is hard to imagine a broader ambition for a human being, as a human being, than this. But how could a new notion of virtue cooperating or compromising with evil benefit everyone? How could a new readiness to do evil bring good? How could the teacher of such virtue in a new sense be virtuous himself in an old sense? With these questions we have already glimpsed a reason for Machiavelli's inconsistent declarations on virtue. Machiavelli's own virtue, we shall see, is the key to the puzzle of his notion of virtue.


We may appropriately begin our inquiry from Machiavelli's beginning: Machiavelli presents his notion of virtue as a revival of ancient virtue (antica virtù). He notes at the start of the Discourses on Livy that much honor is attributed in his time to antiquity, especially to the arts, and he complains that the "most virtuous works" of the ancients in politics are rather admired than imitated, and "of that ancient virtue no sign has remained with us" (D I pr). And again at the start of Book II, he speaks of the virtue that ruled at the time of the ancient Romans by contrast to the vice that rules now (D II pr). The revival of ancient virtue has been said to be the theme of the Discourses? But it also appears in the Florentine Histories as a standard with which Machiavelli condemns his contemporaries, when he speaks disparagingly of the admiration Italy offers to "every mediocre captain in whom any shadow of ancient virtue might be reborn" (FH I 39; see IV 12, V I). In the Art of War (III 312b) and in Machiavelli's comedy Mandragola (Prol., 694a), "ancient virtue" is used as a spur to his contemporaries. Of his major works only The Prince does not contain the phrase.

Who are the "ancients" whose virtue is to be revived? Twice, in the Discourses, Machiavelli uses the phrase in a general sense, once speaking of the intent of King Agis of Sparta to return that city to its ancient virtue (D I 9), another time referring to the ancient virtue to be found at the beginning of any republic (D III 22). All other times, however, he seems to have in mind the particular ancestors of the modern world, our ancients. And of these he means the Romans rather than the Greeks. In The Prince he refers to the "virtue and prudence" of the Romans as opposed to the "wise men of our times" (P 3); and in the Discourses he uses the phrase "Roman virtue" four times (D I 15, II 2, 8, 19), and "virtue of the Roman people" once (in the negative, D II I). He never says "Greek virtue," or "Christian virtue." The ancients he means are the Romans, they who had "countless most virtuous princes" (D I 20).

On the basis of his desire for a revival of ancient virtue, Machiavelli is commonly regarded as a man of the Renaissance. It would not be too much to say, indeed, that he is considered the man of the Renaissance. Jacob Burckhardt's classic interpretation, featuring the state as a work of art and a morality of individualism, would be lost without Machiavelli. But does Machiavelli truly belong to the Renaissance?

Evil Machiavellian characters abound in the Renaissance, but Machiavelli, it appears, is the only writer who excuses them, nayurges them on. He is the one who says of Cesare Borgia: "I do not know what better teaching I could give to a new prince than the example of his actions" (P 7). Macaulay and Lord Acton sought to excuse Machiavelli's teaching by referring to the criminality and corruption of his time, as if Machiavelli had learned his immorality by living in a bad neighborhood. But other authors of his time are not in need of such an excuse, which in any case does him little honor. Indeed, it is Machiavelli who deserves the honor of having invented that excuse. He was the first to teach openly and without apology that morality should be interpreted "according to the times" so that if the times are corrupt, one is compelled to live and behave corruptly and therefore morally excused for doing so. Machiavelli's reaction to his own time is mostly hostile and only partly approving. He condemns the princes of his day for the weakness that is manifest to all in the power and corruption of the Church and the division of Italy (P II, 12,26; PH 139; D I pr, II 2, III I). But he is willing to use the immorality of his contemporaries as a resource to remedy their weakness: do not despair! You too can sink as low as a Borgia. Insofar, then, as Renaissance Italy represents excusable immorality to us, we should begin to weigh the possibility that the Renaissance belongs to Machiavelli more than he to it. The one who excuses evil is above those who commit it (D I 9).

Renaissance means "rebirth," an event both old and new. The rebirth of ancient virtue will change the thoughts and habits of the age. This combination of old and new was understood by all thoughtful participants in the movement now called "Renaissance." But Machiavelli differs in this regard too. For him, the novelty of a rebirth is not only accepted but even welcomed. In the very place where he complains that no sign of ancient virtue remains with us (D I pr) he compares himself to the explorers of "unknown waters and lands" in his time and announces a perilous discovery of his own of "new modes and orders." These new modes and orders, we learn (D III I, 22), will need themselves to be renewed periodically. Similarly, in The Prince the hereditary prince who rules in customary ways (P 2) is soon removed from the scene by Machiavelli and replaced by the "new prince" whose virtue is to make a principality altogether new. Newness, for Machiavelli, has a value of its own that makes even the best institution dubious if it has become routine The excellence of the Roman political system ("constitution" gives it a sense too fixed to capture Machiavelli's meaning) was that it was always able to promote new men and reward innovation (D I I, 60). Machiavelli gives a new positive charge to newness itself in which we can recognize the favor that goes today, or used to go yesterday, to anything "modern." How to make "ancient virtue" consistent with periodic novelty will be a problem for Machiavelli's notion of virtue.

Machiavelli differs further from others in the Renaissance by the emphasis he gives, as we have seen, to Roman virtue over Greek. As opposed to "the wise men of our times," we have seen, he calls attention to the "virtue and prudence" of the Romans (P 3). Roman virtue is in politics and war; it is not the intellectual or contemplative virtue of philosophy or religion. To revive the virtue of the ancients, for Machiavelli, is to imitate their deeds and works, not to admire beautiful creations or think high thoughts except as a necessary means to the end of imitation. Machiavelli does not suffer from nostalgia for a classic golden age. Those who do prefer Greece to Rome; he prefers Rome for its power to inspire virtuous deeds. He initiates a modern interpretation of Rome that frees it from subordination to Greece. He even tries to cure Rome of the inferiority complex by which its own writers, especially Cicero but also Livy, judge it by standards inherited from Greek philosophy. Machiavelli wants to give Renaissance humanism a hard face: to deflate its esteem for classical rhetoric, to attack its adherence to philosophical tradition, to unsettle its accommodation with Christianity, to refute its belief in the virtues of the classical gentleman, and to remind it of the value and glory of the military.


One could give a longer account of Machiavelli's selective Renaissance and of the grave difference between his contemporaries' respectful view of ancient virtue and Machiavelli's less deferential version, or better to say, impudent appropriation of the name. Suffice it to say that none of Machiavelli's contemporaries gave the welcome to evil (or anything like it) that we have seen in him. But to understand why Machiavelli should have made this change, and to see his notion of virtue better by contrast, it is necessary to go to the source of ancient virtue. This can be none other than Aristotle. Machiavelli makes just one reference to Aristotle in the Discourses (D III 26) and none in The Prince. Xenophon appears to be his favorite ancient authority in morals, for a reason that will appear (Xenophon suits Machiavelli's design of politicized virtue). But there is no sound reason to doubt Machiavelli's thorough familiarity with Aristotle, and in any case the full extent of Machiavelli's departure from the notion of virtue in the tradition of moral philosophy will become apparent only in comparison with its classic presentation in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.

Here, then, is a summary of the Ethics as it must have looked to Machiavelli, because these are the salient features that he challenged and refashioned. Aristotle distinguished between moral virtue and intellectual virtue (NE 1103a6, 1178a9–10). Moral virtue is a habit, and is not given by nature; intellectual virtue requires a virtuous nature (NE 11o3a14–26, 1143b6–10, 1144b4). Moral virtue depends on intellectual virtue in several ways but is unaware of this dependence. To persons with moral virtue, moral virtue is "in itself": it is not for the sake of anything outside or beyond itself. A virtuous deed is done for its own sake, for the sake of being virtuous and such a deed is praised when done for a virtuous reason as opposed to personal advantage (NE 1099a7–22, 1115b19–24; d. Cicero, De Finibus 11 14.45). Moral virtue is therefore voluntary (NE 11o9b30–35). From the standpoint of moral virtue, men appear to be the cause of their own actions (NE 1112b32–33, 1113b19–22, 1139b4–5). How does one acquire moral virtue? One becomes morally virtuous by being so—by habituation in which one first does the actions and then learns the reasons. Thus there is a "virtuous circl"; the morally virtuous learn from the morally virtuous (NE 11o5a18–b12). Moral virtue is not inherited, but it is passed on as if it had no beginning.


Excerpted from Machiavelli's Virtue by Harvey C. Mansfield. Copyright © 1966 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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