Machiavelli’s Three Key Concepts


If a political scientist were asked who might be the most misunderstood writer of political theory, he would probably have the name of Machiavelli high on his list.  To his name have been ascribed sinister motivations and calculated duplicity; and unscrupulous cherry-picking of his quotes has fashioned him into an ogre in the popular mind.

Part of this may be unavoidable.  In both The Prince and the Discourses, he had a tendency to draw sweeping generalizations accompanied by regrettable exaggerations.  He was not the stuff of which great politicians or diplomats are made; he was too honest, too direct, to really be trusted in politics.  His portraits show him to have a keenly intelligent face, animated by a restless and nervous energy.  In hindsight his enemies did him a favor by forcing him out of power:  for it was the leisure time of exile that allowed him to write his earth-shaking books.  Had he remained in court among the robed wielders of power, he would have become just another adviser, comfortable but forgotten.  As he himself might agree:  so it is that fortune turns a man’s bad luck into golden opportunities.

He was not overly concerned with systematic theories.  But there are, as Prof. Bernard Crick notes in his writings on Machiavelli, three “key concepts” that run through all his works:  fortune (Fortuna), necessity (necessità), and virtue (virtù).  I will discuss each of them here.

Necessity.  By “necessity” he means political necessity:  the idea that if a leader wants to accomplish goal X, he must use method Y.  But a careful reading of his works shows us that necessity alone is not enough; the goal itself must be a good one.  And for Machiavelli the goal was always order and stability.  He was concerned with stable, republican governments governed by free men; he hated chaos and despotism.  Living at a time when Italy was torn by factionalism and chaos, he looked with fondness on the golden age of Rome’s ancient period of republican institutions.  An active, participatory citizenry was one of the prerequisites for sound institutions promoting republican forms of government.

Fortune.  There is no difference—to my mind—between Machiavelli’s view of fortune and that view adopted by the ancient Latin writers on fortuna.  They are precisely the same.  Events are fluid and constantly changing; sometimes a man can control events, and sometimes he is controlled by them.  We cannot insulate ourselves completely from this reality.  There is a wonderful analogy in Chapter 25 of The Prince that sums up the role of fortune.  Machiavelli likens fortune to an onrushing river pushing a wall of water before it:  men can take some precautions to protect themselves from it in favorable times by building dams and dykes, but they cannot really prevent the wall of water from hitting them.  This is fortune.

The ancient writers said much the same thing.  A careful reading of Plutarch, Sallust, and Polybius all support the role that fortune plays in making—and unmaking—notable personalities.  It is not the same as fatalism or resignation:  this point must be stressed very clearly.  This would be going too far.  Machiavelli describes fortune in The Prince as a fickle and temperamental woman who must be taken by force:

[It is] necessary to beat and ill-use her…it is seen that she allows herself to be mastered by the adventurous rather than by those who go to work more coldly…She is therefore always, woman-like, a lover of young men, because they are less cautious, more violent and with more audacity command her.

We can do the best we can to try to master fortune, but the outcomes are not always assured.  Chance can never be eliminated.

Virtue.  Here again there is no difference between Machiavelli’s idea of virtue and that held by the ancient writers.  He means precisely what the ancient historians meant when they talked about virtus:  masculine virtue or manliness.  It is not easy to encapsulate in a few words.  It means valor, manliness, ability, guts, will-power.  And it is no accident that the Latin word virtus is related to the word for man, which is vir.

But to what should this “virtue” be applied?  Machiavelli makes it clear that virtue must be put to the service of the community.  It should not be wasted in vain, narcissistic aspirations for glory:  some kind of public service was the operative principle behind virtue.  States or communities either have a spirit of “virtue” or they do not.  Those possessing it will be better republics because each person will feel a sense of civic duty to the other.  Without this bond of connection between citizens, a state will never fully congeal and will remain unstable.  It is this “virtue” that can be a bulwark against the fickle vagaries of fortune.  And herein lies its supreme importance.  A man can impose his own will–to a certain extent–on fate by mastering his own character.

These are Machiavelli’s three overriding themes that emerge from his books.  It is probably true that one must read both The Prince and the Discourses together, since each complements the other.  By keeping them in mind when we read his works, we will have a better appreciation of his purposes.  At heart he was a man of order, a man of stability, a man concerned with restoring a sense of civic virtue in states beset by the machinations and schemes of self-aggrandizing princes and popes.  In this sense, his message could not be more relevant to us today.


Read more political philosophy in Sallust: