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Crick on Necessity, Fortune and Virtue in Machiavelli Bernard Crick, “Introduction” in Niccolò Machiavelli. The Discourses. Bernard Crick, Ed. Leslie J. Walker, S.J. Trans. New York: Penguin Books, 1970. pp. 53-60.

Here are three key terms in Machiavelli: Necessity, Fortune and Virtue.

[53] But if no philosophy or formal methodology are to be found in Machiavelli, certain concepts recur constantly, both explicitly and implicitly binding together his theories into some sort of coherence. They are Necessità, Fortuna and Virtù


"Necessity" refers to the law-like consequences that must necessary follow in certain situations.

Notice the incidental comment about rhetoric vs. logic in this paragraph. This is not they way we have used the term in class.

Read Chapter 18 of The Prince.

Necessity. Many commentators reject the alleged method of Machiavelli because of his proneness to call things ‘necessary’; just as many critics of Marx and Engels take their use of this [54] term, with greater warrant, at its face value, but having, like Berlin and Popper; shown brilliantly and properly that ‘necessity’ can never be proved, they then neglect to ask how true are the actual theories, regardless of whether they are only probable rather than demonstrably ‘necessary’. There is usually a good deal more rhetoric than logic about ‘necessary’, but this does not necessarily invalidate the conclusions, although it makes them tentative and fallible but still, perhaps, likely. In fact, Machiavelli’s ‘necessity’ is only ever a hypothetical or consequential necessity: if you wish to achieve X, you must do Y and Z. It is ‘necessary for a prince to know how to act like a beast as well as a man’—that is if he is to maintain his position. And, again from The Prince, chapter 18, a new prince, especially, ‘is often driven (necessitato), in order to maintain his position, to act contrary to good faith, charity, humanity and religion: he has need of a mind ,ready to turn according as the winds of fortune and changes in the situation dictate.[25] As Walker comments, ‘the conflict between expediency and morality could scarce be more plainly expressed’. ‘Necessity’ is always political necessity in given social conditions; but this stands and falls by his moral identification with the preservation of the state as the first object of human activity: it has absolutely nothing to do with eighteenth- and nineteenth-century attempts to find objective laws of development for human society. And one can always avoid ‘political necessity’ by retirement into private life or by flight; it is simply the case that—by one scale of values—one should not. It is necessary, implies Machiavelli, for someone to get his hands dirty in running a state, or to take-up the burden or the curse of political power. It depends for what sort of state. When he says in Discourses III.41 that when the safety [55] and freedom of one’s country are at stake, ‘no attention should be paid either to justice or injustice, kindness or cruelty. . .’, it is clear in the context that he means by freedom both the independence of a state and its maintenance of its own customary laws. Some might still not agree, and on one scale of values we then honour them as secular or religious saints (‘Let justice be done though the heavens fall’, as it improbably says above the Old Bailey Criminal Court in London); but we must then gently note that they are right outside politics. Machiavelli puts as a dramatic—perhaps melodramatic—maxim what Lincoln once put as a sobering reflection: ‘It has long been a grave question whether any government not too strong for the liberties of its people, can be strong enough to maintain its liberties in great emergencies.’ But I suspect it was the same, essentially humanistic, dilemma of ‘necessity of state’ in both men.


Read Chapter 25 of The Prince.

Fortune is chance, change or the apparent capriciousness of life. It is part of situations that require cunning. See Detienne and Vernant.

Compare also Burke's commentary on Fortune in Machiavelli.

Fortune. ‘As the winds of fortune and changer in the situation dictate . . .’ Fortune, the woman, is ever changeable. Things rarely remain fixed for long. The politician must know this and guard against it. ‘Changes in the situation’ can be narrowly political, as so often in the turbulent politics of his time, but beneath this superficial level there is, as the whole stress on social classes and conflict shows, a sociological level of tendencies and shaping factors. If these tendencies are properly understood, Fortune can be guarded against and resisted. The famous passage on Fortune in The Prince, Chapter 25, compares Fortune to a river which, when in flood cannot be resisted and sweeps all away, but against which in fair weather men can take precautions of building embankments and dykes. These precautions may not work, but sometimes they do; and this is the path of political prudence. But if these precautions have not been taken, or prove ineffective, there is still the possibility of intense personal or princely audacity succeeding—as in the famous metaphor of [56] Fortune the woman who must be taken by forced[26] (a remote possibility, but, in the circumstances, the only thing to do if an ethic of action rather than one of suffering is to be pursued). So Fortune is not necessity. It can, in theory and occasionally in practice, be resisted by men of super-abundant virtù. In fact, this is part of the strength of republics over principalities. If the Borgia prince, the great lion-cum-fox, is ready with his army in the hills to descend on Rome and coerce the election of the new Pope, he may be suddenly struck down by fever and reduced to a babbling impotence, recovering too late so that the whole enterprise collapses. But in a republic there would have been others to step in his place. On the other hand, it is unlikely that such an enterprise could have been launched but by one resolute man.

Underline added.

So Machiavelli’s Fortune is not simply accident, nor is it a kind of deterministic sociology, nor yet the preordained ‘Doom’ of the northern myths or even the fatalism of the inactive cynic: it is the sudden, aweful and challenging piling up of social factors and contingent political events in an unexpected way. Now there is something mythological about some of the ways he uses the concept: it is part of his pagan ethic. The ‘gods’ or ‘the heavens’ send good Fortune or bad Fortune with inscrutable whimsy. It is prudent to accept Fortune as she comes; but it is heroic, and sometimes successful, to resist. Something of the god-like is attributed to the than who can rape Fortune. And this need not be mere literary [57] imagery in Machiavelli: it is a touch of classical paganism, that men and gods are (unlike in Christianity) of one substance, so that a man who has super-abundant skill, force, manliness and all that can possibly go to make up virtù, becomes a demi-god.[27] Plainly there is a great unresolved muddle in Machiavelli between the concepts of Necessity and Fortune; but neither invalidate his general theories nor spoil what is, in the result, the extraordinary balance he strikes between factors of social conditioning and freedom of action.

When we think of "virtue," week think of morality. But for Machiavelli and many other writers, virtue has more to do with virtuousity or skill than morality. The Greeks spoke of virtue in this sense, as did other ancient cultures. Consider again the character of metis. Skill and morality were the same things. Being cunning and being "good" were the same concept.

Underline added.

Virtù. The last phrase of the first chapter of The Prince says that a prince can govern a new state, ‘o per fortuna o per virtù’. ‘Either by fortune or by prowess’, George Bull ingeniously renders it; W. K. Marriott’s translation has it as ‘ability’; Allan Gilbert’s as ‘strength and wisdom’; some of the older translations said simply, ‘valour’; and Father Walker sometimes risks the ambiguous ‘virtue’ itself. The last is possibly the best solution, although in English the particular meaning of virtue implied is now somewhat archaic, but not so archaic that anyone who can read Shakespeare or the King James Bible [58] would not be with it.[28] Better still, perhaps, to admit defeat and to regard the term, in all its rich connotations, as untranslatable. It comes from the Roman ‘vir’ (man) and ‘virtus’ (what is proper to a man). But what is proper to a man? Courage, fortitude, audacity, skill and civic spirit—a whole classical and renaissance theory of man and culture underlies the word: man is himself at his best when active for the common good—and he is not properly a man otherwise: politics is not a necessary evil, it is the very life. It has little or nothing to do with the Christian concept of virtue and virtuousness—virtuosity is closer to the mark. Machiavelli, indeed, sees virtù and the Christian doctrines of humility as directly opposed. Usually the word is far from morally neutral. To say ‘life-force’, ‘guts’, ‘will power’, ‘valour’ or ‘high spirit’ helps in understanding its predominant meaning to Machiavelli, but is insufficient. Certainly there are occasions when he uses it simply to mean technique and efficiency; he is not wholly consistent. But ordinarily, as must be plain to anyone who reads The Discourses as well as The Prince, virtù implies a specifically civic spirit. Virtù is the quality of mind and action that creates, saves or maintains cities. It is not true virtù to destroy a city.[29] Hence it always implies a political [59] morality. ‘Civic spirit’ is probably the best simple translation—if by ‘spirit’ one means spirited action,[30] like the arete of the early Greeks—as in Homer’s description of Achilles as being ‘a do’er of deeds and a speaker of words’; and in Machiavelli’s relishing the significance of Achilles’ tutor having been a centaur, ‘half-beast and half-man’. Lastly, while he often uses the term in a hortatory way—people should recover their virtù’ while there is time, or should not have let it idle away into ozio (indolence or corruption)—its force is as often empirical. Does a state have virtù among its inhabitants or not? Are there, in a word; citizens? If there are no or too few citizens, one is doomed to personal or princely rule; but if many, then a republic can flourish, and will prove—the by now familiar argument—the stronger form of state.[31] Look around the modern world. It is a reasonably precise criterion. To give one dangerous example. Leave aside the rights and the wrongs of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Is it not obvious that the weakness, for all their numbers and arms, of the Arabs is related to the historical lack and the slow development of a class of citizens—men who combine individual initiative with collective discipline? And that much of the strength of Israel is related to its citizen culture?

Here is the key to understanding the connection between necessity, fortune and virtue: by studying necessity--the way things typical happen--the person of virtue can overcome fortune. Consider all that ancient wisdom had to say about the weaker defeating the stronger by superior cunning. This is the same concept. The virtuous manager study corporate necessity to over come the fickle changes of fortune.

[60] This virtù, if it studies necessity, can combat fortune. This is the theory to be pursued, but there are no guaranteed methods of success or certain methods of drawing lessons from the past: only probable ones. And these we should follow, as the best we can do—which is a lot better than before, he modestly implies, I, Niccolò Machiavelli, wrote my two great manuscripts.

But what is it, strictly speaking, a theory of? Man? No, that is too general. I think Felix Raab is right: ‘It does Machiavelli no violence to regard him as the apostle of political stability’.[32] ‘Apostle’? Yes, that was his political ethic. But he is also the theorist of political stability. And we need not swallow our moral dislike of certain regimes to see that the centre of the study of politics is to understand how they are maintained, and why they change, the good, the bad and the indifferent.

But if we admitted, indeed claimed, that in this sense there is a political science, yet—for the last time—nothing Machiavelli says implies that it is certain. Yes, the criteria or conditions for republican rule which we discussed in the last section are meaningful and valid, ceteris paribus, or in the long run, or in normal prudence; but if Fortune can effect them, so can human will. Following the passage in The Discourses I.55 where he argues the necessity of getting rid of the gentry, if a republic is to thrive, he says:

Examine this description of leadership and its applicability to the demands made upon managers today.

But since to convert a province, suited to monarchical rule, into a republic, and to convert a province, suited to a republican regime, into a kingdom, is a matter which only a man of outstanding brainpower and authority can handle, and such men are rare, there have been many who have attempted it but few who have had the ability to carry it through. For the magnitude of an undertaking of this kind is such that it breaks down at the very beginning, partly because men get terrified and partly owing to the obstacles encountered.

[25] Quoted by Walker in hi admirable section on 'Necessity and Fortune' in Discourses I, p. 75. And see also chapter 15 of The Prince, quoted above p. 47.

[26] See above, p. 20. Notice that the metaphors of both 'the river in flood' and 'Donna a mobile' are marginally more voluntaristic than the traditional medieval 'wheel of fortune', which remorselessly spins the Emperor to death and the beggarman to health and long life and so on and on. However, between the Prince and the Discourses the concept varies in stress. In the Discourses the voluntaristic element of audacity is less (Discourses II.29), one man is less likely to bring about great changes, but hope lies in a more collective adaptation to Fortune (Discourses III.9).

[27] See, for example, Discourses II.2. This 'beatifying' of heroes may seem nonsense. But there is a general empirical element even here. Consider how Marxists, arguing that thought is a product of circumstances, have tried to account for the position of Marx himself - he really must have been a most extraordinary person, even though it is only Stalin and Mao Tse Tung who take on many of the claims and attributes of classical demi-gods. Karl Mannheim, too, even on the purely intellectual level of his Ideology and Utopia and Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge, has to dig himself out of the pit of 'ideology' by flatteringly inventing 'free-floating intellectuals'. Hitler, wrapped up in a deterministic rhetoric, had to give himself direct insight into the intentions of Providence and the future of history. Intellectually, this shows the danger of getting into such a position to start with (and here Machiavelli's rhetoric sometimes traps him); but politically it shows clearly that Machiavelli was right to see that such a claim to super-human knowledge or skill can form a part of even (or especially) the most rational theories of politics.

[28] See Oxford English Dictionary. Nothing to do with 'conformity of life and conduct with the principles of morality'; still less with 'Chastity, sexual purity'; something to do with 'An accomplishment'; but rather `Efficacy arising from physical qualities... (Middle English)'; and, directly on target, 'The possession or display of manly qualities; manly excellence, manliness (Middle English).'

[29] See Walker, Discourses I, pp. 99-iii, particularly his discussion of the case of Agathocles (in The Prince, chapter 8) who, although very successful, may not be called a man of virtù because of his barbarous cruelty. If he had acted as he did to save a state, however, the case would be different. Compare Walker's patient elucidation of Machiavelli on this point with the carping cleverness of Sydney Anglo, Machiavelli, pp. 231-2.

[30] I think Neal Wood goes too far (in his otherwise most useful 'Machiavelli's Concept of Virtù Reconsidered', Political Studies, June 1967, pp. 159-72) to say that virtù must always include actual military ability—say rather, `militant'. A city's leaders could have virtù without being fit to go or ever having been to war themselves. And at least one woman is praised for her virtù—the Countess Girolamo, whose tale is told on p. 419 below.

[31] Which was the essential argument which English seventeenth- and eighteenth-century republican writers found in Machiavelli. See Raab, The English Face of Machiavelli, chapters 6 and 7, and J. G. A. Pocock's magnificent 'Machiavelli, Harrington and English Political Ideologies in the Eighteenth Century', William and Mary Quarterly (October 1965), pp. 549-83. Both are part of the history of citizenship—which is yet to be written.

[32] Raab, The English Face of Machiavelli, p. 249.