Timo Laine’s Journal

Taking life philosophically.

Niccolò Machiavelli and the problem of fortune

10 December 2010

The topic of my Master’s thesis in Moral and Social Philosophy is the concept of fortune in the texts of Niccolò Machiavelli. I found the topic interesting enough to justify a summary in English (since I wrote the thesis in Finnish). I would also like to clarify the main points to myself as in a briefer space. In this first part I define what I think is the problem of fortune in Machiavelli.

When I originally chose the topic for my Bachelor’s thesis (before knowing I would go on to write about it afterwards), I never realized what kinds of things might be involved. The concept has baggage from mythology, rhetoric, moral philosophy, misogyny, astrology, religion, and perhaps a tiny bit from actual philosophy as well. I believe you could build an academic career around this single concept if you wanted.

What is fortune?

The starting point is simple. Fortune is close to what we think it is when we talk about how fortunate someone is, when we ascribe someone’s success or failure to fortune, when we think that our future is in fortune’s hands and so on. In this vague sense we all know what fortune is. But when we start to think about what we really mean when we say these things, things get more complicated.

One of the simplest but also one of the most important things about the concept of fortune in Machiavelli is that it is not a central concept for him. I think his political thought is largely independent of it. However, most research says otherwise, and I realize that I am opposed perhaps to the majority of Machiavelli scholars.

Machiavelli does not even write about fortune very often, although the word “fortuna” appears every once in a while in his texts. He does not say what he means by it. He rarely defines his concepts anyway, and his thought is not characteristically conceptual but empirical. Even with other concepts that are easier to understand than fortune, Machiavelli does not rely on their connections with other concepts but on the links to empirical observations and historical generalizations.

Why is fortune generally thought to be so important? I honestly do not know. The best explanation I have come up with is that Machiavelli’s writings are somewhat confusing, and fortune offers a simple way out of this confusion.

Fortune and virtue

The way fortune clears up things is through its pairing with another hallowed concept of Machiavelli scholarship: virtue. Virtue has almost as much baggage as fortune has, although in slightly different ways. Instead of mythology and misogyny, the background of virtue is formed by etymology and machismo. As Cicero noted in the Tusculan Disputations, the Latin word “virtus” comes from the word for man, “vir”. Thus virtue is manliness, and manliness is virtue: they are the same thing.

It is true that Machiavelli often writes about fortune and virtue in the same context, almost to the extent that it becomes an automatism. If someone has virtue, he often has fortune as well, and vice versa. However, this is much less interesting than when Machiavelli places fortune and virtue in opposition with each other, as rival forces.

Virtue is control and discipline; fortune is disorder and chaos. Virtue is the man and his strength and intelligence; fortune is what needs to be tamed, or in other words it is the woman, nature, and the world in general. If one has tendencies towards mysticism and conceptual minimalism, it is simple to explain everything using nothing but these two concepts. Do you deserve your success? If you do, you are virtuous, and if not, you are just fortunate. Has fortune corrupted society and can only virtuous men restore justice and order? It is quite simple to frame practically all possible questions about human life as being about virtue and fortune, and therefore the two concepts offer a way out of the confusion in Machiavelli’s works. If these observations are correct, I owe them largely to John McCormick. They flow from his remark1 that

the fortune-virtue distinction has become a kind of “set piece” in Machiavelli scholarship and, as such, has come to convey a sense of order that actually defies the spirit of Machiavelli’s approach to the issue of contingency.

But although the fortune-virtue pairing does not seem to be very useful for the interpretation of Machiavelli’s thought, much can still be said about both concepts. They are both ambiguous.2 In my thesis I argue that out of the five3 basic meanings fortune has in Machiavelli’s texts there is one that is particularly problematic: that of fate, a superhuman force that cannot be opposed.4

Fortune as fate

Fortune as fate appears in a few different places in Machiavelli’s works, but perhaps nowhere else with so little ambiguity as in Book II, Chapter 29 of the Discourses on Livy. The title itself leaves little room for interpretation: “Fortune Blinds the Spirits of Men When It Does Not Wish Them to Oppose Its Plans.”5 Fortune is in total control. What can people do? Relatively little, according to Machiavelli:

men can second fortune but not oppose it, […] they can weave its warp but not break it. They should indeed never give up for, since they do not know its end and it proceeds by oblique and unknown ways, they have always to hope and, since they hope, not to give up in whatever fortune and in whatever travail they may find themselves.6

Thus there are no guarantees. Success does depend on what you do in the sense that if you do nothing you will not succeed, but no amount of work will give good results if fortune does not allow it.

A consequentialist is one who believes that the consequences of an action are the main (or perhaps the only) criteria for judging whether the action is a good one. Machiavelli is a consequentialist, and therefore it would be strange for him to believe in a superhuman force that basically prevents us from acting at all. Machiavelli also seems to aim to study political phenomena in more empirical terms than his predecessors, and it would be unusual for him to accept an a priori concept of such a supernatural force as fortune.

Notes

  1. John McCormick, “Addressing the Political Exception: Machiavelli’s ‘Accidents’ and the Mixed Regime,” American Political Science Review 87 (1993), p. 888.
  2. In an earlier seminar essay you will find the beginnings of my analysis of virtue.
  3. Anthony Parel, The Machiavellian Cosmos (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), p. 64; Timo Airaksinen, “Fortune is a Woman: Machiavelli on Luck and Virtue,” Homo Oeconomicus 26 (2009), pp. 557-567. Fortune is also the state of affairs of a person or society: we can talk about the fortune of someone not only as the process that brought him into his current state of affairs, but the current state of affairs itself. Less importantly, fortune is a resource, in the sense that it is an alternative to virtue: one can arrive at his destination because of fortune or because of virtue, and thus if virtue is a resource then so is also fortune. Finally, fortune is both chance, or a kind of “operator” that randomly chooses one among several possibilities for how things will unfold, and uncertainty, or the lack of adequate knowledge about how to proceed.
  4. Parel, The Machiavellian Cosmos, p. 64; Sebastian De Grazia, Machiavelli in Hell, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1989), p. 203.
  5. Niccolò Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, translated by Harvey C. Mansfield and Nathan Tarcov (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996), p. 197.
  6. Niccolò Machiavelli, Discourses, p. 199.

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