Taking life philosophically.
15 January 2011
If—like I wrote earlier—the problem of fortune in Machiavelli is that of fortune as fate, how can we solve it?
In my thesis I discuss a few conceptual frameworks in which fortune appears and which are used by Machiavelli in at least some of his works: the “Ghiribizzi” argument, Christianity and Stoicism. However, two of these have insurmountable difficulties.
One version of the Ghiribizzi argument can be found in The Prince, chapter 25.1 The idea is simple. Machiavelli realizes that success depends on two things, the “mode of proceeding” of the person and the “qualities of the times”. When these two are compatible, or in other words when one acts like the qualities of the times require him to act, he will succeed. The catch is that nobody can change his mode of proceeding: people are fundamentally inflexible and act according to their fixed natures. This means that it in different times different kinds of people will succeed, and there is nothing that can be done about it.
The argument is ambiguous about what fortune really is: fortune can be either the cause of events (the “qualities of the times”) or the events themselves (the successful results of action). Something may happen because of fortune, or because something happens, someone will be fortunate. One way to resolve the ambiguity would be to emphasize one of these meanings. For example, in the scholarly literature there are different versions of the interpretation that Machiavelli is trying to “explain” fate, perform a “shift” from one meaning to another or something similar. The general idea behind this is that Machiavelli is replacing the idea of fortune as an all-powerful agent with the idea of fortune as the way things just happen to be at the moment. However appealing this interpretation may seem, I can’t find in Machiavelli anything that would give it any authority. To me it appears that there is no way around the ambiguity, and that because of this the Ghiribizzi argument is a dead end.
As far as Christianity goes, although Sebastian De Grazia and Cary Nederman have advocated the idea of Machiavelli as a Christian, in Machiavelli’s works there are important passages that appear to exclude this possibility. For example, in the Discourses Machiavelli is quite clear about his views that religions are man-made, and that rulers should not concern themselves with whether the religion they support is true or not.2 For Machiavelli, religions seem to be nothing but tools for social control, and despite some nobody has been able convincingly to prove this interpretation wrong. This means that although Machiavelli might be employing the Christian fortune, ultimately this view has to be rejected because of the contradictions it entails.
Finally, fortune appears as the Stoic assumption according to which fortune mixes things up so that people do not get what they deserve. The Stoics teach that fortune is not stable, that it cannot be reliably influenced, and that it is not prudent to let one’s state of mind be influenced by things under fortune’s control. They teach calm self-control.
The Stoic way to deal with fortune involves several “strategies” that are designed to keep the person on track in his life. For example, you should be patient, because although fortune might place obstacles on your path, she might remove them in the future. Also, instead of pursuing material goods that are under fortune’s control, you should pursue virtue, the moral good. (While the moral good is for the Stoic sage the only thing that really matters, as it is both a necessary and sufficient condition of happiness, Stoicism has had a number of different interpretations, some of which are more practical and do not insist that material goods are worth nothing.) I argue, following Ernst Cassirer,3 that Machiavelli subscribes to both of these strategies.
The first one, the strategy of patience, is obvious: just read the passage on “seconding” fortune I cited earlier. Machiavelli writes that while sometimes all we can do is hope, we should never give up, which is basically a definition of patience.
The second strategy is more subtle and implicit. As we know, Machiavelli uses the word “virtue” in several senses, including the moral sense. I argue that the best way to resolve certain difficulties in the final chapters of The Prince is to interpret both virtue and fortune Stoically. The ending of chapter 24 is problematic because Machiavelli insists that one must rely on one thing only:
And those defenses alone are good, are certain, and are lasting, that depend on you yourself and on your virtue.4
This is a highly problematic statement because as Machiavelli is writing about affairs of politics and warfare, it is simply impossible not to rely on other things and other people. In fact it is crucially important to know what little one can trust, and denying this fact would be political blindness. Machiavelli, the writer whose name is synonymous with perspicacity and political skill in the Western world, can hardly think that the surest way for a political leader to survive and succeed would be to trust nothing but his own virtue. Virtuosity may be enough for a concert pianist, but not for a politician.
I suspect that the context deceives here. While Machiavelli does write about political action in chapter 24, he only uses the word “virtue” once in the chapter, and this usage—as it occurs in the very last sentence of the chapter—can be understood as a transition to the next chapter (which is of course the mysterious chapter on fortune, as will become apparent). My proposal is that virtue in chapter 24 does not mean political skill at all but Stoic virtue, self-control and tranquillity. Understood in this way it is makes perfect sense that Machiavelli would insist that virtue is the only thing one can count on, as everything else is firmly under fortune’s control. Thus the mysterious statement not only makes sense, but is in fact textbook Stoicism.
If this hunch is correct, what should we make of fortune in chapter 25?
In addition to a version of the Ghiribizzi argument, there are several points of interest in chapter 25, including the metaphors of fortune as a river and as a woman. The chapter is one of Machiavelli’s richest descriptions of fortune. A range of insightful interpretations can be found in the secondary literature, and I cannot possibly summarize everything here. The main point is that the chapter should be read not as a description of political reality but instead as a description of the subjective experience of someone acting in politics.
In chapter 25 Machiavelli writes:
in order that our free will not be eliminated, I judge that it might be true that fortune is arbiter of half of our actions, but also that she leaves the other half, or close to it, for us to govern.5
This is another strange statement. I have seen several interesting interpretations of it, but not one of them is fully convincing. Continuing with my Stoic interpretation, I take the statement to mean not that fortune chooses to leave the other half to us, but that she has to, because she has no power over the other half. The half that fortune controls is the action that takes place in the external world, and the other half in our control is our own mind, our Stoic virtue. In the external world, fortune may torture and imprison you, but you will remain in control of your mind.
The infamous metaphor of fortune as a woman rounds off the mystery of the chapter:
I judge this indeed, that it is better to be impetuous than cautious, because fortune is a woman; and it is necessary, if one wants to hold her down, to beat her and strike her down. And one sees that she lets herself be won more by the impetuous than by those who proceed coldly. And so always, like a woman, she is the friend of the young, because they are less cautious, more ferocious, and command her with more audacity.6
The incitation to ferocity and passionate action that accompanies the metaphor is in direct contradiction with the core teachings of Stoicism. This means that the metaphor is a serious problem for my interpretation. It would be possible to dismiss the metaphor as nothing but rhetoric, but this would not be desirable. The only things that I can offer in support of my interpretation against the problem are that 1) other interpretations have not had much more success with the metaphor, and that 2) with the metaphor Machiavelli seems to contradict even himself. Lady Fortune is an enigma.