Sample Philosophy Essays on Virtu as used by Machiavelli

Sample Philosophy Essays on Virtu as used by Machiavelli

In ‘The Prince’, Machiavelli uses the Italian word virtu to describe features of a good citizen. The description as implied by Machiavelli in his book relates to the English word virtue of some extent through various features. However, the difference that lies there in is that while the English ‘virtue’ describes a good man, the Italian ‘virtu’ as used by Machiavelli describes a good citizen or ruler. The personality of a good citizen in this case does not necessarily have to be similar to the personality of a good man. As such, Machiavelli uses virtu to describe features that would be good for the state or for the ruler yet may not be morally upright. It can be argued that his use of the word considers that which is good for the state and the ruler. As he says a ruler should possess “a flexible disposition (536)” in order to vary his character between evil and good in accordance with circumstances.

Because of his description of virtu, Machiavelli has been described as ascribing to the morality of ends whereby the end, as long as it is good for the state and for the ruler, justifies the means by which it is accomplished. Machiavelli thus describes the qualities of a prince to include fortitude and the ability to make irrevocable judgments in that “the prince is highly esteemed who conveys this impression of himself (531).” Virtu clearly helps Machiavelli to achieve his objective of fostering the morality of ends through exemplification of certain qualities as being acceptable. Qualities such as pride, ruthlessness and bravery, which are not considered virtuous in the Christian sense of the word, are included by Machiavelli in his description. To further explain the extent of his virtu, Machiavelli contrasts the concepts of virtu and fortuna. The latter refers to aspects beyond human control, and those which bring good luck and wellbeing.

From the perspective developed by Machiavelli, virtu also describes the human actions or energy that go contrary to the fortunes of the individual. Based on this perspective, virtu may or may not include virtuous actions. As such, the limit of virtu goes beyond the virtuous. This only brings out the implication that virtu can be possessed by people considered good in the society as well as those considered evil. As long as the practices go contrary to the provisions of fate, they can be considered to be in line with virtu. The arguments developed by Machiavelli in support of virtu for the achievement of success in personal objectives are clearly in contradiction to the expectations. For instance, the philosopher agrees that fortune is responsible for good luck and wellbeing, yet still explains that virtu is what leads to success. The two assertions are clearly in contradiction since it would be difficult to achieve success unless one there is also a certain degree of good luck in actions.

Machiavelli also portrays virtu as the talents, drive or ability that a certain individual has towards the achievement of goals. In particular, Machiavelli speaks concerning the prince or a ruler in general. The goals to be achieved are personal or state related especially as they involve taking control of larger territories. In this regard, Machiavelli asserts that opportunity and virtu have to exist concurrently for the goals to be achieved. Having an opportunity without the capacity to take advantage of it would translate into wastage of opportunity. At the same time, when an individual has the requisite features yet is without the opportunity to make use of the abilities, their abilities are wasted. When the opportunity is there, the prince needs virtu in order to “maintain his state (531).” From this point of view, Machiavelli provides the recommendation to use virtu through all means to achieve a good end. For states and rulers, Machiavelli advocates for those who possess virtu to use all means, including violence and ruthlessness to explore their potential in leadership as the end justifies the means as he says, “…whilst something else, which looks like vice, yet followed brings him security and prosperity (534).”

Virtu as used by Machiavelli has the potential of defeating fortune if applied effectively. This means that virtu has greater potential than any predefined life routes. The role of virtu in the achievement of objectives beyond personal fortune is best explained from the assertion that with virtu, a prince can be successful at all times regardless of the circumstances as he will be able to adapt his virtu to his circumstances. In so doing, “a prince ought to inspire fear (528).” In so saying, it appears that Machiavelli is of the opinion that virtu is only useful when possessed in variety. In conclusion, Machiavelli seems to link virtu to free will through the claim that without free will, talent and ability could be useless for achieving the prince’s objectives.

Q2: Hobbes and the State of Nature

The state of nature describes a condition under which there is neither state nor government and is described in Leviathan as “the natural condition of mankind (Morgan 689).” This state is imagined by Hobbes as a predecessor to imagining the value of a state to individual lives. According to Hobbes, understanding the impacts of a state on the lives of citizens can only be possible after understanding how things would be without the state. In Leviathan, Hobbes imagines what it would be like without a state as well as what it would take for people to move from the state of nature to actually having a state. In making his point clear, Hobbes describes a state on nature as that which is characterized by great sovereignty among members. A state of nature implies that each member would be independent of another and would be allowed to act in support of their lives. In the state of nature as understood by Hobbes, each individual has rights such as the right to live. Contrary to where there is governance and an actual state, the state of nature does not oblige people to the provision of those rights. No one has a duty to the other in the state of nature. As such, as each person strives to explore their rights, there is no limit to the extent to which individuals may go in order to accomplish their desires. Self-preservation and the probability of rights conflict are both essential features in the state of nature, and the only way this can be averted is through war. This means that despite the potential prevalence of the state of nature, the actual state must develop eventually with or without the consent of the citizens. This is pegged on the fact that humans are born as children and dependence is an imperative part of their development.

The movement from the state of nature therefore relies on human passion as well as on the law of nature. The existence of needs and desires describes human passion in this regard. According to Hobbes, each individual has passion for power as this implies possession of the means to achieve what they want. This is best explained through Hobbes’ “postulate of human greed (614).” Being in possession of power is a necessary evil in the state of nature where independence is at the core of survival. At the same time, the desires of humans are endless. The desire for power is described by Hobbes, quoted by Morgan as “perpetual and restless (678).” This means that the achievement of one desire only gives rise to other desires that have to be fulfilled. In the state of nature, this inevitably cause rife which results in the reorganization of the system, with the more powerful people being at the helm of the society. This kind of hierarchy is what is observed in conventional states. Similarly, the law of nature results in the transformation from the state of nature. According to Hobbes’ argument presented in Leviathan, “Every man ought to endeavor peace, as farre as he has hope of obtaining it (Morgan 661).” The author continues by saying that when one has no hope of achieving peace, they may use all means they can get to, including war, in order to accomplish their objectives. From this point of view, Hobbes argues that in the state of nature, the hope for peace only depends on one’s ability to trust those with whom they have agreements to maintain peace.

The hope for peace is thus inexistent in the state of nature as it is difficult to trust others to keep their promises not to attack since they do not show the rationality and inclination to seek for peace. Because of this, people tend to attack as this is probably the most applicable defense. Attack is followed by war and subsequent submission to the party with the greatest power in their possession. The situation that arises is best explained through the words used by Hobbes in that “every man against every man (699)” becomes the norm and that person with the greatest power overcomes. It can be said henceforth that absolute sovereignty is crucial in the state of nature since it makes no one obligated to help in the achievement of another’s rights. This is however impossible as humans are social beings and dependence begins from birth. Based on the thoughts of Hobbes, commonwealth subjects cannot rebel as they are under the absolute control of the head. This is based on the fact that the subjects are sovereign in so far as their states are concerned. However, just like achieving absolute sovereignty is impossible due to human needs, so is it difficult to rebel against the entire system. Maintaining autonomy in decision making and applying reason are thus important factors in the consideration of rebellion among commonwealth subjects.

Q3: Differences between Machiavelli’s position and others

Machiavelli’s stance on morality has been described as narcissistic due to his position on the morality of ends. Machiavelli’s approval of those who perpetrate whatever it takes for them to maintain their position or to advance in foreign territory goes contrary to the beliefs held by various philosophers in the past. From Plato to Aquinas, the beliefs of morality changed slightly, from the morality of ends to deontological perspectives. As such, the belief in conducting even the greatest violations for the sake of power is critical in consideration of the previous views on morality and ethical conduct. Various differences can be cited between Machiavelli’s position and the positions held by different philosophers.

According to Plato, the greatest measure of human morality is happiness. In this regard, Plato holds the belief that actions that bring about greatest benefits, and which cause happiness for many people are moral. Plato asserts that “for humans, the greatest state is happiness, and the best activity within this state is contemplation (112).” Plato’s arguments are that happiness is a sublime factor beyond human understanding and its achievement is thus connected to appetite as well as to reason. Plato says that “When appetite overcomes the prudence of reason and bad results follow …. (Morgan 14).” From this, it can be said that bad results are inevitable when reason is not applied to the control of appetite. This means that for happiness, which is the driver of human morality to be achieved, reason has to subdue other factors such as appetite. The virtuous are regarded as those in whom reason is overriding and there is harmony in the soul as there is in the state. Considering that a harmonious state is one in which peace and serenity prevails, it is impossible to imagine that such a state will be achieved where the ruler subjects his citizens to all forms of atrocities for the maintenance of political power. The description of virtue in this regard is the Christian or the most commonly acceptable definition. As such, the beliefs held by Plato can be said to be contradictory to those held by Machiavelli. The state described by Machiavelli has the potential of causing pain and distress to many people in the course of actions that are projected to bring about good for entire societies.

Similarly, Aristotle is identified with the deontological perspective to morality. Explaining virtue from the perspective of morality brings out the implication that personal traits determine the decision-making process. From the deontological perspective, actions are judged as either moral or immoral depending on the outcomes of those actions. Aristolean virtue is described as “determined by reason (281).” This means that the belief held by Machiavelli cannot be used as the basis for determining the morality of an action from Aristotle’s perspective. From Machiavelli’s view point, actions such as violence and ruthlessness can be wrong yet judged as morally upright due to the good they achieve in the end. This gives people an opportunity to commit atrocities with selfish ends. Despite reference to virtue and virtu by Aristotle and Machiavelli respectively, the meanings adopted by the two philosophers are different, leading to different concerns by the two.

Aquinas also holds an opinion different from that held by Machiavelli. Aquinas grounds his argument on the Christian meaning of virtue and morality that “goodness and being are really the same (468).” In particular, his argument finds its core on the four cardinal virtues of Christian faith. He thus argues that although one may be a good citizen, this does not necessarily mean that they are a good man. The objective of Aquinas is to describe the good man rather than the good citizen since citizenship has the potential of changing across national boundaries. The philosopher thus contradicts the need for violence and ruthlessness in the maintenance of the state or of ruler’s position. Machiavelli does not uphold these virtues as real.

It is evident that Machiavelli’s advice to a prince would go contrary to Christian political beliefs which are founded on the maintenance of true virtue and advocacy for good actions, not due to their perceived ends but rather on the basis that the actions themselves are good. From his perspective, the great man “founds and secures commonwealth (551).” This is only achievable through war. In examination of Plato’s argument, the advice from Machiavelli would not function to create happiness for the prince or for the citizens. This is because that advice encourages the placement of appetite above reason.

Q4: Machiavelli- Advice to the Prince

The moral upholding of Machiavelli with regards to war is bent on the morality of ends. With respect to this, Machiavelli argues that war is justified as long as it is for the good of the state and the ruler. Although a prince should show clemency at times, Machiavelli claims that “he ought to take care not to misuse this clemency (568).” War is described as a necessity and as a virtue crucial for the maintenance of power by a ruling prince and for the achievement of power by a civilian. Necessity is described as inevitability in that actions cannot be avoided. They can also be implied to be coercive. In describing war as a necessity, Machiavelli asserts that engaging in war for protection and preservation of the state is a necessary evil in that failure to attack in such instances would mean waiting for a worse outcome in that it exposes states to being attacked by others. The only way to avoid this would be early planning and attack as waiting for the inevitable would result in greater losses. In whatever actions a prince undertakes however, it is advised that the hatred of the people should not be attracted. Machiavelli asserts that “a prince should only engage in war as long as it does not compromise the people’s good will (560).” In Machiavelli’s perspective, a prince is allowed to engage in three types of war. These include war of ambition, war of chance and war by entire groups of people.

In the first type of war, the ambitious nature of men drives them to fight for their need to acquire greater possession. Since man always has needs, life is always a “military state (568).” For a prince, there is this intrinsic desire for territorial expansion and can only be achieved through war. By driving out the present occupants of a given territory, expansion can be achieved. In most instances, it seems like the war of ambition is avoidable and a matter of choice. Machiavelli holds the opinion that this is not the case as it is human nature to desire power and control and this can only be achieved through war. As such, the wars of ambition are a matter of necessity rather than choice. The argument in support of this can be founded on the philosophy of Hobbes on the state of nature where humans’ intrinsic desire drives them to war. It is only in so doing that he can succeed when the time of conflict comes. The war of ambitions can therefore be concluded to be a necessity that is drawn from the natural political state of mankind.

The second type of war described by Machiavelli is the war of chance. This type of war is characterized by the surrender of one state to the other in contravention of the expectations of the new state or of the previously existing powers. The availability of chance is taken as a necessity rather than choice in that it is beyond the expectations of the people engaging in war. Chance as depicted herein refers to any situation beyond the control of anyone. This implies that the state receiving the invitation to war engages in a war of chance. As such, a prince “should think more about war in times of peace than in times of conflict (572)” as he can never know when a war of chance would arise. On the other hand, the state that surrenders in order to attract war projects potential benefits from the war they intend to engage in. In this instance, no state can initiate war when aware of their own weaknesses. The war of chance is therefore characterized by an imbalance of impacts since one state loses only manpower and may gain in other aspects while the other undergoes loss in various contexts.

In the wars conducted by entire groups of people, communities engaging in war are driven by desire or famine to take occupation of foreign habitations that are occupied. To accomplish this, the invaders have to overcome the resistance of the inhabitants of the areas they wish to take over. The people engaging in such wars are united by war and fear and have the potential of reaping great benefits. The prince, in leading his people to such wars, should apply the principle to “reflect on the actions of the great men (571).” In each of these wars, necessity is defined as the overriding factor and the determinant of war initiation. Each of these war types has divergent strengths and weaknesses. However, the wars conducted by entire communities are the most beneficial as they are carried out with unity and strength. On the other hand, the wars of chance have the greatest potential of failure due to unpredicted strengths and weaknesses of opponents.