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Machiavelli’s Virtue

Virtue in the Art of War is a an interesting concept for the military. Machiavelli draws on ancient influences to develop his working definition of what virtue should mean for the prince and how it should be used towards his society and forces. In this paper I will also look at some of Machiavelli’s claims in response to antiquity and from the Prince and the Discourses on Livy that complement his theories discussed in the Art of War. To understand his claims made in the Art of War I will also look at how virtue relates to infantry and cavalry respectively.

In antiquity, there was a different understanding of virtue. For example, Aristotle saw virtue as a mean between a vice of excess and a vice of deficiency (EN 1108b-1109b). In the Art of War, Machiavelli initially seems to agree to the extent that one should bring men into the military through “a middle way where there is neither complete force nor complete willingness” (I.167). However, the key difference in Machiavelli’s definition of virtue is considering the difference between the terms mean and middle way. Machiavelli understands that there are instances where a prince would have to use either vice that Aristotle describes instead of just holding to the mean of between the two. In his work, the Prince, he argues that it is important for a prince to appear virtuous rather than be virtuous (P 18.70). However, his theory on virtue does hold in the three works, that a prince should know both a middle way and the vices.

Machiavelli’s virtue seems to involve a certain amount of conscious deception that can potentially lead a society towards corruption if the prince does not use it well. Machiavelli brings up the point that when virtue is corrupt it is hard to maintain a state and provide the opportunity for the society to be recovered. He discusses the case of Rome in Book Two of the Art of War, by saying that “the Scythian peoples were able to come to prey upon the empire that had extinguished the virtue of the others and did not know how to maintain its own” (II.304). The use of one’s own arms is a very key point to attaining virtue for Machiavelli. In the Prince, Machiavelli argues that a prince who relies on his own arms is the most esteemed (P 13.55) because he does not rely on others. Therefore, his claim from the Rome example is meant to capitalize on not only being without the aid of others but also being able to use one’s own arms well. When this cannot be accomplished it seems as though Machiavelli is arguing that this is an instance of corruption in the state.

In contrast to this corruption, in the Discourses on Livy Machiavelli proposes the idea of mountain men who are without society. He argues that establishing a society in his present times would be “easier among mountain men, where there is no civilization, than among those who are used to living in cities, where civilization is corrupt” (D I.11.35).  In the case of Rome that he discusses in Book Two of the Art of War, he brings up the idea of barbarians in a similar manner by saying that “although that empire was then divided in several parts through the inundation of these barbarians, this virtue was not reborn there” (II.305). Therefore, in this case it seems as though the corruption is such that even the introduction of those who are without a city cannot influence the society’s virtue towards the good.

The term barbarian was key for Aristotle. He defined them as those individuals who are not active towards an end in the city (Pol. 1252b). However, the barbarians that Aristotle discussed had the potential to be perfected by politics. In contrast, Machiavelli argues that political society corrupts his mountain men. Aristotle does make an important point on barbarians, by asserting that they do not distinguish between the female and the slave, as nature does (Pol. 1252b), and therefore they create dysfunctional familial relationships which are the initial unit for political society. This claim supports Machiavelli’s assertion that the introduction of barbarians did not lead to the reinstatement on virtue in the empire.

    On this, Machiavelli discusses two main reasons why that is most likely the case. He argues that either “one suffers a bit to recover orders when they are spoiled; the other reason is that today’s mode of living, on account of the Christian religion, does not impose that necessity to defend oneself that there was in antiquity” (II.305). Machiavelli makes a similar claim in the Discourses when he says that “our religion” has made men weak and made men “think more of enduring their beatings than of avenging them” (D II.2.131). Therefore, education seems to play a large role in how successful a regime is in accordance with virtue. A prince must know how to use both virtue and vice and how an individual is affected by the orders of the society.

    On the idea of education, in the Art of War it seems as though when it comes to the different forms of military forces in an army there is a difference in education. This would also lead to a certain difference in the virtue that each section of the military has as well. Machiavelli claims that in terms of virtue calvary are inferior to infantry (II.79). Perhaps this has something to do with the element of relying on a horse in the cavalry and only needing the virtue of men in the infantry. Therefore, the horse is equivalent to Machiavelli’s idea of fortune and the infantry would be more directly equivalent to using one’s own arms. In addition, education relates back to the idea of appearances and deception that was discussed above. The prince may choose to educate his people and soldiers by whatever mode more easily allows them to follow his rule.

    Machiavelli’s definition of virtue seems to rely on certain elements of education, skill, deception, society and training. In the Art of War Machiavelli capitalizes on the idea that a prince must appear to follow certain modes in order to rule and use his military well. Proper use of his forces leads to proper use of his own arms, another form of virtue. Therefore, it appears that virtue for Machiavelli is, to a certain extent, multifaceted and malleable to the situation and the individual. His virtue also appears less defined and restricted than Aristotle’s virtue.

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