Introduction to Western Political Thought
Professor Mithilesh Kumar Jha
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati
Lecture No. 9
Machiavelli- I: Intro & Virtu and Fortuna
(Refer Slide Time: 0:32)
Hello and welcome everyone. Today, we are going to start with the next thinker in our
course, Machiavelli. And on Machiavelli, again, we are going to have three lectures. In the
first lecture on Machiavelli, we will list out to situate him in the larger political, and
intellectual context of western political thought. And how he was trying to redefine the
contours of politics and political theorisation by differentiating the norms or values that is
associated with politics in the Christian religious theorisation. What is the rule of politics?
what is the temporal authority? In the second part of the first lecture, we are going to discuss
Machiavelli’s views on Virtu and Fortuna. In the second lecture of Machiavelli, we will
particularly focus on his magnum opus or most widely read, discussed and debated text with
competing interpretation, The Prince.
And in the final lecture, we are going to focus on his another important text, Discourses and
then we will move onto critically access the contribution of Machiavelli to western political
thought.In this lecture today, we are particularly going to discuss Machiavelli’s role in redefining
politics and asserting its distinct or autonomous sphere from the religion or other concerns of
our individual and collective life. And for a very long time, politics was subordinated to
religion within the Christianity. Machiavelli was the first one who began to assert the
autonomy or independence of politics with its own distinct affair.
With its own set of morality and ethics yet he was someone who was not really a modern
thinker like Hobbes Locke, Rousseau and others. Machiavelli had a kind of peculiar situation
within the western political thought, where he was not like the Christian thinkers like Saint
Augustine or Thomas Aquinas. But he was someone trying to reset the autonomy of the
polity by revisiting the classical text or humanitarian interpretation of the rule of politics.
And how human being themselves through their reason and tact can create a polity which
would allow them to lead a worthy life and they do not have to subordinate to the feet or to
the religion, to lead a good, moral or worthy life as Christian philosopher or thinkers have
suggested. We will also discuss his views on Virtu and Fortuna which are at the centre or the
basis of his political thinking and theorization.
(Refer Slide Time: 4:01)
That would be the themes, we are going to discuss today. Let us start with studying
Machiavelli as someone in the western political thought who was most elusive thinker. What
does it mean that Machiavelli is an elusive thinker? Machiavelli has a kind of unique position
in western political thought who is not really a philosopher like Aristotle and Plato which wehave done. He is more kind of pragmatist or someone involved in the actual politics of his
And wanted to unify or wanted to create a polity which would be stable, effective and how to
do it. He was not guided by a priory notion of good or bad, justice, desirable or undesirable.
And that allowed multiple interpretation of Machiavelli. So, often you come across the actual
practical politics in any society even today to which we associate power for the sake of
And everything goes in the politics, it is treacherousness and tactfulness. All kind of
manipulations or negative connotation that we associate with politics is often associated with
the thinking or theorization of Machiavelli. That is the dominant understanding of
Machiavelli in politics. However, we will see that Machiavelli’s argument or theorization is
much more complex than this caricatured view of Machiavelli.
There are competing interpretations of Machiavelli’s thoughts and theorization on politics.
However, he remained somewhat elusive. Because the way he approached politics, and the
kind of advice that he gave to the King. And the way he tried to rescue the politics from other
domains of life was something very unique and specific to the Machiavellian theorization or
modes of thinking about politics. That makes him somewhat unique or elusive thinker in
western political thought.
Thus, any negative connotation that you can think of politics in any society or community
such as treacherousness or deceptiveness or its cynical view about politics is associated with
Aristotle. And he was seen as someone, a ruthlessly pragmatic thinker and argued that ends
justify the means. One of the Machiavellian axioms is that in politics, means in itself cannot
be said moral or immoral, ethical or unethical. But the end, it achieves will justify the means.
Many people would argue that Machiavelli was suggesting in politics to achieve your
purpose, to obtain your goal. All kind of means whether ethical, or unethical, he will or you
know virtues are perfectly okay. So long it helps you to achieve your desire, goal or political
objectives. He is seen as a kind of ruthlessly pragmatic thinker who justified the means. All
kind of means to achieve a desired political objective. Thus, means justify the means.
So, means, that a thinker or a Prince will deploy is immaterial so long the ends that such
means are deployed for is desirable or help the community to achieve certain goals or help
the ruler to sustain or establish their rule or authority in the community. He is someone who regarded that the means in itself is not something moral or ethical. But the ends that justify
the means. Hence, the ethical, unethical, and all means are acceptable in politics.
So long it helps the rulers achieve their political ability and that is something which you see
often in the political behaviour of different parties, and leaders driven by not ordinary
conventional morality or desirable or undesirable modes effect. But anything that helps them
achieve their desired objective.
Now, that is a kind of crude understanding of Machiavellian politics which we are going to
discuss over the course of three lectures that how his justification for such moral and
immoral, evil actions are rooted in the larger dynamics of his thought which is to a great
extent based on this Christian understanding of human being as someone who is inherently
And this understanding of human nature as immoral, unethical, we have fallen from the grace
is there in Hobbes thinking also and Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas as I have said who
established the supremacy of God and Christianity or religion and subordinated the rule of
politics have the similar notion of human nature.
Machiavellian understanding allowed us to understand that politics is not just merely ethical,
moral or virtues action as we have seen in Plato and Aristotle. But it is also something that
has to deal with evil and how a ruler or governor is going to deal with that evil is something
that he discussed in the Prince and also in Discourse.
In political theorization and thinking, the evils or immoral actions are also something which a
ruler or governor needs to deals with. How one is going to address those things is something
which requires our knowledge, our Virtu, or to avoid the negative repercussions or influence
of Fortuna which we are going to discuss in the second part of the lecture.
So, it is something which needs to be said that we have to be cautious when we have a kind
of crude understanding of Machiavellian politics in the sense of everything that is immoral,
treacherous, manipulative, deceptive about the politics.
He is saying something more than that and using it as a means to establish the rule and the
order in the society. So, what is distinctive about Machiavelli is that he was complete
pragmatist and refuted any kind of Utopian or ideal approach to politics. Unlike Plato and Aristotle who thought about politics as a collective exercise to achieve some common good
or certain sense of justice through human reason or intellect.
That is the classical premise of politics. Machiavelli as a pragmatist or empirical thinker
refuted all kind of such utopian prior innocence of justice and good for the polity. He was
ruthlessly pragmatist, an empirical thinker who wanted to change the politics as it is through
the experience, knowledge of history by developing the Virtu and understanding that human
nature is not necessary moral or virtues. There are evils which persist in the society.
So, how in that given objective state of human affairs, one was going to create a polity which
would ensure order and stability or efficiency. That was his concern and in pursuit of such
concern, he refuted any kind of utopian or ideal approach to the politics. Instead, he had
historical advice to the Prince. The knowledge of history is absolutely crucial for Machiavelli
even when he argued about a republican form of government or mixed constitution.
In this course, the knowledge of history is something which enables the ruler to understand
the moment and necessity of that moment. And in politics, the moment is something which
determines the fate of a ruler or polity. So, when the governor or ruler are through their
knowledge of history capable of understanding the moment and the necessity of that moment,
the kind of action that is required allows the ruler, to sustain the rule, to achieve glory for
himself and for the principality.
The empirical or historical approach is the determinant thing in Machiavellian approach to
politics not the utopian or ideal thinking as it is there in Plato and Aristotle. He was the first
to argue about the raison d’etre that meant the existence of politics was not for something
else. It had its own legitimacy or justification for its existence. Thus, this raison d’etre of
politics was guided by different set of ethics which should be different from the Christian
morality or ethics.
His advice for the rulers was to govern their principalities through fear and force. However,
he was also an advocate of republican form of government and a mixed constitution which
we will see in the third lecture. So, Machiavelli has therefore a kind of controversial legacy
and is subjected to competing interpretation. Many scholars have presented him as the
ruthless pragmatist who promoted unethical means for the rulers.
Thus, all the ethical, unethical, moral, immoral, evil, treacherous, and all sorts of means are
legitimate, justifiable so long it helps the ruler to sustain his rule or achieve certain desired political objectives. For a number of scholars, Machiavelli is seen as someone a kind of
ruthless pragmatist who supported all sorts of evil practices in politics. In contrast to this
interpretation of Machiavelli, there are many others who regarded him as the renaissance man
or a humanist who was a republican thinker and rescued politics from the clutches of
Christian theology and asserted its own autonomous and distinct sphere with distinct set of
ethics or morality.
And that distinguished Machiavelli from other medieval thinker of Christian theology or their
imagination of politics or temporal authority that they associated with the monarchy which
was always subordinated to the transcendental or superior rule of the Pope or church.
Machiavelli had a very peculiar situation among the political thinkers which turned tradition.
He was not exactly a modern thinker and yet rooted in the Renaissance with revisiting the
classical or bringing back the humanist tradition of the classical tradition, where the human
reason or intellect itself is capable of managing the collective affairs. And not the
subordination to the religion or God as it is there in the Christian theology and ethics.
(Refer Slide Time: 16:22)
There are competing interpretations of Machiavelli. Now, if you look at Machiavelli’s
political and intellectual context, one thing that we need to take into account is he is from
Florence, Italy and there was a kind of degeneration of Holy Roman Empire. Machiavelli was
writing or theorizing about politics in a time when Italy was the seat of Roman Empire and in
turbulence. The Roman Empire was fragmented into many principalities which was often at
war with each other.And there are political uncertainties and upheavals. The moral and political degeneration,
violence and instabilities characterises the governing of these principalities or city-states
which had a republican form of government. Italian peninsula was divided and fragmented
into different principalities with their own set of rules and mechanism of governing their
collective life. But the politics that characterised these principalities was that of political
uncertainties, violence, moral degeneration, and the constant interferences by the external
forces such as the ruler of France or Spain.
Machiavelli was thinking about revival of politics or role of politics in this turbulent time of
Italy. And Christian ethics and the conventional morality which was rooted in the philosophy
of two particular thinkers, Saint Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas which provided a kind of
stability to the idea of divine right of the King or the superiority of religion to the politics or
So, the Christian ethics and conventional morality which were rooted in the philosophy of
Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas could not provide the stability and necessary order in
these principalities, when Machiavelli was thinking about the role of politics. If you briefly
look at Saint Augustine’s idea which was carried particularly by Hobbes, Machiavelli and
many other political thinkers in western tradition particularly about his views on human
Saint Augustine in the ‘City of Gods’ argued about the idea of original sin and that becomes
the basis of thinking about human nature or human characteristic particularly when we think
about the Hobbes human nature as nasty, brutish and short. This is immoral, unethical or
violent nature in the human being. Now, how it is possible to establish order or legitimacy for
the rule given that kind of human nature that is there.
So, Saint Augustine, in the ‘City of Gods’ argued about the idea of original sin and evil or
fallen nature of human being. Hence, he argued, contrary to the classical thinkers like Plato
and Aristotle that reason or intellect alone could not lead man to moral, or an ethical life.
Because of this original sin or evil nature of human character, his reason or intellect alone
was not capable of ensuring the moral and ethical life for the individual. This is contrast to
Plato and Aristotle’s imagination if you recall our lectures on them. Though intellect, and
reason should guide not just the human being but also the city-states or the polity. Here, Saint Augustine was arguing that men were inevitably evil or evil nature, treacherous, and fallen
from the grace because of the original sin.
So, the reason and intellect in itself is not sufficient to lead a moral and ethical life. And
therefore, they must subject themselves to the will of God and then there is the idea of the
chosen one. The redemption of life is possible when you submit to the God and God’s will
and it is up to the God who are chosen to lead a moral and ethical life which is beyond the
limits of human intellect and reason. In this assessment, politics is temporary and imperfect
and therefore, it could not be the source of stability or ethics or redemption as in the Classical
In Saint Augustine approach to the politics, it was subordinated to the role of religion. He
subordinated, therefore, the politics to theology which became the basis of the divine right of
the Kings or stability in the Christendom between religious authority and political authority.
Religion is seen as the transcendental or superior authority than to the monarchy or temporal
authority of different monarchs and Kings. There was a kind of relationship between the
religious authority and political authority which became problematic when Machiavelli was
thinking or theorising about the politics.
And this is the tussle between the religious authority and political authority that leads to the
imagination of politics in the modern sense or the secular politics where politics has its own
sphere which is independent from the religious sphere. And in the modern times when we
will discuss many modern thinkers, we will see that how religion becomes part of personal
life and has very little to determine what is the public or the political life of the city or the
state or the democracies which we will discuss later.
However, Saint Augustine provided that philosophical basis for superiority of the religious
authority to the temporal authority exercised by monarchy through their politics and other
Similarly, Thomas Aquinas regarded the supremacy of theology. But he argued about the
checks of the temporal power of monarchy through a mixed constitution and the mechanism
of checks and balances. He combined the Aristotelian ideas of checks and balances in the
mixed constitution. How to exercise a power in a much more reasonable way without the
access to its fight or to involve in the immoral act that is associated with the political
temporal.These two thinkers did provide a kind of stable basis for the religion or theology to
subordinate the politics. However, when Machiavelli was thinking or writing about the
politics, this thinking or theorization could not provide the desirable stability and order in the
principalities or qualities.
Now, Machiavelli set out to refute this Christian and conventional morality or utopian
approach to politics. Unlike Christian theology which presented the past as a kind of linear.
There is a kind of movement in the human affair where the movement is a kind of linear one.
So, from the immoral or sinful life to the ethical or perfect moral, religious, spiritual life is
possible when the God chose the one who can achieve those lives.
And the moment in the history is from the sinful to ethical to the most holy ways of living,
acting or governing the city-states. There is a kind of linearity which dominate the thinking
about the time and history in western tradition.
In contrast to the classical thinker, Machiavelli had a kind of circular or cyclical view of
history and this you can recall with the characterisation of six kinds of qualities in Aristotle.
So, we start with the monarchy then there is a moment of a tyrannical regime, then
aristocracy which turned into oligarchy and then oligarchy might become polity which again
went back to democracy and the democracy became the monarchy.
The nature of the polity or characterisation of politics, there in Machiavelli was about the
cyclical and circular modes of history rather than the linear movement of history that was
there in the Christian theology of thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas. For Machiavelli, this
all states were subject to change and he desired the republican rule. And republican rule was
when citizens participated and had a say in governing the city. And Italian city-states were
those states which derived inspiration from the republican notion of Roman Empire or the
Holy Roman Empire. And in governing the states, the citizens played an active role.
Machiavelli wanted republican rule if possible. But if that is not possible because of the
fragmented nature of principalities and their constant fighting with each other. Then he
favoured the rule by the Prince or one person who could unify Italy and bring back the past
glory of the Roman Empire. The overall objective of Machiavelli through his advice to the
Prince and in The Discourse was to bring back that republican form of rule there in the
Roman Empire, the rule of the Senate and other Senators in governing the city.Thus, Machiavelli’s political thoughts should be assessed in this context when he wanted the
unification of Italy and restoration of the republican form of classical Rome. And in doing so,
he devised a different understanding and approach to politics.
(Refer Slide Time: 27:22)
Now, we will briefly move to the personal life of Machiavelli before we go onto discuss his
ideas on Virtu and Fortuna. Machiavelli was born into a middle class family in Florence in
1469 and this family was rooted in the republican values and humanist ethics of the Italian
renaissance. And this influence, it did deal when Machiavelli began to play active role in the
politics and his philosophy, and thought. He was someone who had personal experience in
the public life of republics.
He entered the public life in the Florentine Republic at the age of 29 and for the next 14
years, he oversaw its various military and diplomatic missions. And the experience that he
gained as a diplomat or an administrator was the basis of much of his political thought when
we discussed the Prince and Discourse, we get to know what and how his advice to the ruler
and about the governing was rooted in the experience or pragmatic concern of the polity
rather than the utopian imagination of ideal thinking about the politics.
During the diplomatic career, Machiavelli acquainted with many leaders and rulers such as
Popes, Princes, French King Louis XII and Roman Emperor Maxmilian. The ruler who
influenced him the most was Cesare Borgia and it was his rule, and the fall that shaped much
of his political thought. Someone who began to think about the rise and fall in the fortune of a ruler or the governing elite, while looking at this example of the rise and fall of Cesare
He was someone who was capable, virtuous, and yet because of the misfortune or
unpredictable nature of the fate, he fell from the grace and that becomes the basis of much of
his political thinking and theorization. So, with the return of former ruler of Florence, Medici
family in 1512 backed by the Pope and Spanish monarchy, they reestablished their rule and
Machiavelli fell from the grace.
He was actively participating in the public life of Florence. But when the Medici family,
which was the former ruler of Florence came back in 1512 and with the support of Spanish
King and the Pope re-established his rule. Machiavelli was not just asked to resign from the
post and fell from the grace. But also imprisoned by this new ruler Medici family on the
charges of conspiracy against the Medici family.
However, later, he released and the rest of his life he spent on thinking, theorization and
writing his political strategies. Machiavelli was someone who regarded the writing as inferior
to an active life of active life in politics. And the Prince that he wrote was not a kind of
philosophical speculation or theorization about the politics. But it was an advice that he
wanted to give to the young Prince of Medici family, Lorenzo de’ Medici.
And this he wrote with the intention that the new ruler would again give him this scope to or
the opportunity to participate in public life. For Machiavelli, political thinking and
theorization is not something which he loved to do or wanted to do. He wanted to play an
active in the real, practical politics of his time, and the text that he wrote was not published
during his lifetime. Both the Prince and the Discourses were published after his death.
The significance that is associated with Machiavelli and political thought or philosophy is
something very unique where the men is someone who want to play an active role in the
politics and write the text as a means or an instrument which will allow him to join the active
life in the politics. He devoted rest of his time working on other political strategies.(Refer Slide Time: 32:37)
Machiavelli was a patriot and wanted the unification of Italy under a strong ruler who would
be adept in the art and science of statecraft. And his whole purpose was the unification of
Italy. His political strategies, particularly, the Prince are written as and advice to such a ruler
who would be adept in the statecraft and unify the Italy, and bring back the republican glory
of classical Rome.
The Prince became the bible of statecraft and continued to inspire the diplomatic exchanges
and politics even today. The pragmatic, real politics in any society even today if you look at
the politician and their behaviour are often guided by this Machiavellian practice of
outmanoeuvring the opponent through all kind of means that is possible.
That is one dominant view on politics. Of course, there are other ethical, moral approach to
the whole idea of politics as the pursuit of common good. However, in Machiavelli, we see
politics as something which is what ensuring the order, maintaining the order and sustaining
the rule that requires the knowledge of a statecraft. That is something which a ruler will learn
by combining the knowledge of history with the practical necessity of a particular moment.
No other text of political philosophy has so decisively influenced the politics and statecraft in
the modern world as Machiavelli’s, the Prince has done. And there is a new approach to the
politics regarded as Machiavellian politics in a very crude sense to anything negative about
politics, we often characterise as Machiavellian politics.
And Shakespeare and many other literary figures also helped in imagination of Machiavellian
politics in this negative light alone. However, he is a complex thinker than this crude characterisation. His famous work, The Prince was written in 1513 and he simultaneously
wrote this other equally significant text. But of course, the less discussed and debated
particularly when we think about Machiavellian politics in the negative terms.
So, the Prince he wrote in 1513 and it was published in 1531 much after his death in 1527
and the Discourses, he wrote over the four years between 1513 to 17. It it was published in
31. Both these texts were published after his death in 1527 and his other lesser-known works
are, the Art of War which he wrote in 1521 and the History of Florence in 1527. He also
wrote a play which was full of wit and humour, and treacherousness of human character
which was Mandragola in 1518.
And the Shakespeare characterization of murderous Machiavelli in his ‘Othello’ is derived
from this kind of treacherousness teachings or advice or characterization in Machiavellian
politics. However, Machiavelli’s magnum opus is the Prince. And it presents him as the
ruthless pragmatist who wanted the ruler to govern based on experience from the past rather
than imagination or conventional Christian priests.
The Prince is the most widely read the text of Machiavelli after Discourse which presented
him as a pragmatist thinker who wanted his ruler or the King to govern the polity or
principalities based on knowledge of history rather than the Christian pieties of conventional
However, we shall see throughout these three lectures that such crude caricature of
Machiavelli is not just incorrect. But it does not do justice to his complex thought. Above all,
he was a Renaissance man and republican thinker who wanted politics to be in the interest of
the people. Such ideas less discussed, he presented in the Discourses to which we return to in
the third lecture.(Refer Slide Time: 37:16)
Now, we will discuss the idea for Virtu and Fortuna. The Machiavellian notion of Virtu could
be best understood in the context of his ideas on Fortuna. These two are somewhat interlinked
and very difficult to understand Virtu separately or separate from his views on Fortuna or
So, he regarded enormous role Fortuna plays in determining the prospect of human affairs or
human efforts. Now, to reduce the role of Fortune or the fate that was an unpredictable,
decisive role in determining the prospect of human life or collective endeavours, to reduce
that role of unpredictable fate or Fortuna in the affairs of life, particularly in maintaining
order and stability in the state.
Machiavelli wanted his Prince to inculcate Virtu. He wanted it to be developed both at the
individual as well as the collective level. So, this is something which he argued that Virtu
should be inculcated both at the individual and collective level.
Machiavelli, describing the role of Fortuna in human affairs, writes, “I would compare her
which he Fortuna, he characterised as a feminine. I would compare her that is Fortuna to an
impetuous river that when turbulent, inundates the plains, casts down trees and buildings and
removes earth from this side and place it on the other, everyone flees before it and yet though
it is of such a kind, still when it is quiet, men can make provision against it by building dikes
and banks, so that when it rises it will either go into a canal, or its rushes will not be so wild
and dangerous”.So, that is the role of Fortuna or Fortune on human affairs. It is like a river with the current or
flow of water and when it is turbulent, it is very difficult for the men, no matter how much
virtuous, no matter how much efficient or strong to withstand it. However, when the river is
calm, the role of human being is to build the dikes or channelize it in such a manner where it
can be used for agriculture or for other productive purposes, and also when it overflows its
devastating effect would be less. That is what he thinks of Fortuna and the role of Fortuna in
Particularly, when he explains the fate of Cesare Borgia. He was the strong, effective ruler
and yet he ended up falling from the grace and losing the respect or glory which he earned.
That could be partly explained because of the devastating role of the Fortuna. So, the concept
of Virtue and Fortuna played