Virtue translates to skill, ability, and ingenuity to Machiavelli, and so, it is quite understandable that his idea of virtue would share a stormy relationship with fortune.
The relationship between fortune and virtue in this work may seem to be convoluted at best, but in reality, the relationship makes perfect sense for the time. Reduced to its lowest level, the relationship is simply one between a strong and demanding man and a subservient woman. The man must never solely rely on the woman for his fate and fame. Instead, he must learn how to master fortune, and then mold it to his own will, and need. Thus, the relationship is volatile from the first, and will remain volatile as Machiavelli sees it. Fortune has no place in the planning of a political state, because fortune cannot be counted on. However, virtue, as Machiavelli defined it, has every place in a political state, because it equates to good, sound leadership that is good for the leader and good for the people. While Machiavelli believes a good and powerful ruler must be strong and even ruthless, he does not condone cruelty in the name of power. He writes, "Badly used are those cruelties which, although being few at the outset, grow with the passing of time instead of disappearing" (Machiavelli 32). Thus, a virtuous ruler is powerful and cunning, and knows how to use his power effectively to master the weak and to master his own fortune. That does not give him the right to gain power by cruel or unscrupulous means.
Machiavelli constructs his ideas of power and politics almost entirely with his ideas of fortune and virtue. He continually notes that a good ruler cannot rely on fortune, for fortune is fickle and can never be counted on to be there when most needed. A good ruler must rely on wit, skill, ingenuity, and ability - or "virtue." Politically, this makes sound sense, for a ruler who cultivates these abilities will certainly be a popular ruler with the people, and so can obtain and hold on to power with less effort than one who is ruthless, cruel, and unpopular with the people. The same can be said of most political organizations today. Most politicians cultivate an image of wholesome integrity and skill, which gives the people more confidence in them and their ability to lead. In Machiavelli's world, fortune and virtue are intertwined and complicated, just as the relationship between a man and a woman is intertwined and complicated. It is not very much different in the modern world of politics, where fortune and skill are still both quite necessary for successful political figures and political states. Certainly, the political climate of the United States is mired in both fortune and virtue, and both affect how the competent political leader manages his country and his place in the world. Political power is still much the same as it was in Machiavelli's time, and not much has changed in how it is coveted, acquired, and managed. Machiavelli's ideas may seem ruthless and cynical, but in reality, they work. The best political machines are effective when they use skill, knowledge, and even "manliness" to maintain control in turbulent situations. The September 11 terrorist attacks are an excellent example. The powerful leader (Bush) reacted swiftly and strongly to the attacks, and indicated to the world that America would not be a victim. This strong and "virtuous" reaction would have been just what Machiavelli had envisioned in times of great stress. It was not a time for morality; it was a time for strong and swift reaction, and shows how a powerful leader must be ready for anything at any time.
In conclusion, Machiavelli uses fortune and virtue as models for behavior and political power. Their relationship is intertwined with correct political and social behavior in the book, and they represent two of the highest ideals man can attain. Machiavelli's ideas may seem old-fashioned and even politically incorrect today, but his ideas on fortune and virtue have stood the test of time, and will continue to inspire. Fortune and virtue are not easy to attain, but once they are attained, they must be used wisely, or they can corrupt and foul society and the political system.
Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. Trans. Bondanella, Peter,…