Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Discourses on Livy: II.27-29

Fortuna by Tadeusz Kuntze, National Museum in Warsaw


Continuing his discussion of the role of words in warfare and foreign policy, Machiavelli suggests that international trash-talking reveals the existence of a defect on the part of the one using aggressive words.

Using words of little honor against the enemy arises most often from an insolence that either victory or the false hope of victory gives you. This false hope makes men err not only in speaking but also in working. For when this hope enters into the breasts of men, it makes them pass beyond the mark and most often lose the opportunity of having a certain good through hoping to have an uncertain better. (II.27.1)

In other words, not only do our arrogant words reveal a potential error in judgment on our part, they can actually be the cause of such an error in the first place. Machiavelli gives several examples of this principle at work from both Greek, Roman, and Renaissance Italian history, concluding that

Men who make this error who do not know how to put limits to their hopes, and, by founding themselves on these without otherwise measuring themselves, they are ruined. (II.27.4)

Our words generate arrogance and then blind us to the realities of our situation, such that we refuse to listen to good advice when it is offered, fail to accept legitimate—and even virtuous—exits from a confrontation, and ultimately are destroyed because of our egos.

With that said, we should not only consider the potential harmful effects of words on ourselves, but also on others as well. We have an obligation to use words carefully and justly, treating poorly used words and insults with the dignity and seriousness that they deserve. This is true in both domestic and foreign policy. As an example of the latter, Machiavelli cites the destruction of Rome by the Gauls in response to the Roman failure to punish diplomats who had been insulting. (In fact, the Romans had actually promoted those diplomats.) As an example of the former, Machiavelli cites Pausanias’s murder of Philip of Macedon (Alexander the Great’s father). Once again, Machiavelli is glazing over a heated historical debate. Why did Pausanias murder Philip of Macedon? The possible motivations include, but are not limited to:

-a command from Olympias (Philip’s wife and Alexander’s mother)
-a command from Alexander
-a command from Demosthenes/the Athenian government
-some combination of these.

Machiavelli, however, settles on revenge for an unpunished sexual assault. (Which is as good a reason as any, it’s just not found in the historical record.) Whatever the true motivation, the point Machiavelli is highlighting is that

Every republic and every prince should take account of doing similar injuries, not only against a collectivity but even against an individual. For if a man is greatly offended either by the public or by a private person and is not avenged according to his satisfaction, if he lives in a republic he seeks to avenge himself, even if with its ruin; and if he lives under a prince and has any generosity in himself he is never quiet until he avenges himself against him, even if he sees evil for himself in that. (II.28.2)

Just because there is no reaction to an injustice now doesn’t meant there will never be one, or that a state can continually escalate or ignore the injustice with no danger of recompense. What the practical application of this ought to be, Machiavelli does not here tell us. He just highlights it as a problem it is unwise to ignore.

Using the destruction of Rome (save for the capitol building) by the Gauls as his turning point, Machiavelli transitions into a discussion of fortune. He notes that fortune is what provides the opportunities for men to show great virtue and is what deprives them of those same opportunities.

Fortune does this well, since when it wishes to bring about great things it elects a man of so much spirit and so much virtue that he recognizes the opportunities that it proffers him. Thus in the same manner, when it wishes to bring about great ruin, it prefers men who can aid in that ruin. And if anyone should be there who could withstand it, either it kills him or it deprives him of all faculties of being able to work anything well. (II.29.2)

We’ve seen some of what Machiavelli has to say about fortune already, here we get a bit more of his ideas on the topic. Machiavelli is clearly simultaneously fascinated by “fortune” and somewhat mystified by it. For example, we can see that there are elements of a personality in back of his idea of “fortune.” We might be able to go so far as to call fortune a “goddess” in the old pagan sense in Machiavelli’s mind. And here we can recall The Prince, where “fortune is a woman and if she is to be submissive it is necessary to beat and coerce her” (XXV, Bull Translation, Penguin Classics, 2003). Yet, we can also see that Machiavelli clearly does not mean anything like the Christian doctrine of providence. “Fortune” may have a personality, but it apparently has no sort of long-term plan or governing teleology. Consider by contrast two Christians with a very high view of providence:

First, then, let the reader remember that the providence we mean is not one by which the Deity, sitting idly in heaven, looks on at what is taking place in the world, but one by which he, as it were, holds the helms and overrules all events. Hence his providence extends not less to the hand than to the eye. (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.16.4)

God’s providence taken summarily, or in general, is an operation and work of his, superior to the work of creation: for providence may in some respect be called the end of the work of creation, as the use and improvement any artificer makes of an engine, or the work he intends with it, is superior to his making the engine. God created the world to glorify himself; but it was principally that he might glorify him [self] in his disposal of the world, or in the use he intended to make of it, in his providence. And God’s providential disposals of the material part of the world are all subordinate to his providence towards the spiritual and intelligent part of it.
           And that work of God’s providence to which all other works of providence, both in the material and immaterial part of the creation, are subservient, is the work of redemption. All other works of providence may be looked upon as appendages to this great work, or things which God does to subserve that grand design. The work of redemption may be looked upon as the great end and drift of all God’s works and dispensations from the beginning, and even the end of the work of creation itself; yea, the whole creation. It was the end of the creation of heaven: the preparing that blessed and glorious habitation was with an eye to this. (Jonathan Edwards, Miscellanies 702)

By contrast with the involved, planning, omnipotent, and careful providential God of Christianity, Machiavelli’s fortune is mysterious, capricious, and at least from the human perspective random:

I indeed affirm it anew to be very true, according to what is seen through all the histories, that men can second fortune but not oppose it, that they can weave its warp but not break it. They should indeed never give up for, since they do not know its end and it proceeds by oblique and unknown ways, they have always to hope and, since they hope, not to give up in whatever fortune and in whatever travail they may find themselves. (II.29.3)

Fortune, unlike providence, is to be resisted because it is simultaneously unknowable and malleable, at least to some small degree. At least, Machiavelli claims that is the lesson we learn about fortune when we truly understand history.


Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.

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