This is an essay I wrote for a Political Science course called Classic Texts in Political Theory

The Prince: What is Fortuna and how does it provide obstacles to princely virtú?

            From the very first chapter of The Prince, Machiavelli states that Fortuna, or good fortune, is one of the two intangibles by which a Prince acquires a State, along with merit or virtue, otherwise known as virtú. He likens a Prince attaining his status by these two intangibles as his attaining it either by his own arms, with his own virtú, or by the arms of others, with fortuna on his side.

            Machiavelli clarifies which of the two intangibles is more advantageous for the Prince to hold than the other, and that these two are more important than all others in leading the Prince to not only conquer his State but defend his hold on it. The passage states:

            “[…] in entirely new Princedoms where the Prince himself is new, the difficulty of maintaining possession varies with the greater or less ability of him who acquires possession. And, because of the mere fact of a private person rising to be a Prince presupposes either merit or good fortune, it will be seen that the presence of one or the other of these two conditions lessens, to some extent, many difficulties. And yet, he who is less beholden to Fortune has in the end the better success.” (Machiavelli 12)

In this way, Machiavelli states that a Prince should rely more on virtue to attain and keep his state than on fortune. He then provides examples of rulers who became so by their virtue, not by fortune, but not without warning the reader that Fortune provided them with an opportunity and situation in which they could use this great virtue. One famous example he uses is that of Moses, who without having found Israelis abused and dominated by Egyptians, could not have used his qualities, so superior they made him a confidant of God, to lead their uprising. Machiavelli explains this success by stating that such leaders who attain their status in virtuous ways have difficulties in acquiring their States but face little trouble in keeping them.

            By contrast, those Princes who become so solely through their good fortune feel little opposition in doing so yet attract a lot of it in retaining their States. The author likens their rise to power to that of a bird’s flight: “They meet with no hindrance on their way, being carried as it were on wings to their destination” (15). He gives us the example of Cesare Borgia in this passage:

            “He obtained his Princedom through the favourable fortunes of his father, and with these lost it, although, so far as in him lay, he used every effort and practised every expedient that a prudent and able man should, who desires to strike root in a State given him by the arms and fortune of another […] And if the measures taken by him did not profit in the end, it was through no fault of his, but from the extraordinary and extreme malignity of Fortune.” (15-16)

   Thus Machiavelli makes his point strongly by showing that Borgia, by all accounts a smart man who did all that was necessary to keep his leadership, was nevertheless defeated eventually because of his initial dependence on the good fortune of his father, whose death left Borgia at the mercy of two powerful, hostile armies as well as his own debilitating illness, which would consume him as he fought for his Princedom.

            Machiavelli gives the reader further and definitive insight into the nature of fortuna by comparing it to a woman in this thought-provoking excerpt:

            “To be brief, I say that since Fortune changes and men stand fixed in their old ways, they are prosperous so long as there is congruity between them, and the reverse when there is not. Of this, however, I am well persuaded, that it is better to be impetuous than cautious. For Fortune is a woman who to be kept under must be beaten and roughly handled; and we see that she suffers herself to be more readily mastered by those who so treat her than by those who are more timid in their approaches.” (68)

Although the beating of a woman cannot under any circumstances be condoned or tolerated, Machiavelli personifies deftly, as one can see that Fortune’s charms are needed to provide a situation in which virtue is needed and can be used. Therefore, if a Prince can be thought of as a man, he must use his charming, playful side to attract Fortune’s femininity, through which he can gain the opportunity in which he can then assert his virtue, or manly virility and forcefulness, to not only attain power but retain it as well.

            In conclusion, a comparison of the reigns of two recent heads of state can be used to clarify why virtú is greater than fortuna as a quality that allows them to maintain their position. The US’s two-term president and one of its most historically popular, Bill Clinton, rose to power despite allegations by several women that he’d asked sexual favours of them while he was Governor of Arkansas, and while he had that post he also had to fight through conflict of interest allegations concerning the Whitewater land development deal his wife and he struck. He was able to keep the presidency after an impeachment trial, only the second in American history, called for a tawdry affair he had with a White House intern during his second term of office. He has been able to dodge these controversies through his remarkable oratory skills and precise stately manner so successfully that if he had been legally able to run for a third term he would have likely won by a landslide. In comparison, recently deposed Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo lasted through only a single term of office in spite of his relatively easy realization of that status. Not even his party’s elected nominee for the presidency in 1994, he rose to power in December of that year after party delegates had their crusading candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio, as well as another highly-ranked party official, murdered. Having little opposition within his party after the successful coup, he nevertheless threw away the guaranteed security of his status by losing his party’s autocratic rule of more than seventy consecutive years. It is evident that the virtue of each one of these leaders was the difference as to the terms of office they served.


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