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Machiavelli Addresses Virtue

Machiavelli Addresses Virtue

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


October 20, 2023

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

George Bull translated the Penguin Classics version of Machiavelli’s The Prince (1999). In the introductory materials, Bull notes some of the difficulties of translating Machiavelli’s language. I find his comments particularly enlightening since they also address the problematic nature of virtue. Machiavelli clearly witnessed unsettling atrocities in his time. Rather than condemning the injustices, he merely noted that injustice exists and suggested that it might be a necessary evil on the ruler’s behalf. According to The Prince, the ruler seems to be justified in using whatever means necessary to maintain power. Machiavelli does note that vicious tactics may backfire in the end, but that practically speaking, fear is a powerful motivator. In the following excerpt from the Introduction to the Penguin edition, Bull adds depth to some of the word choices in this translation.

George Bull writes:

“The language of The Prince is not as modern as many of its sentiments, and I have not tried to modernize it unduly. For example, I have preferred to translate principe, in the title and the text, literally as prince, rather than lose the associations the word has acquired through the centuries, although for the sake of variation I have used another word, such as ruler, here and there. On the other hand, I have tried to put Machiavelli into his periods and made use of the variety of near synonyms available in English to avoid monotony. The same words and phrases are repeated frequently in all Machiavelli’s writings words like ambizione, onore, gloria, fortuna, necessità, virtù. These are key words, both for Machiavelli and other Renaissance writers. They are often, too, employed very judiciously, as, for example, in Chapter VIII of The Prince, where Machiavelli uses the word onore again and again with mounting irony to describe how Oliverotto tricked his uncle. But I think it dangerous to build too much on these few words or, when translating, to follow too slavishly the rule that one word should always be translated by the same word. In the case of virtù, to labour the point, I have decided to translate mostly by the rather literary word ‘prowess’, but have not hesitated to use quite another word where the context would not admit prowess. A great deal has been written about the Renaissance concept of virtù, but Machiavelli, like his contemporaries, seems to have used it freely and loosely, nearly always in antithesis to fortuna, sometimes with the sense of willpower, sometimes efficiency, sometimes even with the sense of virtue.”

In other words, this text doesn’t necessarily mean to imply that virtue shares a measure of morality. Rather, it relates more closely to older ideas of valor or excellence. Over the years, the notion of excellence has become intertwined with notions of spiritual and moral excellence. This simply wasn’t the case for Machiavelli.

This is a helpful reminder to those of us who read classical works. Understanding language from a different age and culture might require a little bit of digging in the past. Some tools to get you started include: Britannica Academic, a good dictionary, JSTOR, and the Oxford Very Short Introductions. All of these are available to HMU students through the online library. Oftentimes, research can be both fun and enlightening, as is the case with the ever-evolving definition of virtue.

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