Virtue and Virtu: Castiglione and Machiavelli on Politics and Princes

Hope Greenberg
History 225
Prof. W. Metcalfe
October 4, 1993

"...for the world and its princes are no longer formed as they should be, but as they are."
- Guicciardini

Castiglione is known as the creator of the definitive descriptive portrait of the flower of nobility, the epitome of manly grace, the soldier of courage who is also musician, poet and dancer, in short, the ideal Renaissance man. The name Machiavelli, on the other hand, conjures up visions of ruthlessness, treachery, and opportunism, those traits which a cynical world labels realism. And yet, how realistic is Machiavelli's advice to his prince? How idealistic is Castiglione? How do their approaches to politics and princes differ? How do they portray the prince and the political milieu of which they are a part?

In the first three books Castiglione describes, through the creation of well orchestrated conversations among the members of the court of Urbino, the courtier and court lady, endowing them with all the virtues we have come to expect of Renaissance nobility. A cursory reading of these books might indeed lead one to assume that Castiglione is an idealist, blind to the corruption of political reality. While the fourth book follows the same pattern, it provides subtle hints that Castiglione is not the political idealist he appears to be. Machiavelli's The Prince, though it purports to be a straightforward, logical, realistic and calculating look at politics and power, produces some surprisingly impractical and idealistic conclusions. However, before delving into these divergences from accepted assumptions about the works, let us examine some of the evidence in support of the traditional view.

Following the precedents established by his predecessors in the realm of political theory, Castiglione describes the prince in terms of virtue. Blessed is the prince who seeks to emulate not the power of God but the goodness of God. (p. 299) To be a good prince, one must follow the "stern path of virtue" and be a model of virtuousness for the people, "for there is nothing so advantageous to mankind as a good prince, and nothing so harmful as an evil one." (p. 289) He must "not only be good but make others good as well." (p. 300) Thus the most important attributes of a prince are internal: he must be virtuous, his virtue delimited by continence and temperance. The role of the courtier, then, is to guard the prince not from external enemies, but from internal ones. To gently lead the prince to virtue, to lure his feet onto that stern path, to be a model; these are the roles to which the courtier should aspire.

With the apparent desire to turn traditional political theory on its ear, Machiavelli describes his prince not in terms of his inner qualities, but by that multifaceted, multi-purpose, external and action-oriented term, virtu. He attempts to provide a guidebook by which the prince can frame his actions. Although these actions may sometimes be circumscribed by fortuna, they remain the key factor in determining the success or failure of a prince. Even the concepts of vice and virtue are not seen as inherent qualities but as tools to be manipulated. By saying such things as "he will know how to avoid the infamy of those vices which would lose him the state" and "he will find something which will seem virtue itself" (Ch. XV), Machiavelli moves virtue and vice from internal character traits to external, chosen actions.

In his use of the term virtu Machiavelli studiously avoids moral overtones. The term is generally used to mean outstanding ability, but is also used in the older sense of manliness and courage, as well as its more modern implications of the capacity for goodness and justice. For example, in Chapter VIII, he uses the term twice:

"Still, one cannot call it virtu to kill his fellow citizens, to betray his friends, to be without faith, without pity, without religion.....For if one considers the virtu of Agathocles in entering into and escaping from does not why he should have to be judged inferior....nevertheless, his brutal cruelty and inhumanity and his infinite wickedness do not allow that he be among the most excellent celebrated men."

Thus, by using the term in such disparate ways, Machiavelli robs it of its moral value. Furthermore, though he references the "brutal cruelty" of Agathocles he does not conclude that this cruelty makes him an unsuccessful prince, only that he cannot be considered among the "most excellent celebrated men," again an external, not internal, judgement, or rather a judgment of results not morals.

Castiglione and Machiavelli are not always so far apart in their treatment of princes and politics. Castiglione says quite early in The Courtier that the "first and true profession of the courtier must be that of arms" (p. 57) while Machiavelli is no less emphatic when he states that "A prince...ought to have no other object...but war." (Ch. XIV) Having said this, they diverge once more. Castiglione turns the discussion inward by stating that "rulers should make their people warlike not for lust of conquest but in order to ensure the defense of themselves and their subjects..." (p. 303) He then has the discussion turn back to virtue: virtues needed for war, virtues needed for peace, and how the courtier can educate his prince in both.

As the chief business of a prince, Machiavelli devotes a good deal of his work to the subject of war and arms. He describes in detail the use of the prince's own arms to acquire new principates and to hold his own (Ch. VI, X) and the acquisition of principates through the arms of others (Ch. VII). He also spends a good deal of time discussing such arms-related issues as militia, auxiliary soldiers and fortifications (Ch. XII-XIV, XX). However, his most impassioned speech is against mercenaries. Machiavelli uses the word God in only four chapters of The Prince. Twice in reference to Moses, and once almost as an equivalent to fortuna. However, the fourth time is reserved for a condemnation of mercenaries who "do not fear God, nor do they keep faith with men." (Ch. XII). He even goes so far as to say "our sins were the cause of this (loss of Italy due to use of mercenaries)." This moral judgement in an otherwise moral-neutral work is striking and leads, inexorably, to the final "Exhortation to liberate Italy from the barbarians."

In another pair of strikingly similar passages Castiglione and Machiavelli explain what they see as the proper gift to give a prince. Characteristically, Machiavelli places this in the forefront, explaining in the opening paragraph of The Prince:

"...those who desire to acquire grace before a Prince, make themselves come up to meet him with those things....that they see delight him most,...with horses, arms, gold cloths, precious stones...I...have not found among my equipment, anything that I hold most dear or so esteem as the knowledge of the actions of great men, which I reduced into a little volume..."

Just as characteristically, Castiglione slips this thought in as nonchalantly as one of his courtiers could wish when he has Signor Ottaviano say, after a rather discursive speech on temperance and emotions:
"...[The courtier] gave his prince not what fools give, namely, gifts such as gold and silver...but what is doubtless the greatest and rarest of all human virtues: the manner and method of good government."

Having each justified his literary outpouring, whose work is most effective? We know the purpose of Machiavelli's work and its outcome. Whether he was a victim of fortuna or whether he and his work lacked the requisite virtu to obtain a position in the Medici government will long be debated. One wonders if the fiery death of Savonarola, himself a master of exhortation and moving rhetoric, can be seen as analogous to a change in political temperament where subtlety and caution were more important than boldness and action. Machiavelli's work, cloaked though much of it is in unemotional and logical language, is still a passionate plea for his Italy to rise up and defend herself from foreign aggression. Given the evidence of his former political acuity, one wonders how he expected such pleas to get him a job. His society had long since moved past the time when a Giangaleazzo Visconti or Francesco Sforza could grapple with and subdue fortuna to his own ends. A more subtle approach was clearly called for.

In the preface to the last evening's discussion, Castiglione presents the "graduates" of his "school" of the courtier and lists their accomplishments. The placement of these names at this point in the work is not gratuitous. By now we can recognize that Castiglione is preparing us for something. That something is the culmination of his experience in political survival. Also among these subtle proofs of his success in the beginning of Book IV, as well as in the prefatory letter to de Silva, are eulogies for certain members of the court of Urbino who died between Castiglione's beginning of The Courtier and its subsequent completion and publication. The sincerity behind these eulogies is apparent as is the humanity of the man who wrote them. That Castiglione survived the vicissitudes of Renaissance Italy when so many others did not is remarkable. That he did so with such grace helps support the conclusion that his method was more appropriate to his times than was Machiavelli's.

1 This is from the de Alvarez translation which translates virtu as virtue throughout to highlight the many ways Machiavelli uses this term. The Bondanello/Musa translate virtu in this passage as skill and ability, respectively.

This file is part of Hope Greenberg's Graduate Portfolio for the course History 225. Created 12 March 1997.