Ms. Machiavelli

Hanna Pitkin’s central argument in Fortune Is a Woman is that “where politics meets gender” we come upon “the troubled heart of Machiavelli’s complex thought.” Machiavelli, for her, is “both a republican and something like a protofascist”; and the “focus of the ambivalence” she finds in his texts is “manhood: anxiety about being sufficiently masculine and concern over what it means to be a man.”

This is hardly a new insight. It has long been recognized that Machiavelli was deeply preoccupied by the theme of true manliness, and by the forces that undermine the realization of what he took to be manly ideals in public life. The chief evidence of these preoccupations is the pivotal place that Machiavelli assigns to the concept of virtù in his two most famous political works. The term virtù almost defies translation, but the range of its reference is clear enough. In The Prince Machiavelli consistently uses it to denote the qualities that enable a prince to withstand the blows of fortune, to win the favors of that unreliable goddess, and to rise in consequence to the heights of princely success, winning glory for himself and security for his government. In the Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli’s later and more elaborate treatise on republican liberty, he similarly uses the term to describe the qualities that each citizen needs to cultivate if his city is to ally with fortune, uphold its civic freedom, and in consequence reach its highest goals, the goals of civic glory and greatness.

This understanding of virtù has the effect of introducing the issue of gender into Machiavelli’s political theory at two crucial points. Following his classical authorities—especially Livy and Cicero—Machiavelli not only treats the concept of virtù as the key to political success; he also treats it as the defining characteristic of the figure whom Cicero had described as the vir, “the man of true manliness.” An image of true masculinity—or virility, as we still say in acknowledgment of the Roman ideal—thus lies at the heart of Machiavelli’s account of the attributes needed for the achievement of personal as well as civic greatness.

The issue of gender also arises if we turn to ask about the forces that undermine the satisfactory conduct of public affairs. One of Machiavelli’s most frequently reiterated beliefs is that the possession of virtù, although essential for attaining our highest goals, can never be sufficient to ensure their attainment. A great deal of luck is also indispensable. The message is a familiar one: great political leaders will always be those who, in addition to all their other qualities, have somehow managed (as we still say) to “get lucky.”

The way to get lucky, Machiavelli insists, is to take risks, to act at all times with the greatest audacity and decisiveness. The adage he has in mind at this point—again taken from his Roman authorities—is that “fortune favors the brave.” But fortune’s power is of course capricious as well as overwhelming; there is always the danger that your…

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