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 luck will desert you just when you have most need of it, since the line between trusting to luck and tempting fortune is almost invisible. This is what Cesare Borgia, one of the heroes of The Prince, is said to have discovered to his cost. He acted “with tremendous virtù,” but all his projects came to nothing simply because his luck suddenly changed. Having at first raised him up, fortune chose to cast him down “with extraordinary and extreme malignity.”

Throughout this analysis Machiavelli implicitly personifies the power of fortune, and hence the role of unforeseen events, in the determination of our lives. The personification is finally made explicit in the penultimate chapter of The Prince, “How much Fortune can do in human affairs.” It is there that Machiavelli tells us (supplying Professor Pitkin with her title) that “Fortune is a woman,” and that this explains why she likes “to befriend young men” who are able “to master her with greater audacity.” The implications of the personification are thus somewhat disconcerting: the power that is said to be indispensable to manly success, but is also said to be capable of rendering impotent the highest aspirations of manliness, is depicted as a feminine force.

According to Professor Pitkin, most commentators on the role of the goddess Fortuna in Machiavelli’s thought have concluded “that either Machiavelli does not take her seriously himself, or else that taking her seriously is an unfortunate lapse.” This clears the way for Professor Pitkin’s own contention that the relations between virtù and fortuna in fact take us to the very core of Machiavelli’s political thought. But this is something of a travesty of recent scholarship. As early as the 1940s Eugenio Garin (not mentioned by Professor Pitkin) was arguing that the battle between virtù and fortuna constitutes “the central motif” in the whole of Renaissance moral philosophy. Since then the same insight has been further explored by a number of other scholars, especially those influenced by Felix Gilbert’s classic treatment of these issues in his Machiavelli and Guicciardini, published in 1965. In his brilliant book The Machiavellian Moment, for example, Professor J.G.A. Pocock has even gone so far as to conclude that all of politics for Machiavelli can be summed up as “the art of dealing with fortuna.”


It is true, however, that in one way Professor Pitkin carries the discussion of gender and sex roles in Machiavelli much further than previous accounts. She does so by dwelling on a figure whom she calls “Machiavelli at his best.” He is someone who “sees politics as the activity by which free individuals,” in spite of being “at odds in terms of interest, need, outlook, desire,” are continually able to “restore and redirect their community, defining it and themselves in the process.” Unfortunately, however, “Machiavelli undermines the very teaching he wants to convey” by the images in which he chooses to clothe his ideas. Of these by far the most troubling is the image of fortune. Its role is such that, although Machiavelli sets out with a vision of autonomy and participation, he ends up by endorsing “relationships of domination and submission” which are based above all on “fantasies of huge engulfing mothers.”

Professor Pitkin’s thesis (presented with much emphasis and a wearying degree of repetition) is thus that Machiavelli’s political theory enacts “a family drama.” On the one hand we find “civilization, liberty, law, politics, history, culture,” all of which are “understood as male enterprises.” But on the other hand we find “the enormous power of feminine agencies,” a power which Machiavelli is said to view with fear and hostility as “corrosive,” “malevolent,” and “threatening,” the enemy of “humaneness itself.”

The textual warrant for many of these contentions is slender in the extreme, and the entire argument seems somewhat overheated. Even when he is discussing the power of fortuna, Machiavelli’s range of metaphors is considerably more complicated than Professor Pitkin seems willing to allow. He speaks not merely of domination, but also of our capacity to act in harmony and concord with fortune’s powers. Similarly, he speaks not merely of our dependence on her whims, but also of our ability to win her friendship.

Moreover, it’s simply not true to say that all of Machiavelli’s personifications reveal him to be “fearful of and hostile toward the feminine.” Near the start of the Discourses, for example, he offers a famous personification of the ancient city of Rome, describing her as “a daughter” who owed both her birth and her education to Romulus, the founding father of the city. Rome is thus perceived as feminine, but her achievements are nevertheless recounted throughout the Discourses with respect and admiration rather than fear, while the city herself is described not with hostility but with the deepest love.

Professor Pitkin’s overstatements are unfortunate, for they threaten to spoil an argument which is well worth taking seriously. There can be no doubt that Machiavelli’s portrayal of fortune does include, among other things, a strong measure of resentment, as well as a notorious moment of violence when he tells us that “if you want to keep her under control, it is necessary to assault and batter her.” Professor Pitkin analyzes the implications of these passages with subtlety and insight, and offers as well a perceptive account of Machiavelli’s repeated and contrasting metaphors of paternity. It is certainly striking to reflect, as Professor Pitkin observes, that although Machiavelli frequently describes the founding of cities as a birth, these are births where no mother is ever present; only the founding fathers are mentioned and celebrated. Professor Pitkin’s language may sometimes be a bit inflated, but she certainly makes a fascinating case for saying that “fears of maternal engulfment and fantasies of parental rescue” sometimes seem to rise up out of the deep structure of Machiavelli’s thought.

Armed with this insight, Professor Pitkin devotes the final section of her book to seeking an explanation of what she calls this “misogynist” element in Machiavelli’s philosophy. She finds it at the level of “unresolved infantile conflicts” produced by the child-rearing patterns characteristic of Renaissance Florence. A great deal of research on this topic is reported and sifted with admirable care, but the hypothesis Professor Pitkin eventually plucks from it is a very simple one. She is much impressed by the fact that the usual practice among the richer Florentine families was to hand their children over to a wet nurse at birth, generally sending them away from home to live in the nurse’s family until they were at least two years old. She thinks that “simply in terms of common sense,” such children might be expected “to resent women” and “to regard them with deep suspicion, as changeable, unreliable, and treacherous.” So she concludes that, within such a culture, “one would not be surprised to find a continuing later fear of dependence” on maternal figures, accompanied by fantasies of rescue and a deep-seated hostility toward “anything resembling feminine nurturance.”


This is all very interesting, except that there is no direct evidence that Machiavelli himself was reared in this way. Even if he was, however, Professor Pitkin’s argument still faces two awkward difficulties. One is the fact that the “putting-out” system she describes was prevalent throughout Western Europe in the early modern period, and lasted (as any reader of Rousseau’s Emile will remember) at least until the end of the eighteenth century. If we are looking for correlations this suggests one between the nurturing of infants on this pattern and the subsequent espousal not merely of a Machiavellian “misogyny,” but a great many other, quite different, social and political attitudes.

The other difficulty arises from the fact that there is very little in Machiavelli’s analysis of the relations between virtù, fortuna, and the role of founding fathers that cannot already be found, articulated in almost identical terms, in the political writings of his Roman authorities. But there is no evidence that anything closely resembling the “putting-out” system was used in ancient Rome. This suggests a correlation between the adoption of exactly Machiavelli’s “misogynist” attitudes and a rather different range of infantile experiences. The combined effect of these objections is obviously to rob Professor Pitkin’s hypothesis of much of its explanatory force.

As well as surfacing in a number of explicit doctrines about “feminine powers,” the problem of gender arises in Machiavelli’s political theory in another and much more subterranean way that Pitkin does not adequately acknowledge. Machiavelli was writing in Italian, a language in which the grammatical category of the neuter has no place. It follows that every noun he uses is either masculine or feminine. So it seems worth asking—as a number of Italian scholars have recently done in the case of fascism*—whether this consideration can be shown to play any systematic role in the organization of his argument. The question seems particularly worth raising in view of the fact that Professor Pitkin sees such a strong element of what she calls “protofascism” in Machiavelli’s thought.

The answer, in the case of a text such as the Discourses, proves to be extremely revealing. If we ask first about the goals Machiavelli urges us to embrace as citizens, these all turn out to be feminine: wealth, liberty, and civic greatness. If we next ask about the type of community we need to sustain in order to realize these goals, we find that this is seen by contrast as masculine: it must be a vivere politico, a vivere civile, a vivere libero—terms usually translated as “a free state.” If we go on to ask about the qualities needed to uphold such a community, these again prove to be feminine, including virtù itself as well as the attribute of prudence, the greatest of the political virtues. But if we ask finally about the institutions and arrangements we need to establish in order to promote the civic virtues, we find that these—the most basic and shaping elements—are entirely masculine: not merely the term for the general condition of public life (lo stato), but also the words used to describe specific institutions (including the Senate and the various magistracies) and the ordini or ordinances that bind the whole edifice together.

Once or twice Professor Pitkin notes that the issue of gender obtrudes far more prominently in Italian than it does in English, but she makes no attempt to investigate the possible significance of this fact. It is arguable, however, that had she done so she might have felt obliged to reconsider some of her conclusions about the place of gender in Machiavelli’s thought. She insists, for example, that Machiavelli invariably treats “the feminine” as a “less honourable” category, and even claims that Machiavelli sometimes encourages us to exclude “things feminine” from our vision of communal life.

But this is not exactly how Machiavelli handles the question of things feminine in the Discourses. There we certainly encounter the images of domination and submission that Professor Pitkin rightly and valuably singles out. If the linguistic evidence is admissible at all, however, it suggests at the same time a certain disposition on Machiavelli’s part to idealize the feminine, controlled though it always is by a sense that the active and shaping features of public life must all be masculine in character. We encounter, in short, a familiar element of ambivalence—still depressingly prevalent in our own culture—of a kind that cannot readily be captured by means of Professor Pitkin’s rather simple categories. Although Machiavelli describes the world of striving and acting entirely as a masculine one, the ideals for which the man of true manliness is asked to strive, as well as the qualities of virtue which are placed on a pedestal for him to admire, are all presented as feminine principles.

Machiavelli lived during one of the most widely admired periods of European history and cultural achievement, with Botticelli, Raphael, Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci all being numbered among his near contemporaries. But it was also an era that glorified violence and thrived on crushingly patriarchal social attitudes. It is vital to be reminded of these deeply unappealing yet equally salient features of Renaissance life, and the merit of Professor Pitkin’s study is that it focuses our attention so sharply on this point. Whatever its shortcomings, this makes it a timely and salutary book.

This Issue

March 14, 1985