Machiavelli's _virtu_ and 'power' <long>

Robert Thornton (031RTHOR@MUSE.ARTS.WITS.AC.ZA)
Mon, 11 Mar 1996 15:19:55 -0500

The tireless typist and sage, John McCreery, has asked me to
elaborate on the idea of power in Machiavelli. I said in a previous
post that I found Machiavelli's idea of power, expressed as virtu
intruiguiging and (if I might be allowed the regressive reference)

First, let me say that while the net is nice, one
sometimes has to resort to the arts of reading, since Machievelli did
not write for the Internet. I am surprised how little recourse most
members of this list have to the classics of political, social and
cultural writing, and thus seem constantly to reinvent the wheel.

Machiavelli was born in Florence in 1469, and died in 1527 after a
career as, in effect, a political consultant to the Florentine
republic and to other princes and powers in the region. His work is
based simultaneously on his analysis of the classic texts of Livy,
Cicero, Tacitus, and the texts relating to the foundations of Rome
and to the Roman myths, legends, and laws. He applied this knowledge
to the politics of his day, and became thus a sort of applied
historian, or better yet, an applied anthropologist working in and on
the politics of the diverse political formations that he was witness
to, and that he studied. He is especially noteworthy since he is
perhaps the first political philosopher to take plural or `multi-
cultural' societies seriously, and to address the special political
problems that they faced. During his lifetime, the Italian Republics
were in constant conflict with each other, with the Vatican and Papal
states, and with other kings and princes of Europe. As I read him,
he attempted to define a practical politics that would work across a
number of political `platforms': kingdoms, principalities, conquest
states and colonies (e.g. the Roman colonies on the North African
coast, since the New World colonies either did not exist yet), as
well as the republics which he supported in particular.

Most people are familiar with Machiavelli's The Prince. This is
really just a consultants report, and is thus quick a dirty. The
Discourses, on the other hand, is what he really thought about.
Although it was written about and for fifteenth and sixteenth century
Italian politicians, I like to read it as if it were about
contemporary Africa. This is interesting since Machiavelli's world
was, like Africa, largely devoid of industry, economies were based
primarily on agriculture and trade, with capital accumulation that is
probably similar in both cases. Moreover, the Italian republics wre
really city-states, and therefore much like Nairobi or Johannesburg
since these are self-contained polities that rely on the
`countryside' as economic centres exploiting the hinterlands that
surround them.

In Africa, as in Machiavelli's Italy there were a
plurality of competing political forms: Kings and their retinues,
politicians and their advisors, princes, political parties, religious
organisation, societies of witch-hunters, medical practitioners that
rely on what we might call `magic' or analogical reasoning today,
religious heresies, witches and witch burnings, war-lords, mobs and
plebs, patricians, robber-barons, bishops, priests, gullible laities,
critical but isolated intelligentsia, patronage and clientship, trade
networks, gangs, private armies, con-men and protection rackets,
pervasive violence and `tumult' (as Machiavelli called it in Father
Walker's translation), plagues and epizotics of many kinds, uncertain
agriculture, ignorant peasants, highly priviledged elites and almost
nothing in between. In short, contemporary Africa and fifteenth
century Italy had/have a lot in common. Thus the amusement I derive
from reading Machiavelli *AS IF* he were writing about Africa. Both
locales, historical and spatial are characterised by a high degree of
political diversity, to the extent that there is/was no single model
that could be, or is/was followed.

In Africa today, the nation-state
idea has disappeared, and has been replaced by an ideological
confusion attended by intractable violence. There is no obvious
political solution to this. Above all, there is no obvious single
source or `power' or even any agreement on what `power' might be, who
has, or should or might best have it, what it should be used to
accomplish, or even who `really' had it in the pre-colonial, the
colonial or the post-colonial and now post-modern (or rather post-
modernising) past. Thus Machiavelli's search for a vocabulary with
which to talk about power is instructive.

Machiavelli in The Discourses, explains political fortunes in terms
of three explanatory categories: Fortuna, Necessita, and Virtu (all
words have accent graves on the final vowel). In a contemporary
vocabulary, it seems to me that these correspond roughly to
Contingency (and historical happenstance), Structure (and
`determination'), and, finally, Power.

_Virtu_ in Machiavelli is
what Weber more or less had in mind with his term charisma, and is
the personal capacity of some individual to cause others to act. I
would leave it as this, although political philophers (Weber among
them) seem to think that the action that the _virtu_ causes in
others, is somehow against their own will. Machiavelli was
fundamentally pagan, however, and did not really take the notion of
will too seriously. The notion of Will is closely allied to the
Christian idea of soul and spirit. Machiavelli's _virtu_ seems to me
to be fundamentally relational, however, since its presence is only
to be discerned by the effect it has on others. Thus, though the man
with _virtu_ has `Power' over others, it is only the actions of
others that evince this power. Later definition of power make it
more `positive' in the sense that the relationship between the
powerful man and his reflection, the follower, is transposed into the
powerful individual in conflict with other individuals. Machiavelli
seems to have understood that there was a hierarchy of individuality,
and only some actors had power, or _virtu_ while others reflected
this presence.

I think this points to a fundamental error in Weber's definition of
power. Weber, for instance, relies on the notion of `probability'.
Probability can not be defined for individuals (or individual
observations or data points) since it depends on the notion of a
large number of events or on the image of a differentiated aggregate.
While statistics, thanks to Herbert Spencer and Karl Pearson, have
since defined probabilities in these terms so that they are relevant
to human behaviour, this was not truly available to Weber, or, at any
rate, he made no use of it except in his defnition of power. It is a
weasel clause since it says nothing about individual or individuated
relationships. Weber discourse, then is entirely about *commands*
(as he defines this under the rubric of `domination') and about law,
as he defines this under the rubric of `legitimacy'. What he has in
mind is written pronouncements from bureaucratic offices (note
`bureaucratic' means `the rule of the writing desk'), and the books
in which these were kept. It is thus about post-print-capitalist
Europe, and has only limited application to other societies.
Machiavelli, on the other, like Vico, Hobbes and other `Early
moderns' wrote about a Europe that was not significantly different
from today's third world, and thus may be read more profitably in
relation to Africa than can Marx, Durkheim, Weber, Foucault or the
World Bank reports.

I will promise more comments on what Machiavelli may have meant by
_virtu_ but it is late, and I must to bed.


===========Robert Thornton, Department of Social Anthropology======
University of the Witwatersrand, PO Wits, 2050 Johannesburg
South Africa
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