What is virtue? Some might say goodness, morality, and character. Aristotle, one of the greatest Greek philosophers, said virtue consisted of four elements (prudence, temperance, courage, and justice) and was the foundation for any effective action. Machiavelli, the author of the notorious and controversial book The Prince, believed otherwise.
In The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli consistently used the Italian word virtu, a word for which there is no direct translation in English. Virtu is derived from the Latin word virtus, which means “manliness” or “power”. Most English editions translate the word as “ability”, “skill”, or “ingenuity”. His idea was that virtue is a means to an end, not an end in itself.
To Machiavelli, the ultimate goal was power, both political and social. He argued that a strong leader knows when to use virtue and when to use strength, and his use of the amoral term virtu reflects this. A leader who successfully exercises virtu sometimes shows the traits of goodness, morality, and character, but when it is not to his advantage, he can also be cruel, violent, and vicious. Virtu in Machiavelli’s eyes was the ability to distinguish when to use Aristotelian virtue, and when to use force.
Machiavelli was an incredibly skilled political mind, and many of his ideas and observations in The Prince still hold true and useful today. However, when implementing his style of power, a leader should use discretion. The concept of virtu is a dangerous philosophy. If the ends justify the means, as Machiavelli seems to have implied, then is anything truly wrong? And if there is no absolute morality that cannot be changed from situation to situation, who is to say that the great moral tragedies of the world, from slavery to the Holocaust, are tragedies at all?