Questa inconstante dea: Machiavelli’s amoral Fortuna

Num°12 LUCK

In Machiavelli’s 193-line poem Di Fortuna, one of his earliest extant writings on the subject, fortune has several characteristics that reappear in his Prince and other works. Firstly, it exercises very great power over all human beings, even those who consider themselves strong or prudent enough to evade its force. Secondly, while fortune may turn its powers to either good or bad, on balance its effects are harmful to men, and even to gods: this feminine power is ‘injurious and importunate’, a ‘cruel goddess’ whose power (potenzia) even by Jove is feared. Finally, fortune is a morally arbitrary – indeed, an amoral – power that gives or takes without regard for just deserts or solemn agreements. When someone receives benefits that he did not earn, we call this good fortune; when he suffers undeserved harm, we call it bad. Anyone who thinks he’s succeeded in winning over Fortuna’s unwavering support will soon find out that she is utterly unreliable: if she promises you anything, never does she keep her promise.

A casual reader of either Di Fortuna or the Prince might well conclude that Machiavelli’s picture of fortune as an overbearingly powerful, cruel, and amoral goddess is part of the cosmological background informing his political realism. If the human world is ultimately at the mercy of such random forces, perhaps people have no choice but to try and contain the harm they inflict by whatever means they can devise. And at times, it seems, the most effective way to avoid becoming fortuna’s victim is to imitate her potency, her cruelty, and her indifference to justice or promises. Yet Machiavelli’s verses intimate that human beings might have considerably more choice than this in how they respond to fortune’s vicissitudes. Though fortune is ‘said by many’ to be omnipotent, human beings have a power of their own – virtú – that can reduce its impact: fortuna’s natural power forces every man, and her reign is always violent, if virtú eccessiva does not abate it [Sua natural potenzia ogni uomo sforza;/el regno suo è sempre violento/ se virtú eccessiva non l’ammorza].”

What then is this virtú that can lessen the harms inflicted by fortune, and how should it be applied? This, I’ll propose, is the real question posed by Machiavelli’s varied, ambiguous, and often deeply perplexing reflections on fortune. He is not especially concerned with cosmological or theoretical questions about fortune’s objective powers. His basic concerns are ethical: he is interested in how human beings react to the seemingly arbitrary advantages and disadvantages they call fortuna, and how they help to create their good or bad circumstances by their own good or bad choices.

Questa inconstante dea: Machiavelli’s amoral Fortuna

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Numero 12 LUCK ottobre, 2014 - Autore:  Condividi


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