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THE NOVEL - SUMMARY AND NOTES
Having laid the foundation for his patriotic call to arms in Chapter 24, Machiavelli now turns his attention to a review of the influence of fortune in human affairs, and to how it may be counteracted by a forceful and aggressive leader, one who possesses virtu.
Machiavelli says that he's well aware that many have held, and continue to hold, the opinion that affairs of the world are much controlled by fortune and by divine power that human wisdom and foresight cannot modify them.
Although Machiavelli admits that there is some truth to these notions of fortune and divine power, he also asserts that fortune is only partially responsible for the success or failure of men's actions. Free will-which allows men to make choices-also influences and directs men's actions: it actually encourages men to try to affect their own fortunes.
Machiavelli has already denied a role for good fortune in bringing a prince to power (see Chapter 15). Here, however, he is much more forceful and uncompromising in his views. He argues that men must try to alter the course of events if they're to succeed. The idea of virtu that he presents here is not the Christian virtue of passive acceptance of fate. Instead, Machiavelli asserts that man has the ability to mold his own destiny. In a more practical sense, Machiavelli is simply saying that the times are right for action, and, perhaps, that Lorenzo should seize the moment and not delay any longer.
Even at the darkest hour in Italy's gloom, Machiavelli is at his
most optimistic here. He counsels never to stop trying, and to pursue
an active, aggressive course of action. Although he would never argue
that recklessness is a virtue, he does encourage boldness and swift action.
Again, his plea here is directed toward restoring the harmony and equilibrium
of the state.
In examining Italy from the viewpoint of the recommendations he proposes, Machiavelli sees that she is an open country without protection against foreign invasion. He also sees that if Italy had been protected with proper valor and wisdom-as Germany, Spain, and France had been protected against invasion-countless foreign subjugations would not have caused the great changes they did, or may not have even occurred at all.
The same could be said of a prince's own fortune. The prince who relies entirely upon fortune, as Italy relied upon her inadequate defense and leadership, may be ruined depending on how fortune varies. But the prince who conforms his conduct to the spirit of the times, as Machiavelli hopes Lorenzo will, will prosper.
To reinforce his view that the times are ripe now for immediate action, Machiavelli again points to the example of Pope Julius II. Julius always acted on impulse, often surprising his opponents with his daring and unpredictable moves. When, for example, he went to war against Bologna, neither Venice nor the king of Spain was prepared to react, because both had been caught by surprise. Thus, Julius was able to enlist the support of the king of France and win a significant victory for himself. Had he postponed his decision to do battle with the Venetians and the Spanish, he might have missed his chances for victory.
Therefore, Machiavelli concludes, inasmuch as fortune is changeable, men who persist obstinately in their own ways will be successful only as long as those ways coincide with those of fortune. To make his point more directly, Machiavelli draws the analogy of fortune as a woman, an analogy that was popular in Italian literature at the time. Like a woman, he says, fortune is fragile, partial to the young, and easily seduced. But, if you wish to master her, you must use force: and you will see that she allows herself to be more easily vanquished by the rash and the violent than by those who proceed more slowly and coldly. As a woman, she favors youth more than age, for youth is less cautious and more energetic-and commands fortune with greater audacity.
Machiavelli's graphic image of fortune as a woman is drawn from familiar literature of the period. The poet Piccolomini in his "Dream of Fortune" had explored the same image and detailed the erotic overtones of the analogy. Machiavelli, however, implies that fortune may actually take a perverse pleasure in being roughly handled. Today we would regard this analogy as sexist and depraved. Is it especially intended to appeal to Lorenzo, the young and impetuous prince Machiavelli hopes to stimulate into action? Or is Machiavelli's point here a more practical one: that fortune must be confronted with firmness if men are to attain their highest goals? Consider the role that fortune plays in Machiavelli's advice to Lorenzo in the following chapter. It should help you to understand his plea for a prince to be the "redeemer" of Italy.