Preliminary Speculative Note on Strauss’ “Niccolo Machiavelli”

Page references are to Leo Strauss’ “Niccolo Machiavelli,” found in Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy, ed. Pangle, pp.  210-228

The judicious alternation of virtue and vice is virtue (virtu) in his [Machiavelli’s] meaning of the word (215).

In [Discourses] II 13, Machiavelli asserts and in a manner proves that one rises from a low or abject position to an exalted one through fraud rather than force. This is what the Roman Republic did in its beginnings. Before speaking of the Roman Republic, Machiavelli speaks of four princes who rose from a low or abject position to a high one. He speaks most extensively of Cyrus, the founder of the Persian empire. The example of Cyrus is the central one. Cyrus rose to power by deceiving the king of Media, his uncle. But if he was, to begin with, the nephew of the king of Media, how can he be said to have risen from a low or abject position? To drive home his point, Machiavelli mentions next Giovan Galeazzo who through fraud took away the state and the power from Bernabo, his uncle. Galeazzo too was then to begin with the nephew of a ruling prince and cannot be said to have risen from a low or abject position. What, then, does Machiavelli indicate by speaking in such a riddling way? III 48: when one sees an enemy commit a great mistake, one must believe that there is fraud beneath; this is said in the heading of the chapter; in the text Machiavelli goes further and says “there will always be fraud beneath it.” Yet immediately afterward, in the central example, Machiavelli shows that the Romans once committed a great mistake through demoralization, that is, not fraudulently (213).

To some degree, “fraud” stands for human reason: this is not quite exact; for more, see Leo Paul de Alvarez’s Introduction to his edition of The Prince. We could attempt to isolate the fraud: Hobbes, in the truest sense a student of Machiavelli, says that a passion – the fear of violent death – underlies proper reasoning about politics; Machiavelli himself spends a lot of time concealing his attack on Christianity for its not placing due importance on human pride (perhaps the real reason why he claims men value property more than their fathers: what exactly are we scared of?).

The attempt to isolate fraud reveals this: the ground upon which authority is premised is not the same as what authority commands. The most obvious example for him is Christianity: fear/terror before God establishes the law, but the law is one of love. The former is a resistance of evil at all costs; the latter accepts the most evil things, awaiting true judgment later (223; note the success of the Franciscans and Domincans Machiavelli bemoans).

It looks like “fraud” is the divorce between premise and command (conclusion), but the matter is much more complex. The examples Strauss cites of nephews deceiving uncles and the Romans genuinely losing spirit bring forth this speculation: when did an uncle transmit something spiritual to a nephew? Caesar was Marius’ nephew: both were united in the same cause, using populism to take over Rome for themselves. They existed in different times, of course, so there was no direct competition between the two. But the important thing is where “spirit” resides (w/ “one”), and what it is (“ambition”). The fraud, then, is thinking more than one – the many – could be spirited.

This is certainly a radical reading: does not “force” count for something? After all, it is the high-born competing with each other for power already established; the Romans would have won if spirited. Xenophon distinguishes himself from Proxenus – a student of the Sophist Gorgias – inasmuch Proxenus could only lead gentlemen, and could not get his soldiers to fear him. Xenophon himself practiced cruelty well-used, and it worked both for his army and his enemies. I could say more, but the point is proven.


Strauss, Leo. “Niccolo Machiavelli.” Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy, ed. Pangle. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983. pp. 210-228


  1. This might sound like a dumb question, but I still don’t quite understand the etymology of the word “virtu.”

  2. @thag – Italian is pretty much from Latin, and in Latin there’s virtus, which is ‘manliness, excellence’ which is itself from vir, ‘man.’

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