In Niccolo Machiavelli s letter to The Prince, Machiavelli emphasized the role of fortune in human affairs as well as in government affairs. This makes it essential to understand what fortune is and how it can be used. It is also essential to understand what power we have in the face of fortune. I will discuss this topic with special attention made to chapter 25 of the Prince.
Fortune is defined as A hypothetical force that unpredictably determines events and issues favorably and unfavorable; success that results for luck. (Landoll pp.141) This broad definition leads us to believe no man can control fortune. Machiavelli believed otherwise saying to some extent fortune could be controlled. (Wootton pp. 54)
Machiavelli believed fortune determines one half of our actions, but on the other hand acknowledged that one half of our actions were left for our personal control. He believed the one half of our actions that weren t controlled by fortune could in a way work towards our fortune. Fortune is very powerful and demonstrates it s power where precautions have never been take to resist it, so Machiavelli believed that a man could lower the effects of fortune through personal virtue. (Wootton, pp. 54)
When Machiavelli discusses rulers and fortune he wants the reader to know that rulers who depend on fortune will fail. To those rulers who acquire power through fortune, he emphasizes, that they will have a hard time holding onto power. He states goodwill and good fortune are totally unreliable and capricious. (Wootton pp. 19) This is because rulers who gain power through fortune are private citizens and do not have experience. They also need support from citizens to build their own army, because a ruler without his own army will have no one to depend upon in times of adversity. A ruler who gains power through fortune does not have the support of the people. The support is left behind when the previous ruler steps down and another gains power through fortune. (Wootton pp.19)
This example of a ruler coming to power through fortune applies to human affairs because the fortune of a normal man or citizen works in the same way as that of the fortune of a ruler. Fortune is something that one can acquire, but cannot hold to. This is true for a ruler or a citizen. (Wootton pp 54)
A good example of a ruler given power through fortune and losing it through fortune is Cesare Borgia. He acquired power thanks to the good will of his father and lost it thanks to ill fortune. Borgia did everything a skillful and virtuous a man should do in order to hold onto newly acquired power, but in the end he lost it because of fortune. In this example Borgia s ill fortune was his sickness and the death of his father. Borgia hadn t thought about his father dieing or himself becoming ill and this was what lead him to lose his state he worked so hard to keep. (Wootton pp. 22) This example goes back to what I stated earlier and that was, fortune demonstrates its power where precautions have never been taken. (Wootton pp 54)
Machiavelli believes fortune works in human affairs as a boundary for what can be accomplished by a single man. He emphasizes the importance of being able to change in order to determine fortune. He also talks of how difficult it is to find a man capable of change. Machiavelli stated, One cannot find a man so prudent he knows how to adapt himself to changing circumstances, for he will either be unable to deviate from that style of behavior of which his character inclines him, or, alternatively, having always been successful by adopting one particular style, he will be unable to persuade himself that it is time to change. He then goes on to say If one knew how to change one s character as times and circumstances change, ones luck would never change. (Wootton pp54) With this said it is clear that Machiavelli believes fortune plays a large role in human affairs and can only be changed if a person is capable of noticing the need for change and is able to change before it is to late and fortune takes over.
This leaves us to talk about the power we have in the face of fortune. When one discusses of fortune, it seems to many people that we have no power over it. Machiavelli believes that we do have some extent of power over fortune. He believes if you can see problems in the future and be headstrong you can help determine your fortune. He concludes that it is better to be headstrong than to be cautious, because Fortune is a lady. It is necessary, if you want to master her, to beat her and strike her. And one sees that she submits more often to those who act boldly that to those who proceed in a calculating fashion. (Wootton pp.55) This powerful statement says that humans do have power in the face of fortune, but they can only get that power if they are willing to act in a bold manner to get what they need to change their fortune.
Now that I have defined fortune, talked about how it works in human affairs and have talked about what power we have in the face of fortune. I would like to conclude by saying it is important to understand what can be done to change certain circumstances of fortune. Because as Machiavelli said fortune determines one half of human affairs. (Wootton pp.54) It is possible to change fortune but it takes a man of great force, (virtue) intellect and intelligence to do so. One must always be ready to use the one half of his actions that are not controlled by fortune to help control his fortune. (Wootton pp. 54)
Webster s Dictionary. Landolf Inc. Ashland Ohio. 1997