EssaysTheory & Practice

From Mythos to Logos and Back?

Machiavelli, philosophy, and fortune

At the opening of the Night of Philosophy in New York City on April 24, 2015, while Monique Canto-Sperber delivered a much-contested opening talk on freedom of speech, Chiara Bottici gave the following alternative opening talk addressing issues of philosophy, writing, and exclusion.

Giving an opening talk on Machiavelli at the “Night of Philosophy” is a double provocation. First, because few authors have generated as much turmoil in the history of philosophy as has Machiavelli. Excommunicated as the incarnation of the devil by some, celebrated as a saint by others, condemned for his “Machiavellism” or celebrated for his republicanism, the meaning of Machiavelli’s works seems to be destined to escape us.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, even his very status as a philosopher is contested: if by philosophy we mean a speculative enterprise, an attempt to construct a general system in the vein of a Hegel or an Aristotle, then, in the case of Machiavelli, we should perhaps go for the less demanding labels of “writer” and “political theorist.”

This brings me immediately to the first series of questions that I would like to raise tonight: Is Machiavelli a philosopher? If so, what do we mean by philosophy? Can there be philosophy without written words and what kind of written words should count as philosophical words? What forms do they have to take? Can we do philosophy in forms other than the philosophical treatise that has become so hegemonic in the field? If it is true that philosophy began with the Pre-Socratics, that is, with people who would put their philosophy into the form of poems to be performed, why are students in philosophy never asked to write, let alone to perform, philosophical poems?

I will not give definitive answers to these questions — otherwise you will have nothing to do until 7 am — but I would invite you to go around tonight to the various talks and take note of how many of the philosophical works mentioned have a form other than the philosophical treatise.

This contested philosophical status is a fate that Machiavelli shares with a lot of other Renaissance philosophers. Precisely because for most of them philosophy began at the moment when the great metaphysical-theological syntheses of the Middle Ages ended, it became something very different in their hands. Philosophy became another name for very concrete investigations into specific problems, be they in the field of the natural or the human world; that is, for investigations always conducted iuxta propria principia, and which often took the form of discourses, novellas, poems, or, as we will see with Machiavelli, even comedies. [1]

Whether one agrees to call this kind of investigation philosophy or not, there remains one point where even the most divergent interpretations of Machiavelli’s work seem to agree: Machiavelli is one of the founding fathers (if not the founding father) of a typically modern approach to politics because he gave it an autonomy from both religion and morality that it did not possess before. In this line of thinking, Machiavelli has not only opened the path for a purely modern, scientific investigation of politics, but he has also opened the door for political modernity itself to begin. (Remember here that at the time science and philosophy went hand in hand.) Whether he deserves to be blamed or praised for doing this is irrelevant here: what matters is that he did so.

In that respect, one can hardly disagree with Ernst Cassirer when he claims that Machiavelli did to politics what Galileo almost a century later would do to natural sciences. (But notice here that Cassirer does not comment on the fact that politics paved the way to natural science.) As he put it:

What Galileo gave in his Dialogues and what Machiavelli gave in his Prince were really “new sciences”. “My purpose” said Galileo, “is to set forth a very new science dealing with a very ancient subject. There is, in nature, perhaps nothing older than motion concerning which the books written by philosophers are neither few nor small; nevertheless I have discovered by experiment some properties of it which are worth knowing and which have not hitherto been either observed or demonstrated”. Machiavelli would have been perfectly entitled to speak of his book in the same way. Just as Galileo’s Dynamics became the foundation of modern science, so Machiavelli paved a new way to political science. (Cassirer 1946:130)

It is important to note at this point that Cassirer inserts his reading of Machiavelli as the first modern political philosopher into a more general narrative about the Western road “from mythos to logos.” But the idea that Western civilization began in ancient Greece, when the birth of philosophy signaled the exit from the ancient world of myth and, after a few dark centuries in the “middle” (the so-called Middle Ages), was fully revived by the “Renaissance,” is far from being just Cassirer’s own narrative. This narrative is so entrenched in our culture that it does not appear an exaggeration to say that it is one of its founding narratives (think of the importance of the so-called “Western Civilization” courses here in the US school system). In a way, if an alien were suddenly to be catapulted to earth and naively ask, “the renaissance of what?” a simple and short answer could well be: “of the Western march from mythos tologos.”

If that alien were to land on US soil, one would have to explain to it that such a supposed Western civilization contains mainly books actually produced in the East of the US, but we can leave that to the eccentricity of a geography all too often imbued with ideology. Properly speaking, in a globe that is spherical, it does not make any sense to speak of “East and West”: we can say “West” only if we transform the globe into a bidimensional map, that is into a planisphere, and if we put Europe at its center. [2] Whenever we speak of a Western civilization or a Western road we are indeed literally presupposing that particular planisphere, and thus implicitly adopting a European gaze.

This brings me to a second series of questions: What is this supposed Western philosophical tradition that began in Greece in the 7th century BC? Does it even make any sense to say that philosophy began at the moment when a strange type called Thales first started to look around himself and stated that “water is the principle of everything” thereby bringing us outside the old world of myth? Can it be possible that nobody else had done so before him and somewhere else? And why do we always forget to say that Thales, like all the first supposed Greek philosophers, actually lived in Miletus, a former Greek colony that is currently located in Turkey? Should we not rather called him the first Turkish philosopher? Why does the language of the colonizer trump the geography of the physical location?

Again, I will not give an answer to these questions, but I would invite you to go around tonight to the various talks and take note of the how many countries are represented in this pretty peculiar business of philosophy. For instance, if we take the bodies of works that constitute the canon of so-called “early modern philosophy,” we cannot fail to notice the hegemony not only of Europe, but of a very peculiar part of it — that is, central Europe. What were the inhabitants of Eastern Europe doing at the time? What were the inhabitants of current Poland, Serbia, Croatia, and Hungary or Russia doing? Is it possible that none of them endeavoured to do any philosophy? Why are we not speaking about them? Is it because they were still in the Middle Ages? But in the middle of what? I am not sure yet what this supposed Western road from mythos to logos actually is, but it must be a pretty narrow one if mainly English, French, German, Dutch, and (possibly) Italians used it.

I cannot here enter into the details of such a narrative. [3] Suffice it to notice that Machiavelli’s Prince does stand out as a book of the “Renaissance” with regard to political philosophy. In that respect, the Prince is indeed a modern philosophical and even scientific book: on the basis of his own experience with political affairs and his historical knowledge, which he understood as displaying specific examples of general rules, Machiavelli aims at identifying the universal laws and principles of politics (Cassirer 1946:153). The method he uses to find out the rules of how to acquire and maintain political power do not differ much from those of Galileo: observing recurring patterns and extrapolating general principles from them. But there is one significant exception. All the rules that Machiavelli identifies in the course of the first 24 chapters of the book and that constitute the specific virtu’ of a prince are threatened to be nullified by an uncanny and troublesome presence, which comes to full light only towards the conclusion of the book: fortuna. This is a concept that has given rise to the most contrasting and puzzling interpretations, being for some just mere chance and for others a mythical residue from the past in an otherwise purely modern and rational enterprise. [4]

But whatever way we interpret it, it is pretty clear that if the virtuous prince cannot control or least contain fortuna, the whole edifice of the book collapses. Now — and this is the gist of my argument about Machiavelli — if we want to make sense of what this fortuna is and how the prince can possible handle her, we need to look at Machiavelli’s literary writings. It is here, and in particular in his poems and in his comedies, that we can find the philosophical arguments needed to complete the Prince. Why?

As we read in the puzzling 25th chapter of the Princefortuna is what can potentially ruin even the most prudent and virtuous prince: it is like “one of those dangerous rivers that, when they become enraged, flood the plains, destroy trees and buildings, move earth from one place and deposit in another” (Machiavelli 1991:85). In the face of such power, Machiavelli says, the prince can only try to contain and constrain it “by taking precautions, by means of dykes and dams” (ibid). After providing some provisional but also ultimately ineffective advice, he concludes that in order to contain fortune one would have to be able to adapt to constantly changing circumstances. But this is impossible because, as he openly states:

One does not find men who are so prudent that they are capable of being sufficiently flexible: either because our natural inclinations are too strong to permit us to change, or because, having always fared well by acting in a certain way, we do not think it a good idea to change our method. (Machiavelli 1991:86)

After this sort of confession of impotence, Machiavelli returns to more figurative language and moves from the fortune-river metaphor to another that is quite recurrent in his writings: “fortune is a woman, and if you want to control her, it is necessary to treat her roughly” (Machiavelli 1991:87). I am quoting here from the English edition of the Prince edited by Quentin Skinner and Russell Price (Cambridge University Press, 1988), but I would like to emphasize that there is a whole erotic dimension of the passage that gets lost in this translation. The Italian original sounds quite different: “la fortuna é donna, ed é necessario, volendola tenere sotto, batterla e urtarla.” Besides the invitation to activity, which is typical of Machiavelli’s temperament, we should note that the Italian terms clearly allude to sexual intercourse: tenerla sotto (which refers to the canonical sexual position of women), batterla (which evokes the rhythm of sexual intercourse), and urtarla (literally to hit her, but also to hit on her).

Now what does it mean that fortune is a woman? Why does Machiavelli, after giving so many advices to the prince and then saying that this same advice is in vain against the power of fortuna, leave us with such a puzzling metaphor?

Here is where Machiavelli’s literary works help us. To begin with, it is mainly in these writings that women appear. There is indeed a significant disciplinary division at stake: women are barely mentioned in Machiavelli’s political writings, but they fill his plays and poetry. The realm of the political philosophers is mainly the former, whereas the latter are mostly left to literary theorists.

This brings me to a third set of questions: Why are philosophers reluctant to take literary writings seriously? Why do philosophers, beginning with Plato, feel the need to ban the poets, whereas literary theorists do not feel that need? Is it to reinforce the idea that philosophy concerns arguments, reason, the logos, whereas fiction concerns stories, metaphors, and myths, and is thus somehow more primitive? But has philosophy ever liberated itself from myth? And even more so: does it even need to do so in the first place? Why cannot stories, and even mythical ones, be able to carry the logos itself, if it is true that at the time of the Homeric poems mythos and logos were used as synonyms and, correspondingly, the first philosophers kept intermingling them? Why has the logos subsequently taken on such an exclusionary drive?

Again, you have a long night, 12 hours and 62 philosophy talks to find an answer. As for Machiavelli, let us notice that, indeed, he does treat fortune in a mythical way, as he often refers to her in terms of a long mythical tradition. Instead of focusing on the latter (Pitkin has already done so), I would like to focus here on the contribution offered by the Mandrake, Machiavelli’s literary masterpiece and probably the first book he wrote after the Prince. Although the chronology of Machiavelli’s writings is very much contested, the proximity between the two texts renders the fact that philosophers tend to ignore the continuity between them even more puzzling, in my view. But precisely because they neglect the literary writings, political philosophers also tend to overlook Machiavelli’s crucial insights on what we would today call the biopolitical nature of modern politics: if we take into account women, and their bodies, be it their real bodies or the fictive bodies that appear in Machiavelli’s literary works, one can hardly believe in the idea (of Foucault) that modern sovereignty was first mainly the power of the sword and that it became biopolitical later on. The power exercised on women’s bodies has always been biopolitical, from the very beginning (and this is not only because, being excluded from the military, they were denied the power of holding the sword).

Great supporter of the importance of force, and thus the pure power of the sword, Machiavelli is also very clearly aware of the fact that it was not through this that politics is primarily exercised over female bodies. Whereas the Prince argues that, since a ruler cannot be sure to be loved by his subjects, it is better to be feared (Machiavelli 1991:59), The Mandrake significantly qualifies that statement by adding, when it comes to women, you always have to use good words to get your way (“le donne si sogliono con le buone parole condurre dove altri vuole”) (Machiavelli 2007:193). Notice that he says “good words” and not “good weapons.” The plot of the play is indeed an embodiment of such an idea. Let me recall it:

Lucrezia, the heroine of the play, is known for her beauty, which has led the astute Callimaco to leave Paris to come back to Florence to seduce her. Unfortunately (or fortunately, as we will see), Lucrezia is also known for her chastity: she is married to the elderly and rich Nicia to whom she is said to be strictly faithful. But besides being stupid, Nicia is also very eager to receive a son and Lucrezia has not been able to give him one. To realize his dream, Callimaco, with the aid of a parasite and the complicity of a friar, manages to persuade Nicia that his wife’s sterility can be cured by a special mandrake-based potion, but that the first man who sleeps with her after she takes the potion will die. And in such a way, Callimaco manages to be put in the bed of the beautiful Lucrezia by the very hands of her husband. Much more difficult, though, proves to be persuading Lucrezia, who is presented at the beginning of the play as so virtuous that she is “fit to rule a kingdom” (Machiavelli 2007:175). It is only through the “good words” of a doctor, who has studied science and speaks Latin, and the pastoral power of her confessor, that she finally consents to what she perceives as a “vituperio,” as an abuse of her body. As we learn from Machiavelli’s next play, Clizia, the union will be blessed and Nicia will have the joy of a son who guarantees the continuity of the family (and also of the republic). As for Lucrezia, she also seems to have gained something. As she is reported to have said to Callimaco at the end of the play: [5]

Since your [Callimaco’s] cleverness, my husband’s stupidity, my mother’s silliness, and my confessor’s guile have led me to do what I never would have done by myself, I have to judge that this comes from a divine providence that willed so. I am not capable of refusing what heaven itself wants me to accept. I therefore take you for my lord, my master, and my guide. You shall act as father and protector to me, and I will be yours completely. What my husband has willed for this one night, he shall have for good and ever. (Machiavelli 2007:269)

Lucrezia thus may have gained something (a son and a lover), but she has also lost something else: she, who was capable of governing a kingdom at the beginning of the play, has now joyfully submitted to the delights of being governed. [6] Callimaco, on the other hand, has proved to be the perfect incarnation of Machiavelli’s Prince, the puzzling concluding metaphor of which is now worth quoting in its entirety to show its continuity with The Mandrake:

I certainly think that it is better to be impetuous than cautious, because fortune is a woman, and if you want to control her, it is necessary to treat her roughly. And it is clear that she is more inclined to yield to men who are impetuous than to those who are calculating. Since fortune is a woman, she is always well disposed towards young men, because they are less cautious and more aggressive, and treat her more boldly. (Machiavelli 1991:87)

And this is precisely what Callimaco, with the aid of the “good words” of science and pastoral power, has done: the reward is the same that awaits the virtuous prince, that is the success in gaining and maintaining power. On the other hand, Lucrezia, constrained like a river within the dykes of the household, like all the other women of the time, experiences power primarily in the form of biopower, as a power that takes hold over life — her own life, but also the life she has the capacity to bear. And this is because it is ultimately upon women’s bodies that the continuity of Nicia’s family as well as that of the state depends.

In conclusion, not only were fictions, and even mythical ones, never eliminated from Machavelli’s purely modern approach to politics, but, rather, they are an integral part of it. This further shows that whatever we mean by modernity in general, and by modern philosophy in particular, it has to be something different from a supposed Western road from mythos to logos.


[1] On the philosophical role of comedy, see Nikulin (2014).

[2] A more detailed critique of this narrative is put forward in Bottici and Challand (2010 and 2013).

[3] I have dealt with it more extensively in Bottici (2007) and Bottici and Challand (2013).

[4] Pitkin analyzed the whole tradition of such metaphor, dating as far back as the Roman goddess Fortuna and through its medieval reinterpretation (Pitkin 1984:144).

[5] As a confirmation of the convergence between the activity vs. passivity, male vs. female dichotomies, Lucrezia almost never appears on the scene. Even in this case, the only authority for what really happened is the voice of Callimaco.

[6] On this point, as well as on the link between rape and the republic, I am indebted to During and Poole (2012).


Bottici, C. 2007. A Philosophy of Political Myth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bottici, C. and Challand, B. 2010. The Myth of the Clash of Civilizations. London: Routledge.

—–. 2013. Imagining Europe: Myth, Memory and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cassirer, E. 1946. The Myth of the State. New Haven: Yale University Press.

During, L. and Poole, R. 2012. “Rape and the Republic.” Unpublished manuscript. Presented at the conference Philosophy and the Social Sciences, Prague, May 2012.

Falco, M., ed. 2004. Feminist Interpretations of Niccoló Machiavelli. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Foucault, M. 1990. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. New York: Vintage.

—–.1997. Society Must be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975 – 1976. New York: Picador.

Galilei, G. 2005. Opere, Vol I. Torino: UTET.

Garin, E. 1994. L’umanesimo Italiano. Bari: Laterza.

Machiavelli, N. 1991. The Prince, ed. Q. Skinner and P. Russel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

—–. 1998. Discourse on Livy, trans. Harvey C. Mansfield and Nathan Tarcov. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

—–. 2007. The Comedies of Machiavelli, ed./trans. D. Sices and J. Atkinsin. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.

Nikulin, D. 2014, Comedy, Seriously. Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmilla.

Pitkin, H.F. 1984. Fortune is a Woman. Gender and Politics in the Thought of Niccoló Machiavelli. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Strauss, L. 1978. Thoughts on Machiavelli. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Chiara Bottici

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