In our first two parts, we have surveyed the ancient ideals of the lex talionis (an eye for an eye) and the Golden Rule. The tension between these two principles form the core of the threefold medieval ideal of virtue mentioned previously – martial valor, civic virtue and moral excellence – and imply the unaffected meaning of the word as simply strength or ability (as is seen especially in Boethius). We turn now, then, to our Renaissance thinkers to determine the extent of their shift in usage. We begin with the French essayist Montaigne. Like many men of his age, Montaigne rarely uses the word virtue but often addresses issues of morality using other, equally ethical words. The seventh essay of his first book discusses the extent to which “our actions should be judged by our intentions,” as the title in our current edition reads. As the circumstances for his discussion, he chooses the common belief that “Death . . . releases us from all our obligations” (Montaigne I.7). Certainly we cannot be blamed for everything that happens after our death, but contemporary practice went much further than this by seeking to reverse promises made in life through the terms provided in wills and the circumstances of one’s death.
Montaigne condemns this breach of faith as a violation of our freedom to voluntarily enter into such compacts. “We cannot be held responsible beyond our strength and means, since the resulting events are quite outside of our control and, in fact, we have power over nothing except our will; which is the basis upon which all rules concerning man’s duty must of necessity be founded” (Montaigne I.7). By breaking faith with others, we violate the most fundamental principle of human relationships, trust, and try to pass responsibility for the breach onto others. In other words, it is wrong to make and break a promise that you never intended to keep. Good intentions (“the right motive,” “whatever is honorable”) must be followed up with right action and at the right time (at the very least, while one is living).
Yet, intention alone does not make an action right. Montaigne again cites as his example those who abuse the terms of wills, but in this case it is those who seek to redress grievances in life by passing responsibility for justice onto one’s heirs:
But it will not help them to fix a term in so urgent a matter; no attempt to redeem an injury at so small a cost and sacrifice to themselves will be of any avail. They owe something of what is really their own. And the more distressing and inconvenient the payment, the more just and meritorious is the restitution. Penitence must be felt as a weight. (Montaigne I.7)
Restitution after death is no restitution at all; it entails no sacrifice, no burden. Payment is certainly made, but at no cost to oneself and with possessions that now belong to another. The departed one has simply robbed Peter to pay Paul.
One final example from Montaigne will complete our survey of his work here. In his essay “On the Education of Children” he condemns those students who refrain from evil not out of a desire to do what is good, but out of a lack of ability to do wrong in the first place. He quotes Seneca’s Letters on the subject: “There is a great difference between a man who does not want to sin and one who does not know how to” (Montaigne I.26). The man who does not want to sin (that is, the virtuous man) does not sin because it is truly contrary to his character, trained as he is to take pleasure in what is good and to feel pain at the mere mention of evil. A man may be wicked, however, not because he does wicked things but because he is intent on doing so, he merely lacks the means to achieve his dire purpose. The former is truly virtuous, the latter merely a tyrant-in-waiting. Montaigne therefore upholds the traditional ideal of virtue, but emphasizes the voluntary nature of such a character without necessarily excluding its other connotations.
A similar view of virtue can be seen in Rabelais’ work Gargantua. The novel relates the upbringing of a young giant, first at the unskilled hands of the Scholastics, then under the more enlightened leadership of the humanists, and then recounts Gargantua’s noble behavior in service of king (who is his father) and country when his land is attacked by a neighboring power. At the end of this war, the prince seeks to reward a particularly courageous monk by allotting him the land and resources to build a new monastery. While humanists of the day viewed monasteries as out of touch (literally and figuratively) with the world around them and well-intentioned but seriously flawed examples of education, this new monastery was to be different, and consciously so. As opposed to the plethora of rules typical to most such enclaves, “There was but one clause in their Rule: Do what thou wilt, because people who are free, well bred, well taught and conversant with honourable company have by nature an instinct – a goad – which always pricks them towards virtuous acts and withdraws them from vice. They call it Honour” (Rabelais LVII).
Here we have all the trappings of classical virtue. Virtue is not simply a character trait; it is an instinct or “noble disposition” (compare Aristotle’s “fixed and permanent disposition”) that leads them to seek what is honorable. Through their education and companionship, these brothers would know both themselves and what they should be doing. It is because of this, and because virtue must be chosen, that no other rules are thought necessary for their governance. To such men, freedom is not license to do what one wants, but the liberty to do what one ought to do. Like Montaigne, then, Rabelais accepts the general definition of virtue while emphasizing its requisite freedom of choice.
We move now to Machiavelli, whose views on virtue in The Prince are at once notorious yet also rather misunderstood. Of the writers mentioned here, he uses virtue more than any other (save perhaps Aristotle) but his use of the word is also the most foreign to our usage. This may, however, have more to do with the relationship of Italian to Latin than to any real break in the continuity of Western thought on the subject. As mentioned previously, the form of our English word virtue comes primarily from the Latin virtus, but our English definition comes more from the Greek arête. When we read virtue, then, we tend to read it as moral excellence, rather than the unaffected Latin meaning of strength or ability implied above by Lady Philosophy. Yet for Machiavelli, both the form and function of the Italian virtú are descended from the Latin with little to no influence from the Greek (which he could not read). In translations of his work, then, we see virtú translated not only as virtue, but energy, strength, ability, talent, character, effort, skill, courage, custom, prowess, valor and manhood. Machiavelli therefore tends to use the unaffected meaning of the word as a “certain power of bringing something about” (Whitfield 197) without necessarily downplaying the moral connotation the word has in classical and medieval texts.
So what might be made of Machiavelli’s definition of virtue? Given our discussion of his Italian above, as well as his general content elsewhere, it would seem that he places the emphasis concerning virtue on the importance of one’s own actions in achieving the desired ends, regardless of fortune or social mores. Though both fortune and (at least the appearance of) morality remain important parts of a prince’s (and a state’s) overall success, the greatest factor is his own strength and valor. Fortune,
exerts all her power where there is no strength [virtú] prepared to oppose her, and turns to smashing things up wherever there are no dikes and restraining dams. And if you look at Italy, which is the seat of all these tremendous changes, where they all began, you will see that she is an open country without any dikes or ditches. If she were protected by forces of proper valor [virtú], as are Germany, Spain, and France, either this flood would never have wrought such destruction as it has, or it might not have occurred at all. (Machiavelli XXV)
Just as Montaigne quotes Seneca to elucidate one sense of virtue as moral action, Machiavelli views a reliance on fortune or providence as a weak substitute for bold action, whether it is strictly moral or otherwise. We can therefore conclude with Whitfield that, “Machiavelli is in reasonable company”:
firstly, that it never occurred to him that there was a theory of virtú, so that he is innocent of any systematic use of the word itself, as of any systematic exclusion of the idea of virtue; and secondly, that in following Dante and the rest who prefer energy to the lack of it, he still, with them, prefers a good use of it to a bad one. (Whitfield 205)
Our final Renaissance thinker is Cervantes, particularly in his most famous novel, Don Quixote. Though Cervantes wrote in the same era as our foregoing writers, his thoughts concerning virtue were somewhat different. His novel begins as a satire of medieval chivalric romances, entertaining for both the title character and the reader, but ends in sorrow, as our disenchanted hero retires while his squire picks up his dreams and sallies forth on his own adventures. By book’s end, the reader begins to see the work as much more than a satire. Yes, Quixote is deluded and perhaps even insane, but when he comes to and sees reality for what it is, we despair with him, hopeless in the onslaught of change he confronts. We are reminded of the nobility and purity of his motives.
In short, his wits being quite gone, he hit upon the strangest notion that every madman in the world hit upon, and that was that he fancied it was right and requisite, as well for the support of his own honor as for the service of his country, that he should make a knight-errant of himself, roaming the world over in full armor and on horseback in quest of adventures, and putting in practice himself all that he had read of as being the usual practices of knights-errant; righting every kind of wrong, and exposing himself to peril and danger from which, in the issue, he was to reap eternal renown and fame. (Cervantes 264)
Here again, we see many traits of the sort of traditional virtue discussed above. Though this is obviously Cervantes’ intent (hence his use of satire), the end of his tale makes us look back on the description with a more sympathetic eye. We no longer focus on Quixote’s lost wits, nor his strange notions, but his sense of honor, his desire to serve and gain renown, and his willingness to go into harm’s way to do so. Yet Quixote’s virtue is only as real as his perception of reality. He certainly knows what to do in a given situation and he chooses to do so because it is simply the right thing to do, but he also does not quite understand who he is, or what is actually transpiring around him. Cervantes therefore recognizes that virtue must now take on a different form in his age, but he also mourns the loss of certain qualities that will not only be more difficult to maintain, but perhaps even impossible.
From ancient philosophers and poets to inspired writers, the thinkers of the Middle Ages inherited a vibrant tradition on classical virtue and love and its importance for the individual and the community. Writers of the Renaissance inherited this same tradition, primarily through the influence of Thomism, and reflected this tradition in their own writings. Yet there is also a distinct shift in their treatment of the subject; it is implied by Montaigne but brought to the surface by Rabelais and taken to its logical conclusion by Machiavelli. Free will is central to each of the views of virtue discussed above, but for these Renaissance thinkers, this freedom is nearly absolute.
For Aristotle, ethics is a subset of politics, emphasizing individual responsibility to the community and making moral education of first importance to the city, supported by the force of law—themes stressed by the Bible as well. Montaigne, however, emphasizes the volitional aspect of virtue, which tends toward a more private form of morality. Rabelais takes this ethics of individualism and goes one step further, maintaining the outward trappings of virtue, while internalizing all of its rules. And Machiavelli consummates this view by replacing moral virtue with practical skill at the heart of the prince. Only Cervantes seems to realize that something good has been lost. Though he begins his tale mocking such medieval sensibilities, in the end he too has come to mourn the loss of nobility, honor and courage; in short, the loss of virtue. Writers of the Renaissance are certainly within linguistic limits in their shift in the usage of virtue, but in doing so have changed the emphasis from the medieval ideal to one of a more pragmatic and less moral meaning.
Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. Ed. Robert M. Adams. New York: Norton, 1992. Print.
Montaigne, Michel de. Essays. Trans. J.M. Cohen. London: Penguin, 1993. Print.
Rabelais, Francois. Gargantua and Pantagruel. Trans. and ed. M.A. Screech. London: Penguin, 2006. 195-379. Print.
Saavedra, Miguel de Cervantes. Don Quixote. Trans. John Ormsby. The Bedford Anthology of World Literature, Book 3: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650. Ed. Paul Davis, et al. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004. Print. 262-383.
Whitfield, J.H. “Big Words, Exact Meanings.” The Prince. Ed. Robert M. Adams. New York: Norton, 1992. Print. 193-206.