Virtú was a political concept that was particularly popular among pre-humanist and Renaissance writers in Italy from about 1200 to 1600AD. It is particularly interesting to study because it was taken to underlie the successes - and haunt the failures - of generation after generation of political leaders and peoples during what is commonly considered one of western civilization's most splendid flowerings, and yet today it is entirely forgotten. Like all of the most successful political concepts it could be plausibly adapted to fit new scenarios, new feelings, and new experiences - but unlike the most successful ones of all, it eventually died when one man tried to twist it too far. Still, its echoes can be heard whenever we describe someone as a virtuoso, or say they were able to do something by virtue of their talents.
Virtú is derived from the Latin virtus, which means something like "manliness"; the Latin for man is vir. Virtus did not just mean manliness in the sense of machismo, but it also meant to hold the qualities and virtues which were appropriate to a man, as opposed to an animal (vis). This opposition of man to beast had the effect of bringing to the fore qualities which we would not commonly associate with machismo today. Cicero, whose political tract On Duties became the handbook of Renaissance political thought (many writers, it seemed, had memorized it), listed the cardinal elements of virtus as prudence, temperance, wisdom, and justice - none of these being qualities for which beasts are well-known. Virtú took on a very similar meaning.
Virtú can often seem to have been a catch-all concept, but it broadly meant those capacities which allowed one to succeed in civil and political affairs. During this period, Italy was split into city-states, and virtú was taken to reside to a greater or lesser extent in the rulers of these cities. A ruler could be said to have virtú if he inaugrated an era of peace and wealth in his city, and if he discouraged factionalism and civil strife while never resorting to the cruel methods of a tyrannical beast. The ultimate aim of rulers was taken to be the raising of their cities to a state of grandezza, of grandeur and size. However, if, in the process, they were to resort to cruelty or deception - the vices, Cicero reminds us, of the lion and the fox - then they could not be said to possess true virtú, and would soon forfeit their prize.
Virtú, hence, had a prescriptive moral content. Grandezza could never be achieved through abject means, but only through the exercise of justice and wisdom in the method of rule. What exactly justice and wisdom consisted of was something the writers of the period were less clear about, but most focused on the need to treat all citizens fairly and never place a sectional interest over that of the population as a whole. The small city-states of Italy were especially prone to bouts of crippling factional violence among leading nobles - think of Romeo and Juliet - and virtú was taken to a large extent to consist of warding off such infighting. The qualities which were taken to best assure a pacific rule were clemency, liberality, a desire to be loved rather than feared, and the honour to always stick to agreements. Grandezza, growing large and wealthy and glorious in the eyes of men, would naturally follow.
Generations of political writers known as humanists produced works in this vein for the princes who ruled Renaissance Italy. The genre, known as mirror for princes, instructed them in proper Ciceronian fashion of the need to possess virtú and rule wisely and justly. This was the genre that Niccolo Machiavelli was contributing to when he wrote The Prince, his most famous work. Machiavelli set about redefining what virtú meant, giving it a much more instrumental meaning. Machiavelli dropped justice from his definition, giving virtú a meaning which was much more focused on proficiency, energy, and efficiency in military and political matters - by whatever means necessary. This might include the methods of the lion or the fox.
Machiavelli's contribution to the understanding of virtú and to political thought in general came from his insistent desire on inhabitating the real world, as opposed to building castles out of virtue in the sky. He was quick to say that it would indeed be grand if rulers could always be just, but that this was not a practical option in reality because most men were not virtuoso. Hence, those who had true virtú - in the moral sense - would be dispossessed and killed by wicked men, and would lose their kingdoms. The Prince was hence a practical handbook on statecraft, stripping away the sugary platitudes of the mirror-for-princes literature and focusing on the best practical means for princes to hold onto their possessions and promote peace and tranquility - goals that Machiavelli shared with other writers. And while he also agreed that virtú was the necessary quality needed to achieve these goals, he had a very different idea of what it meant.
Machiavelli might be more deserving of the verdict history has bestowed on him if he stopped there, but he did not. Machiavelli wrote another book which is not so well-known, his Discourses on Livy. In this he revealed that his true allegiances were not to dictatorial princes, but to civic republicanism, the form of government the Romans made famous. In this book Machiavelli changed the concept of virtú even further, arguing that for a city to be successful it was necessary that there not just be a ruler who possessed it, but for the whole citizen-body to be virtuoso and to engage in politics through a representative system. Machiavelli knew that such a scenario was incompatible with the rule of one man, because the excellence of other citizens was always a threat to dictators rather than a boon to them.
The Discourses is still one of the most eloquent testaments to civic republicanism in western literature. Machiavelli still had a very instrumental notion of virtú, but his insistence on extending it to the entire citizen-body had a democratizing effect. He argued that it was never enough for just a few men to possess virtú, but that the laws had to be structured to promote it in everyone. This way, tyrants would not be able to establish themselves by dint of their unique virtú. Machievelli viewed the battle to maintain a city's liberty as a constant struggle, and one which made harsh demands: his prescription for leading citizens who seemed to be heading for a position of hegemony in a community was that they be put to death. Similarly, the struggle against external domination required of all men that they do military service and be willing to die for their city.
Machiavelli's theory of virtú also led him to expound the first argument for a bicameral legislature that was based on a balance of power. Cities, he said, had two main groups within them: the nobles, and the mass of the ordinary people. By instituting a different representative council for each - like in the Roman Republic - a balance would emerge. Machiavelli recognized that most people did not necessarily have virtú, and so the political structures of a city had to be constituted so that they would channel everyone's selfish interest towards the public good, the virtú of the whole. He had a similarly instrumental idea of Christianity, which he criticized as a force that made people far too focused on the hereafter rather than on their virtú on earth. He instead argued that religious rites should be made integral to the city and tied up with its defence, such as by the swearing of oaths to defend the city.
Machiavelli's rethinking of the concept of virtú was hence very radical, and it had a profound impact on European political thought. The terms of this debate were very similar to ones we engage in today, namely whether we ought to favour expediency or morality in the pursuit of liberty. This rethinking of the concept of virtú began to bring political thought down from the heavens and begun the tradition that culminated in modern secular and liberal political science. The concept of virtú itself eventually all but vanished, showing that when revolutions come, it is often dressed in the guise of the old order - but that they shed these clothes soon enough.