What Does Criminal Virtue Mean?
Criminal virtue is a concept eluded to in Machiavelli’s the Prince. It describes calculated “criminal acts” that can help one get ahead in politics. Very specifically it is essentially a term used a synonym for Machiavellian tactics. With that in mind, Machiavelli never used either term, it is rather what we call aspects of his total theory as presented in the Prince in retrospect.
The concept of criminal virtue, along with the closely related concept which is often misquoted as “the ends justify the means”, can gleaned from the Prince chapters 6 – 9 (especially chapter 8 where he describes “criminal virtue“) and chapter 18 (where the misquote comes from; as far as I can tell).
Understanding the Concept of Criminal Virtue
The term “criminal virtue” can be hard to describe, but it can be thought of as:
- Black-or-grey hat tactics that can be used to exploit social dynamics for “ends” that aren’t purely malicious.
- The qualities of figures like conmen, despots, pirates, and thieves (whose ends aren’t specifically immoral, but whose means often are).
- Tactics and characteristics that are useful (despite being more like vices than virtues).
Although with the above said, Machiavelli was specifically denoting the “wickedness” and “criminal acts” of leaders regarding the gaining and retaining of power in the state (he actually does use those terms).
Here virtue can be understood to mean both “skills and resources” AND “that which is not vice”, but should not be understood as ONLY that “that which is not vice” (see a discussion on virtue theory).
Here “criminal acts” describes everything from slightly cunning or underhanded acts to wicked and purely criminal actions that are useful in politics (or, more broadly, in any social dynamic).
Beyond that, Machiavelli describes the ramifications of criminal virtue and how to keep up appearances despite wicked acts (as “what people think is more important than one’s actions regarding impressions” AKA what “the end justifies the means” misquote is getting at).
Thus, criminal virtue is neither purely vice nor virtue, but is instead sort of “a useful quality or act for the situation, even if it is a wicked, immoral, or amoral).
Before we get into more details on criminal virtue, a social tactic so useful, dark, and obviously prevalent that you’ll want to crawl under a rock when you realize it, we should state the origin of the term.
Machiavelli’s Advice For Nice Guys. Criminal Virtue for the virtuous is better than rule by tyrants, in that way “the ends sort of justify the means“. True realist philosophy says something more like, “these means are awful, ah well, better do it anyway, life is after-all poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.
The Origin of the Term Criminal Virtue
Machiavelli’s Prince is translated from Italian, and although CHAPTER VIII — CONCERNING THOSE WHO HAVE OBTAINED A PRINCIPALITY BY WICKEDNESS describes the concept of “criminal virtue” (and more so chapters VI-IX do), Machiavelli never actually uses the term (at least not in the translations I’ve seen; see citations).
Although the book does not actually contain the term “criminal virtue”, it is a great English term that describes Machiavelli’s main point in the chapter (and his general point in the book). The main point being that calculated criminal acts are politically useful for taking control of a nation.
Generally the idea is that leaders who rise to power by crushing their opponents are more likely to get and stay ahead, but there is a lot more to the concept than that.
POLITICAL THEORY – Niccolò Machiavelli.
How to Understand Criminal Virtue
First off, we should understand Machiavelli’s Prince as a metaphor and satire of sorts.
It isn’t that he isn’t telling truth, it is that unlike an actual Criminal like Mussolini he is speaking to Republicans and not Tyrants in his book. He is, not so subtly, hinting that popular republics are the best form of government and trying to explain how good rulers can employ shady tactics to gain and keep power.
Thus, the term Criminal Virtue relates back to the general idea of Machiavelli’s book, that the virtuous don’t have what it takes to make it in politics even though they are on-paper the best leaders.
Thus, Machiavelli explains the mindset of an immoral leader to show good leaders how to employ “criminal virtue” tactfully in their rise to power.
Machiavelli acknowledges that this will tarnish a historic reputation, and offers the consolation that “although the ends don’t justify the means as an absolute, in cases like these they just may“.
The idea is (to use loose metaphors), that a Bernie Sanders who uses vice selectively isn’t as good as a pure Bernie Sanders, but even a slightly corrupted Sanders is way better in-action than a pure criminal like Hitler who knows how to use criminal vices naturally.
One, can’t compete fairly against a criminal, and this is why we see Tyrants take power and virtuous leaders get trampled underfoot.
So, in simple terms, the idea of criminal virtue is the select and tactical use of vice for political gain.
The Other Uses of Criminal Virtue, the Art of War, and… You Know, the Art of the Deal
In my line of work, writing and learning things like influence tacts, I run across a number of books including: the Art of War, the Art of Seduction, How to Make Friends and Influence People, the Prince, Propaganda by Edward Bernays, and more.
From studying this for decades, I can confirm that Criminal Virtue and what I’ll call Grey-Hat Virtue (petty criminal virtue used in marketing, PR, business, etc) are the secret sauce of many Politicians, Rakes, MLMs, and Businessmen.
When you hear that sly talking point from the son-of-Atwater, trust me, they aren’t just speaking from the heart, they are calculated and using wordplay. They are using criminal virtue (generally the grey-hat kind; a sort of amoral rather than purely immoral virtue).
10 Best Ideas | How to Win Friends and Influence People | Dale Carnegie | Book Summary. How to profit off others and manipulate people 101, it is the sort of stuff that marketing people and PR people study. Businesspeople also study this stuff. It all speaks to the core of what Machiavelli is talking about, the idea that underhanded mind-F’in and tactically employed brute force and criminality go a long way toward end-goals for those who can act immorally with confidence.
One who understands underhanded and cunning tactics and is willing to employ them often has the upper-hand.
Further, one who has the gloriously intriguing qualities of an anti-hero or anti-villain, like a “bad body who needs fixing”, like Magneto, or like some “theoretical” TV star known for their criminal virtue who sought a position of power by questionable means, actually benefits from their criminality.
Nothing is more appealing then the charming criminal, when we watch Three Penny Opera, we connect with Mac the Knife like a Polly, Jenny, or Lucy. Oh I know he is a criminal, but at least he is honest, he really loves me, I think I can change him, etc.
Or in business, “well that is business” that woman at the bottom of the pyramid says when they can’t sell the product stocking up in the garage after returning from the conference.
This is to say, criminal virtue isn’t just good at winning nations and influencing people, employing it actually has a whole host of benefits pertaining to most of the social arts and sciences (so business, economics, politics, etc).
A mentalist or illusionist employs a light version (telling you that he or she is mind-F’ing you; and Tony Robbins does the same thing)… they are mind-F’ing you for your own benefit and telling you and helping with the come down. But these virtuous grey hats are minority.
3 steps to achieving what you really want | Tony Robbins UNSHAKEABLE [Video 6 of 14]. Tony Robbins, Chris Angel, the guy who says he can talk to dead people, they are all employing criminal virtue. They are essentially manipulating you, but doing it is a virtuous way. The same cannot be said about MLM schemes, ENRON, or even things I won’t mention (as criminals are generally less restrained than others when it comes to responding to sideways insults).
Most criminal charmers are cavemen.
At the multi-level marketing (pyramid scheme) group you’ll get a taste of this, at the ERNON board meeting you’ll get a taste, and when the European Fascists come back for round two, we’ll all get a taste…
Those who are pure are easy to take down, you point out one less than perfect thing they did and they get crucified. “Oh, Jesus, you claim to be the son of God? Let us then whip you and nail you to the cross at the demand of a tyrannical mob…” Judas killed himself due to his guilt, it was Jesus who got crucified. Remember that, it is a good metaphor when speaking of Machiavelli’s point here.
This is to say, as history knows, and as the Russian mentalists confirm, it is much harder to take down a figure with Kompromat if their entire lifestyle is slightly criminal (I call the theory that arises from this “the bed of nails principle” ).
So, in conclusion, Machiavelli teaches the virtuous how to employ our criminality in one tactful swoop when coming to power, but in doing so gives rise to a concept which has far more uses than Machiavelli fits in his book.
Those who know how to walk the line between being a criminal and being a charming rake are really hard to take down and have many advantages on their rise up. A pure and strong leader like an Alexander the Great is the best, but since a Hitler is the worst, there are worst things in the world than taking one’s self down a notch or too to safeguard the world from tyrants.
I wouldn’t personally suggest one employs criminal virtue to the extent that Machiavelli illustrates, rather I’d employ as little as possible and formulate ways to exploit the caveman like tactics the more criminal amongst us use and turn their criminality against them like some high level social Judo. If one isn’t into Judo, they should at least keep an eye out for those employing criminal tactics and at least avoid them at dinner parties, not write them a check, and not cast your vote for them on the ballot.
THE ART OF WAR BY SUN TZU | ANIMATED BOOK REVIEW. Machiavelli also wrote a book on THE ART OF war. What do we mean when we say “art” and then a term like “war” in the same sentence. We mean we are teaching underhanded tactics that can be used for the purposes of good or evil. Generally the authors want you to use them for good, but this isn’t true across the board, it is just generally true for the classics.