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Virtue Politics: Soulcraft and Statecraft in Renaissance Italy

Virtue Politics: Soulcraft and Statecraft in Renaissance Italy. James Hankins. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2019.


Among contemporary readers and even well-seasoned scholars of Renaissance literature, Niccolò Machiavelli is not only the most popular Early Modern political theorist, but his work is often taken as representative of Early Modern political thought in toto.

Indeed, with works such as Robert Greene’s 2000 The 48 Laws of Power and its successors, Machiavelli’s writings, life and work (in however obscured form) seem especially apropos to waning days of the post-modern period and the emergence of what has been called the post-millennial age. This postmillennial age does not necessarily reject the nihilism and upheaval of values and lack of metaphysical certitude that defined postmodernity; but rather, truth is willed into being and enforced with power. Such thinking permeates not only much of academic but the bulk of political discourse on both the right and the left throughout not only the West, but the wider global community.

Well-seasoned scholar and public intellectual James Hankins, however, in his recent work, Virtue Politics: Soulcraft and Statecraft in Renaissance Italy, seeks to counter the unmoored nihilism of post-modernity as well as the (neo-)Machiavellianism of postmillennialism with a return to the virtue based meritocratic politics of the early Italian Renaissance.

Hankins’s most critical point in Virtue Politics is that politics based upon a humanistic education served as representative of the bulk of Italian Renaissance political theory as opposed to the writings of Machiavelli who came rather late to the game and whose works more closely resemble the thoughts of Enlightenment thinkers of David Hume than they do of Petrarch and Leonardo Bruni.

Hankins’s massive work is derived from his 2010 Carlyle lectures given at the University of Oxford. However, the book itself is by no means simply a bundle of individual speeches. It is an enormous, sprawling work, providing rich and detailed but nonetheless succinct encapsulation of much of classical and medieval as well as, of course, Renaissance political theory. A well-seasoned academic, in Virtue Politics, Hankins exercises command over not only the major texts of Western political theory, but the minor as well as is able to navigate the historical and cultural milieu in which these texts were birthed—indeed Hankins, drawing from Quentin Skinner and Hans Baron, announces in his preface that his method takes into profound consideration where and when these texts were shaped and fashioned.

Hankins argues that Renaissance Italian humanism was fundamentally a cultural shift or institutio and not merely a change in educational methods or educatio. Beginning in the fourteenth century, the humanists of the Renaissance, who had endured centuries of civilizational decline, hoped that a revival of Greek and Roman learning would return Italy to its former greatness. The revival of classical antiquity would take the form of eloquentia in rhetoric, patriotism, virtue, and a pure form of Christianity. As a result, the studia humanitas focused on the education of human being for political life. Due to the absorption of smaller free towns and signories into larger units as well as a revival of martial spirit in Italy from the 1380-1490s as well as the reintroduction of Greek texts to the west by thinkers such as Manuel Chrysoloras in 1400, Italy was primed for a Renaissance.

The founding father of this institutio was, of course, Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374). As he demonstrates in a 1352 letter to Stefano Colonna, Petrarch was especially discouraged that the chivalry demonstrated in the Crusades had deteriorated into the tyranny and moral degeneration of his own quattrocento. Like other humanists, Petrarch attributed this decline to a loss of military skill, art and culture as well as the decline in the Latin language. Petrarch’s goal was the creation of a new paideuma, which would produce a new Golden Age.

There is a little doubt that Petrarch’s vision was derived from the circumstances of his personal life. Petrarch held that justice is what guaranteed the legitimacy of a state; as a result, an education in virtue is necessary for a good ruler, and political evil is rooted in individual moral evil. It is not titles or claims to nobility that make one good. Petrarch’s ideals were King Robert of Naples as well as Emperor Augustus; Hankins notes that Petrarch was tapping into a deep human ideal present in many cultures: the notion that self-control is requisite to rule of an imperium, both of which were manifestations of the imposition of kosmos or divine order on the universe. Virtue, specifically political friendship, was the unifying factor of society. Drawing from Cicero’s Pro Archia, Petrarch argued for the importance of poetry in shaping the moral qualities of the prince as well as in the wider state. The decline of Latin poetry went hand in hand with the political decline of Rome: great deeds inspired great poetry and vice versa. Petrarch was thus a catalyst to the creation of a new humanistic paideuma, which produced what Hankins calls “virtue politics.”

On the other hand, as Hankins’s notes, Petrarch paradoxically advocated a life of withdrawal along with a life of political engagement. Petrarch’s De via solitaria 1346, revised in 1372, reintroduces the notion of otium litteratum to the West and advocates for a leisurely life of study. This retirement is universal and natural according to Petrarch; however, it needs to be disciplined by good morals and accompanied by good literature. Solitary men should have a healthy disdain for the crowd and find greater pleasure among nature, where one can be joined with God and be one’s authentic self, integer vitae scelerisque purus, further joined in a virtual friendship via letters and moments of intimate contact.

With his advocacy of what Hankins calls “virtue politics” as well as his emphasis on a life of study, Petrarch helped inaugurate the humanist movement. What makes humanism a marked break from medieval political theory, according to Hankins, is the need for moral legitimacy that is linked to the ruler’s desire to do good. The humanists still prized the importance of birth; however, drawing from Dante and other medieval traditions, Petrarch and the other humanists argued that true nobility was not necessarily blood, but a cor gentile or noble feelings. Thinkers such as Buonaccorso da Montemagno (1391-1429) likewise argued that wisdom and virtue were prerequisites to ruling. The rule of the wealthy was legitimized by virtue, which can be learned by, at least potentially, any rational person. A political system should thus be able to present a moral and rational justification for itself.

Aristotle, the key thinker for late medieval political theorists, saw a number of goods as being key to virtue, but humanists emphasized a liberal education in virtue. Virtue, in turn, would produce charisma, which makes a leader loved. Teaching was more effective than prohibitions, and efforts to pass more laws and increase the power of policing agencies in the Renaissance would not work. In this new culture, virtue would be praised and vice would be shamed. Such a culture would include theater, music, and even the ancient coins that Petrarch would give to rulers; it would restore the glory of ancient Rome by providing servants of the state.

Hankins identifies the respublica romana as the frequent ideal of the humanists. Indeed, it was in the fourteenth century that the term respublica began to be applied to popular and oligarchic governments. Aristotle’s Politics was utilized by Renaissance thinkers in the adaption of the concept of respublica to non-monarchical regimes. Leonardo Bruni, in works such as the History of the Florentine People, was the first thinker to use respublica with the meaning of a nonmonarchic form of government. A respublica, for Bruni, served the common good. For Bruni, the Roman republic was the golden age, although Bruni does not refer to the Roman republic as such; rather, it meant, as it did for the Romans, “the affairs of the state.” Eventually, however, it grew throughout the fifteenth century to mean a non-monarchical regime, such as the many that dotted the northern Italian landscape.

Hankins argues that historians have been wrong in looking for the republic tradition or the Hegelian “republicanism” in the Renaissance because such a method assumed that popular self-government an liberty could be found among humanist thinkers.  The oligarchies that called themselves respublicae differed significantly from later Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment liberal republics. There was, Hankins argues, a “cult of liberty,” championed by thinkers such as Leonardo Bruni and Bartolomeo Scala in Renaissance republics in imitation of Rome, but these liberties are largely illusory.

Humanism additionally was concerned with the promotion of a just hierarchical and moral system. One of the most important texts of civic humanism was Leonardo Bruni’s Laudatio Floretine Urbis in which Bruni argues for a virtuous elite in a “free” (in the words of Quentin Skinner and Philip Pettit “non-domination” liberty) and “equal” society that would enable Florence, the daughter of Rome and thus Rome’s heir, to prosper and perhaps even create its own imperium. Moreover, by proving her virtue, which was inherited via the stirps romulea but need to be fashioned by education, Florence proves herself to be a worthy daughter of Rome and the princeps populous (a term derived from Livy) as well as the refuge or communis patria (as Cicero argues that Rome was in his De legibus) of Italy. Florence would thus become a patrocinium or protectorate for other Italian states.

According to Hankins Bruni hoped to utilize Petrarch’s humanism and emphasis on classical learning for the creation of “humanistic virtue politics.” This could be achieved by rhetorical works such as the Laudatio itself in which Bruni praises the Florentines for the virtue they already have. Hankins believes that the Laudatio serves as a road map for later political development, including the eventual “separation of Church and state,” increased social and political mobility and the importance of a humanistic education for the formation of elites.

Leonardo Bruni used the term respublica for popular regime and helped further the rehabilitation of constitutional government. Bruni’s work would later influence Francesco Patrizi, who would argue, via Aristotle that the middle class was the best suited to rule in a more modest modestius, fashion. Patrizi even argued that there were some plebs and rustics who proved themselves worth of rule, drawing from Livy’s description of the Decii. Patrizi’ goal, according to Hankins is include a popular element in a constitution, which the translation of Aristotle and the commentaries of Thomas Aquinas and Marsilius of Padua enabled via Leonardo Bruni.

Francesco Patrizi likewise argued in works such as De regno et regis institutione (1483-1484) that Roman virtue was the principle motivation for Rome’s greatness as opposed to her free constitution. Patrizi draws his research from Plato as well as Isocrates and the Stoic tradition and thus represented a marked break from scholastic reliance on Aristotle.  Like other humanists, he further emphasizes virtue and humanitas as a combative to tyranny. Moreover, the nobility and honor of the prince is never exclusively private but is bound up with the wellbeing of the people. The king is, for Patrizi, a pater familias, for the whole community principally because of the affectio generalis or natural bound between humans. Humanitas is natural and is further the result of humaniores literae or the liberal arts in which the king must be educated.

All of the work of the humanists would, according to Hankins, be counterbalanced by the harsh realism of Niccolò Machiavelli who is best understand as being part of reaction to humanism. After the blossoming of humanism, a new generation of thinkers arose and began to doubt the received wisdom they ultimately had inherited from Petrarch. Moreover, the calamità d’Italia triggered by the invasion of Italy in 1494 by Charles VIII caused a tremendous downtown in Italian self-confidence. It is within this milieu that Machiavelli is, in Hankins’s view, best understood.

Perhaps the key distinguishing factor between Machiavelli and the humanists was Machiavelli’s pessimism. In what Hankins describes as Machiavelli’s Epicurean world view, the best people desired glory while the people desired pleasure. Hankins writes that a prince with a humanist education already knows how to be good; it is Machiavelli’s task to teach the prince how not to be good. Contrary to previous generations of humanists, Machiavelli did not fetishize ancient texts and was disgusted by the allegedly effeminate character of humanists and even princes who spent their time reading, whom Machiavelli referred to as oziosii. Moreover, for Machiavelli, goodness must serve necessità or what Hankins calls the logic of power, and virtù trumped virtue. Vices and virtues should be used tactically, and vice should be cloaked in virtue. Contrary to the humanistic vision of tyranny, a tyrant, according to Machiavelli in his Discourses is a weak prince who lacks self-control. Finally, while the humanists admired the nobility of the Romans; Machiavelli admired their power and strength.

Hankins ends his rich and deeply erudite discussion of the Italian Renaissance with a curious coda. In his conclusion, titled, “Ex Oriente Lux,” Hankins provides a brief panorama of the power and persistence of an Eastern form of virtue politics: Confucianism. Depicting the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci’s attempt to wed Christianity to Confucianism as being similar to the Christian effort to articulate theology with the concepts of Greek and Roman philosophy, Hankins notes the friendship of Fr. Ricci with Zhang Huang, a Confucian scholar who sought to recover a pure Confucianism devoid of Buddhist and Daoist influence. Although recognizing their flaws and deviations from Confucian humaneness, Hankins’s conclusion includes extended praise (via the voice of Matteo Ricci) for the history of Chinese Confucian rulers and the mandarin class who provided stability, taming the militaristic spirit within China. The Confucian Mandarin system, further, was a fundamentally meritorious institution that allowed a certain degree of social mobility, which reminded Fr. Ricci of the Catholic Church’s ability to promote and educate those of even the poorest classes in Europe. This praise for Confucianism reveals the core of Hankins’s ultimate rhetorical argument: America should return to the cultivation of humanistic class (from both the West and East) and form a new class of Mandarins at the service of the common good, avoiding the pitfalls of partisan politics. Hankins envisions a new civilization of morally upright, educated, and talented leaders whose virtuous example will be followed by members of the Republic and bring about a twenty-first century American Renaissance.

Jesse RussellJesse Russell

Jesse Russell

Jesse Russell is an Assistant Professor of English at Georgia Southwestern State University. He has contributed to a wide variety of academic journals, including Political Theology, Politics and Religion, and New Blackfriars.

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