Virtue Politics: Soulcraft and Statecraft in Renaissance Italy
In Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, the character Sicinius poses the question, ‘what is the city but the people?’. This is a reformulation of a common Renaissance proverb, ‘men, not walls, make the city’, which was in turn derived from the Greek historian Thucydides. The question suggests the idea that what protects a state from the spectre of tyranny is neither laws nor constitutions, but the character of its leaders and citizens. In the aftermath of the 2016 US Presidential Election, much of the world stood reminded that our politics is also dependent on good character in the political class. In response to the election, the Yale historian Timothy Snyder quickly wrote a 2017 manifesto, entitled On Tyranny, which called on us ‘to be our best selves’. He offers the example of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where ‘the hero is a virtuous man who is rightly shocked by the abrupt rise of an evil ruler’. While robust institutions remain essential for Snyder and others, we are challenged to ask: might people of virtue yet save the republic?
This call for virtue and character in the wake of political turmoil echoes a similar cry by Francesco Petrarch, the ‘founder’ of the Renaissance. By the fourteenth century, the Italian peninsula had descended into despotism and tyranny, surrounded by the crumbling remains of former Roman glory. Surveying this state of affairs, Petrarch thought that this decline was caused by a lack of virtue in Italy’s political elites. Corrupted by vice, the popes, princes and city states had favoured barbarity and war to further their own ends at the expense of the people. The solution for Petrarch and his followers was to educate Italians in true nobility and virtue by reviving the Latin curriculum of the Roman Republic, the studia humanitatis: grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry, and above all moral philosophy. The revival of the educational ideals of ancient Rome, begun in the Italian Renaissance, has come to be known by historians today as ‘humanism’.
In his new book Virtue Politics, James Hankins, Professor of History at Harvard, seeks to show how the humanist movement created a new political language that re-orientated an entire culture and society. Borrowing a concept from sociologists, Hankins argues that the humanist movement saw the formation of a new paideuma, ‘an intentional form of elite culture that seeks power within a society with the aim of altering the moral attitudes and behaviours of society’s members, especially the leadership class’. In turn, the studia humanitatis was a paideia, ‘a set of social technologies designed to alter minds and hearts’ of Italian political elites. Mirroring the term ‘statecraft’, Hankins proposes that this ‘soulcraft’, animated by the ideals of Rome, created a new language of the political, ‘virtue politics’. Like a Renaissance writer, Hankins offers a further comparison between virtue politics and contemporary virtue ethics. ‘By analogy with virtue ethics’, Hankins explains, virtue politics focuses on developing the ‘character and wisdom’ of the ruling classes ‘with a view to bringing about a happy and flourishing commonwealth’. The political legitimacy of the state thus becomes ‘tightly linked with the virtue of rulers’, particularly in relation to the exercise of justice ‘defined as preference for the common good over the private good’.
The fourteenth century works of Petrarch, according to Hankins, were the first to articulate this new language of virtue politics, a paideuma distinct from medieval political thought. This language contained two key assumptions. First, Petrarch writes that what matters about a person’s political action ‘is the intention of the agent’. It is this notion of intention or state of mind that ‘deserves praise or blame’. Second, Petrarch viewed it as axiomatic that the human state of mind, through education, could be improved and nurtured by way of praise and blame. As Hankins expertly shows over the course of his book, the political thought of the Italian Renaissance, starting with Petrarch and ending with Bruni and Machiavelli, guided by these assumptions, emphasised the character of political leaders rather than the forms of government. It was this aspect that made virtue politics distinctly pre-modern.
If, as Hankins argues, the language of virtue politics has been missed, the obvious question is why? Part of the answer lies in the dominant historiographical map of early modern political thought drawn by the so-called ‘Cambridge School’ of intellectual history. Following the work of the famous Renaissance scholar Hans Baron, Quentin Skinner and J.G.A. Pocock took as their starting point the idea of civic humanism, and corresponding Roman republican ideals. Skinner and Pocock then traced the subsequent currents of political thought, from Italy to the debates of the English Civil War and finally to the founding of the American republic, as a tussle between republicanism or monarchy. The unfortunate result has been a tendency to reduce the question of early modern political thought to whether one was for or against a republican form of government—from More and Machiavelli to Bodin, Hobbes and Harrington. Strikingly, then, Hankins argues that ‘there was nothing that could properly be called a republican movement during the Renaissance’. There never seemed to be a preference, as Hans Baron famously thought, for republican constitutions over monarchical constitutions; the only guarantor of stable government and the preservation of liberties was the virtue of political leaders.
Hankins’ displacement of the republican tradition in Renaissance Italy with virtue politics is clearest in his early chapters on the state. If the key question for the ‘Cambridge School’ republican tradition was, “which form of government is most legitimate?”—monarchy, aristocracy or popular—Hankins argues instead that the quattrocento humanists understood political legitimacy to be a premodern question of the virtue of rulers rather than the system of rule. He explains that ‘what ultimately makes a regime legitimate is power well exercised, what may be called legitimacy of exercise’. This conception of the legitimacy of government was derived from the humanists’ reading of Aristotle’s Politics. According to their understanding of the Politics, Hankins writes:
the criterion for distinguishing good and bad constitutions is a moral one. To judge a regime one musk ask: Do the rulers govern for the sake of all or just a part of the community? Do they benefit the common good or are they out to favor their own private interests?
Aristotle offers three approaches to these questions. First, while Aristotle ranks different constitutions from best to worse (monarchy, aristocracy, popular), this is overlaid by a more fundamental issue of whether a polity’s rulers were virtuous. Second, Aristotle suggests a kind of “constitutional relativism” whereby different constitutional forms will suit different peoples due to how the allocation of virtue reflects different climates and historical experiences. Finally, the Politics recognises the brute historical fact that mixed constitutional forms lead to greater stability.
This ‘triple mixture’ of answers to the questions posed by Aristotle’s Politics morally coloured how humanists read and translated the Greek term politeia into the Latin respublica. The quattrocento humanists understood the term politeia predominantly to refer to a ‘good constitution’. When they translated this into the Latin respublica, it did not necessarily imply a preference for a ‘republican state’ in the modern sense. Rather, respublica, via Cicero, carried a generic meaning denoting a ‘good constitution’ as opposed to the binary opposition between monarchical and popular forms of government. Hankin’s reading thus challenges the assumption that the term ‘republic’ expressed a specific preference for a republican constitutional form. Instead, what mattered for the humanist political theorists was the virtue of rulers to legitimate and maintain a ‘good state’. The Petrarchian politics of ‘soulcraft’, through education of political elites, became the way to improve or transform the state. It applied to the Princes and their humanist courtiers, but also to the humanists in the service of Renaissance oligarchies. For political theorists such as Patrizi and Raffaele Lippi Brandolini, ‘good government is ultimately about good rulers and not about ideal regimes’. The success of a system of government was secured by its rulers educated in the ideals of virtue—power well exercised.
While the names of Petrarch, Salutati, Bruni and Machiavelli might catch the headlines for many readers, the real heart of this book lies in the series of chapters exposing the influence of Greek works translated into Latin by humanists that provided resources for virtue politics. Hankins devotes single chapters to key figures such as Cyriac of Ancona and George of Trebizond. More generally, new Latin translations were produced of ancient Greek historians such as Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius, and Plutarch among others, which influenced a wide range of humanist political thought. For instance, the humanist Francesco Filelfo translated three Spartan texts by Xenophon and Plutarch, using the examples of Agesilaus II and Lycurgus as models of virtue that directly rival the idealisation of Julius Caesar. In Filelfo’s preface to his translation of The Spartan Republic, the virtuous leader Lycurgus, as Hankins explains, ‘caused the citizens of his city-state to acquire his own virtues. That was why the city of Sparta needed no walls, because “men, not walls, make a city”’. Indeed, the translations of Xenophon’s Hiero and Cyropaedia were among the most popular and widely circulated manuscripts in the quattrocento. Hankins encourages young researchers to grasp the ‘size of this intellectual opportunity’ and explore how these ‘Greek historical writings were received in the Latin West’.
The result of Hankins’ account of Renaissance political thought is to decentre Machiavelli from our understanding of Italian Renaissance politics. Far from appearing to be the archetype of Renaissance politics, Hankins shows Machiavelli’s atypicality. By the sixteenth century, Italy had become ravaged by the competing dynastic wars between the French Kings and the Holy Roman Emperors. Relative to this context, we can better understand Machiavelli’s doubt of virtue as the guarantor of stable government, in stark opposition to the idea of politics of soulcraft. Where was the virtue of Italian rulers as they betrayed alliances and constitutional traditions to serve their own interests? Thus, another wave of tyranny precipitated a rethinking of politics. Machiavelli transformed the politics of virtue of the quattrocento humanists into the politics of power in his infamous The Prince. Humanist statesmen ‘in the tradition of virtue politics were required “to take a vow of goodness in every circumstance”’. Machiavelli’s statesman vowed on his redefined ideal of virtù—to maintain one’s state through a manly competence of power and domination. Any student will greatly benefit from this important corrective provided by Hankins’ Virtue Politics to Machiavelli’s place within Renaissance political thought.
While some reading this book might think that Petrarch is the hero of Virtue Politics, the true hero of this history is Francesco Patrizi of Siena. Patrizi comes to epitomise most completely humanist virtue politics in his two major works—How to Found a Republic (1465/1471) and How to Found a Kingdom and Educate a Prince (1481/1484). Hankins explains that these two works ‘became canonical sources of humanist political terminology whose influence lasted far into the seventeenth century’. Aside from Aristotle and Machiavelli, Patrizi was the most widely published and circulated author in Europe before 1620. Together, his works show the importance of humanist receptions of Greek moral and political philosophy. For Patrizi, regime choice was a question of prudence and judgment, a notion derived from the rediscovered Ancient Greek sources, rather than a Ciceronian question of legal legitimacy. In How to Found a Republic, Patrizi makes the case for the inclusion of a popular element of government structured around Greek notions of true nobility and virtue. Similarly, in How to Found a Kingdom and Educate a Prince, Hankins’ writes that Patrizi emphasises ‘the idea of virtue as a source of legitimacy. An act that proceeds from a just king is eo ipso just, and his acting justly is a condition of his legitimacy’. Hankins’ continues, ‘what should limit a king’s power, for Patrizi, is not law or constitutional devices but his own prudent consideration of what functions he can best perform and the practical limits imposed by his own knowledge and energies’. Indeed, like other early humanists, Patrizi’s reading of Greek and Roman history revealed that monarchy was the natural solution to the instability of government. And, like other Renaissance humanists, and in contrast to Machiavelli, the guarantor of a good monarch was the revival of virtue through the educational apparatus of the studia humanitatis—this is the ultimate story of Italian humanist virtue politics.
Virtue Politics is a truly impressive piece of scholarship that elegantly weaves together the letters, unpublished manuscripts and translations of lesser known writers with the more canonical theorists and texts from the Italian Renaissance. However, in using sources that are not obviously works of political theory, one risks taking moments of political discussion out of key contexts. Renaissance humanism with its revived curriculum of the studia humanitatis was not just about forging new languages of the political. Rather, the study of the precepts of the studia humanitatis entailed new ways of thinking. Indeed, Renaissance pedagogical guides, based on Cicero and Quintilian, show that humanists were quick to recognise that ways of constructing and articulating thoughts constrained the propositional content of those thoughts themselves. That is to say, the mental tools we use to make sense of our subject-matter, whether that be political, religious or aesthetic, partly determine how we can make sense of it. Hankins is quick to dismiss this as ‘priorities and sympathies of modern scholars’ rather than the ‘fundamental values and goals of the humanist movement’. As Hankins puts it, he prioritizes ‘ends’ over ‘means’. Yet, as the arch-humanist Erasmus eloquently taught, these two aspects of thought are ‘so interconnected in reality that one cannot easily separate one from the other…they interact so closely that any distinction between them belongs to theory rather than practice’. Therefore, it seems odd that Hankins should choose to disregard how political thought was interconnected with modes and forms of thinking that emerged with the Renaissance teaching of grammar, logic and rhetoric. For students in Renaissance Italy, it was these modes of thinking that must be mastered first before one turned to the learning and articulating of thoughts on the ideal virtues of political rulers. Given this shortcoming of Hankins’ book, we must therefore await a systematic study that brings together these two sides of the coin for Renaissance political thought. Nonetheless, this criticism of Virtue Politics should not detract from what will surely become a classic work of intellectual history and a valuable resource for students of the history of political thought.
One could end the review here. However, Virtue Politics strives to do more than just offer a reinterpretation of Italian humanist political thought. Hankins also hopes that virtue politics might help illuminate politics today. It does not take an expert for anyone to see a virtue-deficit in political classes around the world. Calling for a return to virtue education, however, is an argument for a return to the status quo. It is to misdiagnose the political rot. The wave of illiberal populism is indeed ugly. But its political causes lie in a long entrenched neo-liberal system that fuelled inequality and climate change. That is a story that requires more than an analysis of character. While many elites may enter their careers with good intentions, no amount of virtue will change the fact that the student who goes on to become a financier on Wall Street or in the City will be forced to engage in activities that expose the average person to unimaginable risks; that to work for the tech giants means legitimating their monopolies; or that the politician is forced by electoral systems to prioritize short-term gains over long-term stock-piling of personal protective equipment. We need more than virtue to fix the deep structural sources of injustice in our world.
The questions that lurk behind Hankin’s book—what is virtue? who gets to decide?—are never really answered. Hankins puts his hands up and readily admits he does not have the answers; after all, he claims to be just a humble historian and no political theorist. Indeed, Hankins is not to blame for the ambiguity over what virtue is. The Renaissance notion of virtue was a flabby concept and few humanists sought serious analytical clarity on this—perhaps because to do so would be to unravel the whole project of virtue politics. Modern virtue ethics has remained much the same. So, Hankins recovered an empty cartridge rather than a political language with serious fire power. A return to virtue politics would mean a battle of praise and blame, of descriptions and re-descriptions; of ‘crooked Hilary’, ‘sleepy Joe’ and ‘tyrannical Trump’. People, not walls, may make the city, but once they have erected their social and economic foundations, they bind generations of citizens to come. We need more than an ethically self-conscious banker or lawyer from an elite university to save the republic.
Eli Philip Bernstein  is an incoming DPhil student in Intellectual History at Jesus College.