Political authority, moral authority

Renaissance historian James Hankins delivers a considerable volume and sheds new light on the political content of Italian humanism, from Boccaccio and Petrarch to Machiavelli. A major reflection on the moral basis of governmental legitimacy.

In a famous passage from PrinceMachiavelli formulates the injunction to follow the effective truththe “effective truth” in politics, rather than any ideal of government. The truth of acts is that of their effects. The prince must therefore know not to be good, and not hesitate even to be cruel if circumstances demand it. In passing, Machiavelli ridicules those who “have imagined republics and principalities which have never been seen or known to really exist.”

It has become customary to consider that he opposed himself with these words quite generally to the great names that preceded him, from Plato and Aristotle to their medieval heirs, Thomas Aquinas at the head. Would the Florentine have thought of figures who were closer and more familiar? This is one of the questions that James Hankins frankly asks in Virtue Politicsas he undertakes to explore the political thought of the Italian humanists, in the course of a “long Quattrocento” that he runs from Boccaccio and Petrarch to Machiavelli. By taking stock of their political conceptions, this considerable sum also allows us to re-historicize the Florentine Secretary’s words.

A political humanism

Historian of ideas, professor at Harvard, James Hankins is an eminent specialist in the Italian Renaissance – in particular in the readings and rewritings of Plato – and the editor of texts by Leonardo Bruni and Marsilio Ficino. With this new work, he first delivers, and for the first time, a comprehensive study of the political dimension of Italian humanism. Rarely studied, this dimension turns out to be of much greater interest than historians of ideas have generally believed. James Hankins also assumes the desire to correct somewhat certain propensities towards teleology noted in historiography (including among historians of the Cambridge school), who would have it that the history of political thought was only that of the advent of the modern State (pp. 63-65). Omnipresent in the sources, the term republica is also the subject of a useful clarification, against the temptation of anachronism, and the simplifying tendencies stemming from the current of “civic humanism”, a term coined by Hans Baron almost a century ago (p. 63-102).

However, the Quattrocento is deeply and clearly affected by governmental issues. On these too, humanists exercise their paideuma resurgent. James Hankins here takes up the term popularized by the ethnologist Leo Frobenius, to designate the spiritual principle of a civilization, what distinguishes it and animates its cultural elite. Humanism, the author tells us (pp. 2-4), is not only a social and intellectual phenomenon, but also a reform movement, which exerts its influence through a set of social technologies (paideia). These aim to achieve a real “moral revolution”, according to the expression of Kwame Anthony Appiah, taken up by James Hankins. Political humanism is an art exercised directly on the soul (soulcraft).

Also, the author states, the humanists intended to act on the moral values ​​of rulers, to transform them in order, through them, to transform the world. Petrarch himself, in order to defend himself from the virulent criticism that had been aimed at him since he entered Milan in 1353 under the patronage of Archbishop Giovanni Visconti, argues that it is possible to educate in virtue not only the prince, but even the tyrant, and thereby contribute to the common good (pp. 118-124). Others will have a more pessimistic point of view on this question of the council, like Poggio Bracciolini, in his dialogue on the misfortune of princes, Of infelicitate principum (p. 134-141).

Readings and interpretations of Antiquity

James Hankins stands across Virtue Politics a gallery of authors too often considered secondary, and reveals the political dimension of little-known figures, always characterized by their readings of ancient authors, each taking advantage of the rediscovery and printed distribution of these.

This is the case with Cyriacus of Ancona, the modern “inventor” of the term democracy through its Latin calque (democracy), a word which he is one of the few to use, since its use will remain relatively clandestine until XVIIIe century (pp. 305-317). George of Trebizond, for his part, opposes Plato and makes himself the singular promoter of a cosmopolitan city and strong social mobility, James Hankins even recognizing in him a precursor of contemporary libertarians (pp. 335-350). Francesco Filelfo, for his part, defends nativism through the Spartan reference (pp. 351-363).

However, it is always the notion of virtue and its valorization that guide the discussion. The ancient model is, here too, often invoked by humanists who base their discourse on the idealization of ancient sources and examples, without unanimity however. Thus the figure of Caesar gives rise to interpretations that oscillate between the apology of the noblest of the Romans (Petrarch, Coluccio Salutati, Guarino of Verona) and the scathing accusation of tyranny (Poggio Bracciolini) (p. 124-134).

Virtue, a quality of government and a criterion of legitimacy

This choice by James Hankins of virtue as a key notion was not without risks in bringing out what is most characteristic in the political dimension of Renaissance humanism. This same concept also dominates medieval thinking on government and the idea of soulcraft is not without recalling at first glance the prescriptive character of medieval treaties and mirrors.

The author nevertheless manages to show the singularity of humanist political discourse. Considering that what makes a good ruler lies in his moral education and legitimacy, he breaks with the idealist edifice developed in the Middle Ages and cultivated by the scholastics (jurists and theologians). During the Renaissance, the model of virtues is no longer defended as intrinsically superior, but as a set of properly governmental qualities. Similarly, humanists break with the domination of law and the interest, inherited from Aristotle, in the constitutional question, cultivated by Thomas Aquinas and Ptolemy of Lucca, and which culminates in Marsilius of Padua.

Among the striking examples, Leon Battista Alberti, in his De iciarchia, proposes a true theory of the “domestic prince” (pp. 328-334). Opposed to the Medici, Alberti defends a regime of the great Florentine families. These, governing according to virtue for the good of their children and their relatives, would allow by ricochet, as if naturally, the realization of the good of all. Another illustration, Francesco Patrizi, fervent Platonist and convinced meritocrat, bases the legitimacy of the monarch on his virtuous character, instilled and cultivated by humanist education (pp. 386-422). Virtue even becomes, for Patrizi, an element to be taken into account during successions, a criterion that could possibly work against the natural order of primogeniture.

At the crossroads between the Middle Ages and Machiavelli

The humanist discourses described by James Hankins thus seem to open the way towards an instrumental conception of virtue as a simple political tool, without fully subscribing to it. Some cases, however, appear retrospectively as harbingers. Thus the Life of Filippo Maria Visconti written by Pier Candido Decembrio offers a surprising panegyric, presenting certain virtues as governmental procedures contributing to establishing the domination of the prince, and not as guiding values ​​(pp. 141-147).

This break is certainly to be qualified, if we look at some medieval minds, Gilles de Rome for example, whose Michel Senellart was able to show in his The main regimen how close it sometimes comes to Machiavellian reversal. James Hankins also takes great care to establish bridges, to recall the lasting influence of certain texts from the Middle Ages. In this, while giving a coherent vision of the humanist “politics of virtue”, the author also rejects the idea of ​​too clear a break between conventional chronological eras, and offers a refocusing of political humanism, halfway between the Middle Ages and the century of Machiavelli, Guichardin and reason of State.

Far from minimizing the novelty embodied by Machiavelli – the end of the work being largely devoted to him (pp. 423-494) – Virtue Politics allows us above all to better understand what it is made of. The century of humanism illuminates the figure of the Florentine Secretary, and contributes to understanding how one passes from the government of virtues to the virtu practice of Prince. It also informs our modern conception of politics: this is at least the conviction, or perhaps the wish, of the author. Turning his gaze in a barely veiled way towards certain current leaders, James Hankins recalls the ancient conviction that good rulers are above all those who make their people good, and that rebellion is never anything but a symptom of bad government. If, for him, there was only one lesson to be learned from the humanists, it would be that there is no political authority without moral authority.