Hankins’s take is straightforward. As he demonstrates in detail, humanism was a movement with a political mission. Its founder was Petrarch. His inspiration was the ethical, political, and rhetorical works of Aristotle, Cicero, and Seneca. His aim, and that of those who followed his example, was not just the recovery and dissemination of the lost works of classical antiquity. It was also their deployment in an attempt to provide a moral formation and a schooling in political prudence for the ruling orders in the various communes and principalities of Italy and of Europe more generally. In the thinking of Petrarch and those who came after, Hankins insists, regime questions did not loom large. These men were not “civic humanists” of the sort imagined by Baron. They were humanists, to be sure, and they cared passionately about the civitas--but they were not republican ideologues hostile to monarchy as such. For the most part, Hankins believes, they were content with monarchical rule. What they cared about was the character and discernment of those who ruled, and they regarded moral rearmament along classical lines as a panacea for the very considerable ills of the age in which they lived. Statecraft was from their perspective soulcraft, and they treated the inculcation of moral and intellectual virtue as the highest form of politics.
To this end, the Renaissance humanists of Italy broke with their medieval Scholastic predecessors by eschewing logic and metaphysics and by emphasizing ethics, rhetoric, and the study of history. Although they all professed Christianity, and some were actually devout, they were less interested in the salvation of souls than in promoting good governance. They advocated education in what we now call the liberal arts. They aspired to be tutors to and the advisors of princes, and the impact their sense of purpose had on European—and eventually American—affairs was, and still is, immense. Although Hankins doesn’t say so, those of us who teach history, philosophy, and literature in high schools, colleges, and universities are the heirs of these humanists. In attempting to civilize and teach prudence to those who aspire to join today’s elite, we, too, practice what Hankins calls “virtue politics.”
In the story he tells, the odd man out is Niccolò Machiavelli. Uniformity is not a word that can be used to describe the humanists. On various questions, they were at odds. And yet, for the most part, when it came to fundamentals, Giovanni Boccaccio, Bartolomeo Platina, Giovanni Pontano, Cristoforo Landino, Buonaccorso da Montemagno, Niccolò Perotti, Aldus Manutius, Enea Silvio Piccolomini, Pier Paolo Vergerio, Coluccio Salutati, Guarino of Verona, Poggio Bracciolini, Pier Candido Decembrio, Leonardo Bruni, Flavio Biondo, Cyriac of Ancona, Leon Battista Alberti, George of Trebizond, Francesco Filelfo, Aurelio Lippo Brandolini, Francesco Patrizi, and the other figures inspired by Petrarch’s summons to arms were on the same page. None of the men named, whom Hankins examines one by one in some detail, rejected as a waste of time Petrarch’s program of moral rearmament or the ethical teachings of Aristotle, Cicero, and Seneca. This, however, Machiavelli did—and in the most ostentatious way possible: by denying the very existence of moral virtue, asserting that a legislator must assume all men rogues, and suggesting that the channeling of self-regarding passions through institutional restraints is the only plausible road to good governance in a republican setting.
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