BMCR 2020.09.18

Virtue politics: soulcraft and statecraft in Renaissance Italy

, Virtue politics: soulcraft and statecraft in Renaissance Italy. Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2019. xxiii, 736 p.. ISBN 9780674237551. $45.00.


Virtue Politics is a magisterial work by one of the world’s leading experts on the intellectual history of the Renaissance. Selections of several of the chapters have been published previously: An early outline of Hankins’ understanding of virtue politics appeared in Beyond Reception (see my review at BMCR).[1] Despite the range of thinkers the monograph addresses, it still presents a coherent and tightly-woven narrative. Hankins’ central thesis, contrary to the prevalent view of humanism as essentially a literary and stylistic movement, is that Italian humanism is a “movement of moral and political reform” (p. xv) and he avoids the identification of humanism with “republican”. In contrast to the frequent association between virtue politics and anti-democratic tendencies in antiquity, Hankins sees its Renaissance manifestation as compatible with different kinds of regime (p. xxi). This compatibility is possible since virtue politics concentrates on the character of the ruling elite, rather than on the redesign of political institutions; in this sense it is perhaps somewhat alien to us as an approach to political reform.

This volume displays remarkable breadth both in the range of thinkers surveyed (Petrarch, Bartolus of Sassoferrato, Baldo degli Ubaldi, Boccaccio, Leonardo Bruni, Biondo Flavio, Cyriac of Ancona, Leon Battista Alberti, George of Trebizond, Francesco Filelfo, Francesco Patrizi and Machiavelli) and thematically (tyranny, warfare, private life, statesmanship, constitutional theory, absolutism). Hankins covers a broad range of subjects which it would be difficult to engage with thoroughly here, so I shall concentrate most heavily on the area of classical reception, since this is likely to be of greatest interest to BMCR readers. It should be noted, though, that while the material concerning the classical tradition is extensive, Hankins’ primary concern is with uncovering the underlying unity behind humanist political thought.

An initial chapter examines the intellectual and historical context surrounding the birth of Renaissance humanism. Chapter 2 (“Virtue Politics”) outlines the central theses in terms of perennial political concerns, such as the need for governments to maintain legitimacy and secure the obedience of their subjects, although the humanists’ orientation (given their role as the advisors to statesmen) tends to be practical, rather than abstract (pp. 31-2). “Virtue Politics” obviously recalls “virtue ethics”: Hankins defines it as focusing “on improving the character and wisdom of the ruling class with a view to bringing about a happy and flourishing commonwealth” (p. 37), linking political legitimacy with the virtue of rulers. By concentrating on the merit of rulers, the humanists run contrary to the notion of legitimacy of birth, which dominated Renaissance society. Hankins, though, points out both the ways in which social structures within the Italian city-states were less rigid than in northern Europe and the Italian medieval tradition of “true nobility (pp. 38-9). The classical sources of virtue politics (Aristotle, Plato, Sallust, Livy, and Seneca) are also discussed, although it is Cicero who is credited as the primary source, influencing the high role accorded to the civic value of the study of the humanities and of rhetoric (pp. 45-8). Virtue politics are tied to the humanist programme of political reform and rooting out tyranny and corruption through inculcating virtue in the ruling elite.

Hankins’ treatment of tyranny draws on both the Greek tradition, which links it to character, and that of Roman law, which presents it as a breach of ius. He analyses the two most prominent examples of each during the Renaissance: the treatment of tyranny in Plato’s Republic and Cicero’s presentation of Caesar as a tyrant who violated ius. This forms the background to the presentation of Petrarch accepting the patronage of Archbishop Giovanni Visconti, ruler of Milan, who was considered by the Florentines to be a tyrant, positioning Petrarch as a counsellor in the tradition of Plato to Dionysius or Seneca to Nero. Hankins’ application of the classical models of tyranny as the basis for analysing the humanist approach is illustrated by his treatment of Decembrio’s Life of Filippo Maria Visconti, Duke of Milan, a prince devoted to war and with no respect for legal processes or merit and whose few “virtues” appear shrouded in ambiguity (p. 141-7). Hankins’ inclusion of this work in his discussion forms a counterpart to the idealized presentations of princes often penned by the humanists and serves as background for the subsequent treatment of Machiavelli.

Reading Florentine history through the lens of Rome is a tradition which can be traced back to Dante. It is illustrated by Leonardo Bruni’s Panegyric of the City of Florence (based upon Aelius Aristides’ Panathenaicus), which positions Florence as both Rome’s daughter, as well as her rightful heir on account of her virtue (pp. 219-21). This reflects the humanist preference for meritocracy, rather than hereditary right. In Bruni’s account, the Florentines are heirs to Roman virtue, as well as Roman power. It is Florence that serves as a common homeland for all of Italy, just as Rome did during antiquity (p. 223). What is interesting about Hankins’ reading is that it presents the Panegyric less as a work of propaganda justifying military expansion and more as an attempt at diplomacy, seeking to persuade other Italian states to accept Florentine dominance. Bruni’s History of the Florentine People discusses the great scourge of that city: its factionalism (consisting of struggles between Guelfs and Ghibellines, between various noble clans and between the nobles and the popolo). Despite this, Bruni himself still adopts a partisan position, writing from the perspective of the popolo (here referring to the middle social rank which was ideologically Guelf). Hankins goes beyond standard analyses, looking at the Etruscan model, to which Bruni later turned, instead of the Roman one, in the History (pp. 231-4). Since the Etruscans were a federation of free cities, the model is more appropriate to the Florentine situation and, in Bruni’s claim that Mantua was an Etruscan foundation in De origine Mantuae, a more useful support to Florentine foreign policy (which was pursuing an alliance with the ruling Gonzagas at this time).

While much of the volume is oriented toward the reception of the Roman tradition, Hellenism also receives a detailed treatment. A significant figure, who is regrettably all too often ignored, George of Trebizond, is analysed with respect to his views on cosmopolitanism and liberty. George’s cosmopolitanism is exhibited by his attack on the restrictions Plato places upon resident aliens in Magnesia; George’s own status as a double alien whose family emigrated from Trebizond to Venetian Crete and his emigration to Italy influences his argument (pp. 336-7). Plato’s impractical laws are unfavourably compared with the global reach of those of Romulus, which incorporated the subject nations, (a view which relativizes George’s praise of the Venetian mixed constitution as the embodiment of Plato’s Laws); the Ottoman Turks are also praised for their cosmopolitanism. Despite the idiosyncrasy of his position, George conforms to the humanist model of meritocracy.

The revitalization of the Spartan legend in the Latin West, primarily through Filelfo’s translations of Xenophon’s and Plutarch’s writings pertaining to Sparta, forms the basis of Chapter 15. For Filelfo, Sparta was the best-ordered state from a moral perspective (p. 353), and Hankins analyses the manner in which the humanists exploited the Spartan material in contemporary debates: corruption of the state by the wealthy (such as Cosimo de’Medici), inculcation of virtue in the political elite and the merits of monarchical versus non-monarchical rule. Of particular note is the manner in which Hankins goes beyond an analysis of the mere incorporation of the Spartan legend on humanism, to an examination of the “disruption” it exercised on political discussions (p. 355). As Hankins clarifies, the humanist notion of a respublica differed from ours. Provided that it was committed to good and virtuous government (as opposed to tyranny), it could even encompass monarchies. Such speculation about the nature of a respublica was stimulated by access to material about the Spartan constitution. In keeping with the Renaissance obsession with the myth of Venice as a particularly stable constitutional arrangement, Filelfo saw Sparta as a precursor to the Most Serene Republic, although Hankins sees in More’s Utopia a more accurate comprehension of the manner in which the Spartan system functioned (p. 360). The manner in which the humanists interpret the sources concerning Sparta is of interest since they follow a particularly selective interpretation of Lycurgus’ legislation, differing markedly from the manner in which modern scholars handle these sources.

No examination of Renaissance political thought would be complete without considering Machiavelli; Hankins dedicates three chapters to this thinker. The threat of the Ottoman Turks led to the development of italianità, while their defeat at the hands of the Neapolitans ushered in the feeling of a rebirth of Roman virtue, although this ended abruptly with the French invasion of 1494-5. In many ways, Machiavelli contrasts starkly with the other figures Hankins examines. Machiavelli had practically no knowledge of Greek and only limited competence in classical rhetoric or elegant Latin prose, but his rather sceptical attitude to the classical past more accurately captured the Italian Zeitgeist in the aftermath of the French invasion. Instead of blindly imitating the Romans, Machiavelli felt that their strengths should first be evaluated, and he presents the literary activities so favoured by his humanist contemporaries as leading to “softness” and corruption (pp. 433-6). In arguing for the necessity of establishing a citizen-militia, in opposition to the prevailing view at the time which favoured professional armies, Machiavelli examines the possibility of reviving Roman virtù in The Art of War. Ironically, he goes further than his humanist contemporaries in advocating such large-scale social reform in emulation of the classical past.

The Greek tradition’s analysis of tyranny forms the backdrop to Hankins’s examination of the conventional reading of The Prince as a manual for tyrants, although Machiavelli’s prince does not fit into the traditional Greek dichotomy of oppressive and benign tyrants. Machiavelli’s advice seeks to undo the results of the humanist educational programme anchored in virtue politics: the prince must learn how not to be virtuous and to follow the logic of necessity, rather than morality (p. 452). Hankins addresses the typical manner of reading the Discourses as evidence of Machiavelli’s “real” republican views and therefore as a corrective to the Prince. He takes the monarchical and oligarchic aspects raised by the Discourses seriously, showing that for Machiavelli, tyrants and princes are not synonymous, but rather tyrants are failed princes (p. 455). The treatment of Machiavelli represents a fitting conclusion to the study since his conception of politics involves the rejection of the classical ideals which form the basis of the humanist programme of virtue politics (pp. 459-63).

Unfortunately, by concentrating on the main lines of argumentation, a review of an extensive work such as this often misses out on many of the entertaining anecdotes deployed to illustrate the relevant theses, such as the series employed to illustrate the debased and opportunistic attitude of the Florentines towards knighthood (pp. 238-42). One of the many strengths of Hankins’ volume is the great erudition with which he persuasively presents a different paradigm for understanding the Italian Renaissance, carefully worked out by means of a wide range of case studies. Moreover, his textual analysis is firmly anchored in a careful discussion of the social and political realities of the relevant Italian states, and his style is extremely readable. Although his work is focused on the Italian Renaissance, one might suggest that his paradigm could profitably be applied to many works of the Northern Renaissance (such as Erasmus’ Education of a Christian Prince, Juan Luis Vives’ Education of a Christian Woman or Thomas More’s Utopia). Although the primary readership of this volume will be those working in the area of Renaissance intellectual history, it can be read with both pleasure and profit by those interested in acquiring a strong foundation for the reception of the Classical tradition in Italy during this period.


[1] Hankins, J. “The Virtue Politics of the Italian Humanists” in Baker, P., J. Helmrath & C. Kallendorf (eds.) Beyond Reception: Renaissance Humanism and the Transformation of Classical Antiquity (De Gruyter, 2019). See my review at BMCR 2019.10.31.