James Hankins is professor of history at Harvard University, the Founder and General Editor of the I Tatti Renaissance Library, and one of the world’s experts on the humanism of the Italian Renaissance. Last month, Public Discourse contributing editor Nathaniel Peters sat down with Hankins to discuss his new book Virtue Politics: Soulcraft and Statecraft in Renaissance Italy.

Paint a picture of the world into which Renaissance humanism came. What were the difficulties of the age and the problems the humanists were trying to solve?

Renaissance humanism began in the fourteenth century, when there was a crisis of confidence in Christendom and in its universal authorities, the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire. Christendom was ruled spiritually by the pope and civilly by the emperor; l’imaginaire of medieval politics was built around these “two swords,” the spiritual and the temporal, and both were failing to win the trust and obedience of those they ruled.

For the Holy Roman Empire, it was a crisis of weakness. The Emperor had little military power and couldn’t impose order on warring states or cities wracked by factionalism and tyranny. For the papacy, it was a moral crisis. The pope had left Rome and decamped to Avignon, where he came under the influence of the French monarchy. The papacy lost control of its territories in central Italy and sent military cardinals to reconquer them. An army led by Cardinal Robert of Geneva, later Pope Clement VII of the French obedience, actually sacked the town of Cesena in 1377 and massacred over 2000 of its inhabitants. The Church was hardly setting an example of sanctity! On top of all of this, the Black Death had wiped out a third of Christendom’s population, which many interpreted as a divine judgment on the wickedness of the times.

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Petrarch, the first of the Renaissance humanists, came to maturity in this world and saw the misery around him as the effect of a precipitous moral decline in Christendom. The educational institutions of his time, in his view, were not doing anything to improve the moral condition of Christians. He was particularly critical of the great medieval law schools of Padua and Bologna, which, he thought, were entirely focused on pre-professional training and the ars nummaria, the arts of money-making.

Responding to this crisis, Petrarch had two ideas about reform. First, the downward cycle of history might be reversed by reviving the lost civilization of the Roman Empire, especially the age of Augustus, when literary glory was at its height and when Christianity began. Second, he believed that a movement of like-minded literati could restore to the modern world the high civilization of the ancient Romans and enable it to give birth once again to extraordinary human beings. The ancient Roman way of educating people had been lost and needed to be recovered.

Petrarch and his followers began an educational revolution. They took the bones of medieval grammatical education, which was used mostly to train notaries (something like British solicitors) and city officials, and fashioned it into a new form of education, the studia humanitatis, what we now call the humanities. This was quite different from the trivium and quadrivium of the medieval liberal arts. The humanities embraced a new cycle of disciplines, beginning with grammar and rhetoric but also including history, poetry, and moral philosophy. The purpose of this program was not pre-professional education, but rather creating a new, well-educated, and virtuous leadership class in Italian city-states. The humanists wanted their elites to become morally better, and in this way to make their societies better.

What makes Renaissance humanism distinctive from secular humanism today?

Modern humanism is about providing a substitute for religion. It begins in the nineteenth century when religion was on the wane in Europe. Post-Christian intellectuals asked: Without religion, where are moral standards going to come from that people can look to in order to live worthwhile lives? If there is no God, humanists like Auguste Comte feared, people would conclude that all is permitted, and society would fall apart. Modern humanism is a project to reinvent moral values based on human reason and moral sense alone.

Renaissance humanism, by contrast, is about trying to improve the moral and intellectual quality of social elites. Its relationship with religious authority was completely different. The humanists started off by building on the medieval distinction between the natural and supernatural ends of man. They tried to bracket religious belief and orient it toward the next life, focusing instead on the natural end of humanity and the moral virtues that help humans rule themselves and others well in this life. Eventually the humanists sought to reform religion too, make it better, return it to ancient models.

Some humanists such as Petrarch and Erasmus were men of deep piety, while others were lukewarm or indifferent to religion. Many were anticlerical, while many others actually held high positions in the Church. There were even humanist popes, most famously Pius II. But no Renaissance humanist thought that human beings could do without religion entirely. Humanists who thought about politics recognized that piety, respect for God and the sanctity of human relationships, was indispensable to the health of society.

Most Renaissance humanists went even further: they were convinced that humane studies could support religious belief. In the fourth century, St. Basil of Caesarea wrote a letter encouraging young men to study the classics in order to be better Christians. This became the most popular patristic text of the Renaissance. The Christian humanists of the Renaissance believed that classical culture and Christian culture were symbiotic, mutually supportive. For example, Erasmus maintained that sound Christianity could not exist without foundational study of Greek and Latin literature. By the sixteenth century many humanists thought Hebrew should become the third classical language undergirding Christendom. Humanists agreed with the classical philosophers that philosophical study was the school of virtue. History and biography—particularly the lives of Plutarch and the histories of Livy—were the basis of all practical wisdom. Poetry was beautiful and imprinted itself naturally on the memory, making it an ideal medium for internalizing a love of virtue.

The title of your book is Virtue Politics. What is that?

“Virtue politics” is modeled on the phrase “virtue ethics,” an approach to moral philosophy inspired by Aristotle and elaborated by the British philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe in the 1950s. Virtue ethics holds that moral philosophers and teachers should be most concerned with finding and inculcating behavioral patterns that produce good character, and therefore make us happy and flourishing human beings. “Virtue politics” is a term I invented to describe the central concerns of humanist political philosophy. The humanists wanted to replace the formalism of medieval political theory, conducted in the idioms of theology and law, with an approach that tried to alter attitudes and behavior patterns in the world of action.

The humanist approach to political reform—an approach that sought above all to improve the character of political leaders—had a great vogue for about 200 years, but eventually diminished after the Renaissance. Since the seventeenth century, Western political theory has been dominated by contract theory, rights theory, constitutional theory, and proto-liberal understandings of the primacy of the individual in society. The goal of the American Founders was to build a society of equals, acting in ordered freedom, constrained by laws and institutions.

Virtue politics, following the ancient Greek philosophers, assumed that hierarchies would always exist in society, so that a principal task of politics was to ensure that those hierarchies would be just ones, based on real distinctions of merit between rulers and ruled. Virtue politics, in other words, was intrinsically meritocratic. Nevertheless, virtue politics, as the Renaissance understood it, was compatible with all different kinds of constitutions. Republican elites needed to be virtuous, too, and to encourage virtue in the whole citizen body. Republican states, perhaps even more than monarchies and aristocracies, had need of good character and a strong sense of personal responsibility, supported by good religion and upbringing, good friends and good teachers. You can’t have a successful free society without well-educated citizens and leaders of high character. Tyranny comes to free societies when multiplying laws, more police, and more surveillance begin to take the place of virtue in maintaining the social order.

Like the ancient Greeks, the humanists had a richer understanding of what the state has to do in order to encourage virtue. Their key move was to link political legitimacy to political virtue. To those with hereditary power, they said that you only deserve power if you are virtuous. To those not in the ruling class, they said that you can merit membership in the ruling class if you acquire virtue, which comes through humanistic education.

The humanists thus had their own idea of what Thomas Jefferson later called the “natural aristocracy” of ability and virtue, which he contrasted with the “artificial aristocracy” based on wealth and ancestry. Political power should not be treated like a piece of hereditary property, the way Europeans thought kingship belonged to particular families. Hereditary rights to political power, the humanists thought, were invalidated if the owners of these rights lacked virtue. Virtue in this way becomes a necessary condition of political legitimacy. And the humanities are how you learn to be virtuous.

Maybe virtue politics could work in a time of titled aristocracy and small, republican city-states. Could it really be put into practice in a large, pluralistic democracy like the United States?

Well, despite the very real and, in many ways, admirable diversity of our society, we still need to have shared values for our political life to function well. In my view it would improve the tenor of our politics immensely if we could embrace a moderate perfectionism rooted in shared traditions and a shared history. By “moderate perfectionism,” I mean civic promotion of common moral ideals for citizens, including standard norms of behavior such as the classical virtues, but excluding ultimate ends that fall into the domain of religion or philosophy.

Ultimate ends are things like personal salvation, utopian futures, or the subjection of everyone in society to a common religious or political dogma—what John Rawls called “comprehensive doctrines.” The goals of virtue politics are more modest and adaptable, less oppressive, and compatible with a large measure of political freedom. I would go further and say that a free society isn’t possible without a populace that is instructed in and accepts common norms of behavior and a common moral vocabulary.

Virtue politics in my understanding is not a constitutional type, but a set of strategies for promoting meritorious governance that is compatible with different systems of government. It could be useful both in liberal democracies and in the complex hierarchical system of the People’s Republic of China. It strengthens both popular regimes and monarchies, and is possible under any form of government except for tyranny.

Many of our political problems stem from our lack of agreement about what constitutes morally excellent behavior. Many people in liberal societies feel the state should not commit itself to promoting positive values, because to do so would limit freedom and exclude intentional minorities—I mean minorities that share particular belief systems, like Muslims or Mormons, Hindus or Catholics. But the study of virtue politics shows that elites and ordinary citizens can learn civil virtue and a civil prudence that stops short of perfectionist goals aiming at ideal societies or theocracies. As a society we can say there are certain values we need to uphold and inculcate in our citizenry. Courage, practical wisdom, self-control, and justice would be the principal ancient ones, but we could include also Michael Ignatieff’s “ordinary virtues” of tolerance, forgiveness, trust, and resilience. We can base our educational system on ancient traditions, which are not neutral to political flourishing in this life, but which nevertheless are not oriented to personal salvation, or to bringing in a millennial rule of perfect rulers.

Elsewhere you’ve described “virtue politics” as “meritocracy.” Many people claim that meritocracy and current elites are a big part of our current political problems. How was the Renaissance’s meritocracy different from ours? How would the Renaissance humanists instruct our elite today?

Today’s meritocracy is mainly about getting into elite schools and using that advantage to acquire wealth and status. Conceived in that way, we can understand why many people today have deep reservations about meritocracy. But I think it’s possible to have a better understanding of merit, and a different orientation for meritocracy. The old liberal consensus of the 1950s and 60s thought of merit as “intelligence plus effort.” But does that equation really equal merit? Raw measures of intelligence don’t tell you anything about vision, or initiative, or courage, or prudence, or steadfastness, or other qualities necessary for great leadership. The real problem we face is that our political elites, at best, constitute what’s called in the literature a “technical meritocracy”: a meritocracy based on university credentials, mostly earned in the social sciences, which certify only the ability to formulate clever policies. The policies in question usually are aimed at increasing GDP or making more people dependent on government.

A real meritocratic system would promote well-educated political leaders with good character and also a kind of wisdom: an ability to conceive more noble goals for society than mere acquisition of stuff, and the authenticity and eloquence to get others to share its vision. My view is that our whole concept of meritocracy needs to be reconceptualized. We should not be measuring merit in terms of potential and raw intelligence, as we do now, but in terms of actual accomplishment and concrete knowledge. That knowledge should include humanistic subjects like history, philosophy, and literature. It would be a fine start if our gatekeeping exams could be more content-based, like AP tests or the British A levels, and less like the SATs, which reward those who possess only the skill of taking tests. And we should avoid the tendency to equate merit with degrees and credentials, especially in government service.

Some today argue that our society is so corrupt that withdrawing from politics and cultivating one’s own family or religious community is the best choice. Chapter 6 of your book asks, “Should a good man participate in a corrupt government?” How does Petrarch answer that question?

A central concern of the humanists was whether a morally good man can survive politics with his virtue intact. Petrarch himself, the real founder of virtue politics, was of two minds on this. On the one hand, he believed that rulers could be reformed through the study of the classics. He lived much of his later life attached to the courts of men whom contemporaries called tyrants because their titles to power were dubious or were obtained by force. Petrarch thought he could do some good by advising such men, and he was not much worried that he was tainting himself by associating with tyrants, as some said. He argued that his character would not be destroyed by living with wicked people: weak characters would always follow the lead of strong ones. After all, he pointed out, Jesus consorted with tax collectors and sinners, and literati had a similar duty to bring the virtue of ancients into the life of morally imperfect rulers. Seneca’s experience with Nero was a model and a warning.

The other Petrarch wanted to live in freedom away from responsibility, to lead a solitary life apart from the corruptions of cities and princely courts. One voice that called him back to public life was that of Augustine, who argued in City of God that Christians should not completely abandon the world. You should stay with a tyrant as long as you can do some good. If a moment comes when your life is in danger, then you can leave. However, the humanist Poggio later argued that princely courts are inherently corrupt because of the structure of their incentives. The prince is always going to listen to the most corrupt voices. A good man who tries to rule any human state will always end up being thrown off, the way a wild horse throws a rider. Poggio’s counsel is analogous to that of Raphael Hythloday in Thomas More’s Utopia or to the Benedict Option today: Good men need to keep away from public life if they want to remain virtuous.

You’ve now written three articles on Confucian political thought in contemporary China, and your book concludes with a nod toward Confucian humanism. How did that interest come about? How is the virtue politics of the Renaissance similar to the dezhi of the Confucian school?

I first became aware of contemporary political Confucianism when I was invited to China in 2013 to a conference on the 500th anniversary of Machiavelli’s The Prince. I discovered that there is a strong analogy between humanist virtue politics and the ideals of the Confucian ruling elites in imperial China, though humanists never developed an examination system like the Chinese did. Both thought that their society must be governed by good people who are well-educated in the classics, and therefore both sought to “elevate the worthy” to positions of authority in the state.

Like the humanists twenty centuries later, Confucius thought his world was falling apart because there was no loyalty to the true emperor and to tradition. He claimed that the study of antiquity and the pursuit of its virtues and the use of the best language would justify the authority of imperial servants and magistrates. Eventually in the Han dynasty, roughly at the time of the Roman Empire, the Confucian system took over Imperial China. Under the Sui dynasty (581–618 AD), the imperial government set up the first examination system in the Confucian classics, which was believed to be tantamount to testing for virtue. The examination system lasted down to the very end of the nineteenth century and created, in effect, a cognitive elite based on mastery of classical language, literature, and philosophy. It was believed that such mastery led to good character and a sound ethic of public service, the basis of good government.

How do you understand your vocation as a professor? Do you seek to preserve the learning and aims of the humanists in our time?

It should be a principal responsibility of scholars in the humanities to pass down our traditions to the next generation. I find it worrisome and shocking that so many people, even professional humanists, think that the Western tradition is morally corrupt and either should not be passed down or should be heavily censored. That is a screamingly ignorant view of Western civilization, but in the modern world many people seem to believe that ignorance should be no bar to expressing one’s opinion loudly and in public. People say that Western civilization is racist and sexist and nativist, but the strongest critiques of racism and sexism and nativism all come out of the Western tradition, and in fact go back to the ancient moralists. The critique of Western civilization is inconceivable without Western civilization.

The idea that studying the past can somehow make us morally corrupt is the opposite of the truth. Every age can find things it values and things it despises in the past—moral complexity is part of all serious traditions. If we turn our backs on the past, we won’t understand ourselves, and we will be easier prey for noxious superstitions and conspiracy theories. We need to keep in touch with the best of our past at all times: that contact with the best and worst of ourselves is a precondition of civilization, common decency, and toleration. In my view the current decline into techno-barbarism is largely the result of losing fruitful contact with the past.

What is your advice for scholars and teachers who want to cultivate humanitas in their students?

The Renaissance humanists would have said that the most important thing is for the teacher himself to be humane. It’s easy to talk about the curriculum, but the humanists placed the strongest emphasis on the moral character of the teacher. The greatest teachers, like Socrates and Epictetus, were also deeply impressive human beings. That’s tremendously important. Virtue and wisdom don’t come just from reading texts. Example is more important than precept. That means teachers too have to live up to the best standards of the past. That’s a challenging standard, and I know that I constantly fail to achieve it myself. But we have to try to have good character ourselves if we want wisdom and virtue to survive into the next generation. In the end, cor ad cor loquitur, humanity is transmitted by humanity.