‘Virtue Politics’ Review: Of Soulcraft And Statecraft

A Review of James Hankins’s Virtue Politics (Belknap/Harvard)

For humanists, the test of legitimacy in government was not simply performance but virtue of character.

By Samuel Goldman

Dec. 27, 2019 11:12 am ET

What characteristics are necessary for a political career? How do you recognize an unfit ruler? Should you oppose or try to reform him? These questions are central to recent debates about liberalism, conservatism and meritocracy—and perhaps even impeachment.

Yet they are also very old questions. As Harvard professor James Hankins shows in “Virtue Politics,” a magisterial study of “soulcraft and statecraft,” humanist scholars in the Italian Renaissance were concerned with many of the same puzzles that obsess us today. While acknowledging the variety of responses that they offered, Mr. Hankins focuses on a particular kind of answer. He calls it “virtue politics”: the attempt to reform civic life by improving the morality of the ruling elite.

Virtue politics was not invented in the 15th century. As Mr. Hankins shows, it drew on intellectual currents that extend back to ancient Greece, classical Rome and the Church Fathers of the early Christian era. In different ways, Aristotle, Cicero and Augustine all argued that virtue was the basis of political achievement.

But the central figure in Mr. Hankins’s account is Francesco Petrarca, better known as Petrarch. He is remembered today mostly as a poet and an editor of Latin texts. Mr. Hankins contends that he was also a significant political thinker.

According to Mr. Hankins, Petrarch saw his literary and scholarly endeavors as a step toward saving Italy—and perhaps all of Christendom—from misgovernment. Learning to speak and write beautifully was not simply a cultural achievement but also, he believed, a political necessity.

Borrowing a term from German ethnologist Leo Frobenius, Mr. Hankins describes this enterprise as paideuma—an “intentional form of elite culture,” as he writes, “that seeks power within a society with the aim of altering the moral attitudes and behaviors of society’s members, especially its leadership class.” The humanists’ task was to institutionalize and propagate this paideuma through writing, speaking and teaching.

On the intellectual level, Petrarch and his followers sought to rescue classical antiquity, especially pagan Rome, from Christians’ historical suspicion. Although the Romans had not known the true God, humanists argued, their political success was based on their superiority in virtue. When it came to personal rectitude and public spirit, the Romans often exceeded ostensible Christians. The humanists had to acknowledge that not all Romans met this lofty standard. But they adopted Cicero—the statesman, lawyer and philosopher—as its personification.

As pedagogy, the medieval curriculum emphasized the comparatively abstract disciplines of philosophy, theology and law. The humanist paideuma, by contrast, concentrated on the inculcation of worldly virtue through the study of language, rhetoric and history. To learn from the Romans, one had to understand them. To understand them, one had to learn not only to decipher Latin but to think it. The military theorist Roberto Valturio argued that even soldiers would benefit from this training.

Mastering Latin—and, by the 15th century, ancient Greek—was a slow and demanding effort that was practically limited to members of the upper and middle classes. In principle, however, it was open to anyone with the ability and will to learn. Against theories of divine right and natural hierarchy, humanists promoted a social model that might be described as virtue meritocracy. “True nobility” could be found anywhere, not only among those who inherited wealth and power.

True nobility was closely related to the humanist conception of the good government. Unsatisfactory rulers might secure desirable outcomes from selfish motives. Those with true nobility would pursue the right goals for the right reasons. In this respect, humanist political thought had a perfectionist quality. The test of legitimacy was not simply performance, but good character.

Mr. Hankins shows that the humanists’ obsession with character explains their surprising indifference to particular forms of government. If rulers lacked authentic virtue, they believed, it did not matter what institutions framed their power. Here Mr. Hankins challenges the claims of scholars like Hans Baron and Quentin Skinner, who have argued that the humanists developed a “civic republicanism” that preferred non-monarchical governments characterized by broad citizen participation. But Mr. Hankins emphasizes that, for the humanists, popular government was no better than one-man tyranny if the people themselves were corrupt.

Indeed, a ruler of true nobility, in the humanists’ view, should be cherished even if he came to power in an irregular manner. Despite their admiration for Cicero, some humanists defended Julius Caesar —who invaded Italy, against the senate’s order, and ruled as dictator for life. To these writers, Caesar’s outstanding character and good intentions outweighed his questionable methods. “Can a man raised to power through his own merits, a man who showed such a humane spirit, not to his partisans alone but also to his opponents because they were his fellow citizens—can he rightly be called a tyrant?” asked the Florentine statesman Coluccio Salutati “I do not see how this can be maintained, unless indeed we are to pass judgment arbitrarily.”

Such humanist defenses of Caesar’s virtue are superficially similar to Machiavelli’s infamous account of the virtù of a prince—the capacity for amoral calculation that, in Machiavelli’s view, must guide the effective prince (a generic term that includes any aspirant to power). Mr. Hankins devotes his last three chapters to exploring the differences. If Petrarch is the hero of “Virtue Politics,” Machiavelli is its villain.

Mr. Hankins’s critique of Machiavelli has several elements. To begin with, he argues that Machiavelli was not much of a scholar. Although he is credited with having an encyclopedic knowledge of classical texts, Mr. Hankins suggests that Machiavelli’s library was rather limited and his knowledge of classical languages less than masterly. That does not necessarily diminish Machiavelli’s insight, but it does undermine his imposing reputation as a guide to ancient political thought.

Next, Mr. Hankins chastises Machiavelli for reducing politics to militarism. The humanists argued that politics was a moral enterprise and that the study of the humanities could orient inevitable conflicts toward the common good. By contrast, Machiavelli severed struggles for power from any guiding purposes. This difference was made explicit by a famous passage in “The Prince.” According to Machiavelli, “a prince should have no other object, nor any other thought, nor take anything else as his art but that of war . . . for that is the only art which is of concern to one who commands.”

As their defenses of Caesar showed, humanists did not imagine that politics could be strictly governed by law. But it was Caesar’s goodness, they argued, that justified his departures from strict legality. Machiavelli rejected this justification. What was necessary to a successful prince was not to be good but only to seem good. Machiavelli suggests that a prince can easily win public approval through the careful management of his image.

Above all, Mr. Hankins charges Machiavelli with replacing virtue politics with a new science of institutions. Especially in his “Discourses on Livy,” Machiavelli attributes Roman greatness to the role of tribunes and other such devices and to certain legal procedures—not to moral superiority.

In this respect, Machiavelli prefigures our current predicament. The Renaissance tradition remained influential well into modern times. Particularly in New England, humanist arguments about virtue were often blended with Protestant theology in an amalgam that historian Mark Noll calls “Christian republicanism.” John Adams believed Petrarch showed that “tyranny can scarcely be practiced upon a virtuous and wise people.”

Yet virtue politics was eclipsed by modern constitutionalism. In their emphasis on the separation of powers, Locke and Montesquieu and the other Enlightenment philosophers whose ideas inspired the American Founders shared Machiavelli’s doubts about the sufficiency of virtue. English scholars like Edward Coke and William Blackstone also promoted a greater appreciation for the role of law. We can see the legacy of this shift in the ambiguity of the impeachment process, which appeals both to virtue and to legality. Should Congress remove a president if he is deemed unfit for office or only if he has committed a crime? The humanists and Machiavelli might give different answers.

The Renaissance humanists insisted that history is valuable because it offers lessons for the present. Although Mr. Hankins’s purpose is primarily scholarly, it is not unreasonable to ask how we might improve ourselves by learning from the history that he presents.

First, “Virtue Politics” contains an implicit argument for the beleaguered humanities. By showing how thoughtful people at a very different place and time responded to some of the same questions that plague us, it extends the horizon of our own moral imagination. The dominant motif of 21st-century culture is exhaustion. We feel constrained to choose from a shrinking range of ethical and political possibilities that seem to offer ever diminishing returns.

Mr. Hankins doesn’t suggest that we don the garments of the Renaissance, as some over-enthusiastic humanists tried to make themselves into ersatz Romans. But he does show how the study of the past, of dead languages and of unfamiliar texts can enrich the present by disclosing unfamiliar possibilities and appealing models for our own thought and action. This is a far more plausible argument for majoring in, say, history than implausible claims about job skills or a reductive political agenda.

Second, Mr. Hankins makes an explicit plea to the modern successors of the elite that the humanists tried to cultivate. Those who enjoy cultural or political influence should consider carefully whether they are worthy of such power. Modern meritocracy assures us that we deserve whatever success or failure we experience. Virtue meritocracy holds us to a higher standard.

—Mr. Goldman is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University and literary editor of Modern Age: A Conservative Quarterly.