Virtue Politics Operationalized

One of the best books I’ve read recently is James Hankins’ Virtue Politics: Soulcraft and Statecraft in Renaissance Italy. In it, Professor Hankins provides an alternative to the account of Renaissance political thought that places “republican liberty” as its chief achievement. It is, says Hankins, the cultivation of virtue in political leadership, and the reclaiming of the classical traditions of virtues of character in Greek and Roman thought, that animates the central political project of the great humanist tradition. Machiavelli, who is often placed at the center of Renaissance political thought (he is certainly the most widely read figure of the Renaissance political tradition), is, on Hankins’ account, at best deeply ambivalent about this tradition, and certainly not the central representative of the spirit of the age.

I’ve thought a lot about Professor Hankins’ book, and in particular just what a virtue politics of the modern period, in America, for example, might do (or aspire to do). So I’m especially pleased to see that he will have a new book out in the spring that seems to concretize the Renaissance virtue politics program in a number of ways, and whose subject is the last figure (before Machiavelli) he considers in Virtue Politics, Francesco Patrizi. The book is Political Meritocracy in Renaissance Italy: The Virtuous Republic of Francesco Patrizi of Siena. It will be a must read for anyone interested in this fascinating period of history and anyone thinking about the role of virtue in contemporary political life.

At the heart of the Italian Renaissance was a longing to recapture the wisdom and virtue of Greece and Rome. But how could this be done? A new school of social reformers concluded that the best way to revitalize corrupt institutions was to promote an ambitious new form of political meritocracy aimed at nurturing virtuous citizens and political leaders.

The greatest thinker in this tradition of virtue politics was Francesco Patrizi of Siena, a humanist philosopher whose writings were once as famous as Machiavelli’s. Patrizi wrote two major works: On Founding Republics, addressing the enduring question of how to reconcile republican liberty with the principle of merit; and On Kingship and the Education of Kings, which lays out a detailed program of education designed to instill the qualities necessary for political leadership—above all, practical wisdom and sound character.

The first full-length study of Patrizi’s life and thought in any language, Political Meritocracy in Renaissance Italy argues that Patrizi is a thinker with profound lessons for our time. A pioneering advocate of universal literacy who believed urban planning could help shape civic values, he concluded that limiting the political power of the wealthy, protecting the poor from debt slavery, and reducing the political independence of the clergy were essential to a functioning society. These ideas were radical in his day. Far more than an exemplar of his time, Patrizi deserves to rank alongside the great political thinkers of the Renaissance: Machiavelli, Thomas More, and Jean Bodin.

Around the Web

Here are some important law-and-religion news stories from around the web:

  • The U.S. Supreme Court has denied review in Resurrection School v. Hertel. In the case, an en banc panel of the Sixth Circuit held by a vote of 13-1-3 that a free exercise challenge to Michigan’s COVID mask mandate for school children is moot.
  • In United States v. Dickey, the Seventh Circuit upheld a trial court’s refusal to give jury instructions sought by a criminal defendant who was the leader of her own church, Deliverance Tabernacle Ministry, and who was convicted of wire fraud and forced labor. The court held that Dickey’s proposed jury instructions failed because they were not an accurate statement of the law and would have excused her criminal conduct based on her religious assertions. 
  • In Tatel v. Mt. Lebanon School District, a Pennsylvania federal district court allowed parents of first graders to move ahead with their due process, equal protection, and free exercise claims against a teacher who taught their students about transgender topics over parental objections. The court also allowed plaintiffs to move forward against school administrators, the school board, and the school district. 
  • In JLF v. Tennessee State Board of Education, Plaintiff asked a Tennessee federal district court to reconsider its prior holding that the display of the national motto “In God We Trust” in a public charter school did not violate the Establishment Clause. Plaintiff argued that the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, which rejected the Lemon test and adopted the Historical Practice test for Establishment Clause cases, constitutes an intervening change in controlling law. However, the court denied Plaintiff’s motion to reconsider as Kennedy did not affect the court’s previous ruling, and the court did not rely on the Lemon test to reject Plaintiff’s Establishment Clause claim.
  • In Chambers of Commerce of the USA v. Bartolemo, various business organizations filed suit in a Connecticut federal district court challenging on free speech grounds a Connecticut statute that protects employees from being made into captive audiences. The statute imposes liability on employers that discipline employees who refuse to attend employer-sponsored meetings or listen to employer communications whose primary purpose is to express the employer’s views on religious or political matters. 
  • In Billy Graham Evangelistic Association v. Scottish Event Campus Limited, a trial court in Scotland concluded that a large arena in Scotland whose majority owner is the city of Glasgow violated the Equality Act when it canceled an appearance by evangelist Franklin Graham because of concern that he might make homophobic and Islamophobic comments during his appearance. The court awarded Graham’s organization damages equivalent to $112,000 USD.