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.