Sketch: Civic Humanism

Civic humanism was a movement within the Italian Renaissance which focused on encouraging young men to take an interest in the government of their cities, and to educate themselves primarily in rhetoric and ethical philosophy so as to best serve their city and preserve its prosperity and security.

A major figure here was Baldesar Castiglione (1478-1529), a court official of the Duke of Urbino. He acquired his humanistic learning in Milan, and later participated in several of the wars between the Italian city states and the papacy. As a diplomat throughout this period, he had many opportunities to observe the political life closely, and as a humanist, he brought his philosophical learning to bear on the problems he saw in that life.

In his Book of the Courtier, Castiglione develops at length an ideal orator / courtier whom he sees as the best educator of the prince. This ideal orator appears in Books I and II rooted in the active life of politics, while in Books III and IV he appears in the different context of the contemplative life. Through many dialogues between characters representing different philosophical schools, Castiglione explores the ethical questions his ideal courtier will encounter in his service to his prince, including such questions as whether virtue can be taught, whether human nature is perfectible through education, and what a servant of a prince should do if the prince commands him to do unethical deeds.

On the strictly ethical questions, Castiglione usually takes an Aristotelian line. For instance, he believes that virtue is not entirely native within us, but that we do have “seeds” of it which we must develop in our actual behavior. Consequently, our actual behavior, whether good or bad, will develop or stunt the seeds of virtue and, over time, confirm us in either a virtuous or a vicious habit of life. On the question of whether the courtier should perform an unethical action, Castiglione develops a sophisticated argument based on the oratorical persuasiveness of the courtier to charm (as it were) his prince into recognizing that the ordered deed is unethical, and so, to move his prince back toward the ethical decision. In other words, the ideal courtier must educate his prince in good statesmanship, thereby fostering a healthy state.

The crowning statement of the work comes in Book IV, with the long discourse of a character named Bembo on the Platonic ascent to Love, the only thing which can hold the world together and guarantee tranquility in this life and the attainment of happiness in the next. The active life is tobe lived for the sake of the contemplative life. If I may say it this way, the ideal courtier is to have one foot in earthly politics and one foot in the spiritual consummation of politics. Castiglione thus creatively synthesizes Plato and Aristotle, bringing to bear the best of the classical tradition’s ethical theories on contemporary problems.

Against Castiglione, I would set Machiavelli, who in almost every way was his antithesis. Machiavelli, who lived from 1469-1527, was a citizen of Florence. He experienced a series of political ups and downs related to the seemingly cyclic rise and fall of the ruling family, the Medicis. During a period of exile from public life, Machiavelli retreated into his study to commune with the ancient writers on politics, and he produced several important works on political theory. These included The Prince, The Discourses on Livy, and The Art of War. In these works, Machiavelli deliberately restructured the received heritage of politics, moving it decisively away from the ancient and Christian conventions of morality and metaphysics, and placing it on the new foundation of “effective power” in a world governed largely by the vagaries of chance.

Although it does not come out clearly in The Prince, Machiavelli was intensely interested in the civic virtues of the ancient Roman Republic as a pattern for restoring and refounding an Italy which he believed to be in captivity to “barbarians.” The Prince deliberately confuses several different meanings of the key term “virtu,” sliding between meanings of (1) strength of mind and body, (2) moral goodness, and (3) the civic religion which binds men to their city. Machiavelli does this deliberately, because he is interested in breaking down allegiance to the Christian concept of virtue and social order and in establishing “new modes and orders” which will better enable a prince to maintain his rule.

To this end, Machiavelli takes many opportunities to tacitly subvert the classical concept of ethics so important to the civic humanists. He banishes classical philosophy as so much useless speculation, which, focused on trying to see the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, is unable to touch what he calls “the effectual truth” of the world. The prince, says, Machiavelli, must always strive to maintain the favor of the Many (the people), and to realize that “there is no one in this world but the vulgar” – that is, no one but the people, who are moved by superficial appearances only. The prince must manipulate the appearances through duplicitous behavior (including deliberately breaking his oaths) and even outright viciousness (“cruelty well used”) so as to continually “stupefy” the people and make them trust his ability to preserve the state.

Like the civic humanist tradition in general, Machiavelli is concerned with the best kind of social order that can be had. Unlike Castiglione and the civic humanist tradition in general, however, he believes that the best kind of social order that can be had is one which builds up the ethical “ought” from the actual “is.” Also unlike Castiglione and the civic humanist tradition in general, Machiavelli is not concerned with rhetoric – unless perhaps one sees his remark about the prince being able to “use the nature of the lion or the fox” as needed as an advocacy of the prince being an anti-rhetor (a Sophist). Machiavelli does desire to move the will of the people (as rhetoricians do), but he is willing to use or not to use any classical teachings at hand which will prove merely instrumentally useful to the goal of preserving the state. Like the civic humanist tradition, he encourages loyalty to one’s city, but it is a loyalty to be built, as he himself says, not on love for the prince’s goodness, but on fear of his power.

These are some of the ways in which Machiavelli may be seen as contrasting forms of the civic humanist tradition.

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