The Sienese political theorist Francesco Patrizi wrote in 1471 that a republic’s strength was in its numbers: a popular government can “see with many eyes, work with many hands, and stride with almost numberless feet.” But whose eyes, whose hands, whose feet were to be involved in the work of governing? A Portuguese visitor to Siena was fined in 1451 for insulting the republic, saying that it was ruled by “grocers, tanners, shoemakers and rustics”—plebs, in a word, who together formed un reggimento di merda (a government of shit). Everyone in fifteenth-century Italy, from shoemakers to princes, had their own ideas about what separated a good government from a shitty one. But Renaissance Italy also had a professional class of political thinkers: humanists like Patrizi who undertook an expansive program of scholarship that advanced their vision of a better political society.
The humanist movement of moral and political reform is what James Hankins, a Harvard historian and the foremost scholar of Renaissance Italian humanism and political thought, has termed “virtue politics.” In the vast lost continent of Renaissance Latin literature—not only little-read political treatises but poetry, satire, comedy, commentaries on ancient texts, orations given at graduations and funerals, historical writing, marriage tracts, and the voluminous correspondence among scholars spanning Italy—Hankins has discovered generations of men dedicated to the renewal of virtue in their own corrupted and factional society. He argues in his landmark book Virtue Politics: Soulcraft and Statecraft in Renaissance Italy (2019) that humanist scholars sought to inculcate justice, goodness, prudence, and modesty in the ruling class through a moral and political program of liberal education.
With Virtue Politics, Hankins departed significantly from the decades-long consensus on what humanism was and what united its many participants. Historians of the Renaissance have long considered it to be a movement of literary style; the common denominator was said to be an interest in a particular set of philological and textual methods aimed at recovering and restoring the literary heritage of antiquity. By contrast, for historians of political thought such as Eugenio Garin, J.G.A. Pocock, and Quentin Skinner, humanism meant republican humanism: the elaboration of a genealogy of liberty, an ideal that historians could trace from Tacitus to the Renaissance republican city-states and its culmination in early American republican thought.
Hankins rejects both arguments—that humanism was either a kind of literary antiquarianism or a one-note republican political philosophy. The movement was grander and nobler in its common purpose to revive virtue through education. Although humanists were united in their moral and political vision, they undertook a hugely varied program of writing, not just in lots of genres but across a dizzying number of subjects: one of Hankins’s objections to the Pocock and Skinner school of thought is that humanists didn’t write only about liberty but also about topics like citizenship, immigration, wealth and inequality, laws and the legal profession, moral character, corruption, marriage and gender relations, and, critically, what it means to pursue a liberal education.
Hankins is in a position to know what the humanists were thinking about. I doubt anyone living has read as much Renaissance Latin as he has. He studies texts, composed in a little-read language, that often never made it out of manuscript to print, and he takes an expansive view of what sort of writing counts as political thought. He is also the founder and general editor of the I Tatti Renaissance Library, published by Harvard University Press, which has issued ninety-six volumes of edited and translated Renaissance Latin texts. There are some gorgeous gems in the I Tatti catalog, indicative of the wide-ranging interests of their authors: from Cyriac of Ancona’s archaeological studies of the eastern Mediterranean to Pietro Bembo’s account of his hike up Mount Etna, and better-known humanist works like Marsilio Ficino’s Platonic Theology or Leonardo Bruni’s History of the Florentine People. These writings would otherwise be inaccessible for most; what little teaching of Renaissance Latin goes on at the undergraduate level today wouldn’t be possible without the I Tatti series.
Hankins’s new book, Political Meritocracy in Renaissance Italy, is a kind of case study of virtue politics centered on Francesco Patrizi. For Hankins, Patrizi’s political theory is highly representative of Renaissance humanism, even though he is pretty much entirely unknown to historians. He’s unknown partly because his Latin writings are especially thorny, drawing on a dizzying range of Latin and Greek sources, and partly because he is so representative as to be a bit invisible (unlike, say, the radical and radically strange Machiavelli). But Hankins’s study of Patrizi also deepens his arguments about humanist political thought. In Virtue Politics Hankins demonstrated the breadth and the uniting force of the movement; here he focuses on what he views as one of its critical, little-understood features: the humanists’ emphasis on a meritocratic style of government.
From a purely biographical perspective, Patrizi isn’t an especially exciting subject. Patrizi himself probably would have agreed. Born in 1413 in Siena, he was charmingly honest about its mediocrity, writing that the city ranks “if not second, at least third among the republics of our time.” His aristocratic family was active in Sienese politics, he married and had four children, and he was a professor of literature in Siena’s public university.
Patrizi’s own political career was brief and disastrous. After a fairly promising start, he was sentenced to exile in 1457 for conspiring against the republic in a failed coup. (The extent of his real involvement is unclear.) Taken under the wing of Enea Piccolomini, who became Pope Pius II in 1458, Patrizi eventually worked his way back into politics and in 1461 was appointed governor of Foligno, a small but strategically situated town in the Papal States located between Rome and Tuscany. As soon as Pius died in 1464, the people of Foligno rebelled, organizing to throw off papal rule and become a free republic. Patrizi survived the revolt only because he’d decided to summer in Nocera.
For the next thirty years, Patrizi lived alone in a villa in Gaeta, on the stretch of coastline between Rome and Naples. It was pleasant enough. In Gaeta there were lots of ancient ruins to study, the weather was good, and there Patrizi wrote hundreds of Latin poems, including jokes, satires, and works on many subjects: love, the death of a beloved puppy, ripe melons, classical authors, and advice to his sons and grandsons. His wife had died years before, probably in childbirth; he didn’t socialize with the humanists in nearby Naples, or seemingly anyone else, and he died in Gaeta in 1494.
Yet Patrizi never stopped thinking about politics. He began his treatise De republica in the early 1460s but gave it up out of “grief and depression” when Pius died, then picked it up again under the patronage of a new pope, Sixtus IV. In Hankins’s view, De republica is not only the most comprehensive political treatise of the fifteenth century, but the most innovative. It is also an example of what Hankins has (a little awkwardly) termed the humanist “historico-prudential method” of political philosophy: persuasive writing that draws primarily on history in order to, in Hankins’s words,
open a vast theater of human actions, counsels, and measures that have been tried in past societies and whose outcomes, practical and moral, we can often judge, enriching our own political prudence.
Perhaps Patrizi was not the best person to write about popular government. He’d been exiled for betraying Siena’s republic and attempted to stop a republic from forming in Foligno. Indeed, he thought that the best kind of regime was a monarchy. But one of Hankins’s central arguments in Virtue Politics and Political Meritocracy in Renaissance Italy is that constitutional allegiances mattered much less to the humanists than the question of how best to forge virtuous leaders who could serve well in any kind of regime. Mostly the humanists were not advocates for a particular type of government but rather for a particular type of person: the liberally educated, morally serious, just, and prudential ruler. This is what Hankins means when he argues that statecraft was a form of soulcraft. Regimes change—Renaissance Italians knew that well—but virtuous people are for always.
Hankins provides a thorough and elegant analysis of De republica and of a second treatise that Patrizi completed in 1483–1484, De regno et regis institutione (On Kingship and the Education of a King). Based purely on the circulation of these books in their author’s lifetime, they hardly justify such sustained attention: only eleven manuscripts of De republica and six of De regno have been identified. It’s hard not to feel that Patrizi was as bad at self-promotion as he was at practical politics; he apparently didn’t think much of the printing press. But when Patrizi’s writing became increasingly well known in the sixteenth century, when it was finally printed, his popularity rivaled Machiavelli’s, and his work on republics was summarized and translated into English.
Patrizi’s writing about education—public education in the case of republics and the education of princes in the case of the monarchy—is probably most representative of his peers’ ideal of virtue. Since the quality of men was more important to humanists than the kind of regime, they spent a great deal of time thinking about how to form the best men. The answer was a liberal education, but Patrizi went further than most in arguing that this liberal education should be funded by the state and involve universal literacy in Latin. He wrote that “letters preserve historical memory, instruct posterity, link the past with the future, and compel us always to take account of our lives as a whole.” Literacy was essential to civil society.
Those who wanted to pursue political life should embark on the entire program of liberal arts: a foundation in the basic disciplines of grammar and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astrology, and music), training in the “healing” art of eloquence, and finally the study of the twinned “transformative” arts, poetry and moral philosophy. Patrizi could never agree with Plato that poets should be excluded from the city; he was a poet, after all, and to his mind Homer and Virgil were some of the greatest teachers of virtue. A liberal education was a literary but also an emotional education; moral philosophy led to knowledge of the self and, in Hankins’s words, an “awareness of virtue’s power to control ugly passions such as fear, elation, lust, and anger.”
Could a king ever be truly virtuous? Humanists were divided on the issue: Poggio Bracciolini thought that the power-hungry could never be tamed by literature and philosophy; Machiavelli famously told princes of his day that politics was incompatible with virtue. Patrizi took a more optimistic view and believed that if you put enough historical examples of virtue in front of a prince, then he would be bound to become virtuous himself. He argued that an educated citizenry would prevent a king from turning to tyranny and that a virtuous king provided a necessary model for his citizens—a kind of tense moral standoff between a king and his subjects to see who would turn corrupt first.
For Hankins, one of the most radical elements of Patrizi’s political thought is his writing about moral economy. Patrizi didn’t only criticize the corrupting force of wealth—usury, avarice, rent-seeking—but, more unusually, put forward a program of institutional reform to correct economic inequality. Virtue should constrain avarice, but the state can help too by organizing the distribution of wealth so that economic inequality wouldn’t lead to political factionalism and tyranny. Under Patrizi’s plans, one third of the landed property in the city-state would go to sacred uses; one third to public use, for city granaries and to support a citizen army; and one third to private ownership, especially for suburban villas and farms that could sustain the populace. This wasn’t a radical distributive plan like Thomas More’s in Utopia—Patrizi thought “the rich will never put up with having their property divided up among the poor without engaging in sedition and slaughter”—and it was more moderate than Plato’s radical prohibition of private property. But his moral economy was resolutely antioligarchic.
Patrizi had lots of interesting ideas, not only about moral economy but about the legal profession (too vulnerable to the corrupting influence of money and fine words), architecture and urban planning (no theaters or circuses, which inflame their audiences), and how to raise children (maternal breastfeeding is best; a wet-nurse’s milk could lead to weak character); Hankins is an eloquent guide to all of them. But he is occupied most of all with Patrizi’s argument for political meritocracy. For Hankins, the idea of meritocratic power is woven through humanist virtue politics, which held that everyone was equal in their capacity to become virtuous through a liberal education. If virtue can be learned, then even the humblest members of civil society can become rulers by acquiring it. Indeed, there was no other route to the legitimate exercise of power than the acquisition of virtue—not family connections, not wealth, not hereditary nobility. Virtue, and so the legitimate exercise of power, was not an entitlement but an achievement.
Many humanists of the fifteenth century believed in this form of political meritocracy, but Patrizi was singular in his attention to the institutional mechanisms for ensuring that it actually worked. He devised complex constitutional procedures for elevating the most virtuous. The first step involved citizens putting themselves forward for office before a general assembly, which would assign them by lot to minor offices. In the second stage, a senate would elect a smaller number of citizens to major, lifetime magistracies on the basis of merit, including their previous performance in lower offices. These most meritorious men would hold lifetime appointments to the senate, too, insulated from corruption by their own virtue and by the legitimacy secured through the process of promotion.
Patrizi was no radical; he thought that nobility, family name, and gender inevitably mattered. “Men of ancient lineage make safer leaders,” he wrote, “than those who are but newly summoned to public life.” But he thought that even nobles needed to earn power by demonstrating their virtuous governance in the lower offices, and that plebs—those shoemakers and farmers and grocers—could earn a place on local committees.
Partly this was defensive, in order to keep ordinary people from becoming “seditious and turbulent when excluded from public profit and honor.” But it was partly strategic too, keeping the plebs close so that the political elite might know about what was happening in the neighborhood. If this sounds cynical, Patrizi didn’t see it that way: he wanted highborn and lowborn people to “speak more freely…person-to-person, reinforced by friendship, long familiarity, and family and neighborhood connections—all relationships produced by proximity,” working side by side on, say, a local committee to fix up a bridge or put on a festival.
This is not meritocracy as we know it today. The term was coined in the mid-twentieth century to describe systems that ensure wealth and power are earned, not inherited—though its earliest theorists were clear-eyed that meritocracy would simply inscribe different forms of wealth and privilege, creating new but equally intractable social stratification. Hankins describes Patrizi’s meritocracy as a more narrowly political one: it doesn’t begin from the premise that all people are equal, that any system or institution could make them so, or indeed that universal equality is a laudable aim. Instead, Patrizi argues for geometric equality in political life: only the best should rule, and that will be best for everyone. Good governance—and so the good life—depends on being able to mold and select the most virtuous men to lead. Patrizi cites Pliny the Younger: “Nothing is so unequal as equality itself.”
For Hankins, Patrizi’s idea of political meritocracy based on virtue is not only an artifact of a different time but an aspiration. He is a critic of our own meritocratic systems, especially in education. He has argued that “new admissions protocols based on identity politics,” grade inflation, “mendacious” letters of recommendation, professional admissions consultants, and the decline of standardized testing are existential threats to the meritocratic principles of admission into elite universities. And once in the elite university, students encounter “woke” professors who are “determined to transform [them] into political activists.” “Being elite,” he has written, “now means holding a particular set of ideas, not a set of virtues. Virtue is signaled, not acquired.”
The virtue of the past has been lost, according to Hankins; we need to cultivate it again, using the same program of “moral rearmament” that the humanists used: a liberal education in the classics. “The humanities,” he has argued, “can cultivate human moral and intellectual excellence, the qualities our tradition refers to as virtue.” Virtuous rulers are best positioned to cure the ills of our own contemporary politics, namely partisanship (which finds a historical parallel in Renaissance city-state factionalism) and a lack of legitimacy in the ruling class (just what Petrarch thought was a problem in the fourteenth century). Hankins has elaborated these positions in a number of articles for Catholic and right-wing magazines like First Things, Law and Liberty (where he is a senior writer), and the Claremont Review of Books.
Hankins is also on the board of academic advisers for the Classical Learning Test (CLT), an organization that aims to replace standardized tests like the SAT and the ACT with a more “meaningful” exam, which uses a text bank drawn from the classical canon. According to its website, the CLT “exists to reconnect knowledge and virtue.” The CLT is one part of the much wider classical education movement, which seeks to replace mainstream public schools with networks of charter schools, microschools, and home schools devoted to studying the classical canon, including literature, fine arts, and the history of Western civilization. Classical education schools are predominantly Christian, sometimes Catholic; one major source of classical curricula for use in homeschooling and charter schools is Hillsdale College, the conservative Christian liberal arts institution in Michigan that is known for its close ties to red-state education departments.
Those of us who teach the humanities in higher education are accustomed to making the case that a liberal arts degree matters. It doesn’t seem to be working. Undergraduate student enrollment across humanities subjects is down. Fewer students are studying history, and even fewer of those are studying premodern or European history. We mostly don’t appeal to the ethical values of a liberal arts degree or a history major anymore because we are forced to sell ourselves in the language of “employability.” Hankins is rightly critical of this nakedly market-driven (and failing) strategy. As a response to the crisis of the humanities, classical education almost makes sense—it is almost a relief. Read Plato to become a better person. Study history to become a moral leader.
If one believes that what makes a good person is a timeless and universal set of qualities and values—prudence, piety, eloquence—then making such a case for the humanities is straightforward, even obvious. But whether or not one agrees with Hankins’s politics, to believe that virtue is an ahistorical human quality is frankly terrible history. What virtue means, and has meant, is not historically stable. Hankins should know that; he’s argued as much in Virtue Politics, in a deft analysis of the way that Machiavelli transformed the earlier humanist virtue of prudence into virtù, something more like an aggressive and manly political effectiveness. But in his public writing, Hankins argues that humanist virtue can be uprooted from the fifteenth century and transplanted to the twenty-first, from the tiny city-states of northern Italy to the sprawling democracy of the United States.
These tensions deepen in Hankins’s approach to the idea of the canon. In Political Meritocracy in Renaissance Italy, he argues that while the humanists wanted to preserve and restore classical texts, they also saw their knowledge of antiquity as a creative stimulus to new and original thought. Patrizi himself is an example of a creative person nourished by the classics. He created a new, synthetic political theory out of thousands of quotes and exempla derived from the Greek and Roman past. In his wonderful book Unearthing the Past (1999), Leonard Barkan demonstrates the same impulse in Renaissance art, as when Donato Bramante, Pope Julius II’s architect, held a competition in 1510 to see who could produce the best wax cast of the recently excavated Laocoön sculpture, including its missing arm. This was an invitation to conserve the past by renewing it, the statue’s fragmentary state a sharp prod to the imagination. (Raphael judged; Jacopo Sansovino won.)
But the canon means something very different to the classical education movement, and this is the vision that Hankins deploys in his public writing. For classical education proponents, the canon is not a fragmentary and imperfect spur to the new but a bank of authors to be mined and memorized for pithy quotes, a content mill to generate Twitter memes about Beauty and Truth and Goodness, a justification for an uncritical adulation of the past—or, really, a narrow slice of it. These guys would have definitely left Laocoön armless, and so all of us creatively impoverished. I think of an anecdote from one of Patrizi’s treatises. The ancient Greek city-state of Massilia executed its criminals with a sword that had been used since the city’s founding. They only stopped when the sword was rusted through, “so dangerous was it thought to depart from ancient custom.” For the right, tradition is a rusty sword that it can’t stop swinging.
Ron DeSantis recently signed into law HB 1537, which makes Florida the first state in the country to provide funding so that all school districts can administer the Classical Learning Test, and to make all Florida students with high CLT scores eligible for certain scholarships. The founder of the CLT, Jeremy Wayne Tate, disputes that classical learning is intrinsically conservative; the classical education movement is officially nonpartisan. There is nothing red-state about Plato. Hankins too believes that classical learning is nonpartisan, just as it was for the Renaissance humanists, who cared more about creating virtuous individuals than about any particular regime or constitutional form.
The reality, of course, is that the classical learning movement is partisan; classical charter school education and classical homeschooling take place overwhelmingly in red states. A July 2023 report by the Network for Public Education found that “the burgeoning crop of classical charter schools is often fueled by efforts to shape students to the school founders’ Christian nationalist worldview.” While there are some private classical Catholic schools and classical charter schools that offer a rigorous education, there are many more children working through the Hillsdale curriculum in an unaccredited strip-mall microschool or a home school than there are students debating the finer points of Aristotle’s Politics with a qualified teacher.
The classical renewal movement is one part of the culture wars that have riven American education. In this sense, classical education is not just about pedagogy and the curriculum but about feelings. Hankins has written of his dissatisfaction with a certain critical stance toward historical sources, what Paul Ricoeur called a “hermeneutics of suspicion”: he doesn’t like wariness of an author’s intentions, the critical practice of seeing “through” a text to determine its meaning. He would rather feel good about his sources: “the kind of reading that takes seriously the wisdom that the old authors have to give us, the kind of reading that attunes us to the beauty of ideals, beautifully and memorably expressed.” Maybe this is just a traumatic return to the scene of the 1980s theory wars. But I think the retreat from criticism is part of a broader reactionary politics. The right is increasingly organized against the idea that criticism is central to citizenship; this is the same allergy to bad feelings that underpins DeSantis’s Stop WOKE Act, which makes it illegal to teach that students should feel shame over historical oppressions. No more criticism of the past; only a celebration of its Truth and Beauty.
But we’re not reading Plato under a shady arcade in Siena anymore. We might justifiably ask if virtue politics worked even in the Renaissance. It is difficult to demonstrate a connection between what the humanists wrote and what they actually believed. Humanists may have really believed in virtue politics, or they may have found it appealing as a moral ideal with an ancient pedigree, one that obviously appealed to their politically powerful patrons. Even if their convictions ran deeper, their links with politics as it was practiced were tenuous and difficult to trace with any certainty. Did Renaissance princes and magistrates implement political advice from people like Patrizi, or did they just like having copies of those people’s books on their study shelves? Hankins proposes that we suspend our critical faculties and take the humanists’ work entirely at face value.
It won’t surprise anyone to know that the Christian nationalists and neoliberal free marketeers whose interests have coalesced in the cause of classical charter schools don’t actually care about Petrarch. They want to dismantle the public school system and teachers’ unions in favor of school vouchers and “parental choice.” Hankins has aligned his scholarship with this movement. That seems to me a funny kind of virtue. The public school system is the foundation of a multiracial democracy. But if virtue as politics can include both Petrarch and DeSantis, maybe virtue doesn’t mean anything at all.