Machiavelli’s virtue politics

Modern politicians can learn from the Renaissance

Standpoint Magazine

In September of 1512, the Medici returned to power in Florence. The 1490s had seen the family’s carefully constructed domination of the city collapse amidst the general calamità d’Italia, as French armies swept through the peninsula. In its place had emerged a fragile popular government, dominated first by the charismatic friar Girolamo Savonarola and then by the more sober and patrician figure of Piero Soderini, gonfaloniere for life. The general rout of the French in Italy brought this experiment to an end and Giuliano de Medici, accompanied by the Pope’s support and a Spanish army, back.

One casualty of this revolution was Niccolò Machiavelli, a diligent, if sometimes dissatisfied servant of Soderini. He was denounced as an enemy of the Medici, arrested, tortured, and imprisoned. On his release, Machiavelli retreated to the countryside, from where he wrote a string of letters to Francesco Vettori, a fellow veteran of Soderini’s government, who was now serving the new regime. Machiavelli hoped that Vettori would aid his rehabilitation, but, bored by rural life, he also wanted to chew things over with an old friend—their letters cover an astonishing variety of topics. In one of the most famous, Machiavelli described how, in the evenings, he turned to the works of ancient authors. He imagines going to meet them, being graciously received, and conversing with them: asking questions, receiving thoughtful answers. It is a vivid evocation of that sense of having encountered an historical figure, not merely as words on a page, but as a fleshed-out individual, with all the complexity that that entails.

That is the feeling that the best sort of history ought to evoke—it is also the great triumph of Virtue Politics, the magnum opus of James Hankins, Professor of History at Harvard.

Virtue Politics (Harvard, £36.95) is a history of the political thought of the Italian Renaissance: from Petrarch in the middle of the 14th century to Machiavelli in the early 16th. More generally, it is a study of the intellectual world of the Italian humanists: those who advocated the studia humanitatis, or education in the ideas, history, and literature of the Greeks and Romans. Central to the book is Hankins’s elegant demonstration that these two areas were inextricably interlinked: that “soulcraft” was the basis of statecraft. For the humanists, what politics needed was greater virtue in both leaders and citizens: what mattered was the quality of the human material that went into the political system. Virtue might be obtained through the instruction that they could provide: the study of the ancient world. The humanists envisaged antiquity as a sort of great school for mankind, rich in specific examples of virtue, but also in general illustration of the way that it was rewarded. Humanist education would make for better leaders, who would be more successful in politics, and produce happier polities, which would support humanists: a virtuous circle, if you will.

This is a significant departure from previous work on the subject, which has tended to conscript some humanist thought into the history of republicanism, but to drain the broader cultural programme of political significance. In contrast, what is so persuasive about “virtue politics” is the way that it takes the humanists on their own terms. It brings out the way that a common intellectual framework could produce often sharply divergent ideas. It makes sense of their passionate commitment to education and their strong feelings about Latin style, but also of their comparative indifference to institutions, their comfort with very different political regimes, and their suspicion of the law (and of lawyers). Throughout, the book has that special quality of making real ideas that might easily be reduced to caricature, without depriving them of their strangeness. Hankins is a stylish and sensitive guide to these men and their works, acutely aware that the political questions with which they grappled—what made a tyrant? Could a good man serve him?—were, for them, far from purely theoretical.

Machiavelli’s career illustrated that, of course, and Virtue Politics draws to a close with two brilliant chapters on him. The French invasion and the feeble response of so many carefully educated Italian princes called into question much of what the humanists had argued. Hankins shows how, prompted by this, Machiavelli self-consciously set himself against humanist orthodoxies and evolved a theory of politics which emphasised amoral prowess: virtù, not virtue. It is here that the contemporary resonances of Hankins’s work are perhaps strongest. Machiavelli’s cynical model of the world and of political action feel deeply familiar, where the humanists seem more otherworldly. Yet, for all Machiavelli’s claims to understand how politics really worked, he was not very good at it. His record of predicting the course of events was poor and he was curiously uninterested in the way that ideas, as much as brute force, can shape history. He faced the problem that afflicts all excessive realism in politics: without ideals, without morality, politics is mere calculation, but calculation is hard.

Virtue Politics is a book about the past, but its themes naturally lead the reader to reflect on the present. The current pandemic has, if anything, sharpened the work’s contemporary relevance. The varying competence of governmental responses to it has often proved a difficult test for political regimes whose authority rests ultimately on performance, on the ability to get things done. “These unprecedented times” have also brought into much sharper relevance some fundamental questions: about what lends governments and their orders authority, about the role of expertise in politics, and about the limits of political action.

Finishing Hankins’s book in this grim season, it is difficult not to wonder whether Machiavelli’s predecessors grasped something that contemporary political life is missing. Perhaps we could learn from their deep feeling that rules, institutions, and procedures were not by themselves enough, not without virtue in politics, from their belief that only moral authority could really sustain political legitimacy. Readers of Virtue Politics will close the book not only with a richer understanding of the Renaissance, but with a sense of how very differently we might think about politics today. 

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