Issues in the Renaissance 2



Florentines, in their praise of republicanism, may have forgotten that what differentiates a happy society from an unhappy society is the presence or absence of good government, and that good government, and conversely bad government, can come in all forms. For many people over thousands of years, there have been times when single-person rule was representative of good government, and at the same time, there are examples of the dangers inherent in republican government.

 Florentines liked to think of themselves as the natural successors to the Roman Republic, while also claiming the heritage of Athens. In doing so, they looked at these examples from antiquity with a somewhat myopic vision, because in these examples are not only things to be celebrated, but also things to be feared.

 Classical Athens rose as a formidable city-state only after Cleisthenes took power and without opposition set out to reform its government. He introduced many fundamental changes without taking the time to develop a consensus or submit to the dictates of an elected body of representatives. And yet, history now judges his leadership to be critical to the future success of the Athenian city-state, and thus the happiness of its people. In this example, it can be seen that a single person with great power can, in fact, become an example of good government.

Antiquity also shows us that a number of Roman emperors were beneficial to the Roman people. The Five Good Emperors were celebrated by Niccolò Machiavelli, who in 1503 wrote, “Titus, Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus, and Marcus had no need of praetorian cohorts, or of countless legions to guard them, but were defended by their own good lives, the good-will of their subjects, and the attachment of the senate.” (Machiavelli, Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livy, Book I, Chapter 10)  The issue is not so much the form that government takes; it is rather the policies that government pursues once in power.

 It is also instructive to remember that Athens later lost its independence to its rival Macedonia, which was led by a monarch, Phillip II. Had Athens been unified under the leadership of a single, powerful ruler, it may have been able to marshal its resources to better oppose Phillip II. As it was, Phillip’s son, Alexander the Great, another monarchial ruler, brought even greater wealth and prestige to the Greeks through his conquests and acquisitions of land. During the time of Alexander, Athens was a rich city with a vibrant cultural life, even though it had no true representative government. Clearly, the absence of republicanism in Athens caused the people no harm, and the brilliance of Alexander may have actually resulted in an increased happiness for its people. Again, what is important is not the form a government may take, but the wisdom of those who wield power. 

Plato, in his Socratic dialogue The Republic, argues for the “philosopher-king” as the best form of free government. In Plato’s view, democracy, which is the tyranny of the majority by voice vote, is as unsustainable as is individual tyranny. It is, therefore, only through the spontaneous rise of a selfless individual who places the interests of his people above himself that a nation-state can achieve true greatness. It must also be noted that a wise individual is often better able to protect the rights of the minority that an individual who is beholden to the interests of the majority, and in this regard, monarchy or dictatorship seems more appealing.

Plato’s concerns about democracy being a seed-bed for tyrants are also well taken, and have often been validated through the centuries. Eventually, the Greeks lost their independence to another republic in Rome. This republic soon blossomed into the premier Mediterranean power, and conquests of weaker neighbors quickly followed, demonstrating that it is not only dictatorships that thirst for military glory. In doing so, however, the Roman Republic sowed the seeds of its own demise by promoting the ascendancy of individual military leaders in Rome who vied for power with each other and with the Roman Senate, which aligned itself variously with different individuals. This, in turn, caused those who felt they were unfairly shut out of power to conspire together. When economic hardship weakened the people’s confidence in the Republic, it became easy for a successful general such as Julius Caesar to use his army to assume power and to rule as emperor.

 Starting with Caesar, Rome found itself subject to many dictators, some beneficent and some not. For the people of Rome, their personal happiness was not so much influenced by the existence or absence of republican government as it was by the quality of the individuals who led them at any given moment.  Additionally, during the height of the Roman Republic, it was never the case that the mass of people were represented on equal footing in one body, rather there were multiple bodies, each representing different classes of citizens, each with differing power and jurisdictions. It cannot then be said then that the people of Rome stood as equals in the halls of government; there was always, as there always will be, more political power given where more wealth exists. Just as it was in Rome, so was it in Renaissance Florence.

 Republican Florence was governed primarily by the Commune, which was comprised of wealthy nobles, and thus formed a natural aristocracy. (King, 23) This republic, then, did not extend to all Florentines, in fact, most everyone below the status of the magnates, were largely shut out of the political process. (King, 24) In response to this lack of power, the people, or popolo, created merchant guilds to protect their own interests, while technically being subject to the rule of the wealthy class as expressed by the commune. (King, 28) Even when the popolo rose up in rebellion, the form of government they brought with them was still exclusionary, with political participation never rising above one-third of the population. (King, 29) So one must ask: To what extent was Republican Florence a true republic?

 This is not to say that the people of Florence suffered under the rule of the commune; their fortunes were more influenced by the greatness of their leadership than it was by the depth of their commitment to republicanism. Indeed, as I have pointed out, and as is evidenced by the lessons of antiquity, this is always the case. Lorenzetti’s Effects of Good Government fresco could just as easily have been set in a monarchy as in any other form of government, while the Effects of Bad Government are not unknown to republics. (King, 125)

 For the Florentines, republicanism was to be equated with prosperity and liberty. While it is true that the Florentines often enjoyed these things, it must also be admitted that these worthy goals are, in and of themselves, not reflections of republican government as much as they are reflections of good government, and good government can be seen wearing many visages, including that of the benevolent monarch.

Section 2 B:

 In writing to Sigismund of Austria, Aeneas Silvius summarized the many types of literature that would be beneficial for the young prince to study, and in doing so, Silvius reveals much regarding what Renaissance thinkers prized in learning.

 Silvius was especially attached to works from antiquity, as knowledge that is rooted in the ancients was believed to be more worthy than contemporary discourse by Renaissance thinkers. He urged Sigismund to read carefully ancient histories, as these biographies would give the youthful ruler examples upon which he could pattern his life. (Atchity, 49) Again, lives more recently led were not to be considerable as inherently valuable as those lives led in the distant past, so the reading of histories from ancient Greece and Rome was urged.

This bias in favor of antiquity is foundational to any understanding of Renaissance thought, and extends beyond merely literature to art, architecture, government and even religion, as a preference for the early church came to supersede the more recent medieval styles of Christianity, which were considered perverse. Works that were created more than a millennium earlier directly influenced much of what we now consider the greatest products of the Renaissance.

 Petrach, in his Letter to Posterity, admits that he is dissatisfied with his own time; he is much influenced by the works of ancient poets and wishes that he had been born in some earlier epoch. (Atchity, 8) He also rejects his parents wish that he study law (because of his unhappiness with the way lawyers used the law) and speaks of his obsession with Scipio Africanus, an obsession that leads him to undertake a project based on the life of this great figure from antiquity. (Atchity, 10) It would not have occurred to someone so displeased with his own day to have written a work on a contemporary; it rather seemed far more natural to seek out the life of someone long dead, about whom there would be precious little documentation available. He also had himself crowned as Poet Laureate in Rome, just as might have been done a thousand years before. Such was the Renaissance bias in favor of the ancients.

 Silvius also urged the young prince to be well read in many subjects, and not to be “happy with a smattering of knowledge.” (Atchity, 49) This speaks to the Renaissance belief in the value of a comprehensive education that touched on all aspects of learning. This required much time for leisure study, something that was really only available to the wealthy. For those who could afford to do so, time was to be devoted each day to the literature of the past, such as histories, from which one could learn of great lives, and lessons of war; politics and the theories of Aristotle; ethics; science or natural history; drama; rhetoric or communication skills; agriculture; household affairs; and even psychology.

Seen in this devotion to scholarship is the broadening of intellectual horizons that became critical to the development of the Renaissance. In the Middle Ages, literature, art and learning in general tended to be restricted to subjects that were useful to the Catholic Church. The resulting culture was very restrictive and almost myopic in its slavish devotion to the Popes, saints and martyrs of the Christian Church; art, literature and life in general reflected this myopia.

Renaissance thinkers believed that greatness was to be found in ancient texts on all subjects, if you had the means by which you could devote yourself to their proper study. This study has with it a prerequisite that the student have an excellent command of Latin, which became the lingua franca of Europe, and enabled an Italian such as Silvius to write easily to an Austrian such as Sigismund. This common language developed through new and extensive trade networks throughout Europe, which was another key event in the progression of the Renaissance.

 Silvius tells Sigismund that this “detailed study” will give him “the principles of a good life.” (Atchity, 49) Once more, the Renaissance bias in favor of the literature of antiquity shows itself here, as the young prince is told that he must look to antiquity before he discovers literature that can instruct him on how to lead a good life, as if Silvius believes that not much of value has been written in the past 1,000 years. Similarly, when Christine De Pizan argues for the potential of women, she looks for examples not in her contemporaries, but in the records of antiquity. She speaks of the Greek poet and artist Sappho and the highly educated Cornifica, probably overlooking dozens of women more recently born who had similar achievements. (Atchity, 26)

This is also emblematic of the Renaissance’s critical view of contemporary society and its increased challenges to authority. Pico, in his Oration, on the Dignity of Man, looks toward a man-centered society where humans have almost unlimited potential, which is in direct opposition to the God-centered society of previous centuries; he gives humans agency where the Church had made them pawns in the hands of an all-powerful God. (Atchity, 82)

This critical view of a once familiar world also led to the development of modern science, social revolutions and eventually, the Enlightenment. It is in this way that Renaissance thinking, as evidenced in Silvius’ letter to Sigismund, is truly foundational to the future expansion of human questioning, learning and liberty.


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