Give Virtue a Chance: What Nasty Renaissance Politics Can Tell Us About Nasty Modern Politics

James Madison Program Initiative on Politics and Statesmanship

May 17, 2021
Plaster wall background with Hankins event text

James HankinsProfessor of History, Harvard University, and Allen C. Guelzo, Senior Research Scholar in the Council of the Humanities; Director of the James Madison Program Initiative on Politics and Statesmanship, Princeton University

Convulsed by a civilizational crisis, the great thinkers of the Renaissance set out to reconceive the nature of society. Everywhere they saw problems. Corrupt and reckless tyrants sowing discord and ruling through fear; elites who prized wealth and status over the common good; military leaders waging endless wars. Their solution was at once simple and radical. “Men, not walls, make a city,” as Thucydides so memorably said. They would rebuild their city, and their civilization, by transforming the moral character of its citizens. Soulcraft, they believed, was a precondition of successful statecraft.

A dazzlingly ambitious reappraisal of Renaissance political thought by one of our generation’s foremost intellectual historians, Virtue Politics challenges the traditional narrative that looks to the Renaissance as the seedbed of modern republicanism and sees Machiavelli as its exemplary thinker. James Hankins reveals that what most concerned the humanists was not reforming laws or institutions so much as shaping citizens. If character mattered more than constitutions, it would have to be nurtured through a new program of education they called the studia humanitatis: the humanities.

We owe liberal arts education and much else besides to the bold experiment of these passionate and principled thinkers. The questions they asked—Should a good man serve a corrupt regime? What virtues are necessary in a leader? What is the source of political legitimacy? Is wealth concentration detrimental to social cohesion? Should citizens be expected to fight for their country?—would have a profound impact on later debates about good government and seem as vital today as they did then.

James Hankins is Professor of History at Harvard University. His main research interests are the history of Renaissance political thought, history of philosophy, and history of the classical tradition. His most recent book is Virtue Politics: Soulcraft and Statecraft in Renaissance Italy (Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2019). He is the Founder and General Editor of the I Tatti Renaissance Library (Harvard University Press) and a frequent contributor to Law and Liberty, The Claremont Review of Books, The New Criterion, and First Things. He is the Editor of The Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Philosophy and Renaissance Civic Humanism and is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading authorities on humanist political thought. He received his A.B. in Classics from Duke University and his M.A., M.Phil., and Ph.D. in History from Columbia University.

Allen C. Guelzo is Senior Research Scholar in the Council of the Humanities and the Director of the Initiative on Politics and Statesmanship in the James Madison Program at Princeton University. His award-winning books include Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (1999), Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America (2004), and Gettysburg: The Last Invasion (2013). He is currently at work on a biography of Robert E. Lee. He has been awarded the Bradley Prize, the Lincoln Medal of the Union League Club of New York City, and the James Q. Wilson Award for Distinguished Scholarship on the Nature of a Free Society. Together with Patrick Allitt and Gary W. Gallagher, he team-taught the Teaching Company’s American History series, as well as courses on Abraham Lincoln (Mr. Lincoln, 2005) on American intellectual history (The American Mind, 2006), the American Revolution (2007), and the Founders (America’s Founding Fathers, 2017). From 2006 to 2013, he served as a member of the National Council on the Humanities. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania.

Registration and Accessibility

The lecture will be held via Zoom webinar. Registration is required and is available HERE.
To request accommodations provided by the Office of Disability Services, please contact the James Madison Program no later than three business days prior to the event.

Video:

Give Virtue a Chance: What Nasty Renaissance Politics Can Tell Us About Nasty Modern Politics

Location:

Zoom Webinar