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  • Linda Graves

The Texture of Soul- Spirit and Politics

An impression of a new book on renaissance statecraft and visionary idealism in relation to current politics- An essay by Brian Keeler.

The 1916 oil painting by the British artist, John Williams Waterhouse depicts a scene from Giovanni Boccacio's Decameron. The group of Florentines has escaped the plague-ravaged city to an idyllic refuge in the Tuscan Hills. There they invent 100 tales in 10 days to entertain each other. These yarns are bawdy burlesque-like accounts, mostly of promiscuity and hilarity or tragic woeful escapades. They pillory and lampoon the pretensions of the clergy and a certain levity results.

On a few occasions in one’s life a book appears that seems to encapsulate to the core so many of the concerns and interests that have been occupying our thoughts, that it is truly remarkable. Such is the case with the new book by James Hankins titled, “Virtue Politics- Soul Craft and State Craft in Renaissance Italy.” My title for this essay, “The Texture of Soul” is meant to indicate an urge to feel the quality of soul and how that may look and play out in the political realm, if not the personal and artistic. This book by Hankins is a wonderful aid in that pursuit. When I read, I have the practice of underlining in pencil and making notes in the margins. Well this volume is replete with my underscoring.

Aristotle’s dictum that, man is a political animal, is apropos here as it shows that the 4th century BC Greek philosopher’s observation is still pertinent. Our moral life, our concern for our fellows is without hope in other words, according to Aristotle, as we become lawless and heartless without community.

Hankins is a professor of history at Harvard and his life’s work has coalesced in this marvelously ambitious volume that brims with eloquence and insight. It may not be for everyone, as it is thick with facts and arcane ideas, and obscure men, but it was perfect for me. As I have been a fan and student of all things Italian and particularly of the renaissance for many years, this title immediately attracted me when I read a review in the Wall Street Journal. My interest in the renaissance has been primarily with its artistic expressions, but as with all things in life, we see the context and related aspects of philosophy, religion and politics as all interwoven.

This book of Hankins’ nowhere mentions the arts or any of the luminary artists of the era from 13th to 15th century, yet we experience the importance of the political and philosophical thinkers of the era in a profound way. But more importantly, we see the relevance of these brilliant and courageous minds to our current social and political lives. The book does however mention the humanities and the study and appreciation of philosophy as crucial to developing and actualizing soulcraft and statecraft.

Also, there is no mention to the current occupant of the Whitehouse, and minimal reference to 21st century dilemmas, but the relationships are unavoidable and compelling. The comparisons that I made continually through this reading and noted in my marginalia are how blunderously preposterous and devoid of virtue is our president today and by extension, our politics in many instances.

The book’s subtitle, "Soulcraft and Statecraft in Renaissance Italy" offers the context for the reader’s appraisal here. Our current (supposed leader) and his cronies and henchmen are a vile bunch devoid of virtue. As a Boston Globe article recently asked, “Does Trump have any redeeming qualities?” In short, these political operatives of today are anathema to the aspirations and vision of these many renaissance scholars and public servants who were hammering out a method and means to make life more just and politics more effective. Yet to balance the appraisal here, renaissance Italy also was rife with dastardly political players of its own. In another blog post of mine, I delve into Machiavelli and his dubious encouragement of unvirtuous behavior in despots.

In one arcane term, Hankins summarizes the essence of this ethos of the Renaissance. “Paiduema” is the word that holds the central theme of the book. Hankins explains that he has molded it somewhat idiosyncratically for his own purposes to indicate the goal of transforming society’s ruling class into morally and virtuous individuals. In short, this doctrine of paiduema is asking and directing us to transform ourselves, our politics and leaders into Vulcan-like citizens of virtue hammering out the soul. We may recall James Joyce’s famous related dictum also;

“Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”

Lofty words for sure, but they get at this aspiration of Joyce’s character Stephen Daedelus and by extension, the renaissance thinkers to form a workable solution to the challenges of 15th century Florence and for today as well. This book of Hankins’ is really an inspiring tour-de-force of scholarship, insight and vision. He unpacks so many of the thinkers of Italy who we’ve known for years along with others less-known to us, but perhaps even more important. To mention a few, Pioggio Bracciolino, Machiavelli, Petrarch, Dante, Leonardo Bruni, Leon Battista Alberti, Franceso Filelfo or Biondo Flavio and others profiled in Hankins book give us all kinds of insights into integrity in politics and their earnest efforts to effect "the good." I have been familiar with and reading many of these works for years but others are completely new. This book of Hankins brings their work to the fore and shows the intrigue and heroic challenges they faced. Petrarch, the writer from Arezzo, whose home I have visited, is central to this account. Petrarch viewed his literary endeavors as a step toward saving Italy and all of Christendom. The ancients, The Greeks and Romans, however are at the Crux of these renaissance thinker’s work, as they sought to bring back the eloquence of Cicero, Pliny and Lucretius.

There is a fresco painting in Sienna that illustrates this idea of politics working in harmony with nature and the citizens. This work in Palazzo Publico is by Ambrogio Lorenzetti and done in 1338. It depicts in the foreground a group of nine women dancing in circle, as if to suggest the harmony and grace implicit in music and dance. A cityscape of Siena is seen behind with marvelous details of everyday life.

"The Allegory of Good Government" a fresco painting in Sienna. The dancing women in the foreground illustrate the harmony necessary for citizens to work in concert for the common good.

A detail of the above painting by Ambroggio Lorenzetti- showing the dancers and singers.

The central ethos of the Renaissance and these humanist scholars was to bring back the virtue, statecraft and moral standing of the best of the republican or representative form of government in ancient Rome. Those men of Renaissance Italy and Hankins too, were well aware of all the tyrants and shortcomings of ancient Rome, yet they understood the essence and potential of the Roman State as well, and sought to recreate and reinstate these.

As for us artists, it is fascinating to see how the political agendas dovetailed with the artistic growth in regards to rebirth of ancient abilities. The very name, renaissance, means that something lived, then died, then was reborn again, like Phoenix rising from the ashes.

We can see it in the art of painting, with the increased concern with portraying reality with facility of the ancient frescoists in Pompeii. Or with accomplished ability to portray human anatomy in marble, as evident throughout the Roman world, then lost. We get the impression when looking at Venus de Milo or myriad of ancient sculptors work that there must have been an army of Michelangelo-like artisans chipping at marble blocks.

Sculpture virtuosity in marble from ancient Rome- This statue of Laocoon and his sons was rediscovered in Michelangelo's time buried in a garden in Rome. It exemplifies the skill of the ancient sculptors that Renaissance artists were seeking to emulate.

We should note and remember that the Renaissance came on the heels of the great devastation of the bubonic plague of 1348. This plague is illustrated in a fresco in Pisa by Buffalmacco called the “Triumph of Death.” A need for rebirth of the arts and of political institutions was both inevitable and necessary. With the Covid-19 pandemic now gripping the world, we can hope for perhaps a parallel rebirth at the end of this travail.

I will mention one passage from Hankin’s book were he is focusing on the work of Boccacio. Bocaccio of course is the author of the now famous book, The Decameron. The Decameron is a compilation of 10 stories told by Florentines who had escaped plague-ridden Florence by going to the Tuscan hills for safety. The focus in Hankins' passage is on a Frenchman, Walter of Brienne, who was brought in to Florence as desperate stopgap measure to quell a fractious and hyper-partisan dysfunction. Sound familiar? Brienne was an opportunist interested in nothing of the welfare of the Florentines, a completely dissolute reprobate who undermined and despoiled all that he touched. This process of bringing in a foreign leader was justified with the hope that he would be impartial to Florentine squabbles and partisanship. It backfired terribly. The process has been derided by some scholars as “Bringing in a man on horseback” as if to suggest the cavalry is swooping in to save all. According to Hankins, “He gave neither mercy nor favor. He and his ruffians committed every kind of crime and befouled all things human and divine.”

Again and again, I see so many parallels to the Trumpian world of today as if the DT is a modern-day Brienne brought in by a flailing and failing nation. As we just came through the impeachment trials, but this travail was marked with eloquence expressed by Adam Schiff for the removal of a despicable tyrant, only to have our constitutional safeguards and protections fall asunder. We see this vile fellow in the Whitehouse tell falsehoods to bolster his ego on a humongous scale that is as risible as it is harmful. Even with a pandemic looming he perpetuates untruths on national television only to deny or contradict them a few days later. When we need facts and truth most urgently, the administration continues as it always has- perpetuating unsubstantiated hearsay, blaming others and assaulting honest journalists. We should know by now that nothing will make a virtueless fellow like the DT suddenly grow integrity out of whole cloth at the last minute.

We can make easy comparisons to the worst of ancient Rome, as we also hope for the best of its institutions as brought to us through this book of Hankins. We have perhaps a new Caliguala, Nero or Heliogabalus (the worst of the Roman emperors) while we are hoping for the wisdom of Marcus Aurelius. We can see our courts compromised and undermined and recall the end of the Roman Republic with Julius Cesar, or of the proscriptions (assassinations) of Sulla or Augustus. We may not have proscriptions (yet) with the DT, but we can see that all the adults have left the room. And after the impeachment trials, a policy of revenge and firings has been enacted. In short, our carefully constructed civility of our nation's founding fathers is defiled and besmirched. The tyrannical impulses of a demagogue are given free rein.

For me, the take away from this book is the aspirational nature of the writings of these many renaissance thinkers. Hankins has done us all a great favor by articulating many strands of political goals from ancient Sparta, Rome, or Venice and colonial America too. Their urge to combine the work on one’s soul, the moral imperatives of doing the right thing, the bricks and mortar of architecture and expressions in art with forming a more representative government. These are all brought out as possibilities. To see the people of Italy attempting to actualize these ideals in the renaissance should give us all a breath of hope and show that dignity can be restored.

The Roman orator and statesman, Cicero was the model for many of the Renaissance author's cited in Hankins' book, Virtue Politics.


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