In November 1466 George of Trebizond, one of the most celebrated humanist scholars of the 15th century, found himself languishing in a Roman jail on the orders of Pope Paul II. Since his arrival in Venice as a Greek-speaking scholar 50 years earlier, George had established himself as a brilliant practitioner of the new intellectual and educational arts of the day, inspired by the classical authors of Greece and Rome. Utilizing his skills in Greek and Latin, he rapidly rose to prominence with the publication of textbooks on rhetoric and logic, and commentaries and translations of Aristotle and Plato.
By 1450 George was papal secretary and leading lecturer in the new humanities curriculum, the so-called studia humanitatis, at the Studio Romano, under the patronage of Pope Nicholas V. However, younger humanist scholars began to criticize George’s translations. In 1465 George headed for Mehmed the Conqueror’s new capital of Istanbul, formerly Constantinople. Knowing Mehmed’s scholarly interests, George wrote a preface to the classical Greek geographer Ptolemy that he dedicated to the sultan, ‘thinking that there is nothing better in the present life than to serve a wise king and one who philosophizes about the greatest matters’. George also dedicated his comparison of Aristotle and Plato to the sultan, and returned to Rome to compose a series of letters to Mehmed, claiming that ‘there has never been a man nor will there ever be one to whom God has granted a greater opportunity for sole dominion of the world’. In his rhetorically powerful letters and dedications George apparently saw Mehmed as a suitable patron of his academic skills. Upon learning of his intellectual flirtation with the sultan, the pope wasn’t impressed and imprisoned George. His incarceration was brief and, after a stint in Budapest, he returned to Rome to witness his books on rhetoric and dialectic receive a new lease of life as a result of their distribution via a new invention: the printing press.
This chapter examines the rise of one of the most complex and controversial of all philosophical terms, Renaissance humanism, and its close relationship to one of the most important technological developments of the pre-modern world, the invention of the printing press. What united these two developments was the book. At the beginning of the 15th century, literacy and books were the preserve of a tiny, international elite focused on urban centres like Constantinople, Baghdad, Rome, and Venice. By the end of the 16th century humanism and the printing press had created a revolution in both elite and popular apprehensions of reading, writing, and the status of knowledge, transmitted via the printed book, which became focused much more exclusively on northern Europe.
George of Trebizond’s career spans a defining moment for both intellectual thought and the history of the book. This was a time when a whole generation of intellectuals developed a new method of learning derived from classical Greek and Roman authors, calledstudia humanitatis. These scholars fashioned themselves ‘humanists’ and engaged in an immense undertaking to understand, translate, publish, and teach the texts of the past as a means of understanding and transforming their own present. Renaissance humanism gradually replaced the medieval scholastic tradition from which it emerged. It systematically promoted the study of classical works as the key to the creation of the successful, cultivated, civilized individual who used these skills to succeed within the everyday world of politics, trade, and religion.
Humanism’s success lay in its claim to offer two things to its followers. First, it fostered a belief that the mastery of the classics made you a better, more ‘humane’ person, able to reflect on the moral and ethical problems that the individual faced in relation to his/her social world. Secondly, it convinced students and employers that the study of classical texts provided the practical skills necessary for a future career as an ambassador, lawyer, priest, or secretary within the layers of bureaucratic administration that began to emerge throughout 15th-century Europe. Humanist training in translation, letter-writing, and public speaking was viewed as a highly marketable education for those who wanted to enter the ranks of the social elite.
This sounds a long way from the romantic, idealized picture of humanists rescuing the great books of classical culture and absorbing their wisdom in creating a civilized society. It is. Renaissance humanism had a pragmatic aim to supply a framework for professional advancement, in particular to prepare men for government. A modern humanities education is constructed on the same model (the term is itself drawn from the Latin studia humanitatis). It promises the same benefits, and arguably retains the same flaws. It relies on the assumption that a non-vocational study of the liberal arts makes you a more civilized person, and gives you the linguistic and rhetorical skills required to succeed in the workplace. However, there are abiding tensions built into this assumption, tensions that can be traced back to Renaissance humanism.
Many of these conflicts can be traced in the career of George of Trebizond. It reveals that the development of Renaissance humanism was an intellectually gruelling practical business that involved painstaking detection, translation, editing, publication, and teaching of classical texts. George’s combination of writing, translating, and teaching suggests that the success of humanism was mainly achieved within the classroom as a practical preparation for employment. New curricula and methods of teaching the demanding skills required of a humanist education were introduced. Humanism relied upon the creation of an academic community to teach and disseminate its ideas, but its members also quarrelled over the nature and direction of humanism’s development, leading to the kind of vicious disputes and bitter rivalries that George experienced, and which compromised his career. Humanism marketed its skills to a governing elite that was persuaded to value the linguistic, rhetorical, and administrative expertise that a humanist education provided.
However, this promotion of humanism could often run into problems, as George discovered in his attempt to transfer his intellectual allegiance and humanistic skills from one powerful patron (Pope Paul II) to another (Mehmed the Conqueror). As a result, humanism concentrated its efforts on disseminating its method through the classroom and the revolutionary medium of the printing press. Humanism’s alliance with print allowed scholars to distribute standardized copies of their publications in vast numbers way beyond the reproductive possibilities of scribal manuscript production. The impact of this association was a subsequent rise in both literacy and schools, creating an unprecedented emphasis on education as a tool of socialization.
The story of Renaissance humanism begins with the 14th-century Italian writer and scholar Petrarch. He was closely associated with the papal residency in Avignon in France, where his father was employed as a notary – a scholar skilled in the art of administering the mass of documents created by papal business. Petrarch drew on these scholarly traditions in his interest in the rhetorical and stylistic qualities of a range of neglected classical Roman writers, particularly Cicero, Livy, and Virgil. He began piecing together textslike Livy’s History of Rome, collating different manuscript fragments, correcting corruptions in the language, and imitating its style in writing a more linguistically fluent and rhetorically persuasive form of Latin.
Petrarch also scoured libraries and monasteries for classical texts, and in 1333 discovered a manuscript of a speech by the Roman statesman and orator Cicero, the Oration for Archias (Pro Archia) that discussed the virtues ‘de studiis humanitatis’. Petrarch described the speech as ‘full of wonderful compliments to poets’. Cicero was crucial to Petrarch and the subsequent development of humanism because he offered a new way of thinking about how the cultured individual united the philosophical and contemplative side of life with its more active and public dimension. In his famous text On the Orator (De Oratore), Cicero posed this problem by contrasting rhetoric and oratory with philosophy. For Cicero, ‘the whole art of oratory lies open to the view, and is concerned in some measure with the common practice, custom, and speech of mankind’. Philosophy, on the other hand, involved private contemplation away ‘from public interests’, in fact divorced ‘from any kind of business’. Petrarch took up Cicero’s distinction in his treatise The Solitary Life (De Vita Solitaria) in his discussion of the role of the philosopher and the role of the orator:
Both the diversity of their ways of life and the wholly opposed ends for which they have worked make me believe that philosophers have always thought differently from orators. For the latter’s efforts are directed toward gaining the applause of the crowd, while the former strive – if their declarations are not false – to know themselves, to return the soul to itself, and to despise empty glory.
This was the blueprint for Petrarch’s humanism: the unification of the philosophical quest for individual truth, and the practical ability to function effectively in society through the use of rhetoric and persuasion. To obtain the perfect balance the civilized individual needed rigorous training in the disciplines of the studia humanitatis, namely grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, and moral philosophy.
This was a brilliant argument for giving the early humanists greater power and prestige than their scholastic predecessors had ever enjoyed. Medieval scholasticism had trained students in Latin, letter-writing, and philosophy, but its teachers and thinkers were generally subservient to the authorities (usually the church) for which they worked. Cicero’s definition of the civilized humanist, able to philosophize on humanity while also training the elite in the skills of public oratory and persuasion, gave humanism and its practitioners greater autonomy to ‘sell’ their ideas to social and political institutions. However, humanism was never an explicitly political movement, although some of its practitioners were quite happy to allow its approach to be appropriated by political ideologies as and where this proved beneficial. Humanists styled themselves as orators and rhetoricians, gurus of style rather than politics. It is often a mistake to take the subject matter of humanist writing at face value. Such writings were highly formal exercises in style and rhetoric, often delighting in dialectically arguing for and against a particular topic. Humanism’s triumph lay in its ability to utilize its skills in rhetoric, oratory, and dialectic to convince a range of potential political paymasters of the usefulness of its services, be they republican or monarchical.
Back to the drawing board
By the mid-15th century the practice of humanism was spreading throughout schools, universities, and courts. Its emphasis on rhetoric and language elevated the status of the book as a material and intellectual object. Humanism’s revisions of how to speak, translate, read, and even write Latin all focused on the book as the perfect portable object through which to disseminate these ideas. But how did these humanist ideals work in practice? One particularly vivid example of the gulf between the theory of humanism and its practice in the classroom emerges from the career of one of the most respected of all humanist teachers, Guarino Guarini of Verona (1374–1460). Guarino was employed by the Este dynasty in Ferrara, where he lectured as Professor of Rhetoric from 1436.
Guarino’s success as a teacher rested on his ability to sell to both his students and his patrons a vision of humanist education that combined civilized humane values with practical social skills crucial to social advancement. In one introductory lecture on Cicero, Guarino asked:
What better goal can there be for our thoughts and efforts than the arts, precepts, and studies by which we come to guide, order, and govern ourselves, our households, and our political offices [?] . . . Therefore continue as you have begun, excellent youths and gentlemen, and work at these Ciceronian studies which fill our city with well-founded hope in you, and which bring honour and pleasure to you.
This was a vision disseminated by a group of teachers and scholars trained in the art of rhetoric and persuasion; no wonder it was accepted so readily in its day, and continues to influence humanities students today.
However, Guarino’s classroom did not necessarily produce the humane, elite citizens he promised. His education involved a gruelling immersion in grammar and rhetoric, based on diligent note-taking, rote learning of texts, oral repetition, and rhetorical imitation in a seemingly endless round of basic exercises. There was little time for more philosophical reflection on the nature of the texts under analysis, and students’ lecture notes reveal only a very basic grasp of the new ways of speaking and writing that humanists like Guarino believed were the basis of humanist education. These elementary lessons in language and rhetoric did prepare students for basic employment in legal, political, and religious positions, although this was a long way from the exalted heights promised by Guarino in his introductory lectures.
Guarino’s methods delighted his political patrons. The repetitious drilling of students in the fine points of grammar cultivated passivity, obedience, and docility. When this failed, discipline and correction were routinely implemented. Guarino also encouraged subservience towards the politics of the ruling elite, be they republican or (as in the case of his own patrons, the Este) monarchical:
Whatever the ruler may decree must be accepted with a calm mind and the appearance of pleasure. For men who can do this are dear to rulers, make themselves and their relatives prosperous, and win high promotion.
For most humanist students, the rhetorical claims of humanism towards a new conception of the individual led in practice to employment in the foundations of the emerging bureaucratic state. Guarino ensured that political acquiescence matched the practical skills required for such positions. This guaranteed ongoing elite sponsorship of schools and universities that disseminated the ideals of humanism.
A woman’s place is in the humanist’s home
From humanism’s rhetoric it might be expected that it would afford new intellectual and social opportunities for women. Humanism’s relationship to women was far more ambivalent. In his treatise On the Family (1444), Leon Battista Alberti defined a humanist vision of the domestic household, owned by men but run by women:
the smaller household affairs, I leave to my wife’s care . . . it would hardly win us respect if our wife busied herself among the men in the marketplace, out in the public eye. It also seems somewhat demeaning to me to remain shut up in the house among women when I have manly things to do among men, fellow citizens, and worthy and distinguished foreigners.
The eloquent public man is contrasted with his silent, domestic wife, who remains ‘locked up at home’. Her only training is in the running of the household. To ensure its successful maintenance, the husband reveals all its contents to his wife, with just one exception. Only ‘my books and records’ are kept locked away, and ‘these my wife not only could not read, she could not lay hands on them’. Alberti is anxious at the thought ‘of bold and forward females who try too hard to know about things outside the house and about the concerns of their husband and of men in general’.
Alberti’s attitude influenced humanist responses to elite women who challenged their assigned role and pursued a vocation in humanist learning. They did not completely reject women’s pursuit of learning, but were adamant that it should only go so far. In an address written around 1405 Leonardo Bruni, according to Hans Baron the great hero of civic humanism, cautioned that for women to study geometry, arithmetic, and rhetoric was dangerous because ‘if a woman throws her arms around while speaking, or if she increases the volume of her speech with greater forcefulness, she will appear threateningly insane and require restraint’. Women could learn cultivation, decorum, and household skills, but formal expertise in applied subjects that could lead to public and professional visibility were frowned upon.
In spite of such hostility, some learned women did attempt to carve out intellectual careers. In The Book of the City of Ladies (1404–5) the French writer Christine de Pizan argued that ‘those who blame women out of jealousy are those wicked men who have seen and perceived many women of greater intelligence and nobler conduct than they themselves possess’. In the 1430s Isotta Nogarola of Verona responded to attacks on women’s loquaciousness by suggesting that, ‘rather than women exceeding men in talkativeness, in fact they exceed them in eloquence and virtue’.
However, such forays into publishing and public speaking were regarded as novel events rather than professional activities. In 1438 an anonymous pamphleteer slandered Isotta for attempting to ‘speak out’. He conflated her learning with sexual promiscuity, declaiming with a heavy-handed double entendre that ‘the woman of fluent tongue is never chaste’. Once a woman crossed the line from accomplished student to orator in the public sphere, the humanist response was to either castigate her for being sexually aggressive, or mystify and trivialize women’s intellectual dialogue as amorous exchanges between lovers.
Renaissance humanism did not necessarily create new opportunities for women. It encouraged women’s education as a social adornment and an end in itself, not as a means to step out of the household and into the public sphere. Struggling male humanist teachers and students were having enough difficulty carving out their own public and professional positions. The possibility of women achieving such a public profile was clearly threatening, potentially embarrassing, and intolerable. However, the rhetoric of Renaissance humanism extolled the virtues of education and eloquence, and wherever possible women attempted to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by these developments. If women did have a Renaissance, it was often in spite of their male humanist counterparts.
The printing press: a revolution in communication
In the mid-1460s Alberti wrote that he ‘approved very warmly of the German inventor who has recently made it possible, by making certain imprints of letters, for three men to make more than two hundred copies of a given original text in one hundred days, since each pressing yields a page in large format’. The invention of movable type in Germany around 1450 was the most important technological and cultural innovation of the Renaissance. Humanism was quick to see the practical possibilities of utilizing a medium of mass reproduction, as Alberti suggests, but the revolutionary effect of print was most pronounced in northern Europe.
The invention of printing emerged from a commercial and technological collaboration in Mainz in the 1450s between Johann Gutenberg, Johann Fust, and Peter Schöffer. Gutenberg was a goldsmith, who adapted his expertise to cast movable metal type for the press. Schöffer was a copyist and calligrapher, who used his skills in copying manuscripts to design, compose, and set the printed text. Fust provided the finance. Printing was a collaborative process, and primarily a commercial business run by entrepreneurs for profit. Drawing on the much earlier eastern inventions of the woodcut and paper, Gutenberg and his team printed a Latin Bible in 1455 and in 1457 issued an edition of the Psalms.
According to Schöffer printing was simply ‘the art of writing artificially without reed or pen’. At first, the new medium didn’t grasp its own significance. Many early printed books used scribes trained in manuscript illumination to imitate the unique appearance of manuscripts. The opulent decoration of these half-painted, half-printed books suggests that they were regarded as precious commodities in their own right, valued as much for their appearance as their content. Wealthy patrons like Isabella d’Este and Mehmed the Conqueror invested in this type of printed book that sat alongside their more traditional manuscripts.
By 1480 printing presses were successfully established in all the major cities of Germany, France, the Netherlands, England, Spain, Hungary, and Poland. It has been estimated that by 1500 these presses had printed between 6 and 15 million books in 40,000 different editions, more books than had been produced since the fall of the Roman Empire. The figures for the 16th century are even more startling. In England alone 10,000 editions were printed and at least 150 million books were published for a European population of fewer than 80 million people.
The consequence of this massive dissemination of print was a revolution in knowledge and communication that affected society from top to bottom. The speed and quantity with which books were distributed suggests that print cultivated new communities of readers eager to consume the diverse material that rolled off the presses. The accessibility and relatively low cost of printed books also meant that more people than ever before had access to books. Printing was a profitable business. As more people spoke and wrote in the European vernacular languages – German, French, Italian, Spanish, and English – the printing presses increasingly published these languages rather than Latin and Greek, which appealed to a smaller audience. Vernacular languages were gradually standardized. They became the primary means of legal, political, and literary communication in most European states. The mass of printed books in everyday languages contributed to the image of a national community amongst those who shared a common vernacular. This ultimately led individuals to define themselves in relation to a nation rather than a religion or ruler, a situation which had profound consequences for religious authority, with the erosion of the absolute authority of the Catholic Church and the rise of a more secular form of Protestantism.
Printing permeated every area of public and private life. Initially presses issued religious books – Bibles, breviaries, sermons, and catechisms – but gradually more secular books were introduced, like romances, travel narratives, pamphlets, broadsheets, and conduct books advising people on everything from medicine to wifely duties. By the 1530s, printed pamphlets sold for the same price as a loaf of bread, while a copy of the New Testament cost the same as a labourer’s daily wage. A culture based on communication through listening, looking, and speaking gradually changed into a culture that interacted through reading and writing. Rather than being focused on courts or churches, a literary culture began to emerge around the semi-autonomous printing press. Its agenda was set by demand and profit rather than religious orthodoxy or political ideology. Printing houses turned intellectual and cultural creativity into a collaborative venture, as printers, merchants, teachers, scribes, translators, artists, and writers all pooled their skills and resources in creating the finished product. One print historian has compared the late 15th-century Venetian printing press of Aldus Manutius to a sweatshop, boarding house, and research institute all in one. Presses like Manutius’ created an international community of printers, financiers, and writers, as opportunities for expansion into new markets emerged.
Print also transformed how knowledge itself was understood and transmitted. A manuscript is a unique and unreproducible object. Print, however, with its standard format and type, introduced exact mass reproduction. This meant that two readers separated by distance could discuss and compare identical books, right down to a specific word on a particular page. With the introduction of consistent pagination, indexes, alphabetic ordering, and bibliographies (all unthinkable in manuscripts), knowledge itself was slowly repackaged. Textual scholarship became a cumulative science, as scholars could now gather manuscripts of, say, Aristotle’s Politics and print a standard authoritative edition based on a comparison of all available copies. This also led to the phenomenon of new and revised editions. Publishers realized the possibility of incorporating discoveries and corrections into the collected works of an author. As well as being intellectually rigorous, this was also commercially very profitable, as individuals could be encouraged to buy a new version of a book they already possessed. Pioneering reference books and encyclopedias on subjects like language and law claimed to reclassify knowledge according to new methodologies of alphabetical and chronological order.
The printing press did not just publish written texts. Part of the revolutionary impact of print was the creation of what William Ivins has called ‘the exactly repeatable pictorial statement’. Using woodcuts and then the more sophisticated technique of copperplate engraving, printing made possible the mass diffusion of standardized images of maps, scientific tables and diagrams, architectural plans, medical drawings, cartoons, and religious images. At one end of the social scale visually arresting printed images had a huge impact upon the illiterate, especially when they were used for religious purposes. At the other end, exactly reproducible images revolutionized the study of subjects like geography, astronomy, botany, anatomy, and mathematics. The invention of printing sparked a communications revolution whose impact would be felt for centuries, and which would only be matched by the development of the internet and the revolution in information technology.
The humanist press
Humanists quickly realized the power of the printing press for spreading their own message. The most famous northern European humanist, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466–1536), used the printing press as a way of distributing his own particular brand of humanism, and in the process self-consciously styling himself as the ‘Prince of Humanism’. Responding to claims that the early humanists were more interested in classical pagan writers than Christianity, Erasmus embarked on a career of biblical translation and commentary that culminated in his edition of the Greek New Testament with a facing Latin translation (1516). In ‘ The Ciceronian’ (1528) Erasmus countered those Italian humanists that regarded his own brand of northern European humanism as ‘barbaric’. He lampooned the purity of the Latinate rhetoric of Ciceronian humanists, arguing that ‘the first concern of the Ciceronians should have been to understand the mysteries of the Christian religion, and to turn the pages of the sacred books with as much enthusiasm as Cicero devoted to the writings of philosophers’.
Erasmus endeavoured to fuse his version of classically inspired moral education with a philosophia Christia – a philosophy focused on Christ that stressed personal faith. His enormously prolific output embraced translations and commentaries on the classics (including Seneca and Plutarch), collections of Latin proverbs, treatises on language and education, and copious letters to friends, printers, scholars, and rulers across Europe. His most widely read book today is his sardonic Praise of Folly (1511). It is a ‘biting satire’, particularly scathing in its attack upon the corruption and complacency of the church, which is characterized as believing that ‘teaching the people is hard work, prayer is boring, tears are weak and womanish, poverty is degrading, and meekness is disgraceful’.
Most of Erasmus’s formidable intellectual energy went into constructing an enduring scholarly community and educational method, at the centre of which stood his own printed writings and status as the ultimate ‘man of letters’. The printing press was central to Erasmus’s manipulation of his intellectual career, right down to the circulation of his own image. In 1526, Dürer agreed to execute an engraving of him. Erasmus and Dürer used this new printing technique to distribute a powerful, commemorative image of the humanist scholar in his study, writing letters and surrounded by his printed books, which as Dürer’s Greek inscription suggests, represent Erasmus’s lasting fame: ‘His works will give a better image of him’.
In 1512 Erasmus published one of his most influential works, De Copia, a textbook of exercises in the eloquent expression of Latin. Most famously it contains 200 ways to express the sentiment ‘As long as I live, I shall preserve the memory of you.’ De Copiawas written for his friend John Colet, dean of St Paul’s School in London. In his dedication to Colet, Erasmus claimed that he wanted ‘to make a small literary contribution to the equipment of your school’, choosing ‘these two new commentaries De Copia, inasmuch as the work in question is suitable for boys to read’. Subsequent editions of De Copia were dedicated to influential European scholars and patrons, to ensure that the book was used not just in London but also in classrooms across Europe. Erasmus needed to build on the scholarly achievements of 15th-century humanism by using the medium of print to market a whole new way of learning and living.
7. Dürer’s portrait of Erasmus, engraved in 1526, established Erasmus’s reputation as the great humanist intellectual
Erasmus also appreciated that, as well as reforming education and religion, humanism needed to ingratiate itself with political authority. In 1516 he composed his Education of a Christian Princ and dedicated it to the Habsburg prince, the future Emperor Charles V. This was an advice manual for the young prince in how to exercise ‘absolute rule over free and willing subjects’, and the need for education and advice from those skilled in philosophy and rhetoric. In other words, Erasmus was making a bid for public office as the young prince’s personal adviser and public relations guru. Although Charles graciously accepted the manual, no position was forthcoming.
Erasmus’s response was to send another copy of Education of a Christian Prince to Charles’s political rival, King Henry VIII. In his dedication written in 1517 Erasmus praised Henry as a king who managed to ‘devote some portion of your time to reading books’, which Erasmus argued made Henry ‘a better man and a better king’. Erasmus tried to convince Henry that the pursuit of humanism was the best way to run his kingdom, suggesting that it would make him a better person, and provide the skills necessary to achieve his political ends. It is significant that Erasmus felt it appropriate to dedicate the same text to both Charles V and Henry VIII. He presumed that both sovereigns would get the point that he could use his rhetorical skills to construct whatever political argument they required.
The politics of humanism
Erasmus’s generation saw the creation of two of the most influential books in the history of political theory and humanism: Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince (1513) and Thomas More’s Utopia (1516). Today both books are read as timeless classics of how to maintain political power and create ideal societies. They are also highly specific products of both writers’ experience of the relationship between humanism and politics in the first half of the 16th century.
Machiavelli’s book was written in the wake of the collapse of the Florentine republic in 1512 and the return to power of the Medici family. Machiavelli had served the republic for 14 years before being dismissed and briefly imprisoned by the returning Medici. The intention of The Prince was to draw on his political experiences ‘to discuss princely government, and to lay down rules about it’. What followed was a devastating account of how rulers should obtain and maintain power. Machiavelli concluded that if his suggestions were ‘put into practice skilfully, they will make a new ruler seem very well established, and will quickly make his power more secure’. Machiavelli’s background of humanist training and direct political experience produced a series of infamous pronouncements that drew on classical authors as well as contemporary political events. A ‘ruler who wishes to maintain his power must be prepared to act immorally’; he should ‘be a great feigner and dissembler’, ready to ‘act treacherously, ruthlessly, or inhumanely, and disregard the precepts of religion’ in the interest of retaining political power.
Machiavelli’s book was a bid for political employment (or in Machiavelli’s case, re-employment). The Prince was dedicated to Giuliano de’ Medici, the new autocratic ruler of Florence, and was referred to by its author as a ‘token of my readiness to serve you’. Machiavelli admitted in his letters ‘my desire that these Medici rulers should begin to use me’. The Prince was Machiavelli’s attempt to offer advice to the Medici on how to hold on to absolute political power. Machiavelli was taking Renaissance humanism to its logical political conclusion in providing his new ruler with the most persuasive and realistic account available of how to retain power. Machiavelli’s humanism was prepared to market whatever political ideology was in control, be it autocratic or democratic. The tragedy for Machiavelli was that the Medici were unconvinced by his protestations of loyalty. He never attained high political office again, and The Prince remained unprinted at the time of his death in 1527.
Thomas More’s Utopia: Concerning the Best State of a Commonwealth and the New Island of Utopia was also closely connected to its author’s public career. A close friend of Erasmus and gifted student of law and Greek, More translated Lucian and wrote English and Latin poetry. In 1517 he entered Henry VIII’s political council and became Lord Chancellor in 1529, writing many of Henry’s political and theological tracts in the process. More exemplified Cicero’s vision of the cultivated humanist – someone capable of accommodating private philosophical meditation with public oratory and involvement in the civic world of politics and diplomacy.
This delicate balancing act permeates Utopia. The book was written in the form of a Latin dialogue between learned men, in direct imitation of Plato’s fashionable treatise on an ideal state, the Republic. It opens with More himself in Antwerp acting as Henry VIII’s diplomatic representative. More’s friend introduces him to Raphael Hythloday, an adventurer recently returned from the island of Utopia. Hythloday offers a detailed description of the ideal ‘commonwealth’ of Utopia, where ‘all things are held in common’, ‘no men are beggars’, and divorce, euthanasia, and public health are taken for granted.
Did More believe in his fictionalized vision of an ideal society? There are several reasons for believing that he was rather ambivalent about his Utopia. The word ‘utopia’ is a pun, a linguistic invention from the Greek, meaning both ‘fortunate place’ and ‘no place’. Hythloday’s name also means ‘expert in nonsense’. More found many of Utopia’s ‘laws and customs’ ‘really absurd’, but confessed ‘that in the Utopian commonwealth there are many features in our own societies I would like rather than expect to see’. These are heavily qualified endorsements of his imaginary society.
Throughout the book, More refuses to approve or reject the politically contentious issues he discusses, from private property and religious authority to public office and philosophical speculation. This was not because he could not make up his mind: politically, he could not be seen to endorse a particular standpoint. As a skilled political counsellor More had to display his rhetorical skills in justifying often mutually incompatible or contradictory statements and beliefs in the service of the state. Utopia is a canvas upon which he can debate a range of issues relevant to his own particular world. If his analysis was called into question, he could always point out that he argued for the contrary position, or that Utopia was, after all, simply made up: it was nowhere.
Utopia advertises More’s ability to eloquently discourse on a range of contentious issues that affected his employer, and upon which he was expected to advise. Unlike Machiavelli, More wrote Utopia at the height of his public career and had to be far more circumspect and politically flexible in his thinking. This is why the argument and style of Utopia is so paradoxical. The unemployed Machiavelli could offer a much less ambiguous and far more politically realistic account of politics and power in The Prince. More’s refusal to endorse Henry’s divorce was less a principled ethical position than a political miscalculation made on the grounds of religion, leading as it did to More’s execution. Both his Utopia and Machiavelli’s The Prince exhibit the political opportunism of the Renaissance humanist.
From Petrarch to More, Renaissance humanism flexibly served whoever it seemed politically expedient to follow. This is why a range of modern political philosophies have claimed that books like The Prince and Utopia justify their own claims to power and authority. Renaissance humanism continues to exercise a powerful influence upon the modern humanities, yet as this chapter has argued, humanism is not the idealized celebration of humaneness that it often claimed to be, but has a hard core of pragmatism. The legacy of Renaissance humanism is far more ambivalent than many have been led to believe, partly because its rhetoric remains so seductive.