On Virtue Politics and Law School Dropouts

28 April 2020

Last week I had the opportunity to interview the intellectual historian and Renaissance scholar James Hankins about his new book Virtue Politics: Soulcraft and Statecraft in Renaissance Italy (Harvard University Press, 2019). The recording is available here, as part of the Talking Intellectual History audio library at the University of St Andrews Institute for Intellectual History.


Readers of Tocqueville might be interested in one sub-thread that runs throughout Virtue Politics: the status of legal culture.


Hankins defines “virtue politics” as a Renaissance version of meritocracy. Humanists of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries tolerated social hierarchies, so long as they believed these hierarchies were rooted in justice. And a just distinction between ruler and ruled required political elites to exhibit virtue. The humanists practiced a kind of pedagogical politics, with figures like Francesco Petrarch and Leonardo Bruni using their pens to inspire virtue in Italy’s leaders. While many historians of early modern political thought still obsess over the differences between a principality or a republic, Hankins argues that constitutional questions were relatively marginal to the humanist platform. The scholar-reformers of the Renaissance perceived politics as a matter of moral character.


Viewed in this light, “virtue politics” is an egalitarian philosophy. Anyone might cultivate wisdom, while even the wealthiest or most powerful rulers can fail the test of virtue. The virtuous politician is not born; he is educated.


But of course, a meritocracy of the good and the wise is not easy to reconcile with the mindset of modern constitutionalism. If we still trust in today’s legal system, it is because it anticipates that our fellow citizens are far from angels. We preemptively acknowledge the reality of self-motivated politicians and hope to mitigate their misdeeds with the help of the law. As David Hume once put it, when it comes to contriving constitutions, “every man ought to be presumed a knave.”


Hankins points ahead to this clash between character and modern law in his conclusion, where he states that the American Founders’ admonitions about the necessity of a virtuous people “could not withstand the democratic impulse to abolish distinctions, as Tocqueville observed in Democracy in America.” The worldview of the founders, we might say, preserved a glimmer of virtue politics, in so far as they believed good character needed to precede political forms. But democratic culture does not exactly habituate us to accede to a meritocracy of the good. Nor are contemporary democrats likely to define virtue in consultation with Aristotle, Petrarch, or Francesco Patrizi. Still, it’s not as if Americans have managed to live without meritocracy. We’re certainly less-than-content with our current elites.


Tocqueville foresaw that, in a setting in which citizens crave both political equality and social distinction, the legal profession would become a mainstay of the US meritocracy. Lawyers, he thought, represent a “privileged class among the intelligent” and comprise something of an “elite corps.” The protagonists of Virtue Politics, by contrast, refused to associate the law with moral prestige. Hankins explains that, in Renaissance Italy, political sovereignty fractured between many relatively weak states, and rulers could only get so far by combing the codes of Justinian. An education in honor and virtue presented a more promising alternative for shoring up legitimacy.


Hankins takes a certain delight in noting that leading humanists, such as Petrarch, Bruni, and Giovanni Boccaccio, “were all law school dropouts.” Petrarch carped that, in contrast to the days of Cicero, knowledge of the law had descended into a loquax ignorantia, or talkative ignorance. Bruni labeled the law a scientia oscitans: a yawning science.


Such language is not too far removed from Tocqueville’s analogy between the American lawyer and the “Egyptian priest”—each of whom decodes “an occult body of knowledge.” But while Tocqueville hinted that expertise in legal subtleties might sometimes be salutary in a society trending toward mass equality, the humanists in Hankins’ narrative feared such legal minutiae would only obscure justice and merit. Virtue politics requires that the strengths of the wise ruler be readily visible, and too much legal detail undermines the moral clarity on which such merit must rest. To quote Tacitus, corruptissima respublica plurimae leges. The most corrupt republic passes the most laws.


As Hankins summarizes:

The solution to the problem of rulers who abused their power was not to spin legal theories of consent or to elaborate arguments for legitimate resistance to tyranny. Tyrants could not be stopped by passing laws or quoting maxims. The humanist way of addressing tyranny was to surround the ruler with men of virtue whose charisma would influence him to do what was right…


Tocqueville voices a similar worry when he observes that the legal profession often values legality over liberty; lawyers “are less afraid of tyranny than of arbitrariness.” Here Tocqueville suggests that le prince who wishes to stave off a democratic movement ought to “bring lawyers into government” and thus give his “despotism” the veneer of “justice and law.” But Democracy in America makes clear that the problem of corruption is not limited to latter-day principalities. Tocqueville’s point is that law and tyranny might work in tandem. The mere presence of the law does not guarantee justice.


But even if Americans joke about distrusting lawyers, I suspect many of us are more comfortable thinking in terms of constitutional checks and balances than entrusting politics to leaders with the most well-balanced souls. The COVID-19 crisis has brought on fresh worries about the workings of US federalism, lawsuits, and what President Trump this week termed “liability problems.” Yet none of us expect emergency funding for a new team of Petrarchan advisors.


The merit of Virtue Politics is that Hankins, as an historian, showcases an intellectual alternative. Even if the political priorities of the quattrocento Italian peninsula seem quite distant, the legal commentary Hankins weaves throughout the book clarifies our current problem. Modern constitutional structures are, by design, indifferent to questions of character. If the law functions properly—and not just as a cover for despotism—it might legitimately punish bad actors. But it makes no pretense to motivate good deeds or discern the most virtuous leaders. These are the tasks of education and active citizenship. And yet many of us are accustomed to default to the courtroom. It comes as little surprise that, in a society as litigious as ours, virtue seems in short supply.



Photo Credit: Jörgens.mi, Università degli Studi di Padova, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Photo Credit: Harvard University Press, Virtue Politics: Soulcraft and Statecraft in Renaissance Italy by James Hankins, Fair Use.


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