Humanism emerged in early renaissance Italy from the need for educated lawyers. Those who draw up contracts and managed government correspondence had to write well. Their literary education led to an interest in the quality of literature, and skills such as historiography. Humanism is a literary rather than political movement, but when Humanists wrote on political subjects their literary skill often caused them to be influential. The occasional inconsistencies with contemporary Christian thinking are an indication of the declining influence of the Church in this period.
Christine de Pizan
Christine de Pizan was one of the few people to make a living as a writer during the medieval period, and the only woman to do so. Her key political contribution was the ‘The Book of the Body Politic’, intended to educate the young French Dauphine on the subject of politics. There are four key aspects that mark this as a humanist contribution. Firstly the human touch. It was common to say that a prince’s tutor should be a wise and virtuous scholar, but less common to insist that the tutor be cleanly dressed, straight talking, and allow the prince to play children’s games and be given treats. The second is the raw emotion conveyed in her ferocious attack on the decayed state of the church. Those priests who abandon the care of their flock in pursuit of money and luxuries belong in hell. The third is the genuine sympathy for the lives of common people. Their well-being should be the main concern of the ruling elite, not in order to maintain their grip on power, but because the care of the common people is an end in itself. The fourth is her reliance on classical rather than medieval Christian examples as appropriate behaviour of the knightly classes. Honour is to be obtained by courage in battle, and deception is to be encouraged as part of military strategy. This contradicts the traditional Christian virtues of peace and honesty.
Erasmus also wrote books to instruct the young princes of Europe, such as ‘The Education of a Christian Prince’. One feature was his insistence that peace is the highest virtue, which extended to a belief in religious toleration. The practice of burning heretics disgusted Erasmus. He makes modern humanitarian arguments against war, but the central argument is that the highest aim of society is the pursuit of reason and learning, and warfare is at odds with a society governed by reason. Aquinas’ idea of a just war is swept aside. Even if a war can be just, that is irrelevant; we should still do everything possible to avoid it. While discussing wars, Erasmus appears to be the first person to condemn nationalism; ‘Nowadays, the Englishman generally hates the Frenchman for no better reason than that he is French’.
Erasmus’ statement that ‘there is something divine in absolute rule over free and willing subjects’ seems contradictory to the modern ear. However, subjects can be willing in that they consent to be governed by the absolute ruler as long as they are ruled well and in the general interest of the people, but they cannot limit the power of the ruler or participate in government. Erasmus is influenced by Plato in his believe that the ruler is a guardian, supreme in wisdom rather than wealth. Platonion ideas were now back in the mainstream. Erasmus gives great attention to teaching a Prince to be a just ruler rather than a tyrant, and praises tyrannicide. This is different to the established Christian view that resistance must be limited to passive disobedience.
Thomas More coined the word ‘utopia’ in his most famous work. It has been applied retrospectively to previous works including Plato’s Republic, to describe a perfect society than cannot practically exist. More’s work has a satirical edge that Plato’s does not. The word utopia is a deliberate pun, being based on the Greek words eutopia (the good place) and outopia (no place). With this work he simultaneously praises Pluto, but also gently mocks him for providing a detailed blueprint for a society that he also recognises cannot exist. More’s utopia is not meant as a blueprint, rather a model to raise questions and challenge the conventional view of progress. The desire for utopia comes from More’s anger at the misery of the poor alongside the wealth of the powerful few, and the injustice of executing an unemployed man for theft. As with Plato, More’s utopian solution is the abolition of money and the introduction of a communist economy. Modern readers flinch at forced labour, but in More’s view labour is natural and necessary to acquire the gifts of Mother Nature, and there is no reason why labour shouldn’t be managed by the state. He asks the familiar question of whether the proceeds of work are more fairly distributed under a utopian communist system, or a monetary marketplace economy. In 16th century England the answer is clear to More. Better to be a forced worker with security, than thrown out of work to starve on the whim of an employer. Again similar to Plato, politics in the ordinary sense is the casualty of consensus, and the only political institutions are for local administration. Unlike Plato, More describes religion in detail. Utopians are all basically Christians, but different believes flourish, and there is an absolute ban on intolerance. Indeed, those who denounce another’s faith are punished with exile. Atheists however are not trusted, and cannot hold public office. Nevertheless, this contrasts curiously with More’s ferocious religious intolerance in practice.
If you are interested in finding out more about this topic, I strongly recommend getting a copy of Alan Ryan’s ‘On Politics’, which this blog is predominantly based on. Here are a few links you can use to find it: