Political Meritocracy in Renaissance Italy: The Virtuous Republic of Francesco Patrizi of Siena
By James Hankins. 
Harvard University Press, 2023. 
Hardcover, 448 pages, $55.

Reviewed by Jesse Russell. 

We live in a Neo-Machiavellian age. Gone are the “End of History” halcyon days of the 1990s. Gone is the revived national unity and patriotism during the War on Terror. Gone are the promises of both the Obama and Trump eras. The third decade of the twenty-first century is marked by disenchantment and mournful resignation to the harsh reality of the way things (allegedly) are. With terms like “post-Evangelical” and “exvangelical” becoming part of popular parlance, the wave of Evangelical Protestantism that picked up speed and crested during the George W. Bush era seems to be slowly withdrawing. American Catholicism is fractured by warring camps of traditionalists, liberals, and conservatives, many of whom feel lost and confused during the papacy of Pope Francis. Not only K-12, but now university education has increasingly become an extended day care in which not only the liberal arts, but even the hard sciences are beginning to disintegrate. Many, if not most, Westerners live in a near 24-7 digital fantasy world and are plagued with a host of mental health issues.

The internet as well as bookshelves are awash with various guides to help Westerners (especially Millennials and members of Generation Z) navigate this bleak landscape. Figures such as the popular writer and now YouTuber Robert Greene have pointed to the Renaissance Italian philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) as a guide for how to survive in a world full of deception and brutality. With works such as The 48 Laws of Power (1998), The Art of Seduction (2001), The 33 Strategies of War (2006), and commentary distributed, in bite size portions, through social media, Greene has helped to usher in a radical change in how Westerners perceive the world. In fact, Greene (and others) have been so successful in importing Machiavelli to the young masses that contemporary Western perception of history has shifted. No longer is history viewed as a long march of progress or as developing under the providence of God. Rather history (especially Machiavelli’s Renaissance) is merely the story of intrigue and power struggles. 

In his recent work, Political Meritocracy in Renaissance Italy: The Virtuous Republic of Francesco Patrizi of Siena, Harvard historian James Hankins undertakes a Herculean effort to restore a proper understanding of the Italian Renaissance, but also of human nature in general. Hankins laments the state of study of Patrizi, who has been neglected for centuries in the Anglophone world—there has been only one English translation of Patrizi’s works, and it was done in 1576. Hankins further notes that the “vast legion” of contemporary scholars of Machiavelli largely dismiss Patrizi as an intellectually light weight forerunner of the allegedly brilliant Niccolò Machiavelli. 

Francesco di Giovanni Patrizi was born in 1413 in Siena, where he went on to study at the university. He became professor of rhetoric in 1441, was embroiled in politics, and was tortured and subject to house arrest after he was linked to a failed 1457 coup. Although having earlier been married to a woman who bore him four sons, Patrizi was ordained a priest in 1459. Throughout his literary career, Patrizi penned a number of poems (some of them political) as well as commentary on classical rhetoric. His most important political work, De Republica, was published in 1471. After having lived a very tumultuous and complex life as a writer, teacher, and priest (turned bishop), Francesco Patrizi died in Gaeta in 1494. 

Hankins describes Patrizi as a critical junction in Western thought in which ancient notions of republicanism and liberty were being rediscovered. Patrizi is thus a break from earlier Medieval European ideas of politics understood as revolving around dominum and lordship. Medieval dominum was passed down by rulers to their children. Hankins does note that some Medieval city states placed dominum in a “signorial institution” as opposed to an individual or family. Hankins contrasts Medieval dominum with Enlightenment notions of popular sovereignty, equality, and rights, which can be found in figures like Locke, Rousseau, and the American Founding Fathers. Hankins points to the New Testament and to Stoicism as ancient sources for what could be called civic humanism. 

Hankins identifies Francesco Patrizi as providing a unique vision of civic humanism whose goal is human flourishing, in the material, spiritual, and moral senses. Unlike some modern and postmodern (and now “postmillennial”) visions of equality, equality for Patrizi was based upon dignitas or meritocratic rank. Moreover, Patrizi does not appeal to either Medieval or premodern notions of divine authority (a point to which some Christians may object) or to popular sovereignty (a point to which some liberals may object) as sources of legitimation of government. Rather laws are, for Patrizi, legitimate in as much as they enable humans to flourish. This view, which will be expressed in variant form in Elizabeth Anscombe’s famous 1958 essay, “Modern Moral Philosophy,” is very similar to the notion of eudemonia in the work of Aristotle. 

Importantly, for Patrizi, in contrast to Machiavelli and his twenty-first-century disciples, virtue, not trickery or violence, is the right means to obtaining good government. A good government, moreover, will not simply placate citizens, but will labor to make citizens virtuous. Like many Renaissance figures, Patrizi saw late Medieval Europe as being in a state of decline from the alleged glory of Rome. Patrizi, rightly or wrongly, saw the late Middle Ages as a time of great political corruption and decay, but he believed that Europeans could build something better, and a new order of political meritocracy would restore the supposed glories of antiquity. This political meritocracy would be built through a revival of education (a project very near to Hankins’s own heart), which would be rooted in the humanities and liberal arts. Patrizi further laid out a blueprint for how to identify the most worthy citizens for political power. Finally (and very interestingly), Patrizi laid out a new vision for urban planning that would create beautiful citizens, whose lives would encourage meritocratic equality. For Hankins the notion of a new nobility based upon merit—not class or blood, on one hand, nor “equity,” on the other—is one of Patrizi’s most important messages for America today. Hankins, throughout the book, presents the optimistic case that such a vision of a virtuous, meritocratic Republic is the way forward for America.  

One of the strongest currents in American literature and film is the interlacement between hard boiled detective novels and film noir. With such literary figures as Raymond Chandler and the more recent (perhaps too risqué) James Ellroy as well as such classic films as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Third Man (1949), the bleak world of noir revealed the allegedly corrupt underbelly of the American century. Noir is, of course, one of Machiavelli’s (and St. Augustine of Hippo’s) misguided offspring. But film noir, like all works in the Machiavellian tradition, does contain an accurate picture of how the world sometimes works. However, rather than giving into the bleakness of how things can be, it is perhaps better to heroically strive for moral goodness and political peace and order, and in Political Meritocracy, James Hankins provides a qualified but much needed road map for human flourishing.  

Jesse Russell has written for publications such as Catholic World Report, The Claremont Review of Books Digital, and Front Porch Republic.

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