Around the end of the Thirteenth Century, the great majority of the Italian city-states gave up their republican forms of government. They did this in the interest of greater civic peace, vesting power of the sovereignty with monarchical and aristocratic governments. This shift away from republicanism would be challenged by certain outspoken individuals, chiefly among rhetoricians, until in the Fifteenth Century, a new ideology called Humanism established itself in the minds of many thinkers in not just Italy, but the greater part of Mediterranean Europe. Humanism has its roots in the previously mentioned resistance of rhetoricians, drawing their ideas heavily from classical writers such as Aristotle and Cicero, among others. Given this, the question that this essay will pose is as follows—does the phrase “more rhetorical than philosophical” serve as an apt way to characterize the political thought of humanists? To do this, this essay will draw on the writings of Quentin Skinner (The Foundations of Modern Political Thought), Leonardo Bruni (“Panegyric to the City of Florence”), Guillaume Budé (select passages of “On the Education of the Prince”), and Lorenzo Valla (Treatise on the Donation of Constantine).
To begin, let us first look at the end of the majority of the Italian republics in the late Thirteenth Century. Here, we see due to class divisions and the unrest that is resultant of those divisions the people of the various republics vesting vast amounts of power into the hands of individuals, called Signores. This led to the birth of two distinct trains of thought. First, there is that of those who are in favor of this new way of life. From people of this mindset we see many works published praising the bringers of peace, propaganda promoting the unity of the dictatorship of the Signores versus the chaos that existed with liberty. The other school of thought that arose from this change in governance in the Italian Peninsula is that of proto-civic humanism. This ideology was brought about by rhetoricians who studied the Ars Dictaminis and the Ars Arengendi. These men wrote about, and in favor of, the Roman Republic, believe that is was the greatest of the governments that have existed in the world. They also argued that rulers should be prudent, magnanimous, temperate, and just—basing their political thought off of classical scholars such as Cicero and Aristotle. Believing republicanism was the best form of government, they argued that government itself was corrupted, and brought away from this righteous way by the rise of factionalism within republics, and then also because of the accumulation of gross amounts of private wealth (though it should be noted that some of the rhetoricians of the time thought that private wealth was, in fact, beneficial for republics, as it could be used to benefit the commonwealth)8. They believed that the way to fix these problems that brought down republics was to convince people to see the problems of the community as their own problems, and the same with that which benefits the community9. Thus, to them, it was those individuals who were virtuous that were the most suitable for ruling, as they could see that the interests of the community were in fact their own interests. This was controversial though, as it allowed for people of all classes to be rulers, and to be noble, and not just those who had wealth, through heredity or through good fortune. They originally wrote political advise in-line with these views to the general public, but later they wrote primarily to magistrates and to princes, in an attempt to win them over to their school of thought.
It is then from this tradition of rhetoric that the Humanists drawn much of their thoughts from. It should be noted that, while civic humanists were highly influenced by these medieval Italian rhetoricians, they did differ form them in several aspects. These Humanists were focused on the ideals of republican liberty, much like rhetoricians, but unlike them, the Humanists were not nearly as concerned with private wealth, nor factions, seeing them as more of a tool, one that could be used toward nefarious ends just as easily as it could be used for the benefit of the commonwealth. To them, liberty was the paramount concern. It meant independence for individuals and self-government. Moreover, it meant equal opportunity in involving oneself in government, and the freedom to say whatever one pleased. To them, this liberty will benefit the commonwealth through people being able to choose to develop their talents and then applying those talents for the good of the community as a whole. Humanists, like the rhetoricians before them, believed that the way to achieve this community of citizens devoted to the common good was through education, and in particular, an education in the classics, so that one might be able to understand the intricacies of virtues as they were laid out in the pre-Christian world, and that by studying these works, they could become virtuous—which is an utter rejection of the Augustinian school of thought, in which virtue comes solely from God. That is, in briefness, the extent of the philosophical thought of the Civic Humanists. It is a rather simple philosophical mindset, and the writings of Civic Humanists focus much more on their rhetoric than their philosophy, as we will see when examining the works of three such-minded individuals.
First, we will look at Leonardo Bruni's “Panegyric to the City of Florence.” Europe, at the time that Bruni was writing, was in the middle of the Italian Renaissance, and at the heart of that renaissance was the Tuscan Florence—a fact that Bruni makes abundantly clear to his reader. To him, every aspect of Florence is perfect—from the strategic foundation of the city, to its equidistance between the two seas that border Italy, to the architecture, the art, the constitution of its people, etc.—even going so far as to openly challenge anyone who reads his work to find a city that is better than it in any manner. Bruni devotes a majority of his page to this endeavor of his to show the greatness of Florence, using rhetorical techniques to do so. What, then, is his explanation for the eminence of the Florentine State? To answer that, Bruni turns to the founders of the city—that being Roman republicans—and their grandeur, and the greatness of their ideals—those being that of the liberty that comes with a republican government. Here we see what little exists of the Civic Humanism philosophy. Upon identifying that it is because of these republican foundations that Florence is able to claim opulence, Bruni spends the rest of the panegyric using rhetoric to explain how the liberty that the Florentine people have through their republican form of government allows for them to resist tyranny of a despot—especially with provisions such as no man being above the law, laws being made for the common good, and not for the individual, and judges being brought in from outside of the community, so that they can remain impartial—, and how their republic Roman constitution allows for them to resist the tyranny of the masses. So in this approximately thirty-page panegyric, Bruni brings up only philosophical point, leaving the rest of his writing to rhetoric.
Next, let us look at the writing of Guillaume Budé through select parts of his “On the Education of the Prince.” Budé was a French Civic Humanist, and he wrote for King Francois I. In his work, he is chiefly concerned with how a prince—or in this case, a young king—should act in order to remain a legitimate, and just ruler. In the first of the select sections of Budé's writings, he is concerned with the proper dispensation of honors and their like by the king in the name of justice. In this, Budé hearkens back to the writings of classical philosophers, arguing that honors must be bestowed upon those members of the community that would make best use of said honors in regards to benefiting the community as a whole. This idea, that the monarch must look back to the philosophers of yore for guidance, is the core tenant of Budé's writing in this piece. He believed that it is through studying these historical and literary texts of yesteryear that monarchs are able to better their worldly wisdom—which he says all monarchs desire to do. He also believed that superiority of the soul came through eloquence of, and grace in, language, which he again explained was achieved through the study of the classics. He also explained how prudence, which is a virtue in kingship, bettering the judgment of the monarch, is gained best through the reading of the classics. So, we see in Budé's writing another example of the rhetoric of Civic Humanists ruling out over their philosophy, with the main philosophical point that Budé raises being that rulers should look back to the teachings and thoughts of the classical thinkers—of the Greeks and the Romans—to better themselves, and the rest of his writing being rhetoric to support this point.
The last of the Civic Humanist works that will be examined in this essay will be Lorenzo Valla's Treatise on the Donation of Constantine. This work was written as a response to the Donation of Constantine, a document, allegedly written by Constantine to Pope Sylvester, that granted to him, and to the Papacy, dominion over the western half of the Roman Empire. His goal in writing this peace was to expose the fraudulent nature of the document, and to raise a critique of Papal conduct as whole during the era. It is with this work that we see perhaps the greatest example of Civic Humanism being more rhetorical than philosophical. In this document, you have only an iota of Humanist philosophy—that being that the will of the Roman people is important, and that they would therefor not allow for Constantine to divide the Roman Empire into two on account of his new-found religious beliefs. But even in this, there is almost no trace of Humanist philosophy, as the Roman people at that point were not members of a republic, but an empire, and thus did not have the liberty or the self-government that comes with the former. The rest of Valla's writing is purely rhetorical. He starts with a critique on the motives of Constantine in giving away his territory (of which he finds none great enough to explain such an extreme action)28. He then goes on to raise reasons why he would not do this action, including depriving his children of inheritance, the aforementioned unwillingness of the senate and the people to such a measure, and a plethora of religious reasons as to why Pope Sylvester would not have accepted such a donation. He also critiques lack of any other records existing of not only the transfer of dominion, but of Papal administration and stewardship over the Western Empire. Not being a man who is satisfied with half-measures, Valla spends an additional fifty or so pages going through the Donation of Constantine line by line, and pointing out every error that exists therein. So, we are able to see the rhetorical overcome the philosophical in the third of these Civic Humanist texts.
Civic Humanism was an influential ideology of during the Italian Renaissance, in both Italy, and abroad in such places as France. It's fundamental tenants are that of republicanism and the liberty—that being independence, self-government, and equality in the ability to participate in government—that is inherent within it, of citizens acting in the interests of the commonwealth, and of education and virtue through the study of classical Greek and Roman philosophy. Besides the Greek and Roman philosophy that they value so highly, Civic Humanism is directly influenced by, and descended from, the traditions and writings of medieval Italian rhetoricians. Due to this influence, it has been said that Civic Humanism is “more rhetorical than philosophical.” Upon examination of the writings of Leonardo Bruni, Guillaume Budé, and Lorenzo Valla, it would appear that this is an apt characterization of Civic Humanists and their political thought.