Civil Humanism

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By Stefano Zamagni, University of Bologna:

"Civil humanism was a highly particular, and brief, period in Italian history, but one that still exerts its fascination today. It remains a decisive cultural point of reference, because it was the product of a felicitous alchemy between the values of classical and Christian antiquity and the new political, cultural and economic demands that burst onto the Western scene. Today we know that it is not possible to understand the genesis of civic economy, or of political economy in general, without coming to grips with Italian civic humanism and its urban civilization. So to start again, ideally, in reconstructing the humanistic tradition of civic economy means relating contemporary economics with nearly a thousand years of history. It means showing that thought about things economic is not some mushroom that sprouted overnight in modern times but a new bloom on a secular tree that can still flower again (Bruni and Zamagni, 2007).

The “golden age” of civil humanism was unquestionably the first half of the fifteenth century, and its locus was Tuscany. Its main representatives were Bernardino da Siena, Coluccio Salutati, Poggio Bracciolini, Leonardo Bruni, Léon Battista Alberti, Matteo Palmieri, and Antonino of Florence. This was also an age when Florence experienced an extraordinary confluence of artistic genius, embracing such figures as Brunelleschi, Masaccio, Donatello, Botticelli, Della Robbia, and Fra Angelico.

Typically, two basic elements are associated with Humanism: the rediscovery of classical (Greek and Roman) culture and the necessity, for a fully human life, of civil life. The second of these elements, therefore, typifies civil humanism, which does not coincide with the entire period of Humanism, which deserves the adjective “civil” only for an initial moment, before the end of the fifteenth century when the individualistic, Platonic, contemplative, solitary and magical aspect got the upper hand (with such thinkers as Pico della Mirandola or Ficino) and, de facto, brought early civil humanism to an end in favour of the notion of the individual, a subject “separate” from other individuals and all the more so from the community. The two souls of humanism (the civil-Aristotelian and the individualistic-Platonic) would generate different traditions in modern social science: the individualist school that issued forth in hedonism and the sensualism of the eighteenth century (taken up again by neoclassical economics at the end of the nineteenth) and the school of civil economy represented principally in the eighteenth century by such scholars as Francis Hutcheson, Paolo Mattia Doria, Antonio Genovesi, Giacinto Dragonetti, Cesare Beccaria, Pietro Verri and Adam Smith. Today, like a river long underground, it is resurfacing.

Civil humanism brought an extraordinary revaluation of the worldly, relational aspect of humanity, from family to city to State. Any number of tracts on civil life were offered in response to earlier centuries’ paeans to the solitary life (Petrarch). The classics too were rediscovered, above all Cicero and Aristotle, but the civil humanists’ attitude towards learning was shot through with the need for a philosophy that was a school for life, a serious and profound meditation on life’s problems – just like Genovesi’s civil economy three centuries later. In the view of the civil humanists, responding to the dominant ideas of the epoch from which they were emerging, the only true virtue is civil virtue, the only true life is active life: “Virtue is at the disposal of all” (Poggio Bracciolini). So there is no virtue in the life of solitude but only in the city. Man, “a weak animal, insufficient in himself, attains perfection only in civil society” (Leonardo Bruni, in his introduction to the Italian translation of Aristotle’s Politics).

It should come as no surprise, then, that Bruni, Alberti, Bernardino da Siena and Bracciolini railed against the detractors of economic life and of wealth, propounding theses on the social uses of wealth and on the heterogenesis of ends that would not come into the common domain until the eighteenth century. It remained quite clear to these writers, in any case, that self-interest would not turn automatically or magically into the common good. There is no civil economy without laws, institutions, civil virtues. This is one of the main messages of Italian social thought; economists were also legal scholars, and vice versa (in modern times, let us think of such figures as Beccaria and Gian Domenico Romagnosi). It was city-based civilization – the model social order that arose in that age – that made it possible for the pursuit of individual self-interest not to father destructive, anti-social mechanisms and for markets, watched over and fed by other forms of civil and spiritual life, to act for and not against the community.

Civil humanism’s lease had, alas, all too short a date. The experience of liberty and republican government gave way to the Signorie and absolute monarchy, which translated immediately into an authoritarian age far removed from the libertas florentina of the early fifteenth century and its city-based culture. So it is no accident that with the end of that century thought on civil life faded; the humanists themselves were no longer engaged, politically active like Bruni or Palmieri, but what we would now call “free lance” intellectuals, no longer part of either a university or a city body but a lone individual, wandering from court to court. And considerations on public happiness became a research into individualistic, Epicurean happiness, as is shown in the treatises of Marsilio Ficino, Filippo Beroaldo, Piero Valeriano, Lorenzo de’ Medici or Pico della Mirandola. All of these thinkers, each in his own particular way, wrote that happiness is to be sought in flight from other people and from the city, and that life in common, life in society, can bring only suffering.

A rupture was thus consummated between civil humanism and modernity. The experience of civil life came to an end at the threshold of modern philosophy.

The caricature of human nature thus imposed has helped accredit a twofold error: that the sphere of the market coincides with egoism, the place within which every man pursues, as best he can, his own self-interest; and symmetrically, that the sphere of the State coincides with solidarity, the pursuit of collective interests. This is the foundation for the well known but very fragile dichotomy between State and market; a model, that is, in which the State is identified with the public sphere and the market with the private sphere.”

Source: Draft essay by Stefano Zamagni for the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, 2008: Reciprocity, Civil Economy, Common Good.