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Renaissance Options

As James Hankins reminds us, cultural rebirth requires long labors and deep investment.

Since at least Edmund Burke, conservatives have made it their conscious task to conserve what they consider to be the most important achievements of Western civilization, particularly in moments of crisis (Burke’s most widely read work was itself an occasional piece, written in response to the crisis caused by the French Revolution). The task of building civilization is, in a sense, a constant struggle against the forces that militate against humane order. But there are, from time to time, moments of acute disorder when it seems that all may be lost. At those moments, people of goodwill rightly ask: Can civilization be saved? Can civilization be reborn?

Over at Public Discourse, intellectual historian James Hankins recently offered some thoughts on how we might go about the task of building a renaissance (French: “rebirth”). He draws a striking comparison between our own time and the 14th century, when Francesco Petrarch initiated the initial movement that became known as the Renaissance:

Suppose you were living at a time when all around you, it seemed, civilization was   breaking down. Political institutions were so little respected that the only way they could compel obedience was by increasing surveillance, multiplying laws, and tightening enforcement. People did not trust their leaders and suspected that elites were only interested in themselves. Many leaders were tyrannous, ignoring constitutional norms. Religious leaders engaged in scandalous behavior, and religious faith was losing its hold over the educated classes. Standards of personal behavior had collapsed, and it seemed that most people had forgotten what even ordinary decency was. Examples of upright character were hard to find, heroism almost unknown. The young went to universities only to learn how to earn money and achieve status. Even the military had grown corrupt. A great pandemic had taken many lives and filled people with fear. No one believed any more that medical science was honest about its ability to cope with the disease.

Sound familiar?

To counter this state of affairs Petrarch took action, building out a both a program and a network of collaborators. But it wasn’t primarily a political program. Instead, Petrarch engaged in the slow, painstaking work of culture building. His program consisted, first and foremost, in developing “a new form of education whose principal purpose was to develop good moral character and practical wisdom” called the studia humanitatis, known to us as the “humanities.” These studies merged classical and Christian wisdom, and put both in the service of the cultivation of virtuous leaders and citizens.

What began as a project amongst a few friends in Italy gradually spread through Europe and

By the third quarter of the fifteenth century, almost all of the greatest princes, churchmen, and republican civic leaders of Italy were classically educated. By the end of the quattrocento, this form of education was spreading to Northern Europe as well. Great monarchs such as Philip II of Spain and Elizabeth I of England, were humanistically educated, boasting proudly of their mastery of classical languages.

What can modern conservatives learn from this model? Hankins offers several thoughts.

First, culture building is a long term project. Those engaged in the work—and those who fund the work—must realize that they will not see meaningful results immediately, and may not see them in their lifetime. “It may have to start in private homes and small colleges, but we cannot give up on the public square and the universities.” A long-term vision is key.

Second, cultural prestige is important: “We need to build alliances, form networks, and find patrons who share our vision. We do not have to be serious all the time—the humanists also recommended the study of the classics for sheer pleasure and spiritual delight—but a tone of high moral purpose needs to underlie all we do.” Combining delightful literature with serious moral purpose and instruction resonates deeply with human nature and fundamental human needs. If conservatives can offer a compelling moral vision that delights as it instructs, it will naturally be more attractive than the cynical power plays and sterile proceduralism that defines our current cultural discourse.

Finally, we need to “emphasize more strongly the role of the humanities in strengthening skills of communication and persuasion.” The abuse of language that is prevalent in American political discourse encourages denouncement rather than thoughtful engagement. One of the defining  aspects of the studia humanitatis was its recovery of the ancient art of rhetoric—that is, persuasion—after it was eclipsed by the scholastic emphasis on logic. While rhetoric tends to get a bad rap today (meaning something like “empty or inauthentic speech”), it is actually a crucial part of political life. Not only does it encourage a careful attention to language, it can help soften the often jagged edges of political power, drawing in political opponents as interlocutors to be persuaded rather than enemies to be crushed.

This is, of course, not to say that prudent and clear-eyed political action isn’t required. Too often conservatives have failed to understand the stakes, shying away from the messy and sometimes ugly work of political action, and have lost ground as a result. But neither is political maneuvering alone sufficient. Without investing in the rebirth of culture, conservatives may occasionally win some political battles, but they will be little more than pyrrhic, rear guard actions.

about the author

Shaun Rieley is senior director for advancement & programs at The American Ideas Institute, which publishes The American Conservative. He has held positions at several nonprofit organizations in the Washington, D.C., area, focused on veterans policy, education policy, and philanthropy. He holds a Ph.D. in political theory from The Catholic University of America, and an M.A. from St. John’s College, Annapolis, where he studied philosophy, political theory, and literature. As an undergraduate he studied political science at the University of Delaware. Shaun served as an enlisted infantryman in the Army National Guard for nine years, which included overseas tours in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. A native of Delaware, he lives in Hyattsville, Maryland, with his wife and two daughters.

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