The Political Philosophy of Italian humanism:
The humanists promoted a new political philosophy for the civil society, as
Antony Black1 has called it. This philosophy of the civil society is what we usually
refer to as Classical Liberalism. It differed greatly from medieval views. In this paper,
I am going to use Black’s ideas to explain this Renaissance Liberalism.
In the Middle Ages, as you have already learned, towns had been communes.
Towns were corporations of mutually cooperating and contracting guilds. The values of
the guilds and of the Germanic sense of association prevailed in them. Townsmen all
swore an oath together to uphold the common good. The town itself had a certain
sacredness about it, as it attempted to promote the common good of the whole. Indeed,
towns had a tendency to think of themselves as the Corpus Christianum in miniature.
Moreover, the Church supported guild and Germanic concepts of the corporate life,
both because corporations were important within the church and because guild values
were similar to Christian ones.
Medieval towns valued the guild and corporate ideal of the common good. The
ideal of the common good comprised: a) a belief in brotherhood or fraternity, b) a
commitment to mutual aid among brothers (this idea was incorporated in the annual
oath of allegiance), and c) an understanding that honor and justice meant equity and
reciprocity (in an Aristotelian sense).
1 Anthony Black, Guilds and Society, 1984.
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Standards and fairness were enforced by the members of the guilds. The guild
values of fraternity, mutual aid, equity, and reciprocity implied a sense of simple
democracy: all brothers participated in the making and enforcing of rules; government
was strictly by consent. Townsmen voluntarily joined guilds and towns and swore
together their brotherhood. Moreover, these commitments implied a belief in
approximate equality of output and equality of reward for the labor of all brothers: this
was the meaning of justice. The main purpose of corporate legal rights was to insure a
secure livelihood to all brothers.
With the rise of long-distance trade and wealth, these values were called into
question. It was chiefly the humanists who developed a competing philosophy to
guild brotherhood. We may call it simply the philosophy of the civil society. But it is
usually called classical liberalism. The values of the civil society are opposite those of
the guilds: 1) personal security in the sense of freedom from arbitrary passions of
others and freedom from personal domination, in general, are tops. Moreover, not
only the person, but the person’s property must be free from violence and arbitrary
seizure. Under this banner, the feudal nobility represented the scapegoats. 2) The
quest for personal security lead to the notion of legal rights: the prevention of violence
suggested an efficient legal process. Freedom came to mean, thus, equality before the
law, the ability and right to sue for one’s personal and property rights in a court of law.
(State-building made this process available.) 3) All this also implied a new concept of
economic justice: i.e., equality of opportunity in the world market. But, of course, there
is no real economic equality: those who are rich would have greater opportunity.
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Humanists promoted these values, in art and literature, as well as in their
political writing, by glorifying the individual will and advocating liberty or freedom as
a function of human personality. They promoted individualism, rather than association
and brotherhood. And they did so by promoting a new political philosophy: political
participation and procedural values were emphasized over the idea of consent (that is,
over real participation and human values.)
Leonardo Bruni was a key figure. A fifteenth century humanist and Florentine
chancellor, Bruni argued that modern Florence was a good, popular government; i.e., a
government of the people, because it put all of its citizens on an equal legal footing: all
men were equal before the law. All people could participate in the sense that offices
were open to all, although only those fortunate enough to gain them would rule as
representatives of the rest. Equality, then, became political, and Bruni argued that this
was justice and liberty! Liberty was individual equality before the law and freedom
Justice, liberty, and fairness are transferred to the idea of legal equality and
equality of opportunity; there is legal equality of access to office and, furthermore,
fairness lies in the ability to approve of those running for representative office
in elections, held every now and then. Popular rule, then, no longer meant that all
really participate, or more important, consent, but only that they have a certain
legal opportunity to do so!
The law, with Bruni and the humanists, is only a force for dealing with social
inequalities in a very modern, special way. Namely, by ensuring personal and
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property security; but not by equalizing wealth, as in the guild ideal. Bruni held up
the scapegoat of the feudal nobles, who had now been suppressed in Florence, to
justify these changes. Noble lawlessness and feudal superiority had been
eliminated and, hence, Florence was a popular government, a government of the
people and the people were free. Bruni wrote:
“When the more powerful, relying on their own resources, were seen to harm and despise
the weak, the state (res publica) itself took up the cases of those with less power and
defended their property and persons with greater punishment. It was considered
reasonable that the unequal condition of men should lead to unequal punishment, and it
was thought prudent and just that he who was in greater need should receive more
assistance. Thus out of different classes (ordinibus) a certain balance (aequabilitas) was
created, as the greater were defended by their power and the lesser by the state, and both
by the fear of punishment.” 2
I n other words, equality, liberty, justice, these are all insured by preventing
the violence of the physically, militarily strong, by preventing the old feudal elite
from using violence. Notice, please, that the “weak” here have property that
needed to be defended!
The same argument was applied to the economic realm. Namely, there is legal
equality of opportunity in the world market, but there is no attempt to equalize
work or reward. Liberty is the legal ability to try, but not necessarily to succeed.
Hence, the humanists provided the work ethic. They glorified wealth, picturing it
as the reward of the virtuous man. As the Florentine chancellor and humanist
scholar Poggio Bracciolini wrote: “For the commonwealth, money is the nerve of
life and those who lust for money are the foundations.” Love of money, they
2 Correct the passage as translated in Kohl & Witt, p. 173, lines 25-34.
From Bruni’s Panegyric, quoted in Hans Baron’s From Petrarch to…., 99-100.
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argued, was natural. And Bracciolini castigated monks and priests who preached
against lusting after money and profit. Such preachers, according to him, were
“Hypocrites, parasites and coarse men who are running after food under the cover
It must be obvious to most of you that this is the philosophy of classical
liberalism. It is the philosophy of Adam Smith in the eighteenth century and
today, of many conservatives. Indeed, even the idea of laissez-faire
was already applied to the international realm by the Italian humanist, Brandolino
(1440-97). Brandolino argued that Italian civic liberty and republican government
promoted international freedom of trade and an enterprising commercial and
industrial spirit. This was an idea which was to become very important to classical
liberals in the nineteenth century. (Today this view is espoused not only by
conservatives, but all those who support NAFTA and other free trade laws.)
One last word about the philosophy of the civil society. The humanists got
some of these basic ideas out of the classics they loved so. Particularly important in this
regard was Cicero. Personal liberty and equality before the law, the ideal that
all may apply for offices in government, and the ideal of the self-made man were
all borrowed from Cicero.