Education, History, Top Stories

Cultural Revolution in the Renaissance?

It is a striking feature of our historical moment that vast numbers of cultural institutions, universities and professional associations have felt the need to express their horror at the sickening murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer on May 25th. Hundreds of such messages have shown up in my inbox since that day, from almost every institution that has my email address on its lists. (“Unsubscribe” is apparently one of those words that has a special meaning on the Internet, like “fact” and “free.”)

So it wasn’t really a surprise when the board governing the professional organization to which I feel closest, the Renaissance Society of America (RSA), decided to issue a “Statement in Support of Social Justice” last month, declaring its solidarity with the world-wide protests against “government-sanctioned brutality.” I wondered which organ of government had sanctioned the Floyd killing until I read further and met language blaming the incident on “a widespread and longstanding structure of anti-Black institutional racism that pervades American society and others around the globe,” a structure also characterized as “white supremacism.”

The board of directors then went on to instruct the RSA’s members how it thinks they should study and teach the Renaissance. We should recognize, they say, that the Renaissance as “remembered in the popular imagination” has a mostly positive, indeed dazzling image, but that we, who know better, should do our best, “whether we like it or not,” to “make room for the scholarship that explores early modernity in unflattering ways.” We should teach our students and the readers of our scholarship “how the technological, political, and financial creations of the early modern period have structured a Western European world view that has excluded or abused people of color.” The board reminds us that “the systems of higher education within which many of us work have long served as vehicles wherein those with advantage have accumulated more advantage.” We as a field have “a long way to go” in the task of denouncing the Renaissance’s “complicity” in elitist exclusions of “marginalized populations.” We should recognize our failure to focus sufficiently on “critical problems of enslavement, colonialism, and categories of blackness and whiteness.”

I don’t agree. To me the problem with the general public’s idea of the Renaissance is not that it is too positive, but that it has no distinct idea of the Renaissance at all. Does anyone think that the vast majority of Americans could accurately give even a rough set of dates for the beginning and end of the period? I remember some years ago, well-launched into the introductory lecture of my course on Renaissance Florence, being stopped by a student in the first row, vigorously waving her hand. “Please, professor, I’m trying to remember: which comes first, the Renaissance or the Enlightenment?” This from a Harvard undergraduate, supposedly the cream of America’s high school crop.

There is a reason for this ignorance. The Renaissance has been disappearing from high school classrooms for two generations now, a fact which RSA members have long bemoaned. The field of “Ren and Ref” that used to be standard in university history departments when I was a young historian has long been squeezed out between medieval and early modern history. That’s in the larger and better funded departments. In smaller ones the Renaissance is at best a one- or two-day stop in a survey course on premodern history or a tiny node in a global history of culture. In many art history departments the Renaissance is under a cloud because of its supposedly “elitist” character. In Italian departments it is hard enough to find someone who teaches Dante, let alone the less famous Trecento and Cinquecento authors, and most English departments abandoned their Shakespeare and Milton requirements decades ago.

Part of the reason for the gradual disappearance of the Renaissance from high schools and colleges, I am convinced, is the way the subject has often been taught in recent decades. Far too often it has been taught in exactly the unbalanced way that the RSA board urges us to teach it now. The economic life of the period, some colleagues stress, is one long tale of unjust exploitation. Its social world was rigidly stratified by wealth and ancestry; it marginalized and neglected the poor, the sick and the elderly. Its princes and oligarchs ruthlessly eliminated any who challenged their hold on power. The early Medici, admired for centuries as enlightened patrons of the arts, were in fact padrini, Mafia dons, who manipulated popular institutions to protect their wealth and influence. The art and humanistic literature of the Renaissance were the bought-and-paid-for property of elites whose only goal was to glorify themselves. The religion of Renaissance Christians can be best understood as an instrument of social control. What Jacob Burckhardt called “The Discovery of the World and of Man” was driven by the lust of imperialists to subject native peoples to European power. The lust for power was why women had no Renaissance, and why immigrants to Europe’s cities and the subject populations in its overseas colonies were hardly aware of its existence. The Renaissance itself was a self-serving myth, originating in the flattery of princes.

The problem with this picture of the Renaissance is not that it has no truth to it—it certainly has some—but that it is perversely unbalanced. It lacks any comparative context, probably because comparisons would reveal that the negative side of Renaissance society did not distinguish it markedly from other pre-modern societies. Fair comparisons might even reveal that Renaissance Europe in certain ways was more devoted to justice, more spiritually and artistically rich, and more charitable than many other premodern societies. For some reason many of my colleagues are ashamed to praise the positive achievements of the Renaissance, which, as it happens, are precisely those features that most set it apart from other historical periods. They fear, apparently, that to do so would make them sound naïve or, worse, somehow complicit in the evils of Western civilization.

In my view we Renaissance scholars have a great deal to admire and be grateful for in the period we study. We should not be reluctant to celebrate its achievements. I would go further and say that the writers, thinkers and artists of the Renaissance have messages for us today that we moderns still need to hear.

The RSA’s board of directors mentions only one Renaissance figure by name—Machiavelli—whom they excoriate for his “calculating ruminations on how to control populations [that] still serve as a ‘how to’ manual for leaders of all kinds.” I doubt whether many Machiavelli scholars would accept that as an adequate account of his influence. In my recent monograph Virtue Politics: Soulcraft and Statecraft in Renaissance Italy (Harvard, 2019) I was highly critical of Machiavelli for his malign influence on the Western political tradition, but there are many aspects of his thought that can and should be admired. Machiavelli was a bitter foe of abuses of power by self-proclaimed ottimati, for instance, and proposed new constitutional arrangements for Florence to protect those with less wealth and influence. Like other Florentine populists he despised and denounced scioperati, people who lived off the labors of others without contributing to society. Like other Renaissance republicans he believed that service to the state was a citizen’s highest calling. And, as Gabriele Pedullà has recently shown, Machiavelli’s doctrine of “conflictualism,” his defense of non-violent “tumults” as a legitimate feature of political life, became the fountainhead of the Western tradition of protest and helped secure the rights we have today to demonstrate peacefully against the government. Some of our students might find that interesting.

As I argue in my Virtue Politics, Machiavelli’s realism set him apart from the more idealistic mainstream of Renaissance political thinkers that flows from the humanistic teachings of Petrarch. The most characteristic and influential of these thinkers—Francesco Patrizi of Siena, whose political works rivaled Machiavelli’s in popularity during the 16th century—articulated many admirable political principles that deserve to have an audience today.

Like other humanists, Patrizi opposed what might be called “structural” political injustice, a political order built on hereditary prerogative and wealth. He called for the free cities and principalities of his day to be led by men and women of virtue, and argued, again like most humanists, that rulers who lacked virtue and wisdom lacked legitimacy. Civil society will inevitably have hierarchies, but they should be hierarchies that are morally justified by their care for society’s weakest members. Human societies are an organic whole, and we were born not for ourselves alone, but for our family, our friends, and our country (as the humanists delighted to quote from Plato).

Like almost all Renaissance humanists, Patrizi believed that the way to reform the political leadership of European societies was to educate them in the humanities. Studying poetry, history, eloquence, and moral philosophy would impart leadership skills as well as virtue and wisdom. The goodness and knowledge of Europe’s leaders would make them respected and increase their ability to rule their societies with the least possible coercion. This implied that in republics, where all citizens should take some part in government, all citizens should be educated. In his work on the government of free cities Patrizi was the first European thinker ever to call for all citizens to be literate (and in Latin!) as a condition of political participation. He argued that all cities should hire professors of humanities at public expense, so that those who could not afford higher education could have access to it free of charge.

Patrizi, like many other humanists, deplored the excessive power of the wealthy in the societies of his day, and called for extremes of wealth to be equalized through some form of redistribution. The wealthy should learn to control their greed and subordinate their acquisitive urges to the needs of their families, friends, and country. The legal system should be reformed so that both defense counsel and prosecutors would be paid by the city; this would prevent the wealthy from buying their way out of crimes and delicts. Patrizi was also opposed to offensive war and imperialism because it handed power to the wealthy and made the state dependent on mercenaries. The city would be far better off spending its taxes (which should be kept low) on defense-works and on beautifying the city with fine buildings, clean streets, painting, and statuary. Poetry (Patrizi was a fine Latin poet himself) should be encouraged as a way to ennoble the hearts of citizens.

Somehow I doubt whether very many members of the RSA would oppose such measures if per miraculum they could be introduced in the form of bills before the US Congress. So why, exactly, are we ashamed of the Renaissance? Why aren’t we teaching its ideals and remembering its great achievements in philosophy, letters, and the arts? Of course our students deserve to know that Europe in the Renaissance period suffered from the same appalling injustices that bedevil all societies. They can hardly understand the reforming efforts of its humanists and the longing for beauty and order of its artists without understanding the ugliness and moral failings of the times. But do we really think that young people will want to study this key period of Western civilization if their teachers constantly hammer away at its culpability in establishing “white supremacy”? Do we really think the modern world can learn nothing of value from the past? If we don’t, why are we teaching about the Renaissance at all?


James Hankins is Professor of History at Harvard University. In 2012 the Renaissance Society of America awarded him its highest honor, the Paul Oskar Kristeller Lifetime Achievement Award.

Feature image: La Primavera, Sandro Botticelli, circa 1480, Uffizi.


  1. Societies teach the histories (and myths) of their people.
    Begin to replace the people, and you will see they begin to replace the history.

    Where there is intent to replace the people, you can be sure there is intent to replace the history.

    Complete the replacement (& displacement) of a people and complete the removal of their history.

    Are you beginning to understand how genocide works?
    Note - it isn’t just about mass killing.
    It is about replacing.

    For the renaissance to have any place in the world, other than as an otherised cultural period with little connection or importance to the present it will only be if White nations in the West continue to exist as White nations, and become empowered to deliberately assert themselves as such, and endorse themselves as having the moral duty and right to remain so.

    A right that most certainly exists.

    Uncontained and unlimited diversity isn’t a nice idea, nor a moral one, it is a genocidal application of false and harmful ideals lacking insight, or appreciation of the consequences - and the rights of those affected by its application.

  2. Welcome to the world of modern ‘scholarship’ - which seeks not understanding, but to ‘improve’ the contemporary world.


  3. No offense, but most Harvard students are unworthy of the Renaissance.

  4. recognize our failure to focus sufficiently on “critical problems of enslavement, colonialism, and categories of blackness and whiteness.”

    I fully agree with this statement. The idea that African chattel slavery was the only form of slavery is offensive. The idea that colonialism and the slave trade are the pinnacle of white supremacy is laughable.
    My Irish ancestors suffered greatly, starving to death in their homeland while British Colonialists occupied their lands, sat back and laughed.
    How many Africans starved to death as a result of colonial oppression?
    Slavery was an indigenous West African institution. Lets talk about that.
    Want to talk about diaspora? The Irish had little choice but to leave their oppression. They headed out indentured serfs, and many died never knowing freedom.
    Oh but it didnt end there. Children of the Irish immigrants suffered horrible treatments. The idea of ‘white’ as a monoblock of identity didnt come about until WWII. My American born Grandfather of Irish blood told me all about his life in Detroit in the 1930’s. Irish Need Not Apply was the norm, not the exception, in living memory.

    Should i share what the family thinks happened to my immigrant Great Great Grandmother, Mary Devon from Cork? As far as we can tell her family starved to death, and she descended into prostitution to survive. My family are all sons and daughters of a whore, a whore whoose family slowly starved to death before her very eyes.
    Native peoples. Irish. Armenians. Jews. Africans. There are many sad stories.

  5. I don’t know; all I do know is that what happened to both was wrong, and that I think comparing levels of victimhood is wrong, because it’s profoundly un-productive. (Sorry.)


  6. Ive been to the Door of No Return off the coast of Dakar in Senegal.
    Ive also been to the slave holding caves on Zanzibar. Ive read a fair bit on both the West and East African slave systems (they are completely different). Ive also read a bit about slave raiding from North Africa.

    The West African slaving tribes, like the Mandinka, exploited their black brothers and sisters, horribly.

    If i was a slave in 1820 West Africa, i would have loved to be shipped to South Carolina. Yes the voyage would have been a challenge, but nothing worse than the Cubans who float to Florida thru the shark infested waters. Survival rates are similar.

    An honest conversation about race in the USA would be a welcome breath of fresh air. Comparing and contrasting these experiences would go a long way towards ending the victimhood culture we have now. And IMO it would be very productive. Sorry :slight_smile:

    And that was why i posted my story.

  7. The scale and scope of the DIE syndicate is staggering. An alternate government, really. It springs into action lithely. Tens of thousands of minions, dashing off missives, bustling to and fro, coaxing and cajoling, hectoring and haranguing, marching and bull horning. Like conducting a giant symphony orchestra to a crescendo of public opinion. It’s an awesome machine, I kid you not.

  8. Monoblock means seemless, no gaskets, no weak links, completely integrated. Monoblock. It comes from the early engine designs that suffered failures where the various parts attempted to come together. I do a fair bit of wrenching, maybe it is just too obscure a reference. Here is a illustration of a 1905 design of a monoblock engine, one of the earliest examples.

    White as a monoblock is a recent idea. All kinds of derisive white minorities existed until very recently. Pollocks, Dagos, Krauts, Frogs, etc etc peppered our descriptions in everyday language. Yank was a unifying concept in each Great War, Civil War as well. In fact the mass deployments of various wars went a long way toward an unified identity. By extension Black inclusion in Vietnam as well. I would argue Gay acceptance in the Military also played a strong role in the national dialogue. But the role of the Military as ethnic normalizer is best dealt with elsewhere. Not sure if that will work for the trans community.

  9. Reminds me of another recent idea, monocoque.

  10. The history of humans is a history of slavery. The Sumerians, the Egyptians, the Greeks and romans, the Ottoman Empire…

    Until the British came along and decided to abolish the idea and practice of the slave trade and the US and other western countries followed suit within the next 20 or so years. Apparently of all the great civilizations who practiced slavery throughout history, the West is the first and only with the agency to, in hindsight, “have known better“ and be held accountable for having not…I don’t know…come to power in a world where slavery didn’t exist? Not extinguishing it instantaneously upon arrival at power?

    The current take is a nonsense way to look at history and slavery in particular. Everyone’s ancestors were slaves.

  11. Reparations is a word i keep hearing. Should the Irish be compensated by the Brits?

    Should the Mandinka pay Black Americans?

    Recent slave markets have existed in both the Islamic State, where Yazidi girls were openly bid on and sold, and in Libya, where open slave markets can be found.

  12. Of course postmodernism wants to dismantle the dawn of modernism, when artists first began to mock the absolute authority of the Church, and the rise of merchants was a precursor to challenging the absolute temporal power of the Sovereign. It seeks to devalue, degrade and destroy all history and all beauty, because only then can it usher in the bleak, cruel and impoverished future which its delusional adherents truly believe will be a utopia.

    Because history proves that all socialism has failed, at every level. One wonders how all those minorities will fare, when the State fails abysmally to introduce the soulless uniformity of outcome which they all so desperately crave. Because history has also proved that Socialism with its inherent tilt towards totalitarianism, also produces the most racist regimes…

  13. As the Quillette FAQ says: This is a Civilized Place for Public Discussion

    While I enjoyed reading this article here, I can’t but wonder if this is the only site where an eminent Harvard scholar could submit it these days without it either sinking into oblivion or attracting the ire of the woke ignorami. Is Quillette the last civilized place on the internet?

  14. Seriously, what does the Renaissance have to do with “people of color”?

    The claim being made by the Renaissance Society of America that the Renaissance has “excluded or abused people of colour” sounds cultist and is - as usual - unsubstantiated.

    Let’s burn Da Vinci’s paintings; they’re not diverse enough.

    This is crazy. How do we get these diversity freaks out of our lives?

  15. One of the ironies here, as even a surface knowledge of the period suggests, is that the Renaissance marked the flourishing of greater artistic freedom following the oppressive influence of the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages - a time when the only acceptable artistic subjects were based on Christianity. We are now moving into a period in which the only acceptable artistic subjects are based on Social Justice - our equally uncompromising 21st century religion.

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