by James Hankins
Harvard University Press, 2019
Paper: 978-0-674-27873-8 | eISBN: 978-0-674-24251-7 | Cloth: 978-0-674-23755-1
Library of Congress Classification HM665.H36 2019
Dewey Decimal Classification 170


Winner of the Helen and Howard Marraro Prize
A Times Literary Supplement Book of the Year

“Perhaps the greatest study ever written of Renaissance political thought.”
—Jeffrey Collins, Times Literary Supplement

“Magisterial…Hankins shows that the humanists’ obsession with character explains their surprising indifference to particular forms of government. If rulers lacked authentic virtue, they believed, it did not matter what institutions framed their power.”
Wall Street Journal

“Puts the politics back into humanism in an extraordinarily deep and far-reaching way…For generations to come, all who write about the political thought of Italian humanism will have to refer to it; its influence will be…nothing less than transformative.”
—Noel Malcolm, American Affairs

“[A] masterpiece…It is only Hankins’s tireless exploration of forgotten documents…and extraordinary endeavors of editing, translation, and exposition that allow us to reconstruct—almost for the first time in 550 years—[the humanists’] three compelling arguments for why a strong moral character and habits of truth are vital for governing well. Yet they are as relevant to contemporary democracy in Britain, and in the United States, as to Machiavelli.”
—Rory Stewart, Times Literary Supplement

“The lessons for today are clear and profound.”
—Robert D. Kaplan

Convulsed by a civilizational crisis, the great thinkers of the Renaissance set out to reconceive the nature of society. Everywhere they saw problems. Corrupt and reckless tyrants sowing discord and ruling through fear; elites who prized wealth and status over the common good; religious leaders preoccupied with self-advancement while feuding armies waged endless wars. Their solution was at once simple and radical. “Men, not walls, make a city,” as Thucydides so memorably said. They would rebuild the fabric of society by transforming the moral character of its citizens. Soulcraft, they believed, was a precondition of successful statecraft.

A landmark reappraisal of Renaissance political thought, Virtue Politics challenges the traditional narrative that looks to the Renaissance as the seedbed of modern republicanism and sees Machiavelli as its exemplary thinker. James Hankins reveals that what most concerned the humanists was not reforming institutions so much as shaping citizens. If character mattered more than laws, it would have to be nurtured through a new program of education they called the studia humanitatis: the precursor to our embattled humanities.

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