Dr. Paul Rahe’s Introduction Into The Renaissance
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HH: It is time now to commence our weekly end of the week radio hour with a member of the faculty from Hillsdale College, usually Dr. Larry Arnn. This week, though, Dr. Paul Rahe is back. He is of course a frequent visitor to our program. He’s been here before on some of the classics. He’s been at Hillsdale for many years. He writes on Montesquieu. His most recent book is called Soft Despotism. Actually, I think your most recent book is Montesquieu And The Logic Of Liberty, isn’t it, Professor Rahe?
PR: That’s true. That’s true. They came out four months apart, though.
HH: Okay, well, I’m getting easily confused, then. But Dr. Rahe, why do you think they nominated you to do the Renaissance with me?
PR: Who knows? I’ve written a book on Machiavelli. There’s a book called Against Throne And Alter: Machiavelli And Political Theory Under The English Republic, and it includes figures like John Milton and Thomas Hobbes, who are also sort of at the very tail end of the Renaissance.
HH: I thought it was maybe because you got the short straw at the faculty meeting and somebody had to do this, because we’ve just spent a grand total of ten weeks on Aquinas and Dante. And so I said to them last week, we’ve got to pick up the pace. We have to move, you know, otherwise we’re never going to get out of the 15th Century. And so they said okay, we’ll get Rahe. And so you have been nominated. So let’s begin by really anchoring people in what we mean by Renaissance. I’m hoping, for example, that the Cleveland Browns enjoy a renaissance. A lot of people believe that in America, there is a renaissance underway in architecture. A lot of folks have spoken about renaissances in different places in different times, but we’re talking about the Renaissance. What does that mean to you?
PR: Well, you know, the word means rebirth, and it is used to refer to a kind of transformation in learning that takes place in the 15th Century, really, 15th, 16th, 17th Centuries. And it’s tied with a recovery of the classics. I don’t mean that the later Middle Ages didn’t have Aristotle and so forth, but there’s a huge influx of new texts that takes place in the late 14th, 15th, 16th, 17th Century, the rediscovery of Cicero’s letters, for example, the discovery of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, the full recovery of Plato. And party, it has to do with people wandering around monasteries and turning up manuscripts that had not been noticed before. But partly, it also has to do with the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Turks, and a flood of scholarly types bringing Greek manuscripts from what had been the Eastern Roman Empire. And that coincides with a social change. Prior to that time, the ministers of kings had a tendency to be bishops, because they were the main, the educated people. And so churchmen were the intelligentsia. What you have growing up in this period of the Renaissance is a group of laymen who hold high offices in republics like Venice and Florence, and in courts all over Europe. And this lay class is educated in the classics. There’s also a shift in focus. In the medieval period, among the scholastics in particular, there’s a focus on metaphysics and on theology. The humanists of the Renaissance period tend to be focused on rhetoric and ethics. So in a way, it begins with Cicero, with the sort of rhetorical works of Cicero, and then with his ethical works like De Officiis. But then along comes Aristotle, and the Nicomachean Ethics becomes central, and then Aristotle’s rhetoric becomes central.
HH: When you say, Dr. Rahe, that they become central, to whom are we referring they become central to, because again, the geography of that period is only remotely understood by the modern audience. People driving around right now are used to cars, trucks, automobiles, trains, planes. The idea of Florence, for those of us who have been lucky enough to be there, of a volcano of activity, still would strike us as a rather small berg, etc. But who is this happening with? Yes, a few bishops, but how do they get around, and physically, what is their life like?
PR: Well, they’re educated people. They’re lay people. They travel a fair amount. People like Thomas More and Desiderius Erasmus are all over. Machiavelli is a diplomat, and so he goes to the French court, he goes to the court of the Holy Roman emperor on behalf of Florence. So these people are employed at very high levels. They have to have excellent Latin, because all public tasks take place in Latin, and they form a class, just as the scholastics formed a class, and a very self-conscious class. And the heart of the matter, the sort of central theme, is rhetoric and ethics and good government. And so for example, you have a whole series of humanists as chancellors of the Florentine republic – Coluccio Salutati, Leonardo Bruni, Carlo Marsuppini, Poggio Brocciolini, Benedetto Accolti, Bartolomeo Scala. And you know, notice I’m emphasizing Italy, because…
PR: It starts in Italy. Italy is really the, it’s the wealthiest place in Europe. It has the oldest civilization, the most cities. It’s the most urbanized place. And it is in Italy that you get the first emergence of this. And then it’s imitated everywhere else.
HH: Now when it begins to emerge, are people conscious of something new happening? And again for the benefit of our modern audience, I’ll talk about music scenes. People were aware when it happened of the English invasion in the 60s. They were aware when it happened of the Seattle music scene. They were aware when it happened of urban rap and of East and West. Were they aware of an intellectual ferment going on in the late 15th Century?
PR: Yes. They didn’t call it the Renaissance. That’s our word. But they are aware of the new learning, and they are aware that their focus is different. And so one of the things they do is they attack the churchmen. They don’t attack Christianity directly, but they attack the sort of pomposity of metaphysics, they attack the scholastics. And they articulate an understanding of the good life built around language. So philology lies at the center of it.
HH: Now unpack that. We’ve got a lot of Steelers fans out there, Paul Rahe, so you’ve got to unpack philology very carefully for them.
PR: Well, it’s the study of language.
HH: They think it’s a Christmas carol, so be careful.
PR: Yeah, right, and rhetoric and logic are a part of it.
PR: You know, one of the things actually we’re doing at Hillsdale is we have a new required course as part of our core on rhetoric and logic. So there’s a certain sense in which we are going back to the Renaissance and trying to recover the spirit of what they were doing. Another thing that happens in the Renaissance is people start writing in the vernacular. In the Middle Ages, there are, you know, popular ditties written in the vernacular. There’s a little bit of literature written in the vernacular. But in the course of the Renaissance, you begin to have people like Machiavelli writing in Italian, and Montaigne writing in French, and Shakespeare and Milton writing in English.
HH: And so you’ve just put people…
PR: So there begins to be a larger public is what I’m getting at, and of course, one of the things that happens in the 15th Century is the introduction of printing.
HH: You just went from the 15th Century to the 16th Century. Montaigne is late 16th Century, and we began in the 1450s. So this Renaissance period is really sort of a mess when you try and organize it chronologically, isn’t it?
PR: Well, it starts in Italy in the earlier period, and then it spreads north, you know, so that the era of Thomas More and Erasmus is later than the earliest era in Italy, than Poggio Bracciolini and so forth. And then it’ll eventually get to England, and you’ll have Sir Philip Sidney, you’ll have Spencer, you’ll have William Shakespeare, you’ll have Ben Jonson. And I believe the last figure in the English Renaissance is Thomas Hobbes. Now that might seem odd, but his first book was a translation into English of Thucydides. And his last book was a translation into English of Homer.
HH: Well, that’s interesting, because as we go to our break, then, people can think of this as beginning with Dante and ending with Hobbes?
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HH: I have to ask right now, I was with your commencement speaker yesterday, Dr. Rahe. Eric Metaxas will be giving the commencement at Hillsdale, and people often refer, rightfully so, to Eric as a renaissance man. And what do you mean by that when you hear it? What do you think that ought to mean?
PR: Well, it means rounded. It means all learning is at his command. It doesn’t mean that he’s in nuclear physics, but he knows a fair amount about it, and he knows how to find an expert, and he knows who’s good on it, and who’s not. It doesn’t mean that he knows everything about ballet, but he knows something about it. He’s been to the ballet a few times, and he knows some of the better ballets. In other words, he’s somebody who’s extraordinarily broad, and whose got great reach.
HH: Do you think someone can lead a good life if they are not a renaissance individual?
HH: Is it easier to live a good life if someone is a renaissance individual?
PR: I think so.
PR: Well, look, the good life is tied up with two things – work and leisure. And if you’re well-educated, you’ve got a better shot at getting work that has satisfaction in it, that is genuinely a pleasure. But leave that aside. A lot of work is drudgery. I remember my doctri fater saying to me that being a professor half of the time is no more interesting than being a truck driver.
HH: As I look at a stack of Blue Books, I wish to concur in his judgment, yes.
PR: Yes, precisely. But here’s what the advantage the renaissance man has, a refined use of leisure. That is to say the breadth enables you to enjoy ballet. It enables you to enjoy opera. It enables you to enjoy novels of different kinds. It enables you to enjoy reading something like The Economist, which you know, gives you a picture of a large world. It gives you the capacity to read Friedrich Hayek and understand him. So what you can do if you get a proper education in college is it lays a foundation for reading all these other things through the rest of your life.
HH: So I’m talking with Dr. Paul Rahe of Hillsdale College about the Renaissance, and the Renaissance begins in the late 15th Century and extends for many hundreds of years. But I want to ask the question that I think a lot of people will intuit. In 1517, Luther starts the Reformation, which runs somewhat concurrently with the Renaissance. Did the Renaissance give rise to the Reformation?
PR: Well, in one sense, yes. One of the things that happens in the Renaissance, and Erasmus is a major figure in this regard, is a turn from the Latin Bible to the Greek Bible, and beyond that, to the Aramaic. And so the Reformation is grounded in certain arguments about how certain documents in the Bible should be read. And the learning that lies behind those claims on, say, Luther’s part, is provided by Erasmus. So he’s extraordinarily important in this regard. Erasmus, by the way, remains a Catholic to the very end. Luther tries to lure him into Protestantism, but he doesn’t go there. But without Erasmus, it’s hard to imagine that Luther or Calvin would have been possible.
HH: But even if Erasmus had not undertaken what he did, a Luther or a Calvin was inevitable given the explosion of learning, wasn’t it?
PR: Probably. That is to say somebody would have done the work that Erasmus did, sort of critical editions in the Greek of Biblical texts. And the explosion of learning and the expansion of learning beyond the clergy, remember, Calvin’s not a clergyman.
PR: That just opens things up. There are many more people who are literate as a consequence of what’s been happening, and you know, let’s not deemphasize printing. Printing is like the internet. Printing is like radio. It suddenly makes communication much cheaper than it had ever been before. The book that has to be copied laboriously is a very expensive item. From our perspective, the printed book is an expensive item, because we can go to the internet and get these things free.
PR: But the printed book is much, much cheaper than the copied book. So access becomes crucial. And you know, for the Reformation, it’s access to the Bible, and in particular, access to the Bible in vernacular translations.
HH: Which is why when Luther translates it into German, it’s a radical act, as radical as nailing the theses to the wall.
PR: Absolutely. And look, if you think of the English Reformation, the King James Bible, it comes not right at beginning, but it’s the thing that’s had the greatest staying power. It still has got staying power.
HH: Now at the same time, and I’m glad you mentioned Shakespeare earlier, and he’s also one of the people who worked on the King James Bible translation. At the same time that there are all these people who are getting smart and smarter and writing great books, art explodes.
HH: So why?
PR: Well, once again, the inspiration is classical. One of the things that goes on in the Renaissance is the rediscovery of things like classical sculpture. There’s a kind of archaeology taking place. And it’s the inspiration of that that leads to someone like Michelangelo. You know, this world is very small. One of the things that is wonderful from the period are the letters of Machiavelli. And one of the things that’s a hoot in these letters is he’s writing to a friend in Rome, and he’s sending the letter with a fellow he knows who’s going down to Rome named Michelangelo.
HH: Yeah, that is.
PR: So these people all know one another.
HH: And they’re also traveling between the various capitals, as was established in the last few weeks. Aquinas would go off, sent hither or yon by the Pope to arbitrate some dispute, and Dante gets tossed out of Florence and runs over to Ravenna and hangs out there. And everyone’s moving around. But there is civil strife. This is not a period of the lamb laying down with the lion.
PR: No, there never has been such a period, and there’s never going to be.
HH: Wow, that’s kind of a…
PR: This is a period of great wars, because look, the kingdoms in Europe were kind of getting organized.
HH: I’ve got to day, that was a pretty dark, that was a pretty dark comment, Dr. Rahe. I mean, that was, there’s never going to be?
PR: Never going to be. You know, I’m on leave this year at the Hoover Institution in California where you are writing a book on, well, I’ve written a book on the Persian wars, and I’m writing a book on the Peloponnesian war, working my way up to it. So I’ve been thinking about war a lot. And no, it’s not going to go away.
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HH: So Dr. Rahe, help me out here. I have to do the outline for these. I have to figure out how and whom to study if we’re going to communicate the Renaissance, so let’s do some cheat sheet here. Where would you go? And who would you make sure we cover in the next few months, so that someone gets a sense of who mattered and in what order that they mattered and why they mattered?
PR: Well, I’d start with Petrarch, largely because he’s at the beginning of the game, and he, there you can find stated in the clearest possible way the critique of scholasticism. But there you can also find the interest in Cicero and in his letters. I’d look at Leonardo Bruni, who’s a chancellor of the Florentine Republic, and is one of the figures that are called civic humanists. This is a period when people begin to think about the recovery of republicanism. In the Middle Ages, the orientation was to reestablish the Roman Empire. Universal monarchy was the theme. Now, you begin to have people who begin to think maybe republicanism is a better form of government than monarchy. And one of those who toys with this idea is Leonardo Bruni.
PR: Another figure you can’t do without is a man who drafted his greatest work five hundred years ago, precisely five hundred years ago. His name was Niccolo Machiavelli.
HH: Well, of course. Now how would you in this format, would you go with The Prince? Or would you go with The Republic? Would you go with The Letters? What would you do knowing that at most, we spend three or four weeks on any individual?
PR: I would go with The Prince, and I’d look at it very carefully. It has the great virtue of being short, pithy, shocking and fascinating. His other work, the discourses on Livy, it’s a very important book. But to do it right, you need to be reading Livy at the same time. It’s the sort of thing for an upper level seminar for a senior or for graduate students. But The Prince is accessible to anyone. You can simply pick it up.
HH: It’s also understood, or at least it was understood by my teachers to represent what he called the break, the big change. What do you think he meant by…
PR: I think that’s right.
HH: And so what is that break that people should be ready for?
PR: Well, if you look in chapter 15 of The Prince, where I think the heart of the thing lies, there’s a direct attack on morality. And the attack takes the form of suggesting that all of the qualities that we consider good, and all of the qualities we consider evil are in fact characteristics, postures that if you’re looking out for yourself, you might adopt one or the other at any given time. That is to say there’s a kind of flexibility being preached. And the standard for conduct should be security and well-being, the last two words of chapter 15 of The Prince. And this is a bomb thrown at Aristotle. So what you’ve got with Machiavelli is someone inside the Renaissance blowing up the Renaissance. And after him, people have to cope with this critique of morality.
HH: How fast does it travel?
PR: Very fast. By the end of the 16th Century, it’s written in the early part of the 16th Century, it’s being praised to the skies by Sir Francis Bacon in England. You know, it doesn’t get published until 1532, but it gets published in another way by a copyist starting about 1516. And it spreads.
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HH: After that, Professor Rahe, where would you suggest we go when we’re done, when we lay down The Prince?
PR: Well, I’d go to Claudio Monteverdi. I’d go to music. Everyone’s hear of Galileo, but very few people know that his father was one of the creators of opera. An opera was envisaged by Vincenzo Galilei as a restoration of Ancient Greek tragedy, which they knew was sung.
PR: And the person who realized…
HH: I didn’t know that.
PR: …most fully was Claudio Monteverdi, one of the great opera composers. So you might want to look at music, and at the attempt to recovery classical tragedy, and the production as a consequence of that, of the first operas.
HH: So we had spoken about how learning and writing and art had flourished, but we had neglected music, and of course, the Renaissance is the great rebirth of musical tradition as well.
PR: Yes, and it’s just a wonderful period in music. Polyphony, you know, with different voices sort of weaving in and out of one another, it’s my favorite period, musically.
HH: Are you going to suggest, though, Erasmus? Are you going to send us to Thomas More?
PR: Yes, and they should read, the most accessible work is In Praise Of Folly, which he wrote one year when he was staying in the house of Thomas More. And he wrote it in Latin, and the word for folly in Latin is More’s name. So this, it’s a pun on the name of his host.
HH: Now believe it or not, there’s a little sort of anti-More bubble going on in Wolf Hall and these popular novels which attempt to rewrite the role of More in the common consciousness from the great English patriot, scholar and bishop to being something of a prig.
PR: Right, and Wolf Hall’s in praise of Thomas Cromwell…
PR: …who is the man who first brought a Machiavelli manuscript to England.
HH: (laughing) Oh, perfect.
PR: And in substance, it was the inspiration for the English Reformation as he understood it. So all these things are connected with one another. And then I would read Thomas More’s Utopia.
HH: Oh, I was afraid you were going to, I was trying to stop you before you told us to do that, because Mark Levin, my radio pal, did that for his Liberty Amendments, and I told him when I was interviewing him that he could never get me to read Utopia, ever.
PR: Oh, it’s great fun.
HH: Oh, Paul Rahe, God, I love you, but no, it’s not. It’s like nails through your nose. It’s terrible.
PR: And then I’d read the essays of Michel de Montaigne.
HH: Well, that I spent a full year as an undergraduate doing, and yes, we’ll do Number 26 on Friendship, which is one of my favorite bits of writing ever.
PR: Yes, yes. And you know, you might read Starry Night by Galileo.
HH: Okay, I’m writing note copiously.
PR: You know, the history of science?
HH: …which is what a good student does, Starry Night by Galileo. Why?
PR: Well, it’s one of the books that simply transforms things. And you know, one of the arguments he’s making is the liberation of philosophy from theology. So it’s trying to break things wide open.
HH: You know what’s interesting to me, Montaigne, of course, a Frenchman, but this is primarily not a French undertaking, correct?
PR: No, it’s a universal undertaking, and it gets translated right away. It’s written in French, though it’s a very Latinate French, because his mastery of Latin is…
HH: Oh, I’m just talking about the Renaissance generally. Except for Montaigne, you have named to me all non-Frenchmen.
HH: Are they the second…
PR: Well, you could read John Calvin.
HH: Well, of course, and people will think…
PR: And he was a humanist.
PR: John Calvin was a humanist. Oh, yes. He was trained the way these other people were trained.
HH: How interesting. I wonder, Institutes, obviously, and so I may have to put him in there somewhere as well.
HH: Did the rest of them read Calvin and, say, shudder, that’s not what we’re about?
PR: That’s a good question. I think Shakespeare read Calvin and shuddered.
HH: And then we will be ending obviously with Shakespeare, but that could be, we could be lost in Shakespeare for a very long time.
PR: Right, but don’t forget Ben Jonson.
HH: Because everybody else does, right?
PR: Yes, and look, a play like Volpone is just wonderful, or his Sejanus, you know, a play that he’s essentially adopted a story out of Tacitus for. I think Jonson is absolutely wonderful.
HH: Then we’ll be back to Shakespeare, and then we will wrap up with the man you told us to wrap up with. But I’m very curious about all this. When it’s over, does anyone or anything mark the end of the Renaissance?
PR: Well, yes. I think it’s Machiavelli’s success in blowing it up. So if you wanted to look at a book that is written by a Renaissance figure, but it’s definitely a post-Renaissance book, I would read Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes.
HH: Okay, so written by a Renaissance man, and the tombstone of the Renaissance.
PR: Yeah, and it lays the foundation for the Enlightenment.
HH: And would you, in the minute left to us, explain what you mean by that?
PR: Well, it’s an attempt to apply science understood in the modern sense, inspired by Bacon, not inspired by Descartes, but Hobbes is pursuing the same kind of thinking as Descartes, which is to say mathematics is the foundation of science, and to recast politics and everything else in light of science. It makes science understood in the modern sense the standard for all knowledge.
HH: Again, inevitable that it happened, or simply because Hobbes came along?
PR: Gosh, well, he’s not alone. You know, you could push this back to Bacon and it’s there, although I think Hobbes, rhetorically, is more powerful than Bacon with his Leviathan. I would say that something of the sort was going to happen. Now the way it happens is determined by the way Hobbes frames it. And he invents the state of nature, so the kinds of arguments about natural rights and the relationship between natural right and man’s condition in the state of nature, that comes right out of Hobbes.
HH: Paul Rahe, professor at Hillsdale, thank you for a wonderful introduction to the Renaissance. We’ll be back next week, America, to take it up in earnest.
End of interview.