previous part
next part




Anxiety and the Formation of Early Modern Culture

This paper was prepared for my Faculty Research Lecture at Berkeley in 1975. The lectureship is a formidable assignment, not only because it is a considerable honor but also because the lecture must address an audience composed of ones professional peers as well as students and faculty from the whole range of disciplines in the university. The subject of the paper had long been on my mind, but I had not before attempted to think about it systematically. Some of those who heard the lecture believed that I was offering a description of the contemporary world disguised as an account of the past.

Eventually I published the paper, somewhat revised, in After the Reformation: Essays in Honor of J. H. Hexter, ed. Barbara C. Malament (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1980), pp. 215–246. It is reprinted here by permission of the University of Pennsylvania Press .

All men may be anxious; but it is commonly observed that some are more anxious than others, both individually and in groups. It is widely believed, for example, that our own age is a time of peculiar anxiety.[1] But though this impression may derive less from the considered views of professional historians than from the general distress of the later twentieth century, it is obviously a historical judgment; it implies that various moments in the past can be contrasted in terms of the degree of anxiety they exhibit.

But systematic elaboration of such contrast is difficult. "Anxiety" is itself a problematic term; and without some clear conception of its sources in the human personality, its dynamics, and its relation to other subjective states, we may well misread our evidence and above all misunderstand the relation between anxiety and objective experience. The


study of historical anxiety therefore requires some special theoretical resources. But the empirical side of such investigation also presents unusual difficulties. Some degree of anxiety seems latent in the human condition, and various expressions of it can doubtless be discovered in every time and place. At the same time it seems unlikely that, outside of the laboratory, anxiety can ever be submitted to precise measurement. Accordingly, the judgment that one age or social group was more or less anxious than another can hardly be supported by the kind of hard comparative data that may be adduced for more objective phenomena. In dealing with matters of this sort we are therefore likely to find ourselves in the awkward position of basing essentially quantitative conclusions on patently qualitative evidence.[2] And we may find no evidence at all precisely where we most need it.

Nevertheless these problems have not deterred able historians from speaking about past anxiety. At least one distinguished scholar has used the term to characterize the later hellenistic world.[3] And it is notably present, at various levels of generality, in recent scholarship dealing with the transition from those centuries that were clearly "medieval" to those almost as clearly not. Historians of this important segment of the European past seem, in fact, to be discovering symptoms of a peculiar anxiety in many places. Origo and Bec have noted the heightened anxiety of Italian merchants; Lewis, that of merchants in France; Dollinger, that of German merchants; Herlihy has found it deeply embedded in the Renaissance family, transmitted from anxious mothers to their children.[4] Historians with larger purposes are meanwhile coming steadily closer to a general characterization of this as an age of special anxiety. The tendency is apparent in the excellent monographs of Douglass and Steinmetz on later medieval piety, and in the more general studies of Seidlmayer, Meiss, Becker, Delaruelle, Trinkaus, Oberman, Delumeau, Ozment, Dickens, and Walzer.[5] Garin speaks of the Italian Renaissance as "the beginning of an age of [subjective] torment," whatever it may have represented positively.[6] And Lynn White, Jr., broadly presenting the three or four centuries after 1300 as a time of "abnormal anxiety," has offered us a general interpretation of the period in these terms.[7] We seem to be reaching a point at which the general implications of this scholarship, based on both northern and southern Europe, on movements conventionally associated both with the later Middle Ages and with the Renaissance, and on every social group for which evidence is available, must be confronted more deliberately.

A rather different kind of pressure, less clearly the product of professional investigation, is impelling us in the same direction. There has


been a remarkable tendency among recent translators into English, concerned to convey meaning from one time, as well as one language, to another, to read "anxiety" into a wide range of words or phrases in documents of this period. The transformation of the Latin anxietas into "anxiety" may occasional little surprise, though perhaps it should; in medieval usage anxietas signified a vague weariness or distress of heart, and came close to monastic acedia or even tristitia .[8] But the meaning of anxietas seems to have broadened by the sixteenth century, as we can learn from Calvin, that indefatigable translator of his own Latin into the vernacular. In his French Institution Calvin variously rendered the anxietas of the Latin Institutio into angoisse, destresse, frayeur , and solicitude , and his Latin solicitudo (evidently a close synonym) could become either solicitude or perplexité .[9] By the time "anxiety" and "anxious" entered English in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (and that they did so at this time is of obvious interest here), they evidently already conveyed these various possibilities; and we can certainly forgive recent translators, themselves doubtless in some perplexité , at least a part of their freedom, even though it may occasionally raise an eyebrow. From Latin Petrarch's cura and the distractio of Thomas á Kempis can both emerge as "anxiety."[10] And a host of vernacular expressions come out similarly. The identification of the German Angst and Anfechtung with "anxiety" is sufficiently familiar, although, to be sure, Reformation scholars have been unusually conscious of the nuances of these more technically theological terms. But from the French, Commynes's ce travail et misere now appears as "their anxieties and their worries";[11] and a recent translation of Alberti's I libri della famiglia converts maninconia, affanno, cura, sollecitudine, sospetto, perturbazione , and agonia di mente indiscriminately into "anxiety," buona diliqenza into "anxious attention," and stare in paura into "to be anxious."[12] From Spanish both ansia and cuidado emerge as "anxiety."[13] I do not propose to quarrel here with these renderings; I want only to suggest how, even by so apparently innocent a route we are being led into strange new historiographical territory.

A further impulse behind our sense of the period after about 1300 as an age of unusual anxiety stems from the more benign impression conveyed by the culture of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In that earlier period, those men whose attitudes are accessible to us appear to have felt reasonably comfortable about human existence.[14] The prospects for mankind, both in this world and the next, seemed generally happy; the medieval schools could demonstrate, with increasing confidence, the intelligibility and friendliness of the universe; intellectuals were pleased to see themselves, though dwarves, as standing on the shoulders of


giants; and men could hope that, in various walks of life, "the quality of our life should be improved."[15] The defects of the contemporary scene were not passed over (indeed selective attention to them was a sign of confidence), as we know from such popular works as the Roman de la Rose ; but the essential quality of that work was its bold and exuberant naturalism, and even Dante could still believe in the power of intelligence and love to remedy the ills of existence. Generalized laments about the human condition abounded, like Innocent III's little treatise De miseria (though he had hoped to complement this with a more positive statement about life); but there seemed little specifically wrong with the times, much that was right, and much to look forward to.

Some caution is in order here. We know little directly about how, for example, merchants of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries felt about their lives; and it is hard to believe that existence in towns (a subject that will figure prominently in what follows) did not, from the beginning, generate profound inner as well as outer discomfort. It is even more difficult to assess the psychological condition of the vast rural majority. But even granting this, I think it would be a mistake simply to dismiss the optimism of high medieval culture as the invention of an isolated class of intellectuals. Medieval high culture was not altogether detached from its social context, as its hospitality to the more concrete world of Aristotelian thought would seem to demonstrate; and the combination of intellectual and pastoral concern in the great mendicant orders provided a two-way bridge between intellectual constructions and the needs of daily life. The result was that, though human problems might still be acute, men who addressed themselves to such general questions could still contemplate the future with relative confidence.

This positive attitude to the future in the High Middle Ages is of special significance because it is the key to a clearer understanding of the nature of anxiety. It reminds us that anxiety is a function of man's attitude to time. As the Oxford English Dictionary tells us, anxiety is "uneasiness or trouble of mind about some uncertain event." Man is anxious, therefore, because his existence extends into the future , and the future is inherently uncertain . This suggests that, since all human life unfolds in time, anxiety is in some degree inescapable, perhaps especially in the Western tradition, with its peculiar sense of the significance of time. Chaucer's Knight understood the general element in human existence that gives rise to anxiety:

It's good to keep one's poise and be protected
Since all day long we meet the unexpected.[16]


The unusual anxiety of the period after 1300 is thus implicit in its novel concern with the passage of time, which found general expression in the familiar new historical consciousness of the Renaissance and was manifested more particularly in efforts to mark the flow of time with chronometers and to control its use by profitably filling the hours. The increasing reliance on clocks in later medieval and Renaissance Europe has been often remarked,[17] and their value celebrated. A fourteenth-century Milanese chronicler praised a new striking clock because it "marks off the hours from the hours, as is supremely necessary for all classes of men."[18] Calvin emphasized the utility of the sun, and Pascal that of his watch, for marking time.[19] And Petrarch hinted at the anxiety underlying the concern with time; time, as he wrote the emperor Charles IV, is "so precious, nay, so inestimable a possession, that it is the one thing which the learned agree can justify avarice."[20] Vergerio proposed that a clock be installed in every library, "that it may catch the eye of the reader, to warn him by the swift lapse of time of the need for diligence."[21] Rabelais's ideal teacher Ponocrates so arranged the schedule of his young pupil "that not a moment of the day was wasted."[22] But anxiety over the use of time was not confined to scholars. The anxious wife of the merchant Francesco Datini chided her husband for his misuse of time: "In view of all you have to do, when you waste an hour, it seems to me a thousand. . . . For I deem nought so precious to you, both for body and soul, as time, and methinks you value it too little."[23] This peculiarly modern concern would eventually find homely expression in Poor Richard's Almanack , but more was at stake here than "profit." For the proper regulation and use of time eliminated some of the uncertainty of life; it warded off, objectively, the blows of fortune, that comprehensive symbol of the uncertainty of life.

The fundamental relationship between the unreliability of fortune and human anxiety seemed, at any rate, obvious to contemporaries. So Alberti's Uncle Adovardo asked, quite rhetorically, "If a man is afflicted with so many anxieties, and always fears the instability of fortune . . . how can we consider him happy or call him anything but unfortunate?"[24] If the management of time suggested an objective means of escape from this predicament, Petrarch's De remediis (so popular also outside of Italy) promoted, at vast length, subjective remedies, chiefly along Stoic lines.[25] Machiavelli was following a similar direction of thought in proposing that although men "know not the end and move towards it along roads which cross one another and as yet are unexplored . . . they should not despair, no matter what fortune brings."[26] We have here further testimony to the general connection between anxi-


ety and the uncertainty inherent in time itself as an inescapable dimension of life. Fortune expressed the radical untrustworthiness of the future.

But back of the future, beyond the limits of time as a dimension of each individual existence, lurks the uncertainty surrounding death. This is why, in some ultimate sense, all anxiety is anxiety about death,[27] and why the anxiety of this period, often when it was immediately focused on the use of time, tended to accumulate especially around death and judgment, the nameless horror beyond every particular danger. "It is sad, Thomas à Kempis wrote, "that you do not employ your time better, when you may win eternal life hereafter. The time will come when you will long for one day or one hour in which to amend; and who knows whether it will be granted?"[28] The peculiar obsession of Europeans with these matters from the fourteenth century onward has been of considerable interest to historians;[29] we seem to be dealing here with something more than a set of perennial platitudes. Death, both as a physiological process and as the entrance into a realm of final uncertainty, was surrounded, even more than fortune, though for the same reason, by a singular dread. For all his piety, Petrarch could not conquer his fear of death, which he described in obsessive and strenuous detail. "Ubi sunt?" he asked, and could only reply, "All has dissolved into worms and into serpents, and finally into nothing." He hated sleep because it reminded him of death, and his bed because it suggested the grave.[30] For Commynes death showed "what a petty thing man is, how short and miserable his life is, and how empty the differences between the great and the small, as soon as they are dead. For everyone is horrified by a corpse and vituperates it."

But the horror of death was compounded by a deeper anxiety over the uncertainty of judgment. "The soul," Commynes had concluded his little meditation on death, "must immediately go to receive God's judgment. Sentence is given at that very moment in accordance with the works and merits of the corpse."[31] Calvin spelled out the connection between this apprehension and the general anxiety of the age: "Where does death come from but from God's anger against sin? Hence arises that state of servitude through the whole of life, that is the constant anxiety in which unhappy souls are imprisoned."[32] Even laymen despaired over the mysteries of predestination and had to be advised to leave such matters to theologians.[33] The pains of Purgatory were sufficiently feared; Thomas More himself described them in grisly detail,[34] and the rich provided in their wills for masses to speed their souls to heaven: three thousand for a German merchant, ten thousand for Henry


VII of England (who was prepared to pay above the going rate to insure their being said properly), thirty thousand for the emperor Charles V.[35] In the Medici Chapel in Florence, the massive figures of Michelangelo brooding over their solemn work, priests dropped with fatigue saying masses for their departed rulers.[36] But the fear of hell was infinitely worse. A popular catechism pictured the damned feeding on their own flesh and explained, "The pain caused by one spark of hell-fire is greater than that caused by a thousand years of a woman's labor in childbirth."[37] Nor were such fears alien to more refined minds. Petrarch described his thoughts of hell: "Terror grips my heart / Seeing the others I tremble for myself / Others urge me on, my last hour may be now."[38]

The peculiar guilt of this period is sometimes attributed to the confessional, but this seems at best a half-truth; the confessional was as much an expression as a cause of anxiety. Men submitted to its scrutiny because they were in desperate fear of appearing before God with a single sin left unrecognized and unabsolved. Even confessors sometimes shrank from so dreadful a responsibility, itself a source of unbearable anxiety.[39] And men often stayed away from confession because it gave no relief. Some looked instead to conscience, though this could be no more reassuring; for conscience, as Leonardo Bruni wrote, is a judge who "knows all" and "was present at every crime," and who "forces tears from you and compels you to weep among sacred things."[40] Luther, who had vowed to become a monk through "the terror and agony of sudden death,"[41] was eloquent on the inadequacy of conscience to relieve anxiety. To the guilty, he wrote, "all creatures appear changed. Even when they speak with people whom they know and in turn hear them, the very sound of their speech seems different, their looks appear changed, and everything becomes black and horrible wherever they turn their eyes. Such a fierce and savage beast is an evil conscience. And so, unless God comforts them, they must end their own life because of their despair, their distress, and their inability to bear their grief."[42]

The importance of these fundamental dimensions of the anxiety of this period is suggested by the attention given to the problem, both explicitly and implicitly, in the religious thought of the sixteenth century, among Catholics almost as much as among Protestants. The uncertainty we have identified as central to anxiety figured prominently in the Protestant indictment of later medieval piety, and conversely Protestants stressed the certainties implicit in their own understanding of the Gospel. For Luther the "fear, terror, and horror" of death were the peculiar work of the devil; and faith alone could produce that "comfortable certainty" he could not attain by himself.[43] For Calvin the


terrible "anxiety and trepidation of mind" produced by honest self examination, and the ignorance of providence that is "the ultimate of all miseries," could only give way before the "incredible freedom from worry about the future" that comes from faith. Scripture frees us from seeking "some uncertain deity by devious paths" and brings us to an "assurance that is not assailed by some anxiety." "Surely it is terrifying to walk in the darkness of death," he wrote; "and believers, whatever their strength may be, cannot but be frightened by it. But since the thought prevails that they have God beside them, caring for their safety, fear at once yields to assurance."[44] Saint Teresa described her own movement from a deep depression of uncertainty about God's favor to the recognition that "I might safely take comfort and be certain that I was in grace."[45] The personal intensity of both Protestant and Catholic piety in the age of the Reformation can only be understood against the background of the peculiar anxiety that it sought to assuage.

It is essential, to get at the ultimate meaning of anxiety, to notice first its attachment to the problems of time, death, and judgment. But anxiety also has other dimensions; as a diffuse condition of the personality, it can suffuse any area of experience. Indeed, it tends to seek out more particular and immediate expression, for, by providing itself with a local habitation and a name, it is therapeutically transformed into fear. Fear is distinguishable from anxiety by the specificity of its object; and because the object of fear is concrete and may be dealt with by some appropriate action, fear can be reduced or overcome. The effect of anxiety, on the other hand, is likely to be paralysis and depression. Yet the relationship between anxiety and fear remains close, for behind the fear of a particular danger always lurks, again, uncertainty about its eventual outcome. The close connection between these two states accounts for the fact that we encounter in this period not only anxiety about ultimate matters but also a peculiar capacity to be troubled, like Martha, about many things. The worries of this prototypical housewife can tell us, indeed, a good deal about the nature of historical anxiety. Mary and Martha (a point frequently made in a related connection) are two sides of the same existential coin. Mary represents the direct approach to human anxiety; she goes to its source. But Martha prefers to diffuse her anxiety among a variety of household tasks, with which she can immediately cope. We are here, perhaps, close to the psychological roots of the preoccupation of Renaissance moral and political discourse with the vita activa .

Europeans of the fourteenth century, and for some time thereafter,


were thus both profoundly anxious and at the same time frightened by almost every aspect of experience. It is hardly necessary to review here the evidence of their pervasive fear; historians are now discerning it in every sector of life. They have found it among rulers and merchants, and in every social relationship. It poisoned friendships and family ties, and even the sexual bond. The marriage bed itself now seemed less genial, as indeed we might expect; men who had learned a general distrust of life could hardly have been capable of a careless spontaneity in the most intimate realms of experience.[46] Anxiety also attended the pursuit of learning, which too often seemed only an occasion of further despair; the more one knew, the less sense the world made.[47]

Each of these particular concerns can doubtless be attributed to objective causes. Politics was a dangerous game, the pursuit of wealth did involve great risks, friends played false, treachery within families did occur, lovers could inflict deep wounds, the wisdom in books might indeed mislead and confuse. But it is not immediately obvious that much of this was not also true in the preceding centuries (or indeed in most centuries), and what is most striking about these expressions of distress is their inclusiveness. They arise in connection with every significant human activity. Indeed they may surround, with equal intensity and a mysterious poignancy, quite insignificant matters. Alberti could debate alternative solutions to the larger and more concrete problems of life, but he suggests that the same degree of anxiety could also surround its more trivial responsibilities, and with paralyzing effect. His uncles were radically upset by the "confusions, worries, and anxieties" of giving a dinner party, in which "upheaval and annoyance overwhelm you until you are tired before you have even began your preparations"; and the difficulties of moving to a new house evoked in them "anxieties that afflict your mind and distract and disrupt spirit and thought."[48] Alberti seems to be reminding us that the problem of anxiety, the somber thread that runs all through his book, was, after all, more general and diffuse than any particular dangers could account for.

Historians have tended to attribute the peculiar anxiety of this period to the specific character, and above all the disasters, of European life after the beginning of the fourteenth century: to epidemics (and, of course, the Black Death!) more terrible than anyone could remember, to the uncertainties of a depressed economy, to the transition from a corporate to an individualistic society, to political disorder, to the contraction of Christendom in the East, to the disarray of the institutional church, to the pressures of the confessional, or to the novelties of rapid


change. And evidence is not lacking that each of these experiences disturbed and depressed some men, from time to time and in varying degrees. But it is hardly demonstrable, however distressing these matters seem to modern historians, who can envisage them cumulatively and imagine their concentrated impact on themselves, that they had a similar effect on those who experienced them in the past. The men of our period engaged with them not simultaneously but separately and at intervals, and were rarely in a position to draw general conclusions about their meaning.[49] Nor is it clear that, had they been able to do so, they would have reacted much differently from men in earlier centuries to their own difficulties, which were not objectively insignificant. The diffuseness of the anxiety of our period suggests that the relationship of anxiety to particular disasters was incidental rather than essential. Explanation in these terms appears to neglect the distinction, and the relationship, between anxiety and fear.

Nevertheless it remains true that the malaise of our period was peculiarly its own. It must be seen as a historical phenomenon, and so it was considered at the time, when it became an essential component of a new historical consciousness. "Now the world is cowardly, decayed, and weak, / All goes badly," wrote Eustache Deschamps;[50] and it is this now that commands our attention: not simply life in general but the times, and above all what they might hold in store, were out of joint. Petrarch stressed the "present woes" that promised, if this were possible, worse to come: "O tempora, o mores!" he exclaimed.[51] "Now the study of holy eloquence and its professors suffer the laughter and derision of all," declared a French reformer in about 1400.[52] Machiavelli denounced "the negligence of princes, who have lost all appetite for true glory, and of republics which no longer possess institutions that deserve praise."[53] Erasmus explained the spate of predictions of the world's end as a judgment on the particular conditions of the present age: "They say it's because men are behaving now just as they did before the Flood overwhelmed them."[54] Montaigne represented his own time as dull and leaden, all virtue spent.[55]

Implicit here, obviously, is comparison with a previous period when human affairs had presumably gone better, and with this comparison we begin to sense a contemporary explanation for the anxieties of the time that is somewhat different from the explanations favored by modern historians. There are hints of it in the town chronicles of fourteenth-century Italy, with their idealization of a simpler past,[56] as well as in Commynes, who believed that "our life-span is diminished, and we do not live as long as men did in former times; neither are our bodies as


strong, and similarly our faith and loyalty to one another has been weakened."[57] The past now represented a lost ideal of peace, order, freedom, and above all brotherhood, in which men could exist without anxiety. The clue to the peculiar difficulties of the present thus seemed to lie in the deterioration of all social relationships; men had become anxious, contemporaries constantly repeated, because they had come to fear each other. "You are young," a Florentine merchant wrote one of his agents, "but when you have lived as long as I have and have traded with many folk, you will know that man is a dangerous thing, and that danger lies in dealing with him."[58] Everywhere one meets the charge that now men looked out only for themselves. "Men live among themselves in such a manner," wrote Luther, "that no consideration is given to the state or household. . . . Who does not see that God is compelled, as it were, to punish, yes, even to destroy Germany?"[59]

And the explanation for this novel egotism lies just below the surface of many expressions of contemporary anxiety: its cause was seen in the replacement of an agrarian by an urban society and in the attitudes and activities particularly associated with townsmen. A long tradition of antiurban sentiment lay behind this, nourished by both the Greek and the Latin classics, given substance by the medieval perception of towns as a disruptive intrusion into the old agrarian order, and finding expression in the Franciscan ideal of poverty. But by the fourteenth century there are signs that European observers were tending to regard towns as the cause of a general historical crisis and the source of their peculiar anxiety. Petrarch, adapting Juvenal, associated many of his worst moments with cities: with filthy, noisy, and bustling Avignon and even with Venice, where, he reported, "wherever I go in full day a crowd of dogs drawn from the populace assails me noisily . . . they are innumerable, turbulent, and noisy, and they are plagued with endless worry because they cannot bite me."[60] Here, apparently, his anxiety was matched by that of those who surrounded him.

But towns provoked anxiety above all because they were greedy; townsmen preyed on others to benefit themselves, and this was what made them unreliable and dangerous, a threat to the general security of human existence. Even a merchant could lament that "where money is at stake or some personal interest, one finds no relative or friend who prefers you to himself and has not forgotten his conscience."[61] The rural victims of urban greed made particular complaint, as in the Refomatio Sigismundi: "Nowadays a man going to a city to buy or sell will come away saying 'They have cheated me.' Everything in the city is sold at too high a price."[62] "Nowadays," declared a Lutheran, "trading and


bartering have brought our land to such a pass that a man, if he would save himself from ruin, is compelled to cheat, defraud, and lie to his neighbors, for he himself is deceived at every turn."[63]

"Nowadays." Again we are in the presence of a contrast, deeply felt, between a distressed present and a supposedly happier past, but also between man's present and his true home: nostalgia in its primary meaning. Ideally man should, and perhaps once did, reside in a garden: the more sophisticated garden in which Boccaccio's splendid youths found refuge from the horrors of plague-stricken Florence (itself a terrifying reality but even more potent as a symbol of the general malaise of urban life), or the primal garden where, as Luther remarked, Adam and Eve had lived "in the happiest security, without any fear of death and without anxiety."[64] Piety and brotherhood seemed to come more readily in the country, and radical intellectuals during the early years of the Reformation occasionally went to the land; Karlstadt bought a farm, wore peasant gray, tilled the soil with his own hands (at least for a while), and called on university students to follow his example.[65] Moralists like Bucer thought agriculture more virtuous than other pursuits,[66] a sentiment that would receive systematic application by the Physiocrats. Johann Agricola attributed the fall of Rome to its abandonment of its old ways in which "rulers and statesmen used to be summoned directly from the plow and the field" and "plain, honest, hardworking farmers aspired to honor and uprightness, not to riches."[67] Petrarch found only in the country the peace of mind favorable to the descent of his muse.[68] The genial host in Erasmus's "Godly Feast" marvelled at "people who take pleasure in smoky cities" when "the whole countryside is fresh and smiling."[69] Galileo is reported to have considered the city "the prison of the speculative mind" and his own thought liberated "only by the freedom of the countryside."[70]

We are evidently in the presence of an early formulation of the fruitful modern myth of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft . And there is much in this fragmentary contemporary diagnosis, however it differs from our own more particular explanations, to instruct us about the general causes of the anxiety in this period. Its foundation was, of course, partly a myth even then, as Hutten recognized in reminding the nostalgic Pirckheimer that in the countryside too "each day is filled with anxiety over what the morrow might bring."[71] Nevertheless it is true that much in urban life induced anxiety among those brought up in the country, as much of the urban population had been; since the death rate in towns tended to exceed the birth rate, even the maintenance of stable population in towns, and much more their growth, depended on substantial immi-


gration from the country. For erstwhile peasants the proliferation of complex laws and bureaucracies meant the substitution of an external, coercive, and mystifying set of social controls for the old internalized sentiments of a simpler community. And the unusual mobility of the urban population meant also that, in cities, much of life was passed among strangers. Potential predators, themselves made anxious by the novelty and insecurity of urban existence.

The needs of survival in this new environment and the increasing differentiation of economic and social roles compelled men to adopt specialized stances in relation to each other. A relaxed and candid self-exposure now became dangerous; human intimacy was inhibited by the need for vigilance in masking the true self. The villain of the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage was likely to be a dissembler, but so in some degree was the average honnête homme .[72] The conception of "friendship" was itself corrupted by self-interest; as a Florentine merchant remarked, "It is good to have friends of all kinds, but not useless men."[73] The making of friends now depended on the artful presentation of a carefully edited "image," and advice on this delicate operation became necessary. "If there is someone in your gonfalone who can help you and push you ahead," Giovanni Morelli advised his sons, "first try to become intimate with him, if possible, by means of marriage. If that is not practicable, then have dealings with him and his [relatives]; try to serve him, offer him aid, if you can do so without too much loss to yourself, when you see that he is in need; give him presents, honor him by inviting him often to dinner." Morelli cited the example of his own father, who had been skillful in these tactics: "And by such wise and provident means, he had so arranged matters that, in his time of great need, he had friends, and not only relatives, who gave him help and support."[74] Alberti's Uncle Adovardo advised that "to make friends it is necessary to study the gestures, words, customs, and conversations of others."[75] No wonder, then, that, as Commynes complained, ours is indeed a miserable life, when we take such trouble and pains to shorten it by saying so many things which are almost the opposite of what we really think."[76] At the end of his life the disillusioned Poggio Bracciolini confessed that he now spoke "only with the dead, who do not lie."[77]

But urban life was also closer to the more ultimate sources of human anxiety. In cities time was experienced differently from in the country; change became a function not merely of the eternal rhythms of nature but of the unpredictable human will, and with the future always dependent on the actions of other men it became increasingly uncertain. Even death might seem more grim; it was now all too likely to occur


among strangers or false friends, and without the prayers of a stable community.[78]

Are we, then, to substitute a more general social explanation of the special anxiety of this transitional age for the particular catastrophes on which historians have recently concentrated? Is the anxiety that seems to have hung over and darkened the lives of so many in this period, like smog, a direct consequence of the practical conditions of urban life? There is much to recommend this explanation; it directs us to the most general European developments to account for a general phenomenon, and it is suggested by contemporary testimony itself.

Yet this seems to me, however essential, not yet a sufficient explanation. For the problem here appears to lie less in the objective changes in the quality of European life that were, in any case, not altogether novel in the fourteenth century, than in the ability of Europeans to cope with them. Although the anxiety and depression of our period eventually declined, so that we can now see it as in this respect an unusual age in contrast not only to the medieval past but also (if a bit less clearly) to succeeding centuries, this can hardly be explained as a consequence either of the decline of cities or of a reduction in the rate of change. I think, therefore, that we must move to a deeper level of explanation: to the problem of man's ability to impose a meaning on his experience that can give to life a measure of reliability and thus reduce, even if it cannot altogether abolish, life's ultimate and terrifying uncertainties. The fundamental problem to which we must thus address ourselves appears to be the problem of culture and of its capacity to manage and reduce the anxiety of existence.[79]

Medieval culture was conspicuously successful in the performance of this essential task. Applying a common set of distinctions (like other cultures of the type described by anthropologists as primitive)[80] to all areas of human concern, notably such polarities as inside and outside, high and low, male and female, it was able at once to distinguish, to classify, and to relate all phenomena, and so to create an intelligible and coherent cosmos, apparently rooted in the eternal principles of nature itself, out of the undifferentiated chaos of raw experience. The phenomenal world could thus be reduced to a kind of orderly map; men could feel at home in it because they could distinguish one area from another by clear conceptual boundaries which were reflected in the structures of life as well as thought.

Thus medieval cosmology gave intelligibility to the universe as a whole by supplying it with an external boundary, and within it distin-


guished among its constituent parts. Bounding and distinguishing were fundamental to scholastic method, with its definitions (that is, conceptual boundaries), categories, and species. The sacred was clearly differentiated from the profane, sacerdotium from imperium . The various faculties of the human personality were similarly distinguished: soul and body; intellect, will, and passion. Human acts could be classified as virtuous or vicious, and the several virtues and vices were also unambiguously defined, and exploited to categorize and explain human behavior. Social identity depended on the boundaries between communities and classes, within which the individual was contained and at home. God was himself bounded by his intelligence, which guaranteed not only the immutability and intelligibility of the whole structure but also its ontological status. Boundaries were thus invested with numinous awe and surrounded by religious sanctions.

As a fully articulated system of boundaries, medieval culture was admirably suited to the management of anxiety. It provided well-defined areas of safety and focused the latent anxiety in the human condition at their margins. Anxiety was thus transmuted into a fear of transgressing the boundaries defining the cultural universe, and in various ways men could usually stay away from them.[81] They were safe in their communities or estates, or as long as the boundary between the sacred and profane was respected, or insofar as the soul was not contaminated by the body or reason by the passions, or in the performance of virtuous and the avoidance of vicious acts. They could even face death with greater confidence, not only because their latent anxiety could be released by the obligations of boundary maintenance, but also because the viator through and beyond this life could take his bearings from the boundaries that continually surrounded him, discover the true way, and above all know his direction. Dante may have strayed briefly from his path, but he was enabled to find it again.[82]

But certain peculiarities of the medieval system of boundaries made it appropriate only under special conditions. Above all it was based on the notion of absolute qualitative distinctions rooted in ultimate reality and therefore perennially applicable to human affairs. The system depended on the clarity of these distinctions, and it could not tolerate ambiguity. Thus it could remain plausible only as long as it was practicable for men to avoid transgressing its boundaries, for, although our response to experience is conditioned by culture, we also require a culture appropriate to experience and the needs of survival.

And it is at this point that the significance of urban life becomes apparent; the accumulating social changes of the later Middle Ages even-


tually exceeded the flexibility of the inherited culture and forced men increasingly to violate the old boundaries. Lateral social mobility broke down the boundaries between communities; town walls still retained deep symbolic meaning in the thirteenth century but—I suspect for more than demographic or military reasons—seemed increasingly arbitrary and useless thereafter and gradually ceased to be built. Vertical mobility eroded the boundaries between classes; and we now begin to encounter disputes over precedence in ceremonial processions among socially ambiguous groups such as lawyers and university scholars.[83] The distinction between the sacred and profane was dissolving with the growing responsibility and dignity of lay activity and the secular state. The psychological boundaries by which the old culture had sought to understand the nature of man and predict his behavior were useless when he was no longer inhibited by the pressures of traditional community; and, experienced concretely in a more complex setting, human acts proved too ambiguous for neat ethical classification. Even the boundaries of the physical universe, so intimately linked to those in society and the human personality, were collapsing. No objective system of boundaries could now supply either security or effective guidance. When man still clung to the old culture, he seemed to have become, in spite of himself, a trespasser against the order of the universe, a violator of its sacred limits, the reluctant inhabitant of precisely those dangerous borderlands—literally no man's land—he had been conditioned to avoid. But his predicament was even worse if this experience had taught him to doubt the very existence of boundaries. He then seemed thrown, disoriented, back into the void from which it was the task of culture to rescue him. And this, I suggest, is the immediate explanation for the extraordinary anxiety of this period. It was an inevitable response to the growing inability of an inherited culture to invest experience with meaning.

There are hints that contemporaries themselves obscurely perceived their problems in these terms. Boundaries establish order by keeping each thing in its place, and the critics of cities were offended because, in them, confusion reigned. This is the deeper significance of the association of cities with dirt; with smoke, which obscures every visual boundary; perhaps even with noise, which intrudes on the inner life. Petrarch was nauseated by Avignon, "the narrow and obscure sink of the earth, where all the filth of the world is collected," with its "streets full of disease and infection, dirty pigs and snarling dogs, the noise of cart-wheels grinding against walls, four-horse chariots dashing down at every crossroad, the motley crew of people, swarms of vile beggars side by side with the flaunting luxury of wealth . . . the medley of charac-


ters—such diverse roles in life—the endless clamor of their confused voices, as the passers-by jostle one another in the streets."[84] The juxtaposition here of contamination and confusion is instructive. Filth, as Mary Douglas has pointed out, is culturally defined; dirt is matter out of place, and what may be unexceptionable when confined to the barnyard is noxious elsewhere.[85] Cities, as an anomaly in a traditional agrarian order, increasingly threatened to dissolve the patterns of a culture that had made the world comprehensible and comfortable, and accordingly they represented pollution and a reversion to chaos.

Petrarch's revulsion against cities has an ironic side, though it can be readily understood as expressing his apprehension of the consequences of his own onslaught against the old culture. For his attack on scholastic modes of thought radically challenged the principles underlying that culture. He repeatedly described scholastic efforts to identify the fundamental elements of reality in an orderly and systematic way, and so to define their boundaries, as "infantile babble"; "in total oblivion of the real basis of things," he maintained, the schoolmen "grow old, simply conversant with words."[86] What this charge amounted to, a charge in which Renaissance humanists were joined by a new breed of scholastics, and later by the Protestant Reformers, was that a culture once able to give an ontological foundation to the phenomena of human experience could no longer do so. It had lost touch with reality and become irrelevant; its definitions and boundaries could no longer supply meaning to life. The result was a crisis of confidence in the significance of human knowledge. For Salutati, "to speak properly, what to us is knowledge is really only a kind of reasonable uncertainty."[87] Pierre d'Ailly concluded "that the philosophy or doctrine of Aristotle deserves the name of opinion rather than science."[88] For Melanchthon the schoolmen "continually think up new and prodigious fancies and monstrous expressions by which, since they have no basis in reality, nothing can be understood."[89] Indeed the inherited culture had become positively mischievous since, though it still claimed ontological status, it no longer possessed any. Thus, though the old culture was now seen to be clearly no more than a human invention, its practical demands, because they could no longer be satisfied, filled men with dread. As Calvin wrote of the schoolmen, "They torture souls with many misgivings, and immerse them in a sea of trouble and anxiety."[90]

The collapse of the old boundaries can be seen in many areas of cultural expression: for example, in the more fluid definition of nobility that we encounter in both humanists and Reformers, or in Nicholas of Cusa's conception of the infinite in which all polarities are reconciled


and obliterated, or in the paradoxes of Luther, or in the new astronomy of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. An occasional thinker felt, in the presence of this disintegration, the exhilaration of freedom; this was its effect on Bruno:

There are no ends, boundaries, limits or walls which can defraud or deprive us of the infinite multitude of things. Therefore the earth and the ocean thereof are fecund; therefore the sun's blaze is everlasting, so that eternally fuel is provided for the voracious fires, and moisture replaces the attenuated seas. For from infinity is born an ever fresh abundance of matter.[91]

But infinity is not, for the majority of mankind, a comfortable habitat, as man's inability to live without culture would seem to attest; and Bruno's tragic fate testifies that his reaction to the new cultural situation was not only eccentric but profoundly threatening to his contemporaries. A more typical response to the implausibility and collapse of cultural boundaries was a frantic, if ultimately unsuccessful, effort to shore them up, of which the increasingly elaborate articulation of the old culture Huizinga noted in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the regressive tendencies of later Renaissance Italy, and the more detailed application of the penitential system are examples.[92] Gerson proposed to cure the malaise of spiritual life by strengthening the boundary between theology and philosophy: "It is evident that although it surpasses philosophy, the teaching of faith has its predetermined boundaries in the sacred writings which have been revealed to us. One ought not dare define and teach anything beyond these boundaries."[93] Rulers were increasingly preoccupied with defining the boundaries of their states, which appeared the more plausible in the degree to which they could be attributed to "nature," that is, given a quasi-ontological status.

But none of these efforts was finally of much use, as Pascal in his radical honesty would testify at the conclusion of a long process of cultural disintegration. We may interpret his sensitivity to the frightening "eternal silence of these infinite spaces" as a metaphor for the larger cultural universe of which his new vision of the physical universe had become a part. Both had finally lost those old familiar boundaries by which men could orient themselves and find meaning, and human existence could be made tolerable now only if men could be distracted from reflecting "on what they are, whence they come, whither they go." "Ever drifting in uncertainty, driven from end to end," man, for Pascal, "feels his nothingness, his forlornness, his insufficiency, his dependency, his weakness," and "there will immediately arise from the depth of his heart weariness, gloom, sadness, fretfulness, vexation, despair." This was


the terrible predicament that had come out of the cultural disintegration of the previous centuries:

When I see the blindness and wretchedness of man, when I regard the whole silent universe, and man without light, left to himself, and, as it were, lost in this corner of the universe, without knowing who has put him there, what he has come to do, what will become of him at death, and incapable of all knowledge, I become terrified, like a man who should be carried in his sleep to a dreadful desert island, and should awake without knowing where he is, and without means of escape. And thereupon I wonder how people in a condition so wretched do not fall into despair.[94]

Nevertheless Voltaire's incredulity as he confronted Pascal's vision of the human condition testifies that earthly palliatives for such general despair could be found.[95] From time to time, to be sure, Europeans have sought to recover the confidence of their medieval predecessors by insisting once again on the ontological basis of human culture. This, I take it, is the significance of both the Protestant and the Catholic Counter-Reformations,[96] of the more absolutist tendencies of the Enlightenment, and of some recent authoritarian ideologies; our perennial nostalgia for the Middle Ages is perhaps a more innocent expression of the same impulse, which will doubtless continue to seek expression. But such attempts to resurrect the spirit of the old culture, however tempting, have so far proved incapable of meeting for long the need for cultural security. Relief would come rather from the gradual emergence of a new kind of culture, based on quite different principles, that was struggling to be born even as the old one disintegrated. The new culture of post-medieval Europe has often been described, with varying degrees of success; and I want in conclusion chiefly to suggest how it managed to reduce, though it could not eliminate, the terrible anxiety implicit in the disintegration of the medieval certainties.

The new culture of modern Europe was constructed on a quite different pattern of assumptions. It began with the recognition that culture is not an absolute but the creation of men, and therefore a variable and conventional product of changing conditions and shifting human needs. This change in the understanding of culture began in later medieval nominalism and Renaissance humanism, which collaborated, however unwittingly, in setting the West on a new path. For both movements language ceased to link the mind with ultimate reality and so to identify the objective boundaries defining existence.

Human culture was thus seen to consist simply in those matters that


men (or a particular group of men) could agree on; its boundaries, having only a human character, could therefore no longer claim absolute respect.[97] Renaissance rhetoric was accordingly valued for its plasticity, its ability to flow into and through every area of experience, to disregard and cross inherited boundaries as though they had no real existence, and to create new but always malleable structures of its own. In both nominalism and humanism the word, now humanized, created its own human cosmos out of crude experience.

An important consequence of this humanization was a more modest approach to the kind of cosmos man could discern in chaos, that is, to the scope of culture. Since his culture was simply the product of his own creative impulses, it no longer seemed possible for man to make every dimension of reality permanently intelligible or to comprehend the whole under the same broad categories. The isolated proverb, the pensée , the familiar essay, became favorite vehicles for the transmission of human wisdom. The autonomous painting of modern art is a nice symbol of the new ways of culture formation; a painting is a distinctly bounded little universe, the product of deliberate choices among infinite possibilities, a little area of order separated by its own boundaries from the chaos without. Thus, in place of one overarching cosmos we now encounter a range of uncoordinated and often minuscule structures representing a limited order whose plausibility is only aesthetic or practical. A political construction, for example, could now no longer be justified by its conformity to the order of the heavens, a principle that had achieved few practical benefits, but only by its results. It should therefore also be apparent that this new culture is significant not only for its own novel characteristics but also for its new understanding of culture as such. It made possible the conception of cultures , each relative to its own time and place, as distinguished from Culture .

In addition, quantity now tended to be substituted for quality as the essential principle of orientation; more-or-less, which recognized no impassable boundaries between nothing and infinity, for the either-or suggested by the Aristotelian law of contradiction. The practical foundation for this development was supplied by the growing importance of numerical calculation to artisans and merchants; the numerical arts were the climax of a boy's education in mercantile communities, and their general value for the interpretation of experience was recognized. As the banker Giovanni Rucellai remarked of arithmetic, "It equips and spurs the mind to examine subtle matters."[98] Mathematical models broadly invaded fourteenth-century philosophy.[99]

That the practical resort to number implied a cultural revolution was


by no means immediately clear, and its significance was for some time obscured by the sublimation of quantitative approaches to experience into a philosophical mathematics that sought to renew the ontological foundations of the crumbling traditional structure. In this view number became God's language in the book of nature. Salutati insisted on the indispensability of mathematics to theology; as another humanist proclaimed, "Mathematics raises us, prostrate on the earth, to the sky."[100]

But the growing reliance on measurement and number also provided a means of orientation when qualitative boundaries were disintegrating and all things had become, in a new sense, relative. The mathematician could begin at any point in the welter of the phenomenal world, by measurement in units of his own devising define its relation to other phenomena, and so, like the artist in words or in paint, describe an order in the universe (if not the order of the universe), in accordance with his chosen purposes. The practical meaning of the change is apparent in the new science of probability, for the calculation of probabilities might now present itself as man's best guide through an indeterminate universe. Montaigne, as part of his rejection of the inherited dogmatism that had so disrupted his world, proposed to base life instead on probability;[101] Pascal's notion of the wager applied the principle even to salvation.[102] For probability could provide some basis for choice when the old qualitative boundaries had disappeared and give some relief from the terror induced by "the eternal silence of these infinite spaces."

Pascal seems to have grasped the new situation in a general way, and there are hints of such general understanding elsewhere: for example, in Guicciardini's observation that fortune, that ubiquitous symbol of chaos in human affairs, is angry with those who seek to limit (that is, to impose boundaries on) her dominion.[103] The renewed emphasis on faith, among Catholics as well as Protestants, also reflects some insight into the new situation; a righteousness defined by works is a righteousness largely dependent on culture, and in this context justification by faith alone may be interpreted as a radical solution to the problem of the unreliability of culture. But of all the thinkers in the period of transition from medieval to modern culture, Nicholas of Cusa seems to have discerned most clearly what was happening and to have made the most positive attempt to establish human culture on a new basis. Nourished by both nominalism and humanism, he praised mathematics extravagantly, seeing in it a resource for the reorientation of thought to a universe no longer intelligible in traditional terms. For Cusanus the pursuit of ontological reality that had characterized Western philosophy


in the course of its long previous history had come to nothing. In cosmology, to which he gave particular attention, this meant that the notion of either a fixed center or an external boundary of the universe was illusory. But the point had larger implications; it suggested the indeterminacy of the entire phenomenal world, and the construction of man's conceptual universe became simply a project of the autonomous and creative human mind, and especially of its capacity for measurement. In this light all "reality" was essentially a function of the mathematical relationships between entities with which man, for reasons of his own, happened to concern himself.[104]

And this conception, applied by Cusanus most immediately to space, and eventually applied also to cartography by locating points on a grid of latitudinal and longitudinal parallels, was meanwhile becoming a general principle of cultural articulation. It was also applied, in much the same way, to time, so fundamentally related to anxiety. Time could no longer be a function of the natural and qualitative rhythms of day and night, the seasons, and the years; it was now shaped in accordance with human needs. The hours were numbered according to a conventional scale imposed on an intrinsically formless temporal flow, and their conventional significance was enforced by the ringing of bells. Their content was also practically defined: hours were designated for opening and closing one's place of business, for meetings with other men, for this task and that.[105] And once time, like money, could be measured, it became a precious human asset to be calculatedly exploited, as Alberti's Uncle Giannozzo solemnly advised his nephews, stressing also the novelty of the conception: "Keep these thoughts in your memory. . . . These are not sayings of the philosophers but, like the oracles of Apollo, perfect and holy wisdom such as you will not find in all our books."[106] This, in other words, was nontraditional wisdom.

Time quantified was, like money, related to power; and the same tendency to quantification now intruded itself into political thought in the guise of a concern with balance. Equilibrium became a primary category for analysing the relations both of states and of the social forces within them; the maintenance of political stability was seen to depend on quasi-mathematical calculation and adaptation rather than on the preservation of a pattern of qualitative relationships. Machiavelli aimed to contain the dangerous energies of the various elements in Florentine society not by rigid boundaries but by systematic provision for their dynamic interaction, through which they might contain each other by the opposition of force to force. And the relativity in this new understanding of the political universe paralleled that in the new cosmology.


It was a commonplace of political discussion that, because the structure of forces varies from people to people, every constitution, every set of laws, must suit the peculiarities of the situation to which it is applied.

Meanwhile, as the social cosmos too threatened to collapse into chaos; as qualitative distinctions in social status were gradually eroded by power, whose increase could be at least roughly measured; and as individuals, no longer defined and protected by traditional social categories, were left increasingly vulnerable to one another, a new set of boundaries was required to protect men from each other. The principle at work here would find expression in the ominous proposition that good fences make good neighbors, a symptom of the new culture that may usefully be contrasted with the open field system of medieval agriculture. And much of the worldly wisdom of the early modern age was directed to building fences. Its complementary emphasis on self-control and vigilance both kept the individual within the boundaries of his self-definition and guarded them against infringement by others;[107] this is the cultural significance of the famous bourgeois anal personality. It also helps to explain the deep revulsion, in this period, against begging. For the Alberti, "I beg" was a phrase peculiarly "hateful to a free man's mind"; whether represented by a wandering friar or a wretched layman, mendicancy posed a radical threat to individual autonomy and challenged the very basis of the new pattern of human relations.[108]

We also encounter hints of the new quantifying mentality in the definition of relationships among individuals. Where the absolute categories of status could no longer establish the relation of each individual to his fellows, men now defined themselves against each other by subtle processes of measurement. Life was a strenuous competition with others to become wiser, richer, more esteemed: a race in which one strove to surpass other men by as many paces as possible. "Honor" itself, the term by which Alberti's Uncle Lionardo evaluated success in life, ceased to be an absolute, to be contrasted with dishonor. He personified it as "a public accountant, just, practical, and prudent in measuring, weighing, considering, evaluating, and assessing everything we do, achieve, think, and desire."[109]

This attitude projected onto the social world that "bookkeeping mentality" often noted in the new mercantile culture, which served not only the needs of business but the deeper psychic needs of men inhabiting a newly problematic universe. Various human contrivances were developed to impose some pattern, when none was otherwise available, on the existence of the individual and his family: books for keeping mercantile accounts, systems for the filing of letters, records of the birth dates of


children, plans for the orderly arrangement of household goods.[110] The value of such devices in meeting the immediate needs of life is obvious, but they also had a more profound significance. For the Alberti the keeping of family records had a moral quality; it reflected "the conscientiousness of a father." As Uncle Giannozzo informed his wife, "We should have order and system in all that we do."[111] This does not seem an altogether utilitarian principle.

By such devices postmedieval culture achieved substantial success in reducing anxiety. Its creation of new boundaries focused anxiety on their maintenance and converted it into relatively manageable fears: fear of being late or wasting time, which, translated into the modern work ethic, has been especially effective in holding at bay our more general uneasiness about the meaning of existence; fear that great social and political forces might, uncontained, break out and destroy the precarious balance that makes social existence tolerable; fear lest some relaxation of personal vigilance and control might jeopardize the boundaries that protect man from man; fear of losing out in the competitive business of life. The new culture taught men where to locate particular areas of danger and kept them busy shoring up the various barriers against chaos. And the general dissipation of anxiety by these means also reduced anxiety about death and judgment, the most serious symptom of the failure of the old culture.

The new culture could also reduce anxiety because its relativistic and quantitative principles gave it a measure of control over time. Flexible boundaries could accommodate to contingency and enabled men to construct legal instruments (notable among them wills, contracts, and various types of insurance) to control and shape the future. Practical reason could now impress Alberti as "more powerful than fortune"; planning now seemed "more important than any chance event." "Think well ahead and consider what you are going to need," his Uncle Giannozzo advised, evidently persuaded of the good results of such foresight.[112]

Various characteristics of the culture of early modern Europe attest to the decline of anxiety. One was a growing acceptance of cities, which found Italian expression in Leonardo Bruni's praise of Florence[113] and Botero's Greatness of Cities . And if antiurbanism can hardly be said to have died out (for the city has become a perennial symbol of the alarming complexities of modern life), Cowper's "God made the country, and man made the town" is at least no more representative of the eighteenth century than Dr. Johnson's relish of London life. The city was no longer


necessarily a focus of anxiety, and Voltaire challenged Pascal's vision of the world as a "dreadful desert island" by pointing to the felicities of urban existence.[114]

But an even more fundamental symptom of the change in mood was the gradual decline of nostalgia for the past. The humanists of Italy began to locate the highest achievements of human civilization at the end rather than the beginning of its development;[115] Castiglione and Machiavelli both expressed reservations about the tendency of mankind to contrast the present unfavorably with the past;[116] writers of the later Renaissance—Pulci, Boiardo, Cervantes—ridiculed that chivalric heroism with which earlier generations had imaginatively identified themselves.[117] The Reformers, perhaps obscurely recognizing not only that Adam fell but that Jesus was betrayed in a garden, may have hinted at the same new conception of time. For Luther man could not be reformed—that is, restored to an earlier condition—but only forgiven;[118] and Calvin from time to time inveighed against the value of precedent as a barrier against change.[119] Hobbes's famous depiction of natural existence as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" was, in context, a radical rejection of the nostalgic mentality of earlier generations, and implicitly a celebration of the new urban culture.[120] Man's true home was no longer in the past but increasingly in the future, whatever it might hold in store. And the growing belief in progress from the later sixteenth century onward attests that thoughts of the future were less and less accompanied by anxiety.

The redefinition of culture on the basis of the new principles was not completed in the early modern period, and the progressive substitution of fluid and relative for absolute and qualitative cultural categories has continued to disorient mankind and to release anxiety. We can see the continuation of the process in the emotional reaction to Darwin's attack on the fixity of species in the nineteenth century, and in the profound anxieties released more recently by the challenge to absolute distinctions of sex, an area in which (perhaps because it is peculiarly fraught with uncertainty) the principles of premodern culture have been unusually durable. And the new culture, precisely because of its own relativism, has never been more than relatively successful in the management of anxiety.

There were, certainly, problems that the structures of modern culture could not solve and might rather intensify. Its strategies, indeed, have sometimes themselves induced a peculiar anxiety, as Saint Teresa remarked about her own concern with the effective use of time. "If we


find ourselves unable to get profit out of a single hour," she noted, "we are impeded from doing so for four. I have a great deal of experience of this. . . ."[121] Even more troubling consequences have come from the need of the individual to adapt to unpredictable circumstances and the changing expectations of others. The needs of survival in a problematic world have tended to alienate the public from any true self or, worse, to require the annihilation of the true for the sake of a social self. Thus, the relation between the boundaries of self-definition and any stable center of the personality have tended to become themselves problematic, and this has been the source of a peculiarly burdensome kind of anxiety in the modern world. Even the artist, his task no longer to discover and illuminate immutable truths but to create some relative cosmos from the chaos that surrounds him, may feel more terror than exuberance as he considers the contingency and fragility of his work. In spite of the impressive accomplishments of postmedieval culture, a higher level of anxiety was now to be a permanent feature of the West.


The Politics of Commynes

This essay originated in a seminar at Harvard in the spring of 1947 conducted by Myron P. Gilmore, who eventually directed my dissertation. It reflected, only a year after my discharge from the army, what would be my constant concern to place the results of a particular investigation in the largest possible context of significance. The essay was published in the Journal of Modern History 23 (1951), 315–328, and is reprinted here with the permission of the publisher .

A major problem for the historian of political thought in the period of the Renaissance is to trace the transition from the religious, idealistic, or constitutional ideas of the Middle Ages to the secular, realistic, or absolutist views of the early modern era.[1] A decade ago Felix Gilbert discussed this problem in connection with humanist political thought and its background in Italian political conditions.[2] But this evolution in political ideas was not confined to Italy, and this article proposes to examine the process in a writer from across the Alps, Philippe de Commynes.

Commynes has certain advantages as a case study in intellectual transition. A period on its way to great changes is generally characterized by the persistence of traditional forms whose content has altered; and the professional intellectual is perhaps too sensitive to the requirements of consistency. Hence the search for the origins of general changes in attitude may sometimes most profitably be carried on among unsystematic and informal thinkers. Commynes was no scholar; he was ignorant of Latin,[3] and his Mémoires are almost entirely free of classical allusion. His reading was confined to vernacular histories and to translations of


a few classics, such as Livy and the City of God .[4] And his own work is in no sense a formal treatise. It was ostensibly written to serve merely as material for a history of Louis XI, to be written in Latin by Angelo Cato, archbishop of Vienne.[5] In fact, however, Commynes certainly conceived also of an independent use for his Mémoires ; and this is the only reason for considering him as a political thinker at all. "I judge," he wrote, "that simple and vulgar fellows will not bother to read these memoirs; but princes or courtiers will, I think, find in them some good lessons."[6] His aim is thus the instruction of princes, and his work belongs to the general class of mirrors and guidebooks for rulers.

The Mémoires of Commynes are mainly a historical narrative and describe, chronologically, events in which the author was concerned. The first six books deal with the period of Louis XI and Charles the Bold; the last two take up again, more than a decade later, to describe the Italian venture of Charles VIII. Into the narrative framework are woven comments on men and events whose value for the historian depends as much on their suggestiveness as on their intrinsic meaning. Thus the methodological problem in getting at the political ideas of Commynes is considerable, for they must somehow be sorted out from the unsystematic statements and allusions buried in the narrative. This informality has the advantage of permitting a more intimate acquaintance with the writer, so that his feelings and desires, his political emotions, so to speak, as well as his explicit convictions, are in evidence. It presents also, however, the usual disadvantages of lack of system. Important questions for the formal theorist, such as the problem of the origins of government, are left unsettled. Lack of system also exposes the student to the temptation to achieve understanding by the imposition of schemes and categories which have little basis except in his own mind.

This has, indeed, been one of the major barriers to any clear understanding of Commynes in the past. Thus nineteenth-century liberals like V.-L. Bourrilly[7] and Paul Janet[8] discovered modernity in Commynes by reading history backward from their own political ideals. And the most famous of all modern essays on Commynes, that of Sainte-Beuve, though it acutely recognizes his pragmatic attitude, is also perhaps the worst offender in its complete isolation of Commynes from his own historical context.[9] There are elements of modernity in Commynes, but there is much besides.

Commynes's opinions were closely connected with the circumstances of his life. His family was of recent middle-class origin: his grandfather, Colard Vanden Clyte, was a prominent citizen of Ypres, who supported the ducal against the communal party and was rewarded by a position


as counselor to Louis the Bad. He was also given by his sovereign a wife who brought with her the lands of the ancient family of Commynes. But Philippe de Commynes, born about 1447, was the son of a younger son and inherited nothing but debts.[10] His position at the Burgundian court was thus based on his father's professional services and on his own abilities, not on family or wealth.

In the service of Charles the Bold, Commynes first met Louis XI at Péronne in 1468, and four years later he deserted Burgundy for the service of France. Commynes never offers an explanation for this act, but adequate reasons are not hard to see. He was ambitious but could rise only by making himself useful. Charles, however, was proud and self-reliant, neglecting all opinions but his own;[11] hence the usefulness to him of an intelligent man was limited. Louis, on the other hand, promised Commynes both responsibility and the status which he could scarcely have hoped for from Charles. Besides gifts of money and a pension, he received from Louis the huge feudal principality of Talmont, which had authority over seventeen hundred subfiefs; and within a few years he was also given a noble wife, whose dowry included the barony of D'Argenton.[12] Commynes's new responsibilities included important diplomatic functions and service as the most intimate sort of royal adviser. It has been suggested that some of the political ideas in the Mémoires and even some of the phraseology are Louis's;[13] perhaps the king was paying as much for a ready ear as for able counsel.

Up to this point Commynes's career seems to have been that of a self-made man and, indeed, of the new and modern professional servant of government. One might thus expect him to side with the monarchy in its tendencies to absolute and bureaucratic control and against the principles of traditional feudal institutions. Yet the very rewards which Commynes received for his professional services to the king were such as to identify his interests with the traditional forces against which the monarchy was contending. And his achievement of status in the traditional social order explains what would appear to be a contradiction in the life of Commynes; for the Commynes who had been the loyal follower of Louis XI was to spend several months in one of his late master's famous iron cages because of his activities as a supporter of rebellious feudal activity.[14] After the minority of Charles VIII he returned to public life, but he was never again entirely trusted.[15] The Mémoires also suggest at times the exaggerated consciousness of status of the parvenu, as when Commynes expresses his contempt for the political capacities of the Flemish townsmen—of whom his grandfather had been one.[16]

"Commynes wants to be useful," Bourrilly pointed out,[17] and in a


sense his Mémoires serve to extend in time and space the value of his professional services as a counselor to princes. Written in his retirement, the Mémoires also perhaps served to compensate the author for the loss of past importance.[18] He has constantly in mind the practical value of his own intelligence as an aid to princely government, and the parallel between this aspect of the work and his own career should not be overlooked. Many of the didactic passages in the book are consciously the sort of comment that an able adviser might make to a young prince at the scene of action. Often they are simply practical suggestions with little general implication, as when, in connection with the siege of Liège, Commynes points out the folly of making sallies from besieged towns.[19] Or, again, he gives detailed advice on diplomacy in terms which reflect his own experience and seem almost a wistful application for employment:

When [a prince] wants to conclude peace, he ought to employ the most faithful servants he has, men of middle years, in order that their feebleness may not lead them to some dishonorable bargain. . . . He ought also to employ men who have received some favor or benefit from him and, above all, men of wisdom; for a fool never profits a man. And his treaties ought to be negotiated afar off rather than near; and when the ambassadors return, he ought to see them in private, or in the presence of only a few, so that, if their news be alarming, he can instruct them how to answer any questions. For everybody wants to hear the news from those who return from such business.[20]

A useful point of departure for a survey of Commynes's political ideas is his estimate of the government of the Papal States. Except for the disorders produced by the rivalry of the Colonna and the Orsini, says Commynes, the territories of the pope are "the best governed in the whole world, for they do not pay tailles nor any other taxes" and the rulers "are always wise and well advised."[21] Regardless of its historical accuracy, this description suggests both the elements and the conflicts contained in Commynes's ideal. He desires a state in which a wise prince, assisted by able counselors, preserves peace and order, without having to levy taxes. Commynes's politics may be summarized in terms of these four elements, and major aspects of its significance in terms of the questions which they raise. For how are peace and order possible without taxation, and what is the necessity for counselors when the ruler is wise?

The first requirement of good government, then, is the wise prince;


but in what does princely wisdom consist? Commynes begins his definition by generalizing from the characters of the princes he knew; and we must answer this question first by considering his two great masters: Louis XI, the type of wisdom; and Charles the Bold, the type of folly. Commynes compares them consciously and in almost these balanced terms. Charles for him seems to have been a simple man, whose basic flaw was pride. He pictures him exulting on the field of Montlhéry:

All that day Charolais stayed on the field, rejoicing greatly, regarding the glory of the victory as entirely his own, a thought which has since cost him very dear; for henceforth he regarded no man's advice, but relied on himself alone. Whereas before he had hated war and everything connected with it, his ideas now changed; for he continued in it until his death. And by it his life was ended and his house destroyed, or at least badly desolated.

Three great and wise princes, his predecessors, had raised him high; and few kings besides the king of France were more powerful than he. For large and beautiful cities no ruler surpassed him. But no man should take too much on himself, especially a great prince: he should acknowledge that favors and good fortune come from God.[22]

This judgment is, of course, generally consistent with the moral emphasis of Christianity; on the other hand, it happens to coincide nicely with Commynes's personal grudge against Charles.

The character of Louis XI obviously fascinated Commynes, and again his generalized judgment happens to agree with his choice of masters. The contrast is clear: unlike Charles, Louis was wise enough to be humble, and he would go to great lengths to persuade men (presumably like Commynes) into his service; he was, furthermore, "naturally a friend to men of middle estate,"[23] as well as a great respecter of learning.[24] Unlike Charles, he avoided battles, yet not from fear (though he had wisdom enough to know when to be afraid) but from his understanding of the folly of risking his fortunes by battle when his ends could be accomplished by other means.[25] Time after time Commynes praises Louis for his wisdom or his skill: he was "the most skilful prince in the world in the art of dividing men";[26] he was "wiser in making treaties than any other prince of his time."[27]

On one occasion Commynes makes the same comparison in abstract terms, though here some bitter memory has evidently led him to drop the eulogistic note:


I have seen princes of two sorts: one so subtle and so very suspicious that it is impossible to live with them without being suspected; the other sort trust their servants well enough but are themselves so stupid and ignorant of their own affairs that they can't tell who serve them well and who badly. This latter sort are changed in a moment from love to hate or hate to love. And, although there are few of either sort who are good or constant, I should always prefer to live under the wise than under the foolish, because there are more ways of avoiding their displeasure and acquiring their favor. For with the ignorant there is no way, since one deals not with them but with their servants.[28]

But, when he is not its object, Commynes expresses another view of the wisdom of suspicion for princes.[29]

Commynes frequently emphasizes the importance of education for the prince, and he attributes part of Louis's success to the quality of his youthful education.[30] For learning is a shortcut to experience; the wise and learned prince cannot be abused by a learned rogue but will be able to recognize and so employ the best and wisest men about him.[31] Thus, while Commynes seems to identify learning with wisdom (perhaps not unusual for a man not himself learned), he clearly distinguishes between learning and virtue. And he suggests that a learned but wicked man is particularly dangerous as a royal adviser, since he is likely to "have a law or a history on the tip of his tongue for any occasion, and even the best will be twisted into an evil sense."[32] On the content of the princely education, Commynes has only one suggestion: the prince should read history: "One of the best ways of making a man wise is to have him read ancient history, which will teach him how to behave himself, defend himself, and carry out any enterprise wisely by the example of our ancestors. For our life is so short that experience is not enough to teach so much."[33] If the ideal prince of Commynes is not necessarily an Erasmian philosopher, he is at least a practical humanist.

The religious sanctions of political authority, which medieval theorists could almost never forget, interest Commynes little. On one occasion he states that his denunciation of evil rulers is justified by "the great responsibility and high office God has given them in this world."[34] Another passage insists on the moral obligations of the prince, informs his reader that only a beast is unaware of the difference between good and evil, and concludes that if a prince occasionally mistakes evil for good and rewards it, he should be careful not to condemn the principle


on which he acted, along with the mistake.[35] But these are isolated passages. On the whole, the interest of Commynes is in the practical wisdom of the prince—his caution and calculation, his cunning in diplomacy, his knowledge of men, and his grasp of the practical problems of government. The modernity of this emphasis scarcely needs comment.

The nature of wisdom is presumably about the same for counselors as for princes; and what is significant in Commynes's emphasis is perhaps the hint contained in it that no prince is quite adequate to rule by himself. Yet the traditional element suggested here should be interpreted only in the light of Commynes's career. As a former counselor, he was bound to defend the importance of his own function. What is perhaps more important is his emphasis on the professional qualifications of royal counselors. Nowhere does he suggest that the basis on which the counselor should be selected ought to be anything but wisdom and ability. He condemns both Edward of England and Charles VIII, as well as Charles the Bold, for their neglect of "wise and experienced" advisers.[36] His emphasis on the importance of wise counsel for the prince is one of the most frequently recurring themes in the Mémoires .

Commynes nowhere attempts an abstract statement of the ends of government, but he scarcely needs to be explicit about his longing for peace and order. Numerous passages illustrate this desire, which was general in a France exhausted by the Hundred Years' War and worn out by feudal disorders. In a list of the wrongs committed by tyrants, Commynes lists the quartering of soldiery on the people and complains of the suffering caused by these irregular and unpaid troops;[37] but the chief offenders in this respect, as he must have known, were the feudal levies which Louis, like Charles VII before him, was taking steps to replace with the regularly paid soldiery, which Commynes recommended. Again, he laments civil strife: when disorders begin, all men hope to see them soon ended; but it is rather to be feared that they will spread, since "though at the beginning only two or three princes or lesser men be involved, before the banquet has lasted two years, everybody will be sitting down to it."[38] His experiences in an army composed of allies led Commynes to this reflection: "It is almost impossible for many great lords of equal rank to continue for long in friendship without there being a lord above all, who should be wise and well esteemed in order to have the obedience of all. I have seen a great many examples of this with my own eyes."[39] He has not yet reached here the notion of power sufficient to keep the peace, but he has only a short distance still to go. And some of his remarks about Louis XI suggest that the idea of domestic order imposed by royal authority is indeed very near expression. So he


criticizes Louis for his failure to annex the Burgundian lands directly after the death of Charles the Bold, because annexation, instead of splitting the territory up into small feudal grants, would have spared the people much strife.[40] Again, Commynes reports approvingly the reforms that Louis projected before his death, among them standardization of all laws, weights, and measures.[41] Most significant is a part of his final judgment of Louis, a passage which amounts to a kind of rationale of royal absolutism: "I have never seen a better prince. It is true that he oppressed his subjects, but he allowed no one else to do so, friend or foe ."[42]

This reference to Louis as an oppressor brings us to the last aspect of Commynes's ideal state—the absence of taxation; for the one great failing of his master was that he burdened the people with overwhelming taxes.[43] Commynes expressed his views on the subject of taxation emphatically and often. In this respect, furthermore, the traditional element in his thought is most pronounced; and the question of taxation also brings us to the "constitutionalism" of Commynes.

He started with the medieval view that the king should live on the ordinary domain revenues, and these he regarded as fully sufficient for all the normal purposes of government; "for this domain is very large; and if it is well managed, its income, including gabelles and certain aides , is more than a million francs."[44] Only the requirements of defense could justify a royal request for more money, which could legally be obtained only by taxation consented to by the estates of the realm. And perhaps the major example of tyranny on Commynes's list is the waging of war without first asking the advice of the estates whose money and lives are spent therein. He asks, "Is there a king or lord on earth who has the power, outside his own domain, to levy a penny from his subjects without the grant and consent of those who must pay it—except by tyranny and violence?"[45] The procedure at Tours in 1484 seems to him the proper approach to royal taxation; and to those who (significantly) were doubtful of the wisdom of summoning the estates even before the sixteenth century, Commynes replies: "Some might have thought then that this assembly was dangerous, and there were those, of mean condition and small virtue, who said then, and have said since, that it is treason only to speak of assembling the estates and that it diminishes the authority of the king. But they are committing a crime against God, the king, and the public welfare."[46] He also points approvingly to England, where he reports that the monarch could not make war without first assembling parliament, which is "the equivalent of the three estates." The English system he regarded as both proper in principle and satisfactory in practice.[47] The difference between France and England in respect to taxation,


however, he declares with emphasis, is a matter of practice only, not of principle: "Our king has the least basis of any for saying, 'I have the right to levy taxes from my subjects as I please.'"[48] In fact, no Christian prince whosoever has any "authority based on reason to impose taxes without the consent of his people."[49] Any method of raising extraordinary revenue in France except by application to the estates is tyranny and makes the king liable to excommunication.[50]

Several aspects of Commynes's position on taxation should be noted. One is that it is not necessarily an accidental survival in him of feudal principle. It happens to coincide with his own financial interests as a feudal proprietor, for the imposition of royal taxes was bound up with the abolition of important sources of noble revenue. Furthermore, it had been a general aim of Louis XI to bring the privileged groups within the scope of royal taxation, as Gandilhon has recently shown;[51] so that Commynes may very well be thinking of his own experiences.

But, in the second place, Commynes's expression of constitutional principle is perhaps the only suggestion of what he believed about the relationship of the monarch to law. He is clearly assuming the existence of some sort of fundamental law, and this law is not peculiar to France. He is generalizing about feudal society, and he has in mind, as a basis for the principle, some kind of universal religious concept.

Finally, Commynes's views on taxation are in glaring conflict with the practical realities underlying his longing for domestic peace and stability. That he failed to realize the necessity for a regular, dependable, and thus independent royal income for the attainment of real order and tranquillity in France is an amazing example of the incompleteness of his political understanding. Even his practical sense was not sufficient to suggest to him, for example, the enormous difference between the papal domains and the kingdom of France, their problems and sources of income.

This conflict between the general conditions which Commynes desires in France and the restrictions he wishes to place on their attainment is underlined by his analysis of the reasons for the enormous increase in extraordinary taxation since the time of Charles VII. He sees clearly that this increase is bound up very closely with the maintenance of a professional army and discusses together the increases in taxation and the number of paid soldiers. He gives statistics: during the reign of Louis XI, while the taille rose from 1,800,000 francs to 4,700,000 annually, the army increased from 1,700 men-at-arms to somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000, plus about 25,000 other troops.[52]

To the use of mercenaries, foreign or native, Commynes is bitterly


opposed. But if part of his reason is financial, he also fears the power given the king by a regular army. He violently assails Charles VII for beginning the practice of trying to control the kingdom with regular troops after the manner of the Italians.[53] His description of an incident in the history of Burgundy is revealing. Commynes begins by reporting how Charles the Bold assembled the Burgundian estates for the purpose of establishing the nucleus of a regular army of his own such as had already been established in France. His subjects were, however, afraid to put themselves under the sort of "subjection they saw in France because of these troops." So they granted to Charles only a part of what he asked, and the sequel showed how right their fears had been; for Charles exploited the limited permission which he had received, increased the number of his paid troops, and taxed the people heavily for their support. And Commynes concludes with a generalization about the advantages and disadvantages of a standing army: under a wise ruler, it may be useful; but if the ruler is a minor—the attack on the Beaujeus, who had imprisoned him, is obvious here—this army may well be used by those who govern for ends "not always profitable either for the king or for his subjects."[54]

Commynes's explanation of the origins of high royal taxes and an independent royal army suggests again that he ought to have realized that the maintenance of the peace required financial and military power. He says that Charles VII was the first king to levy taxes "at his pleasure and without consent of the estates of his kingdom"; but he agrees that at the time there was sufficient cause, because of both the expenses of reconquest and the necessity for dealing with ravaging free companies.[55] Furthermore, he noticed the necessity of money for carrying on the Italian war, and he describes cases in which troops refused to serve without pay.[56] But, instead of advancing any real solutions to the problems of public finance, Commynes contents himself with the counsel that princes ought to keep on good terms with such merchant-financiers as the Medici, "for they know not when they will have need of them, since sometimes a little money accomplishes much."[57]

With his discussion of taxation Commynes touches on what has been called "the greatest political revolution of the fifteenth century, that which made the taille permanent, and thus gave to the crown the most powerful weapon it could wield for the overthrow of the practices of the Middle Ages."[58] This "revolution" was also one of the major issues at Tours in 1484, when an attempt was made to reassert the responsibility of the crown to the estates in matters of extraordinary taxation and where the principles expressed by Commynes were asserted with great


vigor.[59] The issue for the historian is this: Did these principles express the realities of the time, or were they merely a last protest of the old order which was passing? The conclusion of this paper is probably already obvious; but so distinguished a historian as A. J. Carlyle has been eager to defend the vitality of the principles expressed by the deputies at Tours and by Commynes.[60] This is his position: "It is impossible to maintain that the King of France had any recognized and constitutional right to impose taxation at his discretion. That he frequently did so is clear, and the right to do so was from time to time asserted by some persons, but it is also clear that the right was emphatically and constantly denied, and that the King from time to time and in quite unequivocal terms recognized that taxation should not be imposed without the consent of the Provincial or General Estates."[61]

The facts are these: the origins of independent royal income went back, as Commynes pointed out, to the reign of Charles VII. Until 1435 the estates seem to have been fully in control of taxation; but with the military successes of the crown came an inevitable increase in royal prestige, and, at the same time, war weariness and impatience with feudal excesses reached a climax. The only way to finish the expulsion of the English and to end the depredations of the independent feudal bands was to establish some sort of regular army. But a regular army required a regular source of income; and to provide this was the task of the estates-general which met at Orléans in 1439.[62] This assembly was a striking contrast to that of 1484. Where the later group fought to decrease the regular army,[63] the earlier actually pleaded that it be established;[64] and where the later fought to establish the financial responsibility of the crown, the earlier made the crown financially independent. Charles VII was given the right to levy an annual taille for the support of an army.

The problem of royal taxation was thus closely bound up with the problem of feudal independence; and perhaps as important for the political future of France as the permission for the king to tax without consulting the estates were certain provisions in the royal edict which resulted from the assembly of 1439.[65] This edict was the negative corollary of the extension of royal military and financial power: what had been given to the king had to be forbidden to the nobles. Of its forty-six articles, the first three deal with the establishment of the new royal army and forbid all private persons to raise troops without consent of the king, under the penalty of forfeiting "all honors and public offices, and the rights and privileges of nobility, and the loss of life and goods." Then follows a series of regulations which impose certain standards of


discipline on the royal military force. Implicit in these regulations is an attempt to end precisely those disorders which were being committed by the feudal levies; and their aim seems to be not the improved efficiency of the royal fighting force but the protection of the populace. This fact is important because it is reflected in the even more significant articles with which the edict ends, those dealing with fiscal abuses of the feudal system. These articles seem to have as their general purpose the regularization of feudal income, its fixture at a predetermined level, and hence the protection of the subject from all arbitrary feudal taxation. Article 37 states this principle generally but emphatically:

Item. And the king forbids all lords, barons and others, all captains and guardians of towns and fortresses, of bridges and roads, and all others, all officers, provosts, toll collectors and others, that henceforth none of them shall force . . . their subjects or others to pay them anything, or demand anything of them, wheat, wine, money or anything else, beyond the dues and rents which their subjects and others owe to them, and on pain of seizure of body and goods by the captains, officers, and lords, under pain of confiscation of all their goods; and from henceforth the king declares the lands, seigneuries and fortresses where such exactions are made, whether by the lords or by their servants or officers . . . seized and confiscated forever and without restitutions.[66]

Succeeding articles make this principle more specific: tolls are forbidden, beyond what ancient custom had established; and the lords are expressly forbidden to impose tailles or to interfere in any way with the collection of the royal taille . Here two motives are apparent. One, stated explicitly, is the protection of the people.[67] The other is suggested by the fact that the feudal taille and interference with the royal taille are forbidden together; apparently it was anticipated that king and nobles would be competing for the same money.

Study of this edict makes fairly clear some of the factors behind the action of the estates of 1439. Feudalism had proved itself wanting, not only through its military anarchy, but also because its own solution to the problem of taxation was unsatisfactory. Thus the revolutionary measure of 1439 was accomplished by constitutional means, not by a royal coup. While the permanence of the new royal taille was not explicitly stated in 1439, the fiscal abuses which it aimed to correct were not of a temporary sort.

In any case, once the right of the king to the taille was given, it was successfully maintained; and it is unlikely that the right would have been


questioned but for its relentless exploitation by Louis XI. Even Commynes and the deputies at Tours, while they may complain about taxes, are often not clear about whether they are objecting to the illegality or merely to the weight of taxation. Indeed, the analogy of the fiscal system to the circulation of the blood made by the deputies suggests centralization quite as much as it suggests the need for economy.[68]

It is thus evident that the independence of royal taxation had been, in practice, established in France even before the accession of Louis XI, and even as powerful a gathering as the Estates-General of 1484 was able to do little but protest. The real turning point in the situation had come long before the time of Commynes; and the needs of the nation for order and tranquillity were such that it is difficult to conceive of any return to the medieval system of taxation. While both Commynes and the deputies at Tours protested against the methods used to insure a degree of order in France, both gave evidence of a deep sense of the need for it.

The political ideas which we have so far examined in Commynes show the difficulty of classifying him clearly as either "medieval" or "modern" and thereby also reveal how well he deserves to be called a transitional figure. The deeper religious and ethical implications of these political gu ideas and of his general attitudes show the same sort of complexities on a more profound psychological level. In the remainder of this paper I should like to attempt some analysis of what is going on in these fundamental areas of Commynes's mind.

The obvious point of departure here is the basic assumption of his work that his political advice has value for the prince and that it ought to be given. The implications are of two sorts. One may be described as traditional: the assumption that the individual, even though he is a prince, is by himself inadequate. We have already seen the specific application of this implication to the problem of government in Commynes's insistence on the need for a council; but it has also a more general significance. The other implication of Commynes's self-appointed role as adviser to princes is connected with Jacob Burckhardt's description of the Renaissance state in Italy as a "work of art": the idea that, by rational planning and a careful adaptation of means to ends, the political forms of human life may be consciously controlled and directed. As one might expect, both tendencies appear in Commynes.

Besides its political application in the idea of a council, Commynes's sense of the inadequacy of the individual expresses itself in religious terms. Often, however, his piety is unconvincingly formal. Thus he concludes a discussion of the unreliability of princes: "But, all things considered, our only hope ought to be in God; for in him only is complete


constancy and goodness, which are not to be found in this world. But this we learn too late and after we have needed the lesson. Yet better late than never."[69] And his generalization that all the evils of this life proceed from lack of faith[70] rings somewhat hollow in view of his own readiness to prescribe practical measures of correction. More functional is his emphasis on providence, at least as a symbol for the unknown cause in events otherwise beyond his capacity for explanation. His account of the Wars of the Roses is an example: "So everything went awry in England. Civil wars broke out among them which have lasted almost until today, because the house of York usurped the throne, or held it by good title—I do not know which; for the governance of such matters is done by God."[71] His use of supernatural explanation, however, also leads Commynes into a reflection which strikingly suggests the essential shallowness of his religious convictions and the way in which his mind is on the verge of thinking in other terms; he is meditating about the fate of the rebellious Constable of Saint-Pol: "We must admit that changeable Fortune looked at him with a frown. Or [Commynes hastily corrects himself] to give a better answer, we should say that such great mysteries do not come from Fortune at all and that Fortune is nothing but a poetic fiction: God must have abandoned him."[72] For once, Commynes shows himself aware of a problem of intellectual integration.

This general theme of individual inadequacy is twice strikingly applied to the practices of government and governors. In speaking of Montlhéry, Commynes seems to deny all meaning to the phrase "the art of war": "I cannot be persuaded that the wisdom of one man is sufficient to govern such a number of men or that things turn out in the field as they are planned in the council chamber,"[73] though here his desire to deny credit for victory to Charles the Bold is pertinent. Again, his reflections on the wise calculations of the Venetians, who disbelieved in the possibility of a French invasion of Italy, lead him to conclude that the plans of men are worth nothing when God chooses to intervene.[74] Commynes also stresses at times the fallibility of the individual, and he shows no inclination to except princes: "No prince is so wise but that he sometimes makes mistakes, and a great many if he lives long."[75] Even counselors are of use only because many heads are better than one:

Thus it is very necessary that a prince have many advisers, for even the wisest frequently err, whether through partiality in the matters on which they speak, through love or hate, through the spirit of opposition, or sometimes through bodily indisposition: for no one should be made to give advice after dinner. Some might object that men subject to these faults ought not be in the council of a prince, but it must be answered that we are all hu-


man; and he who would be advised only by such as never fail to speak wisely . . . must look for them in heaven, for they are not to be found among men. But to make up for this, a man in the council will occasionally speak very wisely and well who does not generally do so; and thus one makes up for the defects of another.[76] Here is a picture of men approaching the problems of government not with the creative exuberance of the conventional Renaissance but piteously vulnerable even to the indignities of dyspepsia!

Yet there are elements in this insistence on the need for advice which may lead to an entirely modern emphasis on planning and the reliance of men on their human powers alone and, as the emphasis is shifted to the adequacy of means for given ends, even to the ethical detachment of Machiavelli. And side by side with the traditional elements in Commynes we may find passages which illustrate these "modern" tendencies also. The contrast of Charles the Bold and Louis XI is again to the point: Charles is criticized for his disorderly ways and his failure to plan;[77] Louis is commanded for his caution and the thoroughness which he applied to every activity.[78] And Commynes's advice to the ruler who is preparing for battle reflects a spirit not of chivalric heroism but of middle-class business enterprise: "Therefore, one should consider well before risking an unnecessary battle; and if it should come, consider beforehand every danger. For generally those who do a thing in fear make the best provision for it and more often win than those who go at it arrogantly."[79] The implication is, certainly, that the prince may, by taking thought, add, if not a cubit to his stature, at least a few acres to his kingdom.

Commynes's insistence on thoughtful planning finally merges into an almost unconditional admiration for "cunning,"[80] and in this may perhaps be detected some of the influence of Louis XI. It is what Sainte-Beuve had in mind when he described Commynes as "our Machiavelli."[81] For his master's cunning made a deep impression on Commynes, whose frank admiration even extends to the praise of Louis's attainments in the art of dissimulation. In this respect he is recommended as a model for young princes, since they, too, "if they are wise, will always try to represent their acts in the best light."[82] On one occasion Commynes seems suddenly to become aware of some moral problem connected with the use of trickery, for he begins a paragraph thus: "Because it is necessary to know the cunning and evil practices of this world as well as the good, though not in order to make use of them, but rather to guard against them, I shall describe an example of cunning, or of clever dealing as it


might be termed."[83] This he proceeds to do with great relish. But he is not usually so scrupulous; indeed, he seems generally to identify cunning with wisdom: "Some men are not so cunning as others or so clever or so experienced in these affairs, and some do not even feel the need of wisdom; but in these matters it is the wise who come off best. I shall give you a very clear example of this. Never has a treaty been made between the French and the English in which the judgment and sharpness of the French have not proved superior. And it is proverbial among the English that they have always beaten the French in battle but always lost at the peace table."[84]

The final element in Commynes's calculating attitude is a kind of cynical realism. It expresses itself in aphorisms such as "Most men serve rather for the rewards hoped for than for the favors received."[85] And in a passage which has implications for the interpretation of his own life, he even applauds in a prince the ability to exploit the moral weakness of other men: "Naturally most men look how to advance themselves or how to save themselves, so that they can easily be won over to the strongest side. There are other men so good and true that they are not affected by such considerations, but they are few. The problem of desertion is especially dangerous when princes try to win men over; but when a prince will attempt this, it is a great sign of God's grace. For it indicates that he is not infected with the foolish vice of pride, which calls down the hatred of everyone."[86] The secular quality in his estimate of pride and the perversity of Commynes's invocation of Christian concepts in this passage are obvious. Thus it is not surprising to find, side by side with statements of formal piety, passages in which Commynes can recommend the use of ambassadors as spies[87] or can describe without comment the butchery of the citizens of Liège, who had trustfully regarded themselves as safe from attack on the Sabbath.[88] With an attitude like this, we are scarcely any longer in the Middle Ages.

Thus the double quality of Commynes's more specifically political views is repeated at a deeper level, and his value as a representative of the transition to modern times is underlined. If he emphasized the practical competence rather than the ideal virtues of the ruler, he could not dispense entirely with the language of religion. He stressed the professional qualifications rather than the status of royal advisers, but he also defended traditional privilege. He saw clearly, and even felt deeply, the needs of his time for peace and order; but he could not detach himself sufficiently from the ideas of the past to support those extensions of central authority which alone could satisfy them. His pragmatism, his interest in planning, and his tendency to detach politics from morality


point to a new era; but a recurring pessimism suggests the waning of the Middle Ages. No single classification of Commynes will suffice to reconcile these paradoxes, and in this fact lies his major historical significance.


Postel and the Significance of Renaissance Cabalism

This essay was my first publication after I received my doctorate and was teaching at the University of Illinois. It was an effort to place the subject of my dissertation in a larger context; I tried to explain why Christian thinkers of the Renaissance were attracted to a singularly esoteric expression of Judaism. The essay was published in the Journal of the History of Ideas 15 (1954), 218–232, and is reprinted here by permission of the publisher .

One of the most extraordinary and yet obscure currents in the intellectual history of the Renaissance was the interest of Christian thinkers in the Jewish cabala. This concern extended from Pico's attempt to absorb cabala into a Christian synthesis of universal knowledge at the end of the fifteenth century well into the seventeenth, and included writers and scholars from every major European country. Yet, in spite of the wide distribution of cabalistic interest in both time and space, the problem of explaining the movement, in the sense of relating it to the general concerns of its historical setting, has not been very satisfactorily dealt with.

There have been two contrasting reasons for this failure. One has been the difficulty of determining the nature of cabala itself. The task is by no means yet complete, but much has now been accomplished, notably through the work of Gershom Scholem.[1] It is now possible to affirm enough about cabala to attempt some explanation of its attraction for the mind of the later Renaissance.

The word cabala , which literally means tradition , designates an esoteric school of religious thought within Judaism, characterized by both a certain doctrinal emphasis and a particular system of exegesis. Its origins


are still obscure, but it evidently emerged out of the eclectic intellectual atmosphere of the diaspora, and it thus represents a synthesis of influences variously drawn from Pythagorean, Neoplatonic, Gnostic, and even Zoroastrian sources, the whole fused with an essential structure of orthodox Judaism.[2] This fact provides a part of the explanation for Christian interest in cabala. It introduced many of the conceptions of hellenistic thought, attractive but previously suspect, under the respectable auspices of sacred tradition.

The heterogeneous elements of cabala began to assume more or less systematic and written form in the Middle Ages, especially among the Jews of Spain and southern France. The fullest development of cabalistic doctrine, although it can hardly be described as a systematic statement, is contained in the Zohar , or Book of Splendor , which was probably written by Moses of Leon, a Castilian Jew who wrote in the second half of the thirteenth century. In the history of Jewish thought, the Zohar , and the tradition of Jewish mystical speculation which it represents, seem to express the effort of religious minds to correct the overintellectualism of the philosophers such as Moses Maimonides.[3] This fact also has considerable relevance for the explanation of Christian Renaissance cabalism. Within Judaism cabala represented very much the same sort of reaction against the alleged irrelevancies of formal philosophy that humanism, mysticism, and some aspects of Protestantism represented in the history of Christian thought.

Cabalistic teaching is of several sorts, among which it is convenient to distinguish the following. First, cabala includes doctrines concerned with the relation between God and the creation which are chiefly based on Neoplatonic and Gnostic schemes of emanation. The Zohar posits between God and the universe ten intermediaries, the sephiroth, which solve the perennial problem of explaining the immanent activity of a transcendent God. Second, it includes messianic and apocalyptic doctrines of a more specifically Jewish character. Finally, it includes techniques of scriptural exegesis which have the general aim of discovering profound spiritual significance in even the most apparently local and trivial passages of the Scriptures.[4] The excesses associated with these techniques, which rely heavily on computing and manipulating arithmetically the numerical equivalents of Hebrew letters and words, have received undue attention.[5] All aspects of cabalistic teaching attracted and were utilized by Renaissance cabalists.

But there has been, in addition to the obscurity of cabala, a second reason for the inadequate historical treatment of Renaissance cabalism. It has been approached too exclusively in terms of its permanent impres-


sion on European thought, and, measured by this standard, it has been dismissed as an inconsequential "fad" in contrast with the truly "significant" activities of the scientists.[6] But historical significance involves more than contribution to the future, and it may be suggested that even a passing fad can be sometimes made to yield valuable evidence of the character of an age. In fact, the fads of the Renaissance raise important questions. Why was the intellectual of the Renaissance liable to fads (granted that he was)? What, again, is the significance of the sorts of fads which attracted him? And, to return to our immediate concern, what were the needs which cabalism satisfied for him? The purpose of the present paper is to consider the last question from the standpoint of a French cabalist of the sixteenth century, Guillaume Postel.

Postel is of unusual interest for helping to answer the question.[7] Part of the reason lies in the fact (which has been insufficiently recognized) that his knowledge of cabala was probably more extensive and systematic than that of any other cabalist of his time. To mention only the best known among Renaissance cabalists, Pico, some two generations earlier, had relied mainly on a mediocre commentary on the Zohar for his knowledge, and Reuchlin's sources were chiefly pre-Zoharic.[8] But Postel was thoroughly acquainted with all the major documents of cabala, in addition to possessing a wide reputation as a student of Hebrew and of the Near East in general.

Postel first learned Hebrew as a student in Paris after about 1525, but the first traces of cabalistic influence on his thought appeared only after a sojourn in Rome between 1544 and 1547. During this time he became acquainted with two German Hebraists, Andreas Masius (Andreas van Maes) and Johann von Widmanstadt, and it is probable that he also frequented the Jewish colony in Rome. His first cabalistic writings are works written during or immediately after this period,[9] which thus marks the beginning of his career as a Christian cabalist of the Renaissance. Among his major achievements in this role were two translations of important cabalistic sources. He first produced a Latin version of a considerable portion of the Zohar ,[10] and not long after he published a Latin translation of the important Sepher Yezirah , or Book of Formation .[11] He was also familiar with a third important cabalistic writing, the SepherBahir .[12] A large proportion of his writing after 1548 contains cabalistic elements,[13] and includes works which demonstrate a knowledge of all three of the major aspects of cabalistic teaching.

A second reason for Postel's special usefulness as a representative of Renaissance cabalism lies in his active participation in numerous important movements of his time, both academic and practical.[14] He was


a distinguished scholar with an international reputation in philology, and at various times he held chairs among the Royal Readers in what was to become the Collège de France and in the University of Vienna. A philosopher of sorts, he concerned himself with the stock problems of his day. He travelled extensively in the Near East and wrote vernacular best-sellers on the Ottoman Empire. He concerned himself with ecclesiastical reform and religious unity during the struggles of the Reformation, acting as a kind of lobbyist for conciliation at the Council of Trent. He was also a crusade propagandist, a missionary enthusiast, and an erstwhile member of the Society of Jesus. Finally, he was a very personal sort of mystic with a considerable circle of friends and correspondents both inside and outside the Catholic fold; eventually his private speculations brought about his imprisonment for several years in a papal prison at Rome. The wide range of Postel's interests and activities makes it possible to see through him a number of highly interesting relationships between cabalism and other concerns of the sixteenth century.

Finally, Postel is useful for our purposes because his life, and with it his bibliography, were long. He lived to the age of seventy-one; before his death in 1581 he had managed to publish some sixty works, several of considerable length.[15] In addition he produced numerous personal letters and a huge quantity of manuscript works. These writings cover almost every subject of interest to the learned mind of his day, and in addition a considerable range of subjects intended to interest a nonacademic audience. In fact, as a publicist (and no other word comes close to summarizing the activities of his life) he deliberately wrote for several audiences. The number of his works, their variety, and the diversity of the readers at whom he aimed all help, again, in establishing the connections between cabalism and other interests of the time.

In what follows, therefore, I should like to survey the uses to which Postel put cabala, with the broad purpose of attempting to determine why one leading Christian intellectual of the Renaissance was attracted to such unlikely material. I have suggested above two general explanations. One is that cabala, as of Jewish origin, provided a sanction for hellenistic conceptions previously regarded with distrust. The other is that, as the reaction of religious against philosophizing Judaism, cabala reinforced an important aspect of Renaissance thought. Through Postel we can make our explanations more specific.

Cabala was valuable to Postel, in the first place, because it helped him to make sense of the universe. His problem was the typical one of desiring to reintegrate various aspects of thought and experience which had been


dissociated and compartmentalized not only by the prevailing philosophical schools, but also by the metaphysical skepticism of the humanists. On the one hand, he felt the universe to be a vast system of correspondences in which the general is everywhere mirrored in the particular, every object has cosmic implications, and all created things exist in dynamic relationship to each other and to an ultimate reality. It was God's "first intention," he wrote, "to unify all things."[16] Accordingly, as his writings indicate, he considered the comprehension and description of this integrated universe a primary aim of human thought. His assumptions about the organization of the universe made him receptive to "that divine Plato, god of philosophers,"[17] as one might expect, and to astrology.[18]

On the other hand, Postel could not simply dismiss that growing sense of the gulf between God and the world which was the most profound expression of Renaissance pessimism. He followed Nicholas of Cusa in beginning his thought with the absolute antithesis between God and the world. God, he says, is eternal, infinite, unmoving, and immutable; the created world is in every respect the direct opposite. Hence Postel insisted on the necessity for mediation, without which it would be, he felt, impossible for man and the universe to enter into relationship with God, "for there is no passing from one extreme to the other without mediation."[19] Without mediation the universe, for Postel, must lack both unity and meaning.

He found his principle of mediation, and hence the unity and meaning of the universe, in cabala. Out of cabalistic materials he was able to construct a total and unified description of the universe which corresponded to his assumptions about its nature, and at the same time which did not deny the absolute transcendence of God. Two aspects of cabalistic doctrine provided him with the integrated world-picture which he craved.

The first of these was the cabalistic view of language. This was, of course, primarily applicable to Hebrew, which Postel esteemed as the true clavis scientiae and the via veritatis perdita .[20] Its active recovery by all mankind, he believed, is the only path both to a proper understanding of the universe as the systematic whole which God created, and to the restoration of direct communication with God. Here, it may be observed, is a hint concerning one impulse behind the development of Hebrew studies in the Renaissance.

But the cabalistic attitude toward language is also applicable in a secondary sense to all other languages, since, as Postel stresses, they are in every case merely historical corruptions of "the holy language."[21] The


point is that, for the cabalist, language is far more than an arbitrary instrument of communication between men. It is a general unifying principle, capable of comprehending all particular things. It originated in the words taught by God to Adam and hence possesses an absolute relation to what it designates; it represents the self-expression of God and reflects his creativity.[22] This view of language provides Postel both with a rationale for his plodding philological labors and, more obscurely, with a basis for a philosophical realism with which to oppose the schools.[23]

Postel goes considerably farther with the hierarchy of the sephiroth as mediators between God and the universe. He employs them in the first place to unite the creation to God as the transmitters of motion and life. God, he wrote, the unmoved mover, moves the world not directly, since this would require motion, but by means of emanated powers "proceeding from himself and inseparable from his person." And he identified these promptly as the mediators of cabala: they are "named by the Hebrew prophets the powers of the first ten divine names or angels."[24] Postel also uses the sephiroth, as we shall see in a moment, to unite all things to each other. This was a task for which they were well adapted. The hierarchy of the ten sephiroth is identifiable with, and mystically related to, the intellectual, sensible, and material worlds (to use the conventional distinction employed by Postel himself), the intellectual, moral, and physical attributes of man, sexual differences, colors, the decade, and the letters of the alphabet.[25]

The standard practice among Christian cabalists was to identify the Trinity with the first three of the sephiroth;[26] but Postel, who intended more than the reconciliation of religious systems, preferred to work out a system of his own. He arbitrarily selected and combined elements from a number of the original sephiroth to compose a trinity which has only the vaguest relation to that of Christianity.[27] While Postel was not one to overlook anything in the sephirotic system that would serve his own purposes, he found its sexual dualisms most useful for tying the universe together. In an effort to combine the terminology, and above all the implications, of as many intellectual systems as possible, he described his own mediators as the animus mundi , or masculine principle of the universe, the anima mundi , or feminine and maternal principle, and the first-born child of their marriage. These three mediators serve, for Postel, a wide variety of functions. They are somehow involved in every aspect of the activity of the universe, whose health depends on their proper relationship.

They have, in the first place, metaphysical significance: the animus


mundi is the first means by which the unmoved mover imparts existence and motion to the world: thus, as with the mediator of Nicholas of Cusa, he unites the opposites of finite and infinite.[28] The maternal principle is specifically the mediator between God and the material world, and makes possible local action.[29] They also have epistemological significance and thus serve an educative function in which the parents are joined by their son as forms of intellect:

Three separate persons are necessary, under the heading of active or formal INTELLECT, passive or material INTELLECT, and made or created INTELLECT: a general father, who is the root of authority; a mother who is the general basis of reason; and a third, the son, to teach both authority and reason. The task of these three persons joined in one is the illumination of the world by means of the light of the knowledge of God; so that just as these same general categories are joined to God, all individual and particular members of the human race may be united to God, so that men may know as they are known.[30]

Then, in a strange combination of philosophy and myth, Postel goes on to identify them with the terms of the syllogism, in which he conceives the conclusion as the offspring resulting from the union of the paternal wisdom of authority (the major premise) and the maternal wisdom of reason (the minor premise).[31] And he declares: "The final intention of God is that through these three universal mediators the law of reason inscribed on the minds of all by intellect or the light of first principles may be manifested and preserved so that man may be truly a rational animal, the image and likeness of God."[32] Postel means that there is, actually, no essential conflict between revelation (the expression of authoritative wisdom) and the natural reason of man, and that, through the activity of his three mediators, this fact must become clear to the human race.

Postel had for some time been attracted by the conception of religious truth as a set of demonstrable propositions on which all men, as rational beings, can agree. This interest had led to the charge by his Protestant enemies that he was the founder of "a sect of those who through mockery of God call themselves Deists."[33] He was in fact close to the Florentine Neoplatonic tradition, although bringing to it a fresh zeal which apparently frightened certain of his evangelical contemporaries; but the Protestant charge had its point. His long De orbis terrae concordia , which he always regarded as the most important of his writings, had been intended above all to teach Christian doctrine by "philosophical reasons,"


as the title page (verso) states. He more than once had attempted to list points of agreement among world religions on the basis of their acceptability to natural reason.[34] in the passages we have just examined he is discovering in cabala a means of justifying this general enterprise.

Another application of Postel's cabalism served to bring out the religious value of natural reason. For he identifies the feminine principle, the anima mundi , not only with reason but also with spiritual insights in this world, in order to explain or to justify a kind of religious feminism.[35] His doctrine here is an adaptation of cabalistic teaching concerning the Shekinah, last of the mediating sephiroth and the most immediately active in the sphere of human experience.[36] Postel identifies the feminine spirit of the universe with the Holy Spirit, whose presence alone insures the sanctity of the Church[37] (and we may recall that he wrote at a time when this matter was by no means academic). But he also believed that the feminine principle, with its special concern for both reason and holiness, is best represented in this life (as one might suppose it should be) by real women: he particularly mentions St. Catherine of Siena on the one hand, and the bluestocking daughters of the late Thomas More and of his own old friend Guillaume Budé on the other.[38] Femininity was not, for Postel, merely a metaphysical convenience, but a vital fact of positive spiritual value in this world.

Postel's mediators thus do not merely govern the great abstractions which stand above experience; they also intervene in even the most concrete facts of daily life. They give meaning to such different relationships as those of higher and lower, form and matter, heaven and earth, sun and moon, grace and nature, church and state, and even the Old World and the New.[39] They are the fundamental psychological realities; every individual is composed of both animus and anima, of masculine and feminine elements.[40] And in something that approaches a theory of myth, Postel discerns in the masculine and feminine principles of the universe the prototypes of all sexually differentiated pagan gods: they are Father Time and Mother Nature and all their numerous offspring.[41] So they give unity and coherence to the universe.

In fact, the most puzzling aspect of Postel's thought was his effort to bring his cosmic mediating principles down to earth in material incarnations. His identification of the first mediator, the animus mundi , with the incarnate Word[42] is perhaps inevitable enough. But (perhaps partly in the interests of balance and symmetry) Postel insisted also on the actual incarnation of the feminine principle and her first-born son. He believed he had found the former in a pious woman of Venice whom he called his Mother Joan and the New Eve ; she impressed him in part


because, in spite of her lack of education and her ignorance of Hebrew, she had been able to expound to him the deepest mysteries of the Zohar .[43] In her, he wrote, he had seen "things so miraculous and great that they exceed all past miracles, save those of the new Adam, Jesus, my father and her spouse." Her destiny it was now to accomplish the regeneration of the world:

It is completely certain that, from the substance of her spirit, it has been decreed and determined in heaven that all men who through the corruption of the old Eve have ever been corrupted, killed and turned against God, being rather damned than born, will be completely restored, like me . . . for it is necessary that the new Adam and the new Eve, two in one spiritual flesh, should be, Jesus the mental father, and Joan the spiritual mother of all.[44]

The first-born son of the mystical union between the New Adam and the New Eve was none other than Postel himself, whose duty in the world was thus to spread abroad the New Gospel, as the heir to both authority and reason.[45] He had, as he wrote, a divine commission to restore mankind to a proper recognition of "the divine right of reason."[46] This puzzling personal twist in his thought has been interpreted both as the evidence of a sick mind and as a rather unorthodox device to win an audience.[47] However this may be, it reveals Postel as a religious revolutionary who has found in cabala, among other things, the inspiration, or at least the justification, for a new sect.

It is not difficult to find fault with Postel's system on intellectual grounds and to dismiss it as fantasy. It is neither rigorously nor systematically worked out. Nevertheless, it satisfied Postel. It satisfied him because it corresponded to his preconceptions about the universe, and particularly because it not only described the basic structure of the world but also bound together in a living relationship the vital forces of the universe. Its peculiar character is partly explained by the fact that Postel's requirements were imaginative and vital as well as intellectual.

But this system, which depended so largely on cabala, also satisfied Postel because it was bound up with other concerns in which his cabalism played a role. Cabala was useful to him not only because it made a special kind of sense out of the universe, but also because it suggested to him a course of action at a crucial point in the history of European civilization. Postel was extraordinarily aware of the general circumstances of the sixteenth-century world, in which there were emerging new and challenging international, intercultural and interreligious relationships.


He was profoundly concerned with the problem of Christian action in a world in which Protestantism had destroyed the old internal unity of belief and Islam was continuing to expand steadily in the Old World, while, on the other hand, Christianity seemed to be making rapid progress in the New. The peoples of Europe were more than ever before brought into touch with alien peoples and alien beliefs. Postel provides a striking example of awareness of the fact that the European mind was compelled to adapt itself to "new horizons."

The fundamental problem, as Postel viewed it, was world ideological conflict; and in the critical pass to which his world seemed to have come, cabala appeared to him the only solution. It alone could harmonize the wide diversities in fundamental belief among all human groups; it alone could resolve the opposition between the Greek heritage and the Hebraic, between reason and authority, nature and grace. We have already observed how Postel's version of cabala solved the problem in theory, but it did more. By making truth communicable, cabala made it applicable to the solution of human problems.

Above all Postel hoped to use his rationalization of Christianity in behalf of a great missionary program. The conversion of the unbeliever, particularly in the Near East, was the fundamental motive of his scholarly pursuits. It had led him into the Society of Jesus during its early years. It had been chiefly responsible for his interest in the rational demonstration of Christian doctrine. Like Pico before him, he believed that cabala would be of the greatest value as a missionary tool; its primary documents, he thought, demonstrated irresistibly the truth of the basic Christian dogmas. The Book of Formation , he asserted, because it supremely reconciles reason and authority, will be of the greatest service in the conversion of the world.[48] He insisted also that the whole of the Christian Gospel is implicit in and therefore deducible from the Zohar . By the light of its doctrines, he wrote, compared with which all other teachings in the world are as darkness, even the obstinacy of the Jews will finally be overcome.[49] The real point here was, of course, that since the Jews would be the last and most difficult converts, the use of cabala by Christian missionaries insured the winning of the whole world.[50]

The missionary task struck Postel as of particular urgency, and in his sense of crisis we may discern another major reason for his attraction to cabala. He was certain that the world stood on the brink of momentous developments. This certainty in him was in part the product of despair: he felt the world to be "in greater darkness than it has ever been since Christ came to send workmen into the vineyard,"[51] and at times everything about him seemed to attest to the general disintegration of Chris-


tian society and Christian values. He was particularly alarmed over the decay of the church and of civil society, and he spent a considerable amount of his energy in denouncing it to contemporaries.[52] He was further disturbed over the steady shrinking of Christendom before a militant Islam on the east, while at the same time Protestantism revealed the presence of the enemy within the gates.[53] But through apocalypticism, Postel's pessimism was transmuted into optimism, and in decay itself he found the anticipations of rebirth; this appeared to him the lesson and law of history.[54] Meanwhile the contemporary scene provided him with positive evidence which at once made him hopeful and strengthened his sense of crisis. He was, for example, as profoundly aware of the significance of the discoveries of America and the Orient for the expansion of Christian European influence over the world as any modern historian. Recent progress in learning—Postel had in mind the revival of letters, and especially the development of Hebrew studies—was further evidence to him of great changes immediately impending. And he found even in artillery and the printing press, new weapons of material and intellectual power in Christian hands, additional proof that the world was about to make a fresh start.[55]

Cabala stimulated his apocalypticism, provided him with prophetic techniques, and furnished him with a description of the characteristics of the last age. His first calculations placed the dawn of the new age in 1556; so in 1553 he wrote to Schwenckfeld, exhorting him to be of good courage, since the day of the Lord was at hand.[56] When nothing momentous occurred in that year (Postel was then a prisoner in Rome), he postponed the date.[57] His conception of the millennium itself was largely taken from cabalistic messianism. He envisaged it as a return to the earthly paradise of Genesis, in which man is to be finally delivered from bondage to Satan and restored to his original innocence; hence it is the restitutio omnium , in which mankind will be united in a common speech (Hebrew), a common government, and a common religion based on cabala in which what had hitherto been the possession of a few initiates will become the common property of all mankind.[58] It is not, Postel stresses, to be confused with eternal salvation. It is, in fact, the Judaic messianic age superimposed onto Christianity. Postel's apocalypticism, of course, is nothing new, and the Renaissance awareness of innovation has by this time been sufficiently established. What is significant here is their combination, and in this combination cabala played a fundamental role.

It is obviously impossible to generalize about Christian cabalism in any but the most tentative fashion on the basis of a single individual,


and in certain respects Postel was probably eccentric rather than typical. Nevertheless his case may be used as the basis for a few provisional conclusions about the historical significance of Renaissance cabalism. What is most important, perhaps, is the evidence here that cabalism is to be understood in the context of contemporary needs and preoccupations. The cabalists were interested in studying cabala, not out of idle curiosity or an interest in "pure scholarship," but in order to use it in their more general experience with the intellectual and practical world. It is clear enough that Postel's uses of cabala were primarily dictated not by the nature of cabala itself but by the requirements of the sixteenth-century scene as he understood it.

Some of the uses to which cabala was put were relatively conscious and explicit; others were perhaps less so. The cabalists were hopeful about the possibilities of cabala as a missionary tool; and here we may discern a preoccupation about European relations with the non-European world. They proposed to use cabala to solve intellectual problems which available intellectual traditions evidently seemed to them inadequate to settle. In this respect cabala is a chapter in the effort of the European mind to adapt itself to new data and new ideas; an error, perhaps, in the process of trial and error, but one which illuminates the problems of adaptation and the nature of the process itself. On the whole (in spite of Postel's erratic qualities), cabalism would seem, perhaps even more than humanism, to have been a conservative adaptation. It aimed at absorbing new materials into a scheme dominated by the assumptions and purposes of the past: the systematic unity of all things, the expansion of Christianity, the apocalyptic end of history. But more than this, Christian interest in cabala served to express the general restlessness of an age of striking innovation. Through it we can find some clue to the causes and character of that restlessness. And in at least one case cabala contributed to the idea of the Renaissance itself.


Renaissance and Reformation
An Essay on Their Affinities and Connections

This essay was commissioned by the organizers of the Fourth International Luther Congress, held in St. Louis in 1971. I tried to demonstrate in it not only the affinities of the Reformation with the Renaissance but also the European-wide character of the impulses underlying the Reformation. I naively assumed that none of this would be controversial, and I was quite unprepared for the hostility it provoked among some delegates to the congress, chiefly from Northern Europe, who represented what I came to perceive as the Lutheran Establishment. This group was concerned to insist on the total originality of Luther and the uniquely German Origins of the Reformation. The paper would, I think, be more generally accepted today .

It was first published in Luther and the Dawn of the Modern Era: Papers for the Fourth International Congress for Luther Research, ed. H. A. Oberman, Studies in the History of Christian Thought, vol. 8 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1974), pp. 127–149. It is reprinted here by permission of the publisher .

Since the peculiar mixture of responsibility and presumption in the title of my paper will scarcely have escaped the notice of this distinguished audience, I feel some need to explain at the outset that it represents an assignment on the part of those who planned our meeting. The significance of the problems to which it points is suggested by the great historians who have grappled with it in the past, albeit (a fact that should constitute something of a warning) with somewhat contrary results, among them Michelet, Dilthey, and Troeltsch.[1] Its practical importance lies in the need of most of us to place our more limited conclusions in some broader historical framework; we must therefore reconsider, from


time to time, the relationship between Renaissance and Reformation. In spite of this, the subject has recently received little systematic attention, and many of us are still likely to rely, when we approach it, on unexamined and obsolete stereotypes. Obviously I cannot hope to remedy this state of affairs in a brief paper. Yet the progress of Renaissance studies in recent decades invites a reassessment of this classic problem, and I offer these remarks as an essay intended to stimulate further discussion.

What has chiefly inhibited larger generalization has been the extension and refinement of our knowledge, and with it a growth both in specialization and in humility. Thus we are increasingly reluctant to make broad pronouncements about either the Renaissance or the Reformation, much less about both at once. For as scholars we are divided not only between Renaissance and Reformation, or between Italy and Northern Europe; even within these categories most of us are specialists who would claim competence only in a particular aspect of Renaissance Florence or Venice, in one phase or another of Renaissance humanism, in Machiavelli or Erasmus, in later scholasticism or the history of piety, in Luther or Calvin or the sects. Under these conditions few students of the Renaissance have cared to look as far as the Reformation; and although Reformation scholars have been somewhat bolder, they have rarely pursued the question of Renaissance antecedents farther than northern humanism. Humanism is, indeed, the one subject that has recently encouraged forays into the problem of this paper; but although Breen, Dufour, Spitz, Liebing, and especially Charles Trinkaus, among others, have made valuable contributions to discussion,[2] the problem is still with us, primarily, I think, because we have not fully made up our minds about the meaning of Renaissance humanism. A result of this difficulty has been a tendency to focus special attention on Erasmus as a touchstone for the Renaissance, a role for which—for reasons that will emerge later in this paper—I think he is not altogether suited.

It is, however, one measure of the complexity of our subject that we cannot approach the question of the relationship between Renaissance and Reformation without somehow first coming to terms with the implications of humanism. I should like to do so, however, obliquely rather than directly. It seems to me that although humanism, which assumed a variety of forms as it passed through successive stages and was influenced by differing local conditions, was not identical with the more profound tendencies of Renaissance culture, it was nevertheless often likely to give them notable expression, and for reasons that were not accidental but directly related to the rhetorical tradition; whatever their


differences in other respects, most recent interpretations of Renaissance humanism have at least identified it with a revival of rhetoric.[3]

What has been less generally recognized is the deeper significance of this revival. The major reason is, I think, that in our time the term rhetoric has become largely pejorative; we are inclined to couple it with the adjective mere. But for the Renaissance there was nothing shallow about rhetoric. Based on a set of profound assumptions about the nature, competence, and destiny of man, rhetoric gave expression to the deepest tendencies of Renaissance culture, tendencies by no means confined to men clearly identifiable as humanists, nor always fully expressed by men who have generally been considered humanists. I shall try in this paper to describe these tendencies, which seem to me to have exerted intolerable pressures on central elements in the medieval understanding of Christianity. And I will suggest that similar tendencies underlay the thought of the great Protestant Reformers. Thus the significance of Protestantism in the development of European culture lies in the fact that it accepted the religious consequences of these Renaissance tendencies and was prepared to apply them to the understanding of the Gospel. From this standpoint the Reformation was the theological fulfillment of the Renaissance.


Fundamental to the cultural movements of the Renaissance was a gradual accumulation of social and political changes: an economy increasingly dependent on commerce rather than agriculture; a political structure composed of assertive particular powers; and a society dominated by educated laymen who were increasingly restive under clerical direction and increasingly aggressive in pressing their own claims to dignity and self-determination. A commercial economy and the more and more openly uncoordinated conduct of politics supplied the social base for a new vision of man's place in the world, and of the world itself. Social experience rooted in the land had perhaps encouraged a sense of broad, natural regularities ultimately responsive to cosmic forces and inhibiting to a sense of the significance of change; but the life of a merchant community and the ambitious operations of independent rulers made all experience contingent on the interaction between unpredictable forces and the practical ingenuity and energies of men. Under these conditions the possibility of cosmic order seemed remote, but in any case of little relevance to human affairs; and the obvious rule of change in the empirical world encouraged efforts at its comprehension and eventually


stimulated the awareness of history, that peculiarly Hebraic and Christian—as opposed to hellenic or hellenistic—contribution to the Western consciousness. Meanwhile new political realities and the claims of laymen undermined the hierarchical conceptions that had defined the internal structure of the old unified order of the cosmos, within which the affairs of this world had been assigned their proper place.[4] It will also be useful to observe at this point that these developments were by no means confined to Italy; I will touch briefly at a later point on the implications of this fact for the Renaissance problem.

It is not altogether wrong to emphasize the positive consequences of these developments which, by freeing human activity from any connection with ultimate patterns of order, liberated an exuberance that found expression in the various dimensions of Renaissance creativity. Burckhardt's insight that the autonomy of politics converted the prince into an artist of sorts may require modification; yet the new situation made all human arrangements potentially creative in a sense hardly possible so long as the basic principles of every activity were deduced from universal principles. The notion of the state as a work of art points to the general process of secularization and reminds us that the culture of the Renaissance extended far beyond its brilliant art and literature, and was perhaps even more significant in its implications than in its accomplishments.

It had, however, another and darker side. It rested on the destruction of the sense of a definable relationship between man and ultimate realities. It severed his connection with absolute principles of order, not so much by denying their existence as by rejecting their accessibility to the human understanding. It deprived him of a traditional conception of himself as a being with distinct and organized faculties attuned to the similarly organized structure of an unchanging, and in this sense dependable, universe. Above all, therefore, it left him both alone in a mysterious world of unpredictable and often hostile forces, and at the same time personally responsible in the most radical sense for his own ultimate destiny. For he was now left without reliable principles and— because the directive claims of the church also depended heavily on the old conceptions—reliable agencies of guidance. These darker aspects of Renaissance culture eventually required, therefore, a reformulation of Christian belief, and we shall now examine them a bit more closely.

Renaissance thought has sometimes been represented as a reassertion of ancient rationalism against the supernaturalism of the Middle Ages. The formulation is, of course, both inaccurate and misleading. In the thirteenth century some intellectual leaders had been notably hospitable to Greek philosophy, and had tried to coordinate it with revelation. But


it was precisely the possibility of such coordination that Renaissance culture—insofar as it differed from what had preceded it—characteristically denied; in this sense Renaissance thought was less rationalistic (if not necessarily less rational) than that of the Middle Ages.

In fact it was inclined to distinguish between realms, between ultimate truths altogether inaccessible to man's intellect, and the knowledge man needed to get along in this world, which turned out to be sufficient for his purposes. Thus the Renaissance attack on scholasticism had a larger implication as well as a specific target; it implied, and occasionally led to, the rejection of all systematic philosophy. From Petrarch, through Salutati and Valla, to Machiavelli, Pomponazzi, and the Venetians of the later Renaissance, the leaders of Renaissance thought rejected any effort to ground human reflection or action on metaphysics: and at the same time they insisted on the autonomy of the various dimensions of human concern and the relativity of truth to the practical requirements of the human condition. In this sense, although truth was robbed of some grandeur, it was also made more human; and if Aristotle was less and less respected as a vehicle of eternal wisdom, he could be all the more admired as a man.[5] Under such conditions philosophy could evidently contribute nothing to theology; indeed, its spiritual effects were likely to be adverse since it encouraged malice and pride.

Related to the attack on metaphysical speculation was an attack on hierarchy, which rested ultimately on metaphysically based conceptions of the internal structure of all reality. The repudiation of hierarchy was most profoundly expressed in Nicholas of Cusa's conception of the infinite, which made every entity equally distant from—and thus equally near to—God;[6] a similar impulse perhaps lurks behind Valla's rejection of Pseudo-Dionysius.[7] But partly because the formulations of Cusanus smacked too much of metaphysics, partly because the problem of hierarchy was peculiarly related to social change, the attack on hierarchy was likely to receive more overtly social expression. It took a general form in the effort to substitute a dynamic conception of nobility through virtue for the static nobility of birth,[8] a specific form in the impulse (often expressed in legislation and the practical policies of states)[9] to consider the clergy in no way superior to other men but, on the contrary, as equal in the obligations of citizenship (if generally less competent in practical affairs), at least as vulnerable to sin, and in as desperate a need for salvation as other men, whom it was their obligation to serve rather than to command. This suggested at least that social order was unrelated to cosmic order, but it also raised the possibility that order per se was of a kind quite different from what had been supposed.

For the age of the Renaissance was by no means oblivious to the


need for order, which indeed historical disasters had converted into the most urgent of problems. But its very urgency intensified the necessity of regarding order as a practical rather than a metaphysical issue. Bitter experience seemed to demonstrate that order had to be brought down to earth, where it could be defined in limited and manageable ways. And, as the occasional intrusions of the clergy into politics appeared periodically to demonstrate, the attempt to apply ultimate principles to concrete problems was likely only to interfere with their practical solution. This was a central point not only for Machiavelli and his politique successors; it also molded the numerous constitutional experiments of the Renaissance, with their repudiation of hierarchically defined lines of authority in favor of order through a balance of interests and their appeal to immediate local needs and the right of local self-determination. The best arrangements, in these terms, were not those that most accurately reflected some absolute pattern but those that best served the specific and limited human purposes for which they were instituted.

But although a sense of the limitation of the human intellect was basic to the thought of the Renaissance, this negation had a positive corollary in a new conception of the human personality which also seemed to correspond better to the experience supplied by a new social environment. Men whose lives consisted in the broad range of experiences, contingencies, and human relationships that characterized existence in the bustling and complicated modern world could no longer find plausible an abstract conception of man as a hierarchy of faculties properly subject to reason; instead the personality presented itself as a complex and ambiguous unity in which the will, primarily responsive to the passions, occupied a position at the center. One result of this conception was to undermine the contemplative ideal; if man's reason was weak but his will strong, he could only realize himself in this world through action, indeed he was meant for a life of action. Another was to reduce suspicion of the body; in the absence of the old psychological hierarchy, the body could no longer be held merely base and contemptible. Action required its use, and the new integrity of the personality reduced the possibility of attributing the human propensity to evil primarily to the physical or sensual aspect of man's nature. Human passions now also acquired a positive value, as the source of action.[10] This new anthropology, articulated by Petrarch, Salutati, and Valla, required a reconsideration of the problem of immortality and led eventually to the ardent discussions of the soul in which Pomponazzi figured. It also pointed to the political and historical conceptions of Machiavelli and Guicciardini, who emphasized the primacy of will and passion, as well as to the psychological interests of a host of Renaissance writers.[11]


In addition man was defined as a social being; if he lost one kind of participation in a larger reality, namely his abstract position as a member of the human species in the cosmic hierarchy of being, he, obtained another with, perhaps, more tangible satisfactions: his membership as a concrete individual in the particular human community in which he lived, now an essential rather than an accidental condition of his existence. Thus the values of human community now achieved full recognition. Human virtue was defined not as an abstraction but as a function of relationship with other men; man's active nature was understood to achieve full expression only in a life of social responsibility, and indeed his happiness was seen as dependent on human community. Furthermore, since effective participation in society required some wealth, the conception struck another blow at medieval asceticism.

On the other hand the demands of life in society also stimulated a vision of human existence very different from that implicit in the contemplative ideal. For life in society was patently marked by a conflict of opposing interests that could rarely (if men were honest) be identified with absolute good or evil; and to incessant struggle with other men was added, in social existence, the temptations that inevitably beset anyone who chooses to engage with rather than to withdraw from the world. The life appropriate to men in this world was thus not repose (however desperately one might long for it)[12] but a constant and morally ambiguous warfare, with the outcome ever in doubt. By the same token earthly life had also to be seen as dynamic, as subject to change in all its aspects. Human communities could be seen to rise, flourish, and decay; and the philological investigations of Renaissance humanists supplemented common experience by revealing the general outlines of ancient civilization and thus demonstrating how much had changed during the intervening centuries.[13] They also wrote histories that communicated not only this perspective on the past, with its implication that human culture is not an absolute but relative to its times, but in addition other aspects of the Renaissance vision of life: the active and social nature of man, the values of community, the inescapability of conflict and change.

This vision found its fullest expression in the rhetorical culture of the Renaissance. Humanist oratory was based on the conception of man as a social being motivated by a will whose energies stemmed from the passions. This conception led in turn to a distinctive concern with communication as the essential bond of life in society, as well as to a new human ideal of the well-rounded, eloquent, and thus socially effective man of affairs. The purpose of communication, in this view, could not be the transmission of an absolute wisdom, which the human mind was incompetent to reach, but the attainment of concrete and practical ends.


Such communication had above all to be persuasive; it had to affect the will by swaying the passions, rather than merely to convince the mind; in short it needed to penetrate to the center of the personality in order to achieve results in visible acts. And the significance of the need for persuasion should also be remarked. It implied a life in society that could not be controlled by authority and coercion through a hierarchical chain of command but depended instead on the inward assent of individuals. It was therefore no accident that the rhetorical culture of Italian humanism achieved its fullest development in republics. In addition the needs of broad communication pointed eventually to the development and use of vernacular languages, a more important concern of Renaissance humanism than has sometimes been recognized.[14]


It should be immediately apparent that this set of attitudes imposed great strains on traditional Catholicism.[15] It undermined the effort to base earthly existence on abstract principles identified with divine wisdom, and to relate the visible and changing world of ordinary experience to the invisible and immutable realm of the spirit. Both the comforts in this relationship and its implications for the guidance and control of lower things by higher were seriously threatened. From a Renaissance perspective the arguments by which it was supported seemed at best frivolous, at worst a specious rationalization of claims to power in this world on behalf of a group of men whose attention should be directed exclusively to the next. And behind such suspicions we may also discern the perception of man as primarily a creature of will and passion. In this light intellectual claims were likely to be construed as masks for motives that could not bear inspection; dogma itself might be no more than an instrument of tyranny. In addition, since a contemplative repose now seemed inappropriate to the actual nature of man, as well as a breach of responsibility for the welfare of others, the ideal form of the Christian life required redefinition. Finally, the problem of salvation was transformed. Alone in an ultimately unintelligible universe, and with the more fundamental conception of sin and the problems of its control opened up by the new anthropology, man could no longer count on the mediation either of reason or of other men in closer contact with the divine than himself. His salvation depended on an immediate and personal relation with God.

Here it is necessary to pause for a more searching look at one of the key terms of our title: Renaissance . The conceptions I have so far reviewed


have been based largely on developments in Italy, and this would suggest a vision of the Renaissance, or of Renaissance culture, as initially and perhaps primarily an Italian affair. But this audience is well aware that the tendencies I have described were also present in a variety of movements outside Italy, if in somewhat different forms. It is obvious, for example, that later medieval piety exhibited similar impulses; and that, in spite of the antipathy of humanists to scholastic speculation (though here we need to be more precise about what was actually under attack), the later schoolmen played a major if largely independent part in bringing underlying assumptions to the surface and in attempting to accommodate theology to them.[16] Perhaps, therefore, the time has come to expand, as well as to make more specific, our conception of what was central to the age of the Renaissance, and also to abandon the traditional contrast between Italy and the North, which seems to me to have been in some measure the result of a failure to get beneath surface differences. If I have concentrated on Italian thought in this sketch, I have done so partly to bring out the fundamental unity of European spiritual development, partly because the affinities between Protestantism and later Scholasticism have been more regularly a concern of Reformation scholarship than the parallels with the Renaissance in Italy. What is nevertheless increasingly clear is that the process of redefining Christianity to bring it into correspondence with the new assumptions about man and the world was gradual, and that it was taking place simultaneously throughout Europe.

Largely because of the recent profound book of Charles Trinkaus, it is unnecessary to review in detail the process by which the pressures for religious change implicit in the assumptions of Renaissance culture operated among the humanists of Italy. They are already discernible in Petrarch, and they seem to have reached a climax in Lorenzo Valla. In a general sense they may be attributed to the special loneliness and despair of men who could no longer regard religious truth as a body of knowledge of the same order as other knowledge that was communicable through similar kinds of intelligible discourse. Nor could the institutional fideism encouraged by ecclesiastical authority as an alternative to rational theology provide a satisfactory solution to the problem. Not only did the idea of implicit faith clash with the growing sense of individual spiritual dignity among pious laymen; in addition, discredited by its impotence, its worldliness, the presumed irrelevance of its abstract theology, and a sacramental and disciplinary externalism increasingly inadequate to assuage the peculiarly intense guilt of the age, the church could no longer be regarded as a dependable guarantor of truth.


Thus, driven by a profound yearning for immediate contact with the eternal,[17] the humanists of the early Italian Renaissance moved perceptibly toward a simple religion of grace based on the Scriptures and apprehended by the individual through faith. Petrarch typically began with insights into his own inner conflicts and the discovery that these could only be resolved by throwing himself on God's mercy in a faith that was at once the highest form of knowledge and at the same time different in kind from all other knowledge; confusion on this point seemed to him the most dangerous error. Salutati, concerned as a sterner moralist to protect human freedom and responsibility within a religion of grace, wrestled with the problem of predestination. And with Valla justification by faith received an even fuller exploration, the role of priest and sacrament in the economy of salvation was correspondingly reduced, and that of Scripture, the Word whose authenticity could be established by philology and which spoke directly to the individual, was enlarged.[18]

Corresponding to the distinction between philosophy and faith was the demand for a sharper distinction between the church and the world; the separation of realms in one area seemed to lead naturally to separation in others. In its demands for a spiritual church, the new historicism of the Renaissance collaborated with the insistence of the Italian states on freedom from clerical interference and with their grievances against Rome as a political force.[19] The study of the historical church revealed the spiritual costs of the confusion of realms.[20] At the very least, as men of the Renaissance with some political experience were in a position to know, the effective use of power in the world was always morally ambiguous;[21] and meanwhile the growing participation of popes and prelates in secular politics had been accompanied by an increasing neglect of the spiritual mission of the church. Thus, if reform required a return to the past, the reason was above all that the early church had been true to its spiritual characters.[22] Only a spiritual church, devoted to that which does not change, could stand above history and thus resist decay. Valla's attack on the Donation of Constantine was not an isolated document;[23] it reflects a concern with the church, its earthly role and its spiritual mission, that runs through much of Renaissance historiography, from Mussato at the beginning of the fourteenth century to Machiavelli, Guicciardini, and Fra Paolo Sarpi.[24]

The rediscovery of grace was closely related to the new vision of man; philosophy, as Petrarch recognized, was incapable of converting man at the crucial center of his being. "It is one thing to know," he declared, "another to love; one thing to understand, another to will." What was required was a transformation not merely of the intellect but of the


whole personality, so that Christian conversion would find appropriate expression in a life of love and active responsibility for the welfare of others. And, as in the world, the essential means for such a transformation was not rational appeal to the intellect but rhetorical appeal to those deeper levels in man that alone could move the will. Thus Petrarch argued for the superiority over rational philosophers of moral teachers who could sow the love of virtue in the very hearts of men.[25] For Valla rhetoric was thus the only branch of secular learning (except for philology) applicable to theology.[26] The implications of this position for the importance and character of preaching seem clear.

A new conception of man was also reflected in a changed conception of God, in accordance, perhaps, not only with Renaissance emphasis on man's creation in God's likeness and image but also with Calvin's recognition of the reciprocal relationship between man's understanding of himself and his knowledge of God.[27] Like man, God could no longer be perceived as a contemplative being, as Aristotle's unmoved mover, operating in the universe not directly but through a hierarchy of intermediate powers.[28] Laymen active in the world required a God who was also active, who exercised a direct and vigilant control over all things, like that to which they aspired for themselves. God too had therefore to be perceived as primarily will, intellectually beyond man's grasp yet revealing something of himself—all, at any rate, that man needed to know—in his actions, above all as recorded in Holy Scripture. And from Petrarch's sense of the free, mysterious, and incalculable nature of God,[29] Salutati went on to defend the anthropomorphic representations of God in the Bible as a form of communication appropriate to men's capacities.[30] Valla was, as one might expect, even clearer that the God of philosophy could not be the God of faith.[31]

In spite of all this, it is nevertheless undeniable that the culture of the Italian Renaissance did not culminate in Protestantism, although even on this point our old sense of the immunity of Italy to the impulses of the Reformation is no longer altogether tenable.[32] Yet it remains true that the religious thought of Renaissance Italy remained no more than an incoherent bundle of fundamental insights, and it was unable to rid itself of fundamental contradictions; again, however, the contrast with Northern Europe seems hardly absolute. Above all it failed to complete its conviction of man's intellectual limitations, which pushed him only part of the way into the realm of grace, with full conviction of his moral impotence. Even here its vision of man suggests a deepening in the understanding of sin and the human obstacles to salvation; and there is abundant evidence of a pessimistic estimate of the human condition in


Petrarch, Salutati, Poggio, Valla, and later, in a different form, in Machiavelli and Guicciardini. Yet Renaissance emphasis on the central importance of the will frequently served chiefly to nourish the moralism that so deeply permeated later medieval piety,[33] contributing both to the notion of Christianity as the pursuit of moral perfection and of the church as essentially a system of government;[34] Renaissance humanism remained, in Luther's sense, Pelagian. The consequence was, however, that Renaissance culture in Italy, like Scholastic theology in the north, helped to intensify, from both directions at once, the unbearable tension between the moral obligations and the moral capacities of the Christian that could at last find relief only in either a repudiation of Renaissance attitudes or the theology of the Reformation. But it could not resolve the problem itself, and we must ask why this was so.

Part of the explanation is connected with the fact that some among the figures we have cited were lacking in theological interests, while the rest were amateurs whose major activity lay elsewhere. The result was an inability to develop the full implications of their assumptions, which was supplemented by prejudice against intellectual labor too closely resembling the Scholasticism they despised. In addition, closely attached to particular societies in which, traditionally, no distinction was made between Christianity and citizenship, they were unable to achieve a full sense of the radical disjunction between salvation and civilization that might have placed the Christian man fully in the sphere of grace. Thus they celebrated instead the positive implications of the spark of divinity in man.[35]

Of greater importance were the changing social and political conditions of the later fifteenth century which, at least in Italy, tended to undermine the assumptions underlying Renaissance culture, and thus to remove the sociological pressures for religious change. Foreign invasion and prolonged war produced general insecurity and a growing sense of helplessness, so that freedom presented itself rather as a threat than an opportunity; and the extension of despotism even to Florence reduced the dignity of civic life and encouraged an increasingly aristocratic and stratified social order. Meanwhile the recovery of the papacy from the long eclipse of the conciliar period brought a vigorous reassertion of the old cosmic intellectuality, of hierarchical principles, and of claims to clerical superiority in the world.[36] The result was a movement of general, if not total, retreat from the ideals of the earlier Renaissance.

The Neoplatonism of later Quattrocento Florence may be taken as an illustration. Although this movement retained and even developed further some of the tendencies I have identified as central to Renaissance


culture, what seems to me most significant in Florentine Platonism is not what it had in common with the humanism of the earlier Renaissance but the ways in which it differed.[37] Thus it was spiritually akin to the thirteenth century in its concern to reunite philosophy and theology; for Ficino philosophy was not merely the handmaid of theology but her sister.[38] It also reasserted, if in a modified form, the conception of hierarchy; Ficino provided contemporaries with a Latin translation of Pseudo-Dionysius.[39] And with these conceptions inevitably went also a return to an understanding of man as a duality in which sovereign intellect should rule the contemptible flesh and salvation was held to consist in the separation of the spiritual man from the visible world so that he might enjoy the harmony and peace of intellectual contemplation; Ficino described the task of Christian conversion as "fishing for intellects."[40] The intellectuality here was also reflected in a spiritual elitism based on contempt for the ordinary man who lacked the capacity for such lofty detachment; it also pointed once again to the authority of a body of absolute truths guaranteed by the experts who were alone competent to grasp them.[41] With such an ideal the historical world, the changing realm of conflicting interests, of political and social responsibility, and of the intrinsic dignity of the individual layman, was unworthy of attentions.[42] Rhetoric was no longer praised for its utility but denounced as an enemy of truth.[43] For truth had come to present itself in the old way again.

The problem of interpreting Erasmus, as indeed of other northern humanists of his generation, arises from the fact that he appeared on the European scene when conceptions of this kind, by no means confined to Florence, were generally attractive. They provided a resolution of a kind for the religious tensions of the age, at least for intellectuals; and the mind of Erasmus was partly formed by them.[44] The place of Erasmus in any discussion of the relationship between Renaissance and Reformation thus requires some distinctions.

This is hardly the place to attempt a general interpretation of the complex and ambiguous Erasmus, but he enters so regularly into discussions of the relations between Renaissance and Reformation that we cannot avoid him altogether. As Margolin has reminded us, one needs first of all to understand Erasmus himself; for this purpose it is inappropriate to measure his thought by standards external to it.[45] Yet this is a different problem from the problem of his historical significance; and from the standpoint of those tendencies in Renaissance culture I have been concerned to emphasize here, Erasmus seems to me at least equivocal. Sometimes he attacked the schoolmen in ways typical of the


Renaissance, not only shallowly, for the barbarities of their style, but also because the kind of truth they sought to explicate was beyond the legitimate capacities of men and because of the irrelevance of their speculations to the urgent needs of spiritual life;[46] yet in the moment of personal crisis forced on him by Luther, he turned to Scholastic theology and rebuked Luther for his sweeping criticism of Aristotle.[47] Nor is it altogether clear that his own philosophia Christi (the phrase itself suggests a concern to reunite what earlier humanists had tried to keep apart) was intended simply to reflect the practical reason of the Renaissance; at times he seems to have conceived it as an expression of ultimate wisdom, of the Logos itself.[48] Again, although he often gave eloquent articulation to the lay impulses of Renaissance piety, we must also take into account the elitist tendencies in his insistence on the allegorical meanings of Scripture and his frequent expressions of contempt for the crowd; he attacked Luther for "making public even to cobblers what is usually treated among the learned as mysterious and secret."[49] He liked to represent true Christianity as a religion of the heart[50] and defended marriage,[51] but his anthropology tended to the familiar dualism that opposed the body to the rational soul and made actions depend on beliefs;[52] such conceptions contributed substantially to his belief in the value of education.[53] He described the Christian as a soldier of Christ; but his own ideal, at both the social and personal level, consisted in harmony and peace.[54] But if I call attention here to the contradictions in Erasmus, my purpose is not to indict him for what some have considered one of his more lovable traits, but only to suggest that we should be cautious in identifying Erasmianism with the Renaissance. Thus the echoes of Erasmus in Zwingli, Bucer, Melanchthon, and Calvin are not necessarily proof that we are in the presence of impulses from the Renaissance; the reverse may well be true.

Nevertheless the ambivalence of Erasmus reminds us again that the Renaissance posed religious problems that it could not solve. It left man alone and in desperate need, but without the means or the assurance of salvation. It pointed to a religion of free grace, perhaps even (as in Valla) to sola fide ; but in the end it turned away. Indeed its refusal to give up the dubious consolations of an intellectual definition of man, its failure to distinguish between the temporal works of civilization and the requirements of eternal life, and the strain which this added to its continuing insistence on human responsibility merely left the masses of men unusually vulnerable to a spiritual anxiety widely reflected in a heightened sense of sin and a fear of damnation that found no relief. Meanwhile the persistent moralism in Renaissance culture was supplemented by the


demands of the church for conformity to external moral and ritual observance as the price of salvation. And as the burdens on the individual conscience grew heavier, so also did the weight of man's anxiety.[55]

Yet I would argue that among the major causes of anxiety on the eve of the Reformation was also the persistence, even in movements that in some respects disowned them, of the deep and by this time ineradicable assumptions of Renaissance culture. As long as Europeans could not come to terms in an explicit theology with the conceptions that remained implicit in their vision of man and the world, as long as the beliefs of the heart remained at war with those of the head, the Renaissance would not be complete. That it required completion was, in a sense, recognized by Erasmus himself in his conviction of the peculiar degree to which the world of his time thirsted for salvation, "by a longing ordained, as it were, by fate."[56]


It would be too evidently a work of supererogation to demonstrate at any length the fundamental importance for classical Protestantism of the tendencies I have identified as central to Renaissance culture. I shall therefore offer only a rapid review of the connections between them, and then attempt to deepen the argument of this paper by focusing briefly on two questions that seem to me to reveal in a special way the intimate connections between Renaissance and Reformation: the conception of God and the Protestant solution to the Renaissance problem of anxiety.

Renaissance skepticism, with its sense of the limits of the human understanding, its utilitarian conception of the knowledge appropriate to the human condition, and its clear separation between philosophy and religious belief, found expression in the Protestant insistence that the Scriptures alone communicate what is necessary for salvation. They place, therefore, a limit on speculation; they reveal God only as he chooses to reveal himself, and only insofar as such revelation is relevant to man's practical needs. Furthermore this revelation is to be grasped not after the manner of earthly wisdom, which often requires peculiar intellectual gifts, but by a unique act of faith from which no man is excluded by the absence of natural capacities or of education. Thus in a practical manner the Renaissance rejection of metaphysics, as it was taken up in Protestantism, finally liberated the individual believer from subjection to theological experts. In this way the Renaissance had prepared the way for the lay religion of the Reformation, with its attention to


the spiritual dignity of the individual, a dignity that depended only on the humanity all men possess in common.

The same scepticism also encouraged flexibility in dealing with all practical problems. Metaphysical argument could no longer be exploited to support claims for the absolute superiority of one vocation, one form of government, or one kind of social organization over another. What mattered was the satisfaction of concrete human needs, such as the necessity of political order; Calvin seems to have recognized the political implications of Renaissance laicism in a preference for republican government that allied him not only with Zwingli and Bucer but also with the champions of Renaissance Florence and Venice, but the great Reformers were notably undogmatic about the forms of government.[57] Released from the bondage of metaphysics, the arrangement of this world's affairs could now be fully secular and thus be judged simply on the basis of practical results. The same pragmatism can also be observed in Protestant conceptions of ecclesiastical polity, at least where positive Scriptural prescription was lacking. By the same token wealth appeared neither good nor bad in itself, but only in the manner of its use.

At the same time Protestants generally accepted the new anthropology of the Renaissance. It was fundamental to their definition of sin, whose location chiefly in the lower levels of the personality they decisively rejected. Since the personality was for them a unity, they were clear that every part of it had been vitiated. Luther saw the pursuit of "spiritual values" as a serious temptations,[58] and Calvin attributed the localization of sin in the senses to pagan influence.[59] Man, for the Reformers, was the complex unity of Renaissance thought, but now even more sharply defined; the core of his being was certainly not his reason, and indeed even his will responded to deeper impulses. The Reformers tried to convey their meaning here, like some Italian humanists, by frequent references to the heart , the mysterious center of the personality, which determines man's beliefs and actions alike. And they shared the conviction of the rhetoricians of the Renaissance that the essential problem of communication lay in penetrating this vital core. Like Renaissance oratory, the Gospel had to be conveyed into the hearts of the many rather than into the intellects of the few, for it had to transform lives rather than—merely—to change minds. The living word of Christ was not dialectic but rhetoric.[60]

As in the Renaissance this conception of man was combined with an emphasis on life in society; the existence appropriate for the human condition was not solitary contemplation but rather responsible action among other men; thus the Christian commandment of love comple-


mented the Renaissance sense of social obligation.[61] Similarly Protestantism shared the Renaissance vision of life as conflict and change. The Christian life was dynamic; it was marked by progress towards godliness through temptation, which had therefore to be regarded not as an evil from which men should flee but as God's method of disciplining and purifying the soul. Milton's rejection of a cloistered virtue reflected Reformation and Renaissance simultaneously.

The same dynamism was more broadly reflected in a sense of the importance of historical change. The Reformers shared the Renaissance vision of the past as a decline into Gothic darkness from a better age, and also its hope for renewal; like the humanists, indeed, Calvin associated the decadence of his own time with the decline of literary culture.[62] But there was a larger point here. The God of Protestantism was once again the God of history rather than the author of a static system of metaphysical absolutes; and the destiny of man was no longer perceived as conformity to an ultimate and unchanging general order of things, but as the indefinite realization of his spiritual capacities in time, in accordance with the particular circumstances of concrete existence.[63]

But in none of its dimensions does Reformation theology more clearly reflect the rhetorical culture of the Renaissance than in its conception of God himself. The God of Luther, and even more of Calvin, may be seen as a transcendent expression of the Renaissance ideal of the orator, who, as active and personal governor of all things, supremely unites wisdom and virtue with eloquence, and power with a direct love and concern for his human subjects that is manifested in a desire to communicate to them what their welfare requires and to win their inward assent.[64] In fact, as Luther early remarked, God's works are identical with his words;[65] just as he communicates himself in his Word, so his words, whether through the law by which man is enslaved, or by the Gospel which sets man free, actively accomplish his purposes for mankind.[66] Furthermore, as Calvin emphasized, God's discourse is not couched in the timeless abstractions of logic. He appeals rather to the imagination than to the intellect; and in addition, like a skilled orator, he speaks to men in a language adapted to their capacities and their needs, taking historical and cultural differences into account and adapting his communication to the times.[67]

As representatives of the underlying tendencies of Renaissance culture, the great Reformers were also forced to confront the problems raised by the profound anxieties implicit in Renaissance culture, anxieties of which they were deeply aware. Calvin, indeed, was prepared to exploit positively "that religious fear by which we ought to be affected" for its


value in driving man to rely on God alone, and he employed his own considerable eloquence in a deliberate effort to intensify it.[68] Not the least of his contributions to the needs of the age was, in addition, a system of both external constraints and internalized discipline that supplied a practical substitute for the discredited metaphysical structures that had previously been a source of guidance and comfort.

Yet it was Luther, with his doctrine of sola fide , who took the essential step toward dissipating the religious anxiety of the Renaissance. The skepticism of the Renaissance had closed off access to God through the understanding, and its conception of man had radically altered the problem of salvation, which could no longer be conceived as the reduction of the soul to a proper order as the source of meritorious works. Luther accepted these contributions of the Renaissance, but he perceived too their radical implications for the spiritual impotence of man. He was able to do so, as he was later to recall, because he "learned to distinguish between the righteousness of the law and the Gospel."[69] Thus he was able to distinguish also, as the religious thought of the Renaissance had failed to do, between the civilization of men, in which the will may be adequate, and salvation, in which it is powerless. The result was to eliminate the major impediment to a full acceptance of man's dependence on God's love. Completing the insights of the Renaissance, Luther recognized that the full realization of human freedom depended paradoxically on the complete acceptance of the sovereignty of God, for the work of salvation as well as the words of revelation, which in the end proved identical. He saw that any other conception of freedom resulted only in enslaving men to their own anxieties and, by way of relief, to human ordinations. In this way Luther met the religious needs implicit in the new culture of the Renaissance, and in ways largely consistent with its fundamental assumptions.


Venice Spain, and the Papacy
Paolo Sarpi and the Renaissance Tradition

This essay, another by-product of my book Venice and the Defense of Renaissance Liberty, sought to place Sarpi in the broader context of civic humanism and Renaissance historiography. It thus argued for the persistence of Renaissance values in Venice long after, as it has been assumed, they had disappeared from Italy. The essay was first published in an admirable Italian translation by my Berkeley colleague, the late Arnolfo Ferruolo, in the Rivista Storica Italiana 74 (1962), 697–716. Translated into English by Catherine Enggass, it appeared again in The Late Italian Renaissance, 1525–1630, ed. Eric Cochrane (New York: Harper and Row, 1970), pp. 353–376. It is reprinted here with the permission of the publishers .

Although Paolo Sarpi is one of the great figures of the seventeenth century, not only of Italy, but of all Europe, and although many historians, Italian and non-Italian, have studied his career and thought, he remains an enigma and a subject of controversy. It is true that we have good editions of his most important writings and an increasing body of information concerning his life and surroundings. Yet there is still no satisfactory general work on Sarpi, nor is there any generally accepted interpretation of his personality, his thought, and his purposes.

In the past, attempts to interpret his career have taken two main directions. On one hand, they have tried to ascertain whether Sarpi's hostility to the papacy and his loyalty to his native Venice were chiefly religious or political in motivation. On the other, these interpretations have sought to establish whether he was, as he protested, a loyal Catholic, or whether he was rather a secret sympathizer with Protestantism and


a heretic at heart.[1] These questions, however, have too often led to mere polemics, and Sarpi has chiefly been exploited by both sides in the great controversies that continue to divide Italy. Largely for this reason the endeavor to answer these questions has been inconclusive. Some scholars have even come to believe that Sarpi himself was singularly evasive and enigmatic regarding his true position and purposes.[2] I should like to suggest, rather, that not Sarpi but the questions have been at fault. They are based, in my opinion, on certain modern distinctions that are hardly applicable to Sarpi and his times.

The first problem, whether Sarpi's motives were essentially religious or political, depends on a tendency to distinguish between religion and politics, and hence between church and state. That distinction is characteristic only of more modern times. For Sarpi, as for the supporters of the pope, the struggle between Venice and the papacy was only one more chapter in the age-old debate about the location of supreme authority in Christendom.[3] It is important to recognize (as we too often fail to do) that this debate was not, after all, between the rival powers of church and state. As Pope Nicholas the Great wrote in the ninth century, "The Church is the world"; and this famous definition meant that the struggles between popes and emperors were always seen as taking place within the church. The issue was not between church and state or between politics and religion (although each side accused the other of mere worldliness), but between two rival conceptions of church order and between two religious agencies.[4] For Sarpi the state was a religious institution with divinely appointed responsibilities and a major role in the church. In promoting the cause of Venice against the papacy, he was defending an ancient religious position; and as historians we have no reasonable grounds to doubt his sincerity. The distinction between a political Sarpi and a religious Sarpi thus seems to me false: the political Sarpi does not exclude, but rather helps to explain, the religious Sarpi.[5] The second problem, whether Sarpi was truly a Catholic, seems to me equally anachronistic. For several generations before the appearance of Martin Luther a rich doctrinal ferment, both various and free, had permeated Western Christendom; and this variety persisted among men who continued to think of themselves as Catholics long after the last session of the Council of Trent. What true Catholicism was, what the authority of the council was, and what its decrees meant, were still open questions for many thoughtful Catholics in Sarpi's time.[6] If doubts about these matters were displayed less openly in Italy than in France, the reason was as much lack of opportunity as religious conviction.[7] From this point of view it was therefore quite legitimate to attack Tri-


dentine Catholicism as a merely factional position which did not adequately reflect Catholic tradition, and even, without any disloyalty toward Catholicism, to share certain Protestant formulas. We are not justified in assigning the consolidated, monolithic Catholicism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to the early seventeenth century. Nor are we justified in imputing subversive Protestant intentions to Sarpi.[8] Sarpi must be taken literally. He was struggling against what he considered a false Catholicism in favor of a true one.

Since the study of Sarpi by way of these questions has not proved fruitful, I should like to put the problem on a different basis. It seems to me that one must start by identifying in Sarpi a certain forma mentis and certain fundamental attitudes that correspond to a particular political situation and to a related moment in the history of culture. This observation, however commonplace it may appear, will be far more helpful in our endeavor to understand Sarpi than any effort to seek the origin of his thought in particular literary sources. Books and ideas are important historically not because of their intrinsic value and abstract force, but because of the fertile ground they find in certain readers; and the historian's major problem is that of determining not the lineage of a position, but the reasons for its attraction for a specific individual or group. It is in this sense, for example, that we must interpret Sarpi's preference for the philosophy of William of Ockham over that of any other Scholastic.[9] Sarpi was not identifying himself with a school. He was simply reporting his discovery of a kindred spirit.

For this reason we must approach Sarpi by way of a certain context of sympathies and values. These alone, I believe, will bring us to the heart of the question. First of all, it seems to me that Sarpi is best understood as a representative of certain attitudes prevalent in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. These attitudes have been variously described. Georges Delagarde has defined them as "l'esprit laïque" and has given particular attention to their expression in the thought of Marsilio of Padua and William of Ockham.[10] Eugenio Garin and Hans Baron have defined them somewhat differently and have preferred to associate them with the Italian humanistic tradition, especially in Florence.[11] Notwithstanding the differences between them, both positions insist upon the relationship of these tendencies in philosophy to the attempts of townsmen to free themselves from certain medieval forms of thought and social organization. It is against this general background that I wish to consider Sarpi, though without placing him too precisely within any particular tradition. If in the course of this discussion I make frequent allusions to the Renaissance, my intention is only to suggest a


general framework of values. I do not claim, for example, that Sarpi was a humanist in any exact sense. He had no interest in rhetoric; and although he received a classical education, he did not attach much importance to ancient models of thought and expression. Nevertheless, profound influences from the Renaissance can be discerned in him.

Whatever else may be said about them, the republican communes of Renaissance Italy clearly provided an atmosphere favorable to the development of wide interests and broader spiritual horizons; and the responsibilities of civic life stimulated both patriotism and a new historical consciousness. Local tyranny and the Spanish domination eventually destroyed this political framework in most of the Italian states, and the Counter-Reformation generally suppressed what was left of the culture that the older political order had supported. But Venice, as has been too little recognized, was a unique exception to the rule. Venice retained the liberty that was lost by the rest of Italy.[12] At the same time, she jealously guarded her religious autonomy in the face of all attempts at centralization by Rome: and neither the Inquisition nor the Index managed to acquire much power within her dominions.[13] Thus, however much the world around her had changed, Venice remained the unwavering champion of Renaissance values as late as the first decade of the seventeenth century.[14] And the serious threat to these values posed by the papal offensive of 1606, which was encouraged by Spain, had almost the same effect on the Venetians, and on Sarpi in particular, as the Milanese aggression against Florence had had on Bruni's generation two centuries earlier.

Much of Sarpi's position is rooted in these circumstances and events. His youthful openness to all human thought and experience is typical of the varied and stimulating life of the Italian city. Endowed with an inexhaustible curiosity, he cultivated every branch of natural sciences. He actively participated in the philosophical inquiries of the University of Padua. He studied law and history. He talked with everyone, Italian or foreign, who could feed his curiosity about le cose humane ("the affairs of men"). And he longed to travel in order to see with his own eyes what his foreign acquaintances reported.

The variety of Sarpi's interests is one of the most significant aspects of his personality.[15] But the way in which he dealt with these interests is even more suggestive. What is impressive in Sarpi is his directness, his concreteness, and his flexibility in the face of any kind of experience. Perhaps the central conclusion of his early philosophical speculation was that the mind can return again to the real world of immediate experience.[16] This conclusion seems to be reflected in aspects of his later


thought as well. For Sarpi, man must always start from the concrete and the particular, since general principles are deceptive. And it is his constant attachment to this conclusion that explains the rigidity of the positions he subsequently took.

After Romano Amerio's investigations, Sarpi's scientific empiricism and his positive conception of law can no longer be open to question.[17] It will therefore be more useful to illustrate this attitude in other aspects of his thought. The attitude underlies his work as a historian. The historian, he says, must avoid general principles and base his work on concrete situations and the accumulation of particular detail. At one point in his History of the Council of Trent Sarpi suddenly seems to realize that his meticulous attention to particulars might bore his readers. He therefore stops to explain: "To someone reading this report, its attention to trivial things and causes may seem excessive. But the writer of the history, taking a different view, has thought it necessary to show what tiny rivulets caused the great lake that occupies Europe."[18] Thus the flow of time seems to be composed of innumerable tiny droplets, each of which requires individual attention. This same attitude is manifested in Sarpi's view of education, as his friend and collaborator Fra Fulgenzio Micanzio tells us. Sarpi resolutely refused to deal systematically in his teaching with any author, because he held that this method was in general followed "not [to gain] knowledge or to improve the mind, but to speak with subtlety, to show one's cleverness, and to make oneself more pertinacious than sincere as an investigator of the truth." He preferred instead to teach "in the Socratic and obstetric manner," that is, to employ that method which emphasized particular human insights and the immediate and concrete response of the student.[19]

I have insisted on Sarpi's concrete and direct method because I think it crucial to our understanding both of the man and of his place in the development of Western culture. Efforts have been made to identify this tendency in Sarpi with particular systems of thought—with nominalism, for example.[20] I will not deny certain affinities between Sarpi's thought and that of Ockham. But I think that the attempt to classify Sarpi in this way obscures the essential quality of his mind. He did not have a system of his own, and he deeply opposed all systems as falsifications of reality. We must look first of all at Sarpi himself, at his concern with all things human and at his refusal to be constrained by any intellectual construction that he believed might cut him off from the richness and paradoxes of human experience.

This interpretation of Sarpi as a Renaissance man gains substance when two other aspects of his career are considered: his view of history


and his connections with the Venetian Republic. Sarpi's view of history reveals the same sense of discontinuity between his own age and antiquity that had been characteristic of the Florentine historians; and his writings likewise reveal how well he had learned, like them, that institutions develop and change in time by natural processes. But in one way Sarpi went further than they: he applied this insight systematically to the church. He did so with regret, since he believed that the church ought to be identical and continuous with its primitive forms. In this sense he was a foe of history: he saw time as the great corrupter.[21] Nevertheless he recorded the changes that he observed; and though dealing with that institution to which some superiority over history was generally attributed, he noted the relativity of particular arrangements and pronouncements in terms of the concrete historical circumstances in which they occurred.[22] His extension of this Renaissance theme to the church is perhaps Sarpi's greatest technical contribution to Western historiography.

But Sarpi's major link with the Renaissance tradition appears in his attitude toward society and in his political thought and activity. His career falls naturally into two parts. Until 1605 he devoted himself to study, although his vita contemplativa was interrupted from time to time by the demands of his order. But with the crisis provoked by the interdict, he was suddenly called to take part in the affairs of the world; and from then until his death he was strenuously committed to the vita activa . Thus Sarpi in his own life was forced to grapple with a problem that had been crucial to the development of Florentine humanism. He was not the only one of his circle to be so involved. The problem had been faced by his close associate Nicolò Contarini;[23] and the comment of Fra Fulgenzio on this abrupt change in Sarpi's life shows us the traditional way in which Venetians regarded this central problem of the Renaissance circle. "At this period," Fulgenzio wrote, "it might be said that he terminated his tranquil studies and his private life; and from then until the end of his life he entered into another world, or rather into the world. And it pleased God to call him to labors to which he would never have thought to apply himself. But man is not born for himself. [He is born] principally for his country and for the common good."[24] It is interesting to observe the ardor with which Sarpi threw himself into the fray and what little regret he felt for the serene life of study he had forsaken. He seems, indeed, to have been waiting all his life for this moment.[25] Indeed, as though this activity corresponded to some profound personal need, his health, which had always been poor, suddenly improved.[26]


Yet even in action Sarpi did not base himself on general principles. What attracted him was not the abstract moral obligation of social duty but service to a particular community. Sarpi loved Venice as Salutati and Bruni had loved Florence; and his pride in the political achievements of the Republic and in the long duration of her freedom frequently recurs in his writings, both public and private. For him the cause of Venice against the papacy was that of "our liberty, which Divine Providence has preserved inviolate for one thousand and two hundred years. . . amongst innumerable dangers."[27]

But under the pressure of papal attack Sarpi also developed a theoretical justification for the authority of the Venetian government. It was one which, in its glorification of the powers inherent in the community, suggests a radical extension of certain elements of Renaissance patriotism. The obvious feature of Sarpi's political thought is the large authority it attributes to the "prince," a term by which he seems to have meant administrative office in general as well as the person holding it. Like other theorists of his time, Sarpi derived the sovereign authority of the prince directly from God;[28] and he attributed to sovereignty a remarkable comprehensiveness. Sovereignty, he declared, is necessarily indivisible and inalienable. Above all, it is absolute in its own realm. "Sovereignty is a power absolute by nature from which nothing can be exempted or excepted," he declared. "And the moment that it yields to any condition or exception, it loses its supreme being and becomes dependent."[29]

This sentiment may suggest that Sarpi was only another of the many exponents of seventeenth-century absolutism. But such a suggestion should be corrected in the light of another important aspect of his political thought. Although Sarpi's term "prince" is applicable to every supreme political authority, from the French monarchy to the Venetian dogato , he was thinking primarily of his own Republic. Absolute sovereignty of divine derivation is or Sarpi evidently consonant with republican government; it would therefore be somewhat misleading to associate him too closely with conventional theories of divine right. In reality Sarpi was concerned with the duty of the prince to the community; and this duty had for him a meaning very close to the function of government for Locke. "The prince and the senate have not sinned," Sarpi maintained; "they have rather obeyed the commandments of God in seeing to the preservation of the lives, honor, and property of His subjects."[30] Sarpi's absolutism, then, is not an unregulated and arbitrary power but unlimited authority to be exercised for the common good.[31]

If Machiavelli is the only touchstone of Renaissance political thought, this association of Sarpi's politics with the Renaissance would be quite


unconvincing. As Chabod has emphasized, Sarpi's political philosophy has little in common with Machiavelli's, and it reveals rather more affinity with that of the French jurists of the period.[32] Sarpi's divergences from Machiavelli are many. The most notable is his insistence that the moral and religious obligations of the prince are greater than those of the ordinary citizen.[33] But Sarpi's intention was to defend what he considered the ancient rights of a free republic and not, as was Machiavelli's, to propose extraordinary remedies to halt a process of degeneration. So conservative a purpose really somewhat resembles that of those French theorists who were trying to bolster the position of an established monarchy. On the other hand, Sarpi's aim had also some precedent in a more vital period of Florentine history; his real spiritual precursor seems to me to be Salutati, who loved and served Florence and who praised the laws of his community as instruments of God's will.[34]

To identify Sarpi with the Renaissance past may appear somewhat anachronistic, and it therefore calls for some further elaboration. The seventeenth century is certainly not the fifteenth; the world had altered greatly since the time of Bruni and Salutati. But to establish Sarpi's relationship with the Renaissance will provide a point of departure for the next stage in our investigation. We must now examine how the Renaissance motives in Sarpi were adapted to new conditions and how they were modified in the process. Indeed, this appears to me to be the unique value of Sarpi, and indeed of the whole Venetian episode, for the historian. The special political conditions basic to Renaissance culture no longer existed in other parts of Italy, and what remained of it was defensive or merely academic. In Venice alone at this late date can we find central attitudes of the Renaissance still alive and engaged in an encounter with a changing world. Sarpi was the major Venetian exponent of these values, and because of a mentality extraordinarily open and sensitive to change, he was also the outstanding witness to their transformation.

The changes that had taken place since the "golden age" of the Renaissance were of several kinds; and it will be useful to distinguish here two major sorts of alteration, both of which deeply affected Sarpi and gave a particular direction to those of his characteristics that I have associated with the Renaissance. The first of these changes was political; and it resulted from the altered relation of Venice, as of the rest of Italy, to the powers of Europe. The emergence of a system of well-organized and ambitious states able to determine the destiny of Italy had made her role in European affairs increasingly passive. Venice's own field of


action was more and more restricted, and her very existence as an independent state often seemed to depend on developments and decisions elsewhere.[35] With his broad interests and clarity of vision, no one realized this better than Sarpi.[36]

Sarpi recognized that the impotence of Italy came in part from her political division.[37] But he also saw that her principal problem was of a moral nature. For that reason he included even his beloved Venice, during the years after the Interdict, in his indictment of Counter-Reformation Italy. Echoing Machiavelli, he wrote sorrowfully of his native city: "Now we have breathed out all our virtue; . . . we have drunk some opiate from the vessel that puts everyone to sleep."[38] On the other hand, all was not yet lost for Sarpi as long as Venice retained her freedom. But she needed powerful allies, such as France or the Netherlands,[39] and Sarpi would not have rejected an alliance even with the Turks. When a Turkish attack on Rome seemed in prospect, he commented: "It causes sorrow here, people fearing the Turk in Italy; but it would be a universal salvation."[40]

But however conscious Sarpi might be of Venice's weakness and vulnerability, he retained his sense of the dignity of the Republic and his pride in the political values she represented. For Sarpi, Venice was the courageous defender of a common cause: "She alone upholds the dignity and true interests of an independent prince."[41] As such she merited the respect and assistance of the great powers., but she should beware of being absorbed by them. Therefore, the first rule for a state that "wanted an understanding with the Republic" would be "to demonstrate the desire for associates, not dependents."[42] In spite of all her vicissitudes, Venice continued to represent for Sarpi a complex of values that had to be preserved at any cost.

Closely connected with his estimate of the political situation was Sarpi's doctrine of "opportunity" (opportunità ), a doctrine which helped him to solve a very serious problem. In a world so menacing, so inimical to the development and even the survival of everything most dear to him, how was a man or a government to act? To struggle openly and continuously against superior force would only ensure destruction. Yet to do nothing was unthinkable. Sarpi resolved this dilemma by proposing a policy of alert vigilance, of patient waiting for the opportune moment which would be presented by Divine Providence, and then of striking with vigor.[43] The doctrine of "opportunity" reveals how much the mood of the Renaissance had changed since the time of Machiavelli. In so far as the doctrine counseled shrewdness and flexibility, it may have precedents in Machiavelli. But for Sarpi it became a measure of


human impotence. Virtù could no longer even hope to triumph over fortuna . Man is not incapable of controlling events. At the most he can only cooperate with the opportune moment. The wise man, therefore, must patiently resign himself to long periods of inactivity. Indeed, there is no certainty that God will even present him with a genuine opportunità . Sarpi himself began to suspect that it would not come in his generation and that, at best, he could work only for posterity. "It is well to instruct posterity," he pointed out, "at least with writings, so that when the evil of the present changes, they can regain liberty if it should be lost to us."[44]

A pessimism bordering on desperation with regard to the limits of human action is obviously not a characteristic generally associated with the Renaissance; and we are entitled to attribute Sarpi's gloom in great measure to altered political circumstances. Yet even here I think that his position was a natural development of the Renaissance emphasis on particular, concrete experience and of its rejection of all-embracing intellectual systems created by men. For the Renaissance mentality had two rather different aspects. On one hand, it tended to liberation and bold adventures of the mind; and this positive tendency could seem most prominent in a time of relative hope. But on the other hand, it rejected adventure in the present and withheld confidence in the future; and it manifested a profound skepticism concerning the limits of the human understanding and a resignation to man's imprisonment in the chaotic immediacy of direct experience. It is hardly surprising that for Sarpi this second tendency reflected the real truth about man's position in the universe. Indeed, notwithstanding his persistent pessimism regarding the probable course of events, he steadfastly refused to predict the future,[45] thereby revealing a deeper pessimism than would have been suggested by the certainty of disasters ahead. For Sarpi the world would always present surprises. He was convinced not only that all human calculation was useless but also that events usually turned out completely opposite to man's expectations.[46] Man,for Sarpi, was helpless in a world he could never hope to comprehend.

With this aspect of Sarpi's thought we have come to the other large set of changes that had altered the world since the time of the Renaissance, those released by the Reformation. If the political scene justified one kind of pessimism, the Christian view of man suggested another, though the two were closely related. The religious tendencies of the period were also reflected in Sarpi's thought. His most important writings, including his great Hitory , are works in which he tried to present the values and attitudes we have just examined within a religious context.


He did not sacrifice these values to a religious perspective. Indeed, it seems to me that the key to an understanding of his religious position is to be found precisely in his effort to preserve these values and to reconcile the demands of Christian belief to all that he held most dear. For Sarpi, as for each of us in some sense, the validity of a religious position was to be tested by its consistency with what he otherwise knew to be true.

It seems to me, therefore, that Sarpi's religious position was based on the same renunciation of the general in favor of the particular that we have observed in other aspects of his thought—on the pessimism implicit in this point of view, and especially on the feeling of the helplessness of man as a moral being, which in some degree parallels and in some degree underlies his helplessness to understand and to control events. For Sarpi, the weakness of man was, among other things, certainly moral. "Every human action." he wrote, "lacks perfection";[47] and this gloomy vision seems to pervade the History of the Council of Trent , a work singularly lacking in heroes and one which appears at times to be almost a deliberate demonstration of the depravity of man. But this vision does not exclude all consolation. Sarpi also saw that man's moral deficiencies implied his dependence on divine grace, and this explains the attraction he felt for extreme forms of the Pauline-Augustinian tradition.[48]

Sarpi's sense of human limitations is equally evident in his attitude toward Christian doctrine. Here his affinities with the thought of the Renaissance are even clearer. I have in mind something more general than the influence of that evangelism which was so deeply rooted in sixteenth-century Venice. Regarding human reason as incapable of passing from particulars to general truth, and considering all intellectual conclusions as possessing a merely operational validity and as being incapable of final verification, Sarpi considered reason irrelevant to salvation. The truths of Christianity could only be approached by faith:[49] hence his bitter criticism of the systematic theological discussions which produced the doctrinal formulations of Trent. This aspect of the History , although it has been little noticed, is almost as important as his antagonism to Rome for the comprehension of his work.[50] To apply the subtle definitions and distinctions of human reason to the content of the faith was for Sarpi a shocking contamination of heavenly with earthly things, the product of human vanity, contentiousness, and presumption. It was therefore doomed to futility.[51]

The same skepticism also underlies Sarpi's tolerance of religious difference and his aversion to persecution. Since a precise, systematic, ra-


tional, and coherent definition of the faith is so far beyond human capabilities, diversity of opinion must be permitted, and condemnation should be slow. For Sarpi, the doctrinal cleavages of Europe were largely verbal;[52] and since words cannot penetrate to the heart of reality, they were also essentially frivolous. This position, rather than an expression of politique indifference or the consequence of a direct inspiration from Protestant doctrines, explains his willingness to collaborate, for both political and religious ends, with Lutherans, Calvinists, and Anglicans. These "heretics" could not be excluded from the Church of Christ on dogmatic grounds, for no human authority could be considered intellectually competent to determine their orthodoxy.

We have thus arrived at another fundamental element in Sarpi's religious position: his theory of the church.[53] Here his emphasis on the particular as the exclusive reality in human experience merges with the other major Renaissance element in his thought, to which it is closely related: affection for a particular social community. Sarpi's concept of the church is based on his insistence upon the fundamental importance of the individual believer. The church thus becomes merely an aggregation of individuals, convocatio fidelium .[54] Moreover, Sarpi insisted on the right and duty of individual judgment in religious matters, which he held to be superior to the collective judgment of the church as expressed by ecclesiastical authority. The Venetians might therefore in good conscience defy the papal ban.[55] Obviously, this theory also implied a revision in the relations between layman and priest. If the authority of the church resided in the individual believer, then the priest was only a delegate of the faithful, and the authority of the clergy was based on consent.[56] In this way Sarpi was evidently attempting to supply a historical and theoretical foundation for the secular and anticlerical lay spirit that was so deeply rooted in the civic consciousness of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. But the essence of his position is that the clerical conception of the church is a violation of the true structure of reality, which resides in individuals rather than in comprehensive systems.

The basis of authority in the church thus resided in the individual believer. But the believer in turn belonged to a national and confessional community. Hence, Sarpi saw the universal Church Militant essentially as the sum of all individual churches—Roman, Gallican, Greek, Anglican, and even Lutheran and Reformed.[57] His ideal, in fact, was not an organizational unity but a loose confederation of autonomous units. For this reason he showed little enthusiasm for any formal reconciliation and institutional unification between Catholics and Protestants.[58] Unity


savored too much of authoritarian uniformity, and it was therefore the absolute negation of that freedom to which he so much aspired. Sarpi's idealization of division in the church was perhaps the primary reason for his approval of the Protestant Reformation.[59] Papalism as a theory of ecclesiastical government was obviously contrary to his conception of the proper organization of the church. Moreover, the papal concept of monarchy as the imposition of a general principle of authority over all particular churches and persons was radically opposed to Sarpi's almost instinctive location of essential reality in the individual.

For Sarpi, just as truth is inaccessible to man, who can know nothing but the particular, so the Holy Spirit does not function through institutions or other visible and tangible entities. There is no meeting point between the ultimate and the immediate, the spiritual and the worldly. Sarpi therefore insisted on the exclusively spiritual character of the church: "It is called the kingdom of heaven, not only because it will attain perfection in heaven, but because while yet on earth it reigns and governs not by rules and worldly interests but by completely spiritual ordinances. By another name this is called the Church."[60] He conceived of the clergy as a spiritual body that by its nature is far removed from laws, government, property, or questions of an earthly character in general.[61]

When the clergy concerns itself with such matters, another serious inversion of values occurs. His position here offers Sarpi the opportunity for another attack on Rome. In his view the papacy was generally guilty of confusing the temporal with the spiritual, thus contaminating spiritual things;[62] and the Roman Church had degenerated into a political instrument employed by shrewd rulers to govern the masses for their own interest.[63] To this extent Sarpi was Machiavellian. He accepted the "Averroist myth,"[64] and hence a political interpretation of papal policies. The political efficacy of religion, he held, was demonstrable.

Feeling strongly that such a church did not serve the Christian faith, however, Sarpi wished for something better. Yet how could a purely spiritual church function in the world? With his reply to this question we have come to what, in the more religious atmosphere that followed the Reformation, I would describe as a religious expression of the civic spirit of the Renaissance. Sarpi attributes a wide responsibility to the civil authority, or "prince" as he calls it, both for what concerns the institutional and secular aspects of the church and for what relates to its spiritual life. The institutional direction of the church naturally belongs to the prince, since he is the legitimate ruler of all temporal things.[65] But its spiritual direction also belongs to him. If the authority of the


church definitively resides in the lay community and is merely delegated to the clergy, the head of the church is unquestionably the representative of this community. Therefore it is the prince who in the last analysis determines both spiritual and material matters.[66] Thus Sarpi was able to declare that the Venetian Republic and other political goverments have frequently and rightly intervened in ecclesiastical matters, "not as princes and political authorities, but as believers and representatives of the whole body of believers."[67] The prince has been delegated by God to govern both the spiritual and temporal orders on behalf of the community. If we keep in mind his predilection for Venice, Sarpi's position evidently serves to combine civic and religious impulses; his radical ecclesiology expresses patriotic devotion and faith in his own community. From this point of view citizenship is the only social condition of importance, and the clergy themselves are first of all simply citizens like other men.[68] In this sense the Republic of Venice was not a secular state at all. It was in the fullest sense the church itself, in so far as the church impinges on man's experience in this world. The exaltation of the Renaissance city-state could go no further.

It is not my intention either to claim systematic consistency for Sarpi's views or to maintain that they have much intrinsic ecclesiological interest. Nevertheless, I think that the historians can discover in him more than a curious renewal of the doctrines of Marsilio of Padua or a late expression of the "Byzantinism" so often attributed to Venice. No doubt Sarpi's doctrine owes something to both these sources. But his importance comes rather from the concrete historical circumstances that elicited his position. Sarpi was the champion of the values inherent in a particular community, values that were seriously menaced; and to defend them he attributed to the community a set of religious sanctions that went far beyond the patriotic affirmations of the Renaissance, even though they were moving in the same direction and serving the same ends. Sarpi reveals the persistence at a remarkably late date of a fundamental motif of the Renaissance; and he helps us to see its development and transformation under the pressure of new historical conditions. He succeeded in being both a patriot and a realist, and in his radical glorification of the state he suggests an important contribution of the Renaissance to the absolutism of early modern Europe.

But even deeper than his attachment to Venice was Sarpi's aversion to the general and the rigidly systematic and his preference for the particular and the immediate. Two rather different historical impulses may be seen converging in this aspect of his thought. One is the reflection of a previous era; the other is an anticipation of much that was most


fruitful for the later development of Western thought. Living in a less happy age, he recognized the darker implications of these impulses, and he adapted them to the construction of a more religious world view. There is no question here of a calculated and cynical exploitation of religious values for political and secular ends, as in the case of Machiavelli. Sarpi was a product of the Reformation as well as of the Renaissance, and one of the most striking features of his thought is precisely the way in which it so honestly combines two movements frequently considered antithetical. If, indeed, Sarpi's religious position appears finally closer to Wittenberg and Geneva than to Rome, it is not because he was attracted by Protestantism as such, but rather because the position expressed in the Protestant creeds seemed to him more consonant with the values he held so deeply as a free citizen of a free republic. In this way Sarpi can perhaps provide some insight into major tendencies of both the Renaissance and the Reformation, and above all into their profound connection.


Venice and the Political Education of Europe

This essay aimed to display the continuing influence of the Italian Renaissance over the political attitudes of Europe in later centuries, as mediated by the Venetian Republic. The essay originally appeared in Renaissance Venice, ed. J. R. Hale (London: Faber and Faber, 1973), and it is reprinted here with the permission of the publisher .

Renaissance Florence has long been considered the origin in European history of a concern with politics as an autonomous study. Faced with the problems of governing a turbulent but independent republic, anxious to insure her survival in a precarious world that seemed to be ruled only by power, and nourished by the rediscovered political culture of antiquity, thoughtful Florentines, in a process that reached a climax with Machiavelli and Guicciardini, began to articulate realistic principles of political effectiveness and to define its limits. In this sense Florence contributed to the education of modern Europe as a congeries of particular powers, like Florence the products of their separate histories, whose policies would be determined by some calculation of political interest.

The role of Venice in transmitting the attitudes and the lessons of Renaissance politics to the larger European world has been less clearly recognized, partly because of the preoccupation of recent historians with Florence, partly because the Venetian contribution to political discourse was relatively late.[1] The government of Venice impressed other Europeans primarily when Italy as a whole was no longer an inspiring spectacle; for this, as well as for other reasons, Venice presented herself as a unique example of political wisdom. Furthermore her own major spokes-


men, Gasparo Contarini, Paolo Paruta, Enrico Davila, and perhaps above all Paolo Sarpi, were men not of the fifteenth but of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. This chronology, however, should not obscure the fact that Venice represented in the modern world the central political values of Renaissance republicanism, which she made available to the rest of Europe in a singularly attractive and provocative form.

The European perception of Venice was not entirely, or perhaps even primarily, the consequence of reading Venetian writers. although their works were widely studied and deeply admired. Furthermore, men saw in Venice what they wanted to see. Venice possessed, nevertheless, a definable political culture;[2] and what the Venetians had to say will therefore be helpful in understanding the general interest of Europeans elsewhere in the Venetian achievement.

The most general element in the political ideal to which Venetian writers exposed their audience was a ubiquitous secularism. They were not hostile to religion; indeed, like most of their compatriots, they were demonstrably men of faith, albeit of a kind uncongenial to the developing orthodoxy of the Counter-Reformation; and this fact doubtless contributed to the esteem for Venice among pious Gallicans and Protestants. Their secularism was expressed rather in an antipathy to speculative systems that impose an artificial coherence on all values and experience and thereby claim a right to supervise, among other matters, the political order. They were the enemies not of religion but of metaphysics, and of the notion that the conduct of human affairs should be determined by some comprehensive vision of the nature of things. Their secularism was thus the necessary condition of an autonomous politics, an autonomous culture, and the full appreciation of human freedom.

This characteristic of the Venetian mind found especially vigorous expression in the hostility to Scholasticism and to the dogmatic temperament in general that permeated Sarpi's treatment of the Council of Trent and makes him seem so clearly a predecessor of Gibbon. Sarpi displayed much the same zest as some leading figures of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in showing up the presumption in all intellectual system building, its tendency to close men off from the actualities of human experience, and its exploitation to disguise and advance a crude libido dominandi . The Venetian approach to human affairs—though Contarini was a partial exception—was earthbound and empirical. Its refusal to force the data of human experience into large systems was notably exhibited in the preference of Venetian writers for exposition through dialogues in which various points of view may find expression without explicit resolution. This familiar Renaissance form was em-


ployed by Paruta. It was also, slightly disguised, a favorite device in Sarpi's great work.

Their rejection of system was fundamental for the Venetians to the appreciation of a wide range of human concerns. If there was no universal pattern which bound all things into a single scheme, the subordination of one set of values to another, of one area of experience to another, and indeed of one class of men to another was no longer defensible, except perhaps on the most practical grounds. The implications for political life were here especially clear. Reason of state could no longer find its justification in eternal reason, and there was thus no alternative to a secular politics. The consequence was full recognition of the dignity of the lay estate and of political activity; and this tendency in Venetian discourse was, I suspect, a substantial element in its attractions for European readers. It provided another of Sarpi's major themes, but it emerged with particular clarity in Paruta's defence of civic life.[3] We may also take Paruta as an example of Venetian appreciation of the autonomy of other dimensions of human culture.

Paruta artfully set his dialogue on this subject at the final session of the Council of Trent. This setting enabled him to divide its participants into two groups: on one side, representing the systematic approach to politics, a number of learned bishops; on the other, several Venetian ambassadors. The issue was joined by one of the bishops who, having listened impatiently as the laymen discussed their embassies, their travels, and their experiences throughout Europe, belligerently denounced their worldly activities and contrasted the tedium of service to society with his own leisurely contemplation of higher things. He argued that active commitment to the service of an earthly community is inferior, both relatively in the degree of happiness it provides, and absolutely in the values it represents, to a life devoted to the eternal verities. The active life is a weariness to the flesh and filled with sinful temptations. Above all, it tempts men to prefer an earthly city to the City of God, and of course it is obvious to what city he refers. The wise man, he argued, perceives "that all men ought to be regarded as citizens of this great city of the universe, just as we have all been given one identical eternal law for our governance, one same heavenly father . . . one same head and ruler to govern us and give us everything that is good among us, God, best and greatest. No other homeland have we than nature, no other law, no other family, no other prince."[4] And Paruta's Venetians understood immediately that what was here proposed was a comprehensive ideal at every point antagonistic to their own: a life without particular foci of experience or particular attachments to persons or places; a life


that finds no value in the daily emotional and sensory encounters of human existence; a life in which the entire moral experience provided by society has only a negative value. Their defense of civic life was mounted on many fronts, but precisely because only life in society can provide for the whole, complex range of human capabilities, which cannot legitimately be prejudged, subsumed under any single principle, and organized in hierarchies. They insisted on the claims to human affection not only of particular states, which supply the context for all other values, but of family and friends, of the arts, and even of wealth. Political life was perfect for Paruta, because of its range and its refusal to discriminate: that is, because of its secularity. The relation of these attitudes to some belief in the dignity and value of human freedom is also close. Hostility to the authoritarianism of the Counter-Reformation in matters of belief permeated the writings of Sarpi, who condoned coercion only where the social order was at stake; and the personal liberty afforded by Venice was a perennial element in the European image of the Republic. In various ways, therefore, the Venetians supplied an idealistic justification for modern patriotism.

As the reflections of Paruta have already suggested, the rejection of universal intellectual systems had a counterpart in the rejection of political universalism, and this bias in the political culture of Venice doubtless also contributed to its wider acceptability. The values attributed to Venice and the patriotism they called forth were equally applicable to other particular states, but not to a universal empire. Paruta himself devoted many pages to a criticism of ancient Roman universalism, which he judged both politically ineffectual and, in comparison with the small states of ancient Greece, artistically and intellectually sterile.[5] The same arguments were equally effective, as the Venetians were aware, against the universalism promoted by the Counter-Reformation papacy.

Venetian politics were based, therefore, on the need to defend the integrity of particular states. The Venetian interdict of 1606–1607, so widely publicized throughout Europe, was, among other things, the first of the great seventeenth-century conflicts over sovereignty; and Sarpi had argued the cause of Venice in terms well calculated to have a broad appeal. "I cannot refrain from saying," he advised his government, "that no injury penetrates more deeply into a principate than when its majesty, that is to say sovereignty, is limited and subjected to the laws of another. A prince who possesses a small part of the world is equal in this respect to one who possesses much, nor was Romulus less a prince than Trajan, nor is your Serenity now greater than your forebears when their empire had not extended beyond the lagoons. He who takes away a part of his


state from a prince makes him a lesser prince but leaves him a prince; he who imposes laws and obligations on him deprives him of the essence of a prince, even if he possesses the whole of Asia."[6] And the case for the local settlement of local issues was still another important theme in his history of the council. As he made a Gallican prelate at the council remark, "It would be a great absurdity to watch Paris burn when the Seine and Marne are full of water, in the belief that it was necessary to wait to put out the fire for water from the Tiber."[7] Venetian political culture corresponded, then, to what was more and more clearly destined to be the shape of the European community of nations.

The rejection of systems and of the notion of hierarchy posed a serious danger to political existence, however, because it deprived society, both domestic and international, of its traditional principle of order. The Florentines had discovered the solution to this problem in the idea of balance, which was destined to supplant the hierarchical principle of order at almost the same time in both science and politics. Venice largely owed her survival, in a world dominated by great powers, to a calculated exploitation of the balance of power, and her writers tended to take this for granted. The case was quite different, however, for the internal structure of states; and Venetian publicists were long concerned to account for the order and effectiveness of the Republic by describing its balanced constitution. Contarini's classic work on this subject at times justified Venetian arrangements by appealing rather mechanically to the eternal order of nature, an argument which doubtless did not weaken his case with some of his later readers.[8]

But Contarini was too much of a Venetian to remain long with metaphysics; the order with which he was really concerned was that provided by effective government. "In our city," he boasted, "no popular tumult or sedition has ever occurred";[9] and his explanation of this remarkable fact was understandably of peculiar interest for Europeans whose own societies had been demonstrably less fortunate. The secret of Venetian success, Contarini revealed, was her constitution, which held the potentially antagonistic forces of the political arena in a complementary equilibrium. "Such moderation and proportion characterize this Republic," he declared, "and such a mixture of all suitable estates, that this city by itself incorporates at once a princely sovereignty, a governance of the nobility, and a rule of citizens, so that the whole appears as balanced as equal weights."[10] And since this happy arrangement of checks and balances was severely impersonal, it pointed also to a government of laws rather than of men. But its ultimate test was utilitarian. "The whole purpose of civil life consists in this," Contarini insisted:


"that, by the easiest way possible, the citizens may share in a happy life."[11] Venice supplied, therefore, both a secular ideal and the means for its fulfillment.

Venetian constitutionalism received even wider, if less explicit, dissemination through the great work of Sarpi, which submits the papacy, as a species of governance, to searching scrutiny and finds it wanting largely because of its failure to realize the admirable principles exhibited by the Venetian government. Sarpi argued that the church had originated as a free, spiritual, and democratic body; and he showed how it had degenerated, step by step, through the classic sequence of forms described by Machiavelli, until it had at last emerged as the naked tyranny of the contemporary papacy, a particularly odious example of government by men rather than by laws. Here too the popularity of Sarpi's masterpiece had far more than a religious meaning.

Sarpi's vision of the development of ecclesiastical government over the centuries brings us to a final major contribution of Venetian political culture to the rest of Europe: its increasingly sophisticated historicism, which brought into a single focus the secularism, the particularism, and the constitutionalism of the Venetian tradition. These impulses were combined with a grasp of history as a process largely transcending individual acts which, it seems to me, went substantially beyond the hints at this conception in Florentine historiography. Even Contarini's De republica Venetorum , which otherwise displayed little historical sense, had suggested the idea of temporal process in applying the familiar platitude that Venice, following the course of biological nature, might decay;[12] and Paruta, an admirer of both Thucydides and Guicciardini, coolly analyzed the evolution of curial institutions,[13] described the broad changes in Venetian policy over the centuries,[14] and dealt with Roman history as a long decline through such natural causes as her limited economic base, her defective constitution, her militarism, and her excessive greatness.[15] He also expounded the idea of the progress of civilization to account for the contemporary splendors of Venice.[16] Davila was deeply interested in the remote causes for the recent tribulations of France, finding them in her constitution.[17] And Sarpi blamed the papal tyranny not primarily on the wickedness of worldly and ambitious popes but on the general decay of political authority in the early Middle Ages. To those who attributed the Protestant revolt to the actions of a single, nefarious man, he replied that Luther "was only one of the means, and the causes were more potent and recondite."[18]

Notable among the Venetian writers was a strong sense of the autonomy of history, of the obligation to confront the data exposed by


historical research directly, without dogmatic preconceptions, and so to get at truth. During the interdict an anonymous Venetian pamphleteer had been bold enough to express a doubt that Charlemagne had truly received the Empire as a gift from the pope, and Bellarmine had angrily accused him of "heresy in history." The Venetian had not hesitated to set the matter straight; he retorted, "There cannot be heresy in history which is profane and not contained in Holy Scripture."[19] Sarpi insisted more than once that historical truth was a matter not of authority but of fact; and authority, he noted, "cannot alter things already done."[20] The famous history of his Venetian contemporary Enrico Davila also owed much of its conviction to its cool objectivity and its apparent freedom from confessional prejudice, and Davila was explicitly sensitive to the problem of bias.[21] Sarpi's bias is, of course, strongly evident, but his professedly empirical method was well calculated to make it appear the product, rather than the motive and organizing principle, of his research. He once compared the council to a great lake fed by numerous tiny rivulets and gradually spreading out over Europe; the task of the historian, in this light, was to follow each of these brooklets to its source.[22] At the same time Sarpi was not naive; he recognized the problem of selection, comparing himself to a harvester who found some fields more productive than others.[23]

But there was nothing detached about the Venetian pursuit of historical truth; and if Sarpi devoted himself to ferreting it out, he did so because he thought it useful. When a Gallican correspondent requested his opinion on the delicate question of Pope Joan, Sarpi replied that he found no solid evidence for her existence and personally doubted it; but, he went on to say, "I should not care to trouble myself to prove something that, once proved, would be of no further use to me."[24] History, for Sarpi, was not a matter for idle contemplation but an instrument of the active life celebrated by Paruta; the truth was useful, he profoundly believed, because the truth would set men free. Historical study, as the pursuit of truth, was for him the natural solvent and enemy of dogma, which sought, in the interest of an illegitimate empire over mankind, to obscure the truth. History thus became, in Sarpi's hands, the great unmasker, and therefore the one sure means of approach to a better world. By revealing the lost perfection of the past and the causes of its decay, it could display both the goal towards which contemporary reformers must struggle and the problems with which they must contend. Sarpi thus transmitted the secularism, the empiricism, and the reformist impulse of the Renaissance to the militant reformers of a later age.[25]

The popularity of the major Venetian political writers and the esteem in which they were held is one symptom of the congeniality of these


conceptions in early modern Europe. Their works were widely printed outside Italy, both in their original Latin or Italian texts and in translation; these were in addition to Venetian editions exported abroad. Contarini's De magistratibus et republica Venetorum was printed many times in Latin, and was translated into both French and English;[26] Naudé thought this "admirable work" essential for the understanding of a republic.[27] Paruta's eloquent Della perfezione della vita politica was turned into French, his more mature Discorsi politici into English and German, and his Venetian history into English;[28] Naudé described him as an "ornament of erudition,"[29] and he was widely admired as one of the great political thinkers of his time.[30] Davila's Istoria delle guerre civili di Francia was twice translated into English,[31] appeared many times in French and Spanish versions, and was also put into Latin.[32] Bolingbroke praised Davila as the equal of Livy;[33] and while he sat as vice president under Washington, John Adams composed a set of Discourses on Davila .[34] Even better known was, of course, Paolo Sarpi. His lesser writings were widely read outside of Italy, and editions of his Istoria del Concilio Tridentino multiplied rapidly. After its first appearance in an Italian version in London in 1619, it was quickly translated into Latin, French, German and English;[35] the English edition was among the few books carried to the New World by William Brewster, spiritual leader of the Plymouth colony.[36] It might have had a second English translation if Dr. Samuel Johnson had managed to carry out all the projects he devised for himself,[37] and it was twice more translated into French.[38] And Sarpi's distinction as a political sage was soon recognized. His enemies suggested this by associating him with Guicciardini;[39] among his admirers, Naudé ranked him with such ideal counselors of government as Epictetus, Socrates, Seneca, and Cato.[40] His French translator of the later seventeenth century, Amelot de la Houssaye (no blind admirer of Venice) praised him as a bon Politique and recommended his great history because of its excellent lessons for princes.[41] By the eighteenth century Sarpi's reputation for political cunning had so grown that spurious collections of political maxims circulated under his name, for example, in the Berlin of Frederick the Great, a book of worldly counsel under the title Le Prince de F. Paolo .[42] To these works, which directly transmitted the political culture of Venice to the rest of Europe, should be added various writings of Giovanni Botero, and especially of Traiano Boccalini, both widely read abroad and inclined to dwell on the virtues of Venice. Boccalini, in the first century of his Ragguagli di Parnaso , included an eloquent and diverting summary of all that had seemed most admirable in the Republic.[43]

But these books did not by themselves create an interest in Venice;


they are significant because they nourished, and can therefore help us to understand more clearly, a taste that had deeper sources. The Venetian achievement and the attitudes surrounding it corresponded to the emerging needs of the European nations. And Venice had particular advantages for bringing into focus the political conceptions of modern Europeans. For the Venetian state was not a utopia reflecting merely theoretical values but a living reality, a palpable part of their own world, superior in this respect even to the Florentine republic. She could be wondered at and admired, and the perennial admiration of travelers attracted other sorts of attention to her; her government and the kind of society that accompanied it could be studied empirically and in detail; and the degree to which it actually worked could apparently be evaluated. Venice therefore corresponded naturally to the growing taste for concreteness in political discussion that had emerged with the great Florentines.

She had also figured prominently in events of European resonance that demonstrated conclusively, before an international audience, her effectiveness in meeting crises of enormous danger and her capacity for survival. Her ability to resist the dreaded Turk was generally recognized, but she had also participated actively in the international conflicts of the West. In the war of the League of Cambrai she had withstood the onslaught of all Europe; and, though brought to the brink of destruction, she had nevertheless emerged as powerful as before. This miracle, indeed, had stimulated the work of Contarini, which so effectively conveyed an appreciation of the Venetian government to the rest of Europe.[44] It also transferred an impression previously confined largely to Italy, where it had already attracted the notice of Florence, to a larger world.[45]

Even more stimulating to the European imagination was the Venetian triumph over the pope in the great interdict of 1606–1607. This episode, which was followed with keen attention abroad, was the occasion for a flood of writings, for and against Venice, that circulated everywhere and in various ways called attention to the political values she claimed to incorporate; indirectly the interdict also produced Sarpi's great work on the Council of Trent. Various interdict writings were translated into French, German, and English; they were sold at the Frankfurt fair; Pierre de l'Estoile acquired them in duplicate so that he could circulate them among his friends;[46] the interdict was carefully reported and documents relating to it were extensively reproduced in the Mercure François .[47] Later writers on Venice would give special attention to the event. For Pierre d'Avity it showed Venice as "an immovable rock in the defence of the state."[48] To the duc de Rohan the Venetians in this affair "had tran-


scended themselves" and given "an example of perfect conduct to posterity."[49] James Howell devoted a special section to this "high Contestation," of which "ev'ry Corner of Christendome did ring aloud, and sounds yet to this day."[50] Even Amelot de la Houssaye devoted the whole of his second volume to the "good cause" of Venice against the pope.[51]

The capacity for survival that Venice had revealed in the course of such trials demonstrated, in short, that she had access to a general political wisdom, universal, eternal, and utterly dependable, that might be made available to others in an age of peculiar turmoil and political discontent, and therefore an age with a special need for stable principles.[52] Thus Howell opened his Survay : "Were it within the reach of humane brain to prescribe Rules for fixing a Society and Succession of people under the same Species of Government as long as the World lasts, the Republic of Venice were the fittest pattern on Earth both for direction and imitation." And, he declared, "If ever any hath brought humane government and policy to a science which consists of certitudes, the Venetian Republic is She, who is as dextrous in ruling men as in rowing of a gallie or gondola."[53] The duc de Rohan was attracted to Venice because he perceived in her the triumph of rational calculation over passion: science, perhaps, in a more modern sense.[54] Other writers, including even Bodin, made the point more obliquely by noting the gravity of Venetian political deliberation,[55] or more simply (following Contarini) by attributing the form of the Venetian government to philosophers.[56]

Venice, then, was the embodiment of political reason, a virtue that had previously been manifested chiefly by the ancients. And because of certain peculiarities claimed for her history, she could be seen as the means by which ancient political wisdom had been transmitted to the modern world.[57] For she had, as her admirers insisted, come out of the ancient world but had avoided its general collapse. She was living proof, therefore, of what men longed to believe: that ancient political virtue could find effective expression in the modern world. Thus, in a poem attributed to Marvell, Brittania, after expressing disgust with conditions at home, declares:

To the serene Venetian state I'le goe
From her sage mouth fam'd Principles to know,
With her the Prudence of the Antients read,
To teach my People in their steps to tread.
By those great Patterns such a state I'le frame
Shall darken story, Ingross loudmouthd fame.[58]


The comparisons between Venice and the admirable polities of antiquity—occasionally those of Greece but primarily that of Rome—that fill seventeenth- and eighteenth-century discussions of Venice were therefore more than routine embellishment; they made a reassuring point. Venetian historians had themselves sometimes seen a parallel, and such writers as Fougasse and Gregorio Leti were inclined to press it.[59] Fougasse's English translator, W. Shute, pushed from similarity to continuity. "It seemes in the dissolution of the last Monarchie, the Genius of it made transmigration to Venice . In her the Wisdome, Fortitude, Iustice, and Magnanimitie of old Rome doe yet move and stirre . . . All but her Ruines, and the Cause of them, (her Vice) is removed to Venice ."[60] But other writers did not hesitate to find Venice far superior to Rome, above all in meeting those ultimate criteria for governments, domestic stability and length of life. Boccalini, in describing Venice, recalled with scorn "those reformations of government, those restorations of state that, with infinite disturbance" beset the Roman Republic;[61] and Howell observed that all ancient commonwealths, including the Roman, "may be sayed to have bin but Mushrumps in point of duration if compared to the Signorie of Venice."[62] Such comparisons also reveal another dimension of the Venetian role in later political discussion. Venice helped to strengthen the cause of the Moderns against the Ancients, and thus she played a part in the gathering self-confidence of modern Europe. It is significant that Sarpi and Davila were among the modern historians whom Perrault found equal to the best historians of antiquity, Thucydides and Livy.[63] Even William Temple, if a trifle grudgingly, acknowledged Sarpi (with Boccaccio and Machiavelli) as one of "the great Wits among the moderns."[64]

The notion of Venice as the supreme European representative of a generalized political wisdom meant that she could function as the standard by which all particular arrangements might be judged. For an anonymous pamphleteer during the early stages of the Puritan Revolution, a Venetian observer seemed the appropriate mouthpiece for a sensible perspective on the disturbing English scene.[65] A French writer on Venice, finding her utterly different from every other European state, compared her in this respect to China, which had by now seen long service in showing up the defects of Europe.[66]

The general character of the political wisdom attributed to Venice also meant that Europeans from various traditions, concerned with quite different problems and with conflicting aspirations, could (with the partial exception of those Frenchmen, beginning with Seyssel and Bodin, who were committed to proving the superiority of monarchy over all


other forms of government) all find inspiration in the Venetian model. They could discern in her whatever they happened to yearn for: both frugality and luxury, valor and love of peace, aristocratic responsibility and broad political participation, order and personal freedom. But whatever they chose to emphasize, they were in general agreement that Venice met certain fundamental criteria of effective government.

The first of these, as I have already suggested, was the capacity for long survival, and the durability of Venice inevitably implied other virtues. Avity declared that she had lasted "longer than any other [state] that has come to our knowledge";[67] Howell thought her closer to immortality than any other government;[68] Amelot de la Houssaye paid tribute to her long existence;[69] Harrington saw her "at this day with one thousand years upon her back . . . as young, as fresh, and free from decay, or any apperance of it, as shee was born."[70] And as Howell observed, "Length of Age argues strength of Constitution; and as in Naturall bodies, so this Rule holds good likewise in Politicall: Whence it may be inferred, that the Signorie of Venice from Her Infancy was of a strong Symmetry, well nursd, and swadled with wholsom Lawes."[71] The durability of Venice was a result of, and therefore implied, an effective government capable of maintaining domestic peace. Even Seyssel, though he felt compelled to minimize this troublesome fact, had described Venice as "the most perfect and best administered empire and state of community that one has seen or read of up to now";[72] and though Bodin emphasized (against those who admired her immutability) that Venice had altered over the years, he too was compelled to acknowledge the gradual and peaceful character of the changes she had endured.[73] Boccalini celebrated the good order of Venice; she had avoided the conflicts between rich and poor so disastrous for other societies, her nobles willingly forgave each others' injuries instead of seeking revenge, she had consistently managed to control her military leaders.[74] Howell observed that Venetians were not "of so volatil an humor, and so greedy of change as other Italians," and that Venice was therefore free "from all intestin commotions and tumults"; he also appreciated the cleanliness of her streets, an outward and visible sign of her inner devotion to order.[75] Harrington echoed these sentiments.[76] And this impression of Venice was destined for a particularly long life. The Encyclopédie , though aware of her decline in other respects, applauded in Venice "an internal tranquility that has never altered."[77]

It was usual to attribute the internal stability of Venice to the excellence of her laws, their strict enforcement, and their impartial application to all classes. In Venice alone among republics, Boccalini suggested, the


ruling group had abstained from oppressive legislation in its own interest;[78] and her reputation in this respect was celebrated by Spenser in a sonnet which praised Venice above Rome because she "farre exceedes in policie of right."[79] Boccalini praised the vigorous administration of her laws, attributing to this her perpetual youth and beauty;[80] and Bodin admitted that "an injury done by a Venetian gentleman unto the least inhabitant of the city is right severely corrected and punished."[81] Behind each of these observations, we may assume, lurks some experience with situations in which so happy a condition did not prevail.

Corresponding to the internal peace Venice seemed to represent was a peacefulness abroad that was equally attractive to many other Europeans. The interest of French observers in this quality, to be sure, sometimes was ambivalent. Bodin remarked that the Venetians were "better citizens than warriors," though he also saw their pacifism as a cause of happiness;[82] and if Amelot de la Houssaye emphasized Venetian neutralism and aversion to war, he also noted their occasional disadvantages.[83] But the Englishman Howell had no doubts about the benefits of Venetian pacifism: "Another cause of the longevity of this Republic may be alleged to be, that She hath allwayes bin more inclined to peace than war , and chosen rather to be a Spectatrix or Umpresse, than a Gamestresse." She had been, indeed, the great peacemaker of Europe: "All Christendom is beholden unto this wise Republic, in regard She hath interceded from time to time, and labourd more for the generall peace and tranquility of Christendom, and by her moderation and prudent comportment hath don better Offices in this kind then any other whatsoever."[84]

In addition to all this, Venetians were regularly seen as exemplars of all the old-fashioned political virtues; these both proved the general excellence of the Venetian system and helped to explain its strength. As Howell declared, "Ther are few Citties which have brought forth men more celebrous for all the Cardinall Virtues than Venice "; he also noted, as though it were a further proof of the vitality of Venetian society, her numerous "scientificall contemplative men, and greater Artists."[85] Fougasse treated Venetian history as a rich body of patriotic examples, presumably for imitation;[86] and Gregorio Leti also discovered in Venice instructive models of "service to country and the effects produced by love accompanied by zeal."[87] Both Amelot de la Houssaye[88] and Louis Dumay[89] defended, in addition, the piety of Venice.

Two characteristics of the Venetian ruling group, however, especially impressed other Europeans. The first was the absence of personal ambition on the part of even its most talented members, as shown by their


readiness to descend from positions of power to the anonymity of private life. As Amelot de la Houssaye remarked, the citizens of Venice "know how to obey."[90] A reflection of this virtue was the modesty of life that prevailed even among the wealthiest Venetians, a quality that made them so different from powerful men elsewhere.[91] The second remarkable trait of this group was its acceptance of the obligation to support the state by paying taxes. Boccalini had emphasized the point, in which he would be echoed by others: "The great marvel of Venetian Liberty, which filled the whole world with wonder, was that the same nobility who governed not only patiently paid existing taxes into the public treasury, but also, with incredible quickness and facility, often decreed new ones against themselves which were then rigorously exacted by the public collectors."[92] Of what other society in Europe, although most governments were perennially dose to bankruptcy, could this have been said?

But the peculiar virtues of Venetians themselves required explanation, as Howell recognized: "Now, ther are few or none who are greater Patriotts than the Venetian Gentlemen, their prime study is the public good and glory of their Countrey, and civil prudence is their principall trade whereunto they arrive in a high mesure; Yet as it may be easily observd, though these Gentlemen are extraordinary wise when they are conjunct , take them single they are but as other Men."[93] Even here, therefore, we have been primarily concerned with the evidence that Venice was admirable, and that she was therefore a potential source of instruction for ailing polities elsewhere. With Howell's implicit question about the causes of virtue, we may now turn to the identification by other Europeans of those more specific elements in the Venetian system that seemed to explain its peculiar capacity for survival, the maintenance of order and the encouragement of the civic virtues. The question was of the highest importance. If these could be imitated elsewhere, they might be expected to produce similar results.

We may note first the general European approval of the secular character of the Venetian state. The point is largely left implicit, or it emerges superficially as applause for the exclusion from political responsibility in Venice of the clergy or members of clerically oriented families.[94] But Howell, who had been imprisoned as a royalist and wrote of Venice during the Puritan domination of England, expressed fuller appreciation for the Venetian effort to separate politics from religion: "She hath a speciall care of the Pulpit (and Presse) that no Churchman from the meanest Priest to the Patriarch dare tamper in their Sermons with temporall and State-affairs, or the transactions and designes of the Senat; It being too well known that Churchmen are the most perilous and


pernicious Instruments in a State , if they misapply their talent, and employ it to poyson the hearts of the peeple, to intoxicate their brains, and suscitat them to sedition, and a mislike of the Government. . . . Yet they bear a very high respect unto the Church."[95] And Amelot de la Houssaye charged that much of the criticism of Sarpi came from a failure to distinguish politics and religion.[96] Venice was a lesson, therefore, for a Europe in which political order was still regularly disrupted by the imperious demands of religion: Venice revealed that the first condition of effective statecraft was that it must be secular and therefore autonomous.

Hand in hand with the separation of realms went the separateness of states; Venice was also admirable because she had insisted so strenuously on her particularity and her sovereignty. This, indeed, was the primary meaning of that Venetian freedom which was the most widely celebrated element in the myth of Venice; its attractiveness signified resistance to the idea of a universal empire and devotion to one's own fatherland. Bodin noted this aspect of Venice;[97] Fougasse thought nothing more certain than that, in this sense, Venice had been always free;[98] Voltaire was still to celebrate the perpetual independence of Venice as though it represented for him some great human value.[99]

In England the unconquerability of Venice was associated with virginity, a virtue recently given prominence by a beloved queen; and erotic language was used to embroider an interesting image. Coryat noted with satisfaction, in writing of Venice, the frustration of all those who, "being allured with her glorious beauty, have attempted to defloure her";[100] and Howell, who noted more soberly that "this Maiden city . . . had the Prerogative to be born a Christian , and Independent , whereof She Glorieth, and that not undeservedly, above all other States or Kingdomes," composed verses exploiting an obvious pun:

Venice Great Neptunes Minion, still a Mayd,
Though by the warrlikst Potentats assayd. . .
Though, Syren-like on Shore and Sea, Her Face
Enchants all those whom once She doth embrace . . .
   These following Leaves display, if well observd,
   How She so long Her Maydenhead preserved . . .
Venus and Venice are Great Queens in their degree,
Venus is Queen of Love, Venice of Policie.[101]

In what may also have some interest for the development of a poetic metaphor, these crudities were eventually refined by Wordsworth into


a famous sonnet after the extinction of the Venetian Republic by Napoleon:

. . . Venice, the eldest Child of Liberty
She was a maiden City, bright and free;
No guile seduced, no force could violate . . .

The independence of Venice was the basis for what was widely regarded as her admirably successful foreign policy. Because she was free, she could balance among the various powers of Europe, and so protect both her liberty and her peace. Howell, again, noted this with particular clarity: "Now, one of the wayes wherby the Republic of Venice hath endeavourd to preserve her Maydenhead and freedom so long, hath bin to keep the power of the potentat Princes in a counterpoise; wherby She hath often adapted her designes, and accommoded Her-self to the conditions of the times, and frequently changd thoughts, will, frends, and enemies. She hath bin allwayes usd to suspect any great power, to fear much, and confide little, to be perpetually vigilant of the operations of others, and accordingly to regular her own consultations and proceedings; wherby She hath bin often accusd of exces in circumspection."[102] Amelot de la Houssaye also remarked on this tendency in Venetian policy, though with less approval; he would have preferred a Venice more consistently allied with France.[103]

As Howell will have suggested, the Venetian talent for balancing among changing political forces abroad pointed more profoundly to a general adaptability to shifting circumstance that was seen as the necessary condition both of her survival and of her apparent invulnerability to change. She could remain "forever young" because she had learned how to master the successive challenges of political life and in this sense to triumph over time. Nothing was more attractive to anxious European observers than this aspect of the Venetian achievement. This was the major impulse behind their admiration of her constitution and of those qualities of flexibility and finesse in her policy that less friendly and less secular minds perceived as unscrupulous, opportunistic, in short Machiavellian.

There was a good deal of discussion about the nature of the Venetian constitution, and the earlier view that it was a mixture of monarchic, aristocratic, and democratic elements maintained (somewhat like the equilibrium in Venetian relations abroad) in a perfect balance tended to give way by the later sixteenth century to the recognition that Venice was a pure aristocracy.[104] Although some observers were critical of the


limitations on the doge as a reflection on the competence of kings and therefore a threat to good political order,[105] the elimination of a democratic taint from the image of the Republic doubtless increased the attractiveness of the Venetian model for the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As an aristocratic republic of the most responsible and effective type, Venice acquired a new kind of interest.[106] Much was therefore made of the general competence of her nobility, of the systematic way in which younger nobles were advanced through positions of steadily increasing responsibility, and of the contentment of the lower classes under this regime.[107]

But however it was regarded otherwise, the main point about the Venetian constitution as it was perceived abroad was that it was a regular structure ("a great and ingenious machine" in the suggestive words of Saint-Didier),[108] and that it worked. As early as Thomas Starkey, Englishmen had recognized its effectiveness in preventing tyranny;[109] Howell identified this as a factor in the survival of Venice and a safeguard against "trenching upon the Common Liberty, and doing injustice";[110] and Venice figured prominently in the constitutional discussions carried on in the England of Cromwell and the Holland of De Witt.[111] Even in the France of Louis XIV Saint-Didier was bold enough to describe at length the limits on the power of the doge, in a work that generally represented the Venetian government as perfect.[112] Other writers emphasized the virtues in the Venetian system of broad participation by citizens in the affairs of the government. Even Bodin may have hinted at this in recognizing that although Venice was "pure and simply Aristocratic," she was "yet somewhat governed by Proportion Harmonicall," language that suggests multiple participation.[113] The point was evidently important to Voltaire in his contrast between Rome and Venice: "Rome lost, by Caesar, at the end of five hundred years, its liberty acquired by Brutus. Venice has preserved hers for eleven centuries, and I hope she will always do so."[114] In the same interest some writers persisted in the old view that the Venetian constitution retained a democratic element, among them Howell,[115] Harrington,[116] Saint-Didier,[117] and perhaps even Rousseau, who declared: "It is a mistake to regard the government of Venice as a genuine aristocracy. For while the Venetian people has no part in the government, the Venetian nobility is itself a people."[118]

By permitting the representation of diverse and changing interests, the Venetian constitution kept the Republic in touch with changing conditions and needs; and in the flexibility and shrewdness of Venetian policy European writers found additional grounds for admiration and emulation. This was the general lesson to which numerous particular


examples pointed; Venice could be seen to incorporate not only eternal reason but also (however inconsistently in particular cases) practical reason, reason of state. Venice, Howell declared, had "allwayes bin one of the most politic and pragmaticall'st Republics on Earth";[119] Louis Dumay expressed somewhat the same thought in saying that she had been preserved "rather by prudence than by valour."[120] The duc de Rohan put it more baldly in celebrating the degree to which the Venetians followed "all the maxims of their true interest,"[121] and Naudé most sharply of all in describing them as "steeped in a continual Machiavelism": in Naudé's eyes a point in their favor.[122]

Some manifestations of the political astuteness attributed to Venice seem innocent enough: for example, insistence on the equality of all nobles as a means of maintaining their unity, or the requirement of a relazione from ambassadors.[123] Others, though usually mentioned with admiration, are more ambiguous: the capacity of "the sagacious Senate" for double-talk,[124] the secrecy with which official deliberations could be carried on even in large assemblies,[125] the wisdom of keeping arms out of the hands of subjects,[126] the use of ambassadors as spies, the astuteness with which residents of the city were kept divided.[127] Still others are presented as useful, but with some sense of distaste and occasionally with an argument for their necessity: skill in the exploitation of political symbolism;[128] the oppression of subject peoples on the mainland;[129] the secret denunciations, internal spying, and terrorization of the people increasingly attached to the image of Venice.[130] Of particular interest from this standpoint was the political explanation some French writers advanced for the moral permissiveness regularly attributed, with peculiar fascination, to Venice. Bodin saw it as a device on the part of the rulers of Venice to manage the populace: "to make them more mild and pliable, they give them full scope and liberty to all sorts of pleasures."[131] A century later Amelot de la Houssaye gave a similar account of the notorious indiscipline of the Venetian clergy; it served both to discredit them with the people and to keep them content and loyal to the state, in spite of their exclusion from positions of influence.[132]

In another sense, too, Venetian flexibility appealed to other Europeans; as a political model she displayed a remarkable responsiveness to what were, for them, material realities that required just such recognition as they received in Venice. French writers observed in her, with some approval, a degree of social mobility. Bodin noted that, as in England, the nobles participated in trade, and that "a Venetian gentleman may marry a base woman, or a common citizen's daughter,"[133] and Amelot de la Houssaye thought the sale of titles of nobility in Venice a good


custom since it renewed the ruling class, eased the tax burden, and increased attachment to the state.[134] The English were impressed with the commercial and financial foundations of her greatness. Howell praised her for opening up trade with the Levant, Africa, and the Indies, and for "her Bank of money," which, he asserted, "as it hath bin the Ground and Rule of all other banks, so is it the most usefull for Marchants or Gentlemen to any part of the world, nor do I see how Christendom can subsist conveniently without it."[135] John Dury lauded Venice for encouraging invention.[136] Nor did the Venetian system of poor relief, the government's sponsorship of public works, its responsibility for the provision of food to the populace, and its regulations for the control of epidemics go unnoticed.[137]

Although its importance was yet scarcely recognized, it may be worth pointing out also that the historical aspect of Venetian political culture had some relation to its pragmatism. Like the statesmen of Venice, her historians too were concerned not with eternal principles but with particular and changing circumstances, about which they sought the same kind of clear and certain knowledge of the actual world as that on which Venetian statesmen were supposed to base their decisions. History too was in this sense amoral, and Venetian historiography was admired because of its capacity to get at and effectively to reveal the truth.

Most of the admiration focused on Sarpi, whose Concilio Tridentino in many ways brought the Renaissance tradition of historical writing to a climax. He appeared to have solved supremely well both the scientific and the rhetorical problems of a modern historian. Amelot de la Houssaye, who thought him the equal of Thucydides, Xenophon, and Tacitus, praised his truthfulness, his responsibility to the realities of the human world, his exactness. "Everything," he declared, "is ad rem , everything is instructive, natural, without art, without disguise. He proceeds always bridle in hand, and always arrives where he is going."[138] Le Courayer praised his impartiality: "Has he not entirely filled the character of a perfect historian, who must not show either his religion or his country, but consider himself a citizen of the entire world, and make as a law for himself the simple exposition of facts, whether favourable or prejudicial to anyone whomsoever?"[139] The Encyclopédie admired the naturalness and energy of Sarpi's style and the "judicious reflections" with which he sowed his work;[140] and Samuel Johnson praised the moral qualities of his work, quoting Wotton with approval to the effect that in it "the Reader finds Liberty without Licentiousness, Piety without Hypocrisy, Freedom of Speech without Neglect of Decency, Severity without Rigour, and extensive Learning without Ostentation."[141] Both Hume[142]


and Gibbon[143] acknowledged Sarpi and Davila among their own masters and models. Thus Venetian historiography, so closely related in the Renaissance republics to the needs of political life, continued to affect the ways in which later Europeans viewed the past; this, indeed, may have been the most persistent among the legacies of Venice.

Much of what in Venice interested European observers might also have been discerned in Florence, though perhaps less readily and, because the Florentine Republic had perished, less persuasively. But one final attribute of Venice that vividly impressed the European imagination was regarded as clearly unique: the remarkable personal liberty enjoyed by all Venetians. Because it was general and took many forms, and because of the peculiar capacity of personal freedom to induce anxiety, it produced a variety of reactions, often ambivalent. Thus Saint-Didier: "The liberty of Venice permits everything, for whatever life one leads, whatever religion one professes; if one does not talk, and undertakes nothing against the state or the nobility, one can live in full security, and no one will undertake to censure one's conduct nor oppose one's personal disorder."[144] In its religious dimension the freedom of Venice won the approval of Salmasius,[145] and Milton was grateful to Sarpi for his contribution as a historian to liberty of conscience.[146] But although Saint-Didier was impressed by the religious latitude allowed in Venice, he was dubious about it: "The tolerance there is so great that they close their eyes" to all sorts of deviations.[147] Leti doubted whether liberty in Venice was good for civil life.[148]

These ambiguous reactions to the personal freedoms of Venice were all based on a failure, perhaps even a refusal, to distinguish between liberty and license. It is apparent from them that no real separation between the two yet seemed possible; personal liberty was generally supposed to merge inevitably into license; and, however fascinating either of these conditions might be, liberty was therefore always dangerous. The almost obsessive preoccupation of foreigners with the licentiousness of Venice,[149] which was given increasing substance as she became a purveyor of pleasures to the upper classes of Europe, the gaudiest stop on the Grand Tour, should thus be seen as a kind of negative tribute to the more general freedom of Venetian society. The sexual temptation that Venice represented and its very confusion with more obviously political aspects of personal liberty pointed, indeed, to the possibility that orderly and effective government might after all be consistent with permissiveness in the more private dimensions of life, though the lesson was slow to emerge. Venice, in any case, could be seen increasingly to possess all kinds of freedom, and by the second half


of the eighteenth century the appropriate distinction could at last be made. Thus the Encyclopédie , delicately distinguishing among the satisfactions of life, observed that in Venice one tasted both la liberté et les plaisirs .[150]

By this time, of course, the importance of Venice for the political education of Europe was nearing its end. Venice herself was in decline, and the discrepancy between the tawdry realities of the age of Casanova and the ideal Venice imagined by generations of admirers was increasingly difficult to ignore. Furthermore, a new source of political wisdom, a new political model, was now emerging; the philosophes were discovering in England an inspiration Venice could no longer supply. Yet the virtues Voltaire and Montesquieu discovered across the Channel were still suspiciously like those previously associated with Venice. England too was admired as a free nation, with a secular and constitutional government in which tyranny was prevented by dividing and balancing powers; and, like Venice, England seemed to be ruled by laws rather than men, gave merchants their due, based her policies on a realistic perception of the needs of her people, and afforded them a remarkable degree of personal liberty. Even the distortions in this vision of England had their origins in the Venetian model.

I do not mean to suggest that Europeans learned their politics from Venice, as a student learns, for example, his chemistry. Her pedagogy, to borrow a piquant phrase from Sarpi, was "obstetrical."[151] She kept alive, for whoever found them useful, the political attitudes and values of the Renaissance, through her own political writings and above all through her survival as living proof of their validity; and from time to time, when conditions were favorable, Europeans could recognize that these attitudes and values were also their own. In this way Venice helped to transmit the political tradition of the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, and thus she prepared the way for the fruitful recognition of the political achievement of England.

previous part
next part