Civic humanism places a great emphasis on Man as actively engaged in the world as the center of power. In their writings and speeches, the humanists formulated an ideology for the Florentine citizenry, which, while derived from classical sources, was also firmly rooted in the realities of the city's experience. The ancient Roman Republic, rather than the later Empire, was seen by Leonardo Bruni and others as the model state. Cicero's political activity in defense of Republican ideals and civic spirit were acclaimed by humanists and used as models. This ideology thus exalted civic virtues of participation in public affairs, the concept of the 'active life' pursued by merchants and statesmen, as opposed to the contemplative life of ascetics and scholars. Furthermore, it viewed the acquisition of wealth not as an impediment to knowledge and salvation, but instead as a resource to be used in the promotion of learning and morality. Rational activity as opposed to divine contemplation was given value. The civic orientation was further intensified by the political and military crisis resulting from Gian Galeazzo Visconti's expansion over northern Italy, which threatened to exterminate Florentine liberties. We see constructed in 'civic humanism' an ideology, congruent with the "new men" of Florence, which will profoundly influence our modern attitudes.
A central concept in civic humanism was the idea of "virtù". Alistair Crombie presents the following useful discussion of the concept in an article entitled "Experimental Science and the Rational Artist in Early Modern Europe," in Daedalus,115, 1986, p. 49:
The essential term is the Italian virtù, which Leon Battista Alberti used in the fifteenth century for "those excelling gifts which God gave to the soul of man, greatest and preeminent above all other earthly animals." A man of virtù in Renaissance Italian, coming from the Latin virtus meaning power or capability [note that the root for the Latin word virtus is vir, the Latin word for "man"], was a man with active intellectual power to command any situation, to do as he intended, like an architect producing a building according to his design; by contrast with someone at the mercy of fortuna, of chance or luck, of the accidents of fortuitous circumstance, unforeseen and hence out of control.
The conception of the man of virtù, the virtuouso aiming at reasoned and examined control alike of his own thoughts, intentions, and actions, and also of his surroundings, points to the essence of the moral and intellectual commitments by which the Western scientific movement was generated. The conception of virtù embodied a program for relating man to the world as perceiver and knower and agent in the context of integral moral, social, and cosmological existence. The program presupposed the stability of nature and mankind and of their relations; entailed a commitment to an examined life of reasoned consistency in intellectual, practical, and moral life alike and it generated a common style in the mastery of self, or nature and of mankind alike by the rational anticipation of effects.
For a summary of recent scholarly discussions about Civic Humanism read the excerpts from the article by Albert Rabil Jr. entitled "The Significance of 'Civic Humanism' in the Interpretation of the Italian Renaissance."
EXCERPTS FROM THE WRITINGS OF
Translations are from The Humanism of Leonardo Bruni: Selected Texts, Gordon Griffiths, James Hankins, and David Thompson, trans. and introductions, (Binghamton, 1987).
An Isagogue of Moral Philosophy, p. 271: Man is naturally constituted
to perform a certain activity proper to himself alone. But this activity cannot
be the simple act of living, since that is shared with the plants; nor is it
sensation, since even the brute animals possess sensation. It is, rather, life
and action according to reason. Whoever uses his reason with ability and excellence
fulfills proper work for which he was naturally constituted. To live and act
well: that is the highest good of man we are seeking....
p. 272: Virtue alone they considered sufficient for happiness: neither imprisonment, nor torture, nor any pain whatever, nor poverty, nor exile could stand in the way of the happy life. The wise man and the brave man (in the true sense of the word), armed with a great and unconquerable spirit, relies on himself alone and is never frightened by the mischances of humankind or the threats of fortune....
p.274: [A]ll virtue is a constant disposition of the mind which is commonly
called a habit. For example, we know horses are created by nature in such a
way that they are capable of galloping, wheeling about in a racecourse, and
bearing a knight. Yet they cannot execute these maneuvers perfectly unless they
are first broken, then trained, and finally so practiced in them that they can
do them proficiently. It is then that they seem to have a degree of perfection
in them. In the same way, men are by nature born capable, through training and
practice, of the habits of justice, temperance, and the other virtues. Thus,
what was by nature imperfect can be perfected by long practice. We may conclude,
then, that every real virtue is a habit, acquired by training and mental discipline,
and its exercise is presently brought to perfection through experience and knowledge....
...[T]he moral virtues treat of actions and dispositions while the intellectual virtues are more concerned with the apprehension of truth. There are five intellectual virtues: wisdom, knowledge, prudence, understanding, and art. The number of moral virtues is larger. Every human passion which goads or pulls at us is resisted by an opposing virtue. Whence it follows that all moral virtues by definition require effort. It is, for instance a difficult matter to bridle lust, hold your temper, and keep in check your avarice. It is the same with all our passions. Whatever we are naturally prone to do, the virtues oppose....
p. 275: .... [O]ccasions do arise when a wise man will prefer an honorable death to a disgraced life, when suffering physical harm for the sake of glory is better than being healthy but despised. For such occasions that marvelous virtue fortitude was brought into being. It is without doubt the fairest of the virtues, the theme of orators, the virtue so esteemed among men, that we commonly see the statues of the dead dressed in military garb, as though to win military distinction in one's life were specially admirable. It is indeed quite common for fortitude to appropriate the term 'virtue' for its own. And this is not entirely unwarranted. The word 'virtue' is, after all, derived from 'man' (vir) , and 'man' seems to designate something steadfast and martial...Temperance is concerned with controlling lust...."
p.280: Whenever I speak about virtue proper, then, whether moral or intellectual, you must understand that I speak of the virtues of the soul, not of the body. Now the parts of the soul are two: one is rational, the other not. The nonrational part is partly vegetative (it manifest itself also in plants) and completely empty of reason, and partly appetitive, with a capacity for desire, fear, and all the passions, and, although non-rational, attentive and obedient to reason. This latter part of our soul we rebuke when it errs, restrain when it becomes presumptuous, rouse when it is lazy, and console when it is troubled. We direct it and compel it to conform to reason. Finally, it is in this part of the soul that moral virtue --which is a habit acquired by the practice of preserving a mean in the passions-- is made.
A Letter to Lauro Quirini, p.298: ...[A]ll virtues are habits formed by training and practice. Hence it is obvious the virtues are produced by training and practice.... Virtue, properly speaking, is an established habit built through training and practice. As a man becomes a builder by building, and a lutenist by playing the lute, so he becomes just by acts of justice, and brave by acts of bravery. Hence it is clear that the virtues exist in us neither naturally nor preternaturally, but that we are naturally suited to receive them, and bring them to perfection by training and habituation.
A Letter to Lauro Quirini, p. 293: The proper activity of man can therefore only consist in rational activity. This rational activity you take to be contemplation and happiness, which is wrong; for on that view everyone would be happy. Every man, surely, possesses reason and acts with it, since he is a rational animal. So if you ask me what the proper activity of man is, I shall reply, 'rational activity.' If you ask me what happiness is, however, I shall tell you that happiness is activity in accordance with perfect virtue in a perfect life. All men have reason and act with it; very few possess perfect virtue. The proper activity of man and happiness are therefore not the same thing. So your exposition is incorrect and the contemplative life is not the proper life of man, but the active life. A man does not contemplate qua man, but rather qua something divine and separate. Justice, temperance, fortitude, and the other moral virtues he exercies as a man. The life, then, of moral virtue is properly the life of man.
p.275: What about avarice? Is it not a difficult passion to
bridle? There is a virtue called liberality which combats this species of
immoderation. It is a certain mean between getting and spending, removed
on the one hand from sordid avarice, and equally from thoughtless prodigality....
The liberal man is midway between these two: he understands where, when,
and how much to take in and pay out, and by following reason and by practice
he soon forms a habit of so acting.
p. 276: As liberality has to do with the desire for money, so there is another virtue having to do with the desire for honors, a virtue opposite to ambition. This virtue, however, has never been named.... Both this virtue referring to honors and liberality are connected with two great virtues, magnificence and magnanimity. Magnificence is a more elevated form of liberality having to do with enormous expenditures --for example, when someone builds a public theater, or sponsors the Megalensian Games, or a gladiatorial show, or a public banquet. These acts, and acts of this sort which surpass the powers of the average private person, have a certain aura of greatness about them and are spoken of, not simply as liberal, but as magnificent.
Preface to Book I of the Aristotelian Treatise on Economics, or Family Estate Management Addressed to Cosimo de' Medici: p. 305: Wealth is indeed useful, since it is both an embellishment for those who possess it, and the means by which they may exercise virtue. It is also of benefit to one's sons, who can by means of it rise more easily to positions of honor and distinction....
Therefore for our own sakes, and even more for love of our children, we ought to strive as far as we honourably can to increase our wealth, since it is included by the philosophers among the things that are good, and considered to be related to happiness.
Laudatio of the City of Florence: p.116: But as this city is to be admired for its foreign policy, so it is for its internal organization and institutions. Nowhere else is there such order, such elegance, such symmetry. For just as there is a proportion among strings which, when they have been tightened, produces a harmony from the different pitches, than which there is nothing sweeter or more aggreable to the ear; so all the parts of this prudent city are so tempered that the resulting whole commonwealth fits together in a way that brings pleasure to the mind and eyes of men for its harmony. There is nothing in it that is out of order, nothing that is ill-proportioned, nothing that is out of tune, nothing that is uncertain. Everything has its place, and this is not only fixed, but correct in relation to the others. Offices, magistracies, courts and ranks are all separate. But they are separated in such a way that they are in harmony with the whole commonwealth, as tribunes were with respect to the general.
First, every consideration is given to providing that justice shall be held sacred in that city, for without that, no city can exist or deserve the name; secondly, that there be liberty, without which this people never thought life was worth living....
It is for the sake of justice that the magistracies were established, and endowed with sovereign authority and the power to punish criminals, and above all so that they may see that no one's power in the city will be above the law....
...[T]he supreme magistracy, which once was perceived to possessed something like royal power, has been tempered by the following safeguard: that it is not conferred on one, but on nine persons at once, and not for a whole year but for a two-month term....
/p. 121: There are in this city the most talented men, who easily surpass the limits of other men in whatever they do. Whether they follow the military profession, or devote themselves to the task of governing the commonwealth, or to certain studies or to the pursuit of knowledge, or to commerce --in everything they undertake and in every activity they far surpass all other mortals, nor do they yield first place in any field to any other nation. They are patient in their labor, ready to meet danger, ambitious for glory, strong in counsel, industrious, generous, elegant, pleasant, affable, and above all, urbane.
Oration for the funeral of Nanni Strozzi p. 123: For the city [Florence] in which he [Nanni Strozzi] was born is one of the greatest and most illustrious; it is possessed of a wide dominion, and universal respect. It was without question the chief city of the Etruscans, and is second to none of the Italian cities in birth, wealth or size. To the origin of the city the two noblest and most distinguished peoples of all Italy contributed: the Etruscans, who were the ancient lords of Italy, and the Romans, whose virtue and arms enabled them to establish an empire over the world....
p. 124: The constitution we use for the government of the republic is designed for the liberty and equality of indeed all the citizens. Since it is egalitarian in all respects, it is called a "popular" constitution. We do not tremble beneath the rule of one man who would lord it over us, nor are we slaves to the rule of a few....
p. 125: ...[W]hen a free people are offered this possibility of attaining offices, it is wonderful how effectively it stimulates the talents of the citizens. When shown a hope of gaining office, men rouse themselves and seek to rise; when it is precluded they sink into idleness. In our city, therefore, since this hope and prospect is held out, it is not at all surprising that talent and industriousness should be conspicuous.....
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