Archive for History

Tools for Thinking About Censorship

“Was it a government action, or did they do it themselves because of pressure?”

This is inevitably among our first questions when news breaks that any expressive work (a book, film, news story, blog post etc.) has been censored or suppressed by the company or group trusted with it (a publisher, a film studio, a newspaper, an awards organization etc.)

This is not a direct analysis of the current 2023 Chengdu Hugo Awards controversy. But since I am a scholar in the middle of writing a book about patterns in the history of how censorship operates, I want to put at the service of those thinking about the situation this zoomed-out portrait of a few important features of how censorship tends to work, drawn from my examination of examples from dozens of countries and over many centuries. The conclusions here are helpful for understanding this situation, but equally applicable to thinking about when school libraries bow to book ban pressures, how controversies impact book publishing in the USA and around the world, and historical cases: from the Inquisition, to censorious union-busting in 1950s New Zealand, to the US Comics Code Authority, to universities censoring student newspapers, etc.

The first and most important principle is that we cannot and should not draw a line between state censorship and private or civilian censorship.  Many analyses of censorship start by drawing this line and analyzing state action and private action separately.  There are many problems with trying to draw such a line, but the most important is this:

The majority of censorship is self-censorship, but the majority of self-censorship is intentionally cultivated by an outside power.

The majority of censorship is self-censorship, but the majority of self-censorship is intentionally cultivated by an outside power.

In other words, when we look at history’s major censorious regimes, all of them—I want to stress that; all of them—invested enormous resources in programs designed to encourage self-censorship, more resources than they invested in using state action to actively destroy or censor information.  This makes sense when we realize that (A) preventing someone from writing/saying/releasing something in the first place is the only way to 100% wipe out its presence, and (B) encouraging self-censorship is, dollar for dollar and man-hour for man-hour, much cheaper and more impactful than anything else a censorious regime can do.

Think about how many man-hours it takes to search thousands of homes one-by-one to confiscate and destroy a particular book, versus how cheap and easy it is to have a showy book burning or arrest of an author which scares thousands of families into destroying the book if they have it.  Will the show trial or book burning scare people into destroying every copy?  No, a few will keep it, even treasure it more because of its precious scarcity, but the number who do is no larger than the number whose copies would’ve been missed by the ever-imperfect process of the search, and the cost in manpower is 1/1000th of the cost of the search, freeing up resources for other action.

A great question to get at this is: Did the trial of Galileo succeed or fail?

If we believe that the purpose of the Inquisition trying Galileo was to silence Galileo, it absolutely failed, it made him much, much more famous, and they knew it would.  If you want to silence Galileo in 1600 you don’t need a trial, you just hire an assassin and you kill him, this is Renaissance Italy, the Church does this all the time.  The purpose of the Galileo trial was to scare Descartes into retracting his then-about-to-be-published synthesis, which—on hearing about the trial—he took back from the publisher and revised to be much more orthodox.  Descartes and thousands of other major thinkers of the time wrote differently, spoke differently, chose different projects, and passed different ideas on to the next century because they self-censored after the Galileo trial—an event whose burden in money and manpower for the Inquisition was minute compared to how hard it would have been for them to get at all those scientists.  The final form of Descartes’ published synthesis was self-censorship—self-censorship very deliberately cultivated by an outside power.

The structures that cultivate self-censorship also cause what we might call middleman censorship, when one actor (organization or person) is pressured into censoring someone else’s work, but via the same structures (fear, self-preservation) that cause self-censorship. The publisher who pulls a controversial title, the screenwriter who removes some F-bombs or queer content from colleague’s first-draft script, the arts organization which refuses to screen a politically provocative film, or the school librarian who makes use of Scholastic’s infamous option to “opt out of diverse books” at a school book fair, these people are not censoring their own creations, but their complicity in censorship is often motivated by the same structures of fear and power which censorship regimes use to cultivate self-censorship.  Outsourcing censorship to the populace—to the editor, the cinema owner, the awards committee, the teacher, or the author—multiplies the manpower of a censorship system by the number of individuals within its power, making it the single most effective tool of such systems.  Since self-censorship and middleman censorship are cultivated by these same deliberate systems of fear, they must be analyzed together, even as we still recognize the great difference between censoring a friend’s book and censoring one’s own.

Let’s look at another example closer to the present than the Inquisition: comic book censorship in the 20th century.  As many of you are aware, in 1954 a moral panic came to a peak across the English-speaking world (USA, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, etc.), blaming violence and sensuality in comic books for an epidemic of so-called juvenile delinquency. New Zealand (which has state censorship) created a state office for comics censorship, while in the USA (whose First Amendment prohibits Congress from taking such action) politicians, who knew they could capitalize on this moral panic, exerted pressure on comics companies until they created the supposedly-voluntary Comics Code Authority to censor comics. Grocery stores and most comics shops then stopped shelving comics that didn’t undergo its censorship, bankrupting publishers and hurting authors and artists.  Now, fast forward to the 60s and 70s, when the US Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum and again Congress could take no direct action against it, But publishers of comics centering Black heroes such as Black Panther suddenly found that the Comics Code Authority censorship process was being much more picky about their Black characters than their White characters, declaring things even as mild as a drop of sweat on the forehead of a Black astronaut as “too graphic” since it “could be mistaken for blood.”  This resulted in grueling extra work and perennial delays for such titles, pressuring comics companies to depict fewer Black heroes.

If we ask “Did the US government censor Black Panther?” our answer would be no if we insist on separating state action from self-censorship, since in this case the result is three levels of action removed: Congress put pressure, that created the Comics Code Authority, its individual censors felt anxious about race (egged on by government amplification of racial tension), those censors pressured comics publishers, comics publishers pulled titles and comics artists included fewer Black characters.  Even while faithful to “Congress shall make no law…” state action was able to create a middleman censorship cascade in which no direct government agent or employee acted, but which the state caused and intended to cause.  Did the FBI operations that were trying to undermine Civil Rights activism send agents to pressure the Comics Code Authority?  We don’t need to know whether they did or not to say confidently that the censorship of Black Panther and titles like it was a deliberate and intended consequence of state action.  The same is true whenever and wherever state action causes of private individuals and organizations to self-censor out of fear and pressure.

When we hear self-censorship discussed in the media, these days it is most often brought up when discussing cultural pressures or other non-state action, such as in the depressingly familiar rhetoric claiming that trends like political correctness, “cancel culture” etc. are censorious.  We are all aware of how this rhetoric is often used in bad faith to attack rather than defend free expression (on college campuses, for example), but there is a second and separate way it is destructive: this rhetoric advances the illusion that self-censorship and middleman censorship are primarily civilian phenomena caused by public attitudes and individual or community actors, making it easier to disguise how often they are, in fact, direct and intentional results of government or other large-scale organized action. And because they work through projection of fear and power, they can also affect people living in regions or nations outside the direct power of the government doing the censoring, citizens of other nations having their thoughts actions shaped by the tactics which outsource censorship from state actors to anyone who sees them and fears them.

I don’t want to dwell too much on what our evidence is that state-censorship often aims to operate through self-censorship or middleman censorship (the book will have many examples from many times and places) but to give one more very vivid one, here is a photo of some pages from a treatise on scientific logic by Cardano, published in the 1500s.  Cardano was condemned by the Inquisition, and the order was given to expurgate copies of the text, meaning going through based on a guide published in the Inquisition’s Index of prohibited books.

In the copy shown above (now at my university’s library in Chicago), an Inquisitor has faithfully gone through page by page and excised the controversial sections, scribbling them over with ink, or when both sides of a page were condemned cutting them out with scissors.  This took hours of work by a highly-trained, expensive-to-hire, Latin-reading Inquisitor.  It would have taken seconds to throw this book on the fire.

The Roman Inquisition in the 1500s was constantly complaining about its desperate lack of personnel (not enough Inquisitors, not enough censors to read books, not enough police) as it tried to keep up with the exponentially-growing flood of books enabled by the newfangled printing press.  Why would such an organization waste hundreds of man-hours per copy on crossing out pages when they could have trivially burned the book and moved on?

Let’s look at another example:

This example is an encyclopedia of animals by Konrad Gesner from the late 1500s, an entirely secular book with zero controversial content.  But Gesner was a good scholar, and cited his sources, always placing near his picture of each animal a note saying “many thanks to the learned and excellent Dr. So-and-so of Such-a-place for sending me this picture.”  The Inquisition’s order for this book was that Catholics were allowed to own the book, and all the content in it, but wherever Gesner thanks a scholar, if the person he thanks is Protestant, the Inquisitor or the book’s owner must cross out the words “learned and excellent” to enforce the Church’s lesson that Protestants were not learned and excellent, they were bad and wrong.

This use of (limited!) manpower is absurd to the point of hilarity if we imagine the Inquisition’s goal was the destruction of information, but it wasn’t.  It was…

…like Bart Simpson repeating a phrase on the blackboard, the rote expurgation turned this completely secular book into a tool for projecting the Inquisition’s power, as you turned the pages, and page after page saw that stark black patch of crossed-out text, reminding you over and over of the presence and power of the Inquisition.  It was a projection of power, something to make authors and printers think “I don’t want my book to go through that.”  This also made use of middleman censorship: one could apply to the Inquisition for an official license granting permission to own restricted books, but one of the conditions of this seeming-privelige was that you yourself had to go through and cross out the sentences they banned. This made the very people who loved and wanted to see restricted books into middleman censors excising text from their own copies, and experiencing the same mortifying and emotionally manipulative reinforcement a child does when forced to write a motto on a blackboard. It was a didactic tool designed to be a constant reminder of the authority’s presence—just like the Comics Code Authority seal on the front of a comic, or the movie ratings green screen on a film.

Now, in the case of very large-scale censorship regimes, like the Inquisition, Stalin’s USSR, and indeed modern China, it is hard to believe they actually do suffer from limited resources.  The image rises in our minds of Orwell’s imaginary Ministry of Information, which has infinite resources, infinite manpower, and whose Thought Police partner the Ministry of Love can surveille every citizen every instant of the day.  No real censorship regime has ever approached that.  When we look at internal documents from the USSR, the Inquisition, all of them, we see constant complaints about lack of information, lack of people, lack of funds, they always depict themselves as in emergency crisis mode, desperately trying to keep up with an overwhelming task.  In the period that Spain’s Inquisition was wildly out of Rome’s control, the Roman Inquisition even printed manuals to guide its Inquisitors on how to bluff their way through pretending they were on top of what Spain was doing!  Even though they did have huge resources, those resource still were and are nowhere near enough to actively police all people and all things at all times.

But that sense of desperation and lack of manpower is only visible in the internal presentation of such regimes, carefully concealed from public view.  It is in the external propaganda of such regimes that they present themselves as always on top of things, always everywhere, always watching always as stable and effective as Nineteen Eighty-Four’s ministries.  At the same moment that Rome was publishing guides for Inquisitors to BS their way through the activities of rival inquisitions, Rome was also publically proclaiming that it had everything under control.  This illusion of infinite resources itself is one of the goals of such regimes, making people more afraid, and less willing to defy.  It is about projecting power, and we must not fall for it as we evaluate the actions of such regimes asking “Why did they do A not B?”  If we believe they have infinite resources, we will always imagine some strategic mastermind plan behind it, and fear that, if we don’t see the reason, there must be something big and scary underway that we don’t know about.  This coercive fear is especially effective at extending censorship beyond a power’s borders to citizens of neighboring regimes, who are not themselves under the censor’s power but can still feel that they or friends are vulnerable to a vast, imagined Orwellian power. Opposing censorship requires all of us to recognize that we too can become tool of censorship if we fail to be vigilant against its tactics, even if we live far from its sphere of power. If we remember that Nineteen Eighty-Four is fiction, its infinite resources impossible, that these organizations all need to conserve resources, many more of their tactics become transparent.

Fear is one of the two main ways powers cultivate self-censorship and middleman censorship, but its partner is projection of power, which is not quite the same.

When we go to a movie theater and see the big green screen with “This Film Has Been Rated G etc.” we aren’t intended to feel active fear of the movie ratings board, but we are intended to feel its power, its presence, its reach.  In addition to telling us the film’s rating, that green screen is a daily reminder of the power of that censoring body, just as much as a government poster on a wall.  Seeing that ratings reminder on every film we ever see growing up subtly shapes the thought of every person who enters the filmmaking industry—or even aspires to—and every movie script in which profanity, violence, or sexuality appears is shaped, at least a little bit, by the writer’s consciousness that the work will be judged on those criteria, and that moral attitudes toward them could shape the film’s, and the writer’s, financial future.  Even if the writer goes ahead and keeps those F-bombs, the period of thinking about the issue, the debates with collaborators about the issue, those thoughts and conversations constantly reaffirm to the very people having them the presence and power of the censoring body, shaping thought, and art.

For this reason, censorship systems want to be visible.  They don’t tend to invisibly and perniciously hide their traces, they tend to advertise it: in big printed letters, blacked-out passages, or a brightly-colored screen.  Even when a blocked website redirects you to ERROR: THIS WEBSITE IS BLOCKED, that is a deliberate choice—very different from, for example, the period in which Amazon’s website invisibly redirected searches away from Hachette titles to non-Hachette books.  The Inquisition, USSR, movie ratings board, comics code authority, all such regimes could have done their work invisibly too, but instead they tend to prefer to advertise their presence, because that causes the most self-censorship ripple impact. (Amazon’s goal was not to be feared and seen as a censor, but to hurt Hachette financially, hence its very atypical tactics.)

The many nations in the world which censor their internet design a variety of experiences for the user who attempts to go to a blocked website.  Some redirect to a screen which explicitly states the page is blocked by the government and why, others to a generic error page, others load a blank page or simply leave the page loading forever.  As a rule they do not (as Amazon did) seamlessly load a different page.  While the blank or ever-loading page may seem like it is trying to make the censorship invisible, such regimes make certain their populations know that the web is censored and what those endless loading times really mean; in fact, in such a system, anytime any webpage loads slowly, the user experiences a spike of anxiety wondering if this is censorship, and if trying to go to a few too many forbidden pages might lead to a knock at the door.  Just as a black line through “learned and excellent” could turn an encyclopedia of animals into a tool for projecting power, when a page loading slowly is the sign of censorship that turns every internet glitch into an emotional reinforcement of state power, saturating lived experience.

Censorship regimes use their visibility to change the way people act and think.  They seek out actions that can cause the maximum number of people to notice and feel their presence, with a minimum of expense and manpower.  This is why deliberate unpredictability is a common tactic of censorship regimes, not trying to target every person/work/organization who does a particular thing (purchases pornography, possesses banned Jazz, once belonged to a now-suppressed political organization, tries to load blocked websites). Rather they target a few people unpredictably and conspicuously, so that everyone else in a similar situation will feel fear, and self-censor or middleman-censor more, including self-censoring in arenas unrelated to what was targeted (i.e. someone who both owns porn and supports a political resistance party might become more afraid to support that party after a widely-publicized crackdown on someone who owned porn, or vice versa).  This is an extremely potent and cost-effective tactic, and a go-to for many regimes, from Imperial Rome, to enforcement of anti-sedition laws in WWI and WWII, to today’s anime/manga censorship, etc.

When using deliberate unpredictability, regimes look for potential targets who themselves lack substantial political and economic power, but where a crackdown would be widely publicized and discussed, instilling fear in a large group of people who consider themselves similar to the object of the crackdown.  And such regimes look for targets connected to existing networks of information dissemination, so word of the crackdown will spread easily (a famous person like Galileo, a well-connected person like a newspaper editor or blogger, an organization with newsletters and its own information networks, etc.)  This makes every organization under such a regime which does fit that profile (visible to a substantial network but not powerful in itself) extra cautious, and more likely to self-censor or middleman-censor. This tactic is especially effective at frightening people outside a censor’s direct power into fearing possible consequences to friends, organizations, or themselves, psychological manipulation which lets regimes coerce other nations’ citizens into becoming part of their outsourcing of censorship. Anyone can become complicit. Just as the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, one price of free speech is eternal humility, recognizing that none of us is immune to becoming a tool of censorship if we fail to recognize how its manipulative tactics shape and distort our thoughts and actions.

As I said, I have a whole book’s worth of work on patterns in how censorship regimes work, and wanted to keep this short, and focused on principles which help us think about these questions. For more details and examples, you can see my recent lecture on the topic.  But for this particular reflection, please remember these four points:

  • The majority of censorship is self-censorship or middleman-censorship, but the majority of that is deliberately cultivated by an outside power.
  • For this reason, we cannot consider state and non-state censorship separate things. State censorship systems work dominantly via shaping and causing private censorship.
  • No real censoring body has ever had the resources of Orwell’s fictitious Ministries—not even the Inquisition or the great totalitarian powers of modernity like the USSR, but they want us to think they do. Real censorship regimes tend to see themselves as constantly underfunded and understaffed, racing to grapple overwhelming crisis, while attempting to seem all-reaching and all-knowing as a part of their own propaganda.  We must analyze their actions remembering that the need to conserve resources and seem stronger than they are shapes everything they do.
  • Censorship aims to be visible, talked about, seen, feared. This increases its power.
  • Censors’ projection of fear and power is a form of deliberate psychological manipulation which can outsource censorship far beyond the censor’s sphere of control, even to citizens of other nations. We can only combat it if we work hard to cut through the Orwellian illusion and remember the realities of how censorship works.

While we must discuss and analyze censorship when we see it, we must also remember that censorship wants to be discussed and thought about, and think about how we can make sure our responses don’t strengthen the very thing they seek to oppose, by increasing the fear felt by those within the power of such regimes.  The blacked-out word on the page and the website that loads frighteningly slowly create spikes of fear in those who see them, fear which advances the goals of the censorious regime.  So can the email inviting a comment which makes an author/editor/commentator/fan fear the consequences.

Some closing thoughts:

“The only weapon worthy of humanity, of tomorrow’s humanity, is the word.”

So wrote Yevgeny Zamyatin (188401937), one of the fathers of dystopia, author of We, a lover and writer of science fiction, who passionately supported the Russian revolution in its hopeful early days, and later opposed Stalin just as passionately.  Subjected many times to imprisonment, violence, and smear campaigns, and ultimately forced to flee his homeland (sacrificing en-route the only manuscript his now-lost favorite work Attila), Zamyatin understood how complex is our great and worthy weapon, the word—how it can serve the foes of hope as well as its friends, and must always be wielded thoughtfully.  I leave you with some passages from his letters and essays, to remind us that we face these crises in solidarity with many allies across time’s diaspora.

From “Letter to Stalin,” Yevgeny Zamyatin, written 1931:

The author of the present letter, condemned to the highest penalty, appeals to you with a request to change this penalty to another. My name is probably known to you.  To me as a writer, being deprived of the opportunity to write is nothing less than a death sentence. Yet the situation that has come about is such that I cannot continue my work, because no creative activity is possible in an atmosphere of systematic persecution that increases in intensity from year to year.

From the essay “Tomorrow,” by Yevgeni Zamyatin, written 1919-20:

Today is doomed to die—because yesterday died, and because tomorrow will be born. Such is the wise and cruel law. Cruel, because it condemns to eternal dissatisfaction those who already today see the distant peaks of tomorrow; wise, because eternal dissatisfaction is the only pledge of eternal movement forward, eternal creation. He who has found his ideal today is, like Lot’s wife, already turned into a pillar of salt, has already sunk into the earth and does not move ahead. The world is kept alive only by heretics: the heretic Christ, the heretic Copernicus, the heretic Tolstoy. Our symbol of faith is heresy: tomorrow is inevitably heresy to today, which has turned into a pillar of salt, and to yesterday, which has scattered to dust. Today denies yesterday, but is a denial of denial tomorrow. This is the constant dialectic path which, in a grandiose parabola, sweeps the world into infinity. Yesterday, the thesis; today, the antithesis; and tomorrow, the synthesis.

Yesterday there was a tsar, and there were slaves; today there is no tsar, but the slaves remain; tomorrow there will be only tsars…

The only weapon worthy of humanity—of tomorrow’s humanity —is the word. With the word, the Russian intelligentsia, Russian literature, have fought for decades for the great human tomorrow. And today it is time to raise this weapon once again.

(Translations by Mirra Ginsburg, editor of A Soviet Heretic, the English language collection of Zamyatin’s essays, which I cannot recommend enough!)

For more on censorship: see my recent Neuveen lecture on censorship patterns. I also strongly recommend, as further reading, Robert Darnton’s brilliant Censors at Work, which looks at the motives and actions of censors in a range of spheres, from Old Regime France, to East Germany, to the USSR, to the British Raj, exposing many of the thought patterns which make people willing to cooperate with censorship. Particularly vivid are the interviews with East German censors, whose expressed attitude, that they agreed to work censorship book because that way at least there would be some books published instead of none, we can easily imagine recurring in our own minds if someone told us, “We should be cautious in X or maybe they won’t let us do it again.”

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All People Are Created Educable, a Vital Oft-Forgotten Tenet of Modern Democracy

Book cover: Who Owns the News, a History of Copyright, by Will Slauter

(I have one of my more traditional history posts underway, but wanted to post this separate thought first. Felt timely.)

Many shocking, new ideas shaped the American Experiment and related 18th century democratic ventures; as an historian of the period, I often notice that one of the most fundamental of them, and most shocking to a world which had so long assumed the opposite, often goes unmentioned — indeed sometimes denied — in today’s discussions of democracy: the belief that all people are educable.  I think it’s urgent that we bring that principle back into the spotlight if we want to defend democracy from one of its common failure modes: pseudo-populist oligarchy.

Within “all men are created equal” lies the sub-principle that all people, or specifically all enfranchised citizens of a state (which often at the time meant white male adults, though some made it broader, or narrower) that all such people are, if given appropriate educational resources, capable of learning, exercising sound judgment, and acting on said judgment, thus that they all people are equally rational and capable of competent self-governance.  This thesis does not assume that all people when adults are equally prepared to participate in government, but that all people when born have the capacity to absorb education if given access to it.  Rare intellectual disabilities might make the education process challenging for certain individuals, but (the thesis argues) even then the right support and resources make education possible, and such situations are not the default human state.  This is the thesis that all people are fundamentally educable. 

Many in the 18th c. who thought democracy was absurd rejected it because they disagreed with this thesis, believing that the majority of people (even of white men) were not educable, i.e. that even with educational resources most people were born incapable of being guided by Reason and making sound political judgments. Those who believed this predicted that government by the people would collapse into absurdity, since it would be led by a parliament of fools. We get a taste of what such critics of democracy thought would happen to America in the satirical scenes in Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part 2 in which Jack Cade’s populist rebels happily kill each other and laugh about it, and believe they can end hunger by having everyone eat on the king’s tab at restaurants and making the gutters run with wine (and which is the source of the much-misunderstood “First thing we do is kill all the lawyers,” step 1 in which executing everyone who can read is their step 2) — this is what many 18th c. anti-democrats believed would happen if governing was truly done by the people.

Drawing of a mob of peasants brandishing weapons with two severed heads on spears, with Jack Cade waving a sword above them all.
1867 Illustration of Jack Cade and his rebels with the severed heads of Lord Say and his son-in-law, hard-working administrators, killed because Lord Say built a paper mill, supported books, and spoke Latin. Shakespeare is very overt in his depiction of the imagined savagery of a self-governing mob.

Often modern people have trouble wrapping our heads around how sure pre-modern Europeans were that human minds and their capacities (A) varied fundamentally, (B) were locked in at birth and immutable, and (C) were only very rarely rational or educable.  This doesn’t mean elite education, it means any education, grasping the basics beyond I’m hungry and I want to eat that fish.  Plato and Aristotle (and many transformations thereof over 2,000 years), described a human soul/mind led by three forces: the appetites, the passions, and the intellect i.e. reason.  The appetites were simplest and most bodily: I’m hungry, I’m thirsty, I’m tired and want to rest, I’m bored and want entertainment, I’m horny and want sex, my arms hurt I don’t want to carry this anymore.  The passions we might call mental but worldly: pride, ambition, loyalty, patriotism I want to be famous, I want to be respected, I want to be well-talked-of in the city, I want to protect my way of life, I want to have power, I want to advance the glory of the state, I want to battle evil, etc.  Reason, or the intellect, was the calculating, understanding, and contemplative power, which did math, understood the universe, aspired to the spiritual and eternal (whether Justice or the Pythagorean theorem) and exercised ethical judgment, weighing goods and bads deciding the best course (Eating this whole jar of pickles would be yummy but then I’ll get a stomachache; electing this demagogue would make me rich but then he would tyrannize the state.)  Both Aristotle and Plato say that different souls are dominated by different organs of the soul (i.e. either the appetites, passions, or intellect) and that only a tiny minority of human souls are dominated by the intellect, a larger minority by the passions, and practically all by the base appetites.  Plato’s Republic uses an exam/aptitude system to identify these rare souls of gold (as opposed to silver = passions, bronze/iron = appetites) and make them rulers of the city, and proposes a eugenicist breeding program to produce more.

The principle that souls of gold (i.e. souls fully capable of being educated & of wise rule) are a tiny minority, and that most humans are immutably not educable from birth, was very thoroughly absorbed into European belief, and dominated it for 2,000 years.  In Dante, we see the entire structure of Hell revolve around the appetites/passions/intellect distinction.  Medieval epistemology, psychology, and even ideas about medicine and plants incorporated this principle, and spun elaborate explanations for how and why different souls perceived the heavenly world (Good, Justice, Providence) better than others.  Eugen Weber’s powerful history, Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914, shows how people in the period wrote about their own French peasants in incredibly insulting, infantilizing, quasi-bestial terms, strikingly similar to the racist language we’re used to the Age of Empires using to demean non-Europeans. Anyone who hasn’t looked at period sources will struggle to believe how ferociously confident the European majority was in the thesis that the majority of people even in their own country could never understand a book, a moral quandary, or a political proposition.  Keeping the rare wise elites in charge was the only barrier between order and savagery.  The fact that so many people were willing to believe in the totally mythical tragedy of the commons (yes, it’s totally invented, real peasants took great care of their commons) is one relic of how certain people were for a long time (and some still are) that most people are not capable of making the kinds of prudent, sustainable judgments necessary for custodianship of a polity.

It took a lot to get even a small radical fringe by 1750 to entertain the notion that all people–or even just all men–were created equally educable.  A long survey of the causes would get unwieldy, but they include (among other things) contact with indigenous cultures in the Americas and other regions which had functional governments without European-style systems, revolutions in medicine and the understanding of the sense organs which undermined old hierarchy-enforcing ideas about how cognition and sensation functioned, second-order consequences of the rags-to-riches path opened by Renaissance courts employing scholars from any background so long as they had good Latin, and Protestantism’s second-order implication that, if people didn’t need priests as intermediaries between their prayers and God, perhaps they didn’t need aristocrats as intermediaries between them and power.  But by 1750 that fringe existed, and had enough momentum to implement its experiment in the new United States, which most people who were considered sensible at the time thought would quickly degenerate into chaos, because they didn’t think most people were capable of understanding the world enough to vote sensibly, draft legislation, or serve in a congress, and that the tiny wise minority would be drowned out by the majority wanting to vote for dining on the king’s tab and killing all the lawyers.

At this point, if this essay were a twitter thread, one would see the obligatory snarky self-proclaimed cynic pop up with a comment that America did degenerate into foolish populist chaos, look at the Trump voters, and I know of several Shakespeare companies that put on Henry VI with Cade as Trump. That is why it’s so important to focus on the distinction between educated and educableand that the claim made by America’s early founders and shapers wasn’t that all people are capable of ruling wisely, but that all people are capable of becoming capable of ruling wisely. This is why those who shaped America insisted so fiercely on universal public education; they believed (we have thousands of essays, letters, and documents to this effect!) that citizens would only be capable of being wise voters and rulers if they had access to a good education. Without education, they believed, people would indeed vote for foolish things, so they had to transform their populace, from one where rural peasants were starved for education, to one where everyone was invited to Reason’s classroom. They also believed that a well-informed public was vital, thus that news and newspapers were indispensable for democracy to function, which is why the early US government subsidized the shipping of newspapers and the circulation of knowledge through things like Media Mail–here see Will Slauter’s fantastic history Who Owns the News?

Now, at one point I helped my Ph.D. adviser James Hankins with his research on the history of conservatism.  We (mostly he) looked at many examples over many times, places, and regimes, and observed after innumerable case studies that a consistent defining characteristic of conservative thought over time is the belief that some people are better at ruling than others, thus that the best way to run a government and society is to put those superior people in power.  Whether it’s a hereditary aristocracy, an exam-based meritocracy, an earn-the-franchise-through-military-service timocracy, or a divine right monarchy, many systems posit that some are more capable of rule than others, and that the best system will put them in power.

These days, when I cite this definition of conservatism, invariably someone brings up Frank Wilhoit’s observation that “Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit: There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.” While this is a very powerful summary of trends in 21st century conservatism, useful for thinking about a lot of current politics, it isn’t broad enough when we want go back 1,000 years or more because (I know this will sound absurd) the idea that law is supposed to bind anyone is actually fairly new.  In my period (Renaissance) for example, law is mainly supposed to provide an Earthly portrait of divine judgment & mercy, and everyone is supposed to break laws all the time but then get the penalties waived, so the process of transgressing, being condemned, and being pardoned or let off with a lesser sentence gives the soul an ethically therapeutic preview of the universality of sin and the hope for being let off with just Purgatory instead of Hell, and the idea of law actually binding or protecting anybody maybe goal #24 in the lawmakers’ minds, with a lot of really weird-to-us-modern ones higher on the list.  But in pre-modern and modern conservatism alike, we see the shared conviction that some people are fundamentally better at ruling (or just better) than others, and that one must put the better in power.

The thesis that all people are educable is fundamentally opposed to this.

Democracy can function, says Thomas Paine (to pick a spokesman for the US founders), because human beings are fundamentally educable, and if given a good teacher, a good reading list, and some newspapers, all human beings, or at least the overwhelming majority of them, will become capable of wise judgment and self-rule.  One’s civic duty is not to identify the wise minority and put them in power, but to disseminate the tools of education so the majority can become wise.  This thesis is opposed to aristocracy, to oligarchy, to timocracy, even to most forms of meritocracy, since education isn’t supposed to prepare people to be sorted out by the exam but to demonstrate that human beings are so excellent that everyone can pass it.

Let’s return now to our snarky self-labeled cynic, who points at Trump voters and people who are wrong on the internet to joke that most people are fundamentally too stupid to be educated.  Setting aside the fact that the engines of social media currently make fringe and foolish voices far louder than sensible ones, making them seem like a majority, America at present does not live in the world of robust public education and state-strengthened free circulation of journalism which the minds behind the experiment thought were so essential. Today’s America has seen decades of the intentional conservative-led starving and squeezing of public education, efforts to increase the disparity in education quality between public education and private or charter school education, conservative-led homeschool movements which aim to expose people to a narrow range of ideology, and also the devastation of newspapers, journalism, and a vast misinformation campaign. All this adds up to preventing many who are educable from becoming educated. Thomas Paine, and those I’m using him to represent, would recognize this as a sabotage of their system, one they would say might indeed enable Cade-style populism, which (as in Henry VI) is easy for ambitious elites to then harness to their own ends.  Thus, Paine would say: of course the democracy isn’t working well if such an essential precondition is being sabotaged.

In sum, we need to talk more about the vital tie between democracy and the conviction that all people are created educable.  It helps make clear how strategic the strangulation of educational resources is, and that one of the less loud but most dangerous threats to our confidence in democracy is the project to make it seem like most people can’t make sensible political judgments, reducing people’s confidence in democracy as a system by seeming to prove true conservative principle that there will always be a few who should rule and many who can’t.  When I see conservative thinking start to show up in acquaintances (or Silicon Valley leaders) who consider themselves progressive but also consider themselves smart, it often begins with them feeling that most people are stupid and the world would be better off if the smart were in charge.  One can often get such people to pause and reflect by bringing up the question of whether they think all people are fundamentally educable, and whether the solution isn’t to put the reins of power into genius hands but to put the Encyclopedia in everyone else’s.  Information is key.  Those peasants who shared commons maintained them sustainably for centuries because (as we now recognize) they were educated in the ways that mattered, they learned from families and communities to understand what they were doing, using local knowledge of commons, grazing etc. as they made choices.  If one’s democratic state is the commons, people will likewise maintain it well, but not if they’re intentionally deprived of access to basic knowledge of how it works and what can harm or heal it, and drowned instead in deliberate falsehoods.

We all know we need to support education & good journalism, and combat misinformation, but revisiting the principle that all people are created educable is a good way to remember that these are not merely invaluable social goods, like sanitation or public parks.  They were conceived from the start as essential components of modern democracy, in direct opposition to the many-centuries-old conservative principle that some are best to rule and others to be ruled.  Enlightenment-style democracy cannot function without the conviction that all people are created educable.  If we forget that, if we doubt it, if we let it shake our confidence in the experiment which didn’t turn into Jack Cade for more than two centuries (bets were not on America surviving for so long in 1776!), we risk opening the gates to the old failure mode of oligarchy rising when democracy wavers.

P.S. Donate to Wikipedia – both Diderot and Thomas Paine would smile.

Another illustration of Jack Cade’s rebellion. The reality was indeed destructive, but performances of such events, like the myth of the tragedy of the commons, also served to reinforce the old thesis that the people cannot rule. Turns out, we can.
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Barbie Career of the Year as a Window on Centrist Feminism

First, I’m excited to announce that you can now pre-order the first segment of the new cast recording audiobook of Terra Ignota that’s being done by Graphic Audio. I’m really excited about this new audio set, which is doing the whole series broken down into volumes so this first release is the first half of book 1. I’ll write about it at greater length soon, but what I love is how the different voices with their different accents make you so much more aware of the global/international nature of the characters and setting, and the amazing director Alejandro Ruiz worked with me on some really exciting experiments with gender and casting, casting a lot of roles against what one might expect, so that the voices and physical descriptions and pronouns are all mismatched, enhancing the way Mycroft’s strange use of gender in the narration disrupts the reader’s perception of character gender, inviting the reader reflect on how perceived gender affects our feelings toward characters. We also got to do some really great representation in the casting, including not only race and nationality, but also a fantastic nonbinary performer doing Sniper and a brilliant trans woman doing Carlyle. I’ll reflect more later on but I’ve stayed up irresponsibly late more than once being unable to stop listening to the audio files, so if you enjoy the books and enjoy audiobooks I think you’ll love them! (Though the best of all possible Terra Ignota experiences definitely also involves listening to the Derek Jacobi audiobook of the Fagles Iliad right before you read book 4…)

Meanwhile… Why I Care About Barbie’s Career of the Year:

This topic is very far from my usual bailiwick but important in its odd way, expanding on a Twitter thread from 2020. I am not, nor have I never been, a Barbie collector, but I find the Career of the Year series fascinating as a metric of public attitudes toward feminism. In the broad spectrum of feminist discourse, the fringes and harsh or stinging voices are often the loudest (the progressive left & conservative right), making the Mattel Barbie team an informative contrast.

Generally Mattel’s team wants to present Barbie as a feminist trendsetter but in a centrist way, a model of forward-thinking but non-controversial feminism, and it’s fascinating to watch that metric evolve.

Mattel knows that what it includes or excludes in the Barbie line gets attention and has a political impact, and knows it’s doing and who it’s offending/pleasing, in terms of both profit-seeking and messaging, when it creates things like its new trans-friendly nonbinary Creatable World doll kits which make gender-mixing easy:

Image of the “Creatable World” doll series, showing its racial diversity and how it encourages mixing male-coded and female-coded clothing and hairstyles, with exchangeable heads with long and short hair.

But while producing something like that means Mattel is taking a stand in one sense, it’s notably not in the main Barbie line. The Barbie line itself tends to be a bit more cautious, especially with Barbie herself.

This promo for the Barbie “Fashionistas” line including variants on the square-jawed Ken face, including one with long hair, as well as a range of races and appearances, makes the argument that a range of bodies including masculine-seeming bodies can be interested in fashion and part of “We are Barbie” but is carefully not quite as explicitly trans-friendly as the non-Barbie creative kit.

Since the Barbie Career of the Year doll is designed to be the most discussed, and aims to make an impact in its claims about the attributes of an ideal female role-model, it is a fascinating reflection of what a group of decision-makers who are almost all women feel is the right focus for their annual feminist-yet-centrist message about what girls and women should aspire to. The bodily diversity of the Barbie line has been growing steadily, as shown in the image below of the 2019 line with its range of body types, racial characteristics, and disability representation, but the politics of careers is fascinating separately.

The 2020 discussion (slightly tidied w/ 2021 addition at the end):

Barbie’s 2020 Career of the Year is (for the first time) not a single Barbie but a team, a Political Campaign team featuring 4 dolls: Candidate, Campaign Manager, Fundraiser, and Voter, with diverse race and body types. Interesting to compare to past Career of the Year Barbies.

I’ll give the list of past ones first, then some analysis. Barbie had already had many earlier careers, including astronaut, president, business woman, and others, but the formal Career of the Year series launched in 2010:

  • 2010 = Computer Engineer
  • 2011 = Architect
  • 2012 = Fashion Designer
  • 2013 = Mars Explorer
  • 2014 = Entrepreneur
  • 2015 = Film Director
  • 2016 = Game Developer
  • 2017 = no Career of the Year doll for 2017 that I can find
  • 2018 = Robotics Engineer
  • 2019 = Judge
  • 2020 = Political Campaign Team (four dolls)
  • (2021 = Music Producer, not yet out when I wrote this thread)
A compilation image made by Mattel, selecting only some of the sequence.

Barbie has had a lot of careers over time, including earlier iterations of astronaut and president, & her 60th Anniversary Career set has astronaut, firefighter, soccer player, airline pilot, news anchor, and “political candidate.”

The WSJ did a great piece on Barbie’s history as a political figure back in 2016 when Barbie did a version running for president with a female running mate, clearly referencing Hillary’s campaign

2016 was the 6th presidency-focused Barbie, making her political career thus:

  • 1992 = President
  • 2000 = Presidential Candidate
  • 2004 = Presidential Candidate
  • 2008 = President
  • 2012 = “Barbie for President”
  • 2016 = President & Vice President candidate pair
  • 2019 = Barbie 60th Anniversary Career series repackage of the 2016 presidential candidate doll in a different box w/o her VP running mate & with lighter skin & straighter hair. Fascinating.

Note that 1992, 2000, 2004, 2016 & 2020 all candidates, while 2008 & 2012 are Presidents, i.e. already victorious rather than running, an interesting choice for the window right after Hillary lost to Obama in 08 primary.

The 2016 and 2020 political Barbies have variety in skin tone and hair color, and 2020’s has variety of body type as well, in line with Mattel’s recent changes, whereas 1992-2012 are all distinctly the original blonde Barbie moving into a political career. 

But no earlier president or presidential candidate Barbie was in the Career of the Year series, which is the most visibly political moment of Mattel’s year, the Barbie choice they expect to get the most discussion and spark the most newspaper coverage etc.

Career of the Year started as something of a disaster in 2010 when the well-meaning Computer Engineer Barbie, winner of a voting contest to pick the first Career of the Year, was launched w/ a badly-thought-through accompanying book which focused on her repeatedly messing up and needing male programmers to fix her machine (even to get rid of a simple virus!) and to turn her concept into a game.

When Architect was next (2011) I remember thinking about the fact that (at the time) when you looked at lists of college majors by expected salary, architect was usually listed as the highest-paid major for women.

In fact the story is really cool, this great article discusses the campaign for architect Barbie, effort to convey power via her glasses & hardhat (which she never wears in the photos), & the experiments presenting her to girls to make sure the doll’s professional skill went unquestioned, unlike her computer engineer predecessor.

2013 Mars Explorer was the 1st mission-specific space Barbie though there had been several astronauts.

The Career of the Year Mars Explorer Barbie

She was pinker than average though less sparkly than average, and accompanied by many science facts. Below are three earlier astronaut Barbies, for contrast:


2014’s “Entrepeneur” is strangely vague, forgettable, and was much mocked at its release with headlines like “Entrepreneur Barbie will Inspire Girls to Be Vaguely Ambitious.”  It was very well researched underneath, made in consultation with some major global feminist leaders like Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code, but it struggled to get a clear concept across.

The vagueness of Entrepeneur Barbie for me is an exposure of the strained path-to-wealth archetype in our society, since it’s so much about networking, pitching, acquiring companies, buying out rivals, moving money around rather than making things; hard to describe on a box.  The fact that there’s no comprehensible clear thing an entrepreneur Barbie would do or make, other than have money and move money around to make more money, is an example of how hard it is to communicate to kids how power and money really work (and how nonsensical it often is).

2015 Film Director was a clear response to discussion happening at the time about how few female film directors there were in Hollywood. She did come with several types of hair and skin tones (version options on some of these are hard to trace).

2016 Game Developer was a direct effort to redo and recover from the mistakes of the 2010 computer engineer. She (left) has one of the least pink least feminine outfits ever on a barbie, a silver (not pink) laptop and much more technical info on the box. 2010s on the right.

Here you see game developer Barbie next to her unsuccessful software predecessor:

One Casey Feisler on Flickr did this great compilation comparing the packaging for both plus for the 2018 Robotics Engineer career of the year Barbie. Note the new focus on precisely what she does herself not leaving it to colleagues.

The robotics engineer doll was very similar, still glasses and a laptop, but notable for the black variant being used in publicity images a lot more, almost 50/50 with the white version.

I’m still trying to figure out why there appears to have been no Career of the Year Barbie for 2017. I’ve looked and looked at this strange gap between the two very similar engineering dolls of 2016 and 2018. I’d love for someone to solve the mystery. It’s worth remembering that Mattel had very excitedly made their all-female presidential ticket President & Vice President pair in 2016 and seemed really invested in Hilary’s campaign to be the first female president – was it a morale thing that slowed them down for 2017?

Regardless, after 2018’s robotics engineer, Mattel exploded into the super political with 2019’s Judge Barbie, a clear and extremely not-neutral reference to the activities of RBG on the Supreme Court, and Republican-led stuffing of the courts. And as you can see in the image below, the 2019 judge Barbie, like the presidential set from 2016 and the two engineering Barbies, actively spotlighted its increased diversity in hair color and skin tone in its media:

Judge Barbie is available in a variety of different skin tones and hairstyles.

Which gets us to 2020’s Career of the Year team, the first team and, so far as I can tell, the first politically active Barbie that isn’t focused on the presidency specifically, but could be running for congress, senate, local office, anything. 

The distribution of race and body type was clearly carefully calculated, with an African American candidate, a medium-skin-toned POC-looking voter (could be Latina, First Nations, many things), and Mattel’s new heavier body type for the blonde in the role of fundraiser.  It’s about teamwork, both the idea that a successful campaign requires many people beyond the candidate, & about the importance of many kinds of races, continuing Judge Barbie’s turn toward branches of government beyond the Presidency. 

So many Barbie careers are about celebrity (actress, singer, rapper, princess) & the Presidency is a celebrity position (more so under Trump) so the break with celebrity & focus on non-famous staffers & voters & less spot-lit races is a bigger change for Barbie than it may seem. Mattel’s goal is clear, their contribution to the turn-out-the-vote movement, but I think the attention to teamwork and the importance of non-celebrity people, of the people who aren’t the center of attention, has a potential power beyond the political. 

Careers of the Year have always been the one in the spotlight: the director, the architect, the designer, the one who steps on Mars, the president, with little discussion of being on the team, or the fact that movies, buildings, Mars missions are teamwork. So after six presidents or presidential candidates (and one VP) and many other Barbies-in-the-spotlight I hope this teamwork focus will help girls feel like they’re powerful even if they aren’t on the stage, in the spotlight, or in charge. A good message.

My 2020 summary thought: Keep it up, Mattel!  This year’s team is great, let’s see more Career of the Year teams! Design teams, surgical teams, the Mission Control team, crisis intervention teams, pharmaceutical development teams, publishing teams (author, editor, publisher, publicist)!

My 2021 addendum: Barbie’s 2021 Career of the Year, music producer, is less remarkable than the last two in many ways, another iteration of Barbie with a pink laptop and headphones, which seems to be Mattel’s signature for Barbie-in-tech, though this one also has the music levels slider board:

Yet there are some interesting elements. Her range of unnatural hair colors is not the first in the career line, and is something Mattel appears to associate with tech as well as with music, but I find her ripped-knee jeans is notable since no earlier career Barbie wore anything quite so casual, except for the “voter” in the team set. Since this doll was certainly in development in 2020, that likely reflects the advance of casual-is-okay -for-work ideas in fashion in the age of work-from-home. That 2021’s doll is not a team does make sense in a world where work from home separated us so much, but it will be interesting to see if the solo Barbie continues to be a pattern. It is neat, though, seeing them once again showcase a job which is part of the fact that media is teamwork, i.e. the producer not the rockstar, similar to when Barbie the Film Director in 2015 directed girls’ attention to a different type of power in Hollywood from the many movie star Barbies of earlier Barbie decades. In a sense it’s a job which showcases teamwork even while alone, and thus very apt for 2020/2021, and perhaps a good sign for Mattel continuing to think about teamwork and plural agency even in their solo dolls. And the fact that it got much less media attention than judge or political team may mean that the forces of capitalism step in to encourage Mattel to try something bolder next year–we must never forget the $$ side of commercial political messaging.

So, what does the Career of the Year sequence show us about Barbie as a mark of centrist feminism? A few things. One is that women-in-tech is definitely a thing, far more in the minds of the organizers than women-in-STEM, since we haven’t seen biologist Barbie or epidemiologist Barbie showcased, only several iterations of tech Barbies, including software and hardware. It also shows through things like entrepreneur Barbie and architect Barbie that sometimes they look a lot at research, especially about income and what are high-paying careers, and think it’s important that Barbie encourage girls to go into high-paid professions not just exciting ones (beloved-yet-underpaid careers like teacher and nurse have been frequent Barbie careers but not showcase ones).  They also sometimes run into challenges in communication, i.e. ‘entrepeneur’ is a very important concept but very difficult to communicate in a doll via clothing and accessories, as is true of many careers.

Several of the career Barbies–notably game designer and music producer–have been major steps in more casual clothing, which is a not insignificant message when we think of the target market largely including middle-class suburban mothers (parents buy the toys more often than kids, after all) who are thus expected to consider ripped knees and wild hair a respectable image for girls to aspire to. The increase in tightly-fitted-yet-somewhat-ungendered clothing, which reached its peak with the carefully-planned game designer doll, is also notable. Recalling how much fashion pressures linger in business, how many employers still expect makeup and highly feminine dress for all women, the dolls’ statement that sneakers, jeans, and a shirt and jacket whose only feminine coding lies in the tightness of their fitting and the small amount of pink on the shirt is a genuinely significant change. That 2021’s is a step more feminine in coding even as it is a step more casual is interesting when put in dialog with gender and transgender issues becoming such a hot topic in the past few years.

And, of course, we saw with judge Barbie and the political candidate team Barbie that a lot of people who consider themselves politically fairly neutral/centrist, including Mattel, felt that the wake of Trump’s election and the midst of the authoritarian surge of 2016-2020 was an important moment to step forward, become more active, and, for the first time in Barbie’s history, to take a semi-overt political stance, since celebrating judge Barbie in the midst of so much focus on Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is not explicitly pro-Democratic-party but it’s extremely clear the way it leaned. Many organizations that strive for party neutrality, from Mattel to the ACLU to the science journal Nature, felt that Trump’s second run was the moment to use that history of neutrality for an important end, since breaking a multi-decade string of never endorsing one party over the other makes the moment when one does speak out that much more powerful. That 2021’s doll is far less political, except for being pro women-in-tech, raises the question whether we should view the renewed projection of party neutrality as a happy return to normal, or as a scary sign that the wave of sudden political engagement sparked in 2016-20 is fading again, and that voter turnout may wane with it.

In sum, since news and social media both tend to magnify radical voices on both sides, things like Mattel’s carefully-calculated political stances can be a valuable window on the often-quieter middle, though whether it really is the middle or just attempting to claim “this should be the middle!” as the real middle moves left and right is another question. And the fact that the fashion-focused “Fashionistas” line and new sets like the glamorous bond-movie style “Spy Squad” Barbie set persist alongside our career Barbies also shows that the extremely gendered Hollywood femme fantasy side of Barbie is still just as strong in the moderate center of this particular feminine ideal as all the politically-progressive versions are (if not stronger since the fashion focused Barbie lines are usually much larger than the career sets). Of the nine dolls in the 2016 splash add below, one-third are narrative-free fashion-consumers, one-third Hollywood fanatsy babes, and one-third career role models, a telling microcosm of the imagery proportions kids are pelted with. Ongoing food for thought.

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Online talks: Apocalyptic Renaissance, Teaching Power in History, Inquisition, Rare Books

Hello, readers! The past few weeks have been very intense for me with the 2021 run of my Papal Election Simulation, but I wanted to post some links and announcements about a couple of free online talks, two recent and two upcoming. 

One is today (May 13th) at 5:30 PM Central time on “The Apocalyptic Renaissance” for the U Chicago Smart Museum of Art’s fabulous new exhibit Lust, Love, and Loss in Renaissance Europe.” I’ll be presenting some material from my book in progress “Why We Keep Telling the Myth of the Renaissance.” Sign up for free at this link.

The second  is a talk on Saturday at 1 PM Central time for the Chicago Women’s Alliance (also free and open to anyone) on “Who Has the Power to Change History?” in which I’m going to talk about my teaching and how I use historical reenactments and role-playing to teach better ways of thinking about power, what really controls change (individuals, great forces, both?), and thus encourage feelings of empowerment and activism. Several former students will be joining me to talk about how the role-playing elements of my teaching changed the way they think about history and power and how they apply that in their activities. I’m really excited to discuss the question with my students there too. Sign up for free at this link.

And two other recent things I did which are now online:

I did a fun interview for History Hacks podcast, about The Inquisition(s) and the history of censorship (drawing on my research).

And I did a video lecture for the Paideia Institute about Recovering a Lost Classic in the Renaissance, with webcam footage of some real 16th century books and manuscript samples from my book history teaching collection. So excited to have a webcam I can do that with; hoping to do more like that this summer!
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Who We Think Has the Power to Change the World? (transcript)

Fresco depicting a figure with two faces, one on each side of the head, one young and one old, gesturing to a grand building while talking to a woman with a Laurel crown holding an open book which is leaning on a crouching man with wings and a scythe, representing Time.
Fresco of the Roman god Janus, god of doorways, liminal spaces, and change — how our culture teaches us to think about change has a huge impact on what we do to try to bring it about!

NOTE: An unfinished draft of this post was accidentally published for a little while on March 2nd-3rd, but it wasn’t actually ready yet then, but here’s the finished version:

Hello, wonderful readers!  What I have to share today is not a polished essay, but the transcript, slightly cleaned up but mostly as given, of a talk I gave recently at a science fiction convention, Capricon 2021, whose theme this year was “Making the Future We Want”—a great topic for reflection. In the talk I look at our ideas about who has power to shape the future, stringing together short precis of several different articles and such that I’ve been working on lately. Each little precis is less polished and evidence-packed than the long versions (links & citations provided where I can), but I think the combination, though compressed, has a useful flow and brings together some points that I hope will help people reflect on how our narratives about history shape the power (and powerlessness) we believe we have. I hope you enjoy!

As another treat, here is a wonderful video made by my friends at the Paideia Institute which recently invited me to give a talk on the process of recovering a classical text in the Renaissance, with live examples of me showing Renaissance era printed books and manuscripts thanks to the miracle of webcam. I’m hopeful I’ll be able to use the same webcam system to do more rare books demos in future!

Talk transcript:

I was struck by how Capricon 2021 (Capricon is a fabulous F&SF con! you should all go to it!) had a theme this year—“Making the future we want”—which overlaps some of the history work that I’ve been doing, so I thought people might enjoy a bit of a serious talk on a very interesting question. Some of you may have read my blog post “On Progress and Historical Change” which gives a history of the concept of progress, and this talk will overlap that a bit. But what I want to talk about here is the question of how we imagine how society and history change, who we imagine has control over that, how much control we imagine we have, and how that has changed over time. And our feelings about how much power we have, or how much power we feel other people have over change in real history, is often very different from what the historical record suggests. So I’ll be talking about some of my work as a historian and what it shows about how culture changes, vs the concepts that we usually tend to have about that.

I’m what’s called an intellectual historian, which means I focus on what we think is true. This is related to history of ideas, so I study concepts like the concept of progress, the concept of atoms, the concept of rights or equality, the concept of atheism, not just what atheist ideas existed but also what people at different points in history who didn’t consider themselves atheists thought an atheist should or would be like in terms of ethics, the personality the imaginary atheist whom Thomas Aquinas is arguing with in some of his writings, for example—these are examples of things an intellectual historians studies. But intellectual historians also look a lot at worldview. If a material culture historian is working on reconstructing the clothing of another time period, and a food historian is working on the diet and recipes of another time period, and an art historian on the architecture, and a historian of science on the technology or weapons of another time period, the intellectual historian is trying to get at the mindset of that time period. What world do those people live in, from their own perception, from what they believe is true?  What is the potential of their world, what do they believe is true about how it works or how it changes, how does it differ from the world we believe we live in?  Someone from a culture which believes that disease is caused by astrological influences instead of by germs makes decisions about medicine and health as if living in a different world from the one we believe we live in.

Very old copper teapot in the Philadelphia Museum of Art
How many of us, when we buy a kitchen object, think about our descendants using it for generations when we decide what size/style to get? We assume there will be better teapots, newer styles, that what we’re getting is mainly for the present.

So, for example, we in the present have a very particular expectation that every generation’s experience will in most fundamental ways be different from the experience of the generation before, that there is a constant process of change, progress is one of several names for this, or a name for one element of this process, but we expect, for example, that in two generations while some things will be similar, many things will be very different. For example, very few of us expect that our grandchildren or great-grandchildren will still live in the same house we live in, and use the same teapot we’re using. In contrast with, let’s say, a medieval European figure, who is very likely to have the expectation that their descendants will live in the same house for a number of generations, and who generally has the expectation that change may come if there’s a war, change may come if there’s a great king, change may come if there’s a bad king, change may come if God curses the land, but the change isn’t inevitable, the way we think of it being inevitable in our own period.

So, in different moments in history people have had different ideas about how constant change is, what causes change in the human condition over time, what aspects of the human condition change over time, and which people, if any, have power over the way the human condition changes over time.

I’m going to discuss briefly at first the origin of the concept of anthropogenic progress, and I’ll come back to that term in a moment. Then I’m going to zoom in to a very very microcosm example within my own field, in my own period of specialization, which is Renaissance Italy, which shows some of the problems generated by the disconnect between the way we imagine the world changing from the way it really does, and then from that microcosm zoom out again to the larger question.

(If you’ve read the longer version of this in On Progress and Historical Change pretty recently, you may want to skip the next couple paragraphs down from here to the italicized note, by the picture of a pretentious Roman  orator on the rostra, or you may prefer to keep reading so the content is fresh)

So, as I often say when I’m beginning this discussion, in about 1620 Francis Bacon invented progress. What I mean by that is that Francis Bacon, a British intellectual and statesman, published the Novum Organum, and some other works in which he argues, pretty much for the first time that not only is it possible for human beings to change the human condition but that if they do so intentionally and systematically through science—this is the birth point of the modern scientific method, which is to say collaboration among groups of people sharing knowledge to work as a team to gradually expand human knowledge—and remember, Bacon is the origin of the saying “knowledge is power,” by which he means power over Nature, not individual power, he means human beings collectively having more power when we understand more of what he calls “the secret motions of things” or what we might call how diseases work, how physics works, how electricity works, etc.  By “knowledge is power” he means our power to command electricity, our power to cure diseases, these things that in 1620 he hoped science might someday achieve. And Bacon (and I’ll get to why in a moment, and also what similar concepts existed before in a moment) articulates for the first time the suggestion that if human beings collaborate as a team to observe nature, to do scientific experiments, to double check (we would say peer review) each other’s experiments, to publish this knowledge and share it, and to collectively try to expand humanity’s scientific understanding, then every generation thereafter will be a little bit more powerful in terms of how many diseases we can cure, how well we can preserve food, how well we can grow food, and thus that every generation’s experience will be a little better than the generation before.

Bacon characterized this in Christian terms as an act of charity, that to be a scientist is the ultimate act of charity because it gives the gift of a happier life to every generation and every human that will be born after you—a very interesting root for the scientific method, which many people are used to seeing presented as an enemy of religion as opposed to as mandated by Christianity which is the way he presents it. And he suggests that by conducting research as a team and sharing it, it can intentionally come to pass that every generation’s experience is different.

Now, we would say that every generation’s experience has been different since the very beginning of humanity, that progress, while it might accelerate later on, as technological advances accelerate has been constant, and the experience of somebody in 1500 is different from somebody in 1400. And indeed, we would argue that human action, discoveries, development of states, gradual processes such as centralization of government or of finding agriculture were always causing progress. People were inventing the moldboard plough, preservation techniques, gradually breeding corn to be a slightly better and slightly better crop until it became the strange super crop that it already was before modern scientific genetic meddling, that progress was always there, than anthropogenic progress, meaning human caused progress, progress that is the result of human beings taking action.

But nobody had described this as a phenomenon before Bacon, and Bacon and his peers in fact believe that there isn’t anthropogenic progress. What kinds of progress or change do they think there is? One dominant idea in Europe at the time, and indeed for many centuries before, is that the primary changes you see experienced by humans are a plan scripted out by God, are Providence. Sometimes God, or Fate, decides that it is time for an Empire to rise, because God has a plan for it. Now it’s time for the Empire to fall, because God has a different plan for it. God decides to send a great king onto the stage of life, or God decides to send a bad king to teach people the moral lessons that tyrants teach. That is the dominant model of what people think causes change in this period, that it is an external decision made by a divinity or plan whose intentions are largely didactic, largely educational, that the purpose of sending a good king or a bad king is to send people moral examples for people’s personal moral education, to increase the likelihood of human souls doing to heaven.

Hey, look, it’s my dissertation being helpful for more than just itself!

If we move earlier than that, to Antiquity, there are ideas of what I would not quite call progress or anthropogenic progress, but there are ideas of development that the Epicureans discuss for example that just as an organism might develop from a juvenile state to a mature state, so similarly planets develop over time and human civilizations develop over time. In Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura, our longest surviving classical Epicurean text, he describes the idea that Earth undergoes a process similar to the lifespan of an organism, that, for example, only in the earliest days, when Earth was young and fertile, did new species come into existence, and that only those species that were suited to their environment survived until the present day. It sounds very close to Darwin. Lucretius goes on to say that no new species are created any more because Earth is old and has undergone menopause and no longer has giant placentas growing out of the ground everywhere which is where animals came from in the first place. So before you give him too much credit for the survival of the correctly adapted idea, which he does have, and is a very sophisticated idea, there are plenty of others that we chuckle at. But he describes the idea that early on humans lived peacefully in nature, and they ate the fruits that they found and they slept under trees. You can recognize this as one of the roots of pastoral man or of a golden age. But then humans gradually discovered luxuries, gold, and treasures. And when they did that, and there were limited supplies of luxuries, then people needed to defend them, and they developed weapons, and they developed armies and laws and social structures. Then, from that, developed war, and the descent from a golden age to a silver age to an iron age. Lucretius is not the only classical Mediterranean source of this, but he is an example. So there is an idea of development, and even development where people are causing it, but it isn’t an idea of constant development, and it is an idea of negative development and not positive.

That idea exists in Antiquity, is much less prevalent in the Middle Ages, when many of those texts are not available, is rediscovered in the early 1400s, and disseminates again. So it’s one of several influences on Bacon. But what’s innovative in Bacon is his idea that there’s a strong intentionality, that the team of humans who are scientists work together intentionally to create the next generation’s experience, and indeed that if they don’t, the next generation’s experience will not be different from this generation’s experience, that unless progress is intentionally caused, progress will not occur. This is very different from our sense in which progress is constant and inescapable and positive, but also negative. We’re very used to thinking about progress giving us better technologies and better medicine, but also giving us the negative sides. As Freud puts it in his “Civilization and Its Discontents” writing just after World War 1, “it is indeed miraculous that my daughter who is across the ocean on another continent and I can speak over these new electric telephone wires, that is an amazing fruit of science but,” he says “If we didn’t have science she wouldn’t be on the other continent, she would still be here, because we wouldn’t have made the ship that carried her.” Civilization and its development creates problems in addition to creating positive innovations.

That is an idea that we’re very familiar with in the Twenty-First and Twentieth Centuries and that really develops largely in the Nineteenth Century as a result of the Eighteenth Century’s romantic interest in the idea of the pastoral and the influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but also in the aftermath of the French Revolution. In 1620 Francis Bacon said “If we do science we can have progress,” and people said “Great! We can use science to evaluate everything and make more rational medicine, and more rational engineering, and more rational architecture, and more rational farming, and more rational laws, and more rational religion, and then they had an enormous war in which huge numbers of people died, and the scale of war got an order of magnitude bigger than anyone was used to, and it created a lot of anxiety and fear that possibly we don’t have as much control over this progress thing as we thought. So it’s then in the Nineteenth Century that you get the image of being a cog in the machine being trapped within progress, progress being inescapable.

(If you were skipping down because you’ve read On Progress and Historical Change recently, this is the right spot to start reading closely again)

The kind of person we’re told to think of as having power in history.

Within this review of concepts of progress the question then comes: who has power over determining what happens? Is the answer “No one”? That progress happens in so many different arenas and so many different directions that pretty much it’s just chaos? Is the answer “Governments or rulers”? that a great king or a great virtuous leader is going to be what determines whether our country prospers. Or do we believe that certain individuals exercise influence?

And here is where I’m going to zoom in to the Renaissance, which is to say, to my own period, which is where we see ideas of who has power over progress, and especially who has power over mindsets and the clash between the assumptions we often make about that vs the historical evidence that we have.

(The longer treatment of this discussion appears in “Black Death, COVID, and Why We Keep Telling the Myth of a Renaissance Golden Age and Bad Middle Ages”)

So, Italian Renaissance, or Renaissance in general, we’re used to thinking of this as a moment of great change when things accelerate, when the Middle Ages, which we tend to think of as stagnant, and perhaps backwards and without dynamism and without a lot of progress or change—all of these things are false, but they are the assumption most people have—suddenly shifts and we get a lot more. We get faster innovations, and faster development of technologies, and a change in mindset. Now all of these things are true, we do get an acceleration, but it’s a wedge, it’s not a flat line and then a spike.

The Renaissance ninja turtles: awesome but do not control history!

The core figures that we know from the Renaissance, and the way you often know about the Renaissance when you’re not a specialist, are famous geniuses. Leonardo da Vinci is the best known Renaissance figure, followed by Machiavelli and Michelangelo and Raphael, and we think of this as an age of genius, an age when excellent brilliant people created magnificent art and magnificent architecture, and there is a focus on those geniuses as being the core of change, on those geniuses as being fundamentally what makes the progress happen. There are in fact a lot of cultural reasons, and this is not the moment for me to give you my list of what the causes of the Renaissance are, though there is a blog post about that if you’d like to look for it in my discussion of COVID-19 and why we have the Medieval/Renaissance distinction and the problems with it, but the key data point that I want to start with here is when I’m at a dinner party and I meet somebody’s spouse and they ask me what I study and I say I study the Renaissance, and they ask what I study in the Renaissance, and say well, I study Renaissance radical thought, I study censorship and the Inquisition, and I study atheism, and I study heretics and heresy trials and the dissemination of radical thought. It’s very common for there to be a pause, and an excited face, and then the question “Oh! So isn’t it true that x famous Renaissance genius was an atheist?” It’s incredible how often that’s the question. And the reason for that is a narrative that many of us are familiar with that the Renaissance is an era of secularization or secular thought, that it’s the moment when the shackles of religiosity are being challenged, when Humanism as a centering on humans comes in (that’s not actually what Humanism was in the Renaissance, but that’s what it is now and that’s what people think it was) and that the core of the difference between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance was the breaking free of faith and the beginning of an age of Reason.

That is an expectation largely based on ideas about the Renaissance that were published largely by German and British historians in the Nineteenth Century. This is very, very different from the way the Renaissance presents itself, and also very different from what we find when we look at things. But the important detail here is everyone’s excitement to have me confirm at the dinner party that yes, Leonardo was an atheist, or yes Machiavelli was an atheist, or yes, Michelangelo was an atheist. Why is that? Mainly it’s because the dominant narrative about the Renaissance is that there were a bunch of geniuses who had a pseudo-modern mindset. Meaning more secular, not necessarily atheistic, some people are simply excited for it to be modern, scientific, etc., and that those geniuses saw lying before them the possibility of a more secular more rational age that would be better, it would be modern, it would be free of all the limitations that dragged the Renaissance down. And that these geniuses seeing that in their future, seeing it, then worked to make it so. I see this narrative in a lot of places. I see it in academic articles or books that assume that it’s true. But if I zoom out further, you’ll see it in op eds, when people are writing an op ed about the Black Death and COVID and they’ve researched this for 48 hours, that’ll be what they say, or it’ll be in the intro of an economics book.

(For more on this see “Why We Keep Asking ‘Was Machiavelli an Atheist”, or for the footnoteful version my chapter “The Persecution of Renaissance Lucretius Readers Revisited” in the frustratingly expensive but totally interlibrary-loan-able collection Philip Hardie, Valentina Prosperi, and Diego Zucca eds.,  Lucretius Poet and Philosopher: Background and Fortunes of ‘De Rerum Natura’, De Gruyter, 2020)

If you zoom out even farther, you get it in the Cosmos TV series, the new one with Neil de Grasse Tyson which chose to begin its first episode with this glimpse of the life of Giordano Bruno (analyzed in the article above), it presents Bruno as a kind of martyr for science, and whom it describes as a very modern person, that he saw that there could be this other world of reason and he tried to buck against the system and fight against it, and the Inquisitional Thought Police, and he uses the phrase “Thought Police” which is a very important detail, chased him down and suppressed him because they didn’t want these ideas to be spread. But he knew that one day it would, and other people who were like-minded with him worked really hard, and their underground efforts eventually made it so.

And if you zoom out even further again, you get it in pop culture stuff. The plot of the extremely mediocre old David Warner fantasy movie Quest of the Delta Knights. The plot of that is that there has been an ancient scientific and secularizing rationalist secret society founded by Archimedes that has since Antiquity been keeping the light of reason secretly alive through the Middle Ages, and eventually will break through and reveal all the lost documents and science from Atlantis and usher in the modern age, and the hero helps make that happen, to defeat the Middle Ages and make the modern age happen because this cabal of people who fundamentally think like modern people has existed since Antiquity and preserved the light and now it’s going to triumph. It’s also the plot of the Assassin’s Creed video games, that there is a secret society of rationalist people who fight the pope—literally, by punching him!—and they advance science, and Machiavelli is in charge of it.

And these are hilarious and fun but they are echoes of the idea that the people who are in charge of intellectual change, the people responsible for getting us from Medieval to Enlightenment thought like us, that they thought ahead of their time, that they saw the future potential, that they had a plan and they secretly implemented it—in other words that the people who have power to determine what the future is, is a few particular geniuses, who in their brilliance see what the future is going to be. That is not true. First of all, none of these people predicted any of what the future is like, and none of them in fact tried to undermine the church—I’m talking about Leonardo, Machiavelli, etc.—and none of them articulated things that would read like modern when you really sit down and read them. They are presented as proto-moderns by historians of the Nineteenth Century who want to claim a descent from them, because we respect these names, they are exciting, and so if you can claim “I am carrying on in the tradition of X!” you can make your own regime seem powerful. This is a tool that the rising nationalist movements of the Nineteenth Century, in Germany, in Britain, in France, in Italy, used to compete with each other by trying to claim “Oxford is a truer descendant of the ideas of XYZ than the universities in Italy, look at how we’re carrying on the rationalist secret underground messages that were in Machiavelli and were in Leonardo” which are not there.

Copenhaver’s book on how the Oration on the Dignity of Man is not an oration, and not about the dignity of man, but if you want to know how to cast off your human dross and turn yourself into an angel, Pico’s got you covered!

There are radical messages in these things. Here is the key. Renaissance radicals were really radical! Machiavelli was really radical, Leonardo was really radical. People like Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, who is a little less famous but very frequently pointed at as the Renaissance genius, mastered fourteen languages by the time he was a teenager, he was brilliant, he was rich, everyone loved him, he wrote a giant nine hundred thesis synthesis of all world religions, which he proposed to defend in front of the pope. And he has this famous text known by its Nineteenth Century title The Oration on the Dignity of Man. I’ve got a 682 page book on my shelf by Brian Copenhaver about how The Oration on the Dignity of Man is not an oration and it’s not about the dignity of Man—that is a Nineteenth Century reading of it which still colors forward. It was actually a manual on how to turn yourself into an angel, by hybridizing Islam and Zoroastrianism with Kabala, channeling those through Plato and making a new version of Christianity which would synthesize all world religions. And by the way, Pico and his friends believed that if they just explained this to the Ottoman Muslims they would immediately understand that Islam and Christianity were exactly the same and then there would be world peace. That was the plan, that everyone would real Plato and then they’d realize that all religions were the same and then there would be world peace. These guys are really radical! Their versions of Christianity have reincarnation and soul projection and did you know that if you study enough of the Chaldean Oracles you can project your soul out of your body and use it to spy on Padua? This is what Latin class and Greek class should be for. Renaissance radicals were incredibly radical. But their radicalism did not resemble our modern mindsets. Their radicalisms were all over the place. The more I study them the more I love them, there are dozens of worldviews in there more alien than any alien in Star Trek ever made up, they’re gorgeous, but they don’t resemble the way we thought in the Twentieth Century, or in the Nineteenth Century, or now. Those people in the Renaissance didn’t see a future and then intentionally make it. Those people in the Renaissance had radical ideas, proposed them, debated them, mixed stuff all over, had different weird inconsistent influences, and the cauldron of all of it, of the people you’ve heard of and the many dozens of people you haven’t and the many hundreds of people who read them and debated them and the many thousands of people who read those books in schoolrooms and disseminate those weird ideas, those are what actually makes the change happen.

This detail of a Fillipino Lippi painting shows St. Bernard of Clairveaux at his desk getting advice from the Virgin Mary, with a quote from Epictetus pinned on the desk just above his head, as if he’s getting his theological wisdom partly from Epictetus, a pagan philosopher.

Now I’m going to zoom in to my most micro example. So. The least interesting set of texts that I can think of, and I’ve been trying to look into this, were editors’ prefaces at the beginnings of copies of Epictetus (aka. my article “Humanist Lives of Classical Philosophers and the Idea of Renaissance Secularization” in Renaissance Quarterly Vol. 70, No. 3 (2017), pp. 935-976).  Epictetus’s manual is a set of Ancient Roman moral maxims about how to be a virtuous person, and it’s short, so people liked to teach it at school, and a lot of it sort of lines up with Christian virtues, so it’s very compatible with teaching in a Christian context, so it was a super popular textbook. It was a super popular schoolbook, the equivalent of making kids read Dickens or making kids read a Shakespeare play as part of High School English class. So there are many, many dozens of editions printed pretty much as soon as printing is invented—from the 1490s, and all the way through the 1500s, and the 1600s and the 1700s there are editions of Epictetus, and every one has a preface from the editor explaining why Epictetus is a great text to read, and usually trying to seem more awesome than the previous edition of Epictetus, so that you’ll buy that edition for school instead of the other edition, or so that the teacher will recommend that edition instead of the other edition. Publishing, as we all know, is very competitive, and you’re always trying to have the blurb that makes it attractive — if someone walks into the bookstore and there are four books with dragons on the cover, something is going to make the difference to which one they pick up, it might be the copy on the back, this is the equivalent of that.

So when you look at the prefaces, which are being written by scholars who aren’t very important and aren’t very famous and nobody has heard of or cares about any more, but they have a job and the printing house has got them to edit this thing because this is their job. Those guys who are doing that, that you’ve never heard of, are reading the guys you have heard of. They’re reading Pico, or they’re reading people who are talking about Pico. They’re reading all these dozens of bizarre strange ideas that are going on. Most of them definitely don’t agree with it, or if they agree with it, they only agree with one thing, because there are dozens of different ones, but there’s the milieu. And they notice the arguments that are big and all over the place, and one of them is, Renaissance people were very interested in the fact that the sayings of Epictetus were remarkably similar to some of the ethical teachings of Christianity, especially in the letters of St. Paul. In fact in the Middle Ages there was a rumor that Seneca and St. Paul knew each other and wrote letters and Seneca was associated with Epictetus, and Epictetus was supposed to have secretly converted. None of this is true, and in the Renaissance they had pretty much figured out that it wasn’t true. But it was very interesting to note that Epictetus’s moral maxims were similar to St. Paul’s. So if you were writing a preface to Epictetus, you would write a preface that said “He was a pagan, but he was almost as good as St. Paul!” And then ten years later when there was a new edition and someone wanted to make that edition sound better, and I have all of these editions in Latin and I have the article version of this where you can read the translations of all of these, they’ll say they want to make a stronger claim, so they’ll say “Epictetus’s moral maxims are barely less good than St. Paul’s.” And the next one will say “Epictetus’s moral maxims are just as good as St. Paul’s!” And the next one will say “Epictetus’s moral maxims, even though he was a pagan, were even better than St. Paul’s, because they are simpler and clearer and more effective at teaching ethics.” And by the time you get to the 1700s there’s an edition, which you can tell is copied from these earlier editions, they even plagiarize sentences from each other’s prefaces, it’s direct evolution, that says “Epictetus by the light of Reason alone and without the necessity of scripture or revelation arrived at better ethics than St. Paul.” And that is the kind of book that Voltaire owns when he is a kid.

One of several “Anti-Machiavelli” books which were ALSO influential.

So, who is transmitting this radical idea? Gradually of the idea that Scripture and Christian revelation are necessary for ethics? Who is transmitting that? Is it the big famous people? No. Because there are thousands upon thousands more copies of these classroom Epictetus volumes than there were of Machiavelli in this period. Machiavelli is banned in most places. You can’t even get it without hunting hard, you can only get digests of it, and it’s not printed nearly as often.  People have it but it’s extra work, like how there are people around who use Linux instead of Windows or Mac but it’s extra work and you have to work at it and not a lot of people do it.  But Epictetus?  He’s as ubiquitous and default-accessable as Windows. So for every one person who’s actually reading Machiavelli in that era, a hundred people at least are reading this Epictetus preface that says you don’t need Christian Scripture to arrive at a good system of ethics. Who spread the radical idea?  Thousands of people you haven’t heard of, dozens of editors who wrote these editions, most of them not intending to make anything radical happen but just intending to sell a copy of a book, in fact most of them genuinely believing that Epictetus was an author who would advance Christianity and make people believe in it more, they, nonetheless, unknowingly and unintentionally transmitted the radical ideas that turned into Deism, and that turned into that secular turn that we associate with the Enlightenment, and that we falsely associate with the Renaissance. So you see it is the Renaissance seeds that lead to it, but it some genius list of special radical people who thought the way we do that made it happen, it’s thousands of people who had dozens of different worldviews, some very orthodox, others very radical in ways that don’t resemble us, but all these ideas discussed and wrote and published and debated, and those debates influence textbooks written by nobodies who get left out of the kinds of history that focus on big names, but it’s those small names that have so much deeper broader reach than the treatises of the people who are the most famous today, largely because our canon of who’s famous was cemented by nineteenth-century people who were looking into the past and cherry-picking people to celebrate whose ideas they thought resembled their own, in order to legitimize themselves (and prop up their belief that they had a right and duty to dominate the world and ‘elevate’ ‘lesser’ cultures with their ‘right’ ideas and ‘right’ path of progress).

So, what this example and other similar studies shows us is that we overestimate how much intentionality we think individual special people have. So every time I see a cover of a tech magazine that has a new tech start-up billionaire that says “Will this man be the first man to live for two hundred years?” or “die on Mars?” or whatever, and in the article it claims “This person has a vision for the future and knows what the future will be like, and it’s this, and he’s working on building it!” (or occasionally “she”, but usually “he”) and “the future is in the hands of these geniuses.” That idea, that the future is in the hands of people whose mindsets somehow already match the future, that makes us feel powerless, makes us feel like our job is to sit back and wait for those geniuses who can already see the future to bring it about the way we imagine Machiavelli did.  I remember when I first realized this it was watching the first Iron Man movie, where Tony Stark, after inventing pollution-free green energy, and saving stuff with the iron man suit gives this press conference statement “I have successfully privatized world peace,” and that is the line that gets pushed, that the solution to our strife, or climate change, is waiting for the genius to appear like a superhero with the special power to reshape the world, while everyone else sits back and gets rescued.  Why do we get drawn into the rhetoric that claims this?  Because our textbooks tell us that’s how we got to where we are now, that the present came about because historical figures who were geniuses and could foresee the wonderful, liberated, rational modern era that was coming then sat down and intentionally tried to make that era come.  Well, they didn’t.  This world is nothing like anything that people in the Renaissance tried to make. They tried to change what their world was like, but the things they were aiming for were not what actually resulted.  It was the mixing together of all sorts of different and incompatible ideas, radical and orthodox, mixing in the contributions and debates of enormous numbers of forgotten, un-famous people, that was key to what changed mindsets overtime.   Sometimes particular key works were extra prominent in that discourse, be it Hobbes or Epictetus, but that doesn’t mean that the effect of Hobbes publishing Leviathan was to engineer a future Hobbes envisioned, it was to stimulate thousands of people to have new conversations, many of them hostile, which in turn generated new ideas.

So, who has the power to shape the future?  The answer the Renaissance shows us is not genius, not “a few people who have the right vision” it’s lots and lots of people, but a lot of the time the result of their efforts isn’t going to be what they meant. So for example, the first Renaissance scholars who tried to get people to read Epictetus, Petrarch and such, their idea was that fractious and war-torn Renaissance Italy—which Shakespeare depicts somewhat accurately in Romeo and Juliet, where rival noble houses are having feuds and goons and killing each other in the streets, and people are very willing to cause a civil war to advance their family) Petrarch and other Renaissance intellectuals thought that this was a problem and that the best way to address it was to improve the moral education of these ruling families. The reason that they wanted to build libraries and advance the new reading of the classics and so on was that they thought if their leaders had better ethics they would stop having feuds, civil wars, that if they could get the leaders of their society to read the books that young Cicero, or young Seneca, read when they were growing up, that you could then rear a new generation of leaders who would put the good of the country before the good of their family, who would like the Roman Brutus (not the one who killed Caesar, the earlier one) be willing to execute his own sons if they were committing treason, in contrast to the Renaissance norm which was to get your goons to assault the jail and liberate your son if he’s been arrested. These Renaissance people wanted people to read Epictetus, and similar works, to make them more Christian, and more ethical. We have reams and reams of this writing where they say it “We think that reading these Roman texts will make you a better Christian.” They say it over and over and over. And yet the inadvertent effect of that was disseminating a lot of radical ancient thought, which made a whole lot of different radical stuff happen, which caused changes within Christianity, which contributed to the Reformation as well as deism and atheism, which none of these early Renaissance figures would ever have wanted to have had happen, but which was the real effect of their project.

But the book burning!

Important sideline because people always ask: so, lots of Renaissance figures who spread radical ideas but also claimed to be good Christians get pointed to by modern people who want to say “They’re secretly an atheist, they’re just self-censoring!” but the thing is that tons of these figures publicly endorse ideas that are way more dangerous, way higher on the Inquisition’s list.  You don’t meticulously self-censor that you’re secretly an atheist or secularizer and then publish a demon-summoning manual with your name on it, or a book that endorses Martin Luther or espouses your belief in reincarnation. Someone who recklessly expresses ideas much more dangerous than atheism would not bother to be so careful with their atheism that we can’t find traces even in their private writings.  Atheism isn’t as risky in the period as the other stuff which these people are espousing.  I’ve got an article in which I go through every single person we know in the Renaissance who read Lucretius and got in trouble with the Inquisition and what they got in trouble for and it was never Lucretius. One of them goes to the stake for sola fide, Luther’s belief that faith alone, rather than faith and good works is how you get to Heaven. No atheist would choose to go to the stake for sola fide, they would say “I don’t care” and walk away. Giordano Bruno, pointed to in the Cosmos TV series which claims that he went to the stake for believing in atoms and the existence of alternate worlds, when you actually read the trial record, he doesn’t espouse that stuff in the trial, nor do they ask him about it. The only time Lucretius comes up in his entire trial is a time in which Bruno brings him up to call him stupid and disagree with him. They’re worried about Bruno’s use of Aristotle, and they’re worried about Bruno’s ideas about the division of the soul and the way the soul connects to the body and stuff that has nothing to do with atheism, atomism, materialism, or anything else that we consider modern. That’s not what gets Bruno in trouble. So we think of it as being atheism, but nobody would bother to self-censor atheism and then avow this other stuff that they all know is more dangerous. Most of them avow incredibly dangerous stuff and get away with it because they’re friends with a Duke, or a king, and this is a period in which you can say almost anything if you have the protection of royalty, and that’s how we get lots and lots and lots of radical works, because people are under their protection.  So the claim that there was a radical underground of secret atheists meticulously hiding their traces so carefully that we can barely detect them even in their own works while they were running around declaring their support for much more dangerous ideas, and getting in big trouble sometimes for doing so, just doesn’t make any sense.

Were there some atheists in the period?  Totally! See fabulous treatments by Matytsin, Hunter/Wootton, Kors, Sheppard, Popkin, D. C. Allen) and I think I’ve personally confirmed about three definite ones, but the three I’ve looked at didn’t hide it that much, we know about it because all their friends knew and commented on it, it wasn’t that secret.  And—the more important part—it wasn’t those three who had monopolized the power and influence and created modernity through their genius vision, they were fairly minor people—one was an illiterate fishmonger, an awesome one, but not a person in power in any traditional.  The key is that these awesome atheist radicals were only one kind of radical amid dozens and dozens of other equally awesome Renaissance radicalisms that don’t resemble modernity at all, but it all mixed and churned among the many more orthodox ideas, and percolated into things like Epictetus prefaces, and that’s what caused the change, not the few people who most resemble later things, the mix of everyone.

To briefly quote my polished version of talking about this (from my chapter in the Hardie/Prosperi/Zucca volume) “We do these courageous freethinkers a disservice if we dismiss the diverse and original ideas expressed in their Christian Epicurean and anti-Epicurean works as mere veils over a comfortably proto-modern rationalism. Rather than taking a step forward on a triumphant path leading inevitably toward modernity, Lucretius’s radical Renaissance readers took many steps in many directions, breaking new and fruitful ground… As we seek the agents who forged modernity, we need to stop looking for people who look like heroes, for people who look like villains, and above all for people who look like us. The characteristic ideas and values of modernity were not birthed by people we would have agreed with. They were birthed by a vibrant and diverse range of pre-modern minds alien to our own, advancing plural projects which all moved and shaped each other, plural particles in constant motion all with dynamism and momentum, not passive and inert until struck by a single modernizing genius who contained the swerve.”

Fresco depicting a figure with two faces, one on each side of the head, one young and one old, gesturing to a grand building while talking to a person holding an open book.
Youth climate strikers in New York City: they too are changing the world, just like us.

So, zooming back to the present, a lot of people have a sense of powerlessness, as if we’re supposed to wait for the geniuses who clearly see the future to make it happen, and we don’t resemble those geniuses because, as history presents them, the genius figures who shaped modernity always had a clear plan, they never have vague self-doubt, or maybe they have like one dramatic turning point doubt crisis and then come out of it as their mature perfect genius selves, they’re perfect, like the protagonists of novels, and they never do laundry, and they never run out of socks, or worry about paying rent, and if the historical record shows them worrying about money then they’re somehow morally compromised and not true intellectuals, which isn’t true! I have letters where Machiavelli writes home complaining that his salary hasn’t arrived and he’s run out of socks, and has holes in his shirt and he’s worried about looking scruffy in front of the pope, and then there’s a letter back “We gave your salary to Michelangelo and we hope he can bring it to you,” and then an angry letter “Michelangelo didn’t bring me my salary!” And “Sorry, Michelangelo had trouble on the road and turned around and had to come back, there were bandits.” Real famous people in history had lots of setbacks and problems and laundry like anyone else. They resemble us more than we think. (This is why I teach Machiavelli’s letters so much). And such people also had less power over change than we ascribe to them.

Real changes in what a society thinks, in what a culture values, come from thousands of people debating something.  It comes from that classroom where people are talking about Epictetus. And the modern equivalent of that classroom where people are talking about Epictetus then is this talk, this convention, blogs and social media spaces, even Twitter, anywhere where people are talking about books and events and thoughts. What’s going to shape the future? It’s people online debating about which actions are ethical or unethical in Game of Thrones. That’s exactly like these classroom discussions of Epictetus, which turn into introductions to Epictetus, which turn into the education of Voltaire, which turn into the pen mightier than all swords. Random conversation is where it happens, not one genius, thousands of people exchanging ideas. And it doesn’t result in the world those people envision.  Renaissance people did try to intentionally re-engineer the world, and they did sort-of have a shared plan, they wanted to make a world that was more ethical, that had a lot of moral education of its elites in those values which both Ancient Rome and Christianity shared, and this would result in an era of peace.

It didn’t.

Fresco depiction of young Cicero reading in his Roman home; this was the ideal that would save Italy and Europe from an age of ash and shadow. Instead it made something way weirder!

The actual social engineering project that the Renaissance undertook, the world that they wanted to make, is not the world that resulted. The world that resulted was more different, more strange, and more awesome than anything they ever envisioned. Because you know what came out of the Renaissance? Francis Bacon inventing progress and the scientific method and the beginnings of the Enlightenment, which are fruits far more innovative, far more exciting, and far more powerful than anything any Renaissance genius sat down to do. So when you ask yourself “The work I’m doing to try to make a better world, is it helping? Is it going to make the world I envision?” The answer is: it’s not going to make the world you envision, but it is helping, and it’s going to combine with the efforts of thousands of other people that happen in every conversation, in every convention, every workplace, every school, and media post where you’re debating or disseminating an idea or even sharing a concept, it all contributes. But the world that we end up making is not going to be he we envision, it’s going to be—like Francis Bacon’s world—stranger, more different, and more awesome, than those who created it could imagine, just as the Enlightenment was relative to the Renaissance.

So I hope what you take away from this is some point of encouragement and hope, and the understanding that we will not make exactly the world we imagine, but the world we’re going to make is going to be an amazing world, and that we are all contributing to making it, not just elite geniuses, but every one of us, every day.

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Why I Teach Machiavelli Through His Letters

Illuminated manuscript letter B, all big and loopy with lots of twiny blue an dred and green vines.
I struggled to think of a relevant image for this, but isn’t this a lovely letter B?

Hello! It’s been a while since I posted since, as usual, many projects press, so it’s rare for me to have the time to write the kinds of polished essays I like sharing here. But I’ve been hoping to share more things, since a lot of the history work I’ve been doing lately has helped me with reflecting on current events, and I want to share that faster than the slow grind of book-length work and academic journals will allow. So I’m going to start posting a few things here that are a little rougher. I hope to still post formal essays a few times a year as before, but I’m going to start also sharing things like transcripts of lectures or talks I’ve given, excerpts from my teaching notes, or assemblages from Twitter threads which took meatier turns. I hope you’ll enjoy them, but I’ll also try to always make clear what kind of content each post is, so you know which are the polished essays you’re used to.

I’m also launching a Patreon, so if you’ve enjoyed my posts, books, music etc. please consider supporting me.

I’ve felt torn about Patreon for a long time since, unlike so many wonderful scholars and authors I know, I have a  steady living wage from my university and don’t struggle to get by.  But, as my Patreon page explains, what I don’t have enough of is the means to hire help. As someone trying to create a lot (and as a chronic pain sufferer who often has fewer than 7 days in my week) it makes an enormous difference to how much I can do if I can pay for help: pay a music editing service to turn polish vocal tracks into completed albums without spending hours on it myself, to pay my part-time assistant Denise who helps with my calendar and paperwork and fire-hose of email which so easily eat up whole days, to hire a sound editor to finally make it possible to launch a podcast with my good friend Jo Walton talking about books, and craft of writing, and history, and science, and Florence, and gelato, and interviewing awesome friends. Even the little post below was made possible by having help, and wouldn’t exist otherwise. And supporters will get updates on what I’ve been up to, and early access to blog posts and podcast episodes, and snippets of outtakes and works in progress.  So if you’d like to help me hire the help I need to turn more ideas into reality, and to have more time to write, please have a look at the Patreon page for details, and thank you very much!


Why I Teach Machiavelli Through His Letters

(excerpt from a lecture transcript, so this is how I explain this to students too)

Teaching Machiavelli through his letters is a separate thing from being an historian accessing Machiavelli through his letters. One of the reasons that I love teaching Machiavelli through his letters is that you get a very different view of the person from letters. You get unimportant details. You get the things that the person cared about that week, as opposed to the things that the person wanted to be discussed by many people in the context of that person’s name for a long time. You do get the serious political thought, but you get it mixed with “Where is my salary?” “Hello my friend,” “Here’s the party I was at,” “I have a cold,” all of these very human elements that don’t come to us when we just read a thesis.

Thanks to interdisciplinarity, both at University of Chicago and elsewhere, I move from department to department a lot–I spend some of my time with historians, and some with classicists, political science people, Italian literature or English literature people, and with philosophy people. Each of these disciplines has a different way of approaching text, but many of them approach the text perhaps not with the formal philosophical attitude of “death of the author, we care only about the text,” but all the same with the effective attitude of “we try to learn about this author only through the text,” and only through the formal polished text, the treatise.

When I’m trying to unpack not only Machiavelli but history in general to my students, it’s very easy for the history to seem like a sequence of marble busts on pedestals who handed us great books. It’s much harder to get at the fact that those people are also people who are like us: people who messed up, people who ran out of money, people who had anxieties, people who failed in things that they undertook. People who had friends, people who were nervous without their friends, and lonely. And that isn’t a version of history that we get shown very often. We get shown heroes, we get shown villains, and we get shown geniuses, as if there isn’t a person present as well. Machiavelli is a very valuable example, because we have such a great corpus of letters, but he’s also such a name. If you want to make a shortlist of people who are a marble bust on a pedestal in the way that they’re presented as we talk about the history of thought, Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Cicero, Machiavelli, are major major figures in that way. So the letters humanize them and make them real.

I feel it’s important not to approach these works as if these people are somehow superhumanly excellent, as if these people are somehow perfect in what they undertake. I’ll often be at a conference where someone will talk about a passage in a work in isolation. I was recently at the Renaissance Society of America conference, and there was an interesting discussion of a passage in which Ficino had a really weird interpretation of this one passage of Lucretius. And there was a very nasty fight between two scholars over the interpretation, in which one of the scholars insisted he’s making this complicated subtle three-part reading of a thing that relates to another thing, diagram diagram diagram. The other person said “I think he translated the passage wrong. Because the passage was really hard. And his copy didn’t have a very clear script. And I think he didn’t read the sentence the way we read the sentence.” And the first person was adamant that it is inappropriate to question whether someone like Ficino might have had trouble reading a piece of Latin, that of course his Latin is immaculately better than our Latin. And his Latin was better than our Latin, because he spent more of his life doing it and I do believe he’s better than most classicists at this — but most classicists really struggle with that line. And when you read the commentaries on it there’s lots of ambiguity even now about what it means, and we have dictionaries, which he did not.

It was very interesting to me to see that battle between thinking of the figure as human, in which the question “Did he mess up?” is a valid question, as opposed to thinking of the person as someone who could never mess up. And a lot of the ways we approach historical figures, whether it’s Machiavelli, or Aristotle, or anyone, involve the idea that all of their works are fully intended, that they’re somehow in an a-temporal vacuum, that we should look at them all in sequence, that no one is ever going to change his mind about a thing unless the person themselves made changing their mind about a thing be a big deal. We create this idea of these geniuses where everything they wrote even from early on is exactly what they meant, which then all gets incorporated into material.

I want my students to come away from my courses not thinking about historical figures like that, but remembering that every historical figure had to pay for socks, or had to deal with laundry, or have a servant who dealt with laundry for them and then they had to deal with the servant. But they all had everyday practical existences, and they all mess up. Machiavelli’s letters give you access to somebody who feels like a real human being. Some of the things he’s doing are really weird. Some of the things he’s doing involve bizarre sexuality. Some of the things he’s doing involve uncomfortable politics. Some of the things he’s doing involve very astute politics. Some of them involve very terrifying moments like his wife saying: “I’m so glad you’re alive, we heard that Cesare Borgia massacred all of his people, I’m so glad you’re alive!” And others are very much “We’re trying to get my brother a job and no one will give him a job because it was corruptly given to the other person and we have to figure out how to get my brother a job,” which is not the sort of thing we imagine such people giving their hours to.

When you read Michelangelo’s autobiography there’s an interesting point in it where he stops talking about art for a while and starts talking about the lawsuit that went on between him and people associated with Giuliano della Rovere because he was contracted to build Giuliano della Rovere’s tomb, but then for a variety of complicated reasons the tomb did not materialise as it was supposed to have, largely because the plan for the tomb was the most insane ridiculous over-the-top impossible tomb that you could ever possibly conceive of. That was obviously never going to happen. But also there were lots of fights between him and della Rovere over who had to pay for the marble and whether the marble was delivered and he said the marble was delivered and Della Rovere said the marble wasn’t delivered and there was a crack in it… and all these lawsuits went back and forth, and also Guiliano della Rovere was starting a giant war and invading Ferrara. At one point Michelangelo ran away from Rome saying “I’m not going to work on this stupid tomb any more” and went to Florence, and then Giuliano della Rovere moved an army over to besiege Florence and started threatening them “Florence! I will besiege you and burn you down unless you give me back Michelangelo!” We have these great documents where Michelangelo is begging Signoria “Please don’t make me go back to Della Rovere! I hate him and he just torments me. I’ll build you really good defensive walls! Look at my engineering ideas for how to improve the walls!” and they had to say “No, I’m sorry Michelangelo, we’re not going to war with the Battle Pope just for you, go back to Rome, build the stupid thing.” And he did go back to Rome, and then Della Rovere made him paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling knowing Michelangelo hated painting, basically as punishment for trying to run away. I’m not exaggerating. And that’s why there are lots of angry figures in the Sistine Chapel ceiling. But the wonderful horrible flirtatious strange antagonism between Michelangelo and Giuliano della Rovere is magnificent.

And in his autobiography he’s talking about this lawsuit that arose because of the della Rovere tomb project, in great detail, and then there’s a line that says Michelangelo realized that, while dealing with a bunch of lawsuits and Pope Adrian and such, he’d been so stressed he hadn’t picked up a chisel in four years. Because he spent the entire time just dealing with the lawsuit. (Anyone feeling guilty about being overwhelmed by stress this year, you’re not alone!) And we have four years worth of lost Michelangelo production, because he didn’t do any art that entire time, because he was just dealing with a stupid lawsuit. And that’s not the sort of thing that fits into our usual way of thinking about these great historical figures. We imagine Michelangelo in his studio with a chisel. We do not imagine him in a room with a bunch of lawyers being curmudgeonly and bickering and trapped in contract hell.

Those sorts of things are important, I think, to reintroduce into the way we imagine historical figures. That they have an everyday mundanity that we imagine that they don’t. And I think that’s a big part of why when we compare ourselves to them we feel as if we can’t live up to that greatness. Because we tell edited versions of the lives of great men and great women, in which we edit out the things that feel like us. So of course we feel as if our everyday lives full of mundanity can’t rise to those levels, because we’re not comparing ourselves to the real people, we’re comparing ourselves to the edited version in which we take out the mundanity! So Machiavelli’s letters give us that. And they give us a person with problems, and a person with mistakes, and a person with a sense of humor, and a person with sexuality, all of these elements we erase from our marble busts on pedestals. And so that’s a big part of why I use the letters while teaching, and when my students read them I want them to put together “Here is a real person who is like us,” as well as “Here is the everyday on the ground experience of what it’s like to live in this crisis.”

We need that, when we live in a real crisis ourselves, and it makes us feel so often like we’re powerless and weak compared to these impressive people in the past–but they felt that way too.

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Black Death, COVID, and Why We Keep Telling the Myth of a Renaissance Golden Age and Bad Middle Ages

“If the Black Death caused the Renaissance, will COVID also create a golden age?”

Versions of this question have been going around as people, trying to understand the present crisis, reach for history’s most famous pandemic.  Using history to understand our present is a great impulse, but it means some of the false myths we tell about the Black Death and Renaissance are doing new damage, one of the most problematic in my view being the idea that sitting back and letting COVID kill will somehow by itself naturally make the economy turn around and enter a period of growth and rising wages.

Brilliant Medievalists have been posting Black Death pieces correcting misconceptions and flailing as one does when an error refuted 50 times returns the 51st (The Middle Ages weren’t dark and bad compared to the Renaissance!!!).  As a Renaissance historian, I feel it’s my job to shoulder the other half of the load by talking about what the Renaissance was like, confirming that our Medievalists are right, it wasn’t a better time to live than the Middle Ages, and to talk about where the error comes from, why we think of the Renaissance as a golden age, and where we got the myth of the bad Middle Ages.

Only half of this is a story about the Renaissance.  The other half is later: Victorian Britain, Italy’s unification, World Wars I and II, the Cold War, ages in which the myth of the golden Renaissance was appropriated and retold.  And yes, looking at the Black Death and Renaissance is helpful for understanding COVID-19’s likely impact, but in addition to looking at 1348 we need to look at its long aftermath, at the impact Yersinia Pestis had on 1400, and 1500, and 1600, and 1700.  So:

  • This post is for you if you’ve been wondering whether Black Death => Renaissance means COVID => Golden Age, and  you want a more robust answer than, “No no no no no!”
  • This post is for you if you’re tired of screaming The Middle Ages weren’t dark and bad! and want somewhere to link people to, to show them how the myth began.
  • This post is for you if you want to understand how an age whose relics make it look golden in retrospect can also be a terrible age to live in.
  • And this post is for you if want to ask what history can tell us about 2020 and come away with hope. Because comparing 2020 to the Renaissance does give me hope, but it’s not the hope of sitting back expecting the gears of history to grind on toward prosperity, and it’s not the hope for something like the Renaissance—it’s hope for something much, much better, but a thing we have to work for, all of us, and hard.

I started writing this post a few weeks ago but rapidly discovered that a thorough answer will be book-length (the book’s now nearly done in fact).  What I’m sharing now is just a precis,  the parts I think you’ll find most useful now.  So sometimes I’ll make a claim without examples, or move quickly over important things, just linking to a book instead of explaining, because my explanation is approaching 100,000 words.  That book will come, and soon, but meanwhile please trust me as I give you just urgent parts, and I promise more will follow.

Now, to begin, the phrase “golden age” really invokes two different unrelated things:

(1) an era that achieved great things, art, science, innovation, literature, an era whose wondrous achievements later eras marvel at,

(2) a good era to live, prosperous, thriving, stable, reasonably safe, with chances for growth, social ascent, days when hard work pays off, in short an era which—if you had to be stranded in some other epoch of history—you’d be likely to choose.

The Renaissance fits the first—we line up to see its wonders in museums—but it absolutely positively no-way-no-how fit the second, and that’s a big part of where our understandings of Renaissance vs. Medieval go wrong.  So, our outline for today:

  1. Renaissance Life was Worse than the Middle Ages (super-compressed version)
  2. Where did the myth come from in the first place? (a Renaissance story)
  3. Why is the myth of a golden Renaissance retold so much? (a post-Renaissance story)
  4. Conclusion: We Should Aim for Something Better than the Renaissance
Leading my study abroad Florence students on our THIRD Uffizi visit.

It’s also important to begin this knowing that I love the Renaissance, I wouldn’t have dedicated my life to studying it if I didn’t, it’s an amazing era.  I disagree 100% with people who follow “The Middle Ages weren’t really a Dark Age!” with “The Renaissance sucks, no one should care about it!”  The Renaissance was amazing, equally amazing as the Middle Ages, or antiquity, or now.  I don’t love the Renaissance for being perfect.  I love it because it was terrible yet still achieved so much.  I love it because, when I read a letter where a woman talks of a nearby city burning, and armies approaching, and a friend who just died of the plague, and letter also talks about ideas for how to remedy these evils, and Xenophon’s advice for times of war, and how Plato and Seneca differ in their advice on patience, and the marvelous new fresco that’s been finished in the city hall.  To find these voices of people who faced all that yet still came through it brimming with ideas and making art, that makes me love the human species all the more.  And gives me hope.

In Florence, there are little kiosks near the David where you can buy replicas of it, and alongside the plain ones they have copies dipped in glitter paint, so the details of Michelangelo’s design are all obscured with globs of sparkling goo.  That’s what the golden age myth does to the Renaissance.  So when I say the Renaissance was grim and horrible, I’m not saying we shouldn’t study it it, I just want you to scrape off the glitter paint and see the details underneath: damaged, imperfect, a strange mix of ancient and new, doing its best to compensate for flaws in the material and mistakes made early on when teamwork failed, and violent too—David is, after all, about to kill an enemy, a celebration of a conquest, not a peace.  Glitter drowns all that out, and this is why, while the myth of the golden Renaissance does terrible damage to how we understand the Middle Ages, it does just as much damage to how we understand the Renaissance.  So let’s take a quick peek beneath the glitter, and then, more important, let’s talk about where that suffocating glitter comes from in the first place.

Part 1: Renaissance Life was Worse than the Middle Ages (super-condensed version)

The Renaissance was like Voldemort, terrible, but great.

On February 25th 1506, Ercole Bentivoglio, commander of Florence’s armies, wrote to Machiavelli.  He had just read Machiavelli’s Deccenale primo, a history in verse of the events of the last decade. Bentivoglio urged Machiavelli to continue and expand the history, not for them, but for future generations, so that:

“knowing our wretched fortune in these times, they should not blame us for being bad defenders of Italic honor, and so they can weep with us over our and their misfortune, knowing from what a happy state we fell within brief time into such disaster.  For if they did not see this history, they would not believe what prosperity Italy had before, since it would seem impossible that in so few days our affairs could fall to such great ruin.”

Of these days of precipitous ruin, Burkhardt, founder of modern Renaissance studies, wrote in 1869:

“The first decades of the sixteenth century, the years when the Renaissance attained its fullest bloom, were not favorable to a revival of patriotism; the enjoyment of intellectual and artistic pleasures, the comforts and elegancies of life, and the supreme interests of self-development, destroyed or hampered love of country.” (The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, end of Part 1)

Burkhardt seems to be describing a different universe from Bentivoglio, so desperate to prove to posterity that he tried his failing best to defend his homeland’s honor.  Yet this was the decade that produced Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s David, Raphael’s Marriage of the Virgin, Bramante’s design for the new St. Peter’s Basilica, Josquin des Prez’s El grillo (the Cricket), the first chapters of Ariosto’s epic Orlando Furioso, and Castiglione’s first courtly works at the court of Urbino, soon to be immortalized in the Courtier as the supreme portrait of Renaissance culture.  These masterworks do indeed seem to project a world of enjoyment and artistic pleasure in utter disconnect with Bentivoglio’s despair.  Can this be the same Renaissance?

This double vision is authentic to the sources.  If we read treatises, orations, dedicatory prefaces, writings on art or courtly conduct, and especially if we read works written about this period a few decades later—like Vasari’s Lives of the Artists which will be the first to call this age a rinascita—we see what Jacob Burkhardt described, and what popular understandings of the Renaissance focus on: a self-conscious golden age bursting with culture, art, discovery, and vying with the ancients for the title of Europe’s most glorious age.  Burkhardt’s assessment was correct, if we look only at the sources he was looking at.  If instead we read the private letters which flew back and forth between Machiavelli and his correspondents we see terror, invasion, plague deaths, a desperate man scrambling to even keep track of the ever-moving threats which hem his fragile homeland in from every side, as friends and family beg for frequent letters, since every patch of silence makes them fear the loved one might be dead.

Published lament for the assassination of one of the Dukes of Milan – not the same murders Ercole’s parents were directly involved with, but a cousin, and another link in the long and bloody chain.

Machiavelli’s correspondent, Ercole Bentivoglio, typifies the tangled political web which shaped these years.  His father had been Sante Bentivoglio, who began as a blacksmith’s son and common laborer but was identified as an illegitimate member of the Bentivoglio family that dominated Bologna (remember Gendry in Game of Thrones?), so Sante was called to rule Bologna for a while when the only other adult Bentivoglio was murdered in an ambush, and young Ercole grew up in a quasi-princely court with all the grandeur we now visit in museums.  Ercole’s mother was Ginevra Sforza, an illegitimate niece of Francesco Sforza who had recently conquered Milan, replacing the earlier Visconti dukes who had in turn seized the throne by treachery fifty-five years before.  Renaissance politics isn’t turtles all the way down, it’s murders and betrayals all the way down.

Why was life in the Renaissance so bad?  This is going to be a tiny compressed version of what in the book will be 100 pages, but for now I’ll focus on why the Renaissance was not a golden age to actually live in, even if it was a golden age in terms of what it left behind.

Let’s look at life expectancy:  In Italy, average life expectancies in the solidly Medieval 1200s were 35-40, while by the year 1500 (definitely Renaissance) life expectancy in Italian city states had dropped to 18.

Images of swaddled infants, from the Innocenti foundling hospital in Florence

It’s striking how consistently, when I use these numbers live, the shocked and mournful silence is followed by a guy objecting: those numbers are deceptive, you’re including infant mortality—voiced as if this observation should discredit them.  Yes, the average of 18 does include infant mortality, but the Medieval average of 35 includes it too, so the drop is just as real.  If you want we can exclude those who die before age 12, and we do get a smaller total drop then, average age of death 54 in the 1200s dropping to 45-48 in 1500, so only a 12-16% drop instead of 48%, but the more we zoom the grimmer the Renaissance half proves.  Infant mortality (within 12 months) averaged 28% both before and after 1348, so the big drop from Medieval to Renaissance Italy is actually kids who made it past the first year, only to die in years 2-12 from new diseases.  We also think of the dangers of childbirth as lowering women’s lifespans, but death from childbirth stayed steady from Medieval to Renaissance at (for Tuscany) 1 death per 40 births, while the increase in war and violence made adult male mortality far higher than female even with the childbirth threat.  If we look at the 20% of people who lived longest in Renaissance Italy it’s almost entirely widows and nuns, plus a few diehards like Titian, and poor exiled Cardinal da Costa of Portugal languishing in Rome to the age of 102, with everyone he’d known in the first 2/3rds of his life long gone.  Kids died more in the Renaissance, adults died more, men died more, we have the numbers, but I find it telling how often people who hear these numbers try to discredit them, search for a loophole, because these facts rub against our expectations.  We didn’t want a wretched golden age. (Demographics are, of course, an average, and different bits of Europe varied, but I’m using the numbers for the big Italian city-states precisely because they’re the bit of Europe we most associate with the golden Renaissance, so if it’s true there, it’s true of the Renaissance you were imagining.)

Why did life expectancy drop?  Counter-intuitively the answer is, largely, progress.

Look what we can make now! A pistol that shoots nine random directions at once! (Bargello museum)

War got worse, for one.  Over several centuries, innovations in statecraft and policy (which would continue gradually for centuries more) had increased the centralization of power in the hands of kings and governments, especially their ability to gather funds, which meant they could raise larger armies and have larger, bloodier wars.  Innovations in metallurgy, chemistry, and engineering also made soldiers deadlier, with more artillery, more lethal weapons, more ability to knock a town’s walls down and kill everyone inside, new daggers designed to leave wounds that would fester, or anti-personnel artillery designed to slice a line of men in half.  Thus, while both the Middle Ages and Renaissance had lots of wars, Renaissance wars were larger and deadlier, involving more troops and claiming more lives, military and civilian—this wasn’t a sudden change, it was a gradual one, but it made a difference.

Economic growth also made the life expectancy go down.  Europe was becoming more interconnected, trade increasing.  This was partly due to innovations in banking (which had started in the 1100s), and partly, yes, the aftermath of the Black Death which caused a lot of economic change—not growth but change—some sectors growing, others shrinking, people moving around, people trying to stop people from moving around, markets shifting.  There were also innovations in insurance, for example insuring your cargo ship so if it sinks you don’t go bankrupt like our Merchant of Venice.  This meant more multi-region trade. For example, weaving wool into fine-quality non-itchy thread required a lot of oil, without which you could only make coarse, itchy thread.  England produced lots of wool but no oil (except walnuts), so, in the Renaissance, entrepreneurs from England, instead of spinning low-profit itchy wool, started exporting their wool to Italy where abundant olive oil made it cheap to produce high-quality cloth and re-export it to England and elsewhere.  This let merchants grow rich, prosperity for some, but when people move around more, diseases move more too.  Cities were also growing denser, more manufacturing jobs and urban employment drawing people to crowd inside tight city walls, and urban spaces always have higher mortality rates than rural.  Malaria, typhoid, dysentery, deadly influenza, measles, the classic pox, these old constants of Medieval life grew fiercer in the Renaissance, with more frequent outbreaks claiming more lives.

The Black Death contributed too—in school they talk as if the plague swept through in 1348 then went away, but the bubonic plague did not go away, it remained endemic, like influenza or chickenpox today, a fact of life.  I have never read a full set of Renaissance letters which didn’t mention plague outbreaks and plague deaths, and Renaissance letters from mothers to their traveling sons regularly include, along with advice on etiquette and eating enough fennel, a list of which towns to avoid this season because there’s plague there.  Carlo Cipolla (in the fascinating yet tediously titled Before the Industrial Revolution) collected great data for the two centuries after 1348, in which Venice had major plague bursts 7% of years, Florence 14% of years, Paris 9% of years, Barcelona 13% of years, and England (usually London) 22% in the earlier period spiking to 50% in the later 1500s, when England saw plague in 26 out of 50 years between 1543 and 1593.  Excluding tiny villages with little traffic, losing a friend or sibling to plague was a universal experience from 1348 clear to the 1720s, when plague finally diminished in Europe, not because of any advance in medicine, but because fourteen generations of exposure gave natural selection time to work, those who survived to reproduce passing on a heightened immune response, a defensive adaptation bought over centuries by millions of deaths.

The real villain: Y. Pestis, the bacterium that causes plague

Today thousands of cases of Y. pestis (the plague bacterium) still occur each year, largely in sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia where it was not endemic so immunities didn’t develop.  And if geneticist Mihai Netea is correct that the immune mutation which helps those of European descent resist Y. pestis also causes our greater rate of autoimmune disorders, then the Black Death is still constantly claiming lives through the changes it worked into European DNA over 400 years (and literally causing me pain as I type this, as my own autoimmune condition flares).  While the 1348 pandemic was Medieval, most of the Middle Ages did not have the plague—it’s the Renaissance which has the plague every single day as an apocalyptic lived reality.

Economic growth also made non-military violence worse.  Feuds (think Montagues and Capulets) were a Medieval constant, but the body count of a feud depends a lot on how wealthy the head families are, since the greater their wealth and the larger their patronage network, the larger the crowd of goons on stage in the opening scene of Romeo & Juliet when partisans of the two factions are biting their thumbs at each other, and the larger the number of unnamed men who also get killed in the background while Romeo fights Tybalt.  In Italy especially, new avenues for economic growth (banking and mercenary work) quickly made families grow wealthy enough to raise forces far larger than the governments of their little city states, which made states powerless to stop the violence, and vulnerable to frequent, bloody coups.  The Bentivoglios of Bologna and Sforza of Milan (whose marriage alliance produced Ercole who wrote that letter to Machiavelli) had risen by force, ruled by force, and were in turn overthrown by force, several times each, in fact, as rulers were killed, then avenged by returning sons or nephews, and cities flip-flopped between rival dynasties every few years:

Look what happens with the Dukes of Urbino 1440s-1530s

In the 1400s most cities in Italy saw at least four violent regime changes, some of them as many as ten or twelve, commixed with bloody civil wars and factional massacres, until all Italy’s ruling houses were so new that the Knights Hospitaller—who normally required knights to have been noble four generations to join—let Italians in with only two generations because otherwise there would have been no one.  Petrarch talked about this in his poem Italia Mia, which we think was written by 1347 (i.e. before the Black Death); he described Italy’s flesh covered with mortal wounds, caused by “cruel wars for light causes, and hearts, hardened and closed/ by proud, fierce Mars,” and his poor poem begging Italy’s proud, hard-hearted people for, “Peace, peace, peace.”  It sounds just like what Ercole described to Machiavelli, doesn’t it?   Well, Petrarch’s poem is as far from Machiavelli’s history as Napoleon’s rise from Yuri Gagarin’s space flight, a long time during which the wars grew worse, armies bigger, cities richer, plagues more frequent, steady escalation of the same things Petrarch feared would wipe out Italy 150 years before.

Important: none of this was new in the Renaissance!  These were all gradual developments: banking, trade, centralization, the cultural produce of the Renaissance too (paintings, cathedrals, music, epics), these had all been gradually ramping up for centuries, changing the character of Europe decade by decade.  Banking innovations started in the 1100s, insurance innovations in the 1300s, economic shifts before as well as after 1348, political shifts accumulated centuries, it’s all incremental. Thus, when I try to articulate the real difference between Renaissance and Medieval, I find myself thinking of the humorous story “Ever-So-Much-More-So” from Centerburg Tales (1951).  A traveling peddler comes to town selling a powder called Ever-So-Much-More-So.  If you sprinkle it on something, it enhances all its qualities good and bad.  Sprinkle it on a comfy mattress and you get mattress paradise, but if it had a squeaky spring you’ll never sleep again for the noise.  Sprinkle it on a radio and you’ll get better reception, but agonizing squeals when signal flares.  Sprinkle it on the Middle Ages and you get the Renaissance.  All key qualities were already there, good things as well as bad, poetry, art, currents of trade, thought, finance, law, and statecraft changing year by year, but add some Ever-So-Much-More-So and the intensity increases, birthing an era great and terrible.  Many different changes reinforced each other, all in continuity with what came before, just higher magnitude, the fat end of a wedge of cheese, but it’s the same cheese on the thin end too.  The line we draw—our slice across the cheese—we started drawing because people living in the Renaissance started to draw it, felt it was different, claimed it was different, and their claims reordered the way we think about history.

Some more quick un-fun facets of Renaissance life: while the Medieval Inquisition started in 1184, it didn’t ramp up its book burnings, censorship, and executions to a massive scale until the Spanish Inquisition in the 1470s and then the printing press and Martin Luther in the 1500s (Renaissance); similarly witchcraft persecution surges to scales unseen in the Middle Ages after the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum in 1486 (Renaissance); and the variety of ingenious tortures being used in prisons increased, rather than decreasing, over time.  Rule of thumb: most of the scary practices we think of as “Medieval” were either equally true of the Renaissance, worse in the Renaissance, or only started in the Renaissance. If you want corrupt popes, they too can be more terrible as they get richer. And pre-sanitation, the more luxury goods traveled, the more people grew wealthy, the wider the variety of food people ate, and with more kinds of foods came more different kinds of parasites living in your intestines eating your from the inside out, hooray!  Even in the Middle Ages we can tell your social class from the variety of parasite eggs in your preserved feces (the more you know!), but in the Renaissance the total could go up, and the frequency and intensity of chronic pain with it (not to mention a wider variety of horrible toxic things doctors would try to feed you as a cure; before sanitation more doctors = bad, not good).

In sum, if you’re a time traveler and you’re being banished, don’t pick the Renaissance.

Florence’s Gates of Paradise

As for how an age so terrible to live through produced the masterpieces and innovations we still hold in awe, my ultrashort answer is that Renaissance art and culture was also a gradual ramp-up from ever-changing Medieval art and culture, and that the leaps we seem to see in the later period are the desperate measures of a desperate time.

Legitimacy is a key concept here.  The secret we all know is that governments, countries, laws, they’re all just a bunch of stuff we made up.  They exist only as long as we all keep agreeing they exist, and act accordingly.  Far more than Tinkerbell, regimes and governments need us to believe in them or they die.  Sometimes this death takes the form of people just ignoring old structures, like in the Hellenic age when a remote Greek colony might hear from the founding city so infrequently that it starts ignoring the empire and just makes its own government.  A more common consequence when people stop believing in governments is that some rival will take advantage of that lack of confidence, and rise up to claim power instead, whether through an electoral primary challenge or a bloody civil war.

For this reason, regimes to work hard to gain legitimacy, that is to acquire any and all things that make people agree the regime is real, and has the right to rule.  When a usurper murders the old king but marries his widow, sister, or daughter, that’s an attempt to secure legitimacy in a world where people are used to government going with blood right.  When no local royal-blood bride is available, the usurper might instead marry a princess from a famous distant kingdom, and fill his court with expensive, exotic treasures and other indications that he’s connected to foreign powers and money—this is another bid at legitimacy since it implies the new ruler has strong allies and the means to bring prosperity and trade. There are lots of other ways to project legitimacy: getting trusted local elites to work for you, getting religious leaders to bless you, publishing your pedigree (fake or real) with mighty ancestors, cracking down on crime and having showy trials, paying an astrologer to circulate your horoscope with great predictions, mounting a big parade, building an equestrian statue of yourself in the square that everyone walks past, receiving ambassadors in a showy way so everyone sees how much foreign powers honor you, repairing bridges and caring for orphans so people talk about your generosity and virtue, even a modern city funding a zoo and orchestra and art museum is that city projecting legitimacy with the trappings we associated with cultured power.  When a regime has lots of sources of legitimacy, it makes people more willing to go along with that regime continuing.  Some sources of legitimacy tie into a culture’s traditional ideas about what makes power lawful (religion, heredity, virtue, particular values), while other sources of legitimacy, like a collection of exotic animals or a fancy palace, just impress people, and make them feel that life under this regime will probably be good, and that overthrowing it would probably be difficult if it has money to throw away on palaces and elephants.

Medieval illumination of a king sitting on a throne with a crown being placed on his head by two robed bishops.
Here’s Henry III of England depicted receiving the crown from two very legitimate bishops. In Richard III Shakespeare has Richard arrange to be found at prayer standing between two priests when he’s trying to convince the people to make him king — a classic bid for legitimacy which Shakespeare knows is often insincere.

Thus the radical oversimplification is that, when times get desperate, those in power pour money into art, architecture, grandeur, even science, because such things can provide legitimacy and thus aid stability.  Intimidating palaces, grand oratory, epics about the great deeds of a conqueror, expensive tutors so the prince and princess have rare skills like Greek and music, even a chemical treatise whose dedication praises the Duke of Such-and-such, these were all investments in legitimacy, not fruits of peace but symptoms of a desperate time.  In an era when a book cost as much as a house (it really did!), and Florence’s Laurenziana library cost more per GDP than the Moon Landing, you don’t get that level of investment unless elites think they’re going to get something out of it.  Just as today giant corporations fund charities or space tech because they get something out of it, publicity raising their stock prices, so a mighty merchant family might repair a church or build a grand public square and put their coat of arms on it, drawing investment and intimidating rivals.

Don’t YOU want a trade deal with the people who can build THAT?

Culture is a form of political competition—if war is politics by other means, culture is too, but lower risk.  This too happened throughout the Middle Ages, but the Renaissance was ever-so-much-more-so in comparison, and whenever you get a combination of (A) increasing wealth and (B) increasing instability, that’s a recipe for (C) increasing art and innovation, not because people are at peace and have the leisure to do art, but because they’re desperate after three consecutive civil wars and hope they can avoid a fourth one if they can shore up the regime with a display of cultural grandeur.  The fruits fill our museums and libraries, but they aren’t relics of an age of prosperous peace, they’re relics of a lived experience which was, as I said, terrible but great.

All this I’ll explore further in the book, but if you want more info in the meantime you can get an excellent overview of the period in Guido Ruggiero’s The Renaissance in Italy, and a look at how this fed philosophical innovation and birthed Renaissance humanism in James Hankins’s Virtue Politics.  For today, though, our goal isn’t to look deeply at the David, it’s to look at the glitter we just scraped off it, and to understand where that glitter comes from.

Part 2: Where did the Myth Come From in the First Place? (A Renaissance Story)

The moment when all Medievalists *facepalm*

Whenever I’m with Medievalists and the subject turns to one of the bad things people say about the Middle Ages (dark age, backwards, superstitious, stagnant, oppressive, enemy of progress, all homogenous), I make a point of speaking up and saying, “Yeah, that’s my guys’s fault.  Sorry.”  It was a joke the first time, and it’s still half a joke, but I keep doing it because there’s this special smile under the resulting chuckle, this pause, warming, affirming, on the Medievalist’s face that says: I’ve always felt I deserved an apology from the Renaissance!  Thank you!

Because the beginning of the problem was the Renaissance’s fault.

Pretty-much every culture, when it tells its history, divides it into parts somehow (reigns, eras, dynasties).  These labels may not seem like a big deal, but they have a huge effect on how we imagine things.  Think of how the discourse about boomers vs. Gen-X vs. millennials affects people’s self-identities, who associates with whom, and the kinds of discourse we can have with those terms that we couldn’t have with different ones.  The lines and labels in our history are powerful.  In my Terra Ignota science fiction novels I mention that the people in my 25th century society debate whether World War I ended in 1945 or 1989, and it always blows readers’ minds for a few seconds, and then follows the reflection: yeah, I could see WWI and WWII being considered one thing, like the Wars of the Roses.  My first exposure to the way this makes your brain go *whfoooo* was as a kid and hearing Eugen Weber provocatively call WWI and WWII “The Second Thirty Years War”.  Feels weird, right?  Weird-powerful.

Interesting choices made in this timeline of where to divide this timeline. Many other choices could be made. Google for “European History Timeline” and you’ll find dozens.
Modern illustration of a Medieval mystery play, enacting battles between good and evil for the audience’s moral edification – just like history.

People living in the European and Mediterranean Middle Ages generally (oversimplification) divided history into two parts, BC and AD, before the birth of Jesus and after.  For finer grain, you used reigns of emperors or kings, or special era names from your own region, i.e. before or after a particular event, rise, reign, or fall.  There was also a range of traditions subdividing further, such as Augustine’s six ages of the world which divided up biblical eras (Adam to Noah, Noah to Abraham, etc.), though most of those subdivisions are pre-historical, without further subdivision post Christ’s Incarnation.  The Middle Ages also had a sense of the Roman Empire as a phase in history, but it was tied in with the BC-to-AD tradition, and with ideas of Providence and a divine Plan.  Rome had not only Christianized the Mediterranean and Europe through the conversion of Constantine c. 312 CE, but authors like Dante stressed how the Empire had been the legal authority which executed Christ, God’s tool in enacting the Plan, as vital to humanity’s salvation as the nails or the cross.  Additionally, many Medieval interpreters viewed history itself as a didactic tool, designed by God for human moral education (not the discipline of history, the actual events).  In this interpretation of history, God determined everything that happens, as the author of a story determines what happens.  The events of the past and life were like the edifying pageant plays one saw at festivals: God the Scriptwriter introduces characters in turn—a king, a fool, a villain, a saint—and as we see their fates we learn valuable lessons about fickle Fortune, hypocrisy, the retribution that awaits the wicked, and the rewards beyond the trials and sufferings of the good.  The Roman Empire had been sent onto the world’s stage just the same, a tool to teach humanity about power, authority, imperial majesty, law, justice, peace, offering a model of supreme power which people could use to imagine God’s power, and many other details excitedly explored by numerous Medieval interpreters.  (Many Renaissance interpreters still view history this way, and the first who really doesn’t do it at all is Machiavelli.)

The two people most directly responsible for inventing the Middle Ages are two men from Tuscany: Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca, 1304-1374), and Leonardo Bruni (1370-1444).

Fresco of Petrarch

Petrarch was the first person to talk about the era after the Roman empire as a separate, bad period of shadow, misery, darkness, and decay.  Petrarch gained his fame with his Italian poetry, and popularized the sonnet (though we have a long time still to wait for Shakespeare), but later in his life he was part of a circle of Italian scholars who loved, loved, loved, loved Cicero, and read his political works intensively as they thought about questions of republicanism and statecraft.  Petrarch described himself as having been born in exile.  He was born in exile in space quite literally, while his parents were in banishment, and he grew up in Avignon in the period the papacy was there in French control.  But he also considered himself an exile in time, exiled from that community of antiquity which was the true home of his spirit.  I already quoted his lament Italia Mia, and his sense of the degeneration of his era was enhanced by the feeling that France’s control of the papacy had ravaged and spoiled Rome and Italy.  He also lived through the Black Death, and lost almost all his scholar-friends in it.  Two surviving friends wrote to him after the main wave had passed to plan a precious reunion—they were attacked by bandits on the way, and one murdered, while the other escaped but was missing for many months.  You can understand why Petrarch, reading of the Pax Romana when the ancient texts claim you could walk in safety from one end of Rome’s empire to the other, might see his age as one of ash and shadow.  He projected that ash and shadow back on everything since Rome, lumping together for the first time the long sequence we now refer to as the Middle Ages.

Fresco depiction of young Cicero reading in his Roman home; raising the next generation of Italy’s rulers the same way was Petrarch’s plan to save Italy and Europe from an age of ash and shadow.

Petrarch, importantly, did not claim his era was already a golden age, nor did he use the word Renaissance; he claimed his era needed to have a transformation, that desperate times called for desperate measures, and that if Italy was to have any hope of healing it must look to its ancient past, to Rome, the Pax Romana, that dream age when there were no bandits on the road or pirates in the sea.  The lost arts that nurtured the age of Emperors were languishing in ancient tomes waiting to be restored if only people reached for them.  We know the Renaissance as the era that revived a lot of lost Roman technologies, geometry, engineering, large-scale bronze work, and those were important, but what Petrarch really thought would change things were people, intellectual technologies, not science or engineering tools.  Petrarch wanted the library that educated Cicero, and Seneca, and Caesar.  When we today look at ancient Rome we’re often struck most by the wicked Emperors, Caligula, Nero, the anecdotes of decadent corruption, but Petrarch instead saw the republican Brutus, who executed his own sons when they conspired to take over the state—in a world where city after city was falling to monarchal coups, and Lord Montague was used to using his great influence to make the Prince let Romeo get away with murder, the thought of Brutus putting Rome before his family felt like a miracle.  (Unhelpfully, Petrarch didn’t write a single clear treatise where he spelled this out, but if you want a sample try his letters and invectives, or for the mega-thorough scholarly version see James Hankins’ Virtue Politics).

Important: even using antiquity wasn’t new in the Renaissance.  Medieval people had been reading Seneca, and Cicero, and Virgil the whole time, and imitating and reusing ancient stuff, they just used the classics differently from how Petrarch did, just as the classics are also used differently in the 17th century, and the 19th century, and today. There were some major innovations in Renaissance engagement with the classics (several stages of innovation in fact), that differentiate them from Medieval, but those are complexities for another day.

Stunning portrait face of Leonardo Bruni, from his tomb in Santa Croce.

Leonardo Bruni was the next step.  He was child when Petrarch died, and grew up in the era of heady excitement of trying to use classical education to create the golden age Petrarch proposed.  Bruni studied Latin with a focus (as Petrarch encouraged) on imitating ancient Latin instead of Medieval Latin whose grammar and vocabulary had evolved (as any language does) over the centuries.  Bruni served as Chancellor of Florence, and imitated ancient Roman historians in writing his History of the Florentine People, which for the first time formally divided history into three parts: ancient, middle, and modern, which we now call Renaissance.  He also filled his history with analysis and deep interpretation, which many Renaissance scholars will tell you was the first modern history, the first history of a post-classical time/place, and the first truly analytic history written since antiquity, and then Medievalists will scream at them and pile up examples of Medieval chronicles full of framing and moral analysis, which absolutely are doing sophisticated interpretive work, and vary enormously from each other, but Bruni’s is recognizably as different.  Why?  Largely because Bruni actively wanted his history to seem innovative and different, and wrote with that as a goal, in a new kind of Latin, with new structure, setting out to make something everyone would look at and say: Wow, it’s like what the Romans did!

Illuminated manuscript of a French translation of Bruni’s history; every court had to have it, and make one of their own.

With Bruni we had three periods—ancient, medieval, and the new age.  That new age wasn’t called rinascita until Vasari’s Lives of the Artists in 1550 (more than a century after Bruni) and renaissance proper was coined by Jules Michelet in 1855, but Bruni’s idea of three periods, and that this new one could be a golden age, caught on quickly because of its potential for… (da da da daaa!) …legitimacy!  Back then, as now, claiming that you’re the start of a new golden age is an ideal way to make your (teetering, illegitimate) regime seem exciting, full of momentum, glorious.  History-writing modeled on Bruni quickly became all the rage, and you could awe people with a history of how great your city/people/family is, get them excited about a golden age, make yourself seem legitimate.  And Bruni’s history writing had another power too.

One set of events Bruni described in his Florentine History were the conquests of Gian Galeazzo Visconti the “Viper of Milan” (1351-1402), a man who lived up in every way to his badass family crest of a serpent swallowing a helpless little dude. After ambushing and supplanting his uncle, the Viper seized Milan (bribing appropriate powers to make him duke), then took Verona, Vicenza, Padua, and tried for all of northern Italy including Bologna and Florence, securing a great victory at the Battle of Casalecchio in 1402.  But then (according to Bruni) brilliant Florentine cunning arranged the would-be conqueror’s defeat and downfall.  When Bruni’s history circulated in 1444, the Viper’s grandson Duke Filippo Maria Visconti did a spit take: “What the?!  We didn’t lose that war!  Granddad dropped dead of a f*ing fever and the troops had to go home!  The Florentines never beat us in a single battle!  They can’t say won the war!”  They can.  They did.

It turns out history isn’t written by the winners; history is written by the people who write histories.

So, what are you going to do about it, grandson of the Viper of Milan?  There’s only one thing to do: hire one of these new classically-educated humanisty types to write a history of your city and your family framed your way, and replacing the murdered-his-uncle bribed-the-king totally-illegitimate conquest-by-force narrative with a glorious lineage that constantly kicked Florence’s ass!!  That’s what he did—that’s what everybody did, Milan, Venice, France, England, Hungary, Naples; everybody had to have a history, and all the histories claimed there had been a bad middle age, that it was over, and that we were now in the glorious classical-revival-powered new age which had the potential to surpass it thanks to the virtues and glories of [Insert Prince Here].  This is why, up in England, baby King Henry VI’s uncle Duke Humphrey of Gloucester tried to hire Leonardo Bruni to come to England and work for him, and write a history that would shore up the tenuous Lancastrian claim to the throne (we’re entering the Wars of the Roses here).  And this is why, while Bruni stayed in Florence, another major Florentine figure Poggio Bracciolini actually was lured by the high pay to go to England and work for Humphrey’s rival Cardinal Beaufort.  And all these histories pick and choose details to make the current regime/ruler look great and legitimate, at the expense of making the newly-invented middle age look bad.

No no no no, please, just no…

This is why all Medievalists, deep down inside, know they deserve an apology from the Renaissance.

One attempt at a solution is dropping the term Renaissance, but that doesn’t actually solve the problem, since it leaves us with antiquity and a period from then to… what?  Is the dividing line the Enlightenment?  Industrialization?  Colonialism?  The Industrial Revolution?  The Agricultural Revolution?  The French Revolution?  WWI?  No matter how late you push the line, any of these divisions is still accepting Bruni’s ancient-middle-modern division, and involves making a claim about what begins the modern.  Normal parlance in history now is “early modern” which begins with [insert-scholarly-squabble-here] and ends roughly with the French Revolution, which is generally agreed to kick off “modern” proper.  While “early modern” does avoid accepting claim that the Middle Ages were bad and needed a rebirth, and I use it myself, I also think it’s a dreadful term, since (A) it’s confusing (“early modern” sounds like the Crystal Palace, not Shakespeare’s Globe), and (B) the term actively worsens the degree to which your selected start date is a judgment call about what makes us modern.  Because the real problem with the myth of the bad Middle Ages versus golden Renaissance is not what Petrarch and Bruni created within the Renaissance itself—it’s what happened later to entangle both terms with an equally problematic third term: modern.

Part 3: Why is the Myth of a Renaissance Golden Age Retold so Much? (a post-Renaissance story)

The thing about golden ages—and this is precisely what Petrarch and Bruni tapped into—is that they’re incredibly useful to later regimes and peoples who want to make glorifying claims about themselves.  If you present yourself, your movement, your epoch, as similar to a golden age, as the return of a golden age, as the successor to a golden age, those claims are immensely effective in making you seem important, powerful, trustworthy.  Legitimate.

In sum, one of the most powerful tools for legitimacy is invoking a past golden age.  Under my rule we will be great like X was great!  Whether it’s a giant golden age (Rooooome!) or a tiny golden age (the US 1950s!), if you can claim to be bringing it back, you can make a very clear, appealing case for why you should have power.  This claim can be made by a king, a duke, a ruling council, a political party, an individual, or a whole movement.  It can be made explicitly in rhetoric (I am the new Napoleon!) or implicitly by borrowing the decorative motifs, vocabulary, and trappings of an era.  An investment banking service that uses a Roman coin profile as its logo, names its different mutual funds after Roman legions, and has a pediment and columns on its corporate headquarters is trying to project legitimacy from the idea of antiquity as a golden age of power and stability.

The newborn United States of America when it decided to make the Washington Monument be a giant obelisk, that was another bid at legitimacy and projecting power by invoking the golden ages of ancient Egypt and conquering Rome, combined in the Washington Monument’s case with other things like, instead of the traditional gold tip on top, using high-tech more-expensive-than-gold aluminum, mixing golden age with power claims about wealth and science.


Painting of the Gallery of Cornelis van der Geest, by Willem van Haecht, 1628

…because the Renaissance had called itself a golden age, by the 17th century it had joined the list of epochs that you can invoke to gain legitimacy, and has been invoked that way many times.  This is why 18th and especially 19th and earlier 20th century governments and elites raced to buy up Italian Renaissance art treasures and display them in their homes and museums.  This is why Mussolini, while he mostly invoked imperial Rome, used the Renaissance too, and even made special arrangements to meet Hitler inside the Vasari Corridor in Florence to show off the art treasures of the Uffizi.  And this is why the US Library of Congress building is painted all over inside with imitations of Renaissance classicizing frescos and allegorical figures in Renaissance style even though the quotations they include and values they celebrate are largely not Renaissance.

Mussolini takes Hitler on a tour of the Uffizi

One consequence of golden ages being so powerful is that powers squabble over them: “I’m the true successor of [XXX]!”  “No, I’m the true successor!”  You see this in the fascinating modern day dispute over the name Macedonia in which both Greece and the country now called North Macedonia both want to be seen as the land of Alexander the Great, and argued over the name tooth and nail, dragging in both the UN and NATO.  Since golden ages are mythical constructions (the events are real but the golden age-ness is mythmaking) they’re easy to redefine to serve claims of true successor status—all you have to do is claim that the true heart that made the golden age great was X, and the true spirit of X flourishes most in you.  Any place (past or present) that calls itself a new Jerusalem, new Rome, or new Athens is doing this, usually accompanied by a narrative about how the original has been ruined by something: “Greece today is stifled by [insert flaw here: conquest, superstition, socialism, lack of socialism, a backwards Church, whatever], but the true spirit of Plato, Socrates and the Examined Life flourish in [Whateverplace]!”

Brutus or Caesar, you can pick either one!

Ancient Rome is particularly easy to use this way because Rome had several phases (republic, empire, Christian Rome) so if some rival has done a great job declaring itself the New Roman Empire you can follow up by saying the Empire was the corrupt decadent period and the Roman Republic was the true Rome!  Simply quote Cicero and talk about wicked emperors and you can appropriate the good Rome and characterize your rivals as the bad Rome.  If republic, empire, and Christian Rome are all claimed, you can do something more creative like the 19th century romantic movement which claimed the archaic pastoral Rome of Virgil’s Georgics, replacing pediments and legionary eagles with garlands and shepherds and claiming a mythic golden age no one had been using lately.

The same is true of claiming Renaissance.  If you can make a claim about what made the Renaissance a golden age, and claim that you are the true successor of that feature of the Renaissance, then you can claim the Renaissance as a whole.  This is made easier by the fact that “the Renaissance” is incredibly vague.  When did it start? 1400? 1350? 1500? 1250? 1550? 1348? When did it end? 1600? 1650? 1700?  You can find all these dates if you dig through books about “the Renaissance” written in different countries and different fields (art history, literary history).  I pointed out that Petrarch’s Italia Mia is as far from Ercole’s Bentivoglio’s letter to Machiavelli as Napoleon’s rise from Yuri Gagarin’s space flight, but even at Machiavelli we’re still only half-way through the large, vague period that different people label Renaissance.  On my own university campus, if I drop by different departments and ask colleagues when Renaissance begins, I get 1200 or 1250 from the Italian lit department (some of whom say Machiavelli is already “modern”), but in the English building I might get 1450 or even 1500.  I think drawing a line after Black Death makes sense for Italy at least, or maybe at 1400, but there are plenty of counter-arguments, and people on campus who identify as Medievalists who study things later than some things I work on.  I think it’s great for Medieval and Renaissance to overlap, since I—looking mainly forward—ask different questions about someone like Petrarch from the questions my Medievalist colleagues ask.  The only “wrong” answer to where the line falls, in my opinion, is to believe there is a clear line.

And if we zoom into this long, vague period, when was the “high Renaissance” i.e. the best part, the most characteristic part?  If you ask a political scientist it’s usually the very early 1400s, when Bruni and other innovative political thinkers were writing; if you ask an art historian it’s the decades right after 1500 when ¾ of the Ninja Turtles overlapped; if you ask a theater scholar it’s Shakespeare who was born fully 200 years later than Bruni and his peers discussing politics.  It all depends on what you think defines the Renaissance, so if you have a different focus then different dates feel like periphery or core.

So, just as when we invoke Rome we can pick republican Rome, imperial Rome, pastoral Rome, Christian Rome, the conquering Rome of Julius Caesar or the peaceful Rome of the Pax Romana, similarly there are a huge range of Renaissances one can invoke: Bruni’s, Raphael’s, Machiavelli’s, Luther’s, Shakespeare’s.  But choosing your Renaissance is an especially potent question because of… (drumroll please)… the X-Factor.

Okay, deep breath.

Sherlock Holmes (Jeremy Brett Version) with his pocket Petrarch

After the Renaissance, in the period vaguely from 1700 to 1850, everyone in Europe agreed the Renaissance had been a golden age of art, music, and literature specifically.  Any nation that wanted to be seen as powerful had to have a national gallery showing off Renaissance (mainly Italian) art treasures, and capital buildings with Renaissance neoclassical motifs, while an individual with elite ambitions had to know classicizing Latin, and a bit of Greek, and have opinions about Raphael, Titian, Petrarch, and the polyphonic motets of Lassus.  Seriously: in the original Doyle Holmes stories, so 1850-1910, after having Watson establish Holmes’s “Knowledge of literature—nil. Philosophy—nil.” still has Holmes carry a pocket Petrarch and write a monograph on the polyphonic motets of Lassus, because that’s what a smart, impressive person did in 1850.   This also meant that Renaissance art treasures were protected and preserved more than Medieval ones—if you’re valorizing the Renaissance you’re usually criticizing the Middle Ages in contrast, so these generations learned to think of Renaissance art as good taste and the periods on both sides (Medieval and baroque) as bad taste, and a lot of great Medieval art was left to gather dust, or rot, or was even actively destroyed, since nothing invokes the Renaissance like sweeping away the “bad” medieval.  As a result, the Renaissance became a self-fulfilling source base: go to a museum today and you see much more splendid Renaissance art than Medieval, leading to the natural conclusion that the Renaissance produced more art in general, but Middle Ages did make splendid art, it’s just that later centuries didn’t preserve it as carefully, so less survives, and what survives is more likely to be in storage than in the main gallery.

The transition from people being excited about Renaissance art and culture to being excited about the Renaissance as an era came in the mid-1800s, primarily with the work of Swiss historian Jacob Burkhardt, and his 1869 The Civilization of the Renaissance in ItalyIt’s a gorgeous read, unskimmably rich prose, and Burkhardt’s work was a major breakthrough moment for the practice of history as a whole, because he showed how you could write a history, not of a country or a person, but of a culture, discussing the practices and ideas of an era, examining art and artists side-by-side with authors, soldiers, and statesmen as examples of people of a period and the way they thought, acted, and lived.  The book pioneered cultural history, the practice of trying to study societies and their characteristics, acknowledging the interrelationship of politics with art and culture instead of examining them separately.  Cultural history remains a major field, and one where some of the best work on once-neglected topics like women, pop culture, and non-elites has flourished.  But…

Burkhardt was also the main figure who popularized the terms “modernity” and “modern.”  He argued that the Renaissance was the birth of “modern man,” and that modern man was defined by a powerful sense of human excellence and human potential.  According to Burkhardt, the core of this change—the spirit of the Renaissance which sparked the triumphant path of progress toward modernity—was the rise of individualism.  As he says in the beginning of Part II:

In the Middle Ages both sides of human consciousness—that which was turned within as that which was turned without—lay dreaming or half awake beneath a common veil. The veil was woven of faith, illusion, and childish prepossession, through which the world and history were seen clad in strange hues. Man was conscious of himself only as member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation—only through some general category. In Italy this veil first melted into air; an objective treatment and consideration of the state and of all the things of this world became possible. The subjective side at the same time asserted itself with corresponding emphasis; man became a spiritual individual, and recognized himself as such.

The Medievalists reading this are gnashing their teeth, and yes, this moment is core to the persistence of the myth of the bad, backward, stagnant, sleepy middle ages, and equally core to the myth of the Renaissance Man: awake, ambitious, aware of his own power, rational, ripping through the cobwebs of superstition, desirous of remaking the world but also of intentionally fashioning him or herself into something splendid and excellent.  A human being who realizes human beings can be their own masterpieces.

In the mid-19th-century, when Burkhardt wrote, Europe was very enamored of individualism, of new democratic ideas of government, of nationalism and ideas of individual consciousness and national consciousness, and of the notions of genius, both genius individuals and the geniuses of peoples.  Thus, Burkhardt’s claim that the Renaissance was born from individualism gave all sorts of 19th century movements the ability to claim the Renaissance golden age as an ancestor.  Germany, Britain, the young United States, despite having little to do with Italy, they could all claim to be the true inheritors of Renaissance greatness if they could claim that individualism and the opportunity to be a self-made man prospered more truly among their peoples than in Italy.

But there was more: by claiming that the Renaissance—and all its glittering art and innovation—was caused by individualism, Burkhardt was really advancing a claim about the nature of modernity.  Individualism was an X-Factor which had appeared and made a slumbering world begin to move, sparking the step-by-step advance that led humanity from stagnant Medieval mud huts to towers of glass and iron—and by implication it would also define our path forward to an even more glorious future.  In other words, the X-Factor that sparked the Renaissance was the defining spirit of modernity.  If individualism was responsible, not only for the Renaissance, but for the wonders of modernity, then logically those regimes of Burkhardt’s day which most facilitated the expression of individualism could claim to be the heart of human progress and to hold the keys to the future; those nations which did not advance individualism (where socialism prospered, for example, or “collectivism” which was how 19th century Europe characterized most non-Western societies) were still the slumbering Middle Ages, in need of being awakened to their true potential by those nations which did possess the X-Factor of human progress.

I hope you winced a few times in the previous paragraph, recognizing toxic 19th century problems (eurocentrism, orientalism, “White Man’s Burden” thinking), as well as basic historical errors (spoiler: you can find plenty of individualism in Medieval texts, and lots of things that are absolutely not individualism in Renaissance ones).  But those specifics aren’t the big problem.  The big problem was how entrancing the idea of an X-Factor was, the notion that there is one true innovative spirit which defines both Renaissance and modern, and advances in a grand and exponential curve from Petrarch through Leonardo and Machiavelli on to [insert modern hero here].  Thus Burkhardt birthed what I call the quest for the Renaissance X-Factor.  Because when the first scholars disagreed with Burkhardt, they didn’t objcet to the idea that the Renaissance was caused by a great defining X-Factor, they loved that idea, they simply argued about what exactly the X-Factor was.

(Note: If you haven’t read it already I recommend you also look at my post On Progress and Historical Change, discussing the history of ideas of progress.)

Thanks to Burkhardt, the Renaissance came to be defined as the period after Medieval but before Enlightenment when something changed and pushed things toward modernity—the moment that the defining spirit of modernity appeared.  From that point on, claiming you were the successor to the Renaissance didn’t just mean claiming a golden age like Rome, it let you also claim that modernity itself was somehow especially yours.  If you could argue that the reason the Renaissance was great was that it did the thing you do, then you are the heart of modernity and progress, even of the future, while those who don’t celebrate that spirit are the enemies of progress.  Thus every time someone proposed a new X-Factor, a different explanation for what made Renaissance different from Medieval, that made it possible to make new claims about the nature of modernity, and which nations or movements have it right.  This model even lets one claim the future: the X-Factor was born in the Renaissance, grew in the Enlightenment and in modernity, and is the key to unlocking the next glorious age of human history as it unlocked both Renaissance and modern.  This lets you advance teleological arguments about the inevitable triumph of [democracy, nationalism, atheism, capitalism, whatever].   It’s a version of history that’s not only legitimizing but comforting, since it lets you feel you know where history is headed, what will happen, who will win.

Savonarola is one of many Renaissance figures appropriated by many later movements, including revolutionaries in the Italian unification movement.

To give specific examples, if we’re in the middle of the Cold War, and an influential historian publishes a book arguing that the X-Factor that sparked the Renaissance was double-entry bookkeeping, i.e. the rise of banking and the merchant class, America can say: “The Renaissance X-Factor was the birth of capitalism!  The fact that it was a golden age proves capitalism will make a golden age too, and the true successor of this golden age is our alliance of modern capitalist regimes!”  If, on the other hand, we’re in a nationalist wave, say in 1848 or 1920, and someone argues that the X-Factor that sparked the Renaissance was the call for national unity articulated in Petrarch’s Italia Mia or Savonarola’s sermons (this is Pasquale Villari), and that what ended the Renaissance golden age was when Italy was conquered and divvied up among the Bourbons and Hapsburgs, then the Renaissance can be claimed as a predecessor by the Italian unification movement, the German unification movement, any nationalist movement anywhere can claim that uniting peoples into nations is what drives modernity.  If we claim the Renaissance was birthed by the rise of secular thought, that Renaissance geniuses were the first people to break through the bonds of superstition, and that Leonardo and Machiavelli were secret atheists (this is Auguste Comte), then we can claim that secularization and the secular state is the heart of human progress and modernity.  And if someone claims the X-factor was republican proto-democratic thought, the political writings and discourse of civic participation unique to the Italian city republics, Florence, Venice (this is Hans Baron), then we can claim that republican democracy is the key to human progress, that modern democracies are the heart of modernity, and everything else is backwards, outside, Medieval, bad, and needs to be replaced.

To this day, every time someone proposes a new X-Factor for the Renaissance—even if it’s a well-researched and plausible suggestion—it immediately gets appropriated by a wave of people & powers who want to claim they are the torch-bearers of that great light that makes the human spirit modern.  And every time someone invokes a Renaissance X-Factor, the corresponding myth of the bad Middle Ages becomes newly useful as a way to smear rivals and enemies.  As a result, for 160 years and counting, an endless stream of people, kingdoms, political parties, art movements, tech firms, banks, all sorts of powers have gained legitimacy by retelling the myth of the bad Middle Ages and golden Renaissance, with their preferred X-Factor glittering at its heart.

Recommended reading for more, or see my page of History book recommendations

We scholars do our best to battle this, to introduce a complex and un-modern Renaissance, but the very usefulness of the myth guarantees that it will be repeated much more broadly than our no-fun efforts to correct it.  A lot of Renaissance historians today reject the idea of a single X-Factor and try instead to talk about combinations of mixing factors.  Many of us also try to argue that the Renaissance was not fundamentally modern, that it was its own distinctly un-modern thing.  But it’s a hard sell, because the narrative of a special spirit launching us from Petrarch to the Moon Landing is enchanting, and because a complicated, messy, un-modern Renaissance snatches away the golden Renaissances most people meet first.  Nobody in this century has read about the French Invasion of 1494, or even about the Guelphs and Ghibellines, before meeting the genius cults of Leonardo and Michelangelo.

Scraping the glitter off to reveal the imperfect and violent David underneath is an assault on our understandings of our past and present, on what it means to be ourselves, even on our sense of where the future is heading.  People find that unsettling.  And people who look to Renaissance celebrities as role models and intellectual ancestors don’t like to hear about their rough un-modern sides.  So people get hostile, or unsettled, they keep telling the myths, and use cherry picked sources to glob the glitter-paint back on.  It’s not always done in bad faith—if from early childhood you’ve always learned the Renaissance was sparkling and golden, and you see a bare patch where the glitter has come off, of course you’ll think that bare patch is the error, that the still-sparkly parts are the real thing.  You treat the oddball patch as damage, and keep believing what that documentary or museum label told you years ago when you saw your first Renaissance masterpiece and fell in love.  So the myth persists, and for every attempt to correct it we’re up against a dozen tour guide scripts, and TV specials, and corporate statements, and outdated textbooks, and new books (fiction and nonfiction alike) that glob the glitter on.  So you can understand why, from time to time, Renaissance and Medieval specialists alike just have to stop and scream like Sisyphus.

David gets his regular scrub. He needs it.

Conclusion: We Should Aim for Something Better than the Renaissance

This, in not-very-brief, is why we keep telling the myth of the golden Renaissance, and bad Middle Ages.

The Wheel of Fortuna, which turns, elevating men from beggar, to townsman, to king, then falling again in a chaotic cycle representing life. Notice the ABSENCE of an idea of the world getting better OVERALL.

Now, let’s look again at our other starting question: “If the Black Death caused the Renaissance will the COVID pandemic cause a golden age?”  You see the problems with the question now: the Black Death didn’t cause the Renaissance, not by itself, and the Renaissance was not a golden age, at least not the kind that you would want to live in, or to see your children live in.  But I do think that both Black Death and Renaissance are useful for us to look at now, not as a window on what will happen if we sit back and let the gears of history grind, but as a window on how vital action is.

The Black Death first: it didn’t cause the Renaissance, no one thing caused the Renaissance, it was a conjunction of many gradual and complicated changes accumulating over centuries (banking, legal reform, centralization of power, urbanization, technology, trade) which came together to make an age like the Medieval but ever-so-much-more-so.  The idea that the Black Death caused a prosperity boom comes from old studies which showed that wages went way up after the Black Death, creating new possibilities for laborers to gain in wealth and rise in status (like the golden 1950s).  But those were small studies from a few places (mainly bits of England), and we have newer studies now that show that wages only rose in a few places, that in other places wages didn’t rise, or actually went down, or that they started to rise but elites cracked down with new laws to control labor, creating (among other things) the first workhouses, laws limiting freedom of movement, and other new forms of unfreedom and control.  What the Black Death really caused was change.  It caused regime changes, instability letting some monarchies or oligarchies rise, or fall.  It caused policy and legal changes, some oppressive, some liberating.  And it caused economic changes, some regions or markets collapsing, and others growing.

It’s Viking time!

If you really want to know what COVID will do, I think the place to look is not Renaissance Italy, but the Viking settlements in Greenland, which vanished around 1410.  Did they all die of the plague?  No.  We’re pretty sure they never got the plague, they were too isolated.  But the Greenland settlements’ economy had long depended on the walrus trade: they hunted walruses and sold the ivory and skins, and ships would come from Norway or Iceland to trade for walrus, bringing goods one couldn’t make in Greenland, like iron, or fine fabric, or wheat.  But after 1348 the bottom dropped out of the walrus market, and the trading ships stopped coming.  By 1400 no ships had visited Greenland for years except the few that were blown off-course by storm.  And meanwhile there were labor shortages and vacant farms on the once-crowded mainland.  So we think the Greenland Vikings emigrated, asked those stray ships to take them with them back to Europe, as many as could fit, abandoning one life to start another.  That’s what we’ll see with COVID: collapse and growth, busts for one industry, booms for another, sudden wealth collecting in some hands, while elsewhere whole communities collapse, like Flint Michigan, and Viking Greenland, and the many disasters in human history which made survivors abandon homes and villages, and move elsewhere.  A lot of families and communities will lose their livelihoods, their homes, their everythings, and face the devastating need to start again.  And as that happens, we’ll see different places enact different laws and policies to deal with it, just like after the Black Death.  Some places/regimes/policies will increase wealth and freedom, while others will reduce it, and the complicated world will go on being complicated.

That’s why I say we should aim to do better than the Renaissance.

Because we can.  We have so much they didn’t.  We know so much.

For one thing, we know how pandemics work.  We know about germs, viruses, contagion, hand-washing, sanitation, lowering the curve.  We can make plans, take action that does something.  Forget 1348, even in 1918 we didn’t understand how to treat influenza, how it moved, and hand washing was still controversial. 1918 was a US election year but we didn’t discuss delaying or changing the election, there was nothing we could do to make it safer, we didn’t know about six-feet-apart, or sanitizing voting booths, or have the infrastructure to consider vote-by-mail, all we could do was let men (women still had two more years to wait) vote and die.  We’ve come a long way.

Suffragettes at the 1918 election.

This year, 2020, this is the first time in the history of this planet that any species has faced a pandemic knowing what it is, and how to take effective action.  We aren’t taking perfect action, and we absolutely should be criticizing and condemning the many flaws—some small, some huge—in how it’s being dealt with, but there is real, efficacious action we can take.  As an historian, not just of the plague of 1348, but of  the plagues of 1435, and 1485, and 1494, and 1503, and 1596, and 1630, and 1656, what I see is those many generations who not only had to live through this over and over, but who had no hope that their children would ever be free of it.  We know about vaccines, and that we’ll make one—it’ll take a while, and we’ll mess up various ways along the way, but none of us is afraid our grandchildren will grow up spending one year in ten locked up in their homes like this as COVID-19 spreads; we will solve it.  We know we’ll solve it, and any other age in history would treasure that confidence like miracle.  Because all Petrarch could say after losing his world in 1348 was that, the next time plague comes back, we should console ourselves by thinking of it as dying with much good company.

We know about mental health now too.  We’re talking about the mental health crisis of COVID, the mental health costs of fear, poverty, racial injustice—in 1918 we were still excited by electroshock, and debating the radical new idea that outpatient psych treatment might be a thing, instead of doing only institutionalization.  We have the language to talk about the mental cost of crisis, and that language alone opens so many possibilities for helping, acting, aiding that previous eras never had.  Without the concept, we couldn’t start to try to treat it—now we can.

And we have more language: social safety net, social welfare, social services, concepts for thinking how state and society can put structures in place to relieve human suffering.  We have economics now, not the kind of economics that’s trying to prognosticate the stock market, the basic kind with terms like GDP, and unemployment rate, and wealth gap, and retirement age, and inflation.  There were economies in 1348, and even social services, hospitals, orphanages, city grain supplies, but we didn’t have a science for discussing it, vast banks of data comparing how different systems work, or help, or harm.  After the Black Death when different places tried different policies for their recovery, they didn’t have comparisons, examples—we do.  We won’t be guessing in the dark when each nation decides its recovery plan for this pandemic—we won’t be omniscient, but even partial knowledge makes us powerful.  That raises the stakes.

Youth climate strikers in New York City, featured in an article in Forbes

Because, like after 1348, there is about to be big change.  There are many options before us, different things that states can do post-COVID, some of which will help with poverty, empower labor, lend a helping hand to those exhausted Greenland Vikings as they start again, and there are other things states can do that will instead widen the gaps, entrench elites, help the rich get richer and see the disempowered locked more inescapably into modern versions of workhouses.  Different places will make different choices.  Some places will see regime changes, others just policy shifts, but there aren’t vast wheels of history that lock a pandemic into automatically yielding a boom or bust.  There is no automatic outcome.  Rather, all nations in the world are about to make a set of choices which will have a far larger, deeper impact on the next decades, on lives, rights, options, everything, than the normal choices states make in a normal year.  The stakes are higher.  Unlike in 1348 we have a lot of knowledge, answers, options, concepts we could try like safety nets, or UBI, or radical free markets, many very different things.  Which means that acting now, demanding now, voting, pushing, proposing change, we’re shaping policies that will affect our big historical trajectory more than normal—a great chance to address and finally change systemic inequalities, or to let them entrench.   There is no predetermined outcome of pandemic; pandemic is a hallway leading to a room where something big is going to be decided—human beings decide.

I love space exploration. I’ve written novels about it, and a song that makes everyone cry, I make myself tear up thinking about it all the time, especially civilian spaceflight and the hope that this chapter of history might be advanced by curiosity, teamwork, and human hope, not war or competition.  But after looking forward to it for so long, the recent SpaceX launch was the first I’ve watched in a long time without tearing up.  Because watching a space ship launch while looters are smashing shops outside my window (and cops ignoring them in favor of harassing peaceful protestors & giving carte blanche to the gunwielding vigilante on the corner) feels a lot like Leonardo painting the Mona Lisa while cities around were literally burning (and rich merchants’ private goons guarding their wealth & allies as faction dictated).  This year, this specific year, 2020, with the world shut down by plague, and civil strife, and fire in the streets, and teetering distrust in governments, this is the first time our present has reminded me of the Renaissance.  But we aren’t the Renaissance—we have social science, and efficacious medicine, and the Enlightenment under our belts, when we learned we can analyze our laws and institutions, and step by step replace them with better ones.  We aim for better.

At the Renaissance Society of America Conference some years ago, two scholar friends got into a debate about whether Machiavelli’s world was fundamentally pre-modern, different from our own, or whether fundamentally it faced the same problems we do.  Responding to the claim that the Renaissance was far more violent than our present, the advocate of Renaissance-as-modern quoted the statistic that modern Chicago had as many murders every year as Renaissance Florence.  The rebuttal that surged in my mind was that the population of Florence was less than 100K, so Chicago’s millions have far fewer murders per capita, but the other speaker had a far better answer.  We’re working to change that murder rate.  We study it, understand it, plan interventions, act.  We believe it’s a problem we can solve, should solve, that citizen and state should act, and if the state will not the state should change.  We have policy studies, plans, alternatives.

Voltaire, 1763 “Treatise on Tolerance,” written in his outrage over the judicial murder of Jean Calas.

Petrarch wanted to end the cruel wars for light causes that were wounding Italy, but had no plan beyond sending his poem out into the world, and urging elites to have their kids read Cicero. Machiavelli also wanted to end the cruel wars for light causes, and seeing that reading Cicero had failed he proposed a new way of evaluating history, collecting examples of what worked and didn’t in the past, basing our statecraft and actions on them so the next time we try things we’ll choose more wisely.  It was the birth of social science.  It took us a long time for us to get good at it, to turn the observations in The Prince into big databases and systematic studies, just as it took a long time for medicine to get from the four humors to our confidence that we can make a vaccine, but we can make one.  We can make good social policy.  Will we do it perfectly?  No.  Many bad policies will be advanced, just as vaccines and treatments will be distributed unfairly and slowed down by bigotry and selfishness.  But we can do it, we have tools, as real in our hands and libraries as the knowledge of vaccines is real—tools Machiavelli and Petrarch would have given anything to have.  We can aim for better than another Renaissance.

Let’s try.


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Stoicism’s Appeal to the Rich and Powerful

Cicero, one of our major sources for stoic thought.

I was recently interviewed for a piece in the Times on why the philosophy of stoicism has become very popular in the Silicon Valley tech crowd. Only a sliver of my thoughts made it into the article, but the question from Nellie Bowles was very stimulating so I wanted to share more of my thoughts.

To begin with, like any ancient philosophy, stoicism has a physics and metaphysics–how it thinks the universe works–and separately an ethics–how it advises one to live, and judge good and bad action. The ethics is based on the physics and metaphysics, but can be divorced from it, and the ethics has long been far more popular than the metaphysics.  This is a big part of why stoic texts surviving from antiquity focus on the ethics; people transcribing manuscripts cared more about these than about the others.  And this is why thinkers from Cicero to Petrarch to today have celebrated stoicism’s moral and ethical advice while following utterly different cosmologies and metaphysicses.  (For serious engagement with stoic ontology & metaphysics you want Spinoza.)  The current fad for stoicism, like all past fads for stoicism (except Spinoza) focuses on the ethics.

Thinking Spots: Stoic Metaphysics and Ontology

Stoic ontology and metaphysics are sufficiently awesome that I must give it a couple paragraphs before I move to the ethics, though the ethics are the core of its popularity today.  Stoics were monists; if dualists like Plato and Descartes believe there are fundamentally two things (matter and non-matter, for example), monists believe there is fundamentally one thing.  Not just one category of thing (Epicurean atomists, for example, think there is only one kind of thing: atoms) but actually one single thing.  The stoics posited that the universe is one enormous contiguous single object.  Different parts of it manifest different qualities, but are the same.  Just as polkadot fabric may manifest blueness here and whiteness there but remains the same object, so the part of the universe which is your hand manifests firmness and warmth and opacity, and the part which is the air manifests softness and transparency, but they are the same object.  And when you seem to move your hand, in fact there is no motion, rather the part of the universe that was manifesting the transparency and softness of air before is manifesting the firmness and opacity of arm now and vice versa. Think of the pixels on a screen: what seem to be objects moving are in fact different parts of the screen changing color (i.e. changing quality) in sequence, creating the illusion of motion whereas in fact there is only variation in the surface of an object.  (This is the stoic solution to Zeno’s paradoxes of motion discussed here). The stoic living universe is thus somewhat like the skin of a mimic octopus, able to seem to be become a myriad different things while it remains one.  And in addition to blueness, and whiteness, and opacity, and warmth, other attributes the universe manifests more in some places than others include what we would call in modern terms sentience, self-awareness, and reason–thus the human being is a spot of sentience against a background of less sentient substance, like a white spot on blue. But, the stoics argue, any property which is possessed by the part is possessed by the whole, so while sentience and reason are concentrated in the spots which are living humans, the whole thing is a vast, intelligent, rational whole, and when we die we merge back into it. Thus there is no individual immortality, but we are all part of something greater which is eternal, wise, and infinite.

Stoicism was likely influenced by Buddhism through contact with India during the wars of Alexander the Great, and shares a lot with Buddhism: the whole universe is one vast, living, divine whole.  Life is full of suffering, but that suffering is a path to understanding a larger good.  And there is a universal justice on the large scale beyond what a human from our limited P.O.V. can understand.  In Buddhism this is karma, while for the stoics it is Providence, the same concept of Providence that Christianity later borrowed, which argues that everything in the world which seems bad is actually good in a way we cannot fully understand because of our limited perspective. It is as if we are a fingertip; we cannot understand why we must suffer the evil of being repeatedly banged against a hard, unyielding surface, because we don’t have the means to understand that the larger organism is typing up a blog post about stoicism, but if we did have the means to understand we would recognize that it’s worth-it on the large scale.  The stoic justification for claiming the universe is perfect is the patterns we see in nature: trees have roots to drink the water they need, woodpeckers that eat bugs have beaks the shape they need to be, woodland animals have woodland camouflage, desert animals have desert camouflage, everything fits together in a vast, functional whole which (without Darwin to offer an alternative) the Greeks agreed implied intelligence, either in a creator (Aristotle’s demiurge), a source (Plato’s Good), or, for the stoics, the universe itself.

Dog tied waiting outside a store.
If you’ve walked by shops where dogs are tied outside you’ve experienced the radical differences in their behavior: anxious waiting, frightened waiting, calm confident waiting; the latter experiences less unhappiness.

The stoics also argued (followed by some Christian thinkers) that there is no self-determination.  We will all end up going where the Plan will have us go no matter what, but the one thing we do have power over is our own inner responses to the path fate gives us: do we curse, complain, fight, shake our fists at the heavens, or do we ascent, accept, relax, and gaze in happy awe on the vastness of which we are a part?  A classic stoic image (and after this I’ll turn to ethics and the tech crowd) is that the human being is like a dog tied behind a cart.  The cart is going somewhere, and there is absolutely nothing the dog can do to change the course the cart will take.  The dog has freewill only in one thing: the dog can fight, snarl, tug at the collar, gnaw on the rope, dig its claws into the dirt until it bleeds, and exhaust itself with fighting, or it can trot along contentedly and trust the driver.

An Action Ethics

The majority of surviving stoic writings focus, not on the metaphysics, but on the actionable conclusion: given all this, how do we teach ourselves to assent?  To become the contented dog who trusts in Providence enough to follow where our paths lead without being made miserable by anxiety, fear, and resistance?  Stoics therefore teach self-mastery and detachment: you can’t keep terrible things from happening but you can control your own internal reaction to them and work on preventing yourself from being overwhelmed by them.  You wake up to some terrible news in the morning: do you brood on it all day and lose your productivity and wellbeing? Or do you take control and carry on?

A lot of the surviving stoic writings are maxims, short pieces for contemplation designed to help you dwell less on bad things that are happening, sometimes more imagery than argument.  Imagine–for example–that life is like being a guest at a banquet.  Platters are being passed around and people are reaching out and taking what is offered them.  Some platters come to you and you take of them–other platters never make it to you, or are empty when they do.  But you are a guest, these things were not yours, they were offered as gifts, so you have no reason to be angry that you can only taste some of them–better to enjoy the platters that do reach you, and remember that the host who offered them is kind.

This is where stoicism serves very much like a self-help book, or more generally as philosophical therapy, which is what classical philosophies largely aimed to provide.  Stoicism’s recommendations for how to resist pain are exquisite, as in this example from the Meditations. And the metaphysics crops up mainly as a way to justify the advice:

XXV. What a small portion of vast and infinite eternity it is, that is allowed unto every one of us, and how soon it vanisheth into the general age of the world: of the common substance, and of the common soul also what a small portion is allotted unto us: and in what a little clod of the whole earth (as it were) it is that thou doest crawl. After thou shalt rightly have considered these things with thyself; fancy not anything else in the world any more to be of any weight and moment but this, to do that only which thine own nature doth require; and to conform thyself to that which the common nature doth afford.
The ontology here serves the therapy.  You lost the election?  Got passed over for promotion?  Got a bad review?  These things are small and fleeting within the larger whole, all wealth will perish in infinity, all fame fade, nothing serious was really lost.  You lost your arm to disease?  It was not yours to begin with, it was leant to you be a kind universe which has a right to take it back again.  You lost your best friend?  Again, this was a brief good thing the universe leant you, don’t dwell on it, look instead to the other good things that still surround you.  Goods are real, evils an illusion, and if you can believe that it becomes easier–the stoics promise–to let go.  The approach works, sometimes.  Scientific studies tell us that pain is more emotionally terrible when we know/believe it’s actually damaging us, i.e. that the same number of nerves firing off is more upsetting when than when we believe it’s permanently damaging a body part than when we know it’s hot wax or an electroshock and the effects won’t be lingering.  So if you can actually convince yourself that nothing really important has been destroyed when something affects your fame, or fortune, it does hurt less.  And millions of people over thousands of years have found stoicism a comfort on life’s tumultuous sea.

An Ethics for the Rich and Powerful

At this point I want to remind the reader that I personally love stoicism.  It’s gorgeous.  It’s brilliant.  Revisiting it I find it always challenges assumptions, pushes me to hold myself to high standards, gives me new ideas to chew on.  Its major texts, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, are ones I love to teach, love to revisit, love to grapple with again and again.  I will continue to praise, and teach, and write about, and read, and make use of stoicism all the days of my life.  But…

The new popularity of stoicism among the tech crowd, and also on Wall Street which is another place that’s been reading and naming things after stoics recently, is strikingly similar to stoicism’s popularity among the powerful elites of ancient Rome.  In Hellenistic Greece, stoicism had been one of several different popular philosophical schools, along with Platnonism, skepticism, Pythagoreanism, cynicism, Aristotelianism, Hedonism etc.  (Quick tip: names of philosophical systems are generally capitalized when named after people, not capitalized when named after other stuff, as in cynicism from cynos, dog; stoicism from stoa, porch, where the first stoics held their classes.)  And like the rest of these ancient schools, stoicism focused on eudaimonia, i.e. happiness or the good life, the idea that the purpose of philosophical study was not primarily to understand everything, or to achieve power through knowledge, but to achieve personal happiness, usually through inner tranquility and armoring the soul against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (see my essay on eudaimonia for more.)  Stoicism was one of a number of methods to attempt this, so like all ancient schools it fulfilled the roles of a self-help book and Science 101 textbook rolled into one.

Hippie commune
Cross a hippie commune with a monastic order and you have something like most Greek philosophical schools.

But in Rome stoicism surged in popularity compared to all the other systems, because it was the one Greek ethics which worked well for the rich and powerful.  Other schools like Platonism, cynicism, and Epicureanism warned followers that participation in politics and the pursuit of wealth, power, or honor would only lead to stress and risk, and were incompatible with happiness.  Epicurus said the happy life was found by leaving the political urban world to sit in a secluded garden, eating a simple meal while conversing with good friends. Cynicism advocated the more extreme step of renouncing personal property and living like a stray dog scrounging beside the road, which has no fear of being robbed or losing its status because it has nothing to lose.  The Pythagoreans and many other sects lived in isolated communities not unlike monastic orders, and used strict diets, ascetic dress codes, even vows of silence.  Plato too specified that the philosopher kings of the republic are made unhappy by the stress of having to rule, and a number of ancient figures even used the stress of rule to argue that the gods can’t possibly hear and act on human prayers or else the gods would be perpetually harassed and unhappy.

Stoicism, on the other hand, stressed the idea that everyone is part of a large perfect whole and thus that it’s everyone’s duty to fulfill the role Fate allots.  In the ordering of nature the woodpecker should peck, the deer should graze, the bee should pollinate, and the wolf should hunt and kill.  We too as humans have a duty to fulfill our roles, be that as servant, merchant, slave, or king.  Some stoic authors were slaves themselves, like Epictetus author of the beautiful stoic handbook Enchiridion, and many stoic writings focus on providing therapies for armoring one’s inner self against such evils as physical pain, illness, losing friends, disgrace, and exile. But other stoic philosophers were great leaders of states, including leading statesmen like Cicero and Seneca, and the Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

Stoicism caught on among Roman elites because it was the one form of philosophical guidance that didn’t urge them to renounce wealth or power.  Politics is stressful, but rather than giving it up to live like a monk or a dog, stoicism says you should continue the hard work seek to attain an inner attitude in which you will not suffer misery when you do fail, when you do lose the election, face the criticism, suffer the setback, feel the blows of fortune.  Stoicism alone recommended inner detachment, not walking away.  For Roman patrician statesmen with long family traditions of political leadership, walking away from civic participation was a non-starter (especially since Roman ancestor worship meant that achieving a name in politics was also a religious duty which your very afterlife depended on!).  Stoicism finally offered a philosophical ethics useful to the statesman, which is why Cicero–a skeptic who engaged with many sects of philosophy–favors it in his dialogs more consistently than any other sect (this may not sound like a strong endorsement but is a high a very high bar for Cicero.  And Cicero is a very big deal).

Roman family tomb
Posthumous honor was everything to Roman political families, and renouncing office a betrayal of generations. The hippie commune is right out!

Thus, turning to the questions that Nellie asked me for her article, when I see a fad for stoicism among today’s rising rich, I see a good side and a bad side. The good side is that stoicism, sharing a lot with Buddhism, teaches that the only real treasures are inner treasures–virtue, self-mastery, courage, charity–and that all things in existence are part of one good, divine, and sacred whole, a stance which can combat selfishness and intolerance by encouraging self-discipline and teaching us to love and value every stranger as much as we love our families and ourselves.  But on the negative side, stoicism’s Providential claim that everything in the universe is already perfect and that things which seem bad or unjust are secretly good underneath (a claim Christianity borrowed from Stoicism) can be used to justify the idea that the rich and powerful are meant to be rich and powerful, that the poor and downtrodden are meant to be poor and downtrodden, and that even the worst actions are actually good in an ineffable and eternal way.  Such claims can be used to justify complacency, social callousness, and even exploitative or destructive behavior.

Seen in the best light, a wealthy person excited by stoicism is seeking a philosophy that helps the mind resist greed and the capitalist rat race and offers a wiser perspective and inner happiness; seen in the worst light it can be a tool for justifying keeping one’s wealth and power and not trying to help others.  In that sense it reminds me of the profession of wealth therapists who help the uber-wealthy stop feeling guilty about spending $2,000 on bed sheets or millions on a megayacht.  Wealth does come with real emotional challenges, but as society calls more and more for fundamental reform to close the wealth gap and reduce the power wielded by the 1%, cultivating a pro-status-quo attitude can also be a way to deflect pressure to try to address society’s ills.

Bust of Seneca
Bust of Seneca, looking wise and careworn.

Seneca, an author I absolutely love, wrote exquisite maxims about selflessness and virtue which have been backbones of moral and political education for two millenia.  So powerful are his arguments that Petrarch, when comparing the strengths of the ancient Romans and ancient Greeks in different arts (Homer v. Virgil in poetry, Demosthenes v. Cicero in oratory, Thucydides v. Livy in history etc.) concluded that Seneca alone makes the Latins wholly superior to the Greeks in matters of ethics.  Seneca also risked his life trying to curb the tyranny of Nero, and eventually died for it.  But for all Seneca’s powerful advice about the big picture and the meaninglessness of wealth, he was also a slave-owner who, when alerted that his male slaves were sexually abusing his female slaves, set up a brothel in his estate so he could make his male slaves pay him for the privilege of abusing his female slaves–not quite the behavior we imagine when Seneca says money is meaningless and all living beings are sacred.  But stoicism urges us to turn our critical eye inward and improve ourselves, not to turn it outward and improve our worlds.  It gave Seneca the courage and resolve to face the danger of Nero’s deadly whims day by day in order to do his duty to the Roman political elite, but it didn’t encourage him to question his world order.

Bust of voltaire, smiling.
Bust of Voltaire, looking kind.

Stoicism is an intellectually rich and stimulating system, and wonderful therapy against grief, against dwelling on setbacks, and against getting caught up in the chase for fame and fortune and the blinders of the rat race.  It reminds us to zoom out from a world of praise, and blame, and status, and cruel things people said on Twitter, and the competition to see made the most sales, or had the most hits, or got the largest raise, all things which can be genuinely emotionally devastating if we let ourselves get too caught up in them.  In all those ways stoicism is a great match for Silicon Valley, for Wall Street, also for my world of academia and tenure and their stresses and injustices.  It’s also a great match for congresspeople, authors, journalists, actors, entrepreneurs, everyone whose life contains stresses and setbacks and moments when we need help to let us to take a deep breath and let it go.  But Cicero was not Voltaire, and did not look at the evils and injustices around him and conclude that he should wield his power to make a fundamentally better world–he focused only on coping with the world as it already was, and fulfilling his duties within it.  Stoicism predates the concept of human-generated progress by more than a millennium. It doesn’t teach us how to change the terrible aspects of the world, it teaches us how to adapt ourselves to them, and to accept them, presuming that they fundamentally cannot be fixed.  But we have two millenia more experience than Seneca.  We know many of life’s evils can’t be fixed, but we also know, with human teamwork and the scientific method and a dose of Bacon and Voltaire, some of them can.

That’s why when I hear that rich, powerful people are into stoicism I think it’s great that people are excited by the idea that we should hold all life sacred and look for meaning beyond wealth and worldly power.  I think it’s a great philosophy for anyone, and certainly for those who need help zooming out from a high-stress, high-competition world to think about the human and humane big picture, and to pay more attention to self-care, and loving others.  But it also makes me a little wary.  Because I think it’s important that we mingle some Voltaire in with our Seneca, and remember that stoicism’s invaluable advice for taking better care of ourselves inside can–if we fail to mix it with other ideas–come with a big blind spot regarding the world outside ourselves, and whether we should change it.  An activist can be a stoic–activism absolutely needs some way to help cope with the pain when we pour our hearts and hours into trying to help someone, or pass new legislation, or resist, and fail.  For such moments, stoicism is a precious remedy against despair and burn-out, but it doesn’t in itself offer us the impetus toward activism and resistance in the first place. That we need to get from somewhere else.

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Milton’s Arguments Against EU Copyright Directive Article 11 and Article 13

It’s spring 2019 and crises are coming thick and fast, but one of them which may have an extra deep, extra wide, extra lasting, and extra invisible impact is the new proposed EU Copyright Directive, whose Article 11 and Article 13 propose, among other things, to (A) radically and permanently change who owns news and has a right to circulate and report it, (B) demand filters to preemptively censor content that will be expensive, automated, easy for trolls to exploit, and difficult for people to appeal, and (C) put huge expensive requirements on creators of online content which will make it basically impossible for individuals or small groups to create and launch new web spaces, making it much harder for anyone but established media giants to create new content.

I wrote a short essay about the issue this morning, “How #Article13 is like the Inquisition: John Milton Against the EU #CopyrightDirective” looking at how this crisis resembles the print revolution, but it ended up being posted on BoingBoing, instead of here, so I hope you enjoy it.  I’ll also add that, after a year looking at how information revolutions stimulate new kinds of censorship, my take-away is this: information revolutions democratize speech and thus make marginal voices louder.  Whether today or 400 years ago, many of these are radical voices, voices which were marginalized and silenced in traditional fora and thus have an extra incentive to go to the effort to adopt new methods.  these radical voices tend to be at all fringes of politics: radical religion, radical conservatism, radical progressivism, radical sexualities and identities, fire & brimstone preachers and civil rights advocates, Calvinist visionaries and GLBT groups, Voltaire and the KKK.  This has a thousand consequences, but one is that it scares governments, and makes publics easy to rile up against frightening new voices.  And that makes it easy for corporations and other profit-seeking actors to lobby for policies that they claim are to protect speech, or protect journalism, or protect the country, or protect children, etc. but are actually framed to maximize their own profits.  Frightened governments and alarmed populaces are very vulnerable to this manipulation.  It happened in the 1640s.  It’s happening right now, and we in the digital revolution need to look very seriously at John Milton who fought against this (and failed) during the print revolution if we want to learn from earlier mistakes and protect the internet as the most powerful engine of public knowledge and empowerment ever created.  So please, read up about the crisis, and, if you can, take action!

If you want to learn more, here is a short segment from my series on Censorship and Information Control During Information Revolutions which talks about the history of ownership of news, and you can learn more from the project, or read the transcript of our session on who owns the news.  If you want a book on the topic, I recommend Adrian Johns’s Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates and Who Owns the News? A History of Copyright by Will Slauter (both in the video below).

Meanwhile, I have a new proper Ex Urbe essay mostly done, about teaching Machiavelli and historical letters, which I hope to share soon!


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2018 Campbell Speech, How New Authors Expand Fields (+Censorship, Manga)

This year I was honored to present the 2018 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer at Worldcon’s Hugo Awards Ceremony, and several people have asked me to post my presentation speech, in which I used Japanese examples to talk about the invaluable impact of new authors expanding the breadth of what gets explored in genre fiction’s long conversation. Here is the speech, followed by some expanded comments:

The Speech:

First awarded in 1973, this award was named for John W. Campbell, the celebrated editor of Astounding and Analog who introduced many beloved new authors to the field.  This is not a Hugo award, but is sponsored by Dell Magazines, and administered by Worldcon.  Spring Schoenhuth of Springtime Studios created the Campbell pin, and the tiara made by Amanda Downum was added in 2005/2006.  This award is unusual for considering short fiction and novels together, providing a cross-section of innovation in the field, and, often, offering a first personal welcome to new writers unfamiliar with the social world of fandom.

I’m currently curating an exhibit on the history of censorship around the world, and one section of the exhibit keeps coming to mind as I consider the Campbell Award.  Immediately after World War II, in Japan authors and journalists were effectively forbidden to talk about the war, due to censorship exercised by both the reformed Japanese government and American occupation forces.  This left a generation of kids desperate to understand the events which had shattered their world and families, but with no one willing to have that conversation, and no books to turn to.  Enter Osamu Tezuka whose 1952 Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atomu, 1952-68) bypassed censors who saw it as merely a kids’ science fiction story, while it depicted a civil rights movement for robot A.Is., including anti-robot hate-crimes, hate-motivated international wars, nuclear bombs, and the rise of the robot-hating dictator “Hitlini.”

Tezuka’s science fiction became the tool a generation used to understand the roots of World War II and how to work toward a more peaceful and cooperative future, but what makes this relevant to the Campbell Award is the next step.  Many autobiographies of those who were kids in Japan in the 1950s describe reading and re-reading Tezuka’s early science fiction until the cheap paperbacks fell apart, but by the later 1960s these same young readers became young authors, like Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Keiji Nakazawa, and their peers.  They in turn led a movement to push the envelope of what could be depicted in popular genre fiction in Japan, writing grittier more adult works, battling censorship and backlash, and ultimately opening a space for more serious genre fiction.  These new voices didn’t just contribute their works, they changed speculative fiction to let Tezuka and other authors they had long looked up to write new works too, finally depicting the war directly, and producing some of the best works of their careers, including Tezuka’s Buddhist science fiction masterpiece Phoenix.

These authors I’m discussing are all manga authors, comic book authors, but the difference between prose and comics doesn’t matter here, their world like ours was and is a self-conscious community of speculative fiction readers and writers dedicated to imagining different presents, pasts, and futures, and thereby advancing a conversation which injects imagination, hope, and caution into our real world efforts to and build the best future possible.  It is in that spirit that the John W. Campbell award welcomes to our field not only today’s new voices but the ways that these voices will change the field, stimulating new responses from everybody, from those like John Varley and George R. R. Martin who were Campbell finalists more than forty years ago, to next year’s finalists.  This year’s finalists are Katherine Arden, Sarah Kuhn, Jeannette Ng, Vina Jie-Min Prasad, Rebecca Roanhorse, and Rivers Solomon.

Further Details:

The examples I discussed in this speech come from my exhibit’s case on the censorship of comic books and graphic novels, which are targeted by censorship more often than text fiction because of their visual format (which makes obscenity charges easier to advance), their association with children, and the power of political cartoons.

Tezuka’s manga I discuss in the exhibit with the chilling title Childhood Without Books” since during World War II a generation of Japanese kids grow up in a broken school system which had all but shut down or been transformed into a military pre-training program, while censored presses produced only war propaganda, and Japan even had a ban on “frivolous literature” which generally meant anything that wasn’t for the war.  In effect, a generation of kids grew up with no access to literature, and plunged straight from that to the new era of post-war censorship.  Numerous autobiographies by members of this generation vividly recount the arrival of the first bright, colorful books by “God of Manga” Osamu Tezuka, such as New Treasure Island, Lost World, Nextworld, and above all Astro Boy whose depictions of anti-robot voter suppression tactics are very powerful today, while its repeated engagement nuclear bombs and other weapons of mass destruction were, for adults and kids alike, often the first and only available literary discussion of nuclear warfare. Tezuka also made a point of discussing racism as a global issue, and Astro Boy depicts lynch mobs in America, the Cambodian genocide, and post-colonial exploitation in Africa.

Thus, while being perceived as “for kids” often brings comics under extra fire, in the case of Astro Boy, censors ignored a mere science fiction comic, which let Tezuka kick start the conversation about the mistakes of the past and the possibilities of a better future.

Making Room for Adults: One young reader who read and reread Tezuka’s early manga until they fell apart was Yoshihiro Tatsumi, whose autobiography A Drifting Life begins with Tezuka’s impact on him in his early post-war years. As Tatsumi himself began to publish manga in the 1950s-70s, Japan experienced its own wave of public and parental outrage about comics harming children similar to that which had affected the English-speaking world slightly earlier. Since the Japanese word for comic books, manga, literally means “whimsical pictures” critics argued that manga must by definition be light and funny. Tatsumi coined the alternate term gekiga (“dramatic pictures”) adopted by a wave of serious and provocative authors who set out to depict serious dramatic topics, such as crime stories, suicide, sexuality, prostitution, the debt crisis, alienation, the psychology of evil, and the dark and uncomfortable social issues and tensions affecting Japanese society.  

By the 1970s, the efforts of Tatsumi and his peers to make space for mature manga helped to expand the range of what artists dared to depict, contributing to the loosening of censorship and social pressure, which in turn let the the authors Tatsumi and others had looked up to as children to finally treat the war directly.  Thus Tatsumi’s efforts moving forward from his childhood model Osamu Tezuka in turn paved the way for Tezuka to finally own including Message to Adolf which depicts how racism gradually poisons individuals and society, Ayako which depicts the degeneration of traditional Japanese society during the post-war occupation, MW which depicts government corruption and the human impact of weapons of mass destruction, sections of his beloved medical drama Black Jack which treat war and exploitation, Ode to Kirihito which treats medical dehumanization and apartheid in South Africa, Alabaster which treats ideas of race and beauty in the USA, and his epic Phoenixconsidered one of the great masterpieces of the manga world.

Another of Tezuka’s avid early readers was Hiroshima survivor Keiji Nakazawa, who found in art and manga hope for a universal medium which could let his pleas for peace and nuclear disarmament cross language barriers.  Many of the grotesque images of gory melting faces in Nakazawa’s harrowing autobiography Barefoot Gen are indistinguishable from the imagery in violent horror comics advocates of comics censorship  so often denounce as harmful to children.  

Our impulse to place political works like Barefoot Gen in a separate category from graphic horror or pornography despite their identical visual content is reflected in many governments’ obscenity laws, which ban vaguely-defined “obscene” or “indecent” content and often demand that works accused obscenity prove they have “artistic merit” to refute the charge, a rare situation where even legal systems with “innocent until proven guilty” standards put the burden of proof on the defendant. Some modern democracies which have state censorship, such as New Zealand, have worked to improve this by creating legislation which defines very clearly what can be censored (for example depictions of sexual exploitation of minors, or of extreme torture) rather than banning “indecent” content in the abstract. (I strongly recommend the New Zealand Chief Censors’  endlessly fascinating censorship ratings office blog which offers a vivid portrait of the trends in modern censorship, and what censorship would probably look like in the USA without the First Amendment).

If you’re interested in looking at some of these works, beyond Astro Boy, my top recommendations are Tezuka’s Message to Adolf and the work of another giant of the early post-war, Shigeru Mizuki, best known for his earlier Kitaro series which collects Japanese oral tradition yokai ghost stories.  After the efforts of Tatsumi and others broadened the scope of what manga was allowed to depict, Mizuki published his magnificent Showa: a History of Japan, recently published in English by Drawn & Quarterly.

The first volume depicts the lead up to WWII in the 1920s-30s, and is fascinating to compare to the current political world, since it shows how Japanese society was became gradually more militarized and toxic due to tiny incremental short-term political and social decisions which feel very much like many one sees today, but paralleled by severe restrictions on speech and suppression of active resistance different from what one sees today. Ferociously critical of Japan’s government and warmongers, Mizuki’s history is also autobiography, depicting himself as a child, and how the day to day games kids played on the street became more violent and military, playing soldier instead of house, as the society drifted toward fascism.

It’s an extraordinarily powerful read, and particularly captures how, parallel to political events, moments of celebrity controversy and sensational news reflect and propel cultural shifts – think of how 100 years from now someone writing a history of the rise of America’s alt right movement would not include Milo Yiannopoulos, who had no demonstrable direct political role, yet for those living on the ground in this era he was clearly a factor/ indicator/ ingredient in the tensions of the times.  Mizuki includes incidents and figures like that which parallel the political events and his family’s experiences, recreating the on-the-ground experience in a way unlike any other history I’ve read.  I can’t recommend it enough to anyone interested in what fascism’s rise can teach us about today, and about how cultures change.

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