The historians of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment were interested only in those parts of the past from which they could draw moral lessons
Were the historians of these periods selective in their area of study? If so why did they select those particular parts of history? Since the question of whether historians narrow down periods to study is undoubtedly yes, the question of why they select those parts is far more relevant. It is a far broader question than might initially appear, for it draws on the wide range of historiographical works, which ask why we study history at all. What methods or criteria do we have in narrowing down what to study? As E. H. Carr points out, ‘millions have crossed the Rubicon, but historians tell us that only Caesars crossing was significant’i.
We view history from our own present day perspective The question of what constitutes a moral lesson also arises. This also is a matter of interpretation, as there are those who would say that morality extends beyond the purely theological realm. It is more than just a strict religious code but a standard of living for even the secular political world. If this is so, then a much larger part of history is included in this category. Also, if the historian draws no moral lesson from a part of history, is this to say that none can be drawn from it?
It then becomes a contemporary and very much political question. History’s purpose therefore, is all a matter of the reader’s interpretation. This essay title spans two very important and long periods of history. It extends from the beginning of the renaissance on the 14th century to the end of the enlightenment around the beginning of the 19th century. The renaissance was a time of renewed interest in the Greek and Roman literature and a renewal of rhetorical education that characterised intellectual life and had an effect on historical study.
There appeared to be emerging a secular approach to political history, which some historians point to, yet we must remember that secular does not necessarily mean amoral. The Enlightenment saw this attitude becoming more popular, though “harbouring philosophical pretensions”ii Michael Bentley points out that a “new cynicism about the motivations and moral capacity of individuals” became more prevalent among historians of the time, while they elevated the “l’esprit humain to new levels of moral authority”.
We can understand from this that a new moral code had been created, though the historians of the time would not have liked to admit that, since the word moral had always been associated with the church and religion. Human beings have always sought rules and morals to guide them. Man is essentially good and aspires to be more than he can be, the form in which this aspiration takes is not important. This brings us to E. H. Carr’s point that absolute objectivity is impossible. How we perceive, study and select history is always affected by our own prejudices and moral code.
During the Renaissance we see some evidence of a shift away from a moral perspective of the study of history to a form of revisionism. Bentley highlights the examples of John Mair and Polydore Vergil of Urbino. The latter, a papal tax collector also, wrote a ‘history’ which dismissed the alleged Trojan origins of the Britons. John Mair, a contemporary of Polydore, rejected the assumption that Christianity had been introduced into Britain by Christ’s follower Joseph of Arithmathaea. On first glance it appears that this is a quite ordinary and amoral academic ‘clearing up’ of the facts.
However if we think deeper we must ask whether this clearing up served a purpose at the time. It might not appear to have a moral purpose today, but the choice by these historians to analyse and revise this part of history could be a reflection of their own moral presuppositions. The revised history itself could serve this purpose. Who is to say also that revising history so that man may have a better understanding is not a belief worth categorising as moral? Two historians stand out during this period, Nicoli?? Machiavelli and Francesco Guicciardini.
They both lived around the same time and they both were from Florence. Machiavelli’s History of Florence and he Affairs of Italy is essentially a political and military narrative from the origins of Florence to the eve of the French invasion in 1494, and casts little moral judgement, although it is very patriotic in its’ tone. The Prince however shows no restraints in teaching political lessons. It was intended as a book of advice to rulers and raises a number of questions which were quite controversial. He sets up the prince as an exalted figure absolved from restraints and determining the form of the state.
He uses sources which he claims are his own long experience, and study of the past. His attitude in the book can be summed up in the famous quote ” in the actions of men, and especially of princes, from which there is no appeal, the end justifies the means”iii He also says how the prince must learn “how not to be good”iv. It must be remembered however, that he could say that immoral acts were fitting for a prince, not because he approved of immoral acts but because he disapproved of princes. Through the study of history man could perfect present government, he believed.
This ethos is also evident the Discourses. In this, he discussed the first ten books of the Roman historian Livy. He attempts to help his contemporaries understand and emulate the political wisdom of the ancients; in this direction he saw the political salvation of his own time. He does however, use moral reasoning in his writings when he says “the voice of the people is the voice of God”v. This shows that he in fact trusted the people more than he trusted princes. Religion, for him, was an important factor in government. It reduces people to obedience and makes military disipline possible.
His view of the church however, was that it was instrumental in the decline of the Roman Empire. Francesco Guicciardini is recognised as one of the most important historians of the renaissance, though none of his works were published during his lifetime. Born into an aristocratic family, he quickly rose to prominent posts in the Italian administration. He is most famous for his work entitled History of Italy which covered the period from 1494 to 1534. In this and other works it becomes clear that it was his conviction that men should govern their affairs by reason.
His governmental ideal contained monarchical, popular and aristocratic elements. Human events were limited though, by fortune. It was this and reason which explain all historical events for him. Benton concludes of his History of Florence that it was “very much a contemporary history… in order to recount and to explain the evils which had befallen his country during the writers lifetime”. Despite this Guicciardini attempted objectivity, doing his best to eliminate traces of bias and theological preconceptions.
While he was a devout catholic, his work like that of Flavio Biondo, had anti-clerical implications. Francesco Petrarch is known as the “Father of Humanism”. He is most famous as and essayist and poet, but his reach also extended to history. He was one of the first people to express writing in the “fundamental idea of linear, as opposed to cyclical movement or periodicity in history”vi. This however, conflicted with the “belief in history as a form of applied morality, as philosophy teaching by example”vii.
However most thinkers of the 16th and 17th centuries believed that history was cyclical rather than linear. Petrarch had a passion for the ancient civilisations of Greece and especially Rome; “what else is all history but the praise of Rome”, he once wrote. Indeed one of his chief purposes of his literary efforts appeared to be the revival of the glories and the ideals of ancient Rome. He hoped that the examples of greatness would elevate the sadly deficient standards of his own age. Other historians often had political agenda’s in writing their history. One such man is Paul of Sarpi from Venice.
His work Historie of the Councel of Trent was dedicated to the proposition that the Church should have reached a compromise with the Protestants, especially after the death of Martin Luther. This sparked a debate with the Jesuit historian Sforza Pallavicino who was commissioned to write and alternative history of the Council. A nationalistic agenda is evidenced in Juan de Mariana’s General History of Spain. He was one of the first historians to write a history of the Iberian Peninsula from Roman times on. History of particular themes or topics seemed to have been popular in the 16th and 17th century as Benton points out.
He cites Sarpi’s History of Benefices, John Seldon’s Titles of Honour and Historie of Tithes as examples of these. The latter piece is responsible for Seldon’s fame as the founder of ‘problematic history’ in Britain. It appears therefore that many historians have mainly political interests in writing the history that they did. The enlightenment saw the emergence of what Benton calls ‘philosophic history’viii. This is because the men who wrote history during the 18th century were primarily philosophers rather than historians.
Benton says that modern superiority to the ancients appeared to be one of the characteristics of historical writing at the time. Alsoix important were the ideas “that human nature is at it’s most basic level is a constant factor”x and that “on balance there is progress in human civilisation”xi. They exhibited a source criticism at new levels, and created texts of massive proportion employing a wide range of disciplines in their in enquires. Three of the most prominent historians of this age were Voltaire, Montesquieu and Gibbon.
Voltaire perhaps more known for his philosophical and political influence, wrote a number of historical works including The History of Charles XII, The Age of Louis XIV and a section on history in Essay on the Customs and Spirit of Nations. He comes under heavy criticism from Gibbon calling his work superficial and casting a “keen and lively glance over the surface of history”xii Gibbon, who is most famous for his work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, owed much of his work to the sources by Jean Mabillon, Bernard Montfasucon and Ludovico Muratori.
Gibbon viewed the Roman Empire as a single entity in undeviating decline from the ideals of political and intellectual freedom that had characterised the classical literature he had read. For him, the material decay of Rome was the effect and symbol of moral decadence. “Many a sober Christian would rather admit that a wafer is God than that God is a cruel and capricious tyrant”. Benton quotes Gibbon as saying that history is “little more than a register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind,”xiii perhaps an indicator of his reasons for selecting the history he did.
Gibbon was a friend and admirer of one of the enlightenment’s greatest religious sceptics, David Hume, also an historian. This scepticism is evident throughout his work. He seems to imply that the Empire would have survived longer were it not for the internal solvent of Christianity and the external catalyst of the invasions. His history is regarded primarily as a branch of literature rather than a social science. He regarded his own time, much like other thinkers of the enlightenment, as the age of recovery rather than the renaissance.
On Rome’s decline, one other historian differed with him; Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu. He placed more emphasis on the sheer over extension of the Empire, even before the fall of the Republic. Born in France he is famous for three main pieces of work, The Spirit of the Laws, The Persian Letters and Considerations sur les Causes de la grandeur et de la decadence des Romains. Widely travelled and well educated he was the most influential as a writer against the absolutism of the French monarchy and greatly desired a more ordered form of government.
The Spirit of the Laws is a history of political theory and of jurisprudence. His aims in writing history were clearly to change the political climate and to this end could be described as lesson (whether or not it is one of morality is again a matter for interpretation). David Hume, after reading his Montesquieu’s De l’Esprit des Lois, was converted to his view of history as a “continuing process, governed by geography, climate, economic forces, laws, institutions, religion, which could be affected to a limited extent, but not controlled, by the intervention of individuals”xiv.
Around this time he composed his History of England. He aimed to reduce history to a science. “to discover the constant and universal principles of human nature.. by furnishing us with materials… these records… by which the politician or moral philosopher fixes the principles of science; in the same manner as the physician or natural philosopher becomes acquainted with the nature of plants, minerals, and other external objects by the experiments which he forms concerning them. “xv.
He said that his History was written “not only for style, which is notorious to all the world, but also for matter, such is the ignorance and partiality of all our historians. ” xvi However he was not himself wholly impartial, being hostile to Puritanism and religion in general in an age when it was becoming chic to be non-Christian. His writings exhibit not so much a desire to teach but a cynical criticism which many at the time labelled as ‘Tory bias’. The writers of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment differ in many ways, but they were concerned to a large degree with teaching either political or moral lessons.
While we cannot obviously say by now that they were only concerned with parts of the past which taught moral lessons, we can attempt to discern whether or not they were for the most part concerned with them. In my opinion they were concerned primarily with political history, which had political implications for their time. While indeed they may have set out to teach a moral lesson in the sense of comparing the ‘evils’ of today’s society with that of the past and vice versa, the end result was a political narrative used to back up a political argument.
The effects of these are most evidenced in the Constitution of the United States for example, whose founding fathers were well versed in the works of writers such as Montesquieu. The question which is most obvious here though, is to what extend can one consider these political lessons moral? For those whose lives revolve around politics can they not be considered moral lessons as they are a code by which they conduct their behaviour? This ultimately, is the question whose answer depends on the personal opinions of the reader.