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[Peking University Global Fellowship] Renowned Renaissance expert James Hankins visits Beida

FEB . 12 2017
Peking University, Feb. 12, 2017: James Hankins, a history professor at Harvard University, visited Peking University on December 30, 2016, at the invitation of Peking University's Global Fellowship. During his visit, Professor Hankins held an academic symposium on "Petrarch's Way: Meritocratic Politics in Chinese Confucianism and Italian Renaissance", and gave a speech entitled "Moral Politics and Machiavelli's Late Thought - Confucian Meritocratic Politics from a perspective of Renaissance”. The visit was organized by Peking University Office of International Relations, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Ritual Research Center and Department of International Cooperation, Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences, Ritual Research Center, and sponsored by Guanghua Education Foundation. Professor Wu Fei from Peking University Department of Philosophy served as the host.
 
James Hankins is a famous Renaissance research historian, and best known for his excellent academic works Plato in the Italian Renaissance, The Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Philosophy and other writings in the field of Platonic academia and Renaissance research.James Hankins received his Ph.D. in History from Columbia University in 1985 and joined the history faculty at Harvard University in the same year. He has been General Editor of theTatti Renaissance Library since 1998. In 2012, he was honored with the "Paul Oskar Kristeller Lifetime Achievement Award" by the Renaissance Society of America.
 
James Hankins’ academic symposium was held in the Jingyuan Courtyard No. 2. Daniel A. Bell, dean of the School of Political Science and Public Administration from Shandong University, Cheng Leisong and Chen Siyi from Department of Philosophy of Peking University, Sun Shuai from Philosophy Department from Renmin University and Wu Gongqing from Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences participated in the discussion.
 
 

James Hankins in the symposium
 
During the discussion, James Hankins mentioned a series of dilemmas in Western democracy in 2016. In fact, the “Brexit” and Trump’s victory in the presidential election both had a distinctive anti-elitist characteristic and reflected decline and crisis of the Western ruling elite. However, the quality of political elites had always been an eternal theoretical problem that drew the attention of eastern and western scholars. Modern Western political science focused on issues of equality and justice in democratic politics, however little was discussed over the moral politics, which was distinct from the Confucian tradition in the east. However, Hankins argued that the idea of "meritocratic politics" based on the Confucian tradition was not a unique concept of oriental Confucian society, since a moralpolitical tradition, counterpart of Confucian political ideal, was also embodied in the Renaissance of Italian humanism. This tradition originated from the moral political thought in ancient Greece and Rome and revived in the humanism with Petrarch as a representative.
 
Hankins made a series of parallel comparisons between Confucian tradition of "meritocratic politics" and the concept of "moral politics" in Italian humanism. From the thought and historical background, the thoughts of the early Confucianists and Italian humanists were both reflections on the chaos and crisis of the times. They all believed that the improvement of political and social life depended on the self-improvement of the inner moral field. And the revival of human moral character, instead of creation of new laws and systems, could save the political crisis caused by the decline of Roman Empire and the church.
 
Similar to the Confucian tradition of gentleman education, the humanism pioneered by Petrarch also proposed the idea of the restoration of classical knowledge. Humanism emphasized the study of classic works of Latin literature to shape the new sage class. Humanities did not emphasize the division of disciplines, but aimed to achieve extensive and comprehensive moral cultivation; Confucian tradition and Petrarch Oriented humanist traditions both based the legitimacy of political rule on the principle of virtue, and thus against the hereditary succession of aristocratic identity. The two traditions of thought respectively believed that virtuous people obtain a special legitimacy of the rule, because of harmony with the law of nature or nature.
 
Hankins also mentioned some fundamental differences between the Confucian meritocratic political tradition and the humanistic moral political concepts. For example, Confucianism emphasized more than humanism to respect ancestors and family. In addition, humanists emphasized more of commercial interests, and far less concerned about the interests of civilians and the poor than Confucianists. These differences shed light on, in part, why the political tradition of merit is far less successful in the West than in Eastern Confucian society.
 
Participants and Hankinsdiscussed extensively on "Confucianism and humanism on the understanding of virtue", "the system of the political level", "influence of nominalism on the humanistic tradition" and so on.
 
On the evening of December 30, Hankins gave a lecture entitled "MeritocraticPolitics, Machiavelli's Late Ideology and Renaissance Confucian Politics" for the teachers and students in No.2 Gymnasium. In his speech, Hankins explored Petrarch's proposal of the "meritocraticpolitics" in the historical context of the late Middle Ages to the Renaissance in Italy.
 

 
James Hankins in the speech
 
In his review of Renaissance history, Hankins focused on the history of politics and political thought in Florence, focusing on the three "political moments" of the Renaissance: the early establishment of the Florentine public government, Petrarch's Humanism (mid-14th century), and the modern shift in political theory initiated by Machiavelli. These three moments were the key points to understand the revival and decline of Western political ideals.
 
The First Moment: the establishment of the Florentine people's government. The establishment of the Florentine civil government in the late Middle Ages was the first "moment" in the development of the political ideology of the Renaissance. The Florentine people's government was active between 1280 and 1330 with the central purpose to prevent the government from being controlled by a handful of oligarchs and powerful people. The people's government had adopted a series of systems including electing administrative officials by way of random lottery and secret ballot for a variety of decision-making.
 
In fact, what governed the Florentine people's government was a deep prejudice against the politics of meritocracy. All functions of the Florentine people's government, and even highly specialized positions, were elected from ordinary members of the public by lot drawing, and decisions on war and taxation were subject to strict rules agreed upon by all the people. This high degree of democratic character not only led to the inefficient operation of the Florentine public government, but also greatly weakened the stability of the government. Realistic history of the political history of Florence showed that the original intention of the people's government to guard against power completely failed, instead, it was a series of powerful tyrants behind the scenes represented by the Medici family that actually dominated the political situation in Florence. In the mid-14th century, the Florentine people's government had been in name only.
 
The Second Moment: Petrarch's Humanism and the Revival of "MoralPolitics". The failure of the democratic political system in Florence wasalso one of the manifestations of the decay of the Christian world in the 14th century - the crisis wasmanifested in the corruption and decline of the Holy Roman Empire and the church throughout Europe. It was this comprehensive spiritual and political crisis that inspired the ensuing two "important moments", that is, the beginning of Petrarch's humanism and Machiavelli's modern political theory.
 
Humanism created by Petrarch was not only a Renaissance movement, but also aimed to diagnose and deal with Italy's political and moral crisis. In Petrarch's view, both the Florentine people's government and tyrants were far from the ideal of moral politics. If the political rulers lacked morality and wisdom, then all political systems and laws have lost the foundation, it was impossible to make Italy out of the dying predicament. Petrarch called for the revival of Roman republican politics in Italy by reviving the moral and educational systems of the ancient Romans.
 
The Third Moment: Machiavelli's Modern Political Turn. Machiavelli offered a different answer to the crisis of church and state in Florence and throughout the Christian world.
 
In the "History of Florence", Machiavelli showed that the traditional civil government system of the Florentine was a failure from the beginning of its establishment and the constitutional design of Florence was revised in the Medici ruling period. The new constitution designed by Machiavelli accommodated all social strata and had decentralized power among the various strata for the purpose of preventing internal power conflicts and conflicts of interests. According to this new constitution, Florence would achieve a higher level of unity and virtue than before, the people would no longer be oppressed by the elite, and thus able to maintain loyalty to the government and government. In this way Machiavelli tried to divert the popular character of the people into Romanesque virtues of war. Then the democratic spirit of the populace was used against the neighbors rather than for civil war or conflict.
 
Machiavelli received a good humanist education, devoted his life to classical studies, and emphasized the education of monarchs and republican statesmen like the 15th century humanists. However, from his specific political program, Machiavelli was by no means a humanist. Machiavelli advocated the people, defended the role of the people in politics, and opposed the power of the powerful to control the people. In this regard, Machiavelli was sympathetic to the early Florentine people's government. He designed a constitutional framework that affirmed the political role of the people, gave the people a critical place in the political system, and absorbed the elite through its ability and experience to lead the war, chase the wealth, and contribute to the city. Machiavelli thus gave a new definition of virtue, which no longer referred to the traditional virtue, but become "the effective use of power."
 
Machiavellian opposed radically to the faith of ancient philosophers about the inseparability of goodness, happiness and traditional virtues, thus promoting a new historical analysis - to pay attention to "what actually happened", rather than "what should happen". The new aim of historiography was to understand the operation of power, rather than to advocate a moral example that can inspire virtue. Recognizing Machiavelli as an innovator, Hankins suggested that Machiavelli was subject to a dominant ideology that was closer to the mass media in the late Middle Ages, not the moral politics advocated by Petrarch's humanism.
 
In the discussion, Wu Fei put forward further thought on how to understand the way and intent of Machiavelli’s refutation of moral politics, and how this refutation affected modern political thought and other aspects of the traditional thought.
 
Written by: Lu Linlin
Edited by: Li Ruiqi