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From Dante to Shakespeare
A brief history of conservatism: Part 2, 1300-1600 A.D.
Fred Hutchison, RenewAmerica analyst
August 1, 2013

Originally published May 13, 2007

My last essay was A Brief History of Conservatism, Part 1, 800 B.C. to 1300 A.D. During that journey of 2,100 years, we learned how four streams of Conservatism contributed to Western culture.

This essay picks up the story in the year 1300 A.D. We shall go on a journey through the proto-Renaissance of literature (1300-1375), the Italian Renaissance (1375-1520), and the Northern Renaissance (1520-1600). Our story of this era begins with Dante and ends with Shakespeare.

Poetry, an early harbinger of Renaissance

During a cultural Renaissance, great poetry and great literature generally emerge first, the best fine artists and architects appear second, and the great philosophers and composers come late in the game. For example, superlative poets like Dante and Petrarch appeared in the fourteenth century as early harbingers of the Italian Renaissance. Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel and perfected the design of Saint Peter's Cathedral two centuries later, during the High Renaissance. Baroque music was developed from Renaissance innovations in tonality and harmony. However, baroque music was not perfected until after 1700, when Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, and Telemann appeared. The trends in philosophy, which began during the late Renaissance, found their final synthesis and denouement in Immanuel Kant during the late 18th century.

How can we explain this pattern? My guess is that the poets are the prophets of cultural ideals that will prevail during the subsequent cultural renewal. Great artists and architects then, in turn, reveal to us the culture of their own day. At least, that is what art historians John Ruskin and Kenneth Clark believed. Finally, philosophers and composers appear, after a long process of digesting cultural ideals and developing elaborate and technically complex means of giving mature expression to them.

Midway in the journey of Western culture

"Midway in the journey of life I found myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost." (Opening lines, The Inferno, Dante Alighieri, 1265-1321)

Dante wrote these lines in 1312, but he was harking back to a spiritual experience he had in the jubilee year of 1300. Dante was 35 when he was "midway in his journey of life," for that age was considered to be the halfway point of the biblical life span of three score and ten years.

On Good Friday of the year 1300, Dante had a heavy conviction of sin. Hence his words, "...I found myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost." His inner pilgrimage to find the straight way was expressed in his metaphorical journey through Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso (hell, purgatory, and heaven) in his literary classic The Divine Comedy.

Dante's spiritual crisis in 1300 is an excellent example of how Christian spirituality can be a stimulus to culture. Dante was a man of faith and possessed superb literary gifts. However, his great magnum opus could not be written until he had a spiritual catharsis, a reawakening of faith and a restoration to the straight and narrow path. His renewed spiritual journey was the basis for his epic poetry.

Just as the year 1300 was midway through the journey of Dante's life, 1300 is midway in our journey through the rise of Western culture (800 B.C.-1800 A.D.).

The classicism of Dante and Petrarch

The 14th century had four immortal writers: Dante, Chaucer, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. Dante and Petrarch are perfect examples of literary traditionalism.

According to a tabulation by Mortimer Adler, Dante cited more classical authors from Alder's Great Books of the Western World project than any Western author who had gone before except for Epictetus (Stoic philosopher, 2nd century A. D.). Dante was profoundly influenced by Virgil (epic poet of the1st century B.C.), who was the greatest of the masters of literary traditionalism. In Part 1 of this essay, literary traditionalism was recognized as one of the oldest streams of cultural conservatism.

Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374) probably cited more classical authors than Dante. Petrarch was the first European classicist who seriously attempted to understand classic writers on their own terms instead of reading them from a Gothic perspective. During the next century, Renaissance men, building upon Petrarch's insights, excelled in their understanding of the classical mind. This expansion in the worldview of Renaissance men might have had something to do with their versatility and creativity.

Chaucer and Gothic sociability

Like Dante, Geoffrey Chaucer (English poet and statesman, 1343-1400) went on a pilgrimage, but in Chaucer's case it was a physical journey. Although he could afford a carriage, he walked on foot as an act of penance. The destination of Chaucer's journey was Canterbury Cathedral, and his objective was to venerate the bones of St. Thomas a Becket, whom Chaucer called "the holy blissful martyr."

However, Chaucer did not write about himself or about the bones of the martyr. His Canterbury Tales were about the other pilgrims he traveled with. The affable and avuncular Chaucer has retained his appeal in the modern age, perhaps because modern literature and performance art emphasizes personal stories about individuals.

The proud poet laureate

Petrarch lived under the literary shadow of Dante, who, in turn, lived under the literary shadow of Virgil. Dante was proud of his talents, but humbly conceded the superiority of Virgil. In contrast, Petrarch was egotistical about his talents and resented the literary superiority of Dante. He made attempts to parody Dante that were too subtle to have the desired effect. Petrarch could not get used to being the second best poet of the century.

In some ways, Petrarch was the first modern man. He was the first European man to climb a mountain purely for individual adventure. Petrarch traveled more than most men of his era, was cosmopolitan in outlook, and was free of parochial interests. He was an international celebrity poet, equally famous in Rome, Paris, and Avignon. Petrarch was crowned in Rome with laurel leaves as poet. He was the "poet laureate" – that is to say, the poet crowned with laurel. Paris and Rome offered him the laurel crown at the same time, giving Petrarch the choice of where to be crowned.

Petrarch was copied so much by Renaissance authors that his own fame was gradually eclipsed. Shakespeare borrowed heavily from Petrarch – without giving him the credit. Writers of that age freely raided the immense corpus of Petrarch's work as though it was a public treasury. Literary historians have failed to give Petrarch his due while lionizing Dante and Chaucer. Yet Petrarch arguably had a greater effect on the Renaissance than any other writer. Art historian Kenneth Clark conceded that Petrarch was the first European to read the classical authors with real insight, but slyly called Petrarch "the false dawn of the Renaissance."

Petrarch was not a "false dawn" – but was the true father of the Renaissance. Without Petrarch, the means for launching the Renaissance and the kind of men who launched it would not have existed. To a significant degree, the ideas of the leaders of the early Renaissance were the ideas of Petrarch.

Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) was a protege of Petrarch and became virtually his colleague in his later years. The sociable Petrarch had great personal charm and was adept at forming friendships. Boccaccio proved to be an important link between Petrarch and the Italian Renaissance. The crucial contribution of Boccaccio to Western Culture will be more understandable as we consider the Gothic Arcadia.

The Gothic Arcadia

The 14th century was a time of calamities on a biblical scale, but paradoxically was also a time of high spirits, playfulness, exquisite manners, congenial banter, and cultivated taste. The court of the Duke of Berry was like a rich and sophisticated version of the Greek Arcadia. There was also an Arcadian season in Florence, Italy, which was the home town of Boccaccio.

Gothic men loved the courtly romances told by troubadour poets – stories that reduced courtship to an elaborate game. Art historian Kenneth Clark described the Gothic world as:

"A world of chivalry, courtesy, and romance; a world in which serious things were done with a sense of play – where even war and theology could become a sort of game; and when architecture reached a point of extravagance unequaled in history."

We are considering a special kind of game and a special kind of play. It is not the cruel and lewd games of the barbarian, nor the obsessive play of the modern sportsman. The joyous play of the Gothic man was a celebration of what the French call la douceur de vivre (the sweetness of life).

A remarkable example of the sweet playfulness of Gothic man was exhibited by the twelve disciples of Saint Francis of Assisi when they were called before Pope Innocent III. Most men trembled before this mighty pontiff. Most of the kings of Europe were either his feudal vassals or under his political hegemony. But when the humble friars minor (little brothers) gazed upon the great pontiff in all his glory, these unwashed ragamuffins began to sing and dance around the great papal throne. That was la douceur de vivre in its most perfect spiritual form.

Eventually, the gravitias of the Renaissance drove out the playful vivacity of the high Gothic era. The sweet, sunny, dreamy days when our culture was young had to give way to the adult solemnity of Renaissance maturity.

However, two great authors – namely Boccaccio, the disciple of Petrarch, and Castiglione, who was inspired by Boccaccio – preserved some of the finest of the Gothic courtly delights and configured them into the code of the gentleman for transmission to future generations. Sophisticated and gentle playfulness was to be one of the enduring charms of the Western gentlemen.

Frolicking during the plague

When the black plague came to Florence, Italy, in 1348, a group of ten young men and women fled to a villa in the beautiful Tuscan hills and spent a fortnight in celebration of the sweetness of life. The shadow of death was in the valley, but these genial young ladies and gentlemen saw no reason why they should not enjoy each other's company during their extended picnic. Their lively conversation was recorded in The Decameron, by Boccaccio.

The young Florentines devoted ten days of their retreat to playful festivities. Each day, one member of their company was appointed as king or queen for a day who would choose the theme of the day and would preside over the proceedings.

The themes of the Decameron included fortune, intelligence, wit, virtue, the will, courtly love, happiness, tragedy, and nature. They spoke of nature as a pleasant garden and an eternal spring for the enjoyment of the young – like the Greek Arcadia. Nature was a sublime inspiration for beauty, order, symmetry, and natural luxury, as well as natural morality and a balanced intelligence. Here we have a hint of natural law philosophy, one of the cultural streams of conservatism.

The merry festival included songs, dances, games, and practical jokes. The party took an impish turn in discussions of the tricks that sly women play on naive men, tricks that clever men play on knaves, and the sarcastic deflation of pompous fools.

Interestingly, the zestful Boccaccio and the congenial Chaucer were the first men of European civilization to publish the words of women speaking in their own voice and on their own terms. During moments of the shared experience of la douceur de vivre, individual women found their voice, and men in their company were interested enough in what they said to take notes and publish the transcripts.

A manual for the gentleman

More than a century after the death of Boccaccio, Baldassare Castiglione (1478-1529) wrote Il Cortegiano, (The Courtier) at the Renaissance court of Urbino. Under the supervision of the Duchess of Urbino, a circle of Renaissance men discussed what a perfect courtier should be. Castiglione was inspired by the conversation to write The Courtier, which he hoped would compare favorably with Boccaccio's Decameron.

The discussion in Urbino preserved la douceur de vivre of The Decameron, but tamed it. The ribald humor and cruel tricks were taken out. Chivalry, honor, romance, courtesy, elegant conversation, wit, and manly deportment were included. Sports, swordsmanship, horsemanship, and the arts of war were regarded as essential to the making of a man. However, a gentleman must be able to discuss philosophy and display literary and artistic taste. The Christian virtues, such as the cardinal virtues and the theological virtues delineated by St. Thomas Aquinas, were indispensable. The courtly virtues, such as tact, magnanimity, gallantry, and social finesse, were also crucial to the formation of a gentleman.

The famous versatility of the Renaissance man was perfectly delineated in the discussion at Urbino. The Courtier became the indispensable handbook of the gentleman for almost four centuries. It was instrumental to the development of a high culture in Europe.

The Courtier followed conservative ideals. All the best traits of the virtuous men of the classical past, of the Gothic era, and of Christianity were collected, gathered together, and assembled in the archetype of the gentleman.

Planning the Renaissance

Petrarch and Boccaccio often discussed the future of humane letters and cultured society in Florence. Petrarch predicted that the gentleman would supplant the cleric in civic leadership – a visionary insight because the writing of The Courtier was more than a century in the future. The era of the gentleman started after Petrarch's death and ran for about four centuries. Petrarch, as a leading poet, had prophetic foresight about the future of the culture.

Pertrarch, Boccacio, and their circle of followers often discussed what kind of education the young Christian gentleman needed to prepare him for political and cultural leadership. Wise, learned, and virtuous leaders are needed to raise the cultural tone of the community as the leaders of Athens had done.

Some of the circle of young scholars who gathered around Petrarch and Boccaccio became the scholarly nucleus of the early Renaissance at Florence.

A Republic of Letters

Coluccio Salutati (1331-1406) was the most gifted disciple of Petrarch. Salutati was the first of three greatest Chancellors of Florence. Leonardo Bruni (1369-1444), was Salutati's greatest student and was also the greatest of the three famous chancellors. Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459), the third notable chancellor, was a young protege of the elderly Salutati. The historical chain of literary masters – Virgil, Dante, Petrarch, Salutati, Bruni, and Bracciolini – led to an extremely rare kind of entity, a Republic of Letters.

In addition to their political leadership, each of the great chancellors made original contributions to literature and were pioneers in literary research. Interestingly, each of the chancellors were drafted by the pope for special assignments and scholarly projects for the church. All the leaders of the early Renaissance were devout churchmen and were highly versatile in their talents. From the Dark Ages until the eighteenth century, the church was a great sponsor of culture, and this was particularly true of 11th and 12th century France and the Italian Renaissance in the 15th century.

Salutati was appointed Chancellor of Florence in 1375, which marks the beginning of the early Renaissance. Art historian Kenneth Clark said:

"For thirty years the fortunes of the Republic (of Florence)...were directed by a group of the most intelligent individuals who have ever been elected to power by a democratic government. From Salutati onwards, the Florentine chancellors were scholars, believers in the studia humanitas, in which learning could be used to achieve a happy life, believers in the application of free intelligence to public affairs, and believers, above all, in Florence."

Bracciolini, the last great scholar-chancellor, was appointed to the post in 1453 and served until his death in 1459. The great days of the Republic of Letters thus ran from 1375 to 1459. Therefore, I like to date the Early Renaissance as 1375-1459 (Salutati through Bracciolini) and the High Renaissance as 1459-1527, during which Rome supplanted Florence as the center of the Renaissance.

The ascendency of the House of Medici in Florence diminished the political power of the scholar-chancellors, but the chancellors retained considerable cultural influence. The Medici family proved to be even more generous than the scholar-chancellors in their patronage of the arts and letters.

The House of Joy

The Italian Renaissance was not a spontaneous event, but was in large degree the fruit of a planned educational project. The great Renaissance schools were founded from the inspiration of Petrarch, Salutati, Bruni, and others, and produced "Renaissance Men," famous for their sophisticated culture and versatile talents.

The greatest schoolmaster of the Renaissance was Vittorino da Feltre (1378-1446), who went to Mantua in 1423 to establish a school called La Giancosa, meaning "The House of Joy." The splendor of La Giancosa glowed in the imagination of every humanist with images of how agreeable a classical education can be.

The arduous process of educating a gentleman can be sweetened and beautified with splendid settings. La Giancosa had a palace and beautiful gardens for the student's enjoyment and aesthetic refinement. Learning and maturing can be part of the pursuit of happiness. To the Renaissance educators, the good life requires the full development and use of the human faculties. Therefore, formal education, they believed, can be the glory of civilization and an illustrious season in a life well lived.

Moral illumination must accompany aesthetic refinement. Da Feltre was a devout Christian and his school included religious education and spiritual exercises. His spiritual nurture of young Christians in the faith played a part in the bonding of master and student. Da Feltre was influenced by the late Roman-Christian model of education as articulated by Eusebius (275-339), who saw education as a means to the development of moral character.

Da Feltre followed Petrarch, Boccaccio, and Bruni's lead in believing that the pagan classics of Greece and Rome could be reconciled with a Christian education. Many Catholic educators adhered to this idea in the centuries to come.

The first order of business for the student was to master grammar and become fluent in Latin and Greek. Then the curriculum turned to history, morality, and rhetoric. Classical history was viewed as a record of the memorable deeds of great men and a compendium of practical examples of virtue. Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans supplied profiles in manly virtue.

Da Feltre was influenced by the Greek view of education, which involved the training of mind and body. La Giancosa was one of Europe's first elite boarding schools and was furnished with playing fields for sports. It was the precursor to schools like Eton and Harrow in England.

Da Feltre's greatest student was Federigo da Montefeltra, the future Duke of Urbino. Federigo turned the palace of Urbino into a court of the High Renaissance. Castiglione listened to an elegant conversation by the courtiers of Urbino and was inspired to write The Courtier.

The Platonic Academy

Cosimo de Medici established the Platonic Academy in Florence and appointed Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) as headmaster. Ficino attempted to synthesize Christianity with Neoplatonism.

The grandiosity of the high Renaissance was partly caused by the intoxication of the heady mixture of Christianity and Neoplatonism. I like call it "platonic inflation."

We can observe platonic inflation in Michelangelo's titanic figures on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. Michelangelo came by his grandiosity honestly. He was an apprentice artist in the house of Medici, which sponsored the Platonic Academy. He imbibed platonic inflation along with his daily lessons in sculpture and painting.

Platonic inflation and liberal humanism

Platonic inflation was the source of new ideas of liberal humanism that were contrary to ancient conservative principles. Such ideas included "Man, the measure of all things," the malleability of human nature, the unlimited potential of man, and the possibility of utopia. Such notions flowed from the pens of Renaissance men such as Leonardo Bruni (1389-1444), Leon Alberti (1404-1472), Pico Mirandola (1463-1494), and Sir Thomas More (1478-1535).

All four of the conservative traditions delineated in Part 1 were contrary to these ideas. Conservatives held that one cannot find "the measure of all things" in man, but must look to transcendent sources or ancient wisdom. The conservatives agreed that man has a nature that established limits on how much he can be molded. To mold man contrary to his true nature is to damage him. Man has developmental potential according to his design. However, man cannot break free of that design and soar beyond the limits inherent in the design. Finally, no utopia is possible because of the dark side of human nature and the inner contradictions that all people wrestle with.

The conservative culture of Europe could not digest these ideas of liberal humanism. Europe went through a century of disillusionment with the Renaissance, culminating with Shakespeare's furious disappointment with man.

The dawn of modern taste

The first women depicted in European art that are beautiful according to modern tastes are Botticelli's women. Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) painted pagan goddesses and Madonnas, all of whom looked very much like the blond daughters of Northern Italian gentlemen. Their beauty is instantly accessible to the modern eye.

The first music that sounds beautiful to the modern ear was composed during the late Renaissance. A trained ear can find beauty in Medieval music, but to most moderns the aesthetics of Gothic sounds are illusive. However, no training or introduction is needed to enjoy the best Renaissance music.

A modern man might glory in a Gothic Cathedral, but his spirit can find repose and comfort under the arches and arbors of Renaissance settings. For good or ill, the Renaissance created enduring European sensibilities.

The sack of Rome and the damnation of Faust

The sack of Rome by the troops of the German Emperor (1527) brought the Italian Renaissance to an end, and brought great disillusionment to Renaissance men. Michelangelo painted the titanic figures on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel before the sack of Rome – but painted the terrifying Last Judgment above the altar of the Sistine Chapel after the sack of Rome. The terror of damnation had replaced the hubris of platonic inflation. The platonic bubble had burst.

A few years earlier, Savonarola preached hellfire sermons on the streets of Florence. The chastened citizens brought their proudest possessions to the public square and consigned them to the flames of the "bonfire of the vanities."

Martin Luther and other leaders of the Reformation denounced the platonic inflation and immorality of the High Renaissance. Luther also condemned Dr. Faust, a charlatan whose name became a legend.

German storytellers portrayed Faust as a man demented by platonic inflation. Like a Renaissance men, he mastered every field of study. Still dissatisfied and rankling against mortal limits, he sold his soul to Mephistopheles for new powers without limit. The terrifying damnation of Faust resonated in the northern lands of the Reformation, where many were disgusted with Renaissance megalomania.

The disillusioned Northern Renaissance man

The Renaissance shifted north, but the disillusionment hung on for a century. Erasmus (1466-1536) and Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) were Northern Renaissance men who were shaken in their faith in man, but stood strong in their faith in God. Montaigne and Shakespeare were somewhat shaken in their religious faith. Montaigne was more intensely skeptical about the faith, while Shakespeare was ambivalent. Shakespeare's real crisis was his severe disillusionment with man and his grief about the futility of life.

"Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time; and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Out! Out brief candle! Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." (MacBeth, Act V)

After these furious words of titanic despair about man, Renaissance optimism could make no recovery. Therefore, the Northern Renaissance ended with Shakespeare. Paradoxically, literary traditionalism increased in intensity during the Northern Renaissance.

The first ivory tower

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592, Bordeaux, France) had a round library with thousands of books at the top of a round tower. His "ivory tower" was a real tower. The walls of the library were covered with 60 maxims of classical authors written in Latin and Greek.

In Montaigne's Essays, ideas from Petrarch and the classic authors stimulated his reflections about himself and the condition of mankind. He penetrated into places within the realm of self-reflection that no Western author had gone before.

Shakespeare as a young man avidly read the works the older Montaigne and soon surpassed him in the intensity and depth of his introspective explorations.

Historical lessons

The lessons we can learn from history as delineated in this essay can be enumerated by comparing conservative wisdom with liberal folly.

1) The literary traditionalism that led to the Renaissance contrasts significantly with a) progressivism, b) historicism, and c) Multiculturalism in liberal academia.
    a) Progressivism looks upon the cultural past with contempt, lionizes the mediocrities of our present day, and idealizes an unknown future.

    b) Historicism values only the present culture and finds cultural history and traditional morality irrelevant to the needs and values of the present moment.

    c) Multiculturalism demeans the works of "dead white European males," and exalts contemporary works that are chosen for praise with no regard for innate merit, but valued solely on whether the works are authentic expressions of favored cultures.
2) Dante's and Chaucer's great works were triggered by their conviction of sin, repentance, and the process they chose to get right with God. This series of essays will point to several occasions where a reckoning with God was the turning point of culture.

Modern liberalism is hostile to doctrinally orthodox Christianity and is fighting to remove Christ from the culture. As a result, Western culture is losing its resilience and its historical ability to be healed and rejuvenated through spiritual renewal.

3) One of the fruits of the development of a high culture was la douceur de vivre (the sweetness of life). Contrary to the lies told about the Middle Ages during the French Enlightenment, Christian civilization produced a sweetness and joy unknown to frowning liberals. Even now, there is a striking contrast between the life-embracing gusto of conservatives with the bitterness of liberals.

4) A tour de force of education that produced the versatile Renaissance man and the elegant and learned gentlemen contrasts substantively with contemporary academia, which is producing narrow specialists who are cultural barbarians.

5) The delusions of the Renaissance included the belief that man is the measure of all things, the unlimited potential of man, and the possibility of utopia. These fallacies stimulated culture in the short run, but led to tremendous disillusionment. However, Western culture was resilient and worked these false ideas about man out of its system by 1600. Modern liberalism revived all these errors.

6) This essay cited three instances of the discussions by small groups of intelligent people that brought about great cultural changes, namely a) the discussions of Petrarch, Boccaccio, and their disciples, b) the discussions of ten young Florentines recounted in The Decameron, and c) the discussions of Renaissance men at Urbino retold in The Courtier. Every great cultural renewal in European history was preceded by intense discussions of intelligent people. If intelligent conservatives wish to see a change in the culture, they must be prepared to have extensive conversations with other intelligent conservatives.

Stay tuned

The next essay will trace the continued rise of Western culture from 1600-1750. The conservative reaction to the French Enlightenment (1750-1800) and the Romantic Movement will furnish clues about the modern conservative movement.

A message from Stephen Stone, President, RenewAmerica

I first became acquainted with Fred Hutchison in December 2003, when he contacted me about an article he was interested in writing for RenewAmerica about Alan Keyes. From that auspicious moment until God took him a little more than six years later, we published over 200 of Fred's incomparable essays — usually on some vital aspect of the modern "culture war," written with wit and disarming logic from Fred's brilliant perspective of history, philosophy, science, and scripture.

It was obvious to me from the beginning that Fred was in a class by himself among American conservative writers, and I was honored to feature his insights at RA.

I greatly miss Fred, who died of a brain tumor on August 10, 2010. What a gentle — yet profoundly powerful — voice of reason and godly truth! I'm delighted to see his remarkable essays on the history of conservatism brought together in a masterfully-edited volume by Julie Klusty. Restoring History is a wonderful tribute to a truly great man.

The book is available at

© Fred Hutchison


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They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. —Isaiah 40:31