Sharing knowledge about wisdom and moral values in politics and society becomes crucial. In the March 2023 issue of Epoch magazine, Professor James Hankins wrote an article discussing the importance of reintroducing morals to politics and society. With the rise of violence, corruption, and societal divisions, Hankins believes the solution to these issues does not rely solely on government or laws to prevent corruption. Instead, he suggests that we need to address and change our moral and ethical values from within, as advocated by scholars like Francesco Petrarca from the 14th century. Hankins cites several upheavals in Europe at the end of the 14th century, including corruption in the Church, the aftermath of the Crusades, the rise of monarchies and state authorities, and the devastating plague that wiped out a significant portion of the population. Petrarca advised rulers to study classical literature, inspired by Socrates’ efforts to revive society after its decline. Socrates’ approach was philosophical, emphasizing the importance of introspection. During Petrarca’s times, Christianity was prominent, and the pursuit of knowledge was encouraged. Hankins argues that we must reclaim these values to bring about meaningful change in today’s world. By taking a philosophical approach, we can address the root causes of societal issues and bring about lasting change.
Leon Battista Alberti, an Italian Renaissance humanist, believed that drawing could help improve human nature. This approach to societal crises differs from today’s reality, where legislation or political structure changes are often applied. During the Renaissance, the focus was on educating and promoting virtues among leaders and the people. In Petrarca’s time, painters were not highly regarded, but he aimed to change the situation by emphasizing human excellence in all fields through virtues. In addition, Petrarca believed that studying human sciences could improve humankind.
In today’s societies, Hankins believes that literature is not seen as a tool for personal transformation, with social issues being resolved through political and legal means. However, Petrarca believes that teaching individuals good virtues can be more effective than simply changing the political system or laws. Unfortunately, what has survived the Renaissance are only isolated pieces of art, music, and philosophy without any connection between them. Hankins argues that good institutions and good people are necessary to create positive change. Plato and Aristo believed in the possibility of designing institutions to transform individuals into good people, while modern liberals focused on protecting individual freedoms from bad actors.
Basil of Caesarea, an early Church Father from the 4th century, is renowned for his Address to Young Men (Ad adolescentes de legendis libris gentilium) even before the Renaissance. In this work, he defended the study of pagan literature by Christians and made critical use of Greek philosophical thought. According to Basil, pagan wisdom is to Christian truth what leaves are to a fruit tree – protection and an ornament. However, he urged readers to distinguish between morally helpful and ethically injurious passages in pagan literature. Furthermore, he emphasized the importance of paying attention to passages that praised virtue, which can be found in works by Hesiod, Homer, Solon, Theognis, and Prodicus, among other eminent philosophers. After all, virtue is crucial to obtaining eternal life, or in today’s world, a better life.