Issue No. 12
Welcome to my first newsletter edition on Substack! Thank you for being here.
Let’s get to it.
Socrates teaches us that the only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing. For many of us 2020 certainly confirmed this lesson in humility.
Our world, technologically and medically sophisticated as it is, has been brought to its knees by a pathogen—in the same way so many societies have been laid low for thousands of years. The rapid global transmission of the novel coronavirus has caused more than one-and-a-half million deaths, and the attendant economic collapse has brought immeasurable additional suffering as well.
The virus’s toll is a painful reminder of the limits of human knowledge. There is still much we don’t know about the world around us.
Despite this, we can find a strange sort of comfort by considering how people of the past have confronted similar epistemological limitations. And we can look to how past societies have recovered from mass tragedies to inform how we might re-build our community and society so that is stronger and better than before.
The preface of Boccaccio’s Decameron offers such a window. Scholars estimate that up to three quarters of Florence and fifty million people across Europe died due to the bubonic plague outbreak of the 14th century. Boccaccio describes this devastation, recounting how families and friends turned on one another amid the turmoil. He notes that some withdrew into their homes, while others drank away their sorrow. Still others helped those in need. All of this is resonant today: times of trial bring out the best and the worst in us.
That context lays the groundwork for the Decameron: Ten young men and woman escape the plague in Florence to a castle in the countryside. They decide that to entertain themselves they will each tell one story each of the ten days they are away. The stories are farcical, licentious—and also very funny. Why would Boccaccio write a book largely consisting of 100 off-color comedic stories? Some might think it a bit tone-deaf.
But a deeper reading reveals that the Decameron is Boccaccio’s vision of a world made new after the death and despair of the plague—a world grounded in fundamental compassion for those around us, a world that embraces the breadth of the human experience, warts and all.
Now that a COVID-19 vaccine is about to hit the shelves, we should be asking ourselves this question too. What does a new, fresh beginning—one grounded in empathy for our fellow man, even those who differ from us—look like in our own day?
A note of thanks, a request, and introducing Civic Renaissance
Speaking of the Italian Renaissance, I am currently reading a biography of Francesco Petrarch, known to history as the father of renaissance humanism. The humanism of the Italian Renaissance was dedicated to reviving the works, ideas, and lessons of classical Greek and Roman philosophy and literature, and applying those lessons to the contemporary context.
I am struck by a number of things about Petrarch’s life.
First, his passion for ideas. For him, conversing with great minds and great thinkers was as real and as much a part of his life as breathing.
Just listen to him analogize his deep reading of great thinkers such as Cicero and Virgil to something as quotidian as eating:
I ate in the morning what I would digest in the evening; I swallowed as a boy what I would ruminate upon as an older man. I have thoroughly absorbed these writings, implanting them not only in my memory but in my marrow.
The works and ideas of history’s greatest minds are in the marrow of his bones. They are inextricably part of him.
Second, Petrarch had a remarkable ability to translate his passion for great ideas into remarkable cultural staying power. He was able not merely to see the goodness and truth in classical literature himself; he was able to excite those around him to do so too.
His ability to generate excitement in his peers about great ideas and big questions precipitated one of the most intellectually productive centuries in history. Boccaccio, for example, looked up to Petrarch his whole life, and his work is very much inspired by the great Italian poet.
Petrarch’s passion for the true, the good, and the beautiful had a positive ripple effect in his lifetime and for hundreds of years after. How can we replicate that—both the passion and the ripple effect—today?
This is a moment of many new beginnings. A new year. A new presidential administration. A new era in a post-COVID-19 world.
How can we take this opportunity of new beginnings to build something better?
Fomenting a renaissance—civically, intellectually, culturally, socially, morally—is my life's highest goal.
We each have a role to play in making the most of this fresh start.
I am thankful to thank each of you for being part of this newsletter and community, and for helping to work toward that goal.
Drawing inspiration from Petrarch’s passion and legacy, and to better capture the breadth and ethos of that goal, I’ve rechristened this project and newsletter Civic Renaissance (and moved to Substack) to better reflect the goal of this newsletter: to foster a community that celebrates human dignity, looks to the wisdom of the past, reflects on big questions of humanity, all to the end of the intellectual, civic, moral betterment of the human condition.
Win a book on Petrarch!
To bring about this vision, and to build this community, I need your help.
The aim of my writing and speaking, as well as my forthcoming book on civility, is to explore the building blocks of human community and the conditions of human flourishing.
I would like Civic Renaissance to be a place of intellectual rigor and honesty, of candor and of grace. A place where the best of the old is revived and applied to the challenges we are facing here and now. I want to articulate what civic renewal is, why it matters, and how we can achieve it.
And to do this, I'd love to hear from you about your biggest questions and interests. What are you thinking about, reading, listening to? What questions should we consider in these missives—or in my book?
Please fill out this quick questionnaire to help me better provide you and other readers with material you'll find interesting and meaningful.
To thank you for your time, readers who fill out the questionnaire will be entered in a drawing to win a copy of the Petrarch biography by Christopher Celenza that I so enjoyed this month!
I alluded to an exciting announcement in my last newsletter. I’m glad to be a contributing editor at American Purpose, launched by Francis Fukuyama and several other luminaries this fall. I’ve long admired Dr. Fukuyama as one of the few individuals in our public discourse today undaunted by the big questions in life, such as how we can sustain liberal democracy and human freedom—questions I tackle in my writing on civility. Find my first mini contribution to AP in the editorial team’s round up here. (Spoiler: it involves Petrarch!)
I adored this essay in Ex Urbe entitled Black Death, COVID, and Why We Keep Telling the Myth of a Renaissance Golden Age and Bad Middle Ages. It offers some useful cautions against eulogizing the past—especially “golden ages” such as the Italian Renaissance. It also reminds us to be wary of broadly characterizing historical periods as purely “good” or “bad”—there were dark times in the Italian renaissance, and many bright spots during the Medieval period. “All Medievalists, deep down inside, know they deserve an apology from the Renaissance,” writes Ex Urbe curator Ada Palmer. A wonderful, timely read!
The Economist’s Christmas edition had a wonderful tribute to Erasmus of Rotterdam, a voice of moderation in his own time of religious and political division who can also speak to our own. Erasmus was the most sought after guest by monarchs all across Europe, adored universally for his wisdom, wit, and learnedness. He sympathized with many of Martin Luther’s criticisms of the Catholic Church, but advocated reforming from within as opposed to an outright divorce. Such a middle ground did not win him any friends. Luther excoriated him for his moderate position, as did the Catholic Church. Erasmus remus us that compromise and the middle ground can often be costly, but he elevated peace and friendship over discord and enmity, and is an unsung hero of his day that we can take instruction from in our own moment.
What I’ve been doing
It was great to speak with Civility Tennessee—a project of Nashville’s The Tennessean—a few weeks ago about the difference between civility and politeness. Politeness is a technique, civility a disposition. A person can act politely while actually being deeply uncivil—think of any Bond villain, or Hannibal Lecter! Relatedly, one can be deeply civil while simultaneously being impolite: telling someone a hard truth, or even taking to the streets to peacefully assemble and protest—neither of these are polite, but they are deeply civil and essential to both our democracy and our free way of life.
I also spoke with the great team and alumnae at The Fund for American Studies, which generously supported my work via my Novak Fellowship this past year. I had a wonderful time talking about the renewal of American civic life. I revived some old insights from the stoics—using the lives of Epictetus and the philosopher-king Marcus Aurelius—to show that we have more power to revive our civic life in our everyday than we may realize.
For an overview of how in the Decameron Boccaccio harnessed storytelling to cast a better vision for a post-plague world, see my lecture for a class I taught last semester at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. The class explores philanthropy and storytelling—and what both concepts reveal about what it means to be human. Find the lecture here.
What did you think of this month's issue? As always, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me your reflections and any insights inspired by the readings mentioned above.