Why I started Civic Renaissance

Petrarch recap, and an invitation to discuss of manners, morals and history with Bill Kristol TONIGHT

Gracious reader, this week, we’ll explore:

  • Why I started Civic Renaissance

  • Event recap: How to start a Civic Renaissance — lessons from Petrarch

  • Invitation: Join us to talk of manners, morals and history with Bill Kristol TONIGHT

Why I started Civic Renaissance

I was raised in a home that loved ideas. My father would read to my brothers and me of Plato’s theory of the forms before bed time. My mother had us learning Greek and Latin before English. But beyond this sort of active instruction, my parents modeled a love of learning and curiosity for us. It was the greatest gift they could have given my brothers and me.

My love education, learning and ideas led me to take a role at the U.S. Department of Education.

While there, I learned one of the best kept secrets in America: the U.S. Department of Education, the single largest institution in the history of mankind (ostensibly) dedicated to education, doesn’t care about education at all.


At least, it didn’t care about education in the way that I had been educated or had come to understand—and love—education. It was a massive bureaucracy utterly void of curiosity, beauty, goodness and truth—more concerned with techne than episteme or sophia.

Socrates noted that techne—or “making,” and the Greek root of our word technology and modern concept of specialization—could only be good when employed in the context of episteme—or knowledge and sophia, or wisdom.

But today, our modern Education Industry, and the U.S. Department itself, is all techne, void of episteme, sophia, beauty, goodness or truth.

This is a problem.

This problem is one that Civic Renaissance exists to remedy. I hope this to be a place and a community to convene around and engage with the highest things, the most noble things, and the biggest questions because our mainstream education institutions have little interest in these things.

If you think that our fixation with techne, process and bureaucracy at the expense of the human and the beautiful are serious problems, too, then I thank you for being here. Please stay engaged in this community, and also consider sharing Civic Renaissance with a friend or others you think might enjoy it.


No single person can be part of shifting our national conversation, or our broader cultural values, alone.

Together, however, we might just start a civic renaissance.

[By the way, I’ll be sharing part of my story, above, and other thoughts on education at the Society for Classical Learning annual conference in Charleston, SC, this week—if you plan to be attending, please to my talk Friday and be sure to come say hi!]

How to start a Civic Renaissance — lessons from Petrarch

Thank you to those of you who joined us for for our dialogue on Petrarch! It was an invigorating and soul-nourishing conversation. I encourage you to watch the whole video if you weren’t able to attend live.
Here are some of my favorite take aways from the dialogue:

  1. We are missing JOY and LOVE in education today. Francesco Petrarch, by sheer force of his personal magnetism and love of ideas and the wisdom of the past, managed to help ideas have serious cultural staying power fo this time. His love and curiosity was SO contagious that it inspired both his peers and generations of scholars after him.

    So much of our public discourse, public intellectuals, and educational institutions model an utter joylessness. There is so much deconstructionism and negativity. How can we change this? Maybe, like Petrarch before is, we can change things by re-falling in love with ideas ourselves, and letting the contagion of that joy ripple through the lives of others.

  2. Modern education has lost the WHY of education, and has become too bureaucratic. Do you think I’m referring to education today? Well, you of course are correct. But Petrarch had EXACTLY the same concerns with the educational culture in his day, too. And that was 700 years ago!

    They were absorbed with minute and inconsequential activities and questions. The famous question that is meant to poke fun at the arcane nature of Scholasticism, the philosophical school of thought that Petrarch broke from with his humanism, was “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” Petrarch thought the universities of his day had become too bureaucratic and disconnected from the purpose of educaiotn: soul craft, crafting virtue, and helping us pursue the life well lived. History may not repeat itself, but it does , as Mark Twain said, rhyme, no?

  3. Petrarch was friends with—and literally conversed with— the thinkers he loved. Petrarch famously wrote letter sand spoke to the thinkers he loved. Importantly he engaged with them. we talk a lot about The Great conversation in this space—but we might sometimes forget that WE have a part in this conversation. If we didn’t, we might as well call it the Great Monologue. But we don’t. It’s a dialogue, a discourse, a conversation, and Petrarch modeled that for us.

    He wrote letters to Homer. He even wrote hate mail to Cicero once when he discovered he wasn’t quite the perfect statesmen Petrarch had hoped. (He followed that with a second letter apologize fir the tone of the first.) For him, the ideas and thinkers that cam before him were real. He loved them. He engaged with them. Consider his Ambrosian Virgil, his self-published anthology of the works of Virgil and some of his other thinkers, that has over 2,000 hand written marginal notations with ideas, insights, cross references and more. He loved books, reflection, reading and learning in and of themselves—and he was literally in dialogue with the those that came before him. How can we re-cover this active engagement with ideas?

On this last point particularly, it occurs to me that, in light of Petrarch’s approach, how intellectually lazy it is to just dismiss outright or accept uncritically, the entire corpus of a person or place outright. Thoughtful people engage with—agree in parts, disagree in othrs—those that have come before us. This means that we can call Cicero a jerk and tell him we think he’s wrong if we do! This is what intellectual integrity is, and Petrarch offered us a model for what it could look like today.

Here are some of my favorite Petrarch quotes, for your enjoyment:

  • On his love of books and bookhunting: "Perhaps now I have more books than I need, but it is with books as with other things: the more one gets the more one wants. Yet there is something special about books. Gold, silver, gems, purple robes, a marble palace, broad lands, paintings, a horse with rich trappings, and all such things bring only a mute, a superficial pleasure. But books thrill you to the marrow; they talk to you, counsel you, admit you to their living, speaking friendship.”

  • On how the books and ideas of the thinkers he loved were literally part of him. See the word marrow again in this quote, too? “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.”

  • On the need for introspection, and how the ancients can help us do that. In his Ascent to Mount Ventoux, Petrarch tells a now-famous story. He is hiking Mount Ventoux in province in the South of France with his brother. his brother takes the short and easy road. He takes the road less travelled—a metaphor for life if there ever was one! He says that he happened to have a copy of Augustine’s Confessions, and he randomly opened the book and read the first passage that his eyes fell to:

    Now it chanced that the tenth book presented itself. My brother, waiting to hear something of St. Augustine's from my lips, stood attentively by. I call him, and God too, to witness that where I first fixed my eyes it was written: "And men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not.”

Men look around at the beauty of the natural world, but miss the chance to explore the depths of their own souls, Augustine writes—and Petrarch quotes.

After reading these reflections and quotes— or viewing the conversation yourself— what do you think of Petrarch? What can we learn from him? Do you think he matters today? Can he help us start a renaissance in our own moment?

I’d love to hear from you. Send me your thoughts at ah@alexandraohudson.com

Manners, morals and history

Tonight at 7pm, EST, patrons of civic renaissance are invited to a private conversation before our public event at 8 pm EST, with Bill and I to discuss all things manners, morals and history. This is an event exclusively for subscribers to Civic Renaissance—so if you’d like to join, please do consider becoming a subscriber and join the dialogue.

At 8pm, our public conversation will explore the legacy and life of Bill’s late-mother, a historian of the Victorian era, Gertrude Himmelfarb.

I enjoyed reading her The Demoralization of Society recently, which I cite in my book on civility. In this book she unpacks the way that demeanor—such as proper table manners, personal hygiene, dress, appearance, elegant conversation mattered to the Victorians because they connected them to morals writ large.

“Civilities of private life were corollaries of civilized social life,” Gertrude Himmelfarb.

The appearance mattered because, even if it did not perfectly correlate with a virtuous inner reality, it affirmed the legitimacy of virtues the Victorians valued.

I’m now reading her On Looking into the Abyss in preparation for tonight, which is a collection of essays adapted from a number of talks she gave.

The first essay, On Looking into the Abyss, is titled after the book itself. To Himmelfarb, the abyss was a world that had blindly accepted the post-modern deconstructionism and relativism that departed from objective morality, goodness.

God is dead, declared Nietzsche, and with Him all notions of objective morality and truth. But if God is dead, wrote Dostoyevsky, then everything is permissible.


Unbound from moral constraints, the worst of human nature and darkness is unleashed.

This is the abyss.

This is no exaggeration. We’ve been to the abyss before. Consider Hitler’s third Reich, Himmelfarb offers as an example.

Our modern world has embraced Nietzsche— he is “a darling of the academy” Himmelfarb writes. We have all embraced the abyss. This is not costless. Nietzsche knew it, too. As Nietzsche wrote,

He who flights monsters should be careful, lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.”

People in our public discourse today just don’t write like this anymore! they don’t engage with hard questions—the hardest questions!—and the most challenging thinkers who have thought about such hard questions.

This is why I’m glad to have a hand in planning this event, and to revive a thinker who has much to teach us today.

I hope you’ll join us! Register below.

Register here!

As always, thank you for being part of the Civic Renaissance community! I am grateful that you are here.