James Hankins’s landmark study focuses on “virtue politics,” the idea that “soulcraft” was essential to statecraft according to the humanists of Renaissance Italy.1 For Hankins’s humanists, political renewal would result from improvements in character and education, a restoration of ancient virtue, not the prudent reconstruction of institutions and laws. Humanistic culture was “one long, animated seminar on the possibility of imitating ancient Rome” (70). In its focus on the renewal of classical virtue, Hankins argues, the humanists’ political theory presents a distinctive challenge to the institutional, juridical framework of subsequent thought.

Hankins offers trenchant criticisms of scholarly fashion. One such criticism in particular is central to the work’s inner logic. Contrary to ideological advocates of “republican liberty,” Hankins demonstrates that the humanists were politically diverse, nonpartisan, context-driven, and often relativistic. To make his case, he begins with an apparently mundane question: what did res publica mean to Renaissance writers?...

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