Book review: “The Republic of Letters” by Marc Fumarolli

A study of of a collective that upheld intellectual debates at times of religious hatred and in part made the intellectual Renaissance possible

Marc Fumarolli is a famous French historian specializing in educative and intellectual sides of it — and author, among many other publications, of a magnificent “When the world spoke French” (the unification of France, the supremacy of French military in the Counter-Reformation era pushed the elite to Paris where it became modern and patriotic to express one thoughts not in Latin or Italian but French that the elites did).

He tracks the evolution of the Republic, named so by one of the intellectual proponent-members, Francesco Barbaro in 15th century, followed the rise and demise of major worldly cities — as it migrated from Florence at the era of Medici to Rome until the French conquest, then to Venice, then to Aix in Provence and finally to Paris where it took hold as the city competed with London and Amsterdam in early 17th century.

So it continued until the end of the century when Louis XIV was monopolizing thought — by controlling arts and correspondence, now pushed to the limelight of regular press. Development of epistolary genre (see below) found its form in the foundation of the Gazette in 1631, an act motivated in part by Cardinal Richelieu, followed in 1665 by Journal des scavans and not short after by London’s Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

One can say that the Renaissance in every aspect started from the rediscovery of Greek and Roman art forms: where architecture pushed the renovatio and disegno of great painters in Florence, the texts imported by merchants from Middle Asia and Constantinople sparked the imagination for a great new time.

It basically started from Petrarch desire to revive the achievements of a civilized world — Greek texts that Europe did not have for millennia, and the desire to preserve them from mental atrophy. One have to remind that Petrarch lived more than 1 century apart from Gutenberg press so it was not through the power of machinery, but the power of idea that initiated the Republic of Letters. The secret ingredient here was the language — not latin that was controlled by Church but greek — it was through Greek that for example humanist advancement were made as leading proponents of humanism rewrote the Bible — Erasmus for example, who was also member of the RoL.

The humanist revolution changed the dialogic model: where originally texts were either calling for God and were monological — or at least followed the “questio et dispetatio” of monastic orders, they gave way to rhetorical ones, spawning epistolas, conversations and essayist models.

Where originally texts were studied by religious monastic orders, the appearance in 15th century of private academies focussed on studying of ancient texts — changed both the speed of finding new ways to see the world: for example the discovery of greek texts of Plato allowed the humanism to reinvent the role of God, since originally scholastic based their works on the texts of Aristotle who followed Plato.

RoL was a semi-secretive correspondence club of major thinkers, who, irrespective of their beliefs had organized the respectful conduct of exchanging thoughts across Europe. It lived motivated by the urge to preserve civic texts — and those that focussed once again on the human side of nature — on the personal — fomenting future revolution in diplomacy, government and commerce. One such was Aldus Manutius, from Venice, who have organized a philhellenic academy to study texts imported by merchants. Inspired by the opportunity to reinvent the societal bonds, another, Francesco Barbaro (he also was one of Petrarch second-generation disciples), in 1417 name the the international fraternity “La Respublica Literaria” — full 1 century before the Luther and the printing press.

The RoL persevered amid Reformation and the ensuing carnage of counter-Reformation — since it was based on established rules: respect the mind sound logic: admonishing heresies through the power of logic and not through Scripture: after all those Reformation supporters were themselves true believers.

Admissions to RoL were possible if these letters were full of good values, written by those erudite in Greek or Latin, gentle and brilliant conversationalists. Errors and errors in the discussions were allowed and only ridiculed through irony — and not banned. Writing in Greek allowed to circumvent discussion of hot topics in Latin and escape the eye of the Church.

The importance of RoL was earned through the development of a scientific method — itself formed through public discourse of debates expressed in letters. Petrarch’s two heroes who were then cited heavily — Cicero and Saint Augustine were as if debating on what united a great city — either a love for god (in S Augustine “The City of God” or the rule of law in Cicero’s De Republica), with Barbaro following to merge the two in the “unification for love of the same thing — pursuit of the nature of the common good” — fueling both humanist approach for scientific study and representative of future scientific methods.

The rediscovery of the Greek civic texts brought back the rhetorical system that allowed the city state to operate without recourse to violence: manifested by a free citizen of the polis, possessing of kalos kagathos (good and tasteful man) and mosikos aner (the musician).

Selected further reading and why this book made me tick:

There are a number of good books about the old carriers of information and how the paper, printing press and intellectual networks all used the available technology to change the regime of commerce, personal beliefs — and in doing so also pushed forward scientific endeavors bent to support both the external and internal wellbeing.

Further notes of progress can be read in:

1) Paper: Paging Through History by Mark Kurlansky

2) The Paper Trail: An Unexpected History of a Revolutionary Invention — by Alexander Monro

3) Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age — by Ann M. Blair

4) Brand Luther: How an Unheralded Monk Turned His Small Town into a Center of Publishing, Made Himself the Most Famous Man in Europe — and Started the Protestant Reformation — by Andrew Pettegree

5) Writing on the Wall: Social Media — The First 2,000 Years — by Tom Standage

6) The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn — by Margaret Willes

The reason on why it matters to me that strongly to share the book not on the practical elements of the innovation and fintech business of today, but on the somewhat mundane sides of human activity is this: they explain the interaction side of human beings and help to narrate the reasons major innovations take hold:

- They are social constructs

- They are based on intrinsic faith in a new beginning, a better outcome

- They are pushed by radicals and so have an element of danger, risk

The emergence of such information network like RoL happened thanks to trade, emerging civic functions of commerce and the court — fomented by open societies and based on impartial institutions.

The time of RoL reverberates with the same tension of today: Erasmus wrote in one of his letters that “… for we see two factions, which are generally at each other’s throat, uniting in a surprising coalition to destroy all that is elegant and refined in literature… <> … So that nothing may remain unchanged, they want to suppress all humane learning. But without this the life of man would be a poor and shabby thing”.

Marc Fumarolli Book on Amazon