‘The Republic of Letters was explicitly egalitarian’


Portrait of Erasmus, Hans Holbien the Younger, 1523

From The Hedgehog Review:

What aspects of the human condition do we risk sacrificing or distorting should we allow humanistic study to flounder in the face of the imperatives of globalization: the ever-expanding quest for the accumulation of wealth and technical expertise? We can obtain a preliminary assessment of the potential losses and gains by reviewing the attributes of the early modern Republic of Letters, for this was the context in which our modern conceptions of literature, learning, and the vocation of “man”—as distinct from the study of theology or nature—crystallized into an intelligible and meaningful whole.

The Republic of Letters was genuinely international or, at the very least, pan-European. Its denizens favorite locations 

included Strasbourg, a cosmopolitan and tolerant border town; Leiden and Amsterdam, the Dutch trading centers in which Catholics and Calvinists, Anabaptists and Jews rubbed elbows in mutual tolerance, and where all joined to reject what they called “the Genevan Inquisition” when doctrinaire preachers tried to carry out an ideological cleansing; and, of course, Basel, where Erasmus and other irenic souls found a spiritual home in a city ever hospitable to Christian refugees from oppression in their native countries.

Unlike today what motivated its partisans was not trade or commerce, but a selfless devotion to classical texts. As such, the dominant spirit entailed a veneration of antiquity and the spirit of inquiry it embodied. It was an allegiance based on the conviction that these texts contained insights that were intrinsically elevated and noble: the most exalted ideals that humankind had contemplated or conceived. To disseminate and preserve them was perceived as the ultimate calling. At stake was the question whether cultural and civic life would be suffused with higher ideals of virtue or whether it would instead be allowed to languish in a type of indigent and uneventful immediacy—a condition aptly described by Hegel as “the prose of the world.”

The Republic of Letters was explicitly egalitarian. It refused to discriminate on the basis of class, nationality, or gender. Throughout the capitals of Europe, its members provided refuge for one another, in keeping with the time-honored maxims of hospitality. They also engaged in lively and vigorous epistolary exchange, thereby sharing their latest intellectual discoveries and archival findings. Representative in this regard was Erasmus, widely acknowledged as the Republic’s primus inter pares [first among equals], whose correspondence runs to twelve volumes. Of this network of letter-writing, Renaissance scholar Anthony Grafton notes:

The vast series of letters that fill dozens of volumes in every great European library are the relics of a great effort…to create a new kind of virtual community that was sustained not by immediate, direct contact and conversation so much as by a decades-long effort of writing and rewriting.

The qualification for admission to the Respublica litterarum was a principled devotion to arts and letters and a concomitant desire to ensure their advancement and diffusion. For these impassioned humanists, a commitment to letters mandated an aversion to specialization. As a rule, the best and the brightest among them were proficient in Greek and Latin, as well as several modern languages. In this regard, narrow specialization—the constricted mentality of the modern Fachmensch [specialist], so well exposed by Weber—was not only anathema; it was virtually unknown. In the course of their apprenticeships and training, the humanists regularly mastered a wide variety of disciplines: philosophy, rhetoric, history, classics, as well as developments in natural philosophy and the sciences. During an age of turbulent religious and political conflict that coincided with the cataclysmic dislocations of the Reformation and Counterreformation, via their devotion to letters, humanistic scholars were able to safeguard and conserve prospects for a cosmopolitan European future, thereby offering a glimmer of hope in dark times.

“Reflections on the Crisis in the Humanities”, Richard Wolin, The Hedgehog Review