I2. Capitalism and the Renaissance


Prior to the Renaissance, European economies were predominantly separated into small, manorial enclaves, left to the devices of ordained lords who were, in turn, accountable to the King, divined, of course, by God. This theological premise very clearly worked its way down through that hierarchical route, holding the social fabric together like a skein, a spider’s web of authority and power at the center of which sat the Church. Given the nature of this theologically derived system that manifested a solitary divine "truth", it proved impossible to separate the public and the private, specifically in the economic sense that we know today. "A public sphere in the sense of a separate realm distinguished from the private sphere cannot be shown to have existed in the feudal society of the High Middle Ages. In itself the status of manorial lord, on whatever level, was neutral in relation to the criteria of ‘public’ and private’; but its incumbent represented it publicly. He displayed himself, presented himself as an embodiment of some sort of ‘higher’ power" (Habermas, 1992; 7). However, this idea was to rapidly change in fifteenth and sixteenth century Italy. The concept of democratic politics, and simultaneously a new meaning of the word "public", emerged in Europe during the Florentine Renaissance; Machiavelli’s The Prince (1513) is a notable exposition that reveals this emergence. Also appearing at that time was Martin Luther, who reformulated the institution of the Church with respect to its position on the rising tide of a new public/private conceptualization. "According to Weber, it is Luther who (particularly in his German version of the Bible) shapes the modern concept of ‘calling’ (Beruf), and places it at the ethical center of the individual’s worldly existence. [Luther appealed] to the ‘internal forum’ of one’s private conscience as the ultimate seat of one’s awareness of God" (Poggi, 1983: 60).


It is important to recognize that "a new form of the representative publicness, whose source was the culture of the nobility of early capitalist northern Italy, emerged first in Florence and then in Paris and London. It demonstrated its vigor in its assimilation of bourgeois culture, whose early manifestation was humanism" (Habermas, 1992: 9). The first vestiges of the private/public split are seen here as being revealed in the actions of the early capitalists. Capitalism, here in its early form, can be seen as intrinsically linked to the issues of the public and private sociological spheres. Interestingly, it was only after the Renaissance that the common man fully realized the potential of seizing upon this democratic notion and brought it to full political awareness. As Wallerstein says, this realization fully "crystallized" in the French Revolution. Meanwhile, in the time between the establishment of the early Italian capitalists and the French Revolution,


the aristocratic ‘society’ that emerged from that Renaissance society no longer had to represent its own lordliness (i.e., its manorial authority). Only after national and territorial power states had arisen on the basis of the early capitalist commercial economy and shattered the feudal foundations of power could this court nobility develop the framework of a sociability - highly individuated, in spite of its comprehensive etiquette - into that peculiarly free-floating but clearly demarcated sphere of ‘good society’ in the eighteenth century. Now for the first time private and public spheres became separate in a specifically modern sense. The major tendencies that prevailed by the end of the eighteenth century are well-known. The feudal powers, the Church, the prince, and the nobility, who were the carriers of the representative publicness, disintegrated in a process of polarization; in the end they split into private elements, on the one hand and public ones, on the other (Habermas, 1992: 11).


This split is the same separation that has brought our original attention to the paradox regarding the balance between the private good and the public good. What was revolutionary about this alteration in the nature of social existence was the change in the maintenance of this conceptual balance by which a "public" institution (in the medieval sense) that legitimated political, economic and (most importantly) moral power (i.e. the Church), was "polarized" to allow for such legitimation to occur by a consensus of private individuals acting on an individual level. This polarization sponsored a modern economic mentality based on private concerns that was to become highly relevant in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a mentality that is particularly evident in the classical liberalism of David Hume, Adam Smith and other economists of the period.



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