Monday


A view of Venice by Canaletto.

A view of Venice by Canaletto.

In a fine-grained account of terrestrial civilization — leaving aside the broadest taxonomies that subsume multiple civilizations — we can identify a distinct Venetian civilization, Serenìsima Repùblica Vèneta, or, more simply, La Serenissima, the Most Serene Republic. This Venetian civilization lasted about a thousand years, until it came to an end in 1797 — like Byzantine civilization, and the civilization of Khotan, both of which endured about a thousand years (i.e., each of these examples endured one chronom, in the terminology I suggested in A Metric for the Science of Civilization).

The Republic of Venice was not only long-lived by any measure of terrestrial civilization, it was also, in its time, routinely held up as an exemplar of government, a beacon to which other political entities might look to for inspiration. What were the characteristic institutions of Venice that proved both robust and instructive? It must be said that they were nothing that would be admired today. In particular, the institutions of Venetian statecraft were markedly at variance with the contemporary ideal of transparency.

Everyone today seems to agree that transparency is a good thing, and the more transparency the better. There is an independent organization devoted to transparency issues, Transparency International, which primarily positions itself in opposition to corruption: “Transparency International gives voice to the victims and witnesses of corruption. We work together with governments, businesses and citizens to stop the abuse of power, bribery and secret deals.” Transparency International equates non-transparency with corruption. Was the Most Serene Republic of Venice corrupt? Can we apply modern conceptions and standards of governmental corruption to pre-modern political entities?

The contemporary conception of transparency is entirely predicated upon governments that are at least putatively installed by popular sovereignty, and which therefore must at least give the appearance of honoring democratic processes, representative institutions, and political openness, however compromised these are in practice. Thus transparency becomes a matter of closing the gap between professed principles and actual practices. Corrupt politicians can be publicly shamed by highlighting their failure to implement the principles that they must, in deference to popular sovereignty, publicly espouse.

No such gap between the appearance and reality of democratic forms plagued the Italian city-states. If a government is never constituted on the basis of popular sovereignty, it cannot be accused of any failure to embody the principle. The republics of the medieval and early modern Italian peninsula were spectacularly non-democratic (if not anti-democratic) by any modern measure, but in comparison to other regimes of their day and before, these republican city-states were a marvel of responsive representative government, and were nothing like the absolutism of continental Europe.

While the Donation of Constantine was discussed (and eventually demonstrated to be a forgery) by the Italian humanists, doctrines of the divine right of kings played little role in the political ideology of the Italian peninsula. Theologically justified absolutism was primarily a concern of ultramontane Europe. There was, of course, the Papacy, which ruled over the Papal States as a theologically-constituted political entity with the Pope as head of state and acting in a tradition of Papal absolutism, but this was a very different kind of political entity that the monarchies of west and central Europe, which sought legitimation of absolutism though special divine sanction of royal power.

It is arguable that the monarchies of Europe that sought legitimation through public spectacle were acting on the medieval equivalent of transparency: power was power made visible. Everyone understood power when made visible in this way. Venice represented something very different, though despite its difference its power was no less recognized by contemporaries. Perhaps a measure of this differentness derived from its utterly distinct economic model. The monarachies of Europe possessed an almost exclusively agrarian economy; wealth was measured in land, and the agricultural productivity of this land. Venice grew far more wealthy from trade and commerce, and this was no doubt difficult to understand in a time when it was thought that all occupations other than agriculture were inherently sterile (a doctrine eventually formalized by the physiocrats hundreds of years later). Agricultural wealth and power is, in a sense, on display to all; the wealth of merchant republics, and especially the sources of this wealth, is often kept hidden. And Venice was a master of secrecy.

The Venetian Republic made a principle and a practice of secrecy; it was the very embodiment of non-transparency. Anyone could be denounced in secret (by way of the bocca di leone), retained in secret, interrogated in secret, tried in secret, condemned in secret, imprisoned in secret, executed in secret, and their remains disposed of in secret. “Disappearances” were the modus operandi of “Venetian justice,” a phrase that has survived down to modern times as a synonym for harshly disproportionate punishment, for which Venice was notorious. The spectacularly non-transparent Council of Ten was perfectly democratic in its impunity: it had the power to take any action against any individual, regardless of rank or station.

Nothing about the Venetian justice system would pass contemporary muster, but it can also be said of Venice that its serenity was not disturbed by show trials, which routinely mar, and routinely pervert, the administration of justice in democratic republics; there was no need to publicly display Venetian power, since everyone knew and understood (and feared and respected) this power without the necessity of a vulgar display. Venetian power was famously “the iron fist in a velvet glove.” Venice not only exercised power, it did so elegantly. In this sense, Venice is not only distinct from contemporary standards of transparency, but also distinct from the theatricality of most medieval regimes, which gloried in public torture and executions as an enactment of the theater of power. Venice, of course, knew how to put on a show — what greater show is there is Europe than Carnival? — and it did engage in public executions, when the personage to be executed was sufficiently visible that their execution could serve as exemplary justice. But Venice did not need to do this to retain its power.

It is impossible to imagine any contemporary nation-state today being identified as “most serene.” Our politics is as noisy and as intrusive as our industry. The pursuit of transparency is the very embodiment of this intrusiveness, as Venice was the very embodiment of non-transparency. And in its non-transparency Venice was widely regarded as an example to be admired and emulated — indeed, its governmental structure was thought to be a nearly perfect exemplification of a republican constitution. That is, until the American and French revolutions revealed to the world a very different kind of republicanism. As such, Venice presents to us the spectacle of a political Other, drawn from within the western tradition, yet today incomprehensibly alien to us.

Venetian civilization lasted a thousand years. The city of Venice itself, with all its reminders of the heyday of Venetian civilization, endures still. The idea of The Most Serene Republic will probably last as long as human civilization lasts — at least until the next effacement of history, when civilization on the other side of prediction wall assumes some unrecognizable form that no longer looks back to terrestrial history as a point of reference.

Of what political entity extant today is this likely to be true?

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Another image of Venice by Canaletto.

Another image of Venice by Canaletto.

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Saturday


Benjamin Franklin, the quintessential American, moved from Boston to Philadelphia and thus inaugurated the quintessentially American tradition of self-reinvention through geographical mobility.

Benjamin Franklin, the quintessential American, moved from Boston to Philadelphia and thus inaugurated the quintessentially American tradition of self-reinvention through geographical mobility.

The viability of political entities

There is a well-known story that Benjamin Franklin was asked as he left Independence Hall as the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were in their final day, “Well, Doctor, what have we got — a Republic or a Monarchy?” Franklin’s famous response to this was, “A Republic, madam — if you can keep it.” (The source of this anecdote is from notes of Dr. James McHenry, a Maryland delegate to the Convention, first published in The American Historical Review, vol. 11, 1906.)

The qualification implies the difficulty of the task of keeping a republic together, and keeping it republican. If doing so were easy, Franklin would not have bothered to note that qualification. That he did note it, in the spirit of a witticism, reminds me of another witticism from the American Revolution — quite literally an instance of gallows humor: “Gentlemen, we must now all hang together, or we shall most assuredly all hang separately.” This, too, was from Benjamin Franklin.

The men who fomented the American Revolution, and who went on to hold the Constitutional Convention, were no starry-eyed dreamers. They were tough-minded in the sense that William James used that phrase. They had no illusions about human nature and human society. Their decision to break with England, and their later decision to write the Constitution, was a calculated risk. They reasoned their way to revolution, and they well knew that all that all that they had done, and all that they had risked, could come to ruin.

And still that American project could come to ruin. It is a work in progress, and though it now has some history behind it, as long as it continues in existence it shares in the uncertainty of all human things.

Recently in Transhumanism and Adaptive Radiation I wrote:

“If human freedom were something ideal and absolute, it would not be subject to revision as a consequence of technological change, or any change in contingent circumstances. But while we often think of freedom as an ideal, it is rather grounded in pragmatic realities of action. If a lever or an inclined plane make it possible for you to do something that it was impossible to do without them, then these machines have expanded the scope of human agency; more choices are available as a result, and the degrees of human freedom are multiplied.”

The same can be said of the social technologies of government: if you can do something with them that you cannot do without them, you have expanded the scope of human freedom. The hard-headed attitude of the founders of the republic understood that freedom is grounded in the pragmatic realities of action. It was because of this that the American project has enjoyed the success that it has realized to date. And the freedoms that it facilitates are always subject to revision as the machinery of government evolves. Again, this freedom is not an ideal, but a practical reality.

It is not enough merely to keep the republic, as though preserved under glass. The trajectory of its evolution must be managed, so that it continues to facilitate freedom under the changing conditions to which it is subject. Freedom is subject to contingencies as the fate of the republic is subject to contingencies, and it too can come to ruin just as the republic could yet come to ruin. The challenge remains the same challenge Franklin threw back at his questioner: “If you can keep it.”

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Happy 4th of July!

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