This is an opulent first edition of Desiderius Erasmus’s handbook for Renaissance princes, published in 1516. 

It was written at around the same time as Machiavelli’s famous work The Prince  (written 1513, published 1532), but provides very different advice. Instead of advocating ruthlessness and cruelty as effective governing techniques, Erasmus recommends education, humility and policies of peace. 

Erasmus’s theory that virtuous conduct was the basis of good governance has become the backbone of modern political thought.

Humanist education

Erasmus promoted a curriculum that focussed primarily on learning Latin, and to some extent ancient Greek

The accepted programme of learning in Renaissance schools and universities across Europe was known as studia humanitatis (‘the study of humanity’), and consisted of courses in grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history (politics and the consequence of moral decisions) and moral philosophy. This ‘provided exactly the kind of training in oratorical skills and fostered exactly the sense of obligation to public services needed for those who wanted to govern’.[1]

The self-conscious scholar and The Duchess of Malfi

A curriculum focussed on classical philosophy encouraged a shift away from the theological teachings of the medieval era. This constituted one of the first moves toward individualism, and the modern concept of the private self. The study of humanities, and the emphasis on moral philosophy, supported internal psychological inquiry and a new self-conscious awareness of one’s place and role in the world. 

Many characters in Renaissance literature suffer from crises of conscience and confidence. Prince Hamlet, protagonist and antic hero of Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, is an archetype of psychological turmoil. Another example is Bosola, the university-educated henchman and unofficial moral arbitrator (judge) of John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi. He struggles to find a balance between morality and ambition in the service of the ethically corrupt but powerful Aragon brothers (who were the antitheses of the ‘Christian Prince’ that Erasmus describes). The moral issues of the play are internalised, analysed and represented to the audience through Bosola’s shrewd yet conflicted sensibilities:

I would have you curse yourself now, that your bounty,
Which makes men truly noble, e’er should make
Me a villain. O, that to avoid ingratitude
For the good deed you have done me, I must do
All the ill man can invent (1.1.262–65)

[1] Charles G Nauert, Humanism and the Culture of Renaissance Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 13.