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Historians who write about merchant republics during the Renaissance often speak of an “honor deficit,” an inability on the part of city governments to command the respect of other governments and of their own peoples. In Florence and Siena, the ignoble popolo had long ago defeated the old civic nobility, and to carry a noble name—the prime hallmark of honor elsewhere in European society—was often a political liability in those cities. Equality, as a political value, trumped dignitas or personal prestige. Lacking princely courts to recognize honor, lacking armies of their own or a knightly ethos, republican city-states were governed by nobodies—names picked randomly out of leather bags: butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers. Behind the scenes, oligarchs and merchant bankers like the Medici called the tune, governing the state in the interests of their own family and party. To outside observers, republican cities seemed vulgar, unstable, rent by violence, unreliable in alliances, manipulated by commercial interests, and therefore deficient in honor and piety. A Portuguese visitor to Siena was fined in 1451 for insulting the city; he had declared that it was ruled by “grocers, tanners, shoemakers and rustics,” who constituted un reggimento di merda, a shitty regime. That attitude to popular republics was widespread. How could you trust a city governed by a rabble of tradesmen who cycled in and out of office every two or three months? Trying to negotiate with republics, wrote one disgruntled diplomat, was like chasing hares and rabbits. 

It's no wonder, when the Christian humanists of the Renaissance began promoting “true nobility,” that the citizens of Renaissance republics fell upon the idea with cries of joy. The humanists taught that hereditary titles of nobility were worthless without virtue, while persons who lacked an ancient name could earn true nobility by acquiring virtue. Virtue—human excellence, fine character, extraordinary skills and achievements—could be acquired through education in the liberal arts and their crown, the humanities. Solid accomplishments for the common good would make you respected. You didn’t need to inherit lordly power from ancestors in order to deserve honor and office. The study of history, poetry, the arts, and moral philosophy could make you worthy of ruling others.  

We can see this dynamic at work in Leon Battista Alberti, the original model for the “Renaissance man,” as conceived by historian Jacob Burckhardt in the nineteenth century. Alberti was a man to whom Fortune had doubly denied honor. He was from an old Florentine family of wealthy merchant bankers, but that family had been disgraced and exiled before he was born. He was also illegitimate, a status that carried deep disabilities in civil status and limited your career opportunities. Alberti was a proud man with a lot to prove, and (not coincidentally) a genius. His response was to demonstrate his worth in an astonishing range of activities. He became an accomplished writer and poet in both Latin and the vernacular; he wrote the first great treatise on architecture since antiquity and was an innovative practicing architect; he was the most important art theorist of the Renaissance; and he made highly original contributions to linguistics, cryptography, engineering, cartography, and moral philosophy. He was a highly skilled athlete and musician as well. 

When a society offers people an avenue to distinguish themselves through merit, very soon it starts to produce meritorious people. What a surprise. Men like Alberti show us why the Renaissance became the fons et origo of the modern Western tradition of meritocracy, the doctrine that societies should distribute their highest rewards to those who most deserve them. The deeper history of meritocracy, reaching back to Plato, has been ably recounted in a recent book by Adrian Wooldridge. Wooldridge shows how advocates of meritocracy in modern times organized themselves into a movement to challenge feudal and nepotistic forms of socio-economic power and to undermine the claims of unmerited hereditary privilege in politics and society. The young United States, lacking as it did a hereditary aristocracy, became a pioneer in raising up a modern aristocracy of talent.

In America the main engine of meritocracy since World War II has been the university, and especially the most prestigious universities that offer direct pipelines to financial, political, and professional elites. We don’t have a monarchy to dispense palpable handles like Sir and Lord. The general public doesn’t pay much attention to prizes like the National Humanities Medal or the Presidential Medal of Freedom. People hang on the lips of celebrities and the wealthy but such distinctions are not the same as honor—prestige enjoyed for good character and worthy achievements that contribute to the common good. We too have an honor deficit.

Many still respect the graduates of elite universities: the Ivy League, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, and a few other highly selective institutions. It’s assumed they are for the most part highly intelligent, hard-working people who deserved admission and whose graduating honors were earned. But you have to wonder how much longer that situation will continue, now that universities have turned against meritocracy. As is well known, they are getting rid of standardized tests—the most purely meritocratic standard there is—and instituting new admission protocols based on identity politics. High school grades have long been inflated and are incommensurable in any case; letters of recommendation are notoriously mendacious; lists of extracurricular activities can easily be padded or faked. Wealthy parents can hire professional consultants to give their dim and shiftless progeny an advantage over the poor but worthy. 

In a few years, if these trends continue, it may no longer be possible to assume that so-called elite colleges are really admitting and graduating the best and the brightest. The top universities will have lost the ability to confer honor. As the Romans used to say, only the honorable can confer honor, and truly honorable persons will value praise only from those who themselves possess honor: laudari a laudato. Elite universities will be reduced to brand names with large endowments, and their brands will gradually be cheapened.  

Fresh in my mind is the story of a student in my department who recently graduated summa cum laude with a prize-winning senior thesis and the best overall record in Harvard College. He was, in other words, the top student at a university that claims to be the best in the world. He applied to graduate programs in his field of interest. He was rejected by Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Stanford, and MIT. Through contacts I investigated this shocking outcome, inconceivable even five years ago, and was told that while the student was clearly top-notch,  it was just a bad year for white males. 

The people who make decisions like this think that they and their institutions are impregnable in their castles of honor. They assume they can do anything they like without consequences to themselves. But they are not thinking dynamically, which is to say historically. If they continue in their current patterns, they will inevitably sacrifice their prestige. What will be the effect of that honor deficit? It will surely lead persons denied honor by elite universities to seek distinction outside their gates, even outside higher education. That might in the end prove good for society, but it won’t be good for prestigious universities. 

Or the consequences could be even more dire. The situation of elite universities may come to resemble that of the monasteries in the late middle ages, which (as St. Thomas More often complained) were overstuffed with individuals lacking any spiritual commitment. Monks before the Reformation too often were men and women who simply wanted to lead comfortable lives in well-endowed institutions. Nice work if you can get it. But there is always the danger that some brutal reformer, some Henry VIII, will seize your institutions and dissolve them, denouncing them as bastions of mere privilege, as institutions that have forgotten their founding ideals, that no longer serve the public interest, that lack respect among the wider public. And that would be a tragedy.

James Hankins is a professor of history at Harvard University.

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