36. Enter the paideuma
James Hankins' theory of elite cultures that deliver a moral payload
Today I want to cover a term that I've found particularly useful for thinking about scenes and social groups: paideuma (pie-DOY-ma), a term introduced by James Hankins in Virtue Politics, his book on the spirit of the Italian Renaissance.
I found myself referencing paideumata in a few recent conversations about scenes, their teleology, and the moral advantages of participating in them. Hankins' term has helped clarify my own ideas, and been useful for finding the language to defend an activity that frequently occupies me: the progressive enunciation of important intangibles in artistic, social, and intellectual forms.
In today's post, I'll briefly recap why Hankins uses paideuma to explain the Italian Renaissance, and then dive into the term itself.
Let's get into it.
In the following quotes, any bolding is my own, and not present in the original text.
Misunderstanding the Renaissance
Hankins' Virtue Politics (2019) aims to correct what he sees as an endemic misunderstanding of the Italian Renaissance among modern scholars of the period:
In recent historical scholarship it has become customary to present humanism as a movement principally concerned with language and style; engaged in the recovery and elaboration of ancient literary genres, methods, and textual practices; and preoccupied with antiquarian and philological questions. (xv)
In addition to centering the humanists' focus on syntax, grammar, and style, the common scholarly attitude takes a deflationary view of the humanists' discussion of moral and political reform:
My critics will grant, since the textual evidence is overwhelming, that humanists talked incessantly about virtue, nobility, and wisdom [...] But for most humanists such “virtue talk” was merely gestural; it was a fashion, copied from ancient sources, adopted to give one’s own writings a patina of antiquity; it was a social convention adopted to lay claim to membership in an elite. You urged the young to improve their character or heaped praise on your prince or patron because that was what you were expected to do. (xvi)
On this view, Renaissance humanism was basically a movement of writing and linguistics nerds, not one sincerely occupied with moral and political reform.
Of course, admits Hankins, the Renaissance humanists were huge language nerds:
I do not of course maintain that the humanists were not concerned, indeed obsessed, with correct texts and correct Latinity. [...] But no important intellectual movement lasting for centuries and numbering many thousands of adherents can ever acquire a purchase on the collective imagination without appealing to some larger common purposes and values and creating structures within which individuals can pursue meaningful activity. (xvi)
And while humanist education put a major emphasis on literacy, grammar, and Latin, Hankins argues that these were not to be understood as ends in themselves, but rather as foundational to a lifetime of engagement with the classics:
[Learning] to read difficult texts and write and speak in Latin was a foundation, or as the humanists would say, a doorway. Once you passed through the doorway you would find Livy and Sallust, Cicero and Demosthenes, Plato and Aristotle waiting to engage you in conversation. It was the lifelong companionship of the ancients that was supposed to do you good, not the mastery of irregular verbs. (xviii)
But how sincere was the humanists' orientation towards civilizational revival and the betterment of mankind? It varies by the humanist:
This is surely a common feature of all intellectual movements; there are always leaders and followers, visionaries and epigones, as well as parasites and camp followers. To take a parallel case, probably few scholastics after the first generations were actuated by the same splendid vision that drove Irnerius, Gratian, and Abelard to create rational unity and harmony from the cacophony of inherited authorities and to impose divine order on the chaotic societies and the souls of medieval Christians. (xvii)
In other words: not all or even most quattrocento humanists need to have been sincerely pursuing an elevated purpose, for that spirit to have been an animating force in the movement's genesis and ultimate impact.
There is more to say here, but I promised a new term, not a full review of Virtue Politics. So let’s take Hankins' bid. Provisionally accepting his understanding of the Renaissance: what form did the movement take, which saw itself as “cultivating eloquence, and through eloquence, civilization”? How did it shape itself, in order to deliver its spiritual payload to mankind?
Enter the paideuma.
Paideuma, paideia and paideumata
As Hankins uses the term (“adapted from Leo Frobenius”),
[A “paideuma”] refers to an intentional form of elite culture that seeks power within a society with the aim of altering the moral attitudes and behaviors of society’s members, especially its leadership class. (2)
Such a mission requires a sufficiently shared perspective on the ills of society, and the remedies for those ills:
Those who participate in a paideuma, as adherents of a reform movement for example, share its diagnosis of personal or social ills, a common set of values, and a common set of prescriptions to restore individual or social health.
How does a paideuma enact its moral transformation? By means of paideia:
A paideuma will typically produce a paideia, a set of social technologies designed to alter minds and hearts, which constitute its soulcraft.
These social technologies can take many forms:
Paideia—which in this book I will call institutio, using the humanists’ Latin equivalent—in order to compass its ends, designs, adapts, or revives formal educational routines but also customs, rituals, the plastic arts, music, theater, and oratory. (2-3)
Terminologically, paideia summons varied things under one banner: not only material expressions of a moral ethos, such as art, but also social expressions of a moral ethos, such as new customs and even incentives:
Participants in a paideuma may seek to alter the structure of professional, political, or economic incentives that regulate status and rewards so as to encourage the desired moral changes. (3)
In the general case, we can see the participants in a paideuma as at least collectively (if not individually) pluralist about the vessels by which its moral payload is delivered to society. (Musashi might say: “You should not have any special fondness for a particular weapon.”)
Nevertheless varied paideia, crafted to the moral purpose of a paideuma, must gain purchase in society to have any effect:
When a paideuma comes to dominate a society, especially its elites, it may transform itself into a “comprehensive doctrine” in John Rawls’s sense.
As material and social artifacts, paideia rich with the spiritual messages of a paideuma can complement or dominate the existing material and social environment:
Moral and intellectual excellence could also be supported by what I call “the virtuous environment”: physical spaces recalling in their architecture and decoration the nobler world of the ancient Greeks and Romans, even soundscapes filled with “classical” music. Humanists and the artists inspired by them created a whole culture designed to reshape the soul. (xviii-xix)
The ‘spiritual payloads’ of physical spaces is something I discussed in my first YouTube video: What I learned at the Mount of Olives. Thinking along similar lines, the Renaissance humanists worked to assemble a ‘virtuous environment’:
It became the goal of humanist culture to saturate the civic and courtly environment with images, inscriptions, theatrical productions, and music that kept the rewards of human excellence, and the consequences of bad behavior, continually before the senses and the minds of the elite. [...] In the council chambers of kings and republics the humanistically educated man could read on the walls and ceilings inscriptions selected from his boyhood reading that would remind him of his obligation to act wisely and well; pictures, statues and architecture all reinforced the message. (53)
Their ‘virtuous environment’ could be seen not only in physical artifacts like frescoes and buildings, but performed in social interactions and rituals. For example, by means of the humanists, it became popular to perform rhetorical oratory—a new-for-the-time social form—“at all the important junctures of public and private life: at weddings and funerals, on taking up public office, on beginning a course at a university, at the beginning of ambassadorial missions, even before battles in a military harangue.” (52)
The spiritual messages of physical environments are easier to notice, since we can see them with our eyes, but the same effects arise from the social environment produced by novel paideia. As the status landscape shifts to reflect the values of a paideuma, its values are increasingly reflected in the behaviors, attitudes, and even body language of adherents.
To review, a paideuma:
is an intentional form of elite culture
seeks power within a society
aims to alter the moral attitudes and behaviors of society’s members, especially its leadership class
Its participants must share, on balance:
a set of values
a diagnosis of personal or social ills
a set of prescriptions for those personal or social ills
To achieve its aims, a paideuma produces paideia, which are:
a set of social technologies designed to alter minds and hearts
Paideia take many forms, from the material to the social, and can include:
formal educational routines, customs, rituals, plastic arts, music, theater, and oratory
Paideia fulfill the purposes of paideumata:
by delivering a spiritual payload by means of alterations to the environment
Exclusivist and heavy-handed paideumata
It may be clear at this point that paideumata can powerful, and therefore dangerous. After all, ideologies can be dangerous; paideumata are not identical to ideologies, but arise alongside ideologies that take hold in a society.
Of course the society that a paideuma seeks to alter also has an ideology, a moral framework, a status hierarchy, it’s own social technologies, and so on. We aren’t afforded much non-ideological ground to stand on, when comparing society and something new.
Nevertheless, Hankins makes the interesting point that paideumata vary in their degrees of exclusivism, inclinations to violence, and methods of persuasion:
A key issue in evaluating a paideuma is the way it relates to subaltern or rival paideumata within the larger society—its toleration of pluralism to use modern terms. The character of a given paideuma may encourage those who inhabit it, when given power, to become oppressive, militant, or fanatical, while other paideumata may be capable of condominium with multiple conceptions of the good life. To use terms from the sociology of religion, some paideumata are exclusivist, while others are inclusive or pluralist; some justify the use of violence and indoctrination to achieve their ends, while others restrict themselves to education and the arts of persuasion.
And of course, whatever is true of a given paideuma may change substantially over time:
A paideuma may also alter its character in the course of its historical development and relate differently, at different times and places, to what may be called (with apologies for the coinage) exopaideumic elements in the circumambient society. Examples of paideumata that have varied their habits of condominium over time and space might include particular expressions or dispositions of Confucianism, Buddhism, Islam, socialism, liberalism, and Christianity.
You might be thinking: “Okay, sweet. Paideuma. What can I do with this shiny new term?”
Great question! Personally, I have found the term helpful for understanding a variety of scene-like, ideological phenomena. It has helped me look at these in a holistic way that keeps in mind both the means and ends of groups throughout history, as well as some groups in our own time.
I'm also hoping to build some ideas on top of the notion of the paideuma in the coming weeks and months—so keep an eye out for those.
finally a moral framework for conquering the world