When Elites Were Elites

The Republic of Letters is one of those fascinating history books that introduces an almost completely new element of analysis into already well-known events. It is not, however, a piece of revisionism, much less, as the British conservative Theodore Dalrymple brilliantly puts it, a “backward projection of current discontents.” It rather delves into a now-forgotten element of the past that actually existed at the time, and thus makes the past more real.

That element is the “Republic of Letters,” which, Fumaroli explains, is today often a sort of jibe or ironic self-parody of the pompous and barely hidden commercial and professional competition of the literary world. The term, however, once meant something very different. It referred to a pan-European “society of literary and solitary savants,” with an overwhelming focus on the wisdom of antiquity. They studied the ancient world, engaged in a reading, rereading, and reinterpreting of its wisdom, and applied it to scholarly debates and European affairs. Their work did not render the original thinkers obsolete; this enterprise was viewed as a communion with the thinkers of old in a similar way that Christians honored and prayed to the saints. The Republic of Letters formed a “society within another society, a contemplative society within an active society, and a society united by letters, beyond death and distance in the same intellectual adventure.”

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