Europe was a tumultuous region in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In particular, the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation both introduced radical intellectual and religious ideas that challenged centuries of established doctrine. This period corresponded with a great surge in philosophical, political, and religious writing. Among the most influential thinkers of the time were the Italian humanist Leon Battista Alberti, the Florentine politician Niccolò Machiavelli, and the German monk Martin Luther. Alberti wrote in a time of humanist thought and economic prosperity, Machiavelli in a time of growing political instability and economic uncertainty in Italy, and Luther in a time dominated by an increasingly corrupt Catholic church. While Alberti’s good fortune is reflected in On the Family’s optimism, Machiavelli’s The Prince and Luther’s On Christian Liberty are direct reactions to the perceived crises the authors were witnessing, and both works were written with an obvious sense of urgency.
These writers all put forward strongly worded and drastically different views of the fundamental nature of man. Alberti saw man as an active being seeking a classical education and a good family in which to raise children, Machiavelli perceived man as craving power and impossible to satisfy, and for Luther man was eternally sinful searching only for faith in God. More significant than their visions of human nature is the physical focus of that nature—body or soul—and how the origin of such a attitude was related to the period in which they were living. While Alberti’s vision of human nature focused on a man’s outward actions shaping his inner soul, Luther saw just the opposite, a man’s soul struggling to achieve what the body never could alone, and in the end conquering the body. Machiavelli shares Luther’s pessimism about the outer man, but, in contrast to both, sees no use for considering the soul at all.
Leon Battista Alberti’s On the Family (1435) is a dialogue between the brothers of a wealthy merchant-banking Italian family at the deathbed of the patriarch. Alberti, one of the original humanists, puts forward an optimistic view of human nature through the characters’ discussion about the correct way to run a family. Although his family was exiled from Florence, the ban had been lifted and Alberti had gone back home and then on to Rome before be began writing On the Family (RWC, 78). His optimism reflects the newfound faith in the ancients held by those in Renaissance Italy, and his family’s great fortune.
Alberti opens his dialogue with:
“[N]ature strives to produce all things as complete, both in inherent strength and in various members, as is fitting and proper, with no defects or imperfections…we can affirm with certainty that all mortals are endowed by nature with the ability to love and to put into practice even the most praised virtue (virtù). And virtue is nothing else than nature, properly...