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The politics of well-being is not a new phenomenon. There have been many times in history when governments have sought not merely to increase their coffers, but to enhance the well-being of their citizens. That, in fact, was the model of Christian society for some centuries; it was the philosophy behind Confucian societies; it was also the vision behind Marxist societies. But we don’t have to be a Christian, Confucian or Marxist to find other useful historical parallels.

Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology and a pioneer of the concept of the politics of well-being (it’s the title of the final chapter of his
new book) has often looked back to Renaissance Florence for a pattern to imitate. He has said: “Florence, in 1450, as you know, became enormously wealthy based on the Medici banking genius, essentially, and under the leadership of Cosimo the Elder, it asked the question: ‘What should we do with this surplus?’ What Florence decided to do with its surplus was to invest it in beauty. And they gave us what 200 years later was called the Renaissance. Now, I’m not suggesting that the positive human future is about our taking up sculpture. Rather, what I’ve tried to define is the elements of a positive human future. I believe the United States and the wealthy nations of the world stand at a Florentine moment, and it is up to us to decide that the human future will be about the building in our citizens of positive emotion, of relations, of meaning, and accomplishment.”

Is this true? Are we at a ‘Florentine moment’, and can we find useful similarities in that time and place. I came to Florence to find out. Well, OK, I came to Florence for a holiday, to celebrate finishing my book, but I couldn’t help but think of Seligman’s words as I walked around the city and marveled at its culture.

In some obvious ways, of course, modern western societies are very different to Renaissance Florence. When the Medicis ran Florence, it had a population of around 60,000. This small society was run by one rich family, they bought the votes, they called the shots, they appointed the government officials – and if you opposed them, you’d probably be bumped off. Their hegemony over Florence meant they could impose a pattern or culture on the city, establishing institutions like the Platonic Academy, financed by Cosimo the Elder (pictured left) and run by Marcilio Ficino, or the Uffizi, financed by Cosimo I and designed by Giorgio Vasari.

Florentine culture was whatever the Medicis said it was – luckily for Florence, they had good taste. But they were no friends of democracy – in fact, they overthrew the Florentine republic in 1512, tortured and banished the defenders of liberty, like Machiavelli, and returned the city to one-family hegemony.

We, on the other hand, live in enormous democratic and multi-cultural societies, in mega-cities with populations in their millions, our citizenry comprised of every conceivable culture and background. Our governments are on the whole committed to a pluralist political philosophy, and they tend to get in trouble if they are seen to be advocating or imposing one particular culture or philosophy. Look, for example, at the
controversy the US Army has found itself in when it demanded every one of its soldiers learn ‘emotional resilience’ in a course designed by Seligman, which appears to promote a particular model of spirituality.

Secondly, we don’t alas live in a time of surplus. Western governments are broke. Asian governments live in a time of surplus, and can put their trillions into actively promoting Confucian culture (as they are, in fact doing, check out this
fascinating recent report), but we don’t – although it must often seem to Seligman like we do, so readily do the government cheques and charitable donations flow into the coffers of his department at Penn University.

Still, Seligman is right – there are
some similarities between Renaissance Florence and our own humbler era. The Renaissance involved a conscious re-engagement with ancient philosophy. (The term ‘renaissance’ was not, as Seligman says, coined 200 years after the period, it was in fact coined by Giorgio Vasari in 1550.) The Medici committed their vast wealth to collecting, translating, and disseminating the ideas and principles of classical culture to their city.

Likewise, our own time has seen a re-engagement with ancient philosophy, albeit in a much less scholarly and cultured fashion. That foul-mouthed genius, Albert Ellis, helped to re-connect modern psychology to the therapeutic tradition of ancient philosophy, and other scientists such as Aaron Beck and Martin Seligman have since deepened this re-engagement,
tested out some of the ancients’ ideas for the good life, and brought the best of them to many people. And, in the last few years, western governments have committed sizable amounts to spreading cognitive therapy to their citizens: the British government has committed over half a billion pounds to training new CBT therapists, while the Pentagon has spent $125 million on the resilience training course for its soldiers.
The roots of cognitive therapy in ancient philosophy are rarely acknowledged – most therapists know next to nothing about the ancient roots of the therapy they’re making a living from – but they have been acknowledged by the founders of CBT, Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck. And Seligman, too, looks back to the ancients, and to Aristotle’s idea that the role of governments should be the promotion of human flourishing.
In some ways, these small first steps have already brought some basic ideas of ancient philosophy to millions of people – far more than were reached at the time by the Medicis’ support of the Platonic Academy or other Florentine institutions. And yet, before we slap ourselves on the back and declare a new Renaissance, consider the depth and vitality of Florence’s re-engagement with the ancients, and the works of genius that it led to. In literature, it led to the works of Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch (although the last wasn’t Florentine). In philosophy, it led to Machiavelli, Ficino, Mirandola, Bruni; in art, to Giotto, Botticelli, and to commissioned works by Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Raphael, Lippi; in sculpture to Donatello; in architecture to Brunelleschi and Vasari.

The Florentine Renaissance was a defining moment for world culture. The torch passed from the collapsing Byzantine empire, and a new way of seeing things emerged. Europe moved from the otherworldly Neo-Platonism of Byzantine culture, to a dialogue between the sacred and the worldly, the religious and the civic, the pagan and the Christian.

But what I find so beautiful about Florentine Renaissance art is the balance between the earthly and the sacred – you see it in Raphael’s School of Athens, where Plato points to the heavens, and Aristotle points to the street. The everyday is brought into the art, but infused with sacredness. Humans seem to engage with angels in a dialogue of equals, like the many beautiful annunciation paintings, where angels drop by, like friendly neighbours to see how we are getting on.

This was perhaps a product of Florence’s re-interpretation of Plato – not the otherworldly neo-Platonism of the Byzantine empire, but Plato as a bridge between the civic and the spiritual. The Platonists and Kabbalists of the Florentine Academy literally thought they were in communication with angels, and this sense of the proximity of the sacred irradiates the culture.

I feel we are very far from that wonderful combination, in Florence, of philosophy, literature, architecture and science, informed and inspired by the same ideas, the same re-engagement with the ancients. It is a combination one sees, above all, in the Uffizi, one of the oldest galleries in the world. The Uffizi was originally a government building – it means ‘offices’ – where the city’s magistrates would work. And they would be inspired in their political work by the culture with which Vasari surrounded them. They would walk down the grand corridors, where statues and busts of ancient heroes like Marcus Aurelius were echoed by portraits of modern heroes. They would see the virtues illustrated on the roofs of the corridors – courage, fortitude, liberality, honesty. They would be surrounded by the sublime works of Botticelli or Raphel or Michelangelo, which brought together classical and Christian imagery into something breath-takingly new and beautiful. And the Uffizi was connected, through the Vasari corridor over the Ponte Vecchio, to the Palazzo Putti, where the Medici lived and ruled amid the same panoply of classical and Renaissance art.

To live and work among such culture is to have one’s entire being soaked in philosophy and spirituality. Vasari didn’t just create a gallery, he created a philosophical education for the city’s citizens. He set the bar of human aspiration incredibly high, and challenged his culture to rise to it. And the culture created here, in Florence, spread across the whole of Europe, and it still inspires the spirit and makes us feel that humans possess a dignity and a closeness to God.

Seligman wants to re-create this moment. He organized an annual Medici conference, financed by the Templeton Foundation, that brought together some positive psychologists to talk about mental health, physical health, spirituality, and national well-being measurements. Seligman writes that he hopes the Medici initiative will lead to “the conceptualization and measurement of positive health, including an ideal battery of measures to be grafted onto existing longitudinal health studies and future ones; and the discovery of confirming and disconfirming evidence within existing longitudinal studies of the effects of positive health on longevity, health costs, mental health, and prognosis.”

Noble aims. And yet one can’t help thinking this is not the Florentine moment. Where are the artists, the philosophers, the architects, the sculptors; where is the imagination, the grandeur, the sense of the sublime? Has Seligman even been to Florence? He says he is not suggesting “the future is about our taking up sculpture”. Yet I suggest we can never truly hope to re-create the Florentine moment and truly infuse our cultures with philosophy until it breathes once again from the paintings, the gardens, the roofs, the corridors, the buildings, the domes and spires of our cities.

(I realize, reading this back, how grandiose it sounds. Start small, Evans!)