Is the CRT a New Republic of Letters?

I am often asked “What is the Caux Round Table for Moral Capitalism (CRT)?” I don’t really have a ready answer. Usually, to make it short, I say something like: “We advocate principled business leadership” or “We are a global network of individuals who seek to promote goodwill and develop good ideas for a better, more moral, capitalism.”

But calling the CRT an advocacy network doesn’t quite reveal how we go about our work or how we’ve evolved. We are not an academic body. We are not a foundation. We do not lobby, per se, in politics. We are in the public domain open to everyone. We trade in ideas. We bring people together for discussion, reflection and intellectual development. We do best when insights are put on the table.

Recently, on a whim, I picked up a book with the title The Republic of Letters. It was originally written in French by Marc Fumaroli and gives us a history of the evolution of an advocacy network which started the Renaissance and then provided momentum for the Enlightenment.

The so-called “Republic” defined itself by the practice of reading and discussing written texts. The Republic was anywhere such reading and discussion took place. It was a transnational cultural territory inhabited by vibrant minds engaging one another with ideas drawn from reading and circulated by spoken or written word.

It was self-consciously animated as being different from the “Republic of Christians” seeking to recover classic thought of Greece and Rome, especially the polymorphous discourse of rhetoric (Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian) as a basis for intellectual community and the pursuit of knowledge and truth.

Rhetoric is about persuasion, not compulsion, in thought and faith. It presumes the worth of the audience and seeks their understanding and assent. It is fundamentally pluralistic and democratic.

But in the wrong hands or stimulated by the wrong ideas, rhetoric can easily sink into sophistry and demagogy. Only the character of the speaker can forestall that degradation of discourse.

Rhetoric requires ethics to keep it away from the dark side of human desiring. Quintilian defined excellence in oratory as “A good man speaking well.” Such a persuader needed to be educated but first, had to be good. In that same way of leading others, the Republic of Letters was a psycho-social sphere promoting personal excellence.

Where the Republic of Christians was religious and circled around the exclusive truth of Christian scripture, the Republic of Letters was secular and saw itself freely open to principles of natural law.

The original Republic of Letters – Res Publica Litteraria – was stimulated by Petrarch (1304-1374) due to his “contagious passion for unearthing and reconstructing the scattered and buried treasures of the classical humanitas (the value and potency of being human) and its urbanitas (urbane sophistication).”

Later, Erasmus was its chair. One of his compatriots in the Republic called it “That ocean of antiquity which by natural law is common to all.”

Later, another member called it “This society of savants, fully occupied with cultivating, promoting and propagating the sciences and the arts, which is dispersed across all regions of this universe.”

The Republic had no law, no structure, no budget, no governance and no imposed authority. It saw itself as someplace outside the controversies between Roman Catholics and Protestants as to scripture, authority to speak for God and other asserted certainties.

It described itself as a society of minds with no citizenship subject to the strictures of any particular religion or state, a pedagogical and erudite province of culture – existing in books and in the minds of those who read them. Perhaps something like a chivalrous, semi monastic religious order of thinkers.

The Republic of Letters was a network of volunteers only. Its territory was the mind. Its governance was by letters and discussion groups. It had no power to coerce. It could only invite participation. Many names of such Republicans discussed in Fumaroli’s book were new to me and many were Italian, especially from Venice.

But such a Republic made our world better.

Could it be that the CRT is a nascent, new Republic of Letters?