A place protected by an imaginary moat filled with writing ink and defended by cannons that fired paper bullets, like the city described by the Spanish writer Diego de Saavedra Fajardo in the book República Literária, published in 1655.
Some researchers trace its origins to the times of Plato, but the earliest mention ever found of the Literary Republic was by one of the disciples of the intellectual Francesco Petrarca, the Venetian Francesco Barbaro (1390-1459).
In 1417, Barbaro thanked the writer Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459) “in the name of all men of letters present and future, for the gift offered to the Respublica Literarum for the progress of humanity and culture”.
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Bracciolini had sent ancient manuscripts he had discovered in monastic libraries, a task performed by humanists following in their master’s footsteps.
With the dissemination of texts and the popularization of knowledge, the debate of ideas is no longer exclusive to ecclesiastical university students. And, in this more open dialogue, even dead authors came to participate through their works, thanks to their contact with Antiquity and their long existence.
But the expression Republic of Letters would only become common in the 17th century, when intellectuals such as the French monk Noël Argonne (1634-1704) described it:
According to Argonne, “the Republic of Letters has a very ancient origin. It encompasses the entire world and is made up of all nationalities, all social classes, all ages and both sexes.”
“She speaks all languages, ancient and modern. Arts join letters and craftsmen also find their place. Praise and honor are bestowed by popular acclaim,” wrote Argonne in 1699.
The social space of the Republic of Letters offered considerable independence to Erasmus of Rotterdam and to the other humanists, his followers (‘Erasmus of Rotterdam’, 1523, by Hans Holbein the Younger) — Photo: GETTY IMAGES
In fact, in a world with well-defined social hierarchies and political and religious divisions so deep that they often ended up in wars, the citizens of the República das Letras, or República Literária, defended that everyone was equal and that any argument that promoted knowing was important.
There was no formal citizenship. Research, publications and writings were the identity card of its citizens.
It began centered in Europe, but by the 18th century, the Republic of Letters had already expanded to places like Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia), Calcutta (India), Mexico City, Lima (Peru), Boston, and Philadelphia ( United States), arriving in Rio de Janeiro.
There were many citizens of that republic. To give you an idea, among them were the Italian Galileo Galilei, the Englishman John Locke, the Dutch Erasmus of Rotterdam, the Frenchman Voltaire and the American Benjamin Franklin.
Women, on the other hand, were in smaller numbers, but no less expressive. Intellectuals such as Anna Maria van Schurman, Princess Isabella of Bohemia, Marie de Gournay, Marie du Moulin, Dorothy Moore, Bathsua Makin, Katherine Jones and Lady Ranelagh were some of the active participants in the Republic of Letters in the 17th century.
This group of philosophers, teachers, reformers and mathematicians from England, Ireland, Germany, France and Holland, along with other male peers such as René Descartes, Christiaan Huygens, Samuel Hartlib and Michel de Montaigne, represented the spectrum of focus from science, politics , faith and advancement of education in force at the time.
Isaac Newton’s letter to English physician William Briggs, written in 1682, praising his new theory of vision but disagreeing with some of its conclusions — Photo: GETTY IMAGES
The República das Letras was born and grew up before the compartmentalization of knowledge. At that time, all those who dedicated themselves to cultivating the intellect were literally “philosophers” – whose etymological meaning is “friends of knowledge” – without distinction between academic disciplines, nor divisions such as “exact sciences” and “humanities”.
There were specialists, but they all used to study Latin and Greek, as well as history, logic, and other subjects. So it was not uncommon, for example, for a mathematician like Isaac Newton to devote years to experimenting with alchemy and rewriting the history of the ancient world.
For this reason, when one speaks of the Republic of “Letters” or “Literary”, all knowledge is included: mathematicians, naturalists, astronomers and doctors were totally identified with this name.
But that name also included a sense of learning, of seeking knowledge. It was a community of scholars, a fraternity of the curious.
Its official language was Latin, the language of all scholars until 1650 and which continued to play an important role, although Greek and Hebrew were also used.
And from the 15th century onwards, the cultured use of vernaculars made possible a new, more inclusive discourse.
At the center of this intellectual life was the exchange of letters.
The press contributed greatly to the rise of intellectual culture from the Renaissance onwards, but books were still rare and expensive. The letters filled this gap, allowing for comments, consultations, exposition of ideas and debates. Therefore, the so-called men of letters devoted a lot of time and thought to all the letters, sent and received.
It’s no wonder that desks used to be among the most beautiful and elaborate furniture ever designed.
And “secretaries were indispensable, because if you were a famous scholar, there was so much correspondence that you needed help,” historian Peter Burke told BBC News Mundo, the BBC’s Spanish-language service.
In this social network, as in those of today, writings covered very broad spectrums – from discussions of history, politics, philosophy, scientific research and education to news, gossip, jokes, poems, personal experiences and others.
On some occasions, the letters were complete dissertations on scientific topics, reviews of newly published books, collections of writings, or copies of inscriptions. The only way to recognize that they were letters was to look at the beginning and end of the document.
Letters written with such care and often with valuable content were usually not thrown away, but preserved.
This immense cultural heritage – which includes, for example, around 20,000 letters by Voltaire and 13,600 by the Italian physician and naturalist Antonio Vallisneri (1661-1730) – is being digitized in large projects that resume the aspirations of the Republic of Letters.
And the cards are being used to map the Republic itself, providing a visual dimension to that metaphorical place.
In República das Letras, every citizen had to participate in the exchange of information. And, just as social position was not an impediment to being part of the Republic, distance was not an obstacle either.
The countless letters generated by the República das Letras were sent by mail or through friends, merchants or diplomats, so that they could be delivered in person.
When a recipient received a letter, he was expected to circulate it, as the main objective was always the dissemination of information, the development and expansion of knowledge. Even the books and manuscripts frequently received through the network should not be left in the hands of a single person.
It was welcomed for the recipient to thank you for the correspondence with an antidoron – a gift in return.
Often, the bearers of these cards were young people on their Grand Tour of Europe, a traditional trip that was part of the education of those who were able to do so.
But many other citizens of the Republic of Letters roamed the continent, taking with them letters of recommendation, and were received in libraries, archives, collections of Greco-Roman antiquities or rare species.
This ritualized procedure of study was known as peregrinatio academica and included an unparalleled opportunity: visiting and conversing with local scholars. Cultured conversation was another ideal of this international network – and not just in the most intimate encounters with the sages.
The image of a small group of friends gathered around a table in a country house was reminiscent of the ancient Greek philosophical symposium. She influenced the culture of the salon, of private events in residences with a select guest list, and the culture of cafes, which welcomed citizens of the Republic to talk about the subjects that occupied their minds.
On a more institutional level, the conversation found another pole in the 17th century, with the founding of academies and societies such as the Royal Society of London and the French Academy of Sciences.
In a way, they were more official versions of the correspondence network, as they offered a place where conferences, experiments, and live demonstrations could be held. This communication to many people at once would take a long time if it were done by mail.
And although books were an essential part of the Republic of Letters – many of them richly illustrated, making artists become citizens of the Republic – the academies published magazines, such as the famous Nouvelles de la République des Lettres (“News from the República das Letras”, in free translation), which gathered the information and disseminated it to societies in different countries.
This is how the academies and literary societies began to take over part of the activities of erudition. And, little by little, the Republic of Letters disappeared. According to some historians, social and technological changes were responsible for its disintegration.
Inventions such as the telegraph and advances in the transportation industry such as railroads and steamships facilitated communications. Printing got better and cheaper, allowing news and opinions to be more widely distributed.
But there are intellectuals who guarantee that the Republic of Letters never disappeared.
From horses to the internet
One such scholar is Peter Burke, professor emeritus of cultural history at the University of Cambridge, UK, and author of several books on cultural and intellectual history. “From my point of view, the only change was the form of communication”, according to him.
“Therefore, I distinguish between what I call ‘the horse-powered republic’, which is the traditional one that everyone mentions, and the ‘steam republic’, which arrived later, when the railroads made it possible to create international academic conferences in second half of the 19th century and steamships allowed some academics, such as Max Weber, to give lectures in the United States”, explains the professor.
“After the republic of steam, came the ‘republic of the jet’, when it was possible to travel around the world, exchanging knowledge. And, finally, the ‘virtual republic’, which allows collaboration by email”, according to Burke , bringing fraternity to the present time, in which we can all be a part.
Like every citizen of the Republic of Letters, Burke adds: “I do not eliminate any of those forms of communication that helped scholars to help and collaborate with one another, which does not mean that it has always been that way, but that there was at least one ethic of cooperation”.
This is the central point of this spectacular republic: the ethic of collaboration in favor of knowledge, overcoming all obstacles.
And while the Republic of Letters to which its citizens have sworn allegiance for centuries is a place that exists only in our minds… is this not also the case, to some extent, in all republics?
Text originally published at https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/geral-63059535