Castiglione and the Book of the Courtier

Written by on July 3rd, 2013. Subject: History. Filed in Politics, about Castiglione Italian

|||Castiglione, Baldassar, and Daniel Javitch. The Book of the Courtier: The Singleton Translation : an Authoritative Text Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2002.|||

Giuliano de' Medici I think the aim of the perfect Courtier, which we have not spoken of up to now, is to win for himself, by means of the accomplishments ascribed him by these gentlemen, the favor and mind of the prince whom he serves that he may be able to tell him, and always tell him, the truth about everything he needs to know, without fear or risk of displeasing him; and that when he sees the mind of his prince inclined to wrong action he may dare to oppose him and in a gentle manner avail himself of the favor acquired by his good accomplishments, so as to dissuade him of every evil intent, and bring him to the path of virtue. And thus, having in himself the goodness which these gentlemen attributed to him, together with readiness of wit, charm, prudence, knowledge of letters and many other things–the Courtier will in every instance be able adroitly to show the prince how much honor and profit will come to him and to his from justice, liberality, magnanimity, gentleness, and the other virtues that befit a good prince. 4.5 p. 210.

Baldesar Castiglione began writing the Book of the Courtier in 1508 and did not finish and publish the work until 1528, a few months before his death. The work outwardly claims to explore those “who deserves the name of perfect Courier, without defect of any kind,”1 however the tone of the work becomes increasingly philosophical, culminating in the fourth and last book which explores the ethical and teleological aspects of the perfect courtier. But although we say that the work as a whole becomes philosophical, we should be quick to point out that Castiglione was by no means a trained and professional philosopher. That is, he could not boast a “thorough immersion in the less readable works of Aristotle.”2 But his education although literary included much of philosophy and philosophic thinking; he would be through his humanist training “well acquainted with ancient and contemporary philosophy, particularly Aristotelian moral philosophy and Florentine Platonism.”3 The use of philosophy and philosophic thinking in the Book of the Courtier is not “to argue for some position, but to paint an ideal.”4 This is because the “use literary men make of philosophical ideas differs from the use made of them by professional philosophers.”5

The fourth book begins by purposing the courtier as a sort of mentor and guide to his prince.6 The fear of a bad ruler seems to lie in the ruler’s unwillingness to heed good advice,7 and it is the aim of the courtier to mitigate what seems to be this natural tendency to confuse power with happiness and getting-what-one-wants with justice–namely, the position of Glaucon in Plato’s Republic.8 The question of whether virtue is teachable comes out of this discussion since it seems likely, at least to signor Ottaviano (and to Meno in the dialogue of the same name), that man would never come to vice if virtue is in man by nature.

When the discussion turns to what sort of government is preferable Ottaviano again cites strains of classical philosophic thought, this time summarizing types of good and bad governments from Aristotle’s Politics (or perhaps as it is found in Thomas Aquinas’ De regno, since Ottaviano comes to the same conclusion about the superiority of monarchy, whereas Aristotle seems to suggest a mix of aristocracy and democracy which he calls polity.)

This method of exploring the role of the Courtier through a discussion of relevant philosophic topics suggests a sort of kinship between the philosopher and the courtier. That is, it seems that the role of the Courtier seems almost to be that of a philosopher who partakes in the active life: for Ottaviano draws this same inference, “I [do not] think that Aristotle and Plato would have scorned the name of perfect Courtier, for we clearly see that they performed the works of Courtiership to this same end–the one with Alexander the Great, the other with the Kings of Sicily.”9

It is right, I think, to conclude that Castiglione intended to explore philosophic topics in book four. But it would be wrong for us to infer from this that he wished to argue the validity of some philosophic point. Instead, Castiglione seems to explore that which is philosophic in our experiences and knowledge of the world; our understanding of truth and wisdom, which we gain abstractly through philosophic study, proves itself in life through our recognition of right action and of a knowable and objective reality.

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B. R. Mullikin is the founder of NetCrit. He also is an Editor for The Lost Country, and has many other literary and academic projects.

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  1. Courtier 1.1, p.9. 

  2. James Hankins, “Renaissance Philosophy and Book IV of Il Cortegiano” in The Book of the Courtier, p 377. 

  3. ibid 

  4. ibid 

  5. ibid 

  6. Courtier 4.5, p 210. 

  7. Courtier 4.6, p 211. 

  8. Courtier 4.7 p 211 “deeming true happiness to lie in being able to do what one wishes.” 

  9. Courtier 4.47, p 240.