Greek or Roman Sympathies in Renaissance Humanism

Written by on April 30th, 2014. Subject: History. Filed in Politics, about Humanism Castiglione Erasmus Thomas More

|||More, Thomas, George M. Logan, and Robert Merrihew Adams. Utopia. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002.|||

The Ambassadors When they heard from us about the literature and learning of the Greeks (fir we thought that, except for the historians and poets, there was nothing in Latin that they would value), it was wonderful to behold how eagerly they sought to learn Greek through our instruction. We therefore began to read with them, at first more to avoid seeming lazy than out of any expectation they would profit by it. But after a short trial, their diligence immediately convinced us that ours would not be wasted. They picked up the forms of letters so easily, pronounced the language so aptly, memorized it so quickly, and began to recite so accurately, that it seemed like a miracle.

It is often stated rather simply that Renaissance Humanism is characterized by a return to the ideas of antiquity. But this generalization is misleading since it says nothing at all about the varied nature of moral and political philosophy in the ancient world. That is, there seems to be a clear and obvious difference between the moral and political model of the Greeks and that of Romans.1 To be more specific, the Roman account “defines liberty as a status of independence, of being under the guidance of one’s own sovereign will, and exalts it as the source of civic virtue. It understands virtue, in turn, as a disinterested commitment to the public good, together with the will and agency necessary to act on behalf of this commitment,”2 while the Greek account values “the condition of living according to our rational nature” and it “assumes that the purpose of civic life is not glory, which it dismisses as the irrelevant approval of non-experts, but rather happiness (εὐδαιμονία), the fulfillment of our rational nature through contemplation.”3 Because of this division, it is not sufficient to say that a humanist4 models himself after the ‘ideas of antiquity,’ but rather to show which ideas he models himself after, whether the Greek or the Roman, and to understand in context the implication of these ideas—what it implies about the purpose of the state, the role of a citizen in the sate, and the question of the highest civic good.

Three humanists which characteristically model themselves after either the Roman or the Greek ideas are Thomas More, Desiderius Erasmus, and Baldassare Castiglione. These three humanists are particularly suitable for such a comparison because they lived at roughly the same time and each wrote something that generally models itself after a classical type of writing: Thomas More writes after the style of the Greek dialog, particularly the dialog of the Republic; Desiderius Erasmus writes after the style of the encomium; and Baldassare Castiglione writes after the style of the Roman treatise, particularly those of de Oratore and Academica. This article will treat first with those authors which seem to be on the Roman side of the divide since they are the more common of the Renaissance humanists and because their ideas give context to the those whose sympathies fall to the Greeks.

Baldessare Castiglione seems to have followed Cicero’s De oratore when he wrote the Courtier. However, while many acknowledge the claim they do not often take it seriously: “Critics have found his [Castiglione] claim unconvincing, or simply chosen to concentrate rather on his debts to the fathers of philosophy, Plato and Aristotle.”5 The reason for this seems to be that scholarship on the matter has focused on “Cicero’s contribution to Quattrocenta humanism.”6 More than this, however, the claim is not taken seriously because the court behavior lauded in the Courtier seems to betray the Ciceronian synthesis of wisdom and eloquence. But if we take the format of the Courtier as a whole, and the means through which ideas are weighed and accepted, it is hard to dismiss the notion that Castiglione is indebted to Cicero. We should keep in mind that although the lines of thought seen throughout the work, especially in book iv, seem Platonic and Aristotelian, that these thoughts were common enough, both at the time of Cicero and later in Castiglione’s own time, that their reference would not indicate any direct affiliation with Greek philosophy. De officiis, for example, has in it also reference to and synthesis of Peripatetic and Platonic thought.7

But we should not consider too much the relationship between De oratore and the Courtier. Our purpose is not to identify how Ciceronian the text is, but to identify whether the text purposes the Greek or Roman ideas of civic life. That is, we are not concerned with whether the Courtier successfully synthesis wisdom and eloquence, but whether the perfect courtier agrees that governments should “[give] each person ius suum8 or whether it should aim at εὐδαιμονία. It seems that the Courtier is on the Roman side of the divide because we learn that being a courtier is for the purpose of aiding a prince in his virtue. Far from trying to perfect his nature, the perfect courtier attempts to “bring him [the prince] to the path of virtue.”9 This characterization seems on par with the Roman notion that civic duty is “a commitment to the public good” which “encourages justice” and that this will “produce concord and peace and enables the state to seek its highest goals of glory and greatness.”10

Moving onward we now must try as best we can to show how some humanists fall on the Greek side and that both Thomas More and Desiderius Erasmus are two such humanists. It is natural to link these two humanists because of their natural affinity to each others ideas, exemplified by the dedication of so much of their work and correspondence to each other. The discussion concerning Erasmus will be more difficult, however, because we must also explain how Erasmean humanism is not a defense of traditional Italian humanists nor that they truly “informed the political ideology of the Italian city states.”11

The context of the divide between the Roman side of things and the Greek was not merely tied to political philosophy. The role of the citizen within a political structure was simply one of the practical manifestations. In the sixteenth-century ancient Greek thought came under charges of “heresy and obscurantism”12 since it attempted to correct the Vulgate with the New Testament Greek; as a defense many who valued Greek culture and thought responded in kind: Thomas More expresses doubt that the Romans contributed in any positive way to the liberal arts and to philosophy—“those arts they call liberal, along with philosophy, in which subjects the Romans wrote next to nothing”13—and others such as Richard Pace who claim that “whatever seems to have originated with the Romans, for example, in rhetoric and history, was all taken from the Greeks as if it were a loan…but philosophy among theRomans was so feeble that nothing could seem more stupid to learned ears than to compare Roman philosophers to the Greeks. And I include Cicero in this group, if he’ll forgive me for saying so.”14

We see this same sort of hostility toward Roman culture and philosophy in Erasmus’ Praise of Folly. Erasmus as Folly says that a Philosopher cannot be a part of political life because the people will laugh and scorn him: “[A Philosopher] is not able to be of any use to himself, to his country, or to his own family, because he is ignorant of public business.”15 We elsewhere, and indeed throughout the work in general, that The Praise of Folly condemns Romanitas but upholds Philosophy and the Philosophers. For Erasmus, “Platonic philosophy is thought ridiculous by those living amid the ethical categories of Roman theory.”16 In fact, Erasmus goes so far as to say that Europe has inherited “the love of glory and the love of wealth,” which has “distorted the message of the gospel;” “in short, because of Roman gloria we have lost eudaimonia, and because of Roman ius we have lost Justice.”17 It seems clear that Erasmus’ sympathies lay on the side of the Greeks.

It seems almost self evident that the Utopia of Thomas More is sympathetic to the Greek side. Not only does the work model itself after a Greek λόγος, or account, but it praises with in it the achievements of the Greeks and dismisses out of hand that of the Romans. Hythloday, the guest who recounts his trip toUtopia is described as knowing “a good deal of Latin but is particularly learned in Greek;”[^19] he also notes that “the Romans have left us nothing very valuable except certain works of Seneca and Cicero,”[^20] yet when we come to the part of Utopia where Hytholoday gives his books to the Utopians we find that not even Cicero or Seneca are among them, presumably because they would not fit well with the Utopian mindset.

What most convinces us that the Utopia is a humanistic work of a distinctly Greek flavor is not all the Greekisms, as we might call them, nor even the praise of Greek philosophy over the Roman, but that the purpose of government for the Utopians seems oriented toward the happiness of its citizens. Characteristically of this sort of aim, it is the wise and capable which they elect to rule them, and that duty is carried out with a somber willingness not for glory but for the natural perfection, in happiness, of its citizens. Naturally, of course, all action which aims at the happiness of its citizens is reciprocated by those citizens. The Utopians are happy because they have created an environment through which their natures might be perfected; this is done through liberal learning, and understanding of community, and an overall willingness to participate in a state that provides for their daily needs.

Utopia is the opposite in many ways to the idea of the ideal principate in the Coutier. While Utopia is glorified through the commonality of its citizens, the Italian city states are ruled by their prince through which the state gains glory since that prince dutifully provides for it. Likewise, Erasmus has Folly see no benefit in serving a prince, since doing so does not make one either more virtuous or more excellent. Yet, for Castiglione, the perfect courtier always serves a prince, since only through the prince may the courtier’s city be glorified. Such a statement is distasteful to the minds of Greek-minded humanists such as Erasmus and Thomas More, since men ought to seek excellence and not glory. It is no small thing, it seems, whether a humanist had Roman or Greek sympathies.

Works Cited

|||Castiglione, Baldesar and Daniel Javitch to. 2002. The Book of the Courtier (Norton Critical Editions). Daniel JavitchEd. Charles S SingletonTrans. New edition. W. W. Norton & Company, March 1.|||

|||Erasmus, Desiderius and Robert M Adams to. 1989. The Praise of Folly and Other Writings (Norton Critical Editions). Robert M AdamsEd. Critical edition. W. W. Norton & Company, October 17.|||

|||Goodey, Brian R. 1970. “Mapping ‘Utopia’: A Comment on the Geography of Sir Thomas More.” Geographical Review 60 (1) (January 1): 15–30.|||

|||Nelson, Eric. 2006. “Utopia through Italian Eyes: Thomas More and the Critics of Civic Humanism.” Renaissance Quarterly 59 (4) (January 1): 1029–1057.|||

|||Richards, Jennifer. 2001. “Assumed Simplicity and the Critique of Nobility: Or, How Castiglione Read Cicero.” Renaissance Quarterly 54 (2) (January 1): 460–486.|||

|||More, Thomas, George M Logan, and Robert Merrihew Adams. 2002. Utopia. Cambridge Univ Pr, September 30.|||

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  1. Nelson, 1032. “It seems clear that there were indeed two distinct and incommensurable accounts of republican government available in the early modern period, one drawn from the Latin sources of Roman antiquity, and the other drawn from the principle text of Greek moral and political philosophy.” 

  2. ibid. 

  3. ibid, 1033. 

  4. I mean only Renaissance humanists 

  5. Richards, 460. 

  6. ibid

  7. And besides, we see in book four that we must justify our Courtier to the Greek Philosophers. Courtier, 4.47. p. 240. 

  8. Nelson, 1033. 

  9. Courtier, 4.5. p. 210. 

  10. Nelson, 1032. 

  11. Nelson, 1034. 

  12. Utopia, 1034. 

  13. Nelson, 1035. 

  14. Nelson, 1036. 

  15. Erasmus, 24. “Usqueadeo neque sibi neque patriae neque suis usquam usui esse potest, propterea quod communium rerum sit imperitus et a populari opinione vulgaribusque institutis longe lateque discrepet.” 

  16. Nelson, 1036. 

  17. Nelson, 1038.