IR Folks from Times Past

IR Folks from Times Past

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Unfrozen Voices from Antiquity

John Hale’s The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance is a marvelous work that can be dipped into at any point for illumination, "a landmark in the humanist tradition it describes." Here, at the beginning of his chapter on Transformations, Hale describes the intense interest in ancient words and deeds associated with the Renaissance (roughly, 1450 to 1620). These “unfrozen voices” were now heard with rapturous and purposeful intention, communicating a kind of fever to intellectual life.  (1210 words)

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In the course of the voyage imagined by Rabelais in the 1552 version of the fourth book of Gargantua and Pantagruel, Tantagruel suddenly jumped to his feet, and took a look about him. ‘Can you hear some-thing, comrades?’ he asked, ‘I seem to hear people talking in the air. But I can't see anything. Listen’. . . So as to miss nothing, some of us cupped the palms of our hands to the backs of our ears . . .; the more keenly we listened, the more clearly we made out voices, till in the end we could hear whole words.' Greatly alarmed, Pantagruel's party was told by the ship's captain that what they were beginning to hear were the sounds of a great battle which had been frozen by winter and were now beginning to thaw. Some, indeed, fell on deck; where they 'looked like crystallized sweets of different colours . . . when we warmed them a little between our hands, they melted like snow, and we actually heard them'.

This is no bad analogy for the recovery of the sounds of classical antiquity after the long medieval winter that closed in with the loss of Rome to the barbarians. It was the warming of texts by devoted editing from the fourteenth century onwards that allowed their authors' voices to speak clearly again, and the consequential extension of interest in the world they had lived in that made their battles real again. Though the preliminary work had been done in Italy, by the time Rabelais wrote educated men and women throughout Europe had come into repossession of an Old world — an instructive, recognizably relevant alter ego — that was to most of them of far greater interest than the New. Far in the past, but nearer to their own concerns than the medieval centuries, was a society like their own, lacking only stirrups, the compass, printing, gunpowder, the papacy and the Americas: a society which, thanks to time's tendency to winnow its trivial sources and monuments more thoroughly, appeared to have been peopled by an intellectual and creative master-race. Whatever there was to do, in philosophical speculation, political action or cultural achievement, appeared to have been done, and done with a supreme vigour and accomplishment, among a people whose history not only had the clarity of distance in time but the wholeness of a completed cycle, from obscurity through world empire to barbarian chaos.

Text by text, as the imaginative reconstruction of the ancient world proceeded, the relevance of this alter ego became clearer. Their words no longer obscure, their personalities restored, replaced in the context of their own society, the appeal of the authors the middle ages had read but not really heard — Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Cicero and Ovid —became stronger than ever, and they were joined by a host of others. The impact of so many minds on men who read them not merely with admiration for their knowledge or their particular expertise, but as models from whom to learn about statecraft, the waging of war, the creation of works of art and the more important art of bearing up under adversity: this impact made the study of the ancient world into a cultural force. It was not simply the perusal of neglected manuscripts but purposeful communication with a race of illustrious forebears. . . .

The Greek Plutarch died around AD 120. Reaching down his volumes of Plutarch's Works fifteen and a half centuries after his death, Montaigne felt instantly, appetitively, at ease with him. He is 'so universal and so full', he wrote 'that upon all occasions, and whatsoever extravagant subject you have undertaken, he intrudeth himself into your work, and gently reacheth you a helpe-affording hand, fraught with rare embellishments, and inexhaustible of precious riches . . . He can no sooner come in my sight, or if I cast but a glance upon him, but I pull some legge or wing from him'. In 1600 Philemon Holland, a country doctor who spent more time with his books than his patients, dedicated his translation of Livy to Queen Elizabeth. 'Reach forth your gracious hand', he begged, as though introducing a foreign friend, 'to T. Livius, who having arrived long since and conversed as a mere stranger in this your famous island . . . humbly craveth your Majesties favour to be ranged with other free denizens . . . to live under your princely protection.' (189-91)

It was through the reinvigoration of already existing talent and sense of purpose that the revival of interest in the ancient past made its most creative mark. . . . It is striking that when Hernan Cortes set off with his small band of Spanish adventurers to the conquest of Mexico in 1519 he exhorted them not to model themselves on the heroes of the romances of chivalry, the staple reading of his noble class, but to imitate the deeds of the Romans. Whereupon, his chronicler Bernal Diaz (who was there, though he wrote after the event) recorded, ‘to a man we all responded that we would follow his orders, that the die was cast for good fortune, as Caesar said at the Rubicon.’ (192-93)

Though humanism presented the merits of a pagan civilization to a Christian one, it became naturalized with little strain. Yet Pico della Mirandola's assertion in 1487 that God had spoken as relevantly, if not as directly, through the mouths of pagan seers as through those of biblical prophets, led to his condemnation by Rome; when, after a period of tactful self-exile in France, he returned to Florence, it was on the understanding — rather as in the later case of Galileo — that he should stay at home and keep quiet.  . . . On the whole, however, there was felt to be little potential conflict. Humanist moral teaching emphasized the obligations of honourable individual conduct and the pursuit of the collective good in terms that contradicted neither the Ten Commandments nor the Sermon on the Mount. There was in any case a strong tendency among theologians themselves to divide the aspect of truth that was ascertainable by reason and community experience from that of spirituality and revelation. `Surely the first place is due to holy scripture', wrote Erasmus in his widely read dialogue The Religious Banquet, 'but sometimes I find some things said or written by the ancients, by pagans and poets, so chaste, so holy, so divine, that I am persuaded a good genius enlightened them. Certainly there are many in the communion of saints who are not in our catalogue of saints.’

Luther's gratitude for humanist studies as aiding a linguistic understanding of the Bible was such that he adopted a Providentialist view of this aspect of the rebirth of knowledge. `Formerly', he wrote, referring to the previous century, 'no one knew why God caused the languages [Latin, Hebrew, Greek] to be revived, but now for the first time we see that it was done for the sake of the Gospel . . . To this end He gave over Greece to the Turk in order that the Greeks, driven out and scattered, might disseminate their language and provide an incentive to the study of other languages as well. (197-98)
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John Hale, The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance (New York: Atheneum, 1994).