Exemplum: The Rhetoric of Example in Early Modern France and Italy

Exemplum: The Rhetoric of Example in Early Modern France and Italy

by John D. Lyons

View All Available Formats & Editions

Examples, crucial links between discourse and society's view of reality, have until now been largely neglected in literary criticism. In the first book-length study of the rhetoric of example, John Lyons situates this figure by comparing it with more frequently studied tropes such as metaphor and synecdoche, discusses meanings of the terms example and exemplum, and…  See more details below


Examples, crucial links between discourse and society's view of reality, have until now been largely neglected in literary criticism. In the first book-length study of the rhetoric of example, John Lyons situates this figure by comparing it with more frequently studied tropes such as metaphor and synecdoche, discusses meanings of the terms example and exemplum, and proposes a set of descriptive concepts for the study of example in early modern literature. Tracing its paradoxical nature back to Aristotle's Rhetoric, Lyons shows how exemplary rhetoric is caught between often competing aims of persuasive general statement and accurate representation. In French and Italian texts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries this dual task was rendered still more challenging by a transition to new sources of examples as the age of discovery brought increased emphasis on observation. The writers of this period were aware of a crisis in exemplary rhetoric, a situation in which serious questions were raised about how authors and audience would find a common ground in interpreting representative instances. Lyons's focus on the strategy of example leads to new readings of six major writers--Machiavelli, Marguerite de Navarre, Montaigne, Pascal, Descartes, and Marie de Lafayette.

Read More

Editorial Reviews

Examples, crucial links between discourse and society's view of reality, have been largely neglected in literary criticism. Lyons (French, U. of Virginia) situates this figure by comparing it with other tropes such as metaphor and synecdoche, examines its meanings, and proposes a set of descriptive concepts for the study of example. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

Product Details

Princeton University Press
Publication date:
Princeton Legacy Library Series
Product dimensions:
6.90(w) x 9.90(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt


The Rhetoric of Example in Early Modern France and Italy

By John D. Lyons


Copyright © 1989 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06782-7


Machiavelli: Example and Origin

Omnia mala exempla bonis initiis orta sunt. — Julius Caesar

Examples for Machiavelli, as for Aristotle, are occurrences that reveal a general pattern across time. They link the past to the future, and thus allow us to make decisions in the present. A major problem, however, is that classical history, the source of most of Machiavelli's examples, is surrounded by an aura not compatible with a level and dispassionate view of recurrent cause and effect. Machiavelli alludes several times to the way his contemporaries, influenced by the humanist enthusiasm for antiquity, divide time into a legendary, heroic past of exemplary, almost godlike individuals, and a fallen, ordinary present filled with limited men. To be sure, princes are still praised, but present-day humanity is always competing against a gilded view of the past. To show his reader a more satisfying and useful way of looking at history, Machiavelli must insist on a break with the respectful preservation of the past. Claiming to write a text on a new science, Machiavelli attempts to fragment the continuum of history into a new, discontinuous collection of illustrative instances.

At each step of the way, however, he must take into account the almost magical effect of certain events that classical texts themselves portray as endowed with a kind of transcendent, supernatural quality. Livy, as the principal source of examples, moves in a direction largely opposed to Machiavelli, for Livy exalts origins, the virtues of olden days, and respect for events that reveal the intervention of inexplicable forces. Machiavelli cannot ignore the powerful attraction, for both the ancient Romans and humanist moderns, of these consecrated examples, designated explicitly by the term exempla in Livy's text. Yet Machiavelli perceives that both he, as writer, and the political leader have the power to make examples, to disrupt and recast society's memory of the past.

Two initial discoveries permit the inquiries of The Prince and the Discourses. First, Machiavelli recognizes the mobility and availability (disponibilité) of the historical fact. Many readings of Machiavelli stress that his choice of examples follows the needs of the argument. He by no means subordinates his reasoning to the "facts" of history. On the contrary, the deductive or rationalistic thrust of these texts bends brief historical narrative or allusion to the needs of a specific argumentative moment. As Felix Gilbert observed, "Machiavelli used the material which experience offered in an almost arbitrary manner, and he transformed and stylized facts and events with freedom and ease." Michael McCanles similarly recognizes the noninductive and even nonreferential character of Machiavelli's writing. Second, Machiavelli accepts that others have already discovered that history can be manipulated and shaped into meaningful units or exempla. By accepting this, Machiavelli is prepared to enfold within his own rationalistic view of history the irrational itself, basis of much of historical exemplification.

This chapter will attempt to deal with the complex and overlapping issues raised by Machiavelli by organizing them into three basic problems, affecting three categories of persons: authors, historical characters, and modern political leaders. The first problem is the relationship between Machiavelli's own writing and the historical texts he uses as his basis. This problem of authorship and origins involves a curious parallel between Machiavelli, as founder of a new science, and the political leader, as founder of a new regime. These parallel acts of creation involve both the use of the past and its partial obliteration. A second issue is Machiavelli's return to examples used by actual historical characters. Some famous figures like Cesare Borgia made examples in their political acts. Such acts are often staged as impressive spectacles. Under this category of spectacle, we consider Machiavelli's truly remarkable analysis of the phenomenon of "exemplary punishment." Finally, we confront Machiavelli's somewhat despairing avowal that while example is a powerful implement in the hands of the statesman, example may in fact not be able to alter the conduct of leaders themselves. In other words, example may be condemned to be a figure always turned irremediably toward the past, as justification for what has been done, and never toward the future, as effective guide to action. Therefore, contemplation of example in history may have a purely theoretical or even aesthetic value.

Origins and Authorship

It is sometimes remembered that Machiavelli's The Prince is not a complete political theory but rather a treatise that emphasizes the challenges facing a new prince. It is less often recalled that a basic challenge to Machiavelli is that of establishing his own new writings on the practice of princely power. The contrast between new and old is fundamental to the prince's situation as it is evoked in the first chapter of The Prince: "Princedoms are either hereditary, in which case their lord's ancestors have been the ruling princes for a long time, or they are new. The latter are either totally new, as was Milan for Francesco Sforza, or they are like appendages to the hereditary state of the prince who acquires them, as is the Kingdom of Naples for the King of Spain" (P, 7/97). From this point on The Prince is concerned with the difficulties and opportunities of the prince's newness. Machiavelli also faced the problem of newness in his role as author:

Although the envious nature of men, so prompt to blame and so slow to praise, makes the discovery and introduction of any new principles and systems as dangerous almost as the exploration of unknown seas and continents, yet, animated by that desire which impels me to do what may prove for the common benefit of all, I have resolved to open a new route, which has not yet been followed by any one.

This affirmation concerns both the newness of his doctrine — the content — and Machiavelli's role as speaker. Machiavelli expects that this new route (una via, la quale, non essendo suta ancora da alcuno trita) will bring him considerable difficulties by the reaction that it will provoke among the readership. His authority, like that of the new prince, runs against the habits that make old doctrines and old principalities easy to maintain.

Both Machiavelli and the new prince must deal with that strong force identified by Machiavelli as memory, which favors historically established princes or republics. The Romans had to face this problem in Gaul, Spain, and elsewhere in places where there had been earlier princes, "as long as people continued to remember those princedoms, the Romans were always uncertain of their hold on those states; once that memory was eradicated, with the power and permanence of the empire, their hold became secure" (P, 15/133). The memory of the old among the people of a new principality is so powerful that there are really

no sure methods to keep possession of such states except devastation. Whoever becomes master of, but does not destroy, a city used to living as a free community may expect to be destroyed by it, because during an insurrection the city can always take refuge in invoking the name of freedom and its traditional institutions [gli ordini antichi suoi], which are never forgotten, whatever the course of time or whatever favors be accorded. (P, 16/139)

The prince can deal with memory in numerous ways, by toleration or by brutal extinction of the nation's cultural past. Things are not so simple, however, for Machiavelli as writer. He draws his lesson from memory itself, and the extinction of memory poses special problems. In the dedicatory letter to Lorenzo de' Medici at the beginning of The Prince, Machiavelli notes that his prize possession for offering to this ruler is "my knowledge of the deeds of great men, learned from wide experience of recent events and a constant reading of classical authors [una lunga esperienza delle cose moderne e una continua lezione delle antique]" (P, 5/93). The prince and the writer of political doctrine are therefore, it seems, opposed in their use of the past. One must attempt to eradicate the memory of the past while the other must constantly refer to it and examine it.

This opposition is more apparent than real, for both prince and writer must to some extent obliterate the past. The obvious princely destruction of the signs of the past draws our attention away from the subtle destruction that the writer must perform in his struggle for authority. In The Prince and the Discourses, one of the fundamental strategies for gaining authority is deliberate rupture and isolation at the moment of founding. Authority derives from the term author (Latin auctor) as originator or founder — Machiavelli uses the Italian word autore for those who found states and religions as well as for authoritative writers. The new prince is an originator by virtue of his newness but must overcome the people's sense of their own disrupted cultural origins. The very founding of a reign creates an apparently irresolvable tension with the other, earlier founding as transmitted to the present by cultural myth or memory. Yet a prince's problem of bringing discontinuity into a society that is committed to continuity, to its costumi antichi, is only a small part of Machiavelli's broad and almost obsessive concern for the originators of society and for the regeneration of society by a reenactment of that founding gesture. Because Rome is acknowledged both as the source or foundation of Florentine history and as the greatest example of a properly conducted republic, Romulus as founder of Rome occupies a special position in Machiavelli's work. Romulus, like Moses, is not only remarkable for things he does deliberately and consciously, but for things that have isolated him as foundling and thus created the conditions for a proper founding. Romulus and Moses, the founding foundlings, are the purest examples of authorial separation from the past, of starting anew.

The disconnection of Romulus and Moses from their own origins is a precondition of their ability to disrupt and begin states: "It was essential for Romulus not to remain in Alba, and for him to be exposed to die when he was born, so that he might become the king and founder of Rome" (P, 17/147). While in The Prince Machiavelli speaks of this necessary isolation of the founder in a context of the struggle for survival that creates virtù, the Discourses broaden the consideration of this solitude. Romulus is seen as separated not only from his paternal origin but from all others. He constituted a unique autore whose concentrated authority was unmixed, undivided, and not transmitted to heirs:

Many will perhaps consider it an evil example [di cattivo esemplo] that the founder of a civil society, as Romulus was, should first have killed his brother, and then have consented to the death of Titus Tatius, who had been elected to share the royal authority with him. ... But we must assume, as a general rule, that it never or rarely happens that a republic or monarchy is well constituted ... unless it is done by only one individual; it is even necessary that he whose mind has conceived such a constitution should be alone in carrying it into effect. (D, 94/138)

Solitude at the moment of action is joined to a rupture between the founder and his successors, for Machiavelli specifies that "The lawgiver should ... be sufficiently wise and virtuous not to leave this authority which he has assumed either to his heirs or to any one else ..." (D, 95/139). Machiavelli's idealized description of the founder of a nation thus indicates that such an autore must be deprived — at least provisionally — of a connection with the past, especially with his own family past, that he must ruthlessly isolate himself in the present, and that he must assure for the future that he has no heirs.

This invigorating isolation also appears in Machiavelli's description of early Rome's separation in space, a separation that is — like Romulus's fratricide — a cutting away. Rome destroyed the neighboring cities, says Machiavelli, to make the city of Rome itself grow larger. In this, "The Romans acted like a good husbandman who ... cuts off the first shoots a tree puts out, so that by retaining the sap and vigor in the trunk the tree may afterwards put forth more abundant branches and fruit" (D, 189/289). The simile of the good husbandman (buono cultivatore) unites a number of the negative or destructive concepts typical of Machiavelli with the positive concept of production and growth. It is probably not by chance that this husbandman does not merely prune the plant but prunes specifically the first shoots (primi rami), thus accentuating the connection of destruction to newness. Pruning, cutting away, snuffing out, killing — these are all the necessary actions of a founder of states, of gardens, and even of religions. In the Discourses the creation or imposition of a religion is linked to the "extinguishing of memory" (queste memorie de' tempi per diverse cagioni si spengono). Christianity wiped out the ancient rituals and theology (ogni memoria di quella antica teologia), but the Church failed in its attempt at total innovation by maintaining the Latin language, through which antiquity transmitted the deeds of the excellent men of that religion (D, 192/296).

The vast network of Machiavelli's comments on founders and on the importance of origins may seem at first to have little to do with Machiavelli's self-presentation as author, but a closer look shows an essential similarity. Machiavelli's work, after all, draws on historical example, and the Discourses are an explicit commentary or gloss upon the preeminent historian of Roman origins, Livy, author of Ab urbe condita. Yet Machiavelli, in The Prince and the Discourses, is not acting as historian. He is a commentator or metahistorian fascinated by the power of memory and by the struggle of founders to destroy that memory or, at least, to attenuate and control it. In announcing the newness of his own work, Machiavelli wrestles with the distinction between his text and that of others. The decisive difference is that Machiavelli is a pruner, cutting back the lush growth of history.

The introduction to the second book of the Discourses presents Machiavelli's major criticism of the effect of historiography and of the historical vision:

Men ever praise the olden time, and find fault with the present, though often without reason. They are such partisans of the past that they extol not only the times which they know only by the accounts left of them by historians, but, having grown old, they also laud all they remember to have seen in their youth. ... we never know the whole truth about the past, and very frequently writers conceal such events as would reflect disgrace upon their century, whilst they magnify and amplify those that lend lustre to it. (D, 177/271)

The problem of the past is that we do not know all about it, and what we do know is probably falsified to some extent. The problem of the present is that we do know all about it, but even then the facts are falsified by our personal prejudices and emotions:

It is very different with the affairs of the present, in which we ourselves are either actors or spectators, and of which we have a complete knowledge, nothing being concealed from us; and knowing the good together with many other things that are displeasing to us, we are forced to conclude that the present is inferior to the past, though in reality it may be much more worthy of glory and fame. (D, 177/271–72)


Excerpted from Exemplum by John D. Lyons. Copyright © 1989 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Read More

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >