The Unrepentant Renaissance: From Petrarch to Shakespeare to Milton

The Unrepentant Renaissance: From Petrarch to Shakespeare to Milton

by Richard Strier

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Who during the Renaissance could have dissented from the values of reason and restraint, patience and humility, rejection of the worldly and the physical? These widely articulated values were part of the inherited Christian tradition and were reinforced by key elements in the Renaissance, especially the revival of Stoicism and Platonism. This book is devoted to those who did dissent from them. Richard Strier reveals that many long-recognized major texts did question the most traditional values and uncovers a Renaissance far more bumptious and affirmative than much recent scholarship has allowed. The Unrepentant Renaissance counters the prevalent view of the period as dominated by the regulation of bodies and passions, aiming to reclaim the Renaissance as an era happily churning with surprising, worldly, and self-assertive energies. Reviving the perspective of Jacob Burckhardt and Nietzsche, Strier provides fresh and uninhibited readings of texts by Petrarch, More, Shakespeare, Ignatius Loyola, Montaigne, Descartes, and Milton. Strier’s lively argument will stir debate throughout the field of Renaissance studies.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226777535
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/01/2011
Series: Unrepentant Renaissance: From Petrarch to Shakespeare to Milton
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 328
File size: 758 KB

About the Author

Richard Strier is the Frank L. Sulzberger Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of English and in the College at the University of Chicago. He has coedited several interdisciplinary essay collections and is the author of many articles and two books, Resistant Structures: Particularity, Radicalism, and Renaissance Texts, and Love Known: Theology and Experience in George Herbert’s Poetry, the latter published by the University of Chicago Press.

Read an Excerpt

The Unrepentant Renaissance

By Richard Strier

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-77751-1

Chapter One

Against the Rule of Reason: Praise of Passion from Petrarch to Luther to Shakespeare to Herbert


In Petrarch's little book on the state of learning in his time (On his own Ignorance, and that of Many Others), he explains his preference for Cicero over Aristotle. Aristotle, Petrarch concedes, defines and distinguishes the virtues and vices with great insight. Yet, Petrarch reports, "when I learn all this, I know a little bit more than I knew before, but mind and will remain the same as they were, and I myself remain the same." He then goes on to make a key distinction, one that Plato, for instance, would not make, and one that explains the centrality of rhetoric:

It is one thing to know, another to love; one thing to understand, another to will. [Aristotle] teaches what virtue is, I do not deny that; but his lesson lacks the words that sting and set afire and urge toward love of virtue and hatred of vice or, at any rate, does not have enough of such power.

Here the ethical life is conceived primarily in affective terms, and knowledge is seen as insufficient to produce affect—"What is the use of knowing what virtue is if it is not loved when it is known?" It is not the concepts alone but rather the words in which the ethical concepts are expressed "that sting and set afire and urge." The most important authors, therefore, from an ethical point of view, are those, says Petrarch, like Cicero, who "stamp and drive deep into the heart the sharpest and most ardent stings of speech" (acutissimos atque ardentissimos orationis aculeos precordiis admovent infliguntque). The violence of this imagery is intentional. Effort and violence are required to penetrate what is clearly seen as the object of ethical teaching: the heart.

This stress on the centrality of affect is crucial not only to the humanist defense of rhetoric, but also (and this is a closely related theme) to the defense of the active life, of life within rather than outside of the ordinary political and social world. Coluccio Salutati's letter to Peregrino Zambeccari (1398) appears to concede the greater sublimity, delight, and self-sufficiency of the contemplative life, but Salutati (chancellor of the Florentine republic from 1375 to 1406) insists that though the active life is "inferior," it is nonetheless "many times to be preferred." Part of the work of the letter is to blur the distinction between the kinds of life. Salutati suggests that not bodily placement but state of mind is determinative. In a certain state of mind, "the city will be to you a kind of hermitage," and paradoxically, one can be distracted and tempted in solitude (108). But Salutati's major thesis is that detachment from the world is not, in fact, a good thing, especially with regard to one's feelings. The most surprising (and passionate) section of the letter is a scathing attack on detachment.

The focus of the issue is the appropriateness of grief. Imagining (as is inevitable in the context) the would-be contemplative as a male householder, Salutati begins at the personal level, asking, "Will he be a contemplative so completely devoted to God that disaster befalling a dear one or the death of relations will not affect him?" (112). What is being imagined here, though not named as such, is the state of Stoic apathia. What ordinary folk take to be occasions for grief (or for anger) are the normal tests for the achievement of this state. In the Tusculan Disputations, the ideal Stoic is presented as receiving the news of the death of his child with the words, "I was already aware that I had begotten a mortal." Salutati's critique is not that this response is impossible, but that it is undesirable. He adds to the list of disasters that should move a person a case that transcends the personal, a case that represents the ultimate disaster for a civic humanist and republican patriot: "the destruction of his homeland." None, Salutati implies, should not be moved—to grief, and perhaps to anger—at this.

Salutati is, in fact, skeptical about the possibility of such a person. His deeper point, however, is that such a being would not be a person:

If there were such a person [unmoved by such things], and he related to other people like this, he would show himself not a man but a tree trunk, a useless piece of wood, a hard rock and obdurate stone. (112)

Human beings, for Salutati, are defined by their affections, and these affections are seen as fundamental to social life: "If there were such a person ... and he related to other people like this." Sociality and affectivity are seen as defining the human, and as inextricably linked. The Stoic sage—autonomous, unmoved, always detached—is seen as "useless" at best, and destructive at worst. Aristotle saw the person who had no need for a polis as "either a beast or a god." Salutati eliminates the second possibility.

The final point Salutati makes about such a creature is perhaps the most interesting and historically significant of all. Zambeccari, in planning to give up the cares and commitments of ordinary life and detach himself from disquieting passions, clearly sees himself as following a religious, and especially a Christian path (see his letter to Salutati quoted in Salutati's response [101]). Salutati's answer to this is his trump card. Not only would the detachment from cares and passions that Zambeccari imagines be a betrayal of the fundamental nature of his humanity, it would also not be Christian. Were Zambeccari to succeed in becoming a contemplative unmoved by any human situations, Salutati asserts that Peregrino would not thereby "imitate the mediator of God and man, who represents the highest perfection." For Salutati, imitatio Christi means precisely to be passionate and moved:

For Christ wept over Lazarus, and cried abundantly over Jerusalem, in these things, as in others, leaving us an example to follow.

Through this appeal to the figure depicted in the Gospels, Salutati sharply distinguishes the Christian from the Stoic tradition—indeed, from the entire tradition of the classical sage. In a remarkable essay, "The Paradox of Socrates," Gregory Vlastos, one of the great recent scholars of Greek moral philosophy, considers the limits of Socratic ethics. Vlastos points first to the conception of knowledge as both necessary and sufficient for moral goodness. He thinks it, on empirical grounds, not necessary for morality and, more important, not sufficient for it. Knowledge can remain inert. Here Vlastos agrees with Petrarch, who insisted that "it is better to will the good than to know the truth." But Vlastos's critique of Socrates goes further. After discussing the limits of the "virtue as knowledge" view, Vlastos moves to a more personal and more unusual critique. "I will put all my cards on the table," he says, "and say that beyond [Socrates's philosophical limitations] lay a failure of love." Vlastos argues that the trouble with Socrates is not that he didn't care about the souls of his fellows—he obviously did—but that he didn't care enough. He was, ultimately, too detached:

The care is limited and conditional. If men's souls are to be saved, they must be saved his way. And when he sees they cannot, he watches them go down the road to perdition with regret but without anguish.

To cap his point, Vlastos moves to Salutati's: "Jesus wept for Jerusalem."

In many ways, the text in which the humanist critique of Stoicism culminates is Erasmus's Praise of Folly (1511–16). Vives's treatise on the soul (1538) is probably the most sustained philosophical treatment of this view, and was immensely influential, but the Encomium Moriae is the literary masterpiece of this humanist tradition. Obviously, it is a tricky work and has several rhetorical modes. In a great deal of the text, the praise of folly is ironic, and sometimes the critique of contemporary practices (especially with regard to war and religion) does not even maintain the fiction of praise. As Folly says, sometimes she seems "to be composing a satire rather than delivering an encomium" (115). In the richest and most interesting parts of the text, however, the praise of folly is either semi- or fully serious, and it is in these moments that the text is most anti-Stoical. In arguing for her special relation to happiness and pleasure, Folly is perfectly willing to accept the central premise of Stoic ethics—"according to the Stoic definition, wisdom consists in nothing but being led by reason and, conversely, folly is defined as being swept along at the whim of emotion" (28). Folly is pleased with this definition, since it seems to cede her so much of human life (that guided by emotion). Erasmus cannot be seriously praising "being swept along," but the sense that human life would be very limited were it restricted to the nonaffective may not be entirely tongue in cheek ("in order to keep human life from being dreary and gloomy, what proportion did Jupiter establish between reason and emotion?"). The texture of the argument gets more complex when Folly moves from the defense of pastimes to more major features of social life. She notes that those who scorn pastimes insist that friendship "takes precedence over everything else" (31). She then presents the Stoic sage as incapable of lasting friendship through an incapacity to overlook faults:

[I]f it should happen that some of these severe wisemen should become friendly with each other, their friendship is hardly stable or long-lasting, because they are so sour and sharp-sighted that they detect their friends' faults with an eagle eye. (32)

Again, Folly's praise of "being well-deceived," as Jonathan Swift would later put it, is not fully serious, but it is also not fully ironized (as it is in Swift). As Erasmus presents the phenomenon, even through Dame Folly, this state is uncomfortably akin to a highly recognizable conception of charity, which, for instance, "suffereth long" and "covereth all sins."

The opposition between Stoic wisdom and social life is continued, in a mostly unserious vein, a few pages later—"Bring a wiseman to a party: he will disrupt it either by his gloomy silence or his tedious cavils" (39). But the moral status of adapting to circumstances (44) is as vexed here as it is in the companion text to Folly, More's Utopia, where the theatrically inflected and sociable philosophy of "accommodation" (philosophia civilior, quae suam novit scenam, eique sese accommodans) is both praised—by the character named More—and subject to devastating critique by the Platonist and eulogizer of Utopia, Raphael Hythlodaeus: "[Y]ou will be made a screen for the wickedness and folly of others." Folly, in Erasmus's text, says that "true prudence," as opposed to the rigidity of the sage, "recognizes human limitations and does not strive to leap beyond them." Such "prudence" is willing to overlook faults tolerantly or, and here the irony reemerges, "to share them in a friendly spirit"—exactly, in a different register, Hythlodaeus's critique. This, of course, is folly, as Folly happily concedes—as long as her philosophical opponents "will reciprocate by admitting that this is exactly what it means to perform the play of life" (44). That was "More's" point.

It is at this moment of complex irony and non-irony that the issue of emotion resurfaces. "First of all," says Folly, beginning her oration yet again, "everyone admits that emotions all belong to Folly" (45). This is why, she explains (again with complete accuracy), "the Stoics eliminate from their wiseman all emotional perturbations as if they were diseases." Folly, however, in an uncharacteristically sober moment, straightforwardly endorses the alternative Aristotelian position—"But actually the emotions not only function as guides to those who are hastening to the haven of wisdom, but also, in the whole range of virtuous action, they operate like spurs or goads, as it were, encouraging the performance of good deeds." This returns us to Petrarch's "ardent stings," the idea that emotions can be potential "spurs" to virtue. In something closer to her own voice, Folly states that she knows that "that dyed-in-the-wool Stoic, Seneca, strenuously denies this, removing all emotion whatever from his wiseman." Folly's critique joins Salutati's here. Seneca is Folly's representative (or super) Stoic, and she claims that in denying emotion to his wise man, Seneca "is left with something that cannot even be called human; he fabricates some new sort of divinity that never existed and never will ... he sets up a marble statue of a man, utterly unfeeling and quite impervious to all human emotion." Returning to the issue of normal social life, Folly then asks:

Who would not flee in horror from such a man, as he would from a monster or a ghost—a man who is completely deaf to all human sentiment ... no more moved by love or pity than a chunk of flint ... who never misses anything, never makes a mistake, who sees through everything ... never forgives anything, who is uniquely self-satisfied, who thinks he alone is rich, he alone is healthy, regal, free. (45)

This is a brilliant characterization of Stoic autonomy, capturing the Stoic practice of paradoxically redefining the normal terms of social life ("he alone is rich," etc.). It is also a devastating critique, and it is hard to see that there is much significant undercutting of Folly here.

The peroration of the Encomium is the moment of the text in which the praise of Folly is unquestionably sincere. Echoes of the Pauline praise of folly over and against the wisdom of the world are sounded (127–29), but the most lyrical and exultant section of the text is the final movement, which begins (again), "First of all, Christians essentially agree with Platonists" (133). Unlike Salutati, Erasmus is not here defending normal emotional reactions; the affection that he defends is not normal grief but, as the reference to Plato would suggest, a specialized version of love. Plato is praised for asserting that "the madness of lovers is the height of happiness" (136). Unlike Salutati, Erasmus does not connect the turn to the Bible with the critique of Stoicism, but it is clear that his vision of Christianity has affect at its center. In the polarity between Stoicism and Augustinianism in Renaissance thought, Erasmus clearly stands (with Folly) squarely in the "Augustinian" camp.


The critique of Stoicism is an important strand in the humanist tradition, especially in the civic humanist tradition, but the pull of Stoicism, of dualism, and even of asceticism, remained strong among the humanists as well. Even the Epicurean Utopians, who primarily value the mental pleasures but also, as we have seen, accept bodily pleasure gratefully, think of the celibate and ascetic among their priests as less sensible but holier (sanctiores) than the non-ascetic priests. It is only in the Reformation tradition that the attack on Stoicism and asceticism is freed from ambivalence. It is to the reformers and especially to Luther that we must turn for the most full-throated defenses of passion and of imperfection in the period. Folly's horror at the Stoic wise man is given a theological underpinning by Luther. The Reformation can be seen as an antihumanist movement—its attack on the dignity of man comes to mind—but in its sociological implications, the Reformation joined with the most robust forms of civic and Erasmian humanism in providing a positive account of ordinary human behavior and psychology in the world.


Excerpted from The Unrepentant Renaissance by Richard Strier Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Back to Burckhardt (Plus the Reformations)

PART 1    In Defense of Passion and the Body
1    Against the Rule of Reason: Praise of Passion from Petrarch to Luther to Shakespeare to Herbert
2    Against Judgment: Petrarch and Shakespeare at Sonnets
3    Against Morality: From Richard III to Antony and Cleopatra
APPENDIX 1    Shakespearean Seduction
APPENDIX 2    Morality and the Happy Infant: The Case of Macbeth
PART 2    In Defense of Worldliness
4    Sanctifying the Bourgeoisie: The Cultural Work of The Comedy of Errors
APPENDIX    Sanctifying the Aristocracy: From Ignatius Loyola to François de Sales (and then to Donne and Herbert)
PART 3    In Defense of Pride
5    Self-Revelation and Self-Satisfaction in Montaigne and Descartes
6    Milton against Humility
APPENDIX    “Lordly Command?”

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