The European Renaissance began in the 14th century after Christ, and lasted for nearly 300 years, building up to the advent of the modern age in the 1600s. After almost a millennium since the fall of Rome, classic works written in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and even Arabic, made their way out of obscurity and the East and into the fledging academies of Europe. As its name suggests, then, the Renaissance was a rebirth of the wisdom of the ages; a reengagement with classic literature as the foundation of a complete education and a life well-lived.
In the Preface to his book The Western Canon, Harold Bloom elaborates on what makes such rebirths possible, something he refers to as “the anxiety of influence” (7). No writer works in a vacuum. “There can be no strong, canonical writing without the process of literary influence” (7). A writer therefore works from within his own literary tradition in order to become canonical himself. So for the writers of the Renaissance, their influences should not be surprising, but these are perhaps overshadowed by Renaissance writers themselves: the Greek and Latin classics, apostolic and patristic writings, and the commentaries and scholarly works of their medieval predecessors.
Though we’ve written more extensively about this phenomenon elsewhere, and noted its place in the work of Chaucer, here we will briefly examine its role in the writings of four other Renaissance writers: Michel de Montaigne, John Donne, Francois Rabelais, and Niccoló Machiavelli.
We begin our survey with Montaigne. For the primary influence on which Montaigne’s thought and work relies, one may look to his Latin sources (especially Cicero and Virgil). Though he is also frequently refers to Dante and others, it is the Latin thinkers that form the core of both his reading and his writing. One example of this tendency is seen in his essay, “On the Education of Children.” Here, Montaigne seeks to instruct a personal friend on the form and function of the ideal education, complete with notes on methodology and the proper balance between reading, writing, and experience. One of the particular goals of such an education is to fashion a student who knows not only how and what to think, but how to express these things to others. He writes:
I personally believe – and with Socrates it is axiomatic – that anyone who has a clear and vivid idea in his mind will express it, either in rough language, or by gestures if he is dumb: [‘When the matter is ready the words will follow freely’ (Horace)] And as another author said just as poetically in prose, ‘When things have seized the mind, the words come of themselves’ [Seneca]. And yet another, ‘The subject itself seizes on the words’ [Cicero].” (Montaigne I.26, bracketed portions provided in the editor’s footnote)
To Montaigne, then, communication is the highest measure of understanding; if a student cannot express to you what he has learned, you have obviously not done a very good job teaching him, nor has he succeeded in learning his lesson.
Note also, however, the writer’s passing reference to Socrates (whose thought survives only through the writings of his students, especially Plato) alongside his more full corroboration from Latin: Horace, Seneca and Cicero. Only Virgil, his other perennial favorite is missing from our brief sample. In using these sources, Montaigne employs all the rules of literary thought. He understands literally what his sources are saying, he understands what these words meant in their literary, historical, and social setting, and he employs their words to shed light on similar circumstances in his own writings, in this case, on a child’s education.
Similarly, John Donne immersed himself in the great works of the past, often combining the classic themes of religious faith and romantic love. In his poem, “The Good Morrow,” Donne employs the use of hyperbole to relate the passionate power of love on the life of the beloved:
I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
To Donne, his relationship with his beloved has not merely become a microcosm of his life, it has become his life itself, replacing any other semblance of existence with a higher and indeed more spiritual one.
The depth of this spirituality is captured in part by the image cast in the fourth line: “Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?”. The line refers to an old Christian legend in which seven young men from the city of Ephesus fall asleep only to awake nearly two hundred years later to a continent almost entirely under the influence of patristic Christianity. So widely was the tale known, that Muhammad, in writing the Koran, included the account as an example of piety and faith. Donne, however, adapts the tale for his own purposes. Rather than recounting the details of the story, he expects his readers to understand the reference and the affective power inherent to the tale itself. Just as the Seven Sleepers lived for centuries in blissful ignorance of the triumphant happiness awaiting them, he and his beloved have existed in a mere dream, knowing neither life nor love. At their meeting, they awake to discover not only each other but also themselves, transcending their consciousness of the present and encompassing their memories in the clouds of the past. Donne therefore employs the event to evoke the dual image of ephemeral ignorance and enlightening joy.
Rabelais, however, cites the classics most prolifically, with far greater transparency, and usually to a humorous end. In his novel Gargantua, he parodies the Scholastic education of medieval Europe and puts forth his own model in comical form. He begins by recounting the noble lineage and strange birth of the title character (who, by the end of the work, becomes his ideal student) and in doing so broaches a series of interesting subjects that demonstrate both the depth and breadth of his prior reading. In his discussion of the proper term for pregnancies (which according to his sources could extend up to eleven months, counting inclusively), he mentions in passing Hippocrates, Pliny, Plautus, Marcus Varro, Censorinus, Aristotle, Aulus Gellius, Servius and (later on) Macrobius, as well as a number of legal works on the subject (Rabelais III).
The classics, however, are only the beginning for Rabelais. Though he is clearly well-read in both Greek and Latin, he often prefers the more contemporary works of the humanist Erasmus, as well as the Bible itself. The Erasmian influence is seen immediately in the author’s prologue and is alluded to throughout the work. The best example of both may be found in the sixth chapter of Gargantua. Note the subtle, and even comical understanding Rabelais demonstrates in his work, as elucidated by our translator:
Rabelais, recalling the old notion that the Virgin both conceived and delivered her Babe, the Word of God, through the ear, combines a medical romp with a comic sermon, both Erasmian and Lutheran. For the Sorbonnistes faith is the argumentum non apparentium (Hebrews 11:1), Latin which French-speakers may ignorantly take to mean an ‘argument of no apparency’. For them faith is believing something unlikely! Why then believe in the Nativity of Jesus yet not the nativity of Gargantua? Erasmus had shown that faith is not credulity. Faith, in the Greek original of Hebrews 11:1, is trust, trust in ‘the evidence of things unseen’ (in God and his promises). Mary did not at first trust the angel Gabriel: ‘How can these things be?’ Told of the conception of Elizabeth with its echoes of Sarah’s conception of Isaac, she was reminded from Luke 1:37, echoing Genesis 8. That is the punch-line of this chapter, which remains joyful from start to finish. The texts amusingly cited from Proverbs 14 and 1 Corinthians 13 to defend credulity mean very different things in context. (Rabelais 224)
Rabelais therefore satirizes Scripture by taking the literalistic approach to interpretation that is best suited for his satire. This allows him to play on words in a way that in any other context would be called sophistry or even blasphemy, but here is merely part of his general purpose to laugh and lead others to do the same. Compared to the previous two authors, Rabelais uses his sources quite differently indeed. Whereas both Montaigne and Donne interpret their sources in context in order to determine the intended meaning of the author, then make application for their own situations, Rabelais wrests passages from the Bible in a manner that can only be considered comical. His goal is as much to shock as it is to enlighten.
Machiavelli is also unique in his use of sources for The Prince. Of all the writers discussed here, he is most wary of the influence great writers and thinkers of the past have had on him (a textbook example of Bloom’s “anxiety of influence”). He does, however, make frequent use of contemporary examples from his own time, as well as classical and even biblical sources when they are needed to more adequately support his point. During one such discussion on the necessity of maintaining armies, he builds upon the familiar geopolitical examples of Europe, and then supports his conclusions by referring to Polybius and the Hebrew book of First Samuel.
Though I don’t want to stop using Italian examples which are fresh in mind, I cannot omit Hiero of Syracuse, whom I mentioned earlier. When the Syracusans made this man head of their armies, as I said before, he recognized at once that mercenary soldiers were useless, being formed on the same pattern as our Italian condottieri; and since he couldn’t safely keep them, nor yet let them go, he had them cut to bits, and after that he made war with his own armies, not with those of other people. I’d like also to call to mind a parable from the Old Testament which bears on the point. When David volunteered before Saul to fight with Goliath the Philistine challenger, Saul, to give the young man courage, offered him his own royal armor. But David, after trying it on, refused, saying he could never do himself justice in that armor. He preferred to meet the enemy armed simply with his own sling and a knife. In a word, other men’s armor will either slip off your back, or weigh down, or constrict your actions. (Machiavelli XIII; see Polybius 1.7-9 & 1Sa 17:38-39)
The stated reason for his choice of sources seems evident from the beginning of our selection. After all, why use examples with which your audience is not familiar? Certainly, most popular writers use as their material the common knowledge of those to whom they write. Machiavelli, however, takes this general theory and carries it one step further, placing the classics in the background and building his case using, as he says in his dedication, “everything I have learned over many years and come to understand through many trials and troubles.”
This reasoning, however, does not fully explain Machiavelli’s relative silence on the classics. Certainly his readers (particularly the Medici) would have been familiar enough with these sources, and Machiavelli is no populist. The better explanation, then, is that Machiavelli is trying to fashion a break with the classics, at least on the point of practical political treatises. Note his comments at the beginning of his fifteenth chapter:
It remains now to be seen what style and principles a prince ought to adopt in dealing with his subjects and friends. I know the subject has been treated frequently before, and I fear people will think me rash for trying to do so again, especially since I intend to differ in this discussion from what others have said. But since I intend to write something useful to an understanding reader, it seemed better to go after the real truth of the matter than to repeat what people have imagined. A great many men have imagined states and princedoms such as nobody ever saw or knew in the real world, and there’s such a difference between the way we really live and the way we ought to live that the man who neglects the real to study the ideal will learn how to accomplish his ruin, not his salvation. (Machiavelli XV)
With this statement, we gain a clear grasp of Machiavelli’s chief criticism of the Greek and Latin classics: what they say is simply not realistic. Classical politics, built as it is on imaginary commonwealths, is simply too out-dated to be of use to the modern statesman. Instead, real value is to be taken not from philosophy but from history, to determine how to endure in power here and now, and not in some Platonic fantasy. Machiavelli therefore relies primarily on recent historical accounts and his own personal experience as a diplomat to educate the prospective or reigning prince, as opposed to the great ideas of the past.
Since their own generations, each of these writers has made his way indelibly into the libraries and minds of Western readers. They have successfully navigated the bounds of the Canon, reading it deeply, holding on to some sources, and at times rejecting others wholesale. Montaigne relied on his Latinists, Rabelais preferred the comic relief of early humanism, Donne sought to reconcile the spiritual and the carnal, and Machiavelli tried his very best to pretend he had never read anyone. All, however, worked from within the great tradition of Western thought, struggling with that “anxiety of influence” to earn a place in it for themselves.