Renaissance

Rhetoric and Literature

Humanism in Renaissance rhetoric was a reaction to Aristotelian scholasticism, as espoused by Francis Bacon, Averroës, and Albertus Magnus, among others. While the scholastics claimed a logical connection between word and thought, the humanists differentiated between physical utterance and intangible meditation; they gave common usage priority over sets of logical rules.

The humanists also sought to emulate classical values. Joseph Webbe wrote textbooks that taught Latin through reconstruction of the sentences of classical authors from individual phrases and clauses. Roger Ascham taught that one could learn to speak effectively by studying the speeches of ancient orators. Thomas Elyot wrote The Book Named the Governor, which suggested rules for effective statesmanship. Thomas More's most significant contribution to humanism was Utopia, a design for an ideal society based primarily on works by classical authors.

The effect of humanism on English literature was wide and far-reaching. It is evidenced, for example, in the works of Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare. The poems and plays of Jonson often center on the difference between virtue and vice; Jonson considers sincerity, honesty, self-discipline, and concern to be chief virtues, while dissimulation, lying, or masking of identity is vicious behavior. His Volpone and The Alchemist exemplify humanist values. In a play such as Shakespeare's Tempest, a main character (Prospero) embodies a full range of human abilities: father, creator, ruler, magician, master, and scholar. In addition, Shakespeare took subject matter for many plays from classical sources (e.g., Coriolanus, Troilus and Cressida, and Julius Caesar ).

In France Michel de Montaigne and François Rabelais were the most important proponents of humanist thought. Montaigne's essays are memorable for their clear statement of an individual's beliefs and their careful examination of society. In "On the Education of Children," he suggests a remaking of secondary education according to classical models; in "On Cannibals," he writes that cannibals are more civilized than others because they are removed from the dissimulation and vice of human society. Rabelais was the author of Gargantua and Pantagruel, the satirical biographies of two giants; the characters may be said to represent the humanist belief in the immensity of human capability. Guillaume Budé, Pierre de Ronsard, Guillaume Du Bartas, Joachim Du Bellay, and Jean Bodin are other major French humanist figures.

In Italy Petrarch is considered a founder of the humanist movement. His De viris illustribus, a set of heroes' lives, included both ancient heroes and such men as Adam; he also wrote a series of letters to classical figures (e.g., Cicero and Ovid). Giovanni Boccaccio, a follower of Petrarch, wrote works that include De genealogia deorum gentilium [on the genealogy of the gods of the gentiles], a collection of classical myths, and the Decameron, a book of 100 stories told by Italian courtesans taking refuge from the Black Plague. Coluccio Salutati (1331–1406) was a Florentine political administrator who wrote treatises on humanism, taught thinkers Poggio and Bruni, and accumulated a large library of ancient Greek and Roman texts.

The Renaissance Italian Leone Battista Alberti is famed for a series of dialogues in which he teaches classical virtues in a vernacular tongue. Niccolò Machiavelli wrote Il Principe [the prince], in which he memorably described the various shapes a ruler must assume in order to become an effective leader, and Discorsi [the discourses], in which he studies Livy in a search for classical values. The Book of the Courtier by Baldassare Castiglione is essentially about Castiglione himself; in it the author delineates the characteristics of a perfect gentleman.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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