quidam etiam bona sola esse dixerunt, eisque non modo
ad bene sed etiam ad beate vivendum contentam esse
Cicero, Pro Rege Deiotaro 13.37
An undeniable connection links the strides of Renaissance Humanists and the leaps of their classical forebears. Renaissance humanism is historically impossible without the existence of classical sources, and in some ways the existence of classical sources has only continued because of the work of humanists. The two histories enjoy mutual benefits;the primary value of the classical sources, however, must be maintained. If classical literature owes a debt of continued influence to the labors of the humanists, the studia humanitatis assumed by Renaissance litterati could not have flashed with such brightness, unless the raw material of antiquity possessed inherent, cultural potential. Scholars, rulers, and artists inherited the tradition and subsequently glorified it with an intensity nearing religious conviction. Greece and Rome were always dormant powers. Renaissance humanists realized this, and upon tapping the sources, they knew their own age could not reach its apogee without the eloquence of Cicero or complexity of Plato.
Classical Studies are indispensable to the Renaissance, but the inverse is not true. The name given to the Renaissance itself makes this clear, and Pietro Bembo in a letter dated November 2, 1527 adds contemporary proof: “You should not be so parsimonious with the professors of Latin and Greek whose letters are called humane. Indeed, they are the foundation of all learning.”1 Other testaments exist.
It would be foolish to say, however, that the time period we commonly call the Renaissance would never have been without the Classics and without that intentional reintroduction of Greece and Rome’s literature back into the fixtures of life among educated men. The years would have come and gone, and the business of daily life would have carried on. Educational institutions would have taught their students, and professors would have defended their theses perhaps as passionately...all without new texts of Cicero, the reintroduction of Greek back into the universities, and without the socio-political upheaval brought on by the humanists’ goal to reaffirm the value of rhetoric in the hierarchy of worthwhile learning.
The years would have surely seen achievements in the scholarly world without the increased influence of Greece and Rome. Plato didn’t invent thinking and there was always poetry without Homer and Virgil.
But without the revival of classical sources, the literary and philosophical labors of Greece and Rome to which the Renaissance was heir would never have brought the investigation of humanity as sharply into focus as their rediscovery did. As it stands, the lacuna of lost manuscripts makes absolutely clarity an impossibility, but the exercises of humanists to find, edit, and promulgate classical sources repurposed the age's intellectual spirit and motivated the desire for learning that reaffirmied the humanitas of antiquity. Scholars like Petrarch, Bruni, Valla, and Landinus (among many) would not have been so capable at grafting humanitas onto the Quattrocento's educational trends and goals, nor at nurturing the new bud into the fruits and flowers of their own humanistic investigations and influence.
In a field of scholarship that finds itself one moment defending the definition of its historicity and at another redefining itself to encompass modern trends,2 the value and grace of humanitas that was the Renaissance humanists’ inspiration is sometimes lost. A good knowledge of the classical authors and sources helps to remind each of, as does remembering that humanists like Valla, More, Erasmus, and Vives saw themselves translating the classical ideal of humanitas into their contemporary culture and so carrying on the tradition of the docti inspired by interaction with all that the Muses stood for.3
Indeed, Cicero conceptualized humanitas and learning as a sort commercial interaction with the Muses.4 This always involved two steps: imitation and action. The accomplishments of past orators, poets, and statesmen acted both as molds shaping the minds of the humanists and as tools with which they influenced the contemporary world society. Classical sources had the benefit of being internal and external motivators. They assuaged minds anxious from daily routine, readied thought for contemplation of history, and pleased the spirit with poetry. Classical sources likewise guided Renaissance architect's hands; helped put medicine onto firmer ground, and provided emblems of behavior for princes across Europe.
So useful were they, in fact, that enemies of the newer approaches to education embodied in the studia humanitatis often found in classical sources things wicked, disgraceful, misleading, difficult, or downright useless. The trend culminated in the so-called Querelle des Anciens et Des Modernes of the 17th and 18th centuries,5 but by this time the humanist standards of education had long since gained solid footing in the universities. Before this period humanists had made immense use of the motivation of classical sources to persuade the unconvinced (e.g. the scholastics) not so much that classical languages and certain authors had their simple uses (something the scholastics believed to a degree) but that the Classics in toto provided worthwhile endeavors for students who would make a real difference in a society of their peers.
There was also no shortage of using classical motivation to disprove errors, as Valla did in flogging away the Donatio Constantini's political authority. His scholarly acumen stands as a blueprint for the razor-power available to all soundly conceived and executed classical philology.6
Besides establishing a source's history (stemmatics, selectio) and reviewing and correcting the received text (examinatio, emendatio) , many—like Vives—used classical standards as the groundwork for their own educational methodology; others, like More and Erasmus, used classical sources as both defenses against attacks from their intellectual enemies and offensive salvos to prove the value of their humanistic points of view.
Finally, a good deal of the humanists saw in the classical sources something of undeniable value to the creative impulse and poetic temperament: they saw in the poetry of Greece and Rome a greatness and variety that never smothered their own poetic flourishes and compositions; rather, ancient poetry had strung bright lights through the tangle of questions and problems about the quid humani that lead to summits poets like Petrarch, Ficino, Sannazarro, and Piccolomini hoped to scale. It makes no real difference that some succeeded more than others, as much as that the classical sources humanists repeatedly held in such high regard always proved their worth.
The range of classical sources available for the humanists were often staggering as well. There was, of course, a cadre of highly respected, often quoted authors: at first mostly in the Latin classics, e.g. Ovid, Quintilian, Vergil, and Cicero, but as time and labor brought more and more discoveries of manuscripts into circulation, Greek authors demanded more attention from humanists.
Textual discoveries eventually added many new works to the stockpile of Latin classics, often allowing humanists opportunity to roam far and wide e.g. the hermetica of Hermes Trismigestus to the epigrams of Martial. Time passed, and the humanists took suggestions from earlier writers: a recognized canon of Greek authors slowly formed. Soon, cultivation of the Greek classics would be all the rage, as the enthusiasm of More, Erasmus, and others started to influence intelligent dialogue on the European continent and beyond to England.
Much of this enthusiasm appeared in rhetoric written to prove the practical value of learning Greek. Excellent examples of this sort of writing may easily be found in works like Vives’ De Trandendis Disciplinis and More’s Letter to Oxford. The sentiment wasn’t new, only newly rediscovered. Hellenism and the joys and benefits of Greek language also fascinated Republican and Imperial Romans.7
Sometimes the enthusiasm bubbled over into the colorful world of emotional experience, as a section from Erasmus’ letter to Sir Thomas More’s daughter testifies:8
You are an elegant Latinist, Margaret, but if you would drink deeply
from the wellsprings of wisdom, apply to Greek. The Latins have only
shallow rivulets; the Greeks copious rivers running over sands of gold.
Read Plato—he wrote on marble with a diamond. But above all, read the
New Testament. ‘Tis the key of the Kingdom of Heaven.
This is a humanist’s passion for antiquity; it is emotional in its expression and thought.
So it must be currently: we must find in our classical sources a variety to suit both the applicable and the fanciful. Though the popular appeal of classical literature for study has diminished over the last two century or so, the value of classical sources still lies in the better understanding they provide us for understanding the history of contemporary thought. This is true, even without giving consideration to what the Classics add to understanding the Renaissance.
Ultimately a value rises from the Classics that the humanists of the Renaissance immediately recognized. The Classics are both practical in their social application and enlivening in their soulful pleasure. We, too, must reawaken.
Curtius, Ernst Robert. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973.
Ferguson, Wallace K. “The Renaissance: A Synthesis,” Renaissance News, Vol. 3, No. 3. (Autumn, 1950), 41-43.
Goldhill, Simon. Who Needs Greek? : Contests in the Cultural History of Hellenism. Cambridge, U.K. ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Grendler, Paul F. The Universities of the Italian Renaissance. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.
Highet, Gilbert. The Classical Tradition : Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
Kraye, Jill. The Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Humanism, Cambridge Companions to Literature. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Kristellar, Paul O. Renaissance Thought and its Sources. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.
Landauer, Carl. “Erwin Panofsky and the Renascence of the Renaissance,” Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 2. (Summer, 1994), 255-281.
Scribner, Henry S. “Cicero as a Hellenist” The Classical Journal, Vol. 16, No. 2. (Nov., 1920), pp. 81-92.
Trinkaus, Charles, “Humanism, Religion, Society: Concepts and Motivations of Some Recent Studies,” Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 4. (Winter, 1976), 676-713.
1 Quoted in Paul Grendler, The Universities of the Italian Renaissance (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), 199.
2 Excellent and brief coverage of the arguments behind the idea of a Renaissance may be found in Paul Kristellar’s introduction to Renaissance Thought and Its Sources, ed. M. Mooney (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979), 17-18. See also Wallace K. Ferguson, “The Renaissance: A Synthesis,” Renaissance News, Vol. 3, No. 3. (Autumn, 1950), 42.; Charles Trinkaus, “Humanism, Religion, Society: Concepts and Motivations of Some Recent Studies,” Renaissance Quarterly (=RQ), Vol. 29, No. 4. (Winter, 1976), 679 on the “revolt of the medievalists.”; and finally Carl Landauer, “Erwin Panofsky and the Renascence of the Renaissance,” RQ, Vol. 47, No. 2. (Summer, 1994), 258.
3 A good example of this idea of continuity between ancient and contemporary authors is Petrarch’s own eagerness after discovering the letters of Cicero at Verona in 1345 to communicate with the long dead Roman orator by composing a letter to him.
4 Cic. Tusc. Disp. 5.23.66: quis est omnium, qui modo cum Musis, id est cum humanitate et cum doctrina, habeat aliquod commercium.
5 See Gilbert Highet, The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences of Western Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 261-288.
6 Rather, once again, renewing the idea of philology as a skill locating and correcting mistakes that the Hellenistic Aristarchus pioneered in his critical work with the Homeric corpus.
7 Erich S. Gruen, Culture and National Identity in Republican Rome (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992), 269-270.
8 Quoted in Henry S. Scribner, “Cicero as a Hellenist,” The Classical Journal, Vol. 16, No. 2. (Nov., 1920), 83.