F**k the Haters – I Believe in the Liberal Arts!

Aldus Manutius, Preface to Joannes Crastonus’ Greek Dictionary

“I had originally designed not to publish the Greek lexica (which we can call dictionaries in Latin) from our press before I had them sufficiently abundant and correct. But I changed my mind about this when I recognized that it was difficult in the extreme, not just for me – a man burdened by family obligations and my printing business – but even for an unencumbered person thoroughly knowledgeable of both languages, as well as the liberal arts, medicine, and all of the sciences. Indeed it is proper to know all, and to interpret all of the words according to their most proper sense, but I doubt whether anyone of our own time other than a stray person here and there has achieved excellence in this matter, when Greek and Latin literature – though they are thriving more than in many previous years – nevertheless languish in some obscurity.

For, who really knows the liberal arts? Who is thoroughly learned in the most simple things which are necessary in medicine? Alas – it is a shame to say, we hardly recognize lettuce, cabbage, and the herb which shows itself even to the blind. When I think about this, even though I cannot grieve about it too vehemently, I not only refrain from giving way to my pain, but I gird myself night and day to remedy the situation while avoiding no labor, so that I may hope that it will soon come to pass that the people of our age will know all the good arts and even have some fine skill in medicine, and that each scholar will have the strength to contend with antiquity as long as they not fail themselves. If there are any haters, imbeciles, or barbarians, then let them grieve, let them criticize, let them stand in the way as much and as long as they want. But this will turn out beautifully – it will.”



The Revival of Greek in Italy

Paolo Giovio, 

Elogia Doctorum Virorum: Chrysoloras

“Emanuel Chrysoloras, who first brought Greek literature back to Italy seven hundred years after it had been driven out by various barbarian invasions, was endowed with such humanity of liberal intellect in his teaching, that his famous image seems worthy of being placed first among the images of Greeks of exceptional merit, although no monuments of his weighty learning remain except some rules on the art of grammar. He was an indefatigable teacher, but he is open to the charge of having been lazy in writing, since the other part of the glory which we have chosen was sought by his useful profession.

He was sent from Byzantium by the emperor John to seek aid for Greece, which was on the verge of collapse, by pleading with all of the kings of Europe. He completed this task with such diligent traveling that he finally stopped in Italy when Greece was liberated from fear, since Tamerlane – the terror of the East – had captured alive near Mount Stella the Ottoman sultan Bayezid I (who had received the epithet of “Lightning” from the incredible swiftness of his movements). And so Chrysoloras, delighted that Greece had been freed from such an awful enemy, first in Venice, then in Florence, Rome, and finally in Pavia, which was under the rule of Giangaleazzo Visconti, managed to excite such a zeal for Greek literature that there sprang from his school minds worthy of the highest honor which on that account will never perish. Among these were Leonardo Bruni, Francesco Barbaro, Francesco Filelfo, Guarino Veronese, and Poggio Bracciolini. Later, when the synod which was called for resolving the controversy surrounding the pseudo-pontificate roused with desire to see such a spectacle, when Baldassare Cossa was deposed. Chrysoloras died in Constance. Poggio Bracciolini decorated his tomb with these lines:

‘Here lies Manuel Chrysoloras, the ornament of the Attic tongue, who came here to seek help for his afflicted country. Italy, this was a fortunate event for you, for he restored to you the grace of the Greek language, so long hidden. This was a fortunate event for you, Emanuel, for you found on Italian soil the honor which Greece never gave you – Greece, ruined in war.'”


F**k the SuperBowl – Aristotle vs. Socrates is the Match to Witness!

Petrarch, On His Own and Many Other People’s Ignorance (IV):

If I’m not mistaken, I have read all of Aristotle’s Ethics, and I even heard some of them in lectures. But before my ignorance was uncovered for all to see, I had seemed to understand a thing or two, and even appeared more learned than a few of these guys. But I did not, as was proper, find myself become a better person. I often complained to myself and others that in reality there was no fulfillment of that promise, which Aristotle himself had professed at the beginning of his Ethics, that we learn that whole branch of philosophy not for the sake of knowledge, but so that we can become good. To be sure, I see that old Aristotle defined, distinguished, and handled the subject of virtue well, and considered what was proper to virtue and what proper to vice. Since I learned all of that, I know a little bit more than I used to; but my mind is the same, my will is the same, and I am the same.

For it is one thing to know and another to love; one thing to understand and another to will. He teaches – I don’t deny it! – what virtue is. But the goads to virtue, the torches of words by which the mind if urged and inflamed to love of virtue and hatred of vice – reading Aristotle doesn’t have any of this, or has very little of it. If you want any of that stuff, you will find it in our authors, especially in Cicero and Seneca, and (though you might think it wild) even in Horace, who might have a rough pen, but is actually pretty delightful when you look at his thought.

What good will it do to know what virtue is if it isn’t loved once recognized? What good will the understanding of sin do if it isn’t shirked when recognized? I mean goddammit, if your will is depraved, the difficulty of virtue and the licentious ease of vice can impel a lazy and nodding soul into a worse state whenever it notes them. But one shouldn’t wonder if he is a bit sparing in exciting and straightening souls to virtue, since he once called Socrates, the father of ethical philosophy, a “morality merchant,” if I may use his words. And if we can trust Cicero, Aristotle even despised Socrates, though it seems that Socrates reciprocated the sentiment.**

** [This is a little hard to credit, given that Aristotle was born fifteen years after Socrates’ death. Cicero discusses enmity between Isocrates and Aristotle, so this is just a howler from half-digested reading.]

“And finally, when Aristotle is born, tell him that I hate him!”

Omnes morales, nisi fallor, Aristotilis libros legi, quosdam etiam audivi, et antequam hec tanta detegeretur ignorantia, intelligere aliquid visus eram, doctiorque his forsitan nonnunquam, sed non — qua decuit — melior factus ad me redii, et sepe mecum et quandoque cum aliis questus sum illud rebus non impleri, quod in primo Ethicorum philosophus idem ipse prefatus est, eam scilicet philosophie partem disci, non ut sciamus, sed ut boni fiamus. Video nempe virtutem ab illo egregie diffiniri et distingui tractarique acriter, et que cuique sunt propria, seu vitio, seu virtuti. Que cum didici, scio plusculum quam sciebam; idem tamen est animus qui fuerat, voluntasque eadem, idem ego.

Aliud est enim scire atque aliud amare, aliud intelligere atque aliud velle. Docet ille, non infitior, quid est virtus; at stimulos ac verborum faces, quibus ad amorem virtutis vitiique odium mens urgetur atque incenditur, lectio illa vel non habet, vel paucissimos habet. Quos qui querit, apud nostros, precipue Ciceronem atque Anneum, inveniet, et, quod quis mirabitur, apud Flaccum, poetam quidem stilo hispidum, sed sententiis periocundum.

Quid profuerit autem nosse quid est virtus, si cognita non ametur? Ad quid peccati notitia utilis, si cognitum non horretur? Imo hercle, si voluntas prava est, potest virtutum difficultas et vitiorum illecebrosa facilitas, ubi innotuerit, in peiorem partem pigrum nutantemque animum impellere. Neque est mirari si in excitandis atque erigendis ad virtutem animis sit parcior, qui parentem philosophie huius Socratem «circa moralia negotiantem», ut verbo eius utar, irriserit, et, si quid Ciceroni credimus, contempserit; quamvis eum ille non minus.

Too Learned to Write

John Addington Symonds, The Revival of Learning:

Among the friends of Cosimo, to whose personal influence at Florence the Revival of Learning owed a vigorous impulse, Niccolo de’ Niccoli claims our earliest attention.The part he took in promoting Greek studies has been already noticed, and we have seen that his private library formed the nucleus of the Marcian collection. Of the eight hundred volumes bequeathed to his executors, the majority had been transcribed by his own hand; for he was assiduous in this labour, and plumed himself upon his skill in cursive as well as printed character. His whole fortune was expended long before his death in buying manuscripts or procuring copies from a distance. ‘If he heard of any book in Greek or Latin not to be had in Florence, he spared no cost in getting it; the number of the Latin books which Florence owes entirely to his generosity cannot be reckoned.

Great, therefore, must have been the transports of delight with which he welcomed on one occasion a manuscript containing seven tragedies of Sophocles, six of Æschylus, and the ‘Argonautica’ of Apollonius Rhodius. Nor was he only eager in collecting for his own use. He lent his books so freely that, at the moment of his death, two hundred volumes were out on loan and, when it seemed that Boccaccio’s library would perish from neglect, at his own cost he provided substantial wooden cases for it in the Convent of S. Spirito.

We must not, however, conclude that Niccolo was a mere copyist and collector. On the contrary, he made a point of collating the several MSS. of an author on whose text he was engaged, removed obvious errors, and suggested emendations, helping thus to lay the foundations of modern criticism. His judgment in matters of style was so highly valued that it was usual for scholars to submit their essays to his eyes before they ventured upon publication. Thus Leonardo Bruni sent him his ‘Life of Cicero,’ calling him ‘the censor of the Latin tongue.’ Notwithstanding his fine sense of language, Niccolo never appeared before the world of letters as an author. His enemies made the most of this reluctance, averring that he knew his own ineptitude, while his friends referred his silence to an exquisite fastidiousness of taste. It may have been that he remembered the Tacitean epigram on Galba—omnium consensu capax imperii nisi imperâsset—and applied it to himself.

Certainly his reserve, in an age noteworthy for arrogant display, has tended to confer on him distinction. The position he occupied at Florence was that of a literary dictator. All who needed his assistance and advice were received with urbanity. He threw his house open to young men of parts, engaged in disputations with the curious, and provided the ill-educated with teachers. Foreigners from all parts of Italy and Europe paid him visits: ‘the strangers who came to Florence at that time, if they missed the opportunity of seeing him at home, thought they had not been in Florence.’ The house where he lived was worthy of his refined taste and cultivated judgment; for he had formed a museum of antiquities—inscriptions, marbles, coins, vases, and engraved gems. There he not only received students and strangers, but conversed with sculptors and painters, discussing their inventions as freely as he criticised the essays of the scholars. It is probable that the classicism of Brunelleschi and Donatello, both of whom were among his intimate friends, may be due in part at least to his discourses on the manner of the ancients. Pliny, we know, was one of his favourite authors; for, having heard that a complete codex of the ‘Natural Histories’ existed at Lübeck, he left no stone unturned till it had been transferred to Florence.

Epistolary Bros & Polished Prose

John Addington Symonds, The Revival of Learning:

What Salutato accomplished for the style of public documents, Gasparino da Barzizza effected for familiar correspondence. After teaching during several years at Venice and Padua, he was summoned to Milan in 1418 by Filippo Maria Visconti, who ordered him to open a school in that capital. Gasparino made a special study of Cicero’s Letters, and caused his pupils to imitate them as closely as possible, forming in this way an art of fluent letter-writing known afterwards as the ars familiariter scribendi. Epistolography in general, considered as a branch of elegant literature, occupied all the scholars of the Renaissance, and had the advantage of establishing a link of union between learned men in different parts of Italy. We therefore recognise in Gasparino the initiator, after Petrarch, of a highly important branch of Italian culture. This, when it reached maturity, culminated in the affectations of the Ciceronian purists.

It must be understood that neither Salutato nor Gasparino attained to real polish or freedom of style. Compared even with the Latinity of Poggio, theirs is heavy and uncouth; while that of Poggio seems barbarous by the side of Poliziano’s, and Poliziano in turn yields the palm of mere correctness to Bembo. It was only by degrees that the taste of the Italians formed itself, and that facility was acquired in writing a lost language. The fact that mediæval Latin was still used in legal documents, in conversation, in the offices of the Church, and in the theological works which formed the staple of all libraries, impeded the recovery of a classic style. When the Italians had finally learned how to polish prose, it was easy to hand on the art to other nations; while to sneer at their pedantry, as Erasmus did, was no matter of great difficulty. By that time their scrupulous and anxious preoccupation with purity of phrase threatened danger to the interests of liberal learning. [p. 106, 1888 Henry Holt edition]


Hey Poindexter, You Don’t Know Sh*t!

Petrarch, On His Own Ignorance (32):

“I don’t say these things in an effort to avoid their judgment, but so that they who are ignorant may feel some shame (if they are capable of it) in making their judgment. For, on this subject, I do not just embrace the opinion of friendly jealousy, but even the judgment of hostile hatred, and in sum, if someone pronounces that I am ignorant, I agree with him! When I myself think over how many things are lacking to me, toward which my mind, eager for knowledge, exerts itself, I sadly and silently recognize my own ignorance. But in the meantime, while the end of my present exile is near, at which point this imperfection (from whence our knowledge derives) will be terminated, I am consoled by the thought of our shared nature. I think that it happens to all good and modest minds, that they learn about themselves and derive consolation therefrom. For those who get hold of great knowledge (I am speaking according to the standards of human learning), it is always small when considered in itself, but it becomes great in light of the narrow circumstances from which it is derived, and certainly looks great when compared to others. Otherwise, I ask you, how small and insignificant is the knowledge granted to one mind? Nay, how much like nothing is the knowledge of any one person, whoever they be, when it is compared not just to the knowledge of God, but to one’s own fund of ignorance?”


Non hec dico, ut declinem forum, sed ut pudeat, siquis est pudor, iudicasse qui nesciunt. Ego etenim de hac re non modo sententiam amicabilis amplector invidie, sed hostilis odii, et ad summam, quisquis ignarum me pronuntiat, mecum sentit. Nam et ego ipse recogitans quam multa michi desint ad id quo sciendi avida mens suspirat, ignorantiam meam dolens ac tacitus recognosco. Sed me interim, dum presentis exilii finis adest, quo nostra hec imperfectio terminetur, qua ex parte nunc scimus, nature communis extimatione consolor. Idque omnibus bonis ac modestis ingeniis evenire arbitror, ut agnoscant se pariter ac solentur; his etiam quibus ingens obtigit scientia — secundum humane scientie morem loquor — que in se semper exigua, pro angustiis quibus excipitur, et collata aliis ingens fit. Alioquin quantulum, queso, est, quantumcunque est, quod nosse uni ingenio datum est? Imo quam nichil est scire hominis, quisquis sit, si non dicam scientie Dei, sed sui ipsius ignorantie comparetur?

The Universality of Human Misery

Petrarch, Invective Against a Man of High Rank (33-34):

The human race lives for a few. Nay, and these few for whom the whole human race is said to live are not more frightening to the people than the people are to them. Thus, almost no one is free. Everywhere there is servitude, the prison, the noose, unless some rare person somehow dissolves the knots of the world with the aid of some heavenly virtue.

Just turn your attention wherever you’d like: no place is free of tyranny. Wherever there are no tyrants, the people tyrannize. When you seem to have escaped the iron fist of one, you fall into the tyranny of the many, unless you can show me some place ruled by a just and merciful king. If you can do that, I will move my home there and migrate with all of my luggage. Neither my love of my country, nor the charm and nobility of Italy will keep me here. I will go to India, to China, to the remotest reaches of Africa just to find this place and this king.

But the search is in vain – these things exist nowhere. Thanks to our age. Since it has made everything almost equal, it has spared us the work of trying to find somewhere better. To merchants examining grain, it is enough to take up a fistful, examine it, and judge the whole heap from that. One needn’t go skim the farthest coasts or pentrate to the remotest lands. Languages, clothing, and appearances are all different, but desires, minds, and customs are so similar wherever you go that those lines from Juvenal never seem more truly spoken:

To one who wishes to know the ways of all the human race

One house alone should do the trick.

Even when there were no people, you could still find tyrants.

Humanum paucis vivit genus; quin et hi pauci quibus humanum genus vivere dicitur, non formidolosiores populis quam populi illis sunt. Ita fere nullus est liber; undique servitus et carcer et laquei, nisi fortasse rarus aliquis rerum nodos adiuta celitus animi virtute discusserit.

Verte te quocunque terrarum libet: nullus tyrannide locus vacat; ubi enim tyranni desunt, tyrannizant populi; atque ita ubi unum evasisse videare, in multos incideris, nisi forsan iusto mitique rege regnatum locum aliquem michi ostenderis. Quod cum feceris, eo larem illico transferam, cumque omnibus sarcinulis commigrabo. Non me amor patrie, non decor ac nobilitas Italie retinebit; ibo ad Indos ac Seres et ultimos hominum Garamantes, ut hunc locum inveniam et hunc regem.

Sed frustra queritur quod nusquam est. Gratias etati nostre, que cum cunta pene paria fecerit, hunc nobis eripuit laborem. Frumenta mercantibus satis modicum pugno excipere, illud examinant, inde notitiam totius capiunt acervi. Non est opus oras ultimas rimari et terrarum abdita penetrare: lingue, habitus, vultusque alii, vota, animi, moresque adeo similes, quocunque perveneris, ut nunquam verius fuisse videatur illud Satyrici ubi ait:

Humani generis mores tibi nosse volenti,

sufficit una domus.

Renaissance Stagecoach Verse

Coleridge, Biographia Literaria  (XVI):

Not otherwise is it with the more polished poets of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, especially those of Italy. The imagery is almost always general: sun, moon, flowers, breezes, murmuring streams, warbling songsters, delicious shades, lovely damsels cruel as fair, nymphs, naiads, and goddesses, are the materials which are common to all, and which each shaped and arranged according to his judgment or fancy, little solicitous to add or to particularize. If we make an honourable exception in favour of some English poets, the thoughts too are as little novel as the images; and the fable of their narrative poems, for the most part drawn from mythology, or sources of equal notoriety, derive their chief attractions from the manner of treating them; from impassioned flow, or picturesque arrangement.

In opposition to the present age, and perhaps in as faulty an extreme, they placed the essence of poetry in the art. The excellence, at which they aimed, consisted in the exquisite polish of the diction, combined with perfect simplicity. This their prime object they attained by the avoidance of every word, which a gentleman would not use in dignified conversation, and of every word and phrase, which none but a learned man would use; by the studied position of words and phrases, so that not only each part should be melodious in itself, but contribute to the harmony of the whole, each note referring and conducting to the melody of all the foregoing and following words of the same period or stanza; and lastly with equal labour, the greater because unbetrayed, by the variation and various harmonies of their metrical movement.

Their measures, however, were not indebted for their variety to the introduction of new metres, such as have been attempted of late in the Alonzo and Imogen, and others borrowed from the German, having in their very mechanism a specific overpowering tune, to which the generous reader humours his voice and emphasis, with more indulgence to the author than attention to the meaning or quantity of the words; but which, to an ear familiar with the numerous sounds of the Greek and Roman poets, has an effect not unlike that of galloping over a paved road in a German stage-waggon without springs. On the contrary, the elder bards both of Italy and England produced a far greater as well as more charming variety by countless modifications, and subtle balances of sound in the common metres of their country. A lasting and enviable reputation awaits that man of genius, who should attempt and realize a union;—who should recall the high finish, the appropriateness, the facility, the delicate proportion, and above all, the perfusive and omnipresent grace, which have preserved, as in a shrine of precious amber, the Sparrow of Catullus, the Swallow, the Grasshopper, and all the other little loves of Anacreon; and which, with bright, though diminished glories, revisited the youth and early manhood of Christian Europe, in the vales of Arno, and the groves of Isis and of Cam; and who with these should combine the keener interest, deeper pathos, manlier reflection, and the fresher and more various imagery, which give a value and a name that will not pass away to the poets who have done honour to our own times, and to those of our immediate predecessors.

Coleridge in 1795

Sophomore Sophistry

Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson:

The truth, however, is, that he loved to display his ingenuity in argument; and therefore would sometimes in conversation maintain opinions which he was sensible were wrong, but in supporting which, his reasoning and wit would be most conspicuous. He would begin thus: ‘Why, Sir, as to the good or evil of card-playing—’ ‘Now, (said Garrick,) he is thinking which side he shall take.’ He appeared to have a pleasure in contradiction, especially when any opinion whatever was delivered with an air of confidence; so that there was hardly any topick, if not one of the great truths of Religion and Morality, that he might not have been incited to argue, either for or against.

Flavio Biondo, On the Words of Roman Speech, (I):

There is a great dispute among the learned people of our time, and a contention in which I have often been involved, whether it is the maternal and as it were, among the rude and unlettered mass in our age vulgar idiom, or by the use of grammatical art, which we call Latin, that the Romans were accustomed to employ as their established mode of speaking.

Arguments are not lacking to those who either impugn or defend one side or the other of this debate. If I were to draw them into the fray, it would become apparent on what foundations each side rests, and there will be material for this dispute so tossed before the eyes of all that any fool ignorant of the laws of speaking, or, as the Florentines are in the habit of calling him, a market-stall judge, would not hesitate to bring forth his opinion easily and ex tempore.

Which I would yet maintain must be born by the judgment of the learned and most knowledgeable in Roman things if for no other reason than so that, when you and many others, the ornaments of the age in judgment, seem to dissent in turn, I alone, in a situation where such great men either entertain contradictions or feel uncertainly, would dare to affirm it for sure.

Magna est apud doctos aetatis nostrae homines altercatio, et cui saepenumero interfuerim contentio, maternone et passim apud rudem indoctamque multitudinem aetate nostra vulgato idiomate, an grammaticae artis usu, quod latinum appellamus, instituto loquendi more Romani orare fuerint soliti.

Nec desunt argumenta utramque vel impugnantibus vel defendentibus partem; quae si in medium adduxero, qualibus utrique nitantur fundamentis apparebit; eritque omnium oculis adeo subiecta huiusce disceptationis materies, ut quilibet iurisdicundi ignarus, sive, ut dicere Florentini solent, iudex emporinus, faciliter et ex tempore sententiam ferre non dubitet.

Quam tamen et docti et rerum romanarum callentissimi iudicio vel ea ratione servaverim ferendam, ne, cum tu pluresque alii, omnium iudicio saeculi ornamenta, invicem dissentire videamini, ego unus, in quo tales viri vel contraria sentiant vel addubitent, id ausim affirmare.

Platonic Despotism

John Addington Symonds,

Renaissance in Italy: The Age of the Despots (Chp. 3)

What I have said about Italian despotism is no mere fancy picture. The actual details of Milanese history, the innumerable tragedies of Lombardy, Romagna, and the Marches of Ancona, during the ascendency of despotic families, are far more terrible than any fiction; nor would it be easy for the imagination to invent so perplexing a mixture of savage barbarism with modern refinement. Savonarola’s denunciations and Villani’s descriptions of a despot read like passages from Plato’s Republic, like the most pregnant of Aristotle’s criticisms upon tyranny. The prologue to the sixth book of Matteo Villani’s Chronicle may be cited as a fair specimen of the judgment passed by contemporary Italian thinkers upon their princes (Libro Sesto, cap. i.): ‘The crimes of despots always hinder and often neutralize the virtues of good men. Their pleasures are at variance with morality. By them the riches of their subjects are swallowed up. They are foes to men who grow in wisdom and in greatness of soul in their dominions. They diminish by their imposts the wealth of the peoples ruled by them. Their unbridled lust is never satiated, but their subjects have to suffer such outrages and insults as their fancy may from time to time suggest. But inasmuch as the violence of tyranny is manifested to all eyes by these and many other atrocities, we need not enumerate them afresh. It is enough to select one feature, strange in appearance but familiar in fact; for what can be more extraordinary than to see princes of ancient and illustrious lineage bowing to the service of despots, men of high descent and time-honored nobility frequenting their tables and accepting their bounties? Yet if we consider the end of all this, the glory of tyrants often turns to misery and ruin. Who can exaggerate their wretchedness? They know not where to place their confidence; and their courtiers are always on the lookout for the despot’s fall, gladly lending their influence and best endeavors to undo him in spite of previous servility. This does not happen to hereditary kings, because their conduct toward their subjects, as well as their good qualities and all their circumstances, are of a nature contrary to that of tyrants. Therefore the very causes which produce and fortify and augment tyrannies, conceal and nourish in themselves the sources of their overthrow and ruin. This indeed is the greatest wretchedness of tyrants.’