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Angelo Poliziano. Lamia: Text, Translation, and Introductory Studies.

Angelo Poliziano. Lamia: Text, Translation, and Introductory Studies. Ed. by Christopher S. Celenza. Brill's Studies in Intellectual History, 189; Brill's Texts and Sources in Intellectual History, 7. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2010. xiv + 272 pp. The text at the center of this book is a praelectio, or preliminary oration, delivered in the fall of 1492 to open a course on Aristotle's Prior Analytics being taught at the Florentine university by Angelo Poliziano. The decision to teach Aristotle was a controversial one: no one challenged Poliziano's ability to handle the Greek, but his background was in literature and he held the chair in rhetoric and poetics, not philosophy. The Prior Analytics, focused on the use of syllogisms, struck some of his contemporaries as an especially inflammatory choice, and as is always the case, the backbiting soon reached his ears. To Poliziano, a member of the late fifteenth-century Florentine intellectual community who gossiped about him as he sought to expand his teaching portfolio was a sorcerer or enchantress who sucked the blood of her victims--a lamia, in Latin. To these enemies, Poliziano devotes his attention here.

The actual argument is framed between two apologies, an introductory one by the lamias and a conclusion by the wise owl. In between, in deference to the subject of his upcoming lecture course, Poliziano proposes and defends a syllogism, first outlining what an ideal philosopher looks like, then allowing that it might be worth while to be such a person, then asking why one should not claim to be a philosopher. Ironically, however, Poliziano's actual conclusion is just the opposite, that he is not a philosopher, just an interpreter. The real question revolves around what it means to be a philosopher in the first place. The root meaning of the word, of course, is 'lover of wisdom,' and Poliziano is actually asking whether those who were teaching Aristotle in the Florentine university were really questioning, looking for new evidence, and asking themselves 'why?' By framing the argument within fables, he is challenging his readers to search for wisdom in untraditional ways, and by proceeding as he did, he placed himself within the tradition of Socratic irony. In the end, Poliziano argues that the only way actually to attain wisdom is through philology, because only the philologist could examine all the evidence, be unimprisoned by disciplinary shackles, and pass dispassionate judgement on life's problems. In the end his way did not prevail, but it did dominate discussion in many circles through the eighteenth century.

The book we have here offers an admirable model of how to take a text like this and bring it back to life. The late Ari Wesseling produced an exemplary text in 1986, which forms the basis for this edition, but Celenza made minor changes in punctuation and orthography in the name of uniformity, readability, and consistency. He has also provided a fluent translation, the first into English, that conveys the meaning, tone, and style of the Latin without sacrificing readability. Poliziano assumed a lot of knowledge on the part of his readers, so Celenza provides the necessary notes, often based on Wesseling's work but with the source freely acknowledged.

As a guide to a first reading and a stimulus to further reflection, there are four lengthy essays preceding the text. The first, "Poliziano's Lamia in Context," by Celenza, provides historical background and a fairly detailed analysis of the points covered in the work. Francesco Caruso's "On the Shoulders of Grammatica: John of Salisbury's Metalogicon and Poliziano's Lamia" reminds us that pre-modern intellectual discourse usually had traceable roots, in this case in parallels between the Lamia and the works of John of Salisbury and Petrarch. In "The Role of the Philosopher in Late Quattrocento Florence: Poliziano's Lamia and the Legacy of the Pico-Barbaro Epistolary Controversy," Igor Candido traces another set of roots that go back to a discussion in the middle 1480s among Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Ermolao Barbaro, and Poliziano. Denis J.-J. Robichaud uses his "Angelo Poliziano's Lamia: Neoplatonic Commentaries and the Plotinian Dichotomy between the Philologist and the Philosopher" to show that the history of the philology--philosophy controversy is important as well: Neoplatonists from Proclus to Ficino allowed the philosopher to engage in philological commentary, but forbade the philologist to comment on philosophical texts. His, Poliziano argues, is backwards from the way things should be.

The book closes with a full bibliography and a brief, but adequate, index. In short, this is 'must reading' for anyone interested in the development of humanism in late fifteenth-century Florence, along with historians of philosophy and education. (Craig Kallendorf, Texas A&M University)
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Author:Kallendorf, Craig
Publication:Seventeenth-Century News
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2011
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