The Dialectical Disputations is an excellent example of Lorenzo Valla (ca. 14061457) in action. Only the boldest, most original thinker could expose as a forgery a document that was vital to the papacy's place in the temporal power structure or erect a new Christian morality on, of all things, Epicurean foundations, but if Valla could do these things, why not attack Aristotle and the entire scholastic intellectual structure that dominated university life in his day? The problem as he saw it was that professional philosophers had strayed from the proper standard, which was a clear understanding of the classics as a repository of common usage in speaking and common sense in thinking. Everything one needs to know is freely available in the classical texts, but by neglecting and misinterpreting the ancient documents, especially Aristotle, the scholastics have created bizarre neologisms and habitual deviations from classical norms of speech that impede understanding, leading instead to abstruse formalisms and meaningless abstractions. What matters is not whether an argument follows some abstract rule, but whether it works, and for it to work, the speaker or writer must have control over the full range of rhetorical tools. Dialectic is important, but only when properly practiced and subordinated to oratory. As set forth in the Dialectical Disputations, Valla's method did not have much of a direct influence in his lifetime--he was asking too much, too fast, in his call for reform--but his eclecticism and pragmatism have resonated richly within the history of philosophy over the succeeding centuries.
The Parmenides in many ways has proved to be the most controversial of Plato's dialogues, since it seems to attack a crucial part of Plato's philosophy, the theory of the Ideas, and then explores a series of relationships between unity and multiplicity without offering a clear conclusion about what the exploration means. Proclus and the Neoplatonists argued that the dialogue was essentially a religious text, offering an initiation into the highest principles of the universe hidden beneath its apparent contradictions. At the end of the fifteenth century, Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) published another commentary to the Parmenides, one that is deeply indebted to Proclus but not enslaved to it. Ficino's commentary incorporated the Parmenides into his belief that a series of divinely inspired theologians transmitted an "ancient theology" from Persia, Egypt, and Greece into Christianity, with Plato sitting at the center of this tradition and Aristotle being excluded from it, a position that put him at odds with Pico della Mirandola, among others. As Vanhaelen points out in her introduction, Ficino's debt to the medieval scholastics was greater than he would want to admit, but he did stay firmly within the Neoplatonic tradition, stressing the similarities rather than the differences between Proclus and Plotinus, looking for agreement rather than contradiction between the Parmenides and the Sophist, and attempting to reconcile the content of Plato's Parmenides with Parmenides' Poem. Modern scholarship handles these points differently, but that in no way diminishes Ficino's importance within the history of philosophy.
The other two volumes under review here move from philosophy to literature. The Dialogues, by Giovanni Pontano (1429-1503), are among the most important Neo-Latin representatives of this genre. They are deeply embedded within the humanist culture of Quattrocento Naples, especially the gatherings generally described (anachronistically) as the Accademia Napoletana or Accademia Pontaniana. Charon is set in the underworld of classical mythology and scrutinizes the problems and follies of humanity, with a focus on fifteenth-century Italy. Antonius is a Menippean satire named for the recently deceased Antonio Beccadelli; in it his friends revisit favorite topics that they had enjoyed discussing with him. Each discussion is precipitated by a crisis (an impending war in Italy, Beccadelli's death), but the crisis merely provides a context for a free-flowing conversation within the Neapolitan sodality. The dialogues are set out of doors, which allows a freedom of movement reinforced by the arrival of outsiders who are not members of the group. The conversation ranges freely but comes "back again and again to certain themes, presenting them from different points of view and with different emphasis, like musical variations played in different keys and at different volumes" (xvi). Religion, poetry, and language are among these recurring themes, with the latter being particularly important as the interlocutors labor over definitions, offer puns, pounce on solecisms, and play with etymologies. This is the preeminent humanist literary game, with variatio being the principal desideratum.
One of the regular participants in these Neapolitan gatherings was the Greek emigre Michael Marullus (ca. 1453/4-1500), who shared with Pontano an interest in the poetry of Lucretius. Marullus was an accomplished poet, with the volume under review here offering a text and translation of his verse corpus. First there is a collection of 199 epigrams, which is noteworthy for both the variety of meters used in it and the range of themes found there, extending from love poems and funeral laments to a series of invectives directed in particular against Poliziano, whom Marullus hated. The other major work presented here is Marullus's Hymns to Nature, which belongs to a genre of theogonic poetry that begins with Hesiod and the Homeric Hymns and extends through Cleanthes, Callimachus, and Proclus. In these poems Marullus descends systematically through the various hierarchies of being, presenting a universe in which Lucretius is as present as Plato and the Neoplatonists. Marullus is occasionally obscure, but the strictures of Julius Caesar Scaliger are too harsh: we have here a poet who is well worth reading, whom Ronsard imitated and who appears later still in George Eliot's Romola.
As is customary in this series, each volume contains a working Latin text accompanied by a readable English translation, an introduction, brief textual notes, a substantive body of content notes adequate to allow an initial reading of the text, and a basic bibliography. This year's group offers a nice mix of literary and philosophical works, including several basic texts in the Neo-Latin corpus. As usual, I am eager to see what next year will bring. (Craig Kallendorf, Texas A&M University)
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|Title Annotation:||NEO-LATIN NEWS|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2013|
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