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Histoire des idees et des combats d'idees aux XIVe et XVe siecles de Ramon Lull a Thomas More.

Henri Weber. (Etudes et Essais sur la Renaissance, 13.) Paris: Honore Champion, 1997. 947 pp. FFr 720. ISBN: 2-85203-672-X.

This is a vast and wide-ranging synthesis of the European intellectual tradition during, roughly speaking, the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The study's table of contents alone covers eleven pages. Any attempt, thus, to adequately review this book in the space provided will necessarily fall short. But a summary of its major divisions and critical premises may prove useful in helping to inform and orient the book's future readers.

For Weber, intellectual history - the coming into existence of philosophical, moral, religious, artistic, scientific, and technological ideas - is per force the study of ideological currents which struggle against each other for dominance. Intellectual progress comes about through struggle and combat: "L'evolution ne peut se manifester que par le heurt des idees contraires, c'est pourquoi une veritable histoire des idees doit etre une histoires des combats d'idees" (3). And in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, it is against the nothing less than cosmic struggle of humanism and scholasticism, represented by Italy and France, respectively, that Weber groups and studies all the other ideological and cultural developments. At the forefront of this struggle was Petrarch who, among others, championed the advent of humanism and its new sense of personal morality and rhetorical eloquence as opposed to the reigning scholastic "law," proffered especially by Thomas Aquinas, and its prescriptive outline of ethics. Another major struggle taking place that was undermining the cultural monopoly of the Church was the rivalry between Dominicans and Franciscans, which eventually opened the door to a "purer understanding" and more "individualized practice" of evangelical doctrine. Thus, the principles of religion and the practice of the divine will - previously viewed as emanating from a universal logic or rational design - give way to an understanding of their ways based on individual belief or faith alone (thanks especially to the anti-scholastic contributions of Duns Scotus and William of Ockham). Again, as a result of the ever-increasing prominence and acceptance of humanism, the tradition of debate defined by the rules of logic (Artistotle) was being supplanted by the art of dialogue (Cicero, Plato, Alberti, Valla). Similarly, the rigorous demands and requirements of the new science of philology were gradually but fundamentally replacing the interpretive methods of glossed abstractions. Indeed, as Weber reminds us, the disciplines of the humanities themselves, born from the new philological pursuits, are the result of intellectual, cultural struggle and change: "ce besoin de recourir aux textes plutot qu'aux resumes, aux sommes et aux manuels, lest] a l'origine d'une nouvelle pedagogie fondee sur l'etude des textes anciens dans leur langue. C'est ce qu'on appellera les humanites qui restent, jusqu'a l'aube du XXe me siecle, le fondement de l'enseignement secondaire" (882).

Of all the intellectual developments so minutely and so carefully charted by Weber, it is the syncretic marriage of the humanist and the scholastic cultures that he is so good at analyzing. And for Weber, such a marriage we owe to Marsilio Ficino. Translator of both Plato and Plotinus, Ficino was able, thanks to his understanding of Platonism, to debunk Averroism (549-50) and to proffer an historical syncretism that greatly benefitted Christianity. As a devoted platonic Christian-Humanist, Ficino was determined to show the "truth" or rightness of the cultural alliance and progression that could be envisioned in the unity of Christianity-Platonism-Humanism: "[Ficin] se considere comme ayant recu la mission providentielle de faire revivre la 'Prisca Theologia' qui de Zoroastre Pythagore et a Platon, en passant par Hermes Trismegiste, revele les elements de ce qui va etre la religion chretienne. Il ne s'agit pas seulement pour lui d'une resurrection mais aussi d'une sorte de completement a ajouter au christianisme traditionnel... qui unit Plotin au Pseudo-Denys" (563).

Weber's Histoire des idees et des combats d'idees contains a wealth of cultural information and critical perspectives on Renaissance culture and ideology. What makes his study seem so relevant and interesting to read is Weber's recognition that cultural and intellectual history can never completely erase itself and be born anew. Struggle and change carry with them in victory the old, transformed, while concurrently making way for the new. As Weber so aptly puts it: "Il y a, dans le jeu des idees, une profusion qui parait quelquefois gratuite, une part de hasard que l'on rencontre aussi dans l'evenement et dans l'individu. Ce qui paralt nouveau ne l'est jamais tout-a-fait, ce qui semble un progres est le plus souvent encombre par les concepts memes du systeme qu'il pretend abolir. Rien n'est jamais acquis a l'homme: ce qui paraissait liberation redevient soumission, ce qui etait aspiration a la paix se change en violence" (887). In his views and conclusions on intellectual evolution and progress, Weber reflects the Renaissance ideas of Michel de Montaigne, who also arrives at these same conclusions for himself, for his own intellectual progression and that of humanity in general.

University of North Texas
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Nash, Jerry C.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1999
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