Printer Friendly

Praising the past: novelty and nostalgia in Machiavelli, Castiglione, and Montaigne.

One of the commonplaces that the Renaissance inherited from antiquity was the idea, usually formulated as a complaint, that humans have a natural tendency to praise the past and blame the present. This topos raises some interesting questions about the historical consciousness of the Renaissance since those who cite the topos ordinarily intend to vindicate the autonomy of the present even though the tendency they decry is taken to be intemporal and thus to link the past and the present in an undifferentiated extension of time. Moreover, the very antiquity of the theme complicates the distinction of past and present by endowing the past with its own internal division of past and present. Given the longevity of this topos, we can infer that the Ancients had their own cult of antiquity, which provoked the same blend of enthusiasm and impatience that Renaissance writers experienced as they looked back to the past. This retrospective regression is an important feature of the self-identity of Renaissance humanists, who in some respects distinguished themselves from their ancient models by finding new ways to motivate the topos of praising the past. This paper proposes to examine how the classical commonplace of praising the past was variously appropriated and transformed by three prominent European prose writers of the sixteenth century" Niccolo Machiavelli, Baldassar Castiglione, and Michel de Montaigne.

The choice of these three authors is neither exhaustive nor inevitable. They participate in a much larger dialogue of European vernacular and neo-Latin writers who respond to a well-established classical topos. Together, they do not represent any coherent movement or fashion in the large domain of Renaissance historical thought, a domain that has been keenly assessed by a host of eminent specialists. (1) The internal coherence of this grouping of three is partially motivated by the reading habits of Montaigne, who certainly knew the work of Machiavelli and Castiglione and responded with great interest but little empathy to both of them. However, the present study is not intended to confirm Montaigne's role as a reader of Machiavelli and Castiglione. (2) Rather, it means to document what might be called the creativity of a commonplace. Among them, our three authors discover a surprisingly flexible range of meanings in the apparently simple and common impulse to resent the prestige of the past. They also recuperate certain common intertexts from classical literature that merit a preliminary inspection.

We can find the topos of praising the past in an impressive array of classical authors, usually those who championed a new aesthetic movement or simply those who resented the conservatism of their contemporaries. In this respect, the most characteristic uses can be found in the Latin poet Horace, who frequently deplores the conservative tastes of his compatriots. Horace can be said to have named this venerable topos in the Ars poetica when he refers to the comic figure of the "laudator temporis acti se puero," or the old man who praises the time of his youth (173-74). He develops and expands this theme of temporal prejudice in his verse epistle to Emperor Augustus, where he dissects the typical Roman intolerance of novelty. Here the poet complains that the only new thing that the Roman people admire is their emperor, for otherwise they cannot abide anything that is not remote from them in time or place (Epistles 2.1.18-22). Here, the target of satire is not the nostalgic old man of the Ars poetica but the reading public itself, described as a partisan of the Ancients, or "fautor veterum" (2.1.23), who measures quality by age, "virtutem aestimat annis" (2.1.48), and oppresses modern authors with his envy: "Nos nostraque lividus odit" (2.1.89). If it is true that the best works of the Greeks are their earliest, the same is not true of the Romans (2.1.28-30), who improved considerably once they learned to imitate the Greeks (2.1.156-67). In this way, Horace opens up the possibility of progress in literary history, especially imitative progress, which is the type of composite ideal--looking both backward in veneration and forward in anticipation--that will appeal to the Renaissance.

While Horace is concerned with literary precedence and the evolution of taste, the ancient historians devoted their attention to the historiographic problem of praising the past. Thucydides inaugurates his history with the claim that the Peloponnesian War was the greatest event in Greek history (1.1.2), more worthy of memory than any that came before it (1.1.1). And though he recognizes the limits to our knowledge of the past, he is nevertheless convinced that those who lived before his time achieved nothing great in war or otherwise (1.1.3). In fact, he betrays some impatience toward those who would contest the preeminence of the present: "As for this present war, even though people are apt to think that the war in which they are fighting is the greatest of all wars and, when it is over, to relapse again into their admiration of the past, nevertheless, if one looks at the facts themselves, one will see that this was the greatest war of all" (1.21.2). (3) Here, Thucydides singles out two forms of temporal bias, the subjective preoccupation with one's own immediate experience and the overriding impulse to admire the past, both of which inhibit a just appreciation of the new. Elsewhere, Thucydides has Pericles admonish the audience of his famous epitaphios, or funeral oration, that they will have difficulty matching the reputation of their fallen brothers, since people are naturally inclined to envy the living and honor the dead (2.45.1). Machiavelli retains this lesson when he takes up the topic of praising the past in his Discorsi.

And yet, for all his preliminary insistence on the superiority of the present, Thucydides is equally known for his belief in the constancy of human nature and the recurrence of human events, two themes that tend to neutralize the priority of the present and even to relativize any distinction between new and old. The locus classicus of this belief is the passage where the author declares that he will be satisfied if his work is ludged useful by those who want to have a clear understanding of what has happened in the past and what will happen again in the future in the same or a similar way according to the regularity of human affairs (1.22.4). (4) This notion of recurrence qualifies all the superlatives used to describe the Peloponnesian War, for recurrent events cannot be unprecedented. Why should we give priority to the present if we recognize recurrence? Indeed, why prefer either past or present? This relativism, implicit in Thucydides's logic, becomes explicit in Montaigne's essays.

The ancient historian who gives the most lapidary expression to the topos of praising the past is Velleius Paterculus, who compresses the history of the world into the narrow confines of his Historiarum libri duo. Near the end of the second book, which culminates in a panegyric to emperor Tiberius, the author pauses to praise Gaius Sentius Saturninus, consul in 19 BC, who governed "vetere consulum more" (2.92.2). So scrupulous was his administration that Paterculus would judge his achievement comparable to the glory of the consuls of old, were it not for that natural tendency to prefer the past to the present: "nisi quod naturaliter audita visis laudamus libentius et praesentia invidia, praeterita veneratione prosequimur" (2.92.5). While the phrase is well turned, its logic is less than perspicuous since, in fact, Velleius is rarely deterred from praising the present, whether in the figure of his near contemporary Sentius, or in his own career as a soldier and a magistrate in the service of Tiberius. Thus, the topos that he so tersely recorded seems to have had no impact on his own historiographic practice.

A far more compelling use of our topos can be round in the works of the historian Cornelius Tacitus, who wrote at the very beginning of the second century AD, some seventy years after Velleius. (5) Book 2 of the Annals ends with an encomium of Rome's great adversary Arminius, liberator of Germany, whose deeds are rarely recorded by Greek and Roman historians, Tacitus regrets, because the Greeks admire only themselves and the Romans admire only the past: "Graecorum annalibus ignotus, qui sua tantum mirantur, Romanis haud perinde celebris, dum vetera extollimus recentium incuriosi" (2.88). Tacitus had already evoked the Roman incuriosity or indifference to recent history in his first work, the Agricola, whose preface constitutes an elaborate and unconventional inquiry into our ambivalence toward the present. Even our own age, he allows, observes the ancient custom of recording the deeds of great men for posterity, even though it is an age incurious of its own, "quamquam incuriosa suorum aetas" (1.1). This phrase seems to echo the commonplace notion that people praise the past and disdain or neglect the present. However, Tacitus appears to endorse rather than contest this preference when he explains that in past ages, "apud priores," people had more appreciation for virtue because they were more virtuous, whereas the new rimes are hostile to virtue (and presumably do not deserve to be praised) (1.2). "Tam saeva et infesta virtutibus tempora" is how he refers to his own times (1.4). Yet he further complicates the distinction of past and present when he remarks that under the Republic, Rome enjoyed liberty, while under the Emperors, especially Domitian, there was only servitude (2.3). But now a new era has dawned under Nerva and Trajan that he halls as a "beatissimum saeculum" (3.1). So in effect, Tacitus does praise the present and thereby contradicts his own commonplace. He professes a utopian enthusiasm for a new age that has eclipsed a period of decline and renewed an idealized past in a scheme that ought to be familiar to students of the Renaissance.

For a final instance of our topos in antiquity, and the most important for Renaissance readers, we can turn to another work by Tacitus, his Dialogue of the Orators, and to the role of Marcus Aper within that dialogue. Marcus Aper is a novus homo, or representative, of a new social group and a fervent partisan of the new rhetoric, making him the odd man out, if not simply the villain, of a dialogue devoted to exploring the causes of the decline of Roman eloquence. Aper advances a sort of aesthetic relativism often appropriated by the eclectic humanists of the Renaissance when he declares that "what is different is not worse," and it falls on him to cite the venerable topos: "vitio autem malignitatis humanae vetera semper in laude, praesentia in fastidio esse" (18.3). This is certainly one of the most powerful expressions of our saying in any era. Aper, as a new man who voices an old resentment of the inveterate intolerance of the new, was destined to have a long career among Renaissance writers who were impatient of their indebtedness to the past.

The tradition outlined here assumed a renewed prominence in the sixteenth century, when most of the texts mentioned so far first became available in print. Tacitus's opuscula were rediscovered in 1425, but the first ten books of the Annals did not resurface until the beginning of the sixteenth century and were first printed in 1515. Velleius Paterculus survived in one manuscript, which was rediscovered in 1515 and printed in 1520, while Aldus Manutius came out with the editio princeps of Thucydides in 1502. Lorenzo Valla completed his Latin translation of Thucydides by 1452, and it was first printed in Venice in 1485 while circulating widely in manuscript in late fifteenth-century Italy. (6) In the sixteenth century Philip Melanchthon and others translated the speeches in Thucydides from Greek into Latin, and Henri Estienne published a magnificent bilingual Greek-Latin edition of Thucydides in Geneva in 1564, with subsequent editions in 1588 and 1594. Horace, of course, was available more or less continuously from antiquity to the Renaissance and beyond.

We can begin the modern genealogy of our topos with Machiavelli's Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio, written and revised during the course of the second decade of the sixteenth century. Book 2 of the Discorsi begins with the begrudging admission that people do indeed praise the past and blame the present: "Laudano sempre gli uomini, ma non sempre ragionevolmente, gli antichi tempi, e gli presenti accusano" (295). (7) Machiavelli makes this remark as something of a concession because he himself intends to praise the ancient Romans and blame the modern Italians; but first he wants to examine the psychological motives that may induce people to prefer past to present, and he wonders whether his own judgment may be corrupted when he too espouses such a preference. (8) Two factors that may account for the idealization of antiquity are simply our ignorance of the past and its defects and our envy of the present and its accomplishments:
   E la prima credo sia che delle cose antiche non s'intenda al tutto
   la veritA, e che di quelle il piu delle volte si nasconda quelle
   cose che recherebbono a quelli tempi infamia. [...] Oltra di
   questo, odiando gli uomini le cose o per timore o per invidia,
   vengono ad essere spente due potentissime cagioni dell'odio nelle
   cose passate, non ti potendo quelle offendere, e non ti dando
   cagione d'invidiarle. (295-96)


Yet despite recognizing this powerful source of bias, Machiavelli is not willing to dismiss admiration for the past as a mere "inganno," or deceit (301), and so he turns to a quasi-scientific or naturalistic explanation of human affairs that occupies an important place in his project to revive ancient Roman statecraft in Italy.

The avowed goal of the Discorsi is to encourage modern Italians to imitate ancient Romans and thus to contribute to a revival of ancient virtu. This project emerges fully in the proemio to book 1 of the Discorsi, where the author bemoans that, of all the modern disciplines, politics alone neglects to imitate antiquity and thereby squanders the lessons of history. Whereas the Moderns are eager to imitate ancient art, medicine, and law, they are unaccountably unwilling to imitate ancient statecraft; and though they enjoy reading the ancient historians, they never think to assimilate their lessons, as if the past were irretrievable: "come se il cielo, il sole, li elementi, l'uomini, fussino variati di moti, d'ordine e di potenza da quelli che gli erono antiquamente" (7). This phrase has a strong resonance of astrological naturalism, but Machiavelli's main theme is the invariance of human nature. He echoes this theme at the end of chapter 11 of book 1 when he insists that what has been accomplished before can be accomplished again: "Non sia pertanto nessuno che si sbigottisca di non potere conseguire quel che e stato conseguito da altrui: perche gli uomini, come nella prefazione nostra si disse, nacquero, vissero e morirono sempre con uno medesimo ordine" (82-83). The constancy of human nature through the ages and the consequent uniformity of history ought to make possible the reenactment of Roman virtue in the modern world. This is the "utilita" that Machiavelli promises his readers (8): the ability to imitate the Romans and to apply the lessons of Roman history to Italian politics.

The weakness of Machiavelli's theory of imitation, as criticism has recognized, is that it presupposes both the continuity and the discontinuity, or the likeness and unlikeness of past and present. (9) In the proemio to his first book, Machiavelli urges his readers to believe in the possibility of imitation on the basis of the invariance of human nature. Or, in practical terms, Florence can imitate Rome since the Florentines are really like the ancient Romans. But of course, if they were already like the Romans, they would not need to imitate them. They need to imitate them precisely because they are unlike them. Thus, in order for imitation to be possible, it must be unnecessary; and in order to be necessary, it must be impossible (Sasso 593). This dilemma may explain Machiavelli's ambivalence toward the topos of praising the past and blaming the present, whose necessary corollary is the irremediable difference between past and present, which in turn jeopardizes the theory of imitation. Machiavelli tries to rectify this flaw in his theory in the proemio of book 2, where he advances what might be called the law of the conservation of virtu. The world has always been the same, he insists, and the ethical balance of good and evil remains the same in every era: "Giudico il mondo sempre essere stato ad uno medesimo modo, e in quello essere stato tanto di buono quanto di cattivo" (297). However, good and bad are distributed differently in different epochs as virtu migrates or disperses into different provinces or nations. Italy has experienced such a steep decline since the time of the Roman Republic, he concludes, that Italians have, as it were, a national obligation to praise the past and blame the present: "Ma chi nasce in Italia e in Grecia, e non sia diventato o in Italia oltramontano o in Grecia turco, ha ragione di biasimare i tempi suoi e laudare gli altri" (299). In this way, Machiavelli is one of the very few Renaissance authors to cite the retrospective tendency approvingly and to give it the sort of political motivation that it had in Tacitus's work.

It is important to acknowledge that in Machiavelli's thinking, virtue and vice do not coexist in the same time and place. In Italy, the past was virtuous and the present is vicious: "E veramente, se la virtu che allora regnava, e el vizio che ora regna, non fussero piu chiare che il sole [...]" (301). In effect, Machiavelli does not believe in the Renaissance. There may have been a renaissance of sculpture or jurisprudence, but there has been no renaissance of virtu. And it is not clear whether any human effort can bring one about, given the fatalistic appeal to natural cycles of rise and decline in the Discorsi. Another idea to remember from the proemio to book 2 is the phrase cited above, that you would have to become a Turk in Greece or an "oltramontano" in Italy to praise the present. While "oltramontano" is usually taken to refer to the Spaniards or Frenchmen occupying parts of Italy, it can just as well apply to their collaborators, who have become oltramontani, or, from a nationalistic perspective, traitors. In this sense Machiavelli's remark is strangely pertinent to his slightly younger contemporary Baldassar Castiglione, who served as papal nuncio to the court of Charles V in Spain under Pope Clement VII.

While Machiavelli was composing the Discorsi, Castiglione was at work on his own masterpiece, Il libro del Cortegiano, which reveals a strong tension between the authority of the past and the autonomy of the present. The Courtier records in dialogue forma discussion that is supposed to have taken place at the court of Guidobaldo da Montefeltro Duke of Urbino in March 1507, but the work was not published until 1528, after going through several manuscript revisions. Because of this lapse of time and the intervening calamities between 1507 and 1528, the work is traversed by a powerful current of nostalgia that is most evident in the dedicatory epistle to Bishop de Silva and in the opening chapters of books 3 and 4. Yet the dialogue also expresses a vivid sense of the present and a defiant allegiance to the prerogatives of a new generation, especially in the opening chapters of book 2. Book 1, devoted to linguistic issues, stages its own quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns.

In book 1, Count Lodovico da Canossa is chosen to describe the perfect courtier, and he identifies the essence of courtiership as "la grazia." The secret to grazia, in turn, is to avoid affectation in all forms of comportment, including speech: "Sara adunque il nostro cortegiano stimato eccellente ed in ogni cosa avera grazia, massimamente nel parlare, se fuggira l'affettazione" (129). (10) This naturally raises the question of the best style of speech or the so-called questione della lingua. The Count insists that the courtier should abide by present usage and not conform to the archaizing precept, advocated by Pietro Bembo in his Prose della volgar lingua of 1525 and here defended by the speaker Federigo Fregoso, according to which Italians should imitate Boccaccio in prose and Petrarch in verse. Thus to Bembo's vernacular classicism, Castiglione opposes his endorsement of current usage, supporting his argument with liberal citation of classical authors. Chapter 37 of the first book frames the question in terms that irresistibly recall Tacitus's Dialogue of the Orators and in particular the intervention of Marcus Aper. Thus in I, 37, the Count appeals to the principle of relativism against the doctrine of imitation. The imitation of exclusive models is not necessary, because different styles can have equal success, as we see in music, painting, and literature: "E di questo niuno e che si debba maravigliare, perche quasi sempre per diverse vie si po tendere alla sommita d'ogni eccellenza" (147). Moreover, each age has its own style of eloquence, and no model should prevail beyond its own era: "Gli oratori ancor hanno avuto sempre tanta diversita tra se, che quasi ogni eta ha produtto ed apprezzato una sorte d'oratori peculiar di quel tempo" (148). Of the ancient poets, he says, "Molti [...] diversi nello scrivere, sono pari nella laude" (148). This seems to echo Marcus Aper's conviction that "non esse unum eloquentiae vultum [...] nec statim deterius esse quod diversum est" (18.3), with which he introduces the saying "vetera semper in laude praesentia in fastidio esse." For the Count, as for Marcus Aper, relativism is the easiest avenue to praise the present in the face of classicizing opposition.

In this way the author of the dialogue and his persona set themselves up against the inveterate tendency to praise the past and blame the present. And yet the Count himself indulges in this same tendency on occasion. Thus in chapter 52 of book 1, he desires the courtier to have knowledge of painting because such knowledge is honorable and useful and above all appreciated by the Ancients: "Essendo onesta ed utile ed apprezzata in que' tempi che gli omini erano di molto maggior valore, che ora non sono" (179). This is a strange though not isolated instance of praising the past and blaming the present in Castiglione's dialogue whereby he maintains a tension between criticism and celebration of his own society. (11)

The balance turns decisively toward celebration in the preliminary chapters of book 2, which offer a ringing encomium of the present. (12) Here the narrator remarks with a mixture of amazement and disgust that the elderly, or "i vecchi," always praise the past and blame the present: "Quasi tutti laudano i tempi passati e biasmano i presenti" (187). This opening seems to suggest an affinity with the proemio to book 2 of the Discorsi, but in fact, Machiavelli and Castiglione have quite different motivations. (13) Whereas Machiavelli concludes that Italians do well to exalt the past over the present and regrets only that they do not do so more strenuously, Castiglione considers this attitude simply "un errore," which he accounts for with a fairly subtle psychological explanation. The vecchi are like those on board a ship leaving the harbor who think that the coastline is receding when it is their own vantage point that is moving. (14) Similarly, Castiglione suggests, the vecchi think that times are changing for the worse when it is they themselves who are changing and declining. Since there is no cure for decrepitude, he prescribes a loss of memory so that as the elderly lose the experience of pleasure, they may also lose the memory of pleasure that corrupts their judgment of the present (189).

To the petulant nostalgia of his seniors, Castiglione opposes an unshakable faith in the new, especially the new class of courtiers depicted in the dialogue. Naturally, the vecchi prefer the courts of their own youth and regard the present generation of courtiers as paragons of vice: "E per lo contrario dicono in questi tempi esser tutto l'opposito; e che non solamente tra i cortegiani e perduto quell'amor fraterno e quel viver costumato, ma che nelle corti non regnano altro che invidie e malivolenzie, mali costumi e dissolutissima vita in ogni sorte di vicii" (191). Castiglione does not deny the accusation. Rather, he converts it into an encomium. For, in his estimation, the renaissance of vice argues for a renaissance of virtue, and the present is superior to the past precisely because it has a greater capacity for both good and evil. As he phrases it, the present generation of courtiers surpasses its predecessors by virtue of superior ingegno, which must be understood as a morally neutral faculty: "[E] pero producendo adesso la natura molto miglior ingegni che non facea allora, si come quelli che si voltano al bene fanno molto meglio che non facean quelli suoi, cosi ancor quelli che si voltano al male fanno molto peggio" (193). To support this claim, he appeals to the artistic superiority of the present: "E che gli ingegni di que' tempi fossero generalmente molto inferiori a que' che son ora, assai si po conoscere da tutto quello che d'essi si vede, cosi nelle lettere, come nelle pitture, statue, edifici ed ogni altra cosa" (193). In effect, Castiglione offers a praise of the Renaissance, which has eclipsed the old medieval style of life and art.

Castiglione's final and most compelling argument on behalf of the present is its resemblance to antiquity. Those who deplore the corruption of the present ought to remember that the Ancients also excelled in vice and virtue, just like the Moderns, and they did so, again, by virtue of their ingegno: "E ricordinsi che tra i boni antichi, nel tempo che fiorivano al mondo quegli animi gloriosi e veramente divini in ogni virtu e gli ingegni piu che umani, trovavansi ancor molti sceleratissimi; i quali, se vivessero, tanto sariano tra i nostri mail eccellenti nel male, quanto que' boni nel bene; e de cio fanno piena fede tutte le istorie" (194-95). This ancient ingegno, which sponsors an excess of vice and virtue, has renewed itself in the Renaissance after a long period of ethical mediocrity. To recapitulate the logic of the Courtier, the present is superior to the past because of its coincidence with antiquity, or the new is better than the old because it is ancient. Thus, at the root of Castiglione's apology for the present lies the familiar tripartite historical scheme of antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance.

In his Essais, first published in 1580, Michel de Montaigne takes up the quarrel of the past and the present both through a specific rejoinder to Castiglione's praise of the new and through a more general exercise of paradox or challenge to common doxa. In his essay on custom (I, 23), Montaigne deplores "le violent prejudice de la coutume" (117), (15) and he would have us free ourselves from this prejudice by questioning our own customs. The violent prejudice of custom usually takes the form of ethnocentrism, but it can also assume a temporal form that we can call, by analogy, chronocentrism, or bias in favor of the present. Against the commonplace lament that we always praise the past and blame the present, Montaigne advances the antilogos, or counterspeech, that we privilege the present at the expense of our own judgment. It is at least ostensibly as a form of therapy for the faculty of judgment that Montaigne offers his critique of novelty and of the self-complacency of the present.

Montaigne begins his essay on ancient customs, "Des coutumes anciennes" (I, 49), by expressing his impatience with the French, "nostre peuple," who disapprove of everything that does not conform to their own way of doing things. This recalls the familiar theme of ethnocentrism from the more famous essay "Des cannibales," but here Montaigne adds a temporal dimension to the question of self-centered judgment. He remarks that his contemporaries disdain the Ancients because they are hOt dressed like the Moderns: "Je suis content, quand il verra Fabritius ou Laelius, qu'il leur trouve la contenance et le port barbare, puis qu'ils ne sont ny vestus ny faconnez a nostre mode" (296). In this way, the people allow themselves to be blinded by the authority of present usage or, as he says, "de se laisser si fort piper et aveugler a l'authorite de l'usage present" (296). What makes this type of bias particularly irrational is the unstable and ephemeral status of the present. Fashions come and go and return in such quick succession that the tyranny of the present condemns our judgment to instant supersession and constant obsolescence. Taking the example of clothing styles, he declares: "Parce que nostre changement est si subit et si prompt en cela, que l'invention de tous les tailleurs du monde ne scauroit fournir assez de nouvelletez, il est force que bien souvent les formes mesprisees reviennent en credit, et celles la mesmes tombent en mespris tantost apres" (297). In this context of the vicissitude of fashion, where new and old are constantly changing places, to praise the new is to praise an illusion.

It is to confirm this intuition and to clarify our judgment that Montaigne passes in review a series of ancient customs that are "les unes de mesme les nostres, les autres differentes" (297). In either case, whether the new and old converge or diverge, there is no reason to prefer the present, for either the present custom is not new, since the Romans did it that way already, or it is not natural, since the Romans did it differently. In either event, the comparison should inspire in us a salutary detachment from our own customs. When he arrives in his survey of ancient customs at different forms of luxury, the essayist is obliged to adroit that even in decadence, the Ancients surpass the Moderns:
   Mais en toute sorte de magnificence, de desbauche et d'inventions
   voluptueuses, de mollesse et de sumptuosite, nous faisons, a la
   verite, ce que nous pouvons pour les egaler, car nostre volonte est
   bien aussi gastee que la leur; mais nostre suffisance n'y peut
   arriver: nos forces ne sont non plus capables de les joindre en ces
   parties la vitieuses, qu'aux vertueuses: car les unes et les autres
   partent d'une vigueur d'esprit qui estoit sans comparaison plus
   grande en eux qu'en nous; et les ames, a mesure qu'elles sont moins
   fortes, elles ont d'autant moins de moyen de faire ny fort bien ny
   fort mal. (299)


It is here that we can detect a deliberate rejoinder to Castiglione's argument from the opening chapters of book 2 of the Courtier. As we recall, Castiglione inferred from his contemporaries' propensity toward vice a similar aptitude for virtue, since virtue and vice are two facets of the same faculty, the ingenium, and thus they increase or decrease in tandem. He clinched his argument by appealing to the example of the Ancients, who, according to all the histories, excelled both in vice and virtue: "E ricordinsi che tra i boni antichi [...] trovavansi ancor molti sceleratissimi; i quali, se vivessero, tanto sariano tra i nostri mali eccellenti nel male, quanto que' boni nel bene; e di cio fanno piena fede tutte le istorie" (194-95). (Incidentally, the appeal to "tutte le istorie" may be seen as a clever parody of the Discorsi and of Machiavelli's method in general.) Now, Montaigne infers from his own comparison of customs that the Moderns lag behind the Ancients in vice as well as in virtue: "Nos forces ne sont non plus capables de les joindre en ces parties la vitieuses, qu'aux vertueuses." Moreover, for Montaigne, both vice and virtue are regulated by "vigueur d'esprit," which corresponds to the term "ingegno" in Castiglione. Whereas Castiglione advertises the resurgence or renascence of ingegno in his own time, Montaigne deplores the dissipation or exhaustion of "vigueur d'esprit" in his era. Moreover, from Castiglione's typical tripartite historical scheme, Montaigne eliminates the middle term, "i vecchi," leaving only "nous et les anciens." In effect, Montaigne not only rejects Castiglione's faith in the present and his impatience with those who praise the past, but also seems to disqualify the concept of renaissance. There is no middle term in history: there is just antiquity and the undifferentiated mediocrity of nonantiquity. Put differently, the old and the new are equally remote from the ancient.

Montaigne develops the logic of "Des coutumes anciennes" and applies it to the emerging ideology of modernity in his most important essay, "L'Apologie de Raymond Sebond" (II, 12). At one stage of this vast and paradoxical indictment of human reason, Montaigne professes his distrust of all novelty and his reluctance to embrace the new scientific doctrines of the Renaissance. For instance, the thesis of heliocentrism, rediscovered by Copernicus, has replaced in Montaigne's time the old Ptolemaic cosmology. Rather than celebrate this triumph of modern science, Montaigne wonders whether this new or rather renewed theory will not in turn be superseded by a third opinion rendering the current dispute vain: "Et qui scait qu'une tierce opinion, d'icy a mille ans, ne renverse les deux precedentes?" (570). At this point, he cites a passage from book 5 of Lucretius's De rerum natura, where, in the midst of a condensed history of civilization, the poet recounts how gold replaced bronze as the most coveted metal. This revolution in values suggests to Lucretius the following axiom echoed by Montaigne:
   sic volvenda aetas commutat tempora rerum.
   quod fuit in pretio, fit nullo denique honore;
   porro aliud succedit et e contemptibus exit
   inque dies magis appetitur floretque repertum
   laudibus et miro est mortalis inter honore. (5.1276-80)


Revolving time, "volvenda aetas," enacts an endless process of obsolescence and renewal, which completely vitiates the authority of the present and renders new and old interchangeable. This is precisely the argument that Montaigne develops at the beginning of "Des coutumes anciennes" in regard to clothing styles. It seems that Montaigne turns to Lucretius at this juncture of the "Apologie" as he wants to destabilize the confidence of the present.

Next he addresses the new geography or cosmography of the Renaissance. The discovery of the New World has convinced the geographers of his age that from now on the whole world is known and surveyed: "Les Geographes de ce temps ne faillent pas d'asseurer que meshuy tout est trouve et que tout est veu" (572). To illustrate this modern self-assurance, Montaigne cites Lucretius as if he were a sixteenth-century geographer: "Nam quod adest praesto, placet, et pollere videtur" (572). This misquotation conflates two more verses from book 5 of the De rerum natura, where Lucretius speaks of the eager adoption of musical innovations: "nam quod adest praesto, nisi quid cognovimus ante / suavius, in primis placet et pollere videtur" (5.1412-13). Perhaps to caricature the dogmatic attitude of his contemporaries, Montaigne compresses the citation into one breathless verse, as we have seen. In this verse we have, in effect, the counter-topos to the old saying that we always praise the past and blame the present. From modern geographers to ancient musicians, we seem to prefer the present, "quod adest," and to disdain the past. Moreover, Montaigne emphasizes with Lucretius the illusion of the present: the present only seems to be superior or to prevail, "pollere videtur," but in fact it is caught up in revolving time and, for Lucretius, in the imminent mortality of the world.

Montaigne extends the subversive use of Lucretius in the essay "Des coches" where he means to show that old and new are contemporaries (III, 6). Through its many detours and unpredictable digressions, "Des coches" seems to offer a model of the indeterminate movement of history that it captures with an arresting image: "Nous n'allons point, nous rodons plustost, et tournoions ca et la. Nous nous promenons sur nos pas" (907). (16) One of the more interesting stops on this meandering itinerary is the problem of the age of the world, to which Ancients and Moderns propose opposite solutions in an involuntary testimony to the indeterminacy of the problem:
   Comme vainement nous concluons aujourd'hui l'inclination et la
   decrepitude du monde par les arguments que nous tirons de nostre
   propre foiblesse et decadence, "Jamque adeo affecta est aetas,
   affectaque tellus"; ainsi vainement conlcuoit cettuy-la sa
   naissance et jeunesse, par la vigueur qu'il voyoit aux espris de
   son temps, abondans en nouvelletez et inventions de divers arts:
   "Verum, ut opinor, habet novitatem summa, recensque / natura est
   mundi, neque pridem exordia coepit: / quare etiam quaedam nunc
   artes expoliuntur, / nunc etiam augescunt, nunc addita navigiis
   sunt / multa." (908)


Here we learn that the Moderns infer from their own decadence that the world is near its end, while the Ancients reasoned from their own vigor and creativity that the world was young. For Montaigne, both views testify to the fallacy of human judgment, since both the Ancients and the Moderns draw their conclusions "vainement." Moreover, both views appear to be authorized by the same ancient source, namely Lucretius's De rerum natura. To illustrate the modern view of the age of the earth, Montaigne quotes a variant reading of a verse from the end of book 2, "iamque adeo fracta est aetas effetaque tellus" (2.1150), or "life is now broken and the earth worn out." To illustrate the opposing thesis of the youthful vigor of the world, he cites a passage from book 5 of the same poem (5.330-34), which he summarizes in the margin of his own copy of Lucretius with the note, "le monde est Jeune." (17) In this way, Montaigne makes Lucretius speak for both the Ancients and the Moderns, who thereby become contemporaries in an ageless world. Here again, Montaigne uses Lucretius to cultivate a sense of temporal indeterminacy that frustrates the prerogatives of the present.

In this way Montaigne sets himself apart from his own era and from the venerable tradition inscribed in the topos that we have been examining. While others ask impatiently why we praise the past, he prefers the more eccentric question of why we defer so easily to the authority of present usage. To recapitulate, if we want to compare out three authors, all three take a retrospective stance and all three appeal to antiquity to support their position. Machiavelli appeals to antiquity in order to revive Roman virtu or simply to flee the present, "fuggire questi tempi" (301), as he says in the proemio to book 2 of the Discorsi. Castiglione, by contrast, appeals to antiquity and to the "buoni antichi" in order to authorize the present. Montaigne appeals to antiquity in order to confound the confidence of the present and to unmask our prejudice. For all three authors, the quarrel of the past and the present involves the exercise of judgment. Machiavelli wonders whether his own judgment is corrupted if he praises the ancient Romans and blames his contemporaries, but he nevertheless confirms his preference for the past. Castiglione unhesitatingly impugns the judgment of his elders, who cling to their old habits and tastes, though at the threshold of his work he acknowledges how treacherous it is to judge the new and the old. (18) For Montaigne, the very distinction between old and new, and the preference accorded to either term, is an inhibition to judgment, an inganno as Machiavelli would say.

There are many ways to approach the theme of praising the past and many contexts in which to insert out primary texts. To praise the past is clearly a rhetorical exercise and belongs to the genre of epideictic rhetoric, with all of its cultural and political associations. The comparison of past and present is just as clearly an instrument of the theory of history and can sponsor notions of decline, advance, or periodic return as well as arguments about the uniformity or disparity of historical epochs and the predictability or contingency of historical events. These latter questions seem particularly pertinent to Machiavelli's Discorsi. However, I have chosen to emphasize the question of judgment, which is merely one aspect of a very broad topic. Therefore, to conclude, I want to glance once more at Tacitus's Dialogue of the Orators, where Marcus Aper resents the praise of the past. In the course of his plea for the present, Aper appeals to Cicero himself, who always preferred his own eloquence to that of his predecessors: "Ad Ciceronem venio, cui eadem pugna cum aequalibus suis fuit quae mihi vobiscum est: illi enim antiquos mirabantur, ipse suorum temporum eloquentiam anteponebat" (22.1). For Aper, Cicero excelled his contemporaries above all else in judgment, iudicio: "Nec ulla re magis eiusdem aetatis oratores praecurrit quam iudicio" (22.1). In effect, Cicero was an anti-Ciceronian, preferring the potential of the new to the authority of the old. This is the sort of paradox that Montaigne found irresistible and the sort of penchant for self-congratulation that he recognized in his own contemporaries. For Montaigne as for Aper, the confrontation of past and present is a test of judgment, and judgment seems to have made little progress since antiquity.

Indiana University

(1.) Rather than dutifully record all the secondary literature on the subject, I refer, for the sake of expediency, to one of the most up-to-date and ingenious surveys of Renaissance historical thought, namely, Anthony Grafton, What Was History? The Art of History in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007). Grafton's bibliography of secondary sources is both thorough and ecumenical.

(2.) This task has been accomplished by Marcel Tetel, Presences italiennes dans les Essais de Montaigne (Paris: Champion, 1992) and Nicola Panichi, I vincoli del disinganno: Per una nuova interpretazione di Montaigne (Florence: Olschki, 2004). For further bibliography, see Panichi 113 (Machiavelli and Montaigne) and 265 (Castiglione and Montaigne). To the latter list can be added Eric MacPhail, "Living in the Past: Montaigne and the Critique of Novelty," Esprit genereux, esprit pantagruelicque. Essays by His Students in Honor of Francois Rigolot, eds. Reinier Leushuis and Zahi Zalloua (Geneva: Droz, 2008) 247-58.

(3.) Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, trans. Rex Warner (London: Penguin, 1954) 24. The standard Renaissance reading of this passage, in Lorenzo Valla's version, is as follows: "Et licet homines praesens bellum in quo versantur semper maximum iudicent, eoque finito, vetera vehementius admirentur, tamen hoc bellum, animadvertentibus, ex ipsis operibus malus illis se extitisse ostendet." From the edition of Henri Estienne (Geneva, 1588) 15.

(4.) For a discussion of this passage and an inventory of similar passages, see G. E. M. de Ste. Croix, The Origins of the Peloponnesian War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1972) 29-33.

(5.) For Tacitus's "Polemik gegen die laudatores ternporis acti" see Reinhard Haussler, Tacitus und das historische Bewusstsein (Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1965) 233-36.

(6.) For the availability of the Thucydides latinus in Machiavelli's era, see Luciano Canfora, "Tucidide e Machiavelli," Rinascimento n.s. 37 (1997): 29-44, especially 31-32.

(7.) Niccolo Machiavelli, Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio, ed. Francesco Bausi (Rome: Salerno Editrice, 2001).

(8.) "Non so adunque se io meritero di essere numerato infra quelli che si ingannano, se in questi miei discorsi laudero troppo e tempi delli antiqui Romani e biasimero i nostri" (301).

(9.) For Machiavelli's theory of imitation and its internal contradictions, see Gennaro Sasso, Niccolo Machiavelli, vol. 1, Il pensiero politico (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1993) 576-93.

(10.) Il libro del Cortegiano con una scelta delle Opere minori, ed. Bruno Maier (Turin: UTET, 1964).

(11.) For this tension in Castiglione's dialogue, see Amadeo Quondam, "Questo povero Cortegiano" Castiglione, il Libro, la Storia (Rome: Bulzoni, 2000) 404-28.

(12.) For Castiglione's "apologia del presente," see Giancarlo Mazzacurati, Misure del classicismo rinascimentale (Naples: Liguori, 1967) 7-35. Uberto Motta revisited this question in his book Castiglione e il mito di Urbino: Studi sulla elaborazione del "Cortegiano" (Milan: Vita e Pensiero, 2003) part 1, chapter 3 "L'errore dei vecchi," with special attention to Castiglione's revisions.

(13.) Rinaldo Rinaldi discusses the prologue to book 2 of the Courtier as "una riscrittura di spunti machiavelliani," attenuating the differences between the two authors ("Scrivere contro: Machiavelli in Castiglione," De la politesse a la politique: Recherches sur les langages du Livre du Courtisan, eds. Paolo Grossi and Juan Carlos D'Amico [Caen: Presses universitaires de Caen, 2001] 31-49, especially 34-37). By contrast, Motta 196 notes the "antithetical positions" of Machiavelli and Castiglione.

(14.) Grafton discusses the image of the ship leaving port, which was a favorite of the Renaissance (176-77). Montaigne invokes this same image in his essay "De juger de la mort d'autruy" (II, 13) in order to impugn the judgment of young and old alike.

(15.) Les Essais de Montaigne, ed. Pierre Villey, V.L. Saulnier (Paris: PUF, 1978).

(16.) For this textual mimesis of history, see Gerard Defaux, "A propos 'Des coches' de Montaigne (III, 60): De l'ecriture de l'histoire a la representation du moi," Montaigne Studies 6 (1994): 135-59.

(17.) M. A. Screech, Montaigne's Annotated Copy of Lucretius. A Transcription and Study of the Manuscript, Notes and Pen-Marks (Geneva: Droz, 1998) 364.

(18.) In the opening chapter of book 1, Castiglione complains to his dedicatee Alfonso Ariosto about how difficult it is to choose the perfect form of courtiership, "perche la consuetudine fa a noi spesso le medesime cose piacere e dispiacere; onde talor procede che i costumi, gli abiti, i riti e i modi, che un tempo son stati in pregio, divengono vili, e per contrario i viii divengon pregiati. Pero si vede chiaramente che l'uso piu che la ragione ha forza d'introdur cose nove tra noie cancellar l'antiche; delle quali chi cerca giudicar la perfezione, spesso s'inganna" (80). Paolo Zoccola quotes this passage and draws an analogy to Montaigne in "Di un passo controverso del Cortegiano e dei rapporti fra Castiglione e Montaigne," Giornale Storico della Letteratura Italiana 151 (1974) 97-102.
COPYRIGHT 2010 Columbia University
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2010 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Michel de Montaigne, Baldassar Castiglione and Niccolo Machiavelli
Author:MacPhail, Eric
Publication:The Romanic Review
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Nov 1, 2010
Words:7653
Previous Article:"Le vain bastiment": human systems and philosophy in Montaigne's Apologie de Raimond Sebond.
Next Article:Rire et satire a l'aube des guerres civiles : l'exemple des satyres chrestiennes de la cuisine papale.
Topics:

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters