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The truths of a slippery world: poetry and tyranny in Sidney's Defence.


While prosecuting what the Defence of Poesy (c. 1580) calls a "civil war among the muses," Philip Sidney (1554-86) marshals an especially crucial argument against Clio, the muse of history (101). Clio is the voice not of truth and moral persuasion, but of political turpitude. Just consider the kinds of stories that fill the history books, Sidney asks: Cypselus, Periander, Phalaris, and Dionysius were all real-world tyrants who enjoyed quiet ends, unpunished for their crimes. Clio's reputed moral power emerges consequently as considerably less than exemplary, not merely because of the existence of such stories, but also more importantly because of the character of historical narrative itself. Tied to the truths of a slippery world, history is condemned to narrating over and again the triumphs of tyranny. With an audacity as sly as it is comically hyperbolic, the Defence disposes in a single paragraph of centuries of humanistically inspired commentary on history's exemplary moral power. It is hardly the histori an's fault that he is compelled to tell the truth, Sidney might have admitted if pressed, but therein lies the critical point: historical truth is simply inadequate, given the slipperiness of the world, to the demands of historical life.

It is useful to begin with renewed attention to how Sidney configures the relationship between poetry and history in his Defence, since that relationship is crucial for understanding his preoccupation with tyranny in the text and for reevaluating the connection between his poetics and his politics. Tyranny has attracted a great deal of attention in studies of The New Arcadia (c. 1582-85), but little has been written about the tyrants who populate the Defence in such numbers. (1) It is not only when taking the historian to task for his disciplinary shortfalls that Sidney interests us in tyranny. He muses too upon the failures of the philosopher. Plato's real-life enslavement at the hands of Dionysius, the Sicilian tyrant whose education in virtue he failed to procure, becomes shorthand for the failure of philosophy generally in its confrontation with tyranny. In turn, the metamorphosis of Hiero I from tyrant to just king is credited to Simonides and Pindar, as another tribute to the superior powers of the poet (128). When Sidney wants to exemplify the "eikastic" powers of poetry -- its capacity to "'figure forth good things"' -- he does so, centrally, by alluding to a portrait of "Judith killing Holofernes," one of the great biblical prototypes of tyrannicide (125). When he seeks to illustrate the power of the stage to create "divine admiration," he highlights the accomplishments of George Buchanan (1506-82), that Scottish humanist whose specialty was tyrannicidal tragedy. (2) The success of poets in confounding tyrants takes center stage in Sidney's defense of tragedy as a genre. What the Defence terms the high and excellent Tragedy... maketh kings fear to be tyrants, and tyrants manifest their tyrannical humours" (117).

Moreover, tyranny supplies the critical context for Sidney's most prominent and most telling exposition of poetic imitation, his illustration of the "speaking picture" of poetic mimesis by reference to the rape of Lucretia. The conjunction of historical event and poetic making is deeply purposeful. As the rape of Lucretia was the originary moment of Rome s freedom from tyranny -- since it was the historical occasion motivating Brutus to extinguish Tarquin's line -- that rape becomes in Sidney's text the foundation for a detailed account of how the "right poet" writes. Set free from history (unlike those historical and philosophical poets confined within the fold of the proposed subject"), the right poet ranges "with no law but his own wit ... into the divine consideration of what may be and should be," depicting a Lucretia equally free from historical constraint (102). She is painted not as she appeared in life, but as the "outward beauty of' her chastity (102). Her chastity is the "Idea" out of which the spe aking picture is made, a universal whose reality is guaranteed by the access of the erected wit to truths that transcend the always corrupt and mutable world of history. In Sidney's version of the story, Lucretia is liberated twice, both times by the agency of her own virtue: once from the tyranny of Tarquin ("when she punished in herself another's fault") and a second time, from the tyranny of historical verisimilitude by the painter's speaking picture (102).

When history itself emerges as a form of tyranny -- both history conceived as the brazen world of events, and history conceived as a science captive to the folly of the world of events -- then the conjunction of poetics and politics is startlingly complete. Real freedom from tyranny becomes not just a possible subject of poetry, but also its necessary and important work. So often when Sidney writes about poetic action in idealizing terms, he does so with metaphors of the chaste body: in the portrait of Lucretia, in the repetition of Agrippa's tale about the divided body politic, and in the complementary stories of David's lust for Bathsheba's body and Nathan's healing fiction. The cleansing of the body -- its government, its discipline, and its purgation -- goes hand in hand with Sidney's desire to liberate history from tyranny. (3)

To argue that Sidney understood history itself as a kind of tyranny and "right poetry" as a vehicle of liberation is to move against the mainstream of critical interpretation about the politics of Sidney's poetics -- at least as that mainstream is measured by the critical literature of the 1990s. The argument presented here is a departure, centrally, from the most detailed and most influential of the cultural materialist readings of the Defence, Alan Sinfield's once startling depiction of Sidney's "puritan humanist" project as the originary text of a Soviet-style literary criticism haunting the tradition of English studies. As the product of what Sinfield terms "aesthetic absolutism," because of its pretensions to represent universals, the Defence is really propaganda (he claims) on behalf of "sectional interests" -- Sidney's personal commitments as the member of a "puritan faction" that pursued an "earnest protestantism" (206-07). A prisoner of irremediable tensions between humanism and protestantism, Sidney 's aesthetic emerges in Sinfield's reading as an ideologically driven vehicle "correlated broadly with the absolutist aspirations of the Elizabethan state" and focused narrowly on driving that state "in a particular direction in order to reinforce a sectional stance" (185). (4) A decade after its publication, Sinfield's reading is now only "once" startling. The proliferation of new historicist and cultural materialist readings of Renaissance texts has made the historical move between Sidney and the Soviets a common rhetorical maneuver, a familiar leap on the historical trampoline achieved for persuasive effect, and no doubt intended for critical enlightenment. A decade later, however, such startling shifts between widely divergent times, places, and cultures have increasingly been called to account for endangering the very historical understanding that they sought to promote. (5)

A genuinely historical appreciation of the politics of the Defence demands renewed scholarly attention to the history shaping Sidney's intellectual life. Sinfield is clearly right about both Sidney's commitment to a universalizing epistemology and the importance of his association with a specific community, informed by specific political and pious values. But Sinfield's essay, apart from some broad generalizing paragraphs about earnest puritans, never attempts to locate Sidney inside a historically specific community of that sort. By constructing a too-ready association between the Defence's universalizing epistemology and the oppressive absolutism of Soviet-style propaganda, he disregards those very historical conditions that lent Sidney's epistemology its political significance. (6)

This essay attempts a different approach by drawing attention to a particular historical community still largely neglected in current critical studies. More specifically, it argues that the epistemology of the Defence needs to be recontextualized as a governing body of assumptions about the nature of knowledge that Sidney derived from the revival of natural law theory among an intellectual elite closely associated with the late Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) -- the so-called Philippists -- and the early proponents of tyrannomachist political philosophy. (7) One specific source for the transmission of those assumptions to Sidney was his longtime mentor and friend, Hubert Languet (1518-81). In this regard, the argument advanced here seeks to complement and extend the critically valuable labors of Beatrice Nicollier-de Weck, who in a recent biography of Languet has taken a familiar figure inside Sidney studies and made him unfamiliar again in ways that have major implications for reconceiving Sidney's piety; pol itics, and poetics. Until Nicollier-de Weck's biography, Languet's education in Wittenberg under Melanchthon and its influence on his own intellectual, political, and spiritual life have remained almost entirely unexamined, as well as its antecedent shaping power over the education in the Protestant cause that Languet labored to pass along to Philip Sidney. (8) When the universalizing imperative of the Defence is seen in light of the historical conditions that supplied it with its meaning and its lived sense of urgency, Sidney's text emerges, surprisingly and with a genuinely historical power to startle, as the politically significant vehicle of a poetics of liberation.

Tyranny was a topic of enduring concern for Sidney. It shadowed everywhere that remarkable correspondence he pursued with Languet during the 1570s. As mentor and student exchanged information, analysis, even prayer about the machinations of papal and Spanish power, it was tyranny and the resistance to tyranny (not national interest or state power) that constituted their primary vocabulary for analyzing European politics. That vocabulary speaks volumes about how they conceived of their own historical moment. Contemporary history was apocalyptically burdened, a battleground between the forces of light and darkness -- the liberating power of the true church, on the one hand, imperilled by the tyranny of post-Tridentine Catholicism, on the other. In turn, that concept had practical consequences for Sidney's own actions. Real tyrants abroad and the perceived threat of tyranny at home influenced his decision to write against Queen Elizabeth's proposed marriage to Francis, Duke of Anjou. Spanish tyranny helped to mo tivate Sidney's fascination with the Americas and his interest in Huguenot schemes for colonizing the new world, and that same fear of Spanish tyranny drew him at last, also, to the defense of Dutch freedom and to his death. (9) Not surprisingly, Sidney's lifelong preoccupation with tyranny found expression especially in his most important work: the elaboration of his New Arcadia, populated by notable numbers of tyrannical villains and by his twin tyrannomachist heroes, Pyrocles and Musidorus. Tyranny, then, was a familiar issue for Sidney, but Phalaris' inclusion in The Defencis rhetorically extended catalogue of history's bad exemplars is an especially pointed reminder about the personal character of those political concerns at stake for him in addressing contemporary tyrants.

Sidney had a history with Phalaris that is worth recounting. Phalaris, was a sixth-century BC tyrant of Acragas in Sicily, who became legendary for roasting his victims alive in a brazen bull. In July 1574, in a letter addressed to Languer, Sidney bitterly attacked a French humanist and politique, Guy du Faur, Sire de Pibrac (1529-84), for publishing a justification of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre -- that current event supplying the most notorious evidence of Catholic tyranny at work. (10) Languet responded in a remarkable letter (24 July 1574), which is at once a defense of Pibrac and a moral education for Sidney. In that letter, Languet represents himself as unwilling to hold either Pibrac's Catholicism or his apology for the Massacre against him. Instead and surprisingly for Sidney to be sure, he praises Pibrac as "a man of such genius, learning, and eloquence, that I do not believe his equal is to be found in France." (11) With the usual pointedness of the teacher, Languet proceeds to extrapolate fr om the particular instance of Pibrac's fault -- writing a letter that fear for his own death provoked -- to a general lesson to be learned from his behavior. (12)

He was compelled to save his life by that letter, for which you find fault with him so grievously. I by no means admire his conduct, for, as the poet says.

... Phalaris licet imperet ut sis falsus et admoto dictet periuria tauro, summum crede nefas animam praeferre pudori, et propter vitam vivendi perdere causas.

(though Phalaris himself should command you to tell lies and bring up his bull and dictate to you a perjury, believe it the greatest sin to prefer life to honor, and to lose for the sake of life, the cause of living.)

Good letters supply good lessons. At the moment that Languet urges Sidney's tolerance for Pibrac's all-too-human weakness, he supplies by way of Juvenal's Satires a corrective example to follow. Tyranny must be resisted, even as one must recognize the inevitable weakness of people who are oppressed by its power.

Phalaris came to Sidney as a moral example in Languet's letters, and he figured prominently at a crucial moment in the political philosophy of another intimate friend, Philippe Du Plessis Mornay (1549-1623). Languet mentored the two Philips, Mornay and Sidney, as twin students of the Protestant cause, and it is no accident that they employ the same historical vocabulary, even in response to the same historical events. (13) Mornay's Vindiciae, contra tyrannos (1576) was the most carefully argued and the most notorious of all those resistance tracts produced in the aftermath of the Sr. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, and Phalaris makes an appearance in that tract precisely at one of those few moments in which the memory of the Massacre is specifically invoked. Moreover, the reference to Phalaris occurs in exactly the same literary context recalled by Languet's letter, Juvenal's Satire VIII. In an argument in which Mornay imagines the response of the people to "a prince [who] commands that any innocent be killed, or that he be despoiled," he conjures into memory the example of "some Papinian [who] ... will reproach Caracalla to his face and will choose death rather than obedience: 'Even if Phalaris himself orders him to be false, and to dictate perjuries under threat of roasting alive." (14) Drawing from the Scriptores historiae Augustae, Mornay inserts his allusion to the beastly Phalaris within the context of Roman imperial history -- the story of the Emperor Caracalla's murder of his brother Geta, and the refusal of the praetorian prefect, Aemilius Papinianus, to compose a speech to the senate in justification of that murder. (15)

The Roman imperial allusion secures an obvious parallel to contemporary Huguenot interpretations of the Massacre (one more fratricidal tragedy in peril of a whitewash), while expressing simultaneously pointed optimism about the inevitability of resistance to tyranny: Papinian-style heroes always appear to undo tyrants, Mornay's text clearly implies -- an echo of that long tradition of anti-tyrannical literature extending back to Cicero, then Christianized by John of Salisbury and Thomas Aquinas, in which tyrants providentially get their due. (16) Read in light of Languet's correspondence with Sidney, Papinian's action becomes in Mornay's idealizing political philosophy the story of a Pibrac who operates as a Pibrac should -- as a corrective example from the realm of history that shows how "one in whom... conscience remains will effectively counter tyranny. Its optimism is, in no small measure, intended as persuasion (30). For Sidney, Morna's appeal to Papinian -- conjoined with the allusion to Juvenal -- must also have carried a sharp reminder of the real-life Pibrac, a less sanguine reminder of how ineffectively tyranny found resistance on St. Bartholomew's Day, August 24th, 1572.

Sidney's allusion in The Defence to Phalaris comes complete with a history, then, one that is important, first, because it draws attention to his own lived experience with tyranny. Phalaris was a figure whom Sidney knew both from the pages of Juvenal and from the streets of Paris. (Sidney was himself present at the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre and may even have seen the mutilated corpse of Admiral Gaspard de Coligny.) (17) The allusion matters also since Phalaris' name came loaded in Sidney's circle with certain specific, controversial political assumptions. In the same sentence from the Defence that he writes about Phalaris, Sidney mentions, as if in passing, that just as the poets have devised "new punishments in hell for tyrants," so philosophy teaches "occidendos esse" -- that tyrants ought to be killed (112). The "as if' quality of his phrasing is significant. He can write about tyrannicide as if it were a settled doctrine of political philosophy precisely because, for himself and for those friends wit h whom he was most closely connected, the doctrine needed neither argument nor proof. In fact, the whole of Sidney's discussion of tyrants in this passage, beginning with the allusion to Brutus' slaying of Caesar and proceeding to Dante's supposed invention of new torments for tyrants, echoes a tradition of republican literature descending from fifteenth-century Italy. (18) The Defence does not argue the case for tyrannicide. It assumes tyrannicide as a good. The question posed by Phalaris' appearance in this passage and by Sidney's Defence as a whole -- considered from the vantage of its public political purpose -- is how best to counter tyranny, and it is from this perspective that the allusion to Phalaris matters most.

Phalaris was a name usefully invoked whenever the question arose in Sidney's own circle about how effectively to counter tyranny in practice -- whether the issue concerned the private application of a moral philosophical principle (as in Languet's letter) or the public articulation of a political philosophy (as in Mornay's treatise). Juvenal's Satire VIII was a shared point of reference among Languet, Mornay and Sidney. In its original form, Juvenal's poem is a fierce assault against the vices of the contemporary Roman nobility and a negative example -- exploitable to good pedagogical ends by the mentor Languet -- that "nobilitas sola est atque unica virtus" (virtue is the one and only true nobility [1. 20]). More important, Juvenal's poem became inside this circle of friends a common point of reference for considering how to move from ought to is: for moving, that is, from the proposition that tyrants should be resisted to real resistance. What would have amazed, amused, and perhaps even dismayed his friends is Sidney's argument that poetry best supplies that vehicle for resisting tyranny rather than history or philosophy. For in that argument was implied the relative inferiority of his friends' favored intellectual pursuits -- the passion of Languet for history, of Mornay for moral and political philosophy. Juvenal matters, Sidney seems to say, for reasons better than his friends would have acknowledged.

Sidney's point really is one about Juvenal, or one about poetry, that is -- and that fact lends a characteristically complicated tone to the whole of the Defence extended consideration of history's impotence before the onslaught of tyranny. It is characteristically complicated since it is a tone achieved with similar complexity as Sidney's argument repeatedly performs what can only be called a systematic downsizing of the historical within the realm of the poetic. Consider what happens rhetorically to the great world of history in the text. History's bloody civil wars become or at least threaten to become a civil war among the Muses" (96); Phalaris and Tarquin matter in the world of events, but the tyranny that matters most to Sidney's internal argument descends from "that tyrant in table talk," the historian (105); the senate that counts here consists not of patricians or politicians, but "of poets" (103); princes are transformed from authorities in sovereign states to "sovereign disciplines" (104); "monarch s" and "sacred majesty" are titles usurped by the makers of fictions (113); and the cause one fights for is no longer "the just cause" perpetually intoned in the correspondence with Languet, but instead the "just cause" of poetry (96). In the course of these verbal exchanges, poetry appears at once ironically minimized (after all, these are only wars among the muses) and rhetorically enhanced (disciplinary disputes gain the grandeur of warfare), just as poetic action is made to seem both clearly distinct from the realm of events -- wars among the muses produce no corpses -- and urgently engaged with that world, since its presence is so constantly evoked by the very verbal moves in question. Sidney's attack on the historian's impotence before tyranny produces a tone so complicated because of the paradoxical logic at the heart of the argument. Poetry better remedies history's ills because it escapes confinement to the historical -- hence its seeming triviality and its real potential for grandeur.

Sidney's point is one about poetry, then. But how he bolsters his position on behalf of poetry's power to undo the worst effects of tyranny with arguments that simultaneously draw upon and contest key intellectual assumptions of his friends, Languet and Mornay, forms an important and untold story about his Defence of Poesy. That story begins again with the interest of Sidney and his friends in Phalaris, a figure excoriated in the language of the Defence for his "abominable injustice" and reviled as a kind of dog unleashed from history's "kennel" (112). As Sidney's vocabulary suggests, what made Phalaris' tyranny so striking was its very beastliness. Roasting his victims alive within a bronze bull that turned their screams into savage bellowing, all for the pleasure of his own entertainment, made Phalaris a memorable figure inside a circle of friends who defined tyranny as a violation of nature's law. Languet, Mornay, and Sidney all have recourse to that increasingly popular and potent political vocabulary com ing into renewed prominence inside sixteenth-century Europe, the vocabulary of natural law.


Scholars from Robert Hoopes to R. K. White have written extensively about the pervasive influence of natural law arguments in English Renaissance literature, and there is no need to rehearse their conclusions here. More to the point, Quentin Skinner has written about the significance of such arguments to the development of Renaissance political discourse, and most especially to their key role in the history of resistance theory. In particular, Skinner argues persuasively about the struggle among the Huguenots after the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, as an embattled minority seeking religious freedom, to devise a logic and language for defending rebellion against tyranny that would have a broad national appeal transcending confessional boundaries. As Skinner makes clear, natural law arguments, with their appeal to unwritten universal laws inherent within the individual conscience, were crucial in bolstering the persuasiveness of the new resistance theory and, once more, he identifies Mornay's Vindiciae as tha t historically significant resistance text inside which natural law arguments enter first. (19)

Skinner is clearly right about the importance of natural law to Mornay's argument, just as he is right about the intended cross-confessional character of its appeal. But where Skinner is demonstrably wrong--and this is a point that matters profoundly for understanding Sidney's role in this history--is in arguing for the novelty of these arguments in Mornay and in attributing, as cultural historians continue to do, the source of his new language and logic to Thomas Aquinas. (20) It may be an attractive historical irony to imagine the Protestant Mornay turning Catholic scholastic philosophy back against the post-Tridenrine Church, raiding Aquinas for the philosophical weaponry to topple the pope's minions from the throne of France. However, there is a more plausible explanation for the renewed popularity of natural law arguments in Mornay's Vindiciae, and for the popularity of those arguments in other resistance texts inside Britain: John Ponet's lucidly argued A shorte treatise of politike power (1556) and Geo rge Buchanan's influential Dejure regni apud Scotos (1579). Sidney's political writings and poetics display, too, a thorough-going dependence on natural law theory. (21)

When Languet urged Sidney to moderate his criticisms of Pibrac, he did so as a mentor "by nature and by principle averse to judgments of this sort," explaining that "many people criticize me for this [moderation] and say that I derive it from my teacher, Melanchthon. Thus far I regret neither my teacher nor my principles, and shall not be led away from either by the criticisms of those who are naturally more captious or severe than I am. (22) By identifying himself with Philip Melanchthon, Languet reminded Sidney about his distinctive political affiliation -- the source of his own commitment to the Protestant cause -- and, just as meaningfully, about the source of that political commitment in a distinctive brand of Protestant piety. Philip Melanchthon, it is useful to recall, was Luther's most tenacious and most brilliant ally, and among the Reformation's most influential and (for scholars of the English Renaissance) most forgotten architects. A figure of polymathic productivity and universal learning, he pro duced the Reformation's first systematic theology, the Loci communes; he crafted its most comprehensive, most widely acclaimed statement of faith, the Augsburg Confession; and, in an age of great educators, this praeceptor germaniae was, as Johann Sturm put it, "the father of most educated men. " (23) He was both influential and controversial -- and controversy gave to his vision a distinctive focus. Especially in his later years, as the embattled guardian of what had been Luther's church, threatened by hostile imperial armies, Roman Catholic enemies, and fierce opposition from rival Protestants, Melanchthon became arguably sixteenth-century Europe's most temperate and most persistent champion of Christian liberty.

Melanchthon's appeal was cosmopolitan, and his followers disparagingly called "Philippists." Numbered among them were the two Camerarius, Joachim the Elder (1500-74) and Joachim the Younger (1534-98), both distinguished German philologists; Johannes Crato (1515-85), the Silesian physician whose great life labor was the liberation of the Bohemian church; Charles de l'Ecluse (1526-1609), the internationally esteemed French botanist; Joannes Sambucus (1531-84), the renowned Hungarian emblematist; and Daniel Rogers (1538?-91), the Anglo-Dutch poet and diplomat, a well-known figure in Elizabethan court circles, and a close friend of Sidney. Languet himself was a Burgundian by birth. As a group, the so-called Philippists were at once elite humanists -- educated enthusiasts for the alliance of good letters and the good state -- and politically sober Protestants, longing for the reunification of the true church from the ruins of its confessional divisions. As a group, too, the Philippists echoed Melanchthon's frequen t calls for freedom from theological disputation -- including freedom from dark pronouncements about predestination and election, matters too terrifying to the souls of unlearned Christians. When forced into theological discussions, they were inclined to espouse a moderate position on free will, and an openness to compromise with rival Reformed and Catholic interpretations of the mass and the eucharist. As a body, moreover, they shared Melanchthon's political goal of achieving freedom from tyranny: his pragmatic regard for compromise, his irenic aversion from war, and his conservative ideal of the well-ordered aristocratic state, governed by the godly prince serving the godly church. Simultaneously, even paradoxically, they shared Melanchthon's providential reading of international politics and his fiercely anti-papal convictions representing Europe as a battleground between Christ's church on the one hand and Tridentine Catholicism on the other. That battleground was no mere metaphor. Especially in the decad es of the 1 570s and 80s, Philip II's campaigns for military domination in the north seemed to make the dark tyranny of the Antichrist visible, and thereby marked the Netherlands for forward. Protestants generally and for Philippists particularly as the central battleground in a cause whose scope was international. (24)

According to Paul Oskar Kristeller, "Melanchthon, the defender of rhetoric against philosophy, ... had more influence on many aspects of Lutheran Germany than Luther himself and ... was responsible for the humanistic tradition of the German Protestant schools down to the nineteenth century." (25) That influence is measurable across an extensive disciplinary domain from dialectics to natural philosophy, and it is an influence demonstrable, too, in Melanchthon's pervasive employment of natural law arguments derived from Aristotle and his scholastic commentators in reshaping moral, political, and even theological learning for the Protestant north. That employment was central, not adventitious, to his intellectual career, as his most recent scholars have demonstrated in considerable detail. (26) Most important, however, for this argument is Melanchrhon's introduction of the language and logic of natural law into resistance theory during the War of the League of Schmalkaldan in the late 1540s. Under attack by impe rial powers, the Protestant princes of Germany needed some means to justify armed defense against sovereign authority and consequently some radically different philosophical arguments from the ones Luther had employed against the peasant rebellions of earlier decades. The church's very survival demanded it.

Melanchthon's justification of resistance, originally published in German in 1547 as the Von der Notwehr Unterricht (Instruction Concerning Self-Defence), was subsequently retranslated into Latin as De defensione concessa humano generi jure naturae (About the Defense Permitted to Humankind by the Law of Nature). (27) Its original publication in German speaks to its pointedly political purpose in swaying popular opinion, but it is its Latin title that articulates most clearly the logic of its central argument: self-defense derives its foundational authority from universal laws of nature inscribed in human kind -- laws inscribed in the conscience by God, as this aggressively Protestant document constantly insists. By self-defense, what Melanchthon had in mind was more than passive disobedience or a refusal, Papinian-style, to follow the emperor's commands. He justified as well an active military response, even tyrannicide. In answer to his central organizing question about whether active defense is permitted, M elanchthon wrote: "Certum est omnes homines bona conscientia sequi & amplecti, quod statuit ius Naturae, quod vere ius divinum est. Est autem omnibus hominibus haec Lex, quasi lumen quoddam, divinitus impressa, quod in atroci & notoria iniuria, cum destituimur a Magistratu, liceat nobis uti defensione, adversus pares, & adversus superiores." (28) (It is certain that all men should follow and be filled with good conscience, which is a law of nature, and which truly is a divine law. Moreover this Law is a light to all men, having been divinely impressed on them, showing in cases of atrocious and notorious injuries, when we are oppressed by a Magistrate, that it is permissible for us to act in our defense against equals and against superiors.) Moreover, Melanchthon proceeded to argue that there are many cases in which natural law not only permitted self-defence, but also actually commanded ("sed etiam mandata") husbands to shield wives, fathers children, and magistrates their subjects. (29) The Brutus who stabbe d Caesar and the wife of Alexander Pheraeus who murdered her tyrannical husband both acted according to natural law by punishing tyrants who had themselves defied those appropriate (those "natural" boundaries) inside which the power appropriate to the prince's calling should operate. They acted, in short, out of a natural duty to protect society and in defense of good order.

Tyrannicide is both the right and the obligation of a free people, an argument that Reformers eager to safeguard the liberty of the church from tyranny eagerly transplanted to England and Scotland. In 1556, John Ponet (1514?-56) dedicated his Short Treatise of politike power to "all true natural Englishe men," and mobilized against orthodox Tudor support of Queen Mary's sovereignty the newly potent language and logic of natural law (title page). A call to arms masquerading as a philosophical justification for tyrannicide, Ponet's treatise appeals for authority at every stage of its methodically organized argument to natural law theory. Natural law accounts for the origins of society, it endorses the exercise of right reason in government, it explains the predations of tyranny from the primitive to the contemporary church, and it enables the Treatise's climactic celebration of the wisdom of the ancients in acknowledging that "it is naturall to cutte awaie an incurable membre, which (being suffred) wolde destro ie the hole body" (106). Ponet's point about England's political body is plain: Mary Tudor must be excised. A decade later and a kingdom to the north, George Buchanan naturalized substantially the same arguments in his anatomy of tyranny and Scottish politics, the controversial Dejure regni apud Scotos (1579). Like Ponet, Buchanan grounds his argument on behalf of tyrannicide in natural law theory; Defending the right of a free people to resist tyranny or misgovernment requires, logically, an exposition of good government, "the original and cause of creating kings, and what the duties of kings are towards their people, and of people towards their kings" (7). That exposition, eriological in kind, generates an image of the state as a body whose natural condition is harmony, with king safeguarding people, and people safeguarded by law -- an image that reason has power to expose, in turn, because of that natural "LIGHT infused by GOD into our Minds" (11). While the "scope" of the king, as physician to the state, is to promote "the health of the body," the tyrant operates, as unnatural monster, to corrupt that body for his own lusts (14). Buchanan's point is made as plainly as Ponet's: "occidendos esse," tyrants must be killed. Natural law demands it.

Mornay was not the first, then, to espouse a right to resistance on the foundations of natural law theory. Ponet and Buchanan developed similar arguments by the same means. As a result, unless we assume with Skinner an unlikely rekindling of scholastic enthusiasm among these devoted Protestants, some alternative explanation for their shared language and logic is required. That alternative presents itself plausibly enough as the product of shared historical connections -- the allegiance among these writers to the same republic of letters. John Ponet was a Marian exile who by his own report discovered in Melanchthon one of his principal "comforters." (30) George Buchanan was a long-time friend and companion of Hubert Languet, that Burgundian who gave up friends, family, and homeland to devote his entire adult life to Melanchrhon's service. In the early 1560s, while a professor in Paris, Buchanan belonged to a circle of irenic humanists that included, in addition to Languet, Charles de l'Ecluse, Francois Baudoui n (1520-73), and Joannes Sambucus -- all distinguished intellectuals and Philippists, students or devotees of Philip Melanchthon. In the late 1570s. after his return to Scotland, Buchanan's closest friend in England was Daniel Rogers, himself an intimate of Languet's circle and the son of the Marian martyr and Philippist, John Rogers (1500?-55). Within this international republic of letters, constituted by Protestant humanists devoted to preserving the "true" church from its international enemies, Mornay's reliance on natural law theory could not have been interpreted as an act of ironic scholastic inversion. It would have been received instead as traditional argumentation derived from a long-standing political discourse with its roots in Melanchthon and its branches in Ponet and Buchanan. Since mid-century, natural law theory had itself been naturalized in the Protestant north as a response to what these humanists viewed as the threatening tempests of the Catholic League's tyranny.

It was one thing to contemplate taking arms against a sea of troubles. It was quite another, for humanists writing in this republic of letters, to counter tyranny with the pen. As Skinner has demonstrated so well, the appeal of natural law arguments to such writers was their confidence in the power of universal standards of reason to secure freedom from partisan wrangling. Such confidence existed everywhere inside this circle. It was found, for instance, in the last service Languet performed for the cause, his authorship in 1581 of An Apologie for William of Orange (1533-84), perceived as the great champion of liberty in Europe s most important political theater, the Netherlands. Consistently advancing arguments from natural law, Languet's Apologie employs the "strength and soundness of reason" to demonstrate how that Spanish Phalaris, Philip II, had sacrificed his natural claims upon sovereignty (B3v). (31) Mornay, too, evidences a similar desire to avoid partisanship, expressing confidence in his most impor tant controversial works in the near-geometric precision of reason. Whether addressing the problem of atheism in the De verite (1581) a plea for universal Christian truth in an age of irrational confessionalism, or Machiavellianism in the Contra tyrannos (an assault against the contamination of political culture by bad books), natural law arguments appeal inclusively to readers of "whichever party or nation or condition they belong" on the optimistic assumption that reason will naturally create agreement (9).

Beyond Skinner's point, then, at the foundations of such humanist textual labors are the assumptions of what can only be termed a deeply held intellectualism: a belief that real political change derives first and foremost from changes in how people think -- especially in how they think about primary issues of moral and political philosophy. That intellectualism is reflected in the content of their shared agreements about the nature of tyranny -- as a perversion (literally), an unnatural inversion of the nature of good government originating in the perversion of the individual mind or soul. Tyranny is a form of self-love -- or rather, a manifestation of self-love in the public arena. Ponet's fundamental political distinction is between the true king who maintains "justice, to the wealthe and benefite of the hole multitude" (7) and the tyrant "that seketh his owne gayne" (13). Buchanan defines justice, in good classical terms, as that principle that "allow[s] every man his own," and then deepens classical prece pt with Christian charity, distinguishing between the true king who "beareth rule for the subjects welfare" and the tyrant who rules "for himself." (32) Mornay in the Vindiciae elaborates a similar paternalism, when he cites Augustine to demonstrate that "to command is nothing other than to show concern for the people," a selfless exercise of power mirrored in Seneca's accounts of kingship in the golden age, and contrasted -- in these brazen years -- by the predations of the unnatural tyrant "who serves only his own welfare and desires, who neglects and perverts all laws" (93, 96).

Ponet, Buchanan, and Mornay represent tyranny in essentially similar ways, as one more point of agreement inside a community of humanists whose shared understandings are so often illuminated by commonplaces in Melanchthon's thought. Toward the conclusion of the Loci communes of 1555, when contemplating worldly authority, Melanchthon argues that God "gave men light, namely, understanding of natural law through which we know that we should make and keep order in governments, and are obliged to obey natural law as God's will"; once more, as he writes in application of this argument, such laws distinguish true kings from tyrants -- the latter consistently distinguished from the former as rulers who pursue "their own general happiness" and "seek their own tyranny, welfare. pomp, sensual pleasure, and suppression of the truth" (325, 336-37). Such commonplaces are illuminating because they underscore the logic of that shared intellectualism of the resistance theorists. A consistent correspondence is maintained betwe en the public and the private spheres, political and moral life, because always for the Protestant humanist the reality that counts is the one that situates the individual in relation to God. Tyranny in the state proceeds from the tyranny of sin over the soul, as a repetition of Melanchthon's distinctive reading of Adam's fall as a sin of self-love. From the earliest version of the Loci communes (1521), the emphasis remains the same: "Thus it happens the soul being without celestial light and life is in darkness. As a result, it most ardently loves itself, seeks its own desires and wishes nothing but carnal things.... It cannot but be that a creature whom the love of God has not absorbed, loves itself in the highest degree" (82-83). (33) The rape of Lucretia is a speaking picture of tyrannical self-love at work in the state and the soul, and chastity; rightly interpreted, the agent of tyrannicide.

Recovering a history of Protestant resistance theory matters to the present argument, since it points to the Defence as a text in dialogue with a community of texts from this same republic of letters. Like Ponet, Buchanan, Mornay, and Languet, Sidney too employs the language and logic of natural law theory. It highlights in advance the enormous promise of natural law arguments for a writer like Sidney, himself haunted by the nightmare of tyranny. It is necessary to write about the "promise" of this argumentative rhetoric -- its serviceability in securing agreement across confessional boundaries, its employment history in support of the cause -- rather than its appeal or power. In the aftermath of St. Bartholomew's Day 1572 and the capitulations of well-educated humanists like Pibrac, Sidney acknowledged what his friends, Mornay and Languet, wished to ignore altogether: the helplessness of even the best historical examples and philosophical rules to undo the Phalaris of the world. Within his republic of letter s, Sidney was one among many writers employing the pen against tyranny, but he was unique for defending the poet's pen as an especially fit instrument for that labor. This does not mean that his Defence is a call to arms against tyranny. Nothing about the history of the text's circulation as a coterie work passing among family and friends suggests such a purpose. (34) Sidney's purpose, of course, was to defend poetry, and tyrants populate the text in such large numbers because poetry's value in the public sphere, among such a community of like-minded readers (readers who shared similar political goals), can be measured only by reference to its value in subduing them.


The tyranny of self-love looms large throughout the Defence of Poesy as a theme that binds private to public considerations, the pious to the political. Geography helps to illustrate the point. Sidney opens his Defence in the Vienna of Maximilian II, his chief place of residence during his three-year continental tour, where he spent several months reading and studying in the company of Languet and a variety of other irenicists and Philippists. (35) In the 1570s, Vienna was a cosmopolitan city, a magnet for an international cast of intellectuals. Distinguished for its coincidence of religious moderation and flourishing arts, the city was home to the physician and natural philosopher, Tomas Jordan (1539-85) a Hungarian resident of Vienna, as well as to Charles de l'Ecluse, Johannes Crato, and Joannes Sambucus -- all devotees of Melanchthon. Similar to those other Philippists dispersed throughout Northern Europe, these humanists, while preaching the paradox of anti-confessionalism in an age of confessional confl icts, sought to put pious ideals into this-worldly practice as artists, doctors, natural philosophers and political activists. By example of their labors, such a community highlighted one key message of Melanchthon's career, the value of humane studies for pious purposes. When Sidney opens his argument in the Defence, he evokes the memory of the irenic Vienna of Maximilian II (1564-76), that Holy Roman Emperor internationally famous for calling himself not a Catholic but a Christian. In part, Sidney's gesture is meaningful as an act of nostalgia, a brief act of mourning for the world lost there. For Maximilian's Vienna stood in conspicuous contrast to what Sidney considered that espaniolated, counter-Reformation Prague of the new Emperor Rudolf II (1576-1612), whose Tridentine tyranny threatened to undo civil life, civil arts, civil everything. Sidney's main purpose in remembering Maximilian's Vienna, of course, is to summon into mind Signor Pugliano, that horseman whose comically splendid devotion to his art nearly makes Philip wish himself a horse -- a monitory fable about "self-love" as "better than any gilding to make that seem gorgeous wherein ourselves are parties" (95). (36) Sidney distances himself from the mentor, and not for the last time. But as Pugliano's self-love is located in the vanished world of Maximilian's court, as sin threatening the unnatural metamorphosis of man to beast, the very location of the fable shadows a larger public world in which the tyranny of self-loving sovereigns operates unnaturally to darker ends.

Sidney returns to the theme of tyrannical self-love frequently in the Defence, and often with a similar lightness of touch. As one chief rival to the poets, he presents the arrogant philosophers, "casting largesse as they go of definitions, divisions, and distinctions, with a scornful interrogative... soberly ask[ing] whether it be possible to find any path so ready to lead a man to virtue" (105). As the poet's other chief rival, Sidney ushers into view the similarly narcissistic historian: "a wonder to young folks and a tyrant in table talk, den [ying], in a great chafe, that any man for teaching of virtue is comparable to him" (105). The parodic philosopher and historian of the Defence are portraits in pomposity, speaking pictures of self-love tyrannizing over substance as well as style -- and style counts in the cosmopolitan economy of Sidney's poetic universe. Self-love can corrupt English poetry too, not just the scholarly disciplines, as happens when a surfeit of "similitudes in certain printed discours es" spawns "a most tedious prattling," the exaggerated artificiality exercised by the native writer who "more careful to speak curiously than to speak truly... doth dance to his own music" (139). Dancing to one's own music is precisely what poetic imitation, properly understood, is designed to inhibit. The liberal art serves the liberal mind. As Sidney learned from Johann Sturm (1507-89), his one-time teacher at the Strasbourg academy and subsequently his lifelong friend, the always cosmopolitan goal of imitation (the comparatio of great literary models) is to eliminate what this republic of letters universally regarded as the most tyrannical of vices, the sin of self-love: "Imitatia ingenium ultra naturae ducit terminos: ut se amare desinat: & meliores admirari incipiat." (Imitation leads his genius beyond the boundaries of nature: so that he ceases to love himself: and begins to admire better things.) (37)

The comprehensiveness of Sidney's concerns is striking. Pugliano's artistic folly, the philosopher's and the historian's disciplinary arrogance, the writer's stylistic solipsism -- all are linked as variations on the theme of self-love. In turn, all shadow that darker political tyranny of Phalaris, who, roasting his victims alive for the pleasure of hearing their screams, himself (Cecropia-wise) seems like a beastly parody of the poet. (38) Such comprehensiveness is especially revealing, in turn, about Sidney's conceptual predisposition: his deeply cultivated aversion for the narrowly partisan, whether that partisanship manifests itself as the product of English literary provincialism, and its quirky self-pleasing rhetoric, the disciplinary narrowness of arrogant scholars, or the brutal fanaticism of contemporary confessional politics. Against the provincialism of the English tradition, the Defence persistently illustrates its arguments from a cosmopolitan canon of continental works, ancient and modern. Again st disciplinary narrowness, it asserts the claims of poetry as a kind of master-science, superior to history and philosophy, because it performs inclusively (moving and teaching) the work of both. Against the partisanship of confessionalism, it refuses theological disputation or indulging even a hint of partisan name-calling (no anti-papist banter troubles its pages), and when it proceeds in a climactic moment to celebrate a pageant of worthies -- those great men who have also been great poets -- it embraces ecumenically Hebrews and pagans (David and Sophocles) as well as Catholics and Protestants, Calvinists and Lutherans, with its praise for "Such cardinals as Bembus and Bibiena" (Pietro Bembo and Bernardo Dovizi, humanists and poets) in parallel to such "preachers and teachers" as Beza and Melanchthon. Conceived in this light, then, Sidney's apology for poetry emerges as a sort of "cosmopology," as a defense of fiction-making in the service of freedom. (39) The right poet rescues poetry and learning, churc h and state, from the always partisan, always divisive tyranny of self-love. The comprehensiveness of this cosmopology's concerns, in turn, is revealing about Sidney's own deep commitment to the "intellectualism" of this circle of humanist allies, and to his own belief that the high-flying liberty of the poet is exercised most vitally in the liberation of the mind.

Nothing shows more profoundly Sidney's debts to the natural law theorists of his circle than the weight his Defence places upon the anthropological arguments at its core. Wonderful as the making of golden worlds may be, in their superiority to nature's brazen one, Sidney carefully structures the conceptual center of his aggressively optimistic poetics to highlight the consequences of the poet's making for man, for whom the poet's "uttermost cunning" is employed (100). Our natural condition is a fallen one. Because of Adam's sin, "our erected wit maketh us know what perfection is and yet our infected will keepeth us from reaching unto it" (101). Poetry works by attempting to restore that now corrupted will to goodness, freeing the individual from the brazen world of history -- and the sins "natural" to it -- as it recreates that natural harmony between wit and will enjoyed in the golden world of the garden. Sidney here reaps the traditional advantages of the natural law theorist's argument in Christian form: t he appeal simultaneously to nature (created nature) as corrupt and to Nature (creating Nature) as a vehicle for securing freedom from corruption. (40) Consider how that freedom is gained. As the Defence makes clear, the superiority of the poet's world to history's (the explanation for its golden quality) consists "not in the work itself," but in "that Idea or fore-conceit" represented, counterfeited or figured forth by the poet's still-erect wit (101). (41) His Idea is a universal truth about experience -- a representation of virtue or vice -- which stands at the foundation of the fiction, generating speaking pictures and providing unity to the whole. In this context, what is especially noteworthy about those Ideas whenever they are specifically illustrated in the Defence -- the chastity of Lucretia, the piety of Aeneas, the courage of Turnus -- is their invariable representation as the commonplaces of Sidney's own education in moral philosophy, in reading, that is, natural law.

Once more, not only does Sidney clearly associate those Ideas given substance by right poets with the moral principles of natural law theory, but also he appears to account for their "rightness" (legitimacy) on the basis of shared philosophical assumptions. The Defence assumes both the autonomy of the Idea and its legitimacy (its authority as an instance of true knowledge). It is possible to identify the poem's generative Idea (its "stuff') as the creation of the poet's own "erected" wit, but Sidney never writes about the poet as a maker of Ideas. (42) Hence, such an identification appears improbable. More likely, Sidney conceives of the Idea as innate to that same erected wit, an impression remaining from his Maker inscribed within (hence, innate to) what the Defence refers to as the mind's own divine essence. When he agrees with those "learned men who have learnedly thought" that "in Nature we know it is well to doe well, and what is well and what is evil," he does so by appealing to belief in natural law w ritten in the heart of man that teaches him, as a body of innate knowledge, truths that extend from basic tenets of moral philosophy to the recognition of the soul's immortality and the existence of a providential God -- precisely the recognition provided, for instance, to his "pagan" Arcadian princes on the eve of their trial and feared death (113). In a sixteenth-century context, most prominent among those "learned men" who espoused a theory of innate ideas as the cornerstone both of moral and natural philosophy was Philip Melanchthon.

Sidney draws upon the intellectual assumptions of his circle in specific ways: by adopting an anthropological framework to explain the poet's "scope" or purpose; by associating the poet's Ideas with the commonplaces of moral philosophy; and by assuming, as deep structure for his own arguments on behalf of poetic authority, a theory of innate ideas divinely scripted in the mind as natural law. His debts are evident, and all the more explicit with the reminder that what this argument has termed the anthropology of the Defence is given a specific authorial source in a poem whose real subject is also tyrannicide, the beast fable from the wedding celebrations of The Old Arcadia's third book (c. 1578-80). At the wedding of Lalus and Kala, Sidney's fictive double, Philisides, recounts a musical fable that he reports to have learned from "old Languet," whom he calls affectionately "the shepherd best swift Ister knew." As fictions multiply inside fictions, with Sidney writing about Philisides performing a song remembe red from the teacher of his youth, paradoxically the poem moves closer to the world of real events: Languet is the only contemporary ever explicitly named in Sidney's poetry. Philisides attributes to him both his piety and his moral education (255):
He said the music best thilke powers pleased
Was jump concord between our wit and will,
Where highest notes to godliness are raised,
And lowest sink not down to jot of ill.
With old true tales he wont mine ears to fill:
How shepherds did of yore, how now, they thrive,
Spoiling their flock, or while twixt them they strive.

Principles of faculty psychology secure the foundation of Philisides' political fable about the origins of monarchy: the concord between wit and will that Languet praises as a tenet of natural law (and he is "shepherd best" because he best knows the laws of nature) corresponds exactly to the balance celebrated between sovereign and subjects in the state. 'When that concord is violated, with the emergence of self-loving sovereigns who "think all things... made them to please," golden-world harmony is undone by brazen-world tyranny (257). The same division between wit and will that motivates Sidney's aggressively optimistic poetics in the Defence achieves in his beast fable an explicitly political focus: Philisides ends by counseling his "poor beasts" either "in patience [to] bide your hell, Or know your strengths, and then you shall do well" (259). There is no real mystery about Philisides' advice or Sidney's meaning. His Arcadias take for granted, as readily as his Defence, the necessity and virtue of tyranni cide. What matters here to the present argument is the clarification that the beast fable supplies about the relationship between the Defence and the natural law theory of Sidney's intellectual circle. Sidney's golden world poetic is so frequently couched in the language of natural law, and so persistently motivated by fears of self-love and tyranny, not by virtue of some loose correspondence between friend and mentor, but rather -- as Philisides' fable makes clear -- as the authorially explicit debt of a student to a teacher. Sidney inherited an anthropology of self-love and a politics of tyrannicide from his Philippist mentor, Hubert Languet.

Sidney associates the Ideas of his right poet with the commonplaces of moral philosophy, this essay has argued, because he was inspired by an old shepherd whose chief vehicle of teaching appears to have been history: "With old true tales he wont mine ears to fill." Sidney acknowledged profound debts, especially to Languet, even while he was at work importantly in his Defence in contesting related intellectual assumptions. Associations do not constitute identities, and however alike Sidney's Ideas are to those of the moral philosopher, a crucial distinction exists between their deployment. The distinction is crucial because that difference in deployment of the Idea explains why and how Sidney both borrows crucial intellectual assumptions of his circle and simultaneously contests them -- explains why, in short, such shared assumptions could supply Sidney with a motive for writing poetry rather than history or philosophy. In history, the Idea is always conditioned by the contaminating circumstances of an imperfe ct world of events: Phalaris dies quietly in bed, and tyranny goes unchastened. In philosophy, Ideas remain abstractions, too remote and insubstantial either to achieve clarity or to carry affective force. By contrast, the poet's Ideas are substantive images exemplified as pictures of his own making. The figuring-forth of the Sidneian poet works "substantially" in his creation of a "perfect picture ... of a true and lively knowledge" -- knowledge that makes a reality available for the reader (101, 107). It is crucial to emphasize the important activity of the poem in presenting a "reality" in order to foreground the extraordinary intellectual and affective power that Sidney attributes to the Idea as it is figured forth -- the capacity of the poet's "perfect" pictures to unleash real powers that exist at once in Nature and in the mind. This is a distinction worth maintaining because it highlights Sidney's decision to liberate the Idea from its purely conceptual locus in philosophy and its conditional status in history and to return it to its origins in rhetoric -- a liberation that he achieves without sacrificing the exemplary power of Languet's "old true tales" or capitulating to history's sad capitivity to the brazen world of events.

Thus, in the Defence, Sidney's poet "goeth hand in hand with Nature" because that cooperation secures for his Ideas a whole separate order of persuasiveness related to, but distinct from their logical power (100). It secures the added dimension of existential affectiveness, the persuasiveness of the Ideas depicted by fictions -- persuasiveness that derives from their power to speak to the needs of human nature. We respond to fictions -- especially to the characters represented by narrative fictions -- because we see ourselves mirrored in them, "ourselves" as teleologically considered beings we naturally are or should be. Ideas have, therefore, a rhetorical, rather than just a conceptual power, rendering them superior both to the always conditioned examples of unsatisfying history and to the abstractions of philosophical thought. Such insight suggests, in turn, some key assumptions about what it means for the poet "to deliver forth in such excellency" Ideas just "as he hath imagined them" (101).

Sidney attributes to Nature in the Defence extraordinary power, not just as that great creating force with which the poet walks hand in hand -- itself a speaking picture of the cooperation of the maker and his Maker, the human and the divine -- but also the motivating impulse attributed to human nature in its appetite for goodness. The Ideas figured forth by poets have power, Sidney argues repeatedly, because "poetry ever setteth virtue so out in her best colours ... that one must needs be enamoured of her" (111). When the reader is led to imagine Aeneas carrying old Anchises on his back, the "form of goodness" poetically depicted, "cannot but" be loved (114). So similarly, in his discussion of heroic characters like Cyrus, Turnus, and Achilles, Sidney cites Plato and Cicero's opinion "that who could see virtue would be wonderfully ravished with the love of her beauty"(119). Poetry has such power to "plant goodness even in the secretest cabinet of our souls" because of the human appetite for virtue and becaus e of that substantive form (the imagined hero himself!) in which the Idea of virtue is made real -- its substantiality at once moving and teaching, freeing the will from the tyranny of its own self-serving appetites as it recalls to the mind the goods of Nature (106). Sidney is not naive, and he scarcely thinks poetry always effective. Bartholomew's Day 1572 and the failures of Pibrac were far too potent memories to allow him to sustain idealizations unreflectively. The tyrant Alexander Pheraeus, as Plutarch relates, was moved to tears by tragedy, but "in despite of himself" continued to perpetrate tragedies (118). The phrase "in despite of himself" makes Sidney's point for him; Pheraeus acted against his nature. By natural law, what the will wills is virtue.

Sidney draws upon the anthropology of natural law theorists in order to contest the very adequacy of history and philosophy as disciplines. Or more concretely, what Sidney learned about human nature from Languet and Mornay also persuaded him -- given the zodiacal powers of the wit, and the infected condition of the will -- that only poetry could have the power to undo the tyranny of self-love over the soul and self-loving sovereigns in the state. Given that anthropology; the wit must be instructed, and (even more importantly) the will moved: both requirements demand a discipline beyond history and philosophy, one that including both, transcends both. In a golden world set free from the contaminations of history -- of a past that too often records the triumph of vice over virtue, or a present that too often divides Christian from Christian in endless confessional debate -- the poet takes aim against the Idea of tyranny, realized as a substantial image in a fictive world beyond partisan politics, in order to ch asten history -- to purge the body politic from the contaminations of self-love.

Just as Sidney begins the important work of the Defence by illustrating imitation with the example of Tarquin's tyranny over Lucretia, so later in the text he highlights two more tales of tyranny, the stories of Menenius Agrippa and the biblical Nathan. The first narrates Agrippa's success in quelling a rebellion in ancient Rome by means of a story about the interdependence of the various parts of the human body: populist anger against what appears patrician greed is alleviated as the working limbs of the polity (the plebeians) are made to understand the necessary function of the belly. While the belly (the patrician class) may consume, such consumption nourishes (Menenius' exemplum insists) the whole of the body politic. Sidney's second story narrates Nathan's success in devising a tale for David in the wake of his adultery with Bathsheba and his culpability in the death of her husband. Nathan's fictive account of "a man whose beloved lamb was ungratefully taken from him" quickly shames David into repentance (114). The two stories are introduced at a crucial juncture of Sidney's argument. They are placed at the climactic moment of the Defence's demonstration of poetry's "most excellent work" -- the "high argument" of its confirmatio -- just before the turn to justify poetry by an examination of its parts (115). So situated, the tales supply summary proofs of the main burden of Sidney's claim on behalf of the superiority of the poet's "works" -- its effects upon the reader -- over those of his chief rivals for cultural authority, the historian and the philosopher. (43)

The tales of Agrippa and Nathan supply a complementary pair of proof texts. One is drawn from classical history, the other from sacred. One illustrates the power of a fable to provide "a perfect reconcilement" in the public sphere, as Agrippa's tale of the belly heals the divisions in Rome's body politic; the other illustrates the power of fiction-making in the private sphere, as David is shamed by Nathan's story of the lamb "as in a glass [to]see his own filthiness," to repent for adultery and murder, and reclaim ("as that psalm of mercy well testifieth") his role as God's chosen servant (114-15). One illustrates the power of a feigned tale over the people, one over the prince. In both, Sidney dramatizes the tyranny of self-love as a universal condition afflicting individuals and the state. In Agrippa's fable, we see the tyranny of mob violence -- one of the principal forms of tyranny analyzed in Buchanan's De jure; in Nathan's tale, the tyranny of lust over the sovereign -- one of Melanchthon's favorite pro of texts about tyrannical self-love. (44) Paired in this manner, the twin tales seem deliberately chosen in order to illustrate comprehensively, across the domains of pagan and sacred history, public and private life, among the low and the high, the superior effects of poetry's "most excellent work" in teaching and persuading.

As a preface to his illustrations of that work, in the paragraph immediately preceding, Sidney recalls approvingly Aristotle's claim on behalf of poetry's "conveniency to Nature" as a way of highlighting those powerfully persuasive acts of identification that make readers want to see themselves as Turnus courageously preferring death to dishonor, as Aeneas piously bearing old Anchises on his back, or as Lucretia chastely resisting the tyranny of lust (114). Both "the whole people of Rome" collectively and David individually are brought to an architectonic knowledge of themselves; they are taught fictions that heighten understanding about their natures and that move them by reason of such knowledge to virtuous action (114). In both cases, that architectonic knowledge is liberating, since knowledge about their real natures (the nature of the body politic's necessary interdependence of parts, the nature of the self's dependence on God) sparks change that frees them from self-love and renders them what they truly are (a whole people, a chosen servant). (45) Poetry's "most excellent work," Sidney's speaking pictures eloquently declare, is liberty.


"Liberty" seems just the right word with which to conclude a discussion about the politics of Sidney's poetics because it points to the need to rewrite the revisionary critical history imposed upon it by recent critics generally and by Alan Sinfield especially. In particular, it seems high time to liberate the Defence of Poesy from its guilty association with Soviet-style absolutism. There can be no question about Sidney's intellectual commitments to a universalizing epistemology: the poet's golden world achieves its legitimacy and power only because the Ideas to which it lends rhetorical substance have the status of natural law. However, as this essay has argued in some detail, Sidney had recourse to the language and logic of natural law precisely in order to contest the claims of what appeared to his understanding and to his experience of the international landscape as politically abhorrent absolutism. Sidney's natural law arguments are drawn from the rhetorical arsenal of Protestant tyrannomachists waging campaigns against the AntiChrist of post-Tridentine Catholicism, dating from Melanchthon's appeals against the emperor in the War of the League of the Schmalkaldan to Languet's assaults against Philip II during the Dutch wars of liberation. Derived from political theorists who espoused a theory of limited monarchy, such rhetoric unsurprisingly was anathema to Tudor absolutists -- the exponents of a pious orthodoxy with its own very real absolutist ideology of obedience. In light of which circumstance, assertions about Sidney's complicity in Elizabethan absolutism seem peculiarly unhistorical, especially when unsupported by analysis. By advancing natural law arguments, Sidney and his circle hoped to have discovered a vehicle for securing reasoned political agreements beyond the partisan rhetoric of confessional debate, the "universalizing" force of its ideas most important for their putative power to reconstruct universal agreement among civil communities. If that hope seems at this historical juncture theoret ically naive and pragmatically bankrupt, as the product of intellectually elite humanists who never secured the institutional authority to put purpose into practice, such a hope seems no more dismissable as the product of factional politics than it does as absolutist propagandizing.

The community that matters most for understanding the politics of the Defence is not a faction at the Elizabethan court (vaguely characterizable as earnest puritan" by Sinfield or "forward Protestant" by Worden), but an identifiable network of cosmopolitan Protestant humanists reaching from Languet to Mornay to Rogers to Buchanan to Sidney, one which found its most important "commonplace" agreements in that distinctive version of Protestantism that derives from Philip Melanchthon's vastly influential and still-obscured labors. It is to that community that Sidney owes his tyrannomachist politics, his natural law theory, his intellectualist assumptions, and his anthropology, as well as his identification of tyranny with self-love. His was a community, an active "republic of letters," if one likes, but never powerful enough in institutional terms to rise to level of a faction. Recovering a history of ideas from that network of intellectually elite humanists with whom Sidney associated intimately throughout his a dult life and from which he derived so much of his political and poetic thought has a special urgency, it might be well to conclude, because we still know so little about it.


(1.) For a recent review of scholarship about tyranny in the Arcadias, see Worden, 3-20, as well as Briggs, Ribner, Talbert, Bergbusch, 1974 and 1981, and McCoy. See too Raitiere for an informative, if not always persuasive study of sidney's thought in relation to late sixteenth-century political philosophy. For a response to Worden's reading of the Arcadias, see Stillman, 1998.

(2.) The best known of his tragedies is Baptistes sive calumnia tragoedia (pub. 1577). For Buchanan's dose ties to the Sidney circle, see the still useful essay by Phillips.

(3.) Chastity is always a political issue, and offers itself to various critical interpretations. Seen from Jed's perspective, Sidney's grounding of his poetics upon the rape of Lucretia could be portrayed as another illustration of the compulsive desire of patriarchal culture to control women's bodies. By contrast, Shuger (1998) has argued for the story's significance in highlighting what she describes as considerably greater contemporary fears about the control of male bodies, specifically the dangerous bodily desires of young aristocrats. Sidney's fictions are filled with fictive beings overwhelmed by desire, from Plangus and Erona to Pyrocles and Philoclea. His Cupid, pointing arrows in all directions, seems not very picky about gender distinctions. I should recall, too, in order to highlight the tyrannomachist perspective of the passage, the interesting coincidence between Sidney's choice of a historical moment ripe with memories of that tyrant-slayer, Brutus, and the telling pseudonym of Stephanus Junius Brutus, the Celt, "author" of the most infamous of all the anti-tyrannical texts of the age, the Vindiciae, contra tyrannos (1576).

(4.) Sinfield raises questions about the nature of Sidney's piety too complicated to be explored fully here. For an extended treatment of his claims about the irremediable tensions between humanism and Protestantism in Sidney's thought, see Stillman, 2002. Such claims rely on similarly a historical assumptions about the nature of Sidney's piety particularly and Protestant piety in the Reformation generally.

(5.) For a similar application of the Sidney-Soviet analogy, see Waller, 42. For a critique of presentism, the ready application of present-day analogues and standards to the distant past, in new historical and cultural materialist criticism, see Kastan, 15-19. A more balanced introduction to the politics of Sidney's poetics can be found in Norbrook's chapter, "Sidney and Political Pastoral," 91-108; he argues that Sidney's celebration of poetry's "freedom from subjection to empirical fact allows a detachment from traditional ideas and the free exploration of alternatives" (94). For an argument that Sidney's aim is to restrict and make "more class-bound a varied vernacular tradition" and "to establish a dominant form of national literature" (145), see Hadfield's chapter, "Whose bloody country is it anyway? Sir Philip Sidney, the nation and the public," 132-69. In contrast to Hadfield, I stress the importance of the Defence's studied and self-conscious cosmopolitanism. For a reading of the Defence as a text see king legitimacy from its "ultimate allegiance nor to poetry but to military action" (161), see Berry. For a more interesting, more sophisticated analysis of the Defence in relation to Sidney's personal anxieties about contemporary political crises, see Ferguson, esp. 159-65.

(6.) Sinfield's argument assumes (and a strangely essentializing assumption it is!) that a similarity in conceptual form somehow determines similarity in political significance, as if all appeals to universal ideas were inherently invitations to absolutism. See Kenshur's cogent critique of essentialist notions about epistemological principles, 658-68.

(7.) The best compact introduction to the Philippism as a distinctive anti-confessional movement is Peterson, 1996. As he notes, "The much-maligned loser in its struggle with the Gnesio-Lutherans (the so-called "true" Lutherans), the Philippists and their religious perspectives have since then received relatively little study of a balanced and scholarly sort" (256). A variety of new studies indicate that this neglect is ending. In addition to Peterson's bibliography, see Koib and Nischan. For a detailed account of contemporary Philippism from the 1550s to 1580 from the perspective of Hubert Languet and his extensive network of associates, see Nicollier-de Weck. See, too, Melanchthon in Europe, Maag's important collection of new essays, and Golz and Mayrhofer's second more focused collection of articles on Philippism in educational circles. See also Stillman, forthcoming, about the impact of these so-called Philippists on Sidney's assumptions about reading and writing, and Stillman, 2002. Those two essays, in combination with this one, examine Sidney's debts to the Philippists in the Defence from the perspective of his poetics, piety and politics. Among scholars of English Renaissance literature, Melanchthon and the Philippists are now almost wholly unread, wholly unexamined figures. There are important exceptions to this claim, among whom most notably are Shuger, 1998, whose scholarly work on the Augustinian tradition includes useful examinations of Melanchthon's rhetorical thought, and Kaske, who in a recent book about Spenser breaks significant new ground in measuring Melanchthon's impact on the English literary Renaissance.

(8.) In 1572, Sidney was a young man of great expectations - charismatic, brilliant, and eminently well-connected as heir apparent to the combined estates of Leicesrer and Warwick -- and Languet looked to him as a prospective leader of the Protestant cause. For his efforts to educate Sidney in that role, see Nicollier-de Weck, 303-39.

(9.) For Sidney and the new world, and his intimate connections with both Huguenots in France and Philippists in Germany and the Netherlands, see Kuin's 1998 fine, informative essay.

(10.) I write "appears" because the letter is now lost; the letter regarding Pibrac is mentioned in Languet to Sidney, 24 July 1574 in Sidney and Languet, 230.

(11.) Languet to Sidney, 24 July 1574, in Ibid. For a useful historical account of Pibrac's defense of the Massacre, see Kingdon, 91-95.

(12.) Ibid. The quotation from Juvenal is taken from Juvenal, 165. The translation has been modified in the final line for accuracy.

(13.) For an illuminating study of the complex relationship between Sidney and Mornay, see Kuin, 1999.

(14.) Mornay, 30. Scholars still question the authorship of the Vindiciae, sometimes attributing the work not to Mornay, but to Languer. For the best recent discussion of the authorship question, see Nicollier-de Weck. 465-87.

(15.) Scriptores, "Caracalla," 2:21-23.

(16.) For a brief historical overview of concepts of tyranny, see the dated but informative essay by Armstrong. For tyranny as a political concern in the Protestant north, see Skinner, esp. "Part Three: Calvinism and the Theory of Revolution," 189-348.

(17.) See Osborn, 70. For Sidney's witty turn on the Phalaris story in Astrophil and Stella, see Hager, 96-97.

(18.) See Baron, 94-120. Dante's republican descendants were more than a little embarrassed by his monarchical sympathies and took some notable liberties in reimagining his political sympathies; that Sidney repeats -- and thereby copies -- the mistake of those commentators in attributing to Dante punishments against tyrants never imposed gives some indication as to just how indebted Sidney himself was to this republican tradition of antityrannical thought.

(19.) Skinner, 325-27, 334-37.

(20.) Ibid, 321-21. In his Introduction to the Vindiciae, George Garnett calls the argument "not only professedly catholic, but uncannily Catholic," 1.

(21.) For attention to natural law in Sidney's political tracts, see Stillman, 1985, which examines his application of natural law arguments to several contemporary political controversies in relation to The Old Arcadia.

(22.) Languet to Sidney, 24 July 1574, in Sidney and Languet, 233. "Ego et narura et vitae instituto sum ab eiusmodi iudiciis alienus, quod scio multos in me reprehendere et dicere, me hoc habere a praeceptore meo Melanchrhone. Me nec praeceptoris, nec instituti mci adhuc poenitet...," Languet, 1646, 168.

(23.) "Johann Sturm to Michael Beuther," 1565, before March 30, in Storm, 1995, 291. An encyclopedically productive polymath whose thought changed importantly over the expanse of a long and tumultuous career, Melanchthon is a difficult figure to grasp whole. He wrote about virtually all the arts and sciences of the Renaissance, especially theology, moral, political and natural philosophy, politics, rhetoric, logic, and literature. For his biography, see Manschreck. For a helpifil, compact introduction to Melanchthon as humanist, see Rupp. The best introduction to Melanchthon remains his Loci communes theologici, the 1521 edition available in a good translation by Hill -- an introduction that needs supplementation, for a vision of the later Melanchthon, with a reading of the much revised Loci communes of 1555.

(24.) As a result, even after their betrayal by August of Saxony, with that coup d'etat that drove them from Wittenberg in 1574, the Philippists across Europe looked longingly for that Protestant prince (whether a Casimir or an Orange, an Anjou or a Leicester) whose authority could best be employed to defeat the tyrannical power of the pope, just as they tirelessly lamented the failure of those real-world Protestant princes, idling in sloth or self-indulgent pleasures, to satisfy those expectations.

(25.) Kristeller, 87.

(26.) Wengert supplies a good recent overview of Melanchthon's later career that draws attention to his increasing employment of natural law theory in his last chapter, "Melanchthon at Erasmus' Funeral: 1528-1560," 139-58. See, too, Schneider on Melanchthon's development of a "natural theology" in his later years, 142-56. For an older, mote detailed treatment of the topic in Luther and Melanchthon, see McNeill, and the comprehensive study by Bauer.

(27.) The original German text, the Von der Notwehr, was written by Justus Menius, and as Peterson, 1987, shows, (135) "exists in two quite different versions, the first based on Menius' manuscript with revisions by Melanchthon, particularly in the second half, and the second for which Melanchthon in the correspondence took full credit." It was that second version that served as the basis for the Latin translation.

(28.) Melanchthon, 1547, sig. Eii (verso).

(29.) Ibid, sig. Eii (verso).

(30.) Skinner, 223.

(31.) Languet's authorship of the Apologie was partial; his co-author was Pierre Loyseleur.

(32.) Buchanan, 1766, 54. On the importance of storge (the benevolence of the powerful to the powerless) to Melanchthon's thought, see Shuger, 1990, 224-27.

(33.) Melanchthon, 1834-60, 21:98. "Ita fit, ut anima luce, vitaque coelesti carens excecetur, et sese ardentissime amet, sua quaerat, non cupiat, non velir, nisi carnalia .... Fieri enim nequit, quin ses amet creatura, quam non absorpsit amor dei."

(34.) See Woudhuysen, 234-35, on the Defence's limited circulation in manuscript."

(35.) For an excellent scholarly study of Vienna in the early 1570s as the home of the irenicists, see Louthan.

(36.) Sidney knew first hand the difference between these imperial courts, having served as one-time ambassador from Elizabeth to Rudolf II, offering consolations for the death of Maximilian. See Prescott's fine unearthing of the personal quality of Sidney's lesson in self-love from his training under Pugliano -- in Philip's learning (as "phil-hippus" -- the horse lover), that is, the perils of solipsism; 149, n. 24. See, too, Hager, 113, on "the odd autobiographical quibble on philippian tendency to horse-love."

(37.) Strum, 1574, sig. Bii. My quotation comes from a fascinating, extended discussion in Chapter II about the utility of imitation in which Sturm celebrates the cosmopolitan value of the literary arts in remedying self-love. His De imitatione was published during the same year that Sidney was his pupil in Strasbourg.

(38.) For Cecropia as a parody of the Sidneian poet, see Levao, 235-49.

(39.) When Sidney, 1965, 131, expands the list, he includes "learned philosophers," "great orators," and "piercing wits," only to conclude his catalogue by the celebration of a "grave" counselor to be preferred "before all": "that Hospital of France, than whom (I think) that realm never brought forth a more accomplished judgment, more firmly builded upon virtue." Sidney's praise for Michel de L'Hopital (c. 1505-73) is the appropriate culmination of this cosmopolitan and ecumenically inclusive parade of worthies in support of poetry. As the longtime Chancellor of France, L'Hospital was known as a champion of toleration, and was personally instrumental to Languet in his efforts to secure lasting peace for the Huguenots after the peace treaty of Amboise. For Languet and L'Hopiral, see Nicollier-de Weck, 156-60. For Languet's at once appreciative, ecumenically inclusive, and comical remarks on L'Hopital, see Proxenus, 32, who reports that after praising his excellent and learned poetry, Languer remarked that, on account of L'Hopital's beard and facial features, many have resorted to calling him St. Jerome. I owe the term "cosmopology" to Mr. Hugh Davis, one of the best and brightest of my graduate students.

(40.) See Poner for example: "This rule ['how he should behave him self, what he should doo, and what he may not doo'] is the lawe of nature, furst planted and graffed only in the minde of man, that after (for that his minde was through synne defiled, filled with darknesse, and encombred with many doubtes) set furthe in writing in the decaloge or ten commaundementes: and after reduced by Christ our saveour into these two wordes" (2). The best introduction to Sidney's complicated use of the term "nature" here remains Ulreich, 79-83.

(41.) Both "Idea" and "Nature" function in the Defence as terms of art -- critical terms that carry specific and determinate significance -- and I capitalize both at appropriate moments to emphasize that those terms are to be understood in Sidney's sense.

(42.) Sidney, 1965, 120, writes that the poet "doth not learn a conceit out of a matter, but maketh matter for a conceit." The "conceit," it seems, is the Idea that the poet possesses; the poet's "matter" is that sensible material with which he "figures forth" or embodies (like creating nature) the "conceit" that he possesses. In an interesting article, DeNeef proposes that Sidney's "foreconceit" is the "mediating term" between the Idea and the "textually bodied" conceit. For an extended study of Sidney's debts to a visualist epistemology, see Robinson.

(43.) Sidney writes with an eye to causes, the "ending end of earthly learning," from a strict teleological perspective, adopting Aristotelian vocabulary (architectonike) to a Christian anthropology ("divine essence"); that vocabulary -- itself evocative of the Christian Aristotelianism of the late Melanchthon -- is, in turn, filtered through an important rhetorical term ("scope") equally distinctive, as I show, to Philippist oratorical theory in Stillman, forthcoming. See Enarrationes Aliquot Librorum Ethicorum Aristotelis in Melanchthon, 1834-60, 16:283, n. 2, where Melanchthon, writing as a teacher, highlights the conjunction between Aristotle's concept of architectonic knowledge and the knowledge Christians require "ut cognoscamus Deum" (so that we may know God). A single standard measures the relative value of the disciplines: the success of each in hitting the "scope," the ultimate aim or mark of the humane sciences in their pursuit of architectonic knowledge -- what Sidney, 1965, 104, describes alterna tely as the lifting up of the mind "to the enjoying of his own divine essence" and "the knowledge of man's self, in the ethic and politique consideration, with the end of well doing and nor of well knowing only."

(44.) See Buchanan, 1766, 6, where he cites the "rude multitude" as one of the three principal manifestations of tyranny.

(45.) For an analysis of this passage in relation to Sidney's political concerns, see Ferguson, 159-65. See also Prescott's incisive commentary on Sidney's biblically inspired effort "to turn the reader's own gaze inward;" 148-50. For a parallel argument about the relationship between Sidney and Amyot in their respective representations of Cyrus, see Miller, 267.


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Title Annotation:Sir Philip Sidney's Defence of Poesy
Author:Stillman, Robert E.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Geographic Code:4EUUE
Date:Dec 22, 2002
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