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Classical Influences on Renaissance Literature

(Who..and why is one figure pointing up and the other down?)

During the late Middle Ages, the Renaissance and later in the Eighteenth century, the gradual rediscovery and translation of classical authors--Plato, Aristotle, Horace, Cicero, Homer etc. exerted a tremendous influence in Europe and caused much controversy. Scholars at the universities eagerly sought to incorporate the material into the curriculum, while conservative churchmen wondered whether this new material, certainly pagan, would displace church doctrine. The greatest intellectual synthesis of the age happened when St. Thomas Aquinas synthesized Aristotle's logic with church doctrine (Scholasticism). The church eventually realized that there existed much truth in classical scholarship that did not contradict church doctrine.


CLICK HERE for an excellent overview of the diffusion of classical literature and philosophy in the Renaissance. The source is Walter Pater's The Renaissance, (New York: Modern Library, 1960), Chapter II: Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494).

Allen, E. L. From Plato to Nietzsche. New York: Fawcett Books, 1988, pp. 37-40.

Read materials provided in class concerning:

What follows are key excerpts from classical authors that shaped thought in the Renaissance and beyond...



[The following metaphor from The Republic uses an epistemological metaphor that could well define Renaissance thought...]

...As a greedy guest takes a taste of every dish which is successively brought to table, he not having allowed himself time to enjoy the one before, so have I gone from one subject to another without having discovered what I sought at first, the nature of justice. I left that inquiry and turned away to consider whether justice is virtue and wisdom or evil and folly; and when there arose a further question about the comparative advantages of justice and injustice, I could not refrain from passing on to that. And the result of the whole discussion has been that I know nothing at all. For I know not what justice is, and therefore I am not likely to know whether it is or is not a virtue, nor can I say whether the just man is happy or unhappy.

[Does Plato's concept of the dialectic operate in the Renaissance?]

...Dialectic, and dialectic alone, goes directly to the first principle [the form of the good] and is the only science which does away with hypotheses in order to make her ground secure; the eye of the soul, which is literally buried in an outlandish slough, is by her gentle aid lifted upwards; and she uses as handmaids and helpers in the work of conversion, the sciences which we have been discussing. Custom terms them sciences, but they ought to have some other name, implying greater clearness than opinion and less clearness than science: and this, in our previous sketch, was called understanding. But why should we dispute about names when we have realities of such importance to consider?


PLATO: You have been told that the idea of good is the highest knowledge, and that all other things become useful and advantageous only by their use of this. You can hardly be ignorant that of this I was about to speak, concerning which, as you have often heard me say, we know so little; and, without which, any other knowledge or possession of any kind will profit us nothing. Do you think that the possession of all other things is of any value if we do not possess the good? or the knowledge of all other things if we have no knowledge of beauty and goodness? Assuredly not. You are further aware that most people affirm pleasure to be the good, but the finer sort of wits say it is knowledge Yes. And you are aware too that the latter cannot explain what they mean by knowledge, but are obliged after all to say knowledge of the good?

PLATO: Besides reason we must also set the results of necessity, for this world came into being from a mixture of necessity and intelligence. Intelliegence controlled necessity by persuading it for the most part to bring about the best result, and it was by this subordination of necessity to reasonable persuasion that the universe was originally constituted as it is.


PLATO: Must we not infer that all these poetical individuals are only imitators; they copy images of virtue and the like, but the truth they never reach? The poet is like a painter who will make a likeness of a cobbler though he understands nothing of cobbling.

[Recall the lectures on basic mimeticism; how are we to take this given what follows--i.e., that Plato who 'condemns' poetry is the author of several of the most profoundly significant metaphors in the history of European thought?]


[In the Ideal state, there must be devotion to and respect for the gods; would these ideas be compatible with Christianity?]

God is always to be represented as he truly is, whatever be the sort of poetry, epic, lyric or tragic, in which the representation is given. Right. And is he not truly good? and must he not be represented as such? Certainly. And no good thing is hurtful? No, indeed. And that which is not hurtful hurts not? Certainly not. And that which hurts not does no evil? No. And can that which does no evil be a cause of evil? Impossible. And the good is advantageous? Yes. And therefore the cause of well-being? Yes. It follows therefore that the good is not the cause of all things, but of the good only? Assuredly. Then God, if he be good, is not the author of all things, as the many assert, but he is the cause of a few things only, and not of most things that occur to men. For few are the goods of human life, and many are the evils, and the good is to be attributed to God alone; of the evils the causes are to be sought elsewhere, and not in him. That appears to me to be most true, he said... God is not the author of all things, but of good only...

Well, but can you imagine that God will be willing to lie, whether in word or deed, or to put forth a phantom of himself? I cannot say, he replied. Do you not know, I said, that the true lie, if such an expression may be allowed, is hated of gods and men? What do you mean? he said. I mean that no one is willingly deceived in that which is the truest and highest part of himself, or about the truest and highest matters; there, above all, he is most afraid of a lie having possession of him. Still, he said, I do not comprehend you. The reason is, I replied, that you attribute some profound meaning to my words; but I am only saying that deception, or being deceived or uninformed about the highest realities in the highest part of themselves, which is the soul, and in that part of them to have and to hold the lie, is what mankind least like; --that, I say, is what they utterly detest. There is nothing more hateful to them. And, as I was just now remarking, this ignorance in the soul of him who is deceived may be called the true lie; for the lie in words is only a kind of imitation and shadowy image of a previous affection of the soul, not pure unadulterated falsehood. Am I not right? Perfectly right. The true lie is hated not only by the gods, but also by men? Yes. Whereas the lie in words is in certain cases useful and not hateful; in dealing with enemies --that would be an instance; or again, when those whom we call our friends in a fit of madness or illusion are going to do some harm, then it is useful and is a sort of medicine or preventive; also in the tales of mythology, of which we were just now speaking --because we do not know the truth about ancient times, we make falsehood as much like truth as we can, and so turn it to account. Very true, he said. But can any of these reasons apply to God? Can we suppose that he is ignorant of antiquity, and therefore has recourse to invention? That would be ridiculous, he said. Then the lying poet has no place in our idea of God? I should say not. Or perhaps he may tell a lie because he is afraid of enemies? That is inconceivable. But he may have friends who are senseless or mad? But no mad or senseless person can be a friend of God. Then no motive can be imagined why God should lie? None whatever. Then the superhuman and divine is absolutely incapable of falsehood? Yes. Then is God perfectly simple and true both in word and deed; he changes not; he deceives not, either by sign or word, by dream or waking vision. Your thoughts, he said, are the reflection of my own. You agree with me then, I said, that this is the second type or form in which we should write and speak about divine things.

[Socrates discusses the notion of lying in the microcosm, the ideal state...]

And surely we must value truthfulness highly. For if we were right when we said that falsehood is no use to the gods, and only surely to mean as a king of medicine, it's clearly a kind of medicine that should be entrusted to doctors and not to laymen. It will be for the rulers of our city, then if anyone, to use falsehood in dealing with citizens or enemy for the good of the sate; no one else must do so. And if citizen lies to our rules, we shall regard it as still a graver offense than its for a patient to lie to his doctor...

[Socrates here states one of the key ideas of The Republic regarding the rulers of the state...]

... Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside, cities will never have rest from their evils, --nor the human race, as I believe, --and then only will this our State have a possibility of life and behold the light of day. Such was the thought, my dear Glaucon, which I would fain have uttered if it had not seemed too extravagant; for to be convinced that in no other State can there be happiness private or public is indeed a hard thing. Socrates, what do you mean? I would have you consider that the word which you have uttered is one at which numerous persons, and very respectable persons too, in a figure pulling off their coats all in a moment, and seizing any weapon that comes to hand, will run at you might and main, before you know where you are, intending to do heaven knows what; and if you don't prepare an answer, and put yourself in motion, you will be prepared by their fine wits,' and no mistake.

[Plato's metaphor of the cave is the basis of western philosophical thought...]

And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: --Behold! human beings living in a underground cave, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the cave; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets. I see. And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, others silent. You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners. Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave? True, he said; how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads? And of the objects which are being carried in like manner they would only see the shadows? Yes, he said. And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them? Very true. And suppose further that the prison had an echo which came from the other side, would they not be sure to fancy when one of the passers-by spoke that the voice which they heard came from the passing shadow? No question, he replied. To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images. That is certain. And now look again, and see what will naturally follow it' the prisoners are released and disabused of their error. At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows; and then conceive some one saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has a clearer vision, -what will be his reply? And you may further imagine that his instructor is pointing to the objects as they pass and requiring him to name them, -will he not be perplexed? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him? Far truer. And if he is compelled to look straight at the light, will he not have a pain in his eyes which will make him turn away to take and take in the objects of vision which he can see, and which he will conceive to be in reality clearer than the things which are now being shown to him? True, he now And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he 's forced into the presence of the sun himself, is he not likely to be pained and irritated? When he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at all of what are now called realities. Not all in a moment, he said. He will require to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world. And first he will see the shadows best, next the reflections of men and other objects in the water, and then the objects themselves; then he will gaze upon the light of the moon and the stars and the spangled heaven; and he will see the sky and the stars by night better than the sun or the light of the sun by day? Certainly. Last of he will be able to see the sun, and not mere reflections of him in the water, but he will see him in his own proper place, and not in another; and he will contemplate him as he is. Certainly. He will then proceed to argue that this is he who gives the season and the years, and is the guardian of all that is in the visible world, and in a certain way the cause of all things which he and his fellows have been accustomed to behold? Clearly, he said, he would first see the sun and then reason about him. And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the cave and his fellow-prisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitate himself on the change, and pity them? Certainly, he would. And if they were in the habit of conferring honors among themselves on those who were quickest to observe the passing shadows and to remark which of them went before, and which followed after, and which were together; and who were therefore best able to draw conclusions as to the future, do you think that he would care for such honors and glories, or envy the possessors of them? Would he not say with Homer, Better to be the poor servant of a poor master, and to endure anything, rather than think as they do and live after their manner? Yes, he said, I think that he would rather suffer anything than entertain these false notions and live in this miserable manner. Imagine once more, I said, such an one coming suddenly out of the sun to be replaced in his old situation; would he not be certain to have his eyes full of darkness? To be sure, he said. And if there were a contest, and he had to compete in measuring the shadows with the prisoners who had never moved out of the cave, while his sight was still weak, and before his eyes had become steady (and the time which would be needed to acquire this new habit of sight might be very considerable) would he not be ridiculous? Men would say of him that up he went and down he came without his eyes; and that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if any one tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death. No question, he said. This entire allegory, I said, you may now append, dear Glaucon, to the previous argument; the prison-house is the world of sight, the light of the fire is the sun, and you will not misapprehend me if you interpret the journey upwards to be the ascent of the soul into the intellectual world according to my poor belief, which, at your desire, I have expressed whether rightly or wrongly God knows. But, whether true or false, my opinion is that in the world of knowledge the idea of good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort; and, when seen, is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and of the lord of light in this visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual; and that this is the power upon which he who would act rationally, either in public or private life must have his eye fixed. I agree, he said, as far as I am able to understand you. Moreover, I said, you must not wonder that those who attain to this beatific vision are unwilling to descend to human affairs; for their souls are ever hastening into the upper world where they desire to dwell; which desire of theirs is very natural, if our allegory may be trusted. Yes, very natural. And is there anything surprising in one who passes from divine contemplations to the evil state of man, misbehaving himself in a ridiculous manner; if, while his eyes are blinking and before he has become accustomed to the surrounding darkness, he is compelled to fight in courts of law, or in other places, about the images or the shadows of images of justice, and is endeavoring to meet the conceptions of those who have never yet seen absolute justice? Anything but surprising, he replied.


ARISTOTLE'S ETHICS and POLITICS form that basis for much Neoclassical thought, emphasizing as it does, notions of harmony, balance, decorum, and the importance of the good. The following selection is from a good secondary source called From Plato to Nietzsche by E. L.. Allen. Fawcett Books, 1988, pp. 37-40.

When Aristotle turns his attention to moral questions, he does what Plato did and what any Greek would have done; he brings these under the heading of 'the good' rather than the right'. That is to say, he is concerned not so much with the obligations men are under as with the ends they seek. What a man seeks is what he regards as 'the good'. The term good is normally relative; a knife is good for cutting, a bat for a baseball game, aspirin for relieving headache, etc. Is there, beyond all these things that are good as means, something that is good as an end in itself, good absolutely?

If so, it will be the Supreme goal of human endeavor. Aristotle thinks there will be general agreement as to what this supreme good is. It is happiness. That, however; does not help much, as there are so many opinions on what constitutes happiness. His own suggestion is that happiness for man lies in the unimpeded exercise of his peculiar function, of what stamps him as a man. In the light of what has been said above, this will be his reason. "If this is the case, human good turns out to be activity of soul in accordance with virtue, and if there are more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete.

That the word 'virtue' here has a much wider range than us is shown by the fact that Aristotle goes to distinguish between intellectual and moral virtues. Some such translation as 'characteristic excellence' bring out its meaning better. But before we glance at intellectual virtues, we shall do well to note how down-to-earth Aristotle's treatment of the good is. He adds that, in addition to intellectual and moral qualities, it needs also a certain amount of external goods and extension over a whole life. To return now: to the intellectual virtues. There are two in number, practical wisdom and theoretical wisdom. The former is our guide in the conduct of life, giving us both general principles and the insight to discern how these are to be applied in particular situations. Aristotle is careful to point out that most men go wrong, not because their principles are mistaken, but because they do not bring particular instances under the general rule they acknowledge. This implies, as he readily allows, that no hard and fast line can be drawn between moral and intellectual virtues.

We come now to the moral virtues. These are not, mere actions, which might be sporadic and not indicative at all of what the person himself is; they are states of character. As such, they are the product of a discipline to which we submit ourselves; but we must have an aptitude for that discipline to begin with; On the dispute between nature and nurture, Aristotle would say that actuality by nurture. Aristotle says:

"Neither by nature, then, nor contrary to nature do the virtues arise in us; rather we are adapted by nature to receive them, and are made perfect by nature."

We form good character by developing good habits, and we form good habits by the repetition of good actions. The process is analogous to that of the flute player who becomes accomplished by constant practice, or, as we should say, the tennis star who never misses a day at the nets, Morality is thus the art of living well, and the good man is the virtuoso. Aristotle writes:

"Can we further describe the form this art of living well will take? Yes, we can go on to define virtue as"a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e., the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle, and by that principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it."

Virtue is the mean between two extremes, each of which is bad. Yet the mean is not reached by a mathematical computation, but by tact, a discernment that is itself morally conditioned. The theory appeals at once to the ordinary person, though on examination it turns out to have its difficulties. We can see clearly, for example, that the brave man is one who neither risks his life in foolhardiness nor preserves it at all costs in cowardice. In war, he knows just when he should die at his post and when he should surrender because further struggle is useless. So the miser and the prodigal represent the extremes avoided by the man who knows just when to spend his money and when to save it. But Aristotle admits that there is no word for the man who is neither ambitious, so claiming too much, nor unambiguous, not claiming enough. That there is a state of character that keeps the balance we need not doubt.

The important question remains of the highest kind of life and where it ought to be sought. Here Aristotle finds himself pulled in two directions. He lived in a society that called on the citizen to participate in politics, to sit on the jury, and-to bear arms in times of war. Yet the same time it cultivated leisure end the interchange of ideas in conversation. Is action or contemplation the more desirable? Aristotle opts for the latter, while allowing to the former a second and by no means dishonorable place. In the exercise of theoretical reason, in speculation and inquiry, man lives by the highest part of himself, by that which he shares with the gods, It is within man's power to live on earth the immortal life, and let him not refuse to do this, for that would be to surrender to false modesty. But the good citizen who faithfully discharges the duties of his station ranks next in order of merit. The last thing Aristotle wishes to do is to loosen he bonds of society, though he sees that the highest dimension of life transcends, not the limitations only, but also the duties of society.

Aristotle said:

"If all communities aim at some good, the state or political community, which is the highest of all, and which embraces all the rest, aims at a good in a greater degree than any other, and at the highest good."

Aristotle ascribes to the laws an educative role:

"The citizen should be molded to suit the form of government under which he lives."

The state, that is to say, embodies a conception of the good life, moral standards etc., and it must communicate these to the growing generation. The highest accomplishments, however, will be those in which a man indulges for their own sake, such as music and philosophy.


ARISTOTLE: Although the POETICS of Aristotle was not generally known in the Greek or in translation until the Renaissance, its importance as the "founding document" of western literary criticism has made it the standard against which the success or failure of drama written in every age has been measured. Such is not without risk, in that misinterpretations abound. For example, the celebrated tragic flaw a hero is supposed to possess is taken in the Christian scheme to be a moral error, but to the pre-Christian Greek philosopher Aristotle, the term did not imply a moral error, but rather an intellectual one, an error in judgment. Therefore whether The Poetics can successfully be applied to Shakespeare remains problematic. Nonetheless, we will outline some of Aristotle's most important beliefs and see if the dramatic literature under consideration fits his criteria:

Aristotle on the nature of literature as mimetic:

It is clear that the general origin of poetry was due to two causes, each of them part of human nature. Imitation is natural to man from childhood, one of his advantages over the lower animals being this, that he is the most imitative creature in the world, and learns at first by imitation. And it is also natural for all to delight in works of imitation. The truth of this second point is shown by experience: Though the objects themselves may be painful to see, we delight to view the most realistic representations of them in art, the forms for example of the lowest animals and of dead bodies. The explanation is to be found in a further fact: to be learning something is the greatest of pleasures not only to the philosopher but also to the rest of mankind, however small their capacity for it.

Aristotle on the nature of tragedy:

Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and possessing the mode of action; not narrated; and effecting pity and fear [what we call catharsis] of such emotions.

The imitation of the action is the plot. Tragedy is not an imitation of men but of actions and life. It is in action that happiness and unhappiness are found, and the end which we aim at is a kind of activity...It is for the sake of their actions that [agents] take on the characters they have. Thus what happens--that is, the plot, is the end for which a tragedy exists, and the end or purpose is the most important thing of is whole, [having] a beginning, middle and end.

Dramatic poetry's function is...not to report things that have happened, but rather to tell of such things that might express the universal.

[Aristotle speaks of the need for mature tragedy to have a complex action by which he meant that reversal and recognition result logically from a change in fortune]:

reversal: change from one state of affairs to its exact opposite.

recognition: change from ignorance to knowledge...on the part of those who are marked for good fortune or bad.

Good men ought not to be shown passing from prosperity to misfortune, for this does not inspire either pity or fear, but only revulsion; nor evil men rising from ill fortune to prosperity...neither should a wicked man be seen falling from prosperity into misfortune...We are left with the man whose place is between these extremes. Such is the man who on the one hand does not fall into misfortune through vice or depravity. He falls because of some mistake ...[This is often mistranslated as the tragic flaw.]

Aristotle on the nature of comedy:

The parts of the poetics that Aristotle wrote concerning the nature of comedy are lost. Fragments survive, some of which is printed below. Note that the material relevant to comedy is closely linked to the observations made about tragedy. We know from human experience that the link between comedy and tragedy is often very hard to distinguish:

The objects the imitator represents are actions, with agents who are necessarily either good men or bad-the diversities of human character being nearly always derivative from this primary distinction, since the line between virtue and vice is one dividing the whole of mankind. It follows, therefore, that the agents represented must be either above our own level of goodness, or beneath it, or just such as we are; in the same way...This difference it is that distinguishes Tragedy and Comedy also; the one would make its personages worse, and the other better, than the men of the present day.

As for Comedy, it is (as has been observed) an imitation of men worse than the average; worse, however, not as regards any and every sort of fault, but only as regards one particular kind, the Ridiculous, which is a species of the Ugly. The Ridiculous may be defined as a mistake or deformity not productive of pain or harm to others; the mask, for instance, that excites laughter, is something ugly and distorted without causing pain.

Though the successive changes in Tragedy and their authors are not unknown, we cannot say the same of Comedy; its early stages passed unnoticed, because it was not as yet taken up in a serious way.


HORACE: [65 B.C.-8 B.C] is important because his Art of Poetry is the only complete work of dramatic criticism in Latin. It stresses the formal aspects of poetry--rules for composition, its influence from the Renaissance to the Eighteenth century (neo-classical period) cannot be underestimated.] KEY IDEAS:

1. I bid the learned maker look on life and manners and make those his book, thence draw forth true expression.

2. The comic matter will not be expressed in tragic verse.

3. As painting so is poetry; some men's hands will take you more the nearer than you stand; in some cases farther off.

4. Sad words are appropriate to the sorrowful face, furious words fitting to the angry...serious words to the solemn. For nature forms us within to meet all the changes of fortune. She causes us to rejoice or impels us to anger.

5.The aim of poetry is to inform or delight or to combine together in what is said, both pleasure and applicability to life.


Unity and Simplicity of Form: Horace warns that excessive imagination should not allow poetry to become unnatural. A poem should have simplicity and unity. select a subject that is equal for your powers to complete.

Diction: Words must be chosen according to taste and decorum. A much used words can acquire a novel meaning if used in a skillful setting. Old words die, and new ones flourish like a forest changing its leaves.

The importance of Serious Craftsmanship: Horace argues that even though he may not be able to write great poetry, it is nonetheless important that the poet write according to accepted standards:

1. The source of all good writing is wisdom, and when the subject is grasped, the words come easily. Life and real manners should be the models using a living language.

2. The aim of poetry is to inform and delight--combining pleasure and applicability to life. Be brief so what is said may be grasped and retained easily.

3. There is a difference between the good poet who on occasion makes an error and the bad one who thinks he is good but makes errors frequently.

4. The bad poet should not publish, lest he be subject to critical refutation.

5. It is absolutely necessary that poetry be the product of native ability and training. Both are related. A good critic of his work will censure weak lines, and omit that which is awkward and pretentious. The bad poet will suffer criticism and this is proper.