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Western Civilization-An Open Source Book, 1st ed.

by Ryan P. Johnson.

Chapter 12: The Renaissance

Despite the ravages of plague and warfare across Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries, a movement began that would change the nature of many aspects of society; that movement would became known as the Renaissance. Beginning in Italy in the early 1300s and taking hold in the rest of Europe much later, the Renaissance was a burst of creative energy that impacted nearly everything from art to diplomacy. The impetus for the movement was trade; as Italian port cities such as Genoa and Venice profited from renewed trade and Italy’s position at the cross roads of the eastern and western worlds allowed it to connect the two, many Italian leaders felt the need to put their wealth on display by becoming patrons of artists, architects, and philosophers. New industries such as mining and metallurgy developed, and banking became a more professional and sophisticated trade. In terms of society, the Renaissance redefined what it meant to be a noble, with the expectation that war would be only one of many things aristocrats would study. For peasants and townspeople distinct classes began to emerge, from city leaders known as patricians to the artisans that worked in towns and the poverty stricken laborers seeking after odds jobs. During the Renaissance the Italian peninsula was broken into a number of larger and smaller principalities, with the most powerful being Naples, the Papal States, Venice, Florence, and Milan. Competition between these five and others often broke out into open warfare, meaning that although Italy was becoming home to some of the most famous artists around it was also a violent and dangerous place to be. The incessant warfare would lead to innovations in the practice of diplomacy that would later be copied by Europe’s other kingdoms, and Niccolò Machiavelli would theorize a new way for princes to run their states free from any sort of morality. The philosophy of the Renaissance can be summed up in one word-humanism. The primary focus of many thinkers was on human beings and their abilities, their place in the universe, and their uniqueness among all creatures. History began to focus less on divine intervention in events and more on how the actions taken by certain individuals drove the historical process forward. Education still focused on the liberal arts, but the underlying assumption was that said education would allow man to become more. The most notable facets of the Renaissance came in the evolution of art. Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, and a host of others came to prominence with dramatic displays of talent depicting the human figure and the natural world. As for the Catholic Church, despite its resolution to the Avignon Papacy and the Great Schism, there was still trouble. Popes, who had regained pre-eminency over councils, were often more concerned about worldly affairs and corrupt. Some blatantly promoted members of their own family to important positions in the church, while others spent lavish sums to patronize artists. In the end, this behavior contributed to the climate of distrust and anger that would produce Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation.

The first document in this chapter is from Baldasar Castiglione, an Italian author whose most famous work, The Book of the Courtier, is the best expression of the new attitude toward nobles and what characteristics, skills, and education they should have, as well as to what end they should have them. Next is the first of two documents from Machiavelli, this one from his Discourses, in which he demonstrates for us the Renaissance preoccupation with all things Greek and Roman. Here Machiavelli will discuss the era of the Roman Republic and the lengths to which it would go to defend its liberty. Document 3 comes from a count named Giovanni Pico and explains the main things that make man the most fortunate of God’s creations. The fourth document is once again from Machiavelli, this time from his most notable work, The Prince, in which Machiavelli challenges the accepted way princes should rule and establishes what, at the time, were quite shocking principles by which they should handle their affairs. Finally Petrus Paulus Vergerius examines a liberal arts education, extolling the virtues of reading, history, logic, music, and other subjects that constitute a liberal education. 

1. Baldasar Castiglione-Book of the Courtier

The Renaissance was a time of great change for much of Europe. Economics changed, society changed, education changed, even the idea of nobility changed. The document excerpted below, the Book of the Courtier, is a fictional dinner party wherein a group of friends discusses the characteristics of the perfect noble, and in so doing lay out for us the way the Renaissance viewed the idea of nobility. The author of the work, Baldasar Castiglione, was a count, a diplomat, and a courtier himself. As you read this selection keep in mind the idea and role of nobility during the Middle Ages and compare and contrast that idea with the thoughts presented here.

I wish, then, that this Courtier of ours should be nobly born and of gentle race; because it is far less unseemly for one of ignoble birth to fail in worthy deeds, than for one of noble birth, who, if he strays from the path of his predecessors, stains his family name, and not only fails to achieve but loses what has been achieved already; for noble birth is like a bright lamp that manifests and makes visible good and evil deeds, and kindles and stimulates to virtue both by fear of shame and by hope of praise. And since this splendour of nobility does not illumine the deeds of the humbly born, they lack that stimulus and fear of shame, nor do they feel any obligation to advance beyond what their predecessors have done; while to the nobly born it seems a reproach not to reach at least the goal set them by their ancestors. And thus it nearly always happens that both in the profession of arms and in other worthy pursuits the most famous men have been of noble birth, because nature has implanted in everything that hidden seed which gives a certain force and quality of its own essence to all things that are derived from it, and makes them like itself: as we see not only in the breeds of horses and of other animals, but also in trees, the shoots of which nearly always resemble the trunk; and if they sometimes degenerate, it arises from poor cultivation. And so it is with men, who if rightly trained are nearly always like those from whom they spring, and often better; but if there be no one to give them proper care, they become like savages and never reach perfection.

“But to come to some details, I am of opinion that the principal and true profession of the Courtier ought to be that of arms; which I would have him follow actively above all else, and be known among others as bold and strong, and loyal to whomsoever he serves. And he will win a reputation for these good qualities by exercising them at all times and in all places, since one may never fail in this without severest censure. And just as among women, their fair fame once sullied never recovers its first lustre, so the reputation of a gentleman who bears arms, if once it be in the least tarnished with cowardice or other disgrace, remains forever infamous before the world and full of ignominy. Therefore the more our Courtier excels in this art, the more he will be worthy of praise; and yet I do not deem essential in him that perfect knowledge of things and those other qualities that befit a commander; since this would be too wide a sea, let us be content, as we have said, with perfect loyalty and unconquered courage, and that he be always seen to possess them. For the courageous are often recognized even more in small things than in great; and frequently in perils of importance and where there are many spectators, some men are to be found, who, although their hearts be dead within them, yet, moved by shame or by the presence of others, press forward almost with their eyes shut, and do their duty God knows how. While on occasions of little moment, when they think they can avoid putting themselves in danger without being detected, they are glad to keep safe. But those who, even when they do not expect to be observed or seen or recognized by anyone, show their ardour and neglect nothing, however paltry, that may be laid to their charge, – they have that strength of mind which we seek in our Courtier.

“Not that we would have him look so fierce, or go about blustering, or say that he has taken his cuirass to wife, or threaten with those grim scowls that we have often seen in Berto; because to such men as this, one might justly say that which a brave lady jestingly said in gentle company to one whom I will not name at present;” who, being invited by her out of compliment to dance, refused not only that, but to listen to the music, and many other entertainments proposed to him,

– saying always that such silly trifles were not his business; so that at last the lady said, ‘What is your business, then?’ He replied with a sour look, ‘To fight.’ Then the lady at once said, ‘Now that you are in no war and out of fighting trim, I should think it were a good thing to have yourself well oiled, and to stow yourself with all your battle harness in a closet until you be needed, lest you grow more rusty than you are;’ and so, amid much laughter from the bystanders, she left the discomfited fellow to his silly presumption.

I would have him more than passably accomplished in letters, at least in those studies that are called the humanities, and conversant not only with the Latin language but with the Greek, for the sake of the many different things that have been admirably written therein. Let him be well versed in the poets, and not less in the orators and historians, and also proficient in writing verse and prose, especially in this vulgar tongue of ours; for besides the enjoyment he will find in it, he will by this means never lack agreeable entertainment with ladies, who are usually fond of such things. And if other occupations or want of study prevent his reaching such perfection as to render his writings worthy of great praise, let him be careful to suppress them so that others may not laugh at him, and let him show them only to a friend whom he can trust: because they will at least be of this service to him, that the exercise will enable him to judge the work of others. For it very rarely happens that a man who is not accustomed to write, however learned he may be, can ever quite appreciate the toil and industry of writers, or taste the sweetness and excellence of style, and those latent niceties that are often found in the ancients.

“I think then that the aim of the perfect Courtier, which has not been spoken of till now, is so to win for himself, by means of the accomplishments ascribed to him by these gentlemen, the favour and mind of the prince whom he serves, that he may be able to say, and always shall say, the truth about everything which it is fitting for the prince to know, without fear or risk of giving offence thereby; and that when he sees his prince’s mind inclined to do something wrong, he may be quick to oppose, and gently to make use of the favour acquired by his good accomplishments, so as to banish every bad intent and lead his prince into the path of virtue. And thus, possessing the goodness which these gentlemen have described, together with readiness of wit and pleasantness, and shrewdness and knowledge of letters and many other things, – the Courtier will in every case be able deftly to show the prince how much honour and profit accrue to him and his from justice, liberality, magnanimity, gentleness, and the other virtues that become a good prince; and on the other hand how much infamy and loss proceed from the vices opposed to them. Therefore I think that just as music, festivals, games, and the other pleasant accomplishments are as it were the flower, in like manner to lead or help one’s prince towards right, and to frighten him from wrong, are the true fruit of Courtiership.

“And since the merit of well-doing lies chiefly in two things, one of which is the choice of an end for our intentions that shall be truly good, and the other ability to find means suitable and fitting to conduce to that good end marked out, – certain it is that that man’s mind tends to the best end, who purposes to see to it that his prince shall be deceived by no one, shall hearken not to flatterers or to slanderers and liars, and shall distinguish good and evil, and love the one and hate the other.

“Methinks, too, that the accomplishments ascribed to the Courtier by these gentlemen may be a good means of arriving at that end; and this because among the many faults which today we see in many of our princes, the greatest are ignorance and self-esteem. And the root of these two evils is none other than falsehood: which vice is deservedly hateful to God and to men, and more injurious to princes than any other; because they have greatest lack of that whereof they most need to have abundance – I mean of someone to tell them the truth and to put them in mind of what is right: for their enemies are not moved by love to perform these offices, but are well pleased to have them live wickedly and never correct themselves; on the other hand, their enemies dare not accuse them openly, for fear of being punished. Then of their friends there are few who have free access to them, and those few are chary of censuring them for their errours as freely as in the case of private persons, and to win grace and favour often think of nothing but how to suggest things that may delight and please their fancy, although the same be evil and dishonourable; thus from being friends these men become flatterers, and to derive profit from their intimacy, always speak and act complaisantly, and for the most part make their way by means of falsehoods, which beget ignorance in the prince’s mind, not only of outward things but of himself; and this may be said to be the greatest and most monstrous falsehood of all, for the ignorant mind deceives itself and lies inwardly to itself.

“From this it follows that, besides never hearing the truth about anything whatever, rulers are intoxicated by that licence which dominion carries with it, and by the abundance of their enjoyments are drowned in pleasures, and so deceive themselves and have their minds so corrupted, – always finding themselves obeyed and almost adored with such reverence and praise, with-out the least censure or even contradiction, – that from this ignorance they pass to boundless self-esteem, so that they then brook no advice or persuasion from others. And since they think that to know how to rule is a very easy thing, and that to succeed therein they need no other art or training than mere force, they bend their mind and all their thoughts to the maintenance of that power which they have, esteeming that true felicity lies in being able to do what one likes.

“Therefore some princes hate reason and justice, thinking that it would be a kind of bridle and a means of reducing them to bondage, and of lessening the pleasure and satisfaction which they have in ruling, if they were willing to follow it; and that their dominion would not be perfect or complete if they were constrained to obey duty and honour, because they think that he who obeys is no true ruler. Therefore, following these principles and allowing themselves to be transported by self-esteem, they become arrogant, with haughty looks and stern behaviour, with splendid dress, gold and gems, and by letting themselves be almost never seen in public they think to win authority among men and to be held almost as gods. And to my thinking they are like the colossi that last year were made at Rome the day of the festival in the Piazza d’Agone, which outwardly showed a likeness to great men and horses in a triumph, and within were full of tow and rags. But princes of this sort are much worse, in that the colossi keep upright merely by their great weight; while the princes, since they are ill balanced within and placed haphazard on uneven bases, fall to their ruin by reason of their own weight, and from one errour run into many; for their ignorance, together with the false belief that they cannot err and that the power which they have proceeds from their own wisdom, leads them to seize states boldly by fair means or foul, whenever they can.

“But if they were resolved to know and to do that which they ought, they would be as set on not ruling as they are set on ruling; for they would perceive how monstrous and pernicious a thing it is when subjects, who are to be governed, are wiser than the princes who are to govern.

“You see that ignorance of music, of dancing, of horsemanship, is not harmful to any man; nevertheless, he who is no musician is ashamed and dares not sing in the presence of others, or dance if he knows not how, or ride if he has not a good seat. But from not knowing how to govern people there spring so many woes, deaths, destructions, burnings, ruins, – that it may be said to be the deadliest pest that is to be found on earth. And yet some princes who are very ignorant of government are not ashamed to undertake to govern, I will not say in the presence of four or of six men, but before all the world, for their rank is set so high that all eyes gaze on them, and hence not only their great but their least defects are always noted. Thus it is written that Cimon was accused of loving wine, Scipio of loving sleep, Lucullus of loving feasts. But would to God that the princes of our time might couple their sins with as many virtues as did those ancients; who, although they erred in some respects, yet did not avoid the reminders and advice of anyone who seemed to them competent to correct those errours, but rather sought with all solicitude to order their lives after the precepts of excellent men: as Epaminondas after that of Lysis the Pythagorean, Agesilaus after that of Xenophon, Scipio after that of Pansetius, and countless others.

“But if some of our princes were to happen upon a stern philosopher or any man who was willing openly and artlessly to show them the frightful face of true virtue, and to teach them what good behaviour is and what a good prince’s life ought to be, I am certain that they would loathe him like an asp, or in sooth deride him as a thing most vile.

“I say, then, that since princes are to-day so corrupted by evil customs and by ignorance and mistaken self-esteem, and since it is so difficult to give them knowledge of the truth and lead them on to virtue, and since men seek to enter into their favour by lies and flatteries and such vicious means, – the Courtier, by the aid of those gentle qualities that Count Ludovico and messer Federico have given him, can with ease and should try to gain the good will and so charm the mind of his prince, that he shall win free and safe indulgence to speak of everything without being irksome. And if he be such as has been said, he will accomplish this with little trouble, and thus be able always to disclose the truth about all things with ease; and also to instill goodness into his prince’s mind little by little, and to teach continence, fortitude, justice, temperance, by giving a taste of how much sweetness is hidden by the little bitterness that at first sight appears to him who withstands vice; which is always hurtful and displeasing, and accompanied by infamy and blame, just as virtue is profitable, blithe and full of praise. And thereto he will be able to incite his prince by the example of the famous captains and other eminent men to whom the ancients were wont to make statues of bronze and of marble and sometimes of gold, and to erect the same in public places, both for the honour of these men and as a stimulus to others, so that they might be led by worthy emulation to strive to reach that glory too.

“In this way the Courtier will be able to lead his prince along the thorny path of virtue, decking it as with shady leafage and strewing it with lovely flowers to relieve the tedium of the weary journey to one whose strength is slight; and now with music, now with arms and horses, now with verses, now with love talk, and with all those means whereof these gentlemen have told, to keep his mind continually busied with worthy pleasures, yet always impressing upon him also, as I have said, some virtuous practice along with these allurements, and playing upon him with salutary craft; like cunning doctors, who often anoint the edge of the cup with a sweet cordial, when they wish to give some bitter-tasting medicine to sick and over-delicate children.

“If, therefore, the Courtier put the veil of pleasure to such a use, he will reach his aim in every time and place and exercise, and will deserve much greater praise and reward than for any other good work that he could do in the world. For there is no good thing that is of such universal advantage as a good prince, nor any evil so universally noxious as a bad prince: hence, too, there is no punishment so harsh and cruel as to be a sufficient penalty for those wicked courtiers who use their gentle and pleasant ways and fine accomplishments to a bad end, and therewith seek their prince’s favour, in order to corrupt him and entice him from the path of virtue and lead him into vice; for such as these may be said to taint with deadly poison not a single cup from which one man alone must drink, but the public fountain used by all men.”

Leonard Epstein Opdycke, trans., The Book of the Courtier by Count Baldasar Castiglione (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1903), 22, 25-25, 59, 247-251. Located on the Internet Archive: 

2. Niccolo Machiavelli-Discourses

Niccolò Machiavelli is one of the best know political theorists of western history. Machiavelli was an official with political responsibilities during the era of Florence’s republic before being exiled when the Medici family returned to power in 1512. Machiavelli wrote many works including poems, plays, and political tracts. His most famous work is The Prince, which discussed the obtaining and maintaining of political power, and is part of why he is considered the father of political science. The excerpt below comes from his Discourses, and discusses how the ancient Romans viewed liberty and tyranny.

Nothing required so much effort on the part of the Romans to subdue the nations around them, as well as those of more distant countries, as the love of liberty which these people cherished in those days; and which they defended with so much obstinacy, that nothing but the exceeding valour of the Romans could ever have subjugated them. For we know from many instances to what danger they exposed themselves to preserve or recover their liberty, and what vengeance they practised upon those who had deprived them of it. The lessons of history teach us also, on the other hand, the injuries people suffer from servitude. And whilst in our own times there is only one country in which we can say that free communities exist, in those ancient times all countries contained numerous cities that enjoyed entire liberty. In the times of which we are now speaking, there were in Italy from the mountains that divide the present Tuscany from Lombardy, down to the extreme point, a number of independent nations, such as the Tuscans, the Romans, the Samnites and many others, that inhabited the rest of Italy. Nor is there ever any mention of there having been other kings besides those that reigned in Rome, and Porsenna, king of the Tuscans, whose line became extinct in a manner not mentioned in history. But we do see that, at the time when the Romans went to besiege Veii, Tuscany was free, and so prized her liberty and hated the very name of king, that when the Veienti had created a king in their city for its defence, and applied to the Tuscans for help against the Romans, it was resolved, after repeated deliberations, not to grant such assistance to the Veienti so long as they lived under that king; for the Tuscans deemed it not well to engage in the defence of those who had voluntarily subjected themselves to the rule of one man. And it is easy to understand whence that affection for liberty arose in the people, for they had seen that cities never increased in dominion or wealth unless they were free. And certainly it is wonderful to think of the greatness which Athens attained within the space of a hundred years after having free herself from the tyranny of Pisistratus; and still more wonderful is it to reflect upon the greatness which Rome achieved after she was rid of her kings. The cause of this is manifest, for it is not individual prosperity, but the general good, that makes cities great; and certainly the general good is regarded nowhere but in republics, because whatever they do is for the common benefit, and should it happen to prove an injury to one or more individuals, those for whose benefit the thing is done are so numerous that they can always carry the measure against the few that are injured by it. But the very reverse happens where there is a prince whose private interests are generally in opposition to those of the city, whilst the measures taken for the benefit of the city are seldom deemed personally advantageous by the prince. This state of things soon leads to a tyranny, the least evil of which is to check the advance of the city in its career of prosperity, so that it grows neither in power nor wealth, but on the contrary rather retrogrades. And if fate should have it that the tyrant is enterprising, and by his courage and valour extends his dominions, it will never be for the benefit of the city, but only for his own; for he will never bestow honours and office upon the good and brave citizens over whom he tyrannises, so that he may not have occasion to suspect and fear them. Nor will he make the states which he conquers subject or tributary to the city of which he is the despot, because it would not be to his advantage to make that city powerful, but it will always be for his interest to keep the state disunited, so that each place and country shall recognise him only as master; thus he alone, and not his country, profits by his conquests. Those who desire to have this opinion confirmed by many other arguments, need but read Xenophon’s treatise On Tyranny.

It is no wonder, then, that the ancients hated tyranny and loved freedom, and that the very name of liberty should have been held in such esteem by them; as was shown by the Syracusans when Hieronymus, the nephew of Hiero, was killed. When his death became known to his army, which was near Syracuse, it caused at first some disturbances, and they were about committing violence upon his murderers; but when they learnt that the cry of liberty had been raised in Syracuse, they were delighted, and instantly returned to order. Their fury against the tyrannicides was quelled, and they thought only of how a free government might be established in Syracuse. Nor can we wonder that the people indulge in extraordinary revenge against those who have robbed them of their liberty; of which we could cite many instances; but will quote only one that occurred in Corcyra, a city in Greece, during the Peloponnesian war. Greece was at that time divided into two parties, one of which adhered to the Athenians, and the other to the Spartans, and a similar division of parties existed in most of the Greek cities. It happened that in Corcyra the nobles, being the stronger party, seized upon the liberties of the people; but with the assistance of the Athenians the popular party recovered its power, and having seized the nobles, they tied their hands behind their backs, and threw them into a prison large enough to hold them all. They thence took eight or ten at a time, under pretence of sending them into exile in different directions; but instead of that they killed them with many cruelties. When the remainder became aware of this, they resolved if possible to escape such an ignominious death; and having armed themselves as well as they could, they resisted those who attempted to enter the prison; but when the people heard this disturbance, they pulled down the roof and upper portion of the prison, and suffocated the nobles within under its ruins. Many such notable and horrible cases occurred in that country, which shows that the people will avenge their lost liberty with more energy than when it is merely threatened.

Reflecting now as to whence it came that in ancient times the people were more devoted to liberty than in the present, I believe that it resulted from this, that men were stronger in those days, which I believe to be attributable to the difference of education, founded upon the difference of their religion and ours. For as our religion teaches us the truth and the true way of life, it causes us to attach less value to the honours and possessions of this world; whilst the pagans, esteeming those things as the highest good, were more energetic and ferocious in their actions. We may observe this also in most of their institutions, beginning with the magnificence of their sacrifices as compared with the humility of ours, which are gentle solemnities rather than magnificent ones, and have nothing of energy or ferocity in them, whilst in theirs there was no lack of pomp and show, to which was superadded the ferocious and bloody nature of the sacrifice by the slaughter of many animals; and the familiarity with this terrible sight assimilated the nature of men to their sacrificial ceremonies. Besides, this, the pagan religion deified only men who had achieved great glory, such as commanders of armies and chiefs or republics, whilst ours glorifies more the humble and contemplative men than the men of action. Our religion, moreover, places the supreme happiness in humility, lowliness and a contempt for worldly objects, whilst the other, on the contrary, places the supreme good in grandeur of soul, strength of body, and all such other qualities as render men formidable; and if our religion claims of us fortitude of soul, it is more to enable us to suffer than to achieve great deeds.

These principles seem to me to have made men feeble, and caused them to become an easy prey to evil-minded men, who can control them more securely, seeing that the great body of men, for the sake of gaining Paradise, are more disposed to endure injuries than to avenge them. And although it would seem that the world has become effeminate and Heaven disarmed, yet this arises unquestionably from the baseness of men, who have interpreted our religion according to the promptings of indolence rather than those of virtue. For if we were to reflect that our religion permits us to exalt and defend our country, we should see that according to it we ought also to love and honour our country, and prepare ourselves so as to be capable of defending her. It is this education, then, and this false interpretation of our religion, that is the cause of there not being so many republics nowadays as there were anciently; and that there is no longer the same love of liberty amongst the people now as there was then. I believe, however, that another reason for this will be found in the fact that the Roman Empire, by force of arms, destroyed all the republics and free cities; and although that empire was afterwards itself dissolved, yet these cities could not reunite themselves nor reorganise their civil institutions, except in a very few instances.

Christian E. Detmold, trans., The Historical, Political, and Diplomatic Writings of Niccolo Machiavelli, vol. II (Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1891), 229-233. Located on the Internet Archive:

3. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola-Oration on the Dignity of Man

Giovanni Pico, count of Mirandola in Italy, was a philosopher centrally connected to the Renaissance idea of humanism. The work excerpted here, the Oration on the Dignity of Man, was written to accompany another work, the 900 Theses, which was a series of arguments about theology, philosophy, and other subjects that Pico wished to defend against anyone who disagreed. The Oration is an excellent example of the belief of Renaissance thinkers in the uniqueness of mankind in the universe.

I HAVE read in the records of the Arabians, reverend Fathers, that Abdala the Saracen, 1 when questioned as to what on this stage of the world, as it were, could be seen most worthy of wonder, replied: “There is nothing to be seen more wonderful than man.”? In agreement with this opinion is the saying of Hermes Trismegistus: “A great miracle, Asclepius, is man.”?But when I weighed the reason for these maxims, the many grounds for the excellence of human nature reported by many men failed to satisfy me – that man is the intermediary between creatures, the intimate of the gods, the king of the lower beings, by the acuteness of his senses, by the discernment of his reason, and by the light of his intelligence the interpreter of nature, the interval between fixed eternity and fleeting time, and (as the Persians say) the bond, nay, rather, the marriage song of the world, on David’s testimony but little lower than the angels. Admittedly great though these reasons be, they are not the principal grounds, that is, those which may rightfully claim for themselves the privilege of the highest admiration. For why should we not admire more the angels themselves and the blessed choirs of heaven? At last it seems to me I have come to understand why man is the most fortunate of creatures and consequently worthy of all admiration and what precisely is that rank which is his lot in the universal chain of Being – a rank to be envied not only by brutes but even by the stars and by minds beyond this world. It is a matter past faith and a wondrous one. Why should it not be? For it is on this very account that man is rightly called and judged a great miracle and a wonderful creature indeed.

But hear, Fathers, exactly what this rank is and, as friendly auditors, conformably to your kindness, do me this favor. God the Father, the supreme Architect, had already built this cosmic home we behold, the most sacred temple of His godhead, by the laws of His mysterious wisdom. The region above the heavens He had adorned with Intelligences, the heavenly spheres He had quickened with eternal souls, and the excrementary and filthy parts of the lower world He had filled with a multitude of animals of every kind. But, when the work was finished, the Craftsman kept wishing that there were someone to ponder the plan of so great a work, to love its beauty, and to wonder at its vastness. Therefore, when everything was done (as Moses and Timaeus bear witness), He finally took thought concerning the creation of man. But there was not among His archetypes that from which He could fashion a new offspring, nor was there in His treasure-houses anything which He might bestow on His new son as an inheritance, nor was there in the seats of all the world a place where the latter might sit to contemplate the universe. All was now complete; all things had been assigned to the highest, the middle, and the lowest orders. But in its final creation it was not the part of the Father’s power to fail as though exhausted. It was not the part of His wisdom to waver in a needful matter through poverty of counsel. It was not the part of His kindly love that he who was to praise God’s divine generosity in regard to others should be compelled to condemn it in regard to himself.

At last the best of artisans ordained that that creature to whom He had been able to give nothing proper to himself should have joint possession of whatever had been peculiar to each of the different kinds of being. He therefore took man as a creature of indeterminate nature and, assigning him a place in the middle of the world, addressed him thus: “Neither a fixed abode nor a form that is thine alone nor any function peculiar to thyself have we given thee, Adam, to the end that according to thy longing and according to thy judgment thou mayest have and possess what abode, what form, and what functions thou thyself shalt desire. The nature of all other beings is limited and constrained within the bounds of laws prescribed by Us. Thou, constrained by no limits, in accordance with thine own free will, in whose hand We have placed thee, shalt ordain for thyself the limits of thy nature. We have set thee at the world’s center that thou mayest from thence more easily observe whatever is in the world. We have made thee neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, so that with freedom of choice and with honor, as though the maker and molder of thyself, thou mayest fashion thyself in whatever shape thou shalt prefer. Thou shalt have the power to degenerate into the lower forms of life, which are brutish. Thou shalt have the power, out of thy soul’s judgment, to be reborn into the higher forms, which are divine.”

O supreme generosity of God the Father, O highest and most marvelous felicity of man! To him it is granted to have whatever he chooses, to be whatever he wills. Beasts as soon as they are bom (so says Lucilius) bring with them from their mother’s womb all they will ever possess. Spiritual beings, either from the beginning or soon thereafter, become what they are to be forever and ever. On man when he came into life the Father conferred the seeds of all kinds and the germs of every way of life. Whatever seeds each man cultivates will grow to maturity and bear in him their own fruit. If they be vegetative, he will be like a plant. If sensitive, he will become brutish. If rational, he will grow into a heavenly being. If intellectual, he will be an angel and the son of God. And if, happy in the lot of no created thing, he withdraws into the center of his own unity, his spirit, made one with God, in the solitary darkness of God, who is set above all things, shall surpass them all. Who would not admire this our chameleon? Or who could more greatly admire aught else whatever? It is man who Asclepius of Athens, arguing from his mutability of character and from his self-transforming nature, on just grounds says was symbolized by Proteus in the mysteries.

Ernst Cassirer, Paul Oskar Kristeller, and John Herman Randall, Jr., eds., The Renaissance Philosophy of Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), 223-225. Located on the Internet Archive: 2015.191223.The-Renaissance-Philosophy-Of-Man#page/n227/mode/2up 

4. Niccolo Machiavelli-The Prince

The selection below is an excerpt from Niccolò Machiavelli’s most famous work, The Prince. The book is about how princes should exercise and maintain their power, even if it requires acting in unsavory ways and committing unscrupulous acts in order to do so. The Prince was very influential in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and its call for pragmatism and at times immorality led to the term “Machiavellian” to be attached to those who ruled in a fashion similar to that describe by Machiavelli. The present selection tells us of Machiavelli’s thoughts on princes doing bad in order to do good, what a prince should use to guide their decisions, and why being feared is better than being loved.

That Which Concerns a Prince on the Subject of the Art of War

A Prince ought to have no other aim or thought, nor select anything else for his study, than war and its rules and discipline; for this is the sole art that belongs to him who rules, and it is of such force that it not only upholds those who are born princes, but it often enables men to rise from a private station to that rank. And, on the contrary, it is seen that when princes have thought more of ease than of arms they have lost their states. And the first cause of your losing it is to neglect this art; and what enables you to acquire a state is to be master of the art. Francesco Sforza, though being martial, from a private person became Duke of Milan; and the sons, through avoiding the hardships and troubles of arms, from dukes became private persons. For among other evils which being unarmed brings you, it causes you to be despised, and this is one of those ignominies against which a prince ought to guard himself, as is shown later on…

Concerning Things for Which Men, and Especially Princes, are Blamed It remains now to see what ought to be the rules of conduct for a prince toward subject and friends. And as I know that many have written on this point, I expect I shall be considered presumptuous in mentioning it again, especially as in discussing it I shall depart from the methods of other people. But it being my intention to write a thing which shall be useful to him to apprehends it, it appears to me more appropriate to follow up the real truth of a matter than the imagination of it; for many have pictured republics and principalities which in fact have never been known or seen, because how one lives is so far distant from how one ought to live, that he who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation; for a man who wishes to act entirely up to his professions of virtue soon meets with what destroys him among so much that is evil.

Hence, it is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity. Therefore, putting on one side imaginary things concerning a prince, and discussing those which are real, I say that all men when they are spoken of, and chiefly princes for being more highly placed, are remarkable for some of those qualities which bring them either blame or praise; and thus it is that one is reputed liberal, another miserly…; one is reputed generous, one rapacious; one cruel, one compassionate; one faithless, another faithful…. And I know that every one will confess that it would be most praiseworthy in a prince to exhibit all the above qualities that are considered good; but because they can neither be entirely possessed nor observed, for human conditions do not permit it, it is necessary for him to be sufficiently prident that he may know how to avoid the reproach of those vices which would lose him his state…

Concerning Cruelty and Clemency, and Whether it is Better to be Loved than Feared Upon this a question arises: whether it is better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with. Because this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you successed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life, and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you. And that prince who, relying entirely on their promises, has neglected other precautions, is ruined; because friendships that are obtained by payments, and not by nobility or greatness of mind, may indeed be earned, but they are not secured, and in time of need cannot be relied upon; and men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserved you by a dread of punishment which never fails.

Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated, which will always be as long as he abstains from the property of his citizens and subjects and from their women…

W.K. Marriott, trans., The Prince (London: J.M. Dent and Sons Ltd, 1908), 115, 121-123, 134-135. Located on the Internet Archive: 

5. Petrus Paulus Vergerius-De ingenues moribus et liberalibus studiis

In 1472, Petrus Paulus Vergerius’ work De ingenius moribus et liberalibus studii, a treatise on the subjects that make up the liberal arts and their usefulness to individuals and to society, was printed. Vergerius studied rhetoric and law, and served the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund from 1417 to his death in either 1444 or 1445. In the excerpt below Vergerius discusses the benefits of reading, poetry, logic, music, and a host of other liberal studies.

We call those studies liberal which are worthy of a free man; those studies by which we attain and practice virtue and wisdom; that education which calls forth, trains and develops those highest gifts of body and of mind which ennoble men, and which are rightly judged to rank next in dignity to virtue only. For to a vulgar temper gain and pleasure are the one aim of existence, to a lofty nature, moral worth and fame. It is, then, of the highest importance that even from infancy this aim, this effort, should constantly be kept alive in growing minds. For I may affirm with fullest conviction that we shall not have attained wisdom in our later years unless in our earliest we have sincerely entered on its search. Nor may we for a moment admit, with the unthinking crowd, that those who give early promise fail in subsequent fulfillment. This may, partly from physical causes, happen in exceptional cases. But there is no doubt that nature has endowed some children with so keen, so ready an intelligence, that without serious effort they attain to a notable power of reasoning and conversing upon grave and lofty subjects, and by aid of right guidance and sound learning reach in manhood the highest distinction. On the other hand, children of modest powers demand even more attention, that their natural defects may be supplied by art. But all alike must in those early years,

Dum faciles animi iuvenum, dum mobilis aetas

whilst the mind is supple, be inured to the toil and effort of learning. Not that education, in the broad sense, is exclusively the concern of youth. Did not Cato think it honorable to learn Greek in later life? Did not Socrates, greatest of philosophers, compel his aged fingers to the lute?

Our youth of to-day, it is to be feared, is backward to learn; studies arc accounted irksome. Boys hardly weaned begin to claim their own way, at a time when every art should be employed to bring them under control and attract them to grave studies. The Master must judge how far he can rely upon emulation, rewards, encouragement; bow far be must have recourse to sterner measures. Too much leniency is objectionable; so also is too great severity, for we must avoid all that terrifies a boy. In certain temperaments-those in which a dark complexion denotes a quiet but strong personality-restraint must be cautiously applied. Boys of this type are mostly highly gifted and can bear a gentle hand. Not seldom it happens that a finely tempered nature is thwarted by circumstances, such as poverty at home, which compels a promising youth to forsake learning for trade: though, on the other hand, poverty is less dangerous to lofty instincts than great wealth. Or again, parents encourage their sons to follow a career traditional in their family, which may divert them from liberal studies: and the customary pursuits of the city in which we dwell exercise a decided influence on our choice. So that we may say that a perfectly unbiased decision in these matters is seldom possible, except to certain select natures, who by favor of the gods, as the poets have it, are unconsciously brought to choose the right path in life. The myth of Hercules, who, in the solitude of his wanderings, learned to accept the strenuous life and to reject the way of self-indulgence, and so attain the highest, is the significant setting of this profound truth. For us it is the best that can befall, that either the circumstances of our life, or the guidance and exhortations of those in charge of us, should mould our natures whilst they are still plastic.

In your own case, Ubertinus, you had before you the choice of training in Arms or in Letters. Either holds a place of distinction amongst the pursuits which appeal to men of noble spirit; either leads to fame and honor in the world. It would have been natural that you, the scion of a House ennobled by its prowess in arms, should have been content to accept your father’s permission to devote yourself wholly to that discipline. But to your great credit you elected to become proficient in both alike: to add to the career of arms traditional in your family, an equal success in that other great discipline of mind and character, the study of Literature.

There was courage in your choice. For we cannot deny that there is still a horde-as I must call them-of people who, like Licinius the Emperor [Roman Emperor, ruled 81-96 CE], denounce learning and the Arts as a danger to the State and hateful in themselves. In reality the very opposite is the truth. However, as we look back upon history we cannot deny that learning by no means expels wickedness, but may be indeed an additional instrument for evil in the hands of the corrupt. To a man of virtuous instincts knowledge is a help and an adornment; to a Claudius or a Nero it was a means of refinement in cruelty or in folly. On the other hand, your grandfather, Jacopo da Carrara, who, though a patron of learning, was not himself versed in Letters, died regretting that opportunity of acquiring a knowledge of higher studies had not been given him in youth; which shows us that, although we may in old age long for it, only in early years can we be sure of attaining that learning which we desire. So that it is no light motive to youthful diligence that we thereby provide ourselves with precious advantages against on-coming age, a spring of interest for a leisured life, a recreation for a busy one. Consider the necessity of the literary art to one immersed in reading and speculation: and its importance to one absorbed in affairs. To be able to speak and write with elegance is no slight advantage in negotiation, whether in public or private concerns. Especially in administration of the State, when intervals of rest and privacy are accorded to a prince, how must he value those means of occupying them wisely which the knowledge of literature affords to him! Think of Domitian: son of Vespasian though he was, and brother of Titus, he was driven to occupy his leisure by killing flies! What a warning is here conveyed of the critical judgments which posterity passes upon Princes! They live in a light in which nothing can long remain hid. Contrast with this the saying of Scipio: “Never am I less idle, less solitary, than when to outward seeming I am doing nothing or am alone”: evidence of a noble temper, worthy to be placed beside that recorded practice of Cato, who, amid the tedious business of the Senate, could withdraw himself from outward distraction and find himself truly alone in the companionship of his books.

Indeed the power which good books have of diverting our thoughts from unworthy or distressing themes is another support to my argument for the study of letters. Add to this their helpfulness on those occasions when we find ourselves alone, without companions and without preoccupations -what can we do better than gather our books around us? In them we see unfolded before us vast stores of knowledge, for our delight, it may be, or for our inspiration. In them are contained the records of the great achievements of men; the wonders of Nature; the works of Providence in the past, the key to her secrets of the future. And, most important of all, this Knowledge is not liable to decay. With a picture, an inscription, a coin, books share a kind of immortality. In all these memory is, as it were, made permanent; although, in its freedom from accidental risks, Literature surpasses every other form of record.

Literature indeed exhibits not facts alone, but thoughts, and their expression. Provided such thoughts be worthy, and worthily expressed, we feel assured that they will not die: although I do not think that thoughts without style will be likely to attract much notice or secure a sure survival. What greater charm can life offer than this power of making the past, the present, and even the future, our own by means of literature? How bright a household is the family of books! we may cry, with Cicero. In their company is no noise, no greed, no self-will: at a word they speak to you, at a word they are still: to all our requests their response is ever ready and to the point. Books indeed are a higher-a wider, more tenacious-memory, a storehouse which is the common property of us all.

I attach great weight to the duty of handing down this priceless treasure to our sons unimpaired by any carelessness on our part. How many are the gaps which the ignorance of past ages has willfully caused in the long and noble roll of writers! Books-in part or in their entirety-have been allowed to perish. What remains of others is often sorely corrupt, mutilated, or imperfect. It is hard that no slight portion of the history of Rome is only to be known through the labors of one writing in the Greek language: it is still worse that this same noble tongue, once well nigh the daily speech of our race, as familiar as the Latin language itself, is on the point of perishing even amongst its own sons, and to us Italians is already utterly lost, unless we except one or two who in our time are tardily endeavoring to rescue something-if it be only a mere echo of it-from oblivion.

We come now to the consideration of the various subjects which may rightly be included under the name of “Liberal Studies.” Amongst these I accord the first place to History, on grounds both of its attractiveness and of its utility, qualities which appeal equally to the scholar and to the statesman. Next in importance ranks Moral Philosophy, which indeed is, in a peculiar sense, a “Liberal Art,” in that its purpose is to teach men the secret of true freedom. History, then, gives us the concrete examples of the precepts inculcated by philosophy. The one shows what men should do, the other what men have said and done in the past, and what practical lessons we may draw therefrom for the present day. I would indicate as the third main branch of study, Eloquence, which indeed holds a place of distinction amongst the refined Arts. By philosophy we learn the essential truth of things, which by eloquence we so exhibit in orderly adornment as to bring conviction to differing minds. And history provides the light of experienced cumulative wisdom fit to supplement the force of reason and the persuasion of eloquence. For we allow that soundness of judgment, wisdom of speech, integrity of conduct are the marks of a truly liberal temper.

We are told that the Greeks devised for their sons a course of training in four subjects: letters, gymnastic, music and drawing. Now, of these drawing has no place amongst our liberal studies; except in so far as it is identical with writing, (which is in reality one side of the art of Drawing), it belongs to the Painter’s profession: the Greeks, as an art-loving people, attached to it an exceptional value.

The Art of Letters, however, rests upon a different footing. It is a study adapted to all times and to all circumstances, to the investigation of fresh knowledge or to the re-casting and application of old. Hence the importance of grammar and of the rules of composition must be recognized at the outset, as the foundation on which the whole study of Literature must rest: and closely associated with these rudiments, the art of Disputation or Logical argument. The function of this is to enable us to discern fallacy from truth in discussion. Logic, indeed, as setting forth the true method of learning, is the guide to the acquisition of knowledge in whatever subject. Rhetoric comes next, and is strictly speaking the formal study by which we attain the art of eloquence; which, as we have just stated, takes the third place amongst the studies specially important in public life. It is now, indeed, fallen from its old renown and is well nigh a lost art. In the Law-Court, in the Council, in the popular Assembly, in exposition, in persuasion, in debate, eloquence finds no place now-a-days: speed, brevity, homeliness are the only qualities desired. Oratory, in which our forefathers gained so great glory for themselves and for their language, is despised: but our youth, if they would earn the repute of true education, must emulate their ancestors in this accomplishment.

After Eloquence we place Poetry and the Poetic Art, which though not without their value in daily life and as an aid to oratory, have nevertheless their main concern for the leisure side of existence.

As to Music, the Greeks refused the title of “Educated” to anyone who could not sing or play. Socrates sets an example to the Athenian youth, by himself learning to play in his old age; urging the pursuit of music not as a sensuous indulgence, but as an aid to the inner harmony of the soul. In so far as it is taught as a healthy recreation for the moral and spiritual nature, music is a truly liberal art, and, both as regards its theory and its practice, should find a place in education.

Arithmetic, which treats of the properties of numbers, Geometry, which treats of the properties of dimensions, lines, surfaces, and solid bodies, are weighty studies because they possess a peculiar element of certainty. The science of the Stars, their motions, magnitudes and distances, lifts us into the clear calm of the upper air. There we may contemplate the fixed stars, or the conjunctions of the planets, and predict the eclipses of the sun and the moon. The knowledge of Nature-animate and inanimate-the laws and the properties of things in heaven and in earth, their causes, mutations and effects, especially the explanation of their wonders (as they are popularly supposed) by the unraveling of their causes-this is a most delightful, and at the same time most profitable, study for youth. With these may be joined investigations concerning the weights of bodies, and those relative to the subject which mathematicians call “Perspective.”

I may here glance for a moment at the three great professional Disciplines: Medicine, Law, Theology. Medicine, which is applied science, has undoubtedly much that makes it attractive to a student. But it cannot be described as a Liberal study. Law, which is based upon moral philosophy, is undoubtedly held in high respect. Regarding Law as a subject of study, such respect is entirely deserved: but Law as practiced becomes a mere trade. Theology, on the other hand, treats of themes removed from our senses, and attainable only by pure intelligence.

The principal “Disciplines” have now been reviewed. It must not be supposed that a liberal education requires acquaintance with them all: for a thorough mastery of even one of them might fairly be the achievement of a lifetime. Most of us, too, must learn to be content with modest capacity as with modest fortune. Perhaps we do wisely to pursue that study which we find most suited to our intelligence and our tastes, though it is true that we cannot rightly understand one subject unless we can perceive its relation to the rest. The choice of studies will depend to some extent upon the character of individual minds. For whilst one boy seizes rapidly the point of which he is in search and states it ably, another, working far more slowly, has yet the sounder judgment and so detects the weak spot in his rival’s conclusions. The former, perhaps, will succeed in poetry, or in the abstract sciences; the latter in real studies and practical pursuits. Or a boy may be apt in thinking, but slow in expressing himself; to him the study of Rhetoric and Logic will be of much value. Where the power of talk alone is remarkable I hardly know what advice to give. Some minds are strong on the side of memory: these should be apt for history. But it is of importance to remember that in comparison with intelligence memory is of little worth, though intelligence without memory is, so far as education is concerned, of none at all. For we are not able to give evidence that we know a thing unless we can reproduce it.

Again, some minds have peculiar power in dealing with abstract truths, but are defective on the side of the particular and the concrete, and so make good progress in mathematics and in metaphysics Those of just opposite temper are apt in Natural Science and in practical affairs. And the natural bent should be recognized and followed in education. Let the boy of limited capacity work only at that subject in which he shows he can attain some result.

Respecting the general place of liberal studies, we remember that Aristotle would not have them absorb the entire interests of life: for he kept steadily in view the nature of man as a citizen, an active member of the State. For the man who has surrendered himself absolutely to the attractions of Letters or of speculative thought follows, perhaps, a self-regarding end and is useless as a citizen or as prince.

William Harrison Woodward, Vittorino da Feltre and other Humanist Educators (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1897), 102-110. Located on the Internet Archive: 


Western Civilization-An Open Source Book by Ryan P. Johnson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.