The Emperor of Men's Minds: Literature and the Renaissance Discourse of Rhetoric

By Wayne A. Rebhorn | Go to book overview

3 Circe's Garden, Mercury's Rod

In June 1485 the Florentine Neoplatonist Giovanni Pico della Mirandola sent what would become a famous letter to the Venetian humanist Ermolao Barbaro. The latter had written to Pico some two months earlier, praising him for his learning and eloquence, while attacking the Scholastics, the "Germans," for their lack of a "shining and elegant style." Pico, who had spent six years studying the writings of men Barbaro wittily dismisses as "barbaric," responds first by thanking him for his kind words and then by devoting most of the letter to a hypothetical speech that the maligned Germans might deliver in their own defense. In it Pico makes two complementary moves: he criticizes rhetoric, focusing on the issue of elegant style; and he exalts the philosophical writing of the Scholastics. There is a tongue-in-cheek quality about Pico's defense, for he not only writes in an extremely elegant Latin style, as Barbaro himself would later note, but declares at the conclusion that his speech is a mock encomium, and that his real aim has been to bring Barbaro to compose a praise of eloquence, just as Plato's Glaucon praised injustice in The Republic in order to goad Socrates to the praise of justice ( Epistola, 358).1 The question of its seriousness notwithstanding, Pico's letter does assemble some of the most telling arguments the Renaissance would make against rhetoric. He denounces it as deception and lies, as a trivial kind of theatricality, and as a vulgar display fit only

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1
For the translated phrase from Barbaro's letter and his comment on Pico's style, see Quirinus Breen, "Giovanni Pico della Mirandola on the Conflict of Philosophy and Rhetoric," Journal of the History of Ideas 13 ( 1952): 393, 403.

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