Sir Thomas Elyot and Renaissance Humanism

By John M. Major | Go to book overview

Preface

BETWEEN the years 1531 and 1545 Sir Thomas Elyot published some twelve works of prose, including a wide-ranging treatise on the education of English gentlemen, a Platonic dialogue on knowledge and goodness, a Lucianic dialogue on the duties of a counselor, the first substantial Latin-English dictionary, a popular book of medical remedies, a collection of the sayings of wise men, an edifying "life" of the Emperor Severus Alexander, a defense of women, a sermon on the subject of "last things," and translations of opuscula by Isocrates, Plutarch, St. Cyprian, and Pico della Mirandola.Through these varied writings, all of them didactic in purpose, Elyot sought to provide for his countrymen in their own language some of the choicest fruits of classical wisdom, to foster the highest ideals of gentlemanly conduct and political morality, and to promote the establishment in England of a correct system of education for members of the governing class.He thus fulfilled—more completely perhaps than any other English writer of his time—both the broad aim of Tudor humanism, which was "training in virtue and good letters," and the practical aim, which was "training for the active Christian life, especially public life." 1

In the present study I intend to examine certain aspects of Elyot's thought and writings: specifically, to show that his principal work, The Book Named the Governour, in spite of its heterogeneous subject matter has unifying themes and a coherent structure; to relate this work to similar writings by such outstanding contemporaries as Erasmus, Castiglione, and More; and to reveal the extent and application of Elyot's borrowings from classical authors, with special attention to

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1
Douglas Bush, The Renaissance and English Humanism ( Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1939), p. 78. In the following pages I have tried to restrict the terms "humanism" and "Renaissance humanism" to the meaning given them in Kristeller's definition: "a cultural and educational program" which was concerned essentially with literature, and in particular the Greek and Latin classics. (See Paul Oskar Kristeller , The Classics and Renaissance Thought [ Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1955], pp. 10-11.)

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