Sir Thomas Elyot and Renaissance Humanism

By John M. Major | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4
Classical Authors Other than Plato

So FAR we have been dealing almost exclusively with Renaissance writings to which the Governour is related in one way or another. But (to borrow Elyot's idiom) I fear me we have been too long from the real sources of inspiration for that work, which are the Greek and Roman classics.No man, I suppose, ever had greater admiration for the authors of antiquity than had Sir Thomas Elyot.They were for him the creators and golden-voiced purveyors of all wisdom, excepting that sacred wisdom which is found in the Bible and Christian Fathers alone.The breadth of Elyot's reading in the classics is remarkable, even if one allows that some of the knowledge he displays—but only a small part, I think—was acquired at second hand.The Governour itself is a storehouse of classical quotations and allusions; the authority of ancient poets and writers of prose is invoked on every page; the wisdom of their utterance stirs the author to exclamations of praise and wonder.

As might be expected, it is the ancient philosophers and rhetoricians with whom Elyot is in greatest sympathy.To be sure, all writers are to him primarily moralists. 1 But Plato, Cicero, Aristotle, Plutarch, Quintilian, Seneca, and Isocrates are his revered instructors in all matters pertaining to morals, government, and education—the three key topics of the Governour and most of Elyot's other works.Important as are the medieval and Renaissance authors of princes' mirrors and conduct books to the scheme of the Governour, they are in a sense intermediaries only, agents for dispensing the more precious thought of antiquity.Indeed, with a single rather large exception—the Christian orientation of their views—one wonders whether the princes' mirrors of John of Salisbury, Aquinas, or Erasmus have added anything really significant to the moral and political theory of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero.It is not simply out of slyness or affectation that Elyot refused to acknowledge his debts to any but classical authors.

The single most powerful influence on Elyot's thought is the philos

____________________
1
On the moral aspects of poetry, see below, pp. 163, 267-268.

-140-

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