Sir Thomas Elyot and Renaissance Humanism

By John M. Major | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5
Introduction

A TIME-HONORED generalization of historians makes Plato the philosopher-extraordinary of the Renaissance, successor (not without a struggle) to the throne of his greatest pupil, Aristotle, whose influence except in poetic theory waned with the passing of the Middle Ages.Such a view of philosophic currents in the past, inevitably distorted, may come about as a result of our natural inclination to judge the intellectual temper of an age from the writings of its most enduring spokesmen. Although plentiful evidence exists to show that Aristotelianism continued strong throughout the Renaissance period, especially in natural philosophy, one has only to read Spenser and More, Castiglione, Erasmus, or Michelangelo to be convinced that for poets and humanists, at least, Plato or the body of ideas that went by the name of Platonism was the dominant intellectual force of the sixteenth century. Trying to analyze thought as eclectic as that of the Tudor humanists is like trying to isolate the ingredients of some subtly concocted French sauce.But if there is any one philosophical note that is struck more frequently than others in the writings of Colet, More, Erasmus, Starkey, Elyot, and Ascham, it is the Platonic.The teachings of Plato and his descendants are for these men authoritative in many of the most serious matters relating to theology, politics, education, and ethics. 1

To speak of Renaissance Platonism is to speak of something which has no readily definable shape, like an ancient house that has been restored in somewhat differing styles by successive generations of archi

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1
There is in English no comprehensive study of Platonism in English literature of the sixteenth century.Two works in German on this subject, with emphasis on the early humanists, are useful but tend to exaggerate Plato's direct influence and play down intermediary sources.These works are: Kurt Schroeder, Platonismus in der englischen Renaissance vor und bei Thomas Eliot ( Berlin: Mayer and Miiller, 1920); and Friedrich Dannenberg, Das Erbe Platons in England bis zur Bildung Lylys ( Berlin: Dunker and Diinnhaupt, 1932). A recent study of the subject is Leland Miles, John Colet and the Platonic Tradition ( La Salle, Ill.: Open Court Press, 1961), the first volume in a series by the same author entitled "Fishers With Platonic Nets"; later volumes will deal with More and Erasmus.

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