Sir Thomas Elyot and Renaissance Humanism

By John M. Major | Go to book overview
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IT Is IN the three areas just investigated, of politics, psychology, and ethics, that Elyot's thought shows the clearest signs of Platonic influence.To furnish these three domains, the author ranged widely among Plato's dialogues, from the Apology to the Laws, returning most often to the richest of them all, the Republic. Yet this analysis by no means tells the whole story of Elyot's debt to Platonism.There is, for instance, his fondness for the dialogue form, which one might reasonably suppose grew in part out of his admiration for the literary genius of Plato.To be sure, the dialogue was much favored by Elyot's contemporaries also; authors like Erasmus, More, Starkey, Ascham, and Elyot chose this form, one imagines, both for its intrinsic qualities of liveliness and naturalness and for its special utility in treating controversial subjects "anonymously." In all, Elyot wrote three dialogues: Pasquil the Plain, Of the Knowledge Which Maketh a Wise Man, and The Defense of Good Women. The first, with its bantering tone, its jests, and its satire of the clergy, is closer in manner to Lucian or Erasmus than to Plato, although toward the end, where the tone becomes quite serious, Elyot in true Platonic fashion shifts the talk from smaller to larger concerns, from the moral responsibility of the counselor as an individual to the effect which his shirking of this responsibility has upon the public welfare. 1 The Defense of Good Women also partakes of the Lucianic spirit; its subject hardly seems suited to a "Platonic" treatment.But even in this work, the question and answer method identified with Socrates is cleverly employed to settle the problem of woman's worth. 2 The conclusion of one rather heated portion of the argument shows that Elyot well understood the Socratic technique.Caninius, the scoffer at women, after finally being convinced of their merit asks the victorious Candidus with some exasperation,

For the relevance of this dialogue to the situation of Sir Thomas More after his retirement as Lord Chancellor, see above, pp. 98-101.
Sir Thomas Elyot, The Defense of Good Women, ed.Edwin Johnston Howard ( Oxford, Ohio: Anchor Press, 1940), pp. 35-46 especially.


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