Sir Thomas Elyot and Renaissance Humanism

By John M. Major | Go to book overview
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IN THE history of English literature Sir Thomas Elyot occupies an important, albeit secondary, position.Although his works have real limitations—ideas that are largely derivative, a subject matter and approach largely restricted to the expository, and unsteadiness in execution—they nevertheless represent a genuine contribution to English letters.Taken as a whole, their importance is perhaps more historical than strictly literary, and yet two of them at least— The Book Named the Governour and the Platonic dialogue Of the Knowledge Which Maketh a Wise Man—continue to be read with the kind of pleasure attendant upon prose that is artistic as well as instructive.If Elyot's works display a certain unsureness in structure and style, some allowance must be made for the fact that they were written in the vernacular near the beginning of our Modern English period.Moreover, the deficiencies are offset, as often as not, by a vigor of expression, a moral intensity, and a power when the need arises to raise argument to the level of eloquent pleading.

Elyot's main accomplishment—and a very considerable one it is- was in fashioning for the sixteenth and succeeding centuries the ideal of the English gentleman: the true-nobleman-in-office, a man of virtue and good manners trained in the full program of liberal studies and employing his talents to the benefit of his country.Although various traditions, some of them native, came together to make up this ideal, its final shape took place at the hands of Sir Thomas Elyot, in his Book Named the Governour and in the lesser writings which promote the same end, books like the Image of Governance and the two translations, The Doctrinal of Princes, and The Education or Bringing Up of Children. The ideal gentleman is not born but made, and what makes him is the right kind of training. Elyot's second main accomplishment (really a part of the first) was in constructing a lastingly valid program of education in virtue and knowledge which is based on an extensive study of the liberal arts and which stresses Greek and Latin literature.It is the first fully elaborated program of its kind


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