Dissimulation and the Culture of Secrecy in Early Modern Europe

Dissimulation and the Culture of Secrecy in Early Modern Europe

Dissimulation and the Culture of Secrecy in Early Modern Europe

Dissimulation and the Culture of Secrecy in Early Modern Europe

Synopsis

"Larvatus prodeo," announced René Descartes at the beginning of the seventeenth century: "I come forward, masked." Deliberately disguising or silencing their most intimate thoughts and emotions, many early modern Europeans besides Descartes-princes, courtiers, aristocrats and commoners alike-chose to practice the shadowy art of dissimulation. For men and women who could not risk revealing their inner lives to those around them, this art of incommunicativity was crucial, both personally and politically. Many writers and intellectuals sought to explain, expose, justify, or condemn the emergence of this new culture of secrecy, and from Naples to the Netherlands controversy swirled for two centuries around the powers and limits of dissimulation, whether in affairs of state or affairs of the heart. This beautifully written work crisscrosses Europe, with a special focus on Italy, to explore attitudes toward the art of dissimulation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Discussing many canonical and lesser-known works, Jon R. Snyder examines the treatment of dissimulation in early modern treatises and writings on the court, civility, moral philosophy, political theory, and in the visual arts.

Excerpt

Early in the seventeenth century the young René Descartes (1596–1650) wrote, “Like an actor wearing a mask, I come forward, masked, on the stage of the world.” With these famous words—larvatus prodeo— Descartes at once recognized the political, social, and cultural difficulties of the task that lay ahead of him as a philosopher, and proposed a means by which to overcome them: dissimulation. He was, of course, hardly original in choosing to take this route. Many other members of early modern society had done the same before him, and many more would follow in due course. In fact, on Descartes’ family coat of arms was inscribed the motto “he lives well who is well hidden.” Descartes may not, however, have understood the art of dissimulation as well as he claimed. A masked actor openly acknowledges the artifice of the stage, whereas the dissimulator does the opposite, announcing nothing and allowing no one to know even if a mask is or is not in use. For many inhabitants of early modern Europe, dissimulation was a compelling—and often disturbingfeature of their lives, precisely because there was no way to detect with certainty its presence or absence in the world around them: it was at once everywhere and nowhere, and the dissimulator was like an evanescent homo bulla who would vanish into thin air without a trace, if one were to come too close. Cutting across many nations, cultures, languages, and institutions, this book examines early modern attitudes toward the shadowy art of dissimulation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Dissimulation provoked conflicting and often powerful emotions in those who suspected it, as well as in those who wrote about it. As Louis . . .

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