Praising the Past: Novelty and Nostalgia in Machiavelli, Castiglione, and Montaigne

Article excerpt

One of the commonplaces that the Renaissance inherited from antiquity was the idea, usually formulated as a complaint, that humans have a natural tendency to praise the past and blame the present. This topos raises some interesting questions about the historical consciousness of the Renaissance since those who cite the topos ordinarily intend to vindicate the autonomy of the present even though the tendency they decry is taken to be intemporal and thus to link the past and the present in an undifferentiated extension of time. Moreover, the very antiquity of the theme complicates the distinction of past and present by endowing the past with its own internal division of past and present. Given the longevity of this topos, we can infer that the Ancients had their own cult of antiquity, which provoked the same blend of enthusiasm and impatience that Renaissance writers experienced as they looked back to the past. This retrospective regression is an important feature of the self-identity of Renaissance humanists, who in some respects distinguished themselves from their ancient models by finding new ways to motivate the topos of praising the past. This paper proposes to examine how the classical commonplace of praising the past was variously appropriated and transformed by three prominent European prose writers of the sixteenth century" Niccolo Machiavelli, Baldassar Castiglione, and Michel de Montaigne.

The choice of these three authors is neither exhaustive nor inevitable. They participate in a much larger dialogue of European vernacular and neo-Latin writers who respond to a well-established classical topos. Together, they do not represent any coherent movement or fashion in the large domain of Renaissance historical thought, a domain that has been keenly assessed by a host of eminent specialists. (1) The internal coherence of this grouping of three is partially motivated by the reading habits of Montaigne, who certainly knew the work of Machiavelli and Castiglione and responded with great interest but little empathy to both of them. However, the present study is not intended to confirm Montaigne's role as a reader of Machiavelli and Castiglione. (2) Rather, it means to document what might be called the creativity of a commonplace. Among them, our three authors discover a surprisingly flexible range of meanings in the apparently simple and common impulse to resent the prestige of the past. They also recuperate certain common intertexts from classical literature that merit a preliminary inspection.

We can find the topos of praising the past in an impressive array of classical authors, usually those who championed a new aesthetic movement or simply those who resented the conservatism of their contemporaries. In this respect, the most characteristic uses can be found in the Latin poet Horace, who frequently deplores the conservative tastes of his compatriots. Horace can be said to have named this venerable topos in the Ars poetica when he refers to the comic figure of the "laudator temporis acti se puero," or the old man who praises the time of his youth (173-74). He develops and expands this theme of temporal prejudice in his verse epistle to Emperor Augustus, where he dissects the typical Roman intolerance of novelty. Here the poet complains that the only new thing that the Roman people admire is their emperor, for otherwise they cannot abide anything that is not remote from them in time or place (Epistles 2.1.18-22). Here, the target of satire is not the nostalgic old man of the Ars poetica but the reading public itself, described as a partisan of the Ancients, or "fautor veterum" (2.1.23), who measures quality by age, "virtutem aestimat annis" (2.1.48), and oppresses modern authors with his envy: "Nos nostraque lividus odit" (2.1.89). If it is true that the best works of the Greeks are their earliest, the same is not true of the Romans (2.1.28-30), who improved considerably once they learned to imitate the Greeks (2. …