Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Rethinking Humanism: Animals and the Analogic Imagination in the Italian Renaissance

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Rethinking Humanism: Animals and the Analogic Imagination in the Italian Renaissance

Article excerpt

I WILL PROPOSE IN THIS ESSAY that what constitutes human and animal bodies, and their points of intersection, was a concern of Italian humanist writers, who eschewed categorical divisions of any kind. While affirming the union of body and soul as the basis of human identity, they also recognized that the boundaries of this union were permeable. Further, they viewed the animal as linked to rather than separate from the human: both figure in a continuum of life that blurs conventional distinctions. The influence of post-Cartesian dualism, with its rigid divide between human and animal, has served to occlude this mode of thought, and to some extent has contaminated our critical grasp of humanism itself. We need to re-evaluate this tradition, first by discarding the vertical, hierarchical mode of being, with man at the pinnacle, a well-entrenched legacy of the Renaissance, and then by substituting a horizontal, neutralizing model--a lateral continuum.

In what follows, I will attempt to unpack the implications of the Italian humanist approach to human/animal relations by means of recent critical theory on the connectedness of bodies--specifically, through a description of inter-psychic, inter-corporeal phenomena. There is, I will argue, an intercorporeality among living, sentient, moving beings that was recognized in the Renaissance, and, notwithstanding the Cartesian epistemological shift, is acknowledged in contemporary philosophy as well. Thus our misreading of Italian humanism has occluded our recognition of its affinities with the animal theory of our own time, including, certainly, literary theory, but also neuroscience. (1)

How can our reflections on human/animal encounters be advanced by a consideration of Italian humanist texts? I begin by citing an educational humanist, Pier Paolo Vergerio (1370-1444) and his work, The Character and Studies Befitting a Free Born Youth, where he compares the eagerness of a horse to the desired virtue a student needs for learning:

   the first mark of a liberal temper is that it is motivated by
   eagerness for praise and inflamed by love of glory; this is the
   source of a certain noble envy and striving without hatred for
   praise and excellence. The next sign is that it willingly obeys its
   elders and is not defiant toward those who give good advice. For as
   horses are considered better for fighting when they are easily
   controlled by hand and rear up with their ears perked at the blare
   of trumpets, so those youths who listen well to their mentors and
   whom praise motivates to do what is good seem to offer rich fruit.

And continuing the analogy between horse and student, Vergerio states:

   Furthermore, those who are keen for endeavor, flee inaction, and
   always love to do what is right seem well disposed by nature, for
   (to employ the same sort of simile) as horses are considered better
   runners when they leap forward straightaway once the signal has
   been given, and do not stand sluggishly in place awaiting the spur
   or the whip, so young men who, without someone to admonish them,
   return eagerly at the appointed hours to their customary studies
   and to exercises that have scarcely been interrupted should be
   considered outstandingly suited to works of virtue. (2)
   [emphasis mine]

Clearly, we see above an analogy used to describe an idea but the example also serves as a model for the student who is particularly endowed with a desire to learn. The energy of the horse becomes the criterion for the modeling of a young boy who shows unbridled enthusiasm for learning. By situating the horse as an example for the student to follow, the analogy with an animal creates a relation between those two bodies. But it also underscores the vitality of a kinesthetic idea that is connected to a body in an intercorporeal relationship, that is, if one assumes that human thought is built up metaphorically from the basic kinesthetic experiences of living in a body:

   This primal animateness, this original kinetic spontaneity that
   infuses our being and defines our aliveness, is our point of
   departure for living in the world and making sense of it. … 
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