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

By MacPhail, Eric | The Romanic Review, November 2010 | Go to article overview

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


MacPhail, Eric, The Romanic Review


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.