Sir Thomas Elyot and Renaissance Humanism

By John M. Major | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 8
Ethics

HAVING seen to what an extent Elyot's views of politics and psychology were shaped by his reading of Plato, and how these views are never divorced from ethical considerations, we expect, on coming to examine Elyot's system of ethics proper, to find quite as strong a tinge of Platonism, or stronger.Our expectations are correct, insofar as certain leading principles of the Platonic ethics have determined the whole cast of Elyot's thinking on the subject.At the same time, it is difficult, as always, to separate the Platonic strain from the Neoplatonic—especially in this case the Ciceronian.As was brought out in an earlier chapter, Elyot's analyses of the individual moral virtues in the Governour are for the most part based on the writings of Cicero and Aristotle. Where Platonism enters the picture is in the general assumptions which underlie Elyot's theory of the nature and importance of virtue itself.Not being a philosopher, Elyot does not attempt any real inquiry into the meaning of virtue; like the other humanists, he seems to have regarded "virtue" simply as a term for certain fundamental principles of right conduct which, operating together, justify man's claim to rank high in the universal order.The "vertuous nature" of a nobleman, Elyot declares, "is nat onely his image, but the very man hym selfe. For without vertue man is but in the numbre of bestis." 1 Behind this lofty conception of man's true being there stands—if at a distance- the figure of Plato, the greatest of all moral philosophers (excepting Christ) in the eyes of Elyot and his contemporaries.

The fervor with which Renaissance humanists exhorted men to a life of virtue was born of their enthusiasm for the classical philosophers, wedded to a strong sense of Christian duty.Among the Greek and Roman moralists, first place was by common consent granted to Plato; occupying a somewhat lower but still very high eminence were Cicero,

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1
Sir Thomas Elyot, The Book Named the Governour, ed.Henry Herbert Stephen Croft ( London: Kegan Paul, Trench, and Co., 1880), II, 180. For other definitions of virtue in Elyot's writings, see Governour, II, 112; Sir Thomas Elyot, The Image of Governance Compiled of the Acts of Alexander Severus ( London, 1541), sig.Zi.

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Sir Thomas Elyot and Renaissance Humanism
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Sir Thomas Elyot and Renaissance Humanism *
  • Preface v
  • Contents *
  • First Editions of the Works of Sir Thomas Elyot xii
  • Part I - The Plan of the Book Named the Governour *
  • Part II - The Governour: Background and Tradition *
  • Chapter 1 - Castiglione and Other Italians 39
  • Chapter 2 - Erasmus 77
  • Chapter 3 - Sir Thomas More 89
  • Chapter 4 - Classical Authors Other Than Plato 140
  • Part III - Elyot and Plato *
  • Chapter 5 - Introduction 173
  • Chapter 6 - Politics 178
  • Chapter 7 - Psychology 206
  • Chapter 8 - Ethics 241
  • Chapter 9 - Epilogue 262
  • Conclusion 271
  • Index 273
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