Reviewed by Nancy Bisaha (Department of History, Vassar College)
Published on H-W-Civ (August, 2004)
Channeling the Ghosts of the Renaissance
Renaissance humanists have no modern counterpart to aid us in understanding their lives and work. We may compare them to classicists, in that they were trained in Latin and Greek and were well versed in the texts and history of the ancient period. But unlike today's classicists, they stood at the center of contemporary culture. Humanists exerted profound influence on art, literature, and learning of all kinds. They also led active political lives, serving the state as spokesmen, ambassadors, and advisers--qualified, oddly enough, by their training in Latin rhetoric. Hence, they seem an odd combination of clear-eyed political strategists, starry-eyed academics, and hip cultural icons. They inhabited several worlds at once, conversing with modern policy makers and artists as readily as the ancients they worshiped. Yet neither the humanists themselves nor their contemporaries saw any contradiction in their activities where we, looking back, continue to wrestle with them. Anthony Grafton's Bring Out Your Dead: The Past as Revelation succeeds in bridging that multi-generational gap by bringing humanists and their world to life. In the end Grafton shows just how integral the humanists were to Renaissance society as well as many aspects of modern scholarship.
From its tongue in cheek, Monty Python-inspired title, to the colorful anecdotes that mark the opening of each essay, this book promises to entertain as well as illuminate the reader--and delivers in full. Despite the seemingly disparate nature of its parts (all the essays except for one are previously published articles or book reviews), there is a subtle continuity to the work that emerges. Each essay seeks, from a different angle, to reconstruct the complex ways in which humanists read their texts, interpreted the classical past, and reacted to their own present circumstances. The distinguished and absurd characters we meet along the way all serve to flesh out or challenge current interpretations of humanism by shedding new light on the giants of Renaissance thought as well as lesser-known individuals.
One of the greatest strengths of this book is Grafton's even-handed portrayal of the humanists and their work. By presenting both ingenious interpretations of classical texts and artifacts as well as fascinating missteps and dead ends, Grafton avoids the tendency among intellectual historians to focus on achievements alone. The misapprehensions of humanists can be quite instructive. The same Renaissance scholars who strove to improve their knowledge of the past, rejected Valla's compelling treatise debunking the Donation of Constantine because of their unswerving devotion to the Church hierarchy. Grafton's account of the misreadings of the Satyricon further demonstrates how contemporary perceptions hindered openness to textual evidence. So much did humanists revere classical Latin and attempt to mimic its high style, they could not imagine that Petronius lowered himself to write the vulgar and ungrammatical Latin passages they found in the work--not even for the satirical effect he obviously (to our eyes, at least) intended. They labeled the work a forgery for many years as a result.
The bizarre story of Jean Hardouin is an equally fascinating case: Grafton explains how this enormously talented scholar systematically rejected the majority of classical texts as later anti-Christian forgeries when they did not agree with the evidence from coins and medals--evidence he regarded as incontrovertible. All these cases reveal the extent to which romance, imagination, and error clouded the historical record for humanists in love with the ancient world. Without investigating these academic mishaps, Grafton rightly argues, we cannot fully appreciate the world of classical scholarship in all of its contours. He even draws insights from the lost and arcane world of the polyhistors--classically trained, Latin-speaking scholars who strove for encyclopedic knowledge of all topics in seventeenth-century Germany. This rich and foreign intellectual tradition was short-lived and peripheral, but is instructive in revealing the extremes classical education reached before it began to lose precedence.
Far from emphasizing the defects of the humanistic tradition, Grafton argues throughout the book that classically trained scholars did more than simply copy or praise the ancient past they adored. Many shaped it according to their own desires and needs. Leon Battista Alberti, for example, attacked or inverted such authorities as Vitruvius, Pliny, and Cicero. Grafton also maps out the humanists' common efforts to bring their understanding of the ancient past to a higher critical standard. Comparing notes on classical manuscripts as well as sketches of inscriptions, buildings, and artifacts, humanists accurately identified the remains of ancient cities and purged corrupt ancient texts of errors. By working with artists like Michelangelo they reconstructed the consular fasti from excavated fragments and texts--an incredible boon for Roman historians. In these early efforts we see the roots of modern archaeology and historiography.
In a similar vein, Grafton challenges the view that humanists consistently privileged ancient authority over empiricism and opposed progressive scientific thought. On the contrary, some of the most progressive, scientific thinkers of the early modern period were classicists. Joseph Scaliger and Giambattista Vico brought tremendous precision and rigor to the study of ancient history. Vico's case is striking in that he defended the study of humanities and history, laying the very foundations of modern social science, even as his contemporaries were steadily rejecting classical studies. Ironically enough, Vico seems to have found inspiration in the scientific methods of Bacon and Descartes. As Grafton argues, the lines between humanities and science in the late Renaissance were not so distinct, then. In an opposite way, Descartes was deeply affected by the humanist tradition in which he was educated. Despite his dismissals of classical authority, Descartes owed much of his philosophical principles to ancient and Renaissance Skepticism, employed the rhetorical principles of a humanistic education, and even succumbed to the transformative power of dreams, like countless ancients before him. As Grafton states, "Humanism lived, deep into the age of science" (p. 117).
Humanism enjoyed not only a long life, but a socially and politically active one at that. Bring Out Your Dead emphasizes Grafton's ongoing effort to dispel the ivory-tower myth of humanists, by revealing their active engagement in the world around them. In several essays, Grafton speaks of the Republic of Letters, filled with impostors, drunkards, plagiarists, and raving madmen as well as earnest intellectuals who corresponded with their fellows across the borders of Europe. But humanists frequently branched out beyond this republic. Applying Hans Baron's theories to an unlikely corner of Northern Europe, Grafton explains how the University of Leiden, long associated with science and modernism, gave rise to civic humanism. There Justus Lipsius applied the lessons of Roman history to Dutch military strategy against the Spanish; Maurice of Orange took Lipsius seriously enough to implement some of his ideas. As Grafton aptly states, "it is bemusing to see scholarship so firmly in possession of the role that science enjoys now, the source of the powerful knowledge that statesmen most need" (p. 236). Humanism crossed social as well as political boundaries. Taking us to the unlikely setting of printers' workshops, Grafton demonstrates how humanistically trained scholars, or printers' correctors, worked side by side with the typesetters in the editing of classical texts--sometimes inadvertently leaving behind inky fingerprints in the process. As such, the printers' workshop illustrates how permeable social and occupational lines could be in the late Renaissance, not to mention how old scribal traditions could not be surpassed by new technology.
Almost as interesting as the stories that comprise Bring Out Your Dead is the way Grafton tells them. He leads the reader through a labyrinth of details with lucidity and ease that belie dizzying layers of detective work and inspired interpretation. From highbrow treatises and literature to personal letters and accounts, Grafton deftly navigates a broad range of ancient and Renaissance sources: manuscripts are scrutinized for emendations and marginal notes while the densest of intellectual works are closely read for subtle shades of meaning. Oddly enough, this brings me to a criticism of the book. The elegance of many of these essays (not to mention what must surely be publishers' requirements of the original pieces) often means the omission of details regarding precise methods, published sources, and manuscripts; several essays lack footnotes entirely. This would not be a problem were the target audience clearly more general readers, and some of these essays are clearly written with them in mind. But most pieces presume not only greater knowledge of the subject and literature, but also languages like Latin and German, which Grafton frequently quotes without translation. Both the novice and the expert will find value in these essays, but the work as a whole will not completely satisfy either group; further editing would have helped reconcile these issues, as well as to smooth out the repetitions and gaps between essays. The book is worth reading cover to cover, but its uneven structure creates some obstacles.
Perhaps less a problem than a virtue is the fact that Grafton is just too modest in his conclusions. He consciously avoids wrapping up the complexities of the subjects and individuals he treats into neat little packages. While deftly revealing the contradictory strains in the lives and work of Hardouin, Descartes, and Vico, he repeatedly stops short of offering an explanation for these dueling tendencies. Is it possible he has no opinions on these questions or is he leaving it for the reader to decide? If it is the latter, one would very much like to see him take a stand, tentative and risky though it may be.
Finally, an unresolved tension seems to haunt the essays of Bring Out Your Dead. The introduction states that all of the essays "seek to show that the apparently arid ground of humanist learning brought forth multiple examples of lovable--and less lovable--pedantry, but also substantial efforts to connect the realm of nature with that of books, the realm of everyday experience in the street with that of passionate reading in massive tomes, and the realm of codes of etiquette and institutions with that of extravagant and joyous erudition" (p. 15). With this statement, Grafton recalls the study he co-authored with Lisa Jardine, From Humanism to the Humanities (1986), which claimed that humanist education was far more prosaic and superficial than its advocates had been willing to recognize or admit. While Bring Out Your Dead does not directly contradict this premise, its focus on the many ways in which classical learning enlivened humanists who brought it into so many facets of their lives stands in sharp contrast to the picture he painted several years ago; it quietly begs the question of how we can resolve such seeming conflict. The world of humanism was large and should not be reduced to one tendency, as Grafton has rightly argued. It encompasses the passionate and accomplished as well as the uninspired students whose highest goal was to use their grammatical drills and memorized quotes to land a decent job. Still, Grafton's focus on the latter group's experience early in his career and his more recent interest in the former invites some explanation on his part of how to reconcile the two poles. One hopes he will address this question in a future work.
The riches found in Bring Out Your Dead far outweigh its shortcomings. Scholars of the Renaissance and early modern intellectual history will find it a convenient gathering of disparate pieces that attack the subject of humanist scholarship from diverse angles. Without question, Grafton succeeds in bringing the dead to life in this work: both the humanists themselves and the ancients whose spirits they sought to conjure. Anyone who thinks of humanism as a dry and esoteric pursuit will see just how vivid and broad reaching it was after reading this provocative and entertaining book.
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Nancy Bisaha. Review of Grafton, Anthony, Bring Out Your Dead: The Past as Revelation.
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