No Man’s Land

Eight Philosophers of the Italian Renaissance

by Paul Oskar Kristeller
Stanford, 194 pp., $5.00

Renaissance philosophy is something of a no-man’s-land in the history of thought. Ancient philosophy, medieval philosophy, modern philosophy beginning from Descartes—all these stand as monuments in the landscape having recognizable shapes. But what is Renaissance philosophy? A rather vague area populated by elusive formulae such as “humanism” and “Neoplatonism.” One way of clarifying this situation is to recognize with Professor Kristeller that “humanism” and “humanist philosophy” should be separated from “Renaissance philosophy” as a whole, as a distinct branch having different origins and a different history. The eight philosophers of his book, which is based on lectures given at Stanford University in 1961, are classified as humanist philosophers (Petrarch and Valla), Neoplatonists (Ficino and Pico), Aristotelian (Pomponazzi), and naturalists (Telesio, Patrizi, Bruno). The excellent and, I believe, quite original plan of starting a book on Renaissance philosophy with Petrarch and Valla enables Professor Kristeller to expound with admirable lucidity that interpretation of the meaning of the much abused term “Renaissance humanism,” of which he himself has laid the foundations by brilliant original research. I well remember the interest aroused by his article of 1944, since expanded, which put the word “humanism” in a new perspective for Renaissance scholars, and which was confirmed by Dr. Augusto Campana’s examination of the meaning of the word umanista as actually used in the Italian Renaissance.

In his splendid studies of Petrarch and Valla in the present book, Professor Kristeller puts across for the student and for the general reader what ought to be understood by Renaissance humanism and Renaissance humanist philosophy. The word umanista was university slang for the teacher of a definite branch of the curriculum, comprising grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, and moral philosophy; and the humanist scholar was primarily the man who expanded these subjects by the recovery and study of the ancient texts on which they were based. Though not the initiator of Renaissance humanism, Petrarch was its first great representative, devoting his life as a scholar to the recovery of Latin antiquity, and his life as a literary man and a poet to meditation on the moral and politico-historical themes which his new approach to the ancients inspired. Professor Kristeller’s discussion of Petrarch as the literary man, developing themes of self-analysis and moral reflection in a manner already characteristic of a modern humanist, is admirable. Valla carried to new heights the philological expertise of the humanist scholar in dealing with texts, and further expanded the humanist approach to moral philosophy. The chapter on Valla, particularly the part dealing with Valla’s interpretation of Epicureanism, can be recommended, not only to students for whom this book is primarily intended, but also to more advanced scholars for its many original lights and suggestions.

Having laid the foundations of what he means by Renaissance humanism and humanist philosophy, Professor Kristeller turns in the chapters on Ficino and Pico to Renaissance Neoplatonism, and here he emphasises that the two movements, though they overlap and mutually influence one another, are not the same. He is reluctant…

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