Vicissitudes

The Life and Works of Louis Le Roy

by Werner L. Gundersheimer
Librairie Droz (Geneva), 164 pp., 30 Swiss francs

In the late sixteenth century a French scholar surveyed his own times with feelings of mingled hope and despair. He had seen the Renaissance revival of learning take hold with tremendous force in France. Technological advance, the use of printing, had made the resulting proliferation of new knowledge and new ideas universally available at a rate and in a volume undreamed of in the previous history of mankind. Knowledge was not only immensely increased; it was immediately communicated in the form of the printed book to the bewildered public. Another technological advance, the invention of the mariner’s compass, had brought far regions near, had found new lands beyond the seas unknown to the ancients. Third, the improvements in fire-arms had transformed the art of war. In this world of infinitely increased potentialities for good or evil there was no peace. The old loyalties which bound together the old order of society were breaking down; religion was weakened by dissension, and the century of the Renaissance in France had been the century of the wars of religion. Wherever one looked, east or west, north or south, there was conflict and unrest. Man’s new opportunities had included opportunities for the expansion of his lubricity and a new disease had appeared, syphilis. In the great cycles of history civilizations had arisen, to flourish for a while and then to vanish, destroyed by the seeds of disintegration lurking within their triumphs. Was the present age the last of these cycles, and was it doomed to go down into a final ruin?

The man who asked these distressingly familiar questions was Louis Le Roy, in a book called De la vicissitude ou variété des choses en l’univers. First published in 1575, it went through many editions and was widely influential, particularly in England. It filled a need in providing a philosophy of history for men who lived in bewildering times. Le Roy was the Spengler or the Toynbee of the sixteenth century and merits the careful attention of historians of history. It is therefore fortunate that Werner L. Gundersheimer has written a good book on him.

LE ROY HAD HIMSELF PLAYED an important part in the diffusion of knowledge in sixteenth-century France, as is well brought out in Gundersheimer’s book. He was born in 1510, of poor parents. What little is known of his life is characterized by a total and unremitting commitment to learning and scholarship combined with extreme penury. Why Le Roy never succeeded in getting himself subsidized by a patron remains a mystery, for his work was of a kind which should have appealed to French Renaissance royalty and aristocracy. This work included the translation into French of some of the major works of Plato, with commentaries, and of the Politics of Aristotle. Le Roy’s translations and commentaries were an important factor in spreading knowledge of the Renaissance revival of Plato and the Neoplatonists in France. Since he used in his commentaries the works of modern Italian …

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