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A Cartesian Renaissance
by J. B. Lethbridge

This page has been updated as of November 3, 2015. 

Lobsien, Verena O. Transparency and Dissimulation: Configurations of Neoplatonism in Early Modern English Literature. Berlin, New York: De Gruyter, 2010. 320 pp. ISBN: 978-3110228847. Cloth $119.00.

Lobsien, Verena O. Jenseitsästhetik: Literarische Räume letzter Dinge. Berlin: Berlin UP, 2012. 437 pp. ISBN 978-3862800445. Cloth $48.40.

Schneider, Steffen. Kosmos, Seele, Text: Formen der Partizipation und ihre literarische Vermittlung: Marsilio Ficino, Pierre de Ronsard, Giordano Bruno. Heidelberg: Winter Verlag, 2012. 438 pp. ISBN 978-3-8253-6030-6. Cloth $66.50. 


It is fitting that a budget of books on Renaissance Neo-Platonism should begin with Ficino, for he more than any other was responsible for the recovery and above all the promulgation of Plato. It is thanks to his labours and his teachings that the skepticism of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, not itself a Renaissance phenomenon, took the Platonic, or better Socratic turn that it did. The skepticism of most lasting importance culminates in Descartes, and from the clear streams that flow from him we irrigate our own skepticism. These excellent books study the Neo-Platonic and therefore unavoidably the epistemological problems of Socratic skepticism.

I want to take the opportunity offered by a review essay to comment on some issues these books raise and to pursue one or two paths not taken by Lobsien or Schneider. In particular, Descartes should be brought fully into view, and I want to indicate the present philosophical relevance of Ficino’s version of participation and to question that critical practice which leaves it almost out of account in Schneider’s book. (In Part III, as a sort of annex to the whole, I shall take up specialized professional disagreements with Lobsien’s Jenseitsästhetik, on More’s Utopia, and Spenser’s The Faerie Queene VI.)

In Transparency and Dissimulation, Lobsien considers the figurations of Neo-Platonism (as her subtitle proclaims) in several authors of the late sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries, both how it is figured and what it figures, devoting large portions of the book to Marvell. In Jenseits[1] the specifics of Neo-Platonism recede behind the more general theme, which is nevertheless concerned with Neo-Platonism’s dearest beliefs and hopes and failures.

Steffen Schneider’s Kosmos, Seele, Text shares these preoccupations, with the emphasis, however, not on the beyond or other-worldly, but on the nature of the present cosmos (“now” and “with presence”) and the business of knowing it, which necessarily invokes the beyond and the God (the One, or simply Unity, or the Creator) there who created and sustains the cosmos, and, too, our knowledge of him.

The three books engage with two fundamental principles of Renaissance thought: (1) that the clarity of an idea is a criterion of our knowing it, and (2) that man as mind is separated, radically so, from the cosmos in which he lives but on which he looks as if from the outside. These principles are Cartesian, not, certainly, in origin, but in originary effect so much so that we call them by his name.

Together the books raise a range of issues. They suggest that poetry and philosophy had a troubled relation then as they do for us now, and that our knowledge of the world (then as now) has, if any, a troubled relation to the world. They suggest that our narrow notion of poetry (of what counts as poetry, that poetry is expressive) and the rather broader Renaissance notion of poetry have a troubled relation; and they suggest that the Renaissance is marked not by individualism, the breakup of the cosmos, and the displacement of the human from its central position within that cosmos, but by an idea of clarity in thought coupled with the radical separation of mind from body, of man from cosmos (in other words by the application of mathematics to the understanding of the cosmos, and not long after to philosophy). These ideas are still current and actively ingredient in literary criticism and philosophy, and make for the continuing turbulence in the relations between poetry and philosophy. Finally, the books also suggest that during the Renaissance there grew up a nascent form of the affective or expressive aesthetic which has made it virtually impossible for poetry to engage seriously with philosophy, and which throws a great deal of weight onto the figure of allegory, which need not be intrinsically expressive.

Each book—partly as a search for historical understanding of the authors they study, partly as a search for critical self-preservation—wrestles with the question whether or how poetry conveys knowledge and whether or how we know the cosmos; for each the expressive power of poetry and the readerly participation it allows, is a key theme.

Another issue arises rather despite the best efforts of Lobsien and Schneider. If you are asking, for instance, about the quality of an experience expressed by a poem, there is an implied comparison with the critics’ own experience; if you are analyzing the social system that produced this or that attitude in a literary work, there is a quiet, a tacit comparison with other social systems and with the critics’ own. And so with other tasks of historical criticism. The comparisons with the critic’s own experience or times can be misleading, but criticism is hardly possible without them. But in recent decades it was thought that the differences outweigh the similarities across the centuries, and we have had too many callow appropriations to tread that road again without trepidation. However, when it comes to highly abstract ideas, while great care is still required, it is true that the idea has greater stability and therefore wider applicability than something as definite and personal and emotional as, say, fathers’ attitudes to daughters. Thus we still discuss Descartes’ Cogito as a live issue in philosophy. Very few philosophers 400 years later would disagree that the problems in Descartes are in very large part our philosophical problems today.

So that it is reasonable in principle to expect that a literary critical book studying philosophical issues historically—studying propositions that claim to state the truth of some matter—should consider the local justification of the claims in their own period and terms, and then at a more general level consider, too, whether such claims might be justifiable in our own day, or in this case useable still. Additionally it seems that such discussions as Schneider’s of Ficino will not fully account for their authors if they do not confront the philosophical question of truth and falsehood in those authors. Both Schneider and Lobsien follow best critical practice in not writing a history of ideas or philosophically inflected arguments, and my criticism is directed not to the specific practice of two fine critics and scholars, but to the sensus communis that is “best practice.”

The virtues of these books are sterling: great learning, care in exposition and clarity of expression; responsible and imaginative scholarship. They are written with intelligence and sensitivity, and each burns with an inner fire, wissenschaftlich though they are. Schneider’s Kosmos is a towering book whose task looms so high that one would assume it not well done because either it cannot be, even at 420 over-sized pages of smallish type, or because the edifice will totter over in a babel of meaningless voices—but the tower seems well built. It is a book with an unusually acute awareness of what goes on around and beyond it in a broad swathe, so that one’s queries or criticisms have been anticipated in the main; it is for this reason a difficult book to review.[2] Lobsien’s English monograph is wide-ranging in the authors and decades it treats of, though tightly bound to its central themes—in what figurations was the Neo-Platonic received by the authors considered and in what figurations did they present it again? Her Jenseitsästhetik, the star of the show, is a serious work for the student and (highly) educated who are not specialists: it is warm, engaged, passionate, full of insight and shifts of the kaleidoscope, original, and memorable. Lobsien is a fearsome scholar who has written books and papers as cold as ice and as remote as Pluto in the name of wissenschaftliche Arbeit and responsible theorizing, but who has turned to the nearer and warmer specifics of humane literature in an impressive array of learned, accessible though demanding books (including one on Renaissance skepticism) which should be better known.[3] Along the way she has obviously gathered not only vast knowledge and expertise, but also insight and acumen, so that when Jenseits covers well-traversed ground it makes the old seem new, the familiar strange, as indeed it makes the new seem old and the strange familiar. So that giving an over-view of Spenser’s allegory, for instance, touching most of the main points in the contemporary discussion, it reads not as a bland survey for not terribly adventurous undergraduates, but as an exciting and fully refreshed way of looking at the subject.

Descartes is a problematic figure haunting these books, where “haunting” is the operative word, for he goes largely unmentioned, perhaps unnoticed, a troublesome ghost.

It is ironic that it is Neo-Platonism that lends itself so to mysticisms and mysteries, to flat contradictions irresponsibly called “paradoxes”; it is ironic that Plato points heavenwards and Aristotle’s restraining, calming hand gestures earthwards in Raphael’s “Academy,” for Socrates and Plato valued clarity and precision of thought above all things. And it is further ironic that the Scholastics also valued above all clarity of a certain type and had a penchant for mathematical organization—for it was Descartes, or the thought and style of thought we associate with his name and to which he gave classic expression, who, rebelling against them as he thought or hoped, introduced the two related ideas which, more than others usually presented, define the Renaissance: first, absolute clarity of thought—but now as an epistemological not merely managerial principle—coupled with a mathematical organization—but now also an epistemological principle (powerfully backed up by his own profound and lasting achievements as a mathematician); and second, the separation of mind from world with a thoroughness never before achieved.

If you begin to apply mathematics to the description of phenomena—to your observations of the cosmos, for example—at one stroke, and regardless of your intentions, you rule out any human element and submit yourself to wholly abstract, wholly general propositions, where the human and the divine have no place. The cosmos described in purely mathematical terms bears no trace of human participation: the taste of the apple, the pain of its dropping on you from a tall apple tree, are left out of the description.[4] The work of the Royal Society in seeking to eliminate all figure from their language and all human response (a slow process) from their reports was only minor linguistic housekeeping after the main task of eliding the human and the divine from science had been performed in the mathematical work of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo.[5]

The result was that the world was reduced to mere material, to something very like a machine, and mind was reserved for mankind, with the mind-body problem then presented to posterity in the most severe form. Mind, thus separated entirely from the world, could find no contact point from which to know the world, and the world (cosmos), emptied of mind, found nothing to hold it together, and scattered into discrete and isolated pieces.

Descartes was so successful, the style of thought just indicated bears his name—apart from his own philosophical abilities, originality and achievements—partly because of the simplicity and limpid clarity of his own style, behind which there is nowhere to hide. It is utterly transparent, easy to understand at the local level on first reading, though the reverberations of implication, effects, and consequences have lasted for four hundred years. Above all the silver-clear writing is a powerful enactment of the epistemological principle of utter clarity by which we know, and know that we know, an idea.

The massive impact of a style of great clarity and simplicity, Descartes shares with one of his progenitors, Machiavelli, to whom he has in these respects a close relation.[6] The Reformers, too, are a tributary stream: they both wanted a return to the ipssisima verba under the layers of Church commentary, and often favored the plain style. Above all there is Calvin’s famous clarity, though clarity is not yet an epistemological principle. And very soon Descartes’ two principles, ably supported and abetted by Bacon, were taken up by Thomas Spratt, architect of the Royal Society’s efforts to disassociate the world from the human response to it, and study the results. It is with these Cartesian principles that the Renaissance completes and defines itself: first, the epistemological importance of style, specifically clarity and the mathematical principles of method that go with it as one means of attaining clarity; second, the separation of mind from cosmos.

Man emerged into a cosmos from which he was radically separated, with fearsome and breathtakingly beautiful and efficient techniques for “questioning,” i.e., torturing and mastering (Bacon) a cosmos in which he could no longer participate: it is not the loss of correspondences, not the individual, not the mere displacement from the center, but the isolation of mind from cosmos and mind from mind that marks the culmination of the Renaissance.

Of course the Cartesian epistemological problems were not new in their general forms: the most important fact in western philosophy is that Plato was a mathematician; and for all the poetry of his style he imposes loose but recognizably mathematical standards of proof and clarity on philosophical talk. Plato’s ideas are an attempt to bridge the gap between mind and world: how can we know the world when it is different from our minds? The answer (of which Plato himself made the strongest criticism in the Parmenides, but which persists in bearing his name) is that the world participates in the ideas and its participation makes it what it is; participation gives the world its nature and character. We can know the ideas because ideas are what mind does; in knowing the ideas, because of the world’s participation in them, we know the world. But it is important that this knowing is intellective: we know ideas that we can restate and in restating share just because they are ideas: cogent, clear, defined and massively stable and repeatable. That is why Socrates is always searching for fast definitions, for the essences of things, for the unadulterated statement of the Idea of something; he never finds them; and that is why he claimed to know nothing.

The mystical experience, an important ingredient in Neo-Platonism, is of something, but the mystic cannot or will not state clearly and unambiguously what the “of” is like: it is ineffable as God is ineffable. One feels that poetry might be one way to express that “of,” a better way than the clear propositions of philosophy; but no, for the Cartesian philosopher wants then to ask the poet for clear propositional content. Lobsien voices the received response when she writes that there is no “message”; and to abstract from the poem some message (Botschaft) for the reader is not only absurd but also misses the total effect of the poem qua poem (Jenseits, 67-8)—a completely orthodox position.

Ficino’s problems are Socratic. When Socrates, addressing the rhapsode, or literary critic, Ion, claims that Ion doesn’t know (capital “K,” as it were) what he taught about Homer in his rapture, he is saying not only that rapture is emotion, and that emotion cannot be known in the way that thoughts can be known; he is also saying that it is unclear; and this is where he trips Ion up and many another in the Dialogues because they are not clear in their thought: they do not always or consistently call the same the same and the different the different, and their definitions are not pure. What could not be put down in clear language was not knowledge you could be certain of, and of what you could not be certain thereof you should only speak as a pastime (Timaeus, anticipating Wittgenstein).

There are two barriers to knowledge of the world here: the first is lack of clarity, so that we cannot be sure what we are talking about, and the second is the inability to share feelings, which chop and change, pitch and roll, never stay still long enough and are never the same twice or for two moments together.

Socrates eventually gives way to Ficino and hence to Descartes on these points, and Descartes goes much further than Socrates or Plato in separating mind from body, soul from matter, and man from the universe, in the same terms of clarity and change, though the contexts are so different after two thousand years that the similarity in the terms can be misleading.

These problems are reflected in criticism that deals with the Neo-Platonic: whether to run the danger of obscurity or “soft” Wissenschaft, and adopt an alternative to the Socratico-Cartesian analytic of “clearly defined concepts and propositions or nothing” approach, following the lead of the writers under exposition. Whether it is right and proper that sound and true ideas be wholly clear (a claim that entails that ideas be properly separated from each other with the same having nothing to do with the different, nor the different with the same, where the same and the different are in all degrees mutually exclusive, as they rarely if ever are in human affairs); or whether some mystery is good—some inexactitude, some darkness, some blurring of the edges of the definitions—and whether instead of Cartesian directness, some indirection. It is a question of style: limpid clarity or aimed and organised obscurity.


Having begun in medias res, we can turn back to the beginning and consider Professor Lobsien’s two books. Transparency and Dissimulation is not easy. ..  The presentation is complex in that it operates with many strands on many levels, not that it is intrinsically difficult. Still, this reader at least would have preferred more guidance through a book which is not thesis-driven.

Lobsien is interested in the “figurative potential” of Neo-Platonism, in (merely) how various authors responded to it, used it, were used by it, in how it works, and what it looks like from author to author. She is “not primarily interested in questions of periodization or in the history of ideas in a traditional sense” (2), and so “Early Modern versions of Neo-Platonic thinking in the strict and narrow sense demanded by a history of philosophy are … not at the heart of the present study” (8); a footnote adds that neither is the book a source-critical work, nor “a study of the Neo-Platonic tradition in English literature.”  She is concerned with “the ways in which modes of thinking, kinds—combined elements, motifs, but above all structures—of a certain type of metaphysics affect and shape mentalities” (8). This essay review wants to challenge this sort of avoidance of philosophical issues, including the philosophical considerations entailed by a history of ideas, even though it is admittedly critical “best practice” at present.

What is done is done well. The individual readings are acute and insightful, the practical criticism is of a high order, and, crucially, responds to individual voices; no thesis is mechanically applied. As a result the book has a slightly granular presentation.

There is some energetic writing not, occasionally, without some beauty. Here is positively the ghost of Henry James in “immensely”:


A beauty that does not rest on proportion, harmony or symmetry but is somehow immensely more than these and strongly affects the Soul, as it “runs along” the surface of things.



A few sentences later Lobsien speaks of “the grace of beautiful beings,” which becomes a “metaphysical threshold to be crossed in the direction of the Good” (10). Like the Master, Lobsien can be subtle on the grand scale but without his circum-, peri-, and epilocutions; not everything is spelled out. In fact, James’s expositions, his creative avoidance of potentially ruinous direct statement, his effort to let what is of greatest importance in the hearts of those whose stories he is telling exfoliate of its own by these indirections—all this makes for a good modern example of some Neo-Platonic modes of expression with which perhaps to address those skeptical either of the ancient tradition, or of modern writers whose similar methods—circling, spiralling avoidance of trampling over the unnameable—participate in the long history of Neo-Platonism: Heidegger, for example, or Karl Barth. The book’s own circular or spiral organization (constantly returning to Marvell, first in this light, then in that connection) is a model itself.

There are times when Lobsien writes with an efficient compression that covers complex ideas quickly and comprehensively, and there is a lot going on in her opening sketch of Neo-Platonism (1-16); if there is anything of importance missing I didn’t see it. The ideas of Transparency and Dissimulation are blocked in along with the related idea of excess. The material world is transparent to the immaterial world: it not only points to it, but “it is transparent to it—diaphanous—permitting its hidden glory to ‘shine through the veil’ … . Indeed matter serves as a medium through which the One communicates itself” (3). Language follows suit. Dissimulation is hiddenness (obscurity, opacity, 2), and in a curiously dated expression, is “the signifier of the non-availability of transcendence together with its irresistible attraction” (3). This all entails that we see the One through the veil of the material but without disregarding that material (3), for it is the beauty of the veil that draws us and directs us to the One. (Later, Lobsien turns from “diaphanous” to “Theophanous.”) All this has consequences for the reading of literature. This lengthy introduction is chapter one.

The veil is perhaps the wrong image. Lobsien uses it, and it must be admitted, so does the tradition. But it is possible to wonder whether matter is more like a filament that glows in response to the current running through it—for the material is a medium, not a cover, a medium by means of which the One communicates itself not through matter (the veil metaphor), but in matter (medium or filament). An advantage of the change in figuration would be that it preserves Lobsien’s strong sense, which is true to the tradition, that the medium is not something to be put aside, or ignored or filtered out, to get past, to be rid of. The filament image is technological and modern, and while St Paul does suggest that the glass will be put aside, the dominant tradition (and the filament) invokes the burning bush, which is precisely not consumed by the fire.

Chapter Two is on “Circularities Or The Poetics of Return”; both circularity and return are important configurations of Neo-Platonism (after an introduction there are sections on Sidney, Wyatt, Spenser, and Donne, closed by a long subsection on Marvell). Chapter Three, “Knowledge and Happiness,” starts with a long section on Browne dealing with uncertain knowledge before closing off, again, with Marvell and then Traherne. Aesthetics makes its formal appearance in Chapter Four, “Transparent Spheres, Or the Beauty of Creation,” with Vaughan the main witness. Chapter Five, “Transparent Duplicities” (a paradoxical title typical of Neo-Platonic thought), considers Marvell once more; a lengthy concluding section is based on Aphra Behn.

Part of the “configuration” of the Neo-Platonic is the expression of the inexpressible, the paradoxical, and writing is hardly Neo-Platonic if it does not try. In each of her writers, Lobsien’s exposition shows, in each case differently according as the poet writes, that form not only follows or “is” the meaning, but that it supplements the stateable meanings. As for instance this remark about Spenser’s Fowre Hymnes: the text


demonstrates by its forward-backwards dynamic what it cannot express: it acts out what cannot be articulated or circumscribed by any of the Neo-Platonic metaphors available.



Some truths can only be experienced indirectly and obliquely and expressed likewise. One thinks of Emily Dickinson’s injunction: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” This raises an epistemological difficulty of credibility; the same issue arises in Schneider’s book and in Lobsien’s Jenseits. There is also an expressivist or affective aesthetic implied, here, which all three books bring out in more or less the same terms. There is a danger that we seek our own aesthetics in the period we have called Early Modern, and some words are in order here.

The expression just quoted, and one which falls readily to hand so that the slip is venial enough, “which it cannot express” is obviously inaccurate, for the “demonstrates” is a form of “expression.” What we mean when we say “inexpressible” in contexts such as these is that it cannot be expressed by direct statement or it is not susceptible to propositional forms of expression. Now in our Cartesian world this means that we cannot know it for we cannot state it propositionally and with clarity; this is the same thing as saying we cannot state it shorn of its engagement with and relation to the human subject who saw or experienced or felt what ever is under question. And here is the problem, the clash between poetry and philosophy: the poet believes that he or she has knowledge to impart, experience to communicate of the utmost importance, but which would be maimed by being stated in propositions characterized by Cartesian clarity of definition, entailing purity of content and mutual exclusivity, which would not in fact state the most important part of the experience, feeling, or knowledge. The philosopher, overly influenced by mathematics and scientism, says: propositional and conceptual clarity or nothing. The poet has, however, other means of expression, and wants usually to claim that these means of expression do lead to knowledge, or that poetry is in the first place able to deal with and present knowledge as part of its teaching, that poetic means of expression can convey cognitive elements. Wordsworth is not the only poet to wish for a philosophical poem.

In the case of Donne, even more than with Spenser, what the text cannot state, it becomes. As a remark of Lobsien’s buried in a note has it: such texts “actualize” the structures of the truths they adumbrate. They are not just versified “rehearsals” of philosophical truths; the actualizations make the truth “efficient” (as in efficient cause; 52, note 51, relevant to Spenser because he is always “shaping” his reader, but to any writer who believed in the second term of Horace’s dulce et utile). In the religious context, this becomes, or wishes to become, liturgical language, an issue with Donne in particular, both as preacher and poet.

All this expressive poetry sounds very modernist, and perhaps we should proceed with caution, though Lobsien gives convincing specific readings.

The manner of Neo-Platonic exploration and exposition—an exploration for the author as well as instruction for a reader—and the types of things that Neo-Platonic writers see in the world and create in response, are beautifully illustrated with the biblical incident where a woman comes to Jesus as he eats in a friend’s house, breaks open a jar of precious ointment, and anoints his feet, wiping them with her hair (recorded in Matthew 26, Mark 14, and John 12). The disciples object, and Jesus corrects them by saying that the woman had “wrought a good work,” symbolically anointing his body “to the burying” (11). To Lobsien this is an example of excess, at once valued in itself as a gracious action and pointing forwards, or through itself, to something beyond, with which it is to some degree incommensurable: “it provides an experience of transcendence by means of a transgressive action” (12). It provides this experience “in the medium of an almost outrageous sensuality: the consequences of the act can be seen, heard, felt, smelt, tasted” (12). The significance of that list of the verbs of the five senses is that the act is available to the onlookers to participate in. In its expressiveness it calls them to smell and hear and see; participation is almost inescapable, except that those onlookers who are mentioned are busy rejecting the action, refusing to participate, perhaps because the transgression of the action and the transcendence of its significance are too dissimilar.

[Interestingly, and I am not sure it has been noticed before, in his own Neo-Platonic vision in Book VI, Spenser probably alludes to this incident in the hope that his own Elizabeth, whom he has inserted into the dance, will glean some memorial from the immemorial majesty of the Queen. The poet’s words at the close of the incident are these:


Pardon thy shepheard, mongst so many layes,
As he hath sung of thee in all his dayes,
To make one minime of thy poore handmayd,
And vnderneath thy feete to place her prayse,
That when thy glory shall be farre displayd
To future age of her this mention may be made.

(FQ VI.x.28)[7]


To the last two lines, compare the Christ’s remarks in the English Bible:


Where so euer this gospell shal be preached in all the worlde, there shal this also that she hath now done, be told for a remembraunce of her.

(Mark 14:9, Coverdale).]


In the dissimilarity of the material or the action to that which it points to, figures, or reveals lies another secret, that of the apophatic way, the via negativa or via negationis leading to that which cannot be articulated or represented by human or natural means. The apophatic was a great part of Neo-Platonic efforts to express the ineffable, alongside or just behind the shoulder of the participation model. It is also a means of avoiding any attempt at direct expression or naming; by subtle versions of “not this” and “not that” and “not in particular this specific nor that precise thing” it seeks to lead the mind to the space indicated and shaped by the surrounding negatives.

Lobsien has noticed that, while the translations struggle with Christ’s phrase kalon ergon, it in fact means literally “beautiful work” (and we may add that it is used of moral beauty, and includes “fitting,” “decent,” “in good season,” and “auspicious”). The act is gratuitous, graceful, shocking in the excess which generates its beauty and its power; but what it points to is also excessive; the excess of the woman’s act is “fitting” (12). It is directly unbecoming twice over, a woman approaching the rabbi unbidden in the first place and then the expense; additionally, in the background of the received account, there is a latent eroticism.

Lobsien’s insistence that the material is not, properly, devalued as it points away from itself; that the material is a medium precisely; that the immediacy of the act, the sensual shock, the transgression, the excess of the material is a means to an end, but not contingent, so that it is not so easy to say that the means is completely separate from the end—all this leads her to an expressivist aesthetic where form and content, medium and message are in tight coordination of symbiosis. She speaks of an “intimate linkage and interaction of ‘medium’ and ‘message,’” “immanence and transcendence” (15; she returns to the matter in Jenseits). This, she claims, is native to Neo-Platonism in the Early Modern period, and it certainly has analogues with Schneider’s perceptive account of Bruno’s apparent materialism. This claim to an expressivist aesthetic would need to be examined with great care, for while it describes a Modernist aesthetic, it is not necessarily an Early Modern aesthetic. It is Romantic and post-Romantic, at least in the form known to us.

There is a whiff of anachronism in applying such an aesthetic backwards to the Early Modern. However, Schneider makes the same claim in relation to Ficino, Ronsard, and Bruno, and neither discussion is to be brushed aside. Add that we can and have for over a century now looked back at writers such as Donne and seen in their poetry, in their practice, if not in any self-conscious theorizing, that form follows meaning and vice versa in a tight symbiosis, and the idea gains in credibility even while it needs tact, perhaps more tact than displayed here, in the stating and analysis. For when Horace writes something that sounds very like Coleridge— 


Non satis est pulchra esse poemata; dulcia sunto
et, quocumque uolent, animum auditoris agunto. 
Vt ridentibus adrident, ita flentibus adsunt
humani uoltus; si uis me flere, dolendum est
primum ipsi tibi; tum tua me infortunia laedent,
Telephe uel Peleu … .[8]


—we cannot without further ado attribute Coleridge’s versions of the thought to Horace; too much has passed in the meantime. When Marlowe, for instance, is called an atheist it means something a great deal less and very different than what it means a century later when Voltaire is called by the same name. And again, when we find that there are places in The Faerie Queene where poetry is expressive, as in the Bower of Bliss and the Garden of Adonis (of which Lobsien has a potent reading in Jenseits), there are also places, great long passages, where it does not seem much to be the case at all beyond the demands of decorum, which is not the same as this expressivist aesthetic. I am not trying to say that Lobsien and Schneider have it wrong, so much as to say I think they have it largely right a little glibly. Meanwhile there is no denying that, whatever we attribute to him, in practice Donne’s poetry is expressive, and that our expressivist aesthetic developed into its Modernist forms partly in response to poets such as Donne. One might or should doubt the expressivist aesthetic, but the expressivist practice is clear.


The expressivist aesthetic, or its practice, presupposes a form of readerly participation in the poetry, and in these books participation is a theme, particularly for Schneider. There are three types of participation relevant here: the readers’ aesthetic participation in the experience of the poet, in what the poem is about; their participation in the working out of an idea, a question, or a proposition; and their participation in the cosmos of which the other two are analogues or allegories (the literary is a version of the cosmic).

To the Neo-Platonic Medievals, and deep into the Renaissance (a point made by Schneider), the cosmos is not something over and against the human body or the human mind, but something in which the whole Man participates. We understand, we know, by participation. This it is that the expressivist aesthetic performs: what is unsayable in Sidney or Spenser or Donne and more so in Traherne and Herbert is experienced, is known, by participation in the poetry. Schneider makes the point explicit with regard to Ficino, Ronsard, and Bruno. This is also why for Lobsien, allegory is not and cannot well be a figure of discardable means to end.

Writing on Neo-Platonism, unless the writer is unusually competent and responsible, tends to run out of control and into the sand of easy paradoxes and mysteries, so called; Lobsien has her writing fully under control and the book is enlightening, fascinating, and informative. The individual readings are highly suggestive, well-founded and worked out, good to read and repay re-reading; as with all true exposition, agreement is not the point. There is a sense that this book is not quite the book its author intended; there is a distant sense of struggle not quite overcome; for all the diamonds, we are still facing coal at the coal face. Not so in Lobsien’s next book, where an experienced scholar and writer steps back a little and surveys what has so far been achieved and learned and what can be made of it; where the miner has pocketed her diamonds and re-ascended to the surface.

In the earlier book, Lobsien has just twelve packed pages on Spenser. With Jenseitsästhetik, we find her joining the steady stream of interest that Spenser enjoys in Germany. In the 70s, Ina Schabert followed Günther Ahrends’ Liebe, Schönheit und Tugend (1966) with a major work on the Spenserian poets. In 1981, Christiane Bimberg published her Das Menschen-und Gesellschaftsideal in Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene. In 1990, Michael Steppat produced a (still badly neglected) masterpiece of Spenser scholarship and criticism in Chances of Mischief  (reviewed in SpR 27.2.48 [Spring-Summer, 1996]). In 2001, Ulrike Horstmann wrote a reference work and monograph combined on the names in The Faerie Queene (a learned book of great value which should be translated). Maik Goth’s long awaited monograph on Spenser’s Monsters will be printed this year, and meanwhile here is Verena Lobsien’s Jenseitsästhetik.[9] Over a hundred pages are devoted to Spenser in a book easily long enough to absorb so much; the chapter is a short, but not small, monograph—and it is excellent, original, insightful, passionate.

Jenseitsästhetik is really a book about allegory. Chapters on More’s Utopia and Spenser’s Faerie Queene are followed by chapters on C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and Sybille Lewitscharoff’s recent Blumenberg. Roughly speaking, Lobsien’s exposition is that allegory seems to be the only figure capable of dealing with (not to use the term “revealing” or “representing”) Jenseits—or: allegory cannot avoid dealing with or looking for a Jenseits, for allegory points to something beyond. (It is inaccurate to collapse allegory into, let alone confuse it with, figures not itself, above all with symbolism.) Because it can point away from itself by reason of itself, because it naturally expresses indirectly, and because it does not devalue or negate itself in so doing, allegory is the Neo-Platonic figure. Allegory shows something else through the specifics of something before it. An allegory is incommensurable with what it signifies, as all signs are to some extent with what they signify. It is incommensurable with what lies before it, in the sense of “in front of it,” or “to hand,” as the materials it uses to build: the concrete points to the abstract, the specific to the general in various ways and degrees. It is analogous to the classic Jenseits formulation Eternity is here and now in Eliot’s Little Gidding, which begins and ends Transparency: “Now and in England,” “In England and nowhere. Never and always.”

Furthermore, just because allegory is one of the indirect figures, the mediate figures, it is capable of capturing the ineffable, the invisible to the naked eye, the things not heard but unheard, the words not spoken. It is only through indirection, discipline, and re-making—in short through aestheticization—that the Jenseits can be dealt with; only through allegory that what the poet has seen by the grace of the graces (Calidore and Colin on Mt Acidale, Nature and Mutability), can be put somewhat at least into words. Or rather that the otherwise inexpressible can use words to indicate, or incite in the reader, what they cannot state: either by means of the beauty of the vision, the dance itself, or by the exposition of the poet, or scholar-philosophers such as Lobsien, Schneider, and Colin Clout. There is always something left over that cannot be forced into propositions or direct statements; but it can be expressed through various indirections, of which participation is one.[10]

For the indirection that Lobsien finds characteristic of Spenser and others, she appeals to Macrobius’s defence of poetic speech (in Commentarii in Somnium Scipionis), where figures such as similes and metaphors, analogues and fables themselves are ways of indicating the ineffable, where allegory is the veil through which they must be shown, a line of thought very much alive in Spenser’s day and brought to him by a long line of intermediaries from Boethius and Isidor to Thomas, Dante, Petrarch and Sidney and Bacon (Jenseits, 155-59).

Lobsien has a broad and generous notion of allegory, one that gathers itself up as one reads, one very Spenserian. That the Bower is deceptive and lascivious is reflected in the experienced qualities of the verse, for example, and for Lobsien this is part of the allegorical exposition itself, an aid to pedagogical and epistemological participation in the experience.

The material is not devalued as or because it points away from itself to something not itself—that would entail a kind of schizophrenic dualism. As Lobsien puts it in Transparency and Dissimulation:


The created world is not a mere product of the divine, passive and inert object of the creator’s superior agency; the material is not just that—matter for, and resistant to, the shaping force, somehow opposed, recalcitrant, and certainly morally inferior to what is “beyond being.” This would amount to a dualist view of things, irreconcilable with Neo-Platonic monism.[11]



Now allegory has precisely the special quality of meaning both: both what is said and what is meant. It is this, in fact, which distinguishes it from other figures which also say one thing and mean another. This observation will be interestingly worked out in Jenseits at 78-80, where the author challenges the “allegory as deceptive figure” argument by returning to the ancient rhetors over the head of Puttenham:


Nun besteht aber eine Besonderheit der Allegorie gerade darin, daß sie tatsächlich immer beides meint, also nicht nur den “eigentlichen” Sinn, sensus, sondern stets auch das, was sie mit Worten, verbis, sagt.

(79, after Gerhard Kurz and William Empson)[12]


Now what is special about allegory lies precisely in the fact that it always means both, not just the “real” sense, sensus, but always also what is literally said in the words, verbis.       

There is more of this, and Lobsien makes allegory into the quintessential Neo-Platonic figure:


Wir sehen doppelt; oder vielmehr: indem wir beide Ebenen zugleich wahrnehmen, sind wir in der Lage, ihre Korrespondenzen wie ihre Differenzen zu sehen. Sie ermöglicht also eine Art semantisches Raumsehen, das komplexe, mehrdimensionale Wirklichkeiten entstehen läßt.



We see double [literally, “doubled”], or rather: in that we simultaneously perceive both levels, we are in a position to see both their correspondences and their differences. [Together] They allow a sort of semantic visual space [literally, “space-seeing”], that makes the complex multi-dimensional realities come into existence.

Allegory, so far from duplicitous or deceptive, is the most clear and open of figures: Duplizität (Lat. duplicitas), not “duplicity,” “duplicitous” (Jenseits 79). Lobsien is referring back to the necessary difference between material and meaning she emphasized in her passage on the jar of precious ointment in Transparency and Dissimulation. The difference, amounting on occasion to breakage, between what is said and what is meant, or sensus and verbus, is a sine qua non of allegory and Neo-Platonic configuration. Where allegory hides one of the two, where it attempts to deceive or be duplicitous, it fails as figure and becomes opaque, a broken story where the unbroken form is irrecoverable and the given, broken version is in one way or another nonsense. A great deal of criticism has treated The Faerie Queene as if its story were nonsense by assuming that allegory deceives and refusing one lens of the necessary biocular view. For Lobsien, Nature and Mutability are, inter alia, allegories of allegory. Mutability is the allegorization of the understanding that richly sees the one as many things, the ability to see differently, while Nature is an allegory of the secret being of things; Mutability for the continually changing, natural and material appearance of things, Nature for that which appears (166). Allegory is always in some respects incommensurable with its subject, for incommensurabilities are necessary to the action of meaning.

There is another form of participation which is less aesthetic and more intellective, where an author invites the reader to work out a problem, a paradox, aporia, or apparent contradiction. This form of participation is illustrated in some of the difficulties of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia and Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. The difficulties and paradoxes of More and Spenser are not wilful, but among others things are a means of engaging readerly participation not in a feeling or emotional, bodily experience, but in the intellective or cognitive experience of the working out of certain questions.

As with More’s Utopia, the questions raised in a text, in the exposition that is, constitute a challenge to the reader (see below on Lobsien’s passages on Utopia and The Faerie Queene). The text provides, we might say, the pretext, the impetus, to the search for an answer, and hints at the direction that searches dependent upon this text—rather than the different ones suggested by another text—will take, may take, can, or should take.

This can easily be trivial, or trivialized, but in this case it is entailed by the Neo-Platonic backgrounds to More and Spenser (to stop with those two from the several authors dealt with from More to Sibylle Lewitscharoff): it is not wilful, nor is it only that More, for example, wants us to wrestle with the questions for our own good or as a partner in a conversation with him: it is because he is talking about the sort of thing that in principle cannot be passively learnt, cannot be passed on, but that the student, the learner, needs must figure out for him- or herself. It is not mere information to be handed over, nor a “message.” Schneider expands this in discussing Ficino and Ronsard. And this principle suggests, too, a very good reason why the text of an allegory is not devalued in a reader’s passing through it to the thing it points to: because the text is the only avenue to the thing pointed at; it is unique; it is not devalued because it is of the utmost value.

The aesthetic of the beyond is Platonic in origin in that the here and now (plural) betoken (somehow) a beyond this time and place, an eternity of some sort, whether linear or circular stretching before us or leading us back to where we know the place for the first time (Eliot again, but it is an ancient thought, and G. K. Chesterton makes dramatic use of it in Orthodoxy, 1908). It is not only texts that work thus, but the material world itself—or that of which the texts predicate—and this is why the Mutability Cantos are central for Lobsien. For what is allegorised (Arlo Hill, and the poet) itself appears as allegory in the same text; the seasons, for instance, are not bloodless abstractions but spill over with God’s plenty; they are not only allegorized but presented.[13]

The Foreword to Transparency and Dissimulation begins with this:

This is, in some respects, an escapist book. In a world filled with noise, pain, mindless atrocities and … with too many things clamouring for attention, it has been a comfort and a privilege to think about the One, the ways of ascending, and the necessity of returning to it, about … sacred love or the possibility of perfect happiness.



Lobsien goes on to make room for the struggle and the avoidance of easy options, both also elements of her subject matter. And indeed the book is infused with its subject: it is calm and unruffled, and slightly remote; like the Platonic Ideas it is sometimes just out of reach, severe, not cold so much as slightly chilly; the bright light, the remoteness make it somewhat bleak. I do not intend this as pejorative. I labor to express this tone because of the marked contrast with Jenseits, which is nothing like so clear cut, nothing like so escapist, which is passionate and troubled, darker, bleak in a different sense, which has among its concluding paragraphs sentences such as this:


Das Ziel rückt nicht unbedingt näher, die Gewißheit, es zu erreichen, wird nicht zwingend stärker, je weiter man reist.



(The destination does not necessarily come closer, the certainty of reaching it does not necessarily grow stronger the further one travels.) 

Jenseits is closer to the things it writes of than Transparency; it accounts for more of the world, it has a pulse, a sign of warm blood. It is not a monograph, nor is it a popularization exactly; rather the author sits back in her chair and unfolds her legs to have out her talk. There are notes and bibliography, but not many and not much. The expositions are expert, sometimes original and, where not, “ne’re so well expressed.” Above all they are full of insight, apercu and descriptions, applications and sources, twists of the kaleidoscope—and not a little passion. I run over some important specialised disagreements in Part 4 below. Most of the book is suitably dry; usually it hums along briskly enough; occasionally it burns.

Jenseitsästhetik has all the signs of being a book to be absorbed and returned to over again: not only because of the detail and the length and the quality of the engagements, but also because connections between, and the bearing of one exposition on another, are not always made clear or even indicated; and I suspect that often fruitful connections have arisen at some level just beyond self-consciousness, in a Jenseits of Lobsien’s own.

But what if anything do the poets bring back? What does the rhapsode return with, what does the furious report when he or she calms down—is anything left of the mystical, the ineffable, the Neo-Platonic, the rapt experience, when once the poet, or mystic, or saint, returns to earth? Is there anything communicable in what remains? Colin Clout on Mt Acidale thinks not, apparently, yet Spenser writes a long poem on what Colin learns there when the graces come and dance for him, or to him.

Now both critics here, and the authors they study, believe, or at least seem to, or at least want to believe, that poets do return bearing knowledge, and that the indirections the poets are put to are capable of expressing this knowledge. This belief raises questions: Is aesthetic experience cognitive at all? Does metaphor increase knowledge? Can the unstated be knowledge? Is knowledge only propositional (leaving aside knowledge how and direct acquaintance and so on)? Is the ineffable knowable? Versions of these questions appear in Socrates as well as in Descartes, and they are in Russell, Wittgenstein and Davidson. They bring us to Schneider, and to a weakness or gap in critical best practice which runs the danger of Antiquarianism.

Schneider begins his Seele und Kosmos with a clear statement of intent to show that in Ficino, Ronsard, and Bruno, the Renaissance is not marked by the arrival of the individual in the sense Burkhardt meant—still a dominant conception—nor by the breakdown of the orderly and ordering correspondences of the cosmos between matter, mind, man, and world, God and man and God and cosmos, micro and macro:


Die These, die in den folgenden Kapiteln bewiesen werden soll, lautet also, daß das Verhältnis des Menschen zum Kosmos in dem hier untersuchten Textkorpus gerade nicht durch einem kosmischen Ordnungsverlust oder ein definitive Heraustreten des Individuums … erfaßt warden kann.



The thesis that in the following chapters is to be proven, is thus, that the relation of man to the cosmos, in the texts here examined, can precisely not be grasped through the principles of loss of order in the universe or an authoritative appearance of the individual.

This loss of order and the arrival of the individual are the orthodox marks of the Renaissance seen by writers of the period and since, but most cleanly and authoritatively by Burkhardt in the mid-nineteenth century, as a break with the Medieval past. In these great Renaissance figures, representative all, there is no such clear cut break, no lack of belief in the order, the analogies and the participations of the cosmos, and no individual if that means an individual cut off, or cut out, from the common participations, orders, and ordinations of inherited views of the cosmos. In other words, the Medieval was not broken off suddenly and cleanly, not rejected and left behind all at once. The Medieval persisted into the Renaissance not just as a semantic residue of no real affect or power, more or less unconsciously persisted with, but effectively, comfortably at home, sometimes deliberately (Botticelli, Spenser), and even, or especially, in such modern-appearing figures as Bruno (1-16). Newton pursued alchemy, and it was not until the Principia (1687) that the Cartesian vortices were finally laid to rest and Copernicus once for all established. Until then it was still possible for the Cambridge Platonists to write gothic treatises of correspondences and unities.

Nor is this surprising, for the ideas of one age usually walk as ghosts in the next; a culture, a Zeitgeist, the dominant ideologies all have a great deal of potential energy in momentum, which may be felt for the first time only when some brake is applied, or a roadblock or barricade erected, and this momentum carries the old ideas over it into the new, not always fully intact.

With varying levels of commitment and in various, but recognisably related forms, the correspondences, and the implied hierarchies and forms of knowledge, the attachments of individuals—all said to be typical of pre-Renaissance times against which the forces of the Renaissance bent themselves—are at home in Spenser and Shakespeare, even in Bacon; and while we can see the movement towards the idea before Descartes, it is not a dominant form of thought in the earlier Renaissance writers that the mind is separate from the body and from what we now call Nature. Perhaps it required a philosophical mathematician to see and express, consciously or otherwise, what effects mathematics was having. The correspondences and much else are in Hooker. Donne’s famous “No man is an island” passage is not there to inform his hearers of a surprising new thought about the attachment of individual to individual, but to remind them of an old and well-known orthodoxy; and alchemy is so well known to Donne, that if we didn’t know, we could infer from his imagery alone that it was alive all round him.

The true movement is more general: from attachment to the cosmos (“Attachment to self and to things and to persons,” said Eliot) as part of the cosmos, to an unbridgeable isolation from it as mind from matter, man from cosmos, man and woman from each other, sundered with an irrevocableness undreamed of by Plato when he invented the myth of split hermaphroditic spheres in the Symposium. Not so much a breakdown of correspondences as the collapse of a cosmos no longer held together by mind at all, God’s or Man’s; not held together by very much at all until Newton effectively replaced the mind of God with the laws of Cause and Effect as the cement of the Universe; and not so much a rise of the personal individual, as the sheer isolation of the pieces: of body from body, mind from mind, self, things and persons from persons, things and self: atomic, monadic, incommunicado.

Schneider studies the soul, the cosmos and texts, his title tells us; but actually he pretty much studies configurations of Neo-Platonism in three giant figures of the period. The complex discussions circle the following themes: the Platonic, the Neo-Platonic, the Ficino-Platonic, the participation in the cosmos and the cosmos in the participant (two different German terms, Partizipation and Teilnahme, the first a Fremdwort, are used synonymously); the various accounts of inspirations this leads to (furor poeticus) and the Christian coloring (the New Testament sources figure inspiration as conversion); and the difference that this all makes to literary expression, and to literary reception. For all three writers zealously wish to communicate, to affect, to change, specifically convert, their readership, to lead them through the cosmos to knowledge and to the maker and sustainer of the cosmos. Schneider makes Ficino sound like Erasmus, or Melanchthon (respectively the teacher and the schoolmaster of Europe), in particularly earnest mood.

Ronsard brings us back to the question of the cognitive import of aesthetic experience. For even though Ronsard is saturated with knowledge (“gesättigt mit Wissen”), “even by the standards of the sixteenth century Ronsard is far from conceptually clear, and what he thinks on the great questions is often hard to make out” (“selbst für den Standard des sechzehnten Jahrhunderts ist er weit von begrifflicher Klarheit entfernt und auch was die großen Fragen betrifft, ist sein Standpunkt häufig schwer auszumachen,” 191). The cognitive import of aesthetic experience and the relation of Cartesian-style concepts to aesthetic experience is the general form of the specific question of the relation between science, or Wissenschaft, and poetry.[14]

In the literature on Ronsard there are two alternatives, as with many another (would-be) philosophical or scientific poet—Pope or Wordsworth, for instance: to uncover the philosophical, theological, or cosmological conceptions he deals with, in order to locate their sources; or to study the aesthetic impact of these conceptions as deployed and expressed. As Schneider puts it, the first alternative emphasizes the aesthetic, that is, the so-called vagueness of Ronsard’s concepts (191). There is little attempt to see poets as thinking.[15] The two approaches are largely opposed, and neither admits of genuinely philosophical poetry, or, in German probably untranslatable, of “wissenschaftlicher Dichtung” (191). Schneider undertakes a synthesis of these alternative approaches, using concepts generally familiar from the chapters on Ficino, though now in Ronsardesque colors—above all participation and inspiration. We cannot follow the discussion here—a dense and lengthy close reading of the Hymnes, showing how form follows content follows form on the grand scale.

The crucial points, both historically and currently, are that the Hymnes are not representations of the cosmos, where “representation” entails both separation from the thing represented and the possibility of misrepresentation, and in addition, that their propositional content does not nearly exhaust them. They are inspiring, surprising, participative in that they give poetically experienceable analogues to the cosmos, not a picture of it in any detail but an experience of its harmony; its essence is performed or handed over to and for the reader to recognise, so that the Hymnes use the concepts of the learned, but are not reducible to them. The so-called vagueness is deliberate (233). Additionally for Ronsard, as for Ficino and as for Plato in the Republic and in the Laws, poetry (Dichtung, broader than our English “poetry,” though not so broad as “literature”), and the constitution and laws of the Polis considered in this connection as Dichtung, has an ethical impact both conceptually and when read aloud or sung: both structure and immediate local aesthetic effect, affect the soul. So with Ronsard’s Hymnes, and so with Ficino—and so, in his way, with Bruno. For Bruno also the first question is the participation of each part of the cosmos in all the other parts, and of the human soul in the transcendent One (Einheit) and in the creating world soul specifically. Where Ficino has a circular relation of soul going out from and returning to the One, Bruno has a spiral wherein, with the help of the spawning images of the imagination, the intellect draws ever closer to, but never closes with the One or Unity (Einheit) of the cosmos. The intellect works with and through the imagination of the thinking and loving soul. For Bruno the soul is always bound to matter, and this entails that thinking is never purely, or solely, cognitive, but also affective and imaginative; that it is not only mental but also physical; that thought cannot be reduced to relations between precisely defined concepts. Here there is an analogue to Lobsien’s version of allegory: not mind or body, not mind at the expense of body, but if one, then the other. So that in Ficino, Ronsard and Bruno we find the zeal to communicate with, to inspire and to convert the reader, coupled with expressive or affective poetry, with literature, Dichtung. The reader participates just as Lobsien describes: but if Dichtung is affective, it is emotional and thus cuts itself off from Wissenschaft.

The weakness of expressivist poetry is that it is disabled from making conceptually clear, verifiable propositions, or formal arguments; or if it does, they are not made in the service of truth as proof, but to contribute to a feeling or emotion in the reader, the raising of emotion and feeling in the reader being the main purpose. Eliot’s essay on the Metaphysicals is full of insight, and undoubtedly thought can be experienced as immediately as the odor of a rose, but it is not in the least clear that feeling can be thought as clearly as “If A then B; and if B then C; therefore if A then C.” We tend to see poetry that is not expressivist as inferior, or perhaps not poetry at all—and to have similar thoughts on philosophy the other way around—no figures, only propositions. In these ways we rule out philosophical poetry: either it is not poetry or it is not philosophy.

There are three points to consider if we wish to say that poetry yields knowledge. The first is that there is more to understanding and to knowledge than concepts and propositions grasped only by the intellect. The second is that if you reject the first and hold knowledge to be solely propositional, poetry, conceived under affective aesthetics, is not a Wissenschaft. The third is the reverse of the second: so long as you hold to an affective aesthetic, what is wissenschaftlich, will not be poetry.

The first way is the Neo-Platonic: knowledge is not representational, public, verifiable and reducible to propositions about clearly defined, abstract concepts, neatly separated from one another and grasped only via the intellect. It is rather a participation, for there is, in knowledge as in art, an irreducible aesthetic component, incommunicable propositionally, which must apprehended through direct experience. There is an element of the rhapsode Ion in those who know, and of the rhapsodic in knowledge. The Socratic criticism of Ion is, then, in varying ways rejected in favor of the view that literary form can communicate the indefinable that has been gained, insofar as it aids or provides participation in that gain. Knowledge cannot be simply imparted—it must be worked out each for him-  or herself, and must be experienced. In modern terms we might say that there is an irreducible aesthetic element to knowledge. Participation changes the participant, and has, then, firm and clear ethical impact. Hence the zeal of Ficino, Ronsard and Bruno, all of whom realized this.

The key to the whole business of knowing and communicating knowledge is not conceptual clarity but participation—a form of Plato’s recognition. And it is the loss of that possibility under the impact of Cartesianism, and the loss with it of participation’s philosophical seriousness—which goes some way toward defining the Renaissance. At the same time, participation also remains a possibility present in our culture and, therefore, available for application to current epistemological issues.

The theme of participation is in the first instance Medieval, one reason the books reviewed here are all at home in the Medieval and slightly out of step with the Renaissance—or at least with key aspects of those tumultuous and momentous centuries with which they concern themselves. It is also one reason Schneider opens his book with the observation that the Renaissance is not defined by a breakdown in correspondence and the rise of the individual, and why he returns to this observation in his conclusion. Both participation and correspondence are central to a worldview (and its justification) shared with variation by Ficino, Ronsard, and Bruno.

This worldview is Medieval in several ways, but most importantly in its epistemology. The Greeks tended to ask what they could know, always given that they knew something, or at least that knowledge was there to be come by. The Cartesian postpones knowledge, asking how it is possible to know anything at all, and assuming that until we answer the question there is no knowledge to be come by. The Medieval, under the impact of Christianity and also lesser strands of Plato’s thought such as knowledge as recollection, asks how we know what we do already know, always assuming that we know by faith first and seek knowledge by reason ex post factoFides quaerens intellectum is Anselm’s formulation, but it is there in Augustine and Thomas, and Descartes, noticing it in the scholastics (in the second section of the Discourse on Method) reacted against it. Participation assumes the principle that one comes in philosophical thought to know better something that one already knows somewhat. That principle is still not very far from the main European and Cartesian philosophical tradition. Hegel and Hegelians made much of it, as more recently did Heidegger and other phenomenologists; the Cambridge Neo-Platonists, too, culminating in Whitehead.

This assumption that we know something already explains why there is a tendency in the best thought from the Hellenistic age down to Descartes for philosophy to be carried on by exposition, and for understanding to be higher on the list of worries or aims than proof is, even though right understanding implies local proofs, or at least evidence and justification. The moderns by contrast generally pitch proof or demonstration at very high priority. Anselm’s ontological argument arises from his efforts to understand by reason what he knows already, by faith and revelation, of the nature of God. It is contemplation and exposition of the divine nature that yields the proof; Anselm says the proof came to him, but what appears to have happened, to judge from the Proslogion, is that Anslem suddenly understood something about God, and with that understanding came the reason for its truth, the ontological argument itself. Once the ontological argument is thus discovered, Anselm makes very little effort to establish it, or to prove his argument or the parts of it; his defence of it is to offer more explanation, as if he feels that Gaunilo would agree if only he understood. Descartes and even more obviously Spinoza want to prove and demonstrate as you would a geometrical theorem. A glance at a modern philosophy book in the Anglophone tradition would show that there, proof is prior to most anything else.

Returning to Schneider’s lost philosophical opportunity, the problem with enthusiasm (or inspiration, or furor—Ficino’s taxonomy is complex), according to Socrates in the Ion, for instance, is that it is not rational in the narrow sense of “clearly definable,” and it is therefore not knowledge. The rhapsode does not know what he has done or seen or learnt when the fit is passed. The rhapsode may see something, but he does not know what it was, and for that reason he does not know it full stop, as Socrates with his cruel irony easily shows. The separation of rhapsode from what he claims or desires to know and understand, but cannot, is a special case of the separation of mind from physical nature and observer from observed, of man from nature.

There are two ways out of this difficulty, which is closely analogous to the affective aesthetics question regarding poetry: one is to base the enthusiasm or inspiration on the intellective, cognitive faculty rather than solely or largely on the emotional, and thus to arrive at recoverable content when the fit is passed; the other is to posit a reader who enters likewise into the enthusiasm as he reads and thus, and perhaps only thus, recovers, by repetition of the process, the insights originally gained by the furious rhapsode or poet, knowing again as he experiences again. In order to achieve either of these alternatives you need to posit participation between mind and nature, observer and observed.

Ficino, seeing all this—and making more of the intellect, in the experience of a rhapsode or any explorer, than Philo, his original source of influence—proposes a solution roughly along these lines: the rhapsode is finding access not to something separate from himself, but to something in which he already participates.[16] Also possible for Ficino is an expression of participation in the Christian terms of incarnation: we can understand at least something of what God says when he speaks to us because, and only because, God has spoken to man in human form and language. We participate in this case by conversion and membership in the Church (not necessarily the institutionalized, but rather the True Church), which gives access both to the Word (Christ) and to further inspiration emanating from the Holy Ghost. The crucial step is the closing of the initial gap between cosmos and mind. Participation closes this gap: we are already inside the cosmos, we share in it, and for this reason it is at least in principle accessible to us. All this is laid out by Schneider in detail, with subtlety, learning and expertise, not always in the terms I have used.

My point is that this is of current philosophical interest, a point the full impact of which is lost, apparently, on Schneider because he does not stop to consider how far Ficino and the others are right in what they say. In other words, the criticism is well done so far as it goes, but the implied philosophical considerations are barely begun.

Following best critical practice, Schneider avoids both the full history of ideas approach and the philosophical approach, though not so thoroughly as Lobsien deliberately and explicitly does.[17] But the historical criticism is incomplete without the philosophical (an argument at least as old as Hegel). Neither Schneider nor Lobsien evades it completely—otherwise the criticism could hardly arise. Each goes some way toward a philosophical history of ideas—otherwise their expositions would not be so fruitful or so interesting as they are. But one longs to hear more of philosophy from one who so well understands the issues historically, as a scholar. Again, Schneider himself cannot be specifically blamed here (he has more philosophical thought in his book than one finds in the average treatment), but the habits into which discipline has fallen.

But there is another step that it is a shame criticism doesn’t usually take, where necessary. We are well-used to entertaining fictions in literary criticism; but it is not impossible that we might owe it to certain authors, Ficino and Bruno among them, to entertain also the question whether the fiction is true or not, at least insofar as an abstract truth claim is being made. Surely authors like these were themselves deeply concerned with the question. For such writers, it is just as distorting to dodge the question of truth and treat their claims as fiction in the sense that the question of true or false simply does not rise, as it would be to dodge the question in Spenser’s case and take his fictions as directly true accounts of events in the world.

Modern philosophy won’t like the terminology nor the references to God, but it knows very well that if the notion of participation could be made cogent, and if it were true (in some sense coherence is far more important), we should have taken perhaps, just perhaps, a step forward in bridging the gap bequeathed to us by Descartes.

Unfortunately I have to close on a strongly negative note. Amid all this rare scholarship, on topics and in ways that matter, Schneider’s book is shockingly produced: there is no index. No index to a book of 438 pages, with 981 footnotes through-numbered over the entire book; a book densely written in the text and at length in the notes, all vastly informative, with subtly used technical terms differently applied across the three authors; with hundreds of names to remember, engagements over hundreds of pages with secondary authors, and a large set of closely related, interwoven themes and taxonomies—all this and no index? Schneider’s persistent mapping becomes a vital resource in using the book and eases the reviewer’s task. But still, no index? It is not a book to bore a reviewer, it is worth the necessary re-reading—but very few books are worth re-reading every time you want to look something up in them. Index-grubbing is poor scholarship certainly, but quickly looking up what Schneider says about Ronsard’s Platonism as it affects his poetic practice in the third Hymne when you are writing something about Spenser’s metrics in his fourth Hymne is good scholarship; yet the “quickly” is disabled here. Universitätsverlag Winter, Heidelberg is a noble imprint of a noble university; this habit (for habit it is) is shoddy and not a little shameful. I shall stop in a moment: but there are no running headers of any sort, either. What does the publisher think this is, a penny-dreadful to be devoured page by page as quickly as possible and left in the railway carriage? Is it only for those with photographic memories? Is it only for readers who always and only pick up a book to read it carefully cover-to-cover, notebook in hand? Is it really an e-book in disguise, with index replaced by a search function? It is next to useless as a reference book. It is enough to make one weep. The whole presentation is deeply inconsiderate to readers, libraries and individual purchasers, and insulting to a large-scale, subtle book by a large-scale, subtle scholar.


I have postponed some criticisms of Jenseits to an annex so as not to distract from the positive assessments I have been making, and which the book deserves. The forms of argument I criticise here are not uniquely Lobsien’s; they are widespread and weaken much good criticism.

The chapter on More’s Utopia argues, among other things, that the book criticizes itself, particularly in the second part, the description of Utopia. Lobsien devotes some fifteen pages to demonstrating this, and the exposition unfolds with a certain drama. Now it is a staple of the secondary literature that we cannot take it for granted that More (or any of the characters and voices in the work) takes the description as normative, and that the whole thing may be one of More’s beloved ironies. It is not hard to read Utopia as a great joke with satirical purpose (a point raised by Lobsien only on page 43). The arguments adduced for a conclusion that few will dispute, are questionable, and the whole exercise raises the question why arguments aimed apparently at proof are being offered at all.

We do not need proof in such cases. We need only enough justification to show what Lobsien has seen, and to confirm that it can legitimately be regarded as part of the text. Criticism is not mathematics or physics. Lobsien is not arguing a matter of fact; it is an interpretation, and interpretations are not susceptible of proof.

Let’s turn to Lobsien’s specific arguments. There is, first, the argument that More’s Utopia contradicts itself, in that it is inconsistent:  widersprüchlich and inkonsistent are used without apparent distinction. Several reasons are given for thinking this. One is that although Utopia is supposed, or so it seems, to be an egalitarian society, we nevertheless quickly discover internal inequalities: for example, the society is patriarchal; slavery and colonization are practiced.

In arguing that some aspects of Utopia, such as the situation of women, are hard to take seriously, one needs to tread carefully. Lobsien takes her eye off the ball for a moment and, instead of addressing More’s own times, the attitudes and possibilities current to him, addresses a general point about the position and treatment of women in Utopia as if it were as much interrogated in More’s day as in our own. But of course it is nothing of the sort, and it is possible that to a great many readers in More’s day, it would not have seemed in the least inconsistent that women, educated though they might be, should see to the household and the children and be barred from certain types of work. So we cannot say that Utopia is probably a joke (or something less) on the grounds that women are not allowed to work, because that is our implausibility, not the early sixteenth century’s.

The text is said to be structured around the figure of litotes, which Lobsien gives as “the negation of the opposite” (48), a definition that is puzzling since it covers only one form of litotes, a Greek term meaning small, meagre, poor, unadorned (plain); it is understatement, very often taking the form of a double negative. It is true that litotes is a slippery figure, but it is not clear that it applies to Utopia quite as Lobsien claims. She claims that the very title of the book is a litotes, and that the book ends with one, too. The title is “libellus uere aureus, nec minus salutaris quam festiuus”—as Lobsien has it: “Truly Golden Handbook, No Less Beneficial than Entertaining.” It is hard to find litotes here, unless perhaps you take “no less” as negating “Beneficial,” and take that as the opposite of “Entertaining,” “salutaris” as the opposite of “festiuus.” The passage is interesting and fruitful, but it is not clear that it is well-founded —or rather it is not clear that Lobsien has made her meaning perfectly clear. In a sense litotes takes away with the left what it gave with the right, and Utopia might be seen to do likewise. It is in these senses a “Jenseits” text: it proposes an ideal which is not one, a goal it does not pretend to reach; it poses questions whose putative answers are not answers to those questions but only return tickets to them.

Another inconsistency Lobsien finds is that the ethics in Utopia rest on no unchallenged last principle, but consist of a circulation of dependencies without foundation (45-47). This “Misch-Ethik” (the German is more perjorative than “mixed-ethics”; “mixed-up ethics” might capture the tone) is a sort of undefined hedonism. But it is not inconsistent or incoherent to have a system not resting on a foundation. The foundational method is only one way of building a philosophical system, and foundations have proven over the centuries remarkably difficult to find.

Lobsien cites Clarence Miller: “The institutions of the Utopians clearly cannot work unless pride is eliminated. And how is pride eliminated? By the institutions … . The institutions cannot be introduced unless they have already been introduced” (42). This is ill-considered, an over-hasty reaching for self-contradiction: no system at that rate would ever get off the ground. But some do, because institutions first work somewhat, and then as they take effect, begin to work rather better, and so on. It is a circle, but not vicious. Like many a Neo-Platonic circle. The circle of pride and institution would only be vicious, if, first, the Utopians were perfectly proud, and if, second, the institutions were perfectly pride-eliminating. But we are not dealing with logical or mathematical concepts of Cartesianism, mutually exclusive, pure, and perfectly what they are and nothing else—the point is not internal to logic (or a geometric demonstration) where the slightest split hair will bring a whole structure to the ground; we are dealing with human beings and human institutions; with persons who are never perfectly proud but always only somewhat proud, and with institutions that can and must and do adjust to the imperfect pride of the people whose pride-containing institutions they are.

 There is another form of argument, a malicious ghost of an earlier period of criticism which should (one had better add “in my opinion”) be exorcised. The argument is that it is impossible to distinguish x from y, whether good philosophy from bad philosophy, truth from falsehood, or lying rhetoric from truthful rhetoric—as if the good and the bad, or truth and lies, were mutually exclusive categories. The argument relies on a Cartesian mutual exclusivity between true and false forms that sees each as perfectly successful, the good never any thing other than wholly good, the bad never other than wholly and successfully bad. Additionally the argument relies on the idea of a perfect and permanently successful deception. None of these things appears in the world any more than one of Descartes perfectly conceived circles, straight lines, or right angles can be found in the dell at the bottom of the garden.

In the present instance the argument concerns Spenser’s Courtesy. Lobsien’s version of the argument is sophisticated. Courtesy is hidden from view (; the place of its origin is also hidden from view (“reuele to me the sacred noursery,” 3.1—it is jenseitsentrückt [raptured, rapt away]). It comes from God (“from heauenly seedes,” 3.7). It is something always sought for, longed for, an already lost paradise (“immer schon verlorenes Paradies,” 124). As Pastoral is. All this is good criticism and revealing.

A further “Entrückung” into the “beyond” of the human heart, “deepe within the mynd,” raises the question of how to get courtesy down to earth and into the human heart. With Calidore and the Graces, the entering presence of the merely human disperses the dance; Spenser makes the connection himself in pr.2.9 (“Ne none can find …”), and Lobsien makes good use of the point. Modern courtesy is not like the ancient, for “Its now so farre from that, which then it was … ” (pr.5.2; 125). In fact, it has become a “forgerie” (pr.5.3), and here we have a parallel to the Bower of Bliss, where the fashioned is so like the real that it leads us to “thinke gold that is bras” (pr.5.7), or rather that the painted gold is the living thing.

Both the modern false and the original genuine courtesy, the argument continues, are, however, fashionings, like the making of a gentleman or noble person (Letter 8). The trouble is that the real or genuine is impossible (“unmöglich,” 126) to distinguish (“zu unterscheiden”) from the false courtesy, and from this “aporia” anchored in the very structure of courtesy, which is now being revealed (according to Lobsien) as the central virtue, there is no way out: “aus dem es kein Entrinnen gibt” (125). The same goes for the fashioning of a gentleman in the Letter, and the self-fashioning of the false gentle person.

Lobsien’s version of the argument is original, and depends not only on the nature of courtesy, but on Spenser’s locating the virtue—or all virtue—“deepe within the mynd” (pr.5.8). It is for this reason that what distinguishes the true courtesy from the false is invisible to all third parties (“not in outward shows”), the more so since both the real and the false courteous persons are dissimulators, who hide what they are “really” thinking and feeling, and therewith their motives and grounds for acting.

Once this has been stated or claimed, it becomes easy to problematize Book VI, if not the whole project, and to see in many places the failure of the whole system.[18] Two examples usually brought in as evidence of further inadequacies of the virtue are Calidore’s offering money to Meliboe, and the destruction of the pastoral world by the brigands, along with courtesy’s inability, in the person of the truant Calidore, to protect that world. Each of these is adduced by Lobsien. Her point is that The Faerie Queene becomes pastoral, or is taken over by pastoral, as it goes, and that once pastoral is shown to be non-viable, Spenser closes his project down with the greatest pastoral of all in the Mutability Cantos. Lobsien is very good on the development of The Faerie Queene and the pastoral elements in it.

However, even Lobsien nods, and her “unmöglich” and “kein Entrinnen” are extreme statements, for all that it is legitimate to say is that good and bad Courtesy, sometimes, perhaps often, appear similar and can be difficult to tell apart: but difficult in practice does not entail impossible in principle.

To say that courtesy is indistinguishable from its false duplicate is to ignore the experience of living then and now, for we often meet with false courtesy and recognize it. It is to assume that logic works out in application to the lived world without exception, and to forget that deep within the mind though its “seat” might be, courtesy is outward action with consequences or it is nothing, and Spenser knows this perfectly well. And it is the consequences that can be distinguished, perhaps only in the long run, but distinguished nevertheless. Whether this distinction is always made accurately or in good time is not to the point. The point is only that it can be and is made; we can tell the difference.

There may be a problem reading the text, here, too: for it is virtue’s “seat” which is in the mind and which is “defined” by inward thoughts, not the virtue itself. I’m not sure how much to make of this, but in the next stanza Spenser does say that Courtesy can be read off from the queen’s mind: “in whose pure minde, as in a mirrour sheene, / It showes” (pr.6.5-6).

The problem for criticism such as this is its tendency to try to prove things and then to say that it cannot be done when proof fails, as it usually will, for the human heart was not and is not mathematically clear in its definitions and mathematically organized in the separation of one feeling from another. But we all know the feeling, the conviction that there is something wrong with this or that action or comment. The animal body is expressive and eventually whatever is deep within the mind will rise to the surface and, like murder, will out. A little experience will tell almost infallibly (never quite, so care is needed) the difference between the polite and the fawning, between the genuine concern for the well-being of those around you in the immediate term (“to recomfort” them by all “comely meanes” we may [VI.x.29.9]), where most courtesy takes place, and a genuine concern for something else, usually yourself.

However much our modern taste is more Kent than Osric, bluntly speaking your mind always and everywhere is not the only recognised form of moral interaction with those around you; sometimes other people and you yourself are glad to go along with the pretence you set up that you don’t really mind, where everyone in earshot knows perfectly well that you do mind. There is a time to say “no ma’am I do not wish to give up my seat to you, for I, too, and tired and my corns are painful today. However, if you insist I shall give it up to you anyway and with good grace.” And there is a time to say “no of course not, please take my seat”—no one need take you literally—what you are saying in these cases is not “I do not mind at all,” but “whether or not I mind for myself is immaterial, I would still rather that you had this seat.”

This brings us to Calidore and Meliboe. Calidore wants to stay with Meliboe as his guest for an unspecified length of time. No mention has been made of Calidore’s food, lodging, laundry, or what ever else might incur costs to Meliboe. Now, Meliboe has just complicated a notoriously complicated situation (whether to offer payment for a favor) even more difficult by making a speech about how dreadful money and gold are. But what is Calidore to do? Dealing with just this sort of situation, between a rock and a hard place, is what Courtesy is for, even while it is tested in the dealing. I think we critics do not often enough ask ourselves—stepping outside our merely literary studies in order to step back into them with greater awareness—what would I do in this situation? Opinion among critics would apparently be divided between those who would not offer payment for fear of upsetting Meliboe, that is for fear of being in fact discourteous to him, and those who see the difficulty but believe it is only right and proper to at least make the offer, as tactfully as possible, but unmistakably, that is, for fear of being discourteous to Meliboe. This is a classic no-win situation. It is typical, as a plot-engine, of the older Medieval romance cycles, where the choice is not between a right and a wrong, a better and a worse, but between two right or good imperatives equally good, both of which cannot be performed. It is not a mistake on Spenser’s part; nor is it evidence that he is being defeated by his subject. Courtesy works; we are only wondering which action is the most courteous, or the most considerate of those around you.

Calidore’s approach is not discourteous, though the situation is awkward. He relies on Meliboe’s intelligence and kindness, on his seeing the situation in the same light as Calidore and on Meliboe’s excusing him for one possible offence (offering money) while he tries to avoid another (sponging off Meliboe). Calidore obviously finds the rejected alternative more rude than the tentative offer of gold. It is possible to feel that Meliboe is a touch harsh in reply, despite the acknowledgement of “bounteous”:


                       … Sir knight, your bounteous proffer
Be farre fro me, to whom ye ill display
That mucky masse, the cause of mens decay,
That mote empaire my peace with daungers dread.



Calidore probably suffers the more in embarrassment, but he takes that upon him as part of the courtesy of making the offer. There is no need to assume that Meliboe is seriously offended or angry; even though it is possible to read his reply as somewhat less than perfectly polite.

Lastly the Brigands. Calidore is not there when the Brigands attack, but on Mt Acidale, watching the Graces dance. His absence has been presented as showing that Courtesy fails to protect the pastoral and that this is simply part of its more general failure. But is it the job of Courtesy and of Courtesy alone to offer such protection? Calidore is at least a part of Courtesy, and he offers the sword often enough in his adventures. But Courtesy cannot survive by itself—this is the point of the handover from Justice. It is remarkably similar to the handover from Guyon to Britomart at the start of Book III, where it is clear that Guyon must give his own virtue over to another for its completion: the stern and pitiless rigour of Guyon’s rather narrow virtue needs to be fulfilled by the qualifications of Britomart’s (or Book III’s) style of Chastity. Courtesy requires Justice, as Chastity presupposes Guyon’s Temperance even as it qualifies it. This is shown clearly enough in Britomart’s behaviour and manner at the end of Book III: little less rigorous than Guyon, as willing to fight and, where need be, to destroy as he was. So much so that Amoret has to restrain the Guyon in her when she makes to kill Busyrane. So with Courtesy and Justice: Courtesy presupposes Justice—it is a flower and requires a gardener to protect it against weeds, shall we say. It is cultivated, not wild, growing to perfection at court and not in the rock and sands of the wilderness. Good manners will not normally save you from determined brigands. Sterner stuff is required: sword, shield, armor, a strong right arm and a high heart. All that the so-called failure of Courtesy in this respect shows is that sometimes Courtesy needs must seek support in the sharp sword of Justice; the deferential kiss of the hand will not always suffice. Courtesy is not a fully complete, stand-alone virtue (none of them are).

Lobsien falls into this argument because she misreads some passages to mean that Courtesy is the “Zentraltugend,” the central virtue (124-5) in the sense of controlling or spawning the others, that on which the others depend. But Courtesy is dependent on the others, not they on Courtesy; Courtesy is the flower, the final achievement, and flowers are delicate. Take away the soil, the sun, the water, and the flower perishes; take away the flower and the soil remains. It is not a weakness of Courtesy to fail in war, for feats of arms are not natively hers.


J.B. Lethbridge
Tübingen University


[1] “The beyond,” as in English both physical, “beyond the forest, “Jenseits des Waldes,” and spiritually “beyond” as in “on the other side.”

[2] This is the author’s Habilitationsschrift. His PhD dissertation was published as Archivpoetik: Die Funktion des Wissens in Goethes »Faust II« (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2005). The Habilitationschrift was awarded the 2013 Elise Richter prize of the German society of Romance Languages studies (Romanistenverband ). A recent paper extends the Habiltationsschrift somewhat: “Die Performativität von Marsilio Ficinos ‘De amore,’” Romanistisches Jahrbuch 64 (2013), 217-244. Schneider heads the research project “Aesthetics of Spirit: The Reception of the Doctrines of Spirit in the Early Modern Arts and Popular Culture” (Aisthetik der Geister). The books here reviewed indicate a pretty general interest in Germany at the moment in the Beyond, and therefore in Ficino and Neo-Platonism quite generally.

[3] With Eckhard Lobsien, Die unsichtbare Imagination: Literarisches Denken im 16. Jahrhundert (München: Fink, 2003). Skeptische Phantasie: Eine andere Geschichte der frühneuzeitlichen Literatur Nikolaus von Kues, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Burton, Herbert, Milton, Marvell, Margaret Cavendish, Aphra Behn, Anne Conway (München: Fink, 1999); with Claudia Olk und Katharina Münchberg, Vollkommenheit: Ästhetische Perfektion in Mittelalter und Früher Neuzeit (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2010 [Transformationen der Antike 13]); with Claudia Olk, eds., Neuplatonismus und Ästhetik: Zur Transformationsgeschichte des Schönen (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2007). There are important papers, too: “Poetische imitatio als transformierende Imagination—ein Essay zu Spensers Amoretti 72,” in Imitatio als Transformation: Theorie und Praxis der Antikennachahmung in der frühen Neuzeit, ed. Ursula Rombach and Peter Seiler (Petersberg: Michael Imhof, 2012), 38-43; “‘So shines and sings, as if it knew’—Elemente einer neuplatonischen Ästhetik des Kreatürlichen bei Henry Vaughan,” in Ästhetik in metaphysikkritischen Zeiten. Sonderheft 8 der Zeitschrift für Ästhetik und Allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft, ed. Josef Früchtl and Maria Moog-Grünewald (Hamburg: Meiner, 2007), 45-69; “‘Transformed in show, but more transformed in mind’: Sidney’s Old Arcadia and the Performance of Perfection,” in Performances of the Sacred in Late Medieval and Early Modern England, ed. Susanne Rupp and Tobias Döring (Amsterdam, New York: Editions Rodopi, 2005), 105-117; “Narrating Caliban: Structural Skepticism and the Invention of the Other in Early Modern English Literature,” in German Shakespeare Studies at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century, ed. Christa Jansohn (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2006), 101-127.

[4] In addition, certain extremely stringent standards of proof are adopted. Although there are some shadowy precedents, the standard of mathematical proof had never before been so mercilessly applied to natural, erewhile human phenomena.

[5] It is not widely enough appreciated that Copernicus’s revolution was a mathematical demonstration of great mathematical originality; Kepler and Galileo completed and consolidated that revolution; Newton and Leibnitz were inventive late-comers.

[6] It is a further irony that the world has ever since misunderstood these two writers whose stylistic clarity and simplicity has never been bettered, for of course Machiavelli is not Machiavellian and Descartes did not intend for a moment to leave the world and the mind radically and irreparably sundered, it is just that the world never got past the fourth or fifth Meditation.

[7] Quotations from The Faerie Queene are taken from Edmund Spenser: The Faerie Queene, ed. A. C. Hamilton et al. (Pearson, 2001).

[8] Ars Poetica 99-105: “It is not enough that poems be beautiful; let them be tender and affecting, and bear away the soul of the auditor whithersoever they please. As the human countenance smiles on those that smile, so does it sympathize with those that weep. If you would have me weep you must first express the passion of grief yourself; then, Telephus or Peleus, your misfortunes hurt me.” Trans. Christopher Smart, widely available on the web.

[9] I mention only monographs. Günter Ahrends, Liebe, Schönheit und Tugend als Strukturelemente in Sidneys “Astrophel and Stella” und in Spensers “Amoretti” (Bonn: Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität, 1966); Ina Schabert, Die Lyrik der Spenserianer: Ansätze zu einer absoluten Dichtung in England 1590-1660 (Tübingen: Niemeyer Max Verlag, 1977); Christiane Bimberg, Das Menschen-und Gesellschaftsideal in Edmund Spensers Faerie Queene (Halle/Saale: Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg, 1981); Michael Steppat, Chances of Mischief. Variations of Fortune in Spenser (Vienna: Böhlau, 1990); Ulrike Horstmann, Die Namen in Edmund Spensers Versepos The Faerie Queene (Munich: LIT Verlag, 2001); Maik Goth, Monsters and the Poetic Imagination in Edmund Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene”: “Most ugly shapes and horrible aspects,” The Manchester Spenser Series (Manchester: Manchester University Press, forthcoming).

[10] This is my version of Lobsien. I freely confess that I am not always certain of the distinctions between what Lobsien has stated or implied, what her text implies beyond that, and what I have taken for granted as implied, possibly “beyond that” yet again. Jenseits is a highly suggestive book; it is sometimes cryptic in making, sometimes, apparently, downright unwilling to make explicit connections between various ideas.

[11] It is tempting at this and other moments of reading Lobsien to bring her version of the metaphysics required for allegory into contact with Gordon Teskey’s account. For Lobsien and Schneider, it would appear that the problem of participation is assumed to be solved, that it works, whereas for Teskey, it is not clear that the problem is solvable. Thus for Teskey, allegory represents a figural, literary, solution to an unresolved philosophical dilemma. Lobsien and Schneider have the Neo-Platonists on their side from Plotinus onwards; whereas Teskey as witnesses to his view can bring Plato himself, Aristotle and the moderns, including certain failures of Fichte and Hegel. Methexis (Gk.; Lat. participatio, Eng. Participation, Ger. Partizipation, or Teilnehmen, but not [usually] Teilhaben) is often expressed in terms of the relation between the general and the particular. Teskey has been reading Hegel as well as Heidegger, and Hegel’s concept of the concrete universal has had a long and productive association with literary criticism (Wimsatt brought it out into the open in an essay of that title, and it is still invoked, often unknowingly, by those who associate allegory very closely with symbolism.) I say it is tempting to develop these things, but this essay is already lengthy.

[12] Empson is quoted from Complex Words and Lobsien includes the unfortunate “interpenetrate” in her quote, unnecessary here: Empson repeating or anticipating some of the sillier parts of Milton’s God, but we do not need the term to agree with Lobsien’s version of this.

[13] From start to finish, Lobsien drives a complex poetics of place, Topopoetik, meaning both literal space and literary topos. Like a writer adapting a lengthy novel for the two-hour traffic of the silver screen, I have left this character out of this review essay.

[14] “Aesthetic” here means literally, the impact of the world upon the senses; or, the sensual apprehension of the world.

[15] Gordon Teskey in a series of beautiful and profound papers has been doing just that with Spenser.

[16] Descartes realises the essential point of participation, and provides for it in the innate ideas and in the ontological argument, each of which is designed to connect the thinking mind, cogito, to the cosmos and the other minds which are part of it. Unfortunately neither of these elements is able to serve the turn Descartes presumably hoped they would.

[17] And the odd footnote gestures bibliographically at least to some modern philosophical literature. E.g., note 14 on page 17.

[18] Jane Grogan is the most recent and most original of those who do this; see her Exemplary Spenser: Visual and Poetic Pedagogy in “The Faerie Queene” (Burlington: Ashgate, 2009).


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Cite as:

J. B. Lethbridge, "A Cartesian Renaissance," Spenser Review 44.1.5 (Spring-Summer 2014). Accessed April 19th, 2024.
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