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John L. Lepage, The Revival of Antique Philosophy in the Renaissance
by Andrew Escobedo

Lepage, John L. The Revival of Antique Philosophy in the Renaissance. New York: Palgrave, 2012. xiii + 281 pages. ISBN: 978-1137281814. $75.00 cloth.


Renaissance philosophy is a bit of an embarrassment in the history of philosophy, particularly as that history is conceived by modern philosophers of the North Atlantic world. Philosophical writers of the centuries between Ockham and Descartes produced notoriously unsystematic treatises, often with an overtly literary flavor, and sometimes with a flagrant disregard for logical consistency. European humanists, despite their sophisticated philological interests and methods, did not generally parse out conceptual “problems” apart from linguistic and cultural traditions. In his magisterial 1945 History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell complained that Renaissance humanists “were too busy acquiring knowledge of antiquity to be able to produce anything original in philosophy.” The work of scholars such as Paul O. Kristeller, Charles B. Schmitt, Quentin Skinner, and Jill Kraye has done much to resist this assessment, but even these revisionist accounts sometimes betray a whiff of apologia. From a modern philosophical perspective, a description of Renaissance philosophy often leads to a defense of this philosophy. The online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, probably the most popular philosophical resource in the English-speaking world, used by amateurs and specialists alike, has entries on “ancient philosophy,” “medieval philosophy,” and “enlightenment philosophy.” There is no entry for Renaissance philosophy.

It is remarkable, then, to note the extent to which much modern literary scholarship reverses this history of philosophy. For us literary types, particularly us Renaissance literary types, Pico, Ficino, Erasmus, and Bacon embrace philosophical complexity precisely by blurring the line between philosophy and literature. We often implicitly share the humanists’ disdain for the terminological preciseness of Medieval scholastic philosophy. For us, Descartes is usually the bad guy, the villain who removed mind from body, human from animal, person from thing, and self from world. Recent scholarship has tempered this view of Cartesianism, noting an exaggerated emphasis on the Meditations to the exclusion of everything else that he wrote. Yet Descartes remains a suspicious figure in the eyes of some literary scholars partly because he took the literary out of philosophy. Postmodernist theory aside, the exclusion of literary playfulness has been the hallmark of “serious” philosophy since the seventeenth century.

Playful philosophy is the central concern of John L. Lepage’s The Revival of Antique Philosophy in the Renaissance (Palgrave, 2011). Lepage argues that Renaissance humanists received the corpus of classical philosophy not as a set of dogmatic statements but rather as an expression of wit. Accordingly, the humanists associated philosophical ideas with a panoply of literary and artistic forms, including emblems and iconography. The stars of Lepage’s book are thus not Plato and Aristotle, the great dogmatic philosophers of the ancient world, but rather the exponents of skeptical and jocular traditions, such as Cynic philosophy and Menippean satire. Diogenes, Socrates, Aesop, Democritus, and Heraclitus take center stage in this account of Renaissance philosophical thought, both through their ideas and through the fanciful biographies sometimes attached to them. As Lepage puts it, “humanists were less concerned with formal philosophy … and more with moods and postures, which artists might enlist in the course of imitating nature” (25). I will confess up front that I find a number of shortcomings in the execution of this study, but I do agree with its spirit and intention.  It is important to remind ourselves that, for Renaissance writers and readers, philosophy did not primarily entail a set of doctrines or problems, but instead more often involved recurring topoi that implied a variety of attitudes toward doctrines and problems. Renaissance philosophy was style as much as substance.

A repeated figure for this style in the book is the “container.” Lepage argues, in chapter 1 and then throughout, that wit was like a container in that it could hold surprising mysteries, could hide and reveal knowledge, and could give shape to disparate ideas. Diogenes’s tub, the Silenus box, Erasmus’s dung beetle, Plutarch’s covered basket—Lepage sees these assorted symbols as the means by which Renaissance writers translated ancient philosophy into imaginative expression. The book canvasses dozens of writers on this issue, but the main “philosophical” authors include Petrarch, Rabelais, Erasmus, Montaigne, Burton, and Browne. Among English poets and dramatists, Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne, and Milton get particular attention.

The two best chapters, in my view, are about the figure of the Wise Fool (chapter 2) and the representation of melancholy (chapter 3). The wise fools in evidence here are Diogenes, Bacchus, Silenus the satyr, Socrates, and Aesop—all of them implying wisdom and tempered joy through crude, decrepit, impoverished, melancholic, or profligate characters. The wise fool signified for the humanists the essential insight that knowledge claims ought to be modest, open to doubt and revision. This chapter gives special attention to Rabelais’s and Erasmus’s treatment of the wise fool, along with the emblems of Alciato and Whitney—Erasmus dubbed Plato’s teacher as “Saint Socrates.”

The melancholics of chapter 3 are Democritus and Heraclitus, the “laughing philosopher” and “weeping philosopher,” respectively. These two thinkers, endlessly paired in antiquity and in Renaissance writing, were both taken to hold a pessimistic stance toward life and toward human nature, but they expressed this pessimism differently. Democritus found human folly worthy of scornful laughter, whereas Heraclitus found it worthy of tears. Thus, for example, Burton styles himself “Democritus Junior” in Anatomy of Melancholy to signal both his gloomy subject matter and the witty attitude he takes toward it. Conversely, Sidney, at one point in his Apology, offers ambiguous praise of Heraclitian compassion by associating the philosopher with the genre of elegy. Humanists and poets used the dual figures to explore the range of postures one could take to the tragic sense of life: “the relationship between Democritus and Heraclitus reveals the progress of human melancholy from expectation to disappointment” (106).

It is difficult to do justice to the detail and nuance of these two chapters because of the sheer number of examples. Lepage rarely spends more than a page or so on a single passage or emblem. The effect of this procedure is to impress upon the reader the rich texture of expression these topics commanded from both ancient and Renaissance writers, and Lepage’s erudition in this respect is impressive. But the rapid shift from example to example also creates the impression that the argument proceeds through loose association and analogy, rather than through logical rigor. And Lepage does not really do “readings” of texts but rather offers commentary on samples. Perhaps the book’s playful organization is intended to mimic its witty subject matter, but it also risks blurring or even collapsing the topical distinctions it seeks to describe. For example, the archive of wise fools described in chapter 2, it turns out, “illustrated life as a melancholy pursuit, doomed to fail at the height of triumph” (79), while the laughingly pessimistic philosopher Democritus, we discover at the end of chapter 3, “presided over a theater of folly” (135). Wise fools were melancholy, and melancholics were fools. I like the implication that everything is connected, but I also felt at times that large chunks of chapters 2 and 3 could be exchanged with each other without altering the argument much.

This impression of arbitrary or loose association increases, unfortunately, in the final two chapters. Chapter 4, on divine madness and dreams, has only a tenuous relationship to what we might call “antique philosophy,” emphasizing instead the literary treatment of its topic. This is partly an effect of the absence in this chapter of a primary set of ancient philosophical personalities that buoyed the discussion in the earlier chapters. (If there is a dominating ancient figure in this chapter, it is Ovid.) In any case, it is not clear that the Renaissance writers adduced in chapter 4 understood themselves to be dealing with distinctively “philosophical” ideas. Or, to put it another way, the category of “philosophical” becomes so broad in this study that it risks meaninglessness. For example, Lepage suggests that when the inebriated revelers in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra implore “Plumpy Bacchus” to “Cup us till the world go round,” the image of the cup implies containment in the midst of drunken chaos, and so “there is a philosophical aspect to Shakespeare’s happy depiction of the god” (37). Perhaps this is so; but if it is, what could possibly not count as a “philosophical aspect”? If philosophy is everywhere, then it is nowhere.

Chapter 5, titled “The Mind is its Own Place,” is more of an epilogue than a chapter (it is only twenty pages long), and it suffers from shortcomings similar to chapter 4. The subject matter is fascinating: the tenuous space of the imagination in Renaissance thought, as a form of either empowerment or delusion, or both. But how this topic amounts to a Renaissance revival of antique philosophy remains elusive. This discussion is, more than anything else, a canvassing of characters, dreams, and fantasies from London theater: in fairly rapid succession, Dr. Faustus, Hamlet, Othello, Hereford, Edward II, Richard II, John of Gaunt, and King Lear. Milton’s Satan and Samuel Butler’s Hudibras also make appearances. Lepage’s comments are unfailingly thoughtful, but the chapter simply covers too much ground too quickly. The commitment to a specifically philosophical wit appears to have almost vanished.

I was surprised, furthermore, that Descartes made no appearance in this chapter (his name does not appear in the index). This seems to me a missed opportunity. There is a quasi-consensus in Milton studies that Satan’s claim that “the mind is its own place” references the arguments in the Discourse and the Meditations. Whether or not this is true, Descartes, who asserted that he wrote about philosophy “as if no one had written on these matters before,” would seem to offer an apt counterpoint to the Renaissance humanists who sought to carry their witty insights within the containers of ancient philosophy. Descartes’s disdain for tradition is now taken by many as the beginning of modern philosophy. Modern philosophers think this is good; many modern literary historians think it is bad, or at least ambiguous. Is there a way in which Lepage’s story could revise or complicate these attitudes?

Lepage is perhaps finally not interested in questions such as this, but this study needs more counterpoints by which to distinguish itself, I think. For example, what exactly does the term “revival” from the book’s title indicate about the humanists’ engagement with ancient philosophy? Did they think it was dead—and thus needed resurrecting—in a way that their Medieval predecessors did not? Much ink (or pixels, or whatever) has been employed on this issue, to the point of doubting the Medieval/Renaissance distinction in the first place, but this strand of scholarship gets little play in Lepage’s book. There also ought to be some acknowledgement of an interest in genuinely systematic, dogmatic philosophy in the Renaissance. The closely argued pages of Pietro Pomponazzi’s De Fato do not trade on the power of free-wheeling wit and imagination, and in his various treatises Lorenzo Valla established himself as one of the most doctrinaire and dogmatic philosophers of all time. Many Renaissance writers did indeed understand ancient philosophy as a system. The intellectual historian Paul Richard Blum has counted as many as 6,653 commentaries on the Aristotelian corpus between 1500 to 1650, compared to an estimated 750 commentaries in the fifteenth century. These are merely numbers, not qualitative assessments, and many factors are involved. Yet the order-of-magnitude difference strongly suggests that an interest in systematic philosophy flourished in the Renaissance and that it needs to be considered alongside the humanist love of wit.

To a considerable extent, then, this is a book that works by association, and some of the associations are more successful than others. Among the more successful ones are Lepage’s observations on Spenser, which are brief but suggestive. Since this review is for The Spenser Review, I will conclude with some of these observations. To start, there is a wonderful juxtaposition (153-60) of Du Bartas’s realm of Sleep (in the Vocation of Les Semaines) with Spenser’s account of Morpheus’s kingdom in The Faerie Queene I.i, both poets treating the state of somnolence as an occasion for contemplating the power of dreams and for indulging in “baroque comedy” (161) vis-à-vis Morpheus, the sleepy king of sleep. Lepage also notes the unexpected overlap between Spenser’s Despaire (I.ix) and Phantastes (II.ix): “Phantastes, like Despair, is a melancholic, but, although described in much the same way, he clearly suggests another face of melancholy, that of the distracted lunatic who nevertheless knows how to order idle fancies” (163). Although I demur at seeing the upper turret of Alma’s castle as a “cavernous skull-chamber,” a “memento mori” (161), I nonetheless admire the comparison between two figures so deeply bound up with the notion of time—guilt about the past, anxious anticipations of the future. And the link between sleep, dreams, and fantasy keeps exfoliating. Lepage notes (162) that Spenser’s comparison between the sound of Phantastes’s chamber to “many swarmes of Bees” (II.ix.51) recalls the sound of wind and water in Morpheus’s chamber, which the poet compares to the noise of “swarming Bees” (I.i.41). We need sleep and we need the imagination, but Spenser implies that both resources might be perverted by malevolent intervention or by excessive melancholic fantasy.

I have voiced some dissatisfactions with The Revival of Antique Philosophy in the Renaissance, but I will nonetheless keep it on my bookshelf for handy reference. In my view, this book, rather than developing sustained arguments about philosophically-inclined texts, offers instead an archive, a set of examples of philosophical topoi that arrested the attention of Renaissance humanists, poets, and dramatists. Lepage’s knowledge of the tropes, symbols, and iconography surrounding these topoi verges on the encyclopedic. It is a deep container for wit.


Andrew Escobedo
Ohio University


  • Auto Glass Repair of Sacramento 4 months, 1 week ago

    Postmodernist theory aside, the exclusion of literary playfulness has been the hallmark of “serious” philosophy since the seventeenth century.

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Cite as:

Andrew Escobedo, "John L. Lepage, The Revival of Antique Philosophy in the Renaissance," Spenser Review 44.2.43 (Fall 2014). Accessed April 15th, 2024.
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