15.06.43, Lines and Ebbersmeyer, eds., Rethinking Virtue, Reforming Society

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Brendan Cook

The Medieval Review 15.06.43

Lines, David A. and Sabrina Ebbersmeyer, eds. Rethinking Virtue, Reforming Society: New Directions in Renaissance Ethics, c.1350 - c.1650. Cursor Mundi, 3. Turnhout: Brepols, 2013. pp. 349. ISBN: 9782503525242 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Brendan Cook
University of South Florida

In any collection of this kind, unity must present a challenge. When a dozen authors collaborate to produce more than a dozen articles, as they do in the present volume, it can often be difficult to discover the common threads which weave together the diversity of arguments and approaches. On this count, the editors of Rethinking Virtue, Reforming Society deserve to be commended. David A. Lines and Sabrina Ebbersmeyer have assembled a collection in which the whole is something more than the sum of its parts. While the individual contributions are far from homogenous--and not always equally effective--they nevertheless present themselves in dialogue over several rewarding questions: In what contexts did the teaching and discussion of Renaissance ethics take place? What points of contrast and continuity can be found as we move from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, and from the Renaissance to early modernity? How did humanist approaches to ethics diverge from those of the Thomists and the nominalists? What are the essential differences between rhetorical, philological, and philosophical treatments of ethics? How were Stoic, Platonic, Epicurean, and Peripatetic ideals reconciled both with one another and with the traditions of medieval Christianity?

None of these problems is posed in every article, but each arises in many of them, and one may easily cross-reference the complementary solutions presented by the different authors. It is illuminating, for example, to read the excellent piece by Ann Moss on the use of commonplace books for the practical study of rhetoric in the light of Eckhard Kessler's account of the art's theoretical foundations. Ulrich Langer's "Virtue of the Prince, Virtue of the Subject" would be fascinating even considered in isolation, not the least for his effortless philological insight and compelling close reading. However Langer's treatment of Marguerite de Navarre's Heptameron assumes even greater interest as an illustration of what Peter Mack has just described as "informal ethics"; it can be read as a continuation of the earlier article's discussion of such works as Spencer's Faerie Queene (206-9). The central place of the Aristotelian corpus in Renaissance discussions of ethics is addressed in nearly every article--this alone provides a unifying theme amid so many dramatic contrasts in subject and presentation.

For all the rewarding inquiries pursued in this collection, it is worth noting that no article addresses the question which presupposes all the others, namely: what is ethics? In assembling the different contributions which make up the volume, Lines and Ebbersmeyer have chosen to avoid an answer, or at least to avoid the kind of answer that might place any effective limit on the interests of their contributors. Instead, "ethics" is used in the most inclusive possible sense; it includes the formal, philosophical discipline practiced in the universities, but it also embraces popularizing treatments of moral problems in poems, dialogues, and novellas; it is sometimes an implicitly secular field of study, grounded in the life of city or court, and in other contexts it is explicitly theological. And while discussions of personal conduct are naturally assigned to the province of "ethics," the term is also stretched to include what the Aristotelian schemata so popular during the Renaissance would describe as "economics" and "politics," treatments of the proper governance of a household or a state. This last choice is quite deliberate, and it is reflected in the second part of the title, Rethinking Society. As Lines explains in his introduction, the confounding of the ethical and the political is only appropriate in a volume which explores a period when the very qualities admired in an individual were often those desired in a ruler as well (2-3). Langer's article, perhaps the finest in the collection, investigates the perceived affinity between private and public virtue, an association which was questioned first by Machiavelli and then by the early theorists of absolutism (321-4).

Whenever so many articles are gathered together in one place, some will inevitably prove better than others. While this is not the first time--and probably not the last--that Ann Moss has written on the sixteenth-century practice of compiling commonplace books, her contribution here is still both interesting in its own right and especially relevant in the light of the other contributions. Luca Bianchi's "Renaissance Readings of the Nicomachean Ethics" is also extremely rewarding as a nuanced and detailed overview of an indisputably important topic, its brevity all the more impressive considering the potential scope of such an investigation. Along with Langer, Kessler, and Moss, Bianchi stands out in this volume by exemplifying a sense of focus which allows him to make satisfying use of the limited space assigned to him. The same cannot be said, however, for all of the contributors, some of whose submissions, while often intriguing, try to cover more ground than the scope of a single article would seem to allow. One might wish, for example, that Risto Saarinen had chosen to discuss the development of Renaissance ethics in the context of either the Lutheran, Calvinist, or Catholic Reformations without attempting to encompass all three in only nineteen pages, along with a digression on Aristotelianism. Ebbersmeyer's own article, "Passions for this Life," certainly takes up a fascinating subject, namely changing attitudes to "the affective nature of human beings" (280). And so it is all the more regrettable to note that it suffers from her too-hasty discussion of such matters as what she terms "the Platonic theory of love," a concept introduced without adequate explanation and then abandoned without any recognition of the disputed intention of the Symposium among the work's Renaissance interpreters (286). No sooner has Ebbersmeyer declared that "the Platonic philosophers of the Renaissance followed Plato" on "his" understanding of the relationship between sensual and intellectual beauty, than she has rushed on to other topics, all equally worthy of a more nuanced and expansive treatment (287-9). Antonio Poppi's article "Happiness" is especially prone to this sort of scattered approach. In attempting to categorize as many Renaissance understandings of happiness as possible, Poppi deprives his reader of a detailed discussion of any single one. We read very often in this volume that the subject at hand "deserves further research," "remains poorly studied," "deserve[s] to be more fully explored," or something to this effect, and the declaration that a given issue cannot be discussed in the detail it deserves becomes something of a cliché (299, 89, 75, 265, 291). These admissions contribute to the impression that several of the articles included here are best understood as sketches for a series of full-length studies, hopefully to be published in the future. Lines appears to acknowledge this in his introduction, when he calls for "further studies...into various themes discussed...but not fully explored within this volume (19)." Such a project would certainly have the benefit of filling the gaps which are so conspicuous in certain articles as they now stand. And since no topic addressed here is unworthy of further elaboration, it is even something to be welcomed.

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