Maarten Maartensz

  Philosophy - Burckhardt - Notes










The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy
by Jacob Burckhardt

Part Three: The Revival of Antiquity


Epistolography: Latin Orators

Note 3-7-1:

There were two purposes, however, for which the humanist was as indispensable to the republics as to princes or popes, namely, the official correspondence of the State, and the making of speeches on public and solemn occasions.

Supposing these "princes or popes" wanted to have their correspondence and speeches done well. Now it is a somewhat curious human fact that nearly everything human beings make is somehow esthetisized, stylized, made attractive according to the norms of the day - and that in the so-called democracies in which I live those in power, whether politicians or bureaucrats, are not interested at all in speaking or writing beautifully, but instead are interested in either speaking or writing in a hermetical bureaucratic jargon or else consciously appeal to the populism of the majority of the untalented, whose votes support their leaders, and whose relevant knowledge of politics, history or science is virtually nil, and who have neither taste for nor knowledge of what would be good prose in their own mother language.

One interesting proof or sign of this - and isn't the study of history meant to teach men about what men can and cannot do, on average and individually? - is the conduct of the government-propaganda of the U.S. and England that lead to the war in Iraq, which was completely based on lies, deceptions and propaganda calculated to impress and mislead the vast majority of the voters, and indeed did so, with the continuous reiteration of the phrase "weapons of mass-destruction". 

Perhaps one main lesson of this should be extracted: It is impossible to maintain a high civilization of any kind if the vast majority of the lowest intelligence and education have the right to choose whomever they believe, with their learning and values, to be competent and credible. And indeed Hitler was also chosen democratically, repeatedly, and with great majority.

And in this context let me quote from a Florentine Renaissance man I also mention below, namely from Guiccardini's "History of Italy" ("Storia Italia"), first published in 1560, written around 1540, and reporting on some Florentine deliberations about the desirability of democracy of around the year 1495:

"Guidantonio Vespucci, a famous lawyer and a man of remarkable intelligence and skill, spoke as follows:

'If, most worthy citizens, a government organized in the manner proposed (..) produced the desired results as easily as they are described, it would certainly be perverse of anyone to wish for any other form of government for our country. It would be a wicked civilian who did not passionately love a form of republic in which the virtues, merits and abilities of men were organized above all else.

But I do not understand how one can hope that a system placed entirely in the hands of the people  can be full of such benefits.

For I know that reason teaches, experience shows and the authority of wise men confirms that in so great a multitude there is not to be found such prudence, such experience and such discipline as to lead us to expect that the wise will be preferred to the ignorant, the good to the bad, and the experienced to those who have never handled any affairs whatever.

For as one cannot hope for sound judgement from an unlearned and unexperienced judge, so from a people full of confusion and ignorance one cannot except - except by chance - a prudent and reasonable election or decision.

Are we to believe that an inexpert, untrained multitude made up of such a variety of minds, conditions and customs, and entirely absorbed in their own personal affairs, can distinguish and understand what in public government wise men, thinking of nothing else, find difficult to understand?

Quite apart from the fact that each person's self-conceit will lead them all to desire honors - and it will not be enough for men to in the popular government to enjoy the honest fruits of liberty - they will all aspire to the highest posts and to take part in the decisions on the most diffciult and important matters.

In us less than in any other city there rules the modesty of giving way to the man who knows best or who has the most merit.

But if we persuade ourselves that we must be by right all equal in all things, the proper positions of virtue and ability will be confused when it rests with the judgments of the multitude.

And this greed spreading to the majority will ensure that the most powerful will be those who know and deserve least; for as they are more numerous, they will have more power in a state organized in such a way that opinions are merely numbered and not weighed.'"

And indeed, I live in times where "opinions are merely numbered and not weighed", and where what used to be called "the rabble" elects the governors.  Back.

Note 3-7-2:

Not only was the secretary required to be a competent Latinist, but conversely, only a humanist was credited with the knowledge and ability necessary for the post of secretary. And thus the greatest men in the sphere of science during the fifteenth century mostly devoted a considerable part of their lives to serve the State in this capacity. No importance was attached to a man's home or origin.

I suppose Burckhardt is here thinking also of Machiavelli and Guiccardini, both of whom held high positions in the government-bureaucracy of Florence. In any case, we see here that the humanists, although men of academic learning, differed from modern academics in also being expected to be men of action and political understanding.  Back.

Note 3-7-3:

But at a time and among a people where 'listening' was among the chief pleasures of life, and where every imagination was filled with the memory of the Roman senate and its great speakers, the orator occupied a far more brilliant place than the letter-writer. Eloquence had shaken off the influence of the Church, in which it had found a refuge during the Middle Ages, and now became an indispensable element and ornament of all elevated lives. Many of the social hours which are now filled with music were then given to Latin or Italian oratory, with results which every reader can imagine.

Of course, there was no TV or radio, there were no daily papers, and in Italy, which has a fine climate, a considerable amount of social life could take place outside. When Burckhardt writes "with results which every reader can imagine" I am not sure he is ironical, but my guess is that much of this oratory must have been rather boring.

Also, it should be remembered that - as I noted before - the sophists of the ancient Greeks also were notable for teaching the art of speaking well in public, and that, in fact, there was not yet a real public that could be reached without public speech, since there was no bookprinting until ca. 1450 and there were no papers. Anybody who wanted to address many only could do so by making a public speech.  Back.

Note 3-7-4:

It was not for nothing, in the first place, that the ambassadors from one State to another received the title of orators. Whatever else might be done in the way of secret negotiation, the envoy never failed to make a public appearance and deliver a public speech, under circumstances of the greatest possible pomp and ceremony. As a rule, however numerous the embassy might be, one individual spoke for all

This is interesting, and may be explained along the lines of my previous note. It is also different from current practices of politicians and civil servants.  Back.

Note 3-7-5:

The academical speeches, both those made at the installation of a new teacher and at the opening of a new course of lectures were delivered by the professor himself, and treated as occasions of great rhetorical display. The ordinary university lectures also usually had an oratorical character.

I doubt much that this made the education they provided more interesting or easier to follow.  Back.

Note 3-7-6:

so far as the revival of the ancient methods is concerned, this merit must be ascribed, according to Filippo Villani, to the Florentine Bruno Casini, who died of the plague in 1348. With the practical purpose of fitting his countrymen to speak with ease and effect in public, he treated, after the pattern of the ancients, invention, declamation, bearing, and gesticulation, each in its proper connection.

I start with noting three things. First, this was quite early in the Renaissance. Second, I have seen illustrations of such courses from the 18th and 19th Century, that teach the art of gesticulation. Third, it would seem as if quite recently this art of gesticulation has become popular again in TV-presentators and politicians, since all of a sudden all manner of such men have started to move their open hands to their faces, rather much like the equally theatrical prints of the 18th Century I recall.

In any case, my own guess is that most of these lessons of declamation, gesticulation and artful speaking are wasted, in as much as these things come mostly naturally to really good speakers, and will always seem somewhat theatrical and unreal in those who are not.  Back.

Note 3-7-7:

As most of the speeches were written out beforehand in the study, the manuscripts served as a means of further publicity afterwards. The great extemporaneous speakers, on the other hand, were attended by shorthand writers.

Unfortunately, Burckhardt does not say how much of what was taken down in shorthand still exists, and how reliable these are as true records, since it is interesting to know how people actually spoke and argued.  Back.



Maarten Maartensz       
last update: 17 Nov 2009