French and Italian | Language and Truth in the Renaissance
F630 | 2531 | Prof. Eric MacPhail


The Renaissance was fascinated by the power and duplicity of language
and especially of the rhetorical tradition inherited from classical
antiquity, which identified humanity with the faculty of speech. Our
course will examine the contested veracity of speech both in humanist
writings and vernacular prose of the 15th and 16th centuries. To
situate the problem in relation to its historical antecedents, we will
begin with one of the earliest extent works of the western rhetorical
tradition, the Praise of Helen by the ancient Greek sophist, Gorgias
of Leontini, whose concept of chairos or the opportunism of
speech we will juxtapose with the indictment of rhetoric in Plato's
Phaedrus. From the Latin tradition we will retrieve Seneca's
definition of the style best suited to philosophical discourse or
"quae veritati dat operam oratio." From the early Renaissance we will
study some brief texts in praise and dispraise of rhetoric including
a letter by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and a lecture or
prolusio by Angelo Poliziano. Next we will appraise the
esthetic of brevity as an alternative to Ciceronian artifice in
Erasmus' collections of adages and apothegms. Erasmus' Praise of
Folly will exemplify the characteristic Renaissance genre of the
declamation while revealing the religious dimension of the problem of
truth and language. To assess the autonomy of fiction from the
traditional truth claims of narrative, we will read Pantagruel
and Gargantua by François Rabelais, two works which also
explore the contexts of evangelism, occultism, and other approaches to
the ineffable. To understand the political dimension of our topic, we
will read Etienne de La Boétie's Discourse on Voluntary
Servitude and excertps from Francesco Patrizi's 10 Dialogues on
Rhetoric after taking a glance back at Tacitus' Dialogue of the
Orators. Finally, we will turn to the Essays of Michel de
Montaigne, where we will be concerned primarily with skepticism, or
the proposition that no proposition is true. We will conclude with
Montaigne's foray into the New World in search of a true witness to
the utopian project of unmediated experience. From this survey of
Renaissance paradoxes and polemics, we can gain new insight into the
contemporary inquiry into the limits of rhetoric and the proximity of
truth and language.

The course will be conducted in English and all of the texts are
available in English translation. French majors are required to read
the French texts in the original language. Students will do an
in-class presentation and a term paper. Above section meets with cmlt
C630