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Chapter III. Rhetorical Elements in Italian Renaissance Conceptions of the Purpose of Poetry

In his study of the function of poetry in the literary criticism of the Italian renaissance, Spingarn has shown[339] that the characteristic opinions reflect the ideas of Horace in his famous line,

  Aut prodesse volunt aut delectare poetae.

The purpose of poetry, they thought, was to please, to instruct, or to combine pleasure and instruction. He goes further to show that with the notable exceptions of Bernardo Tasso and Castelvetro, who claimed no further function for poetry than delight and delight alone, the general conception was ethical. “Even when delight was admitted as an end, it was simply because of its usefulness in effecting the ethical aim.[340]” This chapter, resuming briefly the results of Spingarn's investigations where they help the reader to understand better the situation in English criticism, will bring into sharper relief than has heretofore been done two influences which affected the renaissance view not a little—scholastic philosophy and the classical rhetorics.

To St. Thomas Aquinas, logic was the art of arts, because in action we are directed by reason. Thus all arts proceed from it, and rhetoric is a part of it.[341] The Thomistic philosophy which included rhetoric and poetic in logic, whereas Aristotle had classified the three arts as coÃrdinate within the same category, seems, says Spingarn, “to have been accepted by the scholastic philosophers of the middle ages.”[342] The appearance of this scholastic grouping in the renaissance criticism is parallel with a gradual abandonment of the popular mediaeval preoccupation with allegory, in favor of the classical view which considered example as the best vehicle for moral improvement.

In the age of the Medicis, when refined courts of Italy were so greatly delighted at the recovery of the least edifying literary monuments of classical antiquity, allegorical interpretation had probably so often become but a cloak for licentiousness in poetry that it was becoming discredited. At any rate, Loyola rejected allegorical interpretation of classical literature for the Jesuit colleges. He based moral education on example, and expurgated any element which he thought might have a pernicious effect on young people. For instance, except in the most advanced class, the Dido episode was deleted from the Ã†neid.[343]

Savonarola rejected allegory and considered logic, rhetoric, and poetic as parts of philosophy. Logic proceeds by induction and syllogism, rhetoric by the enthymeme, and poetic by the example. Therefore the office of the poet is to teach by examples, to induce men to virtuous living by fitting representations. Because our minds delight greatly in song and harmony, the early poets used meter and rhythm better to incline the soul of man to virtue and morality. It is impossible, however, for a person ignorant of logic to be a true poet. A mere concern with rhythm and the composition of sentences profits nothing, for what is the use of painting and decorating a ship if it is going to be swamped in the storm and never come to port? The poets who endeavor to place their poems on a par with the Scriptures overlook the fact that only the sacred writings can have an allegorical, parabolical or spiritual meaning. Since Dante had made all these claims, the inference is that Savonarola declined to accept poetry as part of theology, and rejected both Dante and the popular mediaeval tradition. Poets, he goes on to say, use metaphors because of the weakness of their material. If you took away the verbal ornament, you would not read the poets, because there would be nothing left. The theologian uses metaphor only as an adornment to his solid matter. The poet who sings of love, praises idols, and narrates lies has a very bad effect on young men. He incites to lust and immorality. But poets who describe in verses moral actions and the deeds of brave men should not on that account be condemned.[344]

1. The Scholastic Grouping of Poetic, Rhetoric and Logic

The scholastic grouping of logic, rhetoric, and poetic which Savonarola derived from St. Thomas Aquinas[345] persisted for four centuries, rejuvenated by contact with the richer classical scholarship of the renaissance. B. Lombardus, for instance, in his preface to Maggi's edition of Aristotle's Poetics (1550), differentiates logic, rhetoric, and poetic by the same criteria. Logic, he says, proves by syllogism, and in this is different from both rhetoric and poetic, which use enthymeme and example as more appropriate to a popular audience, while poetic uses example almost entirely and scarcely ever enthymeme.[346]

Spingarn calls attention to a similar distinction in the Lezione (1553) of Benedetto Varchi. Varchi says:

  Just as the logician uses for his means the noblest of all instruments, 
  that is, demonstration or the demonstrative syllogism; so the 
  dialectician, the topical syllogism; and the sophist, the sophistical, 
  that is, the apparent and deceitful; the rhetorician, the enthymeme, and 
  the poet, the example, which is the least worthy of all. So the subject 
  of poetry is the feigned fable and the fabulous, and its means or 
  instrument is the example.[347]

This has its ultimate source in the Rhetoric of Aristotle, who made the following distinction between logic and rhetoric: Logic aims at demonstration by the syllogism and by induction; rhetoric aims at persuasion by the enthymeme and the example. The enthymeme is a rhetorical syllogism, usually with the conclusion or either premise unexpressed. Moreover the premises of an enthymeme are likely to rest on opinion rather than on axioms. The example is a rhetorical induction, usually from fewer cases than are necessary to scientific induction.[348]

The same scholastic grouping of logic, rhetoric, and poetic appears in the treatise On the Nature of the Art of Poetry (1647) of the Dutch scholar Vossius, who writes:

  As rhetoric is called by Aristotle the counterpart of dialect and that 
  especially because it teaches the manner by which enthymemes may be 
  utilized in communal matters, without a doubt poetic is also to be 
  thought a part of logic, because it discloses the use of examples in 
  fictitious matters.... But rhetoric and poetic seek not only to prove 
  something, but also to delight; they seek not only understanding, but 
  action as well. Wherefore poetic has this in common with rhetoric; that 
  both are the servants of the state.[349]

Vossius thus, like Scaliger, makes poetic and rhetoric one in their end to promote desirable action.

How persistent is this rhetorical view of poetry is well illustrated by the Ars Rhetorica of the Jesuit Martin Du Cygne, first published in 1666, and still used as a text-book in Georgetown University. He is discussing the three kinds of argument: syllogism, enthymeme, and example, or induction.

  Induction is delightful and is appropriate to an ignorant audience 
  because of its similitudes and examples. This argument is frequently 
  used by rhetoricians and poets, especially Ovid; because it explains 
  attractively and clearly.[350]

Thus the grouping of poetic with rhetoric and logic naturally tended to make it partake more and more of the nature of the other two. All of them were taken to be occupied with proving something in an effort to make other people good. They differed only because they used different kinds of proof.

2. The Influence of the Classical Rhetorics

A more explicit influence on the renaissance belief that the function of poetry is to improve social morality is readily seen in the definitions of poetry which have already been quoted from Lombardus and Varchi, who formulated their definitions of poetry by combining Aristotle's definition of tragedy with his definition of rhetoric.[351] Another explicit borrowing from classical rhetoric was of Cicero's three-fold aim of the orator: to teach, to delight, to persuade ( docere, delectare, permovere).[352] Several important Italian critics carried this terminology over into their theories of poetry along with the purpose which has always animated rhetoric—persuasion.

Making Horace a point of departure, Daniello, in 1536, says that the function of the poet is to teach and delight, but more than that—to persuade. He must move his readers to share the emotions of his characters, to shun vice, and embrace virtue.[353] This extreme rhetorical parallel was further insisted on by Minturno (1559), who defined the duty of a poet as so to speak in verse as to teach, to delight, and to move.[354] And as Aristotle had affirmed in his Rhetoric that the character of the speaker was one of the three essential elements in persuasion,[355] Minturno is constrained to make the moral character of the poet an indispensable quality of his poetry. Thus he borrows Cato's definition of the orator as a “good man skilled in public speech” (vir bonus dicendi peritus) from Quintilian,[356] and defines the poet as “a good man skilled in speech and imitation” (poeta vir bonus dicendi et imitandi peritus).[357]

Like Minturno, Scaliger insisted that poetry must teach, move, and delight.[358] It is thus the result in action which Minturno and Scaliger emphasize. The poet must work on the feelings of his reader so that he shall embrace and imitate the good, and spurn the evil. Philosophy, oratory, and poetry have thus one end—and only one—persuasion.[359] Without the “movere,” the incentive to action, of course poetry could not serve its purpose of moral improvement on which the renaissance so sternly insisted. A reader might enjoy a story, play, or poem which presented impeccable examples of virtue rewarded and vice punished, or which abounded in noble platitudes gilded with wit, and still smile and be a villain. It was thus inevitable that an acceptance of the moral purpose of poetry should sooner or later drive any logical minded critic of poetry completely into the camp of rhetoric. There the poet would find a complete panoply of arms forged for the arousing of the feelings in an audience, and for stirring the springs of action. He could make his readers hate sin by the same means Demosthenes made his hearers hate Philip, and love any virtue by appropriating the methods of Cicero Pro Archia. According to this belief, the difference between poetic and rhetoric was minimized. In theory a poem or a speech might indifferently be composed either in prose or in verse. Both endeavored to teach, to please, and to move. Both looked toward persuasion as an object. The speech used the enthymeme and the example as proofs, while the poem used the example to a greater, and the enthymeme to a lesser degree. Both in theory and in practice the example was regarded as being a pleasanter argument than the precept, as well as being more effective. This was the age of Ciceronianism. The school-masters of Europe had recently rediscovered imitation as the royal road to learning, and in their system of language teaching emphasized imitation of classical authors more than following the precepts of the grammarians or of the rhetoricians. The epigram of Seneca, “longum iter per praecepta, breve per exempla,” was the popular catchword of the age. The example was popular.

Thus by the end of the sixteenth century, the Italian critics had formulated a logical and self-consistent theory of the purpose of poetry. Inheritors of the allegorical theory of the middle ages, which they in part discarded, and discoverers of classical rhetoric which they carried over bodily into their theories of poetry, they passed on to France, Germany, and England their rhetorical theories. The purpose of poetry, as well as of rhetoric, was to them persuasion—to teach, to please, to move. The instrument of poetry was the rhetorical example.