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Francesco Patrizi in the "Time-Sack": History and Rhetorical Philosophy

From: Journal of the History of Ideas
Volume 61, Number 1, January 2000
pp. 59-74 | 10.1353/jhi.2000.0001

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Journal of the History of Ideas 61.1 (2000) 59-74

Contemporary theory of history is much concerned with the narrative structure of history, its nature, and its epistemic status. The problem is not only that sources present events mostly wrapped in narrative language but also that temporality is an inherent feature both of the events told and of storytelling. Narrativity and temporality touch upon basic metaphysical and anthropological questions, as Paul Ricoeur has pointed out, if narration is to be understood as self-explanation of a human being in whom "time" occurs as "being-in-time." The following paper cannot claim to contribute to the current debate but presents Francesco Patrizi (1529-97) as a Renaissance philosopher who addressed several of these problems. In discussing his conceptions of history and time, however, it is the aim of this paper only to locate these within his own philosophy.

One of the unresolved problems in the writings of Francesco Patrizi is the difference between his earlier contributions to the humanistic canon and his late philosophical main treatise, Nova de universis Philosophia. The earlier writings conform to the usual humanist literary topics: the political program of a città felice, the treatises on honor, the poetic fury, Petrarch (1553), and then his two dialogues on history (1560) and rhetoric (1562). The two works which followed, the Discussiones peripateticae (1571) and the Poetics (1586), show a characteristic development of humanist thinking, namely, the differentiation of purely philological from essentially philosophical literature.

Patrizi's Discussiones peripateticae is a polemic against Aristotle, written from a Platonic viewpoint, but his own philosophy is concealed under a mass of philological material. In an attempt that seeks to be virtually definitive, he cites passages from Aristotle and the Peripatetic tradition in order to point out mistakes and contradictions. It was on this account that Giordano Bruno heaped ridicule on him, calling him "sterco di pedanti." Simply put, he tells us, Patrizi demonstrates "how like he is to an ox or an ass." One cannot say that he has

understood Aristotle either well or ill, but merely that he has read him and reread him, cut him up and stitched him together, compared him with a thousand other Greek writers, friends and foes alike, and altogether gone to an immense deal of trouble, not only to no purpose whatsoever but also to our infinite disappointment. Anyone who wishes to see into just what folly and self-regarding vanity pedantic drudgery can plunge and sink should read this book.

This was one contemporary reaction to Patrizi's attempt to explore all the possibilities of a humanistic style of literary criticism, via the comparison between Plato and Aristotle.

The Poetics is essentially divided into two quite distinct halves: Della poetica la deca istoriale and Della poetica la deca disputata. The first is a lexicon of the ancient authors, categories, styles, etc., and the second a series of dissertations on the theory of poetry but these, too, with abundant reference to both ancient and contemporary literature.

Finally, and entirely different in style, there is his principal work, the Nova de universis Philosophia (1591). Here the philosopher systematically departs from his accustomed field, ranging from a theory of light (Panaugia), via a discussion on theological principles (Panarchia) and a theory of the soul (Pampsychia) to the Pancosmia, a treatise on cosmology and physics. Even to this work he appends a number of documentary excerpts, and there is no lack of excursions into literary history, but the main part of the work is entirely axiomatic--"methodical"--in approach and argumentative in style.

These works of Patrizi represent the development of philosophical humanism in the sixteenth century, a development away from a unified presentation of the problems of the human sciences by the explicit use of the tools of literary rhetoric, and towards the research of philological sources on the one hand and the academic treatment of systematic questions on the other. Needless to say, Marsilio Ficino's model of "Platonic Theology" is extensively present in the Nova Philosophia, but still more so is the Aristotelian output of the Paduan and other universities, representing a continuation of the later medieval scholastic tradition.

Historically, the work also...

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