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  • The Renaissance Crisis of Exemplarity
  • François Rigolot

“Every example is lame” (Tout exemple cloche), acknowledged Montaigne in the last chapter of his Essais. 1 Was this the moaning of a lone, disillusioned skeptic or the idiosyncratic formulation of a widely shared attitude of mistrust at the end of the sixteenth century? To answer this question one must first examine the epistemological status of examples at the end of the period we still conventionally call the “Renaissance”; and this is the purpose of this group of papers. 2

In his work on the notion of exemplum in early modern France and Italy John D. Lyons helped restore the concept of exemplarity to its central place in the history of rhetoric. 3 From Aristotle’s paradeigmata—simple case stories at the orator’s disposal (Rhetoric 1.2. 1356b)—to Montaigne’s “lame” exemples—contingent instances unfit for demonstrative purposes (Essais III, 13, 1070)—the rhetorical impulse has followed strangely circuitous ways. Part of the confusion is probably due to the transformation of technical language under the pressure of common usage. Throughout the early modern period, while the Latin word exemplum continued to refer to rhetorical practice (an illustrative anecdote with a moral point), its vernacular derivatives (esempio, ejemplo, exemple, etc.) generally had a broader, looser, and less didactic meaning, as the emphasis was displaced to the “narrative” aspect of instances, regardless of their intentionality. In other words, although examples were often used to illustrate a didactic point, they differed from exempla inasmuch as they were not always meant to serve a demonstrative purpose.

Of course, to the extent that choosing an example necessarily involves some form of selective process from a larger quantity of material, every instance is [End Page 557] bound to entertain a metonymic relation with a greater whole. But, etymologically, an example (essample, in Old French spelling) is a sample, one thing merely alleged to resemble another one, not a demonstrative tool. Yet in his Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (London, 1611), Randle Cotgrave gave polysemous English equivalents for exemple and exemplaire:

Exemple: 1) An example, sample, patterne, or president [sic] to follow; 2) a copie, or counterpane of a writing; 3) one thing alledged to prove, or inforce another that resembles it.

Exemplaire: 1) A patterne, sample, or sampler; 2) an example, president [sic] or precedent, for others to follow, or to take heed by; 3) also, the copie, or counterpane of a writing. 4

There is an odd mixture of demonstrative and non-demonstrative connotations. The two seemingly interchangeable words receive tripartite definitions, with the three meanings of exemple corresponding to the three of exemplaire.

In Renaissance humanistic oratory the evocation of examples was often a simple matter of style. For better elocutory purposes public speakers were encouraged to use graphic case stories to make their speeches more appealing and enjoyable, but orators also used what they called exemplars (Latin exemplaria) to provide their audience with models of conduct to imitate. Worthiness was the ultimate criterion for exemplarity. Cato and Socrates were living symbols of moral determination and courage. They became powerful exemplars of ancient “virtue,” or moral fortitude (Latin virtus; Italian virtù). In the selective process of arguments (inventio), they were chosen because they exemplified a specific attitude or line of conduct: they were, by definition, exemplary examples. 5

In the Renaissance the uplifting reading of ancient exemplars was closely related to the doctrine of imitatio, the sacrosanct recourse to inherited cultural models. At the same time the appeal of mimesis, characterized by the actual experience of the real world in reaction to scholastic insularity, greatly problematized the reception of ancient models. Whereas a long-held reverence for the imitative power of traditional exempla offered compelling patterns of moral conduct, the new attractiveness of a more “natural” mimetic discourse [End Page 558] tended to turn the study of models away from duplication. 6 In the face of the inexhaustible diversity and unpredictability of human actions, how can we choose a proper model after which to pattern our own behavior? This is one of the many questions raised by the humanist’s disenchantment with imitative symbols of moral conduct.

In recent years the concept...

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