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  • Dialectique et littérature: Les avatars de la dispute entre Moyen Âge et Renaissance
  • Barbara C. Bowen
Béatrice Périgot . Dialectique et littérature: Les avatars de la dispute entre Moyen Âge et Renaissance. Bibliothèque Littéraire de la Renaissance 58. Paris: Honoré Champion Éditeur, 2005. 736 pp. index. bibl. €132. ISBN: 2–7453–1149–2.

Rarely, I think, does a single word (disputatio) generate this hefty and erudite a tome; Guillaume Budé would have approved of Béatrice Périgot. Her book has three sections, treating respectively the Middle Ages, the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and the sixteenth, but her actual range is wider than this; in part 1 she discusses in some detail Aristotle, Cicero (whose Tusculan Disputations technically are not "disputes"), and Augustine.

After a brief introduction relating Pasquier's Pourparler du Prince to the medieval disputatio, Périgot's part 1 tackles the latter's definition, difference from lectio, origins, essential link to dialectic, and use by a number of medieval writers including Anselm, Abelard, Peter Lombard, Albertus Magnus, Saint Thomas (who rates a chapter to himself), and the Terminists. Much of this information was new to me (e.g., we should not call Ockham a Nominalist). Part 2 focuses on what [End Page 533] happened to argument between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, with individual chapters on Petrarch (whose dialecticians foreshadow Rabelais's Janotus de Bragmardo), Leonardo Bruni, Valla, Pico, Vives, Erasmus (whose Colloquies have no connection with disputatio), and a final group of three: Budé, Nicholas of Cusa, and Bovelles.

Part 3 will probably be of most interest to readers of this journal, with its chapters on Rabelais (eighty-four pages!), historical writing (Bodin, d'Argentré, and Pasquier), Guy de Brués, and Montaigne. On Rabelais, Périgot continues to provide provocative definitions (the prologue to Gargantua is not a dispute but a demonstrative oration); in the Tiers Livre Panurge transforms consultations into disputes, and to stress that Rabelais, like many Renaissance writers, is part of a general shift of emphasis from dialectic to rhetoric. Her densely erudite arguments sometimes reach conclusions I do not share (for instance, I cannot agree that Gargantua's celebrated letter to Pantagruel on education is ironic), but are always informative and very often convincing.

The chapter relating historical writing to dispute is also interesting, but less so to me than the following one on Guy de Brués, whose 1557 Dialogues are among the neglected treasures of French Renaissance literature. Périgot points out that de Brués's characters use the word dispute, that he was influenced by Simon de Vallambert's De optimo genere disputandi colloquendique of 1551, and that he owes his main subject matter to Plato but his main method to Aristotle. By the time he was writing, the phrase par manière de dispute had come to mean something like "just for the sake of argument."

The Montaigne chapter, only half the length of the one on Rabelais, asserts that the essayist confirms the evolution of dispute from dialectic to rhetoric. By way of a detailed analysis of "De l'art de conférer" (III.8), and shorter comments on the "Apologie de Raymond Sebond" (II.12), Périgot illuminates Montaigne's basic paradox, that discussion is freer if opinions are not firmly held. His real aim is to "révéler l'homme dans l'opinion" (637), so that the content of debate is unimportant. With his emphasis on the centrality of judgment, he situates himself equally far from the traditional dispute, and Cartesian logic.

In her conclusion Périgot reiterates that the sixteenth century saw a gradual shift from dialectic to rhetoric, and that, although the formal disputatio is now obsolete, its spirit remains. Her literary examples were "novel," history, dialogue, and essay; she here claims that theater and poetry could also provide convincing material. Finally, she deals at some length with the seventeenth century, in which literature is becoming "ce qui n'est pas disputative" (686; Descartes, La Rochefoucauld) and even, briefly, with the eighteenth. So the book provides an impressive overview, from Aristotle to Diderot, of formal argument through the ages and its relationship to...


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