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Texas Studies in Literature and Language 46.1 (2004) 107-148

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Against the Vernacular:
Ciceronian Formalism and the Problem of the Individual

John Leeds

My goal is to show the significance of a family quarrel within Renaissance humanism for the humanism, much more broadly conceived, of current debate. Renaissance humanism, at its narrowest and most orthodox, required the imitation of approved classical authors and especially the cultivation of Golden Latin prose style. Golden Latin meant Cicero preeminently, but also included Livy (the focus of my argument later on), who had applied Ciceronian rhetoric to the writing of history, the one major prose form Cicero himself did not attempt. Even a northern, Protestant, and relatively late practitioner of humanist pedagogy could limit his Latin curriculum to these two authors alone, as Roger Ascham reports having done with his foremost student, the princess Elizabeth. 1 Initiated by Petrarch as an enthusiasm for the writings and character of Cicero the man, Ciceronianism developed over the course of a century into a dogma of style, an insistence that Cicero was the only acceptable model for Latin prose. 2 Inevitably, such dogma met with resistance. Often cited in this regard is a letter, written around 1490, from the Italian humanist Angelo Poliziano to his friend Paolo Cortesi. Cortesi had sent Poliziano some essays in strict imitation of Cicero, but Poliziano responded by firmly rejecting this inflexible approach to style, both because it unduly restricted the range of possible literary models and because it discouraged the expression of what was truly one's own: "For I am not Cicero. Nonetheless, as I see it, I express myself." 3 Thus, before the close of the fifteenth century, Ciceronianism had already been set in opposition to the value of individual self-expression.

Ciceronianism cannot help but appear to us now, even more than it did to Poliziano, as a formalist crotchet. Not content to prefer style over content, it endorsed one formal standard alone to the exclusion of all others. The endeavor itself seems unduly arbitrary, and this impression is only exacerbated by the failure of Renaissance Ciceronians to defend the alleged superiority of Golden Latin prose on the basis of clear formal criteria. Instead of formal analysis one finds, over and over again, the bare [End Page 107] assertion, the stubborn but unexplained conviction that Cicero was the best, most eloquent, and most correct of all authors. 4 This problem in turn besets modern accounts of the Ciceronian and anti-Ciceronian movements, including the one given by John D'Amico in his thorough study of humanism at Rome. As the language of choice for papal imperialism, Ciceronian neo-Latin had a stronger hold and longer life at Rome than anywhere else. This prose style, D'Amico maintains, "had definite characteristics which rendered it the appropriate vehicle by which to present the Roman humanist ideology." 5 What "definite characteristics" these were, however, we are never told; D'Amico can only reiterate the party-line pronouncements of Roman humanists themselves, to the effect that Ciceronian periods were "the best possible Latin" and the definitive literary expression of ancient Roman culture and values. 6 One is tempted to concur with Thomas M. Greene, who regards Ciceronianism as "misguided or pathological" in its obvious "preoccupation with the signifier, with the verbum," at the expense of "creative freedom." 7 Ciceronian purists appear to us now to have put their faith "in pure repeatability, in imitation as secular ritual." 8

Greene's judgment, however, assumes that the boundary between literary form and content, between verbum and res, is clearly marked; if form can so thoroughly supersede content, the two must be distinct in principle. As it happens, a general effect of linguistics and literary criticism in the century since Saussure has been to erase these very distinctions, and critical thought over the past few decades has tended to deny the possibility of a truly vacuous formalism, arguing that aesthetic values must always and everywhere have ideological implications. To introduce an example that will prove relevant to my...


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