Today's entry in the Who's Who is Lorenzo Valla. While Valla's name may be less familiar to the reader, his life and work are actually pivotal in the history of the humanities, because, in many ways, his work represents the culmination of humanist methodology and thought and paradoxically sowed the seeds of its eventual wane.
Today's entry in Who's Who in the Medical Humanities is Francesco Petrarch, often referred to as the father of humanism. Biographical details come from the Catholic Encyclopedia.
Petrarch was born in 1304 in Arezzo, Italy. His father Petracco was a clerk at one of the courts of justice in Florence, but was banished in 1302 along with the other White Guelphs. Petrarch was raised mostly at Pisa and Avignon, and, like so many of the humanists, trained in the law at Montpellier and more prominently at Bologna. He found the practice of law tiresome, however, and after his father's death in 1323, returned to Avignon and took minor orders, where it is said that he met the love of his life, the lady Laura.
By 1330, Petrarch commenced a period of wandering, which he documented in his initimable epistolary form. He increasingly sought out "lost" ancient texts, many of which he translated, and earned enough fame that he was publicly crowned as poet and historian of Rome in 1341. He also befriended Boccaccio, and their narratives regarding the Black Death are among the most illuminating of the ethos of the time. Says Petrarch in a letter to his brother who was the lone survivor of 35 in his monastery at Monrieux,
My brother! My brother! My brother! A new beginning to a letter, though used by Marcus Tullius [Cicero] fourteen hundred years ago. Alas! my beloved brother, what shall I say? How shall I begin? Whither shall I turn? On all sides is sorrow; everywhere is fear. I would, my brother, that I had never been born, or, at least, had died before these times. How will posterity believe that there has been a time when without the lightnings of heaven or the fires of earth, without wars or other visible slaughter, not this or that part of the earth, but well-nigh the whole globe, has remained without inhabitants. When has any such thing been even heard or seen; in what annals has it ever been read that houses were left vacant, cities deserted, the country neglected, the fields too small for the dead and a fearful and universal solitude over the whole earth?... Oh happy people of the future, who have not known these miseries and perchance will class our testimony with the fables. We have, indeed, deserved these [punishments] and even greater; but our forefathers also have deserved them, and may our posterity not also merit the same...
Though, as ever, something pains me in attempting to say anything meaningful about such a humanist in the truncated form of a blog post, part of what makes Petrarch so significant for the modern-day humanist is contained in this excerpt: the reference to Cicero. I have tried to explain in this series of posts that a crucial part of the studia humanitatis was the focus on classical sources. Though some have described this as a rediscovery of antiquity, Bouwsma wryly remarks in his edifying pamphlet The Culture of Renaissance Humanism that this can hardly be correct insofar as the ancient sources never really disappeared from view.
The enduring and extant trope (advanced most influentially by Burckhardt) of seeing the Middle Ages as a benighted time that gave way to the flowering of culture in the Renaissance is simply unsustainable for countless reasons, among them that quite profound "flowerings" occurred during the Carolingian and the Twelfth Century Renaissances (The fact that these movements are described as "Renaissances" underscores the point).
Nevertheless, it certainly seems accurate to suggest that something remarkable was going on with the late medieval and Renaissance humanists, and it is equally accurate to identify an important role for Petrarch in that process. Part of what Petrarch sought in his search for the edification of the ancients was guidance in the cultivation of virtu in the individual. Context is important here; and while a late humanist like Montaigne was more removed from the influence of high Scholasticism on learning and culture, an early humanist like Petrarch was educated and lived while that influence was, if not at its apex, certainly remained pervasive. The Scholastic emphasis on logic and form encouraged use and reflection upon abstractions that were of little relevance to the late medieval who lived outside the traditional centers of learning (monasteries and universities).
Petrarch turned to the ancient sources, then, at least in part with an eye to receiving instruction on how to cultivate virtue in daily life, on how to bring the educational project to life in life itself, to return to Plato's basic and resonant question: how should I live? It must be remembered that the studia humanitatis was first and foremost an educational program, with the goal, at least for Petrarch, of using the seven liberal arts in the instruction of excellence and virtue. Where current academic instruction, at least at the postsecondary stage, is criticized as being removed from people's daily lives and practices, Petrarch's mission is a powerful reminder of the expansive possibilities that the humanities can facilitate.
Moreover, while it is serious overstatement, IMO, to argue that the Western concept of the self was born through the humanities, it seems accurate to contend that Petrarch and many of the other humanists emphasized the significance of education on the self, of the importance of arete for the individual. In a time where the pervading ethos was one of order and stability, where individualist pretensions to social mobility and improvement would be met with disbelief, if not outright suspicion and hostility, the importance of emphasizing the possibility of "self-improvement" through humanist education may be more apparent.
Finally, if one of the principal concerns of health care experiences in the U.S. is that they can be dehumanizing and impersonal, taking instruction from Petrarch in terms of medical education may be worthwhile. Understanding that education can -- should? -- be used in the cultivation of individual virtue, and in making such a project accessible and meaningful in one's daily practices seems at least worthwhile and arguably a great deal more than that.
Today's installment in Who's Who in the Medical Humanities is Erasmus. I'm somewhat surprised it's taken me this long to address Erasmus in context of medical humanities because Erasmus, like Montaigne, is something of a personal hero of mine. It's those late humanists that particularly seem to move me (count Vesalius and da Vinci among them for sure, and Machiavelli's thought is often late humanist in content and style, though he lived earlier than all others mentioned here). As usual, the Who's Who posts begin by surveying the thinker's life, briefly showing connections to humanist instruction and themes, and then moving on to suggest some possible relevance for the practicing medical humanist.
[Note: Biographical information is largely drawn from the online Catholic Encylopedia's entry]
Erasmus was born around 1466 in Rotterdam, an illegitimate child. At the age of nine, Erasmus "was sent to the school of the celebrated humanist Hegius at Deventer, where his taste for humanism was awakened and his powers of mind received their bent for life." Id. Erasmus showed brilliance at an early age, but was derailed by the death of his parents in his early teens. He entered a monastery school for two years, which he described as "lost years," and then he wandered for some time until his guardians forced him to enter the monastery of Emmaus. While he did not care for the monk's life, he spent much of his time reading classical authorities, and studied Lorenzo Valla's work as well.
After leaving the monastery, he entered the Bishop of Cambrai's diplomatic service, and was sent to complete his studies in Paris, but quickly found nothing but contempt for Scholastic pedagogy. (Already we can see two significant elements of the Renaissance humanist: the immersion in the classical canon, and a distaste for the logic and disputation of Scholastic method). Id. His English friend Colet urged him to abandon Scholasticism and devote himself to Scriptual studies, after which Erasmus set about gaining facility with Greek and Latin at Paris and Louvain. Id. He began to publish (in the first decade of the sixteenth century), and thereafter sojourned through Italy, receiving an honorary Doctor of Divinity at Turin, and meeting distinguished humanists in Bologna, Padua, and Venice. He was received well by the cardinals in Rome, but earned both fame and controversy in 1509, when he published In Praise of Folly, which heavily satirized the Catholic Church.
He became a professor of divinity and of Greek at Cambridge, and spent time living in Basel, England, and Louvain between 1514 and 1521. The Colloquia was published in 1519. Erasmus' perspectives on the Church must be located in some of the obvious religious tensions of the time, and Martin Luther's activities dialectically interacted with traditional Catholic authority. Erasmus found himself in a most awkward position, according to HistoryGuide. He was reviled by traditionalists for igniting the Protestant "heresies," and villified by Luther and his adherents for refusing to give up on the Catholic church and join the protestants.
Erasmus exchanged many letters with Luther. Each saw the other as important and worth engaging for a variety of reasons. Erasmus's undying hope was that through dialogue and cultural exchange, Luther's relatively uncompromosing positions could be accommodated with Catholic authority such that violence could be avoided. The use of discourse as a pressure release, as a way of preventing war is as humanist an idea as exists (if we recall the studia humanitatis as being characterized in part by a reference to classical sources in the service of virtue). Erasmus adopted numerous means for facilitating such a dialogue, one of which was his constant focus on the notion of adiaphora.
Adiaphora in Greek means "indifferent things." Erasmus argued that the number of tenets any Christian must believe in order to "be" a Christian were few in number. On these core precepts, dissension was not possible without departing from the Christian domain. On all other matters, which comprised the vast majority of subjects for theological debate, Christian persons of reasonable mind could disagree in good conscience (and all remain Christian, or catholic, in the literal meaning of the word). These adiaphora were not determinants of Christian identity. In this way Erasmus sought to accommodate divergent views on faith, salvation, doctrine, and practice.
It should not take too much to see some basic implications for the modern medical humanist. First, there is the ardor with which Erasmus sought to use dialogue as a way of mediating conflict: this is arguably a paramount role for ethics consultants. Second, Erasmus's method is ingenious as a way of promoting accommodation of plural views: identify core points upon which some kind of accord seems possible, and suggest that reasonable persons in good conscience can meaningfully debate adiaphora (and these core points need not be universal principles; they may simply be what I like to think of as contingent commonalities, shared perspectives that simply happen to be shared in the particular context at issue). And note that the notion of adiaphora and Erasmus's political objectives animate a conception of dialogue in the service of a practical, virtuous aim (the prevention of bloodshed).
Perhaps it is not too strong to suggest that the quality of the discourse itself in both medical humanities and bioethics practice could be enhanced if discussion proceeded along Erasmian lines of attempting to disentangle adiaphora from core precepts and working to build assent in the latter. Of course, it must be noted that Erasmus's objectives were not realized, and wars rooted in religious, among other, disagreements, raged across Europe for the next century and beyond. Thus, to invoke Erasmus in the service of enhancing conversation and discourse is not to trumpet a utopian ideal, but to suggest there is much to learn from Erasmus' efforts.
Along similar lines, Erasmus spent much time differentiating the roles the orator could take. Embodying the profoundly humanist notion (traced back to Cicero and Quintillian) that speaking could only be effective (in promoting virtue, of course) if it was strictly tailored and shaped to the particular audience being addressed, Erasmus noted the different patterns of discourse in the contentio and the sermo. The former exists where the speaker and the audience have different levels of knowledge, perhaps asymmetrical information. The setting of a contentio is advocative in nature; the speaker aims to exhort, to persuade, to convince. The objective is persuasion, not necessarily enhancing conceptual knowledge or even collective understanding.
By contrast, in a sermo, the participants are all knowledgeable on the subject of the discussion, which operates more like a dialogue between respected colleagues. Obviously, if one seeks to enter into a sermo and begins using rhetoric and methods more suited for the contentio, learning may be frustrated and discourse diminished. This idea of tailoring oration to suit the audience and the aims of speech is the classic rhetorical principle of decorum, suggesting an etymological link for the conceptual point addressed earlier: the suggestions Erasmus makes for enhancing discourse and communication on matters of public debate are tied to understanding rhetoric and audience. To the extent the latter is correlated with better communication, this literally is a a core tenet of the humanist project: to use rhetoric in the cultivation of virtue (or virtuous acts, like communicating better).
There is a small but growing bioethics literature on the importance of communication, highlighting the notion that the quality of the communication itself is of ethical content. Erasmus would probably have agreed.
Poor, unfortunate Machiavelli. As if he did not suffer enough in life, cast down from a position of prominence as a highly-placed official, tortured (rather brutally, apparently) and exiled from Florence, he has suffered as perhaps The Bogeyman, a stand-in for corruption and expedience in political discourse. Heck, he even became a paradigm at the hands of the Elizabethans; the term "Old Nick" as a cognomen for Satan is thought to be connected to Niccolo himself.
However, I daresay that most who sit down and actually take the time to read his most (in?)famous work, The Prince, let alone his Discourses, might well be surprised at the sophistication and nuance present in his work. You will not find an ethical defense of corruption in The Prince. Quite the contrary, in fact. To understand what Machiavelli was doing in The Prince, as well as to understand his importance for the modern day medical humanist, we have to know a little something about Machiavelli and about his objectives in writing The Prince.
Niccolo Machiavelli was born in his beloved Florence on May 3, 1469. He is reputed to have been descended from Florentine aristocracy, but his family was not wealthy. Little about his formal education is known other than that he was schooled in the studia humanitatis. Indeed, that he became a humanist in the most accurate sense of the term is generally accepted among historians. Machiavelli grew up, like Dante, in a Florence racked by political instability and strife: "notable events include the Pazzi conspiracy and its aftermath, the end of Medici rule, and the reign of the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola."
This was, unfortunately, to be a constant theme of Machiavelli's life. In 1498 he became the secretary of the Lower Chancery of the Ten, and was soon shuttling to various courts across Europe in diplomatic service (in the first decade of the sixteenth century): France, Rome, the Holy Roman Emperor, etc.
(As Bouwsma and Boutcher explain, the increasingly intercultural political economy of the Late Middle Ages was itself a factor in the studia humanitatis. If there was a emphasis on diplomacy and commerce, it only followed that some kind of vernacular was needed to ease cross-cultural communication. This shaped the importance of Latin in the humanist program. However, the seeds of humanism's own demise are evident here, as Valla's own humanist rigor demonstrated that classical Latin was archaic, and it began to be confined increasingly to universities, with the vernacular replacing Latin as a linchpin of the political economy).
After the defeat of the French king in Italy in 1512, the Medici regained control of Florence. Machiavelli was exiled from Florence (perhaps reminiscent of Cicero's exile?). Subsequently, upon the exposure of a plot against a prominent member of the Medici family, Machiavelli was accused of being an accomplice and was subsequently tortured.
He was eventually released, but his sentence of exile was not commuted, so he retired to a small property he owned at Strada, and settled down to read (mostly classical works) and write. He never ceased trying to convince the Medici that he merited officialdom in Florence, but he did not return until 1527, when the Medici had been overthrown. However, in a final grotesque irony, "his old political party turned against him as one who fawned on tyrants. He died soon afterwards."
Cheery stuff, yes?
But this background is actually crucial to understanding what Machiavelli was principally concerned with in writing The Prince. Consider that Machiavelli grew up amidst internecine strife, and he was exiled and subsequently tortured after the Medici's returned to power. It would be shocking if such a man would not be concerned principally with the survival and stability of the state, I tend to think.
Part of what made Machiavelli such a revolutionary thinker, as Hankins explains, is because he completely inverted the Ciceronian moral equivalence of honestum and utile that had been accepted in prior humanist thought. That is, Cicero posited (and humanists generally accepted) that what was morally good was civically useful, and what was civically useful was morally good. Machiavelli rejected this. He argued that what was politically useful (and the definition of utility here is what enhances the survival of the state) was not always coextensive with the good.
And who could disagree with him, really? What exactly is so controversial about this perspective to modern eyes? Machiavelli naturally endorsed the survival of the state as the most important objective of the prince, but it doesn't follow from that he would endorse such a move for any citizen. The Prince is nothing if not a handbook for governance sent to Lorenzo the Magnificent in the hope of earning Machiavelli some kind of leniency in his hope to return to his beloved Florence. It is a "how-to" manual for the prince who wishes to solidify his rule. There is little from The Prince that supports the notion that Machiavelli was sketching an account of private morality, rather than a guideline, applying classical histories (mostly Livy and Plutarch) to contemporaneous events to describe the characteristics of the successful prince (again, success being defined by survival of the state).
Even Machiavelli's most infamous passage is often quoted out of context:
From this arises the question of whether it is better to be loved more than feared, or feared more than loved. The reply is, that one ought to be both feared and loved, but as it is difficult for the two to go together, it is much safer to be feared than loved, if one of the two has to be wanting.
This passage is often interpreted to justify sweeping curtailment of political and social rights, but Machiavelli seriously qualifies his general assessment mere sentences later:
Still, a prince should make himself feared in such a way that if he does not gain love he at any rate avoids hatred: for fear and the absence of hatred may well go together, and will always be attained by one who abstains from interfering with the property of his citizens and subjects or with their women.
Machiavelli is obviously not recommending the kind of carte blanche, reckless repression that he is often taken to represent. Quite the contrary; a prince who is hated will not long survive. Even if a measure of fear is important to the prince's rule, repression that breeds hatred is ill-advised. Machiavelli even stresses that "above all [the prince] must abstain from taking the property of others, for men forget more easily the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony." Shades of Locke, perhaps?
So, what relevance does Machiavelli have for the modern medical humanist? (And no snide jokes about academic torture and exile, thank you!)
First, Machiavelli details the difficult tension between the useful and the good. What is good, he argues, is not always useful, and what is useful is not always good. That the tension between these two objectives underlies many issues in health care should be somewhat obvious (Indeed, it is at the heart of what makes notions of utilitarianism controversial). Providing free health care to all comers might be morally commendable, but if the hospital that does so enters insolvency (i.e., is unable to survive, in Machiavelli's terms), the ethical calculus obviously becomes more complicated. Attempting to disentangle the useful from the good strikes me as vital aspect of questions of justice, allocation of scarce resources, and health policy. This is not, of course, to endorse Machiavelli's conclusion that the useful must always take priority over the good when they conflict, but simply to suggest that taking account of the practical and its potential tension with the good is an unavoidable concern in assessing justice in health care. Machiavelli, if nothing else, is dogmatic about practices. If it doesn't work in practice, then its goodness is still important but not all-important.
Machiavelli is thus concerned with what works. And assessing "what works" in medical practices may be one important consideration for the medical humanist.
Second, Machiavelli reminds the humanist of the consequences of separating res (content or matter) from verba (form or language). The classical conception of rhetoric generally posited a close connection between the matter at issue and the specific language used to communicate about that matter. Rhetoric was not perceived as an end in itself, but was a good insofar as it enhanced understanding about the res. This fits with the early humanists' insistence on the use of rhetoric in the service of virtue. For the early humanists, res and verba ought not be separated. But, once the merits of rhetoric are excised from the merits of the matter at issue, then rhetoric becomes a (mere) means to political and economic ends.
The connection between rhetoric and the cultivation of virtue was arguably a preeminent part of the studia humanitatis. Part of the reason rhetoric is often viewed with suspicion today is because res has been entirely separated from verba. To the extent the medical humanist is or ought to be concerned with the cultivation of virtue in the culture of biomedicine, Machiavelli, poor, misunderstood figure that he is, is an important resource.
Today's installment of Who's Who in the Medical Humanities surveys Michel de Montaigne. If there is a patron saint for this blog, it is no unquestionably Montaigne. He is so brilliant, so incisive, so daring and yet so cautious, all at the same time. The University of Chicago publishes a journal entirely dedicated to his work, entitled Montaigne Studies.
As always, the goal here in the Who's Who series is to introduce the scholar, give the briefest and thinnest sketch of his/her life, and then to attempt to explain the relevance to modern-day medical humanities. Biographical details are generally obtained from the fine Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry ("SEP"), and a short bibliography follows this post.
Montaigne was born into wealth in France in the Perigord, part of the Dordogne River Valley, near Bordeaux. He was educated in the humanist tradition, though his father eschewed the typical pedagogy of learning Latin in formal schooling, and instead required Montaigne to speak Latin in the home. His father procured an office for him in the Court of Periguex, and during this time he made the acquaintance of his most intimate friend, Etienne de La Boetie, whose subsequent death would affect Montaigne deeply.
Montaigne suffered from kidney stones, and, according to the SEP, it was on a trip to several hot springs in Italy (seeking relief from his pain) that he learned he had been elected as Mayor of Bordeaux. He was re-elected, but came under criticism for "having abandoned the town during the great plague in an attempt to protect himself and his family." Ibid.
Montaigne completed two editions of his principal work, Essays, with the third being supervised by his adopted daughter in 1595. Montaigne is generally credited with having invented the modern essay. If you have not taken the time to read any of the Essays, I highly recommend doing so. While I would not suggest they are easy to read, they are incredibly thoughtful, incisive, and engaging, with wit and wisdom aplenty. When I am looking for a quote or an epigraph for a paper, my first stop is usually with Montaigne's Essays. If he had nothing to say on the matter, or, if, as is much more likely, I cannot find what he did have to say on the matter, then I widen my search.
Though there are literally dozens if not hundreds of possible ways of assessing Montaigne's contributions to the medical humanities, I will offer two here.
The first is that Montaigne was a humanist in the proper sense of the term, that is, one who relied (at least in part) on the wisdom of antiquity to sketch out perspectives on issues that arise out of people's lived experiences. It is unlikely that Montaigne would have considered himself an academic or a scholar; he was highly suspicious of what he referred to as "pedantism," and rejected the view of philosophy as a purely theoretical science. SEP.
In the tradition of the early humanists, Montaigne disdained the theoretical speculations of the high Scholastics. His was a mind focused on actual practices. The SEP notes:
Instead of focusing on the ways and means of making the teaching of Latin more effective, as pedagogues usually did, Montaigne stresses the need for action and playful activities . . . The use of judgment in every circumstance, as a warrant for freedom and practical intelligence has to remain at the core of education.
Montaigne, then, was an exemplar of some of the core elements of the studia humanitatis: a focus on the wisdom of antiquity (in Latin), a disdain for empty theorizing, and a strong preference for the use of classical thought in the service of virtue, of improving human practices and experience. To the extent any aspects of this project has import for the modern medical humanist (and one of the implicit objectives of this blog is to argue that such a project is highly significant to analysis of medical practices), Montaigne is both singular and indispensable.
The second sense, related to the first, is sketched most fully in Stephen Toulmin's excellent book, Cosmopolis. Montaigne was highly distrustful of grand claims to certainty and objectivity. He was in fact, a skeptic (taking as his inspiration the skepticism mainly of Sextus Empiricus and the Pyrrhonians), but Montaigne's skepcticism is intricate and highly resistant to modern typologies. Insofar as Montaigne was interested in mediating classical sources through contemporaneous social practices, experiences, and concerns, it should be altogether unsurprising that Montaigne was suspicious of grand claims to certainty and objectivity. He relied heavily on the notion of doubt well before Descartes transformed doubt into method. He was suspicious of principles or rules, preferring much more the exercise of natural judgment that he saw as crucial to the knowledge-building process.
Toulmin sketches further how Montaigne's focus on the particular and the local was transformed, less than a century later, by Descartes, Galileo, and Bacon, into a concern over the universal and the timeless, concepts that Montaigne would almost certainly have been -- ha ha -- deeply skeptical of. I have taken a particular interest in objectivity since my undergraduate days (my senior thesis explored issues of causation and objectivity in philosophy of science), and I submit that for all the considerable good conceptions of Cartesian and post-Cartesian (scientific) objectivity have done, they have also caused much mischief. Indeed, Toulmin's book is largely an account of that mischief, and the sources of the rising belief in certainty, universality, and objectivity.
It is not my project here, of course, to survey the imposing literature on the nature and extent of that mischief, but a great many thinkers and theorists, across many different disciplines and modes of inquiry have done so. What is my project is to suggest that Montaigne is one of the most important Western paragons of a mode of knowledge and inquiry that begins by eschewing reliance on universal, objective, certainly knowable facts about the world in favor of judgment arising out of social practices. The SEP puts it nicely:
Judgment has to determine the most convincing position, or at least to determine the strengths and weaknesses of each position. The simple dismissal of truth would be too dogmatic a position; but if absolute truth is lacking, we still have the possibility to balance opinions. We have resources enough to evaluate the various authorities that we have to deal with in ordinary life.
Finally, I would be remiss if I failed to mention Montaigne's apparent cultural relativism. He was one of the earliest critics of the attitudes and practices towards the indigenous peoples of the New World, questioning whether the customs of cannibals in the New World were really more barbaric than some of the atrocities persons of different religions inflicted on each other during Montaigne's lifetime. The link between Montaigne's refusal to excoriate the customs of different peoples and his emphasis on actual practices ought to be apparent: "Neither the Hellenstic Sage, nor the Christian Saint, nor the Renaissance Scholar, are unquestioned models in the Essays. Instead, Montaigne is considering real men, who are the product of customs." Ibid.
Humanist, skeptic, essayist, rhetor, relativist, pluralist, in these roles and in so many others, Montaigne was both a product of his time (as Toulmin makes clear) and centuries ahead of it. For the modern-day medical humanist, I contend that Montaigne is literally an indispensable source. Ad fontes!
Today's Who's Who in the Medical Humanities is Cicero (102 B.C.E. - 43 B.C.E.) (murdered).
Trying to write a blog post about Cicero is akin to attempting to get Yao Ming into a Mini.
What does one say in such a post about arguably the greatest rhetorician and orator in recorded Western history?
Thankfully, I am guided by the task at hand, which is not to attempt to summarize Cicero, but to discuss some aspects of Cicero's life and work insofar as they may help to illuminate the medical humanities.
There is obviously no shortage of sources, internet and otherwise, on the life and work of Cicero, but much of this briefest of histories on Cicero here is taken from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry.
Cicero, like many of the medieval and Renaissance humanists he would inspire 1300 years after he lived, trained as a lawyer (this is not accidental, in my opinion, but this is a subject for another post). He was not born into the aristocracy, but became an extremely successful attorney, and his legal skills paved a road into politics, holding multiple offices and eventually becoming a member of the Senate.
At the height of his fame, in 60 B.C.E., Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus took control of Rome, and invited Cicero to bring his considerable talents into the service of what would become the Roman Empire. Cicero, however, refused, and remained committed to the ideals of the Roman Republic. His steadfastness would cost him dearly, as he was exiled in 58 B.C.E., forbidden to live within 500 miles of Italy.
(Note: There are some remarkable parallels between these events and those that resulted in another important humanist, Niccolo Machiavelli's exile from Florence 1400 years later. More on this in Machiavelli's Who's Who, which is forthcoming).
Happily for Cicero, his exile ended after a year and a half, though political office was closed off to him, and the next several years saw him write some of his most famous works. Several years later, Cicero became involved in a power struggle between Antony, Lepidus, and Octavian. He backed Octavian in a series of speeches before the Senate (with the ultimate intention of restoring the Republic). The three candidates, however, reached a power sharing agreement, and Octavian did not protect Cicero from Antony's wrath. Cicero, along with his son, his brother, and his nephew were murdered by agents of Antony in or around 43 B.C.E.
Again, I cannot possibly do justice to the significance of Cicero's thought and writings in a blog post, but what I can attempt to do is to describe why exactly Cicero was so important to medieval and Renaissance humanism.
As briefly touched on in this post, a key marker of humanism was a return to the wisdom of antiquity, but the humanists did not regard all of that wisdom as equally valuable. The unquestionable queen of the humanistic discipines was rhetoric.
Why was rhetoric so important to the humanists? Though this is a complicated question, humanism is properly viewed, at least in part, as a dialectical antithesis to the scholastic focus on the Thomist and Aristotelian style of scholasticism, to the abstract questions of logic that began to seem of little relevance to people's actual daily lives.
Rhetoric was viewed as vital because it was then, as it is now, a discipline that can, in the hands of a skilled rhetor, move people, can inspire them to arete, or virtue. William Bouwsma, one of the authorities on this point, notes in his pamphlet, The Culture of Rennaissance Humanism, that
[t]he peculiarity of the renaissance that began in the fourteenth century lay in its special emphasis on rhetoric, in the particular value it attached to graceful, persuasive, and effective verbal communication, both orally and in writing. For the first time since antiquity, rhetoric came fully into its own (9).
It is unfortunate that our society frequently uses conjoins the term "rhetoric" with the adjective "mere," as Bouwsma notes, in part because for the humanists rhetoric was inextricably linked to the bettering of human lives (9). This was wherefrom it derived its imperative for the humanists, at least in part. Again, as Bouwsma notes, "the study of rhetoric included a concern with virtue, especially in its social dimensions" (16)
Where humanism was characterized by a return to the classics and by a hope to use rhetoric in the service of virtue, it is altogether unsurprising that Cicero was a chief source of reference and inspiration for the humanists.
The question, then, is what relevance does Cicero have for the modern-day medical humanist?
In part, and I do not mean to play hide-the-ball, I believe that the foregoing discussion hints at the answer I have stumbled upon: the use of words to humanize medical practice, and by humanize, I mean the cultivation of arete, of virtue. Look again why Cicero was so important to the humanists: he was the greatest (ancient?) exemplar of a discipline that could move the hearts of men, as opposed to conceptual abstraction that was not deemed to have great relevance to most people's daily lives.
Does this not describe quite well some of the most common complaints patients voice regarding their physicians, at least in the U.S.? That physicians seem remote and disconnected, and that much of their health care experiences feels distant and abstracted? That health and treatment are technologized? That providers seem unable to properly communicate and either speak or listen with their patients (listening is most assuredly good rhetorical practice, as any modern appellate lawyer will tell you)?
Naturally, these are some sweeping statements, and they obviously would require significant qualification to be more accurate, but they are not therefore erroneous, in my opinion. Robert Proctor, in his Defining the Humanities, argues that the early humanists argued that "the primary purpose of study was not to become learned, but to become good" (147). Rhetoric was perceived as the principal means to this end. If what the medical humanist is concerned with, at least in part, is assisting in the humanization of medical practice, I would suggest that familiarity with the concept of rhetoric in the service of arete, of truly communicating with and practicing hearing and speaking to patients, would seem to be important, to put it mildly.
The humanists believed that rhetoric was a means of humanizing the practice of learning. I would suggest that this is no less valid today than it was 700 years ago, or 2000 years ago. While Virgil may be the choice for the poet in his journey, perhaps, it is not too much hyperbole to suggest that Cicero remains an important guide for the modern-day medical humanist.
The purpose of this blog is to help shed some light on the nature of the medical humanities, both for its practitioners and students, and for interested laypersons. Posts have thus far belonged to one of three general categories: the Literature Reviews, the Medical Humanities Lexicon, and Medical Humanities Happenings. I realized, however, that I have been remiss in failing to include a category for posts relating to historical figures that are of importance to the medical humanities.
Thus, this post will represent the first effort at a "Who's Who" of persons who are relevant to the medical humanities today. As always, the hope is that surveying, in a necessarily (and painfully) brief manner, some of the people who have shaped the dialectic of the medical humanities will also shed some light on the meanings and contours of the medical humanities as they currently flow.
The first entry in this category will be Andreas Vesalius.
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Disclaimer # 2
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