bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

When two lives collide: an anti-heroic view of humanism

Posted in Offbeat observations by bonaelitterae on 18 October, 2008

As will already be apparent to the careful reader, I try to keep my lives separate: my involvement, at a minor level, in politics and the civic life of Oxford taxes a different node of my mind from those cells taken up with thinking about the Renaissance. Between politics and research, an invisible wall has been constructed. I believe that is the way it should be. As a result, I am finding a recent turn my writing has taken to be unsettling.

That the practice of politics and the process of intellectual study should be kept separate seems to be a widely-shared attitude. I remember a conversation with the late Conrad Russell, ‘revisionist’  historian of the seventeenth century and Liberal peer, when I asked him whether his political outlook informed his historical thinking. ‘I hope not’ was his response. The reasons are manifest: the pursuit of knowledge, with the assumption that you are striving for ‘truth’, inhabits a different universe from the political life where the emotive and the tribal are among its essential elements. This is not to say that a scholar should not be engagé — on the contrary, my own view is that there is a duty on them, as on others, to move beyond their own activities and be involved in the political community. It may even be that their own research can inform their politics, though it is notable how often that is not the case: a Marxist may tend to be a Marxist in both voting and writing, but for others there can often be an apparent mismatch between the ideas in their publications and their espoused political loyalties. Perhaps Russell himself can stand as an example of that, for his ‘revisionism’, with its emphasis on the contingent  in the development of the conflict which became the Civil Wars was hardly indulgent of the historical mythologies on which some liberal writings have been based.

My quandary is that I find myself preparing a paper for next week in which the position presented happens to sit well with my own political outlook. It is to do with the concept of the ‘hero’. As a Liberal, I have an innate and firm suspicion of ‘heroes’; I have a belief that those who are placed in positions of power are no better than others, and should not be expected to be. Tales of ‘heroes’ too often tend to imagine that a few have particular virtues, beyond those attainable by most men or women. On the contrary, those we elevate to heroic status are as flawed as any of us: we are no worse, and no less able to achieve. What has been developing in my own research is a critique of a tradition of writing on Renaissance humanism which, as I now see it, describes the humanists and their activities in heroic terms. Without giving you the whole of my forthcoming paper, the sort of writing I have in mind is that which, for instance, narrates tales of humanists finding classical texts as a process of selfless striving and determination against all vicissitudes which culminates in a success for the good of civilisation. The humanists themselves might have liked to have had their activities written in these terms but they, at least, would have been able to detect what was rhetorical embellishment in the tales.

What I find myself doing is puncturing such narratives by emphasising the unheroic, the very human, nature of these characters and their activities — how they were distracted by their sex lives, or how they made claims which were intentionally false. I have no desire to put such scholars — much more skilled than myself — on trial but rather to save them from the mythologies that have de-humanised them.

I am comfortable with the direction my writing is taken but I do wonder how far it is informed by my ideological beliefs. Is, in fact, the idea of the scholar who can rise above the other elements of their life itself a construction of a hero, a myth that I should jettison as well?

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