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Gay Cantata: a Meditation on John Addington Symonds, acrylic, 30" x 40," $750


A Meditation on John Addington Symonds

     In the twenty-sixth canto of the Purgatorio when Dante and Virgil reach the seventh cornice, they encounter a throng rushing in opposite directions and shouting in chorus throughout eternity, "Soddoma e Gomorra". Despite their constant perambulation about the mountain of penance, the shades quickly kiss one another. Here within one rich image Dante has pictured — and judged — the plight of the homosexual within Christian Europe. The homosexual's practices are unnatural. They violate both the Lex Divina and the Lex Naturalis. Above all, as the image of the kiss so poignantly emphasizes, the homosexual is doomed to sterility. Historians might argue that between Good Friday morning in the year 1300 when Dante began his celebrated pilgrimage and the year 1893 when John Addington Symonds died, the position of the homosexual in Europe had passed through many fluctuating changes, but what is indisputable is that the moral condition Dante assigned to the homosexual is one hallmark of Symonds's life. His biography, as well as his writings, attest to instability and hypocrisy. On the one hand, Symonds, a student of Jowett, a one-time fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, a member — though in exile — of the Oxford liberal establishment, endeavored to appear to be morally a Tory of Tories. On the other hand, Symonds, like the shades in the Purgatorio, whose embraces are as ephemeral as they are sterile, led a life of minor mendacity.

     Indeed, there is no better example of how creativity may very often arise from disease than the figure of Symonds. Man is the sick animal, wrote Nietzsche; and certainly sickness, in more ways than one, is the leitmotiv of Symonds's frustrated yet heroic life. "Others see, and rest, and do. But I am broken, bootless, out of tune", he confided in his diary in 1865 at the age of twenty-five, "Sinews, strong nerves, strong eyes are needed for activity. I have none of these; and, besides, I have a weakness ever present. It eats my life away. "1  The weakness gnawing at his vitals was without doubt his sexual obsessions, which, combined with tuberculosis, bronchitis, periodic hemorrhages, chronic inflammation of the eyes, "a peculiar derangement of the digestive organs", not to mention a collapse of religious faith, would have crippled and immobilized a lesser man. "I want faith", he lamented and added, what was to be the cry of his generation, "Je suis venu trap tard dans un monde trop vieux".' And yet, despite his lamentations, which can be duplicated a hundred times in his letters and diaries, Symonds found faith and remarkable rejuvenation in Carlyle's Gospel of Work. "I clench my fists", he cried in a gesture of heroism — heroism which metamorphosed his many weaknesses into a lifetime of immense labour — "and refuse to be beaten. I gather faith in myself, when flung down to the lowest, and find wings in the futility of my nature."3 Work: it is this ideal which elevated Symonds above himself, which rescued him from constant pangs of ennui and a multitude of diseases, and which inspired him to become — despite lassitude, dyspepsia, and exile — the only nineteenth-century English historian of the Italian Renaissance who remains not only still authoritative — and readable — but who also rivals in grandeur of vision the achievement of Jakob Burckhardt.

      Phyllis Grosskurth in her splendid biography has charted the secret pattern of Symonds's homosexuality. However valid her arguments may be that Symonds's devotion to literature epitomizes in almost classic fashion the Freudian doctrine of sublimation, Symonds's life, not to mention his writings, yet represents much more than a compensation for sex. If Symonds's sex life provides food for thought for moralists still repelled by the Victorian fig-leaf, the achievement of his Renaissance in Italy still remains incontestable. By comparison to its comprehensiveness of scope, its thoroughness its impressive ability to marshal facts, and its breadth of vision, the writings of Walter Pater on the Renaissance represent merely the inimitable scribbling of a dilettante, the pronouncements of John Ruskin merely the erratic rage of the moralist. Symonds was a sick soul. He would have been the first to admit that his devotion to the monuments of the past, to the body of Litterae Humaniores, and to the fabric of history had an intimate and subtle relation to his many frustrations. The study of history was for him as much an escape from the self-torments of his psyche as it was an attempt to win the laurels of fame. But, above all, his immersion in the past and his devotion to the Italian Renaissance sprang directly from the ideal of culture which provided him with an alternative to the loss of religious faith. Himself raised in the most cultivated of households, the scion of an eminent Victorian physician, who provided his only son with a home filled with engravings, illustrated books of Greek sculpture, and copies of Italian paintings, Symonds began to imbibe the ideal of culture at the early age of 8 when he was sent to a private tutor to be instructed in Greek and Latin. While walking to and from Wetherell Place, his tutor's residence, he describes how he memorized the classical myths. Later at Harrow he read Plato and St. Augustine in the original. At Balliol College, under the tutelage of Benjamin Jowett, he translated Empedocles and wrote essays on the Eleatics and on Theocritean landscape. "My soul was lodged in Hellas" — this might have been his motto. Travel with his father took him to Athens, to Syracuse, to Corinth, and to Ithaca. "The forms of Greek life and art haunt me", he wrote in his diary. "They wait at my bedside and follow me about my walks and seem to say: 'Make marble for us out of words the world shall read, that we may live once more.'" 5

     At his father's house, Symonds, not yet enrolled at Balliol College, met many of the more prominent members of the Broad Church Group. The discussions between F. D. Maurice, Francis Newman and Benjamin Jowett with his father at Clifton House  prepared him intellectually for Oxford where he "talked theology at breakfast parties and at wine parties, out riding and walking, in college gardens, on the river, wherever young men and their elders met together".6   Oxford introduced him into all the subtleties of the Higher Criticism. He succumbed and became first an atheist and then a pantheist. He read Essays and Reviews, the writings of Strauss, Bauer, Seeley, Renan, and Bishop Colenso. His assessment of the Higher Criticism was both candid and shrewd. He admitted his respect for the 'palliatives' of Seeley and Renan in their effort to provide some link between innovation and tradition in Christianity. But, he reflected, Ecce Homo represented merely "a survival of evangelical piety, transmuted into philanthropy", and La vie de Jesus "A survival of old religious sentiment, denuded of dogma, replaced by means of scholarly and romantic emotions upon a treacherous ground of poetical sympathy" 7

     Symonds's period at Oxford familiarized him with such radical channels of thought as the evolutionary schemes of Auguste Cornte and Darwin. Comte's Three Ages were vividly presented to Symonds, and he decided to live at peace with science. Unlike Arnold, Symonds never felt the fear of a cultural takeover by science. He outlined to his mentor Jowett the appeal of Cornte to young minds in its provision of "a system, repudiating dogma and basing morality on an independent footing".8 Though the philosophy of Cornte never won Symonds over — positivism proving incompatible with pantheism — its influence upon his subsequent thinking remained evident. The religious side of Cornte — the elaborate ritual devised by the Frenchman in his old age and its anti-democratic priestly caste — alienated Symonds very much, as did Comte's refusal to be concerned with the infinite and his denial of immortality. Comte's elevation of humanity to the position of the Supreme Being appeared to Symonds absurd, merely the restoration of a pre-Copernican system of anthropology. Though Cornte provided Symonds with little intellectual satisfaction, Syrnonds recognized that the scientific spirit was the hallmark of the modern age. Indeed, Symonds's faith in science seldom wavered throughout his life. Early acquaintance with his father's researches in medicine and archeology could have made him a Huxley or a Layard, in embryo. As a boy he had pored over books on anatomy and physiology in his father's library. At Oxford he attended Rollestone's lectures on "Brains" and dabbled in psychology, ethnology, comparative religions, and theories of mythology. He knew enough, he thought, to be suspicious of the Society for Psychical Research, founded by his friends Sidgwick and F. W. Myers. Science contributed heavily to his rejection of Christianity and his failure to substitute any belief consonant with the demands of the modern age that would last more than a decade. His faith already undermined, he observed with approval science's reduction of Christianity to its proper place among the religions of mankind. What he meant by science was Darwinism and the Higher Criticism of Paris and Tubingen. The work of the Germans and the French, he argued, had placed all religions on one footing, revealing how each age and each race creates God in its own image.

      The first notable example of Comte's impact upon Symonds's mind was a prize essay, "The Renaissance", which Symonds read in the Sheldonian Theatre at Oxford on 17 June, 1863. Delivered before a large and distinguished audience that included both Dr. Symonds and the Prince of Wales, the Chancellor's Prize Essay is remarkable as much for its felicity of style and its synoptic view of its subject as for the fact that the conception of the Renaissance, for which Syrnonds won his prize as a graduating Oxonian, differs in no considerable way from his mature ideas when many years later he began to write Renaissance in Italy. Symonds's prize essay, no less than Renaissance in Italy itself, belongs to the grand tradition of Victorian liberalism. Not God, not sin, not retribution, but progress, evolution, and secularism are the triple pillars that support the edifice of Symonds's conception of the Renaissance; and the early essay, what with its subtle employment of Comte's triadic view of history, its derivation of contemporary secular triumphs from. Renaissance ideals, and its peroration to progress a la Macaulay, represents very much a potpourri of liberal sentiment.

     Above all, the essay reveals that Symonds, even as an undergraduate, envisioned the writing of history as a combination of narrative description and causal explanation. Like Gibbon and Macaulay, Symonds possessed a genius for marshaling mere facts, for putting into order the chaotic stuff of history, and for imposing upon the web of the past the stamp of high style. The narrative sweep which was to be his achievement in Renaissance in Italy is already noticeable in the prize-winning essay. At 23 Symonds was already a master of facts, and his strength lay in his ability to describe, to categorize, and to narrate the conventional knowledge of the time. But if his narrative powers were great, the essay reveals that his conception of historical causality was at best confused or juvenile. A liberal, he accepted the idea of progress, believed whole-heartedly in historical laws, and felt emancipated by Darwinian evolution. Yet in his discussion of the Renaissance, he was unable, despite his deft use of the catchwords of the age, to link up sequences of events. Throwing his hands up in despair, he admitted his inability to "explain the multiplicity and apparent incongruity of those phenomena which made the interval between 1450 and 1550 the most marvelous period that the world has ever known".9  All in all, the essay is a jeu d'esprit. The Oxford senior was conscious of his powers. In the future he would speak in large terms. Inquiring what the chief impetus of the Renaissance was (and probably aware that no Oxford don would really give credence to his answer) he pontificated about history in a pastiche of Comtian and Hegelian concepts. He was avant-garde. His essay reflected the chatter of the common rooms.

      More important than what Symonds said in his prize-winning essay is what the essay itself represents. For the essay was Symonds's entrance ticket into the liberal cause. Yet to dismiss his espousal of progress merely as an example of Victorian philistinism or of antediluvian optimism would be to ignore the basic fact about Symonds as an historian. Despite his devotion to the Muses and to culture   he remained throughout his life what he was in the full flush of his triumph in the Sheldonian Theatre: the confident and articulate spokesman for the upper middle-class. The rhetoric of the Oxford senior is that of men in control — men who are solid, respectable, and mundane. It is the rhetoric that Symonds, despite all of his physical and psychological debilities, adopted in his posture as historian of the Italian Renaissance. '

     Of Symonds's project to write a history of the Italian Renaissance, Jowett said, "No Englishman probably has ever been so well qualified to undertake it by previous study". 10 The Chancellor's Prize Essay of 1863, which reflects the influence of Sismondi and Michelet, ignited Symonds's professional interest in the period. Three years later in 1866, while on a trip to the Riviera and Mentone, he began to study Italian and read Italian literature in. the original. Within two years his knowledge of the language was sufficient for him to read without trouble Orlando Furioso. In 1871, his research in Elizabethan drama led him to contemplate the composition of a large serious history of the Renaissance. Jowett's words were accurate: Symonds's knowledge was immense. But the undertaking that began merely as an idea took him eleven years to complete. What motivated Symonds throughout all the years of toil between 1875 and 1886 was not only the hope of literary fame and the desire to carve out a lineage for Victorian liberalism but a genuine love of Italy. "Italy", he once wrote, "has formed the dreamland of the English fancy."11 "As poets in the truest sense of the word, we English live and breathe through sympathy with the Italians. The magnetic touch which is required to inflame the imagination of the North is derived from Italy."l2

      Symonds's practice as an historian epitomizes superbly what Herbert Butterfield has called "the Whig Interpretation of History." To see the past in terms of a formula, whether it be the rise of liberalism or the march of progress; to take advantage of the historian's principle of exclusion by reducing human complexities to the elucidation of one's own pet sympathies; to select from the past those personages or events which seem most relevant to one's own time; to perceive in each generation the conflict of the future against the past or the battle between progress and reaction or between Protestantism and Catholicism; to fall into the unexamined habit of mind whereby history becomes a mere trick of organization — this according to Herbert Butterfield is the essence of the Whig Interpretation of History. Professor Butterfield's net takes in many fish. But his generalization, however much it says about Symonds's Renaissance in Italy, is at best only schematic. That Symonds's conception of the Renaissance mirrors the ideals of his class is obvious. Yet what is objectionable about Renaissance in Italy, as Professor Butterfield would insist, is not its bias. Bias lies, in fact, behind the work of many truly great historians. Macaulay's infatuation with progress, Burckhardt's patrician love of culture, Michelet's devotion to the Revolutionary Spirit, Toynbee's "prophetic powers" — these are only a few of the armatures of bias around which great historians have filled in their mere clay of fact. Symonds's bias was his liberalism. Renaissance in Italy elucidates the constituent elements of Victorian liberalism as applied to history.

      In the nineteenth century there were, of course, many attitudes towards history: Froude and Carlyle and Marx and Renan had little in common except for their devotion to history itself. But in the midst of a multitude of conflicting opinions and antagonistic dogmas about history, one important attitude towards the study of the past stands out. It was the ideal of Leopold von Ranke to see history as it really was: sehen es wie eigentlich gewesen ist — an idea echoed in Pater's injunction "to see the object as it really is" and in Arnold's championship of "seeing things as they really are."   Historians of today have come to acknowledge how impossible Ranke's ideal of total scientific detachment invariably is in the composition of any history. But writers such as Ranke or Mommsen or Maitland, repelled by the frequent imposition of arbitrary schemes and personal prejudices on the writing of history, sought diligently to remove all idiosyncratic biases from their books, to concentrate only on collecting and presenting the facts, and by an heroic effort of detachment, to write history not as it should have been, or may have been, but as it genuinely happened. Despite all of Symonds's claims to scientific rigour, there is nothing in Renaissance in Italy to warrant his inclusion in Ranke's school. A litterateur, Symonds possessed neither the training nor the library to be anything but confused about the implications of scientific historiography. He never got lost in the cross-fires of debate about historicism because he knew nothing about the controversies that were to plague Dilthey and Buckle. Naively he thought that scientific history was a collection of facts and the application to them of the theory of evolution. The true influences upon his mind were Taine and Macaulay. He took to heart Taine's claim that the duty of the historian was to "make the past present", as well as Macaulay's belief that "Facts are the mere dross of history". Symonds's strength lay not in scientific historiography but in his ability to apply ideas to history. Renaissance in Italy displays none of Carlyle's uncanny ability to magnetize the brain by means of cacophonous word-pictures or of Macaulay's introduction of chiaroscuro into history by means of a "but."  Symonds's technique was more subtle. He wrote history not as a novelist but as a critic does. His classical and rhetorical prose marshals all the available facts about the Renaissance into consummate order by means of topics, such as the Revival of Learning or the Fine Arts. Renaissance in Italy contains no dramatic scenes, only the dramatization of ideas.

     The resemblance that some critics have noticed between the histories of Symonds and Burckhardt was acknowledged by Symonds himself, but Symonds made clear that Burckhardt's Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy had come to his notice only after his first volume was nearly completed. It would be difficult, he admitted, "for me to exaggerate the profit I have derived from the comparison of my own opinions with those of a writer so thorough in learning and so delicate in perception as Jakob Burckhardt."13   Symonds could have learned much from Burckhardt who, rebelling against his teacher Ranke, defined history as "the most anti-scientific of all the sciences, though it transmits much that is worth knowing."14  Using manuscripts, coins, inscriptions, monuments, and gossip, Burckhardt, in his attempt to delineate the Geist of the Renaissance, brought the genre of historical impressionism to its highest form of artistry. Whereas both Symonds and Burckhardt saw in the Renaissance an ideal subject for Kulturgeschichte, Burckhardt's history shows superbly how apercus, aphorisms, and anecdotes centered around specific topics can be taken as the superior model. Burckhardt's method examines a particular aspect of the Renaissance from various points of view, each revealing distinctive qualities about the era. A typical paragraph in the history has the character of an impressionistic vignette because Burckhardt's ultimate aim was to tell a good story. On every page of his history Burckhardt left the evidence of his intuitive powers. Indeed, if R. G. Collingwood was correct in his assertion that history is the re-enactment in the mind of the historian of  'the experience of the people whose actions he is narrating", then one reason for Burckhardt's superiority over Symonds lay in his intuitive grasp of the Geist of the Renaissance. Burckhardt may have written from a position of tired blood and apocalyptic worry, but his great intelligence enabled him to see that Ranke's conception of scientific historiography was fatuous and that history is much more than a mere collection of dry-as-dust facts.

     This Symonds did not see. His belief that history is a science, however absurd this belief may seem to us today, was of course, not idiosyncratic. Historians of the most profound erudition beguiled themselves with the illusion that they could imitate the complex mathematical manipulations of causal relations which is the scientific method, that the type of explanation commonly used to analyze external events in nature could be appropriated to describe the vicissitudes of man, and that scientific laws, themselves mere probabilities, could be elicited from the documents and monuments of history. If Burckhardt was too clever to give credence to this all-pervasive fallacy of the past century, Symonds because of his positivistic background deluded himself that he was a full-fledged scientist. "I sit down daily to my desk as an anatomist to the dissecting table", he confided in a letter while putting together the last volume of Renaissance in Italy. "The scientific historian must present his findings in an appropriate style. He must prune away irrelevant material, concerning himself always with hard, tangible fact, wrought into precise uncompromising argument, expressed in unmistakably plain language."15   That Symonds was a master of facts is self-evident to any reader of Renaissance in Italy, but, as he himself realized, to be a genuine scientist one had to have theories as well. And to Symonds, the good liberal who perceived in the spectacle of the Renaissance the origins of modern progress, no theory was a greater revelation than Darwinian evolution.

      He himself in a late essay described the intellectual atmosphere that made Darwin's impact upon his mind into so stunning an event. "When I was a young man, in the sixties", he tells us, "I remember that we students of European culture had to choose between connoisseurs and metaphysicians as our guides. Between these opposed teachers . . . Goethe emerged like a steady guiding star. His felicitous summary of criticism, 'Im Ganzen, Guten, Schonen, resolut zu leben!...' came like a deliverance."16   The remark Symonds then makes reveals perhaps more about his mind than he himself could have imagined: "Instinctively we felt that the central point for us, if we could erect criticism into a science, was not caprice, not personal proclivity, not particular taste, but a steady comprehension of the   whole."17   There exists a class of minds which driven by the compulsion to understand life, art, or history under the guise of one organizing principle, grasps at times in a fit of desperation, at some convenient or popular theory. Such was Symonds. "How to grasp the whole, how to reach a point of view from which all manifestations of the human mind should appear as correlated, should fall into their proper places as parts of a complex organism." This is what he was in search of.18    More than any other of Symonds's contemporaries, Taine, famous for his application of physiological principles to culture and his theories of climatic and environmental influences, appealed to Symonds; but in Taine's scheme, he decided, there remained a rigidity of thought that did not make sufficient allowances for the resistance that man offers to his milieu. Taine, despite all the attractiveness of his ideas, was eclipsed by Darwin and his theory of evolution.

     Symonds thought that to be a great critic and historian it is necessary to master the categories of one's age. There was no doubt in his mind that Darwinian evolution supplied a new and useful category. Without Darwin's influence Renaissance in Italy would have been only a pedantic collection of facts. Darwinian evolution provided Symonds with a coherent theory by which to understand both the past and the present. It provided him also with the intellectual support for a firm belief in progress. It provided him with a vision as well. "To trace the connection", he announced, "between such stages of evolution as the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Revolution, and to recognize that the forces which produced them are still at work, is the true philosophy of history."19   Evolution meant essentially three things to Symonds: the ideas of process, development, and progress, all of which he used to formulate his conception of the Renaissance. Of course, the fallacy that lies in applying ideas relating to nature to the verbal construct that is history never occurred to Symonds. He thought erroneously that the biological process in nature called evolution, which theoretically does away with static and immutable archetypes, could be used to describe the development of Italy and Europe. His aim was grandiose: "To trace the continuity of civilization through the labyrinth of chance and error and suspended energy, apparent to a superficial glance or partial knowledge, but on closer observation and a wider sweep of vision found to disappear, is the highest aim of the historian."20  He saw history as a process and its main theme as culture, but the theory he used to explain history was nothing more than an organizing principle to hold together his facts. Renaissance in Italy is thus as much about the quattrocento as it is about its schematic development. Symonds not only subordinated particular aspects of Italian culture to one of several stages or periods of development, but he also, much against his professed aim, broke up the fabric of history arbitrarily into three stages of literary development or four periods of humanism or three eras of painting. The pervasiveness of the evolutionary viewpoint in his thinking is clear throughout Renaissance in Italy.

      "Theory", remarked Croce, "is not the photograph of reality, but the criterion of the interpretation of reality." 21  And, indeed, Symonds's conception of the Renaissance, by virtue of the fact that it supplied the criterion of choice as to what is included and excluded from Renaissance in Italy, plays the role in the history that theory does in scientific method. History is to a large extent the function of methodology: what the historian selects or doesn't select becomes a priori the fabric of history. Symonds's definition of the Renaissance as nothing but the liberation of humanity from a dungeon possesses in the history the function of an Archimedean point enabling him to discipline the tyranny of facts. The dungeon mentioned is the Middle Ages — "that age of somnambulism" whose "ten centuries of ignorance" incarcerated Europe in "a sepulchre."  Throughout his life Symonds displayed a marked hostility towards the Middle Ages. On a visit to Canossa he wrote that the Middle Ages had little to offer when one has been dazzled by the ever-living glories of Greece and the Renaissance. If in his occasional apercus about the Middle Ages Symonds only parroted the prejudices of Voltaire and Hume, in his concept of the Renaissance he articulated the prejudices of Victorian liberalism. "The word Renaissance", he wrote, carrying on the tradition of Michelet, "means the recovery of the beauty of the outer world and of the body by art, the liberation of the reason by science and criticism, the emancipation of the conscience in religion, the restoration of culture to the intellect, the establishment of freedom for the individual." 22  Such a concept, however, did not emerge out of the facts of the Renaissance. It is a concept that Symonds applied extrinsically to the Renaissance. The Renaissance became the rebirth of that historical progression which continued through the French Revolution to the England of Gladstone. "It is the history of the return to life of the whole Spirit of Humanity."23   It was an outburst of mental and moral independence, leading to the "reassertion of the individual in his rights to think and feel, to shape his conduct according to the dictates of his reason."24

    "Verily", Symonds sighed in a letter, "I shall end up with being what the French call a polygraphe feconde — a jack of all trades, aesthetical and a humbug who has gorged and disgorged Hegel." 25 Despite his lamentations, Symonds found in Hegel, as he had in Darwin, support for his view that the animating force in history is progress. But whereas, it must be insisted, Symonds merely confused the process of evolution with the idea of progress, Hegel's philosophy of history enabled Symonds to use the vocabulary of a cosmic system in order to support his belief in progress and liberty, which to him were almost synonymous. When Hegel wrote that "the history of the world is the discipline of the uncontrolled natural will, bringing it into obedience to a Universal Principle and conferring subjective freedom," 28 he provided Symonds with a conception of history which has all the grand drama of religion with none of its mythical trappings. In Hegel's philosophy history possesses the character of a play in which vast spiritual forces are at work. Metaphysical entities analogous to those which Empedocles or Anaxagoras had assigned to the universe replaced the Christian mythos. What Cornte himself said of history, that at various times religion succumbs to metaphysics, took place in Hegel's philosophy. Symonds, an ex-Christian, his mind nurtured from birth on the idea of an ultimate cosmic historical drama, was able to use Hegel's vocabulary because Hegel's triadic historical dialectic only replaced the familiar preoccupation of the European Christian intellectual with the theological subtleties of the Trinity. The actual process of history, which, for example, according to Bossuet in his Discours sur l'histoire universelle, emanates from the Trinity, was seen by Hegel to be the product of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, which is the arcane mechanism the Spirit employs on its devious path towards self-consciousness or freedom. Historical causality, redefined by Hegel as a metaphysical dialectical process, enters the flux of events, above all, in the guise of World Historical Figures, who give character to the Spirit of the Age. All of these ideas — diluted, distorted, and reworked — are part of the scaffolding of Renaissance in Italy.

    "The 'Spirit of the Age' ", wrote John Stuart Mill in 1831, "is in some measure a novel expression . . The idea of comparing one's own age with former ages . . . had occurred to philosophers; but it never before was itself the dominant idea of any age."27  In the initial chapter of   The Age of Despots, the first of the seven volumes that comprise Renaissance in Italy, Symonds reveals to what extent he viewed the Renaissance spirit as akin to the spirit of his own age. The topics of the chapter are virtually identical with those of his Chancellor's Prize Essay. Such explanations for the phenomenon of the Renaissance as language, a favorable climate, political freedom, and commercial prosperity indicate only an increase of speculation on Symonds's part not one of perception. Despite the passage of twelve years, the points of reference are all the same as in the undergraduate essay: the problem of precursors, the question of causality, the relation of feudalism to Renaissance politics — Symonds's approach to the Renaissance had not changed. His aim in writing the chapter may have been similar to Burckhardt's in The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy — "to understand the spirit of the age in all its vigorous individuality" — but by spirit Symonds meant neither a hovering Geist animating all facets of Renaissance culture nor a merely convenient verbal abstraction, but that aspect of the period which gave birth to the ideals of modern liberalism. "The history of the Renaissance", he argued, "is not the history of arts, or of sciences, or of literature, or even of nations. It is the history of the attainment of self-conscious freedom by the human spirit manifested in the European races."28  And, he added, its political history was but "the prelude to that drama of liberty of which the Renaissance was the first act, the Reformation the second, the Revolution the third, and which we nations of the present are still evolving in the establishment of the democratic idea."29

    Walter Pater in his review of  The Age of Despots, after praising Symonds for his dramatic effects, suggested that the book was flawed by the absence of one characteristic, "the quality of reserve."  In many ways, perhaps because Symonds was uncertain of his powers as an historian, The Age of Despots is the most interesting of the seven volumes. Lacking the consistency of prose style that marks the later volumes, especially The Catholic Reaction, The Age of Despots, indeed marred by the absence of "the quality of reserve,"   is at times an expression of inflated rhetoric. Traditionally, the art of rhetoric, at least as it was formulated by Aristotle, centered on three concepts: the ideas of logos, pathos, and ethos, and of the three ideas it is ethos — the role that the writer or, in this instance, the historian, adopts towards his audience — which is central in The Age of Despots.

      Often the supremely great historian, who takes for his theme a whole civilization, has been the spokesman for a set of dominant ideals. With Gibbon, for example, the ideal behind The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was the humanism of a Julian or a Cicero. Gibbon's ethos of lofty ironical condescension was very much a function of his belief that the achievements of classical humanism had been destroyed by the triumph of barbarism and religion. Macaulay's ideal expresses the aspirations of the bourgeois world. "The history of England", he affirmed, "is emphatically the history of progress." In The Age of Despots, Symonds articulated an ideal of a similar nature, but this ideal, or what Herbert Butterfield would call Symonds's "Whiggism", though it animates much of the content of Renaissance in Italy, conflicted with the realities of the Renaissance itself. The Age of Despots, Symonds believed, gave birth to the spirit of liberty, which is the hallmark of the modern world; but the social realities of the Renaissance — its unscrupulous and impious popes; its blood-thirsty tyrants and condottieri, its spectacle of Giovanni Vignate imprisoned by Filippo Maria Visconti in a wooden cage at Pavia and beating his brains out against its bars; its atrocities such as that of Dattari who was bound naked to a plank and killed piecemeal by the people, who sold and ate his flesh — were in conflict not only with the culture of the period but with the high moral sentiments of the Victorian Age. How to deal with the paradoxes of the Renaissance — with a barbarian such as Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta who made his mark as the Maecenas of Rimini — was Symonds's greatest problem. He shared the conviction of J. A. Froude who said in a speech delivered in 1864: "The address of history is less to the understanding than to the higher emotions. We learn in it to sympathize with what is great and good; we learn to hate what is base."30  He agreed with Lord Acton that "the marrow of civilized history is ethical, not metaphysical, and the deep underlying cause of action passes through the shape of right and wrong."31  Thus he felt compelled not merely to describe the Renaissance but to judge it. The ethos of The Age of Despots is that of the ermined judge.

      Symonds's ethos as an arbiter of morality is especially noticeable in the rhetoric of his historical characterization. Macaulay's ambition to give to history "those attractions which have been usurped by fiction" was beyond Symonds's powers, for he patently lacked the ability to empathize with most of the figures of the past. If none of the character sketches in The Age of Despots rises to literary eminence, it is perhaps because Symonds, like Gibbon (though with little of Gibbon's genius), very often described historical personages according to a formula. In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the memorable portraits, and even the superficial sketches, follow a strict principle by which details are arranged and evaluated according to the morals and sanity of the subject. In hundreds of portraits, Gibbon painted an effect of overwhelming human depravity by incessantly emphasizing man's tendency to deviate from the golden mean. The reckless pursuit of pleasure is constantly set off against the norm of public and social duty, and the sophistries of the imagination are compared to the sobriety of common sense. Gibbon's terrifying images of depraved emperors and fanatical Christians are calculated to overpower the reader. The vast gallery of imperial debauchees produces the impression of incorrigible decadence. However dissimilar Gibbon's monsters may be, whether they indulged in murder like Constantine or in lechery like Gordius, their vices are incorporated in a rhetorical language of uniform moral condemnation. A very similar mechanism exists in the language of The Age of Despots. But whereas Gibbon's portraits both of the saints of the Church and of the sinners of the Palatine Hill are evaluated according to the golden mean and by an appeal to the neo-classical principle of the uniformity of human nature, Symonds's vignettes of the Renaissance despots are delineated in a rhetoric based upon the ideals of enlightened humanity and of a liberalism akin to that of John Stuart Mill. On the pages of The Age of Despots dozens of grotesque ghouls pass before the eyes of the reader. Sixtus IV is only one of them:

Most singular is the attitude of a Sixtus, indulging his lust and pride in the Vatican, adorning the chapel called after his name with masterpieces, rending Italy with broils for the aggrandizement of favorites, haggling over the prices to be paid for bishoprics, extorting money from starved provinces, plotting murder against his enemies, hounding the semi-barbarous Swiss mountaineers on Milan by indulgences, refusing aid to Venice in her championship of Christendom against the Turks — yet meanwhile thinking to please God by holocausts of Moors, by myriads of famished Jews, conferring on a faithless and avaricious Ferdinand the title of Catholic, endeavoring to wipe out his sins by the blood of others, to burn his own vices in the auto da fe of Seville, and by the foundation of that diabolical engine the Inquisition to secure the fabric his own infamy was undermining. This is not the language of a Protestant denouncing the Pope. With all respect for the Roman Church, that Alma Mater of the Middle Ages, that august and venerable monument of immemorial antiquity, we cannot close our eyes to the contradictions between practice and pretension upon which the History of the Italian Renaissance throws a light so lurid.32

The great flaw in moralistic rhetoric such as this lies in the fact that the passage, though it reveals the sentiments of its author, really says very little about Sixtus. Where the irony of Gibbon, in Byron's words, saps "a solemn creed with solemn sneer", the rhetoric of Symonds is empty of content. Not rhetoric, but minute facts artfully arranged — those facts which Burckhardt was able to construct convincingly into a mosaic-like picture of the Renaissance — represent the real stuff and essence of history.

      Gibbon's posthumous Memoir reveals that he was at heart an epicurean; that his ruling passions were rationality and self-cultivation; that in his lifetime he combined almost miraculously the retirement of a Lucretius with the duties of a parliamentarian. Identifying the London of George III with the Rome of Augustus, Gibbon eyed most of his historical personages with the incredulity and bemused disdain of a Roman praetor. His rhetoric has none of the inconsistency or hypocrisy of Symonds's. For Symonds, though he was a liberal in politics, assumed the guise in The Age of Despots of  a conservative in morals. In his historical characterization he at times condemns in others the activities he himself practiced. Thus he says of Filippo Strossi: "His private morals were infamous. He encouraged by precept and example the worst vices of his age and nation, consorting with young men, whom he instructed in the arts of dissolute living, and to whom he communicated his own selfish Epicureanism."33   In The Age of Despots, Symonds's ethos may be that of high moral seriousness, and the history of the Renaissance may appear at times to be merely a catalogue of sensational vices, but familiarity with the pattern of Symonds's life makes one aware of the discrepancy between his public pretensions and his private morality. In part this discrepancy was due to his role as a crusader for liberal sentiments, as well as to his fear of public exposure. The rhetoric of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, on the contrary, is that of a philosopher, not of a crusader. Its aim is the delectation of the cultivated reader. Gibbon's history does not fight religion with shouts of ecrasez l'infame. It employs the more subtle sting of irony. It appeals to the reader's sense of dignity and respect for reason. If it is less effective in the market place, it is more long-lasting as literature.

      The incorporation of moral judgments into an historical narrative has come under attack from several parties in this century. "Above all it is necessary,"  writes Herbert Butterfield, "to resist those who claim for the historian the solemn role of moral arbiter, and particularly those who transfer this ethical preoccupation into the reconstruction of the whole course of   ages."34  In a scintillating essay, Historical Inevitability, Isaiah Berlin, a spokesman for the antagonistic viewpoint, has argued that moral judgments are inherent in language itself and that to try to eliminate them from historical writing would be comparable to altering the habits of human discourse. Whether one adheres to the first position or to the second, what is indisputable is that the moral judgments in The Age of Despots are of a nature to substantiate Burckhardt's argument that they are the "deadly enemies of true historical thought."   Symonds, despite his scientific pretensions, could not resist moralizing. Moral judgments are part and parcel of the structure of The Age of Despots, and Symonds's rhetoric elucidates not ideas and facts but emotions and obsessions that haunted his mind such as his dislike of the popes who displayed, he asserts, "a pride so regal, a cynicism so unblushing, so selfish a cupidity, and a policy so suicidal as to favour the belief that they had been placed there in the providence of God to warn the world against Babylon". 35  At other times, Symonds's rhetorical imagination achieves a certain concreteness: "Yet the Pope is still a holy being. His foot is kissed by thousands. His curse and blessing carry death and life. He rises from the bed of harlots to unlock or bolt the gates of heaven and purgatory."36   Often individuals, such as Lucrezia Borgia, receive a verbal rapping: "Instead of viewing her with dread as a potent and malignant witch, we have to regard her with contempt as a feeble woman, soiled with sensual foulness from the cradle".37   Sometimes Symonds treats his subjects as if he were a lawyer in court as when he says of Alexander VI: "Whatever crimes may be condoned in Alexander, it is difficult to extenuate this traffic with the Turks . . . he stands arraigned for high treason against Christendom, of which he professed to be the chief, against civilization . . . against Christ."38

    Renaissance in Italy as a whole illustrates the type of history R. G. Collingwood attacked in his epochal work The Idea of History. With magisterial sarcasm Collingwood, coining the concept of 'scissors-and-paste' history, assigned to the rubbish heap of the mind works whose methodology centered on the arrangement of sources. "Scissors and paste", he writes, "was the only historical method known to the later Greco-Roman world or the Middle Ages . . . An historian collected testimony, spoken or written, using his own judgment as to its trustworthiness, and put it together for publication; the work which he did on it being partly literary . . . and partly rhetorical."39   Such a form of history, pre-scientific in method, dominated the nineteenth century and prompted in people of intelligence, like Hegel and Marx, an attempt to transcend 'scissors-and-paste' by seeing in facts recurrent patterns or scientific laws. But the systems of Hegel and Marx were only the extensions of the archaic methodology; and repeating Lord Acton's injunction to "study problems, not civilization", Collingwood cast his ridicule upon those who practice what he considers an antiquated pursuit. The composition and structure of The Age of Despots illustrate to what extent Collingwood's criticism has validity. The fundamental thesis of the history, namely that the Renaissance gave birth to the spirit of liberty, is never proven, nor is there even an attempt to supply evidence for the legitimacy of this assumption. It is a more dogmatic statement thrown into the interstices of the narrative. And the narrative itself, despite its readability, is very much a pastiche of subjects, whose data Symonds assembled from a myriad of sources. The volume has a panoramic sweep. Symonds, like a traveler returning home from an antique land, paints a glowing picture of high culture, immoral rulers, a love of the world, a rediscovery of the body and the senses. But Symonds's history, viewed critically in terms of the highest ideals of historiography, lacks the sophistication of the mature historian.   What it lacks in methodology it makes up for by being a landmark of Victorian liberalism.(c)


1.  Horatio F. Brown, John Addington Symonds (London, 1895), vol. 1) p. 321.

2.  Ibid.

3.  Ibid.,  p.405.

4.  Ibid.,  p.65.

5.  Ibid.,  p.258.

6.  Ibid.,  II, p. 104.

7.  Ibid., I, p. 332.

8.  Ibid., p. 194.

9.  Symonds, "The Renaissance", Oxford English Prize Essays (Oxford, 1863), vol. VIII, p. 9. "

10. Letters of  Benjamin  Jowett ed. by Evelyn Abbott and Lewis Campbell (London, 1899), p. 211.

11.  Symonds, Sketches and Studies in Italy and Greece (London, 1898-1900), vol. II, p. 173.

12.   Ibid., p. 185.

13.  Symonds, The Age of Despots (New York, 1900), p. 10.

14. Quoted in Benedetto Croce, History: Its Theory and Practice (New York, 1961), p. 107.

15.  Letters and Papers of John Addington Symonds ed. by Horatio F. Brown (London, 1923), p. 184.

16. Symonds, Essays Speculative and Suggestive (London, 1907), vol. I, pp. 8-9.

17.  Ibid., pp. 110-11.

18.  Ibid.

19. Symonds, "The Renaissance in Modern Europe", Scott's Tracts (London, 1872), vol. X, p. 26.

20. Symonds, The Age of Despots, p. 26.

21 Croce, History: Its Theory and Practice, p. 175.

22. Symonds,"The Renaissance in Modern Europe", p. 28.

23  lbid„ p. 5.

24 Symonds, Last and First (New York, 1919), p. 24.

25.  Brown,  John Addington Symonds, vol. II, p. 28.

26.  Georg W. F. Hegel) The Philosophy of History (New York) 1900), p. 104.

27.  Mill's Essays on Literature and Society ed. by J. S. Schneewind (New York) 1965), p. 27.

28.  Symonds, The Age of Despots, p. 4.

29.  Ibid., p. 8.

30.  James Anthony Froude, The Science of History (London, 1864), p. 72.

31.  John B. B. D. A. Acton, Historical Essays and Studies (London, 1908), p. 362.

32.  Symonds, The Age of Despots, pp. 401-03.

33.  Ibid., p. 286.

34.  Hans Meyerhoff, The Philosophy of History in Our Time (New York, 1959), p. 231.

35.  Symonds, The Age of Despots, p. 372.

36.  Ibid., p. 373.

37.  Ibid., p. 422.

38.  Ibid., p. 416.

39.  R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History (New York, 1965), p. 258.



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