To raise this as a problem of understanding is to raise an issue that was not one during earlier centuries in which Europeans were in the process of forging their identity with the Greeks at the beginning. For centuries it had been thought that one could read the writings of, say, Greeks and Romans, and see there portrayed behaviour that was thought to be admirable in any age. The past was read about for no other reason than that it was thought to be exemplary and capable of being imitated.9 It was reckoned to be a useful past. Hence, a fourteenth-century thinker like Petrarch, the Italian poet who was enamoured of what he took to be the personality and values of the first-century bc pagan Roman, Cicero, could imagine having an unproblematic conversation with Cicero in Latin. Petrarchan 'speaking' with someone from the ancient Roman world did not involve considering that the ancient might not understand him for the reason that each
8 J.-F. Durvernoy, La Pensée de Machiavel (Paris,1974), p. 3.
9 See J.Coleman, Ancient and Medieval Memories: studies in the reconstruction of the past (Cambridge, 1992).
came from such different worlds of experience and value that their words might refer to different things, Cicero's words conveying resonances that had been lost over the centuries to a Christian, late medieval, Italian user of Latin. Petrarch and other medieval and Renaissance users of Latin were aware that language use had changed over the centuries, indeed they increasingly damned the deviation of medieval church Latin from ancient Roman styles and tried to revive the latter. But while they acknowledged that Latin had changed over the centuries, indeed, according to them had declined as a means of eloquent expression, they did not believe that values had changed or that different social experiences might have led good men in different cultural milieux not only to exalt different virtues but build political systems that reflected these different values. Therefore, it was relatively unproblematic for earlier Europeans to converse with those whom they admired in the past and thus, to build up a picture of their chosen ancestors as being very much like themselves. For them there was an undoubted continuity between good and virtuous men throughout history. It was the construction of this continuity, the construction of a continuous European cultural identity with the Greeks at the beginning, that enabled medieval and Renaissance thinkers to raise to prominence the first two reasons I proposed for our beginning the history of political thought with the Greeks: the language of politics and the history of philosophy, that is, the language of 'our' politics and the history of 'our' philosophy.
Was this article helpful?