Cicero and the Renaissance: Philosophies & Influence

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  • 0:01 Who Was Cicero?
  • 0:53 Rediscovering Cicero
  • 2:23 Cicero's Model Latin
  • 3:40 Applying Cicero's Principles
  • 6:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will meet the Roman philosopher and statesman Cicero and discover the influence his writings had on Renaissance thinkers, writers, and politicians.

Who Was Cicero?

Marcus Tullius Cicero, fondly called Tully by his devotees, was a Roman scholar, orator, writer, lawyer, philosopher, and statesman who was born in 106 BC and died in 43 BC. Cicero wrote many books on rhetoric, philosophy, and politics as well as hundreds of letters and orations and even quite a bit of poetry.

Cicero was no ivory tower scholar. He was active in the politics of his day, which included some big names such as Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Marc Antony, and he often spoke in the Roman Senate. Cicero's career came to an abrupt end, however, after he got on the wrong side of Octavian (the future emperor Augustus Caesar) and ended up executed.

Rediscovering Cicero

Many of Cicero's works disappeared over the years following his death. By the Middle Ages, scholars had access to only a few of his philosophical writings, but that changed when the Renaissance dawned. Part of the Renaissance project was rediscovering the classics of Greece and Rome, and scholars prided themselves on finding, preserving, and studying these texts. They were especially interested in learning how the ancients developed their human faculties, powers, and culture and then applying their findings to their own times and places. These activities were at the heart of Renaissance humanism.

The 14th-century scholar Francesco Petrarca devoted much of his life to researching the classics and promoting humanism. As part of his work, he discovered and verified several works of Cicero, including a handbook on rhetoric, some letters, and a collection of orations. Cicero appealed to Petrarca, who appreciated the philosopher's elegant Latin style, wise philosophy, views on liberal education, and dedication to civic activity.

As the years of the early Renaissance passed, several more of Cicero's works came to light, and other Renaissance thinkers, teachers, writers, philosophers, and statesmen looked at this Roman scholar for inspiration. Cicero became a model for many Renaissance ideals.

Cicero's Model Latin

Renaissance writers and speakers saw Cicero as a supreme orator and a master of the Latin language and style. They admired his eloquence and precision in vocabulary and sentence structure, and many of them soon declared themselves to be Ciceronians, turning to Cicero as the primary authority in all questions of Latin vocabulary and composition.

Pietro Bembo of Venice, for instance, declared that Cicero's work was Latin in its purest form and the standard for all linguistic excellence. He even swore an oath that he would never use a Latin word not found in Cicero's writings. Many scholars agreed with him, including the secretaries at the papal court who strove to imitate Cicero, even in their Church Latin.

Others, including Lorenzo Valla, balked, pointing out that while Cicero's Latin was good, it was not perfect. There were, perhaps, better models, they argued, and writers and speakers should seek diversity rather than limit their language and creative expression to one author. The challengers remained a minority, however, and many Renaissance humanists firmly declared that Cicero was and would always be the best guide to proper Latin.

Applying Cicero's Principles

Renaissance thinkers embraced and applied Cicero's ideas as well as his language. In philosophy, for instance, Cicero argued for wisdom and eloquence in all matters. He was devoted to duty, ethical responsibility, and a strong moral code based on the natural law found in every human being. Cicero was also a skeptic who examined all possibilities and placed humanity at the center of the world. Renaissance humanists tended to agree with him on all points.

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