Philo of Tarsus in Renaissance scholasticism

These pyrotechnics of one-upmanship led, by their perverse but coherent logic, to the weightier theme of elephants.

“Elephants!” exclaimed Pico, not once but three times … (Pico della Mirandola, a man destined to be burned at the stake) .. in the ..marginalia that he made while reading Alamanno Rinuccini’s Latin translation of Philostratus’ Vita Apollonii Tyanei. The subject was of lively interest to Poliziano’s innermost circle. Still more absorbing were the divergent testimonies of antique authors on the vexed question of elephants’ knees. St. Basil, in his Hexameron, provided the “astonishing and hitherto unheard of ‘information that, at this crucial point of their anatomy, the beasts lacked “knotty joints” which prevented them from lying down.” St. Ambrose supported his view. In Aelian, Piny, and Aristotle, however, Poliziano claimed to find indications to the contrary. He cited them all, adding for good measure the testimony of Nonnus who, “although a Christian”, thought that elephants slept on their feet while leaning on trees”.

A conflict was thus distinguished between the two traditions, the sacred and the profane. Poliziano attached importance to a passage from Aelian’s De natura animalium (7.37) that seems to support the view that elephants could kneel. What this shrewd selector of evidence did not quote is Aelian’s chapter on the anatomy of the beast (4.31), which maintains that “the elephant sleeps standing upright, for it finds the act of lying down and of rising troublesome.” Such information … was omitted by Poliziano, because it would have disturbed the clear lines of division that he needed to construct a problem to which no empirical solution was readily available. Hence the disingenuous avowal: “I have never seen real living elephants and dare not express a judgement.” That did not prevent him from venturing an opinion: if Aelian (as reported by Poliziano), Aristotle .. and Pliny are be to preferred to the testimony of Ambrose, the Christian father could be excused. Why? because… he might have confounded the nocturnal habits of the elephant (African or Indian) with those of the (Gallic) elk!

Is this an argument – or a joke?

… No matter that Poliziano had never seen [giraffe or crocodile, either], for actual observation of them, had it been possible, was irrelevant to his procedure which reduces the natural world to a playground of language, where the philologist flexes his dialectical muscles.

The starting point of Poliziano’s Miscellanea 2.57 is the fabula narrated in the fourth book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. … ancient writers adduced are not only literary: Pliny, Galen and Philo of Tarsus supplement Ovid and Nonnus, who serve to reconstruct the myth. … Poliziano suggests the potential harmony between poetical and medical sources, before expressing a mild philological disagreement with Barbaro…

… in writing about the colours and properties of [a] plant, Poliziano declines to yield ground to the claims of ipsa rerum experientia, preferring… information culled from texts. The result is a confident reassertion of his method ..  rivalry with his competitors for intellectual leadership .. each of them, motivated by the dialectical purpose of pitting ancient authorities against one another… reveals a distinct anti-empiricism.  Each draws conclusions that, in the late Quattrocento, were hardly refutable by any of his contemporaries on the basis of firsthand observation… That is why … crocodiles recur… Crocodiles are treated like crocus.

My point in quoting these passages – selected with bias from Peter Godman, From Poliziano to Machiavelli: Florentine Humanism in the High Renaissance, is that humanists continued as generations of book-learned Latin scholars before them  – save that now to their older body of authoritative patristic authors, they added a pile of the older Greek and Roman works, so instead of preening about whose was the more logical exposition of angels fitting on a pin-head, they preened instead about more logical positions on the question of an elephant’s knees and theorised confusion between African elephants and Gallic elk.

(here ended the lesson)


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