An Oration Delivered before the Doge Agostino Barbarigo
and the Venetian Senate: In Praise of Letters
Date unknown — Public lecture before the Venetian Senate
The great orator and philosopher Giorgio Valla, who has thought me worthy of his presence here, has urged and emboldened me, most honored prince, conscript fathers, and learned senators, to ponder what the constant and debilitating immersion in scholarship might do for the weaker sex in general, since I myself intend to pursue immortality through such study. And so I decided to oblige him and to obey his repeated demands and finally his insistence that I deliver a public oration, though I blush to do so and am ever mindful that I am a member of the female sex and that my intellect is small. Thus not only should the boorish rabble be ashamed of itself, it should cease to make trouble for me because of my dedication to the exercise of my natural skills and talents. Therefore it should not seem beside the point to anyone that my mind and heart might quail at the start and that I might stutter. For when I reconsidered the magnitude of the subject on which I had decided to speak before this elegant and grand assembly, I knew that nothing so elegant, illuminating, and polished even from a man who was the soul of eloquence could be brought to you that would not seem dry, uninteresting, and crude in comparison with the greatness of your learning and your presence. For who has the intellectual power and gift of eloquence that enable him to be equal to delivering an oration on the praise of letters or doing so before such an erudite audience as you? For this reason, mindful of the difficulty of the task and the deficiency of my powers, I could very easily shy away from this opportunity to speak, were it not that your magnanimity and kindness toward all people urged me to come before you, especially since I am well aware that it is not your wont to demand or expect anyone to take on a heavier load than the rationale for the occasion allows or than their shoulders would appear to proclaim that they can. Be. sides, two additional things persuade me to speak: your fitting affability, which in the beginning seemed to give me pause and your kindness, which causes me to think no oration would be more pleasing to listen to or sweeter to men who are extremely erudite, as are the great majority of you, and also to men who are notably interested in education than an oration whose subject is (in whatever way appropriate) the praise of literature and the liberal arts. Stirred by these thoughts, since I see that you are listening to me attentively. I shall speak very briefly on the study of the liberal arts, which for humans is useful and honorable, pleasurable and enlightening since every. one, not only philosophers but the most ignorant man, knows and admits that it is by reason that man is separated from beast. For what is it that so greatly helps both the learned and the ignorant? What so enlarges and enlightens men’s minds the way that an education in and knowledge of literature and the liberal arts do? These two things not only remove men far above the realm of the beasts, but they so simply and easily separate educated men from the ignorant and uncultivated that in my opinion men in paintings and even men’s shadows do not differ more from real human beings than do the uneducated and untaught from men who are imbued with learning. But if men who are boorish and unlettered have a natural yet undeveloped spark of reason and they leave it unstirred for the whole of their lives, they will force it from disuse and habit to die, and in so doing they will render themselves unable to undertake great things. For wandering aimlessly they walk in darkness no matter what the circumstances, and through imprudence, ignorance, and inexperience they run headlong into calamities, and they render the course of their lives accidental. These are men who make Fortune their god. They place all things in her lap, and when she favors them they kiss her and approve, and when she opposes them they accuse her loudly and grieve.
So many times Fortune, ruler of the world and my life, is the best soldier in battle, ready with her company. No need for prayers: seek now death with your sword. Fortune brought such prosperity to the great man when he kept the faith, but even him Fortune marked for death and at the summit of his career. In one cruel day she brought every disaster on men to whom she had given years free from harm. Pompey was a man who never under. stood that happiness is mixed with sorrow. Happy was he when no god disturbed him, and wretched was he when none spared him. When Fortune for the first time struck him, the sands resounded with a blow long delayed.
But erudite men who are filled with the knowledge of divine and human things turn all their thoughts and considerations toward reason as though toward a target, and they free their minds from all pain, though plagued by many anxieties. These men are scarcely subjected to fortune’s innumerable arrows and they prepare themselves in every way to live well and in happiness. They follow reason as their leader in all things, nor do they consider themselves only, but they are also accustomed to assisting others with their energy and advice in matters public and private.
And so Plato, a man almost divine, wrote that those states would be fortunate in which the men who were heads of state were philosophers or in which philosophers took on the duty of administration. He noted, I believe, that men well endowed by fortune with physical advantages are more often drawn to vices and are more easily seduced than those who lack such advantages. But those who are born with intellectual advantages who fail to cultivate the learned disciplines and who make deficient use of their advantages he judged unlearned and unsuited to managing of affairs of state. Nor was he wrong in this. The study of literature refines men’s minds, forms and makes bright the power of reason, and washes away all stains from the mind, or at any rate, greatly cleanses it. It perfects its gifts and adds much beauty and elegance to the physical and material advantages that one has received by nature. States, however, and their princes who foster and cultivate these studies become much more humane, more gracious, and more noble. For this reason, these studies have won for themselves the sweet appellation, “humanities.” Indeed, those who were uncultivated and had harsh natures became more cultivated and gentle through their immersion in these studies, while those whom nature has endowed with external goods and other gifts of the body, who for the most part are arrogant and petulant, acquire modesty, gentility, and a certain miraculous amiability toward all other men through their exposure to the liberal arts. Just as places that lie unused and uncultivated become fertile and rich in fruits and vegetables with men’s labor and hard work and are always made beautiful, so are our natures cultivated, enhanced, and enlightened by the liberal arts. But clearly Philip the king of Macedonia, whose virtue and work increased the wealth of the Macedonians and enabled them to take power over so many peoples and nations, understood this. In a letter to the philosopher Aristotle in which he announced the birth of his son Alexander, he explained that he rejoiced still more that his son happened to be born in Aristotle’s lifetime than that he had come into the world as the heir to a great empire. O excellent words and elevated sentiments, worthy of so great a prince and emperor That king and illustrious emperor, who was affected by having spent so long a time in his own life in the business of war and conquest, knew that an empire could by no means be ruled justly, prudently and gloriously by a man who had not been trained in literature and the best arts.
This was later born out by Alexander himself who, having become learned in the liberal arts under the tutelage of Aristotle, far surpassed all other princes and emperors who came before or after him in ruling, increasing, and protecting his empire. For this reason the men of antiquity rightly believed that all leaders who were uneducated, however experienced they were in military matters, were boorish and uncultivated.
But enough on the utility of literature since it produces not only an outcome that is rich, precious, and sublime but also provides one with advantages that are extremely pleasurable, fruitful, and lasting–benefits that I myself have enjoyed. And when I meditate on the idea of marching forth in life with the lowly and execrable weapons of the little woman — the needle and the distaff even if the study of literature offers women no rewards or honors, I believe women must nonetheless pursue and embrace such studies alone for the pleasure and enjoyment they contain. . .
Source: “The Public Lectures,” from Letters and Orations, by Cassandra Fedele, edited and translated by Diana Robin. (c) 2000 The University of Chicago. Published by The University of Chicago Press. All Rights Reserved.