Sir Thomas Hoby – Castiglione’s “The Courtier”

We are embarking on the discussion of neo-platonic love, an immensely influential concept throughout the 16th and 17th century. It begins with a mocking question from one Lord Gasparo: in the previous discussion you said that the perfect courtier could be also a lover, but he also should be a wise councilman to the prince. Now, to be wise you have to be old, and old men as lovers are ridiculous. How can these two things be compatible? Pietro Bembo (later a cardinal) offers to deliver a defense. He begins by arguing that we long only for the things we know; we cannot want something we don’t know. There are three kinds of knowledge, and each of them is accompanied by a particular kind of longing. We learn through senses, with which is connected appetite, and which we have in common with animals. We learn through reason, which is peculiar only to man, and it is connected with election or choice. And we learn through understanding, which we have in common with angels, and with which is connected will. (I am not sure I get the difference between reason and understanding.) In our desire for beauty we can lean more towards animals or angels.

Count Lewis asks M. Morello whether he believes Bembo that beauty is always a good thing. Morello answers that he can’t believe it because he knew many women who were beautiful and cruel. Count Lewis laughingly suggests Morello should listen more to Bembo, to learn how to love beauty properly and Morello answers somewhat testily that he is not interested, but maybe young men should listen to Bembo to learn how to love as perfectly as old men.

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