What is Rabelais's conception of human nature in Gargantua and Pantagruel?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In keeping with the prevailing spirit of the Renaissance, Rabelais presents us with a view of human nature that owes much to the pagan thinkers of antiquity.

In one especially colorful and revealing passage from Gargantua and Pantagruel , Rabelais gives us a detailed description of life inside the Abbey...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

In keeping with the prevailing spirit of the Renaissance, Rabelais presents us with a view of human nature that owes much to the pagan thinkers of antiquity.

In one especially colorful and revealing passage from Gargantua and Pantagruel, Rabelais gives us a detailed description of life inside the Abbey of Thélème. For the monks of the Abbey, life is a lot different from that of Rabelais when he was a monk in his younger days. Far from being a strict institution that insists on hard work, self-flagellation, and silent contemplation, the Abbey of Thélème is organized on strictly humanist principles. Its motto is "Do what you will!" and those who enter its doors are positively encouraged to live their lives according to the unrestrained pursuit of pleasure.

Amidst the prevailing atmosphere of boundless hedonism, there's also time for study and learning. The Abbey's inmates acquire an in-depth knowledge of classical languages such as Greek and Latin, as well as Chaldean, Hebrew, and Arabic. Like the true children of the Renaissance that they are, they embark upon extensive studies in subjects as diverse as astronomy, arithmetic, and music.

On Rabelais's account, human nature is fundamentally marked by curiosity about the world and man's place within it. And it is only by man giving free rein to that curiosity that he will truly develop all aspects of his being.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Like Renaissance humanists, Rabelais expresses in his masterpiece Gargantua and Pantagruel an absolute belief in the goodness of human nature. One of the central characters of the novel, Panurge, is a reflection of human nature in its actual condition.

Panurge doubts everything in order to get to the truth. Rejecting current opinion, he trusts only his own experience. This is an embodiment of a sensual drive of human nature and of its limitless potential for development. Panurge is daring and sometimes cruel, but he can be courteous and witty. He is just as versatile, curious, and free as his mentor, Pantagruel. With all his “natural” demerits, in all his incompleteness, the ever restless Panurge personifies human nature’s movement to liberation. Sanguine humanity unfolds in him realistically and dynamically, while in Pantagruel, it is represented idealistically, as something completed. These two characters are closely linked to one another, and both represent two manifestations of one human nature.

In the fourth book of Gargantua and Pantagruel, Pantagruel narrates a fable about Physis (Nature) and Antiphysie (Anti-Nature). Physis gives birth to Beauty and Harmony “without carnal knowledge.” Antiphysie, “who has ever been the party hostile to Nature, at once envied such fair and honourable progeny and so, in rivalry, after copulating with Tellumon, gave birth to Amodunt and Discordance: they had heads which were spherical and entirely round like footballs, not gently compressed on either side as in the shape of human beings" (book 4, chapter 32). Antiphysie seeks to prove that her offspring is more beautiful than that of Physis.

Rabelais is clear about this allegory: Everything that comes from nature is beautiful and harmonious. That which goes against it is ugly and deformed (“Amodunt”). Rabelais is not an atheist or a pantheist, but he is deeply critical of everything that does violence to human nature and that subjects it to artificial reformation.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

    Francois Rabelais was a French humanist of the Renaissance period. He was a great contributor to the development of humanism, so often his ideas are common to those of humanist thinkers. To understand his conception of human nature it is  necessary to understand what Renaissance humanism was.

      Renaissance humanism was a movement that, taking inspiration from Classical Antiquity, reformed aspects of society and culture, especially education and literature. Renaissance humanism breaks with the previous medieval thinking that puts religion and self renunciation in the center of life, and brings man in the center of all things. Human life ceases gradually to be just a preliminary phase for the afterlife and gains importance on its own.

    Rabelais was a visionary for his age and we can consider him a forerunner of modernism. Medieval education was based on church values; its scholars struggled to separate body from spirit. For the humanist thinker, this was a legacy that stood against the natural necessities of individuals. Through his life and works, Rabelais contributes to the reformation of education. He believes in self-determination as the key to improving oneself through experimentation and education, and he values critical judgment. The Rabelaisian human is educated in arithmetic and languages, music and liberal arts.

     Of the liberal arts, geometry, arithmetic, and music, I gave you some smattering when you were still small, at the age of five or six. Go on and learn the rest, also the rules of astronomy.” he writes in Gargantua and Pantagruel.

          Another interesting aspect found in his work that stands for his modernist thinking is his opinion on war. He considers that the only war worth to be fought is that of defense. He is against the war of conquest, a utopian perspective that holds heavy relevance even today.

       Furthermore, the Rabelaisian human does not undermine the importance of physical activities such as eating and reproduction. These base activities were undermined by the spiritual perspective of the Middle Ages.   

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team