Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2506
Article abstract: By means of his careful scholarship, Valla helped to legitimize Renaissance Humanism, reorganize philosophical methodology, and expose certain prevalent Roman Catholic beliefs and practices to critical scrutiny, thus helping to prepare the way for the rise of Protestantism.
Few important details have survived concerning the early life of Lorenzo Valla, one of the greatest of the Italian Renaissance Humanists. It is known that he was born in Rome in 1407, to a pious, upper-class family that traced its roots back to Piacenza, in the Italian Alps. The advantages he enjoyed by birth were magnified by his education, for Valla was extremely fortunate in his instructors, sitting at the feet not only of Vittorino da Feltre, one of the premier scholars at the University of Rome, but also Leonardo Bruni, who taught Valla Latin, and Giovanni Aurispa, who taught him Greek. Under their tutelage Valla became a superb linguist. He became so proficient, in fact, that he often was commissioned by the pope for official translations. Ironically, the same linguistic proficiency which brought him papal attention and commendation would eventually call forth the pope’s ire.
While still in his early twenties, Valla was appointed to the “chair of eloquence” at the University of Pavia, an appointment that required him to teach rhetoric, Latin, and Greek. It was during his tenure at Pavia that Valla, in 1431, was ordained a Roman Catholic priest.
The same year he was ordained, Valla published De voluptate (1431), later revised under the title De vero bono (1433; On Pleasure, 1977). In it, he searches for the highest human good. This search is conducted as a comparative exposition, in dialogue form, between Leonardus, Antonius, and Nicolaus, Valla’s imaginary representatives of Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Christianity, respectively. According to Leonardus, the highest human good is moral virtue, which must be pursued at all costs, even the cost of one’s life and happiness, if need be. Antonius counters this assertion by identifying pleasure (which he closely ties to utility), as the highest good. Nicolaus, whose views are probably to be seen as Valla’s own, says that Christanity is the highest good because it combines the best of Stoicism and Epicureanism without any of their shortcomings. To him, whoever serves God gladly does best (that is, has virtue) and is happiest (that is, has pleasure). To Nicolaus, Christianity is our glad service for God and, because it is, it is the highest human good.
Valla’s service at the University of Pavia lasted for about three years until, in 1433, his public letter attacking a notable local jurist aroused such a tempest that he was forced to resign his academic post. For the next three years, in true Renaissance fashion, he followed the ancient peripatetic model for scholars, moving from Pavia to Milan, to Genoa, and to Mantua, before settling finally in Naples, where he became private secretary to King Alfonso, a post from which he rose to public prominence.
At about the same time that Valla enlisted in the service of the king, he published De libero arbitrio (c. 1436; On Free Will, 1948), an influential work that examines the relationship between divine foreknowledge and election, on the one hand, and human free will and responsibility, on the other. It also examines the relationship between reason and religion. In it, Valla argues that human beings cannot shun their responsibility to do good and they cannot blame God for their shortcomings, as if He were the cause of their evil and not they themselves. To Valla, because God is omniscient, He knows what a person will do even before he does it. That person, nevertheless, cannot say that God caused his action, because prior knowledge is not a cause. The verb “to know” is an intransitive verb. That is, it has no external effect. Simply to know that one will deposit money in one’s bank account will neither make one richer nor cause the deposit to occur. Only going to the bank and leaving money in the account can do that, and that is a human responsibility. It also is something one is free to do or to leave undone. The fact that God knows what will happen does not alter the action or relieve a person of the responsibility to get it done. Nor does it vitiate the freedom to do so. Thus, divine foreknowledge and human freedom are compatible concepts. Infallible prediction is not the same as predeterminism.
Valla goes on to explain that while the human mind can comprehend such difficult problems, and even offer plausible solutions to them, religion is not reducible merely to reason. Some things in religion exceed reason’s grasp. As a pious Renaissance Humanist, Valla believed that religion, rhetoric, and reason form a hierarchy. Religion, so to speak, is king; rhetoric is queen, and reason is their servant. Thus, while good theology and good philosophy are complementary, religion takes precedence over reason. Valla is not opposed to philosophy. He is opposed to bad philosophy and to philosophy that does not keep to its proper place or role. God’s revelation is understandable to reason, but it is not subject to reason. Reason is subject to it.
At about the same time that Valla published On Free Will, he began work on what was perhaps his most popular work, Elegantiae linguae latinae (1444). This book is Valla’s effort to restore Latin usage to its ancient purity, a purity he believed was lost at the hands of medieval Latinists, whom he called “barbarians.” This book, therefore, is a Humanist handbook on how to achieve graceful style and verbal precision. Because it was the first great effort at Humanistic philology, it was the first work to place the study of Latin usage on a somewhat scientific basis. It soon became the standard textbook for Humanists interested in verbal accuracy and verbal art.
Dialecticae disputationes (c. 1439) is Valla’s attempt to restore and restructure medieval philosophy by rearranging its arguments. In this book, Valla tried to simplify logic and to rearrange it according to the discipline of rhetoric. By allying philosophical clarity with rhetorical flourish, Valla was trying to teach scholars not only how to speak sense (logic) but also how to speak sense beautifully and compellingly (rhetoric). Reason (ratio) must be combined with eloquence (oratio). Valla, in other words, tried to modify the prevailing Aristotelianism of his day by showing that metaphysical truth could be clarified by linguistic criticism, literary analysis, and rhetorical emphasis. To Valla, Aristotle’s philosophical language was unsound. Dialecticae disputationes is Valla’s effort to correct this shortcoming with a philosophy that was rhetorically a better description of reality.
Easily Valla’s most sensational work, De falso credita et ementita Constantini donatione declamatio (1440; The Treatise of Lorenzo Valla on the Donation of Constantine, 1922), revealed the fraudulent nature of the document upon which medieval popes based their claim for political and military power. Written while he was still in the pay of King Alfonso (an adversary of the pope), and probably written at the king’s suggestion, this book resulted in Valla’s trial on charges of heresy, a trial that was stymied by the king’s intervention. The spurious Donation of Constantine, supposedly written by the ancient Roman emperor himself, gave the entire western region of the Empire to Pope Sylvester because the pope allegedly had cured the emperor of leprosy. As a result, Constantine withdrew himself and his court from Rome to Constantinople because he did not feel worthy to live in the same city as such a holy man as Sylvester. In gratitude for his healing, the emperor granted the pope political and military charge over the West.
Valla’s critical analysis, both linguistic and historical, overturned the integrity of the document. By means of his own philological expertise, Valla showed that this document could not have been written in the fourth century, as it purports to have been. Instead, by exposing many of its anachronisms, he showed it to be an eighth century forgery, perhaps from Paris. Thus, while he was not the first to question this document’s authenticity—Dante and John Wyclif had done so before him—he was the first to establish his objection on the basis of sound historical and linguistic judgment.
Having to some extent debunked papal claims to civil power, Valla next took aim at traditional Roman Catholic piety. De professione religiosorum (1442; on monastic views) is his effort to prove that religious people, such as priests, monks, and nuns, are not necessarily the best. Ostensibly a dialogue between Frater, a traditional Roman Catholic, and Lorenzo, whose views represent Valla’s own, this book is a courageous and outspoken challenge to prevalent views on Christian life. In it, Valla denies, as the Protestant reformers do later, that any special spiritual status attaches to members of the clergy or of the religious orders. To Valla, all Christians are on equal footing. One must not be called religious simply because one has taken vows. Vows, he believes, are worthless if one does not lead a godly life. If one can lead a godly life without vows, why are they necessary? True sanctity comes from being acceptable to God, not to one’s ecclesiastical superiors. Vows, in fact, are inimical to spirituality because virtue begins with pious inner attitudes, not obedience to external rules. On this point Valla believed the laity actually to be superior because when they obey they do so out of their own good will, not because of pressure imposed upon them from the outside. In addition to vows, Valla opposes the exaltation of poverty. To be wealthy, he said, is not the same as being sinful, nor is being poor synonymous with being pious. Christ taught us to be poor in spirit, not poor in goods. The monkish practice of giving all one’s money to the poor so that one too may become a beggar is, to Valla, a perversion of Christianity, which is faith in Christ and love to God and humanity.
In 1448, Valla left the service of King Alfonso in order to assume the dual role of apostolic secretary to Pope Nicholas V and professor at the University of Rome, tasks that allowed him plenty of time to engage in scholarly pursuit. That he was employed by the pope, even after the attack on the Donation of Constantine was published, is a tribute to the pope’s tolerance, to his confidence in himself and his office, and to Valla’s prestige and worth as a scholar.
Valla’s final major work, one published posthumously by Erasmus, was his Adnotationes in Novum Testamentum (1505). This book deals with the Latin translation of the Bible (the Vulgate) in the light of Valla’s knowledge of Greek. In it, he attempts to correct some of the Vulgate’s mistakes, which he evaluated on grammatical, stylistic, and philosophical grounds. The first assesses the strict accuracy of the Vulgate’s vocabulary and syntax, the second how well the Vulgate captured the eloquence and power of the original, and the third how fully the philosophical and theological content have been preserved. It was by these tests, Valla believed, that one could best aid the cause of theological restoration and the recovery of the fundamentals of Christianity.
After nearly a decade in Rome, Valla died, in 1457, after suffering an unidentified illness.
Lorenzo Valla was one of the most original and influential scholars of the Italian Renaissance. His work demonstrates most clearly the effect that accurate historical perspective and careful literary analysis could have on the various fields of knowledge, especially theology and philosophy. In that light, he was one of the leading critical minds of his age. He succeeded in establishing the new study of philology as a respectable and useful academic discipline.
Thus, Valla was a groundbreaker and a pioneer. His work served as a guide and inspiration for later Humanists such as Erasmus, who also desired to restore theology by means of the humanities. Valla also enjoyed a measure of success in reorganizing philosophical inquiry by freeing it from the control of medieval Scholastic methods. In this he anticipated later European thinkers such as Peter Ramus. By Protestants such as Martin Luther, Valla was considered a theological forerunner and a kindred spirit. Like them, he believed that faith was the basis of Christian living, not any external actions. Like them, he also denied the spiritual superiority of the monastic life-style, and he attacked the validity of some papal claims to authority. It is wrong, nevertheless, to see Valla as a Protestant. Although he was a protesting Catholic, he was not a Protestant. He never thought of himself as outside the Roman fold. Whenever he differed from the Church, he considered himself not un-Catholic, but “more orthodox than the orthodox.”
Cassirer, Ernst, Paul O. Kristeller, and John Herman Randall, Jr., eds. The Renaissance Philosophy of Man. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948. Chapter 2, “Lorenzo Valla,” contains the best available English translation of On Free Will. The introduction to this chapter, by Charles Trinkaus, although it contains very little biographical detail, is an excellent entry into Valla’s beliefs and intellectual methods. This chapter is enhanced by a useful annotated bibliography.
Kristeller, Paul O. Eight Philosophers of the Italian Renaissance. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1964. Although it recounts the biographical details of Valla’s life only briefly, chapter 2, “Valla,” provides a succinct yet lucid introduction to his thought and its historical background. This chapter pays special attention to Valla’s On Free Will, On Pleasure, and Dialecticae disputationes.
Spitz, Lewis W. The Renaissance and Reformation Movements. 2 vols. Skokie, Ill.: Rand McNally, 1971. One of the finest and most accessible introductions to the period, the first volume of this set describes the various intellectual elements of Renaissance Humanism. Each chapter is well organized, readable, and accurate. Chapter 6, “Renaissance Humanism,” contains a brief but excellent introduction to the life, background, and contribution of Lorenzo Valla. Though each chapter contains bibliographical references throughout, and though each chapter concludes with a useful bibliography, the titles listed concerning Valla are few.
Trinkaus, Charles. In Our Image and Likeness: Humanity and Divinity in Italian Humanist Thought. 2 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970. Chapter 3, “Lorenzo Valla: Voluptas et Fruitio, Verba et Res,” is a well-documented, closely argued, seventy-page account of Valla’s moral and religious thought. Trinkaus traces several key motifs through Valla’s most important books, from which, in his footnotes, he quotes at length in the original Latin.
Valla, Lorenzo. On Pleasure: De Voluptate. Edited and translated by A. Kent Hieatt and Maristella Lorch. New York: Abaris Books, 1977. This excellent volume contains both the Latin original of Valla’s book and an accurate, readable English translation on facing pages. The book is prefaced by a forty-page introduction that describes Valla’s personality, his polemics, his Humanist background, and his On Pleasure. The volume concludes with twenty-five pages of notes and appendices. Though many works are alluded to in the process, no separate bibliography is given.
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