Lorenzo Valla Biography


(History of the World: The Renaissance)

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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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...

(The entire section is 2506 words.)