SRS Book Series Interviews: Kaarlo Havu

January 17, 2022
By SRS Book Series

In this, the first of our new series of interviews with authors from the Society for Renaissance Studies book series, we talk to Kaarlo Havu about Juan Luis Vives, Renaissance Studies and whether all early modernists need to be able to read Latin.


1) What drew you towards Renaissance and Early Modern studies in general, and then humanism and intellectual history in particular?

I did my M.A at the University of Helsinki where the tradition of intellectual history in different forms is strong. Before deciding to work on the Renaissance, I studied European intellectual history and the history of philosophy. I also studied Spanish philology, which quite naturally led me to Renaissance writers and thinkers since the 15th and 16th centuries are of pivotal significance for Spanish history. From early on, I was fascinated by many aspects of the Renaissance, but also somewhat surprised by what seemed to me at the time a contradiction. On the one hand, almost everything between late medieval philosophers and Descartes was largely absent from the history of philosophy. On the other hand, the Renaissance is a pivotal moment in European history when several thinkers had to conceptualize questions related to religious toleration, the colonization of the Americas, or the rise of modern bureaucratic states from a new perspective. I now understand that what is broadly described humanism produced relatively little systematic philosophy that would be of interest for the discipline of analytical philosophy. But this does not make humanists uninteresting figures from the point of view of a historian. Many thinkers of the period, such as Niccolò Machivelli, Francisco de Vitoria, Thomas More, Vives or Jean Bodin were struggling with questions that were not merely of abstract nature but closely related to the tangible changes in the outlook of the political, economic, and religious realities of the time.


2) Apart from your own, what book would you recommend for people to read to learn more about your field of study?

There are many books I should mention. On rhetoric, politics, and philosophy, Quentin Skinner’s work – his Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes (1996) in particular – is essential. Markku Peltonen’s Rhetoric, politics and popularity in pre-revolutionary England (2012) highlights the popular and political nature of Renaissance rhetoric perhaps more than any other book I can think of. There are also several books that pursue the role of rhetoric in other domains of life. Brian Cumming’s The Literary Culture of the Reformation: Grammar and Grace (2003) makes a persuasive case for the literary nature of theology in the 16th century, and Lisa Jardine’s Erasmus, Man of Letters (1993) suggests that rhetoric was essential for humanist self-fashioning. Both are great books.


3) What are the key facts or arguments from your book that you would like people to take away?

The main argument of the book is that Vives was quite an original thinker on the art of rhetoric and that that his assessment of rhetoric was largely driven by the implications of eloquence for political and religious life. In the book, I suggest that he tried to adapt the tradition of classical rhetoric – largely developed for the republican or democratic polities of the classical period– into a monarchical world. This appropriation had at least two components. First, Vives argued that openly adversarial rhetoric, so central for republican politics, was inefficient in a princely context, which is why a rhetoric of decorum that respected existing hierarchies and hid confrontation should be preferred. Second, he thought that rhetoric, rather than an art that relied on existing commonplaces, should first and foremost be based on a meticulous interpretation of the emotional dispositions of one’s audience. This enabled one to convey one’s message effectively and in a form that did not activate negative emotions towards the speaker or the theme spoken about. In addition, this was important in altered political circumstances, because of the religious and dynastic disturbances of the 1520s, which, at least in the mind of Vives, were intrinsically linked to bellicose pamphlet culture and adversarial rhetoric. By looking at rhetoric, it is also possible to get a better grasp of what Vives was doing in his political interventions that were not meant as systematic treatises but as rhetorical interventions that by and large followed the precepts of his rhetorical treatises and handbooks.


4) Quite how radical was Juan Luis Vives’ rethinking of the foundations of humanist thought?

This a tricky question since humanism is such a broad concept and can refer to a variety of things. I would argue that he seems to be extremely aware that humanist education, with its emphasis on rhetoric, can enhance political discord. Most thinkers who emphasize the civic role of rhetoric in a life of negotium or active engagement did not stress this side to the same degree. In the case of Vives, this interpretation, outlined in the tumultuous 1520s, drives his rethinking and appropriation of eloquence. But, on the other hand, he very much remains in the humanist framework. He is a firm believer in literary education, he conceives of politics as a continuation of ethical virtue, and he sees rhetoric as a political discipline. Perhaps the most radical part of Vives’s appropriation of humanist culture in a changed context is the connection he makes between rhetoric, political philosophy and natural philosophy – that is the theory of the soul and emotions. He argues that rhetoric, in order to retain its civic role, has to be based on the understanding of the emotional dispositions of people. This link, I suggest, enables him to develop his ideas on rhetorical decorum, which allows persuasion but only within an atmosphere that nurtures concord and suppresses destructive passions. Erasmus, Budé, or More – his most famous contemporaries – were all aware of the link between politics and theories of emotions but never developed this connection to the same degree. Perhaps the best way to put it is to say that he is a creative thinker who develops humanist ideas on eloquence from an original point of view. In general, we should see humanist thought as an immensely flexible concept that enables a myriad of conceptual possibilities.


5) How did your scholarly journey develop over the course of your research for this book? Did you end up where you always intended to?

I did not. As always, many of the central ideas, and especially their implications for the broader discussions of the time, became much clearer during the process. I knew that Vives was a somewhat neglected author in the English-speaking world and that his rhetorical works were interesting and original. Yet I could not anticipate the importance of decorum for his rhetorical and political thought. Nor was I aware of all the fascinating implications of the connection he makes between moral and natural philosophies in De anima et vita. These were things that I found out and had to think about a lot during the process.


6) What were the most fruitful sources you found in your research?

I’m not sure I’m able to mention just one source or genre of sources. I went through everything Vives wrote, his printed works and his correspondence. This was helpful since many of my readings were based on making interconnections between texts that were meant as interventions to different discussions. By looking at how Vives the rhetorician, the educational theorists, or the political and social philosopher are related to one another enabled me to break barriers between disciplines that still often directs our research to clearly defined fields such as political theory, rhetorical theory, or moral philosophy. In my view, this proved very fruitful and, I hope, captures quite well the way in which Vives himself thought that different fields were related to one another. I also emphasize the role of some of his minor works – such as De consultatione on the rhetoric of princely counsel – more than standard scholarship on Vives.


7) What was the biggest obstacle to conducting your research?

There were no major practical obstacles since digital databases and electronic books have made much of what he wrote, as well as much of scholarship, accessible from anywhere in the world. For me, the most difficult thing was to find the right angle for the research: to identify key passages, to cut out material, and to choose what texts to focus on. In many ways Vives was a tricky figure, not only because he wrote so much, but also because of his humanist, often unsystematic and eclectic style of writing. I am sure that many who work on early modern humanists/humanism encounter similar problems.


8) Did you discover anything that made you rethink some of your initial ideas?

Yes, many things. I had not anticipated the extent to Vives stressed the destructive possibilities of language in all of his mature works. This finding proved crucial for my reading of his rhetorical and political works; it served as a background for the centrality of decorum. More generally, the way in which Vives himself explicitly built a connection between his main works on rhetoric (De ratione dicendi), education (De disciplinis), and the soul (De anima et vita) came as a surprise since these are often seen as belonging to different disciplinary discussions.


9) Was there anything that you were unable to include in the book?

Indeed. In the case of Vives, I could have included something on his major work on religion, De veritate fidei Christianae, which is definitely interesting from the point of view of rhetoric and interreligious dialogue. Another thing is that many of my readings were made possible by a contextual approach. I tried to emphasize Vives’s relations to other Northern humanists, Erasmus in particular, but I could have included even more about how Vives’s thought evolves together with the broader concerns of the time. This is a theme that I believe has been somewhat neglected until now.


10) Do you have a favourite discovery or favourite fact from your research?

I was not aware of how critical Vives actually was of the princes of his time. He often uses a rhetoric of praise as a form criticism (this is explicitly spelled out in his rhetorical theory!), which has probably deceived us to believe that he was more supportive of those in power than he really was. Some of the practical advice about how to speak truth to power is immediately understandable for any age that has to think about how to address those in power.


11) What are you working on now?

I am currently working on the interrelations between rhetoric, politics, and the imagination in the Renaissance, mostly in France and England. The main aim of my research is to try to understand how the emphasis put on visuality in the theory and practice of verbal rhetoric (evidentia and vivid description for instance) was linked with an anthropology that stressed the role of imagination in emotional response, judgment, and acting. I’m also interested in how this idea was connected with the broader question of what the role of imagination is or should be in political life.


12) If you were not an early modernist, is there any other period or history or historical field you would like to work on?

As a young kid, I was fascinated by Mesoamerican cultures, the Maya in particular. But due to my lack of language (and other) skills, I’m sure that I will not be able to conduct any proper research on it! I have also always been very interested in the long 19th century stretching to the First World War. It is in many ways an age of contradictions and tensions. It was the time of imperialism, industrial exploitation, and growing global inequality, but also an era in which radically new ways of conceptualizing politics, natural science, anthropology, technology, utopianism, and art emerged. From the perspective of art, I have always found it a fascinating period. It was the golden age of novel, and in visual arts the era explored new ways of seeing, ranging from realism and impressionism to symbolism and other post-impressionist movements.


13) Is it necessary to be able to read and understand Latin to work in Renaissance / early modern studies?

To a certain extent yes. Naturally, it depends on what you choose to focus on. There are several thinkers and writers who wrote almost exclusively, or at least much more, in the vernacular, especially in the 17th and 18th centuries. But, in general, the wider your language skills are, the better!


14) If you could instantly acquire one skill or ability to help your research, what would it be?

I would love to be able to read Greek and Dutch better than I do.


15) Is there any advice you would give to PhD students or early career researchers for finding their feet or developing their work in your field?

Whatever you choose to work on try to be passionate about it. Look for themes that you find interesting not only as an academic but as a human being. And try to be realistic about what practical skills and theoretical knowledge are needed in order to conduct research on the field you choose.


Kaarlo Havu works as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki, Finland. He specializes in early modern intellectual history and he has published on Renaissance humanism, political thought, and the history of rhetoric. His book, Juan Luis Vives: Politics, Rhetoric, and Emotions will be available from April 2022. Pre-order your copy here:

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