60 in 60: #29 – Baldesar Castioglione’s How to Achieve True Greatness (Penguin’s Great Ideas)


This blog post is part of my ongoing “60 Books in 60 Days” encounter with the Penguin Great Ideas series–the Guardian’s book site of the week and mentioned on the Penguin blog. (Their latest post comments on the first 20.) From mid-December to mid-February, I will read one book in the series each night and post a blog entry about it the next morning. For more on this beautifully designed series, visit Penguin’s page about the books.

How to Achieve True Greatness
by Baldesar Castiglione (1478-1529)

Memorable Line
“But if [love grows] then in the knowledge that he has been captured the courtier should determine to eschew all the ugliness of vulgar passion and guided by reason set forth on the path of divine love. Then first he must reflect that the body in which beauty shines is not the source from which it springs, and on the contrary that beauty, being incorporeal and, as we have said, a ray of the supernatural, loses much of its nobility when fused with base and corruptible matter: for the more perfect it is, the less matter it contains, and it is most perfect when completely separated from matter.”

The Skinny
A somewhat long-winded, if often witty discussion of the qualities and attributes that best serve a courtier. This isn’t to recommend not reading Castiglione, but I will say that for the first time I welcomed the “[…]” signal from the esteemed editors of the Great Ideas series that they had cut a section of the text.* In this case, there’s really no way to tell that anything is missing.**

* Every time I see “[…]” in these texts I consider it a special communication, and that there is the possibility the Penguin editors been monitoring my reading patterns and have personalized my copy to cut the text in just the right places for my attention span.

** If I had a time machine, I would go back to visit Castiglione and tell him about a marvelous new invention called the paragraph break.

Relevance? Argument?
Having just read de Pizan’s forceful The City of Ladies, I at first found Castiglione’s text fussy and overly ornate in its approach. Like de Pizan and Plato, Castiglione uses the idea of a conversation to discuss the ideal virtues of a Renaissance courtier. A page of preamble, Castiglione writes:

But let us now begin to discuss the subject we have chosen and, if it is possible, create a courtier so perfect that the prince who is worthy of his service, even though his dominion is small, can count himself a truly great ruler. In these books we shall not follow any strict order or list a series of precepts, as is the normal practice in teaching. Instead, following many writers of the ancient world, and reviving a pleasant memory, we shall recount some discussions which once took place among men [and women!-jv] who were singularly qualified in these matters.

However, the purpose here is perhaps a lesser one than with other authors who have used this device, courtiers seeming to me from this book a little like hothouse flowers. You love to coo over their beauty when you’re in the heatbox in the botanical gardens, but after a few minutes the sweat under your collar reminds you it’s time to get the hell out.

At first, too, Castiglione seems to be claiming for aristocracy and the privileged the mantel of Goodness Eternal, with passages on the nobility of birth, claiming that to zee nobles “it seems reprehensible not to attain at least the standard set them by their ancestors,” as opposed to the lowly born who much prefer to grovel in the dirt:

“Thus as a general rule, both in arms and in other worthy activities, those who are most distinguished are of noble birth because Nature has implanted in everything a hidden seed which has a certain way of influencing and passing on its own essential characteristics to all that grows from it, making it similar to itself.”

However, this view is then refuted by signore Gaspare Pallavicino, who cites many of noble birth who have put babies on spikes and many of humble birth who have taken them off of the spikes and nursed them back to health–only to be rebutted by Count Lodovico in a long defense of his class and status.

Luckily, conversations about issues that are moot to modern readers do not corrupt the entirety of the text. Honest advice shines through, as when the Count remarks “…surely we must forgive outstanding men when they presume too much of themselves? After all, a man who has to achieve great things must have the courage to do them and must have confidence in himself. He should not be cowardly or abject, though he should be modest in his words.”

Elsewhere in the book, Castiglione, through his surrogates, stresses imitation as the best way to learn, how to deal with princes, the price of romantic love (just don’t do it–ever; pretend it’s rigor mortis affecting a small part of your body), the tragedy of our senses, and the best path to heaven.

But there’s also more humorous fare in How to Achieve True Greatness, as when an anecdote is recounted about a courtier who refused a dance with a lady, explaining that his business was fighting, whereupon the lady replies:

“Well then, I should think that since you aren’t at war at the moment and you are not engaged in fighting, it would be a good thing if you were to have yourself well greased and stowed away in a cupboard with all of your fighting equipment, so that you avoid getting rustier than you are already.”

Or take this lovely vignette on “the style” of “braggarts who open their mouths and let the words pour out heedlessly”:

“…after he had had his thigh run through by a spear at Pisa, [he] said he thought a fly had stung him; and another who said he didn’t keep a looking-glass in his room because when he lost his temper his expression was so terrible that if he saw it he would frighten himself to death.”

Moments like these are welcome, as they are less stylized. Anecdotes like these say more about the importance of a courtier being well-rounded and modest than a million lectures from Count Pufferfish III.

Thus, I found myself warming to the book the more I read, Castiglione slowly winning me over. Some of the chuckles I got might not have been intended by the author, but perhaps I’m being uncharitable. For example, take the beginning of this rumination on the physical appearance of a courtier:

“I would say that all that is necessary is that he should be neither too small nor too big, since either of these two conditions causes a certain contemptuous wonder and men built in this way are stared at as if they were monsters. However, if one is forced to choose between the two evils, then it is better to be on the small side than unduly large; for men who are so huge are often found to be rather thick-headed.”

Not only did I laugh–in part because there is nothing one can do about being big or small–but I began to catch a whiff of filling space to fill space, much as you find on news or entertainment blogs. “Courtiers: Too Big or Too Small? Post Your Thoughts Now!” Still, Castiglione in frivolous mode is entertaining if nothing else.

But my vote for the funniest moment in How to Achieve True Greatness, and in any Great Ideas book thus far, concerns an abridgment by Penguin. In the middle of a long section on grace and clumsiness, the ellipses appear and the editors cut directly to this passage: “At this point, signora Emilia interrupted: “It seems to me that this argument of yours has grown too protracted and tedious. So it would be as well to postpone it to another time.”

And so it goes…

Castiglione would no doubt be a clever, entertaining, and gracious guest at any party not set in a frat house.

Question for Readers
If there were modern courtiers, in this internet age, what qualities would they have to embody?

Next up, Francis Bacon’sOf Empire