The Frisian dialectician and rhetorician Rudolph Agricola was an important propagator of humanism in the Low Countries and Germany. He left a small but impressive oeuvre including letters, orations, poems, and writings on dialectic and rhetoric. His De formando studio is an important contribution to humanist pedagogy and didactics. His main work De inventione dialectica is arguably the most important Renaissance theory of discourse.
Rodolphus Agricola (Frisius), Rudolf Agricola, Roelof Huisman/Huesman/Huusman
Rudolph Agricola was born as an illegitimate child in Baflo, a small town near the city of Groningen, The Netherlands. We are informed about his life by archival documents, Agricola’s surviving letters, and six contemporary biographies, among which the one by Johann von Plieningen is especially important, because he had known Agricola for many years. The sources are not unanimous about the precise date of Agricola’s birth, but Akkerman’s careful evaluation of the relevant data leads to the conclusion that he was born on 27 or 28 August 1443 and not, as von Plieningen states in his biography, on 17 February 1444 (Akkerman 2012, 10–12). He died on 27 or 28 October 1485. His father, Hendrik Vries, administered property of the bishop of Münster in the parishes belonging to the personate of Baflo from 1440 to 1443; from 1444 until his death in 1480 he was abbott of the Benedictine convent at Selwerd. His mother, Zycka Huisman, who also died in 1480, had three children with a second partner; Agricola’s half-brother Johannes became one of his close friends. Agricola probably went to the city school of Groningen that was connected with St. Martin’s church. A benefice for life granted to him by the bishop of Münster in 1454 allowed him to pursue university studies. He matriculated at the University of Erfurt in 1456, probably received his baccalaureate the year after, and continued his studies, maybe first in Cologne, but certainly in Leuven, where he became magister artium in 1465. From 1468 until 1479 he stayed in Italy, first in Pavia (1468–1475), then in Ferrara (1475–1479). Agricola left Ferrara in the first part of 1479 and traveled to Groningen via Dillingen on the Danube, where he stayed at the residence of the bishop of Augsburg, next Speyer, where he visited Johann von Dalberg and saw his library, Cologne and ’s Heerenberg. From ’s Heerenberg, he went to Emmerich, where he taught Erasmus’ teacher Alexander Hegius “pure Latin and Greek,” as Goswinus van Halen puts it in his biography. He arrived in Groningen at the end of 1479 or early 1480, where he became a secretarius, i.e., a high official and legal counselor of the city government. In this position, he took frequent business trips to various cities in the Low Countries. Agricola was not happy with the busy life that came with this position, wanted to leave, but could not choose between the various employment offers he received from different parts of the Low Countries, Germany, and Italy. He eventually decided to accept the offer from Johann von Dalberg, bishop of Worms and chancellor of Philip, the Elector Palatine, to take up residence at his court in Heidelberg. He left Groningen at the beginning of April 1484, and arrived in Heidelberg on May 2. Although he found it difficult to adapt to his new circumstances, he could now devote himself almost entirely to his studies. In the summer of 1485, he joined von Dalberg on a business trip to Rome. On the way home, Agricola became ill, stopped in Trento to recover, but became ill again after his return in Heidelberg and died there on October 27 or 28. For a full biographical account based on the available sources see Van der Velden 1911.
The surviving works of Agricola comprise 8 orations (three delivered in Pavia, two in Ferrara, one in Worms (Spitz and Benjamin 1963, Van der Laan 2003), one in Heidelberg (Mack 2000), and one in Rome (Van der Laan 2009)), 28 poems, 55 letters, 7 translations of Greek texts, and a number of texts on dialectic and rhetoric. Among these we find a brief commentary on the prologue and the excerpts of Seneca the Elder’s Controversiae, book 1, 1–3, two texts on universals, a dialectical analysis of Cicero’s oration De lege Manilia, but most importantly the treatise De inventione dialectica libri tres (henceforth DID). He also made his own copies of several classical texts, wrote notes on the first book of Boethius’ De consolatione philosophiae and we know that he annotated his copy of the Treviso 1478 edition of Seneca’s works. For full details on dates of composition and publication of his works, see Akkerman and Vanderjagt (1988, 313–327).
Agricola in the World of Humanism
Agricola followed the standard late-medieval arts curriculum at the universities of Erfurt and Leuven, perhaps also Cologne. According to his biographer Geldenhouwer, he excelled in Leuven as a student of dialectic and as a debater in academic disputationes, but also came in contact with people who had begun to study classical Latin. He read Cicero and Quintilian and occasionally criticized the standard Aristotelian teaching program in the presence of his teachers. Geldenhouwer also mentions that he was admired in Leuven because he learned French quickly and without a teacher, and because he sang, played music, and painted very well. Agricola had a flair for languages; besides his mother tongue and the sacred languages, he knew French, Low German and Upper German, and both the colloquial and the literary language of Italy.
Agricola went to Pavia to study civil law, but he also followed his interests in humanism. He wrote several Latin poems, started to learn Greek, and delivered at least three times the yearly speech in praise of the rector of the university (1471 in praise of Mathias Richilus, 1473 in praise of Paulus de Baenst, 1474 in praise of Johann von Dalberg; Walter 2004). After his move to Ferrara, he continued his activities as a humanist. He studied Greek, probably under the guidance of Battista Guarino, translated into Latin the pseudo-Platonic dialogue Axiochos, the pseudo-Isocratean hortatory address for Demonicus, Aphthonius’ Progymnasmata, and perhaps also Isocrates’ hortatory address to Nicocles, copied works by Tacitus and Pliny the Younger, and began writing DID. Agricola had a prominent position as familiaris at the court of Duke Ercole I, and he regularly played the organ on Sundays and holidays. In 1476, he wrote and delivered the official address at the opening of the academic year in 1476 in the presence of Duke Ercole (Rupprich 1935, Van der Poel 1997a, 46–67). Agricola also wrote a biography of Petrarch, in which he acclaims Petrarch as the initiator of humanism and presents him as the embodiment of its characteristics and ideals (Bertalot 1929).
After his departure from Italy in 1479, Agricola maintained a network of relations through his correspondence and his business trips as secretarius of the city of Groningen. In 1483, the first collection of Agricola’s writings appeared in Leuven, printed by Jan van Westfalen. The writings included in this volume (two of his translations, 12 poems, and two letters) bear testimony to his perfection as a humanist. In 1484, he wrote a pedagogical treatise in the form of a letter to his friend Jacob Barbireau (Jacobus Barbirianus), which is the first methodical exposition about the principles of humanist education north of the Alps (letter 38 in Van der Laan and Akkerman 2002). During his stay in Heidelberg, Agricola attended disputations and taught Latin literature at the university, and he learned Hebrew from a teacher hired for him by bishop von Dalberg.
After his death, Agricola’s fame as a humanist was further established by the circulation of manuscripts of his works and by oral tradition. Editions of his works were printed from 1492 (an edition of the poem Anna mater) onwards in various places in the Low Countries (Zwolle, Deventer, Antwerp). Agricola’s fame was firmly established when the first editions of DID appeared, the editio princeps in Leuven, 1515, followed by Phrissemius’ edition in Cologne, 1520 and 1523 (with commentary; Agricola 1523). By 1539, the year when Alardus of Amsterdam published the two volumes containing his well-known edition of DID with commentary and ancillary texts (Agricola 1539a), and the Lucubrationes, a collection of most of Agricola’s other writings (Agricola 1539b), ca. 110 editions containing works by Agricola (including epitomes of DID) had already been printed.
The correspondence and the biographies show that Agricola was seen by his contemporaries and by later generations as a preeminent humanist. For a long time modern scholars have stated that Erasmus downgraded his debt to Agricola in a passage in the Spongia (1523), but Fokke Akkerman (2012, 183–240) has shown that the passage in question has been misread and that in fact Erasmus had great esteem for Agricola and consistently honored him throughout his career. Goswinus van Halen records that he had heard Erasmus admit that Agricola greatly surpassed him in eloquence as well as in all kinds of learning.
The Oratio in Laudem Philosophiae, De Formando Studio, the Translation of Aphthonius’ Progymnasmata
The importance of Agricola in the history of Western philosophy rests on his contribution to humanist pedagogy in the countries north of the Alps and on DID, his new Dialectic, in which he combined traditional dialectic with rhetoric to build a single art of methodical thinking and probable reasoning applicable to all subjects in the humanities and the sciences. In the inaugural address delivered in Ferrara in 1476, which was published in 1511 (and reprinted several times) under the title In laudem philosophiae et reliquarum artium, Agricola presents a classical discussion of philosophy as the love of wisdom, i.e., the desire to learn to know things human and divine, joined with the pursuit of virtue. Agricola follows the ancient division of philosophy (e.g., Cic. De or. 1.68; Aug., Civ., 21.25) into logic (subdivided by Agricola in the three arts of the trivium), physics (subdivided by Agricola in medicine, mathematics or the four arts of the quadrivium, and theology), and ethics. In his discussion of these subjects, Agricola emphasizes the need for virtue. For example, he stresses that any eloquence tainted by impure motives is not admitted in the domain of philosophy and he presents ethics not as the academic study of general moral questions but as the protreptic art that encourages people to control their desires and passions.
In the letter to Barbirianus, frequently printed between 1511 and 1532 under the title De formando studio, he presents a standard survey of the subjects taught in humanist schools, with a conspicuous emphasis on Christian education and on didactics. The study of moral philosophers and historians, poets and orators serves as a preparation for the study of the Bible. Agricola’s discussion of the standard method of Latin language training, consisting of reading and translation and composition exercises, is followed by a brief exposition of a method of original writing. This method consists of assiduous reading in order to fully understand what one is learning, of memorizing the knowledge one has acquired, and of continual writing practice in view of developing one’s own ideas. The skill of writing original texts is described by Agricola in two steps. The first step is to have one’s knowledge readily available by classifying everything one has read under easily memorizable headings or loci communes such as virtue and vice, life and death, learning and ignorance, friendliness and hatred. The second step is to study the material collected under the headings and to develop one’s knowledge about this material by means of dialectical topics, for which Agricola refers Barbirianus to DID. The method of loci communes, in combination with topical description such as presented in DID, constitutes the starting point and the core of the humanist practice of the commonplace-book, which was universally applied in schools. Philipp Melanchthon developed it further as a method for the study of philosophy and the higher disciplines (Moss 1996, 119–133).
Agricola’s third contribution to humanist pedagogy is his translation of Aphthonius’ Progymnasmata. This ancient textbook, containing composition exercises preparing students for the composition of orations, was commonly used in Renaissance schools, and Agricola’s translation was printed dozens of times between 1532 and 1689.
De Inventione Dialectica
Agricola finished the draft of DID in the summer of 1479, during his stay in Dillingen on the Danube. It is clear from the available sources that Agricola did not himself make a clean copy of the final version of the work. The three editions produced in the Renaissance (Louvain 1515, by Alardus, Geldenhouwer, and Dorp; Cologne 1520 and 1523, by Phrissemius; Cologne 1539, by Alardus) are based on various, now lost manuscripts and show a variety of differences in both the layout and titles of the chapters and the text itself. Two manuscripts are still extant, one issuing from the circle of the brothers von Plieningen (S), one whose provenance is unknown (U). The chapter division varies in the manuscripts and the three editions. In modern scholarship, the chapter division of S and Alardus’ edition is usually followed, but it is not certain that it stems from Agricola himself.
Goswinus van Halen relates in his biography that Agricola, referring to his studies for the degree of magister artium, had said that he regretted “nothing so much as that I wasted seven whole years on those trivialities at an immense loss of money and time taken out of my life” (Akkerman 2012, 84–85). This anecdote may be true or false, but it is a fact that De inventione dilectica stands very firmly in the tradition of scholastic dialectic and, unlike Lorenzo Valla, Agricola never fundamentally criticizes or rejects the scholastic philosophers, though it is clear that he found their work too profound and, as he says when he discusses Duns Scotus’ opinion concerning the topic “related things” (1.26), “neque nostrae farraginis” (“not my bag”, Agricola 1539a, 155, Mundt 1992, 168). Agricola wrote some undated notes on the scholastic concept of universals, published by Alardus as an appendix to the chapter on genus and species (1.6), and his response to an anonymous critique of these notes has survived in manuscript (Nauta 2012); both texts seem to indicate that Agricola intended to align himself with the realists in the debate on universals. In light of Agricola’s reserve about scholastic philosophy, one may wonder whether he did plan to write an entire book on universals (for which the surviving notes were a preliminary study, as Alardus thought), or whether his view on universals fundamentally shaped his ideas on the topics, as has been suggested in recent scholarship. In any event it is clear that Agricola’s focus in DID was on the use of topics as a practical instrument for reasoning. His criticism of contemporary dialectic, as presented in 2.1, concerns the theory of consequences (although he does not mention this theory directly), which uses topics to judge the correctness of arguments rather than to find them, and more generally the practice of arguing in disputations following strict rules, as a result of which, according to Agricola, theologians were unable to teach ordinary people and stimulate them to the observance of the Christian virtue. In this chapter, Agricola states it as his purpose to be the first since Quintilian to explain the use of topics as places to find arguments. In his survey of theorists who have written on topics (1.3) he mentions classical authors only, and apart from brief mentions of Duns Scotus (in 1.26 and 2.23) and Raimundus Lullus (in 2.1), he never refers to or discusses any medieval or humanist writers on his subject.
Agricola’s Dialectic concerns all things about which uncertainty exists and therefore are subject of debate for and against on the basis of probable arguments. This concerns both scientific research in the scholarly disciplines and all forms of discourse on practical subjects, i.e., discourses in the three branches of classical rhetoric, and sacred rhetoric, which, in Agricola’s words, must teach justice, devotion, and piety, and exhort to the virtue. Topics and topical invention offer the appropriate method of critical thinking and arguing persuasively in all these fields. The indissoluble cohesion between the three arts of the trivium is a fundamental premise of DID. Agricola’s starting-point are the functions of speech as they were defined in classical rhetoric as the tasks of the orator: docere, movere, delectare (teach, move, please). In the prologue, he states that docere is the fundamental function of speech, while the other two follow it depending on the context. This is treated in more detail in 2.3: the purpose of teaching is either to explain something or to create belief in what one says and to carry away the listener. In the first case, one needs only to speak grammatically correct language and use techniques for clarity, e.g., certain figures (e.g., repetition). In the second case, however, one needs to find probable arguments and place them in the proper order so as to make them suitable for the purpose of teaching, and this is domain of dialectic. In the conclusion of 2.3, Agricola stresses that disposition (or judgment) is an integral part of invention, because to not find anything and to find things that do not convince amounts to the same thing. Many aspects of the correct disposition of arguments for the purpose of creating conviction are discussed in the section on the instrument of dialectic, which consists of a systematic and detailed discussion of all forms of discourse (oratio) (2.15–2.19); in addition, general rules of disposition are discussed separately in 3.8–14. This subject was clearly important to Agricola, because in a letter to his friend Adolf Occo, written when his draft of books 2 and 3 was being copied by Dietrich von Plieningen, he mentions that he had written more on disposition than any of his predecessors (letter 18 in Van der Laan and Akkerman 2002). Movere is another important subject in DID. In 2.4, using Dido’s plea to Aeneas in Vergil’s fourth book of the Aeneid and Cicero’s emotional defense of Milo as examples, Agricola shows how emotion can be a necessary part of argumentation, and therefore that moving is not different from teaching as far as invention goes. As to delectare, he argues in 2.5 that it is different from teaching and moving, because it resides solely in the mind of the person who listens. It cannot, therefore, be a final goal of one’s speech and it does not belong to invention. Inasmuch as things are said for the sake of delight and to please the ears, they are not the goal of what is said but of the person who says it.
DID is focused on the practice of reasoning. This focus explains to a large extent Agricola’s adaptations in the traditional definitions of dialectic and rhetoric, and in the sequence and description of the topics. It also inspired his discussion of the material and instrument of dialectic. Moreover, although Agricola criticizes many of his ancient predecessors explicitly, e.g., Aristotle because his Topics is not a practical guide to inventio (1.3), Cicero’s and Boethius’s discussion of antecedentia, consequentia, and adiuncta (1.20; see also 1.28), Boethius’ treatment of the maximae (1.29), he is not dogmatic and does not propose his discussion of the topics as one that is fundamentally better than those of his predecessors, but merely as one that is less sophisticated and more detailed (1.3). The practical focus of DID is also well illustrated by a passage in the discussion of the topic “subject” (1.13), where Agricola says that it is not a problem if one draws an argument from a topic which on close inspection does not contain it, because in the practice of the arts it does not matter how exactly one distinguishes the rules, but how adequately one uses them.
It is clear from the layout and the style of DID that the work was written, as Agricola formulates it in 1.3, for people acquainted with the classical authors, but unfamiliar with the theory of dialectic and rhetoric. He writes humanistic Latin following the usage of ancient authors from all periods, but without the rigidity of purists (e.g., in 2.8, he defends, probably against Valla, the unclassical “quidditas” by analogy with the classical “Lentulitas,” “Appietas”). He uses examples from everyday life to explain difficult concepts, e.g., in 1.13, the propositions “water is cold” or “I have slaughtered a cow” to explain the philosophical meaning of subject as one of the ten categories, or, in 1.16, the triplet “a building,” “the man for whom it is built” and “the architect and craftsmen who build it,” to explain the differences between the topics efficient and final causes, effects, and intentions. Examples taken from classical literature and history are found everywhere, and Agricola shows the use of persuasive techniques by analyzing passages from poets and orators (e.g., in 2.17, the analysis of the story of the Greek spy Sinon in Vergil’s account of the ruse of the wooden horse, to show that Sinon had nothing to create belief in what he told the Trojans, but nevertheless managed to convince them). Agricola also makes frequent use of comparisons and examples. Some of these are taken from things he was interested in or had experience with. Thus, he says at the beginning of his chapter on the use of dialectic (1.3) that, in order to explain this difficult subject for novices, he wishes he could not only speak about it but also paint or sculpt it out. In 2.23, where he explains that one should adjust an exposition to that about which it must supply conviction, he first presents a detailed analysis of how the ancient comedian Terence’s character Simo succeeds in presenting his son Pamphilus in a good light even though he is the friend of a girl of ill repute, and then compares this clever misguiding of the audience with the technique of chiaroscuro in painting, which creates the impression that images are clearly visible even when they are covered in shadow. Similarly, in the concluding chapter of the book (3.16), he refers to the arts of painting and music to explain the all-important need to combine knowledge with assiduous practice in order to achieve mastery of reasoning.
Structure and Content
The organization of DID is exemplary with brief introductions at the beginning of each new section or subsection and summations at appropriate intervals to help the reader in following the sometimes complex argumentation and to constantly remind him of the overall structure of the entire work. Book 1 is entirely devoted to the topics. Chapters 1–3 provide a general introduction to the topics, their origin, utility, and function, and a critical survey of the treatment of topics by Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian, Boethius, and Themistius. In Chap. 4, Agricola explains the logical sequence of his topics, which differs from that of his predecessors. The topics are discussed successively one by one in Chaps. 5–27, as follows: two groups of internal topics: within the substance of the thing (1. definition, 2. genus, 3. species, 4. property and difference, 5.whole, 6. parts, 7. things related by etymology), around the substance (8. qualities, 9. actions, 10. subject); four groups of external topics, two necessarily joined with the thing: related things (11. efficient cause, 12. final cause, 13. effects, 14. intentions) and attached things (15. place, 16. time, 17. connected things), and two joined to the thing without necessity: accidents (18. contingents, 19. name of a thing, 20. pronouncements, 21. comparisons, 22. similars and dissimilars) and repugnants (23. opposite things, 24. different things). A special chapter is devoted to differences between Agricola’s topics and those of his predecessors. In the final chapter Agricola provides a survey of his topics and a brief discussion of the reasons why he has omitted the maxims which Boethius had added to each topic.
Book 2 is devoted to the skill of reasoning, which consists according to Agricola of three things: material, instrument, and usage of the topics. It begins with an introductory section in which are discussed successively the faults of the contemporary use of dialectic, the definition and goal of dialectic, and the fact that moving follows the same rules of invention as teaching, whereas pleasing is separate from both because it resides in the mind of the listener and therefore cannot be a final goal of what one says. The section material (materia) contains a detailed discussion of the quaestio, the various ways to classify quaestiones, how to determine the essential point of a quaestio, and the division of a quaestio in subsidiary quaestiones. The instrumentum of dialectic is defined as discourse in the broadest sense of the word, including all prose genres, epic, and drama. It discusses two divisions of discourse, one based on structure (continuous, e.g., a speech; discontinuous, e.g., a dialogue), the other on result (expositio, used when one teaches an audience willing to follow; argumentatio, when one teaches an audience that needs to be forced to assent by force of arguments), next the nature of the various forms of argumentation (syllogism, induction, enthymeme, example) and the ways to construct and refute them, the various kinds of exposition based on their purpose (pure exposition and exposition within an argumentation), and the parts of a discourse. At the beginning of the final section, on usage of the topics, Agricola stresses that there exist no topics for rhetoric alone. He continues by discussing the treatment of topics in two steps, first topical analysis of texts, second topical description of abstract and spatiotemporal entities (“philosopher,” “Socrates,” “spouse”) and collection of arguments for and against concerning questions about these (“should a philosopher marry?”). The complicated process of topical analysis, including condensation of complex and stylistically elaborated arguments to their basic form, is illustrated with many examples from classical orators and poets. Agricola also wrote a separate topical analysis of Cicero’s speech De lege Manilia, which was published as an appendix to DID in Alardus’ edition (Van der Poel 1997b). The section concludes with an example of topical description of “philosopher” and “spouse,” including a collection of possible arguments concerning the question “should a philosopher marry?” based on the two topical descriptions. Book 2 ends with a synopsis of the entire process of topical invention.
Book 3 discusses three items: the nature of emotions and the ways to manage them in a discourse, discussion of the things which make the discourse pleasing to the audience, including mainly a discussion of abundance and brevity, and a study of disposition in two parts, i.e., disposition in exposition (historians, poets, scholarly prose) and disposition in oratorical prose (the parts of an oration, disposition of the various questions, disposition of the argumentations in each question, variation in the elaboration of separate arguments). The final chapter discusses the importance of practice and exercise.
Impact and Legacy
The above synopsis shows that DID, although written for novices, is not only a comprehensive but also a complex study of humanist dialectic and rhetoric. Its content was made more accessible as a tool for teaching by the commentaries of Phrissemius and Alardus, and even more by the epitomes of the work by Bartholomaeus Latomus (1532), Ioannes Visorius (1534), and Alardus (1538, book 1 only). Brief summaries by chapter, with explanatory notes, were made by Caspar Rodolphus (1538). Between 1515 and 1575, around 75 editions of the text and epitomes were printed. The commentators and epitomists were themselves teachers and their writings and textbooks assured the dissemination of Agricola’s approach to dialectic and the method of analyzing and producing texts. The production of scores of textbooks exemplifying the dialectical analysis of classical texts, methods of topical invention and commonplace books in the sixteenth century illustrates that Agricola gave decisive direction to the teaching methods in the sixteenth century, especially in the countries north of the Alps, even if his name is not always mentioned. The Venice 1567 translation of Alardus’ text of DID by Orazio Toscanella, containing diagrams summarizing the contents of each chapter, is a rare testimony of interest in Agricola in sixteenth-century Italy. The importance of Agricola is also demonstrated by his influence on the ideas about dialectic and rhetoric of two of the most productive and authoritative teachers and university men in the sixteenth century, Philipp Melanchthon (who is also one of Agricola’s biographers) and Petrus Ramus. The pedagogy of the humanists, including the methods of reading, analyzing, and composing texts propagated by Agricola, remained in effect in European schools until long after humanism had ceased to be a viable intellectual force. Christian Kästner’s Topik oder Erfindungswissenschaft (1816) is probably the last substantial trace of Agricola’s influence in the humanities (DID is mentioned on p. 9). In their seminal work in the field of New rhetorics from 1958, Chaïm Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca refer twice to Agricola, among many other earlier theorists from Aristotle onwards, though not, as one might expect, in their discussion of the topics, but in their discussion of the disposition of arguments (ed. 1958, vol. 2, 666, 669).
In recent decades, scholarly interest in Agricola was stimulated considerably by the international conference on Agricola organized by Fokke Akkerman and Arjo Vanderjagt in 1985 at the University of Groningen. The proceedings of that conference (Leiden 1988) contain a full bibliography of earlier scholarly work on Agricola.
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