Republic of Letters

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REPUBLIC OF LETTERS. The "Republic of Letters" (Respublica Literarum), a term apparently coined by the humanist Francesco Barbaro in 1417, was first intended to designate the community of early modern scholars who restored the ancient "Orators, Poets, Historians, Astronomers, and Grammarians" who would otherwise have been lost forever; but the term later encompassed other writers in the emergent public sphere of early modern Europe. Also connected to the term was the international network of the European university, which was a basically ecclesiastical foundation, but which, through the faculties of arts and law, contributed also to a large secular intelligentsia. Between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, hundreds of thousands of students flocked to the eighty or ninety universities in Europe, thousands of them as foreigners in the "nations" of Paris, Bologna, Prague, Oxford, and Cambridge. For example, in Paris in the second quarter of the sixteenth century, 1,500 or more students registered annually in the arts faculty of the university there, including, contemporaneously, François Rabelais, John Calvin, and Ignatius of Loyola, who each had an extraordinary impact on public opinion in their century and long afterwards.

The humanist movement, which continued traditions of disputation and learned pilgrimages beyond the university, expanded this increasingly secular intelligentsia through book-hunting travels and epistolary exchange. The correspondence of Desiderius Erasmus and Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, for example, added to and consolidated the information and "good letters" that print culture made available to the growing community of scholars. The printed book was at once a divine gift, invaluable for spreading religious truth, and a devilish invention, open likewise to the dissemination of heresy and treason. What mainly held this "republic" together was not virtue but learning, including a common language (a more or less classical Latin, with its treasury of topics and tropes), a common, if highly disputed, view of the Christian past, and a devotion to the literary tradition essential for communication and meaningful disputes between contemporaries and between "ancients and moderns."

The Republic of Letters had its own special history and mythology. As Noel d'Argonne wrote in the seventeenth century, "The Republic of Letters is of very ancient origin . . . and existed before the Flood. It embraces the whole world and is composed of people of all nations, social conditions, ages, and sexes, neither women nor even children being excluded. All languages, ancient and modern, are spoken. Arts are joined to letters, and the mechanical arts also have their place in it." This republic was coterminous with Christendom, he continued, but differed from it in political as well as ecclesiastical terms. "The politics of this State consists more in words, in maxims and reflections, than in actions and in accomplishments. People take their strength from eloquence and reasoning. Their trade is entirely spiritual and their wealth meager. Glory and immortality are sought above all things. . . ."

That is not to say that he neglected the negative side of the Republic. In contrast to the medieval ideal of religious and political unity, d'Argonne argued, concerning the Republic of Letters, "its religion is not uniform, and its manners, as in all republics, are a mixture of good and bad, both piety and libertinage being found. Sects are numerous, and every day new forms appear. The whole State is divided among philosophers, medical doctors, jurists, historians, mathematicians, orators, grammarians, and poets; and each has its own laws." For d'Argonne, most divisive of all was the art of criticism, which recognized no superior in things literary or philosophical, and which set itself up as the final arbiter of meaning: "Justice is administered by the Critics, often with more severity than judgment. . . . They cut, slice up, or add as they please, and no author can escape once he falls into their hands."

The Reformation and Counter-Reformation exploited the printing press and promoted monumental works of cooperative scholarship as well as bitter controversies. Yet the negative and positive aspects of the new invention expanded the Republic of Letters through doctrinal debates, incentives to scholarship, and efforts to reach a wider public and popular culture. Though signaled normally by mastery of ancient languages, membership was eventually extended to writers in modern languages, since the community itself was referred to in the vernacular: "Deutsche Republik der Gelehrten," "Republyk der Geleerden," "Republique des lettres," "República literaria," and "Republic of Letters." There were also analogous and overlapping learned international groups, such as the community of jurists (respublica jurisconsultorum), that gave further coherence to the community of "intellectuals," as it would be called in later generations.

The foundations of this international intelligentsia were laid by the media of largely printed communication, including correspondence, books, and especially journals, which represented the avantgarde as well as the rear guard of doctrinal and scholarly accomplishment and conflict. The Journal des savants (1665), the Philosophical Transactions (1665), the Giornale de' letterati (1668), the Acta Eruditorum (1682), and especially Pierre Bayle's Nouvelles de la République des lettres (1684) established the forum for exchanges among men and women of letters, from Lorenzo Valla and Erasmus to Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Madame Necker. These periodicals contained not only articles but also book reviews, open letters, obituaries, and other genres of learned exhange, which, in the face of growing practices of censorship and suppression, constituted the material base for the critical discourse of the Enlightenment and its revolutionary aftermath.

In the Republic of Letters the stress was normally on the "public" aspect of intellectual exchange and propagation of ideas, but the intimidation of authority and institutions of censorship encouraged another dimension of discourse: "forbidden best-sellers" (investigated by Robert Darnton) and especially "clandestine literature" (revealed by Richard Popkin and others). In recent years scholars have uncovered a vast amount of anti-Christian literature, in which skepticism, libertinism, free thought, naturalism, "atheism," Judaism, and Spinozism commingled in a counterculture based on the circulation of published and manuscript materialsmost spectacularly the quasi-legendary treatise on the "Three Impostors" (Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad). This was a whole world of subversion in the Republic of Letters which is still in the process of being mapped, though the old questions remain, including (as Darnton writes): Do books cause revolutions?

See also Academies, Learned ; Ancients and Moderns ; Bayle, Pierre ; Erasmus, Desiderius ; Humanists and Humanism ; Journals, Literary ; Latin ; Peiresc, Nicolas-Claude Fabri de ; Public Opinion .


Primary Sources

d'Agonne, Noel. Mélanges d'histoire et de literature. 4th ed. Paris, 1740, pp. 166167.

Goodhart, Gordon, Phyllis Walter, ed. and trans. Two Renaissance Book Hunters: The Letters of Poggius Bracciolini to Nicolaus de Niccolis. New York, 1974.

Secondary Sources

Berti, Silvia, Françoise Charles-Daubert, and Richard H. Popkin, eds. Heterodoxy, Spinozism, and Free Thought in Early-Eighteenth-Century Europe: Studies in the Traité des trois imposteurs. Dordrecht, 1996.

Bots, Hans, and Françoise Waquet. La république des lettres. Paris, 1997.

Darnton, Robert. The Literary Underground of the Old Regime. Cambridge, Mass., 1982.

Goodman, Dena. The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment. Ithaca, N.Y., 1994.

Grimm, Gunter E. Literatur und Gelehrtentum in Deutschland. Tübingen, 1983.

Israel, Jonathan. Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 16501750. Oxford, 2001.

Jaumann, Herbert. "Ratio clausa: Die Trennung von Erkenntnis und Kommunikation in gelehrten Abhandlungen zur Respublica literaria um 1700 unter der europäische Kontext." In Res Publica Literaria, edited by Sebastian Neumeister and Conrad Wiedemann, pp. 409429. Wiesbaden, 1987.

Levine, Joseph M. The Battle of the Books: History and Literature in the Augustine Age. Ithaca, N.Y., 1991.

McKenna, Antony. "Spinoza in Clandestine Manuscripts: A Bibliographical Survey of Recent Research." In Disguised and Overt Spinozism around 1700, edited by Wiep van Bunge and Wim Klever. Leiden, 1996.

Ruegg, Walter, ed. A History of the University in Europe. 2 vols. Cambridge, U.K., 19921996.

Wacquet, Françoise. Latin, or the Empire of a Sign: From the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Century. Translated by John Howe. London, 2001.

Donald Kelley