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The Library of Renaissance Symbolism
The Symbolic Literature of the Renaissance

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Italian: Paradossi

Authority: Lando

(What is this?)


From the Greek para and doxon meaning contrary to opinion.  Doxa, opinions, were the subject of the doxologies or collections of opinions or writings of the authoritative writers which formed the basis of medieval anthologies and commonplace books and thus of Invention, one of the five elements of Rhetoric. Thus a paradox had a more confrontational status  than it does today.

     Many classical authors had written paradoxes which were often given the title In Praise of… and the genre reached its height with Cicero (Paradoxa Stoicorum)  who believed that it was the ultimate in Socratic dialog. Here is a Ciceronian example: “only the wise man is truly free and the foolish person is a slave.” The classic and first vernacular collection of paradoxes for the Renaissance was Ortensio Lando’s Paradossi of 1542.

     For the Christian, the fundamental paradox came from the words of St. Paul. ‘Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe…. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.’ (Corinthians I, 18-25) This passage was the text for the work of many Christian writers. Folly could be interpreted as unrighteousness or even just simplicity in a context where it could be contrasted with the excesses of the wealthy, the irreverent or the powerful. Cornelius Agrippa’s book De Vanitate Scientiarum of 1530, significantly was subtitled ‘Teaching with good and firm evidence how to reason against the common opinion in many matters.’ The most famous of all was Erasmus’ essay In Praise of Folly which was published in 1509 with illustrations in later editions by Holbein. There seems little doubt that Erasmus drew extensively on The Ship of Fools, the earlier work of the Sebastian Brant. The In Praise of Folly was a subtle parody on the absurdity of the state of contemporary learning in both philosophy and the sciences, but it could also have been interpreted as an attack on the excesses of the Church, the desirability of reform and a return to the simplicity of the Scriptures. But its safe and orthodox conclusion was the same as that of Agrippa, namely that knowledge was vain unless inspired by the word of God revealed through the Bible.

     The paradox then was one more influence on the literature of age emphasizing the puzzling, the enigmatic and the secretive. Knowledge should be hidden to be worth knowing and true knowledge could only be gained by contemplation of the meaning hidden in the mysteries of symbolism or the word of God.

See also: Jokes, Satires