Wednesday, January 9, 2013


Kathy Eden, The Renaissance Rediscovery of Intimacy. Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 2012. Pp. ix, 149. ISBN 9780226184623. $35.00.

Reviewed by Jeroen De Keyser, KU Leuven (

Version at BMCR home site


Kathy Eden opens her concise yet dense book with a tickling juxtaposition of the seemingly disconnected names of Demetrius, Justus Lipsius, John Hoskyns and Ben Jonson – arguing that the question of style will unite these literary theorists in her argument for the development of the complex concept of intimacy in Renaissance literature. For Eden, intimacy is as much a style of communication shaping some reading and writing practices of the Renaissance as a form that affection can take. In her introduction, Eden confesses her adherence to an analysis from the angle of the "interpenetration" of literary production and reception as advocated by Gadamer (surprisingly absent from the bibliography, the numerous references to him on pages 4–9 notwithstanding), who describes the hermeneutical relation between reader and writer as intimacy (Vertrautsein), and places herself in the line of many other theorists of interpretation from Seneca to Jonson who identify the transfer of the image of the mind to language with style. Eden herself focuses on the history of one kind of style: the intimate one of writing familiariter.

In her first chapter ("A Rhetoric of Intimacy in Antiquity", pp. 11–48), Eden demonstrates how the specialized terminology designed to formulate the legality of the household as property gradually lends itself both to the affective dimensions of the household and to the quality of style developed to communicate that affection. Starting with Aristotle's definition of oikeion and ēthos, Eden then explains how the need for self- presentation in Cicero's mature rhetorical works promoted a rhetoric grounded in the expression of character, and she makes the point that Cicero addressed intimate discourse only in De officiis, where a distinction is made between two principal discursive forms of a rhetoric of intimacy: sermo and epistola. While the letter, as a substitute for conversation, originates as a tool to communicate information over space, its development largely results from the need to express feelings, to create a feeling of closeness or intimacy. As a model for a rhetoric of intimacy, Cicero's letters share key features with epideictic oratory: their thematic and structural flexibility, their benign and detailed character. Eden then recalls that in Demetrius' On Style (Peri hermenēias), letter writing is identified explicitly with the expression of character and that Seneca in his letters focused exclusively on the expression of his personal feelings, on the animus as one's most valuable possession. Quintilian, on the contrary, ignoring both sermo and epistola, restored the centrality of the oration, yet expected the orator to approach the question of style from the perspective of character, and especially someone else's character.

In the second chapter ("A Rhetoric and Hermeneutics of Intimacy in Petrarch's Familiares," pp. 49–72) Eden shows how Petrarch's rediscovery of Cicero's letters to Atticus in the cathedral library of Verona in 1345 set the stage for the Renaissance rediscovery of intimacy. The star-struck Petrarch decided at once to write both like the intimate Cicero and directly to Cicero, and to collect this and many other letters in a single collection, the Familiares. Although Petrarch's devotion to Cicero predated this discovery by many years, from that moment on he certainly considered Cicero the standard for intimate writing. He, too, tried to invest his letter writing with the immediacy and intensity of direct communication, paying attention to the related features of spontaneity and particularity, and allowing for variation in his style as an effective instrument of self-expression. For Petrarch, the same standard of familiaritas that applies to writing letters applies to reading them. Like letter writing, letter reading is rooted in the intimacy associated with friendship. "If Petrarch recovers in Cicero's letters to Atticus an ancient writing practice accurately characterized as a rhetoric of intimacy, he transforms that rhetoric, at Seneca's direction, into a way of reading, a hermeneutics of intimacy; and he effects this transformation at least in part by turning the so- called familiar letter into an instrument responsive to temporal as well as spatial distance," Eden argues (p. 69).

Petrarch's Familiares became an incunabular bestseller as popular as Cicero's Ad Atticum; and the educational reformer Erasmus, to whom the third chapter ("Familiaritas in Erasmian Rhetoric and Hermeneutics", pp. 73–95)1 is dedicated, grounded his agenda on the reading and imitating of Cicero's letters. Yet the rhetoric of intimacy that Cicero had labeled writing familiariter and that Petrarch sought to revive in his Familares left its mark more on Erasmus's various other writings than on his epistolary theory. In his De conscribendis epistolis, which supplanted the many other letter-writing manuals then available, Erasmus sidelines the genus familiare and refuses to put not merely an intimate style, but any kind of style at the center of epistolary practice; in his Ciceronianus, on the other hand, he does concentrate on the question of style, endorsing a model of reading grounded (consuetudo) in the relationship between the reader and the writer. Erasmus reinforced the expectation of intimacy characteristic of reading and writing letters, defining the genre by its style, which reflects a close bond between a reader and a writer committed to expressing his individuality in his writings.

In the fourth chapter ("Reading and Writing Intimately in Montaigne's Essais", pp. 96–118), we see how Montaigne's method for composing letters much resembled his method for writing essays – without a clear plan, one remark bringing on the next. He wants to make his thoughts and feelings known to his readers, so again intimacy finds its fullest treatment as a feature of epistolary style. Eden brings back the concept of ownership and the proprietary dimension of style in this chapter, aptly linking Montaigne to Cicero's De officiis. A writer, according to Montaigne, has to own his style in order to be able to reveal his soul as his most valuable possession.

In her conclusion ("Rediscovering Individuality", pp. 119–124), Eden drives home very effectively the point that, although in the last century Montaigne was considered by many scholars the founding father of individuality, he actually had important (if not influential) predecessors in Erasmus and the latter's model, Cicero. Furthermore, Petrarch, with his discovery of a rhetoric and hermeneutics of intimacy, and his northern successors Erasmus and Montaigne not only read and wrote intimately themselves, but hoped in turn to be read in this way. This rhetorical and hermeneutical intimacy was a matter of style, of someone's own style, displaying deep roots in a legal concept of property that goes as far back as Cicero's and Aristotle's discussions. This selfhood found expression with Petrarch's rediscovery of Cicero's letters to Atticus, for it was the familiar letter and its stylistic possibilities that strengthened the gathering forces of individuality in the early-modern era.

A summary like this can barely do any justice to the brilliant way in which Eden has brought together all the aforementioned elements in her intellectually stimulating journey from antiquity to the Renaissance and back. Continuously plotting and connecting the dots between her texts, combining relevant anticipation with useful retrospect, she paints a convincing triptych showcasing three major early-modern intellectuals.

My only reservation is that Eden's focusing on three protagonists leaves somewhat up in the air the continuity (or maybe the lack of continuity?) of this intimate aspect and of the importance of personal style in the epistolary genre as a whole, since, as Eden herself indicates, that genre was of such importance during the Renaissance. Some more light might also have been shed on the distinction between intimate letters that were intended to remain confidential – incidentally, what was the humanists' appreciation of Cicero's letters to Atticus, in this respect? – and others that were intended for publication from the start. One would like to learn more about the characterization and stylization of such intimate but fictional letters (which often became essays in epistolary form).

Eden's ambition in proving the existence of the threads she weaves between Petrarch, Erasmus and Montaigne may also account for the way she somewhat stifles the potential role of the letter-writing manuals. When she describes the success of Erasmus' De conscribendis epistolis in "supplanting the many other manuals competing for the letter-writing market," (p. 77) we are only told that the treatise "does here and there add to the chorus of epistolary theorists describing the letter in terms of the style that defines a conversation between friends", and learn that it sidelines the genus familiare, "despite its currency in the field of humanist epistolary theory and practice " (p. 80) – but to what extent precisely it built upon and differed from these numerous medieval and earlier humanist predecessors remains unclear. Despite the acknowledgment of the importance of such antecedents on p. 122, the discussion of this aspect is limited to a footnote in the introduction (p. 4 n. 10).

Yet at least for the three leading figures under discussion, Eden's claims for the tremendous importance of letter- writing and of the intimate style in these authors' oeuvres is indeed consistently convincing. The material finishing of the book is perfect (although this reviewer does not share Eden's preference for transliterating Greek terms) and contributes further to the stimulating reading experience this little gem provides.


1.   As Eden notes on p. ix, an earlier version of chapter 2, with the title "Petrarchan Hermeneutics and the Rediscovery of Intimacy," appeared in the volume Petrarch and the Textual Origins of Interpretation, ed. Teodolinda Barolini and H. Wayne Storey (Leiden, 2007), pp. 231–244.

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