The distinctive task of the universities, the academies, and the humanists in the Renaissance was to gather, translate, and transmit the old world of Greece and Rome to the young world of modern Europe. The task was grandly accomplished, and the classic revelation was complete.
Two men remain to be commemorated as oracles of this revelation. Guillaume Budé, after living sixty-two years in hopes of making Paris the heir of Italian humanism, came into his own when Francis founded the Collège Royale. He began his adult studies with law, and for almost a decade he buried himself in the Pandects of Justinian. To understand these texts better—Latin in language but Byzantine in bearings—he took up Greek with John Lascaris, and so devotedly that his teacher, departing, bequeathed to him his precious library of Greek books. When, at forty-one, Budé published Annotationes in XXIV libros Pandectarum (1508), the Digest of Justinian, for the first time in Renaissance jurisprudence, was studied in itself and its environment, instead of being displaced by the commentaries of the “glossators.” Six years later he issued another monument of recondite research, De asse et partibus—on its surface a discussion of ancient coins and measures, but actually an exhaustive consideration of classical literature in relation to economic life. Still more impressive were his Commentarii linguae graecae (1529), a work loosely ordered, but so rich in lexicographic information and illumination that it placed Budé at the head of all European Hellenists. Rabelais sent him a letter of homage, Erasmus paid him the compliment of jealousy. Erasmus was a man of the world, to whom scholarship was only a part of life; but to Budé scholarship and life were one. “It is philology,” he wrote, “that has so long been my companion, my associate, my mistress, bound to me by every tie of affection.... But I have been forced to loosen the bonds of a love so devouring... that I found it destructive to my health.” 21 He mourned that he had to steal time from his studies to eat and sleep. In moments of distraction he married and begot eleven children. Jean Clouet’s portrait of him (in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) shows him in a pessimistic mood, but Francis I must have found some warmth in him, for he made him librarian at Fontainebleau, and liked to have the old scholar near him, even on tours. On one of these Budé caught a fever. He left precise instructions for an unceremonious funeral, and quietly passed away (1540). The Collège de France is his monument.
Paris had not yet in his time absorbed the intellectual life of France. Humanism had a dozen French hearths: Bourges, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Montpellier, and, above all, Lyons, where love and humanism, ladies and literature, made a delightful mixture. And in Agen, where no one would have looked for an emperor, Julius Caesar Scaliger ruled imperiously over the philological scene after Budé’s death. Born probably at Padua (1484), he came to Agen at forty-one, and lived there till his death (1558). Every scholar feared him, for he had a masterly command of vituperative Latin. He made a name for himself by attacking Erasmus for belittling the “Ciceronians”—sticklers for a precise Ciceronian Latin. He criticized Rabelais, then criticized Dolet for criticizing Rabelais. In a volume of Exercitationes he examined Jerome Cardan’s De subtilitate, and undertook to prove that everything affirmed in that book was false, and everything denied in it was true. His De causis linguae latinae was the first Latin grammar based upon scientific principles, and his commentaries on Hippocrates and Aristotle were remarkable for both their style and their contributions to science. Julius had fifteen children, one of whom became the greatest scholar of the next generation. His Poetice, published four years after his death, shared with the work of his son—and the influence of the Italians who followed Catherine de Médicis to France—in turning French humanism back from Greek to Latin studies.
A special gift of the Greek revival was Amyot’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives. Jacques Amyot was one of Marguerite’s many protégés; through her he was appointed to a chair of Greek and Latin at Bourges. His translations of Daphnis and Chloë and other Greek love stories were rewarded, in the genial oddity of the times, with a rich abbey. So secured, he traveled widely in Italy, indulging his antiquarian and philological tastes. When he published the Lives (1559) he prefaced the book with an eloquent plea for the study of history as the “treasure house of humanity,” a museum in which a thousand examples of virtue and vice, statesmanship and decay, are preserved for the instruction of mankind; like Napoleon, he considered history a better teacher of philosophy than philosophy itself. Nevertheless he proceeded to translate also Plutarch’s Moralia. He was promoted to the bishopric of Auxerre. and died there in the ripeness of eighty years (1593). His version of the Lives was not always accurate, but it was a work of literature in its own right, endowed with a natural and idiomatic style quite equal to that of the original. Its influence was endless. Montaigne reveled in it, and turned from the France of St. Bartholomew to this select and ennobled antiquity; Shakespeare took three plays from North’s virile translation of Amyot’s translation; the Plutarchian ideal of the hero modeled a hundred French dramas and revolutionists; and the Vies des hommes illustres gave to the nation a pantheon of celebrities fit to stir the more masculine virtues of the French soul.