Lorenzo Valla, the Italian humanist, is best known as the man who exposed the Donation of Constantine and thus undermined a leading argument for papal sovereignty in the secular realm. This fact and the reputation for hedonism derived from his youthful work De Voluptate (On pleasure) have conspired to invest Valla with an air of disrepute that he probably does not deserve.
In particular, this reputation does not do justice to Valla’s efforts on behalf of a return to the spirit of the Gospel or to his respect for Paul and the early Greek and Latin Church Fathers, in which he clearly anticipates later developments.
Nor does it recognize his passion for historical truth and for the defense of plain speaking against what he regarded as metaphysical obscurity and verbalizing. Valla was perhaps the most versatile of the humanists; he initiated a series of attacks upon Scholastic logic, theology, and law, in addition to his contributions to historical and textual criticism.
Valla was above all a brilliant philologian and a staunch champion of the new humanities; most of his writing is best understood from this point of view. Valla was born in Rome. He learned Latin and Greek there and perhaps in Florence, and he spent three formative years, from 1431 to 1433, teaching rhetoric at the University of Pavia.
Pavia was a lively center of humanists, and it may have been here that Valla heard the discussions of ancient ethics that prompted him to write the earliest of his extant works, the dialogue generally known under the title “On Pleasure” (Valla actually called it “On the True Good”). Several versions of this dialogue appeared, with the speeches variously assigned to different contemporaries of Valla.
Contrary to a widespread impression, Valla does not directly endorse Epicurean ethics in the work; he permits speakers to present Stoic and Epicurean ethics and then, in the person of a third speaker, criticizes their views from a Christian standpoint. This third speaker clearly represents the convictions of Valla himself.
The Stoic spokesman presents a defense of Stoic honestas or virtue, together with a quite un-Stoic complaint against nature, “which has made men so prone to vice.” An Epicurean replies, at much greater length, in defense of nature and “utility.” Utility is equated with pleasure and described as a mistress among her handmaidens, the virtues, rather than as a harlot among honest matrons.
The third speaker criticizes both of his predecessors and argues that the true Christian should disregard the goals of this life and concentrate on the joys that await him in Heaven. However, this speaker accepts without challenge the equating of “the useful” with pleasure; he insists only that the pleasures a Christian should pursue are not those of this world.
Thus, despite his rejection of Epicurean morality, Valla’s description of heavenly pleasures is more graphic than we are accustomed to expect from a Christian writer. Renaissance joie de vivre is allowed to assert itself only in a future life.
Does Valla depart radically from earlier Christian doctrine, or does he simply make explicit what would constitute the traditional Christian hope if it were spelled out? Obviously there is room for disagreement here, but there can be no disagreeing with the view of the eminent historian Eugenio Garin that Valla’s work on pleasure represents a major Renaissance document.
After sojourns in various Italian cities, Valla entered the service of King Alfonso of Aragon, with whom he remained from 1435 to 1448. During this time in Naples, and probably in connection with Alfonso’s quarrels with the pope, Valla wrote his most renowned work—his exposure as a forgery of the supposed Donation of the Emperor Constantine of the Western Empire to Pope Sylvester.
Although he was anticipated in this by several earlier writers, among them Nicholas of Cusa, Valla’s treatise stands out as a very effective piece of historical criticism and, incidentally, a strong plea for the spiritual purity of the Holy See. In view of the latter it should not appear surprising that Valla was later accepted into the pontifical secretariat and spent the remaining years of his life in Rome.
The genuineness of Valla’s respect for historical truth and his scorn for superstition is shown in such statements as this in the treatise on the Donation: “A Christian man who calls himself the son of light and truth ought to be ashamed to utter things that not only are not true but are not even likely.”
While with King Alfonso, Valla also wrote a work on free will, De Libero Arbitrio, in which he takes issue with Boethius’s treatment of free will in the Consolation of Philosophy. In his dialogue Valla distinguishes God’s foreknowledge, which cannot be said to be the cause of our volitions, from his will. God’s accurate prediction that Judas will become a traitor does not excuse Judas.
But Valla refuses to deal with the further question of whether God’s will, which cannot be denied, takes away human choice. The divine will, he argues, is known neither to men nor to angels; we stand by faith, not by the probability of reasons.
A similar reluctance to engage in argumentative philosophizing appears in the treatise Dialectic, an attack upon conventional Aristotelian logic, printed a half-century after Valla’s death. Valla here pleads for the elimination of empty subtleties and vain word-juggling.
“Let us conduct ourselves more simply and more in line with natural sense and common usage,” he says. “Philosophy and dialectic ... ought not to depart from the most customary manner of speaking.” Valla’s treatment of the Aristotelian categories is not without interest.
The Latin word for entity (entitas), for example, is simply a coinage of a participle from the verb “to be” that does not occur in standard Latin and hence ought to be regarded with suspicion. To say that a stone is an entity (lapis est ens) amounts to no more than saying that it is a thing (res), which is perfectly satisfactory and more clear.
Therefore, Aristotle’s metaphysics, which deals with “being qua being,” is meaningless, suggesting as it does that what “is” is “able not to be.” Having protested the positing of mysterious entities, quiddities, and essences and having equated substances with bodies or things, Valla then reduces the remaining nine categories of Aristotle to two: quality and action.
Definitions, according to Valla, are explications of all the qualities and actions that are present in a thing. In the course of his exposition, Valla has occasion to challenge the validity of many scholastic distinctions: for example, those between the concrete and the abstract, between matter and form, and so on.
Unsatisfactory as Valla’s own offerings may be (they are not clearly dedicated to the solution of any specific philosophical problems), nevertheless it must be admitted that a fresh consideration of technical terms was certainly called for at the time and was eventually carried through by later critics.
Valla displays great sensitivity to nuances of meaning in his Elegantiae Linguae Latinae (Elegancies of the Latin language), in which he makes careful analyses of the usage of many Latin terms. Critics have observed that Valla’s own style was not as elegant as it could have been, but his advice was widely consulted.
Valla was often accused of bad form in his attacks on people and schools of thought, but one must recall that invectives and ad hominem attacks were the order of the day. In the Renaissance professional rivalry did not bother to conceal itself under polite or semipolite discussions of issues.
Valla defended himself against the charge of malevolence and vindictiveness in a letter to Giovanni Serra, in which he concludes: “I do not censure all authors, but only a few,... not all philosophers but some from all sects, not the best but the worst, not impudently but calmly, ready to accept correction should it prove valid.”