Consolations for melancholy in Renaissance humanism

International Social Science Journal (Chinese Edition)

No.2, 2021


Consolations for melancholy in Renaissance humanism (Abstract)


Angus Gowland


This essay explores the role of melancholy within the consolatory literature of Renaissance humanism. It begins with a summary of the themes and methods of humanist consolationes and their classical models, with particular attention to their moral psychology, and addresses their relationship with scripture and Christian spiritual literature. It then turns to the position of melancholy within humanist consolations. It is shown that whilst in many cases moralists and spiritual writers were reluctant invade the territory of the physicians by analysing or treating a fundamentally somatic condition, discussions of the accidentia animi in Galenic medicine provided the conceptual environment within which a moral-consolatory therapy for melancholy could be formulated and applied. Here the role of the imagination was crucial: as the primarily affected part in the disease, it was the faculty of the soul that was primarily responsible for melancholic passions, but also the faculty that presented the physician and moralist with the opportunity to dispel or alleviate those passions. Hence, the imagination was at the centre of a moral psychology of melancholy. The final sections of the essay show that the fullest implementation of this approach to the treatment of melancholy was in Robert Burtons Consolatory Digression in The Anatomy of Melancholy, which both synthesises the various moral, spiritual and psychological elements of the humanist consolatory tradition, and contains a number of idiosyncratic and paradoxical features.