\"Paradox,\" in Encyclopedia of Renaissance Philosophy (Dordrecht: Springer, 2016) Edited by Marco Sgarbi

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Paola Ugolini
University at Buffalo



This entry explores paradoxes from their origin in classical antiquity to their dissemination in the Renaissance, defining the nature of paradoxes and attempting to explain the reason for their success in the Renaissance.

Paradox, from the Greek para doxa (literally, "contrary to common opinion") is a mode of expression in which opposites can coexist, and that can be true and false at the same time. The purpose of paradoxes is to be deliberatively provocative, forcing the audience to reconsider notions that may have been taken for granted as true. The term can be applied to several categories of knowledge—to the point of appearing multifaceted, ambiguous, or even indecipherable (Genovese, 1992, 9). The most common form of paradox—and the most widespread in Renaissance thought—was the so-called rhetorical paradox: a formal defense (written in accordance to the rhetorical rules of a defense or a praise speech) of something that was not considered deserving of being praised or defended.
Paradoxes were central to Stoic philosophy, and were employed to express moral topics that contradicted common opinion (only the wise man, even when poor, is really rich, etc.). It was precisely thanks to Stoicism that the rhetorical genre known as paradoxical encomium, where a speaker will develop a praise of something considered unworthy of praise, was developed. The form was considered as a way for a speaker to showcase his skills, allowing him to impress the audience with a eulogy of a subject considered impossible to ever describe in positive terms. A well-known paradoxical encomium was Gorgias' Encomium of Helen (paradoxical since it praised the woman considered responsible for the Trojan war).
In Roman antiquity, paradoxes were the subject of an influential work by Cicero titled Paradoxa Stoicorum. Cicero's piece of work is noteworthy precisely because it mentions the notion that Stoics called "paradoxes" all things that are "remarkable" and "contrary to everybody's opinion" (admirabilia contraque opinionem omnium).
The rediscovery of classical culture in the Renaissance, and the following vogue for classical forms, was at the origin of the stunning popularity that paradoxes enjoyed in the Renaissance. Paradoxes became so popular that the scholar Rosalie Colie has compared the dissemination of paradoxes in the early modern period to an epidemic (Colie, 1996, 33). Colie sees paradoxes as typical of periods characterized by active intellectual speculation. As a consequence, she has identified the main reason for the success of the paradoxical form in the intense intellectual activity of the Renaissance, which often saw many contradictory ideas and systems compete or intertwine. The paradoxical mode offered an easy, readily available instrument to explore complex ideas, and, most importantly, to challenge assumptions and to fuel with new life a variety of fields of knowledge. In addition, in a refined culture that delighted itself in the practice of serio ludere, rhetorical paradoxes were the ideal instrument to delight audiences with a display of wit and erudition. Colie also underlines how paradoxes always exploit competing values systems, thus challenging orthodoxy. As such, they become an indirect criticism of any absolutism (Colie, 1966, 10).
The best-known example of paradoxical encomium of the Renaissance is most likely Erasmus' Praise of Folly (1511), where the author uses the stratagem of Folly praising her impact on the world as a way to express a bitter satire of the society of his times, criticizing especially the corruption of the Church. One more influential piece of work was Ortensio Lando's Paradossi (1543), a collection of thirty paradoxical theses, ranging from poverty being preferable to riches, to demonstrations of Aristotle's and Cicero's ignorance. Like Erasmus's text, Lando's work has a strong Christian undertone, related to the intrinsically paradoxical nature of Christianity, that teaches that the humble will be exalted, the persecuted will be rewarded, and that the poor are the real rich (Corsaro, 2000, 23-25). In a period of tense religious debates, and where the Church was increasingly seen as corrupt and in need of reverting to its original simplicity, paradoxes became also a way to express potentially controversial opinion without excessively exposing oneself.

Colie, R. Paradoxia Epidemica, 1966. Princeton.
Corsaro, A., ed. Ortensio Lando. Paradossi, cioè sentenze fuori del comun parere, 2000. Rome.
Figorilli. M. C. Meglio ignorante che dotto. L'elogio paradossale in prosa nel Cinquecento, 2008. Naples.
Genovese, R. Figure del paradosso, 1992. Naples.

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