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4 - George Buchanan, James VI and neo-classicism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 November 2009

Roger A. Mason
Affiliation:
University of St Andrews, Scotland
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Summary

Just as twentieth-century historians have debated whether Renaissance humanism was revolutionary or conservative, sixteenth-century writers disagreed about whether literary neo-classicism was liberating or constricting, capable of fashioning a new national poetry or interested only in aping an alien past. In so far as the Renaissance argument about neo-classicism was articulated in terms of freedom versus servility, innovation versus tradition, and patriotism versus cosmopolitanism, this conflict can be correlated with significant developments in early modern European political thought: specifically, the formation of national consciousness, the rethinking of the relationship between present law and past custom, and the conceptualizing of political autonomy and sovereignty.

This chapter explores the neo-classical poetics of George Buchanan and James VI of Scotland in the light of their political thought, especially with regard to the issues of Scottish nationalism, the role of tradition in Scottish politics, and sixteenth-century formulations of authority and law. Such an exercise may help us understand what the humanist scholarly and literary enterprises contributed to both literary culture and political thought in sixteenth-century Scotland. It also reveals the political flexibility of humanism and neo classicism: after all, James and Buchanan shared many assumptions about culture and its role in reforming Scotland (and informing its kings), even when they thought and wrote so differently and to opposite political ends. Buchanan's literary neo-classicism and humanist scholarship, as manifested in both his plays and tracts, made him aware of his isolation in the present while he was also seeking continuity with the Scottish past.

Type
Chapter
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Scots and Britons
Scottish Political Thought and the Union of 1603
, pp. 91 - 111
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 1994

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