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Nicholas Breton and the English Self


Conny Loder

Nicholas Breton (1545/55-1626?) was one of the most prolific writers of the Early Modern period and left behind a vast œuvre that is, however, largely neglected today. Breton addresses instrumental questions of his time, especially those of man’s identity. This study concentrates on a selection of Breton’s political texts in which Breton contrasts the Self against the Other. These texts not only stigmatise the Other as the undesired, the unknown and the indecipherable, but also construct a patriotic and uniform English identity to be imitated by all Englishmen and Englishwomen: the English Self.


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4. Man’s intellect


Chapter 3 argues that Breton’s descriptive approach to human nature contextua- lises man into the pre-lapsus debate. At the same time Breton’s view of human nature refers to Pico’s elaboration on man’s optimistic “capacity for change,” 213 although Breton is by far more sceptical than Pico. When Pico sees this as man’s chance to create, Breton sees this only as man’s chance to destroy, both himself and others. In order to restrain this destructive capacity, Breton shifts the focus from man’s nature towards man’s intellect and will, both of which must not only work in agreement but also be nurtured in order to cultivate human nature. Breton, as will be shown in the following chapters, places man’s intellect and will at the centre of his works, in which he probes both the thriving concord and the malfunctioning discord between intellect and will. In his Wil of Wit, The Pil- grimage to Paradise and Wits Trenchmour, Breton’s descriptive approach makes way for a normative approach. 4.1. Intellect, Learning and Intelligence Intellect, learning and intelligence are essential concepts that found an ample debate in the sixteenth century. It was through learning that man could over- come his original state and improve his social status. As Pico demonstrated, man’s abilities were sketched as infinite and were based on man’s reason, which transforms man into a “heavenly being,” 214 who, if he follows his intellect rather than his passion, “will be an angel and the son of God”. 215 This positive connotation of intelligence...

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