A Humanist Cautions His King. Thomas Elyot’s “Banquet of Sapience”

Elyot, Thomas (1490?-1546)

The bankette of sapience, compyled by syr Thomas Elyot knyght, and newly augmented with dyuerse titles [et] sentences

London: Thomas Berthelet, 1542


Octavo: 13.3 x 9.3 cm. [4], 47, [1] lvs. Collation: A4, B-G8

SECOND EDITION, enlarged (1st ed. 1539).

Bound in 19th c. mottled sheepskin, spine gilt. Printed in Black letter, the title within a woodcut border dated 1534 in the sill. Armorial printer’s device on verso of title and recto of final leaf, woodcut initials.  A very good copy of A VERY RARE BOOK (only 4 other copies recorded.) Title page dusty and with repaired tear, final leaf torn at blank fore-edge and soiled on the blank verso, occasional soiling, light dampstains, a few sidenotes shaved. Contemporary inscription on final leaf “Gulielmus Lillius.”

Elyot’s “Banquet of Sapience” is “a collection of maxims presented as a springtime banquet for the King's table following a period of Lenten abstinence. Elyot's Preface presents the work to the King with an engaging vision of convivial feasting, both literal and metaphorical, after the period of self-denial… Conjuring an evocative image of pastime with good company at court, Elyot observes that, especially in the springtime:

‘The nature of them in whom is any spark of gentle courage requireth to solace and banquet with mutual resort, communicating together their fantasies and sundry devices, which was not abhorred of the most wise and noble philosophers, as may appear to them that have vouchedsafe to read the works of Plato, Xenophon, and Plutarch, which they named Symposia, called Banquets in English.’

“What follows these lines is a passage redolent of Elyot at his most inspired and convivial, exploring the metaphor of Wisdom's banquet as if he were present himself, dining and communing with the ancient philosophers… But even here it is not long before the good life in ancient Greece is interrupted by the pressing matter of contemporary politics. For, as he goes on to declare, the book was primarily inspired, not by the thought of enjoying the fruits of wisdom for their own sake, but by the more immediate needs of the King and commonwealth…

“Hence Elyot returned once more to the task of counseling his king (as he had done in ‘The Governor’.) [He] addressed Henry in the voice of Wisdom herself, quoting from the sapiential books of the Old Testament, that grant him a new and imperious tone in which to utter his advice and admonitions… Never before had Elyot spoken with such a bold and compelling voice. By co-opting the words of Scripture to his cause, and delivering them in propre persona, he was able both to speak to kings in that voice of authority that he had always believed was the prerogative of the wise man, and also to offer his most comprehensive affirmation to date of the centrality of knowledge and wisdom to the well-being of the public weal…

“The maxims that follow are, for the most part, familiar… The importance of good counsel is a central theme. It has a section to itself in which the third-century historian Marius Maximus is quoted to the effect that a ‘public weal is in better state and in a manner more sure where the prince is not good than where the king's counselors and companions be ill’ (Ciii(v)). But, throughout the text even the most unlikely pretexts are used to reintroduce the theme and assert its importance. Under ‘Folly’ it is observed that ‘A fool's way in his own eye is best, a wise man heareth good counsel’ (Dii(v)).

“The princely virtues of affability and placability, so crucial to the process of consultation as it was described in ‘The Governor’, are also continually commended. In the section on Flattery, Elyot quotes the Ciceronian maxim, ‘[He] whose ears be so stopped from truth that he may not abide to hear truth of his friend, his health and prosperity is to be despaired.’(Diii) Symbolically, the final maxim in the collection, introduced slightly incongruously in the section on Wrath, is Plato's response to the question, what is a wise man?

‘A wise man when he is rebuked is therewith not angry nor anything the prouder when he is praised.’(Gvii(v))

“Equally familiar to readers of Elyot's earlier treatises, but still as timely and urgent, were those warnings against socially divisive policies and the perils that they create: ‘They that sustain one part of the people and neglect the other part they bring into the city a thing very perilous, that is to say sedition and discord.’(Cvi(v)). ‘Every realm divided within itself shall be made desolate and every city and house divided by mutual contention shall not long stand.’ (Cvi) Rather than directly deploring contemporary divisions or criticizing royal policies, he approaches the matter obliquely, as a question of political principle. Moreover, he is echoing current governmental rhetoric, which frequently cited the King's concern for the well being of his subjects and his search for a via media that would reunite his divided people. Seeking to appeal to this aspect of the King's public persona, Elyot was, predictably, encouraging him to return to more consensual paths.

“Paring down of the genre to its bare axiomatic bones was a liberating maneuver for Elyot. By reducing his own authorial role apparently to nothing, and allowing the ideas to be spoken wholly through the voices of others, he seems to have gained a confidence that was lacking in his earlier exercises in good counsel. Freed from the need to construct a voice and a role for himself as a royal counselor, he found a far more potent voice in the words of generations of the wise. Hence, perhaps, he was able to find the confidence and courage to come as close as he had yet come to criticizing royal policies directly.”(Walker, Writing under Tyranny, English Literature and the Henrician Reformation)

STC 7631