[No Comment ]Vives’s Fable of Humankind | Harper's Magazine

Sign in to access Harper’s Magazine

Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?

  1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
  2. Select Email/Password Information.
  3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.

Locked out of your account? Get help here.

Subscribers can find additional help here.

Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!

Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
Subscribe for Full Access
Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
[No Comment]

Vives’s Fable of Humankind



At hominem simul ac viderunt dii, amplexi fratrem ipsi suum. Indignum iudicarunt qui in scænam unquam prodiisset ludicramque exercuisset artem infamem. Et suam atque patris similtudinem non poterant satis exosculari. Perscrutabantur singula, perlustrabant tam multos hominis recessus, delectabantur ea potius re quam ludorum omnium spectaculis. “Nec vidisse semel satis est, iuvat usque morari.”

Illis enim mens quædam tanti capax consilii, tantæ prudentiæ, sapientiæ, rationis tam fecunda, ut vel ex se sola incredibiles edat partus. Inventa sunt eius urbes, domus; animalium, herbarum, lapidum, metallorum usus; cunctarum rerum appellationes et nomina, quod multi sapientissimi inter reliqua eius inventa imprimis demirati sunt. Deinde, quod neque minus est, paucis quibusdam litteris comprehensio illius immensæ varietatis sonorum vovis humanæ, ex quibus conscriptæ et traditæ disciplinæ tot. Quinus etiam ipsa religio continetur, Iovis Patris cognitio et cultus ac reliqorum deorum fratrum. Quæ una res, cum in nullo sit animalium nisi in isto, ostendit agnationem illam, quam habet cum diis. Ad hæc, parum illa omnia profuisset invenisse, nisi et accessisset quasi thesaurus rerum omnium, qui opes has divinas reconditas servaret: memoria, promptuarium universorum, quæ divimus, ex quibus duobus quasi conflatur providential et futurorum coniectura, scintilla plane illius divinæ atque immensæ scientiæ, quæ perspicit omnia futura tamquam exstantia.

When the gods saw the human and recognized in him a brother they deemed it undignified for him to appear upon the stage and practice the disreputable theatrical arts, but they could not find enough praise for their own likeness and that of their father. In this way they examined the many hidden secrets of humankind, deriving from this process still more pleasure than they had from watching his performances, “Not having seen him once are they content; they wish to linger on.”

There they found a mind filled with knowledge, prudent, wise, reasonable, fertile indeed in its ability to produce extraordinary things. Among its inventions are catalogued: cities and dwellings, the skilled application of herbs, stones and metals, a system of nomenclature for all things, which first among these many things have brought fascination to the wise. Also, and not less significant, with his meager supply of letters he is capable of producing immense variety through the human voice. And with these letters he crafts his teachings in written form and transmits them, indeed including religion itself and the wisdom and cult of Jupiter, chief among his brother-gods. This unique thing is found in no animal save humankind, demonstrating his special relationship to the gods. Of little good would all these inventions proven had there not been contributed as the treasury for the safekeeping of these riches the faculty of memory. And from this memory as well as religion man derives the power of foreknowledge, the ability to anticipate the future, a spark of the divine and great science which recognizes the future as if it were the present.

Juan Luis Vives, Fabula de homine (1518) in: Opera omnia vol. 4, p. 7 (S.H. transl.)

“When the gods were more human,” writes Schiller, “the humans were more divine.” This encapsulates the essential purpose of the Greek practice of giving their divinities human characteristics and transforming those characteristics over time. And the interplay between the human and the divine also forms one of the more remarkable aspects of the thinking of the high Renaissance.

Juan Luis Vives would come high up my list of the original Europeans–a man who appreciated the continent’s shared classical and humanist culture, the universitas litterarum, and hoped it would form the basis for a future framed by less warfare and more pursuit of science and the arts. Vives was a calm and introspective man, yet his writing and thinking clearly are part of the glue which helped hold the continent’s intellectual life together–binding the Mediterranean world of Aragon to the North Sea world of England and the Low Countries. Unfortunately, he remains a little known, marginalized figure. For the English-speaking world, Vives was the teacher of Mary Tudor and a darkly eccentric Oxford don. Things turned sour when he refused to renounce the Catholic Church and betray his liege lady Catherine of Aragon. He was very close to Thomas More and closer still to Erasmus. Yet he was suspected of being one of those arch-Catholic Spanish malefactors who promoted in Mary notions of religious intolerance, a Spanish alliance and a fervent desire to restore Catholicism to England.

That image never made much sense considering Vives’s writings, which preached tolerance as a principal virtue and urged skeptical inquiry in place of certitude. And more recently, research into Vives’s own carefully obscured roots have shown just how absurd the suspicions were. Vives was, we learn, actually a converso. His parents, from the Aragonese city of Valencia, were Jews who nominally converted to Catholicism at the last possible moment to avoid being expelled from Spain. That was 1491-92, the time of Vives’s birth, the European discovery of America and the mass expulsion of Jews from the Iberian peninsula. But the Inquisition suspected that the conversions were bogus and first Vives’s father and then his mother became its victims. Vives fled with an aristocratic protector to the Spanish Netherlands, possibly but a step ahead of the Inquisition. But there is little doubt that he craved the freer air of the Low Countries, and later also England. His writings cover many ideas of inquiry, notably including psychology and pedagogy. But his brief “Fable of Humankind” is a gem of only a few pages well worth reading–though unfortunately it remains unavailable in any Internet-accessible version in any language. Here’s a quick recapitulation.

Jupiter throws a birthday bash for his consort Juno, and in the course he arranges a series of plays to be performed before an audience consisting of the gods. He tasks a human to perform the plays. They are a terrific success, and in the course of them the human demonstrates his ability to portray all variety of plant and animal-life upon the earth and ultimately gods and even Jupiter himself. So brilliant is the portrayal that many of the viewers are convinced that they have seen Jupiter himself, not a human playing Jupiter. As a reward, the human is seated and feted together with the gods. Nihil esse homine admirabilius says Vives, there is nothing quite so wonderful as the human. But Vives’s approach is quite a bit more sly than that of earlier humanists, like Pico della Mirandola. He suggests that our clever and inventive human may not in the end be quite so gifted as he thinks, and therein lies a trap. In particular note that Vives has him play god. This is a core thread of the Spaniard’s learning–he questions the use of “cult” or religion by man. Is man not in fact simply projecting his own thinking and presenting that as something divine? That may well be Vives’s criticism of the political manipulation of the church to cloak all too human aspirations, which he tragically witnessed in Spain at the time of the great suppression of his fellow Jews, and later in the fall of his patroness Catherine as Henry Tudor’s quest for a male heir led him to renounce the Catholic Church, and also in the rise of the Reformation as various princes took sides that perhaps reflected their conscience, but that certainly reflected their politics. It’s noteworthy in his little fable that those who truly mistook the human for Jupiter were made to pay for their foolishness, while the actor himself reaps only rewards. So what appears an innocent relic of antiquity is in fact a poignant commentary on Vives’s own times.

Vives’s fable is derived from a long tradition. Plato’s Laws talks of man as a marionette on a stage; Seneca and then Plotinus then also wrote extensively using the same metaphor. But it seems that Vives’s fable was well known in his time and in the circles in which he traveled–in Spain, Italy, England and the Low Countries. Did it have lasting influence? It may not be so well known today, but if we look at the generation of playwrights who followed Vives in Spain and England, the ideas of the “Fable of Humankind” are repeated. Look at Calderón’s La vida es sueño for instance, in which Vives’s influence lies right at the surface, or a number of the plays of Shakespeare, such as The Tempest, in which the Oxford professor’s ideas are carefully unfolded.

But, as Vives might ask, what exactly is the moral of this tale? In the classical tradition, a fable is a fictional story which contains a truth which closely approaches real life. And in this case, the title tells us much already. The human is himself a play (ludus, equally, a game), a fable, it suggests. The point of inquiry for all of us to undertake is the answer: what kind of play and fable is humankind? That question can be pursued and answered through life and in no other way. God may well assume the need for the human to play, and achieve mastery in many roles, but it would be a mistake for him to assume that this process alone is his purpose. In the end, Vives suggests, the human so learned in role playing and assumed identities can succeed only by finding himself, through an inward turn to identify the element of the divine in him. But in this process, Vives reckons the divine as something quite real and not simply an internalized element of man. It was, after all, Jupiter himself who scripted and directed every aspect of the show. And the happiness of humankind was in the end totally dependent upon divine favor. Vives embraces the approach and vision of the Italian humanists; he masters the subtle irony of Erasmus. But at their core his writings have a more theologically oriented and conservative take on their subject matter than that of the other humanists. Humankind truly possesses a spark of the divine, he tells us, but it would be a tragedy if his awareness of that quality were to obscure the quest which is his ultimate duty.

Giovanni Bellini painted the Feast of the Gods, one of his few allegorically themed works, on a commission from Alfonso I, Duke of Ferrara, as part of a series of decorations for the Alabaster Chamber in the Castello Estenese. As the painting was initially executed by Bellini, the participants were depicted, rather daringly, as ordinary mortals. Was this a reference to the Vives’s fable or one of its classical antedecents? This was in any event a humanist trope of the age, with a clear political subtext (one that implicitly questioned the notion of aristocracy defined by birth) but it was also controversial. And in this case, the move did not please the Este masters. A decade later, according to Vasari, Titian modified the painting to give the participants the traditional insignia associated with specific gods. The original approach and the subsequent modifications were revealed by a series of X-rays shown at a special exhibition by the National Gallery of Art in Washington. But the Bellini original, executed in the same years in which Vives was composing his fable, provides a perfect image to accompany the work.

Listen to Tomás Luis de Victoria’s O Magnum Mysterium, a work completed sometime before 1603, and probably in the last decade of the sixteenth century, in a recording by the Cambridge Singers:

More from