The Great Debate: The Latke’s Role in the Renaissance, 1991 Debate
When Dear Abby was asked the question ‘Why do Jews always answer a question with a question?’ she replied, ‘How should they answer?’ And when I am asked do I give precedence to the latke or the hamantash? I must reply,despite being absolutely sure of the answer, ‘How should the university answer?’ This is not because I believe that the état c’est moi, whatever you may think. In fact, as president of the University of Chicago, it is my duty never to think.
Let me remind this audience of the stated policy of the university as formulated in the Kalven Committee Report on the University’s Role in Political and Social Action, published and endorsed by the Council of the University Senate in 1967: ‘[There is] a heavy presumption against the university taking collective action or expressing opinions on the political and social issues of the day, or modifying its corporate activities to foster social or political values, however compelling and appealing theymay be.’ Given my fidelity to the idea of the university and the obligation it imposes for a colorless neutrality, therefore, let me say in the most courageously forthright and outspoken terms that both the latke and the hamantash are simply wonderful.We welcome them to our diverse, pluralistic, and tolerant community of scholars, as we have for a hundred years and as we will for the century to come.
Fortunately, there is another path, that of the tenured professor. I am accustomed to people asking me, with that peculiar kind of careful courtesy usually reserved for those who have been recently bereaved or incarcerated: ‘What did you used to be?’ It is widely believed in scholarly circles that university administrators are failed academics who have long since passed to the other side. For someone like myself, a Renaissance historian, any knowledge of Machiavelli is thought to be the fruit not of learning, or reading, but of the sordid instincts and sorry practices to which administrators bent on survival are prone. So I thank Professor Cohen for his grudging acknowledgment of my quasi identity as a historian and for this opportunity of presenting to you my scholarly and definitive solutions (1) to the problem of the Renaissance (i.e., the Geistesgeschichtliche Problemstellung des Renaissance Forschungs und Periodisierungsbegriff) and (2) to the understanding of the much misunderstood and maligned Machiavelli.
‘God cannot alter the past,’ said Samuel Butler, ‘that is why he is obliged to connive at the existence of historians.’ This insight has been further developed by distinguished Jewish intellectuals.Thus Erwin Panofsky, asked to explain how he managed his elegant interpretations of iconography, in which everything fell so wonderfully into place, replied, ‘I bend the nail until I hit it on the head.’ That concludes my methodological discussion.And finally Hannah Arendt has given us a motto ideally suited to frame this Latke-Hamantash Debate: ‘I have yet to see any problem, however complicated, which, when you looked at it in the right way, did not become more complicated.’ This is certainly true of the relation of latkes and hamantashen to the Italian Renaissance.
Even this debate, as you can easily see by reading Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man, is itself a product of the Italian Renaissance. Pico hit a nail right on the head when he wrote,‘There are, indeed, those who do not approve of this whole method of disputation and of this institution of publicly debating on learning, maintaining that it tends rather to the parade of talent and the display of erudition than to the increase of learning.’ However, I myself propose to disprove these critics. I am about to increase your learning, and to do so with a becoming modesty, if also with conclusive erudition. So let us begin.
All discussion of the Renaissance must, of course, depart from Burckhardt’s Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy and his assertion that the Renaissance,as a distinct period in human cultural and spiritual history, represented the discovery of the world and of man. Perhaps you think that is all there is to it; that I will tell you that the world is a latke,rounded and flatman is the hamantash,the microcosm, the triangle enfolding as prune or poppy seed that spirit of individualism in which Burckhardt saw the birth of modern consciousness. You might think so, and you would be wrong.When I want your opinion, as the great Jewish thinker Sam Goldwyn remarked, ‘I’ll give it to you.’ This is known as the Socratic method. It, too, has been used successfully at this university for a hundred years, as it will be in the century to come.
No, the problem of the Renaissance is indeed more complicated. It requires that we return with our hammers to that other old chestnut, the Renaissance as the revival of antiquity.We will now examine, as no one has yet done, the role and the tension of latke and hamantash in that revival.
The humanists of the Renaissance believed passionately in the value and objective truth of the ancient texts. Unfortunately, many of their texts were corrupted because of mistakes and mistranscriptions made by scribes (including Christian monks who were often shocked bywhat they thought theywere reading — words like nudum and still stronger stuff — and who, as ascetics,were sadly hostile to food references). In addition, there was the problem of the absence of the letter k in Latin and of h in Italian, so that the latke in the one, and the hamantash when translated in the other, came out in rather curious and mysterious ways. Nonetheless, to the trained scholar familiar with the work of Renaissance humanism, they are recognizable. For the humanist of the Renaissance, if something existed in antiquity, it was good; if it existed in the greatest time of antiquity (i.e., before the Silver Age), it was really good; if it was in Cicero, it was canonical.The humanists adopted the ancient forms of the dialogue and debate.They could find the latke and the hamantash, and the debate over their relative merits, in ancient texts,could discuss the nuances and contrasts in many ways, and could relate these to ancient philosophy, poetry, and history.As divisions arose in Renaissance thought they turned out to be those of the latke and the hamantash, as we will see in the cases of Machiavelli and Pico della Mirandola.
In short, Renaissance humanism grew out of the revival of the latke, so prominent, though needing to be rediscovered, in the Golden Age of Rome, even before the decline of virtue and strength in her citizens.And what of the hamantash? It, too was rediscovered, in the Hamatus,which means ‘furnished with a hook,’ or ‘hooked.’ Some of the humanists were indeed hooked on the hamantash, especially those who read Lucius Appuleius and who found the Hamus, denoting a kind of pastry, in his Metamorphoses. But the literature associated with the hamantash in antiquity is far less rich than that of the latke, and its texts are primarily of Silver Age origin. Indeed, the Metamorphoses of Appuleius are better known by the title of The Golden Ass,which is assuredly not aristocratic or especially nice.Most humanists voted with their stomachs, not their seats, and with their classical tastes for the latke and would have nothing to do with the Golden Ass,as you should not,prunes or no prunes.Only someone like Pico della Mirandola, who was pretty much an adolescent and a syncretist to boot,became a hamantash addict.He liked to mush dissimilar things around together. The hamantash fit his taste for emblems and his puerile notions of magic and mysticism and the unity of knowledge and the poppy or mommy seed in the midst of the carapace within which the boring nub of universal truth might be found and consumed.This is known as Renaissance Neoplatonism, and you would be well-advised to give it short shrift.
But the tradition of the latke and its role in the unfolding of the Renaissance is of a different order. Here let me turn to Machiavelli and to the important revelation that emerges out of reading his work by the light of the classical latke scholarship that he inherited from his Quattrocento predecessors.
To Machiavelli, the relevant word was latta.That was perhaps because he spoke with a very heavy Italian accent — not surprising,perhaps, in view of the fact that he was Italian and wrote in Italian, too, and also because he liked to spend all day fooling around in a country café during his exile to Settignano, where all they had was Chianti and latke.The rustics there taught Machiavelli to call it that; the word means a tin plate or a thin plate or a slap or the crushing of a person’s hat when you slap him on top of it. So it is quite relevant to the latke, and you can see it in not only the object,but also the way in which Machiavelli and his companions sat around and ate latkes and slapped each others’ hats before calling for more.Machiavelli was not genteel. In coming to the discussion of Machiavelli, I should emphasize that although he was a latke man, he has to be analyzed like a hamantash.This, among other things,makes him quite unusual.An example of such an analysis, although incomplete and basically inadequate, may be found in the work of the University of Chicago’s own Leo Strauss, learned also in Jewish philosophy, entitled, Thoughts on Machiavelli. Strauss really went to town in pointing out that Machiavelli may never mean what he says; that the external surface hides a different meaning within, that he is master of deception, citing the letter to Guicciardini in which Machiavelli writes, ‘For some time I never say what I believe and I never believe what I say; and if it sometimes occurs to me that I say the truth, I conceal it among so many lies that it is hard to find out.’ Strauss must also be credited with opening up a splendid line of investigation in his theory of silence,which states, roughly, that it is all very well to read the words on the page but what you should really be looking for is what the author does not say. That is where the true meaning is to be found: ‘The silence of a wise man is always meaningful.’ Here, indeed, we have the key which Machiavelli scholars have ignored.
There are a lot of things about which Machiavelli is silent. Let us examine the internal evidence. He never mentions his mother. He never talks about cooking.He is silent about Hanukkah.The old deceiver, so fond of posing extreme alternatives and then coming down resoundingly on the unexpected side, never poses the antithesis of latke and hamantash.What does all this add up to? You’ve guessed it. Machiavelli was Jewish — his silence makes that crystal clear. Not only was he Jewish, he was like all wise people, for the latke. I suppose you probably feel, as I do, that I have said enough to show that the Renaissance problem is no problem at all and that Machiavelli is perfectly comprehensible once you understand the that his conception of virtù in history and politics is grounded in the revival of the Roman latke, flat, juicy, and oval like the Roman Republic he so admired.
It is fitting to contribute these conclusions to the world of scholarship at the time of our university’s centennial, its celebration of learning, and its renewed commitment to complicating the uncomplicated, as it has done for a hundred years and will do relentlessly in the century to come, pursuing and disseminating the truth and the joy of discovery wherever they may be found