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Lorenzo Valla and Quattrocento Scepticism

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Lorenzo Valla (1406-1457) has often been considered to be a sceptic. Equipped with an extremely polemical and critical mind, his whole oeuvre seemed to aim at undermining received philosophical and theological dogmas. More specifically he has been associated with the burgeoning interests in ancient scepticism in the fifteenth century. In this article the arguments in support of this interpretation will be critically examined and evaluated. Based on a discussion of two of his major works, De vero bono and the Dialectica, it will be shown that Valla was not a sceptic. Even though the first work betrays the techniques of the Academy as employed by Cicero, the appropriation of these strategies served an agenda which can hardly be called 'sceptical'. The second work contains his reform of Aristotelian dialectic, which seems to testify to a sceptical interest in arguments which rely on verisimilitude and dubious validity such as sorites and paradox. But rather than reflecting an endorsement of Academic scepticism, this work, on closer reading, shows Valla to be highly critical on such arguments. This raises the question of how scepticism is related to rhetoric. Their similarities and differences will be discussed in the final section: Valla the Christian orator was no proponent of doubt, uncertainty and a suspension of judgement, even though at times he used strategies derived from Academic scepticism.


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