Encyclopedia of Renaissance Philosophy

Living Edition
| Editors: Marco Sgarbi

Sidney, Philip

Born: 30 November 1554
Died: 17 October 1586
  • Michael MackEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-02848-4_389-1


Sir Philip Sidney helped usher in the great literary flourishing of the late sixteenth century in England. His posthumously published lyric poetry, prose fiction, and literary theory had an immediate impact on his contemporaries, including Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare, and have exerted a shaping influence on the course of English literature to the present day. In his own lifetime, he was widely admired as the embodiment of the ideals of the era, and upon his death from wounds sustained in battle, his life became legendary. Of his literary works, the Apology for Poetry is the most philosophical – notwithstanding the fact that in the work Sidney explicitly pits poetry against philosophy (as well as history). In the Apology Sidney argues for the ethical and political value of fiction, contending that fiction can bring about self-knowledge that moves readers to repent of their faults and to embrace virtuous action. Sidney draws on a wide array of classical and continental sources, and critics have identified a variety of intellectual currents running through the work. Although critics have argued that one or another programmatic allegiance was decisive for Sidney, no consensus has emerged. What is clear is that Sidney departs from the older conception of poetry as veiled theology to a new understanding of poetry as distinctive and valuable in its own right. Throughout the work Sidney displays such wit and charm that it is difficult to imagine a more winning presentation of his position.


Virtuous Action Lyric Poetry Divine Creation Heroic Poetry Divine Idea 
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Philip Sidney (1554–1586), courtier, soldier, and poet, was a leading figure in the great literary flourishing that produced, in addition to his own works, those of Spenser and Shakespeare. He was born on November 30, 1554, at Penshurst in Kent, England, the eldest son of Sir Henry Sidney and Lady Mary Sidney. Sidney’s father’s family had long provided the crown important service. Sir Henry served as Lord Deputy in Ireland and Lord President in Wales and was enrolled in the Order of the Garter in 1564. As H.R. Woudhuysen points out (556), the connections on his mother’s side were even more important: his mother was a childhood friend of Princess Elizabeth. Her brother, Guildford Dudley, married Lady Jane Grey and, with her, was executed by Queen Mary. No doubt due in part to his uncle’s failed attempt to secure a Protestant succession, Sidney was named after Mary’s new husband, Philip II of Spain, who was Sidney’s godfather and, ironically, against whose troops Sidney was to die fighting. At the court of Elizabeth, Sidney’s mother attended the queen, famously nursing Elizabeth to health during her battle with smallpox in 1562, a service from which Lady Mary emerged badly disfigured. Of Sidney’s two surviving Dudley uncles, one was made Earl of Warwick and served as Master of Ordnance, and the other, Robert Dudley, who became Earl of Leicester, was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth and for many years her suitor.

Sidney had an outstanding education for his time. He attended Shrewsbury Grammar School in Wales, where Thomas Ashton was master and where he met Fulke Greville, who would become his devoted friend, fellow poet, and admiring biographer. At Christ Church, Oxford, his contemporaries included numerous future luminaries: Walter Raleigh, the historian William Camden, the great promoter of exploration Richard Hakluyt, the Anglican theologian Richard Hooker, and the future Jesuit missionary-martyrs Edmund Campion and Robert Parsons. To complete his education, Sidney made a 3-year grand tour of the continent, beginning in July 1572 when he was part of the English party that traveled to Paris for the wedding of Henry of Navarre (the future Henry IV) and Margaret of Valois. Sidney was already aligned with the Protestant cause through his father, who had arranged aid for the Huguenots, and through his uncle Leicester, who was the leading figure of the pro-Protestant bloc in the court of Elizabeth. The friendships he made with fervent Protestants in Paris confirmed and enlivened Sidney’s commitment to the cause of European Protestantism. He met Admiral de Coligny, the Huguenot leader; Phillippe du Plessis Mornay, the first part of whose book De la Verité de la religion chrétienne Sidney would translate; François Hotman, the monarchomach political theorist; and, most important, the scholar and diplomat Hubert Languet, who had been converted by Melanchthon. Languet served Augustus, Elector of Saxony, and then William of Orange, and he acted as a guide for Sidney throughout his European tour and continued to mentor Sidney afterward through visits and an extensive correspondence.

Although the Protestant-Catholic marriage of Henry and Margaret was supposed to ensure peace, its outcome was quite the opposite. Five days after the wedding the St. Bartholomew Day’s massacre began, and Sidney and the rest of the English party took refuge in the residence of the English ambassador, Francis Walsingham, his future father-in-law. From Paris, Sidney traveled to Frankfurt and then on to Heidelberg, Strasbourg, Hungary, Vienna, Venice, Padua, Florence, Genoa, and back to the Imperial Court in Vienna, returning to England by way of Poland. Because of his family connections, Sidney was received at the great courts of Europe and treated as a prince-in-waiting. The King of France, Charles IX, had been so impressed by Sidney that he made him a baron; William of Orange tried to arrange Sidney’s marriage to his sister. In addition to princes, statesmen, diplomats, and humanists, Sidney formed friendships with the botanist Charles de l’Écluse, the physicians Camerarius and Crato von Krafftheim, and the printer Henri Estienne. During his 3 years on the continent, Sidney practiced his French, became fluent in Italian, learned some Spanish and German, worked on his Latin, and studied Greek.

On his return to England, Sidney waited on the Queen at court. In addition to assisting his father with his administrative duties, Sidney participated in tilts and entertainments, and he quickly distinguished himself as a courtier. At Leicester House, where Sidney lived, there arose an informal literary academy, which included Edward Dyer, Edmund Spenser, and Abraham Fraunce, all of whom were in Leicester’s service. For the Queen’s visit to Leicester’s country house in 1578 Sidney composed an elaborate masque, The Lady of May, in which the queen is called on to decide which of two suitors should be given the hand of the maiden.

Sidney led a diplomatic mission to Prague in 1578, on the occasion of the death of Maximilian II and the succession of Rudolf II, but otherwise he never received the kind of responsibility for which he was educated and that he deeply desired. Sidney wanted Elizabeth to be more robustly supportive of European Protestantism. Elizabeth, however, was wary of the antimonarchical constitutionalism that leading European Protestants advocated. Sidney’s lack of advancement was certainly due in part to his outspoken support for political alliances with Protestant countries – rather than France – to counter the threat posed by Spain. In 1580, Sidney was forced to retire from court after writing a letter opposing the Queen’s potential marriage to the French duc d’Alençon and quarreling with the Earl of Oxford, probably over the same issue.

Sidney served as a Member of Parliament in 1581 and 1584–1585. In 1582 Elizabeth called on him to be part of the escort for Alençon when he traveled to Antwerp, and in 1583 she knighted Sidney, though not in reward for his merits or service but so that he could stand in for his friend Count Casimir, who was being awarded the Order of the Garter in absentia. In that same year, Sidney married Frances Walsingham, a daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s Secretary of State and a close political ally of Leicester.

In 1585 Sidney was appointed to assist his uncle Warwick, the Master of Ordnance, helping England prepare for the anticipated war with Spain. In this capacity, he oversaw the production of maps and the manufacture of cannons and gunpowder and as a result was involved with mathematicians, engineers, geographers, and astronomers, men including Thomas Bedwell, Thomas Digges, and Thomas Blundeville, who with others would go on to form Gresham College (out of which later would be born the Royal Society).

Elizabeth reluctantly entered into the war in the Low Countries, and in 1584 she sent Sidney to serve as the Governor of Flushing and to fight under the military leadership of Leicester. In 1586, Sidney was wounded in a skirmish at Zutphen and died of the subsequent infection 25 days later at Arnheim, at the age of 31. The nation held Sidney as a hero, as the ideal gentleman and soldier, and in his death he became a legend. He was buried at St. Paul’s Cathedral in one of the most elaborate and costly funerals of the age, and his death occasioned numerous literary tributes.


When Sidney left the court in 1580, he retired to Wilton, the estate of his sister Mary, the Countess of Pembroke. While rusticating at Wilton Sidney embraced his “unelected vocation” and dedicated himself to writing. Sidney wrote for a select audience, and there is no indication that he intended any of his works for print. For his sister, he wrote the Arcadia, a massive pastoral romance that introduced the form to England. Sidney later revised the work, and the unfinished revision, published posthumously in 1590 by his sister, became a seminal work of English narrative fiction. Sidney builds into the work the tensions that we now take to be commonplace, such as that between the individual and society. Pastoral had long been used as a vehicle to air philosophical debates and to comment on political and social matters, and in the Arcadia Sidney explores questions of government. Unlike Thomas More, Sidney does not advance a radical or utopian vision. Nor does he offer an imaginative version of the radical antimonarchical constitutionalism of his mentor Languet. Indeed, the political order he imagines is a monarchy very much like that of contemporary England. Sidney’s fiction presents the pathologies of monarchical government and a vision of how those pathologies are overcome and political health is restored. It is a work that gets its start, like King Lear, when Basilius, the king of Arcadia, sheds his royal responsibilities. This fictional treatment of good government and its absence had a special urgency for Sidney and his contemporaries since they could see mirrored in it their own worries about their monarch not having named a successor. Like Shakespeare, who borrowed from the Arcadia, Sidney believed good government did not arise naturally but was an art that had to be cultivated with care, an art necessary for guiding an often unruly nature.

In addition to introducing the pastoral romance to England, Sidney gave the nation its first great sonnet sequence. Astrophil and Stella along with Certaine Sonnets were composed probably in 1582. Astrophil and Stella is, like Petrarch’s Rime Sparse, one of the period’s greatest and most influential collections of lyric poetry. Its publication in 1591 set off a decade of sonnet sequences, including those of Spenser and Shakespeare.

Sidney’s correspondence reveals a broad but earnest attitude, great energy, and a deep faith. The serious temper of Sidney’s mind is evident in the works he chose to translate into English. Sidney translated the Psalms with his sister; part of Philipe de Mornay’s theological treatise De la Vérité de la religion chrétienne; and, according to Joshua Sylvester, Guillaume de Salluste du Bartas’s La Sepmaine; ou, creation du monde. All were certainly motivated by Sidney’s desire to advance the Protestant cause – and, in the case of du Bartas’s hexameral poem, to advance it through poetry. Undoubtedly the best example of the kind of poetry that Sidney advocates in the Apology is Spenser’s great epic, The Faerie Queene, in which Spenser used Sidney himself as the model for Sir Calidore, the hero of Book VI and the exemplar of Courtesy. When William Pitt, one of Britain’s greatest statesmen, made Spenser’s epic his vade-mecum, he was putting the fictional work to use in just the way Sidney would have wished – for virtuous political action (Shepherd 1).

Any claim for Sidney’s contribution to philosophy must rest principally on his Apology for Poetry. As with most of Sidney’s works, the Apology is difficult to date precisely. It was written around 1582 and published posthumously in 1595 in two versions that are substantially the same: the Defence of Poesie and An Apologie for Poetrie. Highly allusive and effortlessly inventive, the Apology deploys extraordinary learning with a light, often self-deprecating touch, and the reader cannot but be charmed by the persona that Sidney creates. The form of the Apology is that of an epideictic oration, and Sidney’s praise of the art of poetry has the standard seven parts. Like Erasmus in his oration in praise of folly, Sidney employs serio ludere, though not in as sustained a fashion as Erasmus. Like Erasmus, he was motivated by the overarching desire for reform – in Sidney’s case, a literary reform that would lead to ethical, political, and religious reform – and like Erasmus, he includes a long digression on the disappointing contemporary state of affairs, though Sidney’s is less biting. A dazzling rhetorical performance, the Apology is a piece of literary theory that is itself an important work of literature, one that has had a lasting impact on the understanding of literature and its relationship to life.

In the Apology, Sidney defines poetry not as verse but as fiction making. Poetry figures forth an imagined world that mirrors the reader’s world, especially in its ethical and political dimensions. In that heterocosm, readers can recognize the truth about themselves and their world – what they are and what they should be – and are inspired by the experience to embrace their better selves in the real world. Sidney gives special emphasis to heroic poetry, which brings forth idealized types that not only instruct and delight readers but also move them to imitate their heroic examples in their own lives. The ideal examples of poetry for Sidney are Virgil’s Aeneid and Xenophon’s Cyropaedia. It was with an eye to emphasizing heroic action that Sidney was revising the Arcadia, and it was very much this idea of poetry that Spenser produced in the Faerie Queene. Spenser, like his patron Sidney, believed that artistic imitation could inspire moral imitation and that a great poem could shape the ethical and political life of a nation.

Heritage and Rupture with the Tradition

Sidney marshals a wide range of classical and continental authorities to mount his defense of poetry. Many of these had already been brought together by Julius Caesar Scaliger in his Poetices, the most important single source for the Apology. In the syncretistic manner characteristic of the period, Sidney’s copious and well-advertised borrowings are synthesized rather than distinguished, sometimes doing violence to the actual positions of the authors he cites. Witness his definition of poetry as “an art of imitation, for so Aristotle termeth it in his word mimesis, that is to say, a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth – to speak metaphorically, a speaking picture – with this end, to teach and delight” (Sidney 101). Sidney quickly segues from Aristotle on poetry as imitation to poetry as a speaking picture, a commonplace that can be traced back to Simonides, and to the Horatian ends dulce et utile.

Despite the literary accomplishments of Chaucer and the Tudor patronage for humanists including Thomas More, John Colet, Desiderius Erasmus, and Juan Luis Vives, imaginative literature was often held in suspicion in Elizabethan England. The semantic range of the term “poet” was wider than it is today, and the term could be used as a synonym for “rhymer”; it also covered playwrights, and was thus associated with the public theater, a lightning rod for moral outrage in Sidney’s day. As Sidney acknowledges in the long digression at the end of the Apology, the derision of contemporary poetry was largely justified. Plato’s arguments against imitation and the stirring of base passions were very much alive in the works of contemporary antihumanist detractors, including the work partially responsible for eliciting Sidney’s Defense, Stephen Gosson’s School of Abuse (1579), which characterized poets as “Caterpillars of a Commonwelth” (Maslen 3). Although England did not have a single figure such as Savonarola, it did have many influential writers who, in the spirit of St. Augustine of Hippo, deeply mistrusted fiction for its power to lead souls astray and to weaken the national character. These are the fundamental critiques that Sidney rebuts. Distinguishing the art from the often defective products of that art, Sidney defends the art itself by showing how its best products have the power to move individual souls and the soul writ large to embrace virtue.

To assert the great dignity of the name “poet,” Sidney draws on the tradition of praising God as a maker and Nature as his work of art. For Sidney (as for Scaliger), the divine likeness is seen nowhere as clearly as in the human accomplishment of poetry, and the poet is not just any artist but, rather, a “maker” made in the likeness of “the heavenly Maker” (Sidney 100). When Sidney claims that the “wit” of the poet has the “efficacy of Nature [natura naturans],” he is following Plotinus’s argument that the artist does not imitate Nature but, rather, the immaterial principles from which Nature is herself derived (Ennead, V. viii). Sidney’s poet does not copy the objects found in nature – the traditional objects of artistic imitation – but draws only on his “Idea or fore-conceit.” In this pre-Lockean usage, “Idea” has not yet descended from the divine to the human mind, and Sidney is claiming for the poet access to nothing less than the divine ideas. Sidney gives the poet the power to use these ideas to inspire and regenerate “when with the force of a divine breath” the poet “bringeth things forth far surpassing [Nature’s] doings” (Sidney 101). This is a bold claim in sixteenth-century England, where Augustine’s distinction between divine creation (by definition ex nihilo) and human making (always out of preexisting matter) was still religiously observed and the only human activities that were dignified with the word “create” were special legal or official acts, such as someone being created a duke. Though avoiding the use of the word, Sidney formulates a theory of human creativity that is a landmark in the history of European self-understanding.

Sidney’s elevated idea of poetry is both a continuation of and departure from the tradition of allegorical poetics. Plutarch had likened poetry to mother’s milk, providing appropriate nutrition for those not yet ready for the solid food of philosophy. Boccaccio and Coluccio Salutati sought to elevate poetry from the lowly status given it by medieval theologians, and they promoted a program of serious yet delightful allegory – poetry as veiled theology. Sidney advances this humanist program, but he does so by radically reframing the debate between the arts. Whereas the arts had been ranked according to the dignity of their object, with theology being the queen of the arts because her object is God himself, Sidney ranks the arts in terms of their ability to bring about the architectonic knowledge “of a man’s self, in the ethic and politic consideration, with the end of well-doing and not of well-knowing only.” Giving priority to the knowledge not of how the heavens go but, rather, of how to go to heaven, Sidney argues that the highest art is therefore the one that best brings about virtuous action, the “ending end of all earthly learning” (Sidney 104).

To determine the human endeavor that most effectively promotes self-knowledge and virtuous action, Sidney rehearses the old battle of the arts and pits the poet against the moral philosopher, on the one hand, and the historian, on the other. In Sidney’s personified treatment, the Philosopher and the Historian each lacks what the other has. The Philosopher teaches what virtue is, but he offers only a wordish description. The Historian has lively examples that appeal to the senses, but he does not have the Philosopher’s mastery of the principles from which virtuous actions spring. In short, the Philosopher has the precept, the Historian the example, but neither has both. The Poet, however, is able to unite general truths to particular examples and, in doing so, brings virtue to life – in a way that not only shows what is good but moves the reader to embrace that good.

The rhetorical underpinnings of Sidney’s poetic theory are nowhere more evident than in his assertion of the power of poetry to move readers. Like the antipoetic polemicists, Sidney believed in the persuasive power of poetry: he differed only in that he believed that it could move readers toward virtue as well as vice. Fiction has the power, according to Sidney, to present a “golden world,” an ideal reality whose dazzling images of virtue move the reader to embrace those ideals in his or her own life. Acknowledging the fallen state of humanity, in which we can perceive the good with right reason – our “erected wit” – but fall short of reaching it because of our “infected will,” Sidney claims for poetry the power to cure the general infection of the human will. Whereas Augustine was cured of his divided will by reading sacred scripture, Sidney says that we can be cured by reading pagan literature. For Sidney no less than for the early Michelangelo, the classical and Christian were fundamentally harmonious, and he had no doubt that the examples of classical heroes could make Englishmen better Christians.

Sidney’s idealizing approach owes something to earlier persuasive performances, including Cicero’s description of the orator and Castiglione’s praise of the courtier (especially in the speech attributed to Bembo). Newman’s characterization of the gentleman is a later example of idealized presentations meant to move readers to become what they read. Sidney speaks of this dynamic ironically in the opening of the Apology, in which he facetiously claims that an expert equestrian’s praise of horsemanship almost persuaded Sidney to wish himself a horse. Sidney’s serious point is that heroic poetry has the potential to shape the lives of readers and move them to know, love, and aspire to heroic virtue – to wish themselves not horses or horsemen but heroes. For Sidney, the ultimate purpose of poetry is to engender virtue. The end of artistic imitation is ethical imitation, and through an effective poem, what begins as an “Idea or fore-conceit” in the “wit” of the poet can become the reader’s Idea for his or her own life. Xenophon’s idealized version of the historical Cyrus is thus “a Cyrus to make many Cyruses” (Sidney 100). For Sidney, the overarching justification of poetry is that it has the power to transform England into a nation of heroes for whom self-knowledge and virtuous action are one.

Innovative and Original Aspects

Because Sidney’s Apology is so replete with traditional material, scholars have debated whether what Sidney presents is a coherent, let alone original, theory. Citing Sidney’s reliance on his Italian predecessors, Spingarn famously declared, “it can be said without exaggeration that there is not an essential principle in the Defence of Poesy which cannot be traced back to some Italian treatise on the poetic art” (257–258). Since Spingarn, however, a long list of critics have claimed to have found a key to Sidney’s thought in one or another philosophical, political, or religious program, including the synthesis of Plato and Aristotle’s idea of the Idea, the Cusan art of conjecture, Ramist visual epistemology, Protestant poetics, Aristotelian rhetorical theory, and Plato’s myth of creation in the Timaeus. This author has argued that Sidney models his theory on accounts of divine creation such as that presented by DuBartas. These interpretations all assert that the Apology offers an original synthesis that is more than the sum of its many borrowed parts – while differing on the nature of that synthesis. That Sidney’s Apology is susceptible to so many diverse and weighty interpretations is in itself remarkable, and it certainly would seem to confirm Geoffrey Shepherd’s claim that what the work embodies are nothing less than “moments of European self-consciousness” (11). It may well be that the most original aspect of the Apology is not its argument but its author, who draws seemingly new conclusions out of traditional material and carries out this weighty task with his characteristic sprezzatura. Indeed, Sidney’s winning persona and extraordinary wit are everywhere apparent in the Apology, such that the work has the compelling coherence of the man himself.

Impact and Legacy

Posthumously, Sidney was at the head of the literary flourishing that would include Spenser, Marlowe, and Shakespeare. His impact, indirect as well as direct, is nothing less than monumental. His sonnet sequence made him the “English Petrarch,” and his great pastoral romance not only helped inspire a great tradition of English pastoral poetry but also provided a rich store of material on which subsequent writers would draw. Shakespeare borrowed from the Arcadia, and Charles I is said to have made Pamela’s famous prayer his own while awaiting execution. Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, a foundational work in the history of the novel, drew the name of his protagonist and much else from the Arcadia. Even in the twentieth century the continuing importance of the Arcadia was felt by Virginia Woolf, who declared that in it “all the seeds of English fiction lie latent” (Kinney 423). And no less influential than his lyric and narrative works has been Sidney’s theoretical justification of the aims and methods of fiction making. Sidney’s playfully serious defense of his “unelected vocation” is arguably the most influential account ever given of why imaginative literature matters. Those who want to know where their ideas of literature come from should pursue their luminous originals in Sidney.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The Catholic University of AmericaWashingtonUSA