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Philosophy during the Renaissance

In humanist environments of the 15th century, so different from the Universities, under the protection of princes or popes, secular and ecclesiastical people met indifferently, at the Platonic Academy in the Florence of Lorenzo the Magnificent, as at the Aldine Academy in Venice. In these new environments, there is no practical consideration that can prevail over the desire for knowledge as such; the mind, completely liberated, is no longer enslaved, as in the Universities, to the need for education which trains clerics. In the following century, the Collège de France was founded, which, distinct from the University, was created not to classify acquired and traditional knowledge, but to promote new knowledge.

This freedom produced a proliferation of doctrines and thoughts, which we saw emerging throughout the Middle Ages, but which, until then, had been able to be repressed; this confused mixture, which we can call naturalism because, generally speaking, it does not subject the universe or conduct to any transcendent rule, but only seeks immanent laws, contains, alongside the most common viable and the most fertile thoughts, the worst monstrosities; above all, we pretend to turn our backs on everything that has been done so far: “Laurent Valla (writes Pogge, as humanist and Epicurean as his friend was) blames Aristotle’s physics, he finds it barbaric the Latin of Boethius, he destroys religion, professes heretical ideas, despises the Bible. […] And did he not profess that the Christian religion does not rest on proofs, but on belief, which would be superior to all proof? » (1) Now, Pogge is an official of the Roman Curia; as for LaurentValla, the cardinal of Cusa, in 1450, recommended him to the pope and wanted him to enter.

This intense desire for another life, new and dangerous (2), is caused or at least accentuated by the enormous increase in experience and techniques which, in a century, changes the conditions of the material and intellectual life of Europe. Increase in experience in the past, thanks to humanists who read Greek texts, and who, in the 16th century, learned about oriental languages; the important thing is even less the discovery of new texts than the way in which we read them; it is the same De officiis of Cicero that Saint Ambrose and Erasmus know; Saint Ambrose seeks rules for his clerics there; Erasmus finds there an autonomous morality independent of Christianity; it is no longer a question of adapting these texts to the explanation of the Scriptures, but of understanding them in themselves. Increase in experience in space, when, going beyond the limits of οικονμεη where Christianity, after Antiquity, had traced the limits of the habitable earth, we discover not only new lands, which looking away from the Mediterranean basin, but new types of humanity whose religion and morals are unknown. Increase in techniques, not only through the compass, gunpowder and printing, but through industrial or mechanical inventions, several of which are due to Italian artists who were at the same time craftsmen. The men of this era, even attached to tradition, have the impression that life, long suspended, is resuming, that the destiny of humanity is beginning again: “We see everywhere,” wrote the Cardinal of Cusa around 1433, “the minds of the men most devoted to the study of the liberal and mechanical arts return to Antiquity, and with extreme avidity, as if they expected to soon see the entire circle of a revolution accomplished.” (3)

Minds were naturally inclined to confront with this increased experience the traditional conceptions of man and life, based on a much more restricted experience. Despite all the divergences and all the diversities, there was, throughout the entire Middle Ages, only one image or, if you like, a single scheme within which all the elements were naturally framed all possible images of the universe; this is what we have called theocentrism: from God as principle to God as end and consummation, passing through finite beings, this is a formula which can suit the most orthodox of the Sums as well as the most heterodox mystics, both the order of nature and the order of human conduct come to be placed with a sort of necessity between this principle and this end.

Such a synthesis was only possible thanks to a doctrine which conceived all things in the universe, by reference to this origin or to this end, all finite beings as creatures or manifestations of God, all finite spirits as in the process of approaching or moving away from God. However, it is this reference which, more and more, becomes impossible: already, in the 12th century, ‘we have seen how a humanist naturalism was taking shape which studied the structure and forces of nature and society in themselves; even more, in the 14th century, deliberately leaving everything that concerns the origin and end of things, even demonstrating that it was by mistake that people thought they understood in the opposition of the immutable sky and the sublunary region something of the divine plan, the Ockhamists study nature in and for itself. But, in the following two centuries, so many new reasons to move away from theocentrism! The strange and mysterious depths that we barely suspected in history and in nature begin to appear; philology, on the one hand, and experimental physics, on the other, provide new lessons about man and things; the Christian drama, with its historical moments, creation, sin, redemption, cannot definitely serve as a framework for a nature whose laws are completely indifferent to it, for a humanity part of which is completely unaware of it, for a time when Christian peoples themselves, making themselves independent of spiritual power, make prevail in their politics goals entirely foreign to the supernatural ends of Christian life, or even deliberately contrary to the idea of the unity of the Christendom.

Such a vital change has infinite repercussions. The most important thing for us is to put practical men, men of action, artists and craftsmen, technicians of all kinds to the fore at the expense of those who are meditative and speculative; the new conception of man and nature is a conception that we realize rather than think; the names of the proper philosophers, from Nicholas of Cusa to Campanella, then have very little luster next to those of the great captains and the great artists; all that matters is then technician in whatever sense; the completed type is Leonardo da Vinci, at the same time painter, engineer, mathematician and physicist; but there is hardly a philosopher who is not at the same time a doctor, or at least an astrologer and occultist; Machiavelli’s politics is a technique intended for Italian princes; humanists, before being thinkers, are practitioners of philology, concerned with the methods that will allow them to restore the formations and thoughts of the Ancients.

However, and this is perhaps the great paradox of the era, most Renaissance philosophers tried to organize their thought around the ancient scheme of the universe; the return to platonism (which does not exclude a rather confused syncretism), far from leading them to new ideas, only persuades them more that the great task of philosophy is to order things and minds between God as principle and God as end. The contrast between this outdated scheme and the new philosophy of nature that they integrate into their system makes, as we will see, the great difficulty of their doctrine.

  1. Quoted by H. Busson, Les Sources et le Développement du rationalisme, p. 55.
    2. In Un nouveau Moyen Âge, 1927, N. Berdiaeff is especially struck by individualism: “Man cannot bear the isolation into which the humanist era has thrown him.”
    3. Quoted by Vansteenberghe, Le Cardinal Nicolas de Cites, p. 17.

Source: Émile Bréhier(1951). Histoire de la philosophie, Presses Universitaires de France. Translation and adaptation by © 2024 Nicolae Sfetcu

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