Renaissance

Whenever the word “Renaissance” is uttered, images of beauty, grace and abundance penetrate the mind and are visualized with one’s inner eye. One thinks of Michelangelo’s David, Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, the castles of the Loire Valley, Erasmus, Dante’s Divine Comedy, etc. The Renaissance, loosely placed between the 14th and the 17th centuries, is considered by many scholars as the golden age in world history, an unmatched epoch of development, evolution, cultural awakening and revelation in the realm of arts and ideas.

This image was, to a great extent, created by the intellectual elite of the 19th century, whose leading representative was the Swiss scholar Jacob Burckhardt (1818-1897). His book was in fact, the first extensive and truly valuable study of the Renaissance period, and at the same time, the first attempt at formulating the idea of a “Renaissance civilization” (Kristeller, Randall, p. 452).

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The philosophy of the Renaissance, unlike the political and religious developments, the literature, and the art of the same period, and unlike the philosophy of classical antiquity, of the modern period after Bacon and Descartes, and even of the Middle Ages, has been the subject of serious historical study only for the last hundred years or so, and most of the detailed monographs and text editions have been published only since the end of the First World War. Renaissance culture centered on the concept of the self being a work of art.

This idea expresses the period’s inclination towards accepting “art”, a “human creative activity”, as a molding power of human existence, competing with the divine grace. In spite of the fact that many writers held back this tendency by arguing that divine grace is what fuels human art, the balance between God’s power and humanity’s power was quite unstable: the tempting possibility that humanity might have full responsibility for its psychological and historical development fascinated more and more, fact expressed in England by the tragic heroes of Marlowe.

In his essay The Place of Classical Humanism in Renaissance Thought, Kristeller advances the idea that the “problem of the Renaissance” is in fact, “a pseudo-problem” (Kristeller, 1943, p. 59). He tries to define the period of the Renaissance as “a complex historical period with a great variety of cross-currents, in which each European country and each field of interest underwent its own particular development” (Kristeller, 1943, p. 59).

The theory of the awakening of the individual is an essential feature of modernity that was highly embraced and speculated in the 19th century. What separated Burckhardt from all the other 19th century writers dealing with this particular subject is the way in which he investigates and manages to point out the precise moment when the attitudes and vales of the ‘new individual’ appear, and also the way in which he is able to anticipate certain phenomena of the decades that followed, such as the cult of celebrity, the role of autobiographies and the place of crime in society.

Thus he achieves a portrait of a different kind of individuality that had its point of departure in 19th century Catholic Italy, and was based on ‘fresh’ concepts such as self-discovery, self-fulfillment and self-interest (Garner, p. 50-51) As with many great philosophers, Jacob Burckhardt’s vision of the period of the Renaissance and of modernity is closely connected with his life course; in both cases, the disenchantment with religious faith and order gives birth to a kind of order in disorder, characterized by progress and even spiritual enlightenment that only great degree of openness can allow.

In order to understand Burckhardt’s writings, including his The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, it is crucial to understand a set of key aspects and events in his life. Jacob Burckhardt was born in 1818 (the same year as Marx) in Switzerland into the rather wealthy family of a Protestant clergyman, whose source of income and power was the silk trade. Burckhardt attended school in Berlin and Bonn. Only three years into his theological studies, the young Burckhardt is faced with a crisis of faith which determines him to take a break from his studies and immerse himself into the study of medieval history.

This period of time is followed by a trip to the “beautiful lazy South” (Burckhardt, p. xxiii) where his attention is drawn from the rigors and strictness of the Middle Ages, to the art history of the Italian Renaissance. This trip would alter the course of his life, and would result in his most famous and widely acclaimed masterpiece, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, published in 1860, after over 10 years of research and conception work. He kept his teaching position at the University in Basel, and continued to publish mostly in the field of Renaissance art history (Garner, p. 8).

There are many interesting aspects concerning Burckhardt’s masterpiece, but perhaps the most intriguing is his method of research. He ignores the dilemmas of 19th century sociologists and embraces the historical perspective that consists of accepting the uniqueness of events in the course of human history, their chronology and linear trajectory. He does not appeal to scientific laws which could explain the course of human society but chooses to immerse himself in the specificity of each period, in this case the Renaissance.

In rejecting sociological methods of research, he dismisses two of the greatest 19th century inventions in the realm of sociology: positivism (a method based on the collection of data resulting in empirical observations), and the method of ideal types (defining concepts as to come up with essential features that characterize a particular phenomenon). Instead, Burckhardt uses an informal and quite anecdotal manner of presenting the data he works with.

His abundance of details does not follow any scientific procedure, but is in fact, the result of his extensive reading and observation, both possible thanks to his classical education and upbringing. In terms of his theory, his approach is clearly inductive: he constructs his theories from the available data, inventing modernity step by step, instead of using an ideal type in the form of an a priori definition of the phenomenon, in the case of the deductive method of research.

Despite the fact that his work offers an interpretation of the transition process from the middle ages to modernity, i. . the birth process of modern culture, it is his characterization of the Renaissance as the period of the discovery of the individual that is best known and most influential. His theory consists of a look at the way in which modern consciousness has evolved; in his view, the Renaissance is the first modern epoch because it explores the existence of the human being. For him, there are three key moments in this exploration, namely the discovery of the human being, the awakening of the self and the development of the individual.

The evolution from the medieval conception of the human being to that of the Renaissance can be explained as a step by step process, based on the addition of new elements throughout the course of history (Garner, p. 52). Burckhardt singles out four such elements, which he explains and exemplifies. Firstly, he identifies the recognition of the individual apart from his membership in any kind of collectivity (“race, people, party, family, or corporation”, Burckhardt, p. 143). This is the moment when the individual acknowledges his own existence and develops a set of interests separate from those of his collectivity.

The second element added to his new consciousness is the perfecting of the individual. The Renaissance is the first epoch of self-improvement, excellence and the need for recognition on the part of the individual, in the sense that it is now that the individual feels the desire to excel in all activities (mental, artistic or physical) and to dissolve the medieval concept of community, where every individual was reduced to a specialization within that particular community, without a chance to excel.

The third step in the evolution of the new type of consciousness is the discovery of self-consciousness and self-awareness, expressed through self-observation; this is truly the essence of the modern age: man’s ability to transform his own persona into an object of refection and of study. In order to exemplify this achievement, Burckhardt resorts to the spheres of literature and arts, where physical and inner descriptions of characters were gaining ground.

Biographies were becoming more and more vivid and colorful, but the most important moment of this evolution in literature was the invention of autobiography, a very straight-forward manner in which man dissected and often criticized himself. Here, Burckhardt looks at the memories of Pope Pius II, Benvenuto Cellini’s autobiography, as well as the portraits and self-portraits of artists such as Titian or Durer. The final element is the cult of celebrity, or in Burckhardt’s words, the modern idea of fame.

This newly found desire for fame gives rise to new social phenomena, such as the cult of the birth or death place. This search for fame leads, in some cases, to what he calls the reduction ad absurdum of the phenomenon, when crime is committed as a method of imprinting one’s name on the public (Burckhardt, p. 162). Burckhardt connects crime to “excessive individualism” (p. 442): “The fundamental vice of this character [the character revealed in the study of the life of the upper classes in Renaissance Italy] was at the same time a condition of its greatness – namely excessive individualism.

The individual first inwardly casts off the authority of a state, which, as a fact, is in most cases tyrannical and illegitimate, and what he thinks and does is, rightly or wrongly, now called treason. The sight of the victorious egoism in others drives him to defend his own right by his own arm” (Burckhardt, p. 442). Another great achievement one can find in Burckhardt’s masterpiece on the Renaissance is the conclusion that crime is a central feature of all modern societies, and that it is a direct product of the process of perpetual transition to modernity, from one epoch to another.

The very negation of the medieval order that the Renaissance is associated with and praised for is, to a large extent, the cause of crime; man is free, but this new acquired sense of freedom leads to self-determination, which in turn, leads to an “enigmatic mixture of conscience and egoism which often survives in modern man after he has lost, whether by his own fault or not, faith, hope and love” (Burckhardt, p. 428), i. e. the three most valued virtues in medieval thought (Garner, p. 53).

With the loss of these virtues came a breach in legitimacy and of the sense of justice in society: “Each individual, even among the lowest people, felt himself inwardly emancipated from the control of the state and its police, whose title to respect was illegitimate and founded on violence” (Burckhardt, p. 437) When looking at the primary phenomenon of religion and its manifestation, Burckhardt establishes an opposition between the former and the sociological expression of religious institutions.

He advances the thesis that religion as a spiritual, not an institutional phenomenon, along with the “quest for meaning” (Burckhardt) is “the roots of every civilization”. Paul Oskar Kristeller was an accomplished scholar and Professor of Renaissance studies. He received an excellent education in the classics in his native Berlin, Germany before going to the University of Heidelberg in 1923. There he pursued studies in a wide range of subjects, including medieval history, German literature, physics, and art history.

While at university, Kristeller showed a profound interest in medieval history, a passion which would transform into a technical expertise in medieval documents that would prove immensely valuable later in life. He received his doctorate from the University of Heidelberg in 1928 with a thesis on Plotin which was published in 1929. He then went to Berlin, where he engaged in formal studies in classical philology before going to Freiburg to do postgraduate work in philosophy with Heidegger who approved a study of Marsilio Ficino and helped Kristeller to secure a fellowship enabling him to do research on Ficino and to begin writing.

As opposed to Burckhardt, for Paul Oskar Kristeller, the epoch of the Renaissance is strongly connected with the middle ages. The Renaissance continues and develops cultural and historical patterns begun several centuries earlier. His view contradicts that of other scholars, who, in their attempt to sever ties between the Renaissance and the middle ages, tend to date the Renaissance further and further back, from the middle of the 14th century, to the 13th and even the 12th or 11th centuries.

In his book Renaissance Thought and Its Sources (1979), Kristeller talks about the “humanists” of the Renaissance universities who taught a wide array of subjects such as grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, and moral philosophy. Since both rhetoric and history had strong moral emphasis, it may be said that the universities were to a great extent schools of Stoic virtue. Although the humanistic ideal of education encompassed quite a wide array of subjects, it was not universal nor was it encyclopedic as it was later suggested.

On the contrary, humanistic education is expressed by a narrowing of the Seven Liberal Arts of medieval secondary education. Its main changes with regards to the previous educational model was deleting logic from the literary Trivium (grammar, rhetoric, dialectics) and abandoning the mathematical Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy); moreover, it emphasized the study of “letters” by introducing history, poetry and moral philosophy alongside grammar and rhetoric, as well as by adding Greek to Latin letters.

The Renaissance ideal of the well-rounded man seems to be the direct consequence of this particular literary and classical model of education, which revived the ancient tradition. Apart from that, formal education was not their only tool for expanding and popularizing this model; they recommended it in treatises and in their writings which penetrated not only the Renaissance society, but also other types of audiences, such as princes and artists. Paul Oskar Kristeller offers a classic definition of the Italian humanists as rhetoricians, and heirs to the tradition of medieval dictators.

He develops this definition of humanism based on the role of humanists during the 14th and the 15th century Italian society, as opposed to the majority of scholars before him, who saw humanism as a philosophy of life. His argument is that the humanists of the 1500s and 1600s generally worked as “teachers of rhetoric and grammar or served as notaries and lawyers” (Witt, p. 2). Notaries and lawyers were the ones writing letters and speeches on behalf of political powers.

They were not philosophers but professionals with specializations in history, rhetoric, grammar, and ethics (Witt, p. 2). According to Kristeller, the only philosophical idea that all scholars shared was a belief in the dignity of the human being. Kristeller supported the idea that “the humanists of the Italian Renaissance played the same role in their society as did the dictators of the Middle Ages in theirs: they were rhetoricians who served as public officials in princely and communal chanceries and taught grammar and rhetoric in the schools” (Witt, p. ).

Nonetheless, despite the fact that their occupation also consisted of letter and speech writing, as did that of their medieval predecessors, the humanists used models taken from classical texts. Kristeller’s view on humanism has given rise to heated scholarly discussion over the importance of the medieval intellectual cultural which, according to him, was the very source of humanism; proof of this can be found in the genres of writing used by the humanists of the Renaissance.

Kristeller advances the idea that humanism promoted an emphasis upon the value of humankind, but objects to the scholarly description of humanism as a “philosophical movement” mainly because his conception of philosophy is limited to the “discipline which is concerned with technical problems in logic, metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics” (Mebane, p. 9). Kristeller does not refer to the likes of Ficino or Pico as “humanists,” but he emphasizes that they were strongly influenced by humanism, as were many other philosophers, scientists, and theologians (Mebane, p. ). Kristeller does not provide his readers with an explanation as to why humanism was born, but embraces the hypothesis that the complexity of historical circumstances and changes.

The search of origins among scholars has been looked upon with a degree of skepticism precisely because of this complicated historical context, and the serious issues that such an endeavor presents. The birth of humanism can be directly related to the long-term changes in all facets of Italian history during the time of the Renaissance, i. . economic, social, and cultural life “that were creating the first early modern European society” (Witt, p. 3) Burckhardt cuts vertical lines through the Italian society of the 15th century and analyzes the new attitudes and patterns of behavior, such as the cultivation of the individual self, and the resulting societal relationship. He is aware of the larger consequences of the separation of state and society and of the general trend toward secularization.

He interprets the variety of these phenomena as indicating the emergence of a new type of man, who man comes into existence in the urban and secular centers of modern society, both in tyrant-states and democratic states. In his attempt to define and understand transitional societies and its individuals, Burckhardt introduces several new concepts. His conception is focused on the idea of a “forward motion in history that is not however a simple cumulative advance” (Garner, p. 3). The focus on the independent personality leads us into the core of Burckhardt’s human philosophy. Although he supports the idea that human destiny is inescapably linked to its historicity, freedom always remains as one of the biggest challenges man is faced with. Human kind renounces its life and sacrifice itself for the sake of values, principles, ideas through which it achieves freedom.

Although Man is aware that these ideal goods he is pursuing are subject to social tension and historical change, he unconditionally devotes himself to temporary and socially-conditioned causes and values. Human beings construct history through acting and being acted upon, through restrictions and coercion. History as a whole can be seen to represent only the revelation of the grandeur and misery of man under the determinations of his surroundings; it can mean only the never ending dynamics of the evil and good forces of the human being.

In order to achieve an authentic and profound understanding of the human condition throughout history, one must realize and take into consideration enduring antinomies, antagonistic forces, as well as the opposition between “material” and “higher” interests. The existence of social life is the expression of moments in human history when these antagonist forces are balanced and the opposing forces achieve equilibrium.