The Renaissance is a widely misunderstood period in European history; art and culture was reformed but the past was not wholly discarded. Below is an account from a book by Anthony Esolen on this time period.
The frequency of assassination, the perennial plots, the constant vicissitudes, encouraged superstition and a romantic view of Fate. Men felt themselves to be the prey of strange destinies and turned to astrologers and magicians to strengthen their hope, to check despair, and to help them meet the uncertain future with confidence. The stars were studied as intensely as diplomatic dispatches, as a guide to action; and superstitious dread threaded the daily course of men’s lives. (J. H. Plumb, The Italian Renaissance)
Read that quote to ten college graduates, telling them only that it describes a period from the previous millennium. Then ask which. Nine will choose the Middle Ages. Yet British historian John H. Plumb, who was not friendly to the Middle Ages, is describing what life was like during the height of the Renaissance, in its epicenter in Italy, at about 1500.
You surely know the standard account of the Renaissance. Common men broke free from the tyranny of the Church, and—newly liberated— became happier and wiser. Great artists, writers, and thinkers, free to focus on something besides dusty faith, created the greatest art, philosophy, and culture Europe had ever seen. The Renaissance, in short, is pitched to us as the rejection of the Middle Ages and the glorious triumph of secularism.
These formulations all serve well the purposes of today’s elites. They denigrate religion, exalt modernity, and allow secularists to claim credit for a flowering of creativity. They also have the virtue of simplicity. Nonsense is simple, too.
The odd thing about the Renaissance is that you can’t make a general statement about it without needing, for the sake of accuracy and intellectual honesty, to retract it or qualify it a moment later. It is an age of wild contrarieties. We celebrate the grandeur of man (but man had long been revered as made in the image of God); yet our philosophies also reduce man to a selfish and ignorant brute. We slip from the grasp of the Church; but we fall abjectly under the power of an absolute monarch like Louis XIV of France, with Thomas Hobbes’ political leviathan rearing its reptilian head from the deeps. No more will parsons tell us what to do; but no more will simple Christian laborers band together in the Peace of God or the Truce of God to curb their warmongering barons.1 Chivalry, so often only a fine cloak for mischief, is dead; and war now encompasses every class, and 20,000 ordinary citizens, including women and children, die in the siege of Magdeburg in the Thirty Years’ War.
The PC myths about the Renaissance
Historians know these things, but the politically correct imagination still attributes everything wicked and backward to a “medieval” age with conveniently elastic boundaries, and everything good and “modern” to the Renaissance. We know, don’t we, that the Spanish Inquisition was an arm of the oppressive medieval Church? No, it wasn’t. It was requested from Rome in 1478 by Ferdinand of Spain, and was run by the State. It was designed to ferret out false converts from Judaism and Islam, but it had more to do with the creation of a Spanish state than with religion. The Spanish monarchs, having driven the last Moorish ruler out of Granada in 1492, and hankering for unity in a land that had long been a checkerboard of feuding dukedoms, ordered that Jews and Muslims leave the country or become Christian. It was almost as cruel and unjust as those systems of inhumanity dreamed up by modern man. But in the meantime, a general reform of the Spanish Church was undertaken by Queen Isabella and her confessor, Cardinal Ximenes; and the religious and nationalist conflicts that ravaged much of Europe for a hundred years found no traction in a united and reformed Spain.
Witches were a real preoccupation of the Middle Ages, right? Not really. As I’ve said, probably more people have been shot in American shopping malls and high schools than were executed for witchcraft in all of Europe from 1000–1300. The real hunts for witches began only after the bouts of mass hysteria in the wake of the Black Plague, which struck Europe in 1348 and flared up every twenty years or so until the nineteenth century. As for demons, none of the great medieval theologians were terribly interested in them. Dante gives them a mere supporting role, often burlesque at that, in his Inferno. Thomas dispenses with them in a couple of articles in his Summa Theologica.
But demons are everywhere in the Renaissance imagination, particularly in the north. The legend of Doctor Faustus, the professor who sells his soul to the devil for twenty-four years of magic tricks and voluptuous succubi, is contemporary with Martin Luther. Later in the sixteenth century comes that hotel handbook on “What to Do in Case of Witchcraft,” the Malleus Maleficarum. One of its more delightful chapters describes how a man may bed down with a witch and later discover, to his chagrin, that he’s lost his membrum virile, and doesn’t know where to find it (downright Victorian, one might charge).3 Then comes a book that influenced Shakespeare’s Macbeth and King Lear: the Demonologie of King James VI of Scotland, later James I of England and the commissioner of the famous Bible. That’s not to mention the Salem witch trials, conducted by learned Puritans at the turn of the enlightened 1700s.
In the Renaissance, men rose above stale authority and superstitious religious dogma, looking instead to nature and experiment to discover the laws of the physical world, yes? Actually, the ledger is not clear. Most Renaissance philosophers abandoned the Aristotelianism of the schools, which had gotten lost in a thicket of metaphysical minutiae. But they did not always take up science. The dominant philosophical outlook of the Renaissance was Neoplatonic, and gained in elegance what it lost in logical rigor. Influential writers from Marsilio Ficino in the fifteenth century to Henry More in the seventeenth believed that this world was a shadow of the immutable world of heavenly beauty, and that our contemplation ought to be channeled by earthy beauty towards that beauty above. Artists, poets, dramatists, philosophers, and even scientists were influenced by Neoplatonic mysticism, which was not conducive to making scientific hypotheses. It explains why the devout Johannes Kepler—a better astronomer, I think, than either Copernicus or Galileo— spent years trying to prove that the planetary orbits could each be inscribed in one of the five regular Platonic solids.4 Even when he published his three laws of planetary motion, Kepler could not resist arguing that the ellipse and not the circle was the more worthy shape for expressing the Platonic significance of a planet.
The Renaissance lavished attention on the human body, true. Donatello sculpted the first bronze nude since classical antiquity, his famous David, girlish and comfortable in his skin. Leonardo drew maps of human musculature, in repose and in motion, attempting to establish the mathematical harmonies among the parts of the body. He had no formal education, but Raphael, for one, recognized the latent Platonism in his works and painted Leonardo as the heavenward-gesturing Plato in his School of Athens. But the Renaissance is also an age of corpses:
What’s this flesh? a little crudded milk, fantastical puff-paste: our bodies are weaker than those paper prisons boys use to keep flies in—more contemptible, since ours is to preserve earthworms. (John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi 4.2.124–7;
Thomas More was not the only man to keep a grinning skull at his desk as a reminder. Fashionable ladies wore rings engraved with skulls. John Donne wrote a series of meditations on a dangerous sickness he survived, and had his portrait taken wound up in a shroud. Go to the cathedral at Bern to enjoy stained glass windows of gleeful skeletons playing alongside a fat oblivious bishop or a drinker or a whoremaster. Those are Renaissance windows, post-Reformation.
Yet the Renaissance needs no cheat. It has plenty of genuine gold. What then was this dynamic age, and what can we who gag on the oatmeal of political correctness learn from it? To answer that, I’d like to focus on three topics, each of them prime for misconception: the Glory of Man, the Resurgent Pagan, and the Collapse of Authority.
Is there a nature in this man?
“Most esteemed Fathers,” writes the young polymath Giovanni Pico della Mirandola:
I have read in the ancient writings of the Arabians that Abdala the Saracen on being asked what, on this stage, so to say, of the world, seemed to him most evocative of wonder, replied that there was nothing to be seen more marvelous than man. And that celebrated exclamation of Hermes Trismegistus, “What a great miracle is man, Asclepius,” confirms this opinion. (Oration on the Dignity of Man)
Behold the boundless confidence of the Renaissance spirit that bursts into view here. Pico has read classical Arabic and quotes not Augustine or Thomas, but Abdala the Saracen on man’s dignity. Then he quotes the mystic Thrice-Blessed Hermes, a writer in the occult mystery traditions of the third century. Pico means no disrespect to Christians. He was a good Catholic, and his Oration will cite, with that same wide-eyed youthfulness, Genesis, the Torah, the Psalms, the Book of Job, Saint Paul, Pseudo-Dionysius, and a passel of other Fathers of the Church. Not to mention Homer, Zoroaster, the Jewish Cabbalists, and anyone else from whom he believes wisdom is to be gleaned.
To do otherwise, “to enclose oneself within one Porch or Academy” (44), is to desire mediocrity when God has granted us the capacity to address all imaginable questions. It is also to miss real graces and glories ready to be appreciated. Among Christians, who have come late to philosophy, says Pico, “there is in John Scotus both vigor and distinction, in Thomas, solidity and sense of balance” (44), and so forth, as the youth samples them all like a connoisseur.
“So far so good,” says the slack-minded professor of today, in his class on Comparative Religions, which might otherwise be called Comparative Irrelevance. “Pico knew that it really did not make a difference what you believe.” But that is to miss Pico’s point altogether. We can range across all traditions and authorities, because ultimately all lead to contemplation of the One and immutable God. It is not relativism but brash confidence that God has granted to all peoples real vision of his truth and beauty. Pico did not say that it was ultimately irrelevant whether you were an Aristotelian or a Platonist. He said that if you examine the authors more closely, you will discover how their apparent contradictions may be reconciled. He did not say that Zoroaster was the equal of Moses because, as the politically correct would say, with a toss of the head, “We can’t know anything about God in any case.” He said that if you enter the minds of these lawgivers you will find them, in different respects, adhering to the truth.
We live in a world of multiplicity and mutability, and yet the wise behold the beauty of these many things and rise from them to the central and supreme Beauty that sustains them. It is why the eclectic Pico can in one breath recall Jacob’s dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder from earth to heaven—a standard medieval image of the contemplative Christian life—and the Egyptian myth of the scattered limbs of Osiris, brought back into unity by the sun god “Phoebus,” from the Greek pantheon (16–17).
What then is man, so endowed with intelligence? Pico answers with a parable. When God created the world, He endowed all other creatures with some property to define their natures. Still, He wanted a creature “which might comprehend the meaning of so vast an achievement, which might be moved with love at its beauty.” But alas, God had already given away every particular place in the chain of Being. So, since this special creature, man, could have nothing properly his own, God gave him the capacity to partake of the gifts belonging to all other creatures. It would be his nature to have no nature, to ascend to the angels, or, in wickedness, to descend to the beasts:
The nature of all other creatures is defined and restricted within laws which We have laid down; you, by contrast, impeded by no such restrictions, may, by your own free will, to whose custody We have assigned you, trace for yourself the lineaments of your own nature…. We have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you prefer.
That trust in the infinite possibilities of man, both for good and for evil, is everywhere to be found in this time, showing up in different forms in different places. Take the work of Pico’s young acquaintance, Michelangelo. In his titanic Creation of Adam, the first man, in classical repose, almost lassitude, awaits the spark of life communicated to him by the finger of God. It is not the clay that Michelangelo paints, but the space between God’s finger and man’s, a space of electric tension, to be bridged by the Almighty: “And he breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Gen. 2:7). It is a painting of God making a creature in His image: power, communicating power.
Honoring the past
So the Renaissance was not simply an age of glorying in man. What about resurgent paganism? What caused the tremendous and fruitful interest in pagan antiquity?
First, the cause. Remember that the scholars of the Middle Ages had long been curious about pagan philosophy and history. They were hindered by practical problems. They didn’t possess the texts they needed. They didn’t even know where they were, or if they still existed. Teachers of Greek were rare. But the scholars did what they could. Thomas Aquinas hired a Greek to provide him with a more accurate translation of Aristotle than the one he had been using, which had been translated into Latin from Arabic. The medieval writers are forever citing Virgil, Ovid, what Cicero they knew, what Plato they knew, Livy, Seneca, and so forth, and when they don’t have the original text or a translation, they find out about it from discussions in ancient historians or critics. So Dante knows something about Homer, though he cannot have read Homer.
The Europeans were already searching for wisdom from the pagan past. They had the motive, and suddenly they were to have the means and opportunity. That’s because the Byzantine Empire was fighting a last losing battle against the onslaught of the Turks. Long before the fall of Constantinople in 1453, scholars and artists looked west for a haven, and scholars bring texts, the tools of their trade. In 1342, the Italian scholar and poet Francis Petrarch invited one Manuel Chrysoloras, an émigré from the East, to teach him ancient Greek. Chrysoloras was the first and the most famous of many men who crossed the seas into Italy, bringing with them their knowledge and their books. The trickle widened into a torrent. Scholars no longer had to rely on translations. Nor were they limited to the works known in the universities. They began to search the dusty corners of monasteries and ruins and manor houses. Every year or two brought another spectacular find, like newly discovered planets in the solar system.
All the Greek drama we still have came to the West at this time. So did almost all of the Platonic dialogues. So did Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and almost all the rest of our corpus of Greek poetry. So did the work of the ancient historians Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius, Sallust, Tacitus, much of Livy, and many lesser lights. Some discoveries made for intellectual drama. The cleric and book-finder Poggio Bracciolini discovered a unique manuscript of Lucretius’ materialist epic On the Nature of Things, moldering in a monastery in Switzerland. The manuscript was priceless. Poggio set about to make a copy, but was forestalled by his friend Niccoli, who wanted to borrow it to look at it. Niccoli did, made a copy—and the original has never been seen again.
Once the scholars caught fire, the artists took notice. They too hunted down books: for example, the rediscovered classic on architecture by Vitruvius. Leonardo so admired the Roman’s emphasis on harmony and balance that he called his most famous sketch of human proportions, a nude self-portrait, Vitruvian Man. They also hunted down works of art. Donatello went to ancient ruins and literally dug up sculptures, to study their technique. Others, from surviving scraps of classical painting and the clean lines of classical architecture, learned the mathematics of perspective, and could suddenly achieve effects never seen before in the West, not even in ancient Greece or Rome. Consider, for example, Andrea Mantegna’s tour-de-force of foreshortening, the dramatic Dead Christ, the pierced soles of the Savior dominating the foreground as he lies on a slab, mourned by the holy women to his left and right.
These men who found, copied, edited, commented upon, translated, and adapted the ancient texts, and the artists who were inspired by them, are called humanists. That implies nothing about their beliefs. Nowadays, a “humanist” is someone who denies the influence of the divine upon the life of the individual or the history of man, as in the notorious twentieth century Humanist Manifesto. But Luther, the theologian who asserted that only the grace of God could break the bonds of man’s sinful, enslaved will, was a humanist. So was his theological enemy Thomas More. More cheered the introduction of Greek studies into England, agreed with Luther on the need to reform the morals and relieve the ignorance of churchmen, and wrote the wittiest piece of fanciful political philosophy of the era, the Utopia.
Erasmus, translator of the Greek New Testament into Latin, and the finest scholar of his day, a friend of More, a detester of the warlike Pope Julius II, and the one man Luther wanted to join his movement, was a humanist. Erasmus affirmed the freedom of man’s will, his capacity to do good, and his most common trait, folly. Calvin, who followed Luther and asserted, from Scripture, the transcendent majesty of God and his sovereign predestination of all things, including the damnation of unrepentant sinners, was a humanist. So were: the skeptic and legend debunker Lorenzo Valla (whom Luther called his favorite Italian);8 the quack alchemist Paracelsus; the writer of obscene verses whom people simply called The One and Only Aretine; and the gentle moral philosopher Enea Silvio Piccolomini, better known as Pope Pius II.
But the humanist project then was not what it would be now. Now, we’d shrug and say, “If Machiavelli wants to study Livy and Thucydides, that’s his choice, and if John Colet wants to bring the Greek Scriptures to England, that’s his choice. To each his own.” The Renaissance men cared more for truth than that; they were impassioned about it. They knew well, too, what Augustine had said about taking “gold out of Egypt” (On Christian Doctrine 2.60): that Christians need not despise the pagan philosophers, but could be confident that there was much truth in them, though not the fullness of truth. Like the children of the Hebrews, they could bring Egyptian gold into the Promised Land.
If these scholars had shut their minds against pagan intimations of truth and beauty, there would have been no Renaissance. But had they shut their minds against the very idea of objective truth (except for that smallish portion of it that can be quantified) and beauty, as our schools teach students to do, then too there would have been no Renaissance. Livy and Seneca were wise; the Renaissance thinkers believed that, and it was for them more than a taste or an opinion. Christ was the Way, the Truth, and the Life; all of the greatest among them, with the possible exception of Machiavelli, believed that too, even when they rebelled against it. How to reconcile it all, in a coherent and glorious whole? That struggle gives us the Renaissance.
I could multiply examples of this drive to reconcile apparent contradictions, to subordinate a lower truth to a higher, to adapt pagan wisdom to Christian scriptures in surprising and revealing ways, to “baptize” eros, to see as manifest in our age what the pagans had glimpsed fitfully in theirs. Michelangelo covers the Sistine ceiling with imposing portraits of the Jewish prophets—and the Greek oracles! All point toward Jonah, the unwilling prophet fairly falling into the sanctuary below. Why Jonah? Because he is a foreshadowing of the resurrected Christ: “For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40). Philip Sidney pens a long romance, the Arcadia, examining man’s fallen will, his foolish attempts to evade divine Providence, and the disorder in his loves. It is a thoroughly Protestant work, set in pagan Greece, with characters searching for a truth that has not yet been revealed to them. It is one of the principal influences upon Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, whose characters go by an indiscriminate mix of Greek and Latin names, and who live in a Sicily that seems unfixed from any age, and a Bohemia with a shoreline, unfixed from any geographical place. The French poet Du Bartas, inspired by Ambrose’s Hexameron, writes The Divine Weeks on God’s creation of the world in seven days, and incorporates into his poetry the arguments of the ancient materialist Lucretius, on lightning and volcanoes and the wheeling of the stars.
Or take this account of a renovation.
Julius II, who spent more time on horseback with a spear than at a fireside with manuscripts, wanted Rome to be more than a dilapidated hole. It should be the city to which all the newly centralized European nations would look, just as all worldly wisdom must find its completion in the wisdom that transcends it, the wisdom of God’s revelation as taught by the Church. That was his aim. So he needed to finish a project begun by his predecessor Nicholas: to rebuild the Basilica of Saint Peter, not least because the old basilica’s walls were buckling dangerously.
Part of his scheme involved painting a small library, tucked behind the sanctuary of the Sistine Chapel. So he hired the popular young Raphael to paint the meaning of a library in the Vatican: that is, Raphael was to paint the Church’s embrace of all truth, from whatever source, and its ordering of the truths toward Christ. If you can understand what Raphael is doing in this room, you can guess what Milton is up to with his classical devils in Paradise Lost, or what Castiglione means by his Platonic ladder of love, described by a Cardinal, in The Book of the Courtier, or why Bernini sculpts a classical Cupid as the angel about to pierce the heart of the holy nun in his Saint Teresa in Ecstasy.
Consider the most famous of Raphael’s paintings in the library, his School of Athens. You can hardly find a work that better illustrates the confidence, almost arrogance, of Renaissance man, and yet there is a profound humility to it too, a deference to the excellence of the ancients. Raphael has portrayed the men of his day as the philosophers of old, all in one place and time, even though those philosophers spanned many lands and centuries. Leonardo, as I’ve mentioned, serves for Plato. He’s carrying his Timaeus, a dialogue on the creation of the world, and is gesturing upward, towards divine truth. His younger comrade and pupil, Aristotle (whose head may be that of Raphael’s fellow painter Titian), gestures forward and slightly downward, towards the earth. He is carrying his Nicomachean Ethics, that practical guide on how to be trained in the moral virtues and live among men in the world. The rest of the scene is studded with Renaissance and classical pagan stars. The lonely and intense Michelangelo is brooding in the foreground: he is the philosopher Heraclitus, who believed that the fundamental element of the universe was fire. The bald fellow with the compasses, teaching the lads in the lower right, is the geometrician Euclid, or rather is the architect Bramante, the genius whose charge lay the rebuilding of St. Peter’s. Raphael himself looks boldly out towards us, the third head from the right at the top.
Plato and Aristotle, the contemplative and the practical philosopher, sum up between them the greatest wisdom that man can attain on his own. But in the painting there’s something else between them. It’s hard to notice, because it’s something that Raphael shows is not there. The School of Athens, with all its amazing series of arches, resembles, suspiciously, the incomplete Saint Peter’s where Raphael is working, and all the classical lines of perspective merge in the center of the circle suggested by the arch above Plato and Aristotle, a space where there are the clouds and sky—nothing else. Raphael has emulated his masters here. From Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam he has learned to suggest, by emptiness, something that transcends not only the viewer but even the wisdom of Plato and Aristotle. From Leonardo’s Last Supper he has learned that mathematics can merge into philosophy and theology. He has seen how Leonardo funnels the lines of the architecture of the refectory at Santa Maria delle Grazie into the architectural structure of his painting, directing all perspective towards the quietly radiant center, the head of Christ.
We celebrate Plato and Aristotle. We honor them by walking in their steps. But we acknowledge that, alone, they are incomplete. All the wisdom of man is incomplete. Hence the School of Athens stands opposite another painting, the Disputa, a strange two-level work of men on earth and angels with the Trinity in heaven, and again the sky between. In this painting too Raphael has painted men of his day (including an accusatory Savonarola), now as cardinals, bishops, and popes from the early Church. But here there is something besides clouds and space in the center. Raphael directs the eye to behold what bridges the gap between earth and heaven, the worshippers below and the saints above, human theology and divine truth. Here, located against the sky, is something more than a space, a cloud, a patch of blue. It is the Eucharist, the sacrament which, as Raphael and Julius and their fellow Catholics believed, makes the glorified Christ mysteriously yet really present in the sacrifice of the Mass. In this most profound gesture of reverence, the classical Raphael and the rough-and-ready actors of the old Corpus Christi plays were at one.
Shakespeare on his knees
“That’s a painter hired by a pope,” you say, “but what about someone not taking his pay from the Church? How about someone working at a trade condemned from the pulpit, rubbing shoulders against whores and ruffians, and gathering crowds on the wrong side of the river?” How about Shakespeare, then?
Consider his play Measure for Measure, now popular in academia for its darkness, its willingness to probe the seamy underside of urban life. The Duke of Vienna, who has spoiled his people by lenience, failing to enforce laws regarding decency and morality, pretends to leave the city, giving his authority over to the puritanical Angelo, of whom it is said, according to one waggish whoremonger, “his urine is congealed ice” (III.ii.111). The Duke then assumes the disguise of a friar to keep an eye on both Angelo and Vienna. His subaltern cleans house: he shuts down the brothels and revives a dusty law that condemns fornicators to death. One young man, Claudio, betrothed but not officially married to his beloved Julietta, is condemned for making her pregnant. Claudio sends his friend the wag to beg his sister, Isabella, a novice of the severe Sisters of Saint Clare, to leave her convent and appeal to Angelo for mercy. Isabella does, in words of such hardly restrained passion that they move Angelo—but not to mercy. He requests another interview, at which he puts the moral and legal case to Isabella thus: if she will sleep with him, he will spare her brother.
The Duke, who has been playing spiritual counselor to Claudio and Julietta, arranges a subterfuge. He instructs Isabella to agree, but on condition of utter silence and darkness; and he arranges that Angelo’s former betrothed, a woman named Mariana whom he jilted when she lost her dowry, should sleep with him in Isabella’s place, unbeknownst to Angelo. On the next day, however, Angelo, fearing that the brother would avenge the sister’s disgrace, orders that Claudio be executed anyway. The Duke, revealing himself to the jailer, forestalls the execution. Still in the guise of the friar, he instructs Isabella and Mariana to be present among the crowds later in the day, when the Duke will return to Vienna and redress complaints against his second in command.
Please forgive the summary; it is necessary, to set up one of the most theologically fascinating scenes in Shakespeare. At this point, Angelo believes that he has slept with Isabella, but that nobody else knows about it. Isabella and everyone else but the Duke and the jailer believe Claudio is dead. Angelo is, morally, guilty of rape and murder. He should suffer death, for as Jesus warns, in the passage to which Shakespeare’s title alludes, “With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again” (Matt. 7:2). Before revealing that Claudio is still alive, the Duke sentences Angelo to death:
The very mercy of the law cries out
Most audible, even from his proper tongue, “An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!”
Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure;
Like doth quit like, and Measure still for Measure. (V.i. 409–13)
But Mariana begs Isabella to intercede on her behalf: to kneel to save the life of the man who intended to ravish her, and who killed her brother.
Here Shakespeare has dramatized the heart of the Gospel. By the letter of the law, Claudio had to die. By the spirit of the law, mercy itself cries out that Angelo must die. Without Christ, without the possibility of grace, we all must die—we all must remain in our sins. As Portia puts it in The Merchant of Venice, “In the course of justice, none of us / Should see salvation” (IV.i. 198–99). Only when we become aware of our poverty do we cast ourselves upon the riches of divine mercy.
Essentially, Isabella here is not called on to do a good deed, for which she might praise herself afterwards. She is called on to recognize her own desperate need for salvation. She is called to become a Christian for the first time, to put to death her old adherence to rules and self-righteousness, and to come to life. That she does, with a magnificent turn of irony, using the letter of the law to blunt its edge. She points out that, in fact though not in intent, Angelo did not rape her, and Claudio’s death was technically legal. In her self-sacrificing and humble plea she embodies Christ, who broke the iron bonds of the law that condemns mankind, by fulfilling its terrible judgments upon the Cross. Here mercy and justice have wedded, peace and righteousness have kissed—as we hear in the psalm for Christmas Eve (Ps. 85:10), two days before Shakespeare and his men first performed this play, at the court of the king.
All of Shakespeare’s energy, his daring portrayal of sexual license and disease, has culminated in the moment of forgiveness that lends the rest of the play its meaning. His theological insight is exactly the same as Chaucer’s in The Pardoner’s Tale, or the gentle unknown poet’s in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It is the same as his own in The Merchant of Venice, Macbeth, King Lear, Richard III, and The Winter’s Tale. Relying upon his strength of will, his cunning, even his righteousness, man must fall. For the letter kills, and the spirit gives life. In this, Shakespeare too, like Michelangelo and Raphael in their way, was at one with his more homely predecessors.
Where the Renaissance went wrong: Undermining authority
Then the PC dogma is a colossal exaggeration, claiming that in the Renaissance men rejected traditional authorities and set forth on their own—like bold, free-thinking, modern individualists—to discover truth, or to dispense with the quest entirely, since all is a matter of opinion. It might be as valid to say that they multiplied authorities. But there was certainly an intellectual upheaval whose results we are still living with, some good, some bad. First let’s look at what made the upheaval possible: the printing press.
It’s true that movable type was invented in China, not in the West. But the Chinese, believing their land the center of the universe, had no great use for it. Why bother doing anything except making decorative prints for the emperor, since the Order of Heaven that governs the world is unchanging in its regular cycles? Why go anywhere, when you are standing at the center? But Johann Gutenberg took the idea and invented the printing press. Soon books became, if not common, at least affordable for a well-off merchant or craftsman, and not only the duke or the bishop. Ideas could be disseminated across the continent. No printing press, no Protestant Reformation; no modern world.
Gutenberg’s first printed book was a Bible. That too is significant. People who could afford a book wanted Bibles, eventually in the vernacular, since most of them would not have had enough Latin to read the Vulgate. There had been vernacular translations of Scripture before, though their influence was restricted by the fact that few people could read, even if they could afford a hand-copied book. Literacy rose, and translators—not only of the Bible—rushed in to meet the demand. The Reformers would, with some hedging, recommend that believers read the Bible for themselves, detaching them from the authority of Rome. They tried to attach them instead to the authority of the reformed theology: Calvin wrote voluminous commentaries on the Scripture, clear and commonsensical, easy for the intelligent layman to read. But the multiplicity of opinions caused some to despair of finding certitude in any one of them. Which Church is the genuine Bride of Christ?
What! is it She, which on the other Shore
Goes richly painted? or which, robbed and tore,
Laments and mourns in Germany and here?
(John Donne, Holy Sonnet XVII, 2–4)
By the time of the Puritan revolt in 1642, John Milton will write “that it is dangerous and unworthy the Gospel to hold that Church government is to be patterned by the Law” (The Reason of Church Government, ch. 3), condemning the established Church of England and its bishops as unscriptural. By the end of his life, still considering himself Christian, Milton will claim that “it was in God’s power consistently with the perfection of his essence not to have begotten the Son” (The Christian Doctrine, ch. 5), reviving the old Arian heresy, and lending assistance to the anti-trinitarianism that will result in Enlightenment Deism. It is no coincidence that Milton never did join any church.
A similar splintering can be seen in philosophy. Until the Renaissance, it was taken for granted that natural philosophy, what we call science, was a part (and not the most important part) of the whole quest for scientia, that is, knowledge, and wisdom. When Copernicus, a Catholic priest, dedicated his work on the revolution of the heavenly bodies to Pope Paul III, he intended no rift between science and religion. There is no evidence that he disturbed anyone’s faith. For one thing, the cardinal Nicholas of Cusa had already suggested that the Earth revolved about the sun, citing the ancient astronomer Aristarchus, and a disputed passage in Plato.10 Nobody minded. It wasn’t as if the Copernican system could be used for anything: its star charts were not as accurate as those drawn up according to the old Ptolemaic, earth-centered system, and it was centuries before they would surpass them. If you were navigating a ship and wanted precision, you stuck with common sense and Ptolemy.
What drew people towards the Copernican system was its simplicity. It did away with most (not all!) of Ptolemy’s “epicycles,” little curlicue-making orbits around a point orbiting a second point orbiting a third, like wheels on wheels. Why was the simplicity appealing? Here we turn to the real revolutionary. William of Ockham, a Franciscan theologian and philosopher (c. 1285–1349) roughly contemporary with Dante, had asserted the principle now known as Ockham’s Razor. Given two explanations, the one with the fewer assumptions is to be preferred.12 Copernicus’ system required fewer assumptions. Ockham also promoted a philosophical position called nominalism, which applied the Razor to universal nouns such as “man” and “dog” and “horse,” terms used to denote not this man but man, without individuation. Ockham denied that such terms had any meaning, except in a conventional sense. We cannot sensibly talk about man as man; we can only make loose generalizations about men, based upon our experiences with individuals. But if man as such does not exist, neither does human nature. Then moral laws cannot be based upon human nature. Instead, Ockham argued, they must be derived from the arbitrary will of God, as revealed in the Scriptures.
Note that the Razor proves nothing. It’s a handy intellectual device. It can advise you to make your premises few and simple, and if you’re looking for a single cause of disparate phenomena (as natural scientists usually are), it may be just the thing to use. But the Razor cannot tell you why you should prefer fewer premises, or whether your premises are true, or whether the truths you discover will be vast or paltry. Applied to what used to count as science—namely, all knowledge, including that revealed by God—the Razor severs discipline from discipline. So Francis Bacon will scoff at Aristotelian metaphysics, which he has little understanding of, because it does not assist him in his quest for dominion over nature.13 Two centuries after Bacon, when Napoleon asked the mathematician Laplace why he did not begin his Celestial Mechanics with a discussion of God, the man took out the Razor: “My lord, I have no need of that hypothesis.”14 Nominalism, argues Richard Weaver, was a poison leaking into the intellectual life of the West. It would alter and degrade what we mean by knowledge: not the possession or contemplation of the highest truths, but the wielding of facts in the service of power.
It is historical nonsense to say that Francis Bacon invented the scientific method. Scientists had for centuries been observing nature and drawing practical conclusions from it, and scientists long after Bacon would allow unproved or unprovable assumptions about the world to color what they saw, or to determine whether they saw anything at all. What Bacon did, rather, was to restrict what we will call knowledge, and to dispense with many an old and reliable tool for gaining it. Is it then such a great surprise that our current social scientists, when they are not blinded by political correctness, will “discover” what everybody has always known—for example, that girls like dolls and boys like swords? Blind Homer could have told us that, almost three thousand years ago.
Meanwhile Europe, smitten with wanderlust since the Crusades, could not sit still at home. Vasco da Gama sailed around the Cape of Good Hope to try to win for Portugal a route to the spice-rich Indies, bypassing both the Mediterranean Sea, controlled by the Venetians, the Genovese, and the Muslims, and the overland caravan route through Muslim countries. One of his shipmates stayed behind in Africa and trekked inland to discover, near one of the sources of the Nile, a lost Nestorian Christian kingdom.16 Columbus believed he could outflank the Italians and the Portuguese by going west across the Atlantic; and we know what happened then. Europeans were flooded with stories from strange lands: about a Pocahontas doing naked cartwheels in front of the men of Jamestown, or about the mandarin Chinese, secretive and sly, fascinated by mechanical gadgetry like European watches and clocks.
The Christian faith affirmed a common humanity, but where was that to be found, among such a welter of cultures and customs? Some writers claimed that the barbarian customs were superior to those of the “civilized” Europeans. Montaigne tried to see cannibalism in a sympathetic light.
Authority? Let’s not forget the nation-state, a force for political unity, but often a destroyer of tradition, and suspicious of any authority not controlled by the throne. Renaissance princes too looked back to the ancients, to revive for themselves the grandeur of Rome: states unified in religion, but far from the governance of a pope. They desired unity against the enemies outside their boundaries, but cultural uniformity within the boundaries. That unity-in-variety called Christendom dies, and all the petty and semiautonomous dukedoms and principalities die with it. The Renaissance begins the movement, still going on, to flatten the mid-level institutions that serve as a buffer between the individual and the State, and to detach the State from any theology that may curb its ambitions. Old authorities lose, and new masters win.
Take Henry VIII for example. He knew he had a slender claim to the throne. If he died without an heir, England might reel back into civil war, from which it had only recently emerged. But Henry’s wife Catherine, princess of Aragon, had borne no surviving sons. He must marry again: national considerations trump theology, wedding vows, and decency. Henry appeals to the pope for an annulment. But the pope can do nothing. He is militarily weak, and Charles of Spain, Catherine’s brother, is as much a nationalist as Henry, and is the strongest ally the pope has—a dangerous ally, as Rome found in 1527 when Charles’ troops sacked the city. Besides, a previous pope had already granted Henry dispensation to marry Catherine, his former sister-in-law. To make matters worse, Luther had already called the pope’s authority into question.
No annulment. That settled it: Henry VIII, erstwhile “Defender of the Faith” for a tract written against Luther, seized the English church. He needed money (all of the Renaissance princes did, what with the inflation caused by gold and silver brought from the Americas). So he sacked the old centers of village and rural culture, the monasteries, on pretext of reforming them. He converted the goods to cash and auctioned the estates. One of the buyers was named Washington.18
The local, traditional, Christian community, village and church, with its corporate life, is caught in a pincers. On one side, the new individualism: if you can afford to do it, you can read your own books, you can travel to strange places, and you can choose among a number of authorities. On the other side, the centralized nation-state. The pattern is repeated elsewhere, and the process continues to our day.
But the resistance, the human thirst for truth, and indeed for a transcendent authority to which to submit, was still strong, and proved tremendously creative. This resistance too is characteristic of the Renaissance. If one can no longer turn to the theology of Thomas Aquinas for certitude, because only churchmen study that old friar and nobody really understands him, and if the rhythms of village and church life that lend meaning to your years are drowned out by national anthems—Spenser writing The Faerie Queene to celebrate England as the new Rome, Camoens writing The Lusiads to celebrate Portugal as the new Rome, Tasso writing Jerusalem Delivered to celebrate Rome as the new Rome— then you can look within your heart and listen to the promptings of God. Hence the Baroque paintings of Caravaggio and Rembrandt and Tintoretto, focusing on a dramatic moment in the life of this person, who could be any person, even the artist. So we have Rembrandt, painting the sadness and vanity of the hedonist’s life, using his wife as a model for a barmaid, and himself as a model for the Prodigal Son, or Caravaggio, painting himself as a strangely puzzled crucifier of Saint Peter.
If this is Renaissance “individualism,” it certainly does search for authority, and is remarkably ingenious about it. So Ignatius of Loyola, in his Spiritual Exercises, enjoins upon his Jesuit followers a strict discipline for the inner spiritual life, while they obey their superiors as privates obey their officers. Hence a directive like the following, far from the spirit of the modern age:
To be with the Church of Jesus Christ but one mind and one spirit, we must carry our confidence in her, and our distrust of ourselves, so far as to pronounce that true which appeared to us false, if she decides that it is so; for we must believe without hesitation that the Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ is the spirit of His spouse, and that the God who formerly gave the decalogue is the same God who now inspires and directs His Church. (Rules of the Orthodox Faith)
Because of that very obedience and discipline, the Jesuits quickly became the most learned men in Europe. Jesuit priests, often hated by their secular lords, would try to evangelize the world. No human culture was beneath their curiosity and their care.
Nor does the yearning for community die. We long for community separate from the state, to heal the alienated individual. John of the Cross writes his haunting poems about the soul’s being wooed by God (his is the famous image of “the dark night of the soul”),19 while serving as chaplain for a convent of Carmelite nuns in Spain. That convent includes Teresa of Avila, who reforms her order by establishing clear lines of authority and by encouraging a profound life of prayer. Her Interior Castle, a classic of the spiritual life, was written only at the urging of her superiors, but to the great satisfaction of her fellow sisters. The Puritans, with a very different theology from the kind that animated John and Teresa, were also moved by that same human and Christian yearning. They are called separatists, but they wanted to separate to unite. They wanted to form their own community under authority they all recognized. They could not live in England; they could not live even in Calvinist Holland. So in a ship called the Mayflower they sailed to America, utterly uninterested in empire, rejecting the authority of Rome, London, Wittenberg, and Geneva, yet also willing to submit to authority.
The Pilgrim Fathers, they too were Renaissance men.
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