School of Athens by Raphael
School of Athens by Raphael

In the dawning of Renaissance light and modern spirit, man began to recognize himself as a spiritual individual rather than the medieval idea of the ‘fallen man’. The focus of philosophers, artists and logicians shifted to the human being itself, giving rise to one of the most distinctive intellectual movements within the Renaissance, humanism—originally called “humanities”, that is, the study of humanity. Italian Renaissance humanism witnesses great philosophers like Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola emphasizing the capacity of human achievement, as in his essay Oration on the Dignity of Man (1486), “I have placed you in the centre of the world”. Egon Freidell explains Renaissance as “the rebirth of man in the likeness of God”. The man of the middle ages was humble but Pico elevates man to being only a little lesser than angels as man alone has the freedom of choice whereby he can determine his own path and destiny. However, John Calvin, who also grappled with the stance of man in relation to god, has contrasting views. In his essay Predestination and Free Will, he suggests that free will is merely constructed as a tool for hope and it is only god who determines or predestines the fate of man.

Renaissance humanism is a vast period and thus we can trace a changing environment. With the development of scientific knowledge, Francis Bacon proposed that the ultimate goal of scientific inquiry should be for the “use and benefit” of men. Here, one can see the influence of Renaissance humanism on Bacon’s thought. Bacon envisioned a world where scientific progress would alleviate the suffering of the human race. Bacon moves away from Calvin’s ideals of god’s supremacy and reiterates the capacity of human beings. This serves as an example of a popular debate at the time between science and fate as scientific discoveries such as Hans Lippershey’s telescope (invented in 1608) challenged traditional religious beliefs of the scripture and thusly, Church authority. The Illuminati emerged as a group of individuals who propagated scientific methods and protested against the arbitrary rule of the Church, “The order of the day, is to put an end to the machinations of the purveyors of injustice, to control them without dominating them.” (as stated in their general statutes). It is believed by some that the Illuminati were not against religion or ‘god’ itself but the malpractices that prevailed under its name. It is suggested that the Illuminati in fact, wanted to help man unite with divinity through scientific progression which would foster human progression.

The Illuminati comprised of scholars, painters and visionaries. It was through the revival of Classical Greek texts and philosophy that Renaissance theorists and artists developed their idea of ‘Humanism’. Humanism broke away from the medieval tradition of having pious religious motivation for creating art or works of literature. It imbued Renaissance art with its unique flavour, as exemplified in works like Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (a non-religious painting), Michelangelo’s David – a more human than religious statue which eulogises the human body – and Raphael’s cool secular fresco School of Athens. Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man displays man at the centre instead of god. Even when High Renaissance artists painted a religious painting or sculpted a religious scene, very often they were not glorifying God but Man. Donatello became renowned as the greatest sculptor of the Early Renaissance, known especially for his humanist and unusually erotic statue of David, which became one of the icons of the Florentine republic. They were exalting the ideals of classical aesthetics as humanist artists and writers became more concerned with worldly and secular subjects rather than strictly religious themes.

Vitruvian Man by Leonardo Da Vinci
Vitruvian Man by Leonardo Da Vinci

The philosophers of the time wanted to breathe life back into old Greek philosophical schools (the freedom to newly explore those classical schools, though, required philosophy to move out from under the control of the Catholic Church). Thomas Hobbes was one such philosopher who’s Leviathan (1651), drew harsh criticism for its skeptical and anti-religious implications. Like Aristotle, Hobbes didn’t deny God’s existence but argued that “the nature of God is incomprehensible; that is to say, we understand nothing of what he is, but only that he is” (ibid, 34.4). In the mind of Hobbes’ critics, this view of God was enough to brand him as an atheist. Hobbes was more inclined to moral and political philosophy than religion. He systematically analyses human nature in Leviathan, pertaining to the enwreathing culture of humanism. He says that human beings are split between “appetite” and “aversion” wherein, “the object of any mans Appetite or Desire; that is it, which he for his part calleth Good: And the object of his Hate, and Aversion, Evill.” In Chapter VIII of Leviathan, he goes on to explain “Vertue” as those “abilityes of the mind […that] men praise, value, and desire” and can also be called “good witte”. According to Hobbes, good wit translates as intellectual values that cannot be learned but only be gained by experience and is thus, the rationality that distinguishes man from beasts. This idea echoes Pico’s claim of man’s special position in the Chain of Beings whereby man can choose to rise to level of angels or fall to that of demons, by virtue of his intrinsic rational abilities. Hobbes also emphasizes, firstly, the importance of imagination or Good Fancy and secondly, the virtue of Discretion as the Judgement that allows one to distinguish between good and evil. One of the great philosopher’s eminent sayings from the Leviathan is:

“So that where Wit is wanting, it is not Fancy that is wanting, but Discretion. Judgement therefore without Fancy is Wit, but Fancy without Judgement is not.”

(ibid, 8)

Hobbes also rebukes the medieval ideals of man’s entire life serving as purgation for the Original Sin, and embraces humanistic ideals of the Renaissance in Chapter XI of the Leviathan when he sanctions human desire, “Nor can a man any more live, whose Desires are at an end, than he, whose Senses and Imaginations are at a stand.” Meanwhile, Pico considers The Fall of man and loss of innocence a price that was worth the gain, i.e. knowledge (reiterating the importance attached to education during the Renaissance). Such a spirit is well depicted in Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus where the eponymous protagonist trades his soul to the Devil in exchange for knowledge.

Hobbes then delves into the political realm in Chapter XIII of the Leviathan. Hobbes sets out his political philosophy by presenting a state of nature, or “natural condition” where people had complete freedom. However, this unregulated liberty led to a condition of war of everyone against everyone in the battle for survival. Ergo, the state of nature is a miserable amoral condition and “the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Hence, Hobbes, devises an agreement, i.e., we form a social contract by which we agree to set aside our hostilities to create a peaceful society. His social contract theory is an even bolder secularization of natural law theory than what Hugo Grotius offered. For Grotius, natural laws were rational principles like mathematics, and thus independent of God. “For Hobbes, the laws of nature are nothing like rational principles of mathematics; they are grounded only in the human desire to survive, and thus are rational only in a pragmatic sense”, as stated by James Fieser in The History of Philosophy: A Short Survey. Both Grotius and Hobbes are denying the supremacy of god and stating that human beings need to govern themselves, therefore, focusing on the controlling power of man’s will in a humanistic fashion.

Thus, Hobbes believed that the best form of government was a monarchy so as to avoid any sort of conflict among the representative leaders of a particular society. This idea resonates with Niccolo Machiavelli’s proposition that the fear of god can be replaced, perhaps with the fear of a ruler, as expressed in his book The Prince (1532). He suggests that the appearance of a Prince is essential to his throne. One must appear to be virtuous, generous and honourable, even if one is not. He says, “[a Prince] should not deviate from what is good, if that is possible, but he should know how to do evil, if that is necessary… The common people are always impressed by appearances and results.” (The Prince, 15). It is believed by some, that, Machiavelli supported Girolamo Savonarola who was excommunicated to restore the rule of the Medici family in 1512. In order to gain the court’s approval, Machiavelli dedicated The Prince to Lorenzo Medici. Hence, it is possible that the views put forth in the book might not be true to Machiavelli’s nature or values. However, it can also be observed that Machiavelli adjusted himself to his surroundings thus practicing what he preached.

Another contribution of Hobbes to Renaissance humanism is that of language. He believed that language is central in human life, in creating society and educating citizens. In fact, as we have seen, the English humanist ideal of education was founded on the Roman style according to which it was necessary to master the language (dicendi peritus), to be a cultivated man but also to become a citizen in its broad sense, that is, a man endowed with civic virtues. Cicero in De oratore (1948) highlights that man can “hold converse one with another” and thus, are superior to other creatures. According to Plato, and his disciple Aristotle (in Politics), claim that man is an animal, but one who speaks and understands and is also perceptive and intelligent. This is the real difference between man and other creatures. Pico incorporated both these teachings in his oration and thus lent his efforts to the initiation of secular thought in the Renaissance. Language is powerful because it is able to elevate men from wilderness to civilization and to reunite them under rules and laws. Cicero, according well with the humanistic philosophy, adds that human superiority is due as well to our ability to “reproduce our thought in word”. Sergio H. Orozco Echeverri in his book On the Origin of Hobbes’ Conception of Language: The Literary Culture of English Renaissance Humanism asserts, “Hobbes’ education in the literary culture of Renaissance humanism and his subsequent developments in this tradition would have allowed him to consider philosophical problems raised by new science in an original way and, thus, to introduce his innovative conception of language as the core of his solution to the problem of social and natural orders.”

The late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth-century England saw an impressive increase in the publication and circulation of Greek and Latin works. At the same time, the humanist education, with its emphasis on grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, and moral philosophy, improved English as a language more adequate for expressing, creating, and feeling, as has been pointed in reference to the works of Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Sir Thomas More, Sir Francis Bacon, John Donne, Edmund Spencer, William Shakespeare, Thomas Kyd, and the big names associated with the Elizabethan era. Indeed, one of the main characteristics of these authors is the invention of the English language for poetry, literature, and theatre, coining new words from other languages, including Greek and Latin, but also French and Spanish. We can include Hobbes in the spirit of this age, when Richard Tuck in The Institutional Setting (1998) credits Hobbes with the creation of English-language philosophy. He remarks that before Hobbes’ work, “there was little written in English on the more technical areas of philosophy – on metaphysics, physics, and even ethics. Only Richard Hooker can count as a precursor, and then merely in one limited branch of philosophy, that of jurisprudence. But after Hobbes, there was no area of human enquiry deemed inappropriate for the English language.”

Through this paper, I have attempted to capture the essence of Renaissance humanism, residing in the works of its scholars and artisans. In the spirit of learning, artists and philosophers found room for the expression of their inner turmoil as a manifestation of the religious and political tumult. Debates such as reason versus fate, virtue versus pragmatism and imagination versus rationality cropped up. While religion and philosophy were identified with the imaginative realm, science and politics pertained to the rationale. Hobbes represents the newly acquired space for such debates, in favour of the general emancipation of the individual.

'David' by Donatello
‘David’ by Donatello
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