“13. And the Lord God said unto the woman, What is this that thou hast done?”

(Chapter Three, Genesis,
The Holy Bible.)

Renaissance humanism involved a focus on man as a shift from the narrow utilitarian approach and was characterised by changes in education with the ‘studia humanitatis,’ or the study of humanities such as grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history and philosophy. The quote given above, taken from Genesis, shows god’s response to the Fall of man, which becomes an important Renaissance figure. Humanism in the Renaissance came up as a response to Aristotlean scholasticism, normally placed between 1400 and 1650 CE, and this essay examines Renaissance writing and art in this context.

Temptation and Fall, Michelangelo. Sistine Chapel. (Pictured: The Satan, Adam and Eve)
Temptation and Fall, Michelangelo. Sistine Chapel. (Pictured: The Satan, Adam and Eve)

At this time, with Protestantism as an alternative to Catholicism on the rise, religion was much discussed. The Christian idea that god created man in his own image was important to the Renaissance with regard to the humanists, who believed in the superiority of man. Humanism thus, as a celebration of man as a superior being, welcomed the revival of this idea. Additionally, the King James Version of the Bible (1604, 1611), commissioned by King James I of England translated the Christian Bible into English and made the bible accessible to economically weaker sections of society without them having to rely on Latin speakers: the clergy. This Protestant text for the Church of England is still in use today. The Creation of Adam as well as the Fall of man were among the doctrines now in reach of all.

The Fall of man as a symbol is significant due to the variety of interpretations drawn from it. According to the Bible, in chapter three of Genesis, Eve was tempted to taste the apple from the forbidden tree by Satan, when Adam eats it as well. Leaving their state of innocence and ignorance, they grow ashamed of their nakedness. When god discovered what they had done (essentially unleashed sin upon the world), he banished them from Paradise and punished Eve by having her suffer childbirth. He said to her, “in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.” Several interpretations of this direct anger towards Adam for not making his own choices instead of following Eve, and find it unjust to punish Eve alone. This issue is also debated by Chaucer, much before the King James translation of the Bible, in his Canterbury Tales (1475), through the prologue of the Wife of Bath.

Other religious concepts such as that of the great chain of being came up as well, according to which every being had a ‘place’ in a hierarchical order. God and the angels sit at the top, and humanity comes next, followed by beasts, plants and minerals. The concept, derived from Plato and Aristotle, was brought back during the Renaissance and shows the significant Greek revival. Through the divine order of being, man is shown to be powerful, due to his rationality and ability to think, compared to others that he shares the earth with. It is also suggested that man may ascend in the chain of being to a higher position (or fall to a lower position by performing immoral acts) through transmigration of the soul. Education was therefore highly valued during the Renaissance, perceived as the key to success, as were revived Classical texts. This idea was posited by Renaissance thinkers, including Thomas Hobbes who felt natural wit or intelligence was gained by experience and was thus the rationality distinguishing man from beasts.

God had also said unto Adam, “You, who are confined by no limits, shall determine for yourself your own nature, in accordance with your own free will,” stressing again the importance of man and his abilities. Pico della Mirandola discusses this in his essay Oration on the Dignity of Man, 1486, elaborating on man’s ability to make his own decisions, making him high-ranking. The Fall of man, too, is not looked upon unfavourably by Mirandola, who expressed that knowledge was gained in the process. He felt that for loss of ignorance, the loss of innocence was a worthy bargain. As mankind’s ability to think sets them apart, Adam and Eve’s transgression proved advantageous in his view.

Pico also discusses philosophy, an important humanitarian discipline, which taught him to rely on his own convictions rather than others’ judgements, and to concern himself less with how he is thought of, than with the merit of his actions. This outlook is different from that of Niccolò Machiavelli, another Renaissance humanist, who stressed the importance of appearances and public image over actual values (such as generosity or truthfulness) in his book The Prince (1532). However, Machiavelli believed that fear of god may be replaced by fear of the prince, if the prince is strong enough. Thus, man becomes a superior creature in this humanist expression that undermines the role of faith, already questioned during the Renaissance.

Detail on Michelangelo's David.

Detail on Michelangelo's David.
Detail on Michelangelo’s David.

The secularism and intellectual independence of the Renaissance reached its height with Machiavelli’s contributions. However, humanists including Desiderius Erasmus viewed his treatise negatively. Its primary contribution to political thought was the break between realism and idealism, as a manual on acquiring and keeping power. In contrast to Plato and Aristotle, Machiavelli insisted that an imaginary ideal society is not a model by which a prince should orient himself, opposing humanism of the time which focused on the power of imagination. While Machiavelli’s approach had classical precedents, it has been argued that it did more than bring back old ideas, making Machiavelli unlike typical humanists. Leo Strauss (Thoughts on Machiavelli, 1958) claims that Machiavelli’s combining of classical ideas was new. While Xenophon and Plato also described realistic politics and were closer to Machiavelli than Aristotle was, they saw philosophy as higher than politics. Machiavelli was seen as a materialist objecting to explanations involving formal and final causation. However, his writing of The Prince may have been running on a motive of self-interest, to win back the appreciation of his sponsors, the Medici family, since it is vastly different from his other, less-popular writings.

Machiavelli’s promotion of leaders’ ambition was seen to imply that he encouraged risk-taking and innovation. His advice to princes was limited to discussing how to maintain a state. It has been argued that Machiavelli’s promotion of innovation led to the argument for progress as an aim of politics. However, while a belief that humanity can control nature and progress has been long-lasting, Machiavelli’s followers tended to prefer peaceful progress through economic (not war-like) development. As Harvey Mansfield (Machiavelli and the Idea of Progress, Cornell University Press, 1995) wrote, ”In attempting other, more regular and scientific modes of overcoming fortune, Machiavelli’s successors formalised and emasculated his notion of virtue.” Machiavelli however, along with classical predecessors, saw ambition, spiritedness and war as inevitable human nature.

Magritte, Golconda. 1953
Magritte, Golconda. 1953

Francis Bacon, a humanist, talked about the Earth at the centre of the universe with the celestial bodies revolving around it, like servants or ministers. In the midst of this is placed man, ‘nodus et vinculum mundi:’ the bond of the world and the “interpreter of nature.” Walter Pater, in The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Painting, 1877, compares Bacon on this front to Pico, as he shares similar ideas. Bacon’s works established and popularised a new way of thinking — through scientific inquiry — and this came to be known as the ‘Baconian’ or scientific method. His demand for planned procedure of investigation led to a turn in the framework of science. His stress on thorough investigation and detailed method is revealed in his work The New Organon (1620), a hat-tip to Aristotle’s The Organon. Bacon criticised Aristotle’s inductive method for proceeding too quickly from individual observations to general axioms. He suggested testing each axiom individually, involving thus a greater study of particulars than Aristotle’s. The common criticism here arises that Bacon’s method, while more exhaustive, was perhaps not an improvement at all.

Bacon also proposed re-imagining the usage of scientific method to apply it to life, as the goal of such inquiry must be for “use and benefit.” Here, one can see the influence of Renaissance humanism in his vision of alleviating suffering through science. This progressive ascent of man to an enlightened destiny gave birth to the industrialised world. Regarding faith, he wrote in De Augments (1623) that “the more discordant, therefore, and incredible, the divine mystery is, the more honour is shown to god in believing it, and the nobler is the faith.” He also posited in The Essays: Of Atheism (1612, 1625) that “a little philosophy inclined man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy brought man’s minds about to religion.” Frances Yates explored connections between Bacon and the Rosicrucians (a Medieval secret society of philosophers), widely explored by critics. He finds that they both expressed a plan for reformation of “divine and human understanding,” as well as a view of mankind’s return to the “state before the Fall,” or the Prelapsarian state. (Frances Yates, The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, 1972.) In Bacon’s opinion, “For man, by the Fall, fell at the same time from his state of innocency and from his dominion over creation. Both of these losses however can even in this life be in some part repaired; the former by religion and faith, the latter by arts and sciences.”

Further, the Fall of man image comes up in several texts of the time. For instance, in William Shakespeare‘s Henry V (1599), the imagery arises in an analogy, where the King describes the betrayal of Lord Scroop – a friend since childhood – as being “like another fall of man,” referring to the loss of his own faith and innocence the treason caused. John Calvin in Institutes of the Christian Religion: Predestination and Free Will, 1536, mentions that since Jesus gave his life for humanity’s sins, mankind has been absolved and thus there will be no consequences for the Fall of Adam. Man, according to him, has already been redeemed. This is in keeping with the ideas of Protestantism, on the rise at the time of the Renaissance, that no additional service need be paid to Church (particularly with new accessibility of the Bible). He in addition detailed that man is always on the verge of transgressing the boundaries laid down by god, due to the sin of Adam and Eve. He says, “man, having been corrupted by his fall, sins voluntarily.” Thus, man is pre-destined to Fall but the fear of punishment acts as a deterrent, urging man onto the right path. Both kinds of influence — the coercive power of god as well as man’s own free will — exist, in Calvin’s view. Desiderius Erasmus, considered ‘Prince of the Humanists’ (Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity. New York, 1953.) also discussed free will in terms of humanism. He occupied a position between piety and frank secularism. (Erasmus, Of free will: Discourses or Comparisons, or Freedom of the Will, 1524.)

The Temptation and Fall of Eve, William Blake. 1808. Illustration from Paradise Lost by Milton.
The Temptation and Fall of Eve, William Blake. 1808. Illustration from Paradise Lost by Milton.

John Milton in Paradise Lost, 1667, comments on this motif as well. In his version of the Biblical tale, Adam, learning that Eve has sinned, knowingly commits the same sin. He declares to Eve that since she was made from his flesh, they are bound to one another‒ if she dies, he must also die. In this manner, Milton portrays Adam as a heroic figure, but also as a greater sinner than Eve, as he is aware that what he is doing is wrong. Additionally, Philip Sidney’s An Apology for Poetry, 1595, is a text deeply rooted in Humanism as a defence of imagination (a topic of great import during the Renaissance) in response to Plato’s The Republic, Books III and X in which the lack of usefulness of poetry and art is commented upon. This essay of Sidney’s also deals with the Fall of man in that before the initial fall, man experienced perfection in the garden of Eden and thus, as the descendants of Adam and Eve, all of humanity has a foreknowledge of it yet are in a fallen state. Sidney thus establishes that we must strive to go back to that stage and be humble, through the power of imagination. This has been detailed in a previous article. Also, Baldassare Castiglione’s The Courtier, 1528, was based on The Ciceronian humanist model of the ideal orator, which prescribes for the orator an active political life of service to country, whether in war or peace. Castiglione, like Sidney and even Pico, uses the Neoplatonic model and stresses on imagination.

Hobbes, too, emphasises the importance of imagination (“good fancy”), but feels that “without Steddinesse or Direction to some end, a great Fancy is one kind of Madnesse.” He also elaborates on discretion (judgement to distinguish good from evil) explaining, “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.” In Chapter XI of Leviathan, 1651, Hobbes sanctions desire, saying, “Nor can a man any more live, whose Desires are at an end, than he, whose Senses and Imaginations are at a stand.” He thus rebukes the medieval idea of a man devoting his life to repenting for the ‘original sin,’ and embraces instead the humanistic thought of the Renaissance. These ideas, however, are not exclusive to writing. Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni was an eminent humanist of the time as well and this is reflected in his paintings.

Michelangelo attended the Humanist academy which the Medici family had founded along Neo-Platonic lines from 1490 to 1492. At the academy, his outlook and art were influenced by prominent philosophers including Pico della Mirandola and Poliziano. His composition on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (1505-1512) is one of the most recognised works of Renaissance art as well as religion; at its centre are nine episodes from the Book of Genesis, divided into three groups: God’s Creation of the Earth; God’s Creation of Humankind and their fall from God’s grace; and lastly, the state of Humanity as represented by Noah and his family. The second group is most popular. It includes his representation of the Fall of Adam, entitled Temptation and Fall. This scene shows the evolution of Michelangelo’s style as he worked on the ceiling. For the first time, the figures occupy the entire foreground and display the use of foreshortening. His The Creation of Adam is a pioneering, iconic work among these, acclaimed for its spiritual value in its representation of  the moment when god gives life to Adam in the Book of Genesis.

There is discussion, however, on whether god and Adam are reaching towards or letting go of one another. The theory that posits they are letting go is far more in keeping with the humanist idea, as that would represent Michelangelo’s assertion of humanity’s independence and separation from god, whereas their reaching for one another would capture a mutual desire of god and humanity for one another. As a humanist, Michelangelo is also well known for his depictions of the male form in sculptures, with figures including Bachhus, Louvre and Atlas. He depicted David (from the Biblical tale) as well, in a representation of youthful strength. This is important as a humanist piece since it reflects the ability of man to overcome any obstacle in his path, no matter how large (as Goliath was a daunting figure before David). The marble sculpture depicts David poised and tense, yet his posture and expression reveal his strength and show him in an unconventional pre-fight pose, as opposed to the popular mode of depicting him victorious, brandishing the monster Goliath’s head. This piece is comparable to the sculpture of David by Donatello, the humanist and unusually erotic statue which became one of the icons of the Florentine republic.

The Creation of Adam, Michelangelo.
The Creation of Adam, Michelangelo.

Michelangelo did not, however, share many of the beliefs of humanists, particularly the protestant views, being a Roman Catholic himself. His depiction of Mary cradling her dead son (Jesus) in Pietà represents her restrain and resignation as well as incorruptible beauty. It is significant both as a religious piece and the only sculpture he ever signed. Commenting on her youthful appearance, Micheangelo rejected criticism, saying “Do you not know that chaste women stay fresh much more than those who are not chaste?” Michelangelo did share the thoughts of other humanists on the importance of creativity, as a sculptor and painter himself. He was therefore, despite being from the discipline of painting and sculpture rather than writing, an important humanist and his work went hand-in-hand with the ideas of Renaissance philosophers. He was able to accurately represent the thought on theology as well as humanism at the time and was a true representative of the era. His work, as well as that of his contemporaries such as Donatello, Da Vinci and Raphael, complimented that of the thinkers detailed in this essay.

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