3.2: Renaissance Philosophy and Thought

After the Middle Ages comes the Renaissance, which is the reawakening of the West to its ancient cultural and intellectual roots. This reawakening is based in the Scientific Revolution, which begins as a critical response to ancient thinking, and in large part that of Aristotle. This critical response was no quick refutation. Aristotle’s physics might now strike us as quite naïve and simplistic, but that is only because every contemporary middle school student gets a thorough indoctrination in Newton’s relatively recent way understanding of the physical world. The critical reaction to Aristotle that ignites the scientific revolution grew out of tradition of painstakingly close study of Aristotle. The scholastic interpreters of Aristotle were not just wrongheaded folks stuck on the ideas of the past. They were setting the stage for new discoveries that could not have happened without their work. Again, our best critics are the ones who understand us the best and the one’s from whom we stand to learn the most. In the Scientific Revolution we see a beautiful example of Socratic dialectic operating at the level of traditions of scholarship.

Europe also experiences significant internal changes in the 16th century that pave the way for its intellectual reawakening. In response to assorted challenges to the authority of the Catholic Church and the decadence of 16th century Catholic churchmen, Martin Luther launches the Reformation. The primary tenet of the reformation was that faith concerns the individual’s relation to God who is knowable directly through the Bible without the intermediary of the Catholic Church. The Reformation and the many splintering branches of Protestant Christianity that it spawns undermines the dogmatic adherence to a specific belief system and opens the way for more free and open inquiry. The undermining of Catholic orthodoxy brought on by the reformation combined with the rediscovery of ancient culture in the Renaissance jointly give rise to the Scientific Revolution and, what we often refer to as the Modern Classical period in philosophy. The reawakening of science and philosophy are arguably one and the same revolution. Developments in philosophy and science during this period are mutually informed, mutually influencing, and intermingled. Individuals including Newton, Leibniz, and Descartes are significant contributors to both science and philosophy.

In what follows, the Renaissance philosophy and intellectual thought will be considered as starting around the fifteenth century and ending in the later seventeenth century. One issue with this framing is that Descartes, the last thinker detailed in this section, is often considered the “Father’ of modern philosophy, which is often understood as coinciding with the Age of Enlightenment, the era comprising the second portion of this part of the textbook. Please keep this in mind. (For more about this historical-philosophical period, see this article.)

Marsilio Ficino (1433—1499)

Marsilio Ficino from a fresco painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio in the Tornabuoni Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence

Marsilio Ficino was a Florentine philosopher, translator, and commentator, largely responsible for the revival of Plato and Platonism in the Renaissance. He has been widely recognized by historians of philosophy for his defense of the immortality of the soul, as well as for his translations of Plato, Plotinus, and the Hermetic corpus from Greek to Latin. Ficino is considered the most important advocate of Platonism in the Renaissance, and his philosophical writings and translations are thought to have made a significant contribution to the development of early modern philosophies.

The Platonic Theology is Ficino’s most original and systematic philosophical treatise. It is a lengthy and encyclopedic defense of the immortality of the soul against what he considered the growing threats of Epicureanism and Averroism. While arguing for immortality, Ficino articulates those positions that are most characteristic of his philosophy. He first provides his own restructuring of the Neoplatonic hierarchy of being. This metaphysical structure is used to ensure the dignity and immortality of the soul by situating it at a privileged midpoint between God and prime matter. However, this hierarchy also has negative consequences for the qualitative character of human existence on account of the soul’s proximity to matter. Finally, the Platonic Theology lays down the basic principles of Ficino’s animistic natural philosophy, according to which a World Soul is imminent in the material world, imparting motion, life, and order.

In addition to the Platonic Theology, Ficino also composed extensive commentaries on Plato and Plotinus, wrote a practical medical treatise, and carried on a voluminous correspondence with contemporaries across Europe. There are noteworthy elements in his writings that are less traditional and orthodox by some contemporary philosophical standards. For example, he was deeply influenced by the Hermetic tradition, and describes a species of knowledge, or natural magic, that draws down the intellectual and moral virtues of the heavens to the terrestrial world. Ficino also endorses an ancient theological tradition that included, to name a few, Hermes Trismegistus, Pythagoras, and Orpheus among its ranks. He held that this pagan tradition espoused a pious philosophy that in fact presaged and confirmed Christianity.

Desiderius Erasmus (1466 – 1536)

Erasmus was an astonishingly erudite priest who benefited from both the traditional scholastic education of the late-medieval church and the new humanistic style that emerged from the Renaissance. Of his various talents, one of the most important was his mastery of philology: the history of languages. Erasmus became completely fluent not just in classical and medieval Latin, but in the Greek of the New Testament (i.e. most of the earliest versions of the New Testament of the Bible are written in the vernacular Greek of the first century CE). He also became conversant in Hebrew, which was very uncommon among Christians at the time.

In the above well-known portrait of Erasmus, he is depicted in heavy, fur-lined robes and hat, a necessity even when indoors in Northern Europe for much of the year. Realistic portraiture was another major innovation of the Renaissance period.

Armed with his lingual virtuosity, Erasmus undertook a vast study and re-translation of the New Testament, working from various versions of the Greek originals and correcting the Latin Vulgate that was the most widely used version at the time. In the process, Erasmus corrected the New Testament itself, catching and fixing numerous translation errors (while he did not re-translate the Old Testament from the Hebrew, he did point out errors in it as well).

Erasmus was criticized by some of his superiors within the Church because he was not officially authorized to carry out his studies and translations; nevertheless, he ended up producing an extensively notated re-translation of the New Testament with numerous corrections. Importantly, these corrections were not just a question of grammatical issues, but of meaning. The Christian message that emerged from the “correct” version of the New Testament was a deeply personal philosophy of prayer, devotion, and morality that did not correspond to many of the structures and practices of the Latin Church. He was also an advocate of translations of the Bible into vernacular languages, although he did not produce such a translation himself.

Some of his other works other included In Praise of Folly, a satirical attack on corruption within the church, and Handbook of the Christian Soldier, which de-emphasized the importance of the sacraments. Erasmus used his abundant wit to ridicule sterile medieval-style scholastic scholars, the corruption of “Christian” rulers who were essentially glorified warlords, and even the very idea of witches, which he demonstrated relied on a faulty translation from the Hebrew of the Old Testament.

Niccolo Machiavelli (1469 – 1527)

Machiavelli was a “courtier,” a professional politician, ambassador, and official who spent his life in the court of a ruler – in his case, as part of the city government of his native Florence. While in Florence, Machiavelli wrote various works on politics, most notably a consideration of the proper functioning of a republic like Florence itself. Unfortunately for him, Machiavelli was caught up in the whirlwind of power politics at court and ended up being exiled by the Medici.

While in exile, Machiavelli undertook a new work of political theory which he titled The Prince. Here, Machiavelli detailed how an effective ruler should behave: training constantly in war, forcing his subjects to fear (but not hate) him, studying the ancient past for role models like Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, and never wasting a moment worrying about morality when power was on the line. In the process, Machiavelli created what was arguably the first work of “political science” that abandoned the moralistic approach of how a ruler should behave as a good Christian and instead embraced a practical guide to holding power. He dedicated the work to the Medici in hopes that he would be allowed to return from exile (he detested the rural bumpkins he lived among in exile and longed to return to cosmopolitan Florence). Instead, The Prince caused a scandal when it came out for completely ignoring the role of God and Christian morality in politics, and Machiavelli died not long after. That being noted, Machiavelli is now remembered as a pioneering political thinker; it is safe to assume that far more rulers have consulted The Prince for ideas of how to maintain their power over the years than one of the moralistic tracts that was preferred during Machiavelli’s lifetime.

Baldassarre Castiglione (1478 – 1529)

Castiglione was the author of The Courtier, published at the end of his life in 1528. Whereas Machiavelli’s The Prince was a practical guide for rulers, The Courtier was a guide to the nobles, wealthy merchants, high-ranking members of the church, and other social elites who served and schemed in the courts of princes: courtiers. The work centered on what was needed to win the prince’s favor and to influence him, not just avoiding embarrassment at court. This was tied to the growing sense of what it was to be “civilized” – Italians at the time were renowned across Europe for their refinement, the quality of their dress and jewelry, their wit in conversation, and their good taste. The relatively crude tastes of the nobility of the Middle Ages were “revised” starting in Italy, with Castiglione serving as both a symptom and cause of this shift.

The effective courtier, according to Castiglione, was tasteful, educated, clever, and subtle in his actions and words, a true politician rather than merely a warrior who happened to have inherited some land. Going forward, growing numbers of political elites came to resemble a Castiglione-style courtier instead of a thuggish medieval knight or “man-at-arms.” When he died, no less a personage than the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V lamented his loss and paid tribute to his memory.

Francis Bacon (1561–1626)

Francis Bacon was one of the leading figures in natural philosophy and in the field of scientific methodology in the period of transition from the Renaissance to the early modern era. As a lawyer, member of Parliament, and Queen’s Counsel, Bacon wrote on questions of law, state and religion, as well as on contemporary politics; but he also published texts in which he speculated on possible conceptions of society, and he pondered questions of ethics (Essays) even in his works on natural philosophy (The Advancement of Learning).

Early in his career he claimed “all knowledge as his province” and afterwards dedicated himself to a wholesale revaluation and re-structuring of traditional learning. To take the place of the established tradition (a miscellany of Scholasticism, humanism, and natural magic), he proposed an entirely new system based on empirical and inductive principles and the active development of new arts and inventions, a system whose ultimate goal would be the production of practical knowledge for “the use and benefit of men” and the relief of the human condition.

Though it is hard to pinpoint the birth of an idea, for all intents and purposes the modern idea of technological “progress” (in the sense of a steady, cumulative, historical advance in applied scientific knowledge) began with Bacon’s The Advancement of Learning and became fully articulated in his later works.

Knowledge is power, and when embodied in the form of new technical inventions and mechanical discoveries it is the force that drives history – this was Bacon’s key insight. In many respects this idea was his single greatest invention, and it is all the more remarkable for its having been conceived and promoted at a time when most English and European intellectuals were either reverencing the literary and philosophical achievements of the past or deploring the numerous signs of modern degradation and decline. Indeed, while Bacon was preaching progress and declaring a brave new dawn of scientific advance, many of his colleagues were persuaded that the world was at best creaking along towards a state of senile immobility and eventual darkness. “Our age is iron, and rusty too,” wrote John Donne, contemplating the signs of universal decay in a poem published six years after Bacon’s Advancement.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)

Thomas Hobbes is one of England’s most influential political philosophers. According to his own estimation, he was probably the most important philosopher of his time, if not of history, since he believed himself to be the first to discover a genuine “science of politics.” Modeled on the surefire method of geometry, his political science was supposed to demonstrate political truths with the certainty of a geometric proof. Such a science was desperately needed by his fellow English citizens, Hobbes believed, because political disagreements and conflicts were tearing apart his country. According to Hobbes, civil war is primarily caused by differing opinions over who is the ultimate political authority in a commonwealth. In his own time, the King’s claim of having the final say on political matters was called into question by members of Parliament. For example, when King Charles tried to raise funds for a war against Spain and France in 1626, Parliament denied his request. In response, the King used a “forced loan” to force individual subjects to finance his needs. This action contributed to the rising tensions between King and Parliament, tensions that ultimately erupted in civil war. According to Hobbes, the only way to escape civil war and to maintain a state of peace in a commonwealth is to institute an impartial and absolute sovereign power that is the final authority on all political issues. Hobbes believes his own political philosophy scientifically proves such a conclusion. If Hobbes’s political argument is as sound as a geometric proof, then his own estimation of his philosophical importance may not be exaggerated.

Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650)

Rene Descartes lived during an intellectually vibrant time. European scholars had supplemented Catholic doctrine with a tradition of Aristotle scholarship, and early scientists like Galileo and Copernicus had challenged the orthodox views of the Scholastics. Surrounded by conflicting yet seemingly authoritative views on many issues, Descartes wants to find a firm foundation on which certain knowledge can be built and doubts can be put to rest. So he proposes to question any belief he has that could possibly turn out to be false and then to methodically reason from the remaining certain foundation of beliefs with the hope of reconstructing a secure structure of knowledge where the truth of each belief is ultimately guaranteed by careful inferences from his foundation of certain beliefs….

Descartes is considered by many to be the founder of modern philosophy. He was also an important mathematician and he made significant contributions to the science of optics. You might have heard of Cartesian coordinates. Thank Descartes….

To ask “How do we know?” is to ask for reasons that justify our belief in the things we think we know. Descartes’ Meditations provide a classic example of the epistemological project of providing systematic justification for the things we take ourselves to know, and this remains a central endeavor in epistemology. This project carries with it the significant risk of finding that we lack justification for things we think we know. This is the problem of skepticism. Skepticism is the view that we can’t know. Skepticism comes in many forms depending on just what we doubt we can know. While Descartes hoped to provide solid justification for many of his beliefs, his project of providing a rational reconstruction of knowledge fails at a key point early on. The unintended result of his epistemological project is known as the problem of Cartesian skepticism….

Another area where Descartes has been influential is in the philosophy of mind. Descartes defends a metaphysical view known as dualism that remains popular among many religious believers. According to this view, the world is made up of two fundamentally different kinds of substance, matter and spirit (or mind). Material stuff occupies space and time and is subject to strictly deterministic laws of nature. But spiritual things, minds, are immaterial, exist eternally, and have free will. If dualism reminds you of Plato’s theory of the Forms, this would not be accidental. Descartes thinks his rationalist philosophy validates Catholic doctrine and this in turn was highly influenced by Plato through St. Augustine.

The intractable problem for Descartes’ dualism is that if mind and matter are so different in nature, then it is hard to see how they could interact at all. And yet when I look out the window, an image of trees and sky affects my mind. When I will to go for a walk, my material body does so under the influence of my mind. This problem of mind-body interaction was famously and forcefully raised by one of the all too rare female philosophers of the time, princess Elisabeth of Bohemia.

A whole branch of philosophy, the philosophy of mind, is launched in the wake of problems for substance dualism. Today, the philosophy of mind is merging with neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and information science to create a new science of mind. We are rapidly learning how material brains realize the processes of thought….

The final big issue that Descartes brought enduring attention to is the problem of free will. We all have the subjective sense that when we choose something we have acted freely or autonomously. We think that we made a choice and we could have made a different choice. The matter was entirely up to us and independent of outside considerations. Advertisers count on us taking complete credit and responsibility for our choices even as they very effectively go about influencing our choices. Is this freedom we have a subjective sense of genuine or illusory? How could we live in a world of causes and effects and yet will and act independent of these? And what are the ramifications for personal responsibility? This is difficult nest of problems that continues to interest contemporary philosophers…

View: “A New Breed of Thinkers” (accessing this film might require logging in to the Library Multimedia Resource Web Page (the log-in is comprised of the same credentials use to access “MY FM”).