Notes on Culture: What Was the Renaissance?

Author: William Doino, Jr.

Notes on Culture: What Was the Renaissance?

By William Doino, Jr.

Ever since the publication of Jacob Burckhardt's (1860), the origins, accomplishments and significance of the period in question,roughly 1450- 1620,have been vigorously debated. Of course, the Renaissance was a topic of historical discussion long before Burckhardt's classic work appeared, but after its publication, the passion and intensity of the debate dramatically increased. In one corner, were liberal historians like John Addington Symonds who, taking their cue from what they interpreted as Burckhardt's prejudice against the Middle Ages, argued that "the light of classical civilization was extinguished in the night of the Dark Ages and was reborn miraculously at the Renaissance which was the starting point of the new period of progress and enlightenment," as Christopher Dawson aptly put it. In the opposite corner, were historians like Dawson who maintained that "the ancient world saved its soul by its conversion to Christianity and that the tradition of its culture lived on in Western Christendom," flowering into some of the richest fruits of the Renaissance. ( Sheed and Ward, 1942, P. 63). The debate as to whether the Renaissance built upon and continued the Christian achievements of the Middle Ages,or whether the Renaissance was independently pagan, and marked a sharp break with the preceding Catholic era,is masterfully covered in Wallace Ferguson's acclaimed book, (1948), and continues to this day. And the good news is that the Medievalists are winning. We now know, thanks to the work of eminent scholars such as Ludwig von Pastor (), Charles Homer Haskins (), R. W. Southern (), Stanley Jaki () and, of course, Dawson (particularly his books and ) that 1) the widespread revival of classical learning and humanistic ideals identified exclusively with the Renaissance actually began during the Medieval period; 2) the scientific advances of the Renaissance have their origins in the Middle Ages, and were only arrived at because of the Christian world view; 3) the great art of the Renaissance was often inspired by Medieval artists, who produced paintings and sculptures and architecture of no less astonishing merit; and 4) although paganism and immorality certainly exercised a considerable influence during the Renaissance, Christian moral and spiritual ideals were able to survive and even flourish, as the saints met the secular challenge of the Renaissance, just as faithful Christians had overcome the barbarism of the Middle Ages. Moreover, we now know that Jacob Burckhardt's alleged disdain for the Medieval era was not nearly as pronounced as certain interpreters of his work would have us believe. Indeed, as the current edition of the says in a remarkable statement: "Although Burckhardt emphasized many contrasts between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, he did not underrate Medieval achievements. His concept of history left no room for the idea that the Renaissance or any other period was characterized by general progress over the preceding epoch." (Vol. 3, P. 484).

Heretofore, no student of the Renaissance could afford to ignore Burckhardt's classic work, nor Wallace Ferguson's follow-up supplement to it. Now comes a third work which will likely be regarded as equally indispensable: by Sir John Hale (Atheneum, 1994, 648 pages). A Fellow of the British Academy and Emeritus Professor of Italian History at University College, London, Hale is the author of many books including (1954), (1961), (1977) and (1982). Widely regarded as the world's leading Renaissance historian, Professor Hale's new book is the culmination of a lifetime of research and reflection.

In , Professor Hale "captures Europe's spectacular metamorphosis from 1450-1620, when the words 'Europe' and 'European' first acquired widely understood significance," to quote a perceptive review of it. "Filled with numerous illustrations, reproductions and quotations, Hale's work analyzes the foundation of modern Western thought and culture during this era, adding a fresh perspective to the contemporary debate about the nature of Europe."

"With the Renaissance came humanism and its implicit threat to unquestioned religious faith and its reverence for Greek and Roman models in art, literature, and thought. Hale discusses how art and writing flourished across Europe as never before,the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel and Raphael's Madonnas sprang up in Rome; the influence of DaVinci's forays into cartography, anatomy and applied science spread over Europe; in France, Francois Rabelais spun his audacious tales; and in Germany, painter Jan Breughel portrayed a new world of rooms richly decorated with items appealing to the expanding number of consumers.

"Yet, as Hale explains, although Renaissance Europe saw immense achievements, it was also filled with many inconsistencies, imperfections and failings. The improvement of maps, the increase in traffic and the stimulation of trade as a prosperous population grew, all contributed to the end of the fragmentation of Europe and encouraged a continental point of view. According to Hale, however, new knowledge of neighboring cultures may have opened minds, but it also fed prejudices. 'As the image of Europe became intellectually ever clearer, so did its divisions,' Hale writes.

"For some, the Renaissance was a time of optimism and hope,an age which made intellectual and artistic achievement its hallmark. For others it was characterized by wretchedness, increased rivalries, warfare and religious strife. Yet whatever the opinion of those living through this extraordinary era, 'thoughtful men,at different times and in different places and with different reasons,came to see themselves as living in a period which felt different,' Hale writes. ( From the review of Hale's book in , an imprint of Macmillan Publishing Company, August, 1994).

Where does Hale stand in the great debate over the connection - or lack of it - between the Renaissance and the Middle Ages? While giving full credit to the new aspects and creative energy of the Age of Humanism, Hale makes it unmistakably clear that he views the Renaissance as an of,rather than a radical departure from,the Medieval era. This is particularly true of the progress of Christianity, argues Hale, for it continued to maintain its powerful influence during the bumps and grinds of this historical transition. Indeed, for all its secular elements, the Renaissance was still a time "when almost everyone believed or wished to believe that he or she played a personal role in a divine plan, initiated when God created the world and concerned more directly with the individual when God himself became a man and in this guise died under the torture of the cross for his fellows." (p. 112). Moreover, " in moments of anguish priests were [still] seen as essential intermediaries between God and man and true repentance as a possible guarantee against the pains of hell." (p. 114). Theology, says Hale, was overshadowed by the new emphasis on classical civilization, for intellectuals continued to passionately argue "about such issues as predestination, personal immortality, the efficacy of penitential works in sealing an act of contrition, the question as to how far salvation after death depended on having been as little absorbed as possible in the active life of trades and families and politics and war." (ibid.). The

Renaissance's well advertised endorsement of individualism was always qualified, and did not necessarily lead to self-indulgence and idleness,for "the medieval condemnation of the vice of sloth remained a governing principle behind the surveillance of work and leisure alike in ideal communities." (p. 441). The assumption that the Renaissance was an era given over to unprecedented sensuality and sexual immorality is equally off base: "It would be hazardous to suggest that sexual appetites changed or that sexual behaviour actually became more of a threat to the structure of civilized society." (p. 430). In fact, states Hale, there was "a new alertness" to the reality and danger of sins against the flesh: "This was due in part to the more vigilant scrutiny of morals by Catholic clergy and the strenuous demands made by Protestantism on sexual conduct." (p. 430). Most importantly, says Hale, the leading Christians of the Renaissance did not adopt a defensive,much less, compromising,attitude toward Humanism, but sought to incorporate its grandest achievements into a Christian worldview. In a paragraph that sums up the vital essence of his book, Hale describes how eminent humanist Christians were able to "baptize" what was best in their age and thus make it part of their heritage.

"On the whole...there was felt to be little potential conflict. Humanist moral teaching emphasized the obligations of honourable individual conduct and the pursuit of the collective good in terms that contradicted neither the Ten Commandments nor the Sermon on the Mount. There was in any case a strong tendency among theologians themselves to divide the aspect of truth that was ascertainable by reason and community experience from that of spirituality and revelation. 'Surely the first place is due to holy scripture,' wrote Erasmus in his widely read dialogue , 'but sometimes I find some things said or written by the ancients, by pagans and poets, so chaste, so holy, so divine, I am persuaded that a good genius enlightened them. Certainly, there are many in the communion of saints who are not in our catalogue of saints.' " (p. 198).

This article was taken from "The Dawson Newsletter," Summer 1995, P.O. Box 332, Fayetteville, AR 72702, $8.00 per year.