“Renaissance” and “Reformation”
T HEY WORK, AS IDEAS ALWAYS DO,
THROUGH THE HEARTS AND HEADS OF
MEN AND WOMEN WHO ARE BY NO MEANS PURE INTELLECTUALS. THEY DO NOT EXPLAIN ALL MODERN HISTORY. They are even, in a sense, abstractions that we build up in our own minds in our effort to make sense of the past. But they do make sense. We believe what we believe today, behave as we do, in part because of what the men we label
humanists, Protestants, or rationalists said and did several centuries ago.
* * * * * * * * *
The Terms “Renaissance” and “Reformation”
O NCE UPON A TIME A PAIR OF FAIR-HAIRED TWINS NAMED RENAISSANCE AND REFORMATION, PERSECUTED AND ABUSED TURNED AGAINST THEIR WICKED BUT DODDERING STEPMOTHER, THE CATHOLIC CHURCH OF THE MIDDLE AGES.
Of course, our history books never came to such a simple and undignified way of putting the matter; they couldn’t quite begin like a fairy tale. But, except for Roman Catholics, most Americans who have had to learn some European history have come out with the notion that the movements we call the Protestant Reformation and the Renaissance were somehow the same in inspiration and purpose. One was directed toward religious freedom, the other toward artistic freedom, and both together worked for moral freedom, and, of course, for what became in the nineteenth century democracy. Both worked to emancipate ordinary men and women from restraints that custom and superstition had combined to lay upon them in the Middle Ages.
Now even this very misleading view is not wholly mistaken. Many a follower of Luther must have felt a kind of exaltation, a sense of being freed from routine obligations that confined him, a new confidence in his own powers . We know well that artists and men of letters, scientists and explorers, all felt the lift of new worlds to conquer, new opportunities to do things—all sorts of things—in ways no one had ever yet made use of, ways therefore of being themselves, of being striking personalities. Vague, loose, though the terms are, there is some sense in equating the Middle Ages with authority, and both Renaissance and Reformation with liberty . But not much sense, if you stop there.
For the facts are too complex for the formula that seeks to explain them. Luther used his authority to help suppress the Peasants’ Revolt. Many of the emancipated humanists of the Renaissance set up the masters of Greek literature as authorities beyond their questioning, as models for everything they wrote. Cicero and Plato were worshiped as blindly as any literary masters have ever been worshiped. In politics the Renaissance tyrant, the Renaissance despot are common figures. Neither Renaissance nor Reformation worked consciously toward individual freedom of a democratic sort.
Even less true is it that Renaissance and Reformation always worked most harmoniously together for the same ends. A good Calvinist had to hold in horror the Renaissance artist who sculptured nude models, lived recklessly and prodigally, took no thought of the morrow . Luther came to hate the humanist Erasmus, and the feeling was reciprocated. Here we have no simple antithesis between the religious ascetic and the frankly sensuous artist. Erasmus loved Christianity, he loved flawless Greek and the after-dinner conversation of scholars, and in a rather academic way he loved common sense; he made a very poor rebel. The career and personality of Erasmus, indeed, fit in poorly with a cut-and-dried formula for either Renaissance or Reformation.
Humanism, indeed, is an attitude toward life that is fundamentally out of harmony with that side of democracy that is concerned with the common man, with the welfare of the masses. The artist, the man of letters of the Renaissance, believed in a privileged class—not the old feudal nobility, but the new privileged ciass of talent and intellect. He was indifferent to, or even contemptuous of, the indistinguished many not concerned with art or philosophy or gracious living . From this humanist attitude toward life has come, in part, such a familiar and undemocratic modern attitude as the contempt of artists and intellectuals for the philistines, the Babbitts, the middlebrows. Most modern defenses of an aristocracy—or, since “aristocracy” suggests the old European noblesse hardly anyone cares to defend, one might better say, of an elite—have gone back to Renaissance sources for patterns. Nietzsche, following his fellow professor at Basel, Jakob Burckhardt, found in the bright, fierce life of these Renaissance masters of art and man the nearest earthly realization of his master-men, the Supermen.
There is indeed at least one element in the complex of humanist attitudes that has been taken over into democratic tradition—the notion of the career open to talent, to innovating, daring, individual talent. Yet on the whole our modern democrats have not held quite the same notion of talents to be encouraged that the Renaissance held. Obviously the important point about the doctrine of freedom of opportunity is the simple question, Opportunity for what? The eighteenth and the sixteenth centuries, the men of the Enlightenment and the men of the Renaissance, answered this, as we shall see, very differently.
The facts, then, show that the simple view of the Renaissance and Reformation as joint heralds of modern democracy is not accurate. Had modern civilization followed strictly and carefully down the paths blazed for it by humanists or Protestants, we might never have heard the phrase “the century of the common man.
Some of our democratic heritage is very old indeed, as old as the civilization of the Greeks and the Hebrews. Some of it is relatively new, as new as the steam engine. Some of it we owe to the humanists, but not nearly so much as the conventional textbooks of the last few generations usually made out. We must beware of exaggerating the age of our democracy. It is still, in the balance, young, still a growing, striving force in a world long used to other ways of life.
THE RANGE OF HUMANISM
The mere fact of their rebellion against the Catholic Church gave the Protestants at least a common name, no matter how great the differences between an Anglican and an antinomian (from the Greek, against law—almost our anarchist) or an Anabaptist. There is no such single name for those who in art, letters, and philosophy were in a sense united by the fact that they didn’t like medieval art, letters, or philosophy. The best we have is the term humanists, a term that has had much wider and much narrower uses than are altogether convenient for the intellectual historian. Especially today, a humanist can be a theologian trying to do without a personal God, an educational reformer who thinks we have too much of natural science and not enough of the humanities, a philosopher who holds that humans are rather more than animals if less than gods, and no doubt much else. Even if we limit ourselves in this chapter to those Renaissance admirers—yes, imitators—of Greece and Rome who are usually classed as humanists, we shall miss much that we ought not to miss.
Let us, then, accept humanism as a kind of cover-all under which may be grouped all men whose world-view is neither primarily theological nor primarily rationalistic. In this use, humanism Is not at all necessarily to be taken as a sort of halfway house between the supernatural of religion and the natural of science, though in many cases humanism was just such a halfway house. Humanism tends, in these early modern centuries, to reject medieval habits of mind, medieval ideals, and especially as embodied in Scholasticism, but not to accept Protestantism, nor the rationalist view of the universe as a neatly functioning, regular arrangement (almost a machine) . The humanist is a great rebel against medieval cosmology, but he has no very clear cosmology of his own. The humanist is a great individualist—he wants to be himself. But he is not very clear about what to make of himself. He is much more in debt to the Middle Ages than he will admit, notably in what he most prides himself on, his learning. And he is not, Leonardo da Vinci and a few others excepted, a scientist. Even Leonardo, perhaps, is better described as an inventor than as a scientist.
We have already seen how far back into the Middle Ages of the old schoolbooks certain of the concrete marks of the Renaissance can be traced. Yet if in the thirteenth century Dante already knows his Latin classics, if Giotto already paints in the round, if Frederick II, Stupor Mundi, is already as omnivorously curious about this world of the senses, as headstrong and as heartless as any Renaissance tyrant, it is still true that not until the late fifteenth century is humanism in the full tide of fashion. We must attempt shortly to define, at least in broad terms, what these new things mean as an attitude toward the world. But first we must sample the range of Renaissance humanism
In many ways the simplest human activity that can be neatly ear marked as “Renaissance” and set off from “medieval” is what we now call scholarship or, in an older term still useful, learning. The humanists proper, in the narrower historical sense of the word, were in fact scholars, though their position in society, at least that of the greater ones like Erasmus, carried a prestige among the ruling classes scholarship does not carry today. (The real analogy today is of course with natural science; Erasmus had in the sixteenth century the kind 0f prestige Einstein has today.) The humanists had what their medieval predecessors had not, a direct knowledge of Greek; they had access to the originals of most Greek writing that has survived at all. Greek came slowly to the West, by means of hundreds of now forgotten scholars; it did not come suddenly after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 when Byzantine scholars fled from the Turk Indeed, the medieval scholar after the thirteenth century was by no means as ignorant of Greek as we used to think, and by the late fourteenth century any ambitious, scholarly youth could have access to Greek. The humanists also tried to write the kind of Latin Cicero and his fellows wrote. That is to say, they deliberately abandoned medieval Latin, which was a natural language, limited it is true to an intellectual class, but written and spoken by them with no more than customary respect for tradition. The humanist scholars deliberately revived a dead tongue—which has in a sense been quite dead ever since. They polished and reused the life out of Latin. They had the use of the printing press, and were thus able to communicate more readily with one another than had their medieval predecessors. The humanists were, however, a small privileged group, not interested in a wide audience; some of them damned the printing press as the vu1garation of learning. It is really only in religion that the printing press in these early years touches a democratic audience. How changed in spirit the humanist scholars were from their medieval predecessors we shall try to estimate in the next section. But for purposes of recognition their devotion to the Greeks, their Ciceroman Latin, their contempt for the Schoolmen are ample signs.
In the fine arts, the men of the high Renaissance—the sixteenth century. the Cinquecento of the Italians—produced work that looks very different from medieval work. They produced it partly at least in a deliberate imitation of the Romans, whose remains in architecture and sculpture lay all about in the Italy which gave the lead to humanism in art and in letters . But they did not produce it suddenly, and they owed a great deal more than they liked to admit to their medieval predecessors.
In architecture the change is perhaps clearest, the break cleanest. Actually Gothic, soaring Gothic, had never been really popular in Italy . Builders readily took to the round arch, the dome, the classic orders, and to lines that accepted the horizontal as something not to be transcended. They produced indeed a style, a compound of elements each svith a classical origin, hut which when put together make something new, something original. No Roman, no Greek, had ever built a building quite like St. Peter’s in Rome or the Renaissance palaces of Florence. As it travels north, this style gets entangled with local medieval traditions and produces some strange hybrids like the famous French chateau at Chambord, all Renaissance in massive simplicity and horizontality in the lower stories, all Gothic profusion and upward striving in roofs and chimneys. In England, gentlemen’s manor houses, though no longer fortified, no longer medieval castles, show Gothic tracery right into the seventeenth century.
In sculpture and painting again, work of the sixteenth century is clearly distinguishable from work of the thirteenth . A painting of Raphael’s is not like one of Giotto’s, nor is Michelangelo’s David—even apart from its heroic size—a statue that would fit into a Gothic cathedral. Yet to the untrained layman trying to use his eyes, Renaissance painting and sculpture look related to medieval painting and sculpture in a way the cathedral of Chartres and St. Peter’s at Rome do not look related. If you take as a rough measuring rod what we shall crudely call naturalness, lifelikeness, what a stereoscopic camera sees, then from the thirteenth century on artists are working toward this kind of naturalness, and away from certain conventions that may or may not be “primitive.” Those conventions are best identified with Byzantine art, which was stiff, hieratic, flat-surfaced, and made no attempt no anticipate the camera and Technicolor. (We are trying hard to report, and not to judge; but these fields are in the heart of that kind of noncumulative knowledge known as taste, where every word praises or blames; in general today to say that a painting suggests anything photographic is to damn the painting.) That is to say that in painting and in sculpture the medieval thirteenth and the Renaissance sixteenth century join together against the Byzantine, and the Renaissance is clearly the daughter of the Middle Ages, at least in one very central point of technique.
So too even more clearly in imaginative literature the obvious external signs do not so much differentiate the Renaissance from the high Middle Ages as mark a clear continuity of development. The use of the vernacular is certainly no criterion, for the vernaculars are used for poetry and narrative, for literature in contrast to philosophy, even before great medieval writers like Dante and Chaucer use them. No doubt certain forms, especially in poetry, and certain kinds of polished style mark work as that of the humanists. The sonnet, for instance, is a readily recognized form that can at once be ticketed as Renaissance . But the continuity from the thirteenth century on is none the less striking . For a concrete example, take the note of hawdry or obscenity. If you will read in chronological order samples from the Iabliaux, one of Chaucer’s bawdier tales, some Boccaccio, and some Rabelais, you will have gone from the Middle Ages to the high Renaissance, and you will come out in the end with a man always respectfully tagged as a humanist. And yet Rabelais has an exuberance, a small-boyish obscenity, a freshness that has also been tagged Gothic. His vast and miscellaneous erudition may at first sight seem humanist, but it is an erudition piled on with little of the classical sense of discipline.
Rabelais is describing, at great length and with a typical humanist erudition in all fields, a marvelous (and fictitious) plant he calls patgruelion, after his hero Pantagruel:
I find that plants are named after several ways. Some have
taken the name of him who first found them, knew them,
showed them, sowed them, improved them by culture, and
appropriated them: as the MercuriaUs from Mercury; Panacea
from Panacc, daughter of Esculaplus; Armois from Artemis,
who is Diana; Eupatorium from King Eupator; Telephion from
Telephus; Euphorbium from Euphorbus, King Juba’s physician;
Ciymcnos from Clymenus; Alcibiadium from Alcibiadcs; Gentian
from Gentius, King of Sclavonia. And, formerly, so much was
prized this prerogative of giving a name to newly discovered
plants, that, just as a controversy arose betwixt Neptune and Pallas,
from which of the two the land discovered by both should receive
its denomination—~hough thereafter it was called and had the
appellation of Athens, from Athen~r, which is Minerva—just so
would Lyncus, King of Scythia, have treacherously slain the
young Triptolemus, whom Ceres had sent to show unto mankind
the use of corn, previously unknown; to the end that, after his
murder, he might impose his own name, and be called, in immortal
necessary honour and glory, the inventor of a grain so profitable and
to human life. For the wickedness of which treasonable attempt he
was by Ceres transformed into an ounce.
Other herbs and plants there are, which retain the names of the
countries from whence they were transported: as the Median apples
from Media, where they were first found; Punic apples—that is to say,
pomcgranates—from Punieia; Ligusticum, which we call Lovage,
from Liguria, the coast of Genoa; Castanes, Persiques or peach-trees,
Sabine, Snechas from my lies Hyêrcs; Spica Celtica, and others.
Rabelais’s obscenity is often quite as learned, so learned that only a humanist would find it very obscene. He makes long lists, like litanies, of epithets in which only the original object is—or was— unprintable.
This comparative study of obscenity should at least bring home the very great difficulty of pigeonholing works of art (in the widest sense of art, which includes literature) to accord with big generalizations of philosophy or sociology. The note of bawdry may well be peculiarly timeless, and therefore an unfair test. Yet hardly any easily recognized, single, external sign will clearly differentiate medieval art from Renaissance art. The reader may indeed, if he has been thinking his way through this, have come upon the idea that since the Middle Ages were primarily religious and since the Renaissance meant at least an attempted return to the pagan, the unreligious, if not the irreligious, mcdieval art should be tied to the Church and Renaissance art should enjoy Bohemian freedom . Now this is in part true. By the high Renaissance sculptors and painters arc imitating the classical nude as they imitated everything else classic. The artist is beginning to lead something like the kind of life—wild, indecent, improvident, hut so interesting—he is still supposed to lead. Benvenuto Ccllini’s autobiography, which is always appealed to by those who want to simplify the sixteenth century as the Century of the Artist, certainly sets up the myth of the artist as the genius above decency as above dullness. Yet an autobiography of Villon’s—did it exist—would perhaps have outdone Cellini’ s. Of course, you can always maintain that Villon is not really medieval, that he anticipates the Renaissance.
But there is a grave difficulty in accepting the formula. Middle Ages equals religion and inhibition, Renaicsance equals paganism and exhibition. All through the high Renaissance the artist is at work for the Church and on religious themes. If you will think of the universally known work of these men, work so famous as to seem to the present-day highbrow almost vulgar—Leonardo’s Last Supper, Raphael’s Madonnas, Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, and the like—you will note that they are all religious in theme. Someone may tell you that these works arc religious in a purely external way, and that their spirit is worldly, sensuous, pagan, humanistic, and quite the opposite of the medieval. Raphael’s madonnas are, they may say, just Italian peasant women, no more spiritual than the winner of an American beauty contest. This contrast between a madonna of Raphael as all flesh and a Gothic sculptured Virgin as all soul is most misleading. Raphael’s madonnas are descendants of medieval Virgins and by no means traduce their ancestor, who was very far from being an abstract principle. Indeed, it is chiefly because we exaggerate the asceticism and other-worldliness of the Middle Ages that we find Renaissance art so fresh, so pagan, so human. The enaissance artists who gave most of their artistic lives to the task of making Christian beliefs tangible, visible, were carrying on a function they had inherited from the medieval forerunners. Only gradually, and only in comparatively modern times, is art so completely secular that religious art almost disappears. Here again the modern has its firmest and most numerous roots not in the sixteenth, but in the eighteenth century.
THE NATURE OF HUMANISM
The humanists were, however, conscious rebels, whether their main interest was in scholarship, philosophy, art, or letters. They are very modern in their awareness of being in revolt against their fathers, the men of the Middle Ages. Perhaps the scholars and philosophers, humanists in the narrower sense, were most articulate. Men like Erasmus expressed very freely their contempt for the Schoolrnen, wretched slaves of Aristotle, manglers of the noble tongue of Horace and Cicero, idle disputants over the number of angels who could occupy the point of a needle. We still echo their attacks today, though we should have a perspective they did not have. They were, it is true, rebelling against a decayed Scholasticism, not against the mature Scholasticism of the thirteenth century, which they made no real attempt to recover.
Even the artists were in rebellion, consciously striving to put off a tradition they felt to be a burden . Late Gothic was in as obvious a state of decay as was late Scholas ticism, and especially north of the Alps those who welcomed the new Italian styles in all the arts did so as rebels against the complexities and fatuousness of late Gothic Early Renaissance is a simple style, relatively unornamented, consciously avoiding the richness of Gothic, consciously seeking in classical examples simplicity and discipline.
Perhaps at bottom humanists and Protestants were both rebelling because they felt the familiar, but to sensitive men and women never comfortable, gap between the ideal and the real had in late medieval times reached an excessive degree of obvious -ness. That gap, always pretty plain throughout the Middle Ages, was by the fifteenth century almost too wide for the most ingenious explanations to close. The ideal was still Christian, still an ideal of unity, peace, security, organization, status; the reality was endemic war, divided authority even at the top, even in that papacy which should reflect God’s own serene unity, a great scramble for wealth and position, a time of troubles.
So, in a sense like Protestantism, this complex movement in the ~rts and in philosophy we call humanism is a very self-conscious rebel, a rebel against a way of life it finds corrupt, overelaborated, stale, unlovely, and untrue. The humanists seem to be opening a window, letting in the fresh air, and doing a lot of other pleasant things.
Yet the humanist figures of speech began to wear out for all save the very faithful. Renaissance art soon began to cultivate a lush ornamentation, a fondness for detail, a richness of color that would have satisfied the fifteenth century. Or more accurately, in most of the arts the victorious humanists divided into a lush or exuberant school and an ascetic or spare school. In architecture, for instance, one line of development went through Palladio, a sixteenth-century Italian who loved strict classic simplicity of the schoolmaster’s tradition, into the kind of neoclassicism we are familar with in the United States as “colonial”; another line led straight into the baroque and thence, in the eighteenth century, rococo, styles of flowing curves and rich ornamentation. As for writing, the humanists were hardly at any time really simpler than their scholastic opponents, and very soon their scholarship got as pretentious, as heavy, as doctoral as scholarship ever got to be; Plato got rather confusedly substituted for Aristotle as The Philosopher; and even in imaginative writing men got so far away from the ideals of simplicity (which in fact the Renaissance never really did take seriously) that one finds in the sixtcenth century two literary movements which cultivated a certain literary preciousness and obscurity more successfully than it has been cultivated until very recently— euphuism in England and gongorism in Spain. Recent popularity among the purest of intellectuals has made us once more familiar with the metaphysical poets of seventeenth-century England, who were certainly not simple, clear, and reasonable. The Renaissance very rapidly created its own gap betwcen the real and the ideal.
For the Renaissance, like the Protestant Reformation, was not really anarchical . It rebelled against one authority, one complex of ideals, habits, institutions in the name of another, and by no means unrelated, cbmplcx. Again, as rebels the humanists had to work very hard to discredit an older authority, and in the process they often used libertarian language, at least to the extent of demanding freedom for the new education, freedom from the rtiles of Scholasticism, freedom for the individual to follow his own bent and not just parrot Aristotle. But even less than the Protestants, some of whom were antinomians, did the humanists really believe in the natural goodness and wisdom of man. Or if you prefer to put it that way, they never really emancipated themselves from the long medieval intellectual tradition of looking for authority, looking for the answer, in the recorded works of famous predecessors. Only, for the Church Fathers, Aristotle, and the medieval doctors, the humanists substituted the body of surviving Greek and Roman writings, literary as well as philosophical, and, where they still were actively interested in religion, the text of the Bible, duly studied in the original Hebrew or Greek . As secondary authorities, they soon built up their own society of mutual admiration and began the modern process embedded in the scholarly footnote. But there is among them the same deference toward authority, the same habit of abstract and indeed deductive thought, the same unwillingness to make experiments, to grub around in an undignified way, that we find in the Schoolmen. They are not really forerunners of free modern scholarly research; they are vainer and more worldly Schoolmen.
The above paragraph is greatly exaggerated, but it is meant to drive home a point. The humanist scholars were not libertarians and democrats in the modern sense. They were a privileged group of learned men, very proud of their scholarly standards, with most of the traditional defects of scholars—vanity, possessiveness, quarrelsomeness, and a great fear of making mistakes. They had a great share of one of the tra(litional virtues of scholars, a lusty appetite for ha:d intellectual labor. Of critical acumen, of ability to set and solve problems they surely had no more than scholars must have. They were not the intellectual giants they now appear; they were rather pioneers moving slowly into rough country.
They set a pattern and standards for modern scholarship. In the study of ancient languages they introduced order, accuracy, and tools that we take for granted, like dictionaries arranged alphabetically. They developed analytical and historical standards of criticism. The stock example of the achievements of these scholars is still an excellent one to illustrate their methods at their best. The popes had in the early Middle Ages bolstered the prestige of the Holy See, already firmly based on the Petrine tradition, by the “donation of Constantine.” A document purported to come from the emperor Constantine as he left Rome to establish his capital in Constantinople made the pope his successor in Rome and gave to him the direct control of the land around Rome later known as the “States of the Church.” This document was shown by one of the earliest of the humanists, Lorenzo Valla, who died in 1457, to be a forgery. Its language simply was not the language that could have been written in the early fourth century A.D. Valla made this evident by methods now familiar to us all; he showed that the document contained anachronisms, as if a letter purported to be Abraham Lincoln’s should contain a reference to a Buick car.
The formal metaphysical thought of the humanists is not one of their strong points. In these early modern centuries most minds at once systematic and determined to answer the Big Questions were either theologians or rationalists of some sort. Italian humanists like Ficino and Pico della Mirandola were not merely Platonists; they were Neoplatonists, tender-minded believers in this most cerebral and scholarly mysticism. And in general it is true that through most of Europe the humanists welcomed Plato as a relief from Aristotle, as a philosopher closer to the purified but still sacramental Christianity they really wanted. Erasmus, Thomas More, Colet, and other northerners came under the influence of Plato. The thesis that these men simply left one authority, Aristotle, to take refuge in another can no doubt be exaggerated. But they certainly added little to the Platonist tradition, and indeed they are not primarily philosophers.
It is, however, the imaginative writers, the artists, who are near the heart of the humanist attitude toward life. Petrarch, Rabelais, Shakespeare, Cervantes, the painters, sculptors, and musicians whose names we still know—these are the kind of men who sought some way between traditional Christianity as it was handed down by the Middle Ages and the new rationalism that seemed to take all the magic and mystery out of the universe. By the seventeenth century, some of them, like Milton, could invest with awe and mystery the world science was trying to make clear. But few artists could accept the world of Bacon and Descartes. It is from these centuries that the modern distrust of the artist for the scientist dates.
Now, as we have seen, these artists were in more or less conscious rebellion against the medieval Christian tradition. They repudiated one authority, but—and this is most important—they had to seek out, perhaps sometimes to set up, another such authority. The scholar’s simple acceptance of anything written by an old Greek or Roman was not enough for these men of imagination. Like everyone who touched at all things intellectual, these artists too went back to Greece and Rome. But like the architects, they reworked their materials into something new. Indeed, we may take a lead from architecture, impersonal art though it may seem to be, in the difficult task of sorting these writers out into some order.
One kind of Renaissance architecture—Palladio will do as a name to associate with it—found in its classic models simplicity, regularity, moderation (nothing huge), quiet, graceful decoration (nothing stark). Now one kind of Renaissance artistic and literary return to the ancients found there essentially the same kind of authority; they found the classics were “classical.” They found, that is, substantially that ideal of the beautiful and the good which has never yet quite been banished from formal Western education. They found that the Greeks and Romans—the ones that count, the ones we have to read— were gentlemanly, disciplined, moderate in all things, distrustful of the wild, the excited, the unbuttoned, the enthusiastic, free from superstition but by no means irreligious, controlled, mature men of imagination, not narrow rationalists . One could go on at great length and indeed we shall return to some phases of these ideals. Suffice it here to say that these Renaissance admirers of the classical culture of Greece and Rome found in that culture above all a discipline. They did not see what Professor Gilbert Murray, whose opinion we have earlier cited, thinks might have been seen there had not generations of men like these humanists pretty well suppressed it exuberance, color, wildness, the desire of the moth for the star, high adventure, and deep romance.
We shall call this the spare, in contrast with the exuberant interpretation of the classics. You can find traces of it even in the high Renaissance of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century, and especially in the more imaginative of the scholar /humanists like Erasmus There is much of it in Montaigne, though Montaigne always holds himself back from anything like a movement . And this spare classicism did become a movement, a fashion, a way of life. Its great flowering was in the France of the seventeenth century, and the Age of Louis XIV is in many ways a good sampling of the ideal.
Here is a passage from Boileau in which both form and matter illustrate the classical ideal of his age—clarity, sobriety, respect for authority, distrust of the unusual, the eccentric, the departure from the norm:
When authors have been admired for a great number
of centuries and have been scorned only by a few
people with eccentric taste (for there will always be
found depraved tastes), then not only is there
temerity, there is madness in casting doubt on the
merit of these writers. From the fact that you do not
see the beauties in their writings you —must not
conclude that those beauties are not there, but that
you are blind and that you have no taste. The bulk
of mankind in the long run makes no mistake about
works of the spirit. There is no longer any question
nowadays as to whether Homer, Plato, Cicero, Vergil
are remarkable men. It is a matter closed to dispute,
for twenty centuries are agreed on it; the question is to
find out what it is that has made them admired by so
many centuries; and you must find a way to understand
this or give up letters, for which you must believe that
you have neither taste nor aptitude since you do not feel
what all men have felt.
Thc relation of this spare classicism to Christianity is by no means a simple one. The great writers of the French classical period who are perhaps the best representatives of it are all good Catholics—or at least all practicing Catholics. Indeed it would have been indecent self-assertion for them not to have been Catholics; moreover, they could hardly hope for preferment at the court of Louis XIV had they been heretics or skeptics . But the classicists were often separated by the thinnest of lines from the rationalists, the men who were building up an attack on any form of revealed religion. Obviously the Boileaus, the Bossuets, even the Racines—and more important, the people who were the direct audience of these writers—could not be enthusiasts, mystics, rebels, Protestants, and still maintain the decorum that was part of their ideal. This decorum, and much else prescribed for them, like the famous formal rules of French drama, they would all maintain to be perfectly consonant with deep feeling, with a sense of mystery and the inadequacy of men to run their own lives without the guiding hand of God. They felt they were good Christians.
And so they were, almost all of them. But they were enlightened and conformist Christians, not evangelical ones. Some, like Racine might in their later years regret their worldly past and turn to a sincere but still conventional piety. On the edge of this world there might be heresies like Jansenism, which has been called the Calvinism of the Roman Catholic Church, and which was indeed an austere and almost classical version of Christianity. Some of the gentler members, like Bishop Fénelon, might go over to a much more modern heresy, the that seems in some ways an anticipation of the sentimental belief in natural goodness of the eighteenth century. But the great hulk of these classical humanists were surely marginal Christians, or at least Christians not much moved toward the imitation of Christ, Christians for whom the Church was above all a discipline for naturally unruly men who lacked the sense of these classical humanists, their education, their feeling for what was fit.
IDEAS and MEN. By: Crane Brinton
Copyright @ 1950. (Pgs. 259-274)
by: PRENTICE-HALL, INC.
70 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y.
Church of the Science of God
La Jolla, California 92038-3131
© Church of the Science of GOD, 1993