Moral Philosophy

Ethics Part 4: The Renaissance & Humanism


Eleanor of Aquitane was probably the most powerful woman in 12th Century Europe. I will not go into her many accomplishments and connections to power in detail here. What is most interesting at this juncture is that in addition to being heavily involved in affairs of state herself, she sponsored the development of the poetry and music of courtly love and Arthurian legend. While sophisticated in politics and finance, and a master of the game of thrones that involved men she birthed or controlled, Eleanor both enjoyed and understood the power of mythmaking and the arts as a means to both entertain and influence. There was at this time a growing market for fun stories about knights and ladies, particularly among the increasingly educated nobility of Europe. The readers were mainly women and the writers mainly the men who learned their letters as clerics and who also tutored the women. Notable among these was Chrestien de Troyes, who worked folk tales into memorable poetry and gave form to Arthurian legend in a way that would be entertaining while furthering the interests of the influential women who sponsored the work. In addition to offering talking points about the rules of love that could make men malleable in the present, the myths harkened to a time of legends when the world was better and noble men and women were just that. The back story would add gravitas to the power position of families made up of pirates and courtesans. As George Orwell said, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” One of the most important books on courtly love was The Romance of the Rose, which was a major influence on Geoffrey Chaucer, who used it as grist but frequently satirized its precepts and adherents.

As the middle ages wound down, Europe was marked by wars between emergent feudal lords, their sponsors, partners and antagonists in the church; and the scourge of the plague, catastrophes and omens that created fear and dread among all classes. An important damper on the excesses of the powerful was the growing influence of increasingly literate and independent merchants, bankers and craft guilds, which did the financial and technical heavy lifting in European society (wars were and are bad for business for all but the financiers and iron mongers who can back both sides). Historian Johan Huizinga, in The Waning of The Middle Ages (1919), asserted that the romanticism and nostalgia of the late middle ages with their looks back to golden eras in legend and the arts & sciences, represented not so much a leap ahead as a point of exhaustion. His point is well made and still worth reading. Jacob Burkhardt wrote his seminal Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy in 1860. In it he described this period as a time when the modern state was incubated, for good and ill; when art was both democratized and monopolized for the agendas of the powerful and when to a great extent there was a reification of the fears of the medieval clerics over what would happen when people lost their moral compasses and everything was permitted. To think of this era as uniquely humanist seemed to him to trivialize the reality which was discernible to the historian who bothered to look at available extant sources. Another history still worth reading is Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957), which vividly details how the poorer classes tried to improve their lot through organizing into religious/political groups that used mysticism and apocalyptic imagery to depict the victory of the Messiah and The Righteous over their oppressors, much like we see in the canonical and non-canonical books of The Bible as well as in inter-testamental pseudepigrapha of the 2nd Century BC through 1st Century AD (see R.H. Charles and Gershom Scholem). These groups (Cathars, Albigensians, and Jews) created or were blamed for people’s crusades, communes and riots before they were mostly marginalized or exterminated after terrorizing the gentry.

The art of the late middle ages and early renaissance is replete with newly refurbished Greco-Roman craft, pagan and Christian mysticism, courtly romance, millenarian agitation and cynical humor. This is the backdrop against which Petrarch, Chaucer, Rabelais and Boccaccio took up their pens. Dante has a place of his own as one who lifted Virgil’s style and structure and created a model of the universe and man’s place in it that was at once profane and holy but he is usually left out of the humanist pantheon. One could also include Shakespeare and Cervantes here but I consider them part of what happens later. The works of each of these luminaries all but invented the modern languages of English, Italian and French. Insofar as one can view them as having a common ethical sense, it might have been this: the world is a messed up place and we are here for a short time. We should try in our own ways to live well, understanding that truth, honor and love really mean something in a cosmic way, but we can never know for sure before we move on to the next place, whatever that may be. They are each, one might say, avatars of the Laughing Buddha.

Lorenzo de Medici was a central figure in the late Renaissance in Italy:

  • A magnate who was one of Europe’s richest men, he owned a bank and was puppet master of Florence, among the most powerful city-states of the time
  • A patron of the arts, he sponsored Sandro Botticelli, Michelangelo Buonarroti and Leonardo da Vinci, among others
  • A learned man, he had a great library and disseminated books throughout Europe while personally engaging with and protecting humanist scholars such as Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola
  • Devoted to the prosperity and prestige of his city, he maintained good commerce and peaceful relations with the Ottoman Turks and controlled the Italic League and kept the Holy Roman Empire and France out of Florence.
  • No stranger to fighting and intrigue, he once survived an assassination attempt by a rival faction including the Archbishop of Pisa, acting with the blessing of the Pope, who later excommunicated the de Medicis for having the insolence to survive and allowing the citizens of Florence to lynch the attackers.
  • While he espoused humanism publicly, the individual citizens of Florence under his tenure lived under a despotic rule and had few rights
  • Towards the end of his life, he brought the religious enthusiast Savonarola into Florence to compensate for what he then admitted was too much Greco-Roman culture and humanism. After Lorenzo died, Savonarola attempted to curb public and church corruption and create a republic that would represent the people and be more in line with the Augustinian ideal City of God. For this and other crimes he was ultimately excommunicated and then executed by forces loyal to the Borgia Pope Alexander VI and Lorenzo’s successors in Florence

The humanists, who gained public influence under the de Medicis, believed that the works of ancient Romans and Greeks were still fresh and works of medieval Christianity were musty and lacked vitality. It is to them that we owe this idea, which is largely not supported by examination of the subject matter. The works of Aquinas are tough going but reward the reader with brilliance and scope. The passion and vision of Boethius still come through today. There are many other examples which have been omitted. While these new people wrote and consulted with leaders about utopias to come they all but ignored the actual conditions under which most people lived. They dwelled in an ivory tower, which their intellectual descendants still occupy. However, their contributions were real and lasting. Some of those directly connected to the de Medicis deserve special mention. Marsilio Ficino translated all the works of Plato and set up an academy in Florence modeled after his ancient Athenian idol’s. He was an astrologer, alchemist and hermeticist. Ficino’s patron was Lorenzo‘s father, Cosimo de Medici, who furnished him with rare manuscripts including the complete works of Plato in Greek and Neo-Platonic literature attributed to ancient Egypt and the Pythagoreans known as the Corpus Hermeticum of Hermes Trismegistus. The Corpus Hermeticum was the staple of medieval alchemists, astrologers and physicians, famously Paracelsus, who was the closest thing that Europe had to Avicenna five centuries later. Ficino’s work on magic and astrology earned him a charge of heresy from the Pope that needed all his powerful friends’ influence to circumvent. One of his pupils was Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, who carried on his legacy as a purveyor of “liberal arts,” while garnering a reputation as the foremost rhetorical defender of the humanist revolution. An ardent hermeticist, his 900 Theses on religion and philosophy included The Oration on the Dignity of Man, considered the manifesto of humanist thought. Mirandola legitimized Jewish Kabbalist thought among nominally Christian university goers. He also tried to unify Plato, Aristotle, Kabbalist and Islamic sources into a unified whole, albeit with a bent that contrasted sharply with orthodox Christianity. The attendant secularization of esoteric knowledge was the hallmark of the Florentine school that gave rise to the tradition of the Renaissance Magus later mythologized by Shakespeare (Prospero in The Tempest and other references). This special knowledge was welcomed by powerful leaders like Lorenzo de Medici because they wanted to challenge and or replace the Pope with someone of their own family, which the de Medici’s later did, and because they wanted this new science to create a technological and financial advantage that would be unassailable, much as their peers financed expeditions to new lands in search of resources and cheap labor. Because of their value as leverage in power politics, the toxically heretical Renaissance Magi were protected and installed in universities (reminiscent of how Nazi scientists were scooped up by the allies after WW2 to keep working on special projects like rocketry and germ warfare). They were never unconnected to politics but before I return to some of their other exemplars and forays into new sciences, I will take a detour with another notable of political thought leader who emerged from the Florentine crucible.

Niccolo Machiavelli deserves a special place in our review of the underpinnings of ethical thought both because of what made him notorious and for what is often ignored about him. As a young person in Florence, Machiavelli saw firsthand what made Lorenzo de Medici successful. He also was a patriot who organized a citizen militia and successfully led them against neighboring Pisa. He was a high official in the Republic which was restored by Savonarola and continued on in government until the Medicis re-established control. He wrote his most famous work, The Prince, after Lorenzo died and during a time when he was in political exile. He also wrote plays and other works, including the less famous but no less important Discourses. Machiavelli earned notoriety with The Prince, which was deemed a cynic’s guide for bad rulers to maintain power through evil acts. His realpolitik has been embraced by “value-free social scientists” (Max Weber) and diplomats to cement their positions of influence ever since, notably Henry Kissinger and his hero von Metternich in more recent times. He indicates disapproval of Savonarola, not because his heart was in the wrong place, but because he was incompetent and relied on his ability to fool all the people all the time without having force to back him up, and so was therefore easy to destroy when the mob came to believe he gulled them and his famous visions were made up. Accused of inconsistency by later critics, Machiavelli explains his position clearly enough by saying that a wise statesman adheres to the precepts of religion whether he believes in it or not because this is necessary to retain the trust of the people and good order. This sentiment is echoed by the 19th century pragmatists who said it was prudent to act as if God exists based on the outcomes for you and society of doing so. Machiavelli goes on to say that Italy was easily victimized because of the corruption of high church officials and bad civic leaders who didn’t take their religion seriously enough. Though touted a humanist, Machiavelli’s position was not simply that the Church was all wrong and atheistic materialism, which was then a rarity and could for many years to come get you carbonadoed if you confessed it, must be right. He agreed with Plato who indicated that a wise tyrant was much better than a brainless mob. However he also said that in practice, the multitude tends to be wiser than most rulers who tend toward corruption. His practical advice on how to maintain power is just as helpful for those who want to challenge bad leaders. He drew examples from Livy and others to show how the Roman people tended to reward good leadership and punish bad rulers more or less equally. Looking at his work from end to end, one must conclude that it is not the most ruthless who survive and carry stability on after their deaths, but those who are both clear sighted and just in their dealings. As an aside, modern science has shown that while there are dominance hierarchies throughout nature, chimpanzees, with whom we share 99% of our DNA, behave just like the Romans in Livy’s accounts. What is probably most humanistic about Machiavelli is his insistence on seeing people as they are, not as we would like them to be and this, along with his probity, is why he is justifiably known as the father of political science. He is, along with Savonarola but for different reasons, a precursor to the Protestant Reformation, which held that the powers of this world, including expressly the leaders of the Roman Church, were subject to a higher law and would ultimately be held accountable for their misdeeds. However, we aren’t done with the Renaissance Magi and their position both in society and as developers of what science later became. While Machiavelli was not a scientist, his pattern of thinking fits with theirs insofar as it emphasizes Aristotelian style empiricism and evidence based approaches. He had nothing much to do or say about their penchant for talking with angels & demons in Enochian (Gnostic) language, or trying to transmute base metals into gold to fill the public treasuries of their state sponsors. He left those things to other “humanists” to whom we now return.

British historian Frances Yates wrote two excellent works about Renaissance Magi: Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964) and The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age (1979). These books were vital contributions in thinking about the continuity of classical, medieval and early modern thought. Hermes Trismegistus was supposed to be a name for the Egyptian god Thoth, and the Renaissance hermeticists generally believed that the works and wisdom they captured were from a very ancient, possibly pre-dynastic period in Egypt. Support for the extreme antiquity of the material came from Augustine, who had no use for sorcery of any kind and didn’t like Gnostics, whom he regarded as heretics. The documents were, as legend has it, later transmitted to Pre-Socratic Greek Pythagoreans who were sworn to secrecy about the origins of their wisdom. Thoth was the god of wisdom and letters and later Latin writers identified him with Mercury or Hermes, claiming that their god had visited with the Egyptian in the ancient past and made them literate. More recent analysis puts the creation of the material at between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD. They were most likely originally in Greek, which is as Cosimo de Medici found them, but hermetic material in Coptic was found at Nag Hammadi in 1945 thereby definitively connecting Coptic Christianity with the hermetic gnosis. Yates says that the Renaissance version was an attempt that echoes the originators desire to return to the pure gold of scripture without interference from corrupt politicians or other interests and as such is an expression of piety. The use of ancient figures in pseudepigrapha has always served two purposes: to provide an aura of canonical authenticity and to disguise the actual message and writers and who could be persecuted for speaking more plainly. This is as true of canonical books of The Bible like Daniel as it is of later works of sects being persecuted in the early days of Christianity like the Gnostics. The content of the material has much to do with sympathetic magic to connect with the stars and supernatural beings. The accusation that hermeticists were involved in magic is easily proven to be true. They themselves distinguished between types of magic that were white or good and black or evil. However, Renaissance Magi who picked up the material and used it, along with other Kabbalistic, Biblical and Neo-Platonist sources were not immune to the fear that one could not know for sure whether the being one was trying to reach was an angel or a demon. This cognitive dissonance actually drove some of them mad. The Corpus Hermeticum was translated into Latin by Ficino at the behest of Cosimo de Medici. Ficino’s own dating of the material came from Augustine, whose disapproval Ficino apparently kept to himself. From there the material was disseminated widely and formed the basis of much speculation and occult experimentation by Pico della Mirandola, Paracelsus the physician, Cornelius Agrippa, Giordano Bruno and John Dee. Bruno was burned at the stake as a heretic as he lacked powerful sponsors and refused to recant his teaching. Dee was not only a Magus of note but allegedly an agent of Queen Elizabeth on the continent. It has been suggested, though never proven, that William Shakespeare was an apprentice to Dee both as a Magus and as a spy. We may never know the truth of this but it is plausible given Shakespeare’s uncommon knowledge of European affairs and court life plus alchemy and magic, and the gap in his biography that could have been spent traveling with Dee in Bohemia. It is known that at that time Dee’s traveling companion and séance partner, the notorious spirit medium and fraud Edward Kelley , was promising Emperor Rudolph II all the gold he wanted, to be mass produced with his philosopher’s stone. In any event, this is at least as likely as the notion that Shakespeare was a front and somebody else wrote his plays, which some respected scholars have asserted over the years. What is important to understand is that, with the exception of the occasional charlatan like Kelley, most of these men viewed themselves as both scientists and spiritual searchers who ardently wanted to find a true faith not contaminated by the corruption of the church and the powers behind the governments of Europe.

The 12th through 16th centuries were one might say the adolescence of European culture. There were fits of rebellion alternating with moments of contrition and discipline. There were some enlightened leaders but a whole lot of corruption. The lot of most people was generally poor and they were hit hardest by wars, plagues and constant jockeying for power among the upper classes. The time gave birth to the modern idea of the state as well as new ways for individuals to learn and think about their role in civil affairs and the cosmos, which in that era meant the same thing. As the hermeticists said, “as above, so below.” It was only natural that the next thing that would happen would be big, as much had been percolating. The impact of humanism on ethical thinking then and now is generally misunderstood and taken wildly out of context. What was gestating among scholars was an evolution of thought based on ideas extant for the previous 2000 years. What was going on for many people was a loss of trust in their leadership and crisis of confidence. An educated elite was leaning increasingly on more evidenced based ways of knowing and was moving toward science and a dethroning of the Roman Church in particular (not religion as such) as the arbiter of what could be deemed acceptable reality. Some of the same ‘humanists’ were casting horoscopes for royalty and using magic to talk to spirits. The Reformation and Copernican Revolution that followed were coming from common roots and not different universes. For us today, we still have the same problem they did: how to exist in a society where our voice counts for little but great powers seem to be hell bent on controlling what we think and say and taking most of what we have? While there are no easy answers, the best ones haven’t changed much from what Boethius’ vision of Philosophy told us. We need to stay connected with our whole selves to the spark of the divine within each of us, while personally being committed to returning to the source. That is what the Renaissance Magi were ultimately about – not, as is commonly believed, setting us surely on the road of thoroughgoing materialism.

By vitruvius1

Formerly an integrated marketing and customer experience consultant. Writer on moral philosophy and current affairs.

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