Renaissance and Modernity

Renaissance and Modernity February 4, 2004

Here’s an ouline for a lecture on Renaissance and Modernity:

Renaissance and Modernity
Credenda/Agenda History Conference
Pre-Conference Lecture
February 5, 2004
Peter J. Leithart

I. Assessments of the Renaissance and modernity.

A. What is “modernity”?

Slavoj Zizek in The Puppet and the Dwarf : “One possible definition of modernity is: the social order in which religion is no longer fully integrated into and identified with a particular cultural life-form, but acquires autonomy, so that it can survive as the same religion in different cultures.”

B. What is the Renaissance? Good question.
Norman Davies, Europe: A History : “The essence of the Renaissance lay not in any sudden rediscovery of classical civilization but rather in the use which was made of classical models to test the authority underlying conventional taste and wisdom . . . . No simply chronological framework can be imposed on the Renaissance. Literary historians look for its origins in the fourteenth-century songs and sonnets of Petrarch, who observed human emotions for their own sake. Art historians look back to the painters Giotto and Masaccio (1401-28), to the architect Filippo Brunelleschi (1379-1446), who measured the dome of the Pantheon in Rome in order to build a still more daring dome for the cathedral in Florence, or to the sculptors Ghiberti (1378-1455) and Donatello (c. 1386-1466). Political historians look back to Niccolo Machiavelli (1496-1527), who first explains the mechanics of politics as power for power’s sake. Everyone one of these pioneers was a Florentine.”

C. How is the Renaissance related to modern secularism?
1. Francis Schaeffer: Renaissance as birth of modernity.

2. Stephen Toulmin, Cosmopolis .
a. Renaissance is the beginning of modernity.
b. But 17th century witnessed a counter-Renaissance movement in philosophy and science, which reversed key values of Renaissance.

3. My aim is to recover the Renaissance as a movement within the history of Christianity, as a largely Christian movement, which was reversed in later centuries. That reversal is the founding of what I call modernity.
a. Philosophically, modernity involved “foundationalism.”
b. Politically and socially, modernity involved secularism.
c. To the extent that postmodernism is truly anti-modern, it revitalizes some of the important themes of the Renaissance.

II. Two cheers for the Renaissance.

A. Nicholas of Cusa, c. 1400-64.

1. In his discussion of possibility, actuality, and potentiality, he shows that the Aristotelian conception of potentiality is inconsistent with the doctrine of creation ex nihilo .

Jasper Hopkins’s summary: “anything (other than God) can become something else (other than God), since God Himself has the power ‘to turn any created thing into any other created thing.’”

2. In his doctrine of “learned ignorance,” he stresses the limits of all human knowledge.
a.Cusa believed that we could reason from creation to God.

“suppose that on the basis of the beauty of created things I say that God is beautiful; and suppose I know that God is so beautiful that He is a beauty which is everything it is able to be. Then, I know that God lacks nothing of the beauty of the whole world. And I know that all creatable beauty is only a certain disproportionate likeness to that Beauty (1) which is actually the possibility of the existence of all beauty and (2) which is not able to be different from what it is, since it is what it is able to be. The case is similar concerning the good and life and other things.”

b. Yet he also argued God surpasses all our conceptions of Him, and that we can know Him only through revelation and a kind of mystical/personal encounter.

He calls God ” Possest ,” a combination of the Latin word posse (able) and the Latin word est (is). God is all that he can possibly be. Then he adds, “This name leads the one who is speculating beyond all the senses, all reason, and all intellect unto a mystical vision, where there is an end to the ascent of all cognitive power and where there is the beginning of the revelation of the unknown God. For, having left all things behind, the seeker after truth ascends beyond himself and discerns that he still does not have any greater access to the invisible God, who remains invisible to him. (For God is not seen by means of any light from the seeker’s own reason.) At this point the seeker awaits, with the most devout longing, the omnipotent Sun ?Eexpecting that when darkness is banished by its rising, he will be illuminated, so that he will see the invisible God to the extent that God will manifest Himself.”

“the more an intellect understands the degree to which the concept of God is unformable, the greater this intellect is.”

3. Man is an inherently creative being, whose creativity mimics God’s creation ex nihilo .
a. Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man makes a similar point. Here are the words he puts in God’s mouth as He creates Adam:

“To thee, O Adam, we have given no certain habitation nor countenance of thine owne neither anie peculiar office, so that what habitation and countenance or office soever thou dost chooses for thyself, the same thou shalt enjoy and posses at thine own proper will and election –We have made thee neither a thing celestial nor a thing terrestrial, neither mortal nor immortal, so that being thine own fashioner and artificer of thyself, thou maist make thyself after what likeness thou dost affect”

b. “Renaissance self-fashioning,” as literary historian Stephen Greenblatt has called it, is a manifestation of the same tendency.

4. For Cusa, this is all rooted in Trinitarian theology.
a. The eternal Son is the “art” of God, eternally begotten by the Father. This is the eternal, divine root of all human creativity.
b. The union of “possibility” and “actuality” in God is a Trinitarian union.

“Without possibility and actuality and the union of the two there is not, and cannot be anything. For if something lacked these, it could not exist. For how would it exist if it did not actually exist (since existence is actuality)? And if it were possible to exist but it did not exist, in what sense would it exist? (Therefore, it is necessary that there be the union of possibility and actuality.) The possibility-to-exist, actually existing, and the union of the two are not other than one another.”

The Father is “Absolute Possibility,” and the Son is “existence itself” and therefore the actuality of the Father’s possibility. The Spirit is the union of the two, “since natural love is the spiritual union of the Father and the Son.”

c. All things manifest this same Trinitarian structure. A rose is a unity of a possible rose and an actual rose.

“I see a triune rose from a triune Beginning.”

B. Some problems.

1. The Renaissance’s emphasis on change and mutability was sometimes worked out in a non-Christian framework.
a. For the ancients, change was a huge problem. Change meant degeneration toward death. Unchangeable things were better. The Renaissance frequently revived this notion. (Witness the problem of time in Shakespeare’s sonnets or Spenser.)
b. In a Christian framework, change and mutability is inherent in the creation, part of the “very good” world that God made. Not a problem at all.

2. Alongside this “tragic metaphysics” (the mutable world moving toward non-existence), th
e Renaissance revived the ancient theatrical genre of tragedy.
a. Tragedy had disappeared in the medieval world, revived in England by Chaucer.
b. When tragedy was revived, it was radically Christianized. Yet, sometimes imported ancient notions of the tragic.

3. Classical models were sometimes used in a way that suppressed innovation and creativity.


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