The Birth of the Renaissance: Understanding the Genesis of a New Era
“I tell you: one must still have chaos within oneself, to give birth to a dancing star” (Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra).
By conservative estimates, the European Renaissance spans the historical period of the 15 th and the 16 th centuries, an era when artists produced many of greatest masterworks ever created. During this time Columbus landed in the New World, the Protestant Reformation was launched, and the Scientific Revolution was initiated. A bridge between the Middle Ages and the Modern World, the Renaissance was the result of a completely new perspective, you could even say a completely new paradigm, of what it meant to be human. As elaborated by the modern philosopher Richard Tarnas:
“Man was now capable of penetrating and reflecting nature’s secrets, in art as well as science, with unparalleled mathematical sophistication, empirical precision, and numinous aesthetic power. He had immensely expanded the known world, discovered new continents, and rounded the globe. He could defy traditional authorities and assert a truth based on his own judgment. He could appreciate the riches of classical culture and yet also feel himself breaking beyond the ancient boundaries to reveal entirely new realms… Individual genius and independence were widely in evidence. No domain of knowledge, creativity, or exploration seemed beyond man’s reach.”
During the Middle Ages, the individual was considered virtually inconsequential, a mere shadow at the feet of political and religious institutions. But for the new man of the Renaissance, “human life in this world seemed to hold an immediate inherent value, an excitement and existential significance” (Tarnas: 2010). Every society has as its foundation a particular worldview, a collection of beliefs and ideas that determine how groups of human beings perceive and experience all things. Professor Keiron Le Grice (2011) explains that “with regard to entire civilizations, a collective world view, at its deepest level, determines the prevailing understanding of the nature of reality itself.”
What then was the genesis of the worldview of the Renaissance? How did the conception of a human existence with meaningful potential and the idea that the secrets of nature were worth exploring penetrate the collective consciousness after the long slumber of the Dark Ages? In this article we will explore the theory that historical ages like the Renaissance represent a type of emergent phenomenon resulting from a confluence of temporal world events and simultaneous developments deep within the collective psyche of Western man.
Moynet lithograph of a truck loaded with plague victims. (Wellcome Images / CC BY 4.0)
The Apocalypse of the Fourteenth Century
Over the course of the fourteenth century, a series of disasters struck Europe that completely disintegrated the world of the Middle Ages. During the Great Famine of 1315-1322, crop failures and the mass death of cattle and sheep propelled society into a barbaric era of starvation, disease, cannibalism, and infanticide. Epidemics of crime, especially rape and murder, ran rampant. The crises were compounded in October of 1347, when a group of ships harbored at Messina in Italy, bringing with them the scourge of the Black Plague.
The Italian poet Giovanni Boccaccio wrote in The Decameron that while some people “formed themselves into groups and lived in isolation from everyone else” to avoid the plague, there were also those who “maintained that an infallible way of warding off this appalling evil was to drink heavily, enjoy life to the full, go round singing and merry-making, gratify all of one’s cravings and shrug the whole thing off as one enormous joke.” The plague peaked in Europe by 1351, having killed, by some estimates, well over half the regional population. Among the English royal family, the average life expectancy dropped to the age of 29 during the Famine, and to the age of 17 with the arrival of the Plague. In his Cronaca Senese (1348), the Italian chronicler Agnolo di Tura recorded the terrifying reality of the Black Plague:
“Father abandoned child, wife husband, one brother another; for this illness seemed to strike through breath and sight. And so they died. None could be found to bury the dead for money or friendship. Members of a household brought their dead to a ditch as best they could, without priest, without divine offices. In many places in Siena great pits were dug and piled deep with the multitude of dead. And they died by the hundreds, both day and night, and all were thrown in those ditches and covered with earth. And as soon as those ditches were filled, more were dug. And I, Agnolo di Tura called the Fat, buried my five children with my own hands… there was no one who wept for any death, for all awaited death. And so many died that all believed it was the end of the world.”
The Triumph of Death by Pieter Brueghel the Elder. (Public Domain)
During this chaotic period, many believed that the unstoppable scourge was punishment from God or even the end of the world, an apocalyptic view that spread quickly and inspired all manner of fanaticism. But there was also a growing sentiment that the Plague seriously undermined the legitimacy of the authority assumed by the institutionalized Church, as moral corruption within its own ranks also grew increasingly apparent. Out of this climate there arose movements that questioned the soundness of Catholic dogmas, hierarchy, and the Papacy itself. The Plague also unfolded against the backdrop of the Hundred Years War (1337-1453), as the long-standing tensions between the English and French crowns erupted into the longest armed conflict in European history. The war further contributed to the devastation, taking with it an estimated 2.3 to 3.3 million human lives.
The crises of the late Middle Ages also set many transformations in motion. Land and food costs plummeted, leading to the eventual destabilization of feudalism. There was also a new focus on the physical life of man and medical research, as well as a new demand for religious art and iconography. By the mid-fifteenth century, Europe had the first operational printing presses, which Tarnas explains enabled “rapid dissemination of new and often revolutionary ideas throughout Europe.” This advance “helped free the individual from traditional ways of thinking, and from collective control of thinking.” Complementing this intellectual boon in every way was the new availability of gunpowder, which served to further erode the absolute power of the old feudalist system and the Catholic Church.
In the midst of this incredible moment of transition, the small independent city-states of Italy became the center of coalescence for the forces that gave birth to the Renaissance. Here a culture of scholarship, artistic endeavors, loyalty to family, commercial activities, and the contemplation of eternal truths emerged to follow after the tempests of the fourteenth century. The world of the Middle Ages was well and truly dead.
Several scholars have argued that the Renaissance began in Florence due to the role of wealthy patrons in stimulating the arts. Lorenzo de’ Medici, seen here in a painting by Giorgio Vasari, encouraged arts patronage as ruler of Florence. (Public domain)
The Seeds of Intellectual Rebirth
Thus far, we have only considered the worldly events that preceded the Renaissance in time and therefore conditioned Europe for its reception. This narrative is only one half of the equation however, for the great works of art, uncompromising individualism, scholastic and scientific genius, and even great commercial endeavors were manifestations of a new worldview, which championed individual potential, diverse interests, creativity, and progress. The seed of this worldview was the re-introduction of ancient Greek philosophy into Western consciousness.
“Implicit in all these activities was the half-inarticulate notion of a distant mythical golden age when all things had been known - the Garden of Eden, ancient classical times, a past era of great sages… just as in classical Athens the religion, art, and myth of the ancient Greeks met and interacted with the new and equally Greek spirit of rationalism and science” (Tarnas: 2010).
The seeds of the restoration of ancient wisdom were actually planted in the fourteenth century by Francesco Petrarcha (1304-1374). Better known as Petrarch, he recovered the letters of Cicero and invigorated a great movement to translate the philosophical texts of antiquity, which was enhanced by an influx of scholars and manuscripts from the collapsing Byzantine Empire in the East. Eventually, major philosophical works, including those of Plato and Plotinus, were in circulation among intellectual circles in Italy. During the fifteenth century, the wisdom of the old world would be synthesized with Western thought and religion by a philosopher whose work could be said to embody the very essence of the Renaissance: Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499).
Marsilio Ficino was an influential humanist philosopher of the early Italian Renaissance. He revived Neoplatonism and was able to make several vital contributions to the history of Western thought. He can be seen here (on the left) in a fresco entitled the Zachariah in the Temple by Domenico Ghirlandaio. (Public domain)
Although Ficino became a Catholic priest in 1473, his incredible range of interests included medicine, Platonic and Hermetic philosophy, and astrology. Ficino was adopted into the household of Cosimo de Medici as a youth, and it was partly due to Cosimo’s patronage that he was able to make several vital contributions to the history of Western thought, including a Latin translation of the dialogues of Plato from Greek manuscripts published in 1484.
Cosimo himself was also immersed in philosophy, and the idealism of the age prompted him to found the Neoplatonic Florentine Academy, which was lead by Ficino and included a range of Renaissance poets, philosophers, and scholars, such as Cristofero Landino, Gentile de Becci, and Pico della Mirandola. Other than his translations of Plato, Ficino produced his own body of influential philosophical works, including Theologia Platonica (Platonic Theology) and De vita libri tres (Three Books on Life). Angela Voss (2006) explains the appeal of Platonic philosophy for Renaissance thinkers like Ficino:
“Plato was revered because he upheld the divinity and immortality of the soul—a soul which was free-ranging and self-willed, able to traverse all dimensions of existence...the human soul could dwell with the beasts or with the angels; it could live a life limited by the senses, or, through the cultivation of philosophy, liberate itself through self-knowledge. It could penetrate deeply into the true nature of things, or remain bound to a short-sighted vision of human affairs.”
Plato had discussed altered states of consciousness in his writings as the divine manias or frenzies. For Ficino, such states represented “the phenomenon of internal experience or internal ‘consciousness’… a heightened state of mind, experienced independently of and even in opposition to all outward events” (Kristeller 1943). Ficino associated these states with awakening to greater realities, as poetically described in Book 14 of Platonic Theology: “usually those are less deceived who at some time, as happens occasionally during sleep, become suspicious and say to themselves: ‘Perhaps those things are not true which now appear to us; perhaps we are now dreaming.’” As explained by esoteric scholar Wouter Hanegraaff (2015), Ficino’s philosophy sought a “superior knowledge” which “required an unusual, ecstatic or trance-like state.”
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By the time of the Neoplatonic philosophers, the cosmos was conceived as a layering of multiple realms descending from Above to Below. All things proceed from the One, the Pythagorean Monad, as the highest source of all existence. Next in the dimensional hierarchy comes the intelligible realm of the Platonic ideas or archetypes, and then the intermediary realm of the fixed stars and planets, which exert influence over the lower elemental realm and serve as symbols for the qualities of moments of time. The invisible energies that shape the world descend from the highest intelligible realm to the material realm of earth below, passing through the domain and influence of the celestials. This was a living cosmos, an ongoing process of creation intended by the Creator to operate in complete harmony. Central to this cosmic scheme was the idea that man is a microcosm, containing within himself an interior reality reflecting all of the components of the “outer” cosmos. Man could therefore “know” or experience creation by turning inward.
These conceptions of the cosmos and man greatly inspired Renaissance philosophy, and informed the emerging concepts of human dignity and potential. Thinkers like Marsilio Ficino sought to overcome the false binary choice between philosophy and religion, studying the ancient writers while also practicing the Christian faith in the belief that man could enhance his vision of reality by drinking from both wells.
Top image: The Birth of Venus, an iconic painting of the Italian Renaissance, by the early Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli. Source: Public domain
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