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Book Review of The Waning of the Middle Ages by J. Huizinga, The Civilization of the Renaissance In Italy by Jacob Burckhardt & The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy by Ernst Cassirer

7-Farren_Duria Antiquior

In The Waning of the Middle Ages, Huizinga several times contrasts the democratic ideal of work– which he views as the ideal of modernity– to the aristocratic “true culture” of the Middle Ages. The reason for this contrast lies in the modern era’s conforming “of life to an ideal standard,” and not vice versa, which condition Huizinga views as a privation of culture. Man in the Middle Ages, by contrast, constructed his culture in accord with his conduct, customs, manners, costume, &c., and did not force himself to conform to an ideal, like the Modern ideal of the worker, but adapted and tailored the ideal to his singular and many-sided nature, or fancy. The comparison Huizinga makes between modern and Medieval times, usually to the disparagement of the former, underscores his thesis that it is the “overripeness” of Medieval culture that reveals it as an “epoch of fading and decay” — the adjective “overripe” indicating, in Huizinga’s analysis, the Medieval world’s highly mannered and overwrought use of symbol which, as he establishes through a wealth of examples, is effectively deployed throughout all religious and poetical forms of expression of the time. Thus, the features Huizinga assigns to the Middle Ages of self-containment and a perfection of attitude and expression in regard to all things, marks Medieval culture at the beginning of the 15th century as a culture at its limits, and one to be inevitably overtaken by Burckhardt’s “universal men” of the Renaissance, who are to melancholy Medieval man “as is the aspray to the fish, who takes it by sovereignty of nature.”1

The contrast made between the modern era and the Middle Ages is important to how Huizinga interprets aristocratic and feudal culture in Medieval France:

From the Thirteenth Century onward inveterate party quarrels arise in nearly all countries: first in Italy, then in France… Though economic interest may sometimes have been at the bottom of these quarrels, the attempts which have been made to disengage them often smack somewhat of arbitrary construction. The desire to discover economic causes is to some degree a craze with us, and sometimes leads us to forget a much simpler psychological explanation of the facts.2

With this claim, Huizinga disengages himself from the Marxist reorientation of history along economic and materialist lines. Ever since Marx reduced the driving force of social and political alterations to material and economic causes, and resolved the contemplative aim of traditional philosophy into the service of history, the tendency to interpret history on Marx’s terms is ever-present, since the materialist project is not comprised of mere fact-finding, but the criticism of history itself, which, as Marx, echoing Feuerbach, writes, “disillusions man so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality as a man who has lost his illusions… so that he will revolve about himself as his own true sun.”3

Huizinga situates the complex symbolism, aesthetic, and formalized chivalric conventions saturating the age at the center of the Medieval experience and does not seek out economic explanations regarding how Medieval culture came to be consumed by its own heavy opulence. If the development of such complex forms is not reducible to active economic causes, interpretive psychological explanations have more to offer in the face of the overwhelmingly foreign landscape of the Middle Ages, and this is the territory where Huizinga makes his case.

In spite of any economic conditions that may have prevailed at the time, the Medieval conception of chivalry is understood by Huizinga to be the manner by which Medieval nobles related to the servant class. This relationship was comprised of “the innate and immediate sentiments of fidelity and fellowship,” which is “a feudal sentiment at bottom.”4 Such a form of attachment is unthinkable six centuries later. Beyond any outward bond of sentiment between men from otherwise discrete social orders, the unequal relationship of men was put on momentarily equal footing, as Huizinga notes, by the omnipresent memento mori, which served as a potent reminder of human mutability, everywhere visible in a culture that freely amalgamated pessimism, subliminity, and despair. Many years later, in 1538, Hans Holbein the Younger, in woodcuts done for a German edition of the Dance of Death, was still making use of thoroughly Medieval motifs to demonstrate the same point about the transient nature of human life, regardless of social standing. In the Middle Ages, not only posthumous odds and ends, but poets as well, admonished the constituents of the nobility to attain to that curiously Medieval conception of equality, whose formulation is expressed in the Medieval conception of chivalry:

[T]he reason of these poetical admonitions on the subject of true nobility and human equality generally lies in the stimulus they impart to the nobles to adapt themselves to the true ideal of knighthood, and thereby to support and purify the world.5

Clearly the impetus for action is not found in the counting house, but, as Huizinga phrases it, in the “value of chivalrous ideas.” He notes that the nobility, the men who made the history of the Middle Ages, “were no romantic dreamers, but dealt in solid facts.” Chivalrous ideas represented far more than a mere “ornament of society,” having little practical efficacy or permanent value; chivalry in fact represented the highest and most complete formulation of social values to be found in the age.

Men in the Middle Ages also looked to Antiquity for models of virtuous conduct and political theory. Huizinga rejects Burckhardt’s claim (in The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy) that the Renaissance alone was the period when the rediscovery of Antiquity occurred. Huizinga situates his conception of history against Burckhardt’s by pointing out that Burckhardt insists on too sharp of a distinction between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and furthermore, that

The Middle Ages had always lived in the shadow of Antiquity, always handled its treasures, or what they had of them, interpreting it according to truly Medieval principles: Scholastic Theology, chivalry, asceticism, and courtesy. Now, by an inward ripening, the mind, after having been so long conversant with the forms of Antiquity, began to grasp its spirit… Europe, after having lived in the shadow of Antiquity, lived in its sunshine once more.6

The psychological interpretation of how the shift from what we call the Middle Ages to what we call the Renaissance occurred is worth noting, since this is the sort of explanation Huizinga favors. Rather than a sudden revival of cultural and literary forms long forgotten, which is part and parcel of the account one finds in Burckhardt, Huizinga points out that the differences between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance are not driven by the “classic expression and imagery” of Antiquity, as though it existed in one age and not the other, but that “the soul of Western Christendom itself was outgrowing Medieval forms and modes of thought that had become shackles.”

Burckhardt distills his understanding of the many figures and events that shaped the Renaissance from a distinction between theoretical activity and practical activity, i.e., a material understanding of the Renaissance as opposed to a psychological or philosophical one. Huizinga interprets the Middle Ages with an eye towards the soul, or spirit of the times, but he does not give a place to a discussion of speculative philosophy or theoretical activity in his account; yet one has the impression that the philosophical activity of the age underlies the psychological current of Huizinga’s account. Burckhardt is more explicit in the omission of philosophy from his account of the Renaissance, and places the narrative accent squarely on the practical, ethical, and religious life of men in the Renaissance as the mitigating factors of social construction and principles of individuation. This focus allows him to regard the speculative philosophy of the Renaissance as counting for very little — a move that Cassirer, in The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy, takes him directly to task on. The many developments in the twin spheres of political and religious life in the Renaissance Burckhardt calls “the chief reason for the early development of the Italian,” which species of human for Burckhardt is synonymous with “the individual.” Through the transitions and evolution of the Italian State, the modern individual, as we now have him, was being shaped. Prior to the Renaissance, and especially in the feudal Middle Ages, man’s orientation towards himself was, as Burckhardt informs us, almost non-existent: “Man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation — only through some general category.”7 How the individual was born and nurtured in Italy is Burckhardt’s main concern throughout The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. He traces this process, first, through the early forms of the Italian State in the latter 15th century, which in its despotic form, foisted upon both the tyrant and his protectors “the highest degree of individuality” — some men became true individuals out of necessity. Only later, under the ideal conditions of the Italian Republic, was this new sense of the self channeled into the “rediscovery” of Antiquity, and ultimately, it was the monuments and intellectual luminosity of the Ancients that led to the redefinition in the period of the Renaissance of what it means to be human.

The advent of the Italian Republic is what Burckhardt credits with the rediscovery of Antiquity in the form of the arts, the Classics, the Greek and Latin languages, Classical philology, &c. The Church, ostensibly sovereign over all of men’s activities in the Middle Ages, is suddenly subordinated to the new influence of the Ancients on men’s activities and minds, thereby allowing the Italian Humanists to become influential “because they knew what the Ancients knew, because they tried to write as the Ancients wrote, because they began to think, and soon to feel, as the Ancients thought and felt.”8 Such an image gives the impression that the Italians of the 16th century were only distinguished from the Ancients by their mode of dress, and perhaps a few other contingencies of culture. Such an account is doubtful, as it was a palpable habit of historians and critics of the 19th century to associate and align their sentiments perhaps too vehemently with the objects and figures of the past, and effectively reinvent what chance and fortune had handed down as the remains of eclipsed civilizations. It is paradoxical that the men of the Middle Ages, who are closer in time to the Ancients then the men of the Renaissance, are often supposed to have possessed less of their forbearer’s spirit and learning than those men who took up the task of understanding and assimilating the wisdom of the Ancients at an even later point in time. It may be that the spin put on the interpretation of Antiquity, first by the Humanists in the Renaissance, and then by historical revisionists of the 19th century, is simply more compelling for us because of temporal proximity, and nothing more — men of the Renaissance are more like us than the men of the Middle Ages; and surely the Ancients must be to us the most shadowy and foreign of all. In any event, Huizinga’s suggestion that psychological explanations might provide us with a simpler account of the facts than materialist doctrines or historical sentiment might prove to be true. The Italians Burckhardt assigns the most elevated passions to, i.e., a more genuine experience of Antiquity than was accessible or necessary for the men of the Middle Ages, is due to the Italian’s “measureless devotion to Antiquity” — which statement can be re-read as the continued reinterpretation and assimilation of the treasures of Antiquity into the 16th century Italian’s own collective life and culture.

Refreshingly opposed to the one-sided worship of Classical Antiquity is the figure of Pico Della Mirandola, to whom Burckhardt only devotes no more than a few paragraphs. He deftly sketches a portrait of “the only man who loudly and vigorously defended the truth and science of all ages’9against the measureless devotion to Antiquity common at the time. This is one of the few instances where Burckhardt appears to give an assessment of Renaissance philosophy. He maintains that the grand possibilities of Pico’s reconciliatory attitude to philosophic, scientific, and religious differences was thwarted by the advent of the Counter-Reformation: “Looking at Pico, we can only guess at the lofty flight Italian philosophy would have taken had not the Counter-Reformation annihilated the higher spiritual life of the people.”10 Cassirer could not disagree more with the claim that philosophy foundered in the 16th century, and focuses his investigation squarely on the theoretic and philosophical works of the Renaissance to prove the opposite point. Cassirer’s move is a radical departure from the thesis of Burckhardt, which punctuates the practical activity of man in the Renaissance, or the material forces that shaped events and encompassed “the spirit of the age,” as opposed to theoretical activity, which Burckhardt does not view as having played a significant role, and thus considers an outdated continuation of Scholasticism.11

Cassirer understands the general shift in worldview that took place in the Renaissance in a fashion similar to Burckhardt. For both writers, the Renaissance was a time in which the gradual process of individuation became the project of all the forces of production, and this problematization of the individual is traceable within the applied practices of the artists, humanist thinkers, and the early despotic regimes, culminating in the Italian republics of Florence and Venice. Yet Cassirer goes much further than Burckhardt in the scope of his analysis of Renaissance thought — intellectual activity being the first distinctive feature of individuation amongst men — and appropriately reconfigures the break established by Burckhardt between theory and practice by reviving Hegel’s teleological demand that the diverse philosophic activity of an age must of necessity be gathered within a single “simple focal point.”12 The leading representitive of this philosophical convergence, for Cassirer, is the Italian Nicholas Cusanus, whose philosophy contains “the full consciousness and spiritual essence”13 of his age, according to Cassirer. Cusanus fulfills, as well, another theoretical premise of Cassirer’s, viz., the

history of philosophy… can only make responsible generalizations by immersing itself in the most concrete particulars and in the most subtle nuances of historical detail. What is needed is the universality of a systematic point of view and… orientation.14

Cassirer expends a great deal of energy in setting out in detail the neglected philosophic system of Cusanus, whose thought, at more than one point, seems to anticipate the Copernican Revolution of Kant. A probable parallel between the two thinkers is not lost on Cassirer, although he himself only alludes to no more than a contiguous, possibly accidental connection between the thought of the two men. Cassirer’s precondition that the scholar’s universal, systematic point of view “in no way coincides with the universality of merely empirical concepts”15 has something of a Kantian transcendental ring to it, and it is probably no accident that Cassirer discusses at length the subject/object problem in the Renaissance and how both ultimate and scientific/artistic objectivity is explored in the Neo-Platonic mysticism of Ficino, and Leonardo Da Vinci’s “necessity of nature,” where, “[r]eflection on human freedom, on man’s original, creative force, requires as it compliment and its confirmation the concept of the immanent ‘necessity’ of the natural object.”16

The explication Cassirer undertakes of the thought of Leonardo is one of the most rewarding portions of the book; whereas much obscure drivel has been published and pandered on the life and work of Leonardo, Cassirer succeeds in setting at a diaphanous distance the most significant aspects of Leonardo’s contribution to Renaissance philosophy:

Leonardo’s vision of nature proved to be a methodologically necessary transition point, for it was artistic ‘vision’ which first championed the right of scientific abstraction and paved the way for it. The ‘exact fantasy’ of Leonardo the artist has nothing to do with that chaotic surging and billowing of subjective feeling which threatens to coalesce all forms into an undifferentiated whole.17

In examining “the complete parallel” between the theory of art and the theory of science in the Renaissance, Cassirer manages to put into words the thought that must have crossed the mind of anyone who has explored the comprehensive attitude of the men of that time, to the effect that the parallel between the theory of art and the theory of science

reveals to us one of the most profound motifs in the entire intellectual movement of the Renaissance. One might say that nearly all the great achievements of the Renaissance are gathered here as in a focal point. One might say, furthermore, that these achievements are nearly all rooted in a new attitude towards the problem ofform, and in a new sensitivity to form.18

Interestingly, Cassirer links this “problem of form” to another way in which it is possible to distinguish (but not divide) the Middle Ages from the Renaissance. Like Huizinga, Cassirer acknowledges that the men of the Middle Ages both handled and were conversant with the intellectual and material treasures of Antiquity. But there exists a dichotomy of spontaneity in the way in which objects and ideas of Antiquity were understood between the two ages. Quoting Karl Borinski, Cassirer writes,

Certainly the Middle Ages… had enough ties to Antiquity. A complete rupture with Antiquity had never come about, thanks to the Church, the cultural power that replaced it…. On the whole, the influence of Antiquity on the Middle Ages was, as has been… pointed out, an influence of content… A change in the attitude of the personality towards Antiquity expressed itself in form —starting with the form of the individual with his feeling, thinking, and living, and going on to the renewal of Ancient and Classical forms in poetry and art, state and society.19

The matter of “artistic sensibility” is understood by Cassirer to have given “concrete determination to the concept of nature formulated by Renaissance science.” This notion is nowhere more apparent than in the antediluvian geology found in several paintings, and scores of drawings, by Leonardo’s hand. He does not set his Madonna’s and tacitly pagan figures of Saints in cloisters, nor does he depict them in settings dominated by forgettable landscape architecture. Rather, his Saints and Virgins inhabit a primordial wasteland where one is more likely to stumble over the corpses of giant saurians than encounter a flourishing grove. This conception of nature could only have come about through an intensification of Leonardo’s own theoretical perspective — “for [Leonardo]… the creative power of the artist is as certain as that of theoretical or scientific thought. Science is a second creation made with the understanding; painting is a second creation made with the imagination.”20 One could not ask for a better formulation of Leonardo’s scientific and artistic programme than that.

1 Shakespeare, Coriolanus, IV. Vii. 34-5.

2 J. Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages (Edward Arnold Publishers, Ltd., London, 1963), p 13.

3 Karl Marx, in The Marx-Engles Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 1978), p 54.

4 Huizinga, p 23.

5 Ibid., p 102.

6 Ibid., pp 307-8.

7 Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (Barnes and Noble Books, 1999), p 81.

8 Ibid., p 120.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.

11 In the synthesizing philosophic activities of Pico Della Mirandolla (namely, the marrying together Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy), there is the distinct aroma of Scholastic philosophy — particularly in the effort he devotes to defending and elaborating the Scholastic trinity — God, freedom, and the immortality of the soul.

12 Ernst Cassirer, The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy, translated by Mario Domandi (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972) p 7.

13 Ibid., p 1.

14 Ibid., p 5.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid., p 153.

17 Ibid., p 158.

18 Ibid., p 159. Italics in original.

19 Ibid., pp 159-60.

20 Ibid., 161.

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