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On Sir Thomas Browne, Francis Bacon, & Michel de Montaigne

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The claims of Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) and Francis Bacon (1561-1626) to seats among the moderns can hardly be denied– Montaigne is the heir of Sextus Empiricus, Bacon the father of Descartes and the modern experiment. Together, skepticism and the experimental method align as the twin pole stars of modern science. Sir Thomas Browne (1602-1682), a writer and thinker of unique power and extreme sensibility, occupies a more dubious position in relation to modernity. This is in spite of the fact that he outlived Bacon by sixty-four years, that he knew, at least partially, the writings of both Bacon and Montaigne, and was himself a contributor to several divisions of science and scholarly learning. He was also ever conversant with the latest advances in the sciences, as well as possessed of an intimate knowledge of the classics.

For Sir Thomas, Heaven was the abode of the mystic as well as the natural philosopher; but on earth, neither science nor the physician could change the destiny of any man, nor do anything to alter or destroy the truths of his mystic, apocalyptic faith. It is in this light that we must approach with caution the writings of Browne; particularly in those moments when he derides the Scholastics, seems to echo Montaigne, or speaks the language of Bacon and the Cartesians. The rejection of authority– be it the Divine Right of princes, the Ptolemaic system of the cosmos, or Aristotle’s concept of soul– was the common road traveled by those who made the so-called scientific revolution in the 17th century. Francis Bacon famously claimed that the Ancient natural philosophers had actually contributed little to the inquiry into the secrets of nature through their method, which Bacon styled “anticipations of nature.” If nature is not purpose-driven, if “soul” is not specific to anything, then nature is a machine made of parts that are separable and re-organizable. Like Galen’s medicine, or Pliny’s history, Aristotle’s theories of teleology and psychology, exhaustively elaborated through the period of the Middle Ages, faced its final opposition in the 17th century. Yet it was not on account of a rejection of religious faith and devotion that the change from Ancient to modern science came about, but through the division of the two spheres, faith and natural philosophy, into two vast categories of things relevance to the human condition.

In Montaigne, Bacon, and Browne, the arguments for the rejection of authority of the Ancients, and authority in general, come down to the notion that the hitherto unrealized worth of experience and experiment relieves contemporary intellectual life of its burden of gratitude and dogmatic adherence to the writings and opinions of the Ancients. Yet Browne’s rejection of Ancient authority, and authority in general, does not extend beyond what any sober-minded scholar might object to in the writings of an historian with a penchant for interjecting folklore into his narrative. On the other hand, derision of the authority of the Ancients is arguably a necessary component of the idiosyncratic style in Montaigne’s Essays — indeed, the belittling of authority, be it ancient or modern, religious or political, is the primary way to elevate the “self,” the “I,” to a new level of confessional authority, which is synonymous with autonomy. Bacon’s rejection of authority lends itself to his aphoristic style, which, in its “interpretive” lack of systematization, makes a mockery of Aristotle and the Scholastics for prematurely “anticipating nature” in their vast, artificially constructed systems. Thus, Montaigne, Bacon and Browne invoke the theme of the rejection of the authority of the Ancients to differing ends. In the final analysis, the rejection of authority is not so much a thematic parallel between the three writers, but rather a tendency in intellectual life distinguishing the 16th and 17th centuries from the Medieval era, when the writings of the Ancients were still being assimilated and commented upon.

The similarity of Browne’s writings to those of Montaigne and Bacon coincides in terms of a muscular skepticism.  The main differences lie in Browne’s deference to the authority of religion. The authority of religion is arguably the meta-element in the thought of Browne; it is according to the precepts of religion that the world of ideas and opinions are entirely subordinated in his writings. This fideistic dimension is not a main characteristic found in Montaigne or Bacon’s writings, even though both frankly and regularly confess their lifelong devotion to the Christian religion. Allegiance, however, does not dictate the subject of their respective inquiries, whether it is the self or nature. Thus, by applying the fideistic distinction, some characteristic differences can be isolated between the thought of Browne and the early-modern thought of Bacon. In so doing, a more general concluding distinction can be drawn, and that is to identify an intellectual characteristic that differentiates the intellectual attitude of fully fledged modernity, such as we find it in the writings of Montaigne, from an attitude that points back to an earlier time in pre-modern intellectual life, such as we find it in the writings of Browne.

I. Science and Faith: Browne and Bacon

Browne recognizes in the precepts and dogmas of Christianity an absolute and final authority on all matters pertaining to man’s existence. It is perhaps on this characteristic head that Browne’s position is the most easily distinguished from the respective positions of Montaigne and Bacon. Browne never wavers in his application of his religious position to whatever the subject of his writings may be. On the other hand, Montaigne and Bacon vary from one work to the next in regard to the presence or absence of religion in the treatment of their respective subjects; they are resolute only on the point of obedience to the will of the Christian church. On the other hand, fideism begins and ends Browne’s argument — the ever-present memento mori and the consuming totality of an eternal God serve as a backdrop and a foil to the mutable aspirations and vanities of mankind.

The impotence of philosophy to lend support to faith or serve as the handmaid to theology is a notion that follows thoroughly in the wake of the activities and writings of Luther and Calvin. Following a notion found in the thought of both Luther and Calvin, Browne proposes that the Christian faith should be subjected to all the tribunals of history, as well as the scrutiny of science and philosophy, so that there might not be a single doctrine left intact or standing before the hubris of man, who pretends to the measurement of all things:

“As for those wingy mysteries in divinity, and airy subtleties in religion, which have unhinged the brains of better heads, they never stretched the pia mater of mine. Methinks there be not impossibilities enough in religion for an active faith: the deepest mysteries ours contains have not only been illustrated, but maintained, by syllogism and the rule of reason. I love to lose myself in a mystery; to pursue my reason to an O altitudo! ‘Tis my solitary recreation to pose my apprehension with those involved enigmas and riddles of the Trinity — incarnation and resurrection. I can answer all the objections of Satan and my rebellious reason with that odd resolution I learned of Tertullian, Certum est quia impossibile est.”

Certain contemporary critics of Religio Medici mistook Browne’s purpose of examining his religious opinions for a work of theology, yet in this fragment, Browne expressly abjures theologizing in his exclamation of “O altitudo!” The conditions of rationality set down by logic and syllogistic reasoning are not conducive to an active faith, which naturally repulses any rational explanation of faith’s irrational mysteries — rational thought is destructive and antithetical to the truths of faith. When, for example, the existence of God and the immortality of the soul can be proven through reason alone, faith ceases to act as knowledge without proof, and instead becomes certain knowledge. Religion, according to both the Reformers and to Browne, squanders its raison d’être, which is to say its veracity, when the truths of faith are changed to rationally acquired truths — the realm of faith is by definition irrational when opposed to the kingdom of reason, which is governed by empirical and logical norms. The authority of religion, based on the sovereignty of faith as opposed to the sovereignty of reason, must at least keep philosophy accountable, or enmity between the truths of faith and the truths of reason could give rise to the paradoxical possibility of the “double truth.”

In his Advancement of Learning, Bacon circumscribes the truths of faith without questioning the Scriptural authority from whence those truths issue. He does so in order to demonstrate that theology has nothing to add to natural philosophy, and certainly nothing to add to the investigation of empirical nature though methodic experiment. All observable phenomena stand outside the compass of divine knowledge for two reasons: there is no ascent from particular things and principles to universal things, or the first principles of science; second, knowledge of such things as the soul and its immortality cannot be acquired through knowledge of empirical particulars — the former species of knowledge is given through apocalypse, the latter through experience. Moreover, according to Bacon, the “light of nature” declares the existence of God to be self-evident because a creator is necessary to explain the existence of the material world; but the natural light is predictably silent on such things as the immortality of the soul and miracles. Through the light of nature, the knowledge of the existence of God is impressed on the understanding; hence, if nature can be explained by science without recourse to the miraculous or the divine, one has merely to accept the explanations of science, which do not require a miracle.

In the Religio Medici, Browne maintains a similar opinion on the self-evident nature of the existence of God; but rather than exclude God from participation in “the ordinary course of nature” (viz., laws of nature), “the effects of nature” are in every sense the “works of God, whose hand and instrument she only is; and therefore, to ascribe his actions unto her is to devolve the honor of the principle agent upon the instrument.” The difference between Bacon and Browne then, in respect to the authority of religion is, to take the case of Browne first, the function of religion as a totality beyond which nothing has meaning or reference. Science, history, and philosophy are all subsumed under the purposive ends of divinity, and employed as instrumental or artful servants. Divinity breaks in on Browne as he reviews his opinions touching hermeneutics, literally interrupting the flow of his discourse with, “thus I teach my haggard and unreclaimed reason to stoop unto the lure of faith,” and, “this, I think, is no vulgar part of faith, to believe a thing not only above, but contrary to, reason, and against the arguments of our proper senses.” Bacon, on the other hand, seeks to neither supplant religion with science nor make science accountable to religious principles — rather, he seeks to free scientific inquiry from any consideration of religion. Bacon’s programme of dividing disciplines in order that each may proceed in the most efficacious way requires that arts that were formerly joined, such as the “three knowledges; divine philosophy, natural philosophy, and human philosophy, or humanity,” pursue their respective ends individually, and draw their conclusions uninhibitedly.

The Baconian experimental method narrows the scope of what can be legitimately investigated by science, viz., the method begins and ends with the evidence of empirical phenomena.
While Browne’s approach to science in Pseudodoxia Epidemica includes experiment, induction is held to serve as nothing more than a corrective to man’s ignorance of phenomena — Browne is a castigator of false opinion sans the concern for generating a method or principles whereby science, or the inquiry into phenomena, will ultimately be freed from the bonds of superstition. In Religio Medici, Browne cavils about the same difficult doctrines that innumerable commentators have caviled on, but then invites the “gentle reader” to laugh with him at the folly of those who take such quibbles too seriously by holding the indubitability of the Scriptures too lightly. We find that Browne affects a similar pose in the empiricism of his scientific writings. The care for knowledge gained through the senses should be worn on the shoulders like a light mantle, to be cast off when the infallible truths of Scripture contradicts the fallible judgments men make of their experience. In his panoramic view of the charnel house of human history, Browne the Christian, and Browne the secular physician and scientist keep uncertain, even antagonistic company. Nature, as Browne writes in Religio Medici, is the work of God, and man cannot comprehend how the Creator works, save analogically, nor can he appropriate the tools of the Creator to achieve his own ends. Medicine is an artifice, and as such acts as a kind of mimesis of the infinite artificer; yet the application of medicine’s purgative and restorative powers, according to Browne, while beneficial to the cure of bodily infirmity, is adversative to the cure of souls. Medicine, according to this view, is antithetical to the plans of the Creator, as it necessarily works towards a greater human good, rather than as a means of serving a purpose in a transcendent teleological design that excludes individual human interests and desires. Browne has a different prescription for addressing the seeming irreconcilable differences of faith and reason, which is for each to keep to its respective place so as not to unnecessarily undermine the tenets of the one, while illegitimately raising the claims of the other.

II. Browne and Modernity

Browne is a paradoxical figure, but not in the same sense as Montaigne, who both refuses and accepts whichever category he is put into. The paradoxical nature of Browne is part and parcel of the age in which he lived, which is best understood in terms of irregularity rather than contradiction. The 17th century did not abide the kinds of impassible — which is to say, fashionable — cultural distinctions enjoyed in our current age between religion and science, the sacred and the secular, the state and the individual, &c. Certainly there were other sets of cultural distinctions particular to Browne’s time, but these are no longer operatives in our time.
Browne is ultimately an ambiguous figure, and is, to a certain (though not measurable) degree, representative of the paradoxical age in which he lived. Science lived in tolerable domesticity with religion; empiricism held rationalism at bay with its principle of bon sens; one could entertain Cartesian reductionist notions of thought and extension and still be a loyal Aristotelian. Browne may present himself in the guise of the scourge of vulgar and popular error, but he is never willing to sacrifice his religious faith, or even suggest such a desperate outrage to promote man’s self-important ends, or mix the tenants of faith with the necessarily imperfect principles of the natural sciences. Rather, Browne’s singular principle of the inevitability of the grave, and the eternal life to come, stands above rational judgment altogether, and does not waver or equivocate at any turn — hence, this may be justly set down as Browne’s “Archimedean point,” the negative principle with which all positive knowledge must be reckoned. But death does not admit of any “sic et non,” or any logical conveniences like the universal or particular affirmation or negation. The study of life and death, Brown writes in the Epistle Dedicatory to Thomas Le Gros in his Hydriotaphia or Urn Burial, makes up the daily operation of men such as themselves. The locus of their enquiry is the whole of the earth, for as such, it is but a vast tomb. The ax, spade and brush are but tools for exhuming the curious relics of man, the rational animal, whose dual essence gives him over to the ceremonialization of his own transience, yet whose fondest wish is but to continue in existence, and perpetually evade the extinction that mortal destiny carries with it. Funeral customs are geographically and chronologically particular things, but “the end of all, the poppied sleep” that gives occasion for so much variation in man’s funerary practices, is an ultimate and universal phenomenon. Browne’s Platonism is borne out by his persistent opposition of the fleeting to the eternal. The sensuous curtain of the phenomenal world, according to Browne, is a deception and a cheat when considered superficially, or as its own end. The immutable truths of the existence of a Creator that is both transcendent and participatory in the created order, and an immortal human soul, are necessary foundations for any kind of inquiry into the truth of things. In Browne’s writings, it is this particular combination of objective fact and religious devotion — les extrêmes qui se touchent — that renders the scope of his writings at once wider and narrower than the scope of Montaigne in the Essays, and Bacon in his scientific treatises. For instance, Browne’s objective inquiry on funerary urns rapidly gives way to a lengthy meditation on the gloomy spectacle of other men’s relics, ashes, or tombs, as the case may be. His most well known writings, the Urn Burial and Religio Medici, consist mainly of sustained digressions on his preferred themes of God, the mysteries of the faith, and mortality and immortality; but perhaps this is so only because his subjects inevitably relieve themselves of their particularities in the ubiquitous lap of the Creator.

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

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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.

The Gods In Exile: Milton, Swinburne, & Alienated Culture

Dionysius the Areopagite, named in the book of “Acts” as one of those Athenians who believed when they heard Paul preach on Mars Hill, comes down to the modern age as one of the examples of early Christianity’s triumph over pagan religion.  The history of the dissolution and eventual abrogation of pagan religion is readily traced in the writings of Arnobius of Sicca,1 St. Augustine, and later, the writings of the Ecclesiastics throughout the Middle Ages.  If the accounts in the “Gospels” are taken to be records of historical fact, the true advent of Christianity is marked by the nativity of Christ, and the later polemics stand as mere publicity rather than documents forging the birth of the new religion as such.  At the scene of the nativity, then, the gods, rites, and indeed the entire edifice of pagan religion cease to have cosmological validity, even if its gods and rites continued for some time afterward to be observed.

The pagan cult of nature, which included deified elements, and heavenly bodies, are shown in Milton’s “Hymn” to be mere servants that attend the infant Christ’s nativity “Untill their Lord himself bespake, and bid them go” (76).2   It is worth noting that the news of what “now begins,” viz., the accession of Christ to the seat of His earthly kingdom, is, in Milton’s poem, not first heard in the Near East, but in Greece.  The priests and oracles at Delphi are now mute prophets, and both Apollo and the crowd of woodland nymphs alike shriek, weep, lament, and sigh as their shrines, groves, and temples are profaned and made worthless at a stroke (cf. stanzas XVIII-XXI).  Next, the deities of the Near East, Peor, Baalim, Ashtaroth, and the rest, “Forsake their Temples dim” (198) and flee away.  Likewise, the “brutish gods of Nile,” Isis, Orus, Anubis and Osirus, are put to flight at the advent of the Incarnation.  “The dredded Infants hand” (222) passes the final sentence over them all, and the “flocking shadows pale” retire “to th’infernall jail” or “several grave” (33-35).  The reverse-apotheosis is complete; the worship of the pantheon, even if prolonged in history, is hollow; the prayers, offerings, and rituals nullified; and the immortal nature of the gods extinguished by “The rayes of Bethlehem” (223).

Milton’s “Hymn” depicts a downward ontological movement: Christ assumes the form of man and comes into the world of time and space from the timeless, ethereal region of heaven; and the pagan divinities of the air and the earth go down into “th’infernall jail,” or a kind of earthly hell.  The dismantling of divinity in Milton’s poem, and his vision of the gods of antiquity processing from the seat of immortality to assume a shadowy, tenuous existence, indicates that the high gods are now little better than mortal men, suspended between the poles of being and non-being.  The “infernall jail,” like unto a living grave, is precisely the terms by which mortality is shaped, whether it is the body-imprisoned soul of man, or the changeless, deathless gods imprisoned in a mutable world of ceaseless change.  An ontological shift occurs in the god’s nature as such; and man’s understanding of himself and his relation to the divine consequently undergoes a profound transformation to match.  The “infernall jail” to which the gods are condemned by the infant Christ can be interpreted in a Christian context to be the world itself, which is fallen from a sinless, perfect state to one “Pollute with sinful blame” (41), and full of “foul deformities” (44); or in other words, the dwelling of fallen humanity.

In his prose work entitled The Gods in Exile, Heinrich Heine collects specimens from Medieval lore that tell of what became of the Greek and Roman gods after “Christianity achieved supreme control of the world.”3  Prior to beginning the fable of Apollo, Heine notes that

The superstition of the people ascribed to those gods a real but cursed existence, coinciding entirely in this respect with the teaching of the Church. The latter by no means declared those ancient gods to be myths, inventions of falsehood and error, as did the philosophers, but held them to be evil spirits, who, through the victory of Christ, had been hurled from the summit of their power, and now dragged along their miserable existences in the obscurity of dismantled temples or in enchanted groves… [and] when the true Lord of the universe planted the banner of the cross on the heavenly heights, and those iconoclastic zealots, the black band of monks, hunted down the gods with fire and malediction and razed their temples, then these unfortunate heathen divinities were… compelled to take flight, seeking safety under the most varied disguises and in the most retired hiding places. Under these circumstances several, whose shrines had been confiscated, became wood-choppers and day-laborers in Germany, and were compelled to drink beer instead of nectar.4

The exile of the gods, as a recurrent theme in literature, is a kind of fabula mundi, and necessarily of interest as a profound metaphor, or rather, a meta-theme, that does the work of interpreting the vast undercurrent of the history of the overthrow of pagan religion by Christianity.  Milton’s “Hymn” strikes the modern reader as something of a late footnote to the history of the overthrow of one religious myth for another, and in Milton’s poem, as in Heine’s fantasy, the backward glance comes at two respective points in history when the threat of foreign gods to the rule of Christian culture was at best benign, if not comical as Rabelais’ topsy-turvy vision of hell was provincial.  It might also be observed that such backward glances occur, or become necessary in times of extraordinary cultural or personal individual change.  When previous paradigms shift or are transformed of necessity by cultural or natural forces, there are those whose perceptions of the world remain firmly rooted in the previous order, while others, presumably at odds with the reigning order of ideas and concepts, affect or embrace the arrival of foreign ideas or concepts.  The whole prosaic task of organizing, sorting, and classifying into a system the mass of material that comprised previous cultural identities becomes very important, as previous cultures rarely ever vanish without leaving their imprint on the cognitive modes and daily practical habits of their successors.  Both the “Hymn” of Milton, and the Gods in Exile of Heine are late illustrations of the recurring task of assimilating the pagan religious order in Europe.  No cultural paradigm shift is ever self-sustaining or immutable, but requires immense labour and constant patching-up in order for it to remain culturally relevant or viable.  As late as the 19th century, thinkers and artists at odds with Christianity, like Heine, were still craning their necks backwards in order to catch a glimpse of the “golden age” of pagan antiquity, and futilely attempting to imbibe something from the days before men came noticeably under the watch of the good shepherd and his magisterium.

A.C. Swinburne, who was a contemporary of Heine in the world of letters, is another example of this species of jealous glorification of the first-born pagan religion over the terrible child Christianity.  Swinburne’s poem, “Hymn to Proserpine,” 5 published in 1866, elucidates the remoteness of Christianity’s triumph over the gods of antiquity in the same way as Milton’s “Hymn,” and Heine’s The Gods in Exile, but from the opposite perspective.  In Swinburne’s poem, the speaker, who is an unnamed follower of the Roman goddess Proserpine, observes the passing of his religion, and the accession of the new gods marked “by the proclamation in Rome of the Christian faith.” As the setting in Swinburne’s poem makes clear, the speaker witnessing his “Gods dethroned and deceased, cast forth, wiped out in a day,” (13) is the last representative, the sole remaining adherent to the religion of the pagan divinities.  Rather than address his plea to a warlike god, the speaker in the poem calls upon the goddess of sleep, and of the underworld, and begs for the tranquility of death, for safe passage out of a world no longer recognizable— a world presided over by the eccentric promises of the Galilean:

Wilt thou yet take all, Galilean?…

More than these wilt thou give, things fairer than all these things?

Nay, for a little we live, and life hath mutable wings.

A little while and we die; shall life not thrive as it may?

For no man under the sky lives twice, outliving his day.

And grief is a grievous thing, and a man hath enough of his tears:

Why should he labour, and bring fresh grief to blacken his years?

Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath;

We have drunken of things Lethean, and fed on the fulness of death.

Laurel is green for a season, and love is sweet for a day;

But love grows bitter with treason, and laurel outlives not May.

Sleep, shall we sleep after all? for the world is not sweet in the end;

For the old faiths loosen and fall, the new years ruin and rend. (23-40)

Milton’s “Hymn,” on the other hand, although confusing in the order of events and the time in which events occur, is apparently narrated by one present at the nativity of Christ.  The narrator is seemingly omniscient, and views events of the past, present, and future indifferently.  In any case, the narrator of the poem observes first-hand the infant Christ “wrapt in the rude manger” (3), recognizes and believes in the Incarnation, and foresees the plan for man’s redemption, even while the Redeemer is perceived to be yet a babe.  This witness, then, can accordingly be hypothesized as the first Christian, the first believer in Christ. The dichotomy set up by juxtaposing the respective speakers in Milton’s “Hymn” and Swinburne’s “Hymn to Proserpine” is of interest on account of the personal reaction to cultural forces that are either at odds or in agreement with their beliefs and desires; but in any case, beyond their control.  Both Milton and Swinburne’s poems address the exigencies of religion as a cultural phenomenon, and one that all men at once have a part in the creation and preservation of, and yet are subservient to its demands.  Heine’s The Gods in Exile is a record not only of the myths that sprang up in the wake of the demise of paganism, but also of the long-forgotten fortunes of the many adherents once devoted to the “heathen gods.”  Mythology, whether Christian or pagan, serves to illustrate how remote a thing is man’s own history from himself.  Gods once worshiped as severe and mighty are burlesqued in Milton’s “Hymn” and Heine’s essay, and Swinburne teaches a valuable lesson in cultural alienation by putting into the mouth of his speaker a bitter lament for the riches of bygone days, and disdain for the sterility of all things new and untried of time.

1 Cf., The Case Against the Pagans.

2 John Milton, The Poetical Works f John Milton, edited by the Rev. H. C. Beeching, M.A. (Oxford University Press, New York, 1935). All line and stanza numbers in reference to Milton’s “Hymn” are given in parenthetical citation in the body of the text.

3 Heinrich Heine, The prose Writings of Heinrich Heine, edited by Havelock Ellis (Walter Scott Ltd., London, 1892), p. 268.

4 Heine, pp. 268-69. Brackets mine.

5 A.C. Swinburne, The Poetical Works of Algernon Charles Swinburne (John Williams, New York, 1910), p. 25. All line and stanza numbers in reference to Swinburne’s “Hymn to Proserpine” are given in parenthetical citation in the body of the text.