The Renaissance is a conflicted time. There is a kind of reigning orthodoxy in the Middle Ages, and another kind in the modern period. But there is no sense of orthodoxy during the Renaissance at all. Consider the conflicts:
1. Does this time look backward or forward? Both. It clearly looks back, to ancient times, as its inspiration. But there is also for the first time a sense of progress. And progress must be forward looking.
2. Is this time religious or not? Both. In one sense it is seen as the abandonment of religion. Humanism, for some, is the realization that God is not the centre of the universe, but humans are. On the other hand, there is a renewal of religion and a return to an earlier spirituality.
3. Is this a scientific time or not? Both. The advances in science of the time are well known – Galileo, Tycho Brahe, Copernicus, Newton, Harvey. This is an optimistic world, a world which shed the Aristotelean view of the world and took on a new view that led to advances in technology. On the other hand, it is a time when people believed all sorts of things that we wouldn't consider scientific at all.
4. In retrospect, is this even a unique time? Hard to say. Interpretation of the Renaissance has its modern origin in the 19th century, with Jacob Burckhardt. Burckhardt's thesis was that the Renaissance was a time that threw off the shackles of the Middle Ages. It was truly a "re-birth" – the Middle Ages had been a time of sleep, or death. Religion had held sway, and now people could finally think for themselves, thanks to a renewed emphasis on the human being.
But was it really like this? Since Burckhardt, people have made careers of showing that the Renaissance was substantially similar to the Middle Ages, and others have shown that it was substantially similar to the modern era. These people had to appeal to different things, usually. Indeed, one could see the Renaissance at the beginning (say, 1350) as indistinguishable from the High Middle Ages, and the Renaissance at the end (about 1650) as indistinguishable from the modern period. What similarities are there at either end, and what are the conflicts in the middle?
1. One similarity at the beginning is the social structure. It was substantially feudal. There were no nations, in the modern sense, but principalities. One of the major developments through the Renaissance was the birth of the modern nation, complete with its mechanisms for popular governance. Of course, these do not finally die out until later – French Revolution in France, even the early part of this century in Russia. But the groundwork is laid during the Renaissance, in the city-kingdoms of Italy and in the political theory of people like Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke.
2. At the beginning of this period there is a general acceptance of the philosophy of Aristotle. By the end, Aristotle is not so much rejected as made irrelevant. Much of the Renaissance is a progressive questioning of Aristotle, but that does not mean that Aristotle is abandoned. He becomes one of many voices. He is still taught in the universities, up to at least the 19th century. But as we will see, he does not determine the direction of thought anymore.
3. The major institutions of the middle ages are the institutions of the Renaissance. The universities are pretty much intact, the church still exists, the courts are still there. The Renaissance does not so much do away with these as re-interpret them. As we see in Pico, the liberal arts are re-thought. They were seen as a means for establishing basic general knowledge, before moving toward more specialized pursuits. They become an expression of humanity. They are the studia humanitatis, the very basis of the humanism of the Renaissance.
How about at the other end?
1. By 1650, the understanding of the world has changed from the belief that the order of the world exists in the universals, to the belief that the order exists in the connections between individual things. We will see how this works shortly.
2. By 1650, the world is governed by secular princes, rather than the papacy. This is not so say, of course, that there were no principalities before this. The difference is that governance is assumed to stem from the workings of the human world, while in the Middle Ages the legitimacy of government came from God.
This conflicted time, then, might be understood if we think about what it looked like at the beginning, and what it looked like at the end. In the middle we have complexity.
1. Reaction against Aristotle's compartmentalized knowledge: Aristotle's scientia posited compartmentalized knowledge. The move was toward finding unified or universal knowledge. This happened in several ways:
a. Renaissance: Knowledge is unified by finding common starting principles or axioms which will ground all knowledge (Descartes) or by generalization (Bacon).
b. Reformation, Marginal Science: suppose that we could find the unifying metaphysical principle underlying contingent reality. This was the route taken by the marginal science people (followers of Hermes), and in another way, by the Reformation. The Reformation focusses on the spirit which animates everything, and flows through, whether we recognize it or not (see Boehme).
2. Rejection of compartmentalization of knowledge implies that individuals have significance:
a. The Renaissance examines particulars, and generalizes about them. We no longer look for universals, but generalizations. Note that this moves the point of tension between metaphysics and epistemology, toward the latter. The two issues are -- what is there? and How do we know it? Traditionally, the more you have of one, the less you have of the other. For instance, if you get your epistemology straight by positing universals that are the object of knowledge, then you have a hard time accounting for their existence. If, on the other hand, as happened in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, you get your metaphysics straight by not talking about these universals, you have a hard time knowing how we know anything. It was easy for Plato and Aristotle. In both cases, we know the form. The only question is where it is located. For the Renaissance thinkers, we don't know what grounds our knowledge. Generalizations don't have the same form as universals; they shift, they lack certainty. So how can you focus on anything so transitory?
b. Reformation suggests that God deals with individuals, that individuals can approach God, and that individual freedom has to be taken into account when constructing a religion.
c. In both cases, the state in the modern age must take into account individual desire. Individuals do not have an obligation to obey an irrational or unjust state, or at least an argument has to be made why they must. States are reconfigured so that either there is individual representation, or there is a justification of a system that provides the most freedom for individuals (e.g., Hobbes). In either case, the new political and social reality is the individual and his or her personal will and knowledge.
3. The primary human faculty in the Middle Ages was the highest actions of the mind: its ability to reflect, to be self-conscious, to rationalize. Everything else was secondary. In the Reformation and the Renaissance, this changes. Now, the emphasis is on the will.
a. In the Renaissance, part of individual action was the fact that we all have a will. Sometimes this will will act rationally, but often it will not. We have to account for our will somehow, and either bring it into line, or harness it. The "passions" become suspect, but they are also harnessed in the new expressions of economic reality. We express our passions, within limits, in public commerce. Indeed, one writer suggests that modern capitalism is just the legitimization and focussing of all seven of the mediaeval deadly sins. Passion is deadly, but also is an intrinsic part of who we are.
b. In the Reformation, there is the Augustinian line that passion (will) has to be subjugated -- but under what? Not reason, for that is just as tainted as the will. Our will must come under God's will. Then, once our will wills like God's, we have reached true spirituality. Reason follows.
4. The new emphasis on will means that there is a shift in our relationship to the world. Control instead of finding your place becomes the operative force:
a. In the Renaissance, the reduction of the cosmos to physical forces of individuals on other individuals means that finding the cause of something allows one to control it.
b. In the Reformation, you have control over your own eternal state in the sense that it does not have to be mediated through a priest. Your understanding of God's word has legitimacy now.
5. The active inquiring mind becomes the focal point of knowledge, rather than authority, revelation, or the logical conclusions derivable from either. Reason is not abandoned by any means in the new emphasis on will; rather, reason is released to explore its new domain. The will has claimed the world or the soul as its own, and made a safe place; reason now makes sense of it.
a. In the Renaissance, finding the right method was all important. This method may be empirical (Bacon), or it may be logical (Descartes), but in both cases, we have it in us to figure the world out.
b. In the Reformation, the Bible has to make sense. To be sure, this is a sense predicated on being changed, but the human mind under the right conditions can interpret and understand.