There are many stories that emerge in the Renaissance about who we are. Some of these gain currency and exist to this day.
As with any time, the stories we tell are not universal, but exist in tension with other stories at the same time. It is the conflict between the ways we have of making sense of ourselves that drives modern human history.
Here are some Renaissance stories:
1. We are a little lower than the angels. That means that we do not have to go through a strict hierarchy to talk to God. Indeed, we have direct access. We are confidants of God, and our problem is not within ourselves, but outside of ourselves. We have forgotten our intrinsic connection to God, and we need to rekindle that connection. The Spirit gives us the ability to know God directly; however, we know that we truly know God because of the community of believers we find ourselves in.
2. We are a little higher than dirt. But not much. Whereas previously we were seen as qualitatively different from rude matter, we realize that in fact we are not much different at all. Now, how does matter act? It acts on the basis of the interaction of forces, individual bits affecting other individual bits. And it is how we act as well. The important thing to recognize is our material nature. Matter matters. So, to explain ourselves, we proceed similarly to explaining material interactions: we observe and generalize. Ultimately, we find the simplest set of axioms to account for ourselves. If we can get it down to one or two sets of interactions, all the better. One candidate: Attraction and repulsion. Like matter, we are attracted to some things, and repelled from others. Human action and society can be distilled to this.
3. We are the makers of our own meaning. Whereas previously we found meaning by looking for our place in the immutable order of things, we now recognize that there is no immutable order, at least no order that has any intrinsic meaning. We give it meaning. The fact that things bump into each other, or revolve around each other, is not in itself meaningful. So, we write stories that make sense out of things.
4. We find a deep, hidden sense in things. Previously people thought that the order of things was a relatively straightforward affair. As Aristotle would point out, it is just a matter of finding the category in which things belonged, using our innate logic to do so, and there we have the nature of a thing. But what if there is another level of structure, one which requires some initiated knowledge to access? Witchcraft, alchemy, hermetic philosophy – all these are possibilities in a world no longer driven by Aristotle's categories.
But we don't need to go that far. We can see that a mystical knowledge of how the world works may in fact yield a truer version of things. We have the best of all possible worlds here – we are free from the arid Aristoteleanism, while still having some sense of external binding forces that are intrinsically meaningful.
5. We are part of a herd. We have our identity inasmuch as we belong to a group, be that religious, political, or economic. This is the time of the rise of the nation-state, when we identify ourselves in terms of the group to which we belong. We are able to transform our ethnic ties into political structures. Governments which give a strong sense of identity (aristocratic governments, monarchies) thus have strong support.
6. We are individuals. We have freedom to make our own decisions, to stand or fall as we will. Each person exists first as an autonomous being, and subsequently contracts with others to form alliances. Governments which allow individuals to have a say in their own governance (democracies, "mixed" governments such as England's) thus have strong support.
As time goes on, we can start to see other contradictory stories emerge:
7. We are free. Our actions are controlled by us, by our will and desire. Through the empowerment that comes from economic wealth, and the empowerment that comes from political and democratic freedom, we recognize ourselves as able to make our own choices in ways that have never before been apparent.
8. We are not free. We are faced with so many options that deciding what is worth having becomes harder and harder to make. We feel alienated, separated from others around us, since we regard those others as autonomous agents, who I cannot truly understand except through their choices or preferences. We are left guessing about the world we live in.