Jacques Maritain Center : History of Philosophy / by William Turner


The movement known as the Renaissance{1} is commonly said to date from the reign of Nicholas V (1447). The principles, however, as well as the spirit of the movement, had appeared during the first years of the fifteenth century, and were propagated and fostered by the Greek scholars who flocked to Italy after the fall of Constantinople (1453). The Renaissance reached its Golden Age during the reign of Leo X (1513). It consisted in a revival of the study of the Greek and Roman classics, attention being paid to the form rather than to the contents of classical literature. The representatives of the movement were called "humanists," in allusion to their opposition to the Scholastics, who were alleged to have insisted on the divine, or supernatural, to the exclusion of the human, or natural, elements in their philosophical and theological and above all in their literary labors. The Renaissance is of interest primarily and essentially to the historian of literature. Secondarily, however, and as it were accidentally, it vitally affected the fate of Scholastic philosophy and contributed to the transition from mediaeval to modern modes of thought. The humanists claimed the privilege of ridiculing and attacking the schoolmen, and such was the deplorably degenerate condition of Scholasticism at the time that the ridicule was often deserved and almost always successful. But, not content with censuring what was deserving of censure, the humanists went so far as to condemn the entire system of Scholastic philosophy and to include in their condemnation the work of the thirteenth century masters, whose doctrines they never seriously attempted to understand. While lauding the literary excellence of the pagan classics, they lost no opportunity of defaming the great representatives of Christian thought; they were detractores, as well as laudatores, temporis acti.{2}

In addition to this general opposition of the humanists to the learning of the schools, there appeared among the representatives of the Renaissance a more direct form of anti-Scholasticism in the shape of a revival of the doctrines of the Platonic academy. Gemietus Pletho, a Greek scholar who had attended the council of Florence as ambassador of the Emperor John VIII, inspired Cosmo de' Medici with the idea of founding a Platonic academy at Florence. He was aided in the work of expounding Platonism by Cardinal Bessarion (1403-1472), who was also a Greek. Among the Italian humanists, Lorenzo Valla (1400-1457), Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (died 1494), and his nephew, Giovanni Francesco Pico della Mirandola (died 1533) distinguished themselves by the violence and acrimony with which they attacked the Aristotelians. At the same time Theodore of Gaza (died 1478) and George of Trebizond (1396-1484) rose into prominence as defenders of the philosophy of Aristotle.{3}

Not only Platonism and Aristotelianism, but also Stoicism and Epicureanism, had their representatives among the humanists. Justus Lipsius (Joest Lips) (1547-1606) and Caspar Schoppe (born 1562) revised the doctrines of the Stoa, while Gassendi (1592- 1655) reproduced the essential doctrines of Epicureanism.

Paracelsus (1493-1541) undertook the reform of medical science, and developed a system of speculative thought in which chemistry and theosophy are mingled in the most fantastic manner. His influence is noticeable in the writings of Robert Fludd (died 1637) and in those of the two Van Helmonta (died 1644 and 1699).

Scepticism, a natural outcome of the intellectual confusion of the times, was represented in France by Montaigne (1533-1592) and Pierre Charron (1541-1603), and in Portugal by Francisco Sanchez (died 1632).

Far more important than these attempts of some of the humanists to restore the Platonism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Pyrrhonism of ancient times was the controversy waged by the various interpreters of Aristotle on the question of the immortality of the soul. Pietro Pomponazzi, or Pomponatius (1462-1530), maintained that the Alexandrian interpreters understood Aristotle to teach that the human soul is mortal, and contended that this was the genuine mind of the Stagyrite. Achillini, Nifo (Niphus), and others followed the Averroistic interpretation, and contended that the separate, or impersonal, soul alone is immortal, the individual soul being immortal according to theology, but mortal according to philosophy.

Of great importance, too, was the anti-Aristotelian movement inaugurated by Petrus Ramus (Pierre de la Ramée, slain in the massacre of St. Bartholomew's day, 1572), who opposed the accepted Aristotelian system of logic, and, in his treatises Aristotelicae Animadversiones and Institutiones Dialecticae, attempted to formulate a new system of logical doctrine.

From the ferment of thought occasioned by the mingling all these elements there emerged a more or less definite system of naturalism known as the Italian Philosophy of Nature.

{1} Cf. Symonds, The Renaissance in Italy (5 parts in 7 vols., London, 1875-1886), Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance, trans. by Middlemore (London, 1890); Voigt, Die Wiederbelebung des classischen Alterthums (Berlin, 1893).

{2} On the attempts of the humanists to restore pagan modes of thought and speech, cf. Pastor, History of the Popes, English trans., Vol. V, pp. 140 ff.

{3} The works of Pletho, Bessarion, and other Greek writers of this period are to be found in Migne's Patr. Graeca, Vols. CLX.-CLXI.

<< History of Philosophy >>