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No Man’s Land

Eight Philosophers of the Italian Renaissance

by Paul Oskar Kristeller
Stanford, 194 pp., $5.00

Renaissance philosophy is something of a no-man’s-land in the history of thought. Ancient philosophy, medieval philosophy, modern philosophy beginning from Descartes—all these stand as monuments in the landscape having recognizable shapes. But what is Renaissance philosophy? A rather vague area populated by elusive formulae such as “humanism” and “Neoplatonism.” One way of clarifying this situation is to recognize with Professor Kristeller that “humanism” and “humanist philosophy” should be separated from “Renaissance philosophy” as a whole, as a distinct branch having different origins and a different history. The eight philosophers of his book, which is based on lectures given at Stanford University in 1961, are classified as humanist philosophers (Petrarch and Valla), Neoplatonists (Ficino and Pico), Aristotelian (Pomponazzi), and naturalists (Telesio, Patrizi, Bruno). The excellent and, I believe, quite original plan of starting a book on Renaissance philosophy with Petrarch and Valla enables Professor Kristeller to expound with admirable lucidity that interpretation of the meaning of the much abused term “Renaissance humanism,” of which he himself has laid the foundations by brilliant original research. I well remember the interest aroused by his article of 1944, since expanded, which put the word “humanism” in a new perspective for Renaissance scholars, and which was confirmed by Dr. Augusto Campana’s examination of the meaning of the word umanista as actually used in the Italian Renaissance.

In his splendid studies of Petrarch and Valla in the present book, Professor Kristeller puts across for the student and for the general reader what ought to be understood by Renaissance humanism and Renaissance humanist philosophy. The word umanista was university slang for the teacher of a definite branch of the curriculum, comprising grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, and moral philosophy; and the humanist scholar was primarily the man who expanded these subjects by the recovery and study of the ancient texts on which they were based. Though not the initiator of Renaissance humanism, Petrarch was its first great representative, devoting his life as a scholar to the recovery of Latin antiquity, and his life as a literary man and a poet to meditation on the moral and politico-historical themes which his new approach to the ancients inspired. Professor Kristeller’s discussion of Petrarch as the literary man, developing themes of self-analysis and moral reflection in a manner already characteristic of a modern humanist, is admirable. Valla carried to new heights the philological expertise of the humanist scholar in dealing with texts, and further expanded the humanist approach to moral philosophy. The chapter on Valla, particularly the part dealing with Valla’s interpretation of Epicureanism, can be recommended, not only to students for whom this book is primarily intended, but also to more advanced scholars for its many original lights and suggestions.

Having laid the foundations of what he means by Renaissance humanism and humanist philosophy, Professor Kristeller turns in the chapters on Ficino and Pico to Renaissance Neoplatonism, and here he emphasises that the two movements, though they overlap and mutually influence one another, are not the same. He is reluctant to classify the movement stemming from Ficino as belonging to Renaissance humanism, the whole to be labeled indiscriminately “the humanist philosophy of the Renaissance.” He points out that the Ficinian Platonism uses sources which are unrelated to the earlier humanism, not only the newly recovered works of Plato and the Neoplatonists but also the writings “attributed to Hermes Trismegistus and Zoroaster, Orpheus and Pythagoras, which modern scholarship has recognized as apocryphal products of late antiquity, but which Ficino, like many of his predecessors and contemporaries, considered venerable witnesses of very old pagan philosophy and theology that preceded and inspired Plato and his disciples.” Unlike the earlier humanists, too, Ficino does not turn away from medieval philosophy. For these and other reasons, Professor Kristeller thinks that the Neoplatonic movement begun by Ficino and carried on, with variations, by Pico della Mirandola forms a separate phase of the Renaissance which should be fairly sharply distinguished properly speaking from the more “humanist” current.

The distinction may seem obvious and yet it needs to be stressed, for there is so much confusion of thought about these issues. I would indeed dig the trench separating humanism from Neoplatonism, with its Hermetic core, deeper than Professor Kristeller does. These two Renaissance experiences seem to me to be of an entirely different order, using different sources in a different way and making their appeal to different sides of the human mind. The one is scholarly and literary; the other is concerned with philosophy, including natural philosophy, which humanism excludes, and with theology and religion, which humanism does not presume to touch directly. The one sees man in relation to society; the other sees him in relation to the cosmos—two entirely different approaches to “humanism” in the broader sense of the study of man. Professor Kristeller would link the concept of the Dignity of Man, so important for Ficino and developed by Pico with impassioned rhetoric in the famous Oration, with humanist meditations on man and his destiny and duties, seeing here one of the points of contact between the two movements. Yet the text “magnum miraculum est homo” with which Pico opens his Oration is not taken from a humanist source but from the Hermetic Asclepius. Man is a great miracle because of his position in the cosmos, allied by his nature to the “race of demons” or cosmic powers, and hence able to operate on the world. It is man as the Magus, the operator, the Renaissance predecessor of man as scientist, which the Oration glorifies, and this “great miracle” is not the same kind of creature as the man who forms the subject of the more modest meditations of the humanist.

Unlike his humanist predecessors, Ficino attempted to give an elaborate description of the universe, and a valuable analysis of the Ficinian cosmology is given in this chapter in which it is pointed out that Ficino was convinced that “the universe must have a dynamic unity and that its various parts are held together by active forces and affinities. For this reason he revived the Neoplatonic doctrine of the world soul, and made astrology a part of a natural system of mutual influences.” This might have been the point at which to mention that Ficino attempted to operate with astral magic, surely a significant feature of his philosophical outlook, but Professor Kristeller is not interested in this aspect, nor in Pico’s Cabalism, so important for Pico himself, which he dismisses in a short paragraph as a side of Pico with which he is not in sympathy.

The selection of the eight philosophers brings out admirably the complexity of the Renaissance with its many different strands. From humanists and Neoplatonists, Professor Kristeller now passes to a typical product of the Paduan Aristotelian school, a splendidly clear and useful chapter this, containing also a polemic, with which I am heartily in agreement, against the tiresome practice of refusing to believe a “bold” Renaissance writer when he states that he is a Christian. “The human historian has no other basis but the written document.” If the written document, in this case Pomponazzi’s De fato, states that although the immortality of the soul cannot be demonstrated by reason it is to be accepted as an article of faith, then what right have we to twist it as merely a safety device concealing an opposite opinion? The mania for detecting atheists everywhere can lead the historian of Renaissance thought as much astray as an over-pietistic approach, in fact the latter line is, in my opinion, more likely to err in the right direction.

Before coming to his three natural philosophers, Professor Kristeller emphasizes the terrible historical conditions of the sixteenth century, ravaged by wars of religion and by fierce intolerance and persecution, the dark setting of the last phase of the Renaissance. The chapters on Telesio, Patrizi, and Bruno illustrate his theme that the philosophers of nature are to be considered as a group by themselves, essentially different from the humanists, Platonists, and Aristotelians discussed so far. They are to be distinguished by their attempts to formulate novel theories of nature and by their attacks on the authority of Aristotle. “What separates them from the early modern scientists, and from the philosophers of the seventeenth century who took the new science as their premise, is their failure to find a firm and valid method of natural inquiry, and especially to understand the fundamental importance of mathematics for such a method.” No one could disagree with this, and the three naturalists bring the series to an end. Professor Kristeller has given us a very useful and lucid book which is sure to be popular both with students and with the general reader.

What one misses in the book is any discussion of the Hermetic influences on Renaissance thought. Since this is a subject about which Professor Kristeller has enormous knowledge and to which he has contributed by invaluable origina’ research, the omission seems a pity. Professor Eugenio Garin’s epoch-making book Medioevo e Rinascimento (1954) has given rise in Italy to a new school of thought and research on these problems. “In order to assess adequately,” says Professor Garin, “the magical theme at the dawn of modern culture, it must be realized that this motive, always present in the Middle Ages, passed (in the Renaissance) from the cultural subsoil into the light of day, assuming a new aspect under which it became common to all the great thinkers and scientists. All of them owed an impulse to it, in this as it were purified form, even when—and even above all when—like Leonardo they sharply condemned the inept cultivators of low-grade necromantic practices. To mention only the greatest, Marsilio Ficino dedicated to magia a conspicious part of his Libri de Vita; Giovanni Pico wrote an eloquent and courageous apology for it; Giordano Bruno defined the Magus as the wise man who knows how to operate…How much Francis Bacon owed to the magico-alchemical tradition is clearly shown in his way of thinking of science as power, an investigation which listens to the language of nature in order to dominate her…” The reformed, learned, and philosophical magic of the Renaissance was the Renaissance equivalent of science, passing at times and in some thinkers into genuine science. It was the scientific basis of Renaissance philosophy. The naturalist philosophers are not entirely out of touch with their origins in the Ficinian magical and dynamic view of nature. And when the animist universe, operated by magic, transforms into the mathematical universes operated by mechanics, the seventeenth century has arrived.

If we admit with Professor Kristeller that humanism and humanist philosophy should be distinguished from Renaissance philosophy as a whole (though we must never forget that the two lines do overlap and particularly that there is one point, the recovery and editing by humanist scholars of the scientific works of antiquity, at which humanism performs an essential service to the line leading to the seventeenth century), and it we recognize with Professor Garin that there is a Hermetic core within Neoplatonism—a magicoscientific basis to that branch of Renaissance thinking—the mists begin to clear over the no-man’s land. Humanism is seen as developing differently from, and indeed in antagonism to, the other line—an antagonism already present in Pico’s famous letter to Ermolao Barbaro and which reaches a climax in Bruno’s outcries against “grammarian pedants.” And Renaissance Neoplatonism, which, when approached from the point of view of straight history of philosophy exhibits weaknesses and inconsistencies as a system of thought, gains in coherence when it is realized that it is a philosophy accompanying a magical view of the universe and of man’s potentialities within the universe. Moreover, here is perhaps its link with the cultural manifestations of the times, for the cultivation of the imagination was a major preoccupation of Renaissance magic.

We all descend from Descartes and the seventeenth century, and surely someone ought to be able to tell us what the seventeenth century emerged from? Did it spring ready armed like Minerva out of nothing, as Professor Kristeller says some people think? Did it spring from medieval philosophy and science after their interruption by Renaissance humanism? Neither seems likely according to the normal rules of progression. There ought to be an immediate ancestor and it ought to be Renaissance philosophy. Perhaps we should look harder for the hidden springs of the movement which was to be so fateful, seeking them, not in humanism nor in a rather confused “Neoplatonic” philosophy, but in the accompaniments of that philosophy. Hermetism, Cabalism, Lullism, Pythagorean numerology—that labyrinthine maze in which the late Renaissance seeks ever more feverishly for an operative “method,” until Descartes emerged with a method that worked. Nature would now in due course be subdued, but man has only rarely recovered the stance from which he was once able to paint like Leonardo and write like Shakespeare.

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