But a deeper insight into the Renaissance shows that its revolutionary, negative, and spectacular aspect is not its whole significance. No doubt a strong, universal, and well-centralized government and a unity of faith are social ideals. The reverence in which the name of Rome was held long after the empire had been destroyed, and the reluctance with which the first Protestants separated themselves from the Catholic church, show that the loss of such a unity is a real loss. But the church of the Middle Ages was not the carrier of all the treasure of the past, nor could the church with its own inherent limitations stand as representative of modern times. The new problem which the Renaissance faced might be destructive of much of the traditional past, but it contained many new elements. The “new man” found himself in a “new universe.” He was obliged to undertake the solution of a far deeper problem than antiquity had ever attempted. He must orient himself in a larger world than the past had ever imagined. He must do this in the very presence of mediæval institutions, which had not lost their spiritual nor their temporal power. The constructive problem before the man of the Renaissance was therefore an exceedingly complex one. How should he explain his relation to the “new universe” in a way that would not antagonize tradition? It was a new problem, a real problem in which the traditional factor was always persistently present.
There were two motifs which give to the problem of the Renaissance its constructive character. These were naturalism and subjectivism. In the first place, the Renaissance is the period when the naturalism of the Greeks was recovered. By naturalism is meant the love for earthly life. Of this the mediæval church and the mediæval time had little or nothing. The church had been born out of the revulsion from the earthly, and it rose on the aspiration for the supernatural. The Renaissance was, on the contrary, born out of a passionate joy in nature, which joy was intensified by the unexpected possession of the literature of the past and by the discovery of new lands beyond the seas. Man felt now the happiness and dignity of earthly living and the worth of the body as well as the soul. In the next place, the Renaissance is marked by the rise of subjectivism. At the beginning of our book we have already given the meaning of subjectivism (see vol. i, p. 2), and we have characterized modern civilization as subjective in distinction from the ancient as objective and the Middle Ages as traditional. We have also found, as we have gone on, the beginnings of subjectivism in the Sophists, Stoics, and Christians. But in the Renaissance for the first time does the individual as a rational self gain the central position. This is subjectivism: the individual is not only the interpreter of the universe, but also its mental creator. Of the subjective motif in modern times the Renaissance marks the inauguration, and German Idealism the culmination. While the world of the ancients was cosmo-centric and the mediæval world was theo-centric, the world of the modern man is ego-centric. The love of life, and the love of life because the individual feels his own capacity for life—this is the situation presented to the man of the Renaissance. Thus in the restoration of naturalism and in the construction of subjectivism did the Renaissance stand for positive upbuilding, in spite of the fact that in all this the period was constrained by the powerful tradition of the church.
The Two Periods of the Renaissance: The Humanistic (1453–1600); The Natural Science (1600–1690). The Renaissance is divided into two periods at the year 1600. The reason for taking this date as a division line will soon appear. The period before 1600 we call the Humanistic, or the period of the Humanities; the period after this date the Natural Science Period.
(a) The Similarities of the Two Periods. These two periods are alike in having the same motives. Both feel the same urgent need (1) for new knowledge, (2) for a new standard by which to measure their new knowledge, (3) for a new method of gaining knowledge. From the beginning to the end of the Renaissance the “new man” was feeling his way about, was trying to orient and readjust himself in his “new universe.” He was seeking new acquisitions to his rich stores of knowledge, to systematize his knowledge by some correct method, and to set up some standard by which his knowledge might be tested.
(b) The Differences of the Two Periods. There are, however, some marked differences in the carrying out of these motives by each period, and to these we must give our attention.
(1) The Countries which participate in the Renaissance differ in the Two Periods. In the Humanistic Period Italy and Germany were chiefly concerned. There are two reasons for this. In the first place, these countries had been engaged in commerce with the Orient, had become prosperous and more or less acquainted with the culture of the Orient. In the second place, Italy had been the refuge of the Greek scholars; when the colony of Greek refugees in Florence had died out in 1520, northerners like Erasmus, Agricola, Reuchlin, the Stephani, and Budæus had luckily already made themselves masters of the Greek language and literature, and had carried their learning into Germany.
In the Natural Science Period the Renaissance had practically become dead both in Germany and in Italy. The reason for this is not far to seek. In Italy, in 1563, the Council of Trent had fixed the dogma of the church and had made it impossible for the church to assimilate anything more from antiquity. The so-called Counter-Reformation set in, and Italy became dumb under the persecutions of the Inquisition. Furthermore, the discovery of the sea-route to the East had turned commerce away from Italy. When we look to Germany, we find a similar situation. The Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) had devastated the land and had made intellectual life wholly impossible.
On the other hand, England, France, and the Low Countries represent the Natural Science Period in the Renaissance. By the War of Liberation (1568–1648) Holland became the European country where the greatest freedom of thought was granted, and it proved itself an asylum for thinkers and scholars. France, through the influence of the University of Paris, was the centre of mathematical research. In England the brilliant Elizabethan era had already begun.
(2) The Intellectual Standards differ in the Two Periods. The Humanistic Period has been well characterized as the time of “the struggle of traditions.” Naturally enough, with the revival of Greek learning the thinkers of the first period of the Renaissance would try to solve the new problems by the standards which they found in antiquity. What did Aristotle, Plato, the Epicureans say in matters of science? What standards did they yield for solving the new problems of the “new universe”? The traditions of antiquity were therefore revived; and the contention was, Which should be taken as a standard? Among all the ancient systems neo-Platonism became the most prominent. It dominated the Humanistic Period because its æsthetic character and its mystical explanations appealed to the susceptible mind of that time. Nevertheless, the sway of neo-Platonism was not absolute. The “struggle of traditions” continued throughout the period, as appears in the schisms of the church and in the literary and philosophical contentions.
The Natural Science Period, in its hope of finding a standard to explain the problems of the “new universe,” discovered a new standard within the “new universe” itself. No tradition of antiquity had proved itself adequate to the situation. Nothing could be found in Plato and Aristotle to give a theoretic standard for the new discoveries and inventions. Nature disclosed its own standard within itself. The Natural Science Period said nature facts must be explained by nature facts. But the question will naturally be asked, Why did the thinkers of this period, when the theories of antiquity were found to be inadequate, turn to nature rather than elsewhere for an explanation of nature? The answer to this is found in the great successes of the physical astronomers, who had started their investigations at the beginning of the Humanistic Period, and had reached the zenith of their glory at the beginning of the Natural Science Period. The discoveries of Galileo were especially important.
(3) The Scientific Methods in the Two Periods were Different. The method usually employed in the Humanistic Period was magic. This first period tried to explain nature facts of the “new universe” by referring them to agencies in the spiritual world. In their neo-Platonic nature-worship the scholars of this period imagined that the control of nature was to be obtained by a fanciful linking of the parts of nature to the spirits supposed to be in nature. The Bible is the product of the spiritual world, so why is not the “new nature-world” inspired from the same source? God is the first cause of all things; He is in all things and each finite thing mirrors Him. All things have souls. To gain control over nature, some all-controlling formula must be found which will reveal the secret of the control of spirits over nature; and to master the spirits that control nature is to control nature herself. Hence arose, as the methods of this first period, magic, trance-mediumship, necromancy, alchemy, conjurations, and astrology. Antiquity could offer (and especially is this true of Platonism) only spiritual causes for nature facts,—hence the search in this time for the philosopher’s stone. There was never a blinder groping after a method.
The scientific method used in the Natural Science Period was the mathematical. The world of experience was found to coincide with the number system, and therefore mathematics was used as the symbol to determine the form of nature events. Induction and deduction were used in different combinations. The period has been characterized as the time of “the strife of methods.” Induction and deduction became in fact the new methods of finding the truth about the “new world.” Whatever is clear and distinct, like the axioms, must be taken as true. All other knowledge must be deduced from these axiomatic certainties. In contrast with the magical methods of the Humanistic Period, which point beyond nature for an explanation of nature, here in the Natural Science Period mathematics need not lead the explanation farther than nature herself.
(4) The Attitude of the Church toward Science differs in the Two Periods. In the Humanistic Period the attitude of the church toward the new learning was not yet defined. This was because the bearing of the new learning upon dogma was not yet understood. On the one hand, on matters upon which the church had clearly declared itself, it was easily seen what could and what could not be believed. But, on the other hand, the significance of much of the wealth of the newly acquired learning could not at first be fully determined. The enthusiasm for science was so widespread, and the new discoveries were so many, that the church was unable to know what was consistent with dogma and what was not. At the outset the church was inclined to treat the new science with contemptuous toleration. Nevertheless, in spite of the new intellectual intoxication there was no real freedom of thought. The position of science was merely precarious, uncertain, and undefined.
In the Natural Science Period this uncertainty was dispelled because dogma came into violent conflict with science. It was soon found that questions in physics involved metaphysics, and that the new science touched the church doctrines at every point. In 1563 the church authorities at the Council of Trent settled dogma for all time. Great conflicts arose between the church and the secularizing spirit. The scientist became wary. He tried to avoid any intrusion upon the field of theology, and he insisted that his own field existed quite independent of theological dogma. But practically it was impossible for science not to take heretical positions, and this was especially true of the Rationalistic School, which tried to construct a new scholasticism. Safe independence of thought was not gained until the next period (the Enlightenment), and this was brought to pass by political changes.
A Brief Contrast of the Two Periods—A Summary of the Discussion above.
The Humanistic Period.
(1) The Time—1453–1600.
(2) The Countries Concerned—Italy and Germany.
(3) The Intellectual Standards—Neo-Platonism and other theories of antiquity.
(4) The Method—magic.
(5) The Relation of Science to the Church—precarious and uncertain.
The Natural Science Period.
(1) The Time—1600–1690.
(2) The Countries Concerned—England, France, and the Low Countries.
(3) The Intellectual Standard—the mechanism of nature facts.
(4) The Method—induction and mathematical deduction in various combinations.
(5) The Relation of Science to the Church—so definitely stated as to be placed in conflict with dogma.