The General Character of the Renaissance. The causes that led to the decline of the society of the Middle Ages were of course the same that ushered in the period of the Renaissance,—the first, the longest, and the most hopeful period of modern times. The general characterization of this period may be expressed in a single phrase,—a New Man in a New Universe. This, however, needs explanation.
(a) The New Man of the Renaissance was distinctly a man with a country. The fusion of the German and Roman peoples in the Dark Ages before Charlemagne (800) was now completed. The fusion did not result in a homogeneous whole, but in groups which formed the nations of Europe. The time when this grouping was practically finished is a difficult problem, into which we will not inquire. In a real sense it never was nor will be ended. We know that the nations began to form about the year 1000, and when we examine the history of the Renaissance we find Italians, Germans, French, Dutch, and English with distinctive national characteristics. We find the Renaissance first centralized among the Italians and Germans, and then later among the English, the people of the Low Countries, and the French. The Italian is a new Roman and the German a new Teuton. The undefined nationalities of the Middle Ages now become clear-cut. Philosophy also becomes now more or less of a national concern.
(b) A New Universe is now opened to the “New Man” of the Renaissance. Not only in mental equipment, but in scope for his activity, does the European of the Renaissance differ from the mediæval man. The world is actually a new world—new in its geographical outlines and its astronomical relations; new in its intellectual stores from the past. The physical world that supported his body and the intellectual world that refreshed his mind were newly discovered by the man of the Renaissance. We must examine these two new worlds more in detail.
1. The physical universe had undergone a wonderful transformation for man. Our nineteenth century has often been looked upon as a period of extraordinary discoveries; but no discoveries have ever so revolutionized the human mind as those enumerated above as “the external causes of the fall of the society of the Middle Ages.” Think how new that old world must have seemed to the common people who had supposed it to be flat, as well as to the scientists who had hypothetically supposed it to be solid—how new it must have seemed when they found that it had been actually circumnavigated! How the horizon of men’s minds must have widened when new continents were discovered by sailors and new celestial worlds were found by the telescope of the astronomers! Discovery led to experiment, and the whole new physical world was transformed by the new physical science of Galileo into a mechanical order. It was a wonderful new material world that was discovered and scientifically reorganized at the beginning of the Renaissance. Whereas the common man in mediæval time had found little joy in living, the common man now looked upon the world as a magnificent opportunity. Whereas the mediæval man had turned from the disorders of this wicked world to contemplation of the blessedness of heaven, the man of the Renaissance came forth from the cloister and engaged in trade and adventure. The earth and the things therein had suddenly become objects of emotional interest.
2. Not only was a new geographical and physical world discovered at this time, but also the intellectual world of antiquity was restored. For more than a thousand years in western Europe the literature of the Greeks and Romans had been a thing of shreds and patches, and even then read only in Latin translations. Now the European had come into possession of a large part of it and was reading it in the original. He was aroused to the wonderful intellectual life of the Age of Pericles. The interest in ancient literature, which had been started by Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, became an absorbing and controlling force at this time. The real interest began with the stimulus received by the coming of the Greek scholars to Italy from the East: first the ecclesiastical embassy in 1438, and afterward in 1453 the large number of refugees from Constantinople at the time of its capture by the Turks. Upon these refugees the patronage of the great Italian nobles—chiefly perhaps in Florence—was lavishly bestowed. The Platonic Academy was founded. Learned expounders of the new learning arose,—Pletho, the two Picos, Fincinus, Reuchlin. Of all the philosophies of antiquity Platonism was favored, and it was interpreted in a mystical manner. Aristotle and Christianity were looked upon as mere interpretations of Plato. Nevertheless the Renaissance scholars were interested in all the new literary material from the East. They studied the Jewish Cabala and its mystic numbers. They revived Skepticism, Eclecticism, Stoicism, and Epicureanism. Aristotle was represented by two antagonistic schools; and Taurellus opposed both and appealed to the scholarly world to return to Christianity.
The Significance of the Renaissance in History. We have above characterized the Renaissance as a time in which a “new man” found himself living in a “new universe.” But the old world of mediæval science, culture, and conventional manners had by no means been entirely outgrown and discarded. Periods of history do not “leave their low-vaulted past” as easily as a man may throw away his coat. Mediæval science and theology still remained, not only as a background but also as an aggressive social factor everywhere. Mediæval scholasticism was something with which the Renaissance had always to reckon. Scholasticism modified, frequently restricted, and even directed the thought of the Renaissance. Consequently when we form our final estimate of the place of the Renaissance in the modern movement, we must not overlook the conservative force of the mediæval institutions existing during the period. The “new man” lived in a “new universe”; and his problem was how to explain the relation of that “new universe” to himself so that his explanation would not antagonize the time-honored traditions of the church. This was the constructive problem that gave the Renaissance its place in history.
The first impression, however, of the Renaissance upon the reader is that it stands for no constructive problem whatever. The changes that usher in the Renaissance seem to speak of an epoch that is entirely negative, destructive, and revolutionary. The period seems from one side to be a declaration against time-honored traditions. The “new man” had risen superior to dogma and to Aristotle. Intellectual fermentation had set in, and never had so many attempts at innovation been so strenuously sought. The love for novelty filled the human mind, and the imagination ran riot. The movement toward modern individualism appeared in the decentralization that at this time was everywhere taking place. Latin, for example, ceased to be the one language for educated men, and the modern languages came into use. Rome ceased to be the only religious centre, and Wittenberg, London, and Geneva became centres. There was no longer one church, but many sects. Scientific centres became numerous. Many of the universities had arisen independently, and now Oxford, Vienna, Heidelberg, Prague, and numerous universities in Italy and Germany afforded opportunities for study equal to those of Paris. To the man who looks upon the Classic Period of Scholasticism in the Middle Ages as the golden age of united faith,—to that man the Renaissance will appear only as the beginning of the disintegration and revolution that he sees in modern times.