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Rune Engelbreth Larsen
The Renaissance and Humanism in the Third Millennium

The term humanism has through the centuries been applied to a wide range of different viewpoints, methods and theories, though no actual humanist ideology exists. Has there ever been a tendency in that direction, it has, in contrast to for example the more or less systematically elaborated ideological foundations of socialism and liberalism, never had the capacity to make a philosophical or political breakthrough and maybe for that reason also failed to have a lasting effect.

Despite the fact that history can enumerate prominent personalities that have symbolised humanism, like for example, Petrarca, Valla, Erasmus, Rabelais and Shakespeare, there are no humanist counterparts to veritable socialist or liberal "fathers" such as Karl Marx and Adam Smith and neither can humanism be characterised by canonic compositions nor dogmatic doctrines.

That humanism since the dawn of the Renaissance has played an historic role in philosophy, science and politics as well as theology, literature and art, is however self-evident. But although "humanist", "humane" and "humanitarian" are prominent concepts in contemporary society, they represent today, what is at most a pro forma facade of appealing but nugatory adjectives whose lost substance we must rediscover, if humanism's significance is to be restored in the new millennium.

And if we wish to rediscover and reclaim humanism in a time that worships the superficial as much as it shuns the profound, we must return through the centuries to revive and re-experience that spirit which was resurrected during the renaissance.

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The Renaissance was a cultural epoch that was born in the fourteenth century, flowered in the fifteenth and faded in the sixteenth.

An epoch whose impact spread like ripples in a pond from the north Italian city states to the rest of Italy and from Italy to the rest of Europe without any declared common goal, though not without a common humanitarian identity which also later gave sustenance to scientific, philosophical and political revolutions. And equally, as the Renaissance did not fade without planting seeds for the future, neither was it's uprising an accidental occurrence.

The renaissance's antithesis was the authoritarian and intolerant Church and humanism's antithesis the dogmatic and absolutist theology - renaissance humanism was in its cradle characterised by the papacy's greatest victories as well as its most bitter defeats in the dying years of the Middle Ages.

Pope Gregory VII's ideal of the Church's and not least the pope's omnipotence, culminated in what was in effect a "world hegemony" in Europe with Innocents III, who at the beginning of the thirteenth century transformed the pope's role from that of being the apostle Peter's deputy to vicarius Christi, the vicar of Christ or Christ's deputy - supremacy not just over the Church, but over the whole world was what God had in mind for the pope himself.

The Court of the Inquisition was established in 1184 to suppress religious dissension and crush the heretics, and now the papacy's political supremacy was likewise definitively enshrined. Innocents III and his successors had great success in subjugating Europe's princes and kings and when the pope's most powerful adversary, Emperor Frederick II died in 1250, centuries of conflict with the empire ended with the papacy gaining the overall advantage.

The leader of the church remained the absolute expression of the West's clerical and worldly power throughout the remainder of the century, though when Pope Boniface VIII in accordance with this position issued the papal bull Unam sanctam in 1302 stating: "We declare, say, define and pronounce, that it is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff", he nevertheless miscalculated. The Church's "Tower of Babel" tumbled with him when the French king Philip IV refused to surrender the kingdom's independent authority, organised a conspiracy and seized the pope.

Boniface died shortly thereafter and together with his successor the papacy was moved from Rome to Avignon in France where it remained for about 70 years, (known in Church history as "the Church's Babylonian imprisonment"), under which the Church once again was forced to relinquish worldly power. The papacy's return to Rome in 1377 did not give rise to prolonged jubilation, due the advent of "The Great Western Schism" the following year with popes elected in both Rome and Avignon in bitter opposition to each other. Chaos, dissension and confusion followed in the aftermath and an attempt to heal the split during a synod in Pisa where a new pope was elected led instead to the Church at one point having three opposing pontiffs. Consensus was first achieved in 1417 with a completely separate fourth candidate, who under the name Martin V, re-established the Holy See in Rome and restored papal harmony.

Though for more than a century the preceding millennium's most powerful institution was embroiled in its hitherto greatest crisis. The Church, which was claimed to be built on God's absolute, eternal and supreme truth and which unopposed held sway over the most of Europe in the thirteenth century only to founder in the fourteenth, thereby perhaps facilitating the embryonic humanism's further development. On the one hand, the Church through the course of a couple of centuries of dramatic turmoil demonstrated the absolutist and inquisitorial vice with which it sought to enslave the world, and on the other hand, schism, nepotism and lust for power, revealed that the "Heavenly Kingdom" on earth was a defiled colossus incapable of forward movement.

If the Church inevitably lost some of its authority after the "imprisonment" in Avignon and the schism that followed in its wake, it was, however, only one of many circumstances that heralded a new age.

Contact with Islam, whose foothold in Europe was attained with the Moorish conquest of Spain, had surprisingly revealed another culture that without difficulty measured up to and surpassed that of the Christian.

The Islamic culture, whose scientific understanding, religious tolerance and more humane system of justice stood in contrast to the Christian middle-age's dogmatic regimentation, and eclipsed it in the fields of philosophy and art as well as medicine and mathematics, was indirectly responsible for casting doubt about Christianity's God given supremacy in the minds of European scholars. Eight Crusades in God's name ended in eight fiascos and even such powerful kings and crusaders as Richard Lionheart and Frederick II, found a legendary nobility and chivalry among their Muslim adversaries.

European sceptics and freethinkers became increasingly incredulous in the wake of broken Christian illusions and unfulfilled ecclesiastical ambitions and slowly the doors began to open towards the renaissance.

The impetus from Islam, which through the centuries had been a source of both inspiration and profit to libraries as well as the (Celtic) Christian monasteries' preserved and forgotten classical works, contributed to the wealth of the Renaissance, which innumerable scholars with the same focused enthusiasm as Boccaccio and Petrarca, began to seek out in large numbers. These umanisti - humanists - made further headway in the field of philology and opened their contemporaries eyes to a far richer heritage from Greece and Rome than anybody had been aware of during the Middle Ages. It is true that first Plato and then Aristotle were the leading influences in philosophy as Roman historiography and poetry were also studied, but everything was without discussion subject to the Bible's infallible truth as well as the papacy's and Church hierarchy's authority, according to whom, philosophy was not to be considered anything more or other than ancilla theologiae, theology's maidservant.

Scholasticism's multifarious attempts to systematically unite the acknowledgements of reason with belief and religious dogma were subject to a respectful as well as narrow-minded fixation with regard to canonical authority, whether it was the Scripture, the Church Fathers or Aristotle. The Bible was of course totally infallible, despite the fact that transcription errors had to be considered and while Abélard admitted that the Church Fathers could err out of ignorance, this was only to be considered as a last resort.

The Christian tradition's supreme truth and the Church's spiritual dominance in general which had completely mastered theology and philosophy in the Middle Ages, was however, forced to recede when the renaissance's passion for liberty and openness began to make itself felt.

Humanism immersed itself in antiquity and discovered a wisdom and beauty equally as fascinating as that of the preceding thousand years of Christian thinking and accomplishment and inspired a cultural pluralism and tolerance of individuality, which began to radically undermine the Church's orthodoxy and dogmata of the Middle Ages.

Authoritarian scholasticism was compelled to yield in honour of an anti-authoritarian thirst for knowledge, deeply-rooted preconceptions regarding the female sex were rejected among the educated classes and the striving after a celestial virtue where glorious abstention and repentance would etch man's name into the face of eternity, lost ground to a more reflective view of an earthly existence where heroic deeds and self-awareness were seen as means of assuring humanity an honourable legacy. Asceticism and denial were rejected in favour of an impassioned and scientific preoccupation with nature, poetry surpassed theology and philosophy was almost overshadowed by philology.

The Renaissance was a cultural revolution. The humanists were intellectual revolutionaries whose motto was ad fontes, to the source, and whose weapons were those ideas, which they committed to paper in their letters and books or translated from the classical masters. From these sources flowed a human soul-searching and an independence, a love of life and sexual pleasure and a relative perspective on truth and morality in general - the result of which was often a liberating adventurism without parallel in the middle-ages.

In 1440, Lorenzo Valla proved philologically as well as historically that the "Donation of Constantine " upon which the entire worldly regime of the pope rested, was a forgery. The document which claimed that the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, while being baptised on his deathbed in 377, entrusted the dominion of the western world to pope Sylvester I, could not possibly be dated to the fourth century. Valla, under the protection of Alfonso the King of Naples, even went so far as to include in his exposé an incitement to overthrow the supremacy of the papacy.

Princely patrons of the arts and literature often protected the humanists against the inquisition and despite their sometimes courageous audacity the Church had other things to see to, the world was evolving towards nation states and national Churches and as a result the papacy was loosing its influence.

The humanists rediscovered through Plato, a Socrates who discussed - with what for their own time was an astonishingly open-minded freedom - all possible problems and dilemmas within the fields of religion, philosophy and politics, they were delighted by the beauty in Ovid's Metamorphoses more than the piety in the tales of saints, and like Cicero they strove to live in harmony with their own nature, congruenter naturae convenienterque vivere.

Heathenism also made itself felt in art with gracious authority, as in Botticelli's rebirth of the naked Venus with an expression of delicate gentleness and awe-inspiring self-awareness, equal to many a comparable rendition of the Blessed Virgin, or in Caravaggio's Amor vincit omnia, Amor Victorious, where crown, armour, pen and musical instruments, all lie disregarded at the feet of an ecstatic Amor.

Although, frequently the classical and Christian worlds co-existed with each other, as with Raphael, whom in his "School in Athens" recreates the classical philosophers in almost Olympian stature on a wall in Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican, almost as monumental as his "Dispute of the Blessed Sacrament" on another wall in the same room, which recalls the Holy Trinity and Christianity's most prominent biblical and ecclesiastical figures, in majestic congregation.

This continuous to-ing and fro-ing between two worlds and two outlooks, became one of art's foremost characteristics. Titian's brush strokes captured, with equal ease and dexterity, the pious "Assumption of the Blessed Virgin" as well as the erotic "Bacchanal of the Adrians"' warm, loving and optimistic intoxication, while on Michelangelo's ceiling in the Sixtine Chapel, it is the Middle Ages' dark visions of Judgement Day that are strikingly combined with the renaissance's naked image of human vitality.

The portrayal of human nakedness which is as much of an abhorrence to the biblical sense of modesty as it is a characteristic of Renaissance art's cultivation of the human form, goes hand and hand with an underscoring of the strengths of human character and creative genius which left Christian humility struggling in its wake.

From the casual superiority in Donatello's scrawny David that supposedly is the first naked sculpture since Roman times, through the staunch pride personified in Verrocchio's equestrian sculpture of Bartolomeo Colleoni, to the courageous resoluteness portrayed in Michelangelo's imposing David, Il Gigante, who with a sensitive touch of concern faces his battle with Goliath, it is the 'individual' who controls the course of events.

This, the human being's individual drive and vigour which seems so provocatively rebellious seen through the eyes of the divine monarchies of the Middle Ages was explored and expressed through philosophy, poetry and literature. When the 'individual' in Cusanus' philosophy became a co-creator of the universe, a Deus secundus, without whom the universe could not exist and when in Mirandola, almost completely overtakes God's role in the Creation, it was a natural expression of that humanism which had captured the spirit. For Petrarca, who continued to carry the legacy of Augustine's Middle Ages, it was the human soul that held the greatest fascination, shortly after he had climbed the summit of Mount Ventoux, while Boccaccio, during the ravages of the Black Death had left the Middle Ages completely behind and unconcerned paid homage to 'human passion' in Decameron. Mirandola's work with the denotive title Oratio de hominis dignitate, "Oration of the Dignity of Man", claims that the individual can be what he or she wills to be, while Rabelais' "monastic decree" instructs that the individual ought to do what he or she wills to do: Fais ce que voudras.

Man was the center of the universe, though nevertheless, or precisely because of this expansion of freedom and potentiality, the result was not irresponsible nihilism, for as another Atlas the 'individual' for the same reason also bears the world on his or her shoulders, as Shakespeare characteristically enough places Hamlet in the eye of the hurricane, around which all things revolve - and upon which all things are dependent: "The time is out of joint: O cursed spite, That ever I was born to set it right."

The humanists never actually broke with the Church - antiquity's heathenism became an addendum that illuminated the entire Christian world, directly and undisguised in art and literature and indirectly in religion and morality.

Humanism had gradually made its mark on the educated world to such a degree that a succession of popes from the middle of the fifteenth century actually encouraged the humanists and perhaps therefore, managed to confine the scholars to burying the Middle Ages without casting too much soil on the Church. Pope Nicholas V despatched emissaries across the whole of Europe who purchased classical manuscripts, paid large advances for translations and founded what was the largest library of its time.

For almost a century, Rome became a gathering place for prominent personalities in the fields of literature and art and when Giovanni Medici assumed the papacy in 1503 under the name of Leo X, he did so in the same spirit as the Medici family had ruled Florence since the first half of the fifteenth century and scholars, artists and poets flourished in what was heralded as the Golden Age.

In 1523, less than two years after the death of Leo X, yet another Medici was elected to the papacy, which was a continuing source of inspiration to the humanists, although a great deluge was soon to overwhelm this Church which nurtured heathenism at its breast. Through the course of ten years, Luther succeeded in splitting the Church definitively, Charles V conquered and destroyed Rome and Henry VIII broke with the pope and founded the Church of England.

Catholicism's absolute spiritual supremacy in Europe - challenged and transformed as it was by humanism - was definitively ended.

The Renaissance also, was in decline. The Reformation pulled in the opposite direction to the Renaissance and humanism whose cultured tolerance and individualism never had any stated goal, merely an engaged and enthusiastic disposition that was overrun by promises of blissful salvation and threats of eternal damnation from the conflicting and competing Catholic and Protestant Churches. Humanism waned and with Luther, a portentous moral code and sense of guilt was once again in the ascendancy, and also in art, biblical truth held for a time precedence over aesthetic beauty.

Nevertheless, the Renaissance did succeed in abolishing the Church's dominance in the production of books, when around 1450, Gutenberg's printing press began to put the monastic transcribers out of business and succeeded in developing mathematics in the direction of the natural scientific tool we know it as today.

Even Copernicus, who positioned the sun at the center of the universe in place of the Earth, encountered an early interest from the Medici popes Leo X and Clement VII on the basis of some manuscripts he had published in 1514, and when his revolutionary work was finally published in 1543, it was dedicated to pope Paul III, who duly accepted the compliment. This concept, like so much in the Renaissance, had already been put forward in antiquity by Aristarchos og Seleukos, and the Renaissance's universal genius par excellence, Leonardo Da Vinci had, completely independently of Copernicus, also noted that the earth was not at the center of the sun's orbit.

It was the 'reformists' Luther and Calvin who first attacked the Copernican system with demonstrative aggression, as Copernicus represented an all too obvious threat to the veracity of the biblical view of the world. Catholics accepted for a while Copernicus's " hypothesis" until Bruno claimed it proven, for which he was duly burned at the stake by the Inquisition in 1600 and thereby setting back the birth of the natural scientific revolution which had been conceived during the Renaissance.

Humanism was in the end thwarted by reformation and counter reformation and although the Age of Enlightenment and Romantic Movement, rediscovered each its own aspect of that spirit which was reclaimed from Antiquity by the Renaissance, humanism remained as a weak echo in the growing drive for progress and it was primarily the forward march of the great political ideologies which set the agenda for the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries.

However, at the close of the second millennium, these ideologies have virtually ceased to be ideological and populism has completely seized the spirit of the times. It is not from this quarter we can expect the dawning of a new Cultural Revolution in the third millennium.

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If humanism's significance is to be restored in the new millennium, then we must rediscover the Renaissance.

However, today we do not rediscover anything.

Everything is exposed and explained to us by the popularised 'media reality's' fireworks displays and fanfares, by new trills, new hobbies, new pills, new trends and other distractions, like the occasional staging of a new war - altogether for the benefit of power's centralisation and human regimentation.

Neither had anything much been discovered during the Middle Ages.

Apart from the instalment of Aristotle as the "new" philosophical authority, the Middle Ages were stagnant. Everything of relevance had long since been discovered and known by the Church and was set sufficiently in perspective by the promises and threats of heavenly and hellish realities, old sacraments, old commandments, old sins and other distractions, like the occasional staging of a new Crusade - altogether for the benefit of power's centralisation and human regimentation.

The difference being that whereas in the Middle Ages nothing of interest was supposed to be newer than the Bible or the Church Fathers, today it is expected that nothing of interest is older than the previous 'media spectacular' or yesterday's newspaper.

There was no particular impetus or desire to rediscover anything in the Middle Ages, in the same way, as there is no impetus or desire to rediscover anything in this self-sufficing, beauty-forsaken, commercialised culture of our time. And what is even more tragic today - the smog of ignorance and intolerance that is choking us, or that so many view this suffocation with such pronounced satisfaction?

The Renaissance was not just about the rediscovery of Antiquity, in a wider context it was the rediscovery of humanism, since that which the Renaissance humanists treasured in Antiquity, is a re-echo of the inheritance which the Classical writers, poets and artists likewise treasured in the age-old songs and myths of forgotten times.

When man rediscovers his fellow man in the alien cultures of the past, it will become easier for him to recognise his fellow man in the foreign-born faces of today.

It is this humanism that places man at the fulcrum, forcing both God and Capital into inevitable retreat. Man becomes not just formally, but in reality - that around which all things revolve and upon which all things are dependent.

However, because man is not one man, but every man and because no two people are alike, man cannot be at the fulcrum of existence, unless this fulcrum is comprised of man's individual diversity.

When for this reason, man's individual diversity becomes humanism's starting point; human fellowship and tolerance become an unavoidable consequence.

It is on this basis that a new, genuine humanism must develop. Not as a monument to new absolutes, but as a burial chamber for the old. Not as a ground rule, but as a guideline and not as an article of faith, but as an urge.

Not as a program, but as a prologue.

Published in Faklen (The Torch), 1999
Translated by Anthony Kiely