Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Renaissance, Part II

In the previous post I treated of renaissance, of moving forward through rediscovering the past, and through the example of Biblical revelation, I introduced the problem of privilege: the Bible is more important than any other historical text, because it comes from God. In this post, however, we will explore how privileged texts are at the heart of the issue of renaissance.

Here's the problem: many people say, who cares about Thomas Aquinas, or Aristotle? They were so long ago! In fact, estimates claim that at least 6% of all the people who have ever lived are alive right now. Certainly an even larger proportion of all people have lived in the last couple centuries. And we have the advantage of all the ages that have gone before, and of so much new technology. Doesn't it seem (many people say) that there ought to be better guides in modernity? Why on earth would we look for guidance to Thomas Aquinas, in the 13th century -- or even worse, to some Greek from 2300 years ago?! In fact, those of us who still read these ancient characters are often accused of denying human reason. Haven't we come a long way since 1274?

Well, yes and no. But the point is, there are privileged periods in history. Why was it that, in the Quatrocento, the place to look for great sculpture was thirteen hundred years back, instead of just the last generation? The answer is that ancient Rome was a great time for sculpture, for a variety of reasons, including the advanced state of their culture (lots was lost with the collapse of Rome in the fifth century), the prolonged peace in which they lived, and even the philosophical climate, which was frankly more open to the exaltation of human beauty than was, say, eighth century Byzantium. When Michaelangelo, around the year 1500, was looking for guides in the way of sculpture, there was more to learn from in the second century -- and even fourth-century B.C. Greece -- than in the thirteenth century (great though it was). Those were privileged times. The greatest examples were not from the time immediately before him.

Aristotle was not just some smart guy, to be matched by another smart guy in twentieth-century Seattle. Aristotle lived in a privileged time. I am no historian of ancient Greece, but it's clear there was a ferment there that is very rare in human history. Aristotle did not appear out of nowhere, but was himself the student of Plato, who was himself the student of Socrates, who was himself born into a fruitful time without parallel for philosophy, in a republic that allowed him to last a lot longer before getting killed off than has happened almost any other time in history. Aristotle was very smart himself. But his real significance is not as an individual, but as the culmination of a privileged time.

The same is true of Thomas Aquinas. He can seem to stand out as just a brilliant individual. But Thomas stood at the culmination of a couple centuries of unparalleled peace, in a culture permeated by Christian faith as has never happened before or since, at an ideal point in relation to the rediscovery of Aristotle, long enough after to give Thomas great teachers (such as Albert the Great and Alexander of Hales, both of whom Thomas knew personally, as well as many others), but not long enough that the study of Aristotle had grown stale. Meanwhile, Thomas was a member of the Dominican order at the height of its first blossoming, still drawing from the brilliant sanctity of St. Dominic, just at the point when the Dominicans were fully discovering the unity of Scriptural and philosophic knowledge. Much more could be said -- indeed, books have been and should be written on the perfect historical circumstances of St. Thomas. Thomas is important not only because of his own personal brilliance -- though he was uncommonly sharp -- but also because he is the fruit of a privileged time.

Men like Hobbes and Kant, meanwhile, were born at the wrong time. They are tainted by polemics that are quite destructive. To some extent that is the fault of their own lack of virtue, and intellectual failure to see beyond the petty debates of their own times. But it is also a product of their circumstances. They did not have the intellectual space, so to speak, in which to do great philosophy -- any more than a brilliant mind could achieve much philosophically during the barbarian invasions of the tenth century, or a sculptor could do what Michaelangelo did without ever having seen the products of ancient Rome, or a stained-glass artist could create Chartres in a cathedral with solid walls.

In fact, the importance of privileged times is part and parcel of the nature of renaissance in the first place. Renaissance means the human mind works not in pure individuality, but makes greatest progress in good environments. We can think more clearly ourselves when we have good guides -- we can see further, as they used to say, sitting on the shoulders of giants. That means, for one thing, that the true way to progress includes study of the past. But it also means that not all periods in the past are the same. There are privileged times, and some authors who are more helpful than others.

Renaissance does not, of course, mean that we simply parrot what previous authors have said, or previous artists have made. It does not mean that Aristotle, Thomas, or Roman art is the last word. It does mean that if we wish to make real progress, we do well to seek out the greatest minds of the past.