Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Renaissance, Part I

There's a standard line of argument in our culture that opposes tradition to progress. There's obvious truth to that opposition. Surely those who are unwilling to try new things can't make things better. But the opposition is generally clumsily made, and cuts off far more than it should.

Consider the Italian Renaissance of the fifteenth century. The very term "renaissance" (though only popularized centuries later) describes very well what happened. Renaissance, of course, means "re-birth." And the Renaissance -- any renaissance -- was in part a new birth, a new beginning, a great step forward. But it was also a return, a "re"-awakening of things that had long laid dormant.

The Quattrocento itself was in part a restoration of Roman art. It really is striking, in the study of art, to see the beautiful human images, especially in sculpture, of ancient Rome -- and the sudden reappearance of these images in the 1400s. The Italian Renaissance rediscovered both Roman techniques (an especially fun one is the technique required to sculpt a horse, with its massive weight supported by four, or usually three, spindly legs) as well as Roman subjects: for over a millenium, the human figure itself was not taken as an object of art. Suddenly it reappears! And it reappears, not through a coincidence, but precisely through the Italians taking notice of the ruins that lay around them.

The Quattrocento is not the only Renaissance. There's a classic book of pre-Conciliar Catholicism entitled "13th, Greatest of Centuries," and any Catholic who knows his history knows that the 12th and 13th centuries saw their own fantastic renaissance. Gothic architecture, that fabulous new creation of the high middle ages -- dubbed "gothic" by a later age that wanted to cast off that supposedly barbaric period -- is in fact rooted in Roman technique.

The heart of Gothic archtiecture is the ogive (OH-jive). As medieval architects worked to build bigger churches, they moved from flat ceilings to archs -- rediscovering, through study of the past, the structural strength of the arch. Romanesque architecture (roughly 11th-12th centuries) created the barrel vault: essentialy a long, drawn-out arch. But Gothic begins when arches are made to intersect, forming x's on the ceiling. These intersecting arches -- ogives, or groins -- carry thin webbing in between. Thus, whereas in the Romanesque barrel vault every part of the ceiling is held up by the walls directly outside of it, in the Gothic groin vault, an entire section of ceiling is held up by only four pillars. The result is the structural characteristics of Gothic architecture: enormous height and breadth, since the ceiling can now weigh far less; and lots of light: since the weight is carried by just a few pillars, the space between them can now be filled with glass. (The flying buttress only extends this dynamic to the outside: on the one hand, the buttresses are holding up only the pillars, not the rest of the wall; and on the other hand, the flying buttresses are themselves arches, holding the walls up with a minimum of material.) The rest of Gothic art develops from the ability to now decorate pillars and glass, and to paint, as it were, on a far greater canvas. But the ogive itself was a gift from Roman antiquity.

Meanwhile, the 12th and 13th centuries saw a parallel renaissance on the intellectual level, progressing through the greatness of Anselm, through Bernard, and up to the high scholasticism of Bonaventure and Thomas (both died 1274), with parallels in philosophy, law, and medicine. Partly, this was the result of greater leisure, allowed by a sounder economy. But it also arose from study of the past. The signal intellectual stimulus was the rediscovery of Aristotle. His works had been lost to the West (for reasons that need not detain us now) for over a thousand years, but were rediscovered through the military reconquest of part of Muslim Spain. Thomas advanced, not through casting off the past, but by digging into it. Aristotle was a master both of logic and of observation. Learning from this master gave Thomas the leisure, in a sense, to take a step further. He didn't have to rediscover all that Aristotle had discovered, but could build on previous genius.

The gothic ogive gives us a good metaphor for the nature of renaissance. The structural achievement of the intersecting archs creates a space in which to play. Only when the roof is safely held up can you begin to experiment with light and sculpture. Aristotle does for Thomas something parallel to those arches. Thomas can think through new topics, and think better through old topics, because Aristotle gives him a solid foundation, holds the roof high above his head so he can fill in the little details. (This goes, incidentally, both for the economic achievements, which gave Thomas time to work, and the rediscovery of the past, which gave Thomas the intellectual tools.)

The same thing happens with the great St. Bernard of Clairvaux. On one side, Bernard was a great student of the classics of Roman rhetoric, especially (if memory serves me) Cicero. That might seem trifling. But Cicero taught Bernard to express himself. Bernard has the freedom to plumb the poetic depths of theology precisely because he has mastered his language. A dim parallel for us might be Strunk and White: rather than recreating language, I can move on to explore other topics better when I let Professor Strunk and his loyal disciple remind me how to keep things clear. I don't need to recreate the wheel -- or the arch. By using what the past provides me, I can move forward.

Even more important, on the other side, Bernard leans on Scripture. Now, here we step into a new realm, the realm of Revelation. Scripture is different, because whereas Aristotle just used a mind like mine to discover things that I (in theory) could discover myself, St. John receives wisdom from above that I can only receive through contact with the source -- and, in fact, through the mediation of John and his fellows.

But setting that aside for a minute, Bernard -- like Thomas, Anselm, and all the Christian greats -- can reach into the heights precisely because his feet are on the solid ground of Scripture. Learning what God has revealed does not constrain him, but gives him the leisure to press deeper into human wisdom. In fact, theology, rightly construed, is an achievement of human reason -- doing what human reason can do -- beginning with the revelation of things that reason could not attain on its own (and some things that it could attain on its own, but only rarely, after great study, and with considerable admixture of error). Theology, in a sense, is like the stained-glass artist, who does his job well, but can only do it when the architect has given him space in which to play.

I bring theology into this consideration of renaissance for two reasons. First, because we do indeed live within a dispensation of revelation. The Bible is there -- and the Church's mediation of its authentic interpretation -- and we would be foolish to try to understand the world without its aid. Renaissance means moving forward through a return to the sources. It means there is no opposition between learning from others and discovering new things ourselves. And for us, it means above all that we will be most truly men of the future by being deeply imbued with the infallible teaching of the past, in God's revelation.

But I bring the element of revelation into my consideration of renaissance even for the human level, because it highlights the problem of privilege. The next post will explain how the problem of privilege is not unique to revelation. In fact, privileged authors are at the heart of the issue of renaissance.