Archive for the ‘Renaissance philosophy’ Category

The Renaissance, the Reformation, and Martin Luther

reformation-dayNo series of posts on the Renaissance could ever be complete while lacking an examination of the work of Martin Luther. Luther (1483-1546) was a German monk, professor of theology and lawyer.

The story of the 95 theses being nailed on the Wittenberg church door is well known. Luther had become increasingly disillusioned with the Catholic Church as he lectured in Wittenberg, particularly with the wealth that the Church was accruing through the sale of indulgences (where indulgences were the purchasing of God’s forgiveness for sins). The hypocrisy of the priests in his local area (i.e. failing to practice celibacy) also grated on Luther.

The end result was the controversy of the Reformation, which ultimately ended with the division of the Church between Catholic and Protestant (a division that remains until this day). But what really inspired and enabled Luther (a sole man) to enact this history-changing schism?

During the Renaissance, there was an increasing trend of improving literacy and education of the general population. The classic works of ancient philosophers were translated into multiple languages and mass produced using the newly invented printing press. After posting his 95 theses, Luther undertook the task of translating Christian scripture into German so the common man had access to sacred writings. Luther’s actions were in stark contrast to the Catholic Church of his time, which heavily restricted the access of the common man to both religious and philosophical texts.

In this way, it seems almost impossible to imagine the success of the Reformation without the co-development of Renaissance humanism.

Thomas More and Utopia


Thomas More (Sir and Saint) was an English Renaissance humanist. Historically, More is of interest because of his support of Catholicism during Henry’s attempt of secession – this rebellion against the King ultimately cost him his life.

More’s most interesting philosophical work is his humanist novel Utopia. In Utopia, More describes a supposed ideal island state where virtues such as communal ownership (i.e. absence of private property), gender equality, and thorough religious toleration are upheld. More regularly contrasts the state of Utopia  with the Europe of his time.

Aside from the first use of the word “Utopia” (which is household today), there is not much original about More’s novel. Plato (in the Republic) and Aristotle (in the Politics) had described similar “ideal” political systems many thousands of years before, and Augustine had famously contrasted the City of Men and the City of God.

There is controversy over More’s contention in Utopia. One school of thought is that More is basing Utopia on the monastic communalism detailed in the Acts of the Apostles. However, many of the virtues he ascribes to Utopia are in contradiction of the Catholic doctrine of which he was a staunch defender. This has led many to believe the book is intended as satire.

Despite the mystery of More’s contention, Utopia remains a prime example of the increasing optimism of the humanist movement that began in the Renaissance era. With the rejection of the Scholastic idea of the eminence of the heavenly afterlife over the imperfect earthly world, politics once again began to turn to the concerns of here and now, as was the case during Greece’s Hellenistic period.


Galileo: mechanism and the new science

Galileo1Galileo Galilei (1564 – 1642) was an Italian Renaissance philosopher and mathematician. His name typically evokes thoughts of the clash of a daring scientist against the conservative institution of his time, the Catholic Church – and at the centre of this dialectical struggle is the Copernican cosmology of heliocentrism. Yet, this is but the tip of the iceberg of the scientific revolution that would follow from Galileo’s ideas.

The stuff from which the modern scientific revolution was born was a desire for a new philosophy of nature. The edifice of Aristotelian physics (with its terrestrial elements and two principles of motion: “the light and the heavy”)  was beginning to crumble. Galileo returned to the ancient Greeks; in part to the atomistic and mechanistic philosophy of Democritus and in part to the mathematician Archimedes. Galileo replaced the terrestrial elements with atomic matter and Aristotle’s principles of the light and the heavy with only the heavy (with the heavy displacing the light as per Archimedes).

In this way Galileo unified matter and motion. There were two important outworkings of Galileo’s theories. The first was that because the material world was mechanistic it could be controlled, and because it could be controlled it could be subjected to experiment. The second was that because there was only one type of matter and only one type of motion, a universal theory of motion could be coherently developed (albeit in a reductionistic manner). Hence the seeds were sown for the experimental vigor of the scientific revolution.


The Renaissance: Copernicus and the new cosmology

copernicuslrgAs I have written previously, the Renaissance was a period of history in which the horizon of philosophy was broadened beyond the Aristotelian. For nearly two thousands years, classical cosmology – with the Earth as the unmoving centre of the universe – had dominated astronomical thought.

Nicolaus Copernicus (1473 – 1543) was a Renaissance polymath specialising in mathematics and astronomy. The publishing of his thesis On the Revolutions of Celestial Spheres is considered the landmark moment of the Copernican Revolution and a seminal event in the development of modern science.

Copernicus proposed that it was in fact the sun that was the centre of the universe, with the motion of the celestial spheres having Sol as their mid-point. Day was not caused by the sun’s movements, but rather by the diurnal rotation of the earth on a fixed axis.

It is popular knowledge that the Copernican heliocentric thesis was vehemently opposed by the Catholic Church. The dialectical struggle between the conservative geocentric teaching of the Church and the new Copernican model would eventually result in a rethinking of the entire field of physics; ultimately leading to the birth of modernism and the abandonment of Aristotelian physics.

The Renaissance

704mosalisaWhen one thinks of the Renaissance period in history, the mind is filled with imagery of fine art such as da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Michaelangelo’s David. Of course, this time of prolific and brilliant artistry did not occur within a vacuum – the Renaissance period was also a time of intense philosophical activity.

During the Islamic Golden Age, there was a renewed interest in classical philosophies of antiquity – particularly Aristotelian and Platonic schools of thought that were readily compatible with monotheistic religious doctrine. This trend was continued in late medieval times by Scholastic philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus.

However, the Renaissance thinkers went beyond a revitalised interest in Aristotle and Plato. The ancient texts of the Stoics, Neoplatonists, Epicureans and the Skeptics were all plumbed deeply for any long-lost wisdom they may contain. In this way, the tradition of Scholastic-Aristotelian orthodoxy was gradually undermined and by the dawn of modernism was eventually abandoned altogether.

Renaissance philosophy can be thought of as a time where the horizon of philosophical thought was widened, which eventually lead to the birth of modernism and the scientific revolution.