Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Renaissance: Myth?

Australian mathematics professor James Franklin assails the Renaissance Myth. An admirer of the renaissance that birthed the High Middle Ages that died in the Black Death, Franklin argues the reputation of the 15th to 16th century Renaissance is inflated. Comparing the period to both the Middle Ages and the early Modern period, he condemns the Renaissance for its negligible scientific discoveries and technological advances of the time(Copernicus excepted), lack of philosophical genius, relatively poor literary output, and its slavish devotion to the ancients.

The impact of the discovery of the New World and the newly-invented printing press, Franklin dismisses. "Both of these have been the occasion of innumerable effusions of a priorist theorising, to the effect that they opened new vistas of thought, led to the spread of radical ideas, confuted scholastic dogmas and so on. As usual, evidence that any of this happened is rarely seen," he writes. He compares the moon landing and the introduction of television as events analogous to these supposed paradigmatic moments. Both caused a splash but rarely elevated the people of the times.

Franklin argues that the undeniable excellence of Renaissance art is in part responsible for the period's reputation. The ease of observing such great art led people incorrectly and lazily to project that excellence onto the whole era.(The comments on Leonardo da Vinci's non-artistic endeavors are particularly iconoclastic.)

"The Renaissance Myth," Franklin thinks, is also the creation of anti-clerical polemicists, bad education, and Petrarch's self-aggrandizing writings.

Franklin's essay merits a deeper response, though I have to my regret forgotten most of Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence and whatever else I've read on the period. The romantic epics of Orlando comprise one set of Renaissance masterworks that Franklin overlooks. Though they are not popular even among the learned today, they enjoyed a great reputation mere decades ago.

Further, the Jesuit system of education was inspired by those universities whose 16th-century state Franklin disdains as dull and slavish. These scholars who produced so many brilliant thinkers apparently found much valuable not just in the content the Renaissance preserved, but in the era's system itself.

However, some of Franklin's criticisms surely hit their target. There really is a schoolboyish naivety in the writing of, say, Pico della Mirandola. Renaissance servility toward Aristotle and other ancient aristocratic thinkers, I wager, helped dampen the dignity of both productive labor and experimental inquiry.

Franklin also seems to have Michael Flynn's admiration for medieval science, which is a good thing. He recounts one telling anecdote about the scientific work of Pope John XXI:
Until 1300 the most actively cultivated science was geometrical optics, the leading researchers in which were associated with the Papal court of John XXI in the 1270s. The Pope was himself the author of a book on the subject (besides writing best-sellers on logic and medicine), and in fact died in the pursuit of science when the roof of his laboratory collapsed.

However, what struck me most about Franklin's critique was his attack on the early Renaissance's obsession with enumerating all aesthetic relations:
This habit of thought was peculiarly destructive of rational thinking, since on the one hand enormous imaginative effort was expended in drawing ever more striking parallels between things, but on the other hand it was essential to the exercise to pretend that these parallels were not just figments of the imagination, but were edifying just because the things compared really did mirror one another. It is not too far-fetched, I think, to compare this with Marxism. The tendency of Marxist thought when faced with, say, a scientific result, is to relate the ideology of bourgeois science to the historical consciousness of scientists and their community. Aside from the question of the truth of this, the overall effect is to divert attention from the original fact. The same is true of allegory. The facts about a thing and its actual relations with other things will be missed if the mind contemplating it is trained to look immediately for ingenious ways of seeing the thing as a sign of something else. The construction of allegorical similarities replaced the search for causal connections.

This is a good caution complementing my foray into C.S. Peirce's semiotics. Too much concern for the logic of signs and relations obscures the fact that their logic is neither scientific nor entirely philosophic, but artistic. While good poetry and rhetoric, for instance, can rely on and encourage close observation of reality, imagination is their native domain.

Poetry and rhetoric rest on the careful organization, invention, and manipulation of signs. Letting the sign overshadow the thing signified is a precursor to, if not a practice of, falsehood and idolatry.


WLindsayWheeler said...

I think this man professor James Franklin is just nit-picking. The Renaissance is also known for the many Greek Scholars that fled the fall of Byzantium. He says nothing about this major event.

Jacques Maritain, the Roman Catholic philosopher, in his Intro to Phil, remarks that it is Socrates that begins the "scientific Spirit". This is Greek---not Roman. The Renaissance is a re-capture of the Greek Spirit. It is the addition of the Greek spirit in a very Latin atmosphere and milieu. The Protestant Reformation was mostly done by Greek language scholars. It is the Greek spirit that brought about rebellion but it is also the Greek spirit for the Love of Beauty with its symetry, harmony proportion that motivated the artistic flowering of that age. In a very Latinized/Roman culture, it was about recapturing the OTHER forgotten segement of Western Culture which was the Greek. It is the Graeco-Roman culture. The Renaissance was about adding that other segment in.

There is a duality of Western Culture and Civilization, the Greek and the Roman.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Im from Australia.

The Renaissance was a period in Western history when the non- participatory asana of linear perspective became the dominant way of relating to quite literally everything---or put in another way when everything became rigidly objectified and thus subject to human control.

It was thus also a time when God (and the contemplation of God)was thrown out of the equation and meat-body man in of himself became the entire focus of human endeavour---especially via the influence of the scientific method.

Our current so called "culture" is the inevitable result of this objectification and control process---Weber's deadly iron cage.
All the cultural patterns and processes that used to connect us have been thoroughly (and inevitably) been reduced to rubble.

TV anti-Culture" now rules. Turn on your TV. What you see there IS our "culture"--nothing more.

We are now all trapped in this so called "culture" including conservative religionists.