How Should We Then Live? Chapter 3: The Renaissance

                                             Michelangelo's "Unfinished" Sculptures

                                                        Michelangelo's Pieta

I would like to start off discussing Chapter 3 by presenting pictures of some of Michelangelo's sculptures.  This is helpful for two reasons.  First, Schaeffer uses art prominently to explain the course of thought during the Renaissance.  Second, these two pictures display vividly the course itself, at least the points Schaeffer wants to raise.

Chapter 3 was much more straightforward than Chapter 2.  That might be because the Renaissance was more simple than the Middle Ages.  Or it may be that the Middle Ages lasted 900 years while the Renaissance lasted only 200 years, roughly 1400-1600.  Or maybe it was because Schaeffer focused on just one aspect of the era to push forward his narrative about the progression of thought in Western Culture.

In the big picture, the Renaissance was all about exploring how far mankind's greatness could go.  Out of Aquinas' emphasis on particulars modern individualism was born.  Particulars are individual examples of things on the earth.  They are the opposite of universals which are ideas, ideals, or theories existing in a spiritual realm.  For example, there is a universal ideal of what a tree is and then there are particular trees which exist in the world.  I consider myself an individualist, but individualism doesn't work in a vacuum, as I have written in the articles linked below.

Ordered Individualism - Part 1

Ordered Individualism - Part 2

Individualism only works if there is a structure within which to fit each person and an overall purpose that an individual can participate in.  But the individualism of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and 21st century Post-modernism works to separate each thing from all others.  It is isolated and sterile.  There is no life in it.  As much as we can see the secular individualism played out today it looks like a path leading to death.  There has always been death and destruction in our world since the fall, but logical connections can be made from isolated individualism to the murder in the streets in 2020 and deaths from drug overdose and suicide.  People who feel alone kill themselves or others even though there are many more factors and motivations at play.

At the start of the 15th century the great minds of the Renaissance were trying to bring the world back to what they thought was a glorious era in human history, the Greek and Roman ages.  Go back and read about Chapter 1 of this book.  The Roman Empire died because it was weak.  It was wicked and sinful.  The artists and the philosophers were trying to bring this age back thinking it meant a great leap forward in human prosperity.  One other thing to point out is that the philosophers were the artists, scientists, mathematicians, and writers.  To be a Renaissance man means to be skilled in multiple areas of life.  For the details of the Renaissance I will focus on the lives of 3 men.

One of the concerning developments of the Middle Ages to Schaeffer was that Aquinas set the precedent of mixing paganism with Christianity. 

                "in the development of the humanistic elements of the Renaissance, Dante followed
                the unfortunate side of Thomas Aquinas in mixing the Christian and the classical    
                pagan world in allusions throughout his work."

I don't think it had to be that big of a problem if people maintained the Bible as the ultimate authority like the apostle Paul. But the writer's of the time didn't do that.  For example, Dante in The Divine Comedy used the Roman poet Virgil as his narrator. He also equated Brutus and Cassius with Judas as the greatest betrayers in history.  That isn't a horrible thing.  I don't agree that Brutus and Cassius were the level of sinner of Judas, but it is hardly a great error.

However this practice did have an effect on the way people lived their lives.  It was common in Rome for prominent men to have mistresses.  The wife birthed the kids.  She did all the work to keep the family well.  Yet, the marriage was made for societal status and out of professional obligation.  The mistress was for romance and passion.  Dante had a true love Beatrice.  His love for her was of the highest ideal.  He wrote about her in his poems, "Seeing her face is so fair to see... love sheds such perfect sweetness over me."  However, he only saw her several times in his life.  Dante had a wife he never named.  He never lifted her up and showed her value after all the things she did for him.  This is straight out of the pagan idea that there is a distinct split between the spiritual and material realm.

                "The sensual love of the novelists and poets was the lower story; the spiritual,
                supposedly ideal love of the lyric poets was the upper story.  This situation
                did not produce beauty but ugliness.  The wife was a dray horse; the idealized
                woman, a disembodied phantom."

I want to be clear.  This is disgusting.  It is misogynistic.  It should be rejected by anyone who wants to live a life in submission to what is good, much less to the good God.  As we see again what is in the inner world of the mind springs out and affects the real world.

During the Renaissance, we see the positive and the negative aspects of emphasizing the particulars in art.  On one hand, the artists portrayed real life beautifully.  For example, Masaccio painted humans realistically.  He drew feet to look like actual feet.  He included faces of people he knew in his art.  That was an innovation.  He was also the first to use central perspective. Van Eyck, a Flemish artist, was the first great landscape painter.  Another innovation.  

However, artists also drew humans out of scale to the rest of the painting.  They were literally bigger than life.  The message was clear.  Mankind is on the highest pedestal.  We don't need God.  We are doing great things without Him.  Then they started to place vulgar themes into previously religious scenes.  The French painter Fouquet made The Red Virgin.  It was a scene that at first looked like a painting of the Madonna and infant Jesus, a common scene in art in the Middle Ages.  However, the "virgin" was the king's mistress.  She was no virgin and she had no children.  The purpose was to scandalize or mock people.  The artists were turning the holy to the profane.  This happened because man was believed to be autonomous.  They thought that freed them to pursue greatness, but it really removed purpose and meaning from their lives.

Michelangelo's activity within this atmosphere is very instructive.  His early sculptures communicated humanism, notably the "unfinished" men "tearing themselves out of  the rock" and David.  The "unfinished" men are shown in the picture at the top.  These sculptures are not unfinished.  They were a visual message.
                "Man will make himself great.  Man as Man is tearing himself out of the rock.
                Man by himself will tear himself out of nature and free himself from it.
                Man will be victorious."

With David the message isn't as explicit but can be seen with careful observation.  Immediately, you see its beauty.

                                       "As a work of art it has few equals in the world."

Michelangelo took a flawed bloc of marble and worked it into a masterpiece, an awe inspiring work of art.  However, David isn't the Biblical David.  It was just a title for an ideal man.  The man in the sculpture obviously isn't Jewish for one.  More subtly his hands are way out of proportion.  The hand is an analog of strength and power. David wasn't a man but a prediction of what humanists thought man could become.  Michelangelo pursued this ideal.  His thoughts were manifested in his art.  A great man with great thoughts and great skill came to some realizations late in his life.

                "there are signs that by the end of his life Michelangelo saw that humanism was
                not enough."

He was in close touch with Vittoria Colonna who introduced him to Reformation ideas.  It had an effect.  In his Pietas, the message wasn't the greatness of man but the mourning of man for his sins.  These sculptures depicted Mary holding the crucified Jesus in her arms.  In one of them, he carves his face into one of the characters, either Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea, looking down on mother and Son in sadness.  See the second picture at the top.  Mankind stripped from God, natural order, and purpose is left with failure and loneliness, not greatness.

Leonardo Da Vinci
I was blown away when learning about Michelangelo's turn around of thought.  What about the other luminary of the Renaissance, Leonardo?

                "He was a chemist, musician, architect, anatomist, botanist, mechanical engineer,
                and artist.  He was the embodiment of the true Renaissance man: he could do
                almost everything and do it well."

That really appeals to me.  I want to know as much as I can about everything.  But I am no Renaissance man, more of a Jack of all Trades, an inch deep and a mile wide at best.  Leonardo da Vinci was one of the world's greatest geniuses.  He had a great grasp of math and applied abstract theory to real world problems.  Through his analysis of art and math he came to realizations that most people in the 21st century still don't understand.

                                    "Leonardo anticipated where humanism would end."

                    "he perceived that beginning humanistically with mathematics one only 
                    had particulars.  He understood that man beginning from himself would 
                    never be able to come to meaning on the basis of mathematics."

This endeavor ends where the secular world is today, "everything, including man, is the machine."  Knowing this he changed course supposing that meaning could be found in art or emotion.  He tried to paint the universal ideal of a human soul, a category within which everything human could be included.  In the same direction the philosophers in Florence and all over the West looked more closely into Plato and his idea of universals; spiritual forms of perfect definitions of the things we see on the earth.  For example, the universal of "tree" includes every particular tree growing on the earth.

                "early men of the Renaissance had tried to syncretize Christianity and Aristotelian
                thought, but had failed.  Thereafter, men of the Renaissance tried to syncretize
                Christianity and Platonism - and likewise failed."

                "Leonardo tried to paint the universal, thinking that a painter might be able
                to achieve what the mathematicians could not.  But he never was able to paint
                the universal on a humanistic basis, any more than the mathematician could
                provide a mathematical universal on a humanist basis."

Leonardo used his intellectual genius to try to derive universals, assign meaning and purpose to life, from particulars, the individuals objects laying on the dirt.  Because he was a genius, he also "saw at the end of his life humanism's coming defeat."  Now 500 years later, others continue in futility, at best arriving at Leonardo's failure.

                "King Francis I of France (1494-1547) brought Leonardo to the French court
                as an old man, Leonardo was in despondency... humanism had already begun
                to show that pessimism was its natural conclusion."

Now today we read, in the most wealthy nation in history (according to particulars), about large numbers of people dying deaths of despair.  If even Da Vinci realized that he couldn't derive the meaning of life up from particulars, how should we then live?


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