The Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy
First published 1988 Seventh printing 2007






Cesare Vasoli



Any approach to the meaning of philosophy in the Renaissance requires some preliminary qualification and explanation. How far, for instance, is it permissible to speak of a specifically Renaissance philosophy — a philosophy that might be said to reflect the growing complexity of intellectual activity in this particular historical situation? May the term be applied to ways of thinking which, though current in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, perpetuate typically medieval thinking? Do the speculative currents which emerged in the mid thirteenth century, above all in Italy, represent continuity or a break with the past? How closely are scholastic natural philosophy and logic connected with the scientific revolution? Was 'humanist rhetoric' an obstacle to what might otherwise have been a swift and linear development? The historical significance of many of the issues discussed in this volume cannot be assessed without considering those social factors, which shattered the ideological unanimity of western Christianitas in the thirteenth century, emphasising the difference rather than the similarities between intellectual centres and ushering in new ways of thought. There is little point in trying to define the Renaissance concept of philosophy if no heed is paid to the cultural institutions emerging outside the universities, the social class and status of their members, their aims, their rivalries and their audiences. From the early fourteenth century there was a complex interaction between scholasticism and humanism with the former profiting from the methodological and linguistic advances made by the latter. The universities of Western and Central Europe shared a similar organisation and the great Italian centres — Padua, Bologna, Pavia, Florence, Sienna, Perugia and Naples — still flourished, despite falling to a greater or lesser extent under political control. There were three main faculties: theology, law and medicine, as well as those devoted to


preliminary instruction in philosophy, the arts, astronomy and astrology. Those who mastered this learning were destined to become senior clergy, lawyers, notaries, physicians and those natural scientists who typically eschewed practical research in favour of pure theory. The social, political and economic ferment of late thirteenth- and early fourteenth-century Italy was generating new forms of government and public institutions, and traditional professional training was becoming increasingly inadequate. The mercantile culture posed moral and theological problems which could no longer be handled by theologians trained in biblical exegesis and by students of Peter Lombard's Sententiae and of the various summae. The traditional legal education was insufficient for princely secretaries and the chancellors of the new communes, particularly those of more than local ambition. They needed training in history and some literary and rhetorical polish. Medical training was also moving towards a more critical analysis of the ancient authorities, increasingly demanding empirical evidence. The more radical tendencies in scholastic thought — Ockhamism and the like — were undermining the unified notion of sapientia which had so far resisted the thirteenth century's cultural transformations. Analysis of the language of logic and its semantic structures had abolished the distinction between res and verba, between the individual's concrete and intuitive awareness and the concepts or signs generated by the intellect. The papacy and the empire — the two fundamental authorities in the medieval world — were in disarray. Authority was passing from the theoretically indivisible monolith of Christianitas to a medley of particular institutions operative at all levels of civic life.


University teaching, founded invariably on the analysis and exegesis of auctoritates and canonical texts (in the case of philosophy, for instance, the corpus Aristotelicum and its commentaries), was encountering growing criticism. Irked by the narrow curricula of traditional scholasticism, its opponents refused to believe, for example, that there was no more to philosophy than metaphysics and discussions of the premises of Aristotle's Physics. Even at the beginning of the thirteenth century university professors and students, at Padua for example, were going directly to certain classical texts for linguistic and stylistic models as well as rich sources of moral exempla.

The activity of these pre-humanists is instructive, revealing that it was generally thinkers with a legal training who were most critical of the traditional approach and techniques of the Glossators. The most advanced levels of scholastic thought, so important to the prehistory of modern formal logic, did far more than merely exacerbate the polemics against scholastic jargon and sophistry: the cavillationes of the 'barbarous Scots and Britons' whom Petrarch and others had already accused of polluting the 'holy' Latin language. As far as the early humanists were concerned, the incipient formalisation of logical techniques and scholastic language confirmed the unbridgeable gulf between the language of the professional scholastics, which was comprehensible only to themselves, and the need for a straightforward and effective language of civic administration suitable for political and ethical discourse. The contrast between curricula was becoming increasingly evident. The traditional type, tied to lectio, commentary and quaestiones, differed markedly from that of the new schools. Invariably developing outside official academic institutions, these schools cultivated grammar, rhetoric and such linguistic models as were appropriate to political office, moral discourse and the deeper understanding of classical language and literature. Behind the early criticisms of the scholastic mentality and method, it is not difficult to detect the first signs of a new notion of philosophy, its meaning, its purpose and its place in the new learning. This is confirmed by the interminable disputes about the relative importance of the faculties; whether or not jurisprudence was superior to medicine, natural science to letters or history.19 However, the contrast between the philosophy of man championed by the early humanists and the 'futile curiosity' of physicians and natural philosophers should not be regarded as a schematic dichotomy like that between ideas and letters, between natural science and rhetoric, or between the philosophising of the traditional teachers and the philological expertise of the new ones. The assault on scholasticism's barbarous jargon and the argument that its dialectic was irrelevant to genuine human concerns were also assertions of a different way of thinking: one that promoted the artes useful to civic life and made them central to education and the basis for training new intellectual classes outside traditional academic hierarchies. The protagonists of this new thinking were concerned with the ethical, religious and political issues of their time — issues aggravated by the institutional crises of fourteenth-century Europe. For these individuals the only way out of centuries of darkness, decadence and corruption was by returning to the ancient sapientia and recovering its exemplary ways of living and thinking as well as the language which was its vehicle. Thus the myth of renascentia and the kindred notion of historical cyclicity lie at the heart of the return to the ancients and the repudiation of what was seen as a moribund and barbarous way of thinking with its impenetrable thickets of comments and quaestiones, its language and formalising logic so far removed from the models of antiquity, its theology and jurisprudence shrunken to a handful of obscure and sophistical contentions.


It would be wrong, however, to interpret the humanist aversion to scholastic methods and language as a radical rejection of philosophy. Even less was it an attempt to contain culture within a literary and rhetorical formalism, indifferent to the great problems of western thought. Since it fails to explain the deeper and more complex motives for this intellectual reform, the view of humanism as merely an educational system based on rarefied oratorical techniques, pedantic grammatical analysis and nascent philology must be regarded as unhelpfully unilateral. Admittedly, the first generations of humanists ignored the arduous problems of metaphysics, logic and theology on which the scholastics continued to work. Nor did they pay any attention to the increasingly problematic exegesis of the natural philosophy texts of Aristotle and the major texts of the Greco-Arabic medical and scientific traditions. But even the most obsessive advocates of a return to the pure springs of classical learning and the studia humanitatis could not be unaware of the texts generated by Buridan and Swineshead which had spread as far as the Italian universities. Nor were they unaware of the disputations on logic and physics which, under the influence of the calculatores or other teachers like Oresme, had come to be the principal activity in many scholastic circles.2 Nor were they ignorant, unless for purposes of argument — as has been shown to be the case with Petrarch — of the work of contemporary physicians, logicians and natural philosophers, whose relations with humanist circles were by no means always strife-torn, as the examples of Peter of Mantua and Blasius of Parma show.3 Rather, the typical humanist approach to the philosophical tradition

2. For sources, see in particular Medioevo e Rinascimento 195$, 1, pp. 217-53 (Dionisotti).

3. See in particular the letter from Coluccio Salutati to Peter of Mantua in Salutati 1891-1911, in, pp. 318-22; for the relationship between Salutati's circle and Blasius of Parma, see Gherardi 1975, ad indicem.

was to seek out the most ancient sources unmuddied by centuries of dubious exegesis and to shift the chief focus of attention away from metaphysics towards ethics and politics in search of virtues with good classical credentials and yet relevant to the needs of their changing society.

No wonder then that philological analysis and literary exegesis become an apologia for both an ancient and a modern model of wisdom. No wonder also at the resurrection of the classical ideal, neatly caught in a famous dictum of Cicero's, of a single sapientia which holds within itself'the knowledge of all things human and divine' and knows how to express them with all the persuasive powers of eloquentia. The same ambition motivated even the repeated appeals to Augustine as the corner-stone of a true Christian philosophy uncluttered with dusty theological formulae and intricate dialectical sophistries. The humanists wished religiosity to rely principally on the individual's inner assurance of faith and to be experienced as a continuing meditation on man's transcendent destiny. So, though scholastic distinctions and divisions were rejected, the very conception of philosophy was changing because its chief object was now man — man was at the centre of every enquiry — and because the direct appeal to classical models demanded the rejection of traditional epistemological methods. Even the humanist insistence on rhetoric and its techniques implicitly emphasised a profound questioning of values. In this process philosophy was stripped of its ahistorical character and swept up in the transience and mutability of human existence. For reasons such as this it is impossible to find a single definition of philosophy which holds for the 250 years under consideration. Probably the most typical characteristic of Renaissance thought was its constantly changing notion of philosophy, its scope, its purpose, its objects and its methods. Almost every generation of thinkers produced new solutions, different both in content and approach, to the great problems which have exercised the western philosophical tradition. Contributions to these new solutions came from ethical and political deliberations, from discussions about the worth of scientific knowledge and from attempts to find a theology in harmony with personal religious experiences, from debates about the meaning of art, from the honing of dialectical and rhetorical skills and the advances in philological technique which meant that new light could always be shed on even the most well-worn problems. The rediscovery of the great philosophical schools of antiquity — the revival of Epicureanism and Pyrrhonism, for instance — had a pronounced theoretical influence over many thinkers. The critique of traditional disciplines was no less influential: the birth of humanist jurisprudence, the critique of Galenism, the emergence of a medical theory still heavily indebted to esoteric beliefs, the dissolution of the ancient Ptolemaic-Aristotelian imago mundi, the new importance of the artes and the growing prestige of mathematical methods — all these made their contribution. Finally there were all the repercussions of the crisis in Christianity which ran throughout the entire Renaissance period. So in the Renaissance there was a disconcertingly complex variety of factors which prevented rigid boundaries between such disciplines as theology, the sciences and political theory. This complexity was the fundamental characteristic of a philosophy which was having to cope with rapidly changing mentalities and ways of life, new political, religious and educational institutions and the particular problems associated with emergent nationalism. Throughout this period, however, the dominant philosophical theme was the centrality of man, which was reinforced by the preference given to techniques favouring communication and persuasive methods, such as the dialogue, the epistle and the oration.


This return to a conception of philosophy rooted in the Greco-Roman tradition can be understood by looking at the notion of sapientia propounded by Petrarch, whom humanists regarded as their first master.4 His researches into classical culture were inspired by the conviction that the time had come 'to reveal man to himself once more'. He believed that neither human frailty nor time could diminish the perennial worth of a philosophy which recognised man's destiny: a wearisome struggle against accidia in order to achieve supreme nobility as a creation of God. Only in the solitude and silentium of a mind turned inward upon itself away from worldly distractions could man find that divine link which united all men and committed them to the service of their kind.5 For this reason the new and ancient sapientia, which Petrarch contrasted with the haughty doctrines of the recentiores, entailed the exercise of both caritas and the sermo through shared human experience. Beyond earthly horizons there was a destiny far greater than human virtue and glory, but the fervent readers of Augustine

4. Some of Petrarch's philosophical writings are still only to be found in early editions (Venice 1501 and 1503; Basle 1554 and 1581). 1 have used Petrarch 1554. For his letters, which are often mini-treatises, see Petrarch 1933 -42; for the Rerum seniiium libri, see Petrarch 1554, but see also the Italian translation with commentary in Petrarch 1869-70; his Epistolae sitie nomine (very important in the confrontation between Petrarch and the Avignon papacy) are edited in Piur 1925; good, but not definitive, texts of the Secretum, the De vita solitaria and the De sui ipsius et multorum ignorantia are in Petrarch 1955, which also contains some of the Seniles.

5. Petrarch 1955, pp. 568-70 (De vita solitaria).

never gave up hope of reconciling Christ and literature, of achieving in the survival of their writings the immortality promised by the gospels.6 In this way even the awareness of death transmuted itself into an unceasing quest for the simplicity and purity of a moral commitment whose ground rules were formulated in pagan classical antiquity. In his De sui ipsius et multorum ignorantia7 and Invectiva contra medicums Petrarch contrasted the knowledge of the secrets of nature, which he saw as futile and misleading, with the wisdom of the philosophers and poets, which could heal the maladies of the soul. Thus he found in Plato and Cicero the essentials of a doctrine which would restore to philosophy its moral dimension.

From Petrarch the early humanists learnt their conviction that the revival of humanae literae was only the first step in a greater intellectual renewal which would coincide with the highest achievement of man's civic and cultural destiny. Consequently their philosophy tended to dwell not on the personal virtues of the solitary ascetic but on those virtues which equip men jointly to defend their freedom from the looming menace of fate. Typically the humanists directed their knowledge of classical learning towards the problems of civic life, the arts by which men may live well and the sapientia which teaches how man may achieve perfection while still in this life. Coluccio Salutati, Chancellor of the Florentine Republic during one of the most dramatic periods of its history, saw philosophy as 'the empress and mother of all arts and sciences', guiding man's earthly journey. Leonardo Bruni, also Chancellor of Florence and deeply involved in the events of his day, theorised similarly in the introduction to his new Latin translations of the Politics9 and the Nicomachean Ethics.10 He assigned primacy to the practical virtues that work for the common good, and considered an education grounded on the studia humanitatis as the best way to inculcate such virtues. In his De studiis et litteris,11 however, he stressed that literary studies were barren if they did not lead to cognitiones reales, that is, the study of philosophy and the sciences. Poggio Bracciolini, particularly in his Contra hypocritas12 and De avaritia,13 rejected the more extreme forms of monastic asceticism, celebrating instead man's energetic and hard-working commitment to humanise his world. He also acknowledged that all men

6. Ibid., pp. 72ff. (Secretum). 7. Ibid., pp. 710-67. 8. Petrarch 1950; see also Petrarch 1949.

9. Bruni 1928, pp. 70-3 (Epistola super translatione Politicorum Aristotelis ad dominum Eugenium Papam IV) and pp. 73-4 (Praemissio quaedam ad evidentiam novae translationis Politicorum Aristotelis).

10. Ibid., pp. 75-6 (Praefatio in libros Ethicorum Aristotelis ad dominum Martinum Papam V) and pp. 76-81 (Praemissio quaedam ad evidentiam novae translationis Ethicorum Aristotelis).

11. Ibid., pp. 5-19, especially 18-19.

12. Poggio Bracciolini 1964-9, 11, pp. 39-80 (Dialogus adversus hypocrisim).

13. Ibid., 1, pp. 1-31 (Historia convivalis disceptativa de avaricia et luxuria).

might legitimately aspire to some moderate happiness in this life even though some might be destined never to achieve it.

Poggio, whose rediscovery of Lucretius' De rerum natura played a crucial part in the fifteenth-century revival of Epicureanism, was not the only humanist to adopt such a secular view. Lorenzo Valla's De vero falsoque bonoiA is a carefully weighed critique of the contamination of Christianity by Stoicism, which had transformed the promise of eternal life into a denial of the most natural desires. In Epicureanism Valla found a harmony between the Christian's pursuit of heavenly joy and the enjoyment of those healthy earthly pleasures which the natura divina itself had instilled into us. In his view, philosophy taught morality and an insight into man's desires, needs and hopes. Though this ethical concern never attracted the greatest humanists to metaphysics, it did not exclude an often deeply pessimistic awareness of the tragic face of human destiny at both the personal and historical levels. In his De varietate fortunae15 and De miseria humanae conditionis16 Poggio argued that men were frail, inevitably and invariably destined to live a life of pain and misfortune, endlessly repeating the same mistakes and crimes.

The Intercoenales17 of the youthful Leon Battista Alberti have an even greater cogency and dramatic tension, especially when they insist on the futility of existence and the absurdity of an irresistible destiny in a world without providence, ruled only by an arbitrary fortune. Later, in his Teogenio18 and Momus,19 he calls man the most ferocious of creatures, 'lethal to others and to himself, and proclaims the inherent fragility of his every achievement and the transience of earthly life where princes, philosophers and ordinary men alike delude themselves into thinking they can comprehend an ever-changing reality.


Renaissance philosophy had therefore assimilated the classical and medieval ethical traditions and did not restrict itself merely to the rhetorical celebration of man's dignity. It also clearly reflected the bitter conflicts of

14. L. Valla 1970a.

15. Poggio Bracciolini 1964-9, I, pp. 131-7 (De fortunae varietate urbis Romae, et de ruina eiusdem descriptio) and 11, pp. 497-654 (Historiae de varietate fortunae libri quatuor).

16. Ibid., 1, pp. 88-131.

17. For the texts of the Intercoenales, which have a complex history, see Alberti 1890, pp. 122-235, and 1964. 18. Alberti 1960-73, 11, pp. 53-104. 19. Alberti 1942.

the age. Humanist philosophy was concerned as well with the arts and instruments which make it possible for man to exercise his precarious dominion over things and events. There was frequent praise for jurisprudence and laws, which in Salutati's opinion constituted the 'mystic body' of the human community,20 and for poetry as the special medium of truth. Even more frequent were the reappraisals of the arts and the techniques which permitted man some insight into the inner workings of nature itself.

Alberti, architect, mathematician and philosopher, is the key figure here. In his specialised treatises, particularly the De re aedificatoria,21 the artisan — constructor of buildings, machines and tools to extend man's powers — becomes an artist-savant who strives unceasingly to give form to matter. Around the middle of the fifteenth century Giannozzo Manetti in his De dignitate et excellentia hominis22 embroidered his rehearsal of the Hermetic doctrine of the theosanthropos, the focus of all reality, with an eloquent celebration of the arts and sciences from painting to sculpture, from architecture to history, from astronomy to law, from poetry to sapientia, in which the 'great miracle of man' was revealed.

The early fifteenth-century conception of philosophy, while closely tied to the development of philology, the linguistic disciplines and a new historical consciousness, was capable of re-evaluating both past and present. This changing idea of the object of philosophy was profoundly influenced by the labours of the philologists. By discovering and editing partially or indeed completely unknown scientific and philosophical texts they began to separate antiquity and its traditions from myth and fable. Valla's works23 show how the attempt to apply linguistic analysis to logical procedures developed into an increasingly radical critique of metaphysical principles and concepts, trespassing even into the sacred province of the scientia de divinis. The philology at the heart of Valla's discussions of the most heterogenous aspects of his culture was more than a reagent for dissolving spurious and corrupt philosophical traditions. It was the principal instrument for evaluating the testimony of the past, be it legal exegesis or scriptural commentary. The subordination of theology to the essential auctoritas of God's word and the pruning out of centuries of maundering exegesis and dialectical logic-chopping were entirely consistent with the main thrust of humanism.24


Contemporary with Valla but active in very different circles and still close to certain typically medieval traditions (the Albertist School at Cologne, Ockhamism, German mysticism), Nicholas of Cusa contributed decisively to the new metaphysico-religious conception of sapientia. His service to the church in the dramatic years between 1435 and 146022 brought him into close contact with many of the greatest Italian humanists and gave him a singularly acute insight into the emerging intellectual and religious crisis. Unlike many humanist thinkers of his time, Nicholas concentrated on theological issues: the oneness of God, the Trinity, the nature of Christ and his role as the supreme mediator. However, an admixture of classical and medieval Neoplatonism and mathematical ideas transmuted these essentially theological concerns into an unconventional cosmology and into a new way of conceiving the relationship between divine unity and the world's multiplicity. Knowledge, according to Nicholas, consisted in recognising the incommensurability between the ultimate object of human enquiry and the conceptual and linguistic tools used in that enquiry, that is to say, recognising that absolute reality could not be enclosed within the limitations of logical language.23 Since the mind was finite and could only deal with finite things, a given res was to be thought of both as a negation of the infinite and as a sign of total being, initiating the via negationis which led to the eternal and immutable bedrock of being. In this way Nicholas could move from considering the mathematical laws of motion to contemplating the divine wisdom which pervaded the universe and constituted the perfect harmony which was always expressed in musical and geometrical terms. Just as by increasing the number of its sides a polygon could approach, but never become, a circle, so human knowledge could approach its objects by a process of approximation. It remained, however, uncertain and infinitely distant from its object and could never span the gap between infinity and the finite.24 Nevertheless, docta ignorantia — the Socratic 'learned ignorance' — demonstrated the infinite wealth and potential of any positive knowledge, showing how procedures of a geometrical type permitted reason to move unconstrainedly towards ever more complete truths. Consequently, since material reality in its multiplicity reflected absolute being, it too must be infinite, without centre or boundaries, and not contained within the finite enclosure of the heavenly spheres.28 Therefore Nicholas entrusted philosophy with the responsibility for establishing a new relationship between the infinite points which resulted from the dissolution of the finite classical cosmos. While affirming that all truths, relative and particular, should be regarded as approximations of the unique Truth, he emphasised the affinity between this and arithmetical progressions, each of which potentially contained infinity in itself. Just as mathematicians passed from straight to curved lines by a series of ever closer approximations, so metaphysical knowledge could come to comprehend the Absolute and the One by an infinite process which unfolded in the finite multiplicity of the created earth. It is not surprising, therefore, that Nicholas perceived beneath the most diverse religious rites and beliefs a common if limited attempt to approach the unattainable and ineffable divine truth of being.29 Thus, faith and science, theology and philosophy, were different but ultimately convergent paths leading through civic and religious peace to a single common destination.


Nicholas of Cusa has often been seen as the instigator of the late fifteenth-century Platonic revival, and Cassirer has argued, not entirely convincingly, for his influence over Marsilio Ficino. In reality, the roots of Ficino's thought lie closer to the debates between the Byzantine emigres like George of Trebizond and Cardinal Bessarion about the relative superiority of Aristotle and Plato, and to the idiosyncratic religious metaphysics of Pletho.30 Also, some doubt must now surround the hypothesis that there was a radical discontinuity between the humanist philosophy of man in the first half of the fifteenth century and Ficino's revival of a primarily speculative doctrine owing much to classical metaphysics. First, Ficino's philosophical development reveals specific elements of continuity: the interest in Plato shared by many Florentine humanists (Salutati, Bruni, Manetti and Palmieri) and a number of ideas which were widespread in the fourteenth century: for example, Ficino's version of Dante's Monorchia.31 Second, Ficino was writing for a lay public without scholastic training, and

28. Ibid., pp. 61-75 (lib. 11, cap. 1-4). 29. Ibid., vii (De pace fidei). 30. See Pletho 1858. 31. P. Shaw 1978.

he used rhetorical methods and myths in a Platonic fashion. Finally, he was defending a unified notion of sapientia. He put forward his Platonism as a new theology and metaphysics (the two terms are interchangeable here) which, unlike that of the scholastics, was explicitly opposed to Averroist secularism. His sapientia was linked to the notion of a revelation transmitted from the ancients by a chain of inspired thinkers until it achieved a final synthesis in Christian dogma.25 In his view philosophy should first and foremost include and explain the essence of every sapientia, of every true theology and every moral doctrine, that is, the absolute and divine unity which generated the hierarchical and providential order of a universe whose multiplicity reflected the supreme creator.26 Ficino imagined the world as a perfectly harmonious heavenly melody or as a mirror reflecting the myriad faces of God. The intention of the pia philosophia, which Ficino expounded mainly in his Theologia platonica and De Christiana religione, was to illuminate the profound convergence of philosophical truth and religious certainty. In this convergence the prisci theologi, such as Hermes Trismegistus, Zoroaster and Orpheus, had already detected the germs of a perennial wisdom which was now endangered by impious pseudo-philosophers and incompetent theologians.

There has been some exaggeration of the importance of astrology and antique magical elements in Ficino's philosophy. Nevertheless, he did regard the entire universe — the heavens, the elements, plants, animals and man himself — as subject to cosmic influences acting through sympathies and antipathies. In his De vita coelitus comparanda27 he analysed the relationship between the powers of the heavenly souls and man's spiritus and found sufficient justification for placing man at the centre of the universe as the microcosm which recapitulated the order of the macrocosm. The great success of Ficino's pia philosophia occurred partly because it elevated to the level of literary metaphor a number of ideas which were congenial to the fm-de-siecle mood, troubled by millenarian and spiritual anxieties.

Just as successful were the ideas of Giovanni Pico, who combined an orthodox training in scholastic philosophy with youthful humanist influences and — a typical feature of sixteenth-century esotericism — cabala. Firmly opposed to any rhetorical reductionism in philosophy, Pico saw himself as searching for the deepest common truth, where sapientia and its various temporal manifestations might reside, untroubled by doctrinal squabbles. His missionary zeal and enthusiasm for a philosophy of concord and a great spiritual renewal leading to the universal brotherhood of man did not square with Ficino's idea of docta pietas. Pico proposed the absolute value and centrality of man, his cosmic responsibility, his freedom and dignity. This idea lies at the heart of his celebrated Oratio,28 offered as a manifesto for the great conference of learned men which Pico wished to be held in Rome at Epiphany in 1487.29 The desire to defend human liberty also inspired Pico's Disputationes adversus astrologiam divinatricem,30 a harsh and radical assault on astrology and the absolute determinism which a belief in it ultimately entailed. In his Heptaplus and De ente et uno,3% inspired by both cabala and pseudo-Dionysian theology, Pico discovered in the Scriptures a perfectly harmonious philosophical interpretation of the universe and recognised in the inscrutable reality of God that radiant darkness with which man identified utter perfection. Pico praised magic and man's ability to control the most occult powers of nature because he regarded them as 'the practical part of the natural sciences', able to increase our freedom in a world over which God had given us dominion.


The new ideas of the fifteenth century foreshadow the main themes of sixteenth-century philosophy. Valla's philology and theology, Ficino's pia philosophia and Pico's philosophy of concordia were necessary antecedents for the philosophia Christi and the uncompromising pacifism of Erasmus. Ficino, Pico and Nicholas of Cusa stand behind Jacques Lefevre d'Etaples and his school; and there is a specifically fifteenth-century tone in the speculations of Juan Luis Vives and Thomas More as well as Erasmus. Of course, to account fully for such influences it is necessary to follow other developments of sixteenth-century philosophy, such as Agostino Steuco's philosophia perennis. This synthesis of Ficino's pia philosophia and Pico's concordia had passed to Francesco Giorgi, Henricus Cornelius Agrippa and Paracelsus and then to the magical and occult traditions.

The circulation of Platonic, magical, Hermetic and cabalistic ideas should not obscure what is one of the sixteenth century's most important

philosophical characteristics: the development of a revivified Aristoteli-anism. Already in the fifteenth century individuals like Paul of Venice, Paul of Pergula and Gaetano da Thiene - all educated at Padua - were taking their cue from the Oxford and Paris logicians, who were themselves following such teachers as Alessandro da Sermoneta, Jacopo Ricci and Apollinare Offredi. In the decades around the turn of the fifteenth century the powerhouses of the Aristotelian revival were the two greatest northern Italian universities, Bologna and Padua, where such luminaries as Nicoletto Vernia, Alessandro Achillini, Pietro Pomponazzi, Marcantonio Zimara and Agostino Nifo were active. Unlike their late medieval predecessors these scholastics adopted a number of typically humanist procedures, especially in their approach to texts. There is no doubt that the Thomist and Scotist schools at Padua continued to evolve, alongside and rivalling the Averroist and Alexandrist professors. But the influence of such surviving terminist tendencies was considerably outweighed by that of the Greek commentators whose diffusion owed much to the labour of such humanist philologists as Ermolao Barbaro and Girolamo Donato. At Padua in 1497 Niccolo Leonico Tomeo began to teach Aristotle from the Greek texts, and the Aldine editio princeps of Aristotle was published at Venice between 1495 and 1498.31 Instead of dwelling on the various interpretative or syncretist currents within Aristotelianism, it is more useful here to concentrate on the difference between Aristotelianism in general and the humanist philosophy of man, its notion of a unified sapientia and the religious character of the ideas of Ficino, Pico and Nicholas of Cusa.

Aristotelians drew a sharp distinction betwen philosophy and theology and jealously resisted any attempt to submit Aristotle's ideas to the higher truths of religion. Critical of beliefs which obstructed the exercise of reason, they defended the independence of philosophy and espoused a number of Peripatetic doctrines (for instance, the Averroist account of the intellect and the eternity of the world) which had long been rejected by theologians. Aristotelians retained the various canonical sub-divisions of philosophy, affirming — in contrast to the humanists — the superiority of speculative over poetical philosophy; and, in accordance with the university curricula, they established a well-defined syllabus for the study of philosophy.

It would, however, be wrong to see sixteenth-century Aristotelianism as a rational philosophy anticipating libertinisme and to regard it as anti-theological and even anti-religious in contrast with the docta pietas of Ficino and Steuco. Admittedly, the De immortalitate animae, the Defato and the De incantationibus32 of Pietro Pomponazzi, the most original and influential sixteenth-century university philosopher, are emphatically opposed to rhetorical or consolatory doctrines. He emphasised the rigorous order of natural laws and the natural and temporal dimension of human existence, which was demonstrated by the indivisible unity of the body-soul compound that constituted our reality and by the substantial connection between all its functions. In his De incantationibus Pomponazzi turned an unusually open mind on several features of religion, which he reduced to their natural causes. He also subscribed to the belief that the origins and courses of the great religions were caused by astral influences. However, the majority of Aristotelians were considerably more cautious, accepting some elements of Platonic theology and admitting that Aristotelianism could have a propaedeutic value in grasping some of its mysteries. In any case, the procedures of the Seconda Scolastica were much indebted to the Aristotelian tradition and to sixteenth-century Italian Aristotelian studies. Also noteworthy is the success of Paduan authors in the Protestant universities of Germany which had been reformed by Philipp Melanchthon, a self-proclaimed follower of Aristotle.



Though sharply disagreeing about the relative worth of their logical and linguistic tools, humanists and Aristotelians were both concerned to evolve a general methodology, a theory of how knowledge should be acquired and organised. Much of sixteenth-century thinking about philosophy is obscure unless attention is paid to those debates about important issues such as the role of philosophy in the sciences, the rhetorical or logical character of knowledge and the relationship between teaching and research. Lorenzo Valla, for instance, in the context of teaching the artes sermonales, clearly favoured rhetorical and dialectical procedures. This preference was assimilated by George of Trebizond in his insistent criticisms of the sophistic logic of the schools;33 and between the late fifteenth century and the middle of the sixteenth century, it influenced first Rudolph Agricola34 and then a number of important European humanists, including Philipp Melanch-thon,35 Johannes Sturm36 and Juan Luis Vives.37 With differences of emphasis each of these thinkers assigned a fundamental importance to methodus as essential in any organisation of knowledge and to procedures either of the topic type or connected with the rhetorical doctrine of dispositio. Particularly favoured by Protestants, this tendency culminated in Petrus Ramus' concept of the methodus unica, the basic instrument in the creation of a systematic, encyclopaedic and organic knowledge.38 At the heart of Ramus' polemic was a comparison between his unified philosophical method and the multiplicity of methods and techniques suggested, in particular, by the Aristotelians.

The problem of method was particularly important at Padua, where Jacopo Zabarella in his De methodis discussed the various instruments of knowledge and analysed their relationship to the different forms of knowledge and to the structure of the sciences.39 Zabarella's logical and methodological ideas had a considerable influence in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century Europe, reaching even Theodor Zwinger and Bartholomaeus Keckermann, both of whom had had a Ramist training. Revealingly, it was philosophers trained at Padua who most strongly challenged the primacy and predominance of Aristotelian philosophy, as well as proposing radical ideas about the nature of speculative philosophy. Bernardino Telesio, for instance, criticised traditional philosophers for over-confidence, for 'arbitrarily creating their pretend world', and proposed instead a new philosophy of nature based on the senses and therefore suited to understanding the innermost structures of nature. Another thinker trained at Padua was Francesco Patrizi, whose Discussiones peripateticae48 offer the most radical critique of the contradictions, whether genuine or supposed, in the Aristotelian system. In his Nova de universis philosophia49 he condemned the impiety of Aristotle's thought, questioned the notion of a closed and finite universe and proposed a renewed Christian philosophy founded on a strongly hermeticising Platonism and a pantheistic conception of reality.

The critique of Aristotle and Aristotelianism, nourished by Pythagorean and Democritean ideas, culminated at the end of the sixteenth century with Giordano Bruno's call for radical renewal in ethics and his notion of an infinite universe coincident with its divine foundation. The humanist rebellion against traditional codifications of knowledge found other forms of expression which were no less influential in the long evolution of modern thought. The recovery of the classical scepticism of Pyrrho and Sextus Empiricus (which united the dissimilar activities of Gianfrancesco Pico and Michel de Montaigne) encouraged the view of philosophy as systematic doubt, methodically revealing the contingency and uncertainty of all pre-established truths.


Thus it can be seen that in coming to terms with the scientific revolution and a variety of new moral, political and religious problems, late Renaissance philosophy anticipated some of the themes which would characterise seventeenth-century philosophy. The reaction against traditional scholastic authorities had grown into a questioning of all authorities, even the classics. The myths which had nourished Neoplatonic metaphysics (Hermeticism and cabala) came under the ever closer scrutiny of philologists. The new philosophy of nature, often more welcoming to scientific and technical developments, was beginning to dissolve the imago mundi which had enclosed theology and philosophy for so long. The context of these changes was a religious crisis of unprecedented gravity whose political and social consequences deeply affected philosophy in all its aspects. Bruno's thought, with its doctrinal problems and complexities, stands at the end of this cycle. It demonstrates in an extreme fashion how the process of criticism initiated by the early humanists grew to envelop even the most ancient and respected authorities. Apart from the new awareness of methods and procedures, one great legacy of Renaissance philosophy was the seventeenth century's grand attempt to re-establish the unity and completeness of knowledge, to recreate — with a new and fuller awareness of the difficulties and dangers involved in such a project — the or do scientiarum. From Campanella to Bacon, from Descartes to Leibniz, the same themes lie at the heart of a continuous dialectic between tradition and innovation, at the heart both of grandiose Utopian projects for social renewal and of thoughtful reminders of the concrete reality of the critical exercise of knowledge. Above all, the principal lesson from the various Renaissance conceptions of philosophy — a lesson whose force was to be felt over the next two centuries — was the need to jettison pre-established truths, to re-evaluate constantly all doctrinal and methodological choices and to respect the perpetual newness of the problems with which philosophy and scientific research have to deal.


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