The Renaissance Man: From Unachievable Ideal to Earthly Redemption
Author: Erin C. Harding, 1998
In his Discourses, Machiavelli stressed the importance of looking to the past and learning from it. He believed that many of the problems that his Renaissance society faced could be solved by analyzing the past and applying its lessons to the present. Like many of the other Renaissance thinkers of the time he believed in adopting old philosophies and values and reapplying them to modern life. The artist Raphael also recognized the importance of the influence of the past on his modern society. The recognition of the importance of these philosophies on the new way of thinking is apparent in his fresco, School of Athens, in which he depicts many of the ancient Greek philosophers and scientists. This painting is a celebration of the liberal arts and the philosophical ideals held so dear by the Renaissance man. The fresco is visually divided into two schools of thought which are indicated by the two central figures: Plato on the left and Aristotle on the right. With Plato indicating the sky with the vertical lines of his robe and upward gesture and Aristotle with horizontal lines gesturing to the Earth, Raphael depicts the two modes of thought popular with the Renaissance thinkers. Aristotle stressed that empirical and earthly observation was crucial and that the artist, as creator and thinker was godlike. He stressed attention to the world in all its forms. In his hand he holds the book Ethics, stressing the importance of earthly behavior and earthly cause and consequence, rather than behavior governed by later judgment. Plato emphasized that Heaven was the origin of the ideas from which all earthly forms originated, and that the further something was from a divine idea the further it was from God. Neoplatonism was an adaptation of the Renaissance that combined the ideals of platonic thought with the Christian conception of God the creator. Among the 'Renaissance Men' that epitomized Neoplatonic thought was Michelangelo. Plato's ideas of spirituality and the divine intellectual origins of all earthly forms is reflected Michelangelo's poetry and art. Among Aristotle's Renaissance followers was the scholar Machiavelli. His writing of his concern for the earthly world reflect the values of ethics and earthly virtue and behavior expressed by Aristotle.
Plato taught that there were four levels of being. At the top level was the divine and cosmic mind. In Neoplatonic thought this translated to the thoughts and ideas of God. At the bottom level was formless and lifeless matter. In between were the soul and realm of nature, created by the divine thought. Michelangelo's belief in this cosmic order is reflected strongly in his writings and art work. In his 83rd poem he refers to "that merciful fountain from which we all derive" when referring to God or the origin of all beings. This clearly coincides with Neoplatonic thought which suggests that all earthly forms are the result of the divine thought of God; that all comes from Him.
Michelangelo shows his awareness of the Neoplatonic order when speaking of rising to God, away from the earthly world, mimicking the upward gesture of Plato in Raphael's painting. This type of thought can be seen again in his 83rd poem when he states:
my soul, although still clothed in its flesh,
has already risen often with it to God.
He goes on to demonstrate his understanding of this order by discussing the idea that human thought is one step below divine thought, but that the earthly manifestation of that human thought is a step even lower. Thus the expression of any thought only removes the thought further from the divine which the thinker is attempting to achieve. This frustration with the inability to express ones conceptions of the divine without further degradation of the subject is expressed in many of Michelangelo's writings, including this passage from his 151st poem:
but, to my mortal harm,
my art gives results to the reverse of what I wish.
In this brief statement he encompasses the concept that the mortal hand, when attempting to express divine concepts only makes the depiction of those concepts less divine, the reverse of what the artists is attempting to show. Further in this poem he continues by stating:
if you hold both death and mercy in your heart
at the same time, and my lowly wits, though burning,
cannot draw from it anything but death.
Death and mercy can be taken as representative opposites of the greater concepts, truth and the shadow of truth. Truth and the shadow of truth relate to each other just as divine mercy, or salvation from suffering, and death, a feeble mortal attempt to end that suffering, relate. So, by extension Michelangelo is stating that only God can encompass and produce everything, whether it be truth or its shadows, while the human hand cannot begin to produce the truth, but can merely produce the shadows.
Michelangelo expands on this ideal that only God can create good and beautiful things and that everything an artist creates is only a pale reflection of God's idea. He uses this reasoning to suggest that relief sculpture, his preferred art form, was closer to divine than painting. Because the process of painting is the process of creating something from nothing by applying material where it had not been with the use of the human imagination, the artist was attempting to create as God does. But Neoplatonists realize that true achievement in creation is not possible for a mortal hand. But, according the Michelangelo, sculpture is different. Sculpture can come closer to approaching the divine because sculpture is merely the process of clearing the excess away from what God has already created. Michelangelo suggested that in a block of marble, a complete sculpture already exists, put there by God when the rock was created. It is then up to the artist to use his intellect, or divine inspiration, to uncover that sculpture that God has placed there:
Not even the best of artists has any conception
that a single marble block does not contain
within its excess, and that is only attained
by the hand that obeys the intellect.
It appears that as his life continued his devotion to this philosophy grew more intense. Although at the beginning his admitted that his attempts at depicting the divine were in vain, at the end of his life he seemed to come to the conclusion that not only were they fruitless, but they were also sinful and wrong:
So now I recognize how laden with error
was the affectionate fantasy
that made art and idol and sovereign to me,
like all things men want in spite of their best interests.
Here in poem 285, he admits to his sins of idolatry and suggests that he knew it was wrong to do all of the time, but did it despite that. In this poem he is readying himself for death and judgment by admitting to all of his wrongdoings in life. It is here that we begin to see what I consider the misfortunes of the Neoplatonist philosophy. During his life, it is said that Michelangelo was never satisfied with the work he did. He is said to have been moody and depressed much of the time. By examining his philosophical ideals one can begin to see potential reasons for this dissatisfaction with life and with his achievements. The Neoplatonist philosophy teaches that perfection can never be achieved by mortal hands. No accomplishment ever lives up to the ideal that is taught, no thought can ever equal the ideal thoughts, and no earthly representation stands a chance of coming close. Michelangelo's entire life's work was doomed from the start to be second rate to the ideal he chased. From the beginning he knew that he would never be able to approach what he perceived to be perfection. And at the end of his life he began to feel that even the pursuit of that perfection was wrong, that it was sinful of him to even attempt to live up to the divine ideal.
Aristotelian thought seems to provide a bit more hope for the artist than Neoplatonism in that it acknowledges the value of earthly existence and in fact praises the artist as a creator like God. As mentioned above, the scholar Machiavelli wrote in Aristotelian tones. Machiavelli is concerned with the state of the world. In his Discourses, he attempted to develop a solution to improve the earthly state of life. He looked back to Aristotle's teachings about observing the world, in order to solve many of the problems of the Renaissance. He suggested that the lack of appreciation of the world and its history was an error. Many of societies problems were a result of ignoring history, or failing to imitate it: "This is due...to the lack of proper appreciate of history, owning to people failing to realize the significance of what they read, and to their having to taste for the delicacies it comprises" (Machiavelli, 98). He argued that by properly observing the successes and failures of the past, proper conduct for the future could be derived.
In his work, Machiavelli looked at the successes and failures of Rome. He examined the rise and fall of emperors and kings, as well as what they did right and what they did wrong. He used these observations to propose a solution to the disorganization of his modern society. The exact solution is inconsequential to this discussion, it is the mere fact that he advocated not just appreciating the past, but also observing it, learning from it, and when appropriate emulating it that suggests a new pattern of thought. His work criticized leaders' lack of vision when saying, "hence it comes about that the great bulk of those who read [history] take pleasure in hearing of the various incidents which are contained in it," but he stresses that they must do more:
but [these readers] never think of imitating them, since they hold them to be not merely difficult but impossible of imitation, as if the heaven, the sun, the elements and man had in their motion, their order, and their potency, become different from what they used to be (Machiavelli, 98).
Here he argued that man and the makeup of the world and the heavens are the same as they always have been, and thus man should be able to imitate the past and accomplish the same feats. Despite his earthly focus, Machiavelli did not ignore the importance of spirituality, but he stressed its importance for a reason other than eternal salvation. He sighted Numa Pompilius' use of religious devotion as a means of commanding social order: "Numa, finding the people ferocious and desiring to reduce them to civic obedience by means of the arts of peace, turned to religion as the instrument necessary above all others for the maintenance of a civilized state" (Machiavelli, 139). Like Aristotle, Machiavelli believed in ethics and moral virtue. Machiavelli believed that religion can bring about moral and social order if used correctly, but that the current state of the Roman Church had destroyed the concept of virtue and the possibility of redeeming it. He suggested that their lack of political strength promoted social disorder and unrest causing chaos which bred immorality and extinguished virtue. But he also suggested that their insistence on being the center of every aspect of life prevented a more capable temporal power from imposing order and thus allow people to live in rest and virtue. Thus he recommended that the Church either take firm control over the government or hand it over to a power capable of doing so. (Machiavelli, 145)
Primarily due to this indecision on the part of the Roman Church, Machiavelli suggested that the Christian religion as it stood with a weak backbone did not permit virtue and honor: "For our religion, having taught us the truth and the true way of life, leads us to ascribe less esteem to worldly honour" (Machiavelli, 277). He continued by arguing that
this pattern of life, therefore, appears to have made the world weak, and to have handed it over as a prey to the wicked, who run it successfully and securely since they are well aware that the generality of men, with paradise for their goal, consider how best to bear, rather than how to best avenge, their injuries (Machiavelli, 278).
Here he suggested that it was not due to the nature of the religion itself, but rather due to the misinterpretation of it by the powers of the Church that caused this lack of virtue and honor:
Though it looks as if the world were becoming effeminate and as if heaven were powerless, this undoubtedly is due rather to the pusillanimity of those who have interpreted our religion in terms of laissez faire, not in terms of virtú. For, had they borne in mind that religion permits us to exalt and defend the fatherland, they would have seen that it also wishes us to love and honour it, and to train ourselves to be such that we may defend it (Machiavelli, 278).
He states that ancient Rome should be an example to his modern society that pious religion and virtuous honor can live side by side and that this was indeed necessary for the health of society. He suggested that society cannot only look to a higher truth, but must also look to the truth around it in order to be successful, and as Aristotle also suggested, earthly life is valuable as a demonstration of the power of creation, and not merely as a trial through which to suffer until salvation is achieved.
The Renaissance Man looked to the past for philosophical inspiration. He found it in men like Plato and Aristotle. The teachings of these men pervaded the works and lives of many of these Renaissance thinkers. While the melancholy Michelangelo mourned over his inability to achieve Platonic greatness, scholars like Machiavelli followed Aristotle's lead and delved into the world around them, perceiving it as more than a place to suffer until salvation, but also as a place to appreciate and save.
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