To understand this search for who we are and how what we think of ethics and morals has evolved, it helps to look back to the time when religion still dominated. If you go back too far it gets impossible to know just what people were thinking, not that it’s possible to know what anyone is thinking at any given moment even in the present, but at least we start to find more articulate writing sometime around the 12th century. To get to those early Humanists, I’ll first tell what I think is the fascinating story of how Western ideas traveled east then returned over the course of a millennium.
The 4th to the 14th centuries
As Rome fell, Plato and Aristotle fell out of favor. And when you fall out of favor in a warring ancient empire, it’s a lot worse than having your facebook account revoked. Anything written that contradicted an emperor could be burned, sometimes along with its author. Much of their works were taken east to Istanbul, which became Constantinople, the center of the Byzantine Empire. This was a Christian empire so they weren’t too interested in what the writings said, but they kept them. Language was also changing so even if someone wanted to read them they would need special training.
When the walls of Constantinople were finally breached by the Muslims, the writings were passed on to that Empire. They didn’t do much with them either, other than create copies and translate them into Arabic. Four hundred years later Ibn Rushd (also known as Averroes), schooled in law, theology, medicine, physics and more was commissioned to figure out just what those men were trying to say. He had to do this while maintaining his position in a theocracy. That is, he tried to balance the godless world of reason with his employers who were working to spread the word of Allah throughout that same world.
By this time, the Muslim Empire had reached its peak and was beginning to fall apart because it’s just plain difficult to maintain an empire that size and they continued to choose emperors based on the inheritance of kings instead of any merits of those kings. Also, the theologian Al-Ghazali had become popular with his Revival of the Religious Sciences, saying they needed to get back to their spiritual roots. He sparred with Averroes, writing Incoherence of the Philosophers and Averroes responding with Incoherence of the Incoherence. Averroes spent much of his last years in prison, so you can see how that went. In the next century, the Mongols sacked Baghdad and the Muslim Empire has never recovered. Fortunately, they survived long enough to ally with European Christian armies and prevent the spread of the Mongols further west. Not only did we never send them a thank you note, we took the works of Averroes and other translations and philosophy and made it our own.
With the works of the Greeks now reunited, it fell on the likes of the Christian Thomas Aquinas and the Jewish scholar Maimonides to take another stab at unifying the ancient with the modern. The 13th century version of "modern" anyway. Teaching of Aristotle’s works was already under the watchful eye of the religious leaders. They were fine with logic and biology but wary of the metaphysics, psychology and anything touching on values. Professors had to stop teaching these subjects at the University of Paris or move to Oxford or Toulouse. These debates continued on to 1277 when a somewhat hastily thrown together list of Condemnations was published.
The idea of churches controlling what universities teach seems ridiculous today, so this is often seen as a horrible period of suppression of knowledge. It is also seen as the beginning of science since the result of the Condemnations was to divide the areas of the study of religious matters, like who or what ultimately controls the universe or what is or isn’t a miracle from areas allowed to be studied methodically like the motion of objects in space or the workings of living creatures. There was also dogmatic adherence to Aristotle and these bans forced the professors to develop proofs of his ideas. There is no one point of the beginning of science. Applications of scientific principles can be found in pre-Christian Rome and throughout the Muslim Empire as well as India, China and the Americas; however 1277 was a turning point in human history. At least Aquinas got sainthood not long after he died, which meant the Condemnations pertaining to him had to be adjusted. The world was changing quickly from then on.
Not much was going on in the development of philosophy for that thousand years, but then voices like Erasmus began to emerge. His training was in the priesthood because that’s pretty much what you did if you wanted an education, you studied the Bible, in Latin. Hardly anyone spoke it, but it was the language of the Vulgate Bible, the one that was assembled in 382. It remained The Bible until scholars tried to reconcile it to the original Greek and began to question the meaning of words, verses and whole books. This scholarly work grew out of the Renaissance and it has direct parallels to the work being done today to rescue Christianity from the hands of the Fundamentalists. With his reinterpreted version of the New Testament, Desiderius Erasmus hoped to restore and rebuild the Christian religion. He did not care for the 4th century theology of St. Augustine preferring that of the earlier Origen of Alexandria who only garnered the title of Church Father, not sainthood.
Augustine wrote extensively on what horrible creatures we are and how we can be nothing but sinners due to our fall from grace in the Garden of Eden. Wikipedia summarizes his text titled On the wretchedness of the human condition thus; The text is divided into three parts; in the first part the wretchedness of the human body and the various hardships one has to bear throughout life are described; the second lists man's futile ambitions, i.e. affluence, pleasure and esteem, and the third deals with the decay of the human corpse, the anguish of the damned in hell and the Day of Judgment. Origen and then Erasmus did not see it that way. Reading critiques of Christianity today, you would never know this debate ever occurred. You would most likely be familiar with Pope Innocent III who launched one of the crusades. Innocent was a fan of Augustine. But most likely you have not heard of the response to it On the Dignity and Excellence of Man by the early humanist and Christian writer Giannozzo Manetti.
Manetti and others developed the principles of Christian humanism; every person is sacred and autonomous, we are participants in our salvation, not passive actors waiting for the end times, and religious pluralism. Pluralism was also being expressed by Sufi writers at the time like Ibn al-Arabi who said god is not limited by any one creed. With all of these men, a connection to their traditions was still maintained. Al-Arabi famously said, “So for wherever you turn, there is Allah.” He may have seen the divine in every face, but the divine was the god he grew up with. He did not relinquish his faith. Since their ability to get published was highly dependent on maintaining a faith statement, they may have hid their private thoughts.
An art historian who believes he has uncovered some evidence of this dynamic between artist and patron is Antonio Forcellino. While cleaning a sculpture made by Michelangelo he found a flaw and theorized that in the middle of making the piece, it had been changed. His theories about Michelangelo might be wrong, but they are interesting to consider. In 1505 Michelangelo was commissioned by Julius II to paint the Sistine Chapel. In 1513 Julius dies. Michelangelo has been paid to sculpt statues for his tomb but this is a time of contention among Catholic leaders and they pull him into other work. His work continues to be pulled in two directions by Popes and Cardinals.
They are also vying with each other to either split off the newly forming Protestants or work on reform within. Some of them, including Cardinal Reginald Pole, start a society called the Spirituali. Michelangelo is known to have attended some of their meetings. They eventually had to start meeting in secret when Pope John Paul III established an official Congregation of the Inquisition. When Michelangelo finally completes the tomb of Julius II it appears he may have included symbolism indicating his leanings toward that group, rather than the Church that was actually paying him. He included a torch, which could be a symbol of the power to enlighten and the Protestant belief that works alone can’t bring you to Christ, and Moses is looking to the left, not at the altar where the church leader is but instead searching for the light and contact with God. When Michelangelo died, his body was whisked away by his Spirituali friends and many of his papers went with it, so we may never really know
I used the book God’s Philosophers as a source. This link is to a negative review, but it links to rebuttals right at the top. I wanted to provide more than one perspective on this book.
Randall Poole Alsworth lecture on humanism
Randall Poole Alsworth lecture on humanism