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Lesson 35. The Renaissance (1350-1600 AD)

We began this course, studying the life of Abraham in ancient Sumeria. We have followed the story of God’s work of creation and salvation, and man’s response to it. We have seen that, as history goes on, the devil works harder to confuse and discourage Christians with lies and persecutions brought against the true Church. The Crusades exhausted many Christians and those who did not share the Church’s holy zeal for protecting Our Lord’s name and sacred places became consumed with desires for their own personal wealth and power. We saw that during the Crusades, while princes and armies took up the Cross, many who remained home used the opportunity to gather lands and wealth to themselves. We have even seen the Eastern Christians seek to take advantage of the Roman Catholics while they were engaged with pagan enemies! A clear division was made between those men who lived to store up treasure in heaven, and those who lived to store up treasure on earth.

The next significant event in world history is known today as the “Renaissance”, which is a French word meaning “the Rebirth”. We should ask, as we look at the history following the Crusades: “Rebirth of what?”. The answer to that question will prove to be shocking to all true Catholics, and the effects of this “rebirth” are responsible for much of what we are experiencing today in the Modern World. There are many different ideas about what this period really was about, but I’d like you to consider it in light of all that we have already studied in World Chronology. It is no mystery where this movement originated. We’ve seen it before.

THE FOOL AND HIS FOLLY

Through our study of the history of the world, we have watched as holy men, heroic men, heavenly men have offered their lives for the kingdom of God. It began in ancient times with Abraham, leaving his family and people to receive God’s promises of a holy land of his own, where he would be free to worship God without fear, all the days of his life. We saw this battle continue through the lives of Moses, David, the Prophets, the Maccabees, John the Baptist, Our Blessed Lord, the Apostles, the Catholic martyrs, the Church Fathers, the Catholic monks, the Catholic missionaries, Charlemagne and, most recently, the Crusaders. Christendom had overcome every enemy and God had brought the entire Roman Empire into her service. But then, a cowardly and immoral generation arose that simply didn’t appreciate the achievements and sacrifices of past generations and was lured, by the devil, to look back upon pagan times with falsely imagined happy memories. A fairy tale “golden age” of civilization was suddenly imagined to have existed before the Christian era, which, in place of the orderliness of Catholic faith and morals, was judged to offer hope of happiness for “modern” people.

The rules and limits which the pagan world had been subjected to by the Saints were slowly removed and pagan thought and culture was given a second birth. That which did not satisfy men when it was at its greatest glory, which was abandoned by the world for the transcendant beauty of Christianity, was suddenly proposed to be a source of blessing to men. The Proverb was fulfilled:

“As a dog that returneth to his vomit, so is the fool that repeateth his folly.”

The Christian world was quietly swept away with an unrealistic attraction to whatever might be called “classical”, though what was good of the classical world–it’s moral philosophy which led it to Christ–was not what was being sought. What was meant by “classical” was the indulgence of post-war Greece during what we call the “Golden Age”, and the luxury of post-Republican Rome, which age we call the “Pax Romana”. Both of these times were times of rest from war and trouble, and both of these times were occasions for running to the opposite extreme: seeking in place of the rigors and terrors of war the indulgence of the flesh during times of peace. These times, while always seeming to be necessary after such difficulties, pave the way for future evils by filling men with bad habits, raising generations of children that know none of the former discipline, and raising standards of self-indulgence to levels that are unsustainable. All of these conditions lead to moral decay and the ruin of civilization. Fools, however, repeat their folly.

THE REVIVAL OF HUMANISM

The Catholic Church had successfully cultivated a civilization where doing God’s will on earth was the goal and living a life that would make sense eternity was the norm. What are now called the “Middle Ages” were years of human civilization that assumed that Christianity was true, that all men would give an account of their lives to God, and that the lives we live on earth can only be rightly understood in light of the day of judgment and the eternal conditions that would follow for every man. It was not intended to be an attempt to create “world peace”, to make man perfectly happy on earth or to eliminate all of the troubles of this life. It was a society that believed that all of our problems had already been solved by Our Lord. Individual men and women surrendered their liberties, their understanding, their bodily pleasures and their wills to God for the salvation of their own souls and for the souls of their fellow men. Kings built great cathedrals, the wealthy gave alms generously, priests and monks lived out their faith courageously, laymen served the Church selflessly. Individuals of every part of society were seen as different parts of a body that found their significance in contributing to the work of the “body of Christ”, the Church, and all pagan individualism was sacrificed for the sake of community. This was signified nowhere more clearly than in the vows of monastic Christians, who commited voluntarily to live in Poverty, Chastity and Obedience, in fulfillment of the call of Christ to “Seek first the kingdom of God”.

It was this self-sacrifice that men grew to find intolerable–especially by the end of the Crusades because men who remained at home took advantage of the absence of their fellow countryment and started a selfish battle for wealth and power. The other-worldiness of Christianity did not please men who loved this present world and they turned to serve themselves as immoral pagans (not the virtuous pagans) did. The glory and power and wealth of Christendom were all signs of its wisdom and reality, but men set on sinning are as good as blind to such obvious realities. Men wanted to exalt themselves, to please themselves, to enrich themselves and to do that there needed to be a break from Christian culture, a break from Church authority, a break from common life and a break from the call to self-sacrifice. There needed to be a return to the “humanism” of the ancient Greeks and Romans. This was what was reborn during the “Renaissance”.

The Greeks, as we learned, overcame the threat of Persian invasion, only to throw away any advantages they had by their inability to form a greater community among Greek city-states. After defeating the greatest army in the world in 480 BC, they were conquered by Philip and Alexander 150 years later, who followed the Greek wisdom the Greeks themselves ignored–with no excuse for such a loss. Likewise, the Romans living during the later Republic and into the Empire counted the patriotism and practical wisdom of the early Romans as old-fashioned and sought to turn the wealth and power of Rome to their own pleasure. Men killed one another for power, the ancient piety of Aeneas was lost, philosophy was abandoned and after passing all work on to slaves the Romans devoted themselves to gluttony and leisure. While Greece fell to the mighty Macedonians, Rome fell to inferior foes, beaten down by their own moral failures until the Empire was finally broken into pieces and lost.

What ruled these cultures was an idea summarized in the saying of an ancient Greek named Protagoras: “Man is the measure of all things.” In other words, what made a thing “good” or “bad”, “true” or “false”, “necessary” or “unnecessary” was not some absolute authority outside of a man, but the judgment of every man himself. It was this rule of life that was revived during the Renaissance–though the destruction it had caused was evident to all who had eyes to see. This teaching was rejected in the classical world by the ancient wise men that included Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca and so on. Therefore, we must be careful to note that the “classical” ideas that were reborn during the Renaissance do not represent what was good about the “classical” world, but what was wrong with it. This clarification is ignored by people today who think of the “classical world” as what was revived during the Renaissance, rather than what actually gave the Classical World its timeless glory and the universal respect of good men in the Christian era. Remember, what the Renaissance revived was what was evil and wrong about the Classical World–not what was good and right about it.

Today, we call this idea “relativism”, where every man judges himself to be his own judge of good, bad, right, wrong, necessary, unnecessary, true, false, etc.. It is a source of social chaos that has nothing but selfishness as its source and end. In ancient times, the Jews referred to lands without God’s law with these words: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what he thought best.” That wasn’t considered to be a good thing, but a bad thing.

The idea revived during the Renaissance is completely contrary to God’s commandments and the Catholic faith. Consider how the famous saying of St. Ignatius of Loyola compares to the saying of Protagoras and you will understand clearly the difference:

“We should always be disposed to believe that that which appears white to us is really black, if the hierarchy of the Church so decides.”

God is the authority in all things, for it is never what we think of something but what God does that should guide our lives and decisions. Our knowledge is so limited, our understanding so dark, our will so fragile, that we can hardly judge rightly for ourselves.

THE ARTS FOR ARTS’ SAKE

As the eyes of men turned away from heaven and judgment day, their thoughts also turned away from the rigorous truth-seeking studies of medieval classroom to the beauty-seeking studies of the Renaissance art studios. In medieval times, we might say that the goal of life was to possess what was True, Good and Beautiful, but during the Renaissance, truth and goodness were allowed to slip away and a false sense of “beauty” was pursued in their place.

Literature

In medieval times, there were very few classics of literature composed that did not treat of Theology or Philosophy. Everything written stood in the shadows of the great Summa Theologica, composed by St. Thomas Aquinas. In schools, the classical liberal arts were taught rigorously and those who mastered them, went out and taught them to others. This was very much like the work done in Israel by the Jewish prophets, or in Greece by Plato and Aristotle. Latin was the master language of the culture–not in the streets, but in the schools, universities, royal courts and churches. The Bible was in Latin, Mass and Prayers were said in Latin. The Music of the Church was the Latin chant of St. Gregory. The world was orderly and all men were expected to take their places in it.

The change that took place is symbolized for us in the great work of Dante Alighieri–the Divine Comedy. This work belongs both to the medieval world and to the Renaissance, being a mixture of the two. The Catholic Dante, in a dream, is led by the Roman poet Vergil through Hell, and Purgatory and then by another guide into Paradise. As he goes, he describes all that he sees. All of the famous people of the world are placed by the poet in their proper spot in the after life, with their perfectly appropriate punishments or rewards–and all is described in incredible detail. The content of all of this comes not from Dante’s creative mind, but from the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas. However, through his poetic art, Dante has spun the thick and difficult encyclopedia of St. Thomas into a fascinating journey. Subject matter and art are joined together beautifully to form a masterpiece.

However, in most cases, the Renaissance marked a change in subject matter as the Wisdom of the Catholic Church was cast aside that writers write give their attention to the vain efforts of ancient pagans to be unique. Most often, this meant giving all attention to the writing itself, making literature an end in itself, as it remains in most places today.

Fine Arts

When we think of the middle ages, again, we do not think of extraordinary art but of almsgiving and warfare. The Renaissance, as in classical Greece, brought in a time of leisure and luxury and the fine arts became ends in themselves. Aritsts worked to see who could make the most realistic sculpture or the most realistic painting, or who could build the most ornate columns and portals. The focus was not on the content of the art, nor of the value of the art to man in light of eternity, but on the art for its own sake. Art was compared with art to find who was the greatest artist.

There is no question that the works of this period are impressive! The perfection of technique in many arts led to the most amazing works of art. You can see in Michelangelo’s Pieta(right), how beautiful the fine arts can be when their subject is also true and good. Hopefully, you will have the opportunity to study more of these works in the CLAA’s Art History course. However, where the subject matter moved away from the heavenly and into the profane, the quality and effect of the arts took a giant step backwards. But, who are we to judge when “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”?

SUMMARY

By the end of the Crusades, zeal for the defense and expansion of Christendom was replaced in many place by a desire to simply make life on earth as pleasant as possible. This shift in attention led men to turn away from the other-worldly thoughts of previous generations and give themselves over to what proved, on many levels, to be vanity. Humanism led men to turn inward and relativism, as we shall see, filled the world with confusion, doubt and error. Our Lord taught us to judge a tree by its fruit, and we shall see in our next lesson when the fruit of Renaissance thinking is.

 

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