Copyright (c) 2001 First Things 112 (April 2001): 44-48.
The Waning of the Renaissance, ca. 1550–1640. By William J. Bouwsma. Yale University Press. 266 pp. $22.95.
Reviewed by Robert Royal
In the usual historiography, the development of the West, like Caesar’s Gaul, is divided into three parts. The Greeks and their successors in Rome lie at the beginning of everything; the Middle Ages include the decline of the classical heritage, a cultural Dark Ages, and a brief period of modest cultural expansion; and the Renaissance, as its name implies, is a rebirth of ancient glory and the start of the modern world. These divisions were first suggested by the great Renaissance figures themselves and were variously appropriated by a host of modern writers who, in one fashion or another, regarded the modern world as originating in the Renaissance.
But this schematic outline is problematic. Obviously, ancient Israel and its offshoot Christendom had a great deal to do with the rise of many characteristically Western ideas and institutions. What Gibbon portrayed as just one more of the oriental influences corrupting Roman virtue might be read as an answer to crises in classical civilization. Scholarship over the last few decades has painted a brighter picture of the years formerly thought to constitute the Dark Ages, and we have seen a series of writers from the neo–scholastics to Christopher Dawson to Peter Brown who have made it impossible to think of the long period between the ancient world and the Renaissance as a mere interlude.
William J. Bouwsma, a professor emeritus of history at Berkeley, adds another twist to the recalibration of the Western story. He argues that Whiggish notions (which he once accepted himself) of cultural history as moving more or less progressively from the Renaissance to the present overlook an inconvenient fact. Initially setting out to study the climax of the Renaissance, he came to believe that, like other periods, that climax also presaged a waning and an end. Indeed, he makes a very powerful and well–documented case that the very liberation from earlier notions which constituted the Renaissance induced a widespread doubt and anxiety, leading to a reaction by some of the most celebrated late–Renaissance figures such as Montaigne, Shakespeare, Richard Hooker, Descartes, and Cervantes. His title’s deliberate echoing of Huizinga’s classic The Waning of the Middle Ages is not unjustified. This book deeply changes the way we look at both the Renaissance and our relationship to it.
Though this volume is one of a series in the Yale Intellectual History of the West, Bouwsma calls it a cultural rather than an intellectual history. The latter term, he argues, is “not historically neutral,” and privileges ideas and intellectuals. The Renaissance was one of the great Western periods of transition, and change “is varied, complex, multi–directional, and even contradictory.” Jacob Burck hardt’s Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy is often taken as the source of our belief that we are the direct heirs of that period. Bouwsma reminds us early on that the patrician Swiss scholar most definitely did not admire the modern world. That often overlooked fact already introduces some doubt about the usual progressive history.
Bouwsma takes pains to give us a proper understanding of the early Renaissance background to his subject. Despite growing national identities and the rise of the nation–state in the sixteenth century, Europe still possessed a common culture. Even the Protestant Reformation and scientific developments, both of which led to great changes, did not result in the clear–cut differences that are often presented in standard histories. The use of vernacular languages and printing, for example, was common in both Protestant circles and in what Bouwsma terms the Catholic Reformation. Universities continued to attract scholars and students from all nations, whatever their allegiances; at Catholic Padua, for example, thousands of German Protestants took degrees, though the Vatican was not delighted about it. In short, neither political nor religious differences broke up the “international Republic of Letters.”
That republic flourished in the sixteenth century, but its very successes caused a counterreaction. Bouwsma demonstrates this thesis by citing some of the great late–Renaissance figures twice—in the first part of the book as proponents of the new ways, and in the second part as examples of a growing reaction against them. The citations are copious: if there is any criticism to be made of this otherwise impeccable work, it is that the sheer number of quotations is overwhelming. Also, apparently in the interest of readability, Bouwsma does not give full references for quotations in the notes, which are relatively few. This makes it difficult to go to the originals of some quite enticing passages to appraise them in their full context.
The new ways initially were regarded as several kinds of liberations, beginning with a recasting of ideas about the human person. There had always been an element of Augustinianism in the West since Augustine himself, but it broke out in greater force during the Renaissance for several reasons. The passing of the old Ptolemaic cosmology and of notions such as eternal ideas or archetypes weakened belief in hierarchy, including, argues Bouwsma, the hierarchy that put human reason above other features of human nature. Earlier, Augustine’s Confessions had not been much valued; now it became a guide to an age that embraced notions of individuality and direct contact with God. Figures as different and distant in time as Luther and Pascal shared that perspective. Indeed, reason—and even the senses—were often seen as untrustworthy and self–deceiving; such unity of the human person as existed was found in the heart.
Other changes accompanied this shift in the conception of human nature. Epistemology, the study of how we attain sure knowledge, took on a much higher profile, primarily because knowledge became much more complex. Authorities, whether Christian or pagan, were much less highly regarded than previously. Disputes as well as outright war between Catholics and Protestants led to a new generation of Christian skeptics on both sides. For some figures, it was a short step from skepticism to relativism. One result of the shaking of the larger intellectual vistas was that ordinary life received much more attention. Montaigne, representative of the whole phenomenon in one dimension of his thinking, downplayed speculation even in the sciences (which seemed to him as divided as theology and philosophy over contradictory theories) and argued that the true object of knowledge was how to live and die well.
The new cultural energy also led to a new sense of time and value. Newspapers began in the sixteenth century and the notion of “news” in the modern sense appeared for the first time. Renaissance interest in the classical world notwithstanding, many people began to feel that the ancients could be superseded by the moderns. Francis Bacon, for example, argued that because the modern world had inherited so much and discovered new things, it was actually older than the ancient world. The Venetian critic of the Council of Trent Paolo Sarpi attacked the naive attempt to replace the existing church with an allegedly pure primitive church—in several ways a parallel to doubts about the higher virtues of the ancient pagans.
Along with this liberation of time, Bouwsma argues, there occurred a liberation of space. The voyages of discovery brought European hubris and expansionism, but also greater humility as the achievements of other civilizations became known. The newly discovered cosmos and world, however, disoriented as much as they enlarged the mind. Biblical interpretation and theology until then had been very much tied to ancient and medieval views of nature. Galileo tried to bring order to the new moment by arguing that the Bible showed us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.
The new notions of time and space affected Renaissance politics and religion, though Bouwsma points out that a figure like Machiavelli shows how new ideas about society were emerging even before science and exploration had shaken the old hierarchies. Hobbes, of course, saw nothing but amorality in nature—hardly a basis for political order. Even Catholics like Francisco Vitoria, Francisco Suárez, and Robert Bellarmine began to think the unity and hierarchy of the Holy Roman Empire of only limited scope. Bouwsma usefully complexifies the often simplistic portrayals of the differences between Catholic and Protestants, noting that there were various schools within both large groupings. Catholics came in antipapal and papal varieties; Protestants squabbled over questions of free will and reached opposite conclusions, as Calvinism and Arminianism showed.
Just as the idea of progress was beginning to emerge in the later sixteenth century, however, anxiety and doubt began to grow. The new culture had created a freedom that led to anxiety because it had “eroded traditional patterns of order that were equally necessary.” In this view, freedom and anxiety were “two aspects of the same mentality.” The mood known as melancholy, which Robert Burton defined as “fear and sorrow without a cause,” also became common in various circles. Theater flourished for several reasons, not least because it created temporary community among spectators, but also because it suggested the “possibility of a moral order governing the chaos of ordinary experience.” Theater also reflected worries about identity that had not existed earlier; the expansion of possibilities seemed to fragment individual unity. All these negative emotions helped bring about the slow turn to a renewed culture of order.
Bouwsma devotes the second half of his book to that countertendency. In his telling, appeals to nature, reason, and the literal sense of Scripture—which had never entirely disappeared, of course—began to in crease. Philosophy began to revive in both Catholic and Protestant circles. (Figures as different as Giordano Bruno, Tommaso Campanella, and Cotton Mather regarded themselves as Thomists.) Descartes, Bacon, and Hobbes, in their various ways, are “unusually anxious,” says Bouwsma, which is one of the driving forces behind their search for new certainties. The term “civilization” was coined about this time and clearly suggests the belief that proper habits and education might do the work of philosophy in restoring social order among the common people. The confidence and expansiveness of the early Renaissance had led to an incoherence that became unendurable.
Montaigne, for example, is often regarded by modern scholars as a skeptic and a man of large views. Bouwsma cites many passages where that side of Montaigne is certainly in evidence. But Montaigne’s doubts about various theories and the human mind itself (“an erratic, dangerous, and heedless tool”) could also lead him to support for settled arrangements in which he sounds at times like Edmund Burke:
It is very easy to engender in a people a contempt for their ancient observances; never did a man undertake that without succeeding. But as for establishing a better state in place of the one they have ruined, many of those who have attempted it have achieved nothing for their pains.
Even Montaigne’s religious beliefs inclined towards the settled and tried as a remedy for endless experiments: “I accept other people’s choices, and stay in the position where God put me. Otherwise I could not keep my self from rolling about incessantly.”
Though the Council of Trent (1545–1563) is often cited as the high point of the Catholic Counter–Reformation, Bouwsma points out that Protestants felt a similar need for self–definition after the experimentation of the early sixteenth century. Lutherans approved the Formula of Concord in 1577 and the Reformed met in the Synod of Dort in 1619. Most ecclesial groups emphasized creeds as a way to evaluate orthodoxy or the lack thereof. A similar return to principles may be detected in the arts, where the three unities in drama and classical models replaced a more freewheeling spirit. Bouwsma concludes, “The general impression this period presents is one of tension between the fundamental needs of both freedom and order.”
Some readers may be tempted into thinking that Bouwsma has projected back onto the late Renaissance our contemporary feeling of dislocation and anxiety. In a few instances, such as when he characterizes Renaissance skepticism as in part a denial that language can be anything more than arbitrary or can correspond to reality, there is a whiff of anachronism. But the fact that it is only a whiff and that such instances are rare is one measure of his overall achievement. That our worries make us sensitive to similar feelings five hundred years ago is, in Bouwsma’s capable hands, a useful and enlightening corrective to the usual overly rosy picture of the Renaissance.
And the tale he tells has another moral for us. The waning and end of the Renaissance produced the Enlightenment, an age with which we really were in a direct line of descent until recently. Our time may parallel the late Renaissance in that the liberations of the last century and the bloody attempts at order in reaction to them may indicate that we, too, are headed for a new synthesis of those two perennial human needs, freedom and order. It has happened before.
Robert Royal is President of the Faith and Reason Institute.