Paul Oskar Kristeller: Eight Philosophers of the Italian Renaissance

This series of lectures, Eight Philosophers of the Italian Renaissance (1964), contextualizes Renaissance humanism as well as any account I’ve read.

For those like me whose philosophical education jumped from Aristotle to Descartes (with very brief stops at Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas), the philosophy of Italian Renaissance humanism is very hard to pin down. Paul Oskar Kristeller was one of its greatest scholars (Eugenio Garin is the other one I’m familiar with), and the erudition on display here is fairly intimidating. So I offer a short summary and an outline of what I took to be the most remarkable points.

Existing outside the clerical Church structures of scholasticism, the humanists began with an emphasis on Latin literature and scholarship, but also returned to the Greek origins of many Roman and Christian ideas.

The eight writers covered are very heterogeneous. Even where they agree, there’s a looseness to their thinking that creates significant variations. Partly this is because rigorous logical philosophical thinking recedes in favor of a more rhetorical, literary approach. Eloquence and persuasion were central values.

Yet that shift away logic was emancipatory; the rigorous logic left the scholastics more trapped within medieval theological conceptions. (Though according to Hans Blumenberg, cracks were already showing up in scholastic thought, though in more subtle form.) Or perhaps it was simply a result of their not being of the Church.

It did not oppose religion or theology on its own ground; rather, it created a large body of secular learning, literature, and thought that coexisted with theology and religion.

These Renaissance philosophers represent a transitional stage from medievalism to modernity, and one in which religion still inflected studies outside the Church. Unlike Catholic scholasticism, with its rigorously focused logic deriving strictly from God and first principles, Kristeller indicates that humanism, however tentatively, made steps toward secularism through a greater separation from religion.

In the absence of empirical science and religious freedom, humanism did not find any real, final autonomy, which had to wait until Bacon, Descartes, Newton, Leibniz, and others had firmly declared for a secular science. But that isn’t to say that they weren’t thinkers who hold great interest. They brought a greater secular aspect to philosophy than the mostly Aristotelian Scholastics. (The more adventurous thought of Islamic and Jewish scholars, above all Averroes, clearly had a strong influence, but Kristeller only touches on this briefly for reasons of space.)

For Kristeller these thinkers represent first, the liveliness of the continuous transformation of philosophical ideas in a somewhat progressive development, and second, the urge toward freedom of thought and expression, which Kristeller appears to prize above all else.

So here is a summary of the eight covered and their general place, at least in Kristeller’s account.

  • Petrarch (1304-1374)
    • Latin writings were as significant as his Italian poems through the Renaissance.
    • Pre-humanist, but the central precursor.
    • Preferred Plato to Aristotle, against medieval tradition, but esteemed and promoted both of them in the original Greek.
    • Lover of solitude, and melancholic. Uses acidia not to mean sloth, but “suffering mixed with pleasure”: melancholy.
    • “Petrarch contributes to secularizing not only the content of learning, but also the personal attitude of the scholar and writer; unlike his succssors, however, he hesitates, since he is held back by religious scruples.”
  • Lorenzo Valla (1407-1457)
    • Sets tone for humanists in focusing on moral and human problems and the place of humanity in the universe.
    • Gives up on question of free will vs. divine predestination, suggesting humility and avoiding curiosity about unanswerable questions.
    • In general, subordinates philosophy to faith.
    • “On Pleasure” is a dialogue pitting a Stoic against an Epicurean and a Christian. The Epicurean easily wins by claiming that virtue needs to be useful, not just for its own sake, and the Christian then triumphs by saying that virtue is useful for the sake of future happiness.
    • Unusually oriented around the physical and bodily, stressing haeven’s corporeal pleasures as greater than anything on earth (though the intellectual pleasures are greater still).
    • A “vulgarized Epicureanism,” a “Christian Epicureanism.”
    • Borrows from and praises Quintillian heavily: “a typical humanist tendency to subordinate logic to rhetoric” (contra scholasticism). Combining simplified logic with rhetoric and grammar.
  • Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499)
    • Founder of the Florentine Renaissance Platonist school, and a dedicated Platonist, though an even more dedicated Christian.
    • Believes Platonism and Christianity are in harmony with one another as the ultimate philosophy and religion, respectively.
    • First to give a detailed cosmological account to attempt to place humanity in it, revising the neo-Platonic account of Plotinus to place the human soul at the center/mean of everything.
    • Knowledge of God is the ultimate goal of human life and is attainable in this life by a few fortunate souls.
    • No real ethics. “His whole moral doctrine…may be said to be a reduction of all specific rules to a praise of the contemplative life.”
    • Ultimate concern is with the necessity of immortality for humanity’s purpose–the “contemplative ascent toward God”–to be fulfilled (in the next world).
    • Love is the basic principle of action. Love between humans is mere preparation for love of God.
    • Gives a nascent account of natural religion, believing it innate to humanity.
  • Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494)
    • Prodigious and aggressively syncretist: attempted to show that every philosophy was in harmony with one another, and fundamentally in harmony with the ultimate truth of Christianity.
    • Believed “all known philosophical and theological schools and thinkers contained certain true and valid insights that were compatible with each other and hence deserved to be restated and defended.”
    • Though a Florentine Platonist, his major goal was to reconcile Plato and Aristotle, and then reconcile that with whatever else he could find.
    • Less antagonistic toward scholastic thought and attempts to absorb its insights.
    • Studied Jewish and Islamic thought extensively, particularly Cabala, whose numerical “interpretation” methods he utilized.
    • Elevates humanity to a unique, esteemed place in the cosmos, outside the hierarchy of angelic, celestial, and elementary.
    • Attacked astrology stridently, but still accepted magic; any naturalism he evinces is not in fact scientific.
  • Pietro Pomponazzi (1462-1525)
    • Seemingly Kristeller’s favorite, and not without reason. He tries hard to separate theology and philosophy while retaining their coexistence. A more radical empiricist than any preceding thinker.
    • Representative of a naturalistic, non-theological “secular Aristotelianism” (“Paduan Averroeism”, though its members were not all studying Aristotle via Islamic Aristotelian Averroes). [contra Ficino]
    • Stylistically far closer to scholastic prolixity rather than humanist elegance.
    • Treatise on Immortality endorses the idea that intellect is not separable from the body, though the soul is immortal “in some respects.”
    • Emphasis on practical reason: Rejects Aristotle’s (and others’) endorsement of contemplation. “The end of human life [is] moral virtue because this end is attainable by all human beings without exception.”
    • Virtue should be sought without expectation to a reward. Concludes that “those who assert that the soul is mortal seem to preserve the notion of virtue much better than those who assert that it is immortal.”
    • “Virtue is its own reward, and vice its own punishment”: morality is not dependent on religion. [contra Valla]
    • Immortality of the soul cannot be known and must be taken on faith alone.
    • Attempted “to draw a clear line of distinction between reason and faith, philosophy and theology, and to establish the autonomy of reason and philosophy within their own domain, unassailable by the demands of faith, or of any claim not based on reason.”
    • Kristeller editorializes: “Our life and our person are not made of reason alone, and the more we are aware of this fact, the better it is. But reason is the only tool we have for bringing a ray of light and order into the great, dark chaos from which we were born, into which we shall return, and by which we are surrounded on all sides.”
  • Bernardino Telesio (1509-1588)
    • The first of the primarily naturalist philosophers, distinct from both the Platonists and Aristotelians, more secular and modern. Bacon called him “The first of the moderns.”
    • Attempts to give an account of nature independent of an established tradition and authority. Their lack of success is in failing to find a method and not recognizing the importance of mathematics.
    • Argues against Aristotle on several points: asserts that time is not dependent on motion, and that empty space is possible. A move toward Newton.
    • Kristeller suspects he originated the use of “spatium” in place of “locus” is an indicator of this move toward what Newton would codify, and for treating space and time as complementary fundamental concepts.
    • Naturalistic account of humans: spirit is ruled by principle of self-preservation. Pleasure and pain are primary, but virtue serves self-preservation rather than pleasure.
  • Francesco Patrizi (1529-1597)
    • Like Telesio, neither Aristotelian nor Platonist. Likewise, presents a naturalistic, systematic picture of the universe.
    • Literary, classical, and mathematical. Influenced by Platonism and humanism more than Aristotelianism, partly owing to his semi-Platonic mathematical orientation.
    • His Poetics is hostile to Aristotle (whom Kristeller says is the basis for the “Chicago school of criticism” even today), yet did much helpful scholarship on Aristotle.
    • Nova de universis philosophia is his cosmology. Includes a bizarre analysis of physical and metaphysical properties of light: “light occupies an intermediary place between divine, incorporeal things and corporeal objects.” “Light is said to be infinite, and may be considered incorporeal in its source, while it is both incorporeal and corporeal when considered in its state of irradiation, and thus mediates between God and the corporeal world.” (See Hans Blumenberg again for light as an “absolute metaphor.”)
    • Mathematics and especially geometry is prior to physics. Space itself is “both a body and incorporeal.”
    • Abandons heavenly spheres, which even Copernicus had retained. Stars move freely in the aether, anticipating Tycho Brahe.
    • Very transitional: still pre-scientific, but mostly free of occultism.
  • Giordano Bruno (1548-1600)
    • By far the most radical and heretical, and was burnt at the stake as a result. “A martyr, not so much of modern science, but rather of his convictions and of philosophical liberty.”
    • First major philosopher to adopt Copernican system, first to dispose of celestial-earthly dichotomy and hierarchical view of nature. Strongly attacks Aristotle.
    • Opposes vulgar love to “heroic love.” “Heroic love has a divine object, and leads the soul in a gradual ascent from the sense world through intelligible objects toward God. The union with God, which is the ultimate and infinite goal of our will and intellect, cannot be attained during the present life. Hence heroic love is for the philosopher a continuous torment. But it derives an inherent nobility and dignity from its ultimate goal, which will be reached after death.”
    • Reverses Aristotle’s conception of substance: God is a substance, and His effects are accidents. Anticipates Spinoza this way, but “no tangible evidence” Spinoza knew of Bruno.
    • A universal and ubiquitous “world soul” as “the constituent formal principle of the world, just as matter is its constituent material principle.”
    • Form and matter are perpetual “and mutually determine each other, whereas the bodies composed of form and matter are perishable, and must be regarded not as substances but as accidents.”
    • “In God, form and matter, actuality and potentiality, coincide.”
    • Ergo, universe is “one and infinite.”
    • Despite this pantheistic, immanentistic strain, Kristeller doubts Bruno sought to be an extreme pantheist or naturalist, retaining some non-pantheistic aspects of his predecessors.
    • Cosmology is parallel to metaphysics, depicting finite worlds contained within an infinite universe. (Copernicus had not declared the infinity of the universe. This is Bruno’s invention via Lucretius.)
    • Stresses Spinozan parallels: “Aside from many other differences, it was quite natural for Spinoza to replace Bruno’s two basic principles, form (or soul) and matter, which have a Neoplatonic, and if you wish an Aristotelian, origin, with the attributes of thought and extension, which are derived from teh system of Descartes.”

Obviously Bruno is quite far from Petrarch, and Kristeller’s portrayal of the philosophical momentum is quite effective. Even in contemporaneous thinkers, there are great differences between logic and rhetoric, nature and theology, rationalism and empiricism, scholasticism and rhetoric.

It is yet another example of the danger in reductively classifying the thought of any given period, as people are wont to do with rationalism, empiricism, the Enlightenment, Romanticism, modernism, and so on and on, sometimes to praise them, sometimes to pillory them.

In words that anticipate many poststructuralist and cultural studies thinkers, he writes:

I find that much lip service is being padi to the humanities in academic circles, but that they are notably absent from our public discussion, which, when it rises above purely practical matters, seems to leave us with nothing but the bleak alternative between science and religion. I am also dismayed when I hear and read that our heritage, aside from our political institutions, consists solely of the scientific method and the Judaeo-Christian tradition, as if we owed nothing to Greek philosophy, or to other aspects of ancient, medieval, or early modern civilization, or as if the “Judaeo-Christian tradition” itself, a very complex and diversified tradition, did not derive many of its elements from Greek philosophy, as most thoughtful and informed students of religion and theology are quite ready to admit.

And of course this extends to Islamic philosophy, Jewish philosophy, and many other traditions and subtraditions which go mostly ignored but which have all contributed their share.