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Sunday, May 12, 2013

Ethical Concerns of the Renaissance

Nicholas Copernicus

Alice C. Linsley


Pico della Mirandola: 1463 – 1494 AD
Niccoló Machiavelli: 1469 – 1527 AD
Copernicus: 1473 – 1543 AD
Michelangelo: 1475 – 1564 AD
Emperor Charles V: 1500 – 1558 AD
John Calvin: 1509 – 1564 AD
Jesuit Order founded: 1540 AD
Giordano Bruno: 1548 – 1600 AD
Jacob Böehme : 1575 – 1624 AD
Period of Religious Wars: 1560 – 1598 AD
Spanish Armada defeated: 1588 AD

The Renaissance was a cultural movement beginning in the 14th century that involved renewed interest in classical Greek and Roman culture, especially the arts and sciences. It was a time of great artistic achievement and many art works were inspired by pagan mythology. At the same time, the Catholic Church commissioned some of the greatest artists to paint and sculpt works for use in the basilicas and churches around Europe. This is how Michelangelo came to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City.

There was spirit of yearning for new things and a struggle between the old traditions and the hopeful ambitions of young rulers such as Niccoló Machiavelli. The Copernican system shifted thinking from mankind and earth as the center of the universe (anthropocentric) to solar-centrism. This idea was extended to consideration of many possible universes spiraling around many suns. Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543) faced challenges and hardships is his attempts to better understand the universe, yet he always maintained a personal ethic that placed truth as the highest value. He wrote, "[It is my] loving duty to seek the truth in all things, in so far as God has granted that to human reason."

In the area of natural theology there was a tendency toward monism, especially in the work of Jacob Böehme (1575–1624) and Giordano Bruno (1548–1600). Böehme conceived of the world as a living tree which from crown to roots was sustained by one life-giving sap. This was his metaphor for God. He thought of God as an “all-knowing, all-seeing, all-hearing, all-smelling, all-tasting” spirit.

This conception of the world as a living organism animated by the Spirit was developed also in Bruno’s writings. Instead of sap, Bruno’s metaphor was the all-animating light that shines where God directs just as an artist’s paintings require light. Bruno was influenced by Arab astronomy, Neoplatonism and Renaissance Hermeticism. Bruno lived for a while in Germany where he was excommunicated by the Lutherans for his pantheistic and unorthodox religious views. On February 17, 1600 Bruno was burned at the stake because he rejected the divinity of Christ, regarding Jesus as merely a skillful magician.

The Renaissance was also a period of educational reform during which many colleges and universities were established, especially by the Jesuits. Jesuit colleges and universities became the standard for excellence in Europe.

A time like our own?

The Renaissance began in Italy and spread to the rest of Europe, reaching England by the 16th century and northern Europe by the mid-17th century. This period must be viewed against the backdrop of religious upheaval and bloody conflict, the Bubonic plague, and the imperialism of the Ottoman Turks.

In some ways the Renaissance was a time like our own. We too face religious upheaval as is seen most recently within the worldwide of Anglican Communion which has split over the issues of women priests and ordination of non-celibate homosexuals. We have seen renewed interest in Paganism, in the form of Druid religion and Wicca. We live with new diseases such as Ebola and HIV/AIDS, and the resurgence of resistant strains of old diseases such a Tuberculosis and Polio. In education, parents are seeking alternatives to public schools, such as charter schools, home schooling and classical education schools. As Muslims of the Ottoman Empire sought to expand their territory, Jihadists today seek to establish a world empire under Islamic Law (Sharia).

The discovery of the New World expanded geographical horizons and stimulated European imaginations and economies. Likewise today we look to the heavens to discover new worlds and new perceptions of the world in which we live. Cooperative space exploration may lead to the discovery of habitable planets in other galaxies. The very thought stimulates the imagination and nurtures technological development.

This lesson concentrates on the 15th and 16th centuries because it was during these centuries that the key ethical questions of the Renaissance came into focus. The ethical questions of the Renaissance that will be addressed in this lesson are:

· The Dignity of Man
· Responsibility of the Wealthy
· Reform of Education and Healthcare
· The Power of Rulers
· Religious Intolerance and War
· Conscience and Individual Interpretation

On the dignity of Man

As we have seen in our study of the Middle Ages, the question of Human Nature was addressed by both Catholicism and Lutheranism. The Catholic position held that while humans are sinful due to the fall of Man, the image of God (imago Dei) with which humans were originally created is not fully erased. Human dignity is derived from being made in the “image and likeness of God.” The Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin did not deny that humans were created in God’s image, but they believed that that the fall so thoroughly corrupted us that we were robbed of our original dignity.

Our sinfulness is such that we no longer are free to desire communion with God. Our wills are in bondage to sin and we stand before the Creator as filthy beggars.

During the Renaissance, Luther’s view would be met by numerous challenges as Humanism developed. Humanism emphasizes the dignity of Man and the possibilities of rewards in this life, rather than rewards in heaven. Renaissance humanism represents a reaction against Church authority. It shifted the focus from Creator God to human creativity and from the supernatural to the natural. During the Renaissance, human achievements and creative potential took center stage. Humanist writers were able to share their ideas because of the development of printing.

The debate over the dignity of man was fed by both scientific discovery and humanistic literature. Copernicus proved that the sun was at the center of the planetary system, rather than earth, radically altering the worldview of many learned people. This was significant because earth and humanity could no longer be regarded as the center of the universe.

At the same time, the Italian philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, in a work titled “Oration on the Dignity of Man” exalted humanity as being capable of rising to the level of angels through philosophical speculation (here we see the continuing influence of Plato). He pictured humans between beasts and angels and insisted that by allowing reason to rule our emotions, we ascend to the level of angels. By acting against reason, we descend to the level of beasts. He asserted that only human beings could change themselves since humans alone have free will. His Oration on the Dignity of Man is considered the Manifesto of the Renaissance.

Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus shows the spirit of humanism in the character of Faustus who aspires to superhuman powers by making a pact with the devil. Faustus is both exalted and punished. He embodies the Renaissance fear of breaking with tradition and the fascination with pushing the boundaries of human endeavor.

The play opens with a monologue by Faust who is sitting in his study. He is contemplating all that he has studied and discovers that he is dissatisfied with his understanding of the world. As with Descartes, he has decided that his learning has not brought him to certainty; that he knows nothing after all. Faust seeks knowledge in Nostradamus and from an Earth-spirit.

As Faust reflects on the lessons of the Earth-spirit, his bookish friend Wagner invites him to take a walk. This scene comes after Faust’s tinkering with the idea of suicide. The sound of church bells on Easter morning prevent him, not out of religious obligation, but because they remind him of his happier days as a child.

Wagner and Faust take a walk into the town, where people are celebrating Easter. They hail Faust as he passes them because Faust's father, an alchemist himself, cured the plague. Faust is in a black mood. As they walk among the promenading villagers, Faust reveals to Wagner his inner conflict. Faust and Wagner see a dog, who they do not know is Mephistopheles in disguise, which follows them into the town.

Faust returns to his study, and the dog follows him. Faust translates the prologue of John’s Gospel, but cannot make sense of the first sentence – “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God.” He decides to translate it "In the beginning was the deed." Herein Faust demonstrates his lack of understanding the ancient Greek and of the Gospel itself. In his ignorance of God’s Word he is defenseless against Mephistopheles’urging to sign a pact with the devil in his own blood.

Doctor Faustus was performed twenty-five times between October 1594 and October 1597 and was one of the most popular plays of Renaissance England. The troupe that performed Marlowe’s play was called The Admiral’s Men because they were supported financially by their patron Charles Howard, 1st Earl of Nottingham, who commanded a squadron of ships escorting the Queen of Spain on a state visit in 1570.

Medieval patronage of the arts reached its peak during the Renaissance. Nobles vied with the Church for the services of the best artists, poets and philosophers. Wealthy families provided housing, food and a stipend in exchange for an artist’s work. Renaissance patronage made it possible for people like Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci to dedicate themselves to their work, but this was not without problems, as we will discover when we explore the ethics of patronage.

Responsibility of nobles and rulers

During the Renaissance the ideal nobleman was a literate and refined gentleman of courtly manners. He had responsibility for the care of servants, peasants and family members, which for noblemen of limited resources posed a considerable challenge. It was also a time when nobles sought to be patrons of great artists in order to gain social status.

Throughout the Middle Ages the Church had been the primary patron of the arts, but during the Renaissance new systems of patronage developed, such as family, organization and city-state patronage. An organization might commission work from an artist and provide his material needs until that work was finished. The Florentine wool guild, for example, was responsible for the adornment of the Cathedral in Florence and commissioned religious paintings and sculptures for that building.

The Renaissance saw greater centralization of power among wealthy rulers, sometimes called “new monarchs.” These were men who were able to command armies to control and even expand their territories. After a period of famine, plague and self-serving medieval chivalry, the new monarchs stirred Europe out of decline by forming new allegiances through Renaissance diplomacy and warfare. However, power struggles between kings also resulted in the destruction of lands and holdings. This was especially evident in Italy where the German Hapsburg kings and the French Valois kings engaged in a prolonged political tug-o-war.

Religion continued to play a role in government. Nowhere was this more evident than in Calvin’s Geneva where the Consistory maintained control over all aspects of civil and religious life. The Consistory was a council comprised of pastors and elders elected by district. This council maintained church discipline and morality throughout the city. Calvin has been accused of using the Consistory to advance his political aims and to respond harshly to those who challenged his authority. Some of his opponents were tortured and beheaded, and those accused of witchcraft were hunted and burned to death. In 1545, the Consistory charged 23 people with practicing witchcraft and they were burned at the stake in Geneva. Calvin's acceptance of torture was not unusual among rulers of that time. Few were critical of these practices.

Machiavellian ethics

By far the most significant political philosopher of the Renaissance was Niccoló Machiavelli (1469-1527) whose writings on statesmanship have brought him notoriety for his ruthless tactics. 

Machiavelli took a pragmatic approach to the responsibility of rulers. He believed that the first responsibility of the ruler is to increase and maintain his power. In the course of his diplomatic missions within Italy he was able to study the political tactics of some of Italy’s most cunning rulers, particularly those of Cesare Borgia, the illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI, who through military prowess was enlarging his holdings in central Italy.

Machiavelli believed that bold and intelligent initiative on the part of a ruler could shape his fortune. In his thinking human dignity was something that one gained by exercise of the will to rule. In his book The Prince, Machiavelli provides instructions to the “new prince” on how to stabilize his power and retain control of his realm. He urges the prince to appear to be benevolent while privately acting as ruthlessly as necessary to squash his political opponents. He argues that this approach will achieve the greater good by maintaining stability.

Machiavelli established guidelines for ruthless actions. He proposed this definition of acceptable cruelty: Whatever is done to one’s enemy must be swift, effective and short-lived. In other words, when taking the life of a political opponent it should be done as painlessly as possible, secretly, and without collateral damage.

We see how Machiavelli’s ethics depart from the ethical thought of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle when we compare his writings with those of these great philosophers. Consider the following:

Machiavelli wrote that it is not necessary for a prince to have the qualities of honestly, kindness, loyalty, etc, “but it is necessary to seem to have them…useful it is to seem compassionate, trustworthy, humane, endowed with integrity, religious, and to be such, but to be in such a condition, with one’s spirit so constructed, that, when you need to not possess these qualities, you are prepared and know how to shift to the contrary qualities… Let, then, a prince act in such a manner as to conquer and maintain his estate, and the means will always be judged honorable, and they will be praised by everyone – since the crowd is always going to be taken in by appearances and results, and in the world there is no one but the crowd…”

Aristotle wrote: “There are some actions and emotions whose very names connote baseness, e.g., spite, shamelessness, envy; and among actions, adultery, theft, and murder. These and similar emotions and actions imply by their very names that they are bad... It is, therefore, impossible ever to do right in performing them: to perform them is always wrong.”

Reform of education and healthcare

The Jesuit Order was founded by the Spaniard Ignatius of Loyola. When Ignatius was born in 1491, Europe was entering into the Renaissance. The first Jesuits were ordained to the Catholic priesthood in Venice and offered themselves in service to Pope Paul III, who approved the order in 1540. Ignatius served as General Superior until his death in 1556 at the age of 65. During his lifetime Jesuit missionaries went to China and to South America. Jesuit priests founded several towns in Brazil, including São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

The Society of Jesus dedicated itself to education. The first Jesuit schools adopted the curriculum of the Renaissance humanist academies which included Greek and Latin poetry, oratory, drama, mathematics, theology and history. When Ignatius' died in 1556, the Jesuits were operating 74 colleges on three continents, and by 1626 the order had established 400 colleges throughout Europe. Jesuit colleges and universities became the standard for excellence in Europe and from them came some of the greatest minds of history: Miguel de Cervantes, René Descartes and Voltaire, to name a few.

The Catholic Church funded schools and charity work to the poor through its parishes and religious orders throughout Europe. Priests, nuns and lay clerics staffed schools and hospitals, providing care to even the poorest citizens, and even better care to those who could pay! Where Protestantism became the established religion, as in northern Germany, these educational and charitable efforts were taken over by Protestants.

Religious intolerance

The Renaissance was not a time when people could change their religion without consequences. For example, Roman Catholics living in northern Germany faced religious persecution when that region became Protestant. To escape trouble, many moved to southern Germany which remained Catholic. Moving away was one way to escape religious persecution.

The Treaty of Augsburg, signed in 1555, was between Emperor Ferdinand (who replaced his brother Charles V as Holy Roman Emperor) and the Lutheran princes of northern Germany. It was supposed to lessen religious strife throughout Europe, but it actually made matters worse because it caused Calvinist Protestants to flee to the Spanish (Catholic) Netherlands where they spread their beliefs and launched a staunch guerrilla war against the Spanish troops posted in the Netherlands.

When Philip II came to the throne in Spain, he inherited the religious conflict in the Netherlands, and determined to wipe out the Protestant rebellion. His troops viciously put down riots and protests in Holland and Belgium. To uproot Protestantism from the Netherlands, Philip arranged for the Netherlands to have 14 new Catholic bishops, many of whom were trained Inquisitors. The rebellion that ensued dragged on until 1648 and become part of the wider European struggle known as the Thirty Years War.

In 1566, the Duke of Alva with an army of 10,000 Spanish troops burned Calvinist churches, executed their leaders, and nearly extinguished the Calvinist resistance. However, Calvinist sea raiders gained control of some ports in the North. When word spread of these Calvinist safe ports, more Calvinists flocked Holland. The result of this migration is that northern Holland became and remains today primarily Protestant.

France also saw rising tensions between Calvinists and Catholics that triggered anarchy, and weakening the government. The Catholic majority of France opposed an influential minority of French Calvinists known as “Huguenots.” The Huguenots had the advantage of living primarily in the fortified southern cities and had the support of many nobles who provided excellent leadership. Catholic and Huguenot armies battled in France for almost thirty years, destroying fields, homes and lives. Seven religious wars were fought in France and the fighting often involved the massacre of women and children. From 1562-157l, there were five massacres of Catholics and eighteen massacres of Protestants, the most notorious being the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre (1572), when armed Catholics in Paris fell upon local and visiting Calvinists, killing 3000.

Spain used the unrest in France to intervene in France’s internal affairs. Tensions between Protestant England and Catholic Spain led the English to raid Spanish shipping and support the revolt in the Spanish Netherlands. Meanwhile Philip II conspired to dethrone Elizabeth I. The eclipse of Spain’s military and naval power came in 1588 when the English defeated the Spanish Armada.

Conscience and Individual Interpretation

During the Renaissance, Protestants developed ethical methods quite different from Roman Catholics. The Protestant method is based on the principles of individual conscience and individual interpretation of the Bible, apart from the “Tradition” of the Church. The Protestant emphasis increased as the Roman Church became more defensive. Historically, the Roman Church held individual conscience in high regard as a God-given gift that can lead the individual to Virtue. However, the place of individual conscience in Catholicism gave way to demands for unquestioning obedience to the Church’s teachings. This was a result of the challenges the Papacy faced from the Islamic Ottoman Empire in the east and the spread of Protestantism in the west.

As Protestants rejected the Vatican’s teaching authority, they asserted for themselves new authorities: the individual’s conscience, private interpretation of the Bible apart from catholic Tradition, and the importance of reason. Protestant Reformers stressed the infallibility of the Bible but they never defined what this meant in terms of divine revelation, so the individual became his own Bible teacher, regardless of how well informed. The understanding of Bible texts became a matter of private interpretation and much philosophical speculation. Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560), a leading Reformer during the Renaissance, attempted (less successfully than Aquinas) to marry Christianity and Aristotelian philosophy in his “Elementa philosohaiae moralis.” 

Baron Samuel Pufendorf, a German Rationalist, prepared the way for the Enlightenment to spread throughout Germany. Along with the French philosopher, Descartes, Pufendorf concluded that the individual’s reason is the ultimate ground for deciding between good and evil, between truth and falsehood. 

With Protestantism the doors opened to the secularization of Western Europe. Coupled with Renaissance humanism and rationalism, Protestant thought prepared the way for the modern world and modern ethics, based not of religious considerations, but on human reason and a liberal view of human rights. The modern age would retain a place for God, but would move from a Christian worldview to Deism as the basis for natural law and ethical decisions.

Deists do not believe that God has personal interest in the world’s affairs, and certainly not in the affairs of individuals. The Deistic God rarely intervenes. There are no miracles, no angels, and no devil. Most Deists grant the existence of the soul, but not all Deists believe that the soul is eternal. 

A reaction against this cold rational view of God and religion was the Pietist movement of the 17th and 18th centuries. The emphasis of Pietism on mystical inward experience of God had an impact on ethics. The Pietist Pastor Francis Magny held that "mysticism and the moral law went together." His pupil, Fracoise-Louise de la Tour, believed that "pietist mysticism did less to reinforce the moral law than to take its place...the principle of 'guidance by inner light' was often a signal to follow the most intense of her inner sentiments...the supremacy of feeling over reason."


During the Renaissance, rulers felt an obligation to provide for artists and musicians who in turn would offer their services to their wealthy patrons. The more artists one could support, the more social status one had. Machiavelli believed that the ruler was to appear to be just and generous while dealing ruthlessly with his political opponents in secret. For Machiavelli, social status and wealth were gained by exercise of the will to power.

Protestantism greatly influenced ethics during the Renaissance. Protestants developed ethical methods based on the principles of individual conscience and individual interpretation of the Bible, apart from the “Tradition” of the Church. Historically, Roman Catholicism held individual conscience in high regard as a God-given gift that can lead the individual to Virtue. However, while the Catholic Church felt under siege by spreading Protestantism and advancing Islam, this value was surrendered to the greater concern for unquestioning obedience to the Church’s teachings.

Protestant rationalism opened the doors to the secularization of Western Europe. Coupled with Renaissance humanism, Protestant thought prepared the way for modern ethics, based on human reason and a liberal view of human rights.

Some Protestants departed from Christianity and become Deists. Many of the Founding Fathers of the United States were Deists. Thomas Jefferson is an example. These thinkers moved natural law from the Christian concept of moral obligation to God’s laws to moral obligation to defend individual liberty and the right of property.

Deism among the leaders of the nation, combined with the Calvinist work ethic that was brought to the colonies by the Puritans, encouraged the very American value of private property as a personal good. The prosperous landowner was seen as a man blessed by God. Nobody wanted to appear poor as this might be perceived as a sign that God’s blessing was absent.

Related reading: Ethics of the Middle Ages; Ethics of Ancient GreeceEthics of Archaic Communities

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