“As for you, should you survive me for a long time, which I sincerely hope and wish with all my soul, better times are, perhaps, ahead of you. Our present forgetfulness and this slumber will not last forever. The clouds will be dispelled and our successors will be able to return to the blossom of the pure light of ancient times.”
Petrarch, Africa(IX, 453), 1338
The Spirit of the Renaissance
The Renaissance represents a real break with the Middle Ages, although this should not obscure the analogies that exist between these two epochs. Its contribution is expressed in every field: literature, art, science, politics and, of course, philosophy.
The Renaissance could not have taken place without the existence of factors that had the power to bring about a change in the human imagination. As loan Couliano states: “these factors were not economic, nor did they arise from a supposed historical ‘evolution’ of our race.” As we know, the essential element of the Renaissance was the return to the culture of antiquity. It was the inspiration for a new spirit. The Renaissance studied the ancient ruins in order to understand them and be inspired by them, as was the case of Brunelleschi and Donatello. It studied the ancient texts in order to imbibe them and transform them into a living philosophy, as did Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, Giordano Bruno and Tommasso Campanella. It immersed itself in myths and symbols in order to fertilise its imagination, as it did for Raphael, Botticelli and Michelangelo.
The Renaissance took its roots from the traditions of the Mediterranean Basin. It reclaimed the heritage of Greece and Rome particularly through Platonic and Neoplatonic philosophy, that of Egypt through the Corpus Hermeticum, that of Persia through the Chaldean Oracles and that of the Jews through the Kabbalah. This was not a matter of imitating the ruins of a dead past, but of re-interpreting it and defining an original approach, resolutely looking towards the future and inspired by this heritage of antiquity. The myth of the awakening of a new light and the corresponding myth of darkness was the result of the antagonism of the Humanists towards the preceding centuries. The Middle Ages, or ‘intermediate era’ was the ‘dark period’ separating the light of the ancient world from the present. The people of the Renaissance insisted on the need for a new human condition, at odds with an epoch viewed as barbaric and ‘gothic’, which nevertheless had evidently been the carrier of highly developed cultural and spiritual values. This new perspective was accompanied by ruthless changes to the medieval world view: great discoveries overturned the traditional representation of the earth, and the conception of the universe was shaken by Nicholas of Cusa, Copernicus and later Giordano Bruno.
The Philosophy of Humanism
Humanism was the catalyst for a culture which saw man’s relationship with the world in an entirely new way. This movement at first presented itself as a philosophy of action for people involved in the life of the city. From the climate of religious hope that had predominated in the Middle Ages, man’s reason turned to exploring his own dignity, through another way of feeling and thinking and a new and different awareness of his place in the world. The ideal of the free man became the guiding spirit of the times. From being a passive spectator in an unmoving world established by the Aristotelian Scholasticism of the Middle Ages, man became an active and creative participant in a dynamic world whose different parts were interconnected in a complete network of correspondences. In a comparison that was made at the time, the passage from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance was likened to that of a body in repose to one which is beginning to move. It is the transition from the vision of a being turned in upon himself, submitting to an imposed order, to that of a Poet, a Creator, with infinite possibilities before him and limitless potential. This transition was not painless, for man was passing from a certain and tranquil world to an ambiguous world, without predetermination, where he was obliged to face up to his own responsibilities. Uncertainty took the place of security. According to Eugenio Garin, Humanism is above all a school for a new education of man, a method free from all prejudice and all authority, the activity of a spirit free from all restriction.
The Inner Man
“I wonder what use it is to understand the nature of wild beasts, of fishes and serpents, if one is ignorant at or neglects to discover; the nature of man – why we are born, where we come from, where we are going.” Petrarch
The central theme of Renaissance philosophy is the inner man, that is, the immortal soul. According to Plotinus, this animates and controls the body it contains, as opposed to being contained within it. According to Pico della Mirandola, man has two bodies: one, which is called the celestial vehicle (or nous) by the Platonists, is the impenetrable envelope of the rational soul (the psyche). The second, composed of the other elements, is subject to the laws of growth and decay (Commento sopra una Canzona de Amore, 1486). This goes back to the Hermetic tradition which describes man as dual – “mortal by his body, immortal by the essential man” (Corpus Hermeticum). For Ficino, what constitutes the true man is not his mortal apparel but his immortal soul, and only he who sees this soul will see the man. Again according to Ficino, the human soul possesses two ‘natural appetites’. Just as a stone is drawn towards the ground, so the soul is filled with a natural appetite to descend into the body; and just as fire tends to rise upwards, so the soul is impelled by another appetite to rise towards God. The co-existence in the consciousness of man of an appetite turned towards the sensible world, and another turned towards the intelligible world, explains the central position which the human soul occupies in the universe. Like the two-faced Janus who looks in two directions at once, the soul is an intermediate form between the higher forms and the lower forms, and gives rise to the dynamic and living unity of the world.
Relevance of The Renaissance Today
“Visillusionment should not prevent us from conceiving of a new stage in the development of humanity, which would be, at the same time, a new stage in culture and civilisation.” Edgar Morin
Has the 20th century been a Middle Ages of thought? The ideals of progress of the 19th century, which transformed science into a tool of the dominant materialism, the death of the ideologies and the decline of traditional religion have created societies empty of meaning. The ‘totalitarian century’ has left humanity shocked at the sight of its own horrors, and the capitalist forms of logic which currently control the planet have revealed themselves to be machines for grinding man down. As Paul Ricoeur said: “Our civilisation is experiencing a hypertrophy of means and an atrophy of ends.”
The need for renewal is pressing and the question arises as to whether we can hope for a new Renaissance. Will we be able to extract new paradigms from all our knowledge, which, like the discoveries of the Renaissance, will enable us to renew our ways of thinking and help us move forward towards a more just and more human world?
The Return of Philosophy
The directions taken by techno-science, ultra-liberalism and consumerist individualism have led by reaction to a return of ethics: respect for nature, bioethics, socially responsible consumption, moralisation of public life, sports ethics, etc., and a need for social regulation by non-materialistic values. This has been accompanied by a noticeable re-invigoration of philosophy. In search of a direction and points of reference to guide him in life, modern man is turning towards the messages of the great sages of humanity. The revitalisation of a philosophy ‘in the classical tradition’ (Philosophia Perennis) combining reflection and action, and inspiring a way of life enlightened by the great values of humanity, is proving to be an opportunity to found a new humanism.
Towards a New Humanism
The attempt to formulate the principles of a new humanism brings us back to the philosophical heritage
of humanity, to the philosophia perennis which unites the philosophies of the East with those of the West, and of which Renaissance humanism was an expression. Today we can add to this the priceless benefits of the exact and human sciences, which can help to respond to the universal need for human dignity and a renewed vision of existence. Humanism postulates the fundamental freedom and responsibility of the human being. It defines a holistic human being, reconciling reason and imagination, the spiritual and the material dimension, open to all fields of human culture. It outlines a framework of evolution for humanity and the universe which owes nothing to chance. It proposes a model of human perfection which is at once ethical, aesthetic, cognitive and spiritual, and aims at a harmonisation of thought and action. Humanism expresses values which underlie the destiny of man and the progress of civilisation. It sees the human being as an active member of society and a participant in a living universe, of which he feels himself to be the reflection. It is not a matter of creating new dogmas, but rather of clearing existing paths and roads on which we can advance. A new Humanism must be detached from all political, economic or religious factors. It can only be born from an eclectic philosophical reflection. It would not merely be a syncretism of different systems, but a new product of thought, enriched by its multiple sources.
The following are some reflections on the characteristics of this new humanism.
1 Rediscovering the inner man
“One has to fight for the inner Renaissance of the human being,” said Jorge Livraga.
The principles of Humanist philosophy rest on the basis of a thought which is non-dualist, complex and transpersonal, a thought which has its roots in metaphysics. This thought has the ability to illuminate the human being internally and give him a sense of belonging to the cosmos. It is not simply about refocusing attention on the human being, but on a certain idea of the human being: that of his authentic nature, which is naturally spiritual.
2 Rehabilitating the dialogue between reason and imagination
We need to become free from exclusive rationalism, in order to open ourselves up to the unknown and the non-observable. The rediscovery of the symbolic mode of thinking enables us to conceive of other realities which are inaccessible to the binary system. The effort to reconcile opposites supports the evolution of knowledge.
3 Restoring man to his natural place
Man is not a tool, either of production or consumption. He is the bearer of a mystery and of potentials, the discovery of which gives meaning to his existence. By his own inner progress, he becomes a driving-force of society.
4 The re-integration of spirituality
The aspiration to the sacred can be considered as a natural function in man, as natural as thoughts and feelings. Modernity and spirituality can no longer be placed in opposition to one another. The integration of uncertainty leads to believing without fanaticism and the rejection of all dogma.
5 Promoting a holistic education
The human being is in constant evolution. Education must allow him to become conscious of the entirety of his potential and to awaken the values which will help him to live in society. It is about seeking to understand rather than to know. The Humanist’s position is a quest: scientific, philosophical, ethical, artistic, religious. A holistic human being reflects a holistic vision of the universe. Man needs open horizons, an ethics and a politics of knowledge.
6 Being responsible for one’s environment
Man is an integral part of the cosmos. He must rediscover the laws of nature, forge new relationships with it and develop a new consciousness of his responsibility towards the living cosmos. Every effort to be reborn (‘renaissance’) is faced with the inertia of the habit of security. But the genius of humanity has always been able to extract from the darkness the light of great civilisations which have illuminated history. The revival of Eastern and Western traditions, the rediscovery of timeless philosophy and the integration of modern advances in physical and human sciences are all contributing to building the foundations of a new Humanism and a new Renaissance. This is the challenge which the International Cultural Association New Acropolis has set itself. Yesterday, the Renaissance united the countries of Europe in a common cultural vision. In these times of globalisation, it is not enough to re-sow the furrows of Europe alone, but those of the whole planet. Today, like yesterday, it is the determination of human beings that will fill the sails of history.
 Ioan Couliano, Eros et Magie a la Renaissance.
 Eugenio Garin, Moyen Age et Renaissance, Ed Gallimard, 1989.
From the book “The Spirit of The Renaissance”; Isabelle Ohmann, Fernand Schwarz, 1999