How the Renaissance Began?

the swerve coverHow did the Renaissance begin? If we knew that, it would surely be useful in understanding what is needed for a New Renaissance. Well here’s a book that claims to give an answer: The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began by Stephen Greenblatt.

In a way, it does, although I suspect this is a gross over-simplification. Roughly, the story is that a very clever man Poggio Bracciolini, one time right hand man of a disgraced pope, discovered and had copied key texts that had been preserved over the centuries by monks regularly copying manuscripts.

The key text, De Rerum Natura (On The Nature of Things), by Roman philosopher/poet Lucretius contained explosive ideas that, once they began to circulate, overcame the stranglehold of the church on European ideas and led to the explosion of creativity that was the Renaissance.

In particular they directly influenced men such as Marsilio Ficino, Botticelli, Raphael, Giordano Bruno, Galileo, Thomas More, Machiavelli, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, Dryden,¬† Isaac Newton, Darwin, Thomas Jefferson, and on and on…Read More »

No, not this way

homo deusWith my interest in ideas of a New Renaissance, I could not resist reading Yuval Harari’s Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, a book that is clearly widely read judging by its prominence in the local Waterstones.

Harari is an entertaining and informative writer, and I enjoyed reading his description of the emergence of the anthropocene era, and particularly his story following Western culture from the Renaissance, and the subsequent emergence of three interrelated themes of humanism, liberalism and democracy, along with modern science/technology and capitalism.

Harari suggests that liberalism is running into the buffers, pointing at some of the current symptoms that suggest that all is not well with the world. Well we could all make our own lists of those – like increasing inequality, global warming, species extinction, pollution,… The current paradigm or ‘web of meaning’ is no longer effective in addressing the situation we’re in. I cannot but agree with him this far.

But then his analysis suddenly seems to go awry. He suggests that contemporary science contradicts free will and the possible existence of a soul or inner self, that the mind is essentially algorithmic and subject to external control. “… biologists concluded that organisms are algorithms.” Of course, if you set out with a ‘clockwork universe’ materialistic mentality, this is the sort of world view you might come up with.

Then we get to the suggestion that organisations are just algorithms, and you could eventually replace the whole structure of an organisation with algorithms, no jobs for humans. Of course, were all this the case it undermines humanism, liberalism and the whole human project. But, come on…

And then there is the suggestion that in the era of ‘big data’ being gathered by such a Facebook and Google, these algorithms will get to know us ‘better than we know ourselves’. The dangers of ‘big data’ are clear enough, in that they may have played a role in the Brexit and Trump phenomena, but what on earth can it mean to know us better than we know ourselves?

Inequality is a big phantom in this context, as an increasingly a rich elite will have no interest in providing for the mass of humanity, as they the elite will no longer be dependent on the labours of so many others – leading eventually to a new caste system. The elite become like gods (hence homo deus), and the rest, and liberal ideals, go hang.

And if you don’t like that scenario, Harari offers an even more disturbing possibility: the religion of Dataism. “The universe consists of data flows, and the value of any phenomenon or entity is determined by its contribution to data processing.” This is a world where computers have taken over and the ‘world’ is run totally by algorithms. Insane.

So basically Harari is giving a couple of horror scenarios, nightmares outlining where we don’t want to go. The thing about human beings is that we have the capability to change direction, change the paradigm, change the ‘web of meaning’, change what is considered acceptable and what not.

What he doesn’t offer is any clue to a New Renaissance.




The Heart of Man

the heart of manReaders of my last few posts will have detected a certain attraction to the ideas expressed in Erich Fromm‘s book The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil, first published in 1964.

There is much more in the book than my blog posts listed below, which will give a flavour of some of the content. I find Fromm’s work accessible, readable and very relevant today, when the mistakes of the past are rising again to confront humanity – the mistakes that led those such as Fromm to leave a Europe where Hitler’s racism was brewing up into war, for the relative stability of the US.

Fromm throws light onto the nature of good and evil, and particularly the psychological roots that are the causes of war, or alternatively that lead to periods of Renaissance.

Periods of Renaissance

In “The Heart of Man”, Erich Fromm relates social narcissism to the Roman Catholic Church and to the Renaissance, in an illuminating discussion on the nature of periods of Renaissance which might give us clues to the nature of a New Renaissance.

Humanism and Fanaticism

When considering narcissism in large groups, such as major religions, Fromm suggests that there are counteracting forces of narcissism and anti-narcissism at work. He uses the Roman Catholic Church as an example, the personal humility that is at the heart of Christ’s teaching being at the opposite end of the scale to the intense narcissism of a church that believes it is the only chance of salvation and its officers provide the only path to God.

Read More »

Cause of The Renaissance?

We’ve travelled around Europe a fair amount over the years and it is clear from the evidence of art and architecture that something special happened around the 12th/13th centuries and again the 15th/16th centuries. The Romanesque and Gothic architectures, the paintings and sculptures of Tuscany, the establishment of universities, printing, the beginnings of great literature,…

What was it that led to this original Renaissance? What special combination of circumstances caused that great explosion of the human spirit? Philosopher Jean Gebser had an answer in his book The Ever Present Origin (1949), and it goes back to the basic nature of our own consciousness.

Humanity has gone through four basic ‘structures of consciousness’: the ‘archaic’, the ‘magical’, the ‘mythic’ and the ‘mental-rational’. He dates the period when the transition began from ‘mythic’ to ‘mental-rational’ at around 1225. This was the period when left brain consciousness began to assert itself against the submersion into a right-brain dominated world. For a period the two were in some sort of state of balance which led to the creative explosion of those periods of Renaissance.

Then as time progressed the dominance of left brain was gradually asserted (see The Master and His Emissary), interconnectedness was reduced and the emphasis moved to individuality and competition. Of course, this has been creative in its own way, see the explosion of science and technology, but it has been at a cost of the basic connection with life itself. Hence increasing problems of pollution, environmental degradation, global warming, species extinction, mega-wars, terrorism,…

Gebser postulated that we are on the threshold of a fifth structure of consciousness – the ‘integral’ – which would begin to redress the balance that has gone too far one way. Such a new consciousness would re-establish that creative balance between the two halves of the brain, but at a higher level – leading to a New Renaissance.

Many thinkers have since then built on Gebser’s ideas, including Ken Wilber and Iain McGilchrist.

I am indebted to Gary Lachman’s book The Secret Teachers of the Western World for inspiring this post.

Featured image of Botticelli Venus courtesy of Wikimedia Commons