Sunday, August 20, 2017


Cynicism originates in the philosophical schools of ancient Greece that claim a Socratic lineage. To call the Cynics a “school” though, immediately raises a difficulty for so unconventional and anti-theoretical a group. Their primary interests are ethical, but they conceive of ethics more as a way of living than as a doctrine in need of explication. As such askēsis—a Greek word meaning a kind of training of the self or practice—is fundamental. The Cynics, as well as the Stoics who followed them, characterize the Cynic way of life as a “shortcut to virtue” (see Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Book 6, Chapter 104 and Book 7, Chapter 122). Though they often suggest that they have discovered the quickest, and perhaps surest, path to the virtuous life, they recognize the difficulty of this route.

The colorfulness of the Cynic way of life presents certain problems. The triumph of the Cynic as a philosophical and literary character complicates discussions of the historical individuals, a complication further troubled by a lack of sources. The evidence regarding the Cynics is limited to apothegms, aphorisms, and ancient hearsay; none of the many Cynic texts have survived. The tradition records the tenets of Cynicism via their lives. It is through their practices, the selves and lives that they cultivated, that we come to know the particular Cynic ēthos.

1. History of the Name

The origin of the Cynic name kunikos, a Greek word meaning “dog-like”, is a point of contention. Two competing stories explain the source of the name using the figure of Antisthenes (who Diogenes Laertius identifies controversially as the original Cynic), and yet a third explanation uses the figure of Diogenes of Sinope. First, Antisthenes is said to have taught in the Cynosarges, which is a Greek word that might mean “White Dog,” “Quick Dog,” or even “Dog’s Meat”. The Cynosarges is a gymnasium and temple for Athenian nothoi. "Nothoi" is a term that designates one who is without Athenian citizenship because of being born to a slave, foreigner, or prostitute; one can also be nothoi if one’s parents were citizens but not legally married. According to the first explanation, the term Cynic would, then, derive from the place in which the movement’s founder worshipped, exercised, and, most importantly, lectured. Such a derivation is suspect insofar as later writers could have created the story through an analogy to the way in which the term “Stoic” came from the Stoa Poikilē in which Zeno of Citium taught. Though nothing unquestionably links Antisthenes or any other Cynic to the Cynosarges, Antisthenes was a nothos and the temple was used for worshipping Hercules, the ultimate Cynic hero.

A second possible derivation comes from Antisthenes’ alleged nickname Haplokuōn, a word that probably means a dog “pure and simple”, and is presumably referring to his way of living. Though Antisthenes was known for a certain rudeness and crudeness that could have led to such a name, and later authors, including Aelian, Epictetus, and Stobaeus, identify him as a kuōn, or dog, his contemporaries, such as Plato and Xenophon, do not label him as such. This lack lends some credence to the notion that the term kunikos was applied to Antisthenes posthumously, and only after Diogenes of Sinope, a more illustrious philosopher-dog, had arrived on the scene.

If Antisthenes was not the first Cynic by name, then the origin of the appellation falls to Diogenes of Sinope, an individual well known for dog-like behavior. As such, the term may have begun as an insult referring to Diogenes’ style of life, especially his proclivity to perform all of his activities in public. Shamelessness, which allowed Diogenes to use any space for any purpose, was primary in the invention of “Diogenes the Dog.”

The precise source of the term “Cynic” is, however, less important than the wholehearted appropriation of it. The first Cynics, beginning most clearly with Diogenes of Sinope, embraced their title: they barked at those who displeased them, spurned Athenian etiquette, and lived from nature. In other words, what may have originated as a disparaging label became the designation of a philosophical vocation.

Finally, because Cynicism denotes a way of living, it is inaccurate to equate Cynicism with the other schools of its day. The Cynics had no set space where they met and discoursed, such as the Garden, the Lyceum, or the Academy; for Diogenes and Crates, the streets of Athens provide the setting for both their teaching and their training. Moreover, the Cynics neglect, and very often ridicule, speculative philosophy. They are especially harsh critics of dogmatic thought, theories they consider useless, and metaphysical essences.

 2. Major Figures and the Cynic Lineage

The major figures within Cynicism form the pivotal points within a lineage traced from Antisthenes, Socrates’ companion and a major interlocutor in the Socratic dialogues of Xenophon (see especially his Memorabilia and Symposium), through his student, Diogenes of Sinope, to Diogenes’ pupil Crates, and from Crates to both Hipparchia of Maronea, the first known woman Cynic philosopher, and Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism.

Some others among the more notable Cynics include Metrocles of Maronea, brother to Hipparchia and pupil of Crates, Menippus, Demonax of Cyprus, Bion of Borysthenes, and Teles. Thinkers heavily influenced by Cynic thought include Zeno of Citium, Cleanthes of Assos, Aristo of Chios, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, Dio Chrysostom, and the emperor Julian.

The Socratic schools tend to trace their lineage directly back to Socrates and the Cynics are no exception. As such, the historical authenticity of this heredity is suspect. Nevertheless, it accurately tracks a kind of intellectual transmission that begins with Antisthenes and is passed on to Diogenes, Crates, and Zeno. Cynics seem to have survived into the third century CE; two of Julian’s orations from 361 CE disparage the Cynics of his day for lacking the asceticism and hardiness of “real” Cynics. As a “school” of thought, Cynicism ends in the sixth century CE, but its legacy continues in both philosophy and literature.

 3. Cynic Ethics

Foremost for understanding the Cynic conception of ethics is that virtue is a life lived in accord with nature. Nature offers the clearest indication of how to live the good life, which is characterized by reason, self-sufficiency, and freedom. Social conventions, however, can hinder the good life by compromising freedom and setting up a code of conduct that is opposed to nature and reason. Conventions are not inherently bad; however, for the Cynic, conventions are often absurd and worthy of ridicule. The Cynics deride the attention paid to the Olympics, the “big thieves” who run the temples and are seen carrying away the “little thieves” who steal from them, politicians as well as the philosophers who attend their courts, fashion, and prayers for such things as fame and fortune.

Only once one has freed oneself from the strictures that impede an ethical life can one be said to be truly free. As such, the Cynics advocate askēsis, or practice, over theory as the means to free oneself from convention, promote self-sufficiency, and live in accord with nature. Such askēsis leads the Cynic to live in poverty, embrace hardship and toil, and permits the Cynic to speak freely about the silly, and often vicious, way life is lived by his or her contemporaries. The Cynics consistently undermine the most hallowed principles of Athenian culture, but they do so for the sake of replacing them with those in accord with reason, nature, and virtue.

 a. Living in Accord with Nature and Opposing Conventions

Though the imperative to live life in accord with nature is rightly associated with Stoicism, the Stoics are following a Cynic lead. Diogenes of Sinope fervently rejects nomos, or convention, by showing the arbitrary and frequently amusing nature of Athenian social, religious, and political mores and trampling the authority of religious and political leaders. Fundamental to this is a redefinition of what is worthy of shame. Diogenes’ body is disorderly, a source of great shame among the Athenians and the reservoir for the principle of shamelessness among the Cynics.

Diogenes uses his body to upend the conventional association of decorum with the good. He breaks etiquette by publicly carrying out activities an Athenian would typically perform in private. For example, he eats, drinks, and masturbates in the marketplace, and ridicules the shame felt when one’s body is unruly or clumsy. This does not mean, however, that there is nothing about which a person ought to feel shame. For example, in Lives of Emminent Philosophers, one finds the following anecdote: “Observing a fool tuning a harp, ‘Are you not ashamed,’ he said, ‘to give this wood concordant sounds, while you fail to harmonize your soul with your life?’ To one who protested ‘I am unfit to study philosophy,’ Diogenes said, ‘Why then live, if you do not care to live well?’” (Diogenes Laertius, Book 6, Chapter 65; R.D. Hicks’ translation is altered for this article.)

As Diogenes ’ reappraisal of shame suggests, the Cynics are not relativists. Nature replaces convention as the standard for judgment. The Cynics believe that it is through nature that one can live well and not through conventional means such as etiquette or religion. One reads that Diogenes of Sinope “would rebuke men in general with regard to their prayers, declaring that they asked for things which seemed to them to be good, not for such as are truly good” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Book 6, Chapter 43). This captures the crux of the Cynic notion of living in accord with nature and contrary to convention. Praying for wealth, fame, or any of the other trappings convention leads one to believe are good is a mistaken enterprise. Life, as given by nature, is full of hints as to how to live it best; but humans go astray, ashamed by petty things and striving after objects, which are unimportant. Consequently, their freedom is hindered by convention.

 i. Freedom and Parrhēsia

The Cynics clearly privilege freedom, but not merely in a personal sense as a kind of negative liberty. Instead, freedom is advocated in three related forms: eleutheria, freedom or liberty, autarkeia, self-sufficiency, and parrhēsia, freedom of speech or frankness. Their conception of freedom has some shared aspects with other ancient schools; the notion of autonomy which derives from the imperative that reason rule over the passions is found in the ethics of multiple Classical and Hellenistic thinkers. A specifically Cynic sense of freedom, though, is evident in parrhēsia.

An element of parrhēsia, which can be overlooked when it is defined as free or frank speech, is the risk that accompanies speaking so freely and frankly. Legendary examples of the Cynic’s fearlessly free speech occur in Diogenes of Sinope’s interchanges with Alexander the Great. One such example is the following: “When he was sunning himself in the Craneum, Alexander came and stood over him and said, ‘Ask of me any boon you like.’ To which he replied, ‘Stand out of my light’” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Book 6, Chapter 28). At another point, Alexander pronounces his rank to Diogenes of Sinope by saying, “I am Alexander the Great King.” Diogenes responds with his own rank, “I am Diogenes the Cynic,” which is to say “Diogenes the Dog” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Book 6, Chapter 60).

The examples above demonstrate the unique confluence of humor, fearless truth telling, and political subversion which distinguishes the Cynic way of living. With a few notable exceptions, the philosophers of antiquity can be found at some time or another in the company of rulers (Plato, Aeschines, and Aristippus all attended the court of Dionysius, Xenophon is intimately associated with Cyrus, Aristotle with the Macedonian ruling family, and so on). The Cynics, however, made it a point to shun such contact. The Cynics strive for self-sufficiency and strength, neither of which is capable of being maintained once one enters into the conventional political game. The life of an impoverished, but virtuous and self-sufficient philosopher is preferable to the life of a pampered court philosopher.

Diogenes Laertius writes that, “Plato saw [Diogenes of Sinope] washing lettuces, came up to him and quietly said to him, ‘Had you paid court to Dionysius, you wouldn’t now be washing lettuces,’ and [Diogenes] with equal calmness answered, ‘If you had washed lettuces, you wouldn’t have paid court to Dionysius’” (Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Book 6, Chapter 58). The lesson of this exchange is clear: whereas Plato views paying court as freeing one from poverty, the Cynic sees poverty as freeing one from having to pay court to a ruler. This second sense of freedom so forcefully advocated by the Cynics, comprises both autarkeia, or self-sufficiency, and parrhēsia, or the freedom to speak the truth: something one at court is never free to do. It is no surprise, then, that when asked what is “the most beautiful thing in the world,” Diogenes replied, “Parrhēsia.” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Book 6, Chapter 69.)

 ii. Training and Toughness

In order to live the Cynic life, one had to be inured to the various physical hardships entailed by such freedom. This required, then, a life of constant training, or askēsis. The term askēsis, defined above as a kind of training of the self but which also means “exercise” or “practice,” is appropriated from athletic training. Instead of training the body for the sake of victory in the Olympic Games, on the battlefield, or for general good health, the Cynic trains the body for the sake of the soul.

The examples of Cynic training are multiple: Antisthenes praised toil and hardship as goods; Diogenes of Sinope walked barefoot in the snow, hugged cold statues, and rolled about in the scalding summer sand in his pithos; Crates rid himself of his considerable wealth in order to become a Cynic. The ability to live without any of the commodities usually mistaken for necessities is liberating and beneficial. It is also, however, a difficult lesson: “[Diogenes of Sinope] used to say that he followed the example of the trainers of choruses; for they too set the note a little high, to ensure that the rest should hit the right note” (Diogenes Laertius, Book 6, Chapter 35).

 4. Cosmopolitanism

The Cynics are not always given credit when it comes to the notion of cosmopolitanism, for the origin of this term is at times ascribed to Stoicism. Moreover, when it is attributed to Cynicism, it is often characterized as a negative tenet that gains content only once it is transplanted into Stoic doctrine (see John L. Moles’ discussion of “Cynic Cosmopolitanism” in The Cynics). However, cosmopolitanism can be fully understood within its Cynic context if it is taken as more than an oxymoron or a pithy retort: “Asked where he came from, [Diogenes of Sinope] said, ‘I am a citizen of the world [kosmopolitēs]’” (Diogenes Laertius, Book 6, Chapter 63). In this last quote, Diogenes is responding to a question calling for him to state his origin with what seems to be a neologism. To be a politēs is to belong to a polis, to be a member of a specific society with all of the benefits and commitments such membership entails. By not responding with the expected “Sinope,” Diogenes is renouncing his duty to Sinopeans as well as his right to be aided by them. It is important to note that Diogenes does not say that he is apolis, that is, without a polis; he claims allegiance to the kosmos, or the universe.

The Cynics, then, cast the notion of citizenship in a new light. To the Greek male of the Classical and Hellenistic period, citizenship was of utmost value. The restrictions on citizenship made it a privilege and these exclusions are, to the Cynic, absurd. Under cosmopolitanism, the Cynic challenges the civic affiliation of the few by opening the privilege to all. General national affiliation was likewise esteemed, and Diogenes’ cosmopolitan response is therefore also a rejection of the limitations of such a view.

Finally, cosmopolitanism revises the traditional conception of the political duties of an individual. As such, the Cynic is freed to live according to nature and not according to the laws and conventions of the polis. The conventional polis is not just rejected but replaced. This has important ethical connections to the notion of living in accord with nature, and can likewise be seen as an important precursor to the Stoic understanding of physis, or nature, as identical to the kosmos, or universe.

 5. The Cynic Legacy

The first and most direct Cynic influence is upon the founding of Stoicism. One story, preserved in Diogenes Laertius, tells of Zeno of Citium reading a copy of Xenophon’s Memorabilia in a bookshop while shipwrecked in Athens. He became so taken with the figure of Socrates that he asked the bookseller where he might find such a man. At just that moment, Crates passed by, and the bookseller pointed him out as the one to follow.

Though this, like many of Diogenes Laertius’ stories, may strike one as too propitious to be historically accurate, it preserves the way in which the primary tenets of Stoicism emerge out of Cynicism. The primacy of ethics, the sufficiency of virtue for happiness, the cultivation of indifference to external affairs, the definition of virtue as living in accord with nature, and the importance placed on askēsis, all mark the shared terrain between the Cynics and the Stoics. Indeed, when various Stoic thinkers list the handful of Stoic sages, Cynics, and especially Diogenes of Sinope, are typically among them. Epictetus in particular advocates the Cynic stance, but warns against taking up lightly something so difficult (see Discourses 3.22).

Within political philosophy, the Cynics can be seen as originators of anarchism. Since humans are both rational and able to be guided by nature, it follows that humans have little need for legal codes or political affiliations. Indeed, political associations at times require one to be vicious for the sake of the polis. Diogenes’ cosmopolitanism represents, then, a first suggestion that human affiliation ought to be to humanity rather than a single state.

The impact of Cynicism is also felt in Christian, Medieval, and Renaissance thought, though not without a good deal of ambivalence. Christian authors, for example, praise the Cynics for their self-discipline, independence, and mendicant lifestyle, but rebuke the bawdy aspects of Cynic shamelessness.

Finally, the mark of the Cynic is found throughout the texts of literature and philosophy. Menippean Satire has a clear debt, and Diogenes of Sinope in particular appears as a character in literary and philosophical contexts; Dante, for example, situates Diogenes with other virtuous but pagan philosophers in the first level of hell and Nietzsche is especially fond of both Diogenes and the Cynic attitude. One striking example occurs in section 125 of The Gay Science. Here Nietzsche alludes to the anecdote wherein Diogenes searches for a human being with a lit lamp in daylight (D.L. 6.41). In his own rendition, Nietzsche tells the story of the madman who entered the marketplace with a lit lamp on a bright morning seeking God. It is this same madman who pronounces that God is dead.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Renaissance Philosophy - Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and his esoteric thought

Pico was the first Christian to treat knowledge of Kabbalah as valuable. Flavius Mithridates, his most prolific Jewish informant, translated (and mistranslated) thousands of pages of Kabbalah into Latin for him. Large portions of the Oration, drawing on these texts, are also informed by Kabbalah in ways that no contemporary Christian could have detected—least of all a Christian who lacked the clues provided by the Conclusions. The esoteric intention of Pico’s thought, proclaimed emphatically in the Oration, is the feature that most distances it from the whole project of post-Cartesian philosophy in the West and also from earlier philosophies outside the Platonic tradition. Wishing not just to mystify but also to provoke, Pico succeeded and paid the price of the Church’s censure.

Theology, spirituality and philosophy—all in the broadest sense—are the main topics of Pico’s Kabbalah, which shows (or hints) how God reveals himself in the Sefirot, the divine names and the words of scripture. In the 72 Kabbalist theses at the end of the Conclusions, this revelation becomes Christology and Trinitarian theology. From a Kabbalist point of view, the Sefirot and the divine names are actors in dramas of theology, cosmology, anthropology and angelology whose major themes are exile, death, atonement and redemption, stories that Pico transposes onto the Christian Trinity, with Jesus Christ, the Messiah, as the saving hero.

Accordingly, leading points of spiritual practice in the Conclusions are prayer, prophecy and ascent to mystical union with God, which is also the main topic of the Oration, where Pico makes positive use of magic and theurgy as steps toward the ascent. The Conclusions, which confirm this endorsement of magic, also show in greater detail than the Oration why Pico links magic with Kabbalah. He sees it as a spiritual technique which, like the higher theurgy of the Neoplatonic philosophers, locates and opens routes to God which ordinarily are unknown to humans. The practice of Kabbalah starts with theory because these hidden channels of divinity must be disclosed and interpreted before they can be used: spirituality follows hermeneutics.

Technical details of hermeneutics are the most obscure material in the Conclusions, especially Pico’s speculations about Hebrew words and letters. Language is the gateway to wisdom, the elements of language are letters and numbers, and these signs proliferate in secret codes. Pico’s genius and ambition, which the Church would see as impudence, attracted him to this provocative theology of the hidden word, whose enigmas and ambiguities encouraged his fascination with the esoteric. The larger Kabbalist project of the Conclusions, and hence of the Kabbalah in the Oration, is Christological and Trinitarian. The smaller exhibitions of Kabbalah that Pico uses to support his grand theory focus on particular Biblical texts, which are also illuminated by the Gentile wisdom of the ancient theologians.

Zoroaster, Hermes Trismegistus, Orpheus, Pythagoras and other ancient theologians are among the authorities from whom Pico derives his 900 theses, but so are Aquinas, Albertus and other scholastics, Averroes, Avicenna and other Muslims as well as Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Proclus and the Greek commentators. The Conclusions are, among other things, an egregious advertisement of Pico’s learning in a catalog of philosophical propositions which are often challenging to orthodoxy and sometimes paradoxical—a word that Pico himself used to describe some of his propositions, whose ancestors were the quodlibetal theses debated in medieval universities. He ascribed only the last group of about 500 to himself, attaching the first set of roughly 400 to ancient and medieval authorities, among whom were the Kabbalists—by far the least familiar to Pico’s contemporaries.

In the Heptaplus of 1489 we can still hear the Kabbalist voice of the Conclusions, but mainly because Pico’s earlier works since the Commento of 1485–6 have prepared us to listen for it. Although all these texts discuss Kabbalah more openly than the Heptaplus, they seem to have made little impression on Pico’s contemporaries. Roberto Salviati, a well informed Florentine who knew Pico well, called the Heptaplus “the first fruits of his studies” when he arranged to have it printed. That Salviati thought the Commento, Conclusions and Apology negligible or embarrassing is more likely than that he did not know those works. Simple ignorance is likelier in the case of the Oration, which Pico’s nephew would later describe as having been kept out of circulation by his uncle. For readers whom Kabbalah might alienate, the Heptaplus was not much of a threat because Pico had sanitized it.


Although Genesis was not as attractive to Christian interpreters as Job or the Psalms, explicating the creation narrative of Gen. 1:1–26 had been a task of hermeneutics since the great hexameral commentaries of Basil of Caesarea and Ambrose. Like all of the Bible, the creation story was thought to have three layers of meaning beyond its literal or ‘historical’ sense: allegorical, tropological and anagogical. The standard view was that “history talks about events, allegory about how one thing is understood from another, tropology discusses morals, … and anagogy is the spiritual meaning … that leads to higher things.” The Heptaplus proposes and practices a new kind of allegory, a method derived from the structure of creation itself and directed toward a new type of anagogy or ascent to supreme bliss (felicitas) in the Godhead.

Pico provides the key to his system only in the last part of the Heptaplus, which seems to be an appendix tacked on to the work—just another display of the author’s virtuoso skill in Hebrew. But to learned Jews of the day, whether they were Kabbalist or not, Pico’s analysis of the Hebrew letters of the first word of Genesis (Bereshit, “In the beginning”) would have seemed crude and simple-minded. Only from a Christian perspective was there anything exotic in it, and its main effect on Christians would have been to dazzle them with art.

This seemingly extraneous ending is actually a grand and arcane finale. It hints at a secret that no Christian of Pico’s day could have grasped: that Moses himself, the author of the creation story, had passed through 49 Gates of Understanding—7 × 7—on his way to the fiftieth, the supreme and final Gate to union with God. The 49 preliminary Gates are all the compartments of creation, which in turn demonstrate Pico’s new allegorical method by exemplifying it: the universe of existence is also the universe of understanding that shows the path to mystical union.

Although Pico does not explain the Gates in the 900 Conclusions, he does mention them in a way that gave later scholars, like Johann Reuchlin, the clues that they needed to find such enigmas in Kabbalist texts and then decipher them. The short version of the story is that Wisdom, the second Sefirah  builds the palace of Intelligence and carves 50 Gates into it, 7 revealed in each of the 7 lower Sefirot and another one unrevealed. The 50 Gates, also called the Jubilee, correspond to the 50-year festival ordained in Leviticus but also to a millenarian Great Jubilee of 50,000 years, when the 7 sabbatical cycles or weeks of 7,000 years come to an end. After the lower Sefirot collapse into S3 in a final millennium, the cycle starts again, having been completed in that last generation of a thousand years—in the Sabbath of the Shekinah (S10). This Sabbath, the seventh day of rest after the six days of creation, is Pico’s ultimate allegory of mystical union, the secret encoded not only in the letters of Bereshit but also in the sevenfold structure of the Heptaplus itself.

But who knew or could have known? In 1489, when the Heptaplus was published, its only informed readership was the handful of learned Jews in Italy who could also read Latin—the very people who had taught Pico himself enough Kabbalah to fill his Conclusions with it. In the Heptaplus, however, even where its structure and content obviously depend on Kabbalah, Pico suppresses what the Jews had taught him, until the final exposition of Bereshit that could only have baffled Christian readers if it did not offend them. As in his earlier works, Pico intends to mystify because he believes that the highest and most sacred wisdom must not be divulged in plain language. He wants God’s secrets to be understood only by an élite clever enough to unravel the allegories that conceal them. The surprising thing, in the Western tradition of philosophy, is that Pico thinks of this project as philosophical.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Renaissance Philosophy - Giovanni Pico della Mirandola

Renaissance Italian scholar

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, count di Concordia, (born Feb. 24, 1463, Mirandola, duchy of Ferrara [Italy]—died Nov. 17, 1494, Florence) Italian scholar and Platonist philosopher whose De hominis dignitate oratio (“Oration on the Dignity of Man”), a characteristic Renaissance work composed in 1486, reflected his syncretistic method of taking the best elements from other philosophies and combining them in his own work.

His father, Giovanni Francesco Pico, prince of the small territory of Mirandola, provided for his precocious child’s thorough humanistic education at home. Pico then studied canon law at Bologna and Aristotelian philosophy at Padua and visited Paris and Florence, where he learned Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic. At Florence he met Marsilio Ficino, a leading Renaissance Platonist philosopher.

Introduced to the Hebrew Kabbala, Pico became the first Christian scholar to use Kabbalistic doctrine in support of Christian theology. In 1486, planning to defend 900 theses he had drawn from diverse Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, and Latin writers, he invited scholars from all of Europe to Rome for a public disputation. For the occasion he composed his celebrated Oratio. A papal commission, however, denounced 13 of the theses as heretical, and the assembly was prohibited by Pope Innocent VIII. Despite his ensuing Apologia for the theses, Pico thought it prudent to flee to France but was arrested there. After a brief imprisonment he settled in Florence, where he became associated with the Platonic Academy, under the protection of the Florentine prince Lorenzo de’ Medici. Except for short trips to Ferrara, Pico spent the rest of his life there. He was absolved from the charge of heresy by Pope Alexander VI in 1492. Toward the end of his life he came under the influence of the strictly orthodox Girolamo Savonarola, martyr and enemy of Lorenzo.

Pico’s unfinished treatise against enemies of the church includes a discussion of the deficiencies of astrology. Though this critique was religious rather than scientific in its foundation, it influenced the astronomer Johannes Kepler, whose studies of planetary movements underlie modern astronomy. Pico’s other works include an exposition of Genesis under the title Heptaplus (Greek hepta, “seven”), indicating his seven points of argument, and a synoptic treatment of Plato and Aristotle, of which the completed work De ente et uno (Of Being and Unity) is a portion. Pico’s works were first collected in Commentationes Joannis Pici Mirandulae (1495–96).


Pico was born on February 24, 1463, to a noble Italian family, the counts of Mirandola and Concordia near Modena in the Emilia-Romagna north of Tuscany. At the age of fourteen he left for Bologna, intending briefly to study canon law, but within two years he moved to Ferrara and shortly afterward to Padua, where he met one of his most important teachers, Elia del Medigo, a Jew and an Averroist Aristotelian. By the time he left Padua in 1482, he had also felt the attraction of the Platonism being revived by Marsilio Ficino, and by 1484 he was corresponding with Angelo Poliziano and Lorenzo de’Medici about poetry.

In 1485 he traveled from Florence to Paris, the citadel of Aristotelian scholasticism. Before he left, at the age of twenty-two, he had made his first important contribution to philosophy—a defense of the technical terminology which since Petrarch’s time had incited humanist critics of philosophy to attack scholastic Latin as a barbaric violation of classical norms. Having refined his literary talent while developing his philosophical skills, Pico issued his manifesto in the form of a letter to the renowned Ermolao Barbaro, using the occasion and the genre to show, like Plato in the Phaedrus, how rhetoric could equip a philosopher to defend his calling against rhetorical assault.

After a short stay in Paris, Pico returned to Florence, and then Arezzo, where he caused a scandal by abducting a young woman named Margherita, already married to Giuliano Mariotto de’ Medici. Despite the support that came from Lorenzo de’ Medici, the commotion that followed and then a plague kept Pico on the move, just at the time he was writing a Commento on a love poem by Girolamo Benivieni and planning his larger scheme of philosophical concord. At its core this project aimed to secure human happiness by way of a philosophical harmony between Platonists and Aristotelians. But in keeping with Pico’s immense ambition, the scope of the effort became global, striving to join all schools of thought in a single symphony of philosophies. Pico planned to underwrite a magnificent conference on this theme in Rome early in 1487, and in preparation he assembled 900 theses from numerous authorities—ancient and medieval, pagan and Christian, Moslem and Jewish. He had these Conclusions printed in Rome at the end of 1486, and to introduce them he composed a work of eventually immense fame, the Oration on the Dignity of Man—as it came to be called.

Intervention by the Holy See derailed Pico’s plans and blocked the conference. Innocent VIII appointed a commission that first declared six of the theses suspect and condemned seven others, then rejected Pico’s clarifications and repudiated all thirteen. When the Apology that Pico hastily published provoked Innocent to denounce all nine hundred Conclusions, the audacious young Count left for Paris, but at the pope’s request he was detained by French authorities and briefly jailed. By the summer of 1488 he was back in Fiesole as the guest of Lorenzo, to whom in 1489 he dedicated a short work called Heptaplus, on the Sevenfold Account of the Six Days of Genesis.

Since 1483 Pico had a third of the income produced by his family’s estates, which along with his Mirandola property he transferred in 1491 to his nephew Gianfrancesco, who was to become an important philosopher in his own right and an early voice for the revival of scepticism as an instrument of Christian faith. At this time, however, even after the dust had settled on the provocative Conclusions, contemporaries were unsure of the elder Pico’s orthodoxy, and the Kabbalist exegesis of Genesis in the Heptaplus—tame though it is by Pico’s earlier standards—could scarcely restore their confidence. Meanwhile, Pico pursued safer philological inquiries with Poliziano, who received the dedication of a fragment On Being and the One in 1492. Even though De ente et uno was meant as the first installment of the great work that would prove Plato’s thought in concord with Aristotle’s, not everyone accepted Pico’s position harmoniously—least of all Antonio Cittadini, a Pisan professor who was still fighting about it with Gianfrancesco Pico two years after his uncle’s death.

In 1493 Pico achieved reconciliation with a higher authority when Alexander VI pardoned him for his earlier misadventures. By this time he had already grown close to Girolamo Savonarola, the fearsome millenarian preacher who had recently become Prior of the Dominican Convent of San Marco in Florence. Pico had known the prophetic friar for some time, but now Savonarola was on his way to establishing a theocratic tyranny in Florence. Growing ever more saintly, Pico disposed of more of his property, giving some to the Church and some to his family, as his habits became less and less worldly. He was working hard on another huge project, the unfinished Disputations Against Divinatory Astrology, when death (hastened by poison, some said) came to him on November 17, 1494. Florence fell to the French armies of Charles VIII on the same day, ending the dazzling age of Florentine culture that Pico’s blazing genius made all the brighter, though only briefly. Ficino, a steadier spirit, survived him by five years.

 Works and Reputation

Pico’s modern fame comes mainly from a speech that he never gave, the Oration on the Dignity of Man that got its title only after he died. He wrote the Oration in 1486 to introduce his 900 Conclusions, having chosen the capital of Christendom as just the place to dispute the outrageous theological novelties advertised by them—including the claim that magic and Kabbalah are the best proofs of Christ’s divinity. The Pope quashed Pico’s rash project, but not before the Conclusions were already in print. To make matters worse, Pico then defended them in an unsubmissive Apology that printed half of the original, and not yet published, Oration—though not the half that later became famous. As a whole, and mainly because its language is enigmatic, the Oration was less inflammatory than the Conclusions; it first appeared in the collection of his uncle’s works (Commentationes) published by Gianfrancesco Pico in 1496. Gianfrancesco, the main source of biographical information about the elder Pico, says that his uncle thought little of the speech, regarding it as a piece of juvenilia. For the next three centuries, few of Pico’s readers were moved to challenge this verdict, despite the author’s continuing fame. Until post-Kantian historians of philosophy were charmed by it, the Oration was largely (though not entirely) ignored, in part because of its publishing history.

Shortly after 1450, Giannozzo Manetti had completed a book On Human Worth and Excellence, which—unlike Pico’s speech—really is about dignitas as that word had been used by ancient Romans and medieval Christians: what they meant by it was ‘rank,’ ‘status,’ ‘value’ or ‘worth,’ not what Kant would mean later by Würde. Manetti’s dignitas was still essentially a Christian notion made less otherworldly by the example of ancient sages like Cicero and by the changed conditions of Italian life in the fifteenth century. The last part of Manetti’s book is an attack on a twelfth-century treatise On Human Misery by Cardinal Lotario dei Segni, before he became Pope Innocent III. Manetti took his lead from two contemporaries—Antonio da Barga and Bartolomeo Facio—who had already written about his topic but in much more conventional ways. Pico’s speech pays no attention at all to these three earlier texts on dignitas because dignitas is not his subject. Instead, he wanted to convince people to use magic and Kabbalah in order to change themselves into angels.

Except as part of Pico’s collected works, the Latin text of the Oration was printed only once before the 1940s, when the first translation into English also appeared, just after the first Italian version in 1936. What readers saw on the title-page of the 1496 Commentationes was simply A Very Elegant Oration, which in 1530—in the only separately published Latin text of the pre-modern era—expanded into On Man by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, explaining the loftier mysteries of sacred and human philosophy. Meanwhile, the front-matter of the five collected editions or reprints between 1498 and 1521 stayed with the 1496 formulation, Oratio quaedam elegantissima, which in 1557 finally became On the Dignity of Man in a Basel collection and, in a Venice edition of the same year, A Very Elegant Oration on the High Nobility and Dignity of Man. The two other early modern collections of 1572 and 1601 used a new format that no longer listed contents by title at the front of the book.

The British Library Catalog, which has about 1300 entries for books by Erasmus published by 1700, has about 100 for Pico. During the same period, when Marsilio Ficino’s De vita libri tres went through more than thirty editions, Pico’s Latin Oration—far better known to modern readers than Ficino’s Three Books on Life—got almost no attention from publishers. Of the five dozen or so Pico titles that found a publisher by 1700, about half were collections of letters. The first two, called Golden Letters, were incunabular editions, and the letters also figured prominently in early collections of Pico’s works, whose front-matter listed Ficino, Poliziano and other cultural celebrities with whom Pico corresponded

Two things made Pico’s Latin letters a durable commercial hit: celebrity and education. Since Latin was still the main medium of learned communication in the late seventeenth century, when Isaac Newton published his Principia in that undead language, educated people kept writing letters in Latin and used writers like Pico as models. And Pico was attractive not only because of his elegant style but also because he had been a celebrity in his own lifetime and remained so in Newton’s day. He stayed famous in three ways: as a critic of astrology; as an expert on Kabbalah; and as the amazing Pico—as the Phoenix who blazed through a brief life in the triple glare of an old aristocratic society, a new mandarin culture of classical scholarship and, in his last years, the millenarian fantasies of Savonarola’s Florence. Noble origins, fashionable friends, physical beauty, prodigious learning, capacious memory, scholarly journeys, youthful sins, trouble with the Church, eventual repentance and a pious death: these are the motifs of the family hagiography by his nephew that have kept Giovanni Pico famous for being famous over the centuries.

Because he died so young, Pico finished very little and published less: the vernacular Commento was neither completed nor published by him; the Conclusions are just bare statements of theses; half of the rushed Apology was lifted from the unpublished Oration; On Being and the One is a small piece of a larger effort to harmonize Plato and Aristotle; and Gianfrancesco found the unfinished Disputations Against Astrology bundled with his dead uncle’s papers. Unless we count the two epistolary essays on poetry and philosophical language, the only substantial and completed work that Pico gave to the world in his lifetime was the Heptaplus (1489), a Kabbalist commentary on the first 26 verses of Genesis.

That topic, called Ma’aseh Bereshit or the Work of the Beginning, was a favorite of Menahem Recanati, Abraham Abulafia and other Kabbalists whom Pico knew through learned Italian Jews, including Elia del Medigo, Flavius Mithridates and Yohanan Alemanno. Kabbalah, which Pico saw as the holier Hebrew analog of the gentile ‘ancient theology’ revealed by Marsilio Ficino, is provocatively on display in the 900 Conclusions: 119 of them, including the final and culminating 72, are Kabbalist theses—outlandishly Kabbalist from a Christian point of view. Pico’s project, part of a search for harmonies connecting all the world’s wisdom traditions, was to ground primary doctrines of Christology and trinitarian theology in Kabbalah, which he traced to the oral Torah confided to Moses and passed on in secret through Esdras and other sages. Because of its Mosaic origin, Kabbalah was holier to Pico than the pagan wisdom that Ficino had traced to Zoroaster and Hermes Trismegistus, in ancient Chaldaea and Egypt, where Ficino found the beginnings of Platonic philosophy. Pico was the first Christian who had the expertise, including a little Hebrew and Aramaic, to back up the astonishing claims that would make Kabbalah the core of the ancient theology.

Although Kabbalist writings had first appeared in the twelfth century, Christians before Pico knew almost nothing about them. The Kabbalah that he discovered for the Latin West is a theory as well as a practice, at bottom a kind of biblical hermeneutics. And for some Kabbalists, then and now, textual theorizing underwrites a spiritual practice whose aim is mystical ascent for the excitation of prophetic or messianic states by various techniques, including magic and theurgy. Many Kabbalists believe that the Hidden God, called the Infinite, reveals himself not only in the Bible but also through ten emanations or attributes, the Sefirot. Hypostasized in myths, made concrete by images and symbolized by letters and numbers, the Sefirot are at the core of Kabbalist speculation, whose other major focus is the names of God and their resonance in words of scripture.

Kabbalists regard the meaning of God’s sacred speech, the Hebrew text of the Bible, as infinite, finding significance even in its smallest particles—not only the divine words but also their letters (which are also numbers) and even the shapes of those letters. The most powerful words are God’s names, the holiest of which, the Tetragrammaton, cannot be uttered; written as YHWH, it is pronounced Adonai, a spoken name like Elohim, Ehyeh, El Shaddai and others used of God in the Hebrew Bible. Other words of great power are the names of the Sefirot, which are unknown, as such, to the Bible; they are names not of God but of aspects or manifestations or emanations of divinity.

Since God in his highest essence remains hidden, finite beings can know the Infinite only in so far as it descends from its secret heights. The last moments of that descent make up the world of common human awareness. The first moments, far beyond the reach of ordinary perception, are the ten Sefirot. Much of the literature of Kabbalah tries to describe the Sefirot, often as shown in Figure 1, where all ten (designated S1 through S10) are arranged in a diagram or ‘tree.’ The major names in Hebrew of S4, for example, are Gedullah and Hesed, meaning Greatness and Love or Piety, rendered by Pico as Amor or Pietas. The divine name usually associated with S4 is El, but Pico knew that Kabbalists use many other words and names (Abraham, Michael, the South, Water) to describe S4. The terminology that Pico used for the Sefirot, which he called ‘numerations’ is in Latin

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Petrarca, the first Humanist

Petrarca’s Ethical Humanism 1345-53

Petrarca continued to live at Vaucluse, and in 1346 he began writing his Solitary Life and Bucolicum Carmen. He contrasted solitude to urban living and gave examples of famous men and women who preferred solitude. Petrarca also valued friendship and wrote that he would rather be deprived of solitude than a friend. He did not impose his values on others, and the independence of thought he claimed for himself he did not deny to others. The first four eclogues of the Bucolicum Carmen discuss how his brother Gherardo’s life differs from his, the death of King Robert of Naples, his love for Laura and coronation, and his poetic work. The fifth eclogue is about Cola di Rienzo, and the sixth and seventh denounce the corruption of the papal court at Avignon. The eighth justifies his leaving Cardinal Colonna to return to Italy. He also wrote three sonnets on the “Babylonian captivity” of the papacy. Yet Pope Clement VI offered to make Petrarca his secretary or a bishop, but the poet declined to sacrifice his freedom to study and write.

Petrarca visited his brother Gherardo at the Montrieux monastery in 1347 and was inspired to write On Monastic Freedom (De otio religioso) on the Biblical injunction in the 46th Psalm, “Be still, and know that I am God.” The treatise discusses how to be liberated from the devil, the world, and the flesh. It is dedicated to the monks of Montrieux; but Petrarca admitted that he wrote it more for his own benefit than theirs.

Petrarca had begun writing his Secretum (My Secret Book) in 1342, and he completed it about 1347. In the introduction he explained that he did not write it for others and glory, but only so that he could remember the conversation. No copy of the book was made during his lifetime. Thinking about his death, he thought he saw a woman, and talking with her, he identified her as Truth. As she entered his inmost solitude, he noticed the priestly Augustine.

After this introduction the book consists of three dialogs between Francesco and Augustine. In the first Augustine asks him if he has forgotten that he is mortal, and he recommends being conscious of our own unhappiness and meditating constantly on death. Augustine argues that anyone who recognizes one’s unhappiness and wants to be happy can be so. However, the foolish try to gain happiness with the chains of earthly pleasures. He should study and work for his own improvement, not to impress others. No one can be made unhappy except by one’s own fault.

Francesco is concerned that he will not be able to free himself from his own faults. Augustine warns him that people esteem themselves more highly than others and thus deceive themselves. Francesco realizes that the root of his unhappiness is in his will. Augustine reflects that he did not change himself until deep meditation helped him see his unhappiness. He advises the poet to consult his conscience to interpret virtue and judge deeds and thoughts in order to strengthen his faith. The desire for virtue is a large portion of virtue. This desire can only function fully when all other desires are ended. By being conscious of mortality one can despise transient things and aspire to a life of reason. When the soul leaves its body, it is presented for judgment on every deed and word in one’s life. If one truly desires to be better, one may be confident that God will rescue you. Francesco asks his mentor what is holding him back. Augustine quotes Virgil that conflicts arise and produce fear, desire, grief, and joy. Cicero advises, “The superior intellect moves away from the senses and abstracts its thoughts from everyday matters.” Augustine tells Petrarca that his mind is distracted by various obsessions.

In the second dialog of Secretum Augustine warns Francesco that despair is the worst evil. He observes that Francesco is proud of his intellect, the books he has read, his eloquence, and the beauty of his body which will die. When Francesco asks what leads him astray, the saint replies that it is his desire for worldly things. Augustine encourages him to endure poverty and recommends the middle way between wealth and poverty. He refers to the proverb that the covetous person is always in need. He should limit his desires. When he overcomes his passions and is wholly under the sway of virtue, then he will be free. Francesco admits that he suffers from depression, and Augustine asks him what is its cause. Petrarca sees many causes, especially his contempt for the human condition. He contrasts the sight of miserable beggars to the absurdities of the voluptuous rich. Augustine warns him that anger is the worst mental disturbance but advises him that it can be controlled by reason. He must learn to calm the tumult in his own heart to obtain a peaceful mind.

In the third dialogue Augustine describes Petrarca’s greatest problems as his passionate love for Laura and his desire for worldly glory. She has distracted him from the love of God to a creature. Francesco realizes that his deviation from the right path began when he met Laura in 1327. Again Augustine counsels him that the love of earthly things causes one to neglect the love of God. He recommends that he live in Italy but avoid solitude until he is cured of his illness. Cicero advised that satiety, shame, and reflection can help one take one’s mind off love. The saint advises him to put away childish things and the desires of youth. In regard to glory the desire for vain immortality may block his way to true immortality. Augustine believes he is wasting his life writing his Africa and other poetry when death may snatch him before he completes them. Instead of striving for glory, he should be working to be worthy. By making the true end of life one’s goal and by aiming at worth, true glory will follow. Worldly ambitions are not worth the name of glory. The whole life of a philosopher should be meditating on death. Finally, Francesco expresses gratitude for the understanding he has gained, and he thanks Truth for helping them to see. Francesco asks Augustine not to desert him. The two voices in this dialog represent two sides of the author Petrarca. Augustine may be considered his higher, spiritual self while Francesco represents his conscious self making decisions in the world.

In his “Letter to Posterity” Petrarca described his life up to about 1351. In this letter he also mentioned that he disliked the dishonesty in the legal profession and so could not practice it. He admitted that he was deluded as a young man and went astray as an adult before his experience convinced him of the truth and helped him to correct his life. He did not strive for riches because he did not want the worries and effort that is involved in achieving and maintaining wealth. He always felt contempt for wealth and hated the anxiety it demanded; so he practiced plain living and ordinary fare. At the age of forty he renounced carnal relationships with women, thanking God for the liberation while he was still strong and healthy. He admitted that he has known and been honored by great princes who gave him advantages. He believed he had a well balanced intellect rather than a sharp one and that he was most inclined to moral philosophy and the art of poetry. He concentrated mostly on the knowledge of antiquity and disliked his own age, except for the affection of his friends.

Petrarca had become friends with the flamboyant Cola di Rienzo in 1343 when Cola spent several months in Avignon on a diplomatic mission. When the demagogic Cola di Rienzo became tribune of Rome in 1347, he expelled aristocratic families and declared a Roman republic with himself as ruler. Petrarca wrote Cola several letters urging him to unite Italy, return the papacy to Rome, and bring peace to the region; but Cola’s attack with militia that killed Stefano Colonna the Younger and his son alienated Petrarca from Cardinal Colonna. On November 29 he wrote to Cola, complaining that he favored the basest faction and pleading that he not destroy his own work. After Cola was arrested, Petrarca wrote a letter to the Roman people urging them to intervene; he complained that the magistrates denied Cola legal counsel, though this was the common practice of the Inquisition. Concern over German mercenaries and the hired soldiers called condottieri and the violent calamities in Italy stimulated Petrarca to write a canzoni called “My Italy,” which he concluded as follows:

“My song, be humble, for you are addressed to haughty folk,
ever hostile to the truth.
Speak then to those few high hearts that love virtue.
Say to them: “Who gives me strength to speak,
as I go crying: ‘Peace! Peace! Peace!’”

Conditions were so violent in Italy that when Petrarca first visited Rome, his friends provided an escort of a hundred horsemen to protect him from the Orsini family.

In 1348 Petrarca survived a major earthquake and the Black Death which took his beloved Laura. He became a friend of Padua’s ruler Jacopo II da Carrara and visited him in 1349. Jacopo procured a canonry for Petrarca in Padua. From this time on Petrarca always hired at least one copyist to make transcripts of valuable manuscripts. He became archdeacon in Padua on June 20, 1350 and immediately left to visit Mantua. In October of that year Petrarca visited Boccaccio for the first time in Florence as he made the pilgrimage to Rome during the Jubilee. He also met the eminent scholar and lawyer, Lapo da Castiglionchio, who sent him many manuscripts by Cicero including the Philippics. Lapo was given a manuscript of the last thirteen books of Petrarca’s Familiar Letters which survived with his notes. Petrarca visited his birthplace at Arezzo in December, and Lapo sent him a copy of the newly discovered Institutions by Quintilian. Petrarca was so impressed that he wrote a letter of appreciation to the dead author.

In April 1351 Boccaccio came to Padua and gave Petrarca a letter from the priors of Florence revoking the banishment of his father’s family and restoring the confiscated property. They invited him to teach in Florence, but after the death of Jacopo da Carrara, Petrarca returned to Vaucluse in the summer of 1351. In November he wrote a letter to a commission of four cardinals appointed to resolve problems in Rome in which he recommended that the rival Colonna and Orsini families both be excluded from the city government and that the Roman Senate be limited to Roman citizens. However, the commission was ineffective.

Petrarca spent much of his life studying and writing at his retreat in Vaucluse near Avignon, and even this place was once plundered and burned. Starting in 1350, Petrarca began writing letters to persuade Holy Roman Emperor Karl IV of Bohemia to come to Rome to be crowned, and Karl finally did so in 1354; but he soon left. Like Dante, Petrarca hoped that one head could establish peace and order in Italy. Prior to the war between Genoa and Venice, in March 1351 Petrarca had sent exhortations for peace to the doges of both cities, explaining to himself, “I thought myself blameworthy if, in the midst of warlike preparations, I should not have recourse to my one weapon, the pen.”

Thursday, August 3, 2017


Pragmatism is a philosophical movement that includes those who claim that an ideology or proposition is true if it works satisfactorily, that the meaning of a proposition is to be found in the practical consequences of accepting it, and that unpractical ideas are to be rejected. Pragmatism originated in the United States during the latter quarter of the nineteenth century. Although it has significantly influenced non-philosophers—notably in the fields of law, education, politics, sociology, psychology, and literary criticism—this article deals with it only as a movement within philosophy.

The term “pragmatism” was first used in print to designate a philosophical outlook about a century ago when William James (1842-1910) pressed the word into service during an 1898 address entitled “Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results,” delivered at the University of California (Berkeley). James scrupulously swore, however, that the term had been coined almost three decades earlier by his compatriot and friend C. S. Peirce (1839-1914). (Peirce, eager to distinguish his doctrines from the views promulgated by James, later relabeled his own position “pragmaticism”—a name, he said, “ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers.”) The third major figure in the classical pragmatist pantheon is  John Dewey (1859-1952), whose wide-ranging writings had considerable impact on American intellectual life for a half-century. After Dewey, however, pragmatism lost much of its momentum.

There has been a recent resurgence of interest in pragmatism, with several high-profile philosophers exploring and selectively appropriating themes and ideas embedded in the rich tradition of Peirce, James, and Dewey. While the best-known and most controversial of these so-called “neo-pragmatists” is Richard Rorty, the following contemporary philosophers are often considered to be pragmatists: Hilary Putnam, Nicholas Rescher, Jürgen Habermas, Susan Haack, Robert Brandom, and Cornel West.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017


One of Socrates' (and Plato's) chief ideas was that of forms, which explains that the world is made up of reflections of more perfect and ideal forms. The material world - the one we can see, touch, hear and smell - is really just half-seen images of the reality of the forms. Relying on your physical senses alone - trusting what you see, for instance - is, to Socrates, making yourself effectively blind. The world we see is only a reflection of the forms the world represents (and not even that accurately). A form - whether it's a circle, or a table, or a tree or a dog - is, for Socrates, the answer to the question, 'What is that?' Only understanding forms can lead to true knowledge.

Plato uses a parable, a short informative story, to illustrate 'forms' and the 'cave,' in his main work, The Republic (which first appeared around 380 BC).

The dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon is probably fictitious and composed by Plato; whether or not the allegory originated with Socrates, or if Plato is using his mentor as a stand-in for his own idea, is unclear.

In the dialogue, Socrates asks Glaucon to imagine a cave, in which prisoners are kept. These prisoners have been in the cave since their childhood, and each of them is held there in a peculiar manner - they are all chained so that their legs and necks are immobile, forced to look at a wall in front of them. Behind the prisoners is a fire and between the fire and the prisoners is a raised walkway, on which people can walk.

These people are puppeteers, and they are carrying objects, in the shape of human and animal figures, as well as everyday items. The prisoners could only see these flickering images on the wall, since they could not move their heads; and so, naturally enough, they presumed the images to be real, rather than just shadowy representations of what is actually real. In fact, Socrates claimed, the images on the wall would be so real that the prisoners would assign prestige among each other to the one who could recall the most detail about the shapes, the order in which they appeared and which might typically be found together or in tandem. Of course, Socrates would point out, this was hollow praise, since in fact the images were not real.

Then Socrates offered a twist in the plot - what if one of the prisoners were to be freed and made to turn and look at the fire? The bright light would hurt his eyes, as accustomed as he was to the shadows, and even in turning back to the wall and its flickering images (which would be only natural), the prisoner couldn't help but notice that they weren't real at all, but only shadows of the real items on the walkway behind him.

If the prisoner was then taken from the cave and brought into the open, the disorientation would be even more severe; the light of the sun would be much more brilliant than the fire. But as his eyes adjusted, the newly freed prisoner would be able to see beyond only shadows; he would see dimensions and reflections in the water (even of himself). After learning of the reality of the world, the prisoner now sees how 'pitiable' his former colleagues in the cave really are. If he returned to the cave and rejoined them, he would take no pleasure in their accolades or praise for knowledge of the shadow-figures; for their own part, the prisoners would see him as deranged, not really knowing what reality is and would say of him that he left the cave and returned with corrupted eyes.


Metaxy (Greek: μεταξύ) or metaxu is defined in Plato's Symposium via the character of the priestess Diotima as the "in-between" or "middle ground". Diotima, tutoring Socrates, uses the term to show how oral tradition can be perceived by different people in different ways. In the poem by Socrates she depicts Eros as not an extreme or purity; rather, as a daimon Eros is in-between the divine Gods and mankind. Diotima thus exposes the flaws of oral tradition; it uses strong contrasts to express truth, thus revealing vulnerability to sophistry. This portion of the dialogue points to the idea that reality is perceptible only through one's character (which includes one's desires and prejudices and one's limited understanding of logic). Man moves through the world of Becoming, the ever changing world of sensory perception, into the world of Being—the world of forms, absolutes and transcendence., by means of metaxy. Man transcends his place in Becoming by eros, where man reaches the Highest Good, an intuitive and mystical state of consciousness

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Renaissance Philosophy

The Renaissance, that is, the period that extends roughly from the middle of the fourteenth century to the beginning of the seventeen century, was a time of intense, all-encompassing, and, in many ways, distinctive philosophical activity. A fundamental assumption of the Renaissance movement was that the remains of classical antiquity constituted an invaluable source of excellence to which debased and decadent modern times could turn in order to repair the damage brought about since the fall of the Roman Empire. It was often assumed that God had given a single unified truth to humanity and that the works of ancient philosophers had preserved part of this original deposit of divine wisdom. This idea not only laid the foundation for a scholarly culture that was centered on ancient texts and their interpretation, but also fostered an approach to textual interpretation that strove to harmonize and reconcile divergent philosophical accounts. Stimulated by newly available texts, one of the most important hallmarks of Renaissance philosophy is the increased interest in primary sources of Greek and Roman thought, which were previously unknown or little read. The renewed study of Neoplatonism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Skepticism eroded faith in the universal truth of Aristotelian philosophy and widened the philosophical horizon, providing a rich seedbed from which modern science and modern philosophy gradually emerged.

1. Aristotelianism

Improved access to a great deal of previously unknown literature from ancient Greece and Rome was an important aspect of Renaissance philosophy. The renewed study of Aristotle, however, was not so much because of the rediscovery of unknown texts, but because of a renewed interest in texts long translated into Latin but little studied, such as the Poetics, and especially because of novel approaches to well-known texts. From the early fifteenth century onwards, humanists devoted considerable time and energy to making Aristotelian texts clearer and more precise. In order to rediscover the meaning of Aristotle’s thought, they updated the Scholastic translations of his works, read them in the original Greek, and analyzed them with philological techniques. The availability of these new interpretative tools had a great impact on the philosophical debate. Moreover, in the four decades after 1490, the Aristotelian interpretations of Alexander of Aphrodisias, Themistius, Ammonius, Philoponus, Simplicius, and other Greek commentators were added to the views of Arabic and medieval commentators, stimulating new solutions to Aristotelian problems and leading to a wide variety of interpretations of Aristotle in the Renaissance period.

The most powerful tradition, at least in Italy, was that which took Averroes’s works as the best key for determining the true mind of Aristotle. Averroes’s name was primarily associated with the doctrine of the unity of the intellect. Among the defenders of his theory that there is only one intellect for all human beings, we find Paul of Venice (d. 1429), who is regarded as the founding figure of Renaissance Averroism, and Alessandro Achillini (1463–1512), as well as the Jewish philosopher Elijah del Medigo (1458–1493). Two other Renaissance Aristotelians who expended much of their philosophical energies on explicating the texts of Averroes are Nicoletto Vernia (d. 1499) and Agostino Nifo (c. 1469–1538). They are noteworthy characters in the Renaissance controversy about the immortality of the soul mainly because of the remarkable shift that can be discerned in their thought. Initially they were defenders of Averroes’s theory of the unity of the intellect, but from loyal followers of Averroes as a guide to Aristotle, they became careful students of the Greek commentators, and in their late thought both Vernia and Nifo attacked Averroes as a misleading interpreter of Aristotle, believing that personal immortality could be philosophically demonstrated.

Many Renaissance Aristotelians read Aristotle for scientific or secular reasons, with no direct interest in religious or theological questions. Pietro Pomponazzi (1462–1525), one of the most important and influential Aristotelian philosophers of the Renaissance, developed his views entirely within the framework of natural philosophy. In De immortalitate animae (Treatise on the Immortality of the Soul, 1516), arguing from the Aristotelian text, Pomponazzi maintained that proof of the intellect’s ability to survive the death of the body must be found in an activity of the intellect that functions without any dependence on the body. In his view, no such activity can be found because the highest activity of the intellect, the attainment of universals in cognition, is always mediated by sense impression. Therefore, based solely on philosophical premises and Aristotelian principles, the conclusion is that the entire soul dies with the body. Pomponazzi’s treatise aroused violent opposition and led to a spate of books being written against him. In 1520, he completed De naturalium effectuum causis sive de incantationibus (On the Causes of Natural Effects or On Incantations), whose main target was the popular belief that miracles are produced by angels and demons. He excluded supernatural explanations from the domain of nature by establishing that it is possible to explain those extraordinary events commonly regarded as miracles in terms of a concatenation of natural causes. Another substantial work is De fato, de libero arbitrio et de praedestinatione (Five Books on Fate, Free Will and Predestination), which is regarded as one of the most important works on the problems of freedom and determinism in the Renaissance. Pomponazzi considers whether the human will can be free, and he considers the conflicting points of view of philosophical determinism and Christian theology.

Another philosopher who tried to keep Aristotle’s authority independent of theology and subject to rational criticism, is Jacopo Zabarella (1533–1589), who produced an extensive body of work on the nature of logic and scientific method. His goal was the retrieval of the genuine Aristotelian concepts of science and scientific method, which he understood as the indisputable demonstration of the nature and constitutive principles of natural beings. He developed the method of regressus, a combination of the deductive procedures of composition and the inductive procedures of resolution that came to be regarded as the proper method for obtaining knowledge in the theoretical sciences. Among his main works are the collected logical works Opera logica (1578), which are mainly devoted to the theory of demonstration, and his major work on natural philosophy, De rebus naturalibus (1590). Zabarella’s work was instrumental in a renewal of natural philosophy, methodology, and theory of knowledge.

There were also forms of Aristotelian philosophy with strong confessional ties, such as the branch of Scholasticism that developed on the Iberian Peninsula during the sixteenth century. This current of Hispanic Scholastic philosophy began with the Dominican School founded in Salamanca by Francisco de Vitoria (1492–1546) and continued with the philosophy of the newly founded Society of Jesus, among whose defining authorities were Pedro da Fonseca (1528–1599), Francisco de Toledo (1533–1596), and Francisco Suárez (1548–1617). Their most important writings were in the areas of metaphysics and philosophy of law. They played a key role in the elaboration of the law of nations (jus gentium) and the theory of just war, a debate that began with Vitoria’s Relectio de iure belli (A Re-lecture of the Right of War, 1539) and continued with the writings of Domingo de Soto (1494–1560), Suárez, and many others. In the field of metaphysics, the most important work is Suárez’ Disputationes metaphysicae (Metaphysical Disputations, 1597), a systematic presentation of philosophy—against the background of Christian principles—that set the standard for philosophical and theological teaching for almost two centuries.

2. Humanism

The humanist movement did not eliminate older approaches to philosophy, but contributed to change them in important ways, providing new information and new methods to the field. Humanists called for a radical change of philosophy and uncovered older texts that multiplied and hardened current philosophical discord. Some of the most salient features of humanist reform are the accurate study of texts in the original languages, the preference for ancient authors and commentators over medieval ones, and the avoidance of technical language in the interest of moral suasion and accessibility. Humanists stressed moral philosophy as the branch of philosophical studies that best met their needs. They addressed a general audience in an accessible manner and aimed to bring about an increase in public and private virtue. Regarding philosophy as a discipline allied to history, rhetoric, and philology, they expressed little interest in metaphysical or epistemological questions. Logic was subordinated to rhetoric and reshaped to serve the purposes of persuasion.

One of the seminal figures of the humanist movement was Francesco Petrarca (1304–1374). In De sui ipsius et multorum aliorum ignorantia (On His Own Ignorance and That of Many Others), he elaborated what was to become the standard critique of Scholastic philosophy. One of his main objections to Scholastic Aristotelianism is that it is useless and ineffective in achieving the good life. Moreover, to cling to a single authority when all authorities are unreliable is simply foolish. He especially attacked, as opponents of Christianity, Aristotle’s commentator Averroes and contemporary Aristotelians that agreed with him. Petrarca returned to a conception of philosophy rooted in the classical tradition, and from his time onward, when professional humanists took interest in philosophy, they nearly always concerned themselves with ethical questions. Among those he influenced were Coluccio Salutati (1331–1406), Leonardo Bruni (c.1370–1444) and Poggio Bracciolini (1380–1459), all of whom promoted humanistic learning in distinctive ways.

One of the most original and important humanists of the Quattrocento was Lorenzo Valla (1406–1457). His most influential writing was Elegantiae linguae Latinae (Elegances of the Latin Language), a handbook of Latin language and style. He is also famous for having demonstrated, on the basis of linguistic and historical evidence, that the so-called Donation of Constantine, on which the secular rule of the papacy was based, was an early medieval forgery. His main philosophical work is Repastinatio dialecticae et philosophiae (Reploughing of Dialectic and Philosophy), an attack on major tenets of Aristotelian philosophy. The first book deals with the criticism of fundamental notions of metaphysics, ethics, and natural philosophy, while the remaining two books are devoted to dialectics.

Throughout the fifteenth and early sixteenth century, humanists were unanimous in their condemnation of university education and their contempt for Scholastic logic. Humanists such as Valla and Rudolph Agricola (1443–1485), whose main work is De inventione dialectica (On Dialectical Invention, 1479), set about to replace the Scholastic curriculum, based on syllogism and disputation, with a treatment of logic oriented toward the use of persuasion and topics, a technique of verbal association aiming at the invention and organization of material for arguments. According to Valla and Agricola, language is primarily a vehicle for communication and debate, and consequently arguments should be evaluated in terms of how effective and useful they are rather than in terms of formal validity. Accordingly, they subsumed the study of the Aristotelian theory of inference under a broader range of forms of argumentation. This approach was taken up and developed in various directions by later humanists, such as Mario Nizolio (1488–1567), Juan Luis Vives (1493–1540), and Petrus Ramus (1515–1572).

Vives was a Spanish-born humanist who spent the greater part of his life in the Low Countries. He aspired to replace the Scholastic tradition in all fields of learning with a humanist curriculum inspired by education in the classics. In 1519, he published In Pseudodialecticos (Against the Pseudodialecticians), a satirical diatribe against Scholastic logic in which he voices his opposition on several counts. A detailed criticism can be found in De disciplinis (On the Disciplines, 1531), an encyclopedic work divided into three parts: De causis corruptarum artium (On the Causes of the Corruption of the Arts), a collection of seven books devoted to a thorough critique of the foundations of contemporary education; De tradendis disciplinis (On Handing Down the Disciplines), five books where Vives’s educational reform is outlined; and De artibus (On the Arts), five shorter treatises that deal mainly with logic and metaphysics. Another area in which Vives enjoyed considerable success was psychology. His reflections on the human soul are mainly concentrated in De anima et vita (On the Soul and Life, 1538), a study of the soul and its interaction with the body, which also contains a penetrating analysis of the emotions.

Ramus was another humanist who criticized the shortcomings of contemporary teaching and advocated a humanist reform of the arts curriculum. His textbooks were the best sellers of their day and were very influential in Protestant universities  in the later sixteenth century. In 1543, he published Dialecticae partitiones (The Structure of Dialectic), which in its second edition was called Dialecticae institutiones (Training in Dialectic), and Aristotelicae animadversions (Remarks on Aristotle). These works gained him a reputation as a virulent opponent of Aristotelian philosophy. He considered his own dialectics, consisting of invention and judgment, to be applicable to all areas of knowledge, and he emphasised the need for learning to be comprehensible and useful, with a particular stress on the practical aspects of mathematics. His own reformed system of logic reached its definitive form with the publication of the third edition of Dialectique (1555).

Humanism also supported Christian reform. The most important Christian humanist was the Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus (c.1466–1536). He was hostile to Scholasticism, which he did not consider a proper basis for Christian life, and put his erudition at the service of religion by promoting learned piety (docta pietas). In 1503, he published Enchiridion militis christiani (Handbook of the Christian Soldier), a guide to the Christian life addressed to laymen in need of spiritual guidance, in which he developed the concept of a philosophia Christi. His most famous work is Moriae encomium (The Praise of Folly), a satirical monologue first published in 1511 that touches upon a variety of social, political, intellectual, and religious issues. In 1524, he published De libero arbitrio (On Free Will), an open attack a one central doctrine of Martin Luther’s theology: that the human will is enslaved by sin. Erasmus’s analysis hinges on the interpretation of relevant biblical and patristic passages and reaches the conclusion that the human will is extremely weak, but able, with the help of divine grace, to choose the path of salvation.

Humanism also had an impact of overwhelming importance on the development of political thought. With Institutio principis christiani (The Education of a Christian Prince, 1516), Erasmus contributed to the popular genre of humanist advice books for princes. These manuals dealt with the proper ends of government and how best to attain them. Among humanists of the fourteenth century, the most usual proposal was that a strong monarchy should be the best form of government. Petrarca, in his account of princely government that was written in 1373 and took the form of a letter to Francesco da Carrara, argued that cities ought to be governed by princes who accept their office reluctantly and who pursue glory through virtuous actions. His views were repeated in quite a few of the numerous “mirror for princes” (speculum principis) composed during the course of the fifteenth century, such as Giovanni Pontano’s De principe (On the Prince, 1468) and Bartolomeo Sacchi’s De principe (On the Prince, 1471).

Several authors exploited the tensions within the genre of “mirror for princes” in order to defend popular regimes. In Laudatio florentinae urbis (Panegyric of the City of Florence), Bruni maintained that justice can only be assured by a republican constitution. In his view, cities must be governed according to justice if they are to become glorious, and justice is impossible without liberty.

The most important text to challenge the assumptions of princely humanism, however, was Il principe (The Prince), written by the Florentine Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) in 1513, but not published until 1532. A fundamental belief among the humanists was that a ruler needs to cultivate a number of qualities, such as justice and other moral values, in order to acquire honour, glory, and fame. Machiavelli deviated from this view claiming that justice has no decisive place in politics. It is the ruler’s prerogative to decide when to dispense violence and practice deception, no matter how wicked or immoral, as long as the peace of the city is maintained and his share of glory maximized. Machiavelli did not hold that princely regimes were superior to all others. In his less famous, but equally influential, Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio (Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy, 1531), he offers a defense of popular liberty and republican government that takes the ancient republic of Rome as its model.

3. Platonism

During the Renaissance, it gradually became possible to take a broader view of philosophy than the traditional Peripatetic framework permitted. No ancient revival had more impact on the history of philosophy than the recovery of Platonism. The rich doctrinal content and formal elegance of Platonism made it a plausible competitor of the Peripatetic tradition. Renaissance Platonism was a product of humanism and marked a sharper break with medieval philosophy. Many Christians found Platonic philosophy safer and more attractive than Aristotelianism. The Neoplatonic conception of philosophy as a way toward union with God supplied many Renaissance Platonists with some of their richest inspiration. The Platonic dialogues were not seen as profane texts to be understood literally, but as sacred mysteries to be deciphered.

Platonism was brought to Italy by the Byzantine scholar George Gemistos Plethon (c.1360–1454), who, during the Council of Florence in 1439, gave a series of lectures that he later reshaped as De differentiis Aristotelis et Platonis (The Differences between Aristotle and Plato). This work, which compared the doctrines of the two philosophers (to Aristotle’s great disadvantage), initiated a controversy regarding the relative superiority of Plato and Aristotle. In the treatise In calumniatorem Platonis (Against the Calumniator of Plato), Cardinal Bessarion (1403–1472) defended Plethon against the charge levelled against his philosophy by the Aristotelian George of Trebizond (1396–1472), who in Comparatio philosophorum Aristotelis et Platonis (A Comparison of the Philosophers Aristotle and Plato) had maintained that Platonism was unchristian and actually a new religion.

The most important Renaissance Platonist was Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499), who translated Plato’s works into Latin and wrote commentaries on several of them. He also translated and commented on Plotinus’s Enneads and translated treatises and commentaries by Porphyry, Iamblichus, Proclus, Synesius, and other Neoplatonists. He considered Plato as part of a long tradition of ancient theology (prisca theologia) that was inaugurated by Hermes and Zoroaster, culminated with Plato, and continued with Plotinus and the other Neoplatonists. Like the ancient Neoplatonists, Ficino assimilated Aristotelian physics and metaphysics and adapted them to Platonic purposes. In his main philosophical treatise, Theologia Platonica de immortalitate animorum (Platonic Theology on the Immortality of Souls, 1482), he put forward his synthesis of Platonism and Christianity as a new theology and metaphysics, which, unlike that of many Scholastics, was explicitly opposed to Averroist secularism. Another work that became very popular was De vita libri tres (Three Books on Life, 1489) by Ficino; it deals with the health of professional scholars and presents a philosophical theory of natural magic.

One of Ficino’s most distinguished associates was Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494). He is best known as the author of the celebrated Oratio de hominis dignitate (Oration on the Dignity of Man), which is often regarded as the manifesto of the new Renaissance thinking, but he also wrote several other prominent works. They include Disputationes adversus astrologiam divinatricem (Disputations against Divinatory Astrology), an influential diatribe against astrology; De ente et uno (On Being and the One), a short treatise attempting to reconcile Platonic and Aristotelian metaphysical views; as well as Heptaplus (Seven Days of Creation), a mystical interpretation of the Genesis creation myth. He was not a devout Neoplatonist like Ficino, but rather an Aristotelian by training and in many ways an eclectic by conviction. He wanted to combine Greek, Hebrew, Muslim, and Christian thought into a great synthesis, which he spelled out in nine hundred theses published as Conclusiones in 1486. He planned to defend them publicly in Rome, but three were found heretical and ten others suspect. He defended them in Apologia, which provoked the condemnation of the whole work by Pope Innocent VIII. Pico’s consistent aim in his writings was to exalt the powers of human nature. To this end he defended the use of magic, which he described as the noblest part of natural science, and Kabbalah, a Jewish form of mysticism that was probably of Neoplatonic origin.

Platonic themes were also central to the thought of Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464), who linked his philosophical activity to the Neoplatonic tradition and authors such as Proclus and Pseudo-Dionysius. The main problem that runs through his works is how humans, as finite created beings, can think about the infinite and transcendent God. His best-known work is De docta ignorantia (On Learned Ignorance, 1440), which gives expression to his view that the human mind needs to realize its own necessary ignorance of what God is like, an ignorance that results from the ontological and cognitive disproportion between God and the finite human knower. Correlated to the doctrine of learned ignorance is that of the coincidence of opposites in God. All things coincide in God in the sense that God, as undifferentiated being, is beyond all opposition. Two other works that are closely connected to De docta ignorantia are De coniecturis (On Conjectures), in which he denies the possibility of exact knowledge, maintaining that all human knowledge is conjectural, and Apologia docta ignorantiae (A Defense of Learned Ignorance, 1449). In the latter, he makes clear that the doctrine of learned ignorance is not intended to deny knowledge of the existence of God, but only to deny all knowledge of God’s nature.

One of the most serious obstacles to the reception and adoption of Platonism in the early fifteenth century was the theory of Platonic love. Many scholars were simply unable to accept Plato’s explicit treatment of homosexuality. Yet by the middle of the sixteenth century this doctrine had become one of the most popular elements of Platonic philosophy. The transformation of Platonic love from an immoral and offensive liability into a valuable asset represents an important episode in the history of Plato’s re-emergence during the Renaissance as a major influence on Western thought.

Bessarion and Ficino did not deny that Platonic love was essentially homosexual in outlook, but they insisted that it was entirely honourable and chaste. To reinforce this point, they associated Platonic discussions of love with those found in the Bible. Another way in which Ficino made Platonic love more palatable to his contemporaries was to emphasise its place within an elaborate system of Neoplatonic metaphysics. But Ficino’s efforts to accommodate the theory to the values of a fifteenth-century audience did not include concealing or denying that Platonic love was homoerotic. Ficino completely accepted the idea that Platonic love involved a chaste relationship between men and endorsed the belief that the soul’s spiritual ascent to ultimate beauty was fuelled by love between men.

In Gli Asolani (1505), the humanist Pietro Bembo (1470–1547) appropriated the language of Platonic love to describe some aspects of the romance between a man and a woman. In this work, love was presented as unequivocally heterosexual. Most of the ideas set out by Ficino are echoed by Bembo. However, Ficino had separated physical love, which had women as its object, from spiritual love, which was shared between men. Bembo’s version of Platonic love, on the other hand, dealt with the relationship between a man and a woman which gradually progresses from a sexual to a spiritual level. The view of Platonic love formulated by Bembo reached its largest audience with the humanist Baldesar Castiglione’s (1478–1529) Il libro del cortegiano (The Courtier, 1528). Castiglione carried on the trend, initiated by Bessarion, of giving Platonic love a strongly religious coloring, and most of the philosophical content is taken from Ficino.

One of the most popular Renaissance treatises on love, Dialoghi d’amore (Dialogues of Love, 1535), was written by the Jewish philosopher Judah ben Isaac Abravanel, also known as Leone Ebreo (c.1460/5–c.1520/5). The work consists of three conversations on love, which he conceives of as the animating principle of the universe and the cause of all existence, divine as well as material. The first dialogue discusses the relation between love and desire; the second the universality of love; and the third, which provides the longest and most sustained philosophical discussion, the origin of love. He draws upon Platonic and Neoplatonic sources, as well as on the cosmology and metaphysics of Jewish and Arabic thinkers, which are combined with Aristotelian sources in order to produce a synthesis of Aristotelian and Platonic views.

4. Hellenistic Philosophies

Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Skepticism underwent a revival over the course of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as part of the ongoing recovery of ancient literature and thought. The revival of Stoicism began with Petrarca, whose renewal of Stoicism moved along two paths. The first one was inspired by Seneca and consisted in the presentation, in works such as De vita solitaria (The Life of Solitude) and De otio religioso (On Religious Leisure), of a way of life in which the cultivation of the scholarly work and ethical perfection are one. The second was his elaboration of Stoic therapy against emotional distress in De secreto conflictu curarum mearum (On the Secret Conflict of My Worries), an inner dialogue of the sort prescribed by Cicero and Seneca, and in De remediis utriusque fortunae (Remedies for Good and Bad Fortune, 1366), a huge compendium based on a short apocryphal tract attributed at the time to Seneca.

While many humanists shared Petrarca’s esteem for Stoic moral philosophy, others called its stern prescriptions into question. They accused the Stoics of suppressing all emotions and criticized their view for its inhuman rigidity. In contrast to the extreme ethical stance of the Stoics, they preferred the more moderate Peripatetic position, arguing that it provides a more realistic basis for morality, since it places the acquisition of virtue within the reach of normal human capacities. Another Stoic doctrine that was often criticized on religious grounds was the conviction that the wise man is entirely responsible for his own happiness and has no need of divine assistance.

The most important exponent of Stoicism during the Renaissance was the Flemish humanist Justus Lipsius (1547–1606), who worked hard to brighten the appeal of Stoicism to Christians. His first Neostoic work was De constantia (On Constancy, 1584), in which he promoted Stoic moral philosophy as a refuge from the horrors of the civil and religious wars that ravaged the continent at the time. His main accounts of Stoicism were Physiologia Stoicorum (Physical Theory of the Stoics) and Manuductio ad stoicam philosophiam (Guide to Stoic Philosophy), both published in 1604. Together they constituted the most learned account of Stoic philosophy produced since antiquity.

During the Middle Ages, Epicureanism was associated with contemptible atheism and hedonist dissipation. In 1417, Bracciolini found Lucretius’s poem De rerum natura, the most informative source on Epicurean teaching, which, together with Ambrogio Traversari’s translation of Diogenes Laertius’s Life of Epicurus into Latin, contributed to a more discriminating appraisal of Epicurean doctrine and a repudiation of the traditional prejudice against the person of Epicurus himself. In a letter written in 1428, Francesco Filelfo (1398–1481) insisted that, contrary to popular opinion, Epicurus was not “addicted to pleasure, lewd and lascivious,” but rather “sober, learned and venerable.” In the epistolary treatise Defensio Epicuri contra Stoicos, Academicos et Peripateticos (Defense of Epicurus against Stoics, Academics and Peripatetics), Cosma Raimondi (d. 1436) vigorously defended Epicurus and the view that the supreme good consists in pleasure both of the mind and the body. He argued that pleasure, according to Epicurus, is not opposed to virtue, but both guided and produced by it. Some humanists tried to harmonize Epicurean with Christian doctrine. In his dialogue De voluptate (On Pleasure, 1431), which was two years later reworked as De vero falsoque bono (On the True and False Good), Valla examined Stoic, Epicurean, and Christian conceptions of the true good. To the ultimate good of the Stoics, that is, virtue practiced for its own sake, Valla opposed that of the Epicureans, represented by pleasure, on the grounds that pleasure comes closer to Christian happiness, which is superior to either pagan ideal.

The revival of ancient philosophy was particularly dramatic in the case of Skepticism, whose revitalisation grew out of many of the currents of Renaissance thought and contributed to make the problem of knowledge crucial for early modern philosophy. The major ancient texts stating the Skeptical arguments were slightly known in the Middle Ages. It was in the fifteenth and sixteenth century that Sextus Empiricus’s Outlines of Pyrrhonism and Against the Mathematicians, Cicero’s Academica, and Diogenes Laertius’s Life of Pyrrho started to receive serious philosophical consideration.

The most significant and influential figure in the development of Renaissance Skepticism is Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592). The most thorough presentation of his Skeptical views occurs in Apologie de Raimond Sebond (Apology for Raymond Sebond), the longest and most philosophical of his essays. In it, he developed in a gradual manner the many kinds of problems that make people doubt the reliability of human reason. He considered in detail the ancient Skeptical arguments about the unreliability of information gained by the senses or by reason, about the inability of human beings to find a satisfactory criterion of knowledge, and about the relativity of moral opinions. He concluded that people should suspend judgment on all matters and follow customs and traditions. He combined these conclusions with fideism.

Many Renaissance appropriators of Academic and Pyrrhonian Skeptical arguments did not see any intrinsic value in Skepticism, but rather used it to attack Aristotelianism and disparage the claims of human science. They challenged the intellectual foundations of medieval Scholastic learning by raising serious questions about the nature of truth and about the ability of humans to discover it. In Examen vanitatis doctrinae gentium et veritatis Christianae disciplinae (Examination of the Vanity of Pagan Doctrine and of the Truth of Christian Teaching, 1520), Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola (1469–1533) set out to prove the futility of pagan doctrine and the truth of Christianity. He regarded Skepticism as ideally suited to his campaign, since it challenged the possibility of attaining certain knowledge by means of the senses or by reason, but left the scriptures, grounded in divine revelation, untouched. In the first part of the work, he used the Skeptical arguments contained in the works of Sextus Empiricus against the various schools of ancient philosophy; and in the second part he turned Skepticism against Aristotle and the Peripatetic tradition. His aim was not to call everything into doubt, but rather to discredit every source of knowledge except scripture and condemn all attempts to find truth elsewhere as vain.

In a similar way, Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486–1535), whose real name was Heinrich Cornelius, demonstrated in De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum atque artium (On the Uncertainty and Vanity of the Arts and Sciences, 1530) the contradictions of scientific doctrines. With stylistic brilliance, he described the controversies of the established academic community and dismissed all academic endeavors in view of the finitude of human experience, which in his view comes to rest only in faith.

The fame of the Portuguese philosopher and medical writer Francisco Sanches (1551–1623) rests mainly on Quod nihil scitur (That Nothing Is Known, 1581), one of the best systematic expositions of philosophical Skepticism produced during the sixteenth century. The treatise contains a radical criticism of the Aristotelian notion of science, but beside its critical aim, it had a constructive objective, which posterity has tended to neglect, consisting in Sanches’s quest for a new method of philosophical and scientific inquiry that could be universally applied. This method was supposed to be expounded in another book that was either lost, remained unpublished, or was not written at all.

5. New Philosophies of Nature

In 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) published De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres), which proposed a new calculus of planetary motion based on several new hypotheses, such as heliocentrism and the motion of the earth. The first generation of readers underestimated the revolutionary character of the work and regarded the hypotheses of the work only as useful mathematical fictions. The result was that astronomers appreciated and adopted some of Copernicus’s mathematical models but rejected his cosmology. Yet, the Aristotelian representation of the universe did not remain unchallenged and new visions of nature, its principles, and its mode of operation started to emerge.

During the sixteenth century, there were many philosophers of nature who felt that Aristotle’s system could no longer regulate honest inquiry into nature. Therefore, they stopped trying to adjust the Aristotelian system and turned their backs on it altogether. It is hard to imagine how early modern philosophers, such as Francis Bacon (1561–1626), Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655,) and René Descartes (1596–1650), could have cleared the ground for the scientific revolution without the work of novatores such as Bernardino Telesio (1509–1588), Francesco Patrizi (1529–1597), Giordano Bruno (1548–1600), and Tommaso Campanella (1568–1639).

Telesio grounded his system on a form of empiricism, which maintained that nature can only be understood through sense perception and empirical research. In 1586, two years before his death, he published the definitive version of his work De rerum natura iuxta propria principia (On the Nature of Things according to their Own Principles). The book is a frontal assault on the foundations of Peripatetic philosophy, accompanied by a proposal for replacing Aristotelianism with a system more faithful to nature and experience. According to Telesio, the only things that must be presupposed are passive matter and the two principles of heat and cold, which are in perpetual struggle to occupy matter and exclude their opposite. These principles were meant to replace the Aristotelian metaphysical principles of matter and form. Some of Telesio’s innovations were seen as theologically dangerous and his philosophy became the object of vigorous attacks. De rerum natura iuxta propria principia was included on the Index of Prohibited Books published in Rome in 1596.

Through the reading of Telesio’s work, Campanella developed a profound distaste for Aristotelian philosophy and embraced the idea that nature should be explained through its own principles. He rejected the fundamental Aristotelian principle of hylomorphism and adopted instead Telesio’s understanding of reality in terms of the principles of matter, heat, and cold, which he combined with Neoplatonic ideas derived from Ficino. His first published work was Philosophia sensibus demonstrata (Philosophy as Demonstrated by the Senses, 1591), an anti-Peripatetic polemic in defense of Telesio’s system of natural philosophy. Thereafter, he was censured, tortured, and repeatedly imprisoned for his heresies. During the years of his incarceration, he composed many of his most famous works, such as De sensu rerum et magia (On the Sense of Things and On Magic, 1620), which sets out his vision of the natural world as a living organism and displays his keen interest in natural magic; Ateismus triomphatus (Atheism Conquered), a polemic against both reason of state and Machiavelli’s conception of religion as a political invention; and Apologia pro Galileo (Defense of Galileo), a defense of the freedom of thought (libertas philosophandi) of Galileo and of Christian scientists in general. Campanella’s most ambitious work is Metaphysica (1638), which constitutes the most comprehensive presentation of his philosophy and whose aim is to produce a new foundation for the entire encyclopedia of knowledge. His most celebrated work is the utopian treatise La città del sole (The City of the Sun), which describes an ideal model of society that, in contrast to the violence and disorder of the real world, is in harmony with nature.

In contrast to Telesio, who was a fervent critic of metaphysics and insisted on a purely empiricist approach in natural philosophy, Patrizi developed a program in which natural philosophy and cosmology were connected with their metaphysical and theological foundations. His Discussiones peripateticae (Peripatetic Discussions) provides a close comparison of the views of Aristotle and Plato on a wide range of philosophical issues, arguing that Plato’s views are preferable on all counts. Inspired by such Platonic predecessors as Proclus and Ficino, Patrizi elaborated his own philosophical system in Nova de universalis philosophia (The New Universal Philosophy, 1591), which is divided in four parts: Panaugia, Panarchia, Pampsychia, and Pancosmia. He saw light as the basic metaphysical principle and interpreted the universe in terms of the diffusion of light. The fourth and last part of the work, in which he expounded his cosmology showing how the physical world derives its existence from God, is by far the most original and important. In it, he replaced the four Aristotelian elements with his own alternatives: space, light, heat, and humidity. Gassendi and Henry More (1614–1687) adopted his concept of space, which indirectly came to influence Newton.

A more radical cosmology was proposed by Bruno, who was an extremely prolific writer. His most significant works include those on the art of memory and the combinatory method of Ramon Llull, as well as the moral dialogues Spaccio de la bestia trionfante (The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast, 1584), Cabala del cavallo pegaseo (The Kabbalah of the Pegasean Horse, 1585) and De gl’heroici furori (The Heroic Frenzies, 1585). Much of his fame rests on three cosmological dialogues published in 1584: La cena de le ceneri (The Ash Wednesday Supper), De la causa, principio et uno (On the Cause, the Principle and the One) and De l’infinito, universo et mondi (On the Infinite, the Universe and the Worlds). In these, with inspiration from Lucretius, the Neoplatonists, and, above all, Nicholas of Cusa, he elaborates a coherent and strongly articulated ontological monism. Individual beings are conceived as accidents or modes of a unique substance, that is, the universe, which he describes as an animate and infinitely extended unity containing innumerable worlds. Bruno adhered to Copernicus’s cosmology but transformed it, postulating an infinite universe. Although an infinite universe was by no means his invention, he was the first to locate a heliocentric system in infinite space. In 1600, he was burned at the stake by the Inquisition for his heretical teachings.

Even though these new philosophies of nature anticipated some of the defining features of early modern thought, many of their methodological characteristics appeared to be inadequate in the face of new scientific developments. The methodology of Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) and of the other pioneers of the new science was essentially mathematical. Moreover, the development of the new science took place by means of methodical observations and experiments, such as Galileo’s telescopic discoveries and his experiments on inclined planes. The critique of Aristotle’s teaching formulated by natural philosophers such as Telesio, Campanella, Patrizi, and Bruno undoubtedly helped to weaken it, but it was the new philosophy of the early seventeenth century that sealed the fate of the Aristotelian worldview and set the tone for a new age.