General Characteristics of the Renaissance
Yet the Renaissance was more than a "rebirth." It was also an age of new discoveries, both geographical (exploration of the New World) and intellectual. Both kinds of discovery resulted in changes of tremendous import for Western civilization. In science, for example, Copernicus (1473-1543) attempted to prove that the sun rather than the earth was at the center of the planetary system, thus radically altering the cosmic world view that had dominated antiquity and the Middle Ages. In religion, Martin Luther (1483-1546) challenged and ultimately caused the division of one of the major institutions that had united Europe throughout the Middle Ages--the Church. In fact, Renaissance thinkers often thought of themselves as ushering in the modern age, as distinct from the ancient and medieval eras.
Study of the Renaissance might well center on five interrelated issues. First, although Renaissance thinkers often tried to associate themselves with classical antiquity and to dissociate themselves from the Middle Ages, important continuities with their recent past, such as belief in the Great Chain of Being, were still much in evidence. Second, during this period, certain significant political changes were taking place. Third, some of the noblest ideals of the period were best expressed by the movement known as Humanism. Fourth, and connected to Humanist ideals, was the literary doctrine of "imitation," important for its ideas about how literary works should be created. Finally, what later probably became an even more far-reaching influence, both on literary creation and on modern life in general, was the religious movement known as the Reformation.
Renaissance thinkers strongly associated themselves with the values of classical antiquity, particularly as expressed in the newly rediscovered classics of literature, history, and moral philosophy. Conversely, they tended to dissociate themselves from works written in the Middle Ages, a historical period they looked upon rather negatively. According to them, the Middle Ages were set in the "middle" of two much more valuable historical periods, antiquity and their own. Nevertheless, as modern scholars have noted, extremely important continuities with the previous age still existed.
Among the most important of the
continuities with the Classical period was the concept of the Great
Chain of Being. Its major premise was that every existing thing in
the universe had its "place" in a divinely planned hierarchical
order, which was pictured as a chain vertically extended.
("Hierarchical" refers to an order based on a series of higher and
lower, strictly ranked gradations.) An object's "place" depended on
the relative proportion of "spirit" and "matter" it contained--the
less "spirit" and the more "matter," the lower down it stood. At
the bottom, for example, stood various types of inanimate objects,
such as metals, stones, and the four elements (earth, water, air,
fire). Higher up were various members of the vegetative class, like
trees and flowers. Then came animals; then humans; and then angels.
At the very top was God. Then within each of these large groups,
there were other hierarchies. For example, among metals, gold was
the noblest and stood highest; lead had less "spirit" and more
matter and so stood lower. (Alchemy was based on the belief that
lead could be changed to gold through an infusion of "spirit.") The
various species of plants, animals, humans, and angels were
similarly ranked from low to high within their respective segments.
Finally, it was believed that between the segments themselves,
there was continuity (shellfish were lowest among animals and
shaded into the vegetative class, for example, because without
locomotion, they most resembled plants).
The fear of "disorder" was not
merely philosophical--it had significant political ramifications.
The proscription against trying to rise beyond one's place was of
course useful to political rulers, for it helped to reinforce their
authority. The implication was that civil rebellion caused the
chain to be broken, and according to the doctrine of
correspondences, this would have dire consequences in other realms.
It was a sin against God, at least wherever rulers claimed to rule
by "Divine Right." (And in England, the King was also the head of
the Anglican Church.) In Shakespeare, it was suggested that the sin
was of cosmic proportions: civil disorders were often accompanied
by meteoric disturbances in the heavens. (Before Halley's theory
about periodic orbits, comets, as well as meteors, were thought to
be disorderly heavenly bodies.)
derived from the
classical past (though it was present in the Middle Ages too), was
the literary doctrine of "imitation." Of the two senses in which
the term had traditionally been used, the theoretical emphasis of
Renaissance literary critics was less on the "imitation" that meant
"mirroring life" and more on the "imitation" that meant "following
predecessors." In contrast to our own emphasis on "originality,"
the goal was not to create something entirely new. To a great
extent, contemporary critics believed that the great literary works
expressing definitive moral values had already been written in
Among the literary ramifications of
the Reformation, two stand out. First, the Protestant rejection of
the authority of Church representatives resulted in placing that
authority entirely on the Bible, at least in theory. Consequently,
Protestants stressed the need for all believers to read the Bible
for themselves. To help make that possible, they were active in
translating the Bible into the vernacular languages so that all
laymen could read it. This practice was opposed by the Catholic
Church, which insisted on preserving the Bible in Latin. At the
same time, Protestants also stressed the need to understand the
Bible in its original languages (Hebrew and Greek) so that it could
be properly translated. In their interest in such learning,
particularly of ancient languages, Protestants were similar to
Humanists. This emphasis on the Bible had a significant impact on
literature because the Bible became a renewed source of literary
inspiration, both in literary form and subject matter; it also
became a rich source of symbols.
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