Whose Essays Are A Stunning Example Of Renaissance Individualism Grounded In Humanism

1. A Variant of Republicanism

Civic humanism is generally taken as an equivalent or as a particular variant of republicanism, meaning a conception of politics in which government is in principle the common business of the citizens. The “city” provides the environment — a public space — for human fulfillment. If, on the one hand, the republic is contrasted to personal or authoritarian government it also differs from the liberal model, which sees society as a collection of atomistic individuals held together by common rules designed to allow them maximum freedom to follow their particular and varied values and interests. As numerous republican theorists, notably Montesquieu, have emphasized, the republic requires widespread civic virtue, i.e., the active participation of citizens united by a concern for the common good. The virtues of citizenship are in turn developed and enhanced by being exercised in upholding republican political and legal institutions and making them work by being involved in their operation. Republican life is then thought to be formative of the public spirit on which it rests. Republican freedom depends on constant civic activity. The polity is taken to cohere by means of the common acceptance of standards of justice that are more than procedural rules. The purpose of the commonwealth is not so much peace and ensuring the rights of individuals, as the realization of human potentiality, encouraging the flowering of all forms of creativity and ingenuity insofar as they contribute to public welfare. The republic is the necessary medium of self-realization, not merely the condition of possibility of private endeavors. Indeed, a certain amount of conflict, properly contained, adds to the liveliness and vigor of the republic. There is a link furthermore between the freedom of the citizen and the independence of the republic. Citizen armies and the right to bear arms are therefore common postulates of republican theory.

Civic humanism is linked in principle to a classical educational program that goes beyond the formative capacity of participatory citizenship itself and involves the conscious revival of ancient ideals. Republican candor, simplicity of manner, opposition to ostentation, luxury and lucre, are common, though not universal republican themes. Some theorists also dwell on the millenarian aspirations associated with republican ideals responding to the fragility of the republic and the need to provide against its corruption and decay with the passage of time.

2. A Historiographical Term

Unlike historical terms such as ‘the polis’ or ‘Christendom’ that were familiar to the contemporaries of the realities so described, ‘civic humanism’ is a historiographical term like the ‘Middle Ages’ that emerged as a heuristic category in an ex post facto reconstruction of the past.

The concept was first used to characterize a cluster of historical phenomena of Renaissance Florence. It was then extended to mark a republican tradition or political language reaching back to classical antiquity. It finally came to indicate a political ideal opposed to both classical liberal and authoritarian views of politics.

Its adoption by historians of ideas is linked with particular ways of doing history, first in the context of German historicist Geisteswissenschaften, then in connection with the methods developed by the ‘Cambridge School’, centered on the reconstruction of political discourses, exemplified by John Pocock and Quentin Skinner. It is by means of the latter reception that civic humanism entered the discussion about the intellectual origins of political currents in civil war England and pre-revolutionary America. This, in turn, occasioned the introduction of the term into the debate on the nature and quality of contemporary public life where it became closely associated with the advocacy of communitarianism.

3. The German Matrix: Geisteswissenschaft, Modernity, and Liberty

In its original German form Bürgerhumanismus first appeared in a book review by Hans Baron as early as 1925. In his subsequent work Baron used the term to describe the fusion of two distinct ideological currents of Florentine thought: apolitical ‘Petrarchan’ humanism on the one hand, and the Guelf tradition of patriotic resistance by the Florentine city-state to imperial domination on the other. The ‘rebirth’ of ancient letters and wisdom marked a revolutionary change of the European mind, but it remained limited to the contemplative pleasure and edification of quietist poets and scholars until it merged with the assertive defense of sovereign independence of the increasingly rich, powerful, and confident merchant cities of Italy. The fusion was effected, according to Baron, as a response to a crisis, as a reaction of the intellectual and political leadership of Florence to the aggressive expansionism of the despots of Milan. The resulting exaltation of liberty combined patriotic self-defense with the upholding of a republican way of life that departed from medieval ways by asserting worldly (diesseitig) values and embracing the active life in a manner evocative of the republics of antiquity. According to Baron's thesis, in the face of military danger the patterns of society, economy, and politics came to cohere in a culture, i.e. in a way of life infused by an educational ideal. The main champions of this were the great Chancellors of the Republic, Colluccio Salutati and especially Leonardo Bruni, top civil servants and public intellectuals combined, who restored the practical pertinence of classical learning in the process of establishing the terms of a new consensus.

Beyond seeking to identify the character of a particular time and place, Baron studied the political culture of Renaissance Florence as an instance of a transhistorically exemplary mode of communal existence pertinent, not least, to his own times. Florentine civic humanism represented for him, furthermore, a decisive turning point in history. For Baron it was an epochal event that, by looking backward to antiquity pointed forward to modernity, a movement which he embraced wholeheartedly, without the misgivings of a Jacob Burckhardt or a Max Weber, as a liberating, civilizing, progressive process. The advent of civic humanism marked for Baron the victory of secular economic, social, and political ideals versus the asceticism, religious obscurantism, and hierarchy of the Middle Ages. Civic humanism provided the vital vehicle for the translation of the exalted ancient idea of citizenship to the modern age. The humanist defense of republican liberty against monarchical tyranny announced for him the beginnings of modern democratic thought, elevated by an educational ideal of classical inspiration, and accompanied by a renewed cultural creativity. It was thus the harbinger of the unequivocally positive trends in modern European civilization. The value of such achievements appeared all the more compelling since they were not theoretical postulates derived from abstract speculation but represented historically realized exempla.

Baron's reconstruction of civic humanism was not only directed against other-worldly values and notions of medieval deference, but also against different modes of construing modernity in terms of the autonomy of the self. He sought in particular to revise Burckhardt's reading of Renaissance individualism as morally ambiguous, represented in Burckhardt's reading by able and accomplished humanists who were in the service of despots or of the Papal court, as much as in republican states such as Venice and Florence. Baron was equally opposed to the ideas advanced by Ernst Kantorowicz and others about the pioneering modernity of the autocratic state of Frederic II in Sicily and Southern Italy, a historical interpretation that was difficult to square with a liberal and optimistically progressivist view of history. The reading of early modernity presented by Kantorowitz did not document portentous antecedents of enlightened ‘western-oriented’ democratic citizenship, but rather of a ‘Nietschean’ antibourgeois individualism, in tune with antidemocratic ideological tendencies prominent in German culture of the Weimar period, including the ‘high’ culture of the circle of Stefan George, and very much at odds with Baron's political convictions. What was at issue here, beyond the characterization of a historical period, was the definition and evaluation of modernity itself.

With an eye to his own times Baron wished to see the autonomous humanity he perceived emerging in quattrocento Florence integrated within a constitutional frame and anchored by patriotic attachment to the community. Baron's vast and only partly realized program to establish the Italian humanist tradition as a major source of modernity was deliberately juxtaposed to yet another tendency in German scholarship that sought the roots of modernity and modernization in Protestantism. Baron's emphasis on Florence was meant to counterbalance the ‘northern’ perspective of scholars such as Max Weber, Werner Sombart, and Baron's own mentor Ernst Troeltsch each of whom, in his different way, linked Protestantism and capitalism and saw the soul-searching subjectivity of Calvinist inspiration as a decisive moment in the genesis of modern individualism. Baron's historical project was inscribed in his advocacy for constitutional democracy in the Weimar republic on the West European and American model, opposed to romantic nativist-Germanic notions that were in the ascendancy in the Germany of his time. Baron's political orientation was, nonetheless, rooted in the German intellectual tradition. The polities he posits as exemplary are not conceived as formal frames of individual life goals, but textured wholes into which human autonomy is woven, this fabric Sittlichkeit, being the moral-cultural substance postulated by German idealism. If one accepts this nexus of public solidarity as an equivalent of civil society it should be evident why Baron's thesis would appeal to English-speaking communitarians.

Civic humanism is an inevitably rough and approximate rendition of Bürgerhumanismus. ‘Bürger’, the first component of the term, connotes not only citizenship, but also a bourgeois social condition and outlook, as well as an urban context for the realization of the good life. That is perhaps why the somewhat precious term “civic” was chosen in preference to the standard english “civil” when rendering the German compound noun into English. ‘Humanismus’ in turn echoes the German reception of the heritage of classical antiquity. In German historical consciousness it came in waves. The ‘second’ humanism after that of the ancient Classical World itself, involved the process of national renewal and national self-assertion after the onslaught of Napoleon by means of an education that hinged on the Classics and aimed at — the equally untranslatable — ‘Bildung’, a moulding of the mind and soul, promoted by figures such as Wilhelm v. Humboldt. There was a nostalgia for a “third humanism” after the debacle of World War I, reacting to what was perceived as the cultural levelling of German society. This nostalgic yearning was most eloquently articulated by Baron's near-contemporary Werner Jaeger. Though Baron did not share Jaeger's elitist outlook, the two scholars were of one mind regarding the authoritative value of the Classics.

Baron's principled opposition to German nationalism and its threat to the republican order was itself deeply affected by archetypes of the German intellectual tradition. An important and recurring theme in Baron's sustained republican advocacy is the awakening of patriotic citizenship, heightened by the lessons drawn from a classical education, in response to the aggression of a foreign despot. The subtitle of Baron's Crisis is telling in this regard: Civic Humanism and Republican Liberty in an Age of Classicism and Tyranny. As Riccardo Fubini has pointed out, although Baron stated that his book was inspired by the struggle of the western democracies against Hitlerian tyranny, the pattern was already set well before the coming to power of the Nazis, preformed by the inflections of German idealism. In this scheme the Visconti of Milan are implicitly a prefiguration of Bonaparte theratening Britain Baron writes:.

One cannot trace the history of this explosive stage in the genesis of the states of the Renaissance without being struck by its resemblance to events in modern history. In a like fashion, Napoleon and Hitler, poised on the coast of the English Channel and made confident by their victories over every relevant power but one, waited for the propitious time for their final leap. [Baron 1955, 40]

That, Baron writes, is the only (sic!) perspective, from which one can reconstruct the crisis and the stimulus that gave rise to the Florentine civic spirit and opened the high road to modernity. Baron's thesis has been criticized for neglecting political, institutional, and social history, in favor of identifying a pattern of consciousness as the decisive character of the political and historical phenomenon under study. It is true that Baron weaves together a way of life, an educational ideal, and the power of the state as an encompassing culture, that can be reconstructed as such in terms of Geistesgeschichte, the history of the spirit, by selecting from the evidence the materials needed for its purposes.

4. Reception in America: An Ideological Counterweight to Liberal Individualism

The psychological motivation for Baron's emphasis on the integration of the individual in the politically structured community may perhaps be connected to his situation as an assimilated Jew in Weimar Germany. Driven into exile when Hitler came to power he was destined to experience the challenge of integration in a new country that was not insignificantly perhaps, a republic at war with tyranny: the United States.

It was with the publication of The Crisis of the Early Renaissance in 1955 that civic humanism entered the vocabulary of English-speaking historiography. Its reception was influenced, however, by the work of another émigré, the distinguished and well-connected historian Felix Gilbert. If Baron had viewed civic humanism as an ethico-political response to events, Gilbert chose to regard it as a conceptual framework to be studied against ‘traditional political assumptions’. In this light civic humanism or ‘classical republicanism’ appeared as an ideology, not in the classical Marxist sense of an epiphenomenon of a putatively more real social reality, but as a discourse that circumscribes, if it does not determine, the field of possible meaning. According to Gilbert's perspective the language of civic humanism was not only a means of expression but also an instrument of power of the elites who articulated it such as the group that met in the Rucellai gardens in Machiavelli's Florence.

Gilbert departed from Baron's thesis in another significant respect: For Baron the pursuit of wealth and the entrepreneurial spirit of Renaissance merchants was an essential component of the epochal turn towards the active life and, as he writes on the first page of the Crisis, linked to the rise of a bourgeois society. Gilbert emphasized instead the opposition between acquisitiveness and patriotism, calling attention to the calls to sacrifice and self-denial in favor of the common good frequently found in republican texts.

The reconstruction of Florentine republicanism stressing the ideal of a republic of frugal, public-minded citizens in danger of being corrupted by luxury and the pursuit of private gain, a theme that could be traced back to ancient, especially Roman, authors, provided an attractive inspiration for a revisionist view of American history. Bernard Bailyn sought to elicit of The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967), based on the classical republican rhetoric to be found in the political pamphlets and controversialist literature of the time leading up to the American founding. This recovery of a republican discourse was meant to counterbalance the canonical view, most clearly and forcefully expressed in Louis Hartz's Liberal Tradition in America (1955), of an American consensus of Lockean derivation, centered on the defense of property rights and animated by liberal individualism. This seems indeed to be an outlook so much taken for granted in Americans' understanding of themselves as to have become identified not as Lockeanism or liberalism but rather as “Americanism” or the “American way of life”. The republican model provided an important corrective to the dominant orthodoxy and a great impetus to historical research.

This line of argument found a ready audience at a time when there was considerable discontent with American society and its institutions. The argument itself and its reception were no doubt influenced by Hannah Arendt's restatement of the Aristotelian ideal of participatory citizenship. Arendt defends of the vita activa as a life of public engagement opposed to a life that reduces the pursuit of happiness to . The active life involves more than the coming to fruition of the potentiality intrinsic to man, the political animal, for which the polis is the indispensable and natural frame that we find in Aristotle. The public engagement advocated by Arendt involves rather man's willed self-enactment in the public arena. Freedom and humanity are accomplished by action in the public eye, transcending labor to which man is compelled by necessity.

If civic humanism in the context of revisionist American history rejects the bourgeois matrix that was an essential part of Baron's thesis, it embraces his progressivism and indeed carries it to lengths he would not have envisaged. The Renaissance, and with it civic humanism, appears as a decisive turning point, asserting the positive values of modernity. That is built into a teleological historical process of which American democracy, or its promised future fulfillment, is cast as the culmination. In a course of history during which, we are told, “humanity has fumbled through the centuries toward truth and freedom in modern science and democracy, American style” (W. McNeil, History for Citizens), Florentine republicanism finds its due place as a precursor that prepares and prefigures the true end and purpose of history, the achievement of the American Revolution. At the same time a ‘republican tradition’ provides the foundation for a ‘loyal opposition’ to the American polity as it actually operates, appealing, as it were, to its better promised self.

5. The ‘Atlantic Republican Tradition’

In his influential book The Machiavellian Moment: Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (1975), J.G.A. Pocock sought to trace the origins of modern republicanism in a manner that was sensitive to the authority of the ancients and their revivals. His reconstruction of ‘the Atlantic tradition’ does not depend on philological filiation, i.e. on showing that an author had read and was influenced by certain passages of an earlier author, but on identifying thematic affinities. Republicanism is “not a program, but a language”. As such it is available to be picked up, selectively and thematically at decisive ‘moments’. Pocock emphasizes both the enabling and the limiting, the evocative as much as the expressive capacity of language. “Men cannot do what they have no means of saying they have done, and what they do must be what they say and conceive that it is”. (JIH 3, 1972, 118). The eponymous moment of the book is ‘Machiavellian’ both insofar as it takes Renaissance civic humanism as an exemplary manifestation of republican and patriotic collective sentiment and inasmuch as it can be considered the response to a crisis amounting to what Machiavelli would call an occasione, a moment of disorder that gives scope to the formative activity of a new beginning.

This exercise requires, of course, a recasting, already adumbrated by Baron, of Machiavelli as thoroughly republican, not primarily interested in the workings of power, but in exalting the satisfactions of active citizenship. By the same token Machiavelli's best known book, The Prince, must be treated as a momentary aberration belonging to a transitory phase of his development as an author. This view of a ‘defanged’ Machiavelli has found a surprisingly wide echo in popular writing. It is nonetheless possible, indeed necessary, to show that although Machiavelli was consistently republican, he preferred republics because he thought them, other things being equal, better vehicles of power and glory, and apt to justify the growing power of the modern state. Burkhardt's notion of the Renaissance “state as a work of art” correctly places Machiavellian statecraft on the side of modern artifice rather than that of ancient Aristotelian nature.

The problem of Florentine republicanism according to Pocock was to fit the idea of an Aristotelian polis within the framework of a Christian understanding of time. One answer to the experience of disorder was the explicitly millenarian exaltation of Savonarola. In Pocock's view, civic humanism provided a secular alternative in the form of a revived Aristotelian ‘science of virtue’ as the means of overcoming the republic's temporal finitude. Doubts have been raised both with regard to the philosophical depth of the supposed Aristotelianism of the Florentine humanists and the strength of metastatic aspirations as part of their program. With regard to the former, Quentin Skinner, the other significant English political theorist and historian to promote the recovery of civic humanism in a contextualist mode, has come to stress increasingly its Roman rather than Hellenic antecedents. This is not just a matter of identifying sources. Skinner's revised position means rather that in his view, civic humanism advocated active citizenship as a means to liberty from foreign and domestic domination, rather than as a self-fulfilling human end.

The theme of republican virtue as an aspiration to shore up the commonwealth against the ravages of time and corruption is taken up again by Pocock with regard to the English puritan revolution and its aftermath. According to him, a ‘Machiavellian’ civic humanist language, imbued with ‘classical republicanism’, was available when it became necessary to come to terms with the vacuum of legitimacy created by revolution and regicide. That language then developed into the discourse of the ‘country’ opposition to the ‘court’ party. It became the instrument of a political class resting on independent land-ownership that sought to defend itself against financial speculation and the advance of government patronage. Such patronage was also bound to determine the loyalties of a standing army. It therefore appeared necessary, in order to assure full citizenship, i.e. participation in public decisions as a matter of autonomous right, rather than as a grant or privilege conceded (hence in principle retractable) by the sovereign to a subject, that the citizens have a right to bear arms and organize militias.

This English republicanism then appears revolutionary in one obvious sense, but also profoundly conservative, defending the landed ‘parliamentary’ interest, in the name of citizen virtue, against encroachments by a central government and the nefarious influence of the ‘modernizing’ dynamics of trade and finance capitalism, reviled as corruption. Ironically, in Pocock's adaptation of Baron's thesis, applied to Anglo-Saxon materials, virtue is opposed to property, and it is the urban, bourgeois entrepreneurs and the chancery of the modernizing state, the very creators of civic humanism in Baron's mind, that are on the wrong side of the fence. Baron's civic humanists advocated a departure from the medieval ideals of contemplation and asceticism to assert an active life that included trade and profit. In the Pocockean version of republicanism, civic virtue is opposed to a vision of citizenship that embraces the private pursuit of gain. This kind of virtuous polity cannot, however, be Florence, and not Baron's Florence, the palazzi of which were built with the profits of banking, manufacturing, international trade, and interest on the city's public debt.

Pocock tells us that this civic humanist vocabulary, developed in England, was in turn available to the American colonists as they sought to articulate their protest and in the course of events to proclaim and justify their independence from the crown. In America furthermore, where, unlike England, a lasting republic did emerge, the language of republicanism acquired greater significance. Not all Americans were schooled in this tradition, but there was no alternative tradition in which to be schooled. In conjunction with the puritan ethos it continued to influence American life beyond independence, affecting the way Americans viewed the frontier, corruption, and the perpetuity of the republic. We find echoes of it in Jefferson's ideal of an agrarian republic and in the resistance to Hamiltonian ideas in favor of a strong central government, a central bank, and other aspects of a commercial empire, not to speak of the mistrust of standing armies and the constitutionally sanctioned right to bear arms. Pocock therefore sees republicanism affecting American attitudes and mores well beyond the framing of the constitution. Bernard Bailyn's student Gordon Wood, on the other hand is more focused on the tradition of republican thought leading up to the American Founding. Bailyn himself did not accept the term ‘civic humanism’ as adequate to the American reality, nor did he overestimate the importance of a republicanism in the American Revolution and its aftermath although it was still present, according to him, in the ferment of the colonial period. Wood, on the other hand,developed in The Creation of the American Republic (1969) aconceptual model that presented the Constitution as the turning away from republican ideals in a reactionary consolidation of interests under the sign of John Locke. In so doing Wood provided an ideological platform from which to criticize the American constituted order and the culture that underpins it that had the rhetorical and psychological advantage of being able to claim that it was pragmatically grounded in the lived experience of the American past, unlike alien and dogmatic Marxism.

In a later book, with a characteristically triumphalist subtitle, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, How a Revolution Transformed a Monarchical Society Into a Democratic One Unlike Any That Had Ever Existed (1992), Gordon Wood asserted that all over the ‘Atlantic world’ during the eighteenth century eager egalitarian citizens, pressing into the avant-garde of history, deliberately abolished monarchies and set up republics. The French Revolution comes to mind, of course, but the aftermath of that convulsion was hardly a world of republics, neither before Waterloo nor after. On the positive side, despite Wood's claim that a republican Zeitgeist is essential to the emergence of free institutions, constitutional monarchies in Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Belgium, even Spain (not to mention Britain and Canada) developed into model democracies.

6. An Ideological Household Word

It is clear why such a synthesis would be attractive to communitarian critics of possessive individualism and liberal capitalism. At the same time civic humanism has become a kind of shorthand for a variety of phenomena, not without some confusion. The tone is sometimes critical, as when civic humanism is presented as a reductive pedagogical ideal relative to a full-fledged religious education desired by some, or found wanting by lecturers at the libertarian Objectivist Center founded to propagate the ideas of Ayn Rand. But the undertone is generally positive, whether the term is used to characterize the way in which public schools in Virginia are said to be embedded in the life and values of their community, or the spirit animating ‘ person centered’ community development work on the Zambezi, the alleged purpose of educating prison detainees in Illinois or the flourishing of the arts under the patronage of seventeenth century Wallachian princes. The Portuguese poet Camoes is said to have embraced an original form of civic humanism, condemning imperial expansion in his Lusiads. Civic humanism flourished in early modern German cities as well as in Italy. The Scottish Enlightenment was affected by it, and so were the aesthetics of Shaftsbury. We read of a visual aesthetics of eighteenth century civic humanism. Adam Smith himself had a dash of civic humanism. Hegel had to come to grips with it. Filipino intellectuals protesting Spanish rule in the nineteenth century developed principles of civic humanism. Henry Adams can be rescued from being considered reactionary by pointing to the struggle of liberalism and civic humanism in his breast. Rorty's pragmatism promises to pull together what modern epistemology has torn asunder, private and public, subject and object, knowledge and reality, in a reenactment of the synthesis supposedly achieved by Leonardo Bruni, overcoming the alienation of obsession with a civitas dei separate from the here and now. American capitalism gets both defended and condemned in civic humanism's name. American philanthropy embodies it, as a weapon against tyranny. It is threatened by a post-ecological world and will be restored to health by neo-Marxist empowering education. The list could go on.

Such widespread and promiscuous usage shows that a notion unknown to the English language until 1955 has become something of a household word. Having emerged in the context of historical scholarship it has become part of the larger debate on the broad ideological parameters of public policy in modern societies and in the United States in particular. Conversely it is obvious that civic humanism and republicanism would be most liable to be attacked by critics from a liberal or Marxist point of view.

7. A Concept Revisited

As a matter of history it now seems clear that Baron's thesis made too much of the divide between the Renaissance and the Middle Ages, and that there was a venerable tradition of civic liberty in medieval communes. The larger question here is that of world-historical periodization, and whether we are entitled to continue to believe in the dawn of a world that will, despite temporary setbacks, eventually be bathed in the light of enlightened freedom.

It has also become evident that civic humanism owes much to the reaction of the Florentine upper classes to popular uprisings in the fourteenth century and is as much an ideology of social control as it is a language of liberation from medieval hierarchies. More generally it is clear that there was a great deal of difference between the celebratory rhetoric of humanists in the pay of the republic and the social and political realities of Renaissance Florence. This concerns not least the aggressive policy of conquest and domination pursued by Florence that was as much or more the cause of the Milanese wars as was Visconti expansionism.

In American history, despite valuable corrections to a historical outline too easily taken for granted, Locke is having an inevitable comeback as the major influence, along with the Protestant religious heritage, on the formation of American values. It is just as clear that the founders, for all their classical learning — or rather because of it — were wary of the instability and strife of ancient republics and therefore inclined to regard them as exemplary only with severe qualifications.

The polemical juxtaposition of civic humanist and liberal individualist paradigms of public consciousness has tended to accentuate differences and to reduce the rich complexity of the historical and social reality that they seek to capture to caricatures set up for the purpose of being shot down. There is furthermore a real danger that the ideological force civic humanism has acquired as a buzzword may overwhelm the historical foundations on which the concept rests. This is particularly critical for a term that draws a great deal of its strength from its claim to be rooted in lived historical antecedents.


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From The History of Philosophy: A Short Survey


James Fieser


Revised 9/1/2017


A. Introduction

B. Humanism

Petrarch: Stoicism and the Cure for the Whims of Fortune

Pico: Platonism and Human Uniqueness

More: Epicureanism and the Pursuit of Unselfish Pleasure

Montaigne: Skepticism and its Compatibility with Faith

C. Reformation

Luther: Reject Philosophy and Embrace Faith

Calvin: Sense of God and Double Predestination

D. The Extremes of Faith and Reason

Herbert: Deism and Reason without Faith

Pascal: The Wager and Faith and without Reason

E. Scientific Revolution

Bacon: Scientific Method and Induction

Galileo: Separating Science from Religion

Newton: God’s Role in the Physical Universe

F. Government and Secularized Natural Law

Machiavelli: Political Survival

Grotius: Just War Theory

Hobbes: The Social Contract

G. Conclusion

Reading 1: Pico on Freedom and Dignity

Reading 2: Galileo on Science and Religion

Study Questions




For 1,000 years, philosophy in Europe had been dominated by medieval Christian theologians, and since about the twelfth century by the Scholastic tradition in particular. Beginning around 1400 in Italy, though, Europe experienced a dramatic intellectual movement called the Renaissance, which emphasized the resurgence of science and culture through classical influences. The term “renaissance” literally means “rebirth” and was first used in the 19th century to refer to this extraordinary period of time. It set a new direction for art, architecture, music, literature, scientific discovery, and world exploration. Philosophy was also a beneficiary to this period of renewal. Historians mark the close of the Renaissance at around 1600 when it blossomed into a succession of other movements. In philosophy, the stage that follows on the heels of the Renaissance is called the modern period, a term that philosophers of the time used to describe themselves in contrast to ancient times. In this chapter we will explore some of the major themes and thinkers in Renaissance and early modern philosophy.




One of the most distinctive intellectual movements within the Renaissance was humanism—which was originally called “humanities”, that is, the study of humanity. The main emphasis of humanism was secular education using Greek and Latin classics, many newly rediscovered, rather than medieval sources. Scholars during the Middle Ages had also drawn from classical Greek and Roman sources, but their larger aim was to use these ancient writers to bolster Christian theology, and they either ignored or criticized classics that were inherently in conflict with theology. Renaissance thinkers, by contrast, appreciated the full spectrum of ancient writers in and of themselves, irrespective of their application to theology. There were five traditional subjects in humanities education, namely, grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, and moral philosophy. The most significant impact humanism had on philosophy was the revived study of ancient Greek philosophical schools, thanks to the publication of new editions and translations of classical texts. The invention of the printing press during this time made these books much more available to readers, and the influence of classical philosophy spread like wildfire. Humanistic philosophers latched onto the earlier schools of Greek philosophy, almost as though they were pretending that the middle ages never existed. They variously associated themselves with Platonism, Aristotelianism, Epicureanism, Stoicism, or Skepticism, interpreting the classical texts and expanding on them.


Petrarch: Stoicism and the Cure for the Whims of Fortune

Petrarch (1304-1374) is often credited with being the father of Renaissance humanism. He is best remembered as a lyric poet who invented the sonnet, and in philosophy as a proponent of Stoic ethics. He also coined the expression “dark ages” in reference to what he believed was the low quality of medieval literature in comparison to the “light” of ancient Greece and Rome.Francesco Petrarca, better known in the English world as Petrarch, was born near Florence, son of a Merchant. He studied law but, following the death of his father, abandoned it because he felt that dishonest lawyers degraded the profession. He then became a diplomat for the Catholic church, which enabled him to travel widely throughout Europe. During his trips he collected a large manuscript library of neglected works by ancient Rome’s great authors, and used them as models for his own prolific writings. At age 22, while attending Church in France, he met a young woman named Laura. While they never became involved, probably because she was married, his infatuation with her was so great that for the next 40 years he composed 366 love poems to her, which brought him lasting fame. At age 36 he was crowned poet laureate of Rome. The oration that he delivered at the ceremony is considered the first manifesto of the Renaissance because of the praise that he showers upon the ancient Roman poets. Petrarch composed several epic poems, the style of which helped shape the modern Italian language. He died in his home at age 70 at his writing desk.

            Petrarch’s primary contribution to Renaissance philosophy is his Stoicism. Ancient Stoics held that we should avoid desiring the many things that we might ordinarily cherish, such as wealth, a good job, or a loving family, since obtaining them is so unpredictable. Instead, we should simply resign ourselves to what fate has in store for us. By desiring these things and fearing their loss, Petrarch argues, we risk being emotionally tossed around and beaten down like fragile weeds. “This,” he says, “was the teaching of the Stoics, to which I fully assent” (Familiar Letters, 11.3).  While a fan of Stoicism, he was not exclusive to that school, for, he writes, “I love truth, but not sects; I am sometimes a Peripatetic, a Stoic, or an Academician, and often none of these” (Familiar Letters, 6.2). His principal work of Stoicism is a dialogue titled Remedies of Fortune Fair and Foul (1360), which he published at age 62. The villain of the book is the goddess Fortune, who is commonly depicted as turning a giant wheel that randomly determines our fate. Sometimes the wheel turns out in our favor where we may be in good health and financially successful, but other times everything goes wrong for us. Petrarch tells us that both the good and bad effects of Fortune can distress us, and in a sense Fortune inflicts us with a “double disease”. Petrarch’s goal is to give us a medicine that cures both effects of Fortune, like “an effective remedy contained in a small box.” That remedy is the virtue of inner peace that enables one to be content with little.

            Modeled after a text by the ancient Stoic philosopher Seneca, Petrarch’s Remedy is a series of dialogues between five characters—Joy, Hope, Fear, Despair, and Reason—who battle between optimistic and pessimistic outlooks in life. In one dialogue, Despair complains that Fortune has made him poor and broken his spirit. Reason responds that poverty indeed breaks the spirit of the proud, but not of the humble. On the plus side, Reason continues, poverty protects you from thieves since you have nothing worth stealing, but, even better, it protects you from the pleasures of extravagance and luxury that are worse than thieves. For, in the houses of the poor, there is no place for pride or envy, there is no fear of loss or trickery. Instead, there is tranquility and virtue. Despair then insists that shabby clothes and lack of food are certainly discomforts for poor people. Reason responds that, while a person with vices is not pleased with anything that he receives, the virtuous person is pleased with when receiving small things. “Virtue denies nothing but except what would hurt you if you received it, and takes nothing away from you except what would benefit you to lose.”

            Reason’s reply to Despair is exactly how we would expect traditional Stoics to respond to life’s misfortunes: we should learn to live with them and appreciate the benefits that even they might bring. However, Petrarch felt that an overly optimistic outlook about one’s fortune can be just as psychologically damaging, and we need a Stoic perspective on that too. Thus, in another dialogue Joy boasts that Fortune has been good to him because he was born free rather than as a slave. But Reason instantly warns Joy that so many aristocrats in his own time have been thrown out of the court into prison, and kings themselves have been made slaves. Reason states, “The happier we are in freedom, the more miserable we are in bondage,” thus, we should not be proud of our liberty. Further, says Reason, consider how many insurmountable masters we have of our minds, which stand like enemies hidden within us waging war. For small benefits we sell our souls to indulgence, and become chained to the worst pleasures. Reason concludes, “it is not good fortune that makes a person free, but, rather, virtue. If you would be wise, just, modest, patient, courageous, or godly, then you are truly free.”


Pico: Platonism and Human Uniqueness

One of the most famous philosophers of the Renaissance was Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494), a Platonist who emphasized the uniqueness of human nature. Born into an aristocratic family in northern Italy, his mother put him on an educational fast track for a career in the Church. Upon her death, though, he abandoned that goal and turned to philosophy, traveling widely and studying a diverse range of thinkers, including those of ancient Greece, Judaism, Islam, and Zoroastrianism. Plato, though, was his primary focus, and through the financial support of the wealthy Italian ruler Lorenzo de' Medici, he published translations of Plato’s writings. One of Pico’s ongoing desires was to set up a forum to publicly debate a book of his titled 900 Theses (1486), in which he proposes 900 basic principles for discovering knowledge in religion, philosophy and science. Drawing on his extensive background, he derived these principles from a variety of philosophical and religious traditions. The Pope, though, put a halt to his plan by declaring thirteen of the principles to be heretical, including these two: “No science gives more certitude of the divinity of Christ than magic and Kabala,” and “A mortal sin of finite duration is not deserving of eternal but only of temporal punishment.” He was imprisoned by the Pope, and only released through the help of his influential patron Lorenzo. He died of poisoning while still in his early thirties.

            A central feature of Pico’s philosophy is a concept that we now call “the great chain of being,” which was inspired both by Plato and the Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus. On this view, there is a spectrum of existing things, from the lowest level of raw matter up to the highest level of God himself. Between the two extremes of raw matter and God, there are a variety of intermediary steps. In the following, he describes three basic levels of existence beneath God: the realm of the angels, then rational creatures with physical bodies, then physical bodies with no rational element. He explains this hierarchical chain here:


Platonists distinguish created things into three degrees. The first includes physical and visible things, such as the sky, the elements, and everything made from them. The third is the invisible and nonphysical, which are completely free from bodies and which are properly called “intellectual natures” and are divine and angelical. Between these is a middle nature, which though nonphysical, invisible, and immortal, they nevertheless move bodies, as is necessary for their function. These are called “rational souls” and are inferior to angels yet superior to bodies. They are ruled by the angels, yet are rulers of bodies.  Above all of these is God himself, the author and principle of every creature, and in him divinity has a causal existence. It is from him that divinity proceeds to the angels in their formal existence, and from there divinity is derived into rational souls through participation in their luster. Below that nature nothing can assume the title of the divine. [A Platonic Discourse on Love, 1.2]


In the above Pico also notes how divinity trickles down from God, into angels, and then into rational creatures with physical bodies

            Drawing on this conception of the great chain of being, we might ask where human beings fit into the hierarchy? Pico answers this in his most famous work An Oration on Human Dignity (1486), which he composed to accompany his public defense of the 900 Theses. According to Pico, God did not assign human beings any particular spot in the great chain of being. When creating the world, he filled every level of the hierarchy with every sort of being: “The areas above the heavens he gave minds. He gave animated souls to the celestial spheres. He filled the dregs of the lower world with a variety of animals” (Oration on Human Dignity). When finished, though, all the spots were filled, and no place was left for human beings: “Everything had been assigned in the highest, middle, and lowest orders” (ibid). God’s solution, then, was to place people in the middle realm, and from there allow us to choose our own spots in the hierarchy, from a low animal level to a higher divine nature. In the following he describes how God might have instructed Adam, the first human being, about his freedom to choose his own destiny:


I have given you, Adam, neither a fixed place nor a fixed form of your own. You may possess any place or any form as you desire. The laws ordained by me establish a limited nature for all other creatures. In accord with your free will, your destiny is in your own hands and you are confined to no bounds. You will fix the limits of your nature yourself. I have put you in the world’s center so that you may look around and examine the world’s content. I have made you neither heavenly nor earthly, neither mortal nor immortal. You may freely and honorably mold, make, and sculpt yourself into any shape you prefer. You can degenerate into the forms of the lower animals, or climb upward by your soul’s reason, to a higher nature which is divine. [Ibid]


Thus, against the backdrop of the Platonistic great chain of being, Pico explains that our uniqueness as human beings stems from our freedom to carve out our own values, projects and natures. In this way, he typifies a classically-influenced optimism about the human capacity and what humans can hope to achieve if we exercise our highest desire.


More: Epicureanism and the Pursuit of Unselfish Pleasure

Thomas More (1478–1535) is best remembered in philosophy for his classic book Utopia, and its description of a remote and idealized society. More was an English lawyer, statesman and, at the height of his career, Lord Chancellor under Henry VIII of England, one of the highest governmental positions which involved advising the King. A devout Catholic who instigated the persecution of protestant reformers, More alienated himself from Henry by refusing to sign a document that would make the King the supreme head of the Church of England. For this he was found guilty of high treason and decapitated. Around 15 years before taking his position as Lord Chancellor, More composed Utopia (1516), the full title of which is On the Best State of a Commonwealth and on the New Island of Utopia. The term “utopia,” invented by More, means “no place” in Greek. Originally written in Latin, the work first appeared in English translation 16 years after his death. Utopia is a fictitious account of an unusually happy and well-organized society on the island of Utopia.

            In a section of the work on the moral values of the Utopians, More describes how they hold to the view that pleasure constitutes the main part of human happiness. While More does not use the word “epicureanism”, the reference to that ancient Greek school of thought is clear. Epicurus held that “pleasure is the beginning and end of the good life . . . and it is from pleasure that we begin every choice and avoidance.” Epicurus warned, though, that we should reject pleasures that bring about more pain than enjoyment, and instead seek simple pleasures that are natural and easy to acquire, especially friendship and conversation. It is precisely this moderate pursuit of pleasure that the Utopians follow.

            During the middle ages, Epicureanism developed a bad reputation being selfish, animalistic and godless, More’s discussion does much to dispel this view. First, he maintains that the ethics of pleasure focuses both on others and oneself. For, “There is no virtue more proper and peculiar to our nature than to ease the miseries of others” and “furnish them with the comforts of life. We are naturally designed to live in society and to we see ourselves as being on an equal level as others. It is good for us to even sacrifice our “own advantage for the good of others” and trust that God will make it up to us in heaven. Second, More argues that our desire for pleasure is not directed at mere bodily enjoyments, but also include mental ones. In fact, the best pleasures are those that are both mental and bodily: “nature leads us only to those delights to which reason as well as sense carries us” and also those with no lingering bad effects. More especially ridicules those who desire pleasures of the upper class. Some people think themselves better than others for having fine clothing, but “why should a fine thread be considered better than a coarse one?” Some people think themselves better than others for having nobility in their blood “even though their immediate parents left none of this wealth to them”. For More, these are all false notions of pleasure that we should reject for the purer kind.

            Third, More attempts to link the pursuit of pleasure with religion. “What may seem strange,” he writes, “the Utopians make use of arguments even from religion (notwithstanding religion’s severity and sternness) for the support of the view that we should pursue pleasure.” The Utopians’ rationale is that God designed human souls to be happy, and God rewards and punishes us in the afterlife for our behavior here on earth. It thus makes no sense for us to reject pleasures since we desire heaven precisely because of the happiness there. More’s attempt to link epicureanism and religion is bold since Epicurus had no place for the gods in his moral theory and religious philosophers in the middle ages denounced Epicureanism for making virtue a slave to bodily pleasures. More’s effort was thus an important early step in making epicureanism religiously respectable.

            Fourth, More attempts to present the Epicurean acceptance of suicide in a positive light. Traditional Epicureanism held that we should endure moderate pains if they are bearable, but when they become intolerable “we may peacefully depart from life’s theatre when it ceases to please us” (Cicero, The Ends of Good and Evil). However, according to the Christian view in More’s day, any type of Euthanasia is wrong, regardless of how much pain we experience. More thus describes Utopian framework that permits euthanasia. Those who have “torturing, lingering pain, without hope of recovery or ease” may consult with the priests and magistrates and get permission to end their lives by taking opium. Such people “are unable to proceed with the business of life, have become a burden to themselves and all around them, and have in reality outlived themselves.” No one is compelled to end their lives in this way, but, if they do, it is considered honorable. However, if they do so without permission from the priests and magistrates, they will not be given a decent funeral and, instead, their bodies will be thrown into a ditch.

            Because More presents Utopia as a fable, it is difficult to know how much of the Utopian customs he accepts. The narrator of the story concludes that while he cannot agree with everything that the Utopians do, he wishes that many of these things might be adopted by European society, even though he has no hope that this will in fact ever happen.


Montaigne: Skepticism Compatible with Faith

As Renaissance humanists resurrected the ancient Greek schools of philosophy—such as Stoicism, Platonism and Epicureanism—some philosophers latched onto the ancient school of Skepticism. The writings of the Greek skeptic Sextus Empiricus were particularly popular as they went through dozens of new editions in the decades following the creation of the printing press. Unlike the other ancient schools of philosophy, though, Skepticism had a built-in liability: it recommended that we doubt the existence of God. That, and its other anti-religious recommendations, may have worked fine in ancient times when political and religious officials did not closely micromanage the religious affairs of the average person. Since the middle ages, though, things were different in Europe. Even though the Renaissance and Reformation opened up new religious possibilities for believers, religious and political authorities nevertheless firmly controlled what they deemed to be heretical, and the skeptical denial of God’s existence certainly crossed the line. The few bold souls who publicly proclaimed atheism were quickly executed. Even as late as the year 1697, a young Scottish college student was hanged for blasphemy. Thus, the new breed of Skepticism that emerged during the Renaissance needed to operate within the confines of traditional Christian belief, whether Catholic or Protestant. Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533–1592), the most prominent Renaissance skeptic, did just that.

            Montaigne was born into a wealthy family near the French city of Bordeaux. As a young boy he was instructed by his father who, having peculiar views about education, emphasized the Latin language so much that the young Montaigne didn’t learn French until age six. At that point Montaigne received more traditional schooling and, after his University studies, worked in government and law. He retired from public office in his mid-thirties, devoting his time to writing. The works he composed were rather unique. Rejecting the writing style of technical and scholarly treatises, he instead composed short, speculative and personal pieces, which he called “essays”, in French literally meaning “attempts.” In all, he composed 107 essays on a wide range of topics, which he worked on throughout the rest of his life, interrupted occasionally with political tasks. He died at age 59 from an inflammation of the throat, hearing the Latin mass on his deathbed.

            Montaigne was pessimistic about the direction of his culture at the time, rampant as it was with corruption and violence. Much of the blame, he argued, rested with human nature itself; he writes that “man is a marvelously vain, inconsistent, and unstable thing, and on whom it is very hard to form any certain and uniform judgment” (Essays, 1.1). This level of suspicion about human nature feeds directly into his appreciation of skepticism. While advocating skepticism, though, at the same time Montaigne holds on to faith as the sole source of our knowledge of religion. He writes that “it is faith alone that grasps the deep mysteries of our religion” and he supports this position with passages from the Bible that debunk the value of human reason (Essays, 2.12). This is precisely where the skeptical tradition from ancient Greece can be of value, since it too doubts the capacity of reason to give us knowledge: “The profession of the Pyrrhonian skeptics is to waver, to doubt, to inquire, and never be assured of anything nor explain himself.” Through this rigid practice of doubt, the skeptic is freed from the disturbances that claims about knowledge typically give people as they are tugged by the sway of reason in every conceivable direction. Through doubt, then, they achieve tranquility. Even their very claim to “I doubt X” is something that they also subject to doubt, as Montaigne explains here with the metaphor of a laxative:


When they say, “I don’t know,” or “I doubt,” they say, that this proposition expels itself along with other propositions, just as rhubarb [i.e. a laxative] purges one of bad humors and is itself purged. This attitude is more clearly seen in the question “What do I know?” I bear these words as inscribed on a pair of balances. [Ibid]


In the above passage Montaigne uses the expression “What do I know” which became a trademark for his skeptical views.

            By forcing reason into the arena of faith, Montaigne argues, we get confusing and incomprehensible doctrines about God’s nature. From the skeptics we learn the limitations of reason, and the damage that this does to our faith:


When we say that “the infinity of ages, as well past as to come, are but one instant with God”; that “His goodness, wisdom, and power are the same with His essence,” our mouths speak it, but our understandings do not grasp it. And yet such is our outrageous opinion of ourselves, that we must make the divinity pass through our filter. From this proceed all the dreams and errors with which the world abounds, when we reduce and weigh in our balance a thing so far above our position. [Ibid]


Ultimately, he argues, “It is faith alone that embraces vividly and with certainty the high mysteries of religion” (ibid).

            Montaigne’s commitment to skepticism went beyond matters of faith and reason, and, like his ancient Greek predecessors, he took a skeptical stand on morality. Morality, he argues, is driven by custom. As we look around the world, we see the strangest behavior. Even when our conduct starts out innocently, over time it becomes more and more bizarre, all the while becoming firmly fix within society through custom. Eventually, we lose all courage in opposing what custom mandates, and we just fall in line. How extreme does it get? He offers some examples here:


[There are societies] where they boil the bodies of their dead, and afterwards pound them to a pulp, which they mix with their wine, and drink it; where the most coveted burial is to be eaten by dogs; . . . where women urinate standing and men squatting; where they send their blood in a token of friendship . . . where the children nurse for four years, and often twelve; ... where they circumcise the women;  . . . in another it is reputed a holy duty for a man to kill his father at a certain age; . . . where children of seven years old endured being whipped to death, without changing expression. [Ibid, 1.22]


It’s not just our behavior that is dictated by custom, but our conscience itself—the very standard that we use to judge right and wrong—is molded by the customs of our society:


The laws of conscience, which we pretend to be derived from nature, proceed from custom. Since everyone has an inward reverence for the opinions and manners approved of and received among his own people, no one can, without very great reluctance, depart from them, or apply himself to them without approval. [Essays, “Of Custom”]


Thus, the pressure on our conscience from social custom is so strong that it is virtually impossible to break free from it.




An important influence on the direction of philosophy during the Renaissance is the Protestant Reformation, which began in Germany as a localized rebellion against the Catholic Church of Rome that at the time controlled Christianity within Europe. Over the centuries the Church became increasingly corrupt as Popes fathered children with mistresses and lived more like worldly kings than spiritual leaders. One of the more controversial fund raising techniques of the Church was to sell certificates called “indulgences” to church goers which would allegedly reduce the time that they or a loved one would have to spend repenting in purgatory before gaining entrance into heaven. The instigator of the Reformation was a German monk named Martin Luther, who, fed up with corruption in the Roman Church, posted a document containing 95 Theses attacking abuses in the Church. Luther later said “I would never have thought that such a storm would rise from Rome over one simple little scrap of paper.” That little scrap of paper provoked a revolt in Germany, which quickly spread throughout Europe and then the world. Culturally, the importance of the Protestant Reformation was that it loosened the grip that the Medieval Church had on European intellectual thought. The Church kept tight control over which sorts of books could be published, and which scientific and religious ideas were heretical and potentially punishable by death. The Reformation created an intellectual environment outside the influence of medieval scholasticism and a centralized church authority. Philosophers from Protestant countries set aside the writings of Aquinas and other official Catholic philosophers, and explored a vast array of theories that would otherwise have been considered taboo.


Luther: Reject Philosophy and Embrace Faith

Martin Luther (1483-1546) was born in Eisleben, Germany. His father operated successful copper mines, and was determined to see his eldest son improve his life by becoming a lawyer. In an effort to comply, Martin Luther received his Master’s degree and entered law school. During a thunderstorm, however, a lightening bolt terrified him into shouting out to the patron saint of miners, “Help, St. Anne! I’ll become a monk!” He then dropped out of law school and entered the monastery, to his parents’ disappointment. He spent long hours in prayer, fasting, and even whipping himself seeking to affirm his salvation, but all this did was to reinforce his sense of sinfulness. Nevertheless, he was soon ordained a priest and began teaching biblical theology at the newly founded University of Wittenberg. The more Luther studied, however, the more he questioned the Church’s official view of salvation and use of indulgences, and he ultimately concluded that salvation is a gift of God’s grace through faith, not through the Church. After disseminating his 95 Theses throughout Europe, the Church ordered him to recant his position, but he refused and was excommunicated from the Church. Under the protection of a sympathetic German Prince, he went into hiding, during which time he translated the Greek New Testament into German. As the Reformation gained momentum in Germany and beyond, he returned to Wittenberg where he continued lecturing. Luther later married an ex-nun that he helped escape from her convent, and together they raised six children. He died at age 62 of a crippling heart attack.

            Luther was well versed in medieval philosophy and its heavy emphasis on Aristotle. For Luther, as with many Renaissance thinkers, Aristotle came to represent the narrow-minded and authoritarian position of the Catholic Church, which forced conformity in thinking. In his efforts to break Christianity free from the rule of the Catholic Church, he concluded that the entire university curriculum also required serious overhauling, especially by rejecting its heavy reliance on books by Aristotle. The universities, he argues, “are full of dissolute living, where very little is taught of the Holy Scriptures and of the Christian faith, and the blind heathen teacher, Aristotle, rules even more than Christ” (Appeal to the German Nobility). Aristotle’s writings, says Luther, are incomprehensible, useless, and countless Christians “have been fooled and led astray by the false words of this cursed, proud, and dishonest heathen. God sent him as a plague for our sins” (ibid).

            A case in point, according to Luther, is Aristotle’s book On the Soul, which takes the position that the human soul is the form of the human body and cannot be separated from it. Medieval philosophers attempted to adapt Aristotle’s position to make it compatible with the Christian notion of life after death. Luther, though, doesn’t buy it. “Doesn’t the wretched man in his best book, On the Soul, teach that the soul dies with the body, though many have tried to save him with vain words?” (ibid). Further, Aristotle’s Ethics discusses virtues that every morally good person should have, such as courage, temperance, right ambition, right anger, wittiness, and friendliness. Luther argues that this account of morality completely misses the mark: “Then there is [Aristotle’s book] the Ethics, which is accounted one of the best, though no book is more directly contrary to God’s will and the Christian virtues. Oh that such books could be kept out of the reach of all Christians!” (ibid). Luther concedes, though, that Aristotle’s books on Logic, Rhetoric, and Poetics might be usefully studied in a condensed form by students who wish to improve their speaking and preaching abilities.

            The underlying problem for Luther is the intrusion of reason into the realm of religion, the very nature of which is beyond human understanding. For, “all the works of God are unsearchable and unspeakable, and no human sense can find them out” (Table Talk). It is only faith that can grasp God’s works, “without human power or aid”, and, ultimately, finite creatures will never comprehend God in his greatness. Accordingly, for Luther, “Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has: it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but, more frequently than not, struggles against the Divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God”. When it comes specifically to philosophers, it is not just Aristotle that Luther rejects: The philosophers, and learned among the heathen, had innumerable speculations about God, the soul, and the life everlasting, all uncertain and doubtful, they being without God’s Word. “The Mystical Theology of Dionysius,” he writes, “is a mere fable and lie”. For Luther, then, religious understanding is grounded in faith, not reason, and both reason and philosophy just get in the way.


Calvin: Sense of God and Double Predestination

Luther himself never devised a full-fledged “Protestant Christian philosophy” that aimed to replace the medieval Catholic one. However, French Protestant reformer, John Calvin (1509–1564) attempted just that. Born in Noyon, France, Calvin was educated in both scholastic and humanist thought, and at an early age published a commentary on the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca. By his mid-twenties he maintained that France should break free from the Catholic Church, a view that forced him into exile for the remainder of his life. In Switzerland, still in his twenties, he completed the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536), which ultimately became the theological cornerstone of Presbyterianism and related Protestant denominations. For most of his adult life he resided in Geneva, where he played a dominant role in city affairs, transforming it into something like a theocratic government. In that political capacity, he was involved in the arrest and execution of a rival Protestant reformer on the heretical charges of denying the doctrines of the trinity and infant baptism. Calvin died in Geneva at age 54.

            The aim of Calvin’s Institutes, as he states in its Preface, is to provide a Christian philosophy that will guide believers in the study of the Bible. At the heart of his position is a series of doctrines that later became known as the “Five Points of Calvinism.” They are, (1) total depravity: humanity's complete nature is innately corrupted, (2) unconditional election: God predestines some people to salvation, (3) limited atonement: salvation is restricted to those whom God elects, (4) irresistible grace: the elect must accept God's favor, and (5) perseverance of the saints:  God sustains the salvation of the elect in spite of their weakness.

            Two areas of Calvin’s thought are of special interest among philosophers today. The first is his notion of the sense of divinity, which is that everyone has an instinctive knowledge of God. He writes,


We hold to be beyond dispute that there exists in the human minds and indeed by natural instinct, some sense of divinity. This is so since, to prevent any person from pretending ignorance, God himself has given all people some idea of his Godhead. He constantly renews and occasionally enlarges our memory of this. [Institutes, 1.3.1]


A consequence of our instinctive knowledge of God is that our own conscience condemns us when we fail to worship God or live devoutly. His main proof that such an instinct exists is that throughout the world, even in the most primitive tribes, people still hold a conviction of God’s existence and a conception of religion. To assure that we properly understand God’s greatness, he argues, God has also engraved his glory upon creation itself, so that by merely looking at nature around us we will grasp the scope of God’s grandeur. Thus, no one, “however dull and illiterate, can plead ignorance as their excuse” regarding God’s existence and power (ibid 1.5.1).

            A second area of interest with Calvin’s philosophy is his position of double predestination: God not only pre-selects some people for salvation, but he also pre-selects others for damnation. He writes, “No pious person could simply deny the predestination by which God adopts some to the hope of life, and pronounces others to eternal death” (ibid, 3.21.5). Thus, whether we are saved or not, according to Calvin, is entirely up to God, and we have no free choice over the matter. Double predestination is a conscious decision by God, and he warns that we should not try to dilute God’s authority in this matter by appealing to the doctrine of foreknowledge. For example, we might be tempted to say that God really doesn’t pick out some people for salvation and others for damnation, but, instead, God just looks into the future and sees what choice I will make, specifically, whether I decide to accept God or not. Calvin agrees that God indeed has foreknowledge, however he insists that it has nothing to do with predestination. God sets the agenda for who is saved and who is damned, not us. He writes,


By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every person. All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation. Accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that each person has been predestined to life or to death. [Ibid, 3.21.5]


For Calvin, God not only singles out individual people for salvation or damnation, but he can select entire communities for either fate as well.




Recall the issue of faith vs. reason that set the direction for much of philosophy during the middle ages. At the one end of the spectrum, theologians like Tertullian held that religious truth must be discovered through faith alone, with no guidance from reason. This is the faith-alone position. Further down the spectrum, Aquinas held that reason can independently discover many of the truths that we learn through faith. Still, for Aquinas, we absolutely need faith, and he does not advocate anything like a reason-alone position that denies the value of faith. In this section we will look at the extremes of this debate in the writings two early modern philosophers: Edward Herbert of Cherbury on the reason-alone side, and Blaise Pascal on the faith-alone side.


Herbert: Deism and Five Common Notions

Edward Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648) was a British nobleman and diplomat, and considered the father of deism. He is best remembered in philosophy for his proposed five common notions of religion. Born into an aristocratic family in a small village in central England, he was the eldest of ten children and, at age 13 upon the death of this father, he became the head of his household. For the benefit of his heirs, he wrote an autobiography that covers is life until age 41, in which he displays vanity and a desire for confrontation. At the same time, though, he describes how he devoted himself to education and learned multiple languages to make himself “a citizen of the world”. He was raised in a culture of dueling and, while he invited opportunities to duel, typically to defend the honor of women, it seems that many were averted and, if any did transpire, none resulted in death. At 18 he was a member of the English Parliament, and in later years held government posts as a sheriff, a soldier, and an ambassador to Paris. During the English Civil War, begun in 1842, he attempted to remain neutral. However, he reluctantly joined the Parliamentarians against the Royalists, when the Parliamentarians seized his property in London and threatened to sell it if he did not give them access to his castle for military purposes. On his deathbed, he asked his friend an Archbishop to perform the sacrament of last rights, stating that it might do him some good, but and could do him no harm. The Archbishop refused under those terms and left.

            Herbert is often recognized as the founder of deism, which was a philosophical approach to religion during the eighteenth-century with the general theme that God created the world but thereafter left it alone, without interfering in the laws of nature that he established. While individual deist had their own unique positions, some more radical than others, they typically were hostile to divine intervention through miracles, prophecy or revealed scripture and they held that there was no religious truth above reason. In the words of one eighteenth-century writer, Herbert “seems to have been one of the first that formed Deism into a system, and asserted the sufficiency, universality, and absolute perfection, of natural religion, with a view to discard all extraordinary revelation as useless and needless” (Leland, Views, 1753, 1).

            Herbert presents this deistic theme in his first and most important philosophical work, On Truth (1624), he argues that God created humans with a variety of instinctive beliefs, or “common notions” as he called them, which underlie all human experience and are part of human intelligence itself. Some of these common notions we know automatically, without any assistance from reason, and five of these deal specifically with religion. They are, (1) there exists a supreme God, (2) we should worship him, (3) the best form of worship consists of proper moral behavior, (4) we should repent for our immoral conduct, and (5) we will be rewarded or punished in the afterlife for our conduct on earth. These, he argues, form the basis of the true and universal religion. They are naturally embedded in everyone’s mind, and they bear six marks that indicate their instinctiveness:


Priority: known by natural instinct, prior to any other knowledge

Independence: not deduced from premises

Universality: held with universal consent

Certainty: it is impossible to deny them

Necessity: needed for human preservation

Immediacy: notions formed immediately when hearing the appropriate words


The result, then, is that we all have these five common notions of religion embedded into our nature, and they serve as the basis for the true and universal religion. Herbert admits that God might reveal himself to particular people, but such revelations cannot extend beyond those people or form the basis of any religion.

            What was perhaps most radical about Herbert’s philosophy was his claim that many non-Christian religions exhibit these five common notions, and thus are members of that true religion. In later publications he stresses this point and argues further that priests are the primary villains of the true religion for tainting religion with claims of divine revelation:


It is my established opinion, therefore, that the heathens accounted these five articles as common principles and selected and separated them from all the rest, and recorded them in their interior court as incontrovertible truths; and whatever else the priests added from their oracles, revelations and dreams, they either gave them reception only as probabilities, or else totally rejected them as smelling too rank of cheat and imposture. [Ancient Religions of the Gentiles, 15]


Fortunately, he argues, the common people can see past the priests’ inventions and adopt with sincerity the five common notions and just pay lip service to all the rest. Thus, while heathen religions might at first seem silly, on closer inspection they are legitimate reflections of the true religion. While most of Herbert’s attacks on priests are directed at non-Christian religions, his view of Christianity is the same: the purity of that faith rests on its expression of the five common notions, and any Christian teachings beyond that add nothing and may even detract.

            Ultimately, for Herbert, religion should be grounded in reason, not in faith. For, he argues, religion based on faith will be “no better than as a holy legend or allegorical history”, and we will be at the mercy of priests who “may offer their wares at easier rates than others, and so make them seem more plausible to the people” (Dialogue).


Pascal: The Wager and Faith and Without Reason

At the opposite extreme of the faith and reason spectrum is Pascal. We have already seen that both Montaigne and Luther rejected the role of reason in religious matters and are thus advocates of the faith-alone position. It was Pascal, though, who during this period of time offered the most sophisticated defense of the faith-only view. Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) was born in Clermon, France, and after the early death of his mother was educated in Greek and Latin by his father. As a youth he showed a special capacity for mathematics, and at age 16 he published a work on that subject. At around age 19 he invented the first calculating machine, hoping it would help his father compute taxes at his government job. His early interests also extended to science and he became active in the raging debate of the time about whether a vacuum could exist. When Pascal’s father had become ill, the two physicians who attended him were members of the Catholic Jansenist movement, which led Pascal to a religious awakening. In his early thirties he had a second and more intense religious conversion after almost dying in a carriage accident. He thereafter affiliated himself with Jansenists, writing in their defense on various religious controversies. Pascal suffered various debilitating illnesses through most of his adult life, which ultimately led to his early death at age 39. It was during his final years that he wrote his major contribution to philosophy, an unfinished work in outline form that only appeared in print after his death under the title Thoughts.

            Pascal never identified himself as a philosophical skeptic, and, in fact, one goal of his Thoughts was to defend Christianity by showing the inconsistencies in views of skeptics such as Montaigne. For example, Pascal offers the following critique of Montaigne’s skeptical view of custom and morality that we examined earlier. Pascal writes,


Montaigne is wrong. Custom should be followed only because it is custom, and not because it is reasonable or just. But people follow it for this sole reason, that they think it just. Otherwise they would follow it no longer, although it were the custom; for they will only submit to reason or justice. Custom without this would pass for tyranny; but the sovereignty of reason and justice is no more tyrannical than that of desire. They are principles natural to man. [Thoughts, 325]


Contrary to Montaigne, Pascal contends that custom is not the source of morality, and people only follow custom because they think it is moral.

            At the same time, though, Pascal was skeptical about the value of human reason in general: “There is nothing so conformable to reason as this disavowal of reason” (ibid 173).  Reason, he argues, is grounded in feelings and, as such, it is changeable and can offer us no consistent rule of guidance. Further, he argues, reason presents a major stumbling block to many of the non-rational views that we hold through religious faith: “If we submit everything to reason, our religion will have no mysterious and supernatural element. If we offend the principles of reason, our religion will be absurd and ridiculous” (ibid 174). Accordingly, Pascal believes that reason can tell us nothing about the existence of God, and the rational proofs for God’s existence ultimately fail.

            If reason cannot settle the issue of God’s existence, then what possible motivation do we have for believing in God? Pascal answers this with his famous wager:


Since a choice must be made, let’s see which interests you the least. You have two things to lose: the true and the good. And you have two things to stake: your reason and your will; that is, your knowledge and your complete happiness. And your nature has two things to shun: error and misery. Your reason is not more wounded, since a choice must necessarily be made in choosing one rather than the other. Here a point is eliminated. But what about your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in taking heads that God exists. Let us weigh these two cases. If you gain, you gain all. If you lose, you lose nothing. Wager without hesitation, then, that he is. [Ibid, 233]


In a nutshell, his position is this: when reason is neutral on the issue of God’s existence, the balance of positive and negative consequences of believing vs. disbelieving in God should compel us to move towards a faith-based belief in God. The options that Pascal lays out in the wager are these:


                                    |           Believe                        Don't believe

God exists                   |           infinite happiness        nothing

God doesn't exist         |           nothing                        nothing


Thus, if we gamble by believing in God, we might gain infinite happiness, whereas if we gamble by not believing in God we gain nothing.

            The wager itself, though, is not meant to be a rational proof for God’s existence or even an attempt to rationally settle the issue of whether you should believe in God. Instead, it is an appeal to your feelings, your desire to be happy. The wager is only the first step towards belief in God insofar as it simply establishes your desire. The second step is to put yourself in a position where you can be touched by God through a religious experience and then believe through faith. To that end, he says, you should do what other believers have done: participate in religious rituals. Go to church and use holy water as though you believed in them, and the mere practice of these things will open you to an experience that will enable you to truly believe.




European science dramatically advanced during the 16th and 17th centuries, a period that historians now refer to as the scientific revolution. While scientists during the late middle ages were making discoveries, a tipping point occurred in the area of astronomy when Copernicus published his sun-centered theory of the cosmos, which overturned the prevailing earth-centered model that dated back to the time of Aristotle. This sparked innovations in all areas of science, including the development of more sophisticated scientific instruments. In addition to the particular discoveries that were made, scientists also developed methods of scientific investigation, which they felt would help them push the boundaries of knowledge more efficiently and systematically.


Bacon: Induction and the Scientific Method

The champion of the scientific method and acclaimed father of modern science was Francis Bacon (1561-1626). He was born in London into a noble household, educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, began his career in the field of law, and progressively climbed the ranks within British government, eventually holding the position of Lord Chancellor. At around age 60 his career and reputation plummeted. He was continually in debt throughout his adult life and often sought desperate means for paying off is creditors, which ultimately led to him being charged with political corruption. For this he was briefly imprisoned in the Tower of London, fined a substantial sum of money, and barred from his place in the British Parliament. He died at the age of 65 after becoming ill when stuffing a chicken with snow to test whether that would slow down its decay. Bacon published works on a range of subjects in science, history, and moral philosophy. He envisioned composing a lengthy plan to reorganize all of the sciences; of the few portions that he did complete, the most famous is the New Organon (1620). The title is an allusion to Aristotle’s Organon (literally meaning “instrument”) which contains the logical portions of his works. By incorporating this term into his title, Bacon was boldly advertising that he was offering a new approach to logic that aimed to replace the outdated one of Aristotle.

            The main point of difference between their two conceptions of logic is that Aristotle’s system was deductive, while Bacon’s was inductive. Deduction involves a structure of demonstration similar to mathematics, and Aristotle’s specific form of deductive argumentation is the syllogism as expressed here:


1. All men are mortal.

2. Socrates is a man.

3. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.


The important feature of deductive arguments, such as the above, is that the meaning of the conclusion is completely contained within the premises. Further, as long as the premises are true, the conclusion follows with absolute necessity, with no exception whatsoever. Induction is an entirely different strategy that involves generalizations based on observations, such as this:


(a) Rock 1 falls to the ground when I open my hand.

(b) Rock 2 falls to the ground when I open my hand.

(c) Therefore, all rocks similar to 1 and 2 will probably fall to the ground when I open my hand


What is central to inductive arguments such as the above is that specific instances are used as evidence for a universal conclusion. That is, the premises only tell us about two rocks, and the conclusion generalizes about all similar rocks; as such the conclusion goes well beyond the information contained in the premises. This means that the conclusion does not follow with absolute necessity, but only with a specific degree of probability.

            Bacon argues that induction is much more suitable for science than deduction is. In science, we begin with observations, and from these try to extract more general truths about nature. Specific observation is critical to this process, as he expresses at the very opening of the New Organon: “Man, who is the servant and interpreter of nature, can act and understand no further than he has observed in either the operation or the contemplation of the method and order of nature” (New Organon, 1.1). Deduction, by contrast, is not capable of drawing universal conclusions from specific observations, and thus confines us to the small amount of facts that we know: “The [deductive] logic now in use serves rather to fix and give stability to the errors which have their foundation in commonly received notions, rather than to help the search after truth. So it does more harm than good” (ibid, 1.12). Because of their reliance on deductive logic, scientists of the past have barely penetrated into the inner recesses of nature. To break these barriers, “our only hope is true induction” (ibid, 1.14).

            The precise inductive method that Bacon proposes is in three parts, or three “tables” as he calls them. The first of these is the “table of presence”: we should examine instances in which the same phenomenon is present, and note what other circumstances are in common. Suppose, for example, that several students on campus get sick to the stomach. To determine the cause, we should first examine what they all have in common, such as them having eaten the tuna casserole in the school cafeteria. Second is the “table of absence”: we should examine instances in which a phenomenon is absent, and note what circumstances are in common. Again, with the stomach illness on campus, we should examine what all non-sick students have in common, such as them not having eaten the tuna casserole. Third, there is the table of degrees: examine instances in which a phenomenon is present in varying degrees and note what circumstances also vary. For example, once we’ve reasonably identified the tuna casserole as the cause of the illnesses, we can give differing portions of the contaminated item to different people to see how sick they get.


Galileo: Separating Science from Religion

As science moved forward, it inevitably raised questions about the compatibility of religion and science—a new twist to the longstanding issue of the relation between faith and reason. One scientist was caught directly in the middle of this sensitive transition from the old system to the new one: Galileo Galilei (1564–1642). Born in the Italian city of Pisa, at a young age Galileo was multi-talented, playing the lute and organ (taught by his father, a professional musician), building toys, and doing skilled painting. But none of these were to be his calling in life. After abandoning thoughts of becoming a priest, he bent to his father’s urging and entered the University of Pisa to study medicine. Leaving this for lack of funds, he then switched fields to mathematics. After his father’s death, Galileo moved to the University of Padua, teaching mathematics, geometry, mechanics and astronomy, later becoming chair of the mathematics department. Though a devout Catholic, Galileo fathered three children out of wedlock. Feeling that his two daughters were thus unmarriageable, he sent them to a convent at an early age, where they remained the rest of their lives. His son, however, was later legitimized and allowed to marry.

            After developing the telescope, he used it to gaze at night sky and made several discoveries that supported  Copernicus’s view that the earth revolves around the sun, not the reverse. He observed sun spots, mountainous surfaces on the moon, Jupiter’s moons revolving around that planet, and the phases of the planet Venus. When he published a work defending the sun-centered system, opposition arose against him within the Catholic Church on the grounds that his views ran contrary to scripture and Church authority. An edict was issued requiring him to renounce his theory, which he did. He was sentenced to imprisonment, then commuted to house arrest, where he lived another eight years, producing more writings before becoming blind. It took another one hundred years for Galileo to be fully exonerated by the Church, when it authorized the publication of his complete scientific works.

            When aggressively putting forward his views on astronomy, Galileo was well aware that he was entering territory controlled by the Church. He responded by arguing that science and religion are different arenas of knowledge and should be kept separate. The immediate problem was that the Church was taking an overly-literal interpretation of biblical passages in support of the old earth-centered system, such as passages about the movement of the sun. For Galileo, though, it’s risky business when imposing any interpretation on the bible that might afterwards be contradicted by scientific evidence from our senses. He asks, “Who can assure us that everything that can be known in the world is known already?” (Letter to Castelli). The role of scripture and religion is to teach us truths about salvation, which would not be available to us by any other means than divine revelation. However, that’s not the case with science: God has given us senses, reason, and understanding, and it makes no sense for God to forbid us from using these intellectual tools in scientific matters and rely instead on revelation. This is precisely the case with astronomy, he argues, since the scriptures say virtually nothing about the subject. Thus, scientific investigation should not begin with scripture, but with experimentation:


In discussing natural phenomena we ought not to begin with texts from Scripture, but with experiment and demonstration. For, from the Divine Word, both Scripture and Nature do alike proceed. And I can see that that which experience sets before our eyes concerning natural effects, or which demonstration proves to us, ought not on any account to be called in question, much less condemned, upon the testimony of Scriptural texts, which may (under their mere words) have meanings of a contrary nature. [ibid]


Accordingly, Galileo argues, Church officials should not presume to tell scientists what they are to believe.

            While many advances during the scientific revolution reshaped people’s conceptions of the place of humans in the cosmos, this was especially so with the shift away from the old medieval earth-centered system towards the sun-centered one, which Galileo helped push forward. First, under the older sun-centered system, the universe was of finite size: at the outer edges all the stars were attached to a single orbital sphere that rotated around the earth at its inner core. The very placement of the earth at the center of things was a sign that humans were at the focal point of God’s creative activity. Under the new system, though, the universe is infinitely large, with stars strewn everywhere across the sky, and the earth is no longer the physical center of things. Second, under the old system, heavenly bodies such as the sun, moon and planets were thought to be made from perfect eternal substances that were vastly different in composition from the finite and imperfect material stuff that made up the earth. Under the new system, though, heavenly bodies are stripped of their eternal nature and instead composed of the same finite stuff as the earth. Third, under the old system, God was seen as an active force in the daily functioning of the universe, and the ultimate source of all motion. Under the new system, though, the physical universe is potentially self-sustaining. Even if God did create everything at the start, the new model offered a mechanistic explanation of the cosmos’s operation that did not rely on God as a continuing active force.


Newton: God’s Role in the Physical Universe

By 1700, no one had a better grasp of the science behind the cosmos than Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and, thus, he was the default expert on God’s role in the physical universe. Born in Grantham, England, Newton was educated at Cambridge University and spent many years teaching there, gaining an international reputation through his mathematical and scientific publications. His Principia Mathematica (1687), one of the greatest contributions to science, presented groundbreaking theories on motion, gravity, and the movement of the planets. To assist him in making the mathematical calculations in the Principia, Newton developed the calculus, but kept this a secret for several decades until German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz developed then published his own version of the system. This resulted in a protracted controversy between them over who was the true inventor; the consensus today is that they both invented it independently. In his later years Newton briefly served in the British Parliament, and for the remainder of life was Master of the Mint and president of the Royal Society of London, Britain’s most esteemed scientific institution. He died at age 85.

            In a later edition of the Principia Newton made the famous statement “I invent no hypotheses,” making clear that he was focusing only on how the principle of gravity worked, and not what the underlying causes of gravity are. Like the principle of Ockham’s Razor, this illustrates his desire to keep science focused on observable phenomena, rather than making elaborate speculations about the secret nature of things. Yet, at the same time, Newton was privately interested in the hidden forces behind the operations of nature, particularly regarding God’s role in the creation and operation of the cosmos. To this end, Newton offers a design argument for God’s existence based on the mechanical precision of celestial bodies, which cannot be accounted for by chance. For, even a few tiny differences in the size and gravity of the planets would throw them into irregular orbits. He writes,


had the quantity of matter in the sun or in Saturn, Jupiter, and the earth (and by consequence their gravitating power) been greater or less than it is; [then, in any of these cases,] the primary planets could not have revolved about the sun nor the secondary ones [i.e., moons] about Saturn, Jupiter, and the earth, in concentric circles as they do, but would have moved in hyperbolas or parabolas or in ellipses very eccentric. To make this system, therefore, with all its motions, required a cause which understood and compared together the quantities of matter in the several bodies of the sun and planets and the gravitating powers resulting from thence.... And to compare and adjust all these things together in so great a variety of bodies, [such a design] argues that cause to be, not blind and fortuitous, but very well skilled in mechanics and geometry. [Letters to Richard Bentley, 1]


The essence of the above argument is this:


1. The universe exhibits a high degree of precision in mechanics and geometry.

2. It is improbable that this precision resulted from chance.

3. Therefore there is a creator of the universe who is skilled in mechanics and geometry.


Not only does the regular motion of the planets require God’s engineering skills, but, Newton argues, God’s existence is also needed to explain why some celestial bodies are luminous, such as the sun and stars, and others are not luminous, such as the planets.

            Thus, for Newton God’s role as cosmic engineer and creator is evident. However, the next theological question is whether the continued operation of the universe still depends in some way upon God’s intervention. God clearly tried hard to make the universe self-sustaining. But did he succeed in making it completely self-sustaining? Newton is less clear about this, and he suggests that it depends on differing views of the universe itself that we might reasonably adopt. For example, if the universe is of finite size, then God is needed to prevent all the celestial bodies from converging on each other through gravity and making a single lump of stuff. On the other hand, if the universe is infinitely large, then God might have evenly spaced out all celestial bodies so that, by evenly tugging each other in all directions, they stay in place. In that case, God would not need to continually intervene to keep the universe from collapsing in on itself.




As the Renaissance shook up traditional conceptions of religious authority, it had a strong secularizing effect on society, as we’ve already seen with Galileo’s efforts to separate science from religion. The secularizing force of the Renaissance also impacted the dominant conception of morality during the middle ages, namely, natural law theory. As typified by Aquinas’s view, natural law is a set of moral standards embedded in human nature by God; it is part of God’s divine wisdom and his eternal law. We will look at the views of two early modern philosophers who developed non-religious views of natural law: Hugo Grotius and Thomas Hobbes.


Grotius: Natural Law and Just War Theory

Hugo Grotius (1583—1645) was born in the Dutch city of Delft, where he was a child prodigy thanks to the educational influence of his father, a city official and curator of Leiden University. He attended the University at age 11, and, while on a diplomatic mission to France at age 15, the King there praised him as the miracle of Holland. Beginning in his late teens, he assumed various positions in the Dutch government that involved issues of international laws and treaties and began writing on the subject. Imprisoned for three years for his role in a religious controversy, he dramatically escaped with the help of his wife by hiding in a book case. He took refuge in France for ten years, and then resumed his career in the Dutch government once the political climate there became safe. He died from exhaustion at the age of 62 after being shipwrecked while on a diplomatic mission. Grotius’s most famous work is The Law of War and Peace (1625), which he composed during exile in France. Its central theme is that natural law establishes the just conditions for declaring and engaging in war.

            What exactly is “natural law?” For Grotius, it is a rational principle of morality and social justice which “is so unalterable, that it cannot be changed even by God himself” (Laws of War and Peace, 1.1). In fact, he goes so far as to say that natural law would still have some validity even if “we conceded that there is no God” (ibid, Prolegomena). In this way, natural law is a secular phenomenon, not a divinely-created one. Natural law, he argues, is on the same level as truths of mathematics insofar as the denial of the laws of nature would be contradictory. In the same way that the statement 1=1=3 is inherently contradictory, so too would be a claim that “stealing is morally acceptable.” Reason itself, he argues, contains a clear standard of moral rightness, and certain actions are unquestionably evil when “compared with the nature of a reasonable being” (ibid). Now, God is a rational being, and so too are we human beings. As such, God and humans are both bound by that high moral standard of rationality, and our actions are judged right or wrong accordingly. Even God’s actions, he argues, must be judged right or wrong based on the moral standard of rationality.

            According to Grotius, there is a highest moral principle of natural law which is embedded in our rational nature, namely, that we should be sociable—we should live in peace with one another and uphold the social order. He writes,


Among the traits characteristic of man is an impelling desire for society, that is, for the social life not of any and every sort, but peaceful, and organized according to the measure of his intelligence, with those who are of his own kind; this social trend the Stoics called “sociability.” [ibid, “Prolegomena”]


From this general moral obligation of sociability, we can infer five more specific rules of natural law, each of which is central to preserving social stability: (1) do not take things that belong to others; (2) restore to other people anything that we might have of theirs; (3) fulfill promises; (4) compensate for any loss that results through our own fault; (5) punish people as deserved.

            According to Grotius, the above five principles of natural law are not only at the core of all morality, but they form the main ingredients of social and political obligation—within our individual countries and also between countries internationally. The basis of all international law, he argues, is that we must fulfill the agreements that we make with others (as expressed in the famous Latin phrase pacta sunt servanda – pacts must be respected); this is a direct application of the third principle of natural law above. And, when situations arise that force us into war with a neighboring country, these principles also underlie the justness of our behavior towards our enemy. Grotius is thus advocating a position of just war theory, that is, the attempt to distinguish between justifiable and unjustifiable wars. For Grotius, natural law theory gives us the exact litmus test we need for making that distinction.

            There are two components to Grotius’s just war theory. The first involves the just causes of war, that is, why we might be justified in waging war with any country to begin with. He says that there are three main just causes: to defend ourselves against attack, to seek reparation for some harm that an enemy country has done to us, and to punish a country for inflicting us with some harm. Some wars result merely from the desire to inflict cruelty, completely disconnected with any good reason, and such acts of aggression are clearly unjustified. While every country that engages in war attempts to justify its actions, many justifications are only pretexts which do not stand up to moral scrutiny.

            The second component of his just war theory concerns the types of combat techniques that we might rightfully use against our enemy. Can we kill enemy prisoners? Can we kill civilians? Can we lay waste to an entire countryside? For Grotius, there is a moral mandate of moderation that requires us to temper our actions during war. First, we need to preserve the lives of the innocent whenever possible:


Though there may be circumstances, in which absolute justice will not condemn the sacrifice of lives in war, yet humanity will require that the greatest precaution should be used against involving the innocent in danger, except in cases of extreme urgency and utility. [Ibid, 3.11]


Grotius is here drawing a fundamental distinction between combatants and noncombatants, which in contemporary just war theory is referred to as the principle of discrimination. For Grotius, innocent noncombatants include women, children, and religious ministers. Killing these would serve no military purpose, and would be nothing short of cruel. Protection also needs to be extended to farmers, merchants and artisans whose activities help sustain the society itself. Killing off this segment of the population would permanently cripple a country and would not be justified on military grounds. In addition to the principle of discrimination, Grotius also articulates a principle that we now call proportionality: destruction should not extend any further than is necessary to make the aggressor pay for his offence. He writes,


Now, driving off some of our cattle, or burning a few of our houses, can never be pleaded as a sufficient and justifiable motive for laying waste the whole of an enemy's kingdom. Polybius saw this in its proper light, observing, that vengeance in war should not be carried to its extreme, nor extend any further than was necessary to make an aggressor atone justly for his offence. And it is upon these motives, and within these limits alone, that punishment can be inflicted. But except where prompted to it by motives of great utility, it is folly, and worse than folly, to needlessly hurt another. [Ibid, 3.13]


Ultimately, he argues, there are only three justifications for destruction of the enemy’s property: first, when destruction is needed to stop the enemy, second, when the destruction satisfies some debt that the enemy needs to repay, and, third, when the destruction is the only adequate punishment for the enemy’s aggression. Any destruction that goes beyond these three situations is unjustifiable.

            In short, Grotius’s view is that natural law is a rational component of the universe, independent of and uncreated by God. We access the basic principles of natural law through human reason, and this guides both our individual moral conduct and the rules we devise for international law. Natural law tells us under what conditions we might justifiably wage war against a foreign country, and it also tells us what kind of warfare tactics are morally justifiable when we engage the enemy.


Hobbes: The Social Contract

A second great contributor to a new conception of morality and natural law was Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), who took a more skeptical approach to the subject than did Grotius. Born in Wiltshire, England, Hobbes was raised by an uncle when his father, a disgraced clergyman, deserted his family. After completing his university education at Oxford, for several decades he worked as a private tutor for distinguished families, one of his pupils being a future King of England. During that time he continued his studies in Greek and Latin classics, traveled through Europe, and became acquainted with some of the greatest minds of the time. It wasn’t until around age 50 that he took a serious interest in philosophy and began composing works on the subject. His efforts culminated in his greatest work, Leviathan (1651), which immediately drew harsh criticism for its skeptical and anti-religious implications. Fearing imprisonment for heresy, he fled England for a few years; upon his return, he was prohibited for a time from further publication. He continued writing until his final years when he died from a stroke at the age of 90.

            The backdrop of Hobbes’s political philosophy is his materialist view of the physical world and human nature. The standard view of the subject since the middle ages was the dualist position that the universe contains both material things like rocks, and non-physical spirits such as God and human souls. Hobbes denied this view, holding that the universe is comprised entirely of material stuff. The very notion of an immaterial spirit is groundless, and the first conception of it arose from an abuse of language:


[T]he opinion that such spirits were incorporeal, or immaterial, could never enter into the mind of any man by nature; because, though men may put together words of contradictory signification, as spirit and incorporeal, yet they can never have the imagination of anything answering to them. [Leviathan, 12.7]


While Hobbes does not deny God’s existence, he argues that God’s nature is completely inexplicable, and we can say virtually nothing about him: “the nature of God is incomprehensible; that is to say, we understand nothing of what he is, but only that he is” (ibid, 34.4). In the mind of Hobbes’s critics, this view of God was enough to brand him as an atheist. Hobbes’s materialist position is most reflected in his view that human beings are comprised exclusively of physical stuff, without anything like an immaterial spirit. All of the contents of my mind—thoughts, perceptions, desires, emotions, pleasures, pains—consist only of physical stuff in motion. To understand human conduct, then, means understanding the operations of the human physical machine.

            Hobbes sets out his political philosophy by considering how humans behaved in a time before the creation of civil governments. In this state of nature, or “natural condition” as he calls it, people had complete freedom to do whatever they wanted. However, this unregulated liberty led to a condition of war of everyone against everyone in the battle for survival. He describes this condition of brutality in one of the most famous passages in philosophy:


In such condition, there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no culture of the earth, no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. [ibid, 13.9]


The conflict between people is so entrenched that it grinds all social progress to a halt, and all I can do is wait for my neighbor to attack and kill me—or try to get to him first. In this condition there is no natural basis for justice or morality:


To this war of every man against every man, this also is consequent, that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law; where no law, no injustice. Force and fraud are in war the two cardinal virtues. Justice and injustice are none of the [instinctive] faculties, neither of the body nor mind. [ibid, 13.13]


            On Hobbes’s view, there are three main reasons for conflict. First, there are limited resources that we all desire for our survival. Second, human beings are naturally selfish, and do not have the psychological capacity to help other people merely out of the goodness of their hearts. All of my actions aim to benefit me, and are selfishly motivated. He writes, “of the voluntary acts of every man the object is some good to himself” (ibid, 14:8). Today philosophers call this position psychological egoism. If we were naturally unselfish, then we’d happily let other people have what they wanted; but sadly, for Hobbes, that’s not how we’re designed. Second, human beings have largely the same mental and physical abilities, and, consequently, there is a more or less equal playing field when we compete for the same things.

            Thus, the state of nature is a miserable amoral condition that we should escape from if we hope to have a long and happy life. But how can we do that? The solution, for Hobbes, is to devise an agreement with others; that is, we form a social contract by which we agree to set aside our hostilities to create a peaceful society in which we can have long and fruitful lives. Hobbes sets out the framework of the social contract by stipulating several “laws of nature” that move us from a state of war to a state of peace. Law one, for Hobbes, is to seek peace as a means of self-preservation. This follows directly from our natural right to self preservation, whereby each person may “use his own power as he will himself for the preservation of his own nature” (ibid, 14.1). Peace, according to Hobbes, is the best way of surviving. Law two is that, in our efforts to secure peace, we should agree to mutually divest ourselves of hostile rights. That is, I should give up my survival right to attack and kill you under the condition that you give up your corresponding survival right to attack and kill me. Peace can only come about if we both set down our weapons at the same time.

            Law three is that we should keep the agreements that we make. Making an agreement to forego hostilities is one thing, but sticking to that agreement is entirely different. Hobbes recognized that there is a strong temptation to break our agreements. Once you’ve set down your weapon, I might be selfishly motivated to quickly pick mine back up, kill you, then take your possessions. To assure that people keep their agreements, we need to create a government that has absolute authority to punish offenders:


For the laws of nature, as justice, equity, modesty, mercy, and, in sum, doing to others as we would be done to, of themselves, without the terror of some power to cause them to be observed, are contrary to our natural passions, that carry us to partiality, pride, revenge, and the like. And covenants, without the sword, are but words and of no strength to secure a man at all. [ibid, 17.2]


            Hobbes’s social contract theory is an even bolder secularization of natural law theory than what Grotius offered. For Grotius, natural laws were rational principles like mathematics, and thus independent of God. For Hobbes, though, the laws of nature are rational from a practical standpoint: they are the sorts of laws that any rational person should adopt to save his or her hide:


A law of nature (lex naturalis) is a precept or general rule, found out by reason, by which a man is forbidden to do that which is destructive of his life or takes away the means of preserving the same, and to omit that by which he thinks it may be best preserved. [Leviathan, 14.3]


Thus, the laws of nature are nothing like rational principles of mathematics; they are grounded only in the human desire to survive, and thus are rational only in a pragmatic sense.




During the Renaissance, philosophy started to have a more modern feel, and, compared to what went on in ancient Greek and Medieval times, it is one that we can more easily identify with today. Philosophers of the time recognized that they were on a new path that departed radically from medieval scholasticism, and they soon began to refer to their own style of philosophizing as “modern” – hence the designation “modern” philosophy. Their first efforts were to breathe life back into the old Greek philosophical schools, which, they believed, contained a vitality that was lost in the middle ages. The freedom to newly explore those classical schools, though, required philosophy to move out from under the control of the Catholic Church. Since ancient times, philosophers were regularly in trouble with legal and religious authorities, and even during the Middle Ages the most innovative philosophers found themselves accused of heresy. While by our standards today the Renaissance was still a religiously confining environment, the Reformation sparked an era of religious experimentation which gave more freedom for philosophical speculation. 

            What perhaps launched Renaissance philosophy forward the most, though, were the dramatic advances in science. Scientific achievements in astronomy, chemistry, biology and engineering set a high standard for all intellectual disciplines, and philosophers followed that model of scientific rigor. Bacon in particular believed that philosophy and science were virtually inseparable, particularly regarding scientific method. In the centuries following the Renaissance, as we will see in later chapters, philosophers drew heavily on the science of the time. They were knowledgeable about the latest scientific advances, some being notable scientists themselves, and often shaped their writing style in the form of scientific treatises.


READING 1: PICO ON FREEDOM AND DIGNITY(from “Oration on Human Dignity”, 1486)


Common Explanations of Human Uniqueness Miss the Point

Reverend Fathers: In the writings of the Arabians, I have read that Abdula the Saralen was asked what on the “world’s stage,” as they say, is the most wondrous. He replied, “There is no greater wonder than humanity.” Mercury agrees with this opinion: “A magnificent miracle is humanity!” (Asclepius 1:6). But I am dissatisfied when considering the reasons for these assertions [such as the following]. Man intermediates between all creatures, being familiar with the gods, yet rulers of inferior creatures. We interpret nature by the sharpness of our senses, the judgment of our reason, and the light of our intelligence. We are the moment between eternity’s permanence, and the passage of time. As the Persians say, we are the binding force, no, the marriage union of the world. According to David, we are “just a little beneath the angels” (Psalms 8:5). These reasons are great, but not the principal ones. That is, they do not possess the privilege of the highest admiration. For, why should we not have more admiration for the angels and the beautiful heavenly choirs? Ultimately, it seems to me, I now understand why man is the most fortunate of creatures, and worthy of complete admiration. I understand what their allotted position is in the hierarchy of beings, which is a role envied by the animals, by the stars, and by the minds beyond the world. It is something wonderful beyond faith. And why not? It is for this reason that man is justly deemed a great miracle, and truly wonderful creature. So, with receptive ears, Fathers, listen attentively to what I say.


Each Person Selects his/her Own Spot in the Chain of Created Things

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