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The Wisdom of the Renaissance Hardcover – July 31, 2019

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About the Author

Michael K. Kellogg is the author of The Wisdom of the Middle Ages, The Roman Search for Wisdom, The Greek
Search for Wisdom, and Three Questions We Never Stop Asking. Educated at Stanford and Oxford in philosophy and at
Harvard Law School, he is a founding and managing partner at Kellogg, Hansen, Todd, Figel & Frederick, PLLC, in
Washington, DC. He is a native of Palo Alto, California.

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Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Ten Renaissance Authors

“Nothing [is] more wonderful than man,” wrote the fifteenth-century Italian philosopher Pico della Mirandola. Man stands
between the physical world of nature and the spiritual world of God and the angels. If he cultivates his sensuality, he
will become one with the beasts. But if he cultivates his intellect and recognizes “the dignity of th[e] liberal arts,”
“he will be an angel, and a son of God.”

This is a truly remarkable statement: man can become like a god. The sentiment seems to come right out of the pagan,
anthropomorphic mythology of the classical world. Yet Pico never doubted that humanist studies were fully compatible
with Christian revelation. Thomas Aquinas had attempted two centuries earlier to harmonize Aristotelian reason and
church doctrine. Whole waves of lesser scholar theologians toiled in his wake and brought discredit to the enterprise.
Scholasticism became a term of derision and abuse, though whether it was because reason was distorted to serve religion
or because religion was distorted to serve reason depended on the perspective of the critic.

Pico, however, was advocating something very different. He had little interest in doctrinal issues. He simply wanted to
celebrate the capacities of man as given by God and thereby partaking of the divine. For him, the various schools and
sects were but stepping stones to enhanced consciousness of man himself, “like the sun rising from the deep.” Pico
imagined God addressing his creation:

"I have placed thee at the center of the world, that from there thou mayest more conveniently look around and see
whatsoever is in the world. Neither heavenly nor earthly, neither mortal nor immortal have We made thee. Thou . . . art
the molder and maker of thyself; thy mayest sculpt thyself into whatever shape thou dost prefer. Thou canst grow
downward into the lower natures which are brutes. Thou canst again grow upward from thy soul’s reason into the higher
natures which are divine."

If we insist on a definition of the core Renaissance ideal, we could do worse than “thou art the molder and maker of
thyself.” Pico and many other writers insisted on the essential goodness and perfectibility of man, as well as the
transformative power of art and the humanities. In the Middle Ages, man was cast into shadows by the twin institutions
of feudalism and the Catholic Church. The rapid breakdown of that existing order—driven by the dynamic economic and
political changes noted above—brought individual man back into the classical sunlight and irrevocably altered our
consciousness and our sense of personal identity.

Jacob Burckhardt aptly captures the transformation:

"Man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family or corporation—only through some general
category. In Italy this veil first melted into air; an objective treatment and consideration of the state and of all the
things of this world became possible. The subjective side at the same time asserted itself with corresponding emphasis;
man became a spiritual individual, and recognized himself as such."

We can see this recognition and celebration of the individual in the paintings of the Renaissance. We can even hear it
behind the soaring, searing harmonies of the great masters of polyphonic church music: Josquin des Prez (ca. 1450–1521),
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525/6–1594), and Thomas Tallis (ca. 1505–1585), who, along with his younger pupil and
colleague William Byrd (1539/40–1623), was literally granted a monopoly on polyphonic music by Queen Elizabeth. And it
is laid plainly on the surface in Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (1607), the earliest opera still in the modern
repertoire. If ever there was an art form that focuses on the individual, in triumph and desperation, it is opera, the
modern heir to Greek tragedy.

The ten authors we will study in this book all played important roles in the development of the subjective side of
individual consciousness. They provided us with a new vision of men and women as makers and molders of themselves.
Simultaneously, they attempted a more or less objective treatment of the state and the things of this world. In the
tension between those two perspectives lies much of their most fruitful, as well as their most comic, work.

Petrarch (1304–1374) embodies this divided consciousness, though he is never deliberately comic. If ever there were a
writer who took himself with unrelieved seriousness, it is Petrarch. He invented the sonnet form as an intense and
condensed way to convey thoughts and emotions. His letters to fellow scholars are a rallying cry for humanism and the
study of classical texts. And his private account of his own spiritual turmoil shows that he recognized the inherent
tension, denied by others, between humanism and Catholicism. Although his dates would seem to situate him in the
medieval world of Dante and Boccaccio, he is in fact remarkably modern and deserves his place in the vanguard of the

Erasmus (ca. 1466–1536) was a best selling anthologizer and popularizer of classical adages. He was a strong advocate
for the power of a humanist education in shaping Christian citizens and leaders. But he also had a taste for satire. He
may be the first writer to stress the importance, or at least the inevitability, of folly in everyday life. That is a
point his contemporary, Martin Luther (1483–1546), should have understood but did not. Despite his dark, counter
Renaissance view of human nature, Luther had complete faith in his own infallibility. He took Erasmus’s measured calls
for church reform and turned them into an uncompromising attack on the pope and the corruption of the church, seeking to
remake religion in his own image. Erasmus was caught in the middle, between a reactionary church and a bomb throwing
Luther, and his efforts to find a middle ground were condemned by both.

Machiavelli (1469–1527) also took a dark view of human nature. His advice to the Medici prince whom he hoped would unite
Italy and drive out foreign invaders was thoroughly pragmatic and deliberately amoral. Although he favored a republican
form of government like that of ancient Rome, Machiavelli was willing to settle for a competent strongman, and he
thought that Christian values had no role to play in the political rough-and-tumble necessary to obtain and retain
power. If you want to be a Christian saint, he advised, join a monastery and stay out of politics.

Thomas More (1478–1535) is more famous as a Catholic martyr than a great writer. But he was England’s most important
humanist and a close friend of Erasmus before he set himself against Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and
England’s consequent divorce from the Catholic Church. More’s Utopia is a slight book, yet it has resonated through the
centuries and still generates strong opinions as to both the possibility and the desirability of the society he depicts.
More shared a love of satire with his close friend Erasmus, and he deliberately suffused Utopia with a teasing

Castiglione (1478–1529) turned his attention away from the prince and toward the courtiers who serve him. His imagined
courtier is the perfect Renaissance man: educated, articulate, and skilled in all the arts of pleasing and impressing
others. His most important quality is sprezzatura, a word coined by Castiglione, which refers to an almost superhuman
grace and ease, a studied nonchalance that disguises the tremendous effort that goes into any form of mastery.
Castiglione’s courtier is truly the maker and molder of himself. Yet Castiglione does not shrink from exploring the
moral and personal ambiguity of the courtier’s subservient position in a world of absolute sovereigns.

Rabelais (1483–1553) is an earthy writer. At times, he borders on the obscene. Many of his characters are the embodiment
of excess; that is to say, they are Rabelaisian. But the excess is not just of food, drink, and sex; it is also of
knowledge, experience, and humor. This former monk turned doctor and novelist—beloved of kings and bishops if not of the
theology faculty at the Sorbonne—believed that laughter is natural to man and that, along with our godlike capacity for
knowledge and love, we received a generous admixture of absurdity that we cannot escape and therefore might as well

Montaigne (1533–1592) directly challenges the Renaissance belief that men can become like gods. “They want to get out of
themselves and escape from the man,” he writes. “That is madness: instead of changing into angels, they change into
beasts; instead of raising themselves, they lower themselves.” Montaigne stresses man’s inherent fallibility and urges
us to find wisdom, not in abstractions, but in a close attention to experience. Without the aspirational tyranny of
absolutes, Montaigne is free to value experience on its own terms. He teaches us how to live without the ethical,
social, and religious conventions by which most of us do live but which falsify the human condition.

Cervantes (1547–1616) wrote the first, and many would say the greatest, novel. Instead of the classical ideal of mimesis
— art imitating life — Cervantes adopts a more modern notion: life imitating art. Alonso Quixano, a fifty year old
bachelor of modest means, grows obsessed with books of chivalry and, in a parody of Renaissance self-fashioning, decides
to remake himself in their image. As Don Quixote de la Mancha, he is inspired to genuine acts of love and feats of
courage. But his literary ideal repeatedly clashes with a very different reality. In the heroic absurdity of Don
Quixote, we find both comedy and pathos. We come away from reading the book with a greater sense of our common humanity
and the possibilities of being human. For each of us is, to some extent, compelled to be the author of our own fictional
universe. That is how we give meaning to our lives in a world abandoned by God.

Shakespeare (1564–1616) excels even Homer, Virgil, and Dante as the poet of human experience. No matter how often we
read him or watch his plays, his riches cannot be exhausted. Harold Bloom credits him with the invention of the human.
Shakespeare had more than a little help in that regard from Montaigne and Cervantes, not to mention the twelfth-century
abbess Heloise. But there is still a profound truth in Bloom’s praise. Shakespeare is both the culmination and the
termination of the Renaissance: the soul of his age and for all time. In Shakespeare we find, and remake, ourselves.

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