CHAPTER 6: RENAISSANCE AND EARLY MODERN PHILOSOPHY
From The History of Philosophy: A Short Survey by James Fieser
Copyright 2008, updated: 1/6/2017
Pico: Platonism and Human Uniqueness
Luther: Rejection of Aristotle
Calvin: Sense of God and Double Predestination
C. Skepticism and Faith
Montaigne: What do I Know?
Pascal: Wagering on God
D. Scientific Revolution
Bacon: Scientific Method and Induction
Galileo: Separating Science from Religion
Newton: God’s Role in the Physical Universe
E. Secularized Natural Law
Grotius: Just War Theory
Hobbes: The Social Contract
Reading 1: Pico on Freedom and Dignity
Reading 2: Galileo on Science and Religion
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. 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.
Pico: Platonism and Human Uniqueness
One of the most representative humanistic 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.
B. THE REFORMATION
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: Rejection of Aristotle
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.
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.
C. SKEPTICISM AND FAITH
As Renaissance humanists resurrected the ancient Greek schools of philosophy—such as Platonism, Stoicism and Epicureanism—many also 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. The solution was to marry skepticism with the “faith-alone” religious position. 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 and Pseudo-Dionysius held that religious truth must be discovered through faith alone, with no guidance from reason; this is the faith-alone position. Near the other end of the spectrum, Aquinas held that reason can independently discover many of the truths that we learn through faith. Thus, by embracing the faith-alone position and its rejection of reason, believers of the time could safely adopt skepticism, without fear of punishment by the authorities. The main message of this new breed of skeptics, then, was that skepticism prepares people for faith by showing the bankruptcy of reason.
Montaigne: What do I Know?
One of the most famous Renaissance skeptics was philosopher Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533–1592). 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 rather 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.
Pascal: Wagering on God
Another French philosopher who integrated faith with a skeptical stance towards knowledge was Blaise Pascal (1623–1662). Born in Clermon, France, after the early death of his mother Pascal 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, the principal aim 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:
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 quite 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. 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.
D. THE SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTION
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.
E. SECULARIZED NATURAL LAW
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
By the laws of his hidden wisdom, God the father and master architect built this worldly home which we observe, a most sacred temple of his divinity. 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. But when finished, the architect wished that there would be someone to appreciate the work, to love its beauty, and marvel at its size. Thus, all other things finished, as Moses and Timaeus report, he finally considered creating man. But there was nothing in his archetypes from which he could form new progeny, nor anything in his supply house which he might bequeath to a new son, nor was there an empty chair in which this new being could sit and contemplate the world. All places were filled. Everything had been assigned in the highest, middle, and lowest orders. But in this last task, it was not part of the Father’s power to give up as though exhausted. It was not part of his wisdom to waver because of a lack of a clear plan. It was not part of his living kindness that he should be praised for his generosity to others, but condemned for lack of it on himself. Finally, the master architect declared that this creature, to whom nothing unique could be given, should be a composite, and have that which belonged exclusively to all other things.
Thus, God took humanity, creatures of indeterminate form, placed them in a middle place in the world, and said this: “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.”
The Importance of Choosing the Higher above the Lower
What great generosity of God the Father! What great and wonderful happiness of humanity! It is given him to have what he wants and to be what he wants. The animals at the time of their birth, bring with them from “their mother’s womb” (as Lucilius said) all that they shall possess. The higher spirits were immediately, or shortly after, what they were intended to be for eternity. But in embryionic humanity, the Father gave seeds of all kinds and the germs of all kinds of life. They each will have grown and will grow in him. With the vegetative, he may become a plant. With the appetitive he may become an animal. With the rational he may rise to the rank of heavenly. With the intellective he may be an angel and a son of God. If he is not content with any of these creatures, he may occupy himself at his center, become one with the Spirit of God, in the solitary darkness of the Father, who is above all things. Who would not admire our chameleon, or, indeed, what else could be more admirable? . . . What makes the angel is spiritual intelligence, not freedom from a body. If you see a man who is a slave to his stomach, crawling on the ground, then you see a plant and not a man. If you see a man made a slave to his own senses, bedazzled by the empty forms of the imagination and their allurement, such as by the charms of Calypso, then you see a brute and not a man. If, however, you see a philosopher, judging and distinguishing all things according to the rule of reason, you will hold him in veneration, for he is a creature of heaven and not of earth. If, finally, you see a pure contemplator, unmindful of the body, wholly withdrawn into the inner chambers of the mind, here indeed is neither a creature of earth nor a heavenly creature, but some higher divinity, clothed in human flesh.
Who then will not look with wonder upon man, upon man who, not without reason in the sacred Mosaic and Christian writings, is designated sometimes by the term “every flesh”' and sometimes by the term “every creature,”' because he molds, fashions and transforms himself into the likeness of all flesh and assumes the characteristic power of every form of life? This is why Evantes the Persian (in his exposition of the Chaldean theology) writes that man has no inborn and proper appearance, but rather many which are extraneous and accidental. Thus, the Chaldean saying: “man is a living creature of varied, multiform and ever-changing nature.”
But what is the end of all this? It is to make us understand that it is up to us, that our native condition allows us to be what we want. Above all, it is to ensure that we will not be accused of ignoring our highest duty, becoming like pack animals and irrational creatures. Rather let us agree with the prophet Asaph: “You are all gods and sons of the Most High”. Let us not abuse the extreme generosity of the Father’s indulgence by using free choice for our detriment rather than salvation. Let a kind of sacred ambition invade our minds and make us dissatisfied with mediocrity so that we aspired to summits and work with all our strength to achieve them. For, we can do this if we want. Let us despise the things of the earth, and even care nothing for the astral orders, devaluing all that is in the world, and fly to the court which stands beyond the world near the highest Divinity. There, as the sacred mysteries tell us, the Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones occupy the first places. Let us then emulate their dignity and glory, unable as we are to yield to them, and impatient to hold any second place to them. If we wish it, we will be inferior to them in nothing.
READING 2: GALILEO ON SCIENCE AND RELIGION (from Letter to Castelli, December 21, 1613)
Importance of Non-Literal Interpretation of Scripture especially with Science
It seems to me that it was well said by her Most Serene Ladyship, and insisted on by your reverence, that the Holy Scriptures cannot err, and that the decrees therein contained are absolutely true and inviolable. But I should in your place have added that, though Scripture cannot err, its expounders and interpreters are liable to err in many ways. But one error in particular would be most grave and most frequent, if we always restricted ourselves to the literal signification of the words. By doing so not only many contradictions arise, but grave heresies and blasphemies. For then it would be necessary to give God hands and feet and ears, and human and bodily emotions, such as anger, repentance, hatred, and sometimes forgetfulness of past things, and ignorance of the future. In Scripture there are found many propositions which, taking the bare sense of the words, appear contrary to the truth. But they are placed there in such a way to accommodate themselves to the capacity of common people. For those few who deserve to be separated from the common crowd, it is necessary for wise expositors to produce the true meaning, and to explain the particular reasons for which they have been thus worded.
It being established, therefore, that Scripture is not only capable of varied interpretations, but that in many places it requires an interpretation differing from the apparent meaning of the words, it seems to me that in mathematical disputes it must be interpreted according to the latter way. Holy Scripture and nature are both come from the Divine word; the former dictated by the Holy Spirit, the latter, the executor of God’s commands. Holy Scripture has to be accommodated to the common understanding in many things which differ in reality from the terms used in speaking of them. But Nature, on the contrary, is unchangeable and immutable, and it cares not one bit whether her secret reasons and methods of operation are above or below the capacity of men’s understanding. It appears that, as she never transgresses her own laws, those natural effects which the experience of the senses places before our eyes, or which we infer from adequate demonstration, are in no way to be revoked because of certain passages of Scripture, which may be turned and twisted into a thousand different meanings. For Scripture is not bound to such severe laws [i.e., rules of interpretation] as those by which nature is ruled. For this reason alone, that is, to accommodate itself to the capacities of common and undisciplined people, Scripture has not abstained from concealing in shadows its principal dogmas, by attributing to God himself attributes that differ from and are contrary to his [true] Divine essence. Who can assert or maintain that, in speaking incidentally of the sun, or of the earth, or of other created bodies, Scripture should have elected abandon this [flexible] approach and instead inflexibly confine itself to the strict [and literal] meaning of the words used? This is especially so when discussing things about these [celestial] objects which are far removed from the main purpose of holy scripture. Indeed, if the truth [about celestial objects] had been represented to us [in scripture] bare and naked, would this not have undermined its primary purpose since the uneducated would be made more stubborn and difficult to persuade concerning in the articles concerning their salvation?
Salvation is the Primary Purpose of Scripture, not Science
This, then, being conceded, and it being clear that two truths cannot be contrary to each other, it becomes the duty of wise expounders to labor until they find how to make these passages of holy scripture consistent with those conclusions, of which either necessary demonstration or the evidence of our senses have made us sure and certain. The Bible, although dictated by the Holy Spirit, admits (for the reasons given above) in many passages of an interpretation other than the literal one. Moreover, we cannot be certain that the interpreters are all divinely inspired. Therefore, I think it would be the part of wisdom to forbid anyone to apply passages of Scripture in such a way as to force them to support as true any conclusions concerning nature, the contrary of which may afterwards be revealed by the evidence of our senses, or by actual demonstration. Who will set bounds to human understanding? Who can assure us that everything that can be known in the world is known already? With the unchangeableness of articles concerning salvation and the stability of the faith, there is no danger of any valid and worthwhile innovation being introduced against them. But beyond these, it would perhaps be best to advise that none should be added unnecessarily. If it be so, how much greater the disorder to add to these articles at the demand of people who, though they may be divinely inspired, yet we see clearly that they are destitute of the intelligence necessary, not merely to disprove, but to understand, those demonstrations by which scientific conclusions are confirmed.
I believe that holy scripture is intended to convince people of those truths which are necessary for their salvation, and which, being far above man’s understanding, cannot be made credible by science or any other learning, but only through the voice of the Holy Spirit. But I do not think it necessary to believe that the same God who gave us our senses, our speech, our intellect, would have us put aside the use of these, to teach us instead such things as with their help we could find out for ourselves, particularly in the case of these sciences, of which there is not the smallest mention in the Scripture; and, above all, in astronomy, of which so little notice is taken that the names of all the planets are not mentioned. Surely if the intention of the sacred writers had been to teach the people astronomy, they would not have passed the subject over so completely.
Questions for Review
Please answer all of the following questions.
1. What are some of the main features of Renaissance humanism?
2. Explain Pico’s view of Plato’s three degrees of created things, the great chain of being, and why humans are so unique.
3. According to Luther, what are the good and bad aspects of Aristotle?
4. Explain the five points of Calvinism, Calvin’s view of the sense of divinity, and his view of double predestination.
5. Explain Montaigne’s view of faith, skepticism, the laxative metaphor.
6. Explain Montaigne’s view of morality and custom.
7. Explain Pascal’s view of custom, and the wager.
8. What are some of the main features of the scientific revolution?
9. Explain Bacon’s view of induction, Aristotle, and the three tables of investigation.
10. What is Galileo’s view about the role of scripture in scientific investigation?
11. What are the three implications of the new astronomy on conceptions of the world?
12. Explain Newton’s design argument from probability and his view about God’s role as creator and sustainer of the cosmos.
13. Explain Grotius’s views of just cause for war and just conduct in war.
14. Explain Hobbes’s view of materialism, the three causes of quarrel, and the state of war.
15. Explain Hobbes’s view of the three laws of nature and the creation of government?
[Reading 1: Pico on Freedom and Dignity]
16. According to Pico, what are the common explanations for why humans are unique?
17. Explain Pico’s account of God’s creation of the world and humans.
18. Explain Pico’s reasoning for why it is important to choose the higher type of life over the lower.
[Reading 2: Galileo on Science and Religion]
19. Explain Galileo’s reasoning on importance of non-literal interpretation of scripture especially with science.
20. Explain Galileo’s reasoning on why salvation is the primary purpose of scripture, not science.
[Question for Analysis]
21. Pick any one of the following views by a Renaissance Philosopher and criticize it in a minimum of 150 words. Pico: Platonism; freedom and human dignity. Luther: view of Aristotle. Calvin: sense of divinity; double predestination. Montaigne: custom; skepticism. Pascal: custom; the wager. Bacon: three tables of investigation. Galileo: science and religion. Newton: design argument from probability. Grotius: just war theory. Hobbes: state of nature, the social contract.