Sketch: Religious Humanism

Religious humanism was a variety of the humanistic endeavor that explicitly tied the new learning of the Renaissance to the explication and defense of the Christian religion. The religious humanists were all Christians working within the classical and Christian heritage of using the best works of the Ancients to shed light on contemporary problems and point the way forward to solutions.

Two examples of religious humanism stand out to my mind: Erasmus and Marsilio Ficino. Erasmus lived from around 1466 to 1536. He was educated in his youth in the schools of the Brethren of the Common Life, from whom he obtained the intensely practical understanding of spirituality which would characterize his approach to the Faith all his life. He studied humanistic disciplines at the University of Paris, and later, although he was ordained as a Catholic priest, retired to a life of contemplative scholarship. In his early 30s, he encountered John Colet, who introduced him to the Greek language, of which Erasmus soon became a master. He is known for a number of important works, including his Colloquies, the Praise of Folly, and his masterful new edition of the Latin Vulgate, which he used Greek manuscripts to correct. With his friend and fellow humanist Thomas More, Erasmus sharply criticized the severe spiritual illnesses of the Church of his day, but like More, he remained a loyal son of the Church all his life.

In the Praise of Folly, written almost “on a lark” while he was staying with More, Erasmus demonstrates his profound humanist learning by using classical sources and conventions in the mouth of a personified “Folly” to satirize the numerous “follies” of spiritual and secular life in his day. No one escapes Folly’s withering critiques: scholars, canon lawyers, priests, theologians, bishops, and even the popes are all fair game. The work is written as an oration, and displays a typical humanist mastery of the conventions of classical rhetoric, which aimed to persuade the audience by operating primarily on their wills, not their minds. An important model for Erasmus in writing this work was the ancient satirist Lucian, to whom More introduced Erasmus. The Praise of Folly is a delightful work to read, not merely for its enormous humor but also because of the delicious irony that the one doing the mocking of intellectuals was himself one of the most celebrated intellectuals of Europe.

Some passages from the work that stood out to me, as a student of Medieval and Reformation history, were the critiques of the ecclesiastical system and the excessive subtleties of the theologians, lawyers, and other scholars. Erasmus was but sounding a note that had been ringing for centuries when his Folly mocked the Church leaders for being blind to the simple commands of Christ to love and guard their flock, not enrich themselves with the things that will pass away and lose sight of the spiritual on account of the lusts of the temporal world. Folly wonders, satirically, why anyone would ever want to be pope, since the demands of the office as Christ set it up are full of such incredible self-denial, care for others, and daily toil beyond the normal human level. Interestingly, it was reported that Pope Leo X himself found the oration humorous.

Folly also mocks scholars of all varieties for continually tormenting themselves with endless revisions which never satisfy them, for chasing the vanity of the approbation of a few other souls equally tormented as their own. She reminds the scholars that sleep is a more precious thing than completing scholarly works, and that for all that they think they know and for all the pride they take in that knowledge, their heads are really just stuffed full of nonsense. These criticisms were a significant part of Erasmus’ own belief in the primacy the “philosophy of Christ,” a simple, spiritual Christianity focused more on personal holiness (ethics) than on mastering subtle and sophisticated doctrinal formulations. Erasmus’ critiques were so incisive, so on the mark, and were so often cited by Protestant controversialists against the Church, that not long after his death his works were forbidden for the faithful to read.

By contrast to Erasmus, Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) approached religious issues through an unapologetic endorsement of the Christian Platonic tradition. Also a master of the Greek language, Ficino translated many of Plato’s dialogues afresh working directly from Byzantine Greek manuscripts, which had the effect, he thought, of helping to purify the scholarly understanding of Plato which had been for centuries confusedly mixed with elements of Aristotle and other sources. Ficino also wrote commentaries on many of Plato’s dialogues, and a massive work called the Platonic Theology, which sought to demonstrate that quite apart from the Christian revelation there had always been an “ancient theology” that fundamentally accorded with Christianity and which could not only shed light on Christianity but act as a significant “aid to faith” for those who did not accept the authority of the Scriptures.

In his Commentary on Plato’s Symposium, Ficino unfolds this theme at some length. He argues memorably that Love is “the knot and link of the universe,” the center of all existence, the source of all the arts and all other good things, and that which draws our souls up to God. Echoing a common theme in Renaissance writings, Ficino holds that the human soul is ontologically at the center of the hierarchy of beings, able to descend to the temporal or ascend to the spiritual as it wishes. In this light, the human soul itself is a mirror of the divine, and through contemplation of our own souls we can come to see the works and nature of God, who is the source of our souls.

For Ficino, Love holds the keys of all things, and, via Platonic recollection, reminds us of the true object of our desire: Divine Beauty, which we know enough about to passionately seek. Our problem, however, is that whereas our soul has two lights in it, a natural and a divine, which ought to work together to draw our sight upwards to God, we “fall” into the obscuring darkness of looking only at natural things. Instead of using the natural things to remind ourselves of the spiritual things, as a sort of stepping stone to the Divine, we get obsessed with the things of the lower, material world, and lose our way.

The solution to our problem is, obviously (from a Platonic point of view, anyway), to tear ourselves away from the false loves of the merely temporal, to focus anew on the image of the Divine Beauty that we have imprinted naturally in our souls, and to follow its lead through contemplation until we again see God, the source of our being and Love Himself. Echoing the Medieval Platonic tradition (I seem to remember Bernard of Clairvaux saying this, as well), our goal, says Ficino, should be to love God in all things in this life so that in the next life we may love all things in God. The perspective on Love and Beauty that Ficino presents in his Commentary would prove highly influential on subsequent humanist philosophical work – its shadow may be clearly seen in Castiglione’s character Bembo, who magnificently lauds the primacy of Love in Book IV of The Courtier.

Ficino’s masterfully reworking of and thorough commentary on Plato’s works represents the best of the Renaissance in terms of recovering old texts in their original language in order to exposit their inherent meaning and bring that, not an worn-out interpretive tradition which has become encrusted by many errors, to bear on contemporary problems. Erasmus would have appreciated this, as his own perpetual call was for the Christian soldier to leave behind the vanities of mere human things and return to the pure source of the Faith, the Scriptures. Erasmus would surely have differed with Ficino on the true usefulness of non-Christian philosophy (in Praise of Folly he severely scorns the Scholastic philosophers, who waste everyone’s time with absurd philosophical speculations which have no grounding in or support from the Scriptures), but on the level of desire for purity of Faith and simplicity of spiritual life, the two were kindred spirits. As I read Ficino and Erasmus, one point of continual interest to me was that both were highly educated in the same humanist tradition, yet each used the tradition to argue for very different positions about the relationship of Faith and Reason.

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2 Responses to Sketch: Religious Humanism

  1. Good summary of Ficino’s thought. I think one other aspect that has to be highlighted is Ficino’s attempts to resurrect ancient theurgy and astrology. Above all, Ficino was a physician and priest who sought to cure both souls and bodies, and saw his philosophy as primarily therapeutic. In a lot of ways, and I am thinking especially of his “false” interpretations of Egyptian hieroglyphics, he believed the Divine was not just to be understood, but rather performed.

  2. Tim Enloe says:

    Thanks, Arturo. Your comment encourages me because I wasn’t sure as I wrote my sketch that I had gotten at the basics of Ficino’s thought. This was my first exposure to him. I’m very interested in following up with him, to be sure. A fascinating character!

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