The DNA Code of Civilization, Review of John Hale's TheCivilization of Europe in the Renaissance (New York: HarperCollins, 1994).
That the period of the Renaissance--the turning point betweenthe medieval and the modern--is of great significance in thehistory of Europe is beyond dispute. But its exact character andthe true nature of its significance are the subject of endlessdiscussion. Just how far perspectives have changed over one hundredand fifty years can be seen by the degree to which John Hale'sconsiderable new work differs in its approach from JacobBurckhardt's classic The Civilization of the Renaissance. For,unlike Burckhardt, Hale is no longer concerned simply with Italy.The northern Renaissance along the Rhine and the Loire, theAtlantic trade routes spreading out in the sixteenth century, thepart played by the Fuggers and the Hanseatic towns, alongside theirItalian banking colleagues, in the establishment of new patterns ofEuropean commerce--all these steps toward a recognizably modernworld are included in the new book.
The purely Italian conditions that Burckhardt analyzed sopenetratingly still form the starting point of Professor Hale'smagisterial account of the changes that the Renaissance broughtabout and which, in their cultural form, could be symbolized by anEnglish nobleman writing sonnets in Italian or a French king tryingto lure Leonardo da Vinci into his service. There is somethingspecial about the phrase "Italian Renaissance"--a thrill that cansuggest wild beauty or profound wickedness. Its fascination islasting, since it includes creative achievements of permanentpower.
The number of books written on the Italian Renaissance providestestimony as to the attraction it has exercised over civilizedEuropeans down the years. Yet have we in the past--do wenow--altogether approve of the Renaissance? The Elizabethans sawthe peninsula as a land given to adultery and assassination, notill represented in Webster's "Duchess of Malfi"--ingleseitalianato, diavolo incarnato. The Victorian lady, who purchasedher reproductions of Donatello or Della Robbia to grace thevicarage on her return to England, would hardly have regarded thedoings of many Renaissance men or women as particularly genteel.More recently a bbc television film introduced a Renaissance popeas he was calling on his entourage to "bring on the whores."
Recently, too, the extreme individualism that informs theRenaissance has become unfashionable in a brave new world where weare told that we should be glad to be Beta children accepting aneffortlessly democratic mediocrity. Figures like Colleone's statuein Venice appear so dominating as to be threatening to egalitarianaspirations. It was the energy of Renaissance man that gave him theconfidence to undertake great deeds and carry them through. "Ohage! Oh letters! It is a joy to be alive," exclaimed Ulrich vonHutten at the beginning of the century, adding, "Woe to youBarbarians!" to display his pride in the culture he had acquiredand his scorn for those who had not done likewise. The modernself-deprecatory language of the professionally modest wasunnecessary for those who had no doubts about their own values.Renaissance men felt no reason to refer their actions to thejudgment of others. Consultation, committees, consensus playedlittle part in their lives. The idea that it might be sensible tocollect the maximum number of opinions before taking a decisionwould hardly have occurred to them.
Much of what is positive in Europe's intellectual life originatedat the time of the rediscovery of antiquity. It is true that, asWhitehead pointed out, the great period of scientific discovery wasthe seventeenth century, not the Renaissance, and that scholasticphilosophy was more conducive to a philosophy of science thanneoplatonism. Nonetheless, it was the Renaissance that sawindividuals interesting themselves for the first time in naturalphenomena. There grew up then an attentiveness to nature whichmeant that, sooner or later, its secrets would be discovered andlinked with one another. A start was made on many things that aless self-confident age would hardly have dared to undertake.
Reading first Burckhardt and then Hale, the scope of what wedescribe as the Renaissance is astounding. It includes therecuperation of antiquity, the development of discovery andcommerce, the pursuit of beauty, the setting of standards inliterature and the arts, consciousness of the state and itsactivities (governance, diplomacy, war) and the analysis applied tothese by a Machiavelli or a Guicciardini, the adoption of rationalarguments in political matters and the decreasing use of religiousimperatives of the kind produced in the Middle Ages to justifyaction. The modern mode of politics began at the Renaissance, ascan be seen by anyone who reads an historical analysis by one ofthe great Renaissance historians. Indeed, in discussing the impacton our culture of the period, it is most relevant to speak of itscreation of the historical consciousness. For this is its greatestgift to Western civilization, which is why accounts of theRenaissance have traditionally begun with its rediscovery of Greeceand Rome.
This was almost thrust upon the princes, clerics, poets andscholars of the day. The fall of Constantinople sent Greek teachersand manuscripts to the West. The revival of Greek made Italiansaware of a classical Latin heritage and opened to the humanists anew world whose values intruded into their medieval surroundingswith an effect that is often bizarre. For instance, Filippo Strozzifollows the classical example of Cato of Utica by killing himselfafter a failed plot against the Medici. But he also makes the farfrom classical gesture of asking that a black pudding be made fromhis own blood and sent to his enemy Cardinal Cibo. Catiline andBrutus appear constantly as the models of tyrannicide. Not onlyscholars, but also men of action find in an heroic classical pastexamples that show them the way. Out of the soil of Italy itselfemerges the monumental past of Rome.
The discovery of that past necessarily brought with it thediscovery of history, the consciousness of the existence of an erathat was other than the present. In that fact was implicit thepossibility of change--of times separated from ourselves in pastand future. It is not so much the books of the so-called"scientific" Italian historians from Machiavelli to Fra Paolo Sarpithat illustrate the connection of the Renaissance world withhistory--though they do, of course, do that--as it is the spreadingawareness of the existence of another world in that past thatcontrasts with and informs contemporary society. History presenteditself to the Italians of the Renaissance as antiquity and, hence,as an ideal. From the study of Greece and Rome emerged the highidea of contemporary history expressed by Benedetto Varchi.
But if the realization of ancient times as something distinct fromthe present brought with it an increased respect for the craft ofhistorian, the existence of history implied a heightenedconsciousness of self. The moment an attempt was made to defineanother age, to endeavor the definition of one's own became apossible ambition. And such an attempt was accompanied by theestablishment of standards that followed the inevitable comparisonsbetween past and present--and, finally, by the postulating ofabsolutes in excellence which could be passed down from age to age,and, indeed, imitated by other civilizations.
Thus, the recovery of antiquity and the attention paid to theclassical past brought with it, not only the new concept of historyand biography, but also a new aesthetic, based on a heightenedindividualism and the growing feeling that no level of excellencewas out of reach. Such self-confidence is the dynamic that hasinformed modern civilization--more particularly, its literature andart. This conviction, however, containing as it did the danger ofdelusions of genius, opened the way to the excesses of modernromanticism, where abundant merit is claimed for works that springmerely from the author's own belief in their validity. While itremains true that only a trust in his own talent can inspire theeffort needed by the artist or writer to give of his best, thistrust must be accompanied by standards stemming from an historicalappreciation of art and literature, and be capable of beingunderstood by those who attempt creation of this kind. Artisticcreation cannot be a mere lifting of oneself up by one's own hair.It must be aided by a knowledge of the past and an ambition toimitate it. For all the originality of the Renaissance, itsproduction of creative work went under the name of mimesis.
As Sir Joshua Reynolds put it:
"He who resolves never to ransack any mind but his own, will soonbe reduced, from mere barrenness, to the poorest of all imitations;he will be obliged to imitate himself, and to repeat what he hasbefore often repeated."
But this is precisely the position of a modern writer who seeks fororiginality at all costs, and who asserts that he cannot becriticized since he himself knows what he means. In the same way acritic who claims to know what Shakespeare or Milton meant,whatever the text may imply--indeed, that text can be made to meananything--is not simply trudging around the grooves worn in his ownbrain, but is undermining a literary tradition dating from theRenaissance.
The rather odd critical exercise known as "deconstruction"--itcould well be called "demolition"--is one such attack oncivilization. In order to view the culture of the past through theprism of ephemeral political or ethnic prejudices, it destroys therespect for history that the Renaissance left us. In order to claimoriginality for the crass misunderstanding of a text, it gets ridof the humanist belief that a text can be understood at all.Instead of the painstaking process of interpretation that beganwith Renaissance scholarship it imports into the study ofliterature the language and reasoning of daily newspapers.Characters and events must be judged in the light of latetwentieth-century values, a process that condemns us to distortingboth.
"Deconstruction" and the arbitrary and politicized view of the pastthat comes with it are, indeed, an "anti-Renaissance," an attack onEuropean civilization with the aim of destroying what it gainedfrom humanism and the recovery of antiquity. The ostensible motiveof such an assault is that the past and tradition are no longer"relevant," but this is to make the barbarian assumption that thecitizen can neither learn nor enjoy learning. Renouncing history inthe name of pedantic egotism, the contemporary critic is in dangerof losing the individualism in whose name he laid claim to hisright to distort meaning. For to cut loose from the past is tobecome detached from the definition of self which a knowledge ofthat past developed. What is at stake is not only the autonomy ofculture--the right of the work to be understood on its ownterms--but the capacity of human beings to exist independently, toknow themselves and live according to that knowledge.
The importance of the invention of history by the Renaissance isnow clear. That history contains the dna code of civilization. Forthis portion of history gives us a clue, albeit an enigmatic one,as to how European civilization arose and also as to how it mightfall. The famous objects of the Renaissance--the Virgin of theRocks or the Laurentian Library--are not merely beautiful but alsosignificant in the creation of a tradition to be followed.
Other periods too, of course, have been of enormous significance toWestern Europe. The Middle Ages lasted over five hundred years andimposed on the length and breadth of what came to be calledChristendom a stamp of religion whose external forms have endureduntil the present day, though its content was also changed by theRenaissance. But the Middle Ages were not conscious of themselvesas an historical period. Their chronology was eschatological ratherthan historical. The joke in the parody of an historicalplay--"Nous autres, hommes du Moyen åge, qui partons pour la Guerrede Cent Ans"--depends precisely on there being no such realization,(while the famous stage direction in Max Beerbohn's SavanarolaBrown--"Enter Boccaccio, Benvenuto Cellini, and many others, makingremarks highly characteristic of themselves..."--satirizes abombastic accumulation of fame which is indeed a feature of theRenaissance).
Thus if Western civilization is to survive in a recognizable form,it is Renaissance values that we must defend. The means of ensuringthat these values are passed on we call education, which is onlyeffective and civilizing when it conveys a pedagogic tradition andrejects the parochialism of the present. But much of what is callededucation now is an attack on any tradition at all, in the name ofsome short-lived and superficial rag-bag of beliefs, and on theground that tradition is by its nature stultifying. "Didactic," weare told, has become a bad word among schoolteachers regardless ofthe fact that with it disappears their own particular mission andstatus in society. Certainly, in Britain the descent ofschoolteachers in social esteem has accompanied their abdication ofthe right to teach.
For all their defects--their self-importance, their brutality,their spitefulness in controversy, their vanity, their frequentsuperficiality--the humanists of the Renaissance laid thefoundations of a modern culture which has astonishing achievementsto its credits. They were not yet scientific, but they werecurious, and their writings afforded access to the classical past,which, in turn, brought to them the consciousness of history. Whatcomparable gift is available from the poor ushers who are concernedto teach children (sentimentalized as "kids") their own teenageculture, a parody of themselves? Deprived of the knowledge of acultural tradition, they are also deprived of self-knowledge.
In the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci there is a passage, visiblyinspired by Plato, where the writer speaks of sitting in front of adark cavern and, all at once, experiencing two conflictingsensations: "fear because of the dark threatening cavern and desireto see if there were any miraculous thing within it." It is thesource of the dynamism of Renaissance man which Leonardo describesso attractively here--an intellectual energy that cannot be lostwithout putting an end to the vigor of European civilization.Beauty and curiosity combine to build a tradition that has endured.Those who would have us turn our eyes away from the cavern take anappalling responsibility since they are demanding the destructionof the incentive to know. They are the worm at the heart of thefruit. Professor Hale's book is especially welcome at a time whenwe urgently need a renaissance of our own, a rebirth of knowledgeand a reforging of our links with our past.