Saturday, December 31, 2022

Gouwens again. "What Posthumanism Isn’t: On Humanism and Human Exceptionalism in the Renaissance" page 45 in Renaissance Posthumanism

Pico’s so-called “Oration on the Dignity of Man” represents a high point of eclecticism in its appropriation of non-Christian works from antiquity in the service of what he conceived as a Christian enterprise. Here Pico drew upon not only patristic and classical precedents but also the Hebrew Cabala and Hermetic texts. More often than not, this work has been taken as an unqualified assertion of anthropological optimism. Among its most-cited lines is the following: “We [i.e., God] have made thee neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, so that with freedom of choice and with honor, as though the maker and molder of thyself, thou mayest fashion thyself in whatever shape thou shalt prefer.” Such passages, indeed, have frequently been taken as a synopsis of Humanist thought. Thus, a leading authority on humans’ relationship to animals in Renaissance England has even referred to Pico’s “Oration” as the “manifesto” of Humanism.

Closer examination of Pico’s oration, however, reveals a less sanguine appraisal of human nature. In a series of important articles, Brian Copenhaver has shown how badly German Enlightenment philosophers and their later followers, notably Ernst Cassirer, misrepresented the work. Incorrectly believing that De hominis dignitate (Concerning the Dignity of the Human Being) was the title Pico gave to the text, Cassirer cast him as (in Copenhaver’s words) “the thoroughly liberated pre-Kantian thinker who set philosophy on its progressive course”; he was “humanity’s encomiast and also its liberator; he put his mark on Renaissance thought with praise for human liberty and the ‘glorification of man.’”

Ok then.

Cassirer, The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy, p 59  

Only one generation separates the philosophical works of Cusanus from those of Ficino and Pico. And yet, as soon as we compare them, we see immediately that a transformation has taken place both in the abstract Problematik and in the tone of the thought, that is to say, in the whole intellectual attitude. If we remember this, we shall see the error in the belief that the liberation of the Renaissance from the ‘Middle Ages’ took place as a steady development, moving in a straight line. No such quiet and even unfolding, no simple growth from within is observable at all. In the conflict of forces that takes place, only a temporary, thoroughly unstable equilibrium is ever achieved. 

p 62

If we were to judge the attitude towards life of the Florentine circle mainly by the hymns or by the canti carnascialeschi of Lorenzo the Magnificent, we should be badly misled indeed. To be sure, the cult of art and beauty became a cult of this-worldliness and of sensuality; joy in the 'here and now' expressed itself strongly and uninhibitedly. But soon, other notes were added to the expression of this sentiment. The dark shadow of Savonarola was, so to speak, discernible in this circle even before he himself appeared, even before his actual historical influence. The leading minds of the Florentine Academy finally succumbed to Savonarola and bowed before him almost without resistance. That they should do so is understandable only if we pay attention to the ascetic features that were present from the start in the Florentine Academy's view of the world. In the life of Ficino these features played a strong and ever-growing role in determining the form of his mind, as well as his general moral attitude. Ficino himself reported how, during a grave illness that befell him in his forty-fourth year, he vainly sought for consolation in philosophy and in the reading of the profane writers. His recuperation is supposed to have come about after he made a vow to the Virgin Mary, asking her for a sign of recovery. Thereupon he interpreted his illness as a divine sign that philosophy alone does not suffice for the true salvation of the soul. He throws his commentary on Lucretius into the fire, so as not to be guilty of pagan errors. He decides to dedicate all his philosophy and his literary activity completely to the service of religion, to the strengthening and propagating of the faith.  Gradually, the deep, dark shadows also begin to fall over Pico della Mirandola, a man who appeared to his contemporaries so light and shining, a true phoenix among the minds'. After the first, promising period of his career, filled with a nearly unlimited faith in the power of the human mind and in humanistic ideals of life and culture, Pico's ascetic features start to become more prominent. The notes of negation and contempt of the world resound with particular force and clarity in his correspondence.  For no soul did Savonarola fight more stubbornly, more passionately, more fanatically than for Pico's—and he finally won the fight. Shortly before his death, PicoIwas about to follow Savonarola's constantly repeated admonition to enter the monastery of San Marco. Thus, his life ends with renunciation, with a resigned return to religious dogma, to the sacraments of the church, and to the Christian-medieval forms of life.

If the Platonic Academy had been nothing but a completely retrogressive movement, we could never explain the strong and immediate influence it exerted on all the great Florentines--an influence that even affected the sceptical and cold mind of Machiavelli for a while. It is true that religious and theological interests determined the whole attitude and development of philosophical thought in the Academy. But it is also true that the religious spirit itself entered into a new phase. The intellectual labours of the first half of the Quattrocento, out of which grew a new, 'modern' concept of religion, were not lost on the Florentine Academy. It is certainly difficult to distinguish and follow the individual threads connecting the Platonic Academy to these intellectual labours; but the general, the immediate connection is quite obvious. One important connection between the doctrines of Ficino and Cusanus is apparent in the way they both pose and solve the problem of knowledge. But even more clearly than in these basic logical matters, the connection becomes visible in questions concerning metaphysics and the philosophy of religion. The speculations of Cusanus had established a new relationship between God and the world—a relationship that gave these speculations their distinctive character.

Cassirer, "Giovanni "Pico della Mirandola A Study in The History of Renaissance Ideas"  [JSTOR]

There is no doubt that Pico belongs among the great representative thinkers of his epoch; but at the same time he falls outside it in many of his characteristics. The intellectual ancestry of his philosophy is to be sought in the ancient world and in the Middle Ages, not in the Quattrocento. In many respects he seems to represent and announce a new way of thinking. But on the other hand we find him still completely bound up with and even restricted to a century-old tradition drawn from the most divergent sources. The frame of this tradition Pico never tried to burst asunder. If we understand by "originality" the individual's ability to break through in his thinking and action the limits of what has already been achieved, we cannot in Pico's case look for even the disposition or the will to attain such originality. His intention was to be neither "original" nor "unique"; such originality would have stood in sharpest contradiction to the idea of truth that pervades and inspires his philosophy. For Pico the criterion of philosophic truth consists in its constancy, in its uniformity and sameness. He understands philosophy as philosophia perennis as the revelation of an enduring Truth, in its main features immutable. This Truth is handed down through the ages; but it is generated by no age, by no single epoch, because, as something which eternally is, it is beyond time and beyond becoming.

The Individual and the Cosmos...,  p 83

This solution to the problem of the prescience of human action is similar to the one offered by Valla. But Pomponazzi attaches little importance to that other problem, left unsolved by Valla, viz., the problem of the compatibility of divine omnipotence with human freedom and responsibility. Although he does not quite dare to express himself unambiguously on this point, Pomponazzi's judgment tends unmistakably towards a strict determinism. In his work on natural philosophy, De naturalium effectuum admirandorum causis, the causality of events is interpreted in a strictly astrological sense. The world of history and the world of nature are both viewed as necessary results of the influence of the heavenly bodies. And elsewhere too, whenever he is speaking freely, Pomponazzi considers Fate in the Stoic sense the relatively most satisfactory and rational solution. What makes the acceptance of this solution difficult are not so much logical as ethical objections. A substantial part of the work is dedicated to the removal of these objections. In his De voluptate, Valla had striven to adapt the form of his completely world-oriented ethics to the form of religious meta-physics; now, with an energetic blow, Pomponazzi severs the bond that had hitherto conjoined metaphysics and ethics. In principle, each is completely independent of the other. Our judgment concerning the value of human life is not dependent on our ideas concerning the continuation of life or the immortality of the human soul; and similarly, the question of the value or non-value of our actions must be considered from a point of view other than what caused these actions. No matter how we may decide this latter question, the ethical-practical judgment remains free. This freedom is what we need, not some chimerical causelessness.

Pomponazzi's work is separated from Valla's by more than eight decades; the one was composed in 1520, the other seems to have been written in about 1436. It was precisely in these decades that the Platonism of the Florentine Academy transformed the philosophical thought of the Renaissance. And not only temporally, but systematically, too, the doctrines of the Academy stand directly between humanism and that late blossom of Scholasticism represented by the Paduan school. But at the same time, the formation of these doctrines was deeply affected by the influence of Cusanus on Florentine Platonism. Pico's famous oration, which was to serve as the introduction to his defence of the nine hundred theses in Rome, clearly reveals this intellectual filiation. When Pico Ichooses the 'dignity of man' as his central theme, he is merely taking up certain motifs which the older humanism had again and again treated rhetorically. The treatise De dignitate et excellentia hominis, already written in 1452 by Gianozzo Manetti, is constructed according to the same formal and intellectual schema that Pico's oration follows. To the world of nature, the world of that which has become, Manetti opposes the intellectual world of becoming, the world of culture. The human mind is at home only in this latter world, in which man can demonstrate his dignity and his freedom.

My first reaction was pure reflex. I call bullshit before thinking, because at this point I take academic pedantry as a given. It's good to be right.
If we were to judge the attitude towards life of the Florentine circle mainly by the hymns or by the canti carnascialeschi of Lorenzo the Magnificent, we should be badly misled indeed. 

You're left thinking that academics now think the poems of Lorenzo il Magnifico are of no historical importance at all. 

Gouwens p 41

Moreover, the values that Humanist education aimed to instill, when not explicitly Christian, were usually treated as complementary to Christianity. Thus Guarino argued that his charges needed to know classical literature in order to understand the Church Fathers aright (Augustine, after all, had been a professional rhetorician before his conversion). In addition, he required that they regularly attend mass and go to confession. It was exceedingly rare for Humanists to advocate agnosticism, let alone atheism as the word is now used.

Unsurprisingly, a yawning chasm existed between the claims of the most entrepreneurial pedagogues and the goods they actually delivered, a point made to withering effect by Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine. 

From Lorenzo to Pietro Aretino again, a man who drank with Charles V. (aka the Holy Roman Emperor)

Here Aretino lies, a Tuscan poet; Evil he spoke of all, except of God; When questioned why, he said 'Him I don't know'

I'm yawning. But I'm thinking of changing my preferred epitaph.

Grafton and Jardine's book is about academia. I'm trying to find Panofsky's joke about the difference between scholars and teachers, the IAS and the defense of "useless knowledge", and the opposition to von Neumann's computer—also now here—because it actually did something. For the rest, Grafton and Jardin's argument is more than a little absurd. Maybe more proof that the 20th century was an anti-humanist age. Somehow I thought Grafton would be better. There's a reason van de Waal called Panofsky the last humanist.

Grafton and Jardine, From Humanism to the Humanities: Education and the Liberal Arts in Fifteenth and Sixteenth-Century Europe 

xii-xiv as cited by Gouwens

We do, however, claim that they are linked together in a single argument: that the triumph of humanist education cannot simply be explained by reference to its intrinsic worth or practical utility. On the contrary, the literary education of the humanists displaced a system far better adapted to many of the traditional intellectual and practical needs of European society. Scholasticism was very much a going concern in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. At the level of the school, it offered literacy in Latin of a sort to thousands of boys. At the higher level of the university arts course, it provided a lively and rigorous training in logic and semantics. At the higher level still of the professional faculties of law, medicine and theology, it trained men for employment in powerful and lucrative occupations. And on its fringes, in the severely practical courses on the arts of the notary, it even taught the future estate manager, government clerk or solicitor how to keep books, draw up contracts and write business letters. This curriculum, in short, equipped students with complex skills and fitted them to perform specialised tasks. Its immense success is clearly visible from the enviable placement record enjoyed by the medieval alumni of Oxford and Cambridge, and more generally from the rapid expansion it was undergoing for at least a century before the humanists had any substantial impact. Above all, we know now that it was no sterile indoctrination in the authoritative messages of a few selected texts. Recent research in the history of fields as divergent as natural philosophy and political theory has brought to light vast, unsuspected veins of insight and speculation, long buried in forgotten summas and commentaries. The liquidation of this intellectual system was clearly the murder of an intact organism, not the clearing away of a disintegrated fossil.

We do not seek to tarnish the reputations of individual humanist teachers. The secondary works on which we have relied most heavily—chiefly monographs by classicists and literary historians—confirm the brilliance of the humanists' work in their favourite fields. Their rigorous empirical investigation and codification of the grammar and syntax of the classical languages laid the foundation for modern philology. Their equally rigorous schooling in prose and verse composition, in the artful allusion and the striking metaphor, was a necessary precondition for the flowering of the modern European vernacular literatures. The prose of Rabelais, the lyrics of Ronsard and the plays of Shakespeare ]are only the most succulent of the fruits that grew from deep roots in the training the humanists offered. To have been the progenitors of modern scholarship and modern literature is no small achievement, and we would be among the first to claim it for the subjects of this book.

What we would not accept is the traditional claim that these solid merits enabled humanism to win its battle against scholasticism. The older system had fitted perfectly the needs of the Europe of the high middle ages, with its communes, its church offices open to the low-born of high talents and its vigorous debates on power and authority in state and church. The new system, we would argue, fitted the needs of the new Europe that was taking shape, with its closed governing lites, hereditary offices and strenuous efforts to close off debate on vital political and social questions. It stamped the more prominent members of the new lite with an indelible cultural seal of superiority, it equipped lesser members with fluency and the learned habit of attention to textual detail and it offered everyone a model of true culture as something given, absolute, to be mastered, not questioned - and thus fostered in all its initiates a properly docile attitude towards authority. The education of the humanists was made to order for the Europe of the Counter-Reformation and of late Protestant orthodoxy. And this consonance between the practical activities of the humanists and the practical needs of their patrons, we argue, was the decisive reason for the victory of humanism. Scholasticism bred too independent an attitude to survive. In the Renaissance as in other periods, in sum, the price of collaboration in the renewal of art and literature was collaboration in the constriction of society and polity.

p 131-2

The idea of the exercises in Aphthonius is to produce a total routineness of imaginative writing by reducing its variety systematically to a sequence (graded according to difficulty) of specified (and supposedly key) types of verbal composition, including both narrative forms and argument forms.

Each type is expected to become second nature to the student, so that his public utterances will be pre-shaped to the requirements of public debate—the lynch-pin skill for social and political life. While we are concerned here with the large-scale impact of such 'system' on arts education, it is to be readily detected in the occasional detail of Renaissance literary composition (litterae). Specifically, the prominence of worked examples in the text means that there is a particular quality of almost banal familiarity about the subsequent use of (or reference to) the same examples by writers for whom they had formed part of an intensive classroom-drilling. Two examples taken from the work of William Shakespeare (a product of humanistic pedagogy whose works continue to be 'popular', that is, read by non-specialist readers) will, we hope, make this point clearly. 

p 199

As philology became value-free and pedagogy became pragmatic, the larger value of both enterprises was called into question. Why study the ancient world if not to become more virtuous? But a training in virtue now seemed to be one quality that neither scholars nor teachers could offer. Since Montaigne—one of the first to offer these criticisms in a cogent form—the claim that the liberal arts would produce 'new men', men of an enhanced virtuous disposition, has often been repeated; and new generations of believers in the ideals of early humanism have tried to show that some new form of literary education could achieve this goal. For all their brilliance, and for all their formative influence upon practitioners of the liberal arts, neither Wilhelm von Humboldt nor Lionel Trilling, neither F.R. Leavis nor G. Gentile has had an impact on anything but a small segment of élite education in the West, or satisfied more than a handful of critics with the intellectual centrality of their enterprise. Like them, we watch as our most gifted students master the techniques and methods of textual analysis, the command of ancient and modern languages (which they can transpose effectively to new and developing disciplines), but in the main discard that over-arching framework of 'civilised values' by which teachers of the humanities continue to set such store. Whether we like it or not, we still live with the dilemma of late humanism: we too can only live in hope, and practise the humanities.

I'm willing to bet if Grafton had been teaching in 1967 he would've one of the ones who disdained the teach-ins

"the dilemma of late humanism", atomization, and Sputnik. Alfred Kazin in 1960, when Grafton was a 10-year-old. 

Whatever Greenwich Village may once have been or may now be supposed to have been, anyone who has recently strayed down MacDougal Street on a Saturday night knows that now it is a playground. What Coney Island was once to the honest workingman, Greenwich Village is now to the unmarried or ex-married young professional. The Village streets, pads, coffee houses, and bars are jammed with people who look a million times more sensitive, artistic, and "interesting" than William Faulkner or Igor Stravinsky, but who live by teaching economics, analyzing public opinion, writing advertising copy, practicing psychoanalysis, or "doing research" for political candidates. They are not intellectuals, but occasionally dream that they will be. 
another repeat, of a repeat, of a...
"The Learning Knights of Bell Telephone"
Perhaps the most exciting component of the curriculum was the series of guest lecturers the institute brought to campus. “One hundred and sixty of America’s leading intellectuals,” according to Baltzell, spoke to the Bell students that year. They included the poets W. H. Auden and Delmore Schwartz, the Princeton literary critic R. P. Blackmur, the architectural historian Lewis Mumford, the composer Virgil Thomson. It was a thrilling intellectual carnival. 
...What’s more, the graduates were no longer content to let the machinery of business determine the course of their lives. One man told Baltzell that before the program he had been “like a straw floating with the current down the stream” and added: “The stream was the Bell Telephone Company. I don’t think I will ever be that straw again.” 
...But Bell gradually withdrew its support after yet another positive assessment found that while executives came out of the program more confident and more intellectually engaged, they were also less interested in putting the company’s bottom line ahead of their commitments to their families and communities. By 1960, the Institute of Humanistic Studies for Executives was finished.

Copenhaver is the author of the Stanford Encyclopedia entry on Pico. He really is a fan.

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