The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy

by Jacob Burckhardt

translated by S.G.C. Middlemore, 1878

Part Six


General Spirit of Doubt

With these superstitions, as with ancient modes of thought generally, the decline in the belief of immortality stands in the closest connection. This questiOn has the widest and deepest relations with the whole development of the modern spirit.

One great source of doubt in immortality was the inward wish to be under no obligations to the hated Church. We have seen that the Church branded those who thus felt as Epicureans. In the hour of death many doubtless called for the sacraments, but multitudes during their whole lives, and especially during their most vigorous years, lived and acted on the negative supposition. That unbelief on this particular point must often have led to a general skepticism, is evident of itself, and is attested by abundant historical proof. These are the men of whom Ariosto says: 'Their faith goes no higher than the roof.' In Italy, and especially in Florence, it was possible to live as an open and notorious unbeliever, if a man only refrained from direct acts of hostility against the Church. The confessor, for instance, who was sent to prepare a political offender for death, began by inquiring whether the prisoner was a believer, 'for there was a false report that he had no belief at all.'

The unhappy transgressor here referred to--the same Pierpaolo Boscoli who has been already mentioned--who in 1513 took part in an attempt against the newly restored family of the Medici, is a faithful mirror of the religious confusion then prevalent. Beginning as a partisan of Savonarola, he became afterwards possessed with an enthusiasm for the ancient ideals of liberty, and for paganism in general; but when he was in prison his early friends regained the control of his mind, and secured for him what they considered a pious ending. The tender witness and narrator of his last hours is one of the artistic family of the Della Robbia, the learned philologist Luca. 'Ah,' sighs Boscoli, 'get Brutus out of my head for me, that I may go my way as a Christian.' 'If you will,' answers Luca, 'the thing is not difficult; for you know that these deeds of the Romans are not handed down to us as they were, but idealized (con arte accresciute).' The penitent now forces his understanding to believe, and bewails his inability to believe voluntarily. If he could only live for a month with pious monks he would truly become spiritually minded. It comes out that these partisans of Savonarola knew their Bible very imperfectly; Boscoli can only say the Paternoster and Ave Maria, and earnestly begs Luca to exhort his friends to study the sacred writings, for only what a man has learned in life does he possess in death. Luca then reads and explains to him the story of the Passion according to the Gospel of St. John; the poor listener, strange to say, can perceive clearly the Godhead of Christ, but is perplexed at His manhood; he wishes to get as firm a hold of it 'as if Christ came to meet him out of a wood.' His friend thereupon exhorts him to be humble, since this was only a doubt sent him by the Devil. Soon after it occurs to the penitent that he has not fulfilled a vow made in his youth to go on pilgrimage to the Impruneta; his friend promises to do it in his stead. Meantime the confessor--a monk, as was desired, from Savonarola's monastery--arrives, and after giving him the explanation quoted above of the opinion of St. Thomas Aquinas on tyrannicide, exhorts him to bear death manfully. Boscoli makes answer: 'Father, waste no time on this; the philosophers have taught it me already; help me to bear death out of love to Christ.' What follows, the communion, the leave-taking and the execution--is very touchingly described; one point deserves special mention. When Boscoli laid his head on the block, he begged the executioner to delay the stroke for a moment: 'During the whole time since the announcement of the sentence he had been striving after a close union with God, without attaining it as he wished, and now in this supreme moment he thought that by a strong effort he could give himself wholly to God.' It is clearly some half-understood expression of Savonarola which was troubling him.

If we had more confessions of this character the spiritual picture of the time would be richer by many important features which no poem or treatise has preserved for us. We should see more clearly how strong the inborn religious instinct was, how subjective and how variable the relation of the individual to religion, and what powerful enemies and competitors religion had. That men whose inward condition is of this nature, are not the men to found a new church, is evident; but the history of the Western spirit would be imperfect without a view of that fermenting period among the Italians, while other nations, who have had no share in the evolution of thought, may be passed over without loss. But we must return to the question of immortality.

If unbelief in this respect made such progress among the more highly cultivated natures, the reason lay partly in the fact that the great earthly task of discovering the world and representing it in word and form, absorbed most of the higher spiritual faculties. We have already spoken of the inevitable worldliness of the Renaissance. But this investigation and this art were necessarily accompanied by a general spirit of doubt and inquiry. If this spirit shows itself but little in literature, if we find, for example, only isolated instances of the beginnings of biblical criticism, we are not therefore to infer that it had no existence. The sound of it was only overpowered by the need of representation and creation in all departments-- that is, by the artistic instinct; and it was further checked, whenever it tried to express itself theoretically, by the already existing despotism of the Church. This spirit of doubt must, for reasons too obvious to need discussion, have inevitably and chiefly busied itself with the question of the state of man after death.

And here came in the influence of antiquity, and worked in a twofold fashion on the argument. In the first place men set themselves to master the psychology of the ancients, and tortured the letter of Aristotle for a decisive answer. In one of the Lucianic dialogues of the time, Charon tells Mercury how he questioned Aristotle on his belief in immortality, when the philosopher crossed in the Stygian boat; but the prudent sage, although dead in the body and nevertheless living on, declined to compromise himself by a definite answer--and centuries later how was it likely to fare with the interpretation of his writings? All the more eagerly did men dispute about his opinion and that of others on the true nature of the soul, its origin, its pre- existence, its unity in all men, its absolute eternitY, even its transformations; and there were men who treated of these things in the pulpit. The dispute was warmly carried on even in the fifteenth century; some proved that Aristotle taught the doctrine of an immortal soul; others complained of the hardness of men's hearts, who would not believe that there was a soul at all, till they saw it sitting down on a chair before them; Filelfo, in his funeral oration on Francesco Sforza, brings forward a long list of opinions of ancient and even of Arab philosophers in favour of immortality, and closes the mixture, which covers a folio page and a half of print, with the words, 'Besides all this we have the Old and New Testaments, which are above all truth.' Then came the Florentine Platonists with their master's doctrine of the soul, supplemented at times, as in the case of Pico, by Christian teaching. But the opposite opinion prevailed in the instructed world. At the beginning of the sixteenth century the stumbling-block which it put in the way of the Church was so serious that Leo X set forth a Constitution at the Lateran Council in 1513, in defence of the immortality and individuality of the soul, the latter against those who asserted that there was but one soul in all men. A few years later appeared the work of Pomponazzo, in which the impossibility of a philosophical proof of immortality is maintained; and the contest was now waged incessantly with replies and 'apologies,' till it was silenced by the Catholic reaction. The pre-existence of the soul in God, conceived more or less in accordance with Plato's theory of ideas, long remained a common belief, and proved of service even to the poets. The consequences which followed from it as to the mode of the soul's continued existence after death were not more closely considered.

There was a second way in which the influence of antiquity made itself felt, chiefly by means of that remarkable fragment of the sixth book of Cicero's 'Republic,' known by the name of Scipio's Dream. Without the commentary of Macrobius it would probably have perished like the rest of the second part of the work; it was now diffused in countless manuscript copies, and, after the discovery of typography, in a printed form and edited afresh by various commentatOrs. It is the description of a transfigured hereafter for great men, pervaded by the harmony of the spheres. This pagan heaven, for which many other testimonies were gradually extracted from the writings of the ancients, came step by step to supplant the Christian heaven in proportion as the ideal of fame and historical greatness threw into the shade the ideal of the Christian life, without, nevertheless, the public feeling being thereby offended as it was by the doctrine of personal annihilation after death. Even Petrarch founds his hope chiefly on this Dream of Scipio, on the declarations found in other Ciceronian works, and on Plato's 'Phaedo,' without making any mention of the Bible. 'Why,' he asks elsewhere, 'should not I as a Catholic share a hope which was demonstrably cherished by the heathen?' Soon afterwards Coluccio Salutati wrote his 'Labors of Hercules' (still existing in manuscript), in which it is proved at the end that the valorous man, who has well endured the great labors of earthly life, is justly entitled to a dwelling among the stars. If Dante still firmly maintained that the great pagans, whom he would have gladly welcomed in Paradise, nevertheless must not come beyond the Limbo at the entrance to Hell, the poetry of a later time accepted joyfully the new liberal ideas of a future life. Cosimo the Elder, according to Bernardo Pulci's poem on his death, was received in heaven by Cicero, who had also been called the 'father of his country,' by the Fabii, by Curius, Fabricius and many others; with them he would adorn the choir where only blameless spirits sing.

But in the old writers there was another and less pleasing picture of the world to come--the shadowy realms of Homer and of those poets who had not sweetened and humanized the conception. This made an impression on certain temperaments. Gioviano Pontano somewhere attributes to Sannazaro the story of a vision which he beheld one morning early while half awake. He seemed to see a departed friend, Ferrandus Januarius, with whom he had often discoursed on the immortality of the soul, and whom he now asked whether it was true that the pains of Hell were really dreadful and eternal. The shadow gave an answer like that of Achilles when Odysseus questioned him. 'So much I tell and aver to thee, that we who are parted from earthly life have the strongest desire to return to it again.' He then saluted his friend and disappeared.

It cannot but be recognized that such views of the state of man after death partly presuppose and partly promote the dissolution of the most essential dogmas of Christianity. The notion of sin and of salvation must have almost entirely evaporated. We must not be misled by the effects of the great preachers of repentance or by the epidemic revivals which have been described above. For even granting that the individually developed classes had shared in them like the rest, the cause of their participation was rather the need of emotional excitement, the rebound of passionate natures, the horror felt at great national calamities, the cry to heaven for help. The awakening of the conscience had by no means necessarily the sense of sin and the felt need of salvation as its consequence and even a very severe outward penance did not perforce involve any repentance in the Christian meaning of the word. When the powerful natures of the Renaissance tell us that their principle is to repent of nothing, they may have in their minds only matters that are morally indifferent, faults of unreason or imprudence; but in the nature of the case this contempt for repentance must extend to the sphere of morals, because its origin, namely the consciousness of individual force, is common to both sides of human nature. The passive and contemplative form of Christianity, with its constant reference to a higher world beyond the grave, could no longer control these men. Machiavelli ventured still further, and maintained that it could not be serviceable to the State and to the maintenance of public freedom.

The form assumed by the strong religious instinct which, notwithstanding all, survived in many natures, was Theism or Deism, as we may please to call it. The latter name may be applied to that mode of thought which simply wiped away the Christian element out of religion, without either seeking or finding any other substitute for the feelings to rest upon. Theism may be considered that definite heightened devotion to the one Supreme Being which the Middle Ages were not acquainted with. This mode of faith does not exclude Christianity, and can either ally itself with the Christian doctrines of sin, redemption, and immortality, or else exist and flour;sh without them.

Sometimes this belief presents itself with childish naivete and even with a half-pagan air, God appearing as the almighty fulfiller of human wishes. Agnolo Pandolfini tells us how, after his wedding, he shut himself in with his wife, and knelt down before the family altar with the picture of the Madonna, and prayed, not to her, but to God, that He would vouchsafe to them the right use of their property, a long life in joy and unity with one another, and many male descendants: 'For myself I prayed for wealth, honour, and friends; for her blamelessness, honesty, and that she might be a good housekeeper.' When the language used has a strong antique flavor, it is not always easy to keep apart the pagan style and the theistic belief.

This temper sometimes manifests itself in times of misfortune with a striking sincerity. Some addresses to God are left us from the latter period of Firenzuola, when for years he lay ill of fever, in which, though he expressly declares himself a believing Christian, he shows that his religious consciousness is essentially theistic. Hie sufferings seem to him neither as the punishment of sin, nor as preparation for a higher world; they are an affair between him and God only, who has put the strong love of life between man and his despair. 'I curse, but only curse Nature, since Thy greatness forbids me to utter Thy name.... Give me death, Lord, I beseech Thee, give it me now!'

In these utterances and the like, it would be vain to look for a conscious and consistent Theism; the speakers partly believed themselves to be still Christians, and for various other reasons respected the existing doctrines of the Church. But at the time of the Reformation, when men were driven to come to a distinct conclusion on such points, this mode of thought was accepted with a fuller consciousness; a number of the Italian Protestants came forward as Anti-Trinitarians and Socinians, and even as exiles in distant countries made the memorable attempt to found a church on these principles. From the foregoing exposition it will be clear that, apart from humanistic rationalism, other spirits were at work in this field.

One chief centre of theistic modes of thought lay in the Platonic Academy at Florence, and especially in Lorenzo il Magnifico himself. The theoretical works and even the letters of these men show us only half their nature. It is true that Lorenzo, from his youth till he died, expressed himself dogmatically as a Christian, and that Pico was drawn by Savonarola's influence to accept the point of view of a monkish ascetic. But in the hymns of Lorenzo, which we are tempted to regard as the highest product of the spirit of this school, an unreserved Theism is set forth a Theism which strives to treat the world as a great moral and physical Cosmos.

While the men of the Middle Ages look on the world as a vale of tears, which Pope and Emperor are set to guard against the coming of Antichrist; while the fatalists of the Renaissance oscillate between seasons of overflowing energy and seasons of superstition or of stupid resignation) here, in this circle of chosen spirits, the doctrine is upheld that the visible world was created by God in love, that it is the copy of a pattern pre-existing in Him, and that He will ever remain its eternal mover and restorer. The soul of man can by recognizing God draw Him into its narrow boundaries, but also by love of Him expand itself into the Infinite--and this is blessedness on earth.

Echoes of medieval mysticism here flow into one current with Platonic doctrines and with a characteristically modern spirit. One of the most precious fruits of the knowledge of the world and of man here comes to maturity, on whose account alone the Italian Renaissance must be called the leader of modern ages.