Friday, 17 November 2017

Ada Palmer

So today, a new experience: reading a scholarly article which is so interesting and so well-written that you end by asking yourself, 'who is this person? Has she written anything else? She should write a novel!' And then by googling her and discovering that she has indeed written a prizewinning novel. That's one for my Christmas list.

More on the novel when I've read it. The article itself is enough for now. It is one of those articles which takes a narrow seam of evidence, carefully spends thirty pages drilling into it and inserting charges, and then at the end detonates them spectacularly - although, because she is not so austere a writer as some, she does give us enough of a hook at the start that we have some sense of what's coming.

The argument, in a nutshell, is that Renaissance humanists celebrated ancient pagan philosophers for their perceived ability to come close - very close - to the truths of Christianity despite not having received the Christian revelation. This was partly a means of reproaching Christians' weakness of faith and morals - look, these pagans have done better than you! - and partly a means of circumventing the morasses of scholastic theology by demonstrating that clean, classical philosophy could fulfil many of the same tasks more elegantly.

But if philosophy in the abstract could get you to the truth almost as well as (even, in some incautious panegyrics, better than) revealed faith and Scripture ... then perhaps it made sense to seek wisdom through reason alone? In which case, perhaps the Christ-event is no longer the crux of history, and, as some English radicals would say, what happened to a man outside Jerusalem centuries ago is not supremely important?

This move away from revelation to reason is a well-known early modern trajectory, of course, but Palmer's article crystallises a couple of aspects of it for me. First, crucially, its unwitting nature. She is very clear that these humanist celebrations of philosophy were mostly pious, earnestly Christian topics undertaken in faith that reason must lead to or at least point to the truth which these men already embraced, since, after all, truth is one. The theme of her article is not that humanism was irreligious, but rather that its very search for piety was a time-delayed solvent of religion. This is a big theme. The more I read about early modern unbelief, the more it is the search for truer and purer faith that seems to me to drive it.

Second, that one of the mainstays of this subject - the opposition between 'rationalism' and 'mysticism' in radical movements of the 17th century - does not work. Her humanists are like Dirck Coornhert, whose 1586 Ethics was deliberately written without any scriptural citations, in order to show that his truth could be reached even without scriptural support, and so not-quite-unwittingly showed that Scripture was dispensable. But her humanists are also celebrating Pythagorean mysticism, as (bizarrely) the ideal ancient synthesis of Greek and Jewish thought. They are very like the radicals who claimed to find Christ within. When Gerrard Winstanley (whom Palmer does not cite) called God 'Reason', how different was he from the mystics?

She concludes:
Humanists ... celebrated, and relived through empathy, the experience of ancient thinkers, whom they imagined wandering in the dark night of genuine ignorance, groping toward distant knowledge without streetlights ahead. By extolling this experience, maturing humanism exhorted students to imitate how people without revealed answers had sought them out by reason’s light alone. Humanists were sure that practitioners of their new method would end up where they believed the ancients had ended up: at the light, the good, God, truth, the source and center of all things. ... Yet, as the sixteenth century became the seventeenth, it became clearer that Epictetus did not agree with Saint Paul, that Stoic divinity was fully immanent, that Pythagoreans were serious about reincarnation, and in general that the philosophical religion of antiquity was larger and stranger than what Petrarch had expected. ... Humanists had celebrated the ancient acolytes of Philosophia because they believed Philosophia had led her sages—and could lead others—to the Christian truths that were so bafflingly difficult to reach using the tools of scripture and the corruption-ridden church. Yet, in the hands of much later generations, the enthusiasm for Philosophia that humanist teachings had rekindled outlived Philosophia’s loyalty to Lady Theology. Herein lay the secularizing potential of the pious Renaissance.
Kapow. It's a terrific article. I'm looking forward to the book.