philosophy, early modern reception of
philosophy, early modern reception of
- Anna Corrias
The early modern period saw a tremendous revival in interest in ancient philosophy. New Platonic texts became available. New ways of analyzing Aristotle were explored. Stoic and Epicurean philosophy began to exert an influence on key thinkers. The impact of ancient philosophy was felt in a number of key areas, these included natural history, theology, and epistemology.
The history of Western philosophy can be seen as a continuous and intensive dialogue with the past in which the texts of classical antiquity were tirelessly interrogated, imitated, praised, criticized, transformed, and zealously restored. The early modern period has a special place in this history. At the dawn of modernity, philosophical inquiries were deeply informed by the questions raised by the Greeks and Romans.
Throughout the early modern period, the works of Aristotle and his commentators were the most prominent of the texts discussed. Plato enjoyed a more complex reception history. Recovered in the 15th century, his arguments for the immortality of the soul were warmly received by many and were seen to be in agreement with Christianity. However, a number of his ethical and political judgements were more controversial. The reception of the Hellenistic schools had much less impact, but Stoicism and Epicureanism were revived in the work of important figures of the period and proved to be significantly influential in the elaboration of important philosophical systems in the 17th century.
One of the important agendas in the study of ancient philosophy in the early modern period was the attempt to recover the true and authentic meaning of the original texts. We can see this most clearly with Aristotle. Throughout the medieval period, Aristotle’s popularity and longstanding presence at the core of the university curriculum, as well as his major role in Medieval discussions of the relationship between reason and faith ensured that he was never short of commentators. Humanist scholars attempted to rid Aristotle of these accreted layers of interpretation and return to the original classical Aristotle. This original text, the humanists believed, had been perverted by the inelegant Latin of scholastic theologians and the use of his philosophical doctrines in the service of Christian faith.
This rescue operation was pioneered by some of the Greek scholars who migrated to Italy in the 15th century because of the westward advance of the Turks, which culminated in the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Among them, John Argyropoulos (1415–1487) translated into Latin many of Aristotle’s works, including Analytica Posteriora, Physica, De Caelo, De Anima, Metaphysica, Ethica Nicomachea, and Politica, and taught Aristotelian philosophy in both Florence and Rome, putting great emphasis on the analytic and scientific dimension of Aristotle’s thought. The complete Greek corpus of Aristotle’s works was published in five folio volumes in Venice in 1495 by Aldus Manutius.
The nature and fate of the human soul was the object of a heated debate among Aristotelians. At the university of Padua, the stormy debates on Aristotle’s view on human immortality led the bishop, Pietro Barozzi, to issue a decree that prohibited the discussion of this topic outside universities. In the De immortalitate animae Pietro Pomponazzi (1462–1525), who had a major role in this debate, considered the soul to be dependent on the body, in itself mortal, yet somehow immortal. More precisely, the soul, for him, “smells of immortality (immortalitatis odorat), but not in absolute terms (sed non simpliciter)” (De imm. 9.53). The issue of the soul’s immortality was especially complicated because of the rich tradition of commentators on the topic. Particularly influential was the medieval Arab commentator Averroes. Many Averroistic texts were translated and printed in Italy at the time, while in 1550, a new edition of Aristotle’s works, accompanied by Averroes’s commentaries, was published in Venice by the Giunta brothers. In his early writings, for example, Agostino Nifo (c. 1470–1538) calls Averroes the “Arab Aristotle.” To this richness was added the rediscovery of the Greek commentators, such as Alexander of Aphrodisias, Themistius, Ammonius, Philoponus, and Simplicius in the 16th century. In other words, Aristotle was reborn into many Aristotelianisms, which included Averroism and Alexandrism as well as Themistianism and Simplicianism.
Nevertheless, despite these differences in approach and interpretation, the early modern Aristotle maintains a strong theoretical center of gravity. This was the focus on nature and empirical observations, a fact alluded to by the figure of Aristotle gesturing toward the earth in Raphael’s The School of Athens (1509–1511). The belief that “nature is everywhere a cause of order” (Physics 252a12) contributed to the novel interest in the workings of the sublunar world, which characterizes the early modern period. Moreover, Aristotle’s Analytica Posteriora remained the reference text of science until the end of the 17th century, especially for those scholars interested in the inductive method. Renaissance Aristotelians sought to separate logic from metaphysics and to emphasize the instrumental nature of logic, seen as a tool for analyzing scientific reasoning. Scholars like Nifo and Jacopo Zabarella (1533–1589) were especially interested in the regressive method (regressus) and the relevance of demonstration in natural science was also widely discussed.
However, inquiries into the natural world could not remain for long entangled in Aristotelian physics and, paradoxically as it may seem, Aristotle’s model of the universe fell as a result of applying Aristotle’s own theoretical principles and methodology. It was by relying on sense experience that Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) discovered the astronomical evidence that famously undermined the geocentric model Aristotle employed. Galileo himself realized the irony of the fact that he was using Aristotelian methods to undermine Aristotelian cosmology. Indeed, in a letter to Fortunio Liceti, a former colleague at the University of Padua, Galileo describes himself as “a better Peripatetic” than many of those who follow Aristotle slavishly. Less charitable was Francis Bacon, who famously attacked Aristotle and his inductive method, which in Bacon’s view, proceeded to hastily transform individual observations into generalizations. In the Novum Organum Bacon describes Aristotle as the most obvious example of sophistic philosophy for having spoiled “natural philosophy with his dialectic” and his artificially constructed categories.1 By the middle of the 18th century, Aristotle lost his prominent place in university curricula, but remained a pivotal point of reference in the history of Western philosophy.
From the point of view of their theoretical premises, Platonism and modernity have traditionally been seen as an odd couple, the former being rooted in the contemplation of the world of ideas and the latter in the critical study of the natural world. Historiographically, however, and certainly in the history of classical reception, Platonism and early modernity are tightly connected, for it happened that Platonism was reborn in the Western world when modernity was giving out its first cry.
During the Middle Ages, most of Plato’s writings were not translated into Latin, with the exception of the first part of the Timaeus, which circulated in the translation produced in the 4th century by Calcidius, and of the Parmenides, which was included in William of Moerbeke’s translation of Proclus’s commentary. Even though Henry Aristippus, archdeacon of Catania, had translated the Phaedo and the Meno, these translations had a very limited circulation. Awareness of Plato was ensured by references in Aristotle, Cicero, Apuleius, and Augustine, but Platonism remained in the background of the European intellectual scene until the 15th century, when the manuscripts of Plato’s works were brought to Italy by the Greek scholars in exile. These scholars were at the centre of a lively debate, known as the “Plato-Aristotle Controversy,” initiated by George Gemistos Plethon (c. 1360–1454), who, during the 1438–1439 Council of Florence, asserted the superiority of Platonism over Aristotelianism. Plethon’s most famous opponent was George of Trebizond (1395–1486), who fiercely attacked Platonism, claiming that it led to heresy and immorality. This claim brought forth a powerful response from Basilios Bessarion who, in the Adversus calumniatorem Platonis (1469), vigorously defended both Plato and Plethon. Platonism, however, made a full reappearance in Europe only with the publication, in 1484, of the Latin translation by Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499) of Plato’s dialogues, many of which he provided with commentaries. Ficino also produced Latin versions of Plotinus’s Enneads, Porphyry’s On Abstinence, Synesius’s On Dreams, Iamblichus’s De mysteriis.
Ficino approached Plato and the late antique Platonists in a way that had profound consequences on their later reception. This approach fascinated, influenced and, perhaps, misled readers until the beginning of modern scholarship on Plato. In Ficino’s philosophy, Plato, Plotinus, and the post-Plotinians converged. As a consequence, the early modern “Plato,” as was known in Europe at least until the 18th century, is more “post-Platonic” than “Platonic.” Not only is he strongly committed to the Plotinian idea of a reality structured according to different level of ontological and epistemological perfection; he also believes, just like Plotinus, in the existence of a “Soul of the World,” which permeates reality. Similarly, Plotinus, as he emerges from Ficino’s Commentary on the “Enneads” (1492), seems to be as concerned with the efficacy of daemons and theurgical rites, in a manner similar to Porphyry, Iamblichus, and Proclus. The early modern reception of Platonism is further complicated by the fact that, in Ficino’s Christianizing interpretation, Plato and the other Platonists were conceived of as devoted Christians. In his view, Platonism had prophetically anticipated the mysteries of Christianity. Early modern readers, thus, accessed Platonism through Ficino’s magnificently eclectic version and, for the most part, ignored the profound theoretical differences between Plato and the later Platonists. It is noteworthy that early modern discourses of magic and witchcraft include Plato in the same theurgically charged tradition of the late antique Platonists, and in particular of Iamblichus. For example, in Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy (1531), we find a portrait of Plato as a powerful theourgos well versed in the art of magic and who had allegedly travelled, as Pythagoras before him, “through almost all Syria, Egypt, Judea, and the Schools of the Caldeans [Chaldaeans],” to learn “the most sacred Memorials, and Records of Magick.”2 In Johannes Reuchlin’s On the Art of the Kabbalah, Socrates and Plato are defined as “the first Pythagoreans.”3
In a more strictly philosophical field, it is a deeply Plotinian Platonism that informs the thought of leading figures of early modern philosophy such as Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494), Giordano Bruno (1548–1600), and Tommaso Campanella (1568–1639). Bruno, for example, laid stress on the ontological link unifying the world and the divine principle behind the world (De umbris, §55.11–14), as well as on Plotinus’s metaphysical hierarchy and on his ideas about the relationship between the body and the soul (Eroici furori, II).
The direct heirs of Ficino’s post-Platonic Platonism are Ralph Cudworth (1617–1688) and Henry More (1614–1687). Writing in Cambridge between the Restoration (1660) and the Glorious Revolution (1688), they are traditionally referred to as the “Cambridge Platonists,” and their Platonism is defined by a strong Plotinian influence. They make constant use of doctrines belonging to the tradition of Plotinus’s successors, both in a philosophical and in a theological context. G. W. Leibniz (1646–1716) is an interesting case, as he seems well aware of the important theoretical distinction between Plato and his successors and even criticises Plotinus for having distorted Plato’s thought. However, he also subscribes to several post-Platonic themes, such as the theory of spiritual substances, the idea of evil as privation, and the existence of a hierarchy of beings.
The Ficinian model permeated the European reception of Platonism, eventually to decline gradually thanks to the work of Jacob Brucker (1696–1770), Wilhelm Gottlieb Tennemann (1761–1819), and especially Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834). At different times and to different degrees, these scholars achieved a successful rescue restoring the identity of Plato’s original text behind the different layers of late antique (and Ficinian) interpretation. They were also responsible for calling the later interpreters, from Plotinus onwards, Neoplatonists.
Stoicism and Epicureanism
Among Hellenistic philosophical schools, Stoicism had the most prominent role in the early modern period. Thanks to new Latin translations of key sources, such as Diogenes Laertius’s Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, translated in 1433 by Ambrogio Traversari, and Epictetus’s Handbook, translated by Angelo Poliziano in 1479, European readers gained a deeper knowledge of Stoic philosophy, which, nevertheless, was already available in the Middle Ages through the works of Seneca and Cicero. Central concepts like apatheia (freedom from passions) and the view of suicide were negatively received by Christian authors. Likewise, the Stoic doctrines of fate and divine providence could hardly be reconciled with Christianity, for they implied that God’s providential activity was limited by the chain of causes that governs the universe. Nevertheless, Stoicism was revived in the late 16th century in the works of the Flemish humanist Justus Lipsius (1547–1606). In his treatise De constantia libri duo (1583–1584), Lipsius made great efforts to reconcile Stoicism with Christianity and stressed the therapeutic role of apatheia, which, he believed, could prove extremely helpful to face contemporary political and religious turmoil. Lipsius’s philosophy, first called Neostoicism by Calvin, was successful in its attempts to show the agreement between Stoicism and Christianity, and its impact can be found in the works of important early modern authors, including Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592), Pierre Charron (1541–1603), Guillaume Du Vair (1556–1621), Francisco de Quevedo (1580–1645), and even René Descartes (1586–1650) and Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677).
The rediscovery, in 1417, of a manuscript of Lucretius’s Epicurean poem De rerum natura by the Italian humanist Poggio Bracciolini, marked an important moment in the history of the early modern reception of Epicureanism. The poem was widely read and stimulated a great interest in the figure of Epicurus who, however, was still to be long accused of atheism, mortalism, and of course, hedonism. It was only in the 17th century that the reception of Epicureanism took a positive turn and finally gained center stage in the philosophical scene. The French scholar Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655) bears the main responsibility for this revival. By replacing Epicurus’s eternal, infinite, and self-moving atoms with atoms created and animated by God, Gassendi managed to repackage Epicurus’s materialism in a way that was more appealing to Christian readers. With the same aim, he presented pleasure as an instrument of God’s divine providence. His major work, Syntagma philosophicum, was published posthumously in 1568. It is through Gassendi that Epicureanism had a significant impact on French Enlightenment, and hedonism became a popular theory in 18th-century French thought. In 1652, Walter Charleton published The Darkness of Atheism Dispelled by the Light of Nature, in which Epicureanism was presented as an antidote against the atheism and impiety lurking in contemporary philosophy. Epicureanism, finally freed from those elements that made it incompatible with the Christian faith, penetrated philosophical discussions and became an important presence, even if at times undercover, in the writings of canonical figures of early modern philosophy, including Descartes, Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) and John Locke (1632–1704).
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1. Francis Bacon, The New Organon, i.lxiii, ed. Lisa Jardine (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 51.
2. Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa Von Nettesheim, Three Books of Occult Philosophy, i.2, trans. James Freake and ed. Donald Tyson (St Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications), 5.
3. Johannes Reuchlin, On the Art of the Kabbalah, trans. Martin Goodman and Sarah Goodman (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press), 151.