Late-Sixteenth-Century Thought

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Late-Sixteenth-Century Thought



Sarpi. By 1560 Catholics and Protestants alike had rejected the nondogmatic, tolerant approach to religious belief exemplified by Desiderius Erasmus. His thought continued to influence the few thinkers who sought to remain apart from the religious debates and violence, but the religious issues were so pervasive that it was almost impossible to remain above the fray. The late sixteenth century was not a productive era for secular thought. In Italy, Pope Julius III was the last active papal patron of humanists; most of his successors were openly hostile to humanism. In Venice, however, there was a late flowering of humanism made possible in large part because of the city's determination to remain free of papal domination. The greatest name among the Venetian intellectuals of the late sixteenth century was Pietro Paulo Sarpi. He was a priest and a theologian who also mastered mathematics and astronomy. He has been called “the loftiest intellect that Venice ever produced.” His greatest work is his History of the Council of Trent (1619) in which he argued that the papacy had used the council to accentuate the religious divide instead of working to heal it. His attitude toward the religious doctrines that created the division was largely the same as Erasmus's, deploring the rigid dogmatism that led to religious war. The Venetians rebuffed papal demands that Sarpi be censored and punished.

Magdeburg Centuries. In Germany the religious controversies largely eliminated humanism as an intellectual activity. The one significant contribution to come out of Germany was decidedly a partisan religious polemic. In 1552 the city council of Magdeburg commissioned a work of church history known as the Magdeburg Centuries, a collection of historical documents intended to show that Lutheranism was on solid ground in its claim that it was returning the Church to its early roots. The editor, Matthias Flacius, was a Croatian Lutheran theologian who organized the materials he and his coworkers collected according to divisions of a hundred years. This was the first use of the term century as a way of dividing time. While the work was badly skewed toward the Protestant position, it was an important step in the development of the idea that history ought to be written from sources coming from the era under study.

Ramus. In Spain and England the impact of the religious divide was equally strong in largely eliminating humanism. The one country where a modicum of secular thought continued to be produced was France. Petrus Ramus was so committed to Calvinism that he was murdered

during the St. Bartholomew's Massacre in 1572, but he had received an excellent humanist training in classical Latin and rhetoric. In 1536 he chose as his thesis for his master of arts degree at the University of Paris the proposition: “Everything said by Aristotle is false.” Seven years later Ramus published two works that openly challenged the way Aristotle was taught in the university and attacked the Aristotelians who dominated it. His attack was centered on the proposal that Aristotelian logic, the heart of the arts curriculum, should be replaced by rhetoric. The arts faculty responded by persuading the king to form a commission to settle the matter and arranged for a debate between Ramus and his fiercest opponents. The commission decided against him, and he was prohibited from teaching logic and philosophy. Since he remained a member of the arts faculty, he turned to mathematics, in which he was self-taught. Ramus's curiosity extended to being one of the few Frenchmen of the sixteenth century who was acquainted with the heliocentric theory (the Sun is the center of the universe).

Dialogue. One humanist literary device that remained popular after 1550 was the dialogue. By presenting the differing opinions of the participants and allowing the author to serve as the moderator who has the final word, the dialogue permitted the discussion of dangerous ideas that, if presented in a different context, would have exposed the author to censorship and perhaps prosecution. A skillful practitioner of the dialogue form was Pontus de Tyard, a French bishop and a noted poet. In his L’univers, for example, one of his speakers presents heliocentrism in a positive way, while a second speaks strongly against it. Tyard, as the final speaker and moderator, concludes that the human mind finds it difficult to know the truth in matters such as that, where the human senses seem to present evidence in support of both positions. Tyard was the closest France came to a competent astronomer. The marginal notes found in his copy of Copernicus's De revolutionibus (1543) indicate a good understanding of the book. Tyard's attitude toward heliocentrism was typical for some Frenchmen of that era: Astronomy was one of many areas concerning nature in which the human mind was incapable of reaching certainty. Hypotheses about the physical world could be neither proved nor disproved.

Philosophical Skepticism. Michel de Montaigne became even more identified with the skeptical approach to knowledge. He was born near Bordeaux into a family of wealthy merchants; his mother's family included converted Iberian Jews who had settled in France. His father was a committed humanist who gave his son a tutor who could not speak French, thereby forcing Michel to speak to him in Latin exclusively from early childhood. Montaigne became exceptionally fluent in classical Latin. He was deeply pained by the religious strife he saw about him and the inability of the legal system to end the violence and injustice. He first tried Stoicism, staying indoors with his books and remaining aloof from the world's problems. By 1575 he had moved toward philosophical skepticism— questioning the ability of human reason to reach the truth. In a famous statement he asked: “When I play with my cat, how do I know that she is not playing with me more than I am with her?” Philosophical skepticism led him to two positions that were not inherently contradictory but seemed so in the context of his era. One was that the human mind was incapable of knowing the truth on its own; hence, one should rely on the collective wisdom of vast numbers of people over centuries of time. This view led him to remain a Catholic, but not a zealous one. The other was a strong belief in religious toleration. It is, he believed, putting a high price on one's own beliefs to burn someone else for them, since no one can be certain of the truth of those beliefs.

New World. Montaigne was keenly interested in the peoples of the New World, whom he accepted as fully human. He used their lifestyles, often so strange to Europeans, as further support for skepticism about the possibility of certainty in human knowledge. Montaigne expressed his ideas in short pieces he called Essais from the French word “to test” or “try out.” In his Essais he tried out ideas and presented them to others for response. He published his first two books in 1580, and the public response was enormous. Although his writing was interrupted by two terms as mayor of Bordeaux from 1581 to 1585, he published a third book in 1588. Montaigne died in 1592 while attending mass. His adopted daughter, Marie de Gournay, did most of the work of putting his scraps of writing, marginal notes, and the published Essais into a coherent edition in 1595. Few literary works have had the profound long-term impact as Montaigne's essays, which still serve as exemplars of good French style. Montaigne stands as a prime example of the “Renaissance man.” He was at home in an enormous range of topics but especially in classical literature, eager to achieve the golden mean in every respect, including religion, and fiercely individualistic. The Essais are modern in their psychological understanding of human nature and sense of the relativism of experience. It is experience, Montaigne argued, that determines an individual's behavior, not some sort of ultimate truth.


In this excerpt from In the Defeme of Raymond Sefond, famed French essayist Michel de Montaigne questions the arbitrary, transient, and region-specific nature of law and religion*

Moreover, ifit is from ourselves that we draw the government of our loves, what confusion we are casting ourselves into! For the most acceptable advice our reason can offer us is in general for each to obey the laws of his own coun~ try, This is the opinion of Socrates, inspired, he declares, by divme counsel. And what does our reason mean by this declaration except that the only principle governing duty is a fortuitous one? The truth must be always and universally one. If man knew any virtue and justice which had a real form and essence, he would not make them dependent upon the set of customs of this country or that; it would not be from the peculiar notions of Persia or India that virtue would derive its form. There is nothing subject to more continual dispute than laws.....

How could that god of antiquity more clearly mark in human knowledge our total ignorance concerning the divine being, and inform men that religion was only a product of their imagination, useful as a unifying bond to their society, than by declaring, as he did to those who inquired about it before his tripod, that the true worship for each man was the one that he found observed by the custom of the place where he was? O God! What obligation do we not have to the goodness of our sovereign creator for having rid our belief of those stupid, vagabond, and arbitrary forms of worship, and for having established it upon the eternal foundation of his holy word!

What, then, will philosophy tell us in this need of ours? That we should foEow the kws of our country, that is to say that billowing sea of opinions of a people or of a prince, which will paint justice for me with as many colors and will recast it into as many aspects as there will be changes of passion among them? I cannot have so flexible a judgment, What virtue is it which I saw yesterday esteemed, and which tomorrow will be so no more, and which becomes a crime as soon as one crosses a river?

What kind of truth is it for which these mountains mark the limit, and which is falsehood for those people who dwell on the other side?

Source; Michel de Montaigne, In Dtfmse of Raymond Sefond, translated by Arthur H, Beattie (New York: Ungar, 1965).

Charron. In the first decades after the publication of the Essais, skeptical philosophy had a great impact. Pierre Charron, a churchman from Bordeaux and a friend of Montaigne, made skepticism a key part of the French Counter-Reformation. In The Three Truths (1594) he argued that Protestantism necessarily sowed confusion because of its insistence on the ability of the individual to read and understand the Bible. The inability of the human mind to be certain of the truth meant that the sixteen centuries of the collective experience and tradition of Catholicism had to be relied upon, and not the ever-erring minds of Protestant leaders. In 1601 Charron published a second skeptical text, Wisdom, which again made the case that only the Catholic Church's understanding of divine revelation leads to the truth, but he added that there is a natural code of ethics that can be discerned from the study of human societies. Christian morality is superior to this natural code because it is based on divine revelation, but Charron was one of the first in Europe to propose that a code of ethics could exist separate from religion. Charron's use of skepticism became a mainstay of Catholic controversialists after 1594. The Jesuits were skilled in using it to confound the Huguenots, and their college at La Fleche was the stronghold of skepticism for the next several decades, when Rene Descartes was educated there. He left the college a skeptic, against which he later would react. Montaigne's skeptical toleration, on the other hand, was not much in evidence during the century after his death.

Astronomy. Skepticism also played a role in creating interest in the new astronomical ideas proposed by Nicholas Copernicus. Montaigne argued that the only conclusion to be drawn from the Polish astronomer's skill in arguing for heliocentrism was that one should be unconcerned over which of the systems of cosmology was true. The human mind was incapable of reaching correct knowledge on such matters; therefore, discussion of them was not dangerous to the faith but was simply hypothesizing. Such a position hardly seems productive of scientific advances, but it did have a positive aspect. It allowed French thinkers to discuss Copernicanism in the midst of the religious wars, when zealous Catholics declared that heliocentrism was another Satan-induced error of the times. The skeptical position continued to serve French Catholic thinkers after 1616 when Rome condemned heliocentrism.

Palace Academy. Skepticism appeared in the Palace Academy that King Henry III of France established in 1576. Jacques Davy Du Perron, a Calvinist who later converted to Catholicism and became a cardinal, annoyed the king when, after arguing in favor of heliocentrism, he told him that he could argue equally well against it. The Palace Academy involved prominent thinkers who were invited to discuss their ideas before the king and his courtiers. It included two noblewomen who took an active part in the discussions on moral and natural philosophy. The Academy emphasized rhetoric and philosophy, but its sessions always ended with a musical selection. The Palace Academy may have held its last meeting when the notorious Italian thinker Giordano Bruno lectured before the king in 1581 under the auspices of the academy. Bruno came from near Naples and became a Dominican. He earned a degree in scholastic theology but soon was caught up in more dangerous philosophical interests. He left Italy under suspicion of heresy and traveled widely through northern Europe from 1576 to 1592. Bruno's notoriety came mainly from his belief in the infinity of the universe, which came from his acceptance of heliocentrism. He was not an astronomer and did nothing to provide verification of the theory, but he drew intriguing conclusions from it. He proposed that there is an infinity of stars in an infinite universe; each star has planets circling it. In such a universe there is no center, nor was it necessarily true that earth is the only planet with human beings or life. His discussion of other planets with intelligent life was the point that created the most trouble for him, since it raised the question of whether humans on other planets had sinned and had to be redeemed, and if Christ died once for our sins, how was salvation achieved elsewhere? When Bruno returned to Italy in 1592, he went to Venice with its reputation for toleration. Even the Venetians found his ideas too much to accept, and they handed him over to the Roman Inquisition. Bruno languished in prison for seven years until he was burned at the stake in 1600. He was not, as often claimed, a martyr for science but rather for his radical cosmology. Far more than Nostradamus, his better-known contemporary who never was accused of heresy, Bruno's leaps of imagination about the nature of the universe and time came much closer to being correct as scientists understand them today.


William Bouwsma, Venice and the Defense of Republican Liberty: Renaissance Values in the Age of the Counter Reformation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968).

De Lamar Jensen, Reformation Europe: Age of Reform and Revolution (Lexington, Mass.: D. C Heath, 1981).

Richard Popkin, The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979).

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Late-Sixteenth-Century Thought

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