At first glance the Italian Renaissance does not seem to offer a reasonable harvest of philosophy. Its product cannot compare with the heyday of French Scholasticism from Abélard to Aquinas, not to speak of “the school of Athens.” Its most famous name in philosophy (if we extend the time limit of the Renaissance) is Giordano Bruno (1548?-1600), whose work lies beyond the period of our study in this volume. Pomponazzi remains; but who now does reverence to his poor heroic skeptical squeak?

The humanists incubated a philosophical revolution by discovering, and cautiously revealing, the world of Greek philosophy; but, for the most part, and excepting Valla, they were too clever to lay their beliefs on the table. The university professors of philosophy were hobbled by the Scholastic tradition: after spending seven or eight years struggling through that wilderness, they either abandoned it for other fields of study, or drove another generation into it, glorifying the hurdles that had broken their wills and brought their intellects to a safe dead end. And who knows but many of them felt a certain mental and economic security in confining themselves to recondite problems carefully and fruitlessly phrased in unintelligible terminology? In most philosophical faculties Scholasticism was still de rigueur, and already stiffening with the approach of death. The old medieval questions were laboriously reviewed in the old medieval forms of disputation, and in the proud publications of the staff.

Two elements of life entered to revive philosophy: the conflict between Platonists and Aristotelians, and the division of Aristotelians into orthodox and Averroists. At Bologna and Padua these conflicts became veritable duels, literally matters of life and death. The humanists were mostly Platonists; under the influence of Gemistus Pletho, Bessarion, Theodorus Gaza, and other Greeks, they drank deeply of the wine of the Dialogues, and could hardly understand how anyone could bear the arid logic, impotent Organon,and leaden golden mean of the cautious Aristotle. But these Platonists were resolved to remain Christians; and it was, so to speak, as their representative and delegate that Marsilio Ficino devoted half his life to reconciling the two systems of thought. For this purpose he studied widely, going so far afield as to Zoroaster and Confucius. When he reached Plotinus, and himself translated the Enneads, he felt that he had found in mystic Neoplatonism the silken cord that would bind Plato to Christ. He tried to formulate this synthesis in his Theologia platonica, a confused medley of orthodoxy, occultism, and Hellenism, and arrived hesitantly at a pantheistic conclusion: God is the soul of the world. This became the philosophy of Lorenzo and his circle, of the Platonic Academies in Rome, Naples, and elswhere; from Naples it reached Giordano Bruno; from Bruno it passed to Spinoza and thence to Hegel; it is still alive.

But there was something to be said for Aristotle, especially if he could be misinterpreted. Was Aquinas right in understanding him to teach personal immortality, or was Averroes right in reading De anima as affirming the deathlessness of only the collective soul of mankind? The terrible Averroes, that ogre of an Arab, whom Italian art had long since pictured as prostrate under the feet of St. Thomas, was so active a competitor for the domination of the Aristotelians that both Bologna and Padua were hot with his heresy. It was at Padua that the Marsilius who took its name had lost his reverence for the Church;* at Padua that Filippo Algeri da Nola, the precursor of Nola-born Bruno, had imbibed those frightful errors for which he was sorrowfully cast into a barrel of boiling pitch.40Nicoletto Vernias, as professor of philosophy at Padua (1471–99), appears to have taught there the doctrine that only the world-soul, not the individual soul, is immortal;41 and his pupil Agostino Nifo propounded the same notion in a treatise De intellectu et daemonibus (1492). Usually the skeptics sought to sooth the Inquisition by distinguishing (as Averroes had done) between two kinds of truth—religious and philosophical: a proposition, they urged, might be rejected in philosophy from the standpoint of reason, while still accepted on faith in the word of Scripture or the Church. Nifo professed the principle with reckless simplification: Loquendum est ut plures, sentiendum ut pauci—”We must speak as the many do, we must think as the few.”42 Nifo changed his mind or his speech as his hair changed, and reconciled himself to orthodoxy. As professor of philosophy at Bologna he drew lords, ladies, and multitudes to lectures dramatized with grimaces and antics and salted with anecdotes and wit. He became socially the most successful opponent of Pomponazzi.

Pietro Pomponazzi, the microscopic bombshell of Renaissance philosophy, was so diminutive that his familiars called him Peretto—“little Peter.” But he had a large head, a vast brow, a hooked nose, small, black, penetrating eyes: here was a man doomed to take life and thought with painful seriousness. Born at Mantua (1462) of patrician stock, he studied philosophy and medicine at Padua, took both degrees at twenty-five, and was soon himself a professor there. All the skeptical tradition of Padua descended to him and culminated in him; as his admirer Vanini was to put it, “Pythagoras would have judged that the soul of Averroes had transmigrated into the body of Pomponazzi.”43 Wisdom seems always a reincarnation or echo, since it remains the same through a thousand varieties and generations of error.

Pomponazzi continued to teach at Padua from 1495 to 1509; then the winds of war swept through the city, and closed its historic University halls. In 1512 we find him established at the University of Bologna. There he remained to the end of his days, marrying thrice, always lecturing on Aristotle, and modestly likening his relation to his master to that of an insect exploring an elephant.44 He thought it safer to offer his ideas not as his own but as implied or explicit in Aristotle interpreted by Alexander of Aphrodisias. His procedure seems at times too humble, apparently subservient to a dead authority; but since the Church, following Aquinas, claimed her doctrine to be that of Aristotle, Pomponazzi may have felt that any demonstration of a heresy as truly Aristotelian would be one way, short of the stake, of teasing the orthodox tail. The Fifth Council of the Lateran, under the presidency of Leo X (1513), condemned all who should assert that the soul is one and indivisible in all men, and that the individual soul is mortal. Three years later Pomponazzi published his major work, De immortalitate animae, in which he sought to show that the condemned view was precisely that of Aristotle. Mind, said Pietro’s Aristotle, is at every step dependent upon matter; the most abstract knowledge is ultimately derived from sensation; only through the body can mind act upon the world; consequently a disembodied soul, surviving the mortal frame, would be a functionless and helpless wraith. As Christians and faithful sons of the Church, Pomponazzi concluded, we are warranted in believing in the immortality of the individual soul; as philosophers we are not. It seems never to have occurred to Pomponazzi that his argument had no validity against Catholicism, which taught the resurrection of the body as well as of the soul. Perhaps he did not take this doctrine seriously, and had no thought that his readers would. No one, so far as we know, urged it against him.

The book ran into a storm. The Fransciscan friars persuaded the doge of Venice to order all procurable copies to be publicly burned, which was done. Protests were made to the papal court, but Bembo and Bibbiena were then high in Leo’s councils, and advised him that the conclusions of the book were perfectly orthodox; the conclusions were. Leo was not fooled; he knew quite well this little trick of the two truths; but he contented himself with ordering Pomponazzi to write a decent word of submission.45 Pietro complied in Apologiae libri tres (1518), reasserting that as a Christian he accepted all the teaching of the Church. About the same time Leo commissioned Agostino Nifo to compose an answer to Pomponazzi’s book; as Agostino loved controversy, he executed this assignment with pleasure and skill. It is remarkable, and perhaps illustrates a continuing antipathy between the universities and the clergy, that while Pomponazzi’s head hung, so to speak, in this Inquisitorial balance, three universities competed for his services. Hearing that Pisa was seeking to lure him to her halls, the magistrates of Bologna, formally subject to the pope but deaf to the Franciscan furor, confirmed Pomponazzi’s professorial tenure for eight years further, and raised his annual salary to 1600 ducats ($20,000?).46

In two minor books, which he did not publish in his lifetime, Pomponazzi continued his skeptical campaign. In De incantatione he reduced to natural causes many supposedly supernatural phenomena. A physician had written to him about cures allegedly due to incantations or charms; Pietro bade him doubt. “It would be ridiculous and absurd,” he wrote, “to despise what is visible and natural in order to have recourse to an invisible cause the reality of which is not guaranteed to us by any solid probability.”47 As a Christian he accepts angels and spirits; as a philosopher he rejects them; all causes under God are natural. Reflecting his medical training, he laughs at the widespread belief in occult sources of cure: if spirits could cure the ills of the flesh they would have to be material, or use material means, to affect a material body; and he ironically pictures the healing spirits as rushing about with their paraphernalia of plasters, ointments, and pills.48 However he admits certain curative powers in some plants and stones. He will accept the miracles of the Bible, but suspects that they were natural operations. The universe is governed by uniform and invariable laws. Miracles are unusual manifestations of natural forces whose powers and methods are only partly known to us; and what the people cannot understand they ascribe to spirits or to God.49 Without contradicting this view of natural causation, Pomponazzi accepts much of astrology. Not only are the lives of men subject to the action of the heavenly bodies, but all human institutions, he thinks, even including religions, rise and flourish and decay according to celestial influences. This is true also of Christianity; at the present moment, says Pomponazzi, there are signs that Christianity is dying.50 He adds that as a Christian he rejects all this as nonsense.

His final book, De fato, seems more orthodox, for it is a defense of free will. He admits its incompatibility with divine foreknowledge and omniscience, but stands on his consciousness of free activity, and on the necessity of assuming some freedom of choice if there is to be any moral responsibility in man. In his treatise on immortality he had faced the question whether a moral code could succeed without supernatural punishments and rewards. He held, with stoic pride, that the sufficient reward of virtue is virtue itself, not any post-mortem paradise;51 but he confessed that most men can be induced to decency only by supernatural hopes and fears. Hence, he explained, great legislators have taught the belief in a future state as an economical substitute for ubiquitous police; and, like Plato, he justifies the inculcation of fables and myths if these can help to control the natural wickedness of men.52

Therefore they have posited, for the virtuous, eternal reward in another life, but, for the sinful, eternal punishments, which frighten them very greatly. And the greater part of men, if they do good, do it more from fear of eternal punishment than hope of eternal good, since the punishments are more known to us than those eternal goods. And since this last device can benefit all men, of whatever class they are, the legislator, seeing the proneness of men to evil, and intending the common good, has decreed that the soul is immortal, not caring for truth but only for righteousness, so that he may bring men to virtue.52a

Most men, he thinks, are so simple mentally and so brutish morally that they must be treated as children or invalids. It is not wise to teach them the doctrines of philosophy. “These things,” he says of his own speculations, “are not to be communicated to common people, for they are incapable of receiving these secrets. We must beware even of holding discourse concerning them with ignorant priests.”53 He divides mankind into philosophers and religious persons, and innocently believes that “philosophers alone are the gods of the earth, and differ as much from all other men, of whatever rank and condition, as genuine men differ from those painted on canvas.”54

In humbler moments he realized the narrow limits of human reason, and the honorable futility of metaphysics. He pictured himself in his later years as worn and haggard with thought about it and about, and likened the philosopher to Prometheus, who, because he wished to steal fire from heaven—i.e., snatch at divine knowledge—was condemned to be bound to a rock and to have his heart gnawed at by a vulture endlessly.55 “The thinker who inquires into the divine mysteries is like Proteus…. The Inquisition persecutes him as a heretic, the multitude mocks him as a fool.”56

The controversies in which he engaged wore him down and helped to ruin his health. He suffered from one illness after another, until finally he determined to die. He chose a hard form of suicide: he starved himself to death. Resisting every argument and every threat, and triumphing even over force, he refused either to eat or to speak. After seven days of this regimen he felt that he had won his battle for the right to die, and might now safely speak. “I depart gladly,” he said. Some one asked him, “Where are you going?” “Where all mortals go,” he answered. His friends made a final effort to persuade him to eat, but he preferred to die (1525).57 Cardinal Gonzaga, who had been his pupil, had the remains transported to Mantua and buried there, and, with typical Renaissance tolerance, raised a statue to his memory.

Pomponazzi had put into philosophic form a skepticism that had for two centuries been attacking the foundations of Christian belief. The failure of the Crusades; the influx of Moslem ideas through Crusades, trade, and Arab philosophy; the removal of the papacy to Avignon and its ridiculous division in the Schism; the revelation of a pagan Greco-Roman world full of wise men and great art and yet without the Bible or the Church; the spread of education, and its increasing escape from ecclesiastical control; the immorality and worldliness of the clergy, even of popes, suggesting their private disbelief in the publicly professed creed; their use of the idea of purgatory to raise funds for their purposes; the reaction of the rising mercantile and moneyed classes against ecclesiastical domination; the transformation of the Church from a religious organization into a secular political power: all these factors, and many more, combined to make the Italian middle and upper classes, in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century, “the most skeptical of European peoples.”58

It is clear from the poetry of Politian and Pulci, and the philosophy of Ficino, that the circle of Lorenzo had no actual belief in another life; and the sentiment of Ferrara appears in the fun that Ariosto makes of the inferno that to Dante had seemed so frightfully real. Almost half the literature of the Renaissance is anticlerical. Many of the condottieri were open atheists;59 the cortigiani or courtiers were far less religious than the cortigiane or courtesans; and a polite skepticism was the mark and requisite of a gentleman.60Petrarch lamented the fact that in the minds of many scholars it was a sign of ignorance to prefer the Christian religion to pagan philosophy.61 In Venice, 1530, it was found that most of the upper ranks neglected their Easter duty—i.e., did not go to confession and communion even once a year.62 Luther claimed to have found a saying current among the educated classes in Italy on going to Mass: “Come, let us conform to the popular error.”63

As to the universities, a curious incident reveals the temper of professors and students. Shortly after Pomponazzi’s death his pupil Simone Porzio, invited to lecture at Pisa, chose as his text Aristotle’s Meteorology. The audience did not like the subject. Several cried out impatiently: Quid de anima?—“What about the soul?” Porzio had to set the Meteorology aside and take up Aristotle’s De anima; at once the audience was all attention.64 We do not know whether in that lecture Porzio expressed his belief that the human soul differs in no essential point from the soul of a lion or a plant; we do know that he so taught in his book De mente humana—On the Human Mind;65 and he seems to have escaped unharmed. Eugenio Tarralba, indicted by the Spanish Inquisition in 1528, related that as a youth he had studied in Rome under three teachers, all of whom taught that the soul was mortal.66 Erasmus was astonished to find that at Rome the fundamentals of the Christian faith were topics of skeptical discussion among the cardinals. One ecclesiastic undertook to explain to him the absurdity of belief in a future life; others smiled at Christ and the Apostles; many, he assures us, claimed to have heard papal functionaries blaspheming the Mass.67 The lower classes kept their faith, as we shall see; the thousands who heard Savonarola must have believed; and the example of Vittoria Colonna shows that piety could survive education. But the soul of the great creed had been pierced with the arrows of doubt; and the splendor of the medieval myth had been tarnished by its accumulated gold.

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