From Modern Philosophy: Essential Selections, by James Fieser


Copyright 2015, updated 1/1/2017



Petrarch: Stoicism

Pico Della Mirandola: Platonism

Thomas More: Epicureanism

Michel Montaigne: Skepticism

Giordano Bruno: Aristotelianism


The Renaissance was a European intellectual movement from around the 14th through the 16th centuries, which marked the close of the middle ages and the beginning of the modern period. The term “Renaissance”—a designation by later historians—comes from the French word for “rebirth” and specifically signifies a rebirth of classical Greek culture. The Renaissance movement began in Italy as a revival of ancient Greek artistic style, and soon encompass all cultural achievements, including philosophy. The revived interest in classics was further propelled by the invention of the movable type printing press in 1450, which allowed for wider distribution of books, both classical and modern. In its most general sense, the philosophy of the Renaissance was “humanism”, which was an appreciation of secular studies consisting of five humanities subjects: grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, and moral philosophy. But more specifically Renaissance philosophers affiliated themselves with one or more of the classical Greek schools of philosophy, namely, Platonism, Aristotelianism, Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Skepticism. The four selections below are vivid examples of this trend.

            The first selection is by Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374), better known as Petrarch, one of the earliest Renaissance figures who is sometimes called the father of humanism. Born in Tuscany, in central Italy, he was a famed poet and in 1341 crowned Rome’s poet laureate. He traveled widely, collecting forgotten Greek and Latin texts, and coined the expression “dark ages” in reference to what he believed was the low quality of medieval literature in comparison to the “light” of ancient Greece and Rome. The selections below, from Remedies for Fortune Fair and Foul (1360), show his affinity with Stoic philosophy. Published in manuscript form prior to the printing press, the work is 340 short dialogues between five characters—Joy, Hope, Fear, Despair, and Reason—who battle between optimistic and pessimistic outlooks in life. In what follows, Joy exalts freedom, which Reason counter-balances with a grim view that we could all become slaves at any moment, and the only true freedom is death. Despair next complains about handicap, shortness, weakness, sickness, and poverty. Reason then counters that there are moral benefits to all of our adversities, and so beauty and health are not as enviable as they seem to be. The Stoic perspective that emerges is that we should not be too confident with our good fortune, and learn to develop virtues from our misfortune.

            The second selection is by Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494). Born into a wealthy family near the city of Modena in Italy, he began his education aiming towards a career in the Church, but switched to philosophy and traveled to educational centers throughout Europe before dying at the early age of 31. He was an eclectic philosopher who drew from Greek, scholastic, Kabbalistic, and Arabic philosophical traditions, and is most associated with Renaissance Platonism. His texts below are from two sources. First, in A Platonic Discourse on Love (1486) he follows the views of Plato and Plotinus that ideas of beauty flow down from God to the Angels, and then from Angels to humans. Those who grasp the purest ideas of celestial love will attempt to reject the physical world and rise up to the divine world. In the same year Pico composed his Oration on Human Dignity, which he intended to be an opening speech for a public discussion of one of his books; the discussion never took place. In his oration he examines why humans are so unique among God’s creatures.

            The third selection is by English statesman Thomas More (1478-1535) from his book Utopia (1516). More was born in London, educated as an attorney, and held several political positions including Lord Chancellor. A loyal Catholic, he opposed Henry VIII’s marital annulment and his split from the Catholic Church, which eventually lead to charges of treason and his execution. Utopia (1516), one of his earlier works, describes an ideal island containing a society with a unique and highly efficient political, economic and social structure. The passages below describe the Epicurean philosophy followed by the Utopians, how it is compatible with religion, the types of pleasure that are to be pursued, and those that should not be pursued.

            The fourth selection is by French philosopher Michel Montaigne (1533-1592) from his book Essays (1580). Montaigne was born into a wealthy family in the Aquitaine region of France, worked in a government court of law, and at age 37 retired from public life, devoting himself to the study of literature. His Essays, is a collection of 107 chapters which unsystematically reflect on various topics. Many of his essays reflect his appreciation of ancient Greek skepticism, and in his discussions he repeatedly concludes with the statement “what do I know?” Passages are presented below from two of his essays. In “An Apology for Raymond Sebond” he attempts to defend 14th century Spanish philosopher Raymond Sebond against critics. Sebond argued that faith and reason can be harmonized, while his critics maintained that it cannot be. Montaigne argues that the division between faith and reason collapses since reason is fundamentally flawed. In “Of Custom” he defends the view that “custom is the best master of all things.”


PETRARCH: STOICISM (from Remedies for Fortune Fair and Foul, 1360)


No true Freedom, but only That in Death

            Joy: I was born in freedom.

            Reason: He is not free that is born, but he that dies. Fortune has power over those who come into the world, but no power over those who have gone out of it. Death overthrows strong cities, conquers valiant armies, and subdues mighty kingdoms. The grave is an impregnable castle where the worms take rule, and not fortune. Whoever therefore has stepped into that liberty, of all people they are alone free from the abuses of this life. You boast that you are free, but you do not know whether you will enter this day a freeman, I do not mean to your grave, but to your bedroom. Your liberty hangs by a weak thread, as do all things that you firmly trust.

            Joy: I am a free man!

            Reason: I suppose you call yourself a free man, for the reason that you have no master; but hear what Seneca says: do you not know at what age Hecuba and Cresus, and the mother of Darius, and Plato, and Diogenes came into bondage? Or do you forget Reguhis and Valerianus? The one was made a slave to the Carthagenians: the other to the Persians. The one was consumed with servitude, the other put to a cruel death. What shall I say of Syphax and Persius, the kings of Macedon and Numedia, who fell down from the top of their kingdoms, into the Roman fetters. How many in your own time have been thrown out of the court into prison? How many kings made slaves in bondage? The happier in freedom, the more miserable in bondage. Therefore, do not be proud of your liberty. It is indeed a very sweet thing to enjoy, but the loss of it is the more to be in question, for the face of human things change daily.

            Further, do not think yourself a free man because you have no master, or are born of free parents, or was never taken prisoner in war, or sold for a slave. You have invincible masters of your minds, hidden enemies and inward wars. For a small price you miserably sell your souls to sin, and are tied to vile pleasures with indissoluble chains. Go your way, boasting of your freedom, and judge him to be bound who is subject to one mortal master. But as for him that is oppressed with a thousand immortal tyrants, him you account free. Even finely as you make judgment of other things, truly it is not good fortune that makes a man free, it is virtue. If you would be wise, just, modest, patient, intrepid, or godly, then you are free indeed.

            Joy: But I am not only free myself, but I was born in a free and famous country.

            Reason: You have also known countries, and cities that have been enslaved as well as men. Of ancient examples, the most free cities of Lacedemon and of Athens, first suffered a civil, and afterward a foreign yoke. The holy city of Jerusalem, the mother of everlasting liberty, was in temporal subjection to the Romans and the Assyrians, and is now in captivity to the Egyptians. Rome itself, not only a free city, but the lady of nations, was first enslaved to her own citizens, and afterward to the most vile persons. Thus, no man can ever trust to his own freedom, or to the freedom of his empire.


No Cause to Complain with Handicap, Shortness, Weakness, Sickness, Poverty

            Despair: I fear the numerous evils that come on with declining life, and you must allow that deformity of body, in age as well as in youth, is held in contempt.

            Reason: By the evil, it is; whose contempt is honor! If Paris had been so fortunate, Troy might have stood; and he might not have fallen wickedly.

            Despair: Everyone desires the beauty of the body.

            Reason: On the contrary: no good men desire, and many have rejected, this vanity. A Tuscan youth, by his own choice, mangled his beautiful face, which he perceived to be suspected of many, enemy to his own good name, and hurtful to the honesty of others; far unlike you in your admiration!

            Despair: If beauty may be dismissed, a short stature is surely contemptible.

            Reason: Why so? Seeing all of this stature are more nimble, light, and dapper. Who can argue that just as a big man dwells in a little house, so may great virtue, and even great courage dwell in a small body. Whoever complained of a small burden? Truly, to be sorry that you have a body, so useful a necessity, and that you are not oppressed with its load, is a fine cause of complaint! Virtue does not require the stature of the body, but of the mind. If that is tall, right, magnificent, and attractive, it matters not, believe me, what the other is, no, not even in the battle! Marius chose tough, not tall, soldiers. Length of body may carry majesty, but it is seen to diminish from force. Alexander, Augustus Caesar, and King David were short in stature, and I never heard that this hindered their fame.

            Despair: But weakness oftens attend the small.

            Reason: A sword of steel may be hidden in a rotten sheath, and a sound mind in a crazy body. If so, you are not indeed suited to carry loads, nor to dig and plow land; but you are suited for honest studies and just leadership. As in a ship, the stronger sort are set to handle the axe, but the wiser to guide the helm. If weakness does repulse you from viler functions, be happy with the nobler ones. Leave the others to ploughmen, sailors, and smiths. Milo, and Hercules, in age, could not surpass you in desired strength. But the strength of Socrates, Solon, Nestor, and Cato did not decay with the vessels in which it was enclosed. Strength is a matter of degree, and nature has been most bountiful. She has made the elephant and the ox much stronger than any human. Do you then complain that she has not made you an ox or an elephant? Believe me, she distributes to her children everything that is sufficient for them; and is more loving toward them than they are toward their own offspring. Inequality is the beauty of the world: take away variety, and the world will surely perish.

            Despair: But if the body is sickly, surely that is to be complained of?

            Reason: By no means, for sickness, is the guardian of modesty, and the friend of religion since your body is only a certain house of your mind. It will last a few days in the time of your life. But if it strikes you down, it will be your happy exist from it, to an everlasting and undecaying mansion! The strong in body and weak in wisdom are most similar to animals. Consider the excellent person who from a low position, from the water and his fishing nets, was advanced to the skies and made a keeper of the gates of heaven, whose only shadow drove away the sicknesses and infirmities of the body. He was asked once why he allowed his own daughter to be injured with a grievous sickness. He answered that it is beneficial for her for this to be so: to the degree that we can , we should cure our own soul, and our body will either be cured or freed by the heavenly Physician.

            Despair: But it is painful to be sick.

            Reason: Certainly, for the present, no pain is joyous but rather grievous. Nevertheless, it is a good and glorious pain, since it works the fruits of virtue in the patient.

            Despair: But poverty must be grievous!

            Reason: Yet poverty preserved the city of Rome for many hundred years. When she left poverty, the city fell.

            Despair: But poverty in a home is lamentable!

            Reason: Her entrance is somewhat sharp and bitter, and, like a traveling visitor, armed at all points. Yet when once received into familiarity, she will be a guest, nothing sumptuous indeed, but quiet and gentle.

            Despair: But how can that be, when she breaks the spirit?

            Reason: She breaks the spirit of the proud, but not the spirit of the humble. It is grievous to those that resist her, but pleasant to them that give her place. She preserves them from many evils, for she is a passing diligent watcher. She saves them from thieves but also from pleasures that are worse than thieves, such as the ridiculous judgments of outward appearance and the disgrace of greed and wasteful extravagance. These are common in the wide halls of the rich. But in the cottages of the poor there is no room for pride, no store for envy, no fear of losses nor of deceit. There is no overabundance and loathsomeness. Nor is there gout, that unfailing quest of the rich! All which being shut out of doors, health, quietness, and virtue, shall have the larger entertainment: and they will bring their own welcome.

            Despair: But to be denied proper food and apparel cannot be a comfort.

            Reason: Virtue is pleased with a very little; vice is not pleased with any blessing that can be given her. Virtue denies nothing but what would hurt being granted, and it takes away nothing but what it is profitable to lose. She deserves nothing, she commands nothing. She does not pluck back her hand, or frown, for look strangely. She despises, forsakes or deceives no one. She does not chase, or rage, or change. She is always one, and everywhere to be found if it is truly sought.




Platonism: Ideas of Love Transfer from God to Angels to Humans (from A Platonic Discourse on Love, 1486, Sects. 1.2, 2.10)

Platonists distinguish created things into three degrees. The first includes physical and visible things, such as the sky, the elements, and everything made from them. The third is the invisible and nonphysical, which are completely free from bodies and which are properly called “intellectual natures” and are divine and angelical. Between these is a middle nature, which though nonphysical, invisible, and immortal, they nevertheless move bodies, as is necessary for their function. These are called “rational souls” and are inferior to angels yet superior to bodies. They are ruled by the angels, yet are rulers of bodies. Above all of these is God himself, the author and principle of every creature, and in him divinity has a causal existence. It is from him that divinity proceeds to the angels in their formal existence, and from there divinity is derived into rational souls through participation in their luster. Below that nature nothing can assume the title of the divine. . . .

            From God ideas descend into the angelic second mind, by which the love of intellectual beauty is produced in her, called “divine love”. The same ideas then descend from the angelic mind into the rational soul, so much the more imperfect in her, as she lacks of angelic perfection. From these springs humane love. Plato discourses about the first, Plotinus about the latter. . . . Man may be understood by the rational soul, either considered apart [from the body], or in its union to the body. Because of this, in the first sense, human love is the image of the celestial. In the second sense, it is desire of sensible beauty, which involves the soul abstracted from matter, and (as much as its nature will allow) made intellectual. The greater part of men reach no higher than this. Other peoples are more perfect and remember that more perfect beauty which the soul witnessed (before it was immersed in the body); they are inflamed with an incredible desire of remembering it, in pursuit of it they separate themselves as much as possible from the body, of which the soul (returning to its first dignity) becomes absolute mistress. This is the image of celestial love, by which man arises from one perfection to another, until his soul (wholly united to the intellect) is made an angel. Purged from material rubbish and transformed into spiritual flame by this divine power, he rises up to the intelligible heaven, and happily rests in his father’s bosom.


Common Explanations of Human Uniqueness Miss the Point (from Oration on Human Dignity, 1486)

Reverend Fathers: In the writings of the Arabians, I have read that Abdula the Saralen was asked what on the “world’s stage,” as they say, is the most wondrous. He replied, “There is no greater wonder than humanity.” Mercury agrees with this opinion: “A magnificent miracle is humanity!” (Asclepius 1:6). But I am dissatisfied when considering the reasons for these assertions [such as the following]. Man intermediates between all creatures, being familiar with the gods, yet rulers of inferior creatures. We interpret nature by the sharpness of our senses, the judgment of our reason, and the light of our intelligence. We are the moment between eternity’s permanence, and the passage of time. As the Persians say, we are the binding force, no, the marriage union of the world. According to David, we are “just a little beneath the angels” (Psalms 8:5). These reasons are great, but not the principal ones. That is, they do not possess the privilege of the highest admiration. For, why should we not have more admiration for the angels and the beautiful heavenly choirs? Ultimately, it seems to me, I now understand why man is the most fortunate of creatures, and worthy of complete admiration. I understand what their allotted position is in the hierarchy of beings, which is a role envied by the animals, by the stars, and by the minds beyond the world. It is something wonderful beyond faith. And why not? It is for this reason that man is justly deemed a great miracle, and truly wonderful creature. So, with receptive ears, Fathers, listen attentively to what I say.


Each Person Selects his/her Own Spot in the Chain of Created Things

By the laws of his hidden wisdom, God the father and master architect built this worldly home which we observe, a most sacred temple of his divinity. The areas above the heavens he gave minds. He gave animated souls to the celestial spheres. He filled the dregs of the lower world with a variety of animals. But when finished, the architect wished that there would be someone to appreciate the work, to love its beauty, and marvel at its size. Thus, all other things finished, as Moses and Timaeus report, he finally considered creating man. But there was nothing in his archetypes from which he could form new progeny, nor anything in his supply house which he might bequeath to a new son, nor was there an empty chair in which this new being could sit and contemplate the world. All places were filled. Everything had been assigned in the highest, middle, and lowest orders. But in this last task, it was not part of the Father’s power to give up as though exhausted. It was not part of his wisdom to waver because of a lack of a clear plan. It was not part of his living kindness that he should be praised for his generosity to others, but condemned for lack of it on himself. Finally, the master architect declared that this creature, to whom nothing unique could be given, should be a composite, and have that which belonged exclusively to all other things.

            Thus, God took humanity, creatures of indeterminate form, placed them in a middle place in the world, and said this: “I have given you, Adam, neither a fixed place nor a fixed form of your own. You may possess any place or any form as you desire. The laws ordained by me establish a limited nature for all other creatures. In accord with your free will, your destiny is in your own hands and you are confined to no bounds. You will fix the limits of your nature yourself. I have put you in the world’s center so that you may look around and examine the world’s content. I have made you neither heavenly nor earthly, neither mortal nor immortal. You may freely and honorably mold, make, and sculpt yourself into any shape you prefer. You can degenerate into the forms of the lower animals, or climb upward by your soul’s reason, to a higher nature which is divine.”

            What great generosity of God the Father! What great and wonderful happiness of humanity! It is given him to have what he wants and to be what he wants. The animals at the time of their birth, bring with them from “their mother’s womb” (as Lucilius said) all that they shall possess. The higher spirits were immediately, or shortly after, what they were intended to be for eternity. But in embryionic humanity, the Father gave seeds of all kinds and the germs of all kinds of life. They each will have grown and will grow in him. With the vegetative, he may become a plant. With the appetitive he may become an animal. With the rational he may rise to the rank of heavenly. With the intellective he may be an angel and a son of God. If he is not content with any of these creatures, he may occupy himself at his center, become one with the Spirit of God, in the solitary darkness of the Father, who is above all things. Who would not admire our chameleon, or, indeed, what else could be more admirable? . . .


Climbing Higher towards Divinity

But what is the end of all this? It is to make us understand that it is up to us, that our native condition allows us to be what we want. Above all, it is to ensure that we will not be accused of ignoring our highest duty, becoming like pack animals and irrational creatures. Rather let us agree with the prophet Asaph: “You are all gods and sons of the Most High”. Let us not abuse the extreme generosity of the Father’s indulgence by using free choice for our detriment rather than salvation. Let a kind of sacred ambition invade our minds and make us dissatisfied with mediocrity so that we aspired to summits and work with all our strength to achieve them. For, we can do this if we want. Let us despise the things of the earth, and even care nothing for the astral orders, devaluing all that is in the world, and fly to the court which stands beyond the world near the highest Divinity. . . .




Pleasure the Highest Good, supported by both Religion and Reason

As to moral philosophy, the Utopians have the same disputes among them as we have here. They examine what are properly good both for the body and the mind, and whether any outward thing can be called truly good, or if that term belongs only to the attributes of the soul. They also inquire into the nature of virtue and pleasure. But their chief dispute concerns the happiness of a human, and wherein it consists: is it in some one thing, or in a great many? They seem, indeed, more inclinable to the opinion that places, if not the whole, yet the main part of a person’s happiness in pleasure. What may seem stranger, they make use of arguments even from religion, notwithstanding its severity and sternness, for the support of that opinion so indulgent to pleasure. For they never dispute concerning happiness without using some arguments from the principles of religion, as well as from natural reason, since without the former they suppose that all our inquiries after happiness must be but conjectural and defective.

            These are their religious principles: that the soul of man is immortal, and that God in his goodness has designed that it should be happy; and that he has therefore appointed rewards for good and virtuous actions, and punishments for vice, to be distributed after this life. Though these principles of religion are conveyed down among them by tradition, they think that even reason itself determines a man to believe and acknowledge them, and freely confess that if these were taken away it would be seem sensible for people to seek after pleasure by all possible means, lawful or unlawful. They say this using only this caution, that a lesser pleasure might not stand in the way of a greater, and that no pleasure ought to be pursued that should draw a great deal of pain after it. They think it the silliest thing in the world to pursue any virtue that is a bitter and difficult thing, and, not only to renounce the pleasures of life, but willingly to undergo much pain and trouble, if a man has no prospect of a reward. What reward can there be for one that has passed his whole life, not only without pleasure, but in pain, if there is nothing to be expected after death? Yet they do not place happiness in all sorts of pleasures, but only in those that in themselves are good and honest.


Advancing Pleasure for both Others and Oneself

There is a school among them who place happiness in bare virtue; others think that our natures are conducted by virtue to happiness, as that which is the chief good of man. They define virtue thus, that it is a living according to nature, and think that we are made by God for that end. They believe that a person then follows the dictates of nature when he pursues or avoids things according to the direction of reason. They say that the first dictate of reason is the kindling in us of a love and reverence for the Divine Majesty, to whom we owe both all that we have and all that we can ever hope for. In the next place, reason directs us to keep our minds as free from passion and as cheerful as we can, and that we should consider ourselves as bound by the ties of good-nature and humanity to use our utmost endeavors to help forward the happiness of all other persons. For there never was any person such a morose and severe pursuer of virtue (such an enemy to pleasure, that though he set hard rules for people to undergo much pain, many watchings, and other rigors) yet did not at the same time advise them to do all they could, in order to relieve and ease the miserable, and who did not represent gentleness and good-nature as amiable dispositions.

            Thus, a person ought to advance the welfare and comfort of the rest of mankind, since there is no virtue more proper and peculiar to our nature than to ease the miseries of others, to free from trouble and anxiety, in furnishing them with the comforts of life, in which pleasure consists; from this they infer that nature much more vigorously leads them to do all this for himself. A life of pleasure is either a real evil, and in that case we ought not to assist others in their pursuit of it, but, rather, keep them from it all we can just as we would from that which is most hurtful and deadly; or, if it is a good thing, so that we not only may, but ought to help others to it, why, then, ought not a person to begin with himself? For no one can be more bound to look after the good of another than after his own. For nature cannot direct us to be good and kind to others, and yet at the same time to be unmerciful and cruel to ourselves. Thus, as they define virtue to be living according to nature, so they imagine that nature prompts all people on to seek after pleasure, as the end of all they do.


Compatibility between Private and Public Pleasure

They also observe, that in order for us to support the pleasures of life, nature inclines us to enter into society. For no one is raised above the rest of mankind so as to be the only favorite of nature. On the contrary, nature seems to have placed on the same level all those that belong to the same species. From this they infer that no person ought to seek his own conveniences so eagerly as to harm others. Therefore they think that not only all agreements between private persons ought to be observed, but likewise that all those laws ought to be kept—that is, laws which either a good prince has published in due form, or to which a people that is neither oppressed with tyranny nor circumvented by fraud, has consented, for distributing those conveniences of life which afford us all our pleasures).

            They think it is an evidence of true wisdom for a man to pursue his own advantages as far as the laws allow it. They account it piety to prefer the public good to one’s private concerns. But they think it is unjust for a person to seek for pleasure by snatching another person’s pleasures from him. On the contrary, they think it a sign of a gentle and good soul, for a man to dispense with his own advantage for the good of others. By this means a good man finds as much pleasure one way as he parts with another. He may expect the same from others when he may come to need it. But even if that does not happen, the sense of a good action, and the reflections that he makes on the love and gratitude of those whom he has so obliged, gives the mind more pleasure than the body could have found in that from which it had restrained itself. They are also persuaded that God will make up the loss of those small pleasures, with a vast and endless joy, of which religion easily convinces a good soul.


Types of Pleasure: Bodily, Mental, Natural, No Lingering Bad Effects

Thus, upon an inquiry into the whole matter, they hold that all our actions, and even all our virtues, terminate in pleasure as our chief end and greatest happiness. They call every motion or state a pleasure, either of body or mind, in which nature teaches us to delight. They cautiously limit pleasure to those appetites which nature leads us to. For, they say that nature leads us only to those delights to which reason as well as sense carries us, and those by which we neither injure any other person nor lose the possession of greater pleasures, and of such as draw no troubles after them. But they look upon those delights which men, by a foolish, though common mistake, call pleasure (as if they could change the nature of things as easily as terms), as greatly obstructing instead of advancing their real happiness. For these so entirely possess the minds once captivated by them with false notions of pleasure, that no room is left for that of a truer and purer kind.


Criticism of Artificial Pleasures: Fine Clothes, Respect for the Upper Class

There are many things that in themselves have nothing that is truly delightful. On the contrary, they have a good deal of bitterness in them. Yet from our perverse appetites after forbidden objects, these are not only ranked among pleasures, but are made even the greatest aims of life. Among those who pursue these sophisticated pleasures, as I mentioned before, are those who think themselves really the better for having fine clothes. The Utopians think they are doubly mistaken, both in the opinion that they have of their clothes, and in that they have of themselves. For if you consider the use of clothes, why should a fine thread be thought better than a coarse one? And yet these men (as if they had some real advantages beyond others, and did not owe them wholly to their mistakes) look big, seem to think themselves to be more valuable, and imagine that a respect is due to them because of a rich coat, to which they would not have pretended if they had been more humbly clothed. These people even resent it as an affront, if that respect is not paid them. It is also a great folly to show outward marks of respect, which signify nothing. For what true or real pleasure can one man find in another taking off his hat or bowing to him? Will the bending of another man’s knees give ease to yours? And will the head’s being bare cure the madness in yours? Nevertheless, it is wonderful to see how this false idea of pleasure bewitches many. How they delight themselves with the thought of their nobility, and are pleased with the conceit of having ancestors who have been deemed for some successions rich,—for this is all that at present constitutes nobility. Yet they do not consider themselves a bit less noble, though their immediate parents left none of this wealth to them, or though themselves have squandered it all.




Response to First Criticism: Religious knowledge is Grounded in Faith, but Reason can Assist (from “Apology for Raymond Sebond”)

Shortly before my father’s death he accidentally found this book [the Natural Theology by Raymond Sebond] under a pile of other neglected papers and commanded me to translate it into French for him. . . . It was a strange and a new occupation for me, but having by chance at that time little else to do, and not being able to resist the command of the best father that ever was, I did it as well as I could. He was so well pleased with it as to order it to be printed, which after his death, was done. I found the imaginations of this author exceedingly fine, the interconnection of his work well followed up, and his design full of piety. Because many people take a delight in reading it, and particularly the women, to whom we owe the most service, I have often been asked to assist them to clear the book of two principal objections. Sebond’s purpose is strong and bold. By human and natural reasoning he undertakes to establish all the articles of Christian religion, contrary to the atheists. He is, in truth, so firm and successful, that I doubt it is possible to do better on that subject, and I doubt that he has been equaled. To me, the work seemed too beautiful and rich for such an unknown author, of whom all we know is that he was a Spanish physics professor at Thoulouse about 200 years ago. I asked Adrian Turnebus, who knows everything, what he thought of the book. He answered that he thought it was an abstract drawn from St. Thomas Aquinas since only Aquinas’s wit, learning, and subtlety could produce those thoughts. So, whoever was the author and inventor (without more argument it is not reasonable to deprive Sebond of that title), he was a person of great sufficiency and admirable abilities.

            The first objection that they make to his work is that Christians should not base their belief upon human reasoning, as it is only the result of faith and the particular inspiration of divine grace. This objection contains a certain zeal for piety and, thus, with courtesy and respect we should address those who offer it. This is a task more proper for a person well-read in divinity than for me who knows nothing of it. Nevertheless, I conceive that this Truth—with which it has pleased the goodness of Almighty God to enlighten us—is a thing so divine, so high, and so far transcending all human intelligence. Because of this, it very necessary that God should lend us his assistance, by extraordinary privilege and favor, to conceive and imprint it in our understandings. I do not believe that any type of purely human efforts are capable of doing it. For, if they were, so many rare and excellent souls in former ages, so abundantly furnished with natural power, would have not failed to arrive at this knowledge by their reason. It is faith alone that grasps the deep mysteries of our religion. I do not say, though, that it is not a brave and admirable attempt to use our God-given natural and human abilities to the service of our faith. It is undoubtedly the noblest use we can put them to. . . . I know an important, well educated person who confessed to me that Sebond’s arguments saved him from serious error. . . .


Response to Second Criticism: Many Truths Known without Reason

Some [other critics of Sebond] say that his arguments are weak and unfit to make good what he proposes, and undertake with great ease to refute them. These are to be a little more roughly handled; for they are more dangerous and malicious than the first. . . . Let us see, then, if man has in his power some more forcible and convincing reasons than those of Sebond – especially people who are inclined to arrive at certainty by arguments and reasons. St. Augustine, disputing against such people, justly criticizes them for maintaining that our beliefs must be false if they cannot be established by reason. He cleverly offers specific experiments to show that a great variety of known and indubitable things cannot be demonstrated by our natural reason, such as when people confess that they see nothing. Without drawing from unusual examples (as Augustine does) we must do more than this so they will see the weakness of their reason. Consider: reason is so blind that there is no faculty clear enough to distinguish the easy and the hard; nature in general challenges reason’s authority and rejects its mediation in all subjects equally; what does Truth mean when she preaches to us to reject worldly philosophy, or when she so frequently dictates to us “that our wisdom is folly in the sight of God? The vainest of all vanities is humanity; the person who presumes upon his wisdom does not yet know what wisdom is; a person seduces and deceives himself if he thinks himself to be something when in fact he is nothing.” These sentences of the Holy Ghost [from the Bible] clearly and vividly express what I am saying, and I need no other proof against people who would submit to the Holy Spirit’s authority with humility and obedience. But those others will not tolerate anyone to oppose their reasoning, except by reasoning itself; thus they will be punished at their own expense.


Pyrrhonism: Ignorance is better than Reason, Leads to Tranquility, and Purges Itself

Suppose that learning and knowledge actually produced the effects they speak of. That is, they could blunt and soften the sharpness of the misfortunes that follow us. Does it do this any better than what ignorance accomplishes much more clearly and simply? The philosopher Pyrrho was at sea, and because of a violent storm was in great danger of being thrown overboard. He offered no comfort to those that were with him in the ship except to follow the example of a pig that was on board. For, nothing at all distressed the pig, who seemed to watch and outstare the storm. Philosophy, after all her principles, ultimately has us follow the examples of a wrestler or a mule-driver. For in them we see less feeling of death, pain, grief, and other inconveniences. They exhibit a more courageous consistency than learning or knowledge could ever give someone, unless, through an inborn habit, he prepared for it. . . . . We are told that the people of Brazil die only from old age, and they attributed this to the serenity and tranquility of the air they live in. But I attribute it to the serenity and tranquility of their soul, free from all passion, thought, or employments, continuous or unpleasing, as people that pass over their lives in an admirable simplicity and ignorance, without letters, without law, without king, or any manner of religion. . . .

            That ignorance which knows, judges, and condemns itself is not an absolute ignorance. For to be so, it must be completely ignorant of itself. Thus, the profession of the Pyrrhonians is to waver, to doubt, to inquire, and never be assured of anything nor explain himself. Of the three functions or faculties of the soul (i.e. the imaginative, the appetite, and the consenting), they follow the first two, but the last they believe is ambiguous and hold neither one side nor the other with approval or inclination. ... This straight and inflexible attitude of their judgment, receiving all objects without adoption or consent, leads them to their tranquility. This is the condition of a quiet and settled life, which is exempt from the agitations which we receive by the impression of the opinion and knowledge which we imagine to have of things. For from such claims to knowledge arise fear, avarice, envy, passionate desires, ambition, pride, superstition, love of novelty, rebellion, disobedience, obstinacy, and a great number of bodily evils. Indeed, with this attitude they exempt themselves from jealousy within their own discipline. For, they argue only mildly. The do not fear rebuttal or contradiction in their arguments. When they say that heavy things fall downward, they would hate to be believed and wish to be contradicted. This, in turn, brings about doubt and suspense of judgment, which is their purpose. They put forward their propositions only to criticize those they imagine we believe in. If you take their side, then they will try to maintain the opposite view. It is all the same to them, nor do they have a preference. If you propose that snow is black, they will argue on the other side that snow is white. If you say it is neither one nor the other, they will maintain that it is both. . . .

            I understand why the Pyrrhonian philosophers cannot by any manner of speech express their general conception. To do so, they would need a new language. Our language is completely composed of affirmative propositions, which are directly against the Pyrrhonians. Thus, when they say “I doubt” you have them by the throat to make them admit that they doubt; at least you are assured of and know this. So they have been compelled to save themselves with the following comparison from medicine, without which their attitude would be inexplicable. When they say, “I don’t know,” or “I doubt,” they say, that this proposition expels itself along with other propositions, just as rhubarb [i.e. a laxative] purges one of bad humors and is itself purged. This attitude is more clearly seen in the question “What do I know?” I bear these words as inscribed on a pair of balances.


Custom the Foundation of all Values (from “Of Custom”)

It seems to me that the power of custom is rightly conveyed by the person who first invented this story. A country woman accustomed herself to play with and carry a young calf in her arms, and did so daily as it grew up. By this custom, when grown to be a great ox, she was still able to carry it. In truth, custom is a violent and treacherous teacher. Little by little, she slyly and imperceptibly slips in the foot of her authority. But after this gentle and humble beginning, when it becomes fixed and established through the benefit of time, she then unmasks a furious and tyrannical appearance, against which we have no more the courage or the power as to even lift up our eyes. At every turn we see her forcing and violating the rules of nature: “Custom is the best master of all things.” . . .

            To conclude; there is nothing, in my opinion, that custom does not, or may not do; and therefore, with very good reason it is that Pindar calls her the ruler of the world. He that was seen to beat his father, and criticized for so doing, answered that it was the custom of their family; that, in like manner, his father had beaten his grandfather, his grandfather his great-grandfather, “And this,” says he, pointing to his son, “when he comes to my age, will beat me.” And the father, whom the son dragged and hauled along the streets, commanded him to stop at a certain door, for he himself, he said, had dragged his father no farther, that being the utmost limit of the hereditary outrage the sons used to practice upon the fathers in their family. It is as much by custom as infirmity, says Aristotle, that women tear their hair, bite their nails, and eat coals and earth, and more by custom than nature that men abuse themselves with each other.

            The laws of conscience, which we pretend to be derived from nature, proceed from custom. Since everyone has an inward reverence for the opinions and manners approved of and received among his own people, no one can, without very great reluctance, depart from them, or apply himself to them without approval. . . . It is by the mediation of custom that everyone is content with the place where he is planted by nature; and the Highlanders of Scotland no more desire Touraine; than the Scythians desired Thessaly. . . . Whoever would disengage himself from this violent prejudice of custom, would find several things that were accepted with absolute and undoubting opinion that in fact have no other support than the aged head and wrinkled face of ancient usage. But when the mask is taken off, and things are referred to the decision of truth and reason, he will find his judgment as it were altogether overthrown, and yet restored to a much more sure estate.


GIORDANO BRUNO: ARISTOTELIANISM (from Concerning the Cause, the Principle, and the One 1584, Dialogue 2)


Science Discovers only Proximate Physical Causes, not Hidden Ultimate Causes and Principles

            Dixon: You say, Theophilus, that everything which is not a first principle and a first cause, has such a principle and such a cause?

            Theophilus: Without doubt and without the least controversy.

            Dixon: Do you believe, accordingly, that whoever knows the things thus caused and originated must know the ultimate cause and principle?

Theophilus: Not easily the proximate cause or the proximate principle; it would be extremely difficult to recognize even the traces of an ultimate cause and creative principle.

            Dixon: Then how do you think that those things which have a first and a proximate cause and principle can be really known, if their efficient cause (which is one of the things which contribute to the true knowledge of things) is hidden?

Theophilus: I grant you that it is easy to set forth the theory of proof, but the proof itself is difficult. It is very practical to set forth the causes, circumstances, and methods of sciences. But after-ward our method-makers and analytical scholars can use but awkwardly their logic [organum], the principles of their methods, and their arts of arts.

Gervasius: It is like those who know how to make fine swords, but do not know how to use them.

Polyhymnius: Yes, indeed.

Gervasius: May your eyes be closed so that you may never be able to open them.

            Theophilus: I would say, then, that one should not expect the natural philosopher to make plain all causes and principles; but only the physical, and only the principal and most essential of these. Although these depend upon the first cause and first princi­ple, and can be said to possess such a cause and principle, this is, in any case, not such a necessary relation that from the knowledge of the one the knowledge of the other would follow. Therefore, one should not expect that in the same science both should be set forth.

            Dixon: How is that?

            Theophilus: Because from the knowledge of all dependent things, we are unable to infer other knowledge of first cause and principle, than by the somewhat ineffective method of traces. All things are, indeed, derived from the Creator's will or goodness, which is the principle of His works, and from which proceeds the uni­versal effect. The same consideration arises in the case of works of art, in so much as he who sees the statue does not see the sculptor. He who sees the portrait of Helen does not see Apelles, but he sees only the result of the work which comes from the merit and genius of Apelles. This work is entirely an effect of the accidents and circumstances of the substance of that man, who, as to his absolute essence, is not in the least known.

            Dixon: So, to know the universe is like knowing nothing of the being and substance of the first principle, because it is like knowing the accidents of the accidents.

            Theophilus: Exactly, but I would not have you imagine that I mean that in God himself there are Accidents, or that He could be known, as it were, by His Accidents.

            Dixon: I do not attribute to you so crude a thought, and I know that it is one thing to say that the things extraneous to the divine nature are accidents, another thing to say that they are His accidents, and yet another thing to say that they are, as it were, His accidents: By the last way of speaking I believe you mean that they are the effects of the divine activity; but that these effects, in so far as they may be the substance of things, and even the natural substances themselves, in any case are, as it were, the remotest accidents whereby we merely touch an appre­hension of the divine supernatural essence.

            Theophilus: Well said.

            Dixon: Observe, then that we can know nothing of the divine substance as well because it is infinite and extremely remote from its effects (while these effects are the furthest boundary of the source of our reasoning faculties). Although we might by means of traces as the Platonists say, or of remote effects as the Peripatetic philosophers say, or of the dress or outer covering as say the Cabalists, or of the mere shoulders and back as the Tal­mudists say, or of the mirror, the shadow, the enigma as the Apocalyptic writers say.

            Theophilus: This is all the more the case because we do not see perfectly this universe whose substance and principle are so diffi­cult of comprehension. It follows that with far less ground can we know the first principle and cause through its effect, than Apelles may be known through the statue he has made. For the statue all may see and examine, part by part; but not so the grand and infinite effect of the Divine Power. Therefore our simile should be understood not as a matter of close comparison.

            Dixon: Thus it is, and thus I understand it.

            Theophilus: It would be well, then, to abstain from speaking of so lofty a matter.

            Dixon: I agree to that, because it suffices, morally and theologi­cally, to know the first principle in so far as higher spirits have revealed it, and divine men have declared it. Beyond this point, not only whatever Law and Theology you will, but also all wise philosophy has held it as a profane and turbulent dispo­sition, to rush into demanding reasons and definitions for such things as are above the sphere of our intelligence.

            Theophilus: Very good: but these do not deserve blame so much as those deserve praise who struggle towards the knowledge of that cause and principle; who learn its grandeur as much as possi­ble by allowing the eyes of their well-regulated minds to roam amongst the magnificent stars, — those luminous bodies which are so many habitable worlds, vast and animate, and are most excellent deities. These seem, and are, countless worlds not unlike that which contains us. It is impossible that these can have their existence of themselves, considering that they are composite and dissoluble (although not for that reason do they deserve annihilation, as has been well said in the Timaeus). It is needful that they should know their principle and cause; and consequently with the grandeur of their existence, of their life and of their works, they show and set forth, in infinite space, with innumerable voices the infinite excellence and majesty of their first principle and cause. Leaving then (as you say) those considerations in so far as they are superior to all sense and in­tellect, we will consider that principle and cause in so far as, in its traces, it either is identical with nature itself, or lies revealed to us in the extent and in the lap of nature. Question me, then, in order, if you wish me to answer you in order. . . .


Universal Intellect is the Universal Physical Efficient Cause

            Dixon: I wish you to devote your attention first to the Causes and then to the Principles. As to the Causes, I desire first to know about the first efficient cause, about the formal cause, which you say is conjoined to the efficient; and, lastly, about the final cause, which is understood to be the power which moves this.

            Theophilus: The order of discourse which you propose pleases me much. Now as to the efficient cause: I assert that the universal physical efficient cause is the universal Intellect, which is the first and principal faculty of the world-soul and which is the universal form of the Cosmos.

            Dixon: Your thought appears to me to be not only in agreement with that of Empedocles, but more certain, more distinct, and more explicit, and also (in so far as I can see from the above) more profound. Yet you will give me pleasure if you will explain the whole more in detail, beginning by informing me just what is that universal intellect.

            Theophilus: The universal intellect is the most intimate, real, and essential faculty and effective part of the world-soul. This is one and the same thing which fills the whole, illumines the universe and directs nature to produce the various species as is fitting, and has the same relation to the production of natural things as our intellect to the parallel production of our general ideas. The Pythagoreans call this the moving spirit and propelling power of the universe; as says the poet, " Infused through the members, mind vitalizes the whole mass and is mingled with the whole body." The Platonic philosophers call this the world-builder. This builder (they say) proceeds from the higher world (which is, in fact, one) to this world of sense, which is divided into many, and in which not only harmony but also discord reigns, because it is divided into parts. This intellect, infusing and extending something of its own into matter, restful and motionless in itself, produces all things. By the Magi this intelli­gence is called most fruitful of seeds, or even the seed-sower, since it is He who impregnates matter with all its forms, and according to the type and condition of these succeeds in shap­ing, forming, and arranging all in such admirable order, as cannot be attributed to chance, or to any principle 'which cannot consciously distinguish or arrange. Orpheus calls this Intellect the eye of the world, because it sees all natural objects, both within and without, in order that all things may succeed in producing and maintaining themselves in their proper symmetry, not only intrinsically but also extrinsically. By Em­pedocles it is called the Distinguisher, since it never wearies of unfolding the confused forms within the breast of matter or of calling forth the birth of one thing from the corruption of, another. Plotinus calls it the father and progenitor, because it distributes seeds throughout the field of nature, and is the proxi­mate dispenser of forms.

            By us this Intellect is called the inner artificer, because it forms and shapes material objects from within, as from within the seed or the root is sent forth and unfolded the trunk, from within the trunk are put forth the branches, from within the branches the finished twigs, and from within the twigs unfurl the buds, and there within are woven like nerves, leaves, flowers and fruits; and inversely, at certain times the sap is recalled from the flowers and fruits to the twigs, from the twigs to the branches, from the branches to the trunk, and from the trunk to the root. Just so it is with animals; its work proceeding from the original seed, and from the center of the heart, to the external members, and from these finally gathering back to the heart the unfolded powers, it behaves as if again knotting together spun-out threads. Now, we believe that even inanimate works, such as we know how to produce with a certain order, imitatively working on the surface of matter, are not produced without forethought and mind, — as when, cutting and sculpturing a piece of wood, we bring forth the effigy of a horse. How much greater, then, must we believe is that creative intel­ligence which, from the interior of the germinal matter, brings forth the bones, extends the cartilage, hollows out the arteries, breathes into the pores, weaves the fibers, forms the branching nerves, and with such admirable mastery arranges the whole? I say, how much greater an artificer is He who is not restricted to one sole part of the material world, but operates continually throughout the whole. There are three sorts of intelligence; the divine, which is all things, the mundane which makes all things, and the other kinds of spirits which become everything. For it is needful that between the extremes the means should be found, which is the true efficient cause, not so much extrinsic as even intrinsic, of all natural things. . . .


The World Soul is Everywhere like a Voice

            Polyhymnius: I want to know in what way the world soul is a form that is everywhere, if it is indivisible. It must, then, be very big, even of infinite dimensions, if one may call the world infinite.

            Gervasius: There is good ground for its being large, as also a minister at Grandazzo in Sicily said of our Lord: where as a sign that He is present through the whole world, he ordered a crucifix as big as the church, in the likeness of God the Father, who has the Empyrean heavens for a canopy; the starry heavens for his throne, and has such long legs that they reach down to the earth, which serves him for a footstool. To him came a certain peasant, and questioned him thus. Reverend father, now how many yards of cloth would it take to make his pants? Another said that all the peas and beans of Melazzo and Nicosia would not suffice to fill his stomach. Look to it, then, that this World-soul is not made after such a fashion.

            Theophilus: I do not know how to resolve your doubt, Gervasius, but perhaps I can that of Master Polyhymnius. I can, however, to satisfy you both, give you a comparison, because I wish you to carry away some fruits of our reasoning and discourse. Know, then, in brief, that the Soul of the World, and the Divinity are not omnipresent through all and through every part, in the way in which material things could be there: because this is impos­sible to any sort of body, and to any sort of spirit; but in a man­ner which is not easy to explain to you if not in this way. You should take notice that if the Soul of the World and the universal form are said to be everywhere, we do not mean corporeally and dimensionally, because such things cannot be; and just so they cannot be in any part. But they are spiritually present in everything — as, for example (perhaps a rough one), you can imagine a voice which is throughout a whole room and in every part of the room; because, through all, it is completely heard: just as these words which I utter are heard completely by all, even were there a thousand present, and my voice, could it reach through-out the whole world, would be everywhere through everything. I tell you then, Master Polyhymnius, that the soul is not indivisi­ble like a point, but in some sort like the voice. I answer you, Gervasius, that the Divinity is not everywhere in the sense that the God of Grandazzo was in the whole of the chapel, because, although he was present throughout the church, yet all of him was not present everywhere, but his head was in one part, his feet in another, his arms and his chest in yet other parts. But that other is in its entirety in every part, as my voice is heard com­pletely in every part of this room.


Questions for Review

1. According to Petrarch, what are the pessimistic responses to the claim that we are free?

2. According to Petrarch, what are the optimistic responses to the complaints about handicap, shortness, weakness, sickness, and poverty?

3. According to Pico, what are the three degrees of created things and the two types of love for humans?

4. According to Pico, what are some of the common reasons given for why human beings are so wondrous, and what is his explanation?

5. According to More, what are the religious reasons for adopting the view that pleasure is the highest good?

6. According to More, how is that pursuit of private pleasures can be compatible with the pursuit of public pleasure?

7. According to More, what is so bad about pleasure from fine clothes and respect for nobility?

8. According to Montaigne, what are the two common criticisms of Sebond, and what is Montaigne’s response to each?

9. According to Montaigne, what is the process of Pyrrhonian skepticism that leads to tranquility?

10. What reasons does Montaigne give to support his position that custom is the best master of all things?

11.What is Bruno’s reasoning for his view that science discovers only proximate physical causes, not hidden ultimate causes and principles?

12. According to Bruno, what are some of the ways that previous philosophers have described universal intellect?

13. Explain Bruno’s comparison of the universal intellect to a voice.


Questions for Analysis

1. The classical Stoic position on free will is a tricky one. Look up some information on this and discuss the Stoic elements of Petrarch’s account of human freedom.

2. The Platonist theme in Pico’s “Discourse on Love” is clear, but the Platonism in his “Oration” may not be. Try to connect together the Platonism in those two discussions.

3. The classical Epicurean view of morality is that pleasure is the highest good. Medieval philosophers typically rejected this view and maintained instead that the highest good was to love God, and not to pursue earthly pleasures. Discuss More’s attempt to present Epicureanism in a way that would not be religiously objectionable.

4. Classical Greek skepticism was also not very popular in the Middle Ages. Discuss what if anything is religiously objectionable in Montaigne’s defense of Sebond or his account of Pyrrhonism.

5. Montainge’s discussion of custom is a defense of moral relativism. Explain his main argument, and discuss whether there are any moral values that are not susceptible the effects of custom. You may need to look at Montaigne’s full essay (web search for “Montaigne custom”).

6. Bruno is often thought to be an advocate of pantheism, the view that God is identical with nature as a whole. In which ways is he pantheistic and which ways he is not?

7. While Petrarch, Pico, More, Montaigne and Bruno each championed a different ancient Greek philosophy, they were all still very eclectic, which was common among Renaissance philosophers. Even in the above selections they go beyond their specific schools and share some common themes with each other. What are some of those shared themes?