Delight Springs

Thursday, March 23, 2017


We conclude Gottlieb's Dream of Reason today  in CoPhi, with the Renaissance. Scholastic hairsplitting was down, classical antiquity was up, scientific reason was heating up, the Enlightenment was on deck. Rene Descartes waits in the wings with his cogito, ergo sum.

But, why cogito? Why not spiro (I breathe...)? Indeed, as Milan Kundera suggests, why not rideo? (I ache...) "'I think, therefore I am,' is the statement of an intellectual who underrates toothaches." Descartes' reply, that his thinking is of the essence because it is indubitable, is dubious. But we'll get to that, let's not put Descartes before the horse.
The Renaissance was not a period of great achievement in philosophy, but it did certain things which were essential preliminaries to the greatness of the seventeenth century. In the first place, it broke down the rigid scholastic system, which had become an intellectual strait jacket. It revived the study of Plato, and thereby demanded at least so much independent thought as was required for choosing between him and Aristotle. In regard to both, it promoted a genuine and first-hand knowledge, free from the glosses of Neoplatonists and Arabic commentators. More important still, it encouraged the habit of regarding intellectual activity as a delightful social adventure, not a cloistered meditation aiming at the preservation of a predetermined orthodoxy... The attitude of Renaissance scholars to the Church is difficult to characterize simply. Some were avowed free-thinkers, though even these usually received extreme unction, making peace with the Church when they felt death approaching. Most of them were impressed by the wickedness of contemporary popes, but were nevertheless glad to be employed by them.  Russell
The new Renaissance humanist movement placed more stock in the quality and clarity of writing, than the logical contortions and convolutions of theological apologetics. It laid new emphasis on the philosophical subdisciplines of ethics and political philosophy, with the likes of Machiavelli and his "manly" prince, and Hobbes' nightmare state of nature, both offering bleak "realistic"/materialistic assessments of human nature. Most modern-day humanists have a much sunnier outlook.
IHEU Happy Human
"Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance that affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. Humanism stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethics based on human and other natural values in a spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. Humanism is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.” 
Some are even Brights, espousing a "naturalistic worldview, free of supernatural or mystical elements."

The Dutch humanist Erasmus "made scholasticism seem absurd and petty," or maybe he just made it reveal its pettiness and absurdity. (Did you see what Senator Franken said about absurdity, btw?) French comic parodist Rabelais knew absurdity when he saw it, too. 

Leonardo da Vinci, the ultimate polymathic Renaissance Man, said scholars should study the world directly and not spin their wheels recycling old untested ideas and musty books. "Go direct to the works of nature." He really thought “the knowledge of all things is possible,” “the noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding,” and "learning never exhausts the mind."  He bought Ockam's razor. "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." He was a pre-pragmatist. “I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.” And, "people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.” Maybe that's where Dr. Seuss got "If things start happening, don't worry, don't stew, just go right along and you'll start happening too."

The Florentine explorer Vespucci betrayed more than a bit of old world prejudice when he said the New Worlders were more Epicurean than Stoic, more hedonistic than dutiful.

Francis Bacon, often extolled as a "prophet of modern science," nonetheless wanted to "build on astrology, alchemy, and magic" because (as we're always told he said, but almost never told why) "knowledge is power." Neil Tyson's favorite scientist Newton was also, oddly, an occultist and alchemist. But by his time was that was no longer considered normal science, so he downplayed it. The science-magic continuum would continue to dissipate, even though Sir Arthur C. Clarke famously said "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Indistinguishable by scientific illiterates, he meant. Magical thinking is entertaining at Hogwart's, but the sooner we dispel the demon-haunted world of irrational fear and superstition the better.

Still, the continuum was in place long enough for Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler all to be impressed by Platonism and sun-worship. "The sun can signify God himself to you," said Platonist Ficino. We are all star-stuff, and owe our lives to our nearest star. But it's a mark of scientific rationality to be struck and even moved by such relationships (see the Sagan quote from last time, about the intrinsic spirituality of science) without bowing down in worshipful submission.

What a "remarkable development" was Gutenberg's printing press, giving rise to "a deluge of books" and mass literacy. Too bad so many of us these days don't take advantage of it. As Mark Twain said, there's no practical difference between one who can't read and one who won't. Or, one who won't write or read more than 140 characters at a time. Looking at you, Mr. President. "There is not much thinking going on. He hears things that please him and repeats them, like a magpie making a nest."

Montaigne was an underrated Renaissance figure, father of the essay, moderate skeptic ("Que sais-je?"), and anti-Descartes. More on him soon. His cousin Sanchez first named what we call "scientific method" and said it could support only "limited claims about the appearances." Limited, but also correctable and growing.

Martin Luther's protestant reformation partook of just enough Renaissance spirit to refuse to accept papal and ecclesiastic infallibility. He was not without his own dogmatic streak, however. "A good Christian should look to the Scriptures, interpreted in the light of his conscience and his own religious experience, in order to find out what to believe." But shouldn't he also listen to others, and learn from their experience too? If “reason is the devil’s whore,” we're in big trouble. 

The French mathematician Gassendi "revamped Epicurus' picture of the universe" to make it more Bible-friendly, saying atoms swirl in the physical realm but their laws don't apply in the spiritual world. Christian atomism was convenient, at least. But is it tenable? Mustn't a scientific naturalist refrain from such speculation, and stick to his atoms?

Metaphors are important. Descartes proposed to support the new scientific worldview of Galileo with a building construction metaphor, that of firm foundations. Raze the edifice of belief to the ground, build it up again with bricks of indubitable certainty. But can we get enough of those to make the metaphor stand?

Some questions: Is there a sharp difference between writing well and thinking logically? Why do you think so many scholastic/medieval philosophers were poor writers? How can you become a better writer and clearer thinker? Was Machiavelli right, about how power works in the real world? If European explorers like Vespucci understood that European knowledge was at best incomplete, at worst just wrong, why were so many of them still so confident that the natives they encountered in the New World were sub-human? Why in general are humans still so quick to denigrate those who are different, or who have different customs?
Is there any proper place for astrology and magic in the modern world? It's been estimated that the average social media user could read 200 books in the time they spend online. What would they gain? What would they lose? What's the right balance? Do you trust your own conscience and experience more than that of religious leaders like the Pope? Does knowledge need foundations? Can you agree with Machiavelli about leadership without being a sexist or an autocrat? Are people fundamentally selfish, in your experience? Are you? Can people change?
Peripatetic news update. 10K steps may not be enough for optimal health. “It takes effort, but we can accumulate 15,000 steps a day by walking briskly for two hours at about a four-mile-per-hour pace... This can be done in bits, perhaps with a 30-minute walk before work, another at lunch, and multiple 10-minute bouts throughout the day. Our metabolism is not well-suited to sitting down all the time.”
It was on this day in 2010 that President Barack Obama (books by this author) signed into law the Affordable Care Act, the most sweeping piece of federal legislation since Medicare was passed in 1965. Universal health care had long been a dream of the Democratic Party. The passage of the bill extended health care to almost 32 million Americans.

And today marks the first day in 1942 when the U.S. government began moving Japanese-Americans from their West Coast homes to internment camps. Between 110,000 and 120,000 people were forcibly relocated. Some Japanese-American men were drafted into the War even as their families remained incarcerated. The camps remained open until 1945. WA

5:30/6:47, 40/71, 6:59

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