Sunday, November 22, 2015

Q&A - 23/11

Mary Beard

But since the Renaissance at least, many of our most fundamental assumptions about power, citizenship, responsibility, political violence, empire, luxury, beauty, and even humour, have been formed, and tested, in dialogue with the Romans and their writing.

Partly true

Ian Morris 

Historians normally trace the roots of the rebirth back to the twelfth century, when northern Italy’s cities [..] began wondering how to govern themselves as independent republics, and increasingly concluded that they could find answers in classical Roman literature. By the fourteenth century, when climate change, famine, and disease undermined so many old certainties, some intellectuals expanded their interpretation of the ancient classics into a general vision of social rebirth.

Antiquity, these scholars started claiming, was a foreign country. Ancient Rome had been a land of extraordinary wisdom and virtue, but barbarous “Middle Ages” had intervened between then and modern times, corrupting everything. The only way forward for Italy’s newly freed city-states, intellectuals suggested, was by looking backward: they must build a bridge to the past so that the wisdom of the ancients could be born again and humanity perfected.

Scholarship and art would be the bridge. By scouring monasteries for lost manuscripts and learning Latin as thoroughly as the Romans themselves, scholars could think as the Romans had thought and speak as they had spoken; whereupon true humanists (as the born-again called themselves) would recapture the wisdom of the ancients. Similarly, by poking around Roman ruins, architects could learn to re-create the physical world of antiquity, building churches and palaces that would shape lives of the highest virtue. Painters and musicians, who had no Roman relics to study, made their best guesses about ancient models, and rulers, eager to be seen to be perfecting the world, hired humanists as advisers, commissioned artists to immortalize them, and collected Roman antiquities.

The odd thing about the Renaissance was that this apparently reactionary struggle to re-create antiquity in fact produced a wildly untraditional culture of invention and open-ended inquiry. There certainly were conservative voices, banishing some of the more radical thinkers (such as Machiavelli) to drain the bitter cup of exile and intimidating others (such as Galileo) into silence, but they barely blunted the thrust of new ideas.

The payoff was phenomenal. By linking every branch of scholarship, art, and crafts to every other and evaluating them all in the light of antiquity, “Renaissance men” such as Michelangelo revolutionized them all at once. Some of these amazing characters, such as Leon Battista Alberti, theorized as brilliantly as they created, and the greatest, such as Leonardo da Vinci, excelled at everything from portraiture to mathematics. Their creative minds moved effortlessly between studios and the corridors of power, taking time off from theorizing to lead armies, hold office, and advise rulers. (In addition to writing The Prince, Machiavelli also penned the finest comedies of his age.) Visitors and emigrants spread the new ideas from the Renaissance’s epicenter at Florence as far as Portugal, Poland, and England, where distinct local renaissances blossomed [1].

That's better

So Renaissance thinkers thought they were "learning from" that era, but they were actually creating something completely new. This is a case of let's-go-back-to-the-thing-before-the-thing mentality (which reminds me of this scene from Analyze This dunno why); whatever historical situation these people were in (the thing before) had run its course, so thinkers created this mythical place in their heads  (the thing before the thing) and tried to "learn" from it. Except there was nothing to learn from. Romans were barbarians, just like Byzantium, Ottomans after them, or now, ISIS.

We can see the traces of this type of thinking in nationalists in Russia, or Egypt, whenever people try to create a myth out of a block of history and worship it.

"But isn't such delusion useful?" one might ask, it helped the Renaissance after all. Maybe. But there is no rule that says every Renaissance has to be the same, no? I prefer the current crop of thinkers in their respective lands pulling their heads out of their respective ... sands and start thinking for themselves, for the right reasons.


[1] Why The West Rules - For Now, pg. 883