Page:The Harvard Classics Vol. 51; Lectures.djvu/158

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been validated.


By Professor Ralph Barton Perry

WE WERE once taught that after having slept soundly through "the Dark Ages," Europe was suddenly awakened in 1453 by the Fall of Constantinople. We now know that it had been light all the while and 'that Europe had, to say the least, been in a very lively state of somnambulism. We know that for many centuries before 1453 men had been living very intensely and very nobly; and with a seriousness and elevation of thought that have perhaps had no parallel. The age that created Gothic art, and dreamed so splendid a dream as the Holy Roman Empire, can scarcely be said to be lacking in imagination and enlightenment.

But that something important happened to the European mind in and about the fifteenth century no scholar is so iconoclastic as to deny. It was not so much an awakening of thought as a change of direction which proved in the sequel to be amazingly fruitful. It may perhaps best be described as a return to the sources. This is characteristic of all of its more notable manifestations, such as the retrospect of antiquity, the reexamination of institutions, and the more direct observation of nature. This turn of thought back to the originals and roots of things, this general freshening up by the admixture of new experiences, had its effects upon every interest and work of man. So there was, among other things, a Renaissance philosophy, which meant chiefly a new study of some ancient philosophy. Pico of Mirandola founded a new cult of Plato; Pomponatius defended the Greek or Alexandrist interpretation of Aristotle against the Averroist and orthodox interpretations; while Montaigne[1] revived the ancient scepticism. But what was more significant for the

  1. For Montaigne, see Harvard Classics, xxxii, 5, 9; and on the Renaissance in general see Lecture III in the series on History and Lecture III (on Cellini) in the series on Biography.