The Harvard Classics Vol. 51/History III.

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By Professor Murray Anthony Potter

THE Renaissance followed what is, even now, sometimes called the Dark Ages. The almost inevitable inference is that a period of darkness was succeeded by one of light. The veil of night rent asunder, the world, rejoicing in the sun's rays, with glad energy again took up its work. But much of the darkness of what are more fitly called the Middle Ages is due to the dimness of vision of those who have baptized the period with a forbidding name, and if we called the Renaissance an age of light, is it not because we are dazzled by mere glamour? After all, the Renaissance was the offspring of the Middle Ages, and a child must frequently bear the burdens of its parents.

One of the burdens of the Middle Ages was obscurantism, and obscurantism is that which "prevents enlightenment, or hinders the progress of knowledge and wisdom." Instead of dying at the close of the Middle Ages, it lived through the Renaissance, wary and alert, its eyes ever fixed on those whom it regarded as enemies, falling upon them from ambush when because of age or weakness their courage flagged, and it triumphed in the sixteenth century. It can never die as long as there are men. Neither can superstition die, nor fear, nor inveterate evil passions, which, if they smolder for a time, will unfailingly burst forth and rage with greater fury. If such be your pleasure, you can, with some plausibility, represent the Renaissance as darker than the Middle Ages. Machiavelli,[1] the Medicis, and the Borgias have long been regarded as sin incarnate in odious forms. Making all due allowances for exaggeration and perversion of truth, the Renaissance was not a golden age, and the dramas of horror[2] are something more than the nightmares of a madman. And yet it is a luminous age. The sun has its spots, and the light of the Renaissance is all the more intense because of the blackness of the intermingling shadows.


No age can be adequately defined by a short phrase, but it was a happy thought which prompted the statement that the Renaissance was the age of the discovery of man. Add the importance, not only of man in general, but of the individual. It is true that men of marked individuality abounded in the Middle Ages. You have only to think of Gregory the Great, Gregory of Tours, Charlemagne, Liutprand, Abelard, and Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. What is new is a general awakening to the fact that the perfection of individuality is so important, and the desire to force your contemporaries and posterity to regard you as different from other men.

It might be said, with a certain amount of exaggeration of course, that the mediaeval man was Plato's dweller in the cave, who succeeded at last in making his escape into the light of day, and so doing became the Renaissance man enraptured by what lay within his field of vision, and allured by the infinite promise of what lay beyond. And as if the actual world cramped him, he must discover ideal realms and live in the past and the future as well as the present.


His interest in antiquity is well known. With the ardor of treasure hunters, scholars sought for classical manuscripts and antiquities, in France, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, and the East, and the enthusiasm excited by their success could not have been greater had they discovered El Dorado. They were generous with their treasures, door after door opening upon antiquity was thrown back, and men swarmed through them eager to become better acquainted with their idols and obtain from them information which their teachers of the Middle Ages were powerless to furnish. Some were so dazzled and docile that, instead of freeing themselves from bondage, they merely chose new masters, but, after all, more gracious ones.

Petrarch, anticipating Andrew Lang, writes letters to dead authors. Of Cicero he says: "Ignoring the space of time which separates us, I addressed him with a familiarity springing from my sympathy with his genius." And in his letter to Livy: "I should wish (if it were permitted from on high), either that I had been born in thine age, or thou in ours; in the latter case, our age itself, and in the former, I personally should have been the better for it." Montaigne says that he had been brought up from infancy with the dead, and that he had knowledge of the affairs of Rome "long before he had any of those of his own house; he knew the capitol and its plan before he knew the Louvre, and the Tiber before he knew the Seine.[3]


This infatuation for antiquity may seem bizarre, but it did not exclude intense interest on the part of the Renaissance man for the world about him, his town, his country, and remote as well as neighboring nations. Petrarch likes to speak of the marvels of India and Ceylon. There were drops of gypsy blood in his veins, but he was afraid of stealing time from his beloved books, and remains an excellent example of the "far-gone" fireside traveler, who in his study roamed through distant parts, spared the inclemency of the weather and the incommodities and dangers of the road.

Montaigne, who loved "rain and mud like a duck," was of stronger fiber. "Nature," he says, "has placed us in the world free and unbound; we imprison ourselves in certain straits." "Travel is, in my opinion, a very profitable exercise; the soul is then continually employed in observing new and unknown things, and I do not know, as I have often remarked, a better school wherein to model life than by incessantly exposing to it the diversity of so many other lives, fancies and usances, and by making it relish so perpetual a variety of forms of human nature."

From one source or another, then, the Renaissance men acquired an immense number of facts, and were able to retain them; for much is said about their inexhaustible memory. The important thing to know is what they did with them. Was their passion for facts that of a miser for his gold, of a savage for shiny, many-colored beads?

A fact is a delightful, wholesome thing. To the everlasting credit of the Renaissance men they appreciated its value, and worked hard to acquire it, thus grappling with reality. No longer would they merely scan the surface of things; they would pierce, as Dante said, to the very marrow with the eyes of the mind. Two or more centuries later than Dante, Machiavelli complained that his contemporaries loved antiquity, but failed to profit by the lessons which are implicit in its history. But Machiavelli was not entirely just. The Renaissance men were tender gardeners, and in their loving care every fact, every theory, every suggestion burgeoned, flowered, and bore fruit.

Some of them, it is true, recognized limitations to the versatility characteristic of the spirit of the age. Pier Paolo Vergerio, after reviewing the principal branches of study, states that a liberal education does not presuppose acquaintance with them all; "for a thorough mastery of even one of them might fairly be the achievement of a lifetime. Most of us, too, must learn to be content with modest capacity as with modest fortune. Perhaps we do wisely to pursue that study which we find most suited to our intelligence and our tastes, though it is true we cannot rightly understand one subject unless we can perceive its relation to the rest." These words might well have been written to-day. Very probably they were equally apposite in the Renaissance; yet they seem cautious, almost over-timorous, in a period when so many men were not only accomplished scholars, authors of repute, capable public servants or statesmen, connoisseurs of the fine arts, painters, sculptors, and architects themselves. There seems to have been nothing that they could not do if they wished.


Every interest was turned to account. In their pursuit of perfection they required an ampler environment. The age of the Renaissance is the age of the great discoveries, of Diaz, Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Vespucci, the Cabots, Magellan, Francis Drake,[4] and others, whose journeys were undertaken with a far different purpose than the mere satisfying of restless curiosity.

Equally practical was the study of the heavens. The stars had long been regarded as flaming beacons in the sky, prophets and guides for man to his ultimate goal. Their influence, benign or malignant, determined the fates of individuals and nations. It behooved the prudent man to consult them, and he studied the hidden workings of nature not only to comprehend them, but to make them serve his purpose. There were many failures, but if the Renaissance is the age of Faust, it is also that of Copernicus.

In the study of the world about him, of the firmament, of the past and the future, the Renaissance man felt his subject was something created. In his turn he took up the role of creator. To escape from an importunate world he called into existence the Arcadia of the pastorals, the fairyland of the adult man. It has almost vanished from our sight, but its music and fragrance still hover in the air. Another manifestation of dissatisfaction with the actual world, more practical, is the creation of ideal commonwealths, Cities of the Sun, or Utopias.[5]


The lover of beauty, nowadays shrinks from the Utopias of the Renaissance, but the practical men of that age cherished beauty with an affection we can hardly conceive. It was bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh. It was the one guest ever sure of welcome. Dante, in the tornata of his first ode, says: "Ode! I believe that they shall be but rare who shall rightly understand thy meaning, so intricate and knotty is thy utterance of it. Wherefore, if perchance it come about that thou take thy way into the presence of folk who seem not rightly to perceive it; then I pray thee to take heart again, and say to them, O my beloved lastling: 'Give heed, at least, how beautiful I am.' " They would give heed, and to such extremes did many Renaissance men go in their worship of beauty that they prostituted her and debased themselves. The majority remained sound of heart, and though tortured with doubts, and stumbling again and again, they succeeded in making themselves worthy of communion with God. Last of all, the question might be asked : is the Renaissance more than a period of storm and stress, a link between the Middle Ages and Modern Times? Like every age, it is one of transition, but it is also one of glorious achievement. If any one doubts this, let him remember only a few names of the imposing roll call—Petrarch, Boccaccio, Ariosto, Machiavelli, Rabelais, Montaigne, Calderon,[6] Lope de Vega, Cervantes,[7] Shakespeare,[8] and in their ranks Dante[9] takes his place with the same serene and august confidence with which he joined the company of Virgil and Homer.

  1. For Machiavelli's political ideals, see his "Prince" in Harvard Classics, xxxvi, 5, and Macaulay's essay "Machiavelli" in Harvard Classics, xxvii, 363.
  2. See, for example, Webster's "Duchess of Malfi," in Harvard Classics, xlvii, 753.
  3. Cf. Montaigne's "Institution and Education of Children" in Harvard Classics, xxxii, 29-71; and especially on his own education, pp. 65-69. See also Sainte-Beuve's essay "Montaigne" in Harvard Classics, xxxii, 105.
  4. For the narratives of these explorers see H. C., xliii, 2 iff., xxxiii, 129 ff.
  5. See, for example, Sir Thomas More's "Utopia" in H. C., xxxvi, 135.
  6. H. C., xxvi, 5ff.
  7. H. C., xiv.
  8. For works by Shakespeare and his contemporaries in the Elizabethan drama, see H. C., xlvi and xlvii.
  9. H. C., xx.