Response to 1.1 about humanism (Charlene Spretnak)

The point has been made that Renaissance humanism was not primarily about establishing the notion that humans are separate from nature. Very true. That was accomplished much earlier when the holistic Pre-Socratic philosophers were sidelined in favor of Socrates’ turn to focusing on the rational capabilities of the [male] human mind. Since this is our last evening on humanism, I’d like to add that the main impetus in Florence, and then elsewhere, for the emergence of Renaissance humanism (which should be understood not merely as “the rebirth of learning” but a rebirth of classical learning, which had already made its break from nature) was to create a safe space in which to establish, and then increase, distance from the overarching power in the late medieval world of Church and king. The Renaissance humanists and their patrons stepped around the Church by looking back at Western history. They pointed out that Greek and Roman philosophical works, as well as various esoteric traditions, were the oldest roots of Western culture so worthy of one’s interest – even as one remained Christian and avoided being burned at the stake for heresy. What was particularly engaging to the Florentines then were texts proclaiming the exultation of man, a stark contrast with the medieval sense that man’s sinful nature might well result in eternal damnation. The embrace of the neoclassical orientation was also expressed in the emergence of neoclassical architecture and in painting. One example is the way depictions of the Virgin Mary were coded such that, once the perspective of Renaissance humanism become dominant, she is never again presented as the Queen of Heaven on a throne; instead, she is usually given only a thin halo and is seated on neoclassical bench or large chair. The political message was clear that the wealthy patrons, as well as the painters, were no longer living in a culture controlled by the power of the Church. They had made their break. Back to the point at the beginning of this posting, many well-to-do humanist “gentlemen scientists” in the 17th and 18th centuries pursued their own studies of nature, often creating extensive collections – but they, of course, did so with the Western perspective of man’s ontological separation from nature.

            Both neoclassical architecture and the study of science as if humans were objectively detached observers, rather than embodied, embedded Earthlings, dominated the emergent modern culture and beyond. Yet soon after the modern worldview coalesced in the second half of the 18th century, this entire complex of premises and assumptions were challenged when the Romantic philosophers and poets mounted their Grand Correction, insisting on our inherent embedded in the natural world. Goethe, for instance, found Newton’s mechanistic explication of light and color via the prism to be inadequate because a full study of this subject must incorporate the way we feel and bodily experience the perception of light and colors. I mention this because, while a 21st-century posthumanist turn will not replicate earlier efforts, it has deep roots from which to draw inspiration.

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