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The Rebirth of Man in the Cosmos: A Prismatic Perception of the Renaissance


What, precisely, is a “prismatic perception” of the Renaissance? A prism refracts light into a spectrum of distinct yet continuous colors. As such, it is an apt analogy for a type of interdisciplinary inquiry that interprets a particular historical period, as a distinctive cultural constellation, through its diverse yet interconnected expressions in every sphere of life. Conversely, these separate cultural and social spheres are interpreted synthetically through the unique configuration or ‘spirit of the age’—what the Germans call the Zeitgeist—emergent in an epoch. Accordingly, our prismatic perception of the Renaissance examines the period from several thematic or disciplinary perspectives: music, popular culture, psychology, philosophy, religion, etc. In turn, these partial perspectives point to a global, general motif permeating the entire epoch: The Rebirth of Man in the Cosmos. Through its complex expressions, the Renaissance exhibits the gradual transformation or rebirth of European man, conceived as humanity in general and as a new form of autonomous individualism. This new beginning, however, was not restricted to the revival of classical culture carried out by the Italian humanists of the fifteenth century. Rather, it is conceived and practiced as a new way of existing in the world, as a new mode of being human, as a new position and purpose of man within the natural world or cosmos, which itself is radically reaffirmed as well. Its gradual liberation from the otherworldly orientation, rigid hierarchical worldview (Weltanschauung), heteronomous institutions, and religious pessimism of Medieval ecclesiastical culture enabled the Renaissance to develop a new, reciprocal relationship between man and the cosmos. European man’s altered self-image, and consequent attitudes and actions toward the world, also imply, as a corresponding condition, a new affirmation of the temporal, natural, and sensual world. These broad cultural currents flow into and from such prominent Renaissance movements as Italian humanism, the German Reformation, and the ‘new science’ of Leonardo, Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo. Exploration, experience, and experimentation together contribute to man’s rebirth and configure the age as a distinctive period in Western civilization. In the arts, sciences, philosophy, religion, popular culture, politics, trade, technology, and voyages of exploration man discovers and develops his new existence in the natural world in a direction which ultimately leads to the modern epoch.