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The Rebirth of Man in the Cosmos: Interpretive Profiles


1. The carrying out of this purpose [knowledge of Nature], nevertheless, necessarily moved at first within the traditional modes of thought; these, however, had their common element in the anthropocentric character of their Weltanschauung, which had been the consequence of the development of philosophy as a theory and art of life. For this reason the natural philosophy of the Renaissance in all its lines takes for its starting-point, in constructing its problems, man’s position in the cosmos; and the revolution of ideas which took place in this aspect, under the influence of the changed conditions of civilization, became of decisive importance for shaping anew the whole theory of the world (p. 354).

…but only the victoriously proved hypothesis of the motion of the earth about the sun could furnish a rational basis of the completely new view of man’s position in the universe, which is peculiar to modern science. The anthropocentric idea of the world which had ruled the Middle Ages became out of joint. Man, as well as the earth, must cease to be regarded as the center of the universe and center of the world (p. 369)

…the Peripatetic-Stoic doctrine of the analogy between macrocosm and microcosm, which found in man’s nature the sum, the “quintessence” of the cosmical powers. We see this doctrine reviving in the most varied forms during the Renaissance;…(pp. 369-370)

Wilhelm Windelband, A History of Philosophy II: Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Modern. New York: Harper and Row, 1958.

2. Ficino’s De christiana religione also maintains this basic view. It also modifies the idea of redemption in such a way that now the universe, including the sense world, seems saved in the religious sense. Not only has man’s redemption given him a new being; it has given the universe a new form. This transformation, this reformatio, is equivalent to a new spiritual creation. Man’s mistrust of the world disappears as soon as he becomes conscious of his own divinity, as soon as he conquers his mistrust of his own nature.…With this thought [salvation without instruments of mediation] we are on the way to the Reformation: but the transformation has been prepared by a genuine and basic Renaissance motif. It is the self-affirmation of man which now also becomes the affirmation of the world. The idea of humanitas gives a new content and a new meaning to the macrocosm (pp. 65-66).

The destruction of life, the fact that God makes it subject to death, no longer signifies the nullity of life. For though it be destroyed in its being, life nevertheless retains an indestructible value: the value that the free man gives himself and to the world. The faith of humanity in itself guarantees the re-birth of humanity (p. 94).

In keeping with its peculiar character, Renaissance philosophy is not satisfied with the abstract expression of these thoughts but rather seeks a pictorial and symbolic expression for them. The ancient Prometheus myth seems to offer itself naturally to this end, and thus it now undergoes a kind of resurrection and intellectual rebirth. The Prometheus myth is one of those primeval mythical motifs with which ancient philosophy itself had already been very much concerned…Now this motif encounters the Christian Adam motif either to fuse with it, or to oppose it and, by virtue of this opposition, force it to undergo an inner transformation. In his detailed study of the course and development of the Adam motif, Burdach has shown how fruitful and productive it proved to be during the period of transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. The figure of the first man had been determined by the view of the church, based on the biblical story. In the Renaissance, the figure comes to have a new meaning – a meaning determined in part by Platonic-Augustinian and Neo-Platonic-hermetic thought. The first man becomes an expression of the spiritual man, the homo spiritualis, and thus, all the spiritual tendencies of the epoch that are directed towards a renewal, rebirth, and regeneration of man come to be concentrated in his form (pp. 92-93)

Burckhardt called Pico’s oration of the most noble bequests of the culture of the Renaissance. And indeed, it summarizes with grand simplicity and in pregnant form the whole intent of the Renaissance and its entire concept of knowledge. In this oration, we can clearly see the polarity upon which is based the moral and intellectual tension so characteristic of the Renaissance. What is required of man’s will and knowledge is that they be completely turned towards the world and yet completely distinguish themselves from it. Will and knowledge may, or rather, must devote themselves to every part of the universe; for only by going through the entire universe can man traverse the circle of his possibilities. But this complete openness towards the world must never signify a dissolution in it, a mystical-pantheistic losing of oneself. For the human will possess itself only inasmuch as it is conscious that no single goal will fulfill it; and human knowledge possess itself only inasmuch as it knows that no single object of knowledge can suffice for it. Thus, this turning towards the whole of the cosmos always implies the ability not to be bound to any one part. The force of this total conversion is balanced by the force of a total return. The duality of man and the world, ‘mind’ and ‘nature’, is strictly observed. But, on the other hand, this duality is not allowed to become an absolute dualism of the Scholastic-Medieval variety. For the polarity is not an absolute, but a relative opposition. The difference between the two poles is only possible and conceivable in that it implies a reciprocal relationship between them (p. 86).

There can be no doubt that the Renaissance directed all its intellectually productive forces towards a profound examination of the problem of the individual. In this respect, Burckhardt’s fundamental thesis remains unshakable. But Burckhardt, in fact, portrayed only one aspect of the great process of liberation by which modern man matured towards a consciousness of himself. (p. 35).

…but in Pico’s oration, a new element is present. His whole view is pervaded by that characteristic microcosm motif developed by Cusanus and by Ficino after him. Through this motif the oration becomes something more than mere rhetorical showpiece. Its rhetorical pathos contains a specifically modern pathos of thought. The dignity of man cannot reside in his being, i.e., in the place allotted man once and for all in the cosmic order. The hierarchical system subdivides the world into different levels and places each being in one of these levels as its rightful place in the universe. But such a view does not grasp the meaning and the problem of human freedom. For this meaning lies in the reversal of the relationship we are accustomed to accepting between being and acting (p. 84).

Ernst Cassirer, The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy, trans. Mario Domandi. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1927 / 1963.

3. The microcosm-macrocosm analogy was very important in Renaissance thought. An extensive treatment of this complex of ideas and its manifestations in intellectual currents such as magic and the occult, philosophy of nature, morals, and ethics would amount to an exhaustive study of Renaissance thought as a whole, to such a degree was this notion the motor of the intellectual life of that period….Leonardo as well often referred in his manuscripts to this ancient analogy when he was describing the human body….For Renaissance artists, the Vitruvian passage about the proportions for the homo bene figuratus presented an occasion to think again about the analogy between macrocosm and microcosm and to use it in a search for the essence of art and beauty. God created the cosmos with perfect proportions and in perfect harmony and, therefore, in perfect beauty. Man, as a microcosm, is a reflection of the macrocosm. Divine proportions can therefore be discovered in the human body. When an artist wants to make something beautiful it must be modeled on divine proportions. The artist therefore will use the human body as the most accessible and measurable system of divine proportions. Vitruvius recorded this system in this treatise. Through Leonardo’s unmistakable use of the medieval pictorial tradition in the representation of the Vitruvius passage, notions about the microcosm were fed automatically, as it were, into the new proportion theory. Because of the use of the medieval scheme of the homo ad circulum and ad quadratum the coupling of Vitruvian proportion theory with medieval analogy between macrocosm and microcosm became immediately visible for Renaissance readers. This underlines the independent status and meaning of the visual representation of ideas and concepts (pp. 104-105).

Robert Zwijnenberg, The Writings and Drawings of Leonardo da Vinci: Order and Chaos in Early Modern Thought. London: Cambridge University Press, 1999.


By the ancients man has been called the world in miniature; and certainly this name is well bestowed, because, inasmuch as man is composed of earth, water, air and fire, his body resembles that of the earth; as man has in him bones the supports and framework of his flesh, the world has its rocks the supports of the earth; as man has in him a pool of blood in which the lungs rise and fall in breathing, so the body of the earth has its ocean tide which likewise rises and falls every six hours, as if the world breathed; as in that pool of blood veins have their origin, which ramify all over the human body, so likewise the ocean sea fills the body of the earth with infinite springs of water (p. 179).

Leonardo da Vinci, # 929 in The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci. Compiled and Edited From the Original Manuscripts by Jean Paul Richter. New York: Dover, 1883 / 1970.

5. Much more famous than the ideas so far discussed is Pico’s doctrine of the dignity of man and his place in the universe. The oration in which this doctrine is developed constitutes perhaps the most widely known document of early Renaissance thought….In his Oration, Pico went beyond Ficino in several ways….he lays the accent not so much on man’s universality as on his freedom: instead of assigning to him a fixed, though privileged, place in the universal hierarchy, he puts him entirely apart from this hierarchy, and claims that he is capable of occupying, according to his choice, any degree of life from the lowest to the highest….These words have a modern ring, and they are among the few passages in the philosophical literature of the Renaissance that have pleased, almost without reservation, modern, and even existentialist, ears (pp. 65-67).

Paul Oskar Kristeller, Eight Philosophers of the Italian Renaissance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1964.

6. As an opposition to Scholasticism, the Renaissance is an episode in which the expectations or apprehensions that had been harbored since the time of the Fathers with regard to the relation to the starry heavens are fairly accurately fulfilled (p. 35).

One will be able to see the Renaissance’s share in the formulation of a new concept of reality in the fact that it also forced into the open and elucidated man’s autonomy in the world because it was able to regard as superfluous an all too drastic anthropocentrism’s providential teleology….The Renaissance’s concept of nature is, to a large extent, a release of the world from a preimprinted subservience to man, just because man is seen as being capable, by virtue of his autonomous reason, of proving that he is a match for a nature that is occupied with itself--all the way to the idea of overpowering and commanding it, which can no longer be the fulfillment of a teleological structure. Such a character of being their own master and their own purpose was asserted in the Renaissance, explicitly and in a way that was meant to be exemplary, of the heavenly bodies (pp. 36-37).

Hans Blumenberg, The Genesis of the Copernican World. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987.

7. Renaissance and Reformation constitute the end of the Catholic-ecclesiastical culture of the West, which one usually refers to as the Middle Ages….In both cases one returned to the oldest bases of European Culture; purified it of scholastic distortions; and endeavored to renew life from these genuine, revived authorities. The call ad fontes and the feeling of rebirth, of renascens pietas, and of renascentes litterae, are common to both. They feel themselves to be a rejuvenation of the European spirit from its sources and are actually just that, even though, to be sure, they brought forth from these sources something new which had not previously been there.

The spirit of the Renaissance at any rate with the expression “the discovery of modern individualism” is not accurate for the total compass of the movement and is not exhaustive for the high point designated thereby, namely, the high Renaissance….The peculiarity of the Renaissance lies not in unfettered individualism as such, but in the change in the direction of interests, whereby the increasing loosening from the hereafter and from the church as the institution of grace and the monkish ideal on the whole first resulted. Indeed, this was accomplished by a development which was very diverse and full of tensions. The motifs which changed the direction of interests are of very different kinds. Only in the final results of the high Renaissance is the opposition against the medieval and ecclesiastical-Christian world worked out, which from that point on is viewed as characteristic for the Renaissance as such and which in reality indicates its universal historical effect….The spirit of the Renaissance, therefore, is not at all to be formulated too uniformly and above all is not simply to be equated with modern ideas, whether those of Goethe or of Nietzsche. It can be formulated only in the most general, more formal basic directions: it is the independent individualism of the universal and autonomous unfolding of the self and the freeing of the image of things from the shadows and depreciations interposed from the supernatural. Only in this sense is Burckhardt’s formula justified that it was the discovery of man and of the world (pp. 29-31).

Ernst Troeltsch, “Renaissance and Reformation” in Lewis W. Spitz, ed.  The Reformation: Basic Interpretations, 2nd edition. New York: D.C. Heath, 1962, pp. 25-43.

8. The increasing laicization of education and of learning, literature, art and music was accompanied, almost inevitably, by an expansion of their secular content, and frequently by the introduction of a more secular tone. By this I do not mean to imply that the men of the Renaissance were, in general, less religious than those of the Middle Ages. There has been enough nonsense written about the pagan spirit of the Renaissance without my adding to it (p. 69).

In the second place, was the Renaissance an age marked to a peculiar degree by the spirit of individualism? This is a difficult question to answer, for individualism is a perilously protean concept….Nevertheless, it does seem to me that there was in this transitional age a growing awareness of personality and a keener sense of individual autonomy than had been possible in the social and cultural conditions of the Middle Ages; and it may be that this trait was more strongly marked, more aggressive, in the Renaissance than in later ages, when the individual’s right to self-determination was more easily taken for granted. To individualism, thus defined, many factors contributed, in addition to those mentioned by Burckhardt;…for example, the growth of a lay piety that stressed the individual man’s direct communion with God, and, at the other end of the moral spectrum, the development of a capitalist spirit that stressed the individual man’s direct communion with Mammon. With the dislocation of European society that accompanied the breaking up of medieval institutions, men were left more dependent than before upon their own personal qualities, while the increasing complexity of social organization opened up a widening of careers, and more varied opportunities for the development of personal tastes and interests (p. 71).

Without minimizing the importance of the revival of antiquity, it is also worth noting that, even where the classics exerted no direct influence, as in music, the Renaissance broke new ground, and exhibited enormous vitality. This was the age that witnessed the greatest strides in the development of polyphony and the work of a long line of brilliant composers, from Machaut to Palestrina. Here, as in so many other aspects of Renaissance culture, the increasing participation of laymen, and the growth of lay patronage, was accompanied by the development of new forms and by the introduction of a larger proportion of secular content and tone. Music in the Renaissance was a social art, and a fair mastery of its techniques was an essential qualification for the successful courtier or indeed for any cultured person. Any account of sixteenth century social life leaves the impression that wherever two or three were gathered together they sang four or five part polyphony….That any synthesis should leave an adequate place for music is, indeed, a point that I wish to emphasize; for it is one of the peculiarities of the traditional schools of Kulturgeschichte that, while giving full consideration to all the pictorial arts, they have scarcely afforded a passing word for music, the most closely related of all the arts to the life of the people (p. 72).

Wallace K. Ferguson, “The Interpretation of the Renaissance: Suggestions for a Synthesis” in Paul Oskar Kristeller and Philip P. Wiener, eds. Renaissance Essays. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 1992, pp. 61-73.

9. Philosophers and scientists of the Renaissance did not treat psychology, the philosophical study of the soul, as an independent discipline. Following the medieval tradition, they placed it within the broader context of natural philosophy, and they approached it, like the other sub-divisions of natural philosophy, through the works of Aristotle, notably De Anima and Pava naturalia. The term  psychologia itself was coined—apparently by the German humanist Joannes Thomas Freigius in 1575 – to refer to the traditional complex of problems originating from these two works. Thus it is in relation to the Aristotelian tradition, and more specifically to the Aristotelian philosophy of nature, that the meaning and content of psychology in this period must be defined (p. 455).

Non-philosophical disciplines, too, relied on the study of psychology: theology, as is obvious in the debate on immortality; rhetoric, which drew its force from the appeal to senses and emotions; and medicine, which also considered the human body. The ties to the last were particularly strong: philosophers writing on the soul incorporated many ideas from Galen, Avicenna and more contemporary medical theorists, while much of the basic physiology contained in De Anima and the Parva naturalia reappeared in courses on medicine and served in the understanding and treatment of mental and physical disease. For this reason the philosophy curriculum at Bologna, intended as propaedeutic to the study of medicine, put special emphasis on De Anima. In general, therefore, psychology was seen both as the apex of natural philosophy and as a transition to the higher study of medicine.

The many contributions of psychology to other disciplines vindicated the centrality of De Anima in the university curriculum. At the same time, they opened the discussion of the soul to other intellectual influences. These included humanism, with its emphasis on anthropological and moral questions; Neoplatonism, with its attempt to develop a new cosmology and epistemology; and the religious movements of Reformation and Counter-Reformation. As a result psychology, like ethics, never remained the monopoly of academic specialists; some of the most interesting and original work on the soul took place outside university walls, particularly after 1500, when printing acted dramatically to expand the European intellectual community (p. 457).

Katharine Park and Eckhard Kessler, “The Concept of Psychology” in Charles B. Schmitt, Quentin Skinnner, eds. The Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988, pp. 455-463.

10. In its philosophical and scientific form, the psychology of the Renaissance shows us only the beginnings of the great intellectual movement from which was to emerge the newer, deeper concept of ‘subjectivity.’ Renaissance psychology could not yet encompass and formulate the whole of the new problem because it was unable to view in true unity the two opposite moments that constituted the problem. The old fight between ‘spiritualism’ and ‘naturalism’ could not be decided on this battlefield. Essentially, the psychological systems of the early Renaissance possess only one virtue: that of having brought the basic conflict into the sharpest possible focus. In this period, the concept of ‘nature’ and the concept of ‘spirit’, fight once again for the possession of man’s ‘soul’. The theoretical doctrine of the soul is torn between two basically divergent views…. A real change in the solution to this problem will take place only with the gradual abandonment of the presupposition common to both the spiritualistic and naturalistic psychology of the Renaissance; i.e., when ‘body’ and ‘soul’, ‘nature’ and 'spirit'

Ernst Cassirer, The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy, trans. Mario Domandi. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1927/1963.

11. Petrarch was also representative of the Renaissance in his enjoyment of nature. It was symptomatic of the new spirit that was emerging that he climbed a mountain not merely to get to the other side but also to look at the view. Nature had not interested the typical medieval mind, which saw in it only a series of symbols—God’s instructions to erring humanity. This new attitude toward nature, the attitude that made it possible for men simply to enjoy a view, soon came to show itself in every department of human activity—in a new art that sought to render real-life people in real landscapes; in a curiosity about the facts that eventually resulted in the development of science in the modern sense; in the discovery that the state, as well as man himself, is a natural organism whose life history can be made a neutral object of study like the rest of nature (p. 34).

W. T. Jones, A History of Western Philosophy III: Hobbes to Hume, 2nd edition. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanich, 1969.

12. More positive and most central, no doubt, is the belief in man. This is surely what is absolutely new in the Renaissance; for this belief was such as neither idealized antiquity nor the denigrated Middle Ages had ever exhibited. The object of this belief and confidence, moreover, was man’s power. It was man as maker, shaper, discoverer, manipulator, entrepreneur in whom the Renaissance believed; and its mission was to explore and realize this power in every direction at once with a sense of titanic energy released. For this reason, its basic mark is not contemplation but expression (p. 17).

The study of nature in humanism is the matrix, within which the modern conception of the science of nature took its first inchoate form; and the history of its growth is that of a gradual laborious detachment from that matrix. Furthermore, the  modern study of nature still retains discernible traces of its relationships to the humanism of the Renaissance (pp. 47-48)

What then is this new spirit of science considered in itself, as it becomes the animating principle of the philosophy of the high Renaissance?…It would seem to reside in a re-birth of a purely theoretical spirit of inquiry. Negatively, this new theoretical spirit means the disengagement of knowledge from any subordination to or even controlling alliance with practical, religious, or ethical purposes. More positively, this theoretical concern resides in a kind of firm realism or naturalism, a desire to see things and to know things as they actually are, in their nature, in themselves, that is, as independent of the concerns, desires or aspirations of men (p. 56).

A. Robert Caponigri, A History of Western Philosophy III: Philosophy From the Renaissance to the Romantic Age. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1963.

13. The doctrine of rebirth, of “Renaissance” which was consciously opposed to the Mittlere Zeiten, took much longer than the term Mittelalter  to become condensed into a general concept of periodization. While humanists favored verbs and adjectival expressions for the renewal of return, awakening, or blooming, or for the description of return, the term “Renaissance” first appeared as late as the mid-sixteenth century and then only in an isolated fashion [renascita, (Vasari 1550), and renaissance (Belon, 1553)]. As a term primarily characteristic of epochs in the history of art and literature, “Renaissance” first entered regular use during the Enlightenment. It was stylized as a general concept of periodization by Michelet and Burckhardt in the nineteenth century. The term “Renaissance” therefore did not appear together with that of “Middle Ages” as a counterconcept, but rather established itself in a delayed manner as a form of historical-chronological determination after the establishment of Mittelalter (p. 236).

Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, trans. Keith Tribe. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985.