Amid the rivalry between Catholicism and the Protestants and a fear of witchcraft, a few were contributing to the arts and to science. In England was Shakespeare, who lived to the year 1616. Shakespeare was a humanist, his work less about God and more about people than were the writings that preceded the Renaissance. And in Spain was the poet and dramatist Cervantes. He wrote a successful novel about a country gentleman named Don Quixote who had read too many chivalric romances and had traveled about seeking military glory.
In France during the first half of the 1500s was François Rabelais, who is said to have invented the essay. He has been described as a satirist, a comic and secular storyteller who hated the brutish ignorance of his day.
Following Rabelais as an essayist was Michael Montaigne, who began writing in 1580 when he was forty-seven – during the reign of Henry III and the wars in France between Catholics and Calvinists. Montaigne denounced humanity's vanity and stupidity. He denounced dogmatism and described generalizations as "loose and imperfect." He complained that nothing is so firmly believed than that which we know least. Humanity, he said, cannot make a flea and yet it tries to make gods by the dozen. He was a Catholic ahead of his time in that he preferred living peacefully with error to exterminating heretics.
In philosophy, the ideas of Francis Bacon (1561-1626) were spreading among intellectuals. Bacon, according to Joyce Appleby, found supports for philosophical learning in the existence of "a library, botanical and zoological gardens, a cabinet of curiosities, and a collection of instruments, furnaces, and vessels for experimentation."
Bacon preferred inductive reasoning over Aristotle's deductive method. About ideas, Bacon wrote that we ought not be like spiders "which spin things out of their own insides" nor like ants, which merely collect. We ought, he wrote, to be like bees, which "both collect and arrange." By spinning things out of one's insides he meant adhering to whatever popped into one's mind or whatever one felt like believing. By collecting like ants he meant not making judgments about what one gathers through his senses. Reacting to argument about faith then raging among intellectuals, Bacon proposed a pursuit of knowledge that stood apart from faith, rather than blended with faith as it had been in scholasticism -- a separation that was a step in the direction of science.
Ideas and Men: the Story of Western Thought, by Crane Brinton, 1963
Western Civilization: A History of European Society, by Steven Hause and William Maltby, 2004
Wisdom of the West, by Bertrand Russell, 1959
Shores of Knowledge: New World Discoveries and the Scientific Imagination, by Joyce Appleby, 2013
Copyright © 2001-2013 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.