Two Theories of the Renaissance – Berdyaev’s and Spengler’s

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Raphael (1483 – 1520): The School of Athens (Completed 1511)

In the Eighteenth Century, self-congratulatory pamphleteers and encyclopédistes, wanting to effectuate a break with tradition, extol their autonomy, and celebrate what they themselves named the Enlightenment, invented the tripartite historical construction of Antiquity – the Medieval Period – and Modernity.  Edward Gibbon and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel assume this sequence, as do Voltaire and Auguste Comte.  Modernity, the third term, functions for such thinkers as the designation of their own intellectual super-clarity, which they see as the goal and consummation of history.  Hegel, like his successor Francis Fukuyama, believed that the progress of the human spirit had indeed found its goal in his very cogitations and insights, after which further speculation would be otiose.  The Russian philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948), writing in his essay on “The End of the Renaissance” (1922), and in the aftermath both of the Great War and the October Revolution, rejects the construction.  Berdyaev offers a prediction: “The school delineations of history into the ancient, the medieval and the modern, are becoming quickly outmoded and will be discarded from the textbooks.”  Whereas the tripartite construction of history has proven itself quite stubborn despite Berdyaev’s conviction at the time, stubbornness nevertheless validates nothing.  Berdyaev gives his reasons.  Modern history, a term that Berdyaev puts in quotation marks, “is now ending,” he writes, “and there is beginning something unknowable, an historical epoch not yet named with a name.”  An epoch is a break in continuity.  If a new unprecedented phase had broken away from modernity such that “we depart from all the customary historical shores,” then that development would necessarily disqualify modernity from its claim of being the end and validation of all historical processes.  “The world is passing over,” Berdyaev claims, “into a state of flux.”

Berdyaev by 1922 already knew the work of his slightly younger contemporary Oswald Spengler (1880 – 1936), the second volume of whose Decline of the West appeared in that year.  Spengler, like Berdyaev, dismissed the tripartite construction of history as a petty conceit of limited minds.  “In fact,” Spengler writes in the Introduction to the first volume of the Decline (1919), “the lay-out of world history is an unproved and subjective notion that has been handed down from generation to generation… and stands badly in need of a little of that skepticism which from Galileo onward has regulated and deepened our inborn ideas of nature.”  Spengler characterizes the tripartite construction of history as “an incredibly jejune and meaningless scheme, which has, however, entirely dominated our historical thinking.”  Spengler, like Berdyaev, foresees the abandonment of the construction.  “The Cultures that are to come,” he writes, “will find it difficult to believe that the validity of such a scheme with its simple rectilinear progression and its meaningless proportions… was, in spite of all, never whole-heartedly attacked.”  Positing itself as the third-stage goal of a three-stage development, the cynically self-naming modernity “rigs the game.”  Spengler detects in the construction the traces of a displaced apocalypse; it is “Magian,” he writes, owing its essentially religious character to Persian and Jewish apocalypse and to the later offshoots of these, “the Gnostic systems.”  The construction designs to justify “one’s own religious, political or social convictions” by the method of “endowing the sacrosanct three-phase system with tendencies that will bring it exactly to one’s own standpoint.”

Neither Berdyaev nor Spengler denies the existence of a modern phase in the temporal continuity of the West.  On the contrary, both Berdyaev and Spengler acknowledge modernity as something like a total and commanding presence, inveigling itself dictatorially into every corner of life, but they never assent to modernity’s notion of itself.  Whereas modernity sees itself as Reason or Enlightenment, Berdyaev and Spengler see it as occlusion – as a radical diminution of consciousness far from liberating in any true sense, but rather as oppressive and destructive.  Berdyaev and Spengler view modernity in negative terms, as the cause of violent upheavals.  The two writers also agree on the origins of modernity, the earliest glowering of which they assign, perhaps surprisingly, to the Twelfth Century.  Both Berdyaev and Spengler, mention the work of the monk Joachim of Fiore as a foreshadowing of the modern tendency to close down history by calling it to a halt in the consummative present moment.  Both Berdyaev and Spengler see again in Joachim’s hermetic vision the initial glimmerings of what they commonly regard as the first distinctive phase of modernity – the so-called Renaissance of the Italian city-states beginning in the Fourteenth Century.  Naturally, neither Berdyaev nor Spengler interprets the Renaissance as modernity interprets it.  What then is the real character of the Renaissance? And what is the real relation of the Renaissance to the prevailing cultural dissolution of the modern centuries, according to the two thinkers?

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Nicolas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948)

I. Berdyaev’s Renaissance. Two catastrophic upheavals – the bloody war in the trenches and the equally bloody imposition of the Bolshevik regime in Russia – provoked Berdyaev to contemplate a new meaning for the Renaissance. Those same two upheavals also profoundly inform Berdyaev’s contemplation in that he sees in them the ultimate perverse results of the very Renaissance. Berdyaev commented on the Renaissance and its relation to the later sub-phases of modernity throughout his authorship.  The seventh chapter of The Meaning of History (1936), for example, takes on itself the title, “The Renaissance and Humanism,” and the subsequent chapter the title, “The End of the Renaissance and the Crisis of Humanism.”  Berdyaev writes in that eighth chapter how “the era we are now entering is for me synonymous with the end of the Renaissance period of history.”  In the fourth chapter of The Fate of Man in the Modern World (1935), Berdyaev had written somewhat gnomically that, “The end of the Renaissance is approaching.”  He means that modernity nears the hour of its completion – both in the sense of its inevitable self-abolition and in the sense that it will soon have revealed, through its ultimate effects, its essence and thus also its essential arrogance and nihilism.  Modernity’s auto-cataclysm, which might of course prolong itself agonizingly, will also constitute the auto-cataclysm of the humanist philosophy, the confident but erroneous doctrine born of the Renaissance on which the Western civilization has attempted, unsuccessfully as it turns out, to establish itself.  The first chapter of an earlier book, The End of Our Time (1933), takes on itself a familiar title, “The End of the Renaissance.”  Thanks to the herculean effort of Father Stephen Janos of Mohrsville, Pennsylvania, who has undertaken to provide English translations for all the books and articles by Berdyaev that hitherto lacked them, readers unfamiliar with Russian can now discover that the first chapter of The End of Our Time began life as the same stand-alone essay from which the present study has already quoted in its opening paragraph – to the effect that the ancient-medieval-modern construction of history is inherently dubious and self-serving.

The numerous other essays in the company of which Father Stephen has placed “The End of the Renaissance” in his anthology of Berdyaev’s occasional writing from 1914 to 1922  – Astride the Abyss of War and Revolutions (2017) – make obvious the biographical and historical contexts for Berdyaev’s interest in the break with the medieval world.  Berdyaev interpreted the war in religious and philosophical terms as the apocalypse of modernity; as revealing formerly hidden pathological processes long at work in subverting the shrinking vestiges of Christendom.  The war resulted from a break that happened centuries previously.  “The Fraudulent European world and no less fraudulent European peace,” Berdyaev wrote in 1914, “were doomed to lead into this fire.”  As Berdyaev sees it, “The European world was something false, an illusionary world, behind which lay concealed a raging hostility and hatred, and foul greed.”  Berdyaev at the same time distinguished Russia from the West while acknowledging that the West had influenced Russia.  The essays of the mid-war years, 1915 and 1916, reveal a patriotic writer who qualifiedly supports the monarchy and hopes that the struggle with Germany will stimulate a spiritual rebirth in the Rodina.  In early 1917 with the abdication of the Czar, a change comes over Berdyaev.  His words bespeak the shock of the unexpected: “Over a span of several days, with amazing ease and lack of harm there has occurred [the] greatest… event in Russian history.”  Harm aplenty would manifest itself soon, but meanwhile Berdyaev knew the cause of “this downfall of the sacred Russian tsardom.”  Under the pressure of the war, “the sacred tsardom was affixed to materiality,” and “in it the spirit was enslaved to matter.”

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First English Translation of Berdyaev’s Wartime Articles

Whatever measured hope Berdyaev originally accorded to Bolshevism, it swiftly vanished. Berdyaev tantalizingly discerned in the Revolution “an inverted religion, a pseudo-religion.”  The year 1922, when “The End of the Renaissance” appeared, saw Lenin expelling Berdyaev along with other dissenting intellectuals from the Soviet Union.  Berdyaev had written “The End of the Renaissance” in Moscow, published it as a pamphlet in St. Petersburg, and reissued it in a self-edited anthology in Berlin in 1923.  “The End of the Renaissance” articulates Berdyaev’s reaction to these colossal events both personal and historical.  In “The End of the Renaissance,” Berdyaev extends his diagnosis, or as it might be his etiology, of the violent spasm afflicting the global scene.  As ends are, by the law of teleology, inextricably bound up with beginnings, the investigator will locate the cause of the enormity deeply embedded in the past, in an agenda that intended results the opposite of those that it spawned.  Humanism, which proposed to exalt and elevate man, has degraded and slaughtered him.  Humanism has eventuated in mechanism; it has dismembered the image of man and scattered the parts of him to the far corners.  Humanism obliterated the image of man by obliterating the image of God in the image of man, after which alteration man was supposed to substitute himself for God.  Man would become godlike and would exercise godlike powers to reshape the Divine Creation.  The Dux who would usher in the Age of the Holy Spirit in Joachim’s speculative future would be such a man.  The Fifteenth-Century condottiere Sigismundo Pandolfo Malatesta probably saw himself as such a man.  Berdyaev would refine his understanding of this long chain of spiritual causality in his later writings, but in the 1922 essay, readers encounter the raw insight.

Berdyaev’s essay takes its keynote in the horror inherent in the prospect of total dissolution of the civilizational order: “People, attuned to what is to come, long since already have sensed the onset of catastrophes and have seen their spiritual symptoms beneath the external trappings of well-ordered and tranquil life,” such that “the forever foundations of the European world have shaken loose.”  Especially the idea of progress, the legitimating motto of modernity, has suddenly attested its fraudulence; the mastery of man over nature has shown itself to be only the murderous failure of man to attain self-mastery – or to retain a self-mastery that, in an earlier age, he possessed.  A certain acute perception associated with religion and the arts anticipated the disaster, but its warnings went unheeded.  In the perfection of mechanisms such as the airplane, artillery, and the tank, already envisioned by Leonardo da Vinci more than five hundred years ago, the West has produced the instruments that it turns on itself.  “At the summits of culture,” Berdyaev writes, “in creativity, in the realm of art and in the realm of thought long since already has been sensed the draining away of the Renaissance.”  Berdyaev is no doubt thinking of the critics of the French Revolution – of Edmund Burke and Josef de Maistre – and of the Russian religious thinkers of the Nineteenth Century who correlated the decline of Christian commitment with a rising crassness and barbarity.  As for that which currently passes itself off as high or elite culture, as art and creativity, Berdyaev remarks how “that which occurs on the summits of life also has its own expression down lower.”  Valhalla, in other words, has allowed itself to be contaminated by Nibelheim.

Berdyaev’s analysis of the deliquescence of the European world is everywhere and at once teleological and paradoxical.  The Renaissance viewed itself as an advance toward the perfection of life but by the supposed revival of a previous and long-surpassed civilizational phase – that namely of the Classical world.  No more, however, should the self-definition of the Renaissance or of the concomitant humanism be taken for granted than the self-definition of modernity should be taken for granted.  “Within humanism have been discerned destructive contradictions, and a sickly skepticism has further sapped the humanistic energy,” Berdyaev writes.  Furthermore, “The free rovings of man, knowing no sort of higher power, not only have not reinforced his faith in himself, but ultimately have weakened this faith and have shaken the awareness of the human image.”  Those “free rovings” in their first blush produced an enormous sense of freedom and optimism, it is true; but they constituted no simple, positive development.  Rather, according to Berdyaev, they entailed also a purely negative development.  The Renaissance man rebelled against the Christendom of the Middle Ages; he “wanted to create and to order life without any higher help” and ended up “torn away from the religious center” of the medieval dispensation.  The gesture consisted in a negation, but the Renaissance man convinced himself of its positive character.  The Twentieth Century descendant of the Renaissance man maintains that view, which Berdyaev finds wholly erroneous.

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Benvenuto Cellini (1500 – 1571)

“In the self-conceit of humanism,” as Berdyaev argues, “was a fatal error and self-deception.”  That error, forming “the very primal bass of humanistic faith,” concealed “the possibility,” now appearing as the patency, “of a self-negation of man and his downfall.”  In alienating himself from the “spiritual center,” the humanist made of himself something “more and more superficial.”  Having evacuated his organic center, the humanist required new, “pseudo-centers.”  In the anatomical drawings of Da Vinci and in the later research and drawings of Vesalius, while there is advancement in the detailed understanding of human physiognomy and physiology, there is also a trend of gross materialization whose ineradicable accompaniment is the other trend of de-spiritualization.  Nevertheless at first, as Berdyaev remarks, the Renaissance produced “a splendid and unprecedented flourishing of human creativity.”  Berdyaev quickly adds an important qualification.  The earliest manifestations of the Renaissance occurred in the context of a still vital Christendom.  Belonging to the conceit of humanism is the idea that the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries produced a resurrection of paganism.  Berdyaev denies this.  “Even such a typical man of the XVI Century, a man of the later portion of the Renaissance, was not only a pagan, but also a Christian.”  And yet Cellini’s was a qualified paganism.  The men of the Renaissance could in fact never be truly pagan as they sprang from a society that had passed through the Christianizing process: “The Renaissance began back in the deep Middle Ages and its first foundations were fully Christian.”  The pretence of a new paganism therefore required a degree of self-deception.

As Berdyaev sees it, “Humanism liberated human energy, but it did not spiritually elevate man”; rather “it left him spiritually empty” in the gap between his pretence of paganism, always to a degree insincere, and his alienation from Christianity.  In a mood of religious indifference, the “free rovings” of the early, optimistic, but essentially self-deceiving Renaissance of the Fifteenth Century gradually became a compulsion “to wander life on the surface.”  Soon the surface becomes all and everything in its jejune depthlessness.  “At the primal basis of modern history,” Berdyaev writes, “lay a rift of man from the spiritual depths, an estrangement of life from its meaning.”  It followed from alienation from the spiritual center – that is, from God – that in place of Creation man might take charge of the cosmos in such a way “that perhaps the whole of life should become a matter of artifice.”  Berdyaev fails to mention the various utopias that emerge in the Late Renaissance and on the verge of the Enlightenment – More’s eponymous Utopia, Bacon’s New Atlantis, and Campanella’s City of the Sun – but he must surely have been thinking of them.  These schemes for communities based solely on an ill-conceived reason anticipate programmatic socialism in treating the human being as a unit or function in a project or opus.  The Renaissance quite naturally produces the even more shallow Enlightenment.  Berdyaev proposes a law.  In the extended history of the Renaissance, according to him, “unfolds the self-destructive dialectic of humanism – the affirmation of man without God, and against God, the denial of the image and likeness of God in man which leads to the denial and destruction of man, and the assertion of paganism against Christianity which leads to the denial and destruction of antiquity.”  (The emphasis is Berdyaev’s.)

What of the terminal character of Berdyaev’s much-extenuated Renaissance in the first part of the Twentieth Century?  The rational project of building a utopian community that once built will remain in stasis has something of the machine-like about it.  The central symbol of the Jacobin attempt to build a utopian community that once built would remain in stasis, was the Guillotine, a machine for killing people in a rational and efficient way.  Berdyaev has linked the articulations of the upper level of any society with the character that society assumes at its base.  When Berdyaev surveys philosophy and art at the end of the Nineteenth Century and the beginning of the Twentieth Century, he finds a situation of general subscendence whose wretchedness his “dialectic of humanism” explains.  Take the avant-garde of art and literature.  Futurism, Berdyaev remarks, “destroys both the image of nature and the image of man”; that is, Futurism “wants ultimately to abolish the effect of the Renaissance, which was all oriented to the eternal forms of nature and man.”  Futurism in effect abolishes Botticelli’s Venus and Michelangelo’s David and replaces them with Da Vinci’s machines.  In Futurism, “the image of man and the body of man perish… lacerated and torn by inhuman whirlwinds.”  Cubism, too, placing everything on a depthless plane, “dissembles the artistic image of man.”  As far as philosophy goes: “Positivism was begotten by the spirit of the Renaissance, but in it this spirit became exhausted.”  Positivism treats thought mechanically.  In its emergence, in Comte’s Religion of Humanity, Positivism took the form of a utopian project with a global aim.  It comes as no surprise that given the theory at the top, the praxis at the bottom is barbaric.  Or perhaps it is vice versa.

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Da Vinci’s Battle Tank

“The Renaissance began with an affirmation of creative human individualness,” writes Berdyaev near the end of his essay, but “it has ended with a denial of creative human individualness.”  The pronouncement exercises more authority nearly a century after Berdyaev made it than it did originally in 1922.  In 2018 creativity is largely absent; the arts have been industrialized and the product of industrialization is repetition of the politically correct cliché.  The motion picture industry churns out hundreds of films every year, each one predictable – and predictably nihilistic.  One can walk into a franchise bookstore and confront ten thousand titles, not one of which exercises the slightest allure on an educated person.  Education at all levels has become a criminal enterprise of indoctrination in entitlement and resentment.  As Berdyaev points out, the atomization of society and the collectivization of society occur simultaneously.  On the one hand is insipid consumerism; on the other, identity politics.  Other pronouncements from “The End of the Renaissance” seem likewise prescient and to have gained force in the meantime.  Consider what Berdyaev calls “the passion for equality.”  Being really the “pathos of envy,” egalitarianism suffers the acute “impossibility to affirm a being in itself.”  The socialist obsession with quantitative sameness in status and outcome thus amounts only to “a passion for non-being.”  Is there a solution to the dissolution in the spreading dimensionless nihilism?  “Humanism has to be lived out to its end,” Berdyaev avers, while believing in a restoration beyond the ordeal.  Yet like every collapse of hubris, like every Promethean catastrophe, the terminal paroxysms of humanism operate as a type of revelation – or more accurately as humanism’s compulsory confession of its own belated emptiness and futility.

II. Spengler’s Renaissance. Spengler’s theory of the Renaissance takes its context in his larger theory of the Great Cultures. Each Great Culture possesses the character of a monad and unfolds according to an organic pattern of birth, maturity, senility, and death. Spengler’s sense of history differs from Berdyaev’s in that whereas Berdyaev believed in an actual continuity from the Classical to the Medieval Civilization, Spengler believed in no such actual continuity but only in the proposition that a peculiarity of the West was that it took interest in the other Great Cultures and found reason to admire them, not least Greco-Roman civilization.  And yet it could not really understand what it admired.  This admiration, because spuriously motivated, never meant that the West understood the Classical world as the Classical world had understood itself.  On the contrary, Spengler argues, the West’s notion that it can see through Classical eyes, or that it is the successor of the Classical world, is largely a delusion.  There is between those two worlds an impassable hiatus.  Of course Spengler himself believed that he understood the Classical world, as well as a Westerner could.  Perhaps he did.  Essentially a comparatist of cultures, Spengler developed a keen eye for differences and asserted them with persuasive assurance.  Berdyaev, adhering to Christian precepts, could not admit despair despite his severe, even damning critique of modernity   Spengler on the other hand, while sharing with Berdyaev the conviction that the Twentieth Century had ushered an age of corruption and nihilism, remained agnostic and only expected the bad to get worse.  Democracy and nihilism signified the turn-for-the-worse of the West.  Something more should be said about Spengler’s theory of the Great Cultures and of history.

Spengler distinguishes between two categories of history, which, as he sees things, the typical modern historian has thoroughly confused.  There is and yet there is not, Spengler argues, a universal history of humanity.  An ambitious collator might assemble a synthetic Story of Mankind from paleontology, archaeology, and the earliest written records, but such a speculative construction would pose an epistemological conundrum.  The widely separate peoples of the global past had no notion of a global or universal humanity; they therefore never thought of themselves as participating in any such thing.  Insofar as history consists in the record of human intention, the universal history lacks that intention.  Spengler sees the notion, then, both as chimeric and as typically modern.  Really there are only histories, in the plural, each one belonging exclusively to one of the non-communicating Great Cultures.  While Spengler identifies eight Great Cultures, he concentrates his interest on only three: The Classical, the Magian, and the Faustian.  Magian refers to the combined Persian and Near-Eastern worlds, whose surviving but moribund representatives are Judaism, Islam, and Arab Christianity.  Faustian, with its pronounced folkloric connotation, also called by Spengler the Gothic, refers to the West, which began around the year 1000 without any causal relation to Athens or Rome.  As Spengler’s title suggests, his interest resides mainly in the West, which he believes to have entered its inevitable phase, not exactly of dissolution, but of ossification and cracking-up.  For Spengler the word culture designates a living organism; whereas the word civilization designates brittle age and cold death or what Spengler likes to call “Winter.”  Spengler measures the lifetime of any Great Culture at around one thousand years.

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Oswald Spengler (1880 – 1936)

Spengler’s separation of culture-origin from causality will scandalize those who come to him from positivistic anthropology and the rather mechanical, tripartite construction of history.  The Great Cultures – which, to emphasize the point, exist as monads and form no continuity – begin spontaneously, nearly in an ex nihilo manner, in apocalyptic experiences that stamp a character on a people and reveal to that people its relation to its native landscape.  The epiphany endows on a people its proper “Destiny,” a word that Spengler often capitalizes.  “In the Destiny-Idea,” Spengler writes, “the soul reveals its world-longing, its desire to rise into the light, to accomplish and actualize its vocation.”  Spengler characterizes the Classical world under the category-idea of material bodies distributed in space.  The nude Apollo or Aphrodite exemplifies the Classical and so too Doric architecture in its static thereness.  When the Empire reached its limits, it defended its frontiers but never ventured beyond them.  Faustian or Gothic or Western Culture stands in marked contrast to the Classical.  The “prime symbol” of the West, according to Spengler, is “pure and limitless space.”  A Gothic cathedral, like a Viking long ship, leaps upward to the heavens or outward to the horizon.  “The Faustian soul looks for an immortality to follow the bodily end, a sort of marriage with endless space, and it disembodies the stone [of the Classical order] in its Gothic thrust-system… till at last nothing remain[s] visible but the indwelling depth- and height-energy of this self-extension.”  Swiftly the West transubstantiates architecture into polyphonic music as its essential genre of self-expression from Pérotin to Bach to Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler.

Spengler’s discussion of the Renaissance comes in The Decline, Volume I, in the first of two chapters (VII and VIII) on “Music and Plastic.”  The discussion begins with Spengler re-emphasizing the difference between the Classical and the Faustian world-views.  Under Classicism a close relation exists between the objet-d’art and a particular organ of sense.  In the experience of the Faustian soul, externalizing itself in its objets-d’art, no such strict correlation exists.  “A ‘singing’ picture of Claude Lorrain,” Spengler writes, “does not really address itself to the bodily eye any more than the space-straining music since Bach addresses itself to the bodily ear.”  Whereas the Classical style embodies itself in stone, in statue and temple, the Faustian style seeks dematerialization; it wants at once to express itself as disembodied spirit expanding through infinite space and as the colors and tones that, released into space, expand without limit.  The Classical measured and contemplated.  The Gothic – synonymous with the Faustian – “gripped life in its entirety, penetrated its most hidden corners.”  It is the case moreover, Spengler writes, that “the world-outlook of the baroque is essentially a continuation of the Gothic.”  The standard or textbook understanding of the Renaissance, which sees it as the renewal of cultural vitality against the deadness of the Gothic or Medieval world, has turned reality on its head and then examined it cross-eyed.  On the contrary, as Spengler writes: “The Art of the Renaissance… is a revolt against the spirit of the Faustian forest-music of counterpoint, which at the time was preparing to vassalize the whole form-language of the Western Culture.  It was the logical outcome of the open assertion of this will in matured Gothic.”  The Renaissance “maintained the character of a simple counter-movement; necessarily therefore it remained dependent on the forms of the original movement, and represented simply the effect of these upon a hesitant soul.”

How to explain that hesitancy?  Spengler’s expository tendency is, having rehearsed his argument to himself, merely to report his conclusions to his reader.  Perhaps it is as simple as that some men rise to a challenge while others quail before it.  The Renaissance becomes in Spengler’s retelling of it a type of panic-stricken retreat from an expanding spiritual dynamism.  It hardly beggars understanding: A Doric temple never terrifies, but the flying buttresses and spires of a Gothic cathedral carry with them the intimidating quality of the sublime.  Classical monody lulls the spirit, but even the primitive polyphony of Pérotin induces a vertigo associated with infinite space.  Rejecting the Gothic obsession with suspending limits in all dimensions, the Renaissance, according to Spengler, “was without true depth, either ideal or phenomenal.”  Textbook history inflates the key figures of the Renaissance to giants of artistic and philosophical achievement.  Spengler, setting those key figures beside such as Pérotin and the cathedral architects, beside Dante and the writers of the Eddas, and beside Joachim and St. Francis, observes them as under a microscope: “We have only to think of the bursting passion with which the Gothic world-feeling discharged itself upon the whole Western landscape, and we shall see at once what sort of a movement it was that the handful of select spirits – scholars, artists and humanists – initiated about 1420.”  One will notice that Spengler like Berdyaev includes humanism as one of the significant products of the Renaissance although his list puts it in third place among the categories.


Fourteenth Century Polyphonic Notation

For Spengler the Renaissance amounts to little more than “an anti-Gothic movement and a reaction against the spirit of polyphonic music.”  Spengler even exercises his wont to treat the Renaissance as the equivalent of a modern fad: “When it had mastered some arts of word and picture, [it] had shot its bolt”; it had, however, “altered the ways of thought and life-feeling of Western Europe not one whit.”  Spengler credits the Florentines with having influenced European “costume and gesture” for the next few centuries – an influence on exhibit even today in the phenomenon of the summertime Renaissance Faire of which in North America there are many each year.  But no one attributes spiritual profundity to such affairs.  They are a mere divertissement.  The Renaissance style would be succeeded by the Baroque.  Not incidentally, Spengler places Dante at one end and Michelangelo at the other outside the temporal boundaries of the Florentine hiccup.  Spengler paints the Renaissance as imitative and appropriative, with the further critical observation that its practitioners never understood what they imitated and appropriated on its own terms.  Classical imagery served the men of the Renaissance simply as a type of counter-imagery to the dominant Gothic.  One can sample that dominant Gothic in a profusion of venues “from the idea of Catholicism to the state-theory of the Holy Roman Empire, from the knightly tourney to the new city-form, from cathedral to cottage, from language-building to the village maiden’s bridal attire, [and] from oil-painting to the Spielmann’s song.”

If as Spengler argues the Renaissance signified only “an outbreak of deep-seated discordances in [Gothic] Culture” or “a stand that the soul attempts to make against the Destiny that at last it comprehends,” and if it had no real or lasting effect; why has the opposite impression proved itself so durable, so that as late as the Twenty-First Century educated people believe the Renaissance to have been epochal and lasting in its efficacy, imagining that they might yet participate in it?  In this matter, Spengler’s argument lapses into a degree of obscurity, as though he felt the need to evade a difficulty.  He never confronts the question directly, but rather continues to characterize the Fifteenth Century in a variety of disarming ways in order to drive his point home.  The art of the Renaissance is actually Gothic, but “softened in acclimatization” by the sunlit landscape of the South.  The art of the Renaissance, which invented perspective, is as much dominated by the idea of infinite space as the Northern Gothic.  Italy below the Appenines was historically within the sphere of the Byzantine and Moorish aspects of the Late-Magian world so that Renaissance imagery would represent the mere moribund persistence, the “pseudomorphosis,” of that non-Gothic world-view.  The art of the Renaissance “is not Classical, but it is a dream of Classical existence, the only dream of the Faustian soul in which it was able to forget itself.”  It will not have passed notice that these plural propositions contradict themselves in various annoying ways.  Perhaps, however, an answer to the question offers itself that Spengler, prone to over-intellectualize, missed although he implies it obliquely.

The clue lies in Spengler’s earlier description of Renaissance art as superficial but pleasing.  The painterly art of the Renaissance – think of Sandro Botticelli – emphasizes an illustrative quality that can exert a fairly strong appeal on an aesthetically not particularly sophisticated taste.  This is not to say that erudite examination would not reveal subtler aspects – but only that the immediacy of the color palette and flimsy attire of the youthful, smiling female figures make for ready popular reception.  This answer accords itself well with Spengler’s praise of the Gothic, which, invoking infinite space, light-as-spirit, and “colours [that] become tones,” endows the flying buttress and the dense web of polyphony with intimidating sublimity.  The metaphysical, visionary implications of the Gothic canvass or the Gothic musical composition elude and even alienate the popular sensibility, which nevertheless deserves its enjoyments.  This would explain why Botticelli, for example, retains his currency, while Jacopo Tintoretto remains within the ken only of art experts.  In the Northern school of oil painting, Spengler writes, “the art of the brush claims kinship with the style of cantata and madrigal,” and “the technique of oils becomes the basis of an art that means to conquer space and to dissolve things in that space.”  From that the popular sensibility no doubt recoils as from the sudden intimation of vertigo.  “It was we,” writes Spengler, meaning the men who participate most fully in the Faustian soul, “and not the Hellenes or the men of the high Renaissance that prized and sought out high mountaintops for the sake of the limitless range of vision that they afford.”  The “we” restrictively refers only to the undaunted few.  In the workings of the Great Culture the few articulate the generative impulses while the many merely go about their daily lives.

Botticelli 01 Venus

Botticelli: Venus (Completed 1486)

For Spengler, then, the Renaissance consisted in a momentary shrug of dissent from the dynamism of the Great Culture – the Faustian or Gothic – that gave it its context.  The Renaissance represented a whimsical protest that lacked the sincerity to maintain itself and swiftly dwindled away.  Spengler’s claim that the Renaissance bequeathed no lasting effects, however, needs minor qualification.  While it is true, as Spengler puts it, that “ordinary people are bored by Mozart and Beethoven, and regard music as something for which one is or is not in the mood,” and while it is true also that “Faustian art is not, and by essence cannot be ‘for all’”; nevertheless, the all makes its demand.  It might justly be added to Spengler’s assessment of the Renaissance that despite its shrugging superficiality it discovered the formula that has appealed ever since to the middle brow of the all.  But to this proposition, too, something might be added: That in discovering the formula of non-philosophical art, the Renaissance also established the basis – or perhaps dug the trench – for a later and deliberate anti-philosophical art, for a later Kitsch, and for a later super-vulgarization of art leading unto the pornographic distortions of anti-art in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries.  By contrast, writes Spengler, “The Gothic per se [has] been esoteric from its very beginnings – witness Dante and Wolfram.”  The Renaissance inaugurates the rebellion of the uncomprehending against the incomprehensible necessities embodied in any order that seeks to attune itself to the cosmological.  In the later chapters of The Decline, Volume II, and in his Hour of Decision (1934), Spengler shows himself to grasp these matters.  Had he rewritten his account of the Renaissance he might also have altered his judgment of it.

III. Comparing Berdyaev and Spengler.  The two views of the Renaissance – that of Berdyaev on the one hand and that of Spengler on the other – would seem to be incompatible with one another.  For Berdyaev the Renaissance names a rupture in the civilized continuity whose later consequences become increasingly subversive of order and creativity.  For Spengler the Renaissance names a mere burrup, so to speak, in the Destiny of the Faustian or Gothic Culture that was over almost as soon as it began and left no lasting effects.  The contexts of the two descriptions differ markedly as well.  Berdyaev sees Classical civilization as linked causally to Medieval Christendom and both as formative, in their own way, for Modernity although the latter’s relation to its precursors is in the mode of negation or rejection.  Spengler regards his Great Cultures as monads that barely influence one another.  Yet both Berdyaev and Spengler reject the tripartite construction of history as a simplification unworthy of the subtle mind; both see Joachim of Fiore as an important precursor-figure of the Renaissance whose doctrine of the Three Ages anticipates the much later tripartite construction of history.  In a few features the two views converge and give the promise, through that convergence, of a possible complementarity.  The discussion has suggested, for example, that by reading between the lines, Spengler’s Renaissance can in fact be seen to have generated a certain lasting effect: The establishment of a non-intimidating because non-metaphysical and un-philosophical genre of art for consumption by the masses.  Spengler for his part confines himself in his discussion of the Renaissance largely to the arts.  Berdyaev for his part concentrates on the theological-philosophical implications of the Renaissance.  In Renaissance art Spengler sees a rebellion against, or a fearful turning-away from, Gothic profundity.  In Renaissance doctrine – that namely of humanism – Berdyaev sees a fateful rejection of what he calls the religious center of life hence also the origin of the modern atheistic crisis.

Spengler calls the Renaissance un-philosophical.  To the objection that to call the Renaissance un-philosophical one would need to ignore a good deal of literary evidence – the emergence, for example, of Florentine Neo-Platonism under the influence of the Byzantine intellectuals in their Italian exile after the fall of Constantinople – Spengler might invoke his notion that this, too, was borrowed without any real understanding and that it amounted only to a literary affectation.  The indices of neither the first nor the second volume of The Decline contain any significant listings under humanism; there is but one reference in the index of the second volume, none in that of the first.  It should be recalled, however, that in rejecting the tripartite construction of history, Spengler tantalizingly linked it to the Magian worldview and to “the Gnostic systems.”  Consider under Spengler’s categorical label one of the best-known documents of Fifteenth Century humanism, Pico Della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man (1486).  The Oration is often cited as a primary document in the ascent out of the supposed Dark Ages of the Medieval Period.  The Oration begins by invoking the wisdom of a Muslim, Abdala the Saracen; swiftly it makes reference to Thrice Great Hermes, and it mentions among others Pythagoras, Aesculapius, Orpheus, and Zoroaster.  Its syncretism is noteworthy.  Pico offers an anthropological theory in the Oration, which he attributes to God as Creator – but as to which god, exactly, his syncretic proliferation of exotic names, some divine and some human, has made unclear.  Humanism, as Berdyaev remarks, is anthropology purged of its connection to the divine.  What exactly does Pico assert?


Zoroaster / Zarathustra

In Pico’s pseudo-myth, which only tenuously attaches itself to the Biblical Genesis, God or “The Great Artisan,” having completed the cosmos, requires to inhabit it and appreciate and understand it a special type of creature.  “The Great Artisan mandated,” as Pico puts it, “that this creature who would receive nothing proper to himself shall have joint possession of whatever nature had been given to any other creature.”  Remark how Pico elides the declaration in Genesis that God made man in his own image.  The image of God is proper to man in Genesis, but Pico feels the need to suppress it.  Pico continues: “He [that is, God] made man a creature of indeterminate and indifferent nature, and [placed] him in the middle of the world.”  Scholars have perhaps underestimated the radicalism of Pico’s reframing of anthropology – or rather they have blinkered themselves before Pico’s abolition of anthropology.  If man were “indeterminate” and “indifferent,” he would possess no nature.  The words that Pico now puts in God’s mouth reinforce the orator’s obliteration of man as a determinate being that, in its determination, might be studied and understood, by itself, per se.  Pico makes God to say to Adam: “We give you no fixed place to live, no form that is peculiar to you, nor any function that is yours alone. According to your desires and judgment, you will have and possess whatever place to live, whatever form, and whatever functions you yourself choose.”  God adds, “You, with no limit or no bound, may choose for yourself the limits and bounds of your nature.”

Spengler fails to address the early literature of humanism, but Berdyaev fails, at least in his essay “The End of the Renaissance,” to address Pico.  That is a shame, not least because Pico so perfectly exemplifies the assertions that Berdyaev makes in that essay about humanism.  If men were indeterminate, indifferent, and rootless (“you will have and possess whatever place to live”), as Pico declares, what would men be, as a species?  Men would be an anomalous species reduced to a single quality – libido.  Humanity would hardly be godlike, but it would be convinced of its godlike status idiotically; or rather it would be demonic.  Sensing no limits, it could have no notion of itself.  It would consist solely in its appetites. Has anyone noticed the glaring contradiction in Pico’s anthropology?  The Great Artisan needed a creature that could appreciate and understand the nature that he had conjured by his Word, but then the Artificer tells the creature that, in effect, he has no nature, no function.  Was Pico aware of this?  One of the rhetorical devices of the Oration is that Pico is disputing religious authority in the persons of those whom he calls “Fathers.”  A father is, among other things, like God, a limitation: The father signifies that no man has generated himself, but that he required others for his generation.  Man as the son retains the imprint of the father, no matter how much he rebels.  Yet Pico’s Artisan tells Adam: “You may fashion yourself into whatever form you choose.”  How can the Dignity of Man establish itself on the abolition of human nature?  Yet that is what Pico proposes.  The incoherency is so great, and so absurd, that a Monty Python movie might leap from its pronouncements as Athene once leapt from the brow of Zeus.  When Pico invokes “bringing to final perfection… the knowledge of divine things,” he joins himself to Joachim’s Age of the Holy Spirit, in which at last men will attain complete understanding of Scripture.

Fourteen years after “The End of the Renaissance,” Berdyaev returned to his topic in two of the chapters of The Meaning of History.  The philosopher’s insight has meanwhile deepened.  He builds on and enriches his earlier conclusions.  What Berdyaev now argues concerning those ultimate humanists Friedrich Nietzsche and Karl Marx, he might well have argued concerning Pico.  Nietzsche’s appropriation of the Persian mystic Zarathustra links his text to Pico’s and reveals the latter as an early manifestation of what Berdyaev recognizes as anti-human super-humanism.  Berdyaev writes, “With Nietzsche humanism reaches the end of its stormy and tragic history.”  Berdyaev quotes Thus Spake Zarathustra, “Man is a shame and disgrace and should be transcended.”  Berdyaev diagnoses Nietzsche’s Superman-cult as the moment of transformation “from humanism to anti-humanism” and as the metathesis “in whose name [modernity] repudiates man as a shame and disgrace.”  The object of Berdyaev’s critique – Nietzsche’s anti-human super-humanism – has a remarkable contemporary analogue that reveals the durable character of the Russian’s intuition and its continued applicability.  In defending its employment of a spoiled young woman of Asian extraction, the New York Times has officially endorsed and therefore institutionalized her casually bigoted perception that “white people” are so morally monstrous that they deserve proscription and de-legitimization.  The writer’s violent formula and self-confident bigotry exactly parallel the Nietzschean belief that man is a sub-human “shame and disgrace.”  It merely displaces into the category of man the total ensemble of “white people”; and it displaces itself into the extra-moral Superman category.

Botticelli 02 Graces

Botticelli: The Graces (Completed 1481)

Berdyaev discovers in humanism a type of seedling nihilism that would work itself out in the dialectic of its history.  Spengler, too, finds a topic in nihilism, also in a later work, his Hour of Decision.  Spengler agrees with Berdyaev that the ideas of progress and liberation, which one can trace back to the Renaissance era, have yielded results opposite to the ones that they announced or intended at their inauguration.  All the schemes of progress and liberation lapse into crude materialism and begin to advocate destruction: “And that, at bottom, is the intention.  We do not seek to alter and improve, but to destroy.”  One would do well to recall Berdyaev’s contention concerning class-war and egalitarianism – that their campaign finds it impossible “to affirm a being in itself” and that it amounts therefore only to “a passion for non-being.”  Spengler in The Hour describes the prevailing nihilism of the first half of the last century as “the abysmal hatred of the proletarian of higher form of every sort, of culture as its essence, of society as its upholder and historical product.”  Everything traditionally noble “fills the Nihilist with dull fury.”  The proletarian of 2018 is not the proletarian of 1930.  Search for him in vain in the factories, supposing that one can find a factory.  The search will likely find him in a managerial position or writing for a newspaper or teaching at a college.  “Dull fury” nevertheless describes him to the proverbial T. His discourse is restricted to slogans that were already cliché in 1848, but his resentment, which is the same as his fury, runs hot and high.  Like the Asian woman at the Times who wants to eliminate “white people,” he is a Gnostic, knowing what he knows with dead certainty.

Does the convergent critique of the Renaissance in Berdyaev and Spengler mean that the connoisseur, thus informed, may no longer take pleasure in Botticelli, say, or the Venetian madrigalists?  No.  The achievements in beauty of the Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Sixteenth Centuries in the Italian city-states remain valid; the critical perception of confusion in the program of humanism will not subvert that beauty.  One may continue to study Marsilio Ficino and his stable of Neo-Platonist scholars who produced a fascinating, if minor, body of philosophical literature and to find in it the pleasure of esoterica.  The enjoyment, however, must be linked to the critique.  It is often difficult to judge a phenomenon in the moment of its first shining forth.  Both Berdyaev and Spengler – but Berdyaev more decisively than Spengler – suggest by their analyses of cultural phenomena that the understanding of such requires a teleological view.  A thing is not what it proclaims itself to be in the exuberance of its birth – but is what it becomes through the unfolding of its deepest secrets in time.

5 thoughts on “Two Theories of the Renaissance – Berdyaev’s and Spengler’s

  1. Pingback: Two Theories of the Renaissance – Berdyaev’s and Spengler’s | Reaction Times

  2. Dr Bertonneau,

    I really enjoyed your essay. I haven’t read Spengler or Berdyaev (yet!), but your article did encourage me to pull out my old copy of Pater’s The Renaissance. Pater’s first chapter is a biography of Pico. Pater, a Renaissance apologist from a secular modernist perspective, sympathetically (and at times patronizingly) describes Pico as one who perhaps tried to reconcile too many mythologies. Also, Pater – I think shrewdly – notes that when Pico and other Renaissance men attempted to reconcile Christianity and paganisms they neither Christianized ancient Greece nor “paganized” Christianity. Rather, they created a new mythology – one where the Madonna is the mother of God; and there are a million gods. I think “humanism” is a wonderful term for such creepiness! Anyway, here is Pater describing a personal tragedy of Pico’s. Taking it instead as a description of the Renaissance, I wonder if it would be one Berdyaev might have enjoyed: It is said that in his eagerness for mysterious learning he once paid a great sum for a collection of cabalistic manuscripts, which turned out to be forgeries

    • Dear Wood:

      Thank you for taking the time to read my prose. Thank you also for reminding me of Pater’s Renaissance and of Pater generally, whose Marius the Epicurean also addresses the relation of Paganism to Christianity, but in the context of Late Antiquity rather than that of the alleged Pagan revival of the Fourteenth Century. In Marius, Pater anticipates Spengler. The novel’s namesake protagonist, a young man who makes his way through Platonism and Neo-Platonism to Epicureanism, at last finds himself drawn into the fold of Christianity when he hears the singing of proto-plainsong in a private chapel. The ethereal voices of the unseen choir strike him as spirit itself: The breakthrough of eternity into temporality. Pater narrates the moment of conversion quite effectively. It might well be the high point of his literary production.

      In his assertion that, as you put it, the Renaissance neither Christianized Hellenism nor Hellenized Christianity, Pater certainly forecasts Berdyaev’s assessment of the putative rebirth of classicism. Berdyaev would add that Christianity had in any case already absorbed a good deal of the Pagan tradition, not least Platonism and the Logos-Philosophy. Berdyaev points out that men like Pico were in this way petulant and blind and their work redundant. When one has on hand the treatises of the Church Fathers (think of Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen) of what interest except as exotica are the arcane names in Pico’s bibliography? This is not to say, however, that exotica are not intrinsically interesting. They exerted their interest on Pico. As Berdyaev remarks, that interest (or more accurately fixation) led to an intellectual and spiritual derailment.

      Very sincerely yours,


      • It is too long – almost fifty years – since I read Marius the Epicurean. All I can remember is intoxication with Pater’s ravishing austere prose – still to my mind the most perfect I have ever read. Time to find it on the shelf again.

  3. @Kristor. One of the many considerate details which make me like Whit Stillman’s film Damsels in Distress (2011) is that in it the college students are frequently seen reading black-spined Penguin Classics paperback, one of which is Marius the Epicurean. Would that it were so!


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