We’re into the 15th century in Co-Phi, commencing JMH‘s discussion of The Printing Press and the Age of Martyrs. We begin with
Zen, Renaissance & Reformation, Pomponazzi & Macchiavelli, “School of Athens,” Copernicus
This was a seed-time for Buddhism, and Nagarjuna was one of the chief gardeners. He out-Buddha’d Buddha, denying not only the reality of the self but also the possibility of repudiating it. “There is not any right doctrine,” just meditations seeking enlightenment.
The Japanese Zen master and haiku poet Ikkyu Sojun was on the Spartan side of Buddhism too.
We eat, excrete, sleep, and get up; This is our world/ All we have to do beyond that/ Is to die.
Now that’s a minimalist! (But don’t forget the Eros.) It must not have been a Buddhist who said life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans. (I don’t think John Lennon was a Buddhist, but Yoko maybe?)
But, with Halloween approaching we can better appreciate his timely dream of pontificating Buddhist skeletons. [Never mind about Halloween... April Fool's Day maybe?] Babble about “God” and ”the Buddha” and you will never find the true Way. The true Way makes skeletons of us all. As Woody Allen once said, it’s important to recall that one day we’ll all “thin out” and should hope to be well thought-of when we do.
So my concern about the sensualist monk would be that he look to his legacy, and not squander his only embodied opportunity to contribute positively to the great and ongoing human story. We’re all dead in the long run, but those we touch are not all dead yet.
I wonder, too, if Ikkyu Sojun wasn’t also impressed by William James’s insight that life in the flesh, besides its potential for great passing pleasure, is also a vehicle for natural transcendence? James said: “I am sorry for anyone who has never been touched by the spell of this mysterious sensorial life, with its irrationality & supreme felicity.”
The Renaissance was the rebirth of ancient wisdom, midwifed by Petrarch and others in their infatuation with Cicero and the “sturdy and virile” Stoics, and in their rejection of “the stupid Aristotelians” and their regurgitated syllogisms. As we noted the other day, this was the seminal moment of Humanism.
Who are humanists? Glad you asked.
Pioneers of Renaissance Humanism were inspired by the discovery and spread of important classical texts from ancient Greece and Rome which offered a different vision of life and humanity than what had been common during previous centuries of Christian domination.
There are all kinds of humanists, not all of whom explicitly or implicitly (as JMH suggests) exalt science above faith. Besides the notorious and villified (but usually quite harmless) Secular Humanists, there are American Humanists, religious humanists, Christian humanists, pragmatic-pluralist humanists, Unitarian Universalist humanists, humanists who subscribe to Manifestos, and more. It’s a coalition of humanists and secularists who have organized next weekend’s Reason Rally in Washington.
People like Rick Santorum are sick of the separation between church and state, as defended by JFK. Humanists are sick of people like Santorum.
It may be difficult to generalize about humanists and secularists, but what they do all exalt is the priority of human welfare on earth as the most appropriate locus of human concern. Raphael’s School of Athens captures the mood precisely in Aristotle’s earth-first gesture. (Raphael evidently did not share Petrarch’s contempt for The Philosopher.)
Aristotle of Stagira (384 – 322 BC) (according to Dante Alighieri “The Master of those who know“) stretches his hand. He holds a copy of his Nichomachean Ethics – and he indicates with his gesture the worldliness, the concreteness, of his contributions to philosophy… Does his brown and blue colored clothes represent the two elements water and earth (probably to show that his philosophy is grounded, material), whereas Plato’s two colors represent fire and air?
Philosophy Professor Pietro Pamponazzi of Padua and Bologna, “doubt’s philosopher,” like me “fundamentally peripatetic,” defied Pope Leo’s condemnation of mortality. All his books “concluded that the soul is mortal.” He was a straight shooter:
One of his students demanded a straight answer on the question of the soul, “leaving aside revelation and miracles, and remaining entirely within natural limits.” The straight answer was that he agreed with Aristotle and Averroes that the independent soul of a human being needs its body, and it exists only in its body.
And, in a claim of special interest to me and my students in “Atheism & Philosophy,” he “rejected the idea that people need threats of heaven and hell in order to be moral.” Even my dogs know that… or at least they act like they do. The fire-and-brimstone screamers who periodically camp in front of our student center could learn a thing or two about canine virtue.
Pomponazzi (like the guy in the video below) also spurned ghosts, demons, and angels. And here’s the most surprising fact about him, in this age of martyrs: he “lived a full life… and was considered the greatest Aristotelian of Italy.”
Niccolo Machiavelli “was not the conniving politico his name implies nowadays” but he does sound Nietzschean: “These [Christian] principles seem to me to have made men feeble.”
Luther was no peripatetic, and no scholastic. “In vain does one fashion a logic of faith,” in fact he said rational proofs deny faith. “The Holy Spirit is no Skeptic,” a claim JMH calls “Luther’s gift to the history of doubt.” But plenty of the faithful had their doubts. “If we do not trust the Church to know the truth,” as Luther implied we should not, “why should we trust ourselves?”
Calvin was even nastier than our previous text let on, ordering people burned and decapitated for disagreeing with his theology. But recall, his theology entails predestination and the foreknowledge of an omniscient God. What could those “practical atheists” have done differently? Where’s the sense in punishing them for what they couldn’t change?
Nicolas Copernicus, the great heliocentrist, did not quite own up to his own Copernican Revolution. On his deathbed he said the solar-centered view was useful for calculations. Practically true, pragmatists would say. True plain and simple, most of us are now prepared to go out on a limb and say aloud.
Here to talk about Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, the death of heliocentrism, and the rise of scientific humanism is the author of Demon-haunted World:
So, Groups Five, you can research Copernicus (et al) if you want to know more than our text delivers, or– if you prefer– read on and ask us some questions about Francois Rabelais, whose poetically-dedicated posthumous words seem to leave little doubt as to his state of belief. “Sleep, gluttony, wine, women, jest and jibe: these were my gods, my only gods.” If that sounds glib, read Gargantua’s letter to Pantagruel. It’s deeply thoughtful and profound, about death’s legacy (“…in you and by you, I shall remain in visible form here in this world”) and with an emboldening message we still need to hear, these many centuries later: Nowadays the humanist’s life is available to all.