Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Flare (The Defense, Part 12)

with 3 comments

I have looked at the comments,  and beyond what’s obvious–I’m getting a little tired of being presented with demands to provide “evidence” of a fairly standard historical account by someone who never provides any evidence of anything at all, just assertions–

And I’ve decided the following:

I will in fact stick with the standard historical and academic accounts of the period between the Fall of Rome in the 5th Century and the Reformation and Counterreformation in the 16th.

That would make the period between the Fall of Rome and the investiture of Charlemagne the “Dark Ages” or what is known academically as the “early Middle Ages,” the period between that and the 15th century the Middle Ages proper (sometimes called the High Middle Ages for the period between that and the 15th Century, and the Renaissance follows that.

And yes, of course, I know no historical age halts abrutply.  And yes, I’ve been saying since this started that what we’re looking for is evolution, which means there are no abrupt beginnings and endings.

But to try to label an event–the signing of the Magna Carta, say–that occurred smack in the middle of the Crusades as being part of the Renaissance is something worse than ludicrous.

And I will say that no matter what personal commitments Machiavelli might have had, what this culture took from him and embraced was realpolitik–which is why when you describe a political policy as “Machiavellian” you’re not talking about limited government and the rise of representative politics.

That said–please note that I never claimed that the Renaissance was “stagnant.”  What I did claim that it was decadent, and that’s undeniable.

It was not just the increasing corruption of government and religion, which was destructive enough.  It was the entire screeching narcissism of a culture of money.  Cultures of money are always narcissistic, and they always trade substance for style.  There’s the endless mania for acquiring more and more “stuff,”  along with the obsession with displaying it in public.   There’s the casual acceptance of a kind of opportunism that, although practiced in all ages, tends to be considered shameful in periods when money is not the one and only point.

The career of Francis Bacon is illustrative on that last point.

And there was, of course, the art.  Decadent periods tend to be good for two things:  the art, and individual genius.   Think of it being one of those great flares of light that happen when the transformer blows up down the street.  In the long term, it’s dead.

Yes, there was some (steady) progress in some of the sciences, and a lot of progress in art–but the Renaissance is a picture of a society that had lost its belief in itself. 

Petrarch’s beloved Christian Humanism, which had originally been an attempt to wed Christian virtue to Pagan science, became, for most of the people who claimed it, mostly an accessory.  Rich men had palaces so that the people could see how well they lived, clothes threaded through with strands of gold so that the people could see how little they cared about money, and culture so that the people could how very different and superior they were to the ordinary common men who were supposed to be their fellow citizens.

As for evidence–I give you any history of the Medicis, or the Borgias, or any history of the fate of Florence in the Quatrocento, which, far from being an early model of Republican government, was ruled by its great families as absolutely as any monarchy. 

And when changes in the government came, they came increasingly through assassination and conspiracy rather than through elections or council meetings.

And if you want evidence of that, I suggest you compare what happened to Dante in Florentine politics with what happened to and through Lorenzo di Medici.  Dante was a figure of the Middle Ages.  Lorenzo was a figure of the Renaissance.

(Oh, an aside–there’s a nice little book out there on the subject of the attempted assassination of one of the Medicis, called April Blood: Florence and the Plot Against The Medici,   by Lauro Martines.  He’s one of the most respected Renaissance scholars in the world, and the book is concise and–well, illustrative.  Welcome to decadence.)


The Reformation (and the Counterreformation) happened because, faced with a counter-movement increasingly unhappy with the corruption of both religious and secular institutions, the Humanists themselves were increasingly unable to defend the society that Humanism had built.

In fact, not only were they unable to defend it, they often seemed embarrassed by it or ashamed of it.  Even great Humanists like Erasmas–who surely did try–couldn’t deny the corruption, debauchery, violence, opportunism, and immorality that had taken hold even in the Church.

I think it’s a reasonable question to ask if there is something about a liberal arts education–which is, after all, what Christian Humanism was all about–that inevitably leads to such decadance, or that makes such decadance more likely.

Certainly many people over the centuries have thought so, starting at least with Augustine (and plausibly going back to Cicero) and including such disparate figures as Martin Luther and the Ayatollah Khomeini. 

When periods of Humanism end, they always end in the same place:  in periods of resurgent religion.

And it’s not really difficult to understand why this happens. 

Events are driven not by “everybody” and what they want, but by a small subsection of the population that cares passionately about how things work out and is willing to fight for it.  Religion is a powerful motivator for people like that, and that’s true whether you’re talking about traditional religion or the secular political faux-religions we’ve gotten used to lately.

And the liberal arts tradition is a powerful pull away from religious certainty, because it stresses a comprehensive knowledge of all the ideas that have been central to this civilization and a spirit of open inquiry into them.

There is a natural tension here. It  may not be resolvable in the long run.


But it left people like Luther and Zwingli with a problem–the liberal arts tradition led to the corruption of manners, morals, and religion; but lack of the liberal arts tradition led to narrowness and no less heresy than before.

In fact, Luther and Zwingli were products of a somewhat dumbed down version of Christian Humanism, and it soon began to look to them as if chucking out the whole of the liberal arts left Christians less capable than they should be of a “proper” interpretation of Scripture.

And that’s why, after the crash–the liberal arts came back again.

But more on that tomorrow.  It’s my Day from Hell.

Written by janeh

October 13th, 2011 at 9:59 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Flare (The Defense, Part 12)'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'Flare (The Defense, Part 12)'.

  1. Clear and to the point. I’d like to hear your views on mechanism expounded a bit. Technically, you don’t need it. A thing is true whether or not we understand why it’s true. But I’m easier to convince when I think I understand why. This is on two points: why the surge of art (and genius?) at the beginning of decadence, and why the widespread teaching of the liberal arts seems always to end in decadence.

    I would suggest they’re related: as I wrote earlier, that flare of art is helped by not necessarily having anything to say, and no one to care what you say. And the broader question is related: the liberal arts are necessary but not sufficient. If you have nothing but them–no underlying core of right and wrong–sooner or later you wind up with Matthew Arnolds or Oscar Wildes, unable to conceive or right and wrong in anything but aesthetic terms. Call it the triumph of beauty over truth. Very pretty. But it doesn’t last long.
    Luck with the day.


    13 Oct 11 at 4:01 pm

  2. So much for Keats, eh?

    I don’t find it completely satisfying either way. You can’t just say that beauty is truth and leave it at that, but if you seek beauty to the exclusion of truth you get decadence and a lack of morality (or ethics).

    But I don’t understand why the pattern seems to lead to beauty without the underlying core of morality, or whatever it is that’s the flip side of decadence.


    13 Oct 11 at 5:25 pm

  3. Eventually it gets past beauty – as demonstrated by a lot of modern art which seems to have something other than the creation or expression of beauty as its aim.

    As for the lack of morality – maybe it’s something to do with the kind of morality that a questioning attitude and a reverence for the individual seems to favour. The questioning attitude tends to lead you to the point at which you either decide that there’s no external source of morality – and therefore no one moral code is preferable to another – or to the effort to create one, either based on some philosophy or, as Jane has mentioned before, based on a knowledge of human nature combined with a knowledge of the kind of civilization you want your system of morality to support. I don’t find either of those 100% satisfactory either.

    And if we emphasize – I would say ‘over-emphasize’ – the individual as we tend to do, a lot of us will go for whatever we think is beautiful and whatever we think we, personally, need or want. How often nowadays when some quandary arises – someone isn’t sure what to do about something in their marriage or on their job or with their friends – does the internal debate or the advice from experts turn on what that particular individual wants; not what their duty to others might be or what might be the correct choice according to some generally agreed system of morality (other than ‘Everyone does it!).

    So I think the link between beauty (and lack of beauty) and lack of morality is linked to excessive individualism which in turn is linked to a lack of consensus on what exactly is beauty and morality.

    I have also heard the opinion that if you believe in nothing you’ll believe in anything (and variations thereof). So maybe we are innately programmed to believe, and if our culture doesn’t provide something productive and healthy to believe in, we’ll find our own things to believer and there’s possibly vastly more ugly and dangerous stuff out there to believe in than useful and productive. Hollow beauty as a substitute for the useful and productive might even be less dangerous to the individual and the group than some of the other options we’ve chosen, like the ones about purifying races, or creating good and happy people with modern science.


    14 Oct 11 at 7:03 am

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Bad Behavior has blocked 246 access attempts in the last 7 days.