Sunday, May 10, 2009

Ernst Cassirer, The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy: Chapter 3, "Freedom and Necessity in the Philosophy of the Renaissance"

Renaissance philosophers often present ideas through image and myth (Bruno in particular saw this as a requirement of human reason, but Valla and others also take this approach). Cassirer sees this literary form as a key to understanding the way Renaissance philosophy deals with the problem of necessity and free will. It does not offer any new solution or even new conceptual frame to the problem. It shows more interest in leaving the problem in tension than it does in a resolution. Cassirer's suggestion seems to be that the softening of the concepts and distinctions through literary form contributes to the ability to maintain the problem in tension.

There is also an insistence on addressing the problem without reliance on dogma, relying only on human reason. (I think the the modern philosophical tradition would find a tension between the reliance on reason and the use of myth.)

In Pompanazzi, at least, the precision of the Scholastic distinctions used to analyze freedom and necessity is maintained -- even enhanced by insisting on fidelity to original Aristotelean conceptions -- but there is no attempt to reconcile dogma with reason. Pompanazzi does follow Valla, however, in insisting that there is no conflict between foreknowledge of events and human freedom of action, since it is the events themselves which are determined and not their causes. Pompanazzi also resists drawing any ethical consequence from pre-knowledge; he severs metaphysics from ethics.

Pico della Mirandola's Oration on the Dignity of Man distinguishes man from every other being by his freedom to create his own nature through action. For everything else but man, being determines action: what a thing is, what it's place is in the order of things, determines what it does, how it acts. For man, on the other hand, his own free action determines what he is. Pico's theme -- that freedom defines man's nature -- is drawn from humanist thought, but he introduces a new element to that tradition by portraying man as a microcosm (a concept developed in the thought of Cusa and Ficino). Man, according to Pico, actually contains the possibilities of all other things in himself, and thus be can become like any of them.

In this, Pico distills the tension characteristic of Renaissance thought -- man must be open to the entire universe, to knowledge of all the world, but hold himself apart from it. The distinction made here between man and world, mind and nature, subject and object is not absolute, because the opposed pairs are also defined by the relationship between them. That relationship is found in acts of willing and knowing. (Cassirer sees this as following the true sense of Platonic philosophy -- both transcendence and participation).

Charles de Bouelles professes a division of the world into levels which illustrates the centrality of this theme -- the simultaneous distinction and involvement of subject and object -- in Renaissance thought. The highest level -- self-reflective knowledge -- also requires the most basic level -- simple being -- as the object of its knowing. (Cassirer sees an influence from Cusa's thinking on the trinity in this, where final unity depends on a process of development.) This metaphysics is also an ethics: man isn't simply given self-reflection, he rises to that level by virtue of his own effort and action.

Allegory of Adam as an expression of Renaissance thought: portrayal of primordial man that focuses on his freedom. Merging with Prometheus myth, focus on man's power to create. Boccaccio: Promethean creation as a second creation of man, which gives him not existence, but his specific character as a creator -- Renaissance philosophy moves away from this trope in increasing seeing man's creativity as a result of his own free action.

98: Cusa and Bruno. For Cusa, ideal of humanity is realized in Christ. For Bruno, ideal of humanity requires idea of autonomy, but this pulls it away from religion.

In the second section of this chapter, Cassirer examines the significance of Renaissance thought's struggle with astrology. Astrology was not vanquished by medieval thought, but it was tamed. Medieval medicine and natural science in particular were saturated with astrological thinking. But astrology was only permitted to be a secondary force, like demons or evil spirits, subordinate to God. Faith kept it in check in systems of medieval thought.

With the strengthening of a worldly outlook in the Renaissance, however, astrological thinking comes more to the foreground. Ficino holds that the stars can influence the bodies of men but not their minds, which I think Cassirer suggests was a respectably conventional view. But concern for the power of the stars remained foremost in his thinking anyway. His ethical work stresses directing ones life in accordance with the possibilities allowed by the constraints of that power. This amounts to a new challenge to human freedom that was characteristic of the trend of Renaissance thought. As the regnum gratiae (rule of grace) wanes, the regnum naturae (rule of nature), which makes its own claims on human freedom, waxes. Since astrology and magic were woven into the early Renaissance conception of natural science, and this fabric was only slowly unwoven and reassembled upon different principles, the struggle for asserting human freedom became for the Renaissance largely an intellectual struggle with astrology.

Pompanazzi grapples with the astrological view by trying to reshape it, to make it methodologically strict. So Pompanazzi accepts as given many reports of miraculous or apparently magical events. But he insists that they are not the result of any special personal or spiritual powers. Instead, they can all be systematically explained by the same forces which shape more ordinary events, and that these regular shaping forces are astrological. Even divine action only occurs through the mediation of the heavenly bodies. In fact, our knowledge of the divine through revelation is itself subject to astrological causality, because the intellectual realm is just as thoroughly within the bounds of systematic natural causes as the physical world.

104: "Here, a logic is operative seeking to deduce a priori the form of astrology as the only one adequate to our knowledge of nature. Astrological causality becomes, to use a modern phrase, the 'condition for the conceivability of nature'. For Pompanazzi, it does not signify a surrender to the world of miracles but actually the only salvation from that world, the only sure guarantee for the unconditional validity of the laws of nature. Though it may seem paradoxical at first glance, we are dealing with a thoroughly 'rational' astrology." (This brings to mind Veyne's study of 'rational' Greek mythology.)

Renaissance philosophy brings forth both a new conception of knowledge, in which everything can be explained in a unified way from natural causes, and a new sense of human freedom; but these conflict. Microcosm motif used as a way out, a way of balancing the demands of both. Ficino's takes up this motif to portray the world as organic, hierarchical, emanatistic. But emanationism and hierarchy are undermined by new cosmological thinking founded by Cusa, which denies that the cosmos is graduated or even centered. So the motif of microcosm is taken up as one of correspondence between man and heavens rather than dependence. So with Paracelsus we have an account of a harmonious correlation between man and the heavens, without either side being strictly superior or uniquely determinative. So there is room for ethics, since man's action has influence, too. This is actually taking up a theme of Ficino's astrology. Ficino held that the influence of the stars circumscribes the life possibilities of an individual, but it leaves choices of direction within the set of possibilities. Man can still choose the direction of his life -- whether he strives for the intelligible or the sensible.

Pico, on the other hand, attacks astrology directly (although is own thought is fairly saturated with magical and astrological thinking). While Neoplatonist-influenced medieval thought gave transcendence a spatial as well as spiritual dimension, and thus portrayed the world as having a hierarchical order, Pico recognized no spatial priority. The hierarchical systems lent themselves to acceptance of stellar influences though occult causation; Pico rejects causation that is not proximate and experienced, and thus demonstrable and verifiable.

The ultimate roots of Pico's objection to astrology are not metaphysical, however, but ethical. The claims of astrology would limit man's scope for self-determination, which Pico insists on in face of all else. He attributes great and even seemingly unfathomable human achievements to human genius rather than external astrological influences. Thus, the Renaissance achievement in breaking the power of astrology (and Pico influences Kepler in particular on this path) was the result of the assertion of human freedom in Renaissance thought.