Re-thinking the Renaissance


Sometimes our very words help to confound and thus to enslave us.

Take, for example, the word 'renaissance,' which we use to refer to a particular time in human history. It means 'rebirth' or 'revival,' and we capitalize it to make it a proper name ' the proper name ' of that time in human existence when mankind 'emerged' from 'the dark ages' into the 'enlightenment.' But as S. I. Hayakawa points out in Language in Thought and Action, 'What we call things . . . depend(s) upon the interests we have' (p. 121). 'Classification,' he says, 'is not a matter of identifying 'essences.' It is simply a reflection of social convenience or necessity' (p. 124).

Because of that word, we accept as a fact that during 'the Renaissance,' mankind 'awoke' from their long medieval 'sleep' into the 'light' of 'modern' thought.

But perhaps this word reflects a social convenience or necessity we haven't thought about ' that in telling us we've become awake, it simply masks our essential slumber.

L. T. C. Rolt deals with our understanding of the Renaissance and its repercussions at some length in his excellent (and much too hard-to-find) 1947 book High Horse Riderless. An engineer, he thought deeply about the effects of his beloved machines on the land in which he grew up and the people who lived there. His book points out how the changes in human thought that occurred during the Renaissance have affected both our approach to work and our understanding of freedom in a very negative and damaging way.

He begins by considering the ruins of Cistercian abbey of Rievaulx and asking three simple questions: 'What manner of men were these who built to such high purpose? What brought about their downfall, and why should that purpose which could produce so glorious a flowering have perished from the earth?' The Cistercians, he says, represented:

'. . . perhaps the noblest attempt ever made to live in accordance with the basic principles of the Christian faith. The ruins they have left to us as witness are thus not merely the symbol of a religious sect, but of a way of life. The great church was the central symbol of faith about which all the manifold activities of a self-supporting community revolved. The Cistercian lay-brother was neither a slave nor an anchorite, but a skilled craftsman who wrought in metal, wood and stone, who built roads, wove cloth, bred stock and planted trees, and who tilled the soil of field and garden to make barren wastes fruitful. Yet all these manifold and highly individualistic activities were undertaken, not for personal enrichment, but for the benefit of the community and as an article of faith which was summed up in the precept of Stephen Harding: 'Laborare est Orare'' (p. 26-7).

Laborare est Orare: to work is to pray. What an extraordinary statement! What a revolutionary concept, to consider work itself, and not its product, as prayer, and to equate it with conversing with nature, with life, with god!

Rolt discusses Cistercian manorial records from the 1500s which reveal that 'so far from being the abject serfs of an autocratic petty dictator as is so often popularly supposed, the villagers, free and copy holders, governed themselves. They possessed a delicate and highly organized system of government which was, in the most literal sense, 'government of the people, by the people, and for the people,' and which makes our modern conception of democratic government appear to be the political abstraction which in fact it is.' They based their government on the law of Frankpledge, which meant that 'the village community were themselves responsible for keeping the peace and maintaining law and order within their own boundaries. Frankpledge was thus the essence of self-government as opposed to a form of control from without such as our modern forms of government represent' (p. 28-9).

Faith in nature, in life, in god, had given these individuals not only a sense of responsibility toward one another but also a sense of responsibility toward themselves through their faith in and love of nature, of god, of the source of all life. Their work was itself an offering to this god. It showed their love, their trust, their faithfulness. Their belief in god ' their belief in something higher and more noble than the mere atomistic human ' was 'not confined to four walls on one day of the week.' Instead it informed 'every aspect of the life and work of the village community in a manner so intimate and inseparable as to be almost beyond the conception of the modern mind. A wealth of custom and ceremony . . . gave point to this intimacy by illustrating and acknowledging man's dependence upon the eternal mysteries of the natural world for his daily bread, and so sanctifying the work of the fields. They were thus the grace and crown of labor' (p. 33).

The Cistercians lived much closer to nature than we do today. They knew where the food that sustained them came from because either they or their neighbors grew the crops or raised the animals that they consumed. They knew intimately the effort, the toil, the sacrifice, the work, that went into producing this food. They knew, too, what happened to their wastes because that effort fell upon them as well. The mysterious life-giving heat and light of the sun came from the heavens above ' life came from god ' and in their work, through this work, they prayed and honored and worshipped this giver of life.

'They lived so close to natural reality,' says Rolt, 'that they never lost that humility which recognizes man's creaturehood, nor that sense of wonder which perceives, in the order and beauty of the natural world, the handwriting of a creator. From this vision sprang the conception of a natural world which demonstrated a divine order, and of man as part of that order' (p. 34). But as the church grew in power and influence, as it became more intolerant and dogmatic, it began to reject the natural world and its order 'as a source of vanity and illusion,' a rejection which 'leads readily to an absorption in human knowledge and the worship of man. By rejecting the world man forgets his creaturehood to become arrogant and proud' and he 'falls prey to . . . the will-to-power and the idolatry of man' (p. 35).

Certainly modern man has become arrogant and forgotten his creaturehood. Most of us have almost no connection to the natural world, to the land or the sun, to the very source of our lives. We neither know nor care either where the food that sustains us comes from or where our physical wastes go. And this separation from God and from nature also separates us from one another. As humans we no longer see ourselves as all in this together, for we no longer believe in a god, in a nature, through which we are all connected and interrelated, not only to one another but to the world in which we live. Separated from the wells-springs of life, we see ourselves as atomistic individuals, each out for himself, looking out for #1, hungry only for money and for power.

This change of thought which we praise as a 'renaissance' brought a wholly different conception of man and his relation to others and to the world. Rolt writes that 'the seeds of independence and skepticism which the intolerant dogmatism of the church had sown inspired the Renaissance nobleman with a new, cynical and profoundly materialistic ideology of which Machiavelli was not so much the author as the acute observer and recorder . . . . By representing the conduct of government in human affairs as a battle of wits without rules, by thus fixing a gulf between the governors and the governed and breaking the ties of mutual responsibility between them, the Machiavellians at one stroke set at naught the Christian goal of the brotherhood of man. At first confined to a small hierarchy or princes and nobility, its influence accompanied the growth of commercialism and knowledge . . . while the spiritual discipline of the church receded before it' (p. 37-38).

Spiritually empty and increasingly disconnected from the sources of life, people began reaching for more and more material things, for more and more money, more and more power, in a sad and futile effort to fulfill the growing emptiness of their souls. 'Expressed in the monetary terms of an increasingly commercialized world, these (Machiavellian) principles became the merchant's conception of freedom: freedom of acquisition and absolute ownership, freedom 'to do what one would with one's own,' to buy in the lowest and sell in the highest market, the freedom of the individual at the expense of the community. Obviously this glorification of selfish ambition and self-interest, masquerading as 'liberty' or 'self-determination,' is the precise opposite of that which it claims to be since it results in the exploitation of the poor by the rich, of the weak by the strong. It explains the apparent paradox that every 'reform' carried out in the name of this 'liberty,' from the period of the Renaissance to the present day, has actually resulted in a loss of liberty for the majority' (p. 39-40).

Rolt writes that 'because the spirit of the new age was fundamentally materialistic, and obsessed with relative rather than absolute values, newly-won knowledge was used, not for the betterment of mankind as was frequently claimed, but to satisfy individual ambition in the pursuit of power which wealth represented' (p. 43). Agriculture, he says, became the servant of industry as the country became subservient to the city. In the struggle for more, the strong pushed the weak off the land, which they saw not as a source of life but as a source of wealth. While 'the Cistercian lay brother found his freedom in individual responsibility for the perfection of his work to the benefit of the community, the modern worker has lost his freedom together with his right of self-expression in the pursuit of individual gain' (p. 61).

In sum, mankind rejected the so-called medieval view of the universe 'as an ordered and harmonious creation and of man as an organic part' of that creation and replaced it with 'the purely materialist view of the universe as mechanism' which has resulted in 'an arrogant and predatory individualism, a conception of freedom that destroys freedom' (p. 81). Modern life has thus become 'the antithesis of the medieval conception of wholeness and self-sufficiency,' and 'our concern to extract the maximum monetary reward for the minimum of effort and responsibility isolates us from our fellows to make us insignificant units of a herd instead of responsible members of a community' (p. 82). Rolt cautions that 'so long as our outlook continues to be materialistic and predatory, so long will our lives be governed and determined by forces beyond our personal control. We shall continue to perform work whose purpose and ultimate effect upon humanity we do not know and are powerless to influence, and we shall be controlled in every walk of life by complicated machinery the construction and operation of which we are ignorant . . . . We are therefore faced with the choice between chaos and the slave State unless we are prepared to acknowledge our error with due humility and, by re-discovering spiritual principles as the only sound basis of living, restore the lost dignity of individual responsibility and self-sufficiency' (p. 83).

If we can believe Rolt's analysis ' why can't we? ' we will never have freedom as long as we think and live the way we do now. Many of us believe we can, to use the old clich', have our cake and eat it, too. But we cannot. We will not and cannot become free until we rethink our lives, until we rethink and reconceptualize our understanding of and our relationship to work, to money, and to god. We will not and cannot become free until we rethink our understanding of and our relationship to one another and to life itself. We will not and cannot become free people until we, at the very least, begin to recognize the conceptual causes of our modern enslavement.

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Craig Russell is a writer and musician in upstate New York.