Session Notes

What We Will Learn Today

  1. How the Black Death created a crisis of intellectual authority in Europe.
  2. How a focus on understanding ancient texts in their original languages influenced the thought of both Renaissance and Reformation intellectuals
  3. How the Renaissance humanist interest in the classical Roman world led to the re-discovery of important Roman thinkers.
  4. How the Reformer Martin Luther rejected rationalism but not philosophy in general.
  5. How Michel de Montaigne applied the thought of ancient skeptics to the problem of religious violence in his day


The Plague

  1. By the middle of the fourteenth century, medieval Europe faced its most terrifying threat: the Black Death.
    1. This turned peoples’ focus back to the very fundamental issues of life and away from the abstract questions of philosophy and religion.
  2. The plague not only brought civic unrest, it produced an intellectual unrest.
  3. This is because it seemed to many that the old structures of society and thought were unable to adequately address the widespread suffering of the plague.
    1. Why would God allow some villages to go unscathed but others to become decimated? What did the experts miss with respect to the way disease was contracted and spread?
  4. In other words, the end of the middle ages brought about a crisis of authority.

The Renaissance

  1. This led to the idea of Renaissance, which means rebirth.
  2. For our purposes, we will treat the Renaissance as a movement of the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries.
  3. What did Renaissance thinkers want to see reborn?
    1. The riches of Greek and Roman antiquity.
    2. For this reason, they sought to study the architecture, literature, and philosophy of the past.
    3. When they did this, they found that poor translation and ignorance of ancient history led to intellectual errors throughout academic life. …

For instance, some of the important biblical texts used to support Catholic teaching and power could be understood in different ways if one looked to the original Hebrews for the Old Testament or the Greek for the New Testament.

  1. Though Renaissance thinkers usually retained their belief in God, they turned their focus to human beings.
  2. Leonardo da Vinci’s famous sketch called “The Vitruvian Man” demonstrates this fascination with humanity.

Renaissance Aristotelianism

  1. When it came to philosophy, Renaissance thinkers realized that the translations they had of Plato and Aristotle’s work were inaccurate.
  2. The renaissance scholars who cared about language, texts, rhetoric and eloquence were called humanists.
    1. Today, humanist often means someone who is atheistic or agnostic in their approach to life.
  3. This wasn’t the case with the Renaissance Humanists. They were more interested in the humanities, that is, the liberal arts elements of university education.
  4. They returned to the original philosophical sources to translate them anew.
    1. As they did, they discovered philosophers who had been largely ignored in the previous centuries that had increasingly become fixated on St. Thomas Aquinas’ interpretation of Aristotle.

Jacques Lefèvre d'Etaples

  1. Known often by his easier to pronounce Latin name (Jacobus Faber Stapulensis) was a Renaissance Aristotelian who influenced many future Protestant thinkers.
  2. During the twentieth century, some scholars believed that Renaissance thought was primarily a rejection of medieval Aristotelianism in favor of a revived Platonism.
  3. While this was true in some circles, this perspective fails to understand the nature of Renaissance thought.

Renaissance humanists were interested in almost everyone from the classical world, and adopted whatever insights they could from each ancient thinker

  1. This is best illustrated by a scholar named Jean de Serres who suggested a helpful maxim: “Plato docet, Aristoteles probat.”
  2. This can be paraphrased as “Plato teaches true things, Aristotle shows how to demonstrate true things.”
  3. While many enjoyed the perspective Plato had on the world and truth, Aristotle contributed much related to human understanding of logic.
  4. Even when institutions took up humanistic approaches to knowledge, they typically kept Aristotelian logic at the heart of training in argumentation.
    1. Thus, scholars today speak comfortably about a phenomenon called “Renaissance Aristotelianism” which appreciated the rhetorical insights in Aristotle’s work, so long as Aristotle was read in the original Greek, or in a new, humanist translation.

To understand Renaissance and Reformation thought, we must understand several historical factors that contributed to rapid changes in the intellectual life of the day. The most important are as follows:

  1. The Black Death caused people to distrust the abilities of so-called experts.
  2. The humanist call to return to the original texts of classical thinkers source began to absorb ideas from the past that had been lost to European scholars. This included the works of the Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics.
  3. The printing press allowed for the rapid sharing of ideas, even ideas that were outlawed…
  4. The emergence of national identities and a love for the vernacular inspired some princes to protect freedom of inquiry within their local universities
  5. Church corruption caused many to call for critical thought related to the life of the mind, even in the context of religious belief.
  6. Reading the Bible in the original languages led many to challenge traditional ideas and also led many to emphasize the importance of thinking for one’s self instead of trusting in authority.


This humanistic spirit did not originally entail a rejection of the church.

  1. In fact, many humanists like Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466 –1536) and Thomas More (1478 –1535) remained committed to their Roman Catholic allegiances.
    1. Granted, they lampooned the corruption in the church and Erasmus produced a critical Greek edition of the New Testament.
    2. Some thinkers, however, believed that the differences between the Aristotelian and scholastic theology that took shape in the medieval universities was different enough from the original biblical texts that a religious Reformation was required.

Martin Luther and Philosophy

  1. To get a sense of how the Reformation flowed from the Renaissance, consider the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther.
  2. He remained in many ways a medieval thinker but he was more interested in the intellectual ideas of William of Ockham than those of St. Thomas Aquinas, and early on, thought that addiction to Aristotelian ideas distracted people from thinking clearly about biblical teaching.
  3. Nonetheless, when Martin Luther went about reforming the curriculum at the University of Wittenberg, he brought in the humanist Philipp Melanchthon to structure the university according to humanistic principles.
  4. Most importantly, his disagreements with the church were made possible by Erasmus’s Greek New Testament and a reading of the Church Fathers.
  5. This caused him to get up the courage to think boldly for himself, even though his life was on the line, when he was brought to the Diet of Worms to defend his theology against the charge of heresy.
    1. Some say the record testimony before his church accusers is a paraphrase and didn’t actually occur, but the following famous quotation at least reflects the spirit of his reform.
    2. He is said to have concluded his defense with the following words: "Unless I am convinced by proofs from Scriptures or by plain and clear reasons and arguments, I can and will not retract, for it is neither safe nor wise to do anything against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen."
  6. … In this short passage, we can see that he was interested in proper interpretation of ancient texts, clear logical reasoning, and the importance of thinking for ones self, without relying uncritically upon authorities.

Luther’s view of Reason

  1. In several places, Luther called reason the devil’s whore.
  2. Some have taken this to mean that the Reformation, or at least the Lutheran version, reflected a fundamental anti-intellectualism.
  3. This misses an important connection to William of Ockham, who, before Luther, said that reason cannot arrive at the truths of theology apart from biblical revelation.
    1. Ockham rejected the confidence with which St. Thomas Aquinas believed he could demonstrate theological ideas through an examination of nature.
    2. Thus, like Ockham, Luther rejected rationalism. That is, he valued clear thinking and empirical evidence, but he thought philosophers like Aristotle could not help us know how to be truly righteous or how to establish a right relationship with God.

Misunderstanding of Luther’s views

  1. Unfortunately, however, even some Lutherans over the centuries have mistakenly thought Luther’s rejection of rationalism entailed a rejection of philosophy in general.
  2. The proper interpretation allows us to say simply that Luther contributed an independent and critical spirit to Western thought, even when those who came after him were not as conservative as Luther was when it came to rejecting long-standing traditions.

The following themes emerged in both Renaissance and Reformation thought:

  1. The importance of an individual knowing what he or she believes and why
  2. The value of critical thinking and education for all classes of society
  3. The importance of learning ancient languages to better understand biblical and philosophical texts
  4. Ideological Violence

Renaissance and Reformation thought led to a new spirit throughout European intellectual life, with the many thinkers rediscovering the writings of Hellenistic philosophers and applying them to their contemporary situation.

However, these revolutionary movements also led to a crisis of authority.

  1. Who was in charge of the church?
  2. Was it ethical to revolt against a tyrant?
  3. Should wealth be redistributed to peasants?

Such questions were not only unsettling, they led to bloody civil wars and persecutions. This was also a time of brutality against alleged heretics and witches.

  1. The St. Bartholomew’s day massacre of 1572 left thousands of Protestants slain in and around Paris.

Michel de Montaigne

  1. Into this violent situation, the French thinker Michel de Montaigne offered an alternative perspective on how to deal with intellectual differences.
  2. Rather than a precise philosopher (in fact, he would not have described himself as one) he wrote essays on various contemporary issues that affected the trajectory of philosophy in his day.
  3. He lived right in the midst of French civil wars of religion and Montaigne’s own family became divided, with some joining the Protestant cause and others remaining Roman Catholic.
  4. Meanwhile, he was interested in stories of exploration from the new World, and he met with Native Americans who came to Europe.
  5. This led him to see cultural beliefs as much more diverse and uncertain than those who lived in homogenous European society typically assumed.
  6. This opened his mind to the possibility that the ideas over which Europeans were fighting might not have been as certain as the combatants assumed.
  7. Moreover, he saw injustice in the prosecution of witches and heretics.
  8. Montaigne de Montaigne had been given humanistic training in classics and Latin, and this philosophy offered a practical value for his time.
    1. His favorite thinkers were Plutarch and Seneca, and he emulated their approaches to ethical writing.
    2. Montaigne also drew from the Epicurean Lucretius. But philosophers are often most interested in the influence of Sextus Empiricus on Montaigne’s thought.
  9. As a Pyrrhonic skeptic, Empiricus sought peace or intellectual “quietude” through the suspension of judgment
    1. Montaigne used this skepticism to argue against religious violence. He argued that since we cannot know for certain whether our particular religion is correct, it would be an immoral wager to kill another human on the assumption that he or she is in error.
    2. Likewise, since we can’t know for sure whether witchcraft actually works, or whether an individual actually is a witch, it would be immoral to execute any suspected witch.

Montaigne was inspired by the essay style of Seneca, and his writings are full of insightful quotations.

  1. Regarding the persecution of Protestants, he remarked “… it is putting a very high price on one’s conjectures to have a man roasted alive because of them.”
  2. He backed up such thinking by noting the epistemic humility of Socrates, when he wrote “Wonder is the foundation of all philosophy, inquiry its progress, ignorance its end.”
  3. In other words, we can pursue truth, but we must avoid presuming that we have absolute certainty about our beliefs
    1. Thinking like this influenced future free thinkers and got him put on the Roman Catholic’s Index of banned writers.

But what did Montaigne think an individual should one do with such uncertainty?

  1. For this, Montaigne echoed the advice of Sextus Empiricus on this matter. One should, he said, follow the traditions of one’s family and community.

What we learned in this lecture

  1. First, that the European crisis of authority led to an emphasis on the importance of the individual human knower. They could not rely on religious or human authority, thus, educated people had to work hard to think for themselves.
  2. Second, that through the Renaissance humanists’ program of returning to the classical languages, Europeans rediscovered the writings of many ancient philosophers.
  3. Third, that the Reformer Martin Luther rejected the idea that pure reason could help a person arrive at theological truth. But we also learned that he did not reject philosophy itself, and valued the role of logic within his university.
  4. Fourth, some thinkers who were began to revive the philosophy of Pyrrhonic Skepticism, often as a way to argue against religious violence and persecution.

Resources for further reading

  1. David Andersen, Martin Luther: The Problem with Faith and Reason: A Reexamination in Light of the Epistemological and Christological Issues (Christian Philosophy Today) (Wipf & Stock, 2012).
  2. Maryanne Cline Horowitz, “Montaigne’s Doubts on the Miraculous and the Demonic in Cases of His Own Day,” in Jerome Friedman ed., Regnum, Religio et Ratio: Essays Presented to Robert M. Kingdon (Kirksville, MO: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1987), 81-92.
  3. Alister McGrath, The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformations, 2nd ed. (2003)