THE TWO RENAISSANCES – The Good and the Bad

By Gordon Adams

Scientist (BSc and ARIC); Philosopher (Life-long Student)

The traditional Renaissance was said to be between 1450 and 1550. It started in Florence and initially was a wave of change felt only in that area. It was to spread rapidly, first into other parts of Italy and then onwards into Europe. The truly remarkable thing about the Renaissance was the way it had impact on the entire world. Historically, we refer to it as being a chapter that was to span the 15th and 16th centuries. In reality, it continued for several hundred years afterwards, extending into even the most modern of times.

Looking back at the original Renaissance, one of the strongest of all impacts was within the field of art. For example, one notable artist of the Renaissance is Michelangelo. His carving of David, a huge statue of exquisite detail, reflected the very feeling, the essence if you like, of David. It was something of a revolutionary approach in its time, focusing on what lay within the subject as well as portraying external strength and physical vigour.

The invention of the printing press, a development during this period started by Guttenberg, remains in history one of the biggest events of the Renaissance and one of the most impactful. The event was to literally change the entire way of the world. It was also the availability of paper, which allowed printing to develop. From this time period, books became common. Knowledge and information fed into a newly curious everyman, who was suddenly presented with access to literature, philosophies, and learning, previously the domain of a privileged few. The Bible was printed, opening the way for reasoning and questioning.

There were many names that we associate with the 16th century Renaissance but one of the great leaders and influencers was Lorenzo De Medici, a shrewd and extremely rich banker. The de Medici family forged their wealth and influence by being wool merchants and bankers. They became a major force that influenced and ruled the entire city of Florence. In particular, third generation Lorenzo de Medici had great influence on the Italian Renaissance as a result of his abundant patronage of the arts, literature, philosophy and humanism.

It was through Lorenzo de Medici that we also meet another great influencer of the time. Marsilio Ficino, son of the family doctor, was a particularly bright youngster who caught the eye of Lorenzo and became both protégé and tutor. He was educated in classical art before moving on to philosophy and was drawn most noticeably to the teachings of Plato. Marsilio’s writing was prolific and it was his pen that gave the world Plato’s “Dialogue” as well as various Egyptian scripts, in Latin, the language of the educated at the time. Marsilio became so absorbed by the Dialogues of Plato that he started teaching Plato to anyone who wanted to hear it. People flocked to Florence from all over the known world to listen to him. His influence was quite incredible as his many letters and books have left us with extraordinary insight into both Plato and Plato’s own teacher, Socrates.

As a student of philosophy myself, for me the most important impact the Renaissance had on the world was the impact it had on the way people thought. For the first time, individuals could be curious and questioning, and with access to printed information, found the voice to go against the embedded rules of society. That society, up until now, had been largely led by the church. The Pope and the Catholic church as a whole, had control over the way people lived their lives and even how they thought.

Suddenly, individuals of the time became curious in a way that had been impossible before. A thirst for knowledge was unleashed.

A new wave of individuals, ranging from artists to writers, began challenging the way things were. New leaders of new ways of thinking, stood up to the control of the Pope, often with dire consequences.

For example, German theologian Martin Luther, opposed the use of dogma to control people and decided there should be a new vision. This he publicly declared by putting his views on the walls of the church. Not surprisingly, the Pope took a dim view on this opposition and Luther immediately found his name on the Catholic Church “hit list”. However, Luther’s influence was great. He succeeded in toppling the religious monopoly and split the church.

The timing worked well for England’s Henry 8th, who was looking for ways to divorce his wife, the Pope having refused to support his motion. Henry declared a new religion and promptly set himself up as head of the new Church of England.

Sadly, history shows this whole chapter a particularly bloodthirsty period. Both sides resorted to cruel execution and torture as their means of persuasion, all of which could be considered a poor reflection on what should be the true meaning of religion. Dark though the events might have been, from this period traditional religion declined and a more open approach to religion and spirituality became inculcated into the way of life.

Importantly, this wave of new thinking spread to scientific matters and there was a gradual growth in understanding how nature really worked and how it was controlled by mathematics and logic.

Renaissance luminary Isaac Newton was a scientist of great ability who started to understand the science of light and the science of gravity and was able to calculate the positions of many of the planets. It could be argued that it was on the basis of his work that we managed to fly man to the moon.



A Second, Modern Renaissance?

Nobody would disagree about the profound and far-reaching impact of this Renaissance – but there is a belief now that a second Renaissance began in around 1950, and that we are still in that second Renaissance today. It is quite possible that this second Renaissance has had a more profound influence than even the first Renaissance.

In 1950, the paradigm shift brought about by the 15th century Renaissance was experienced with the take-off of modern Information Technology and the creation of the world wide web. The resulting virtual communication web provided communication between everyone throughout world and completely changed our way of thinking, the whole way of trading and the whole basis of life.

It all sounds positive, but where there is something with such advantages, invariably comes the unwelcome counter-balance of negative aspects. Back in the 15th century, negative aspects of the Renaissance included the sudden spread of European diseases such as smallpox, which destroyed lives and entire cultures; the advent of international trading and the scramble to obtain treasures, spices and other new commodities drove leading countries to empire build, left behind both positive and negative impact in the countries they plundered.

When it comes to the co-called modern Renaissance, the risks are even greater. Mankind has now turned its attention to taking over the natural resources of this planet, knowing that future power lies in owning such powerful assets. Carbon buildup in the air and the rising of planet temperature as well as the poisoning of our oceans, are reminders of what can result from self-driven growth. Even beyond our planet, we witness the start of “space” empire building. Surely space war becomes inevitable?  Man’s greed to own and conquer rises to the fore yet again as we face a new drive to take over creation itself.

The rise of the Internet and the web, and with it the ability to communicate and convince people, poses one of the biggest risks of all. Never have we experienced the complete removal of geographical borders in the way we experience today. The international communication network and the ability to influence people on the mass basis, simultaneous all over the world, presents mankind with a tool that could become the greatest and most positive tool of our time. Equally so, it can be extremely dangerous, destructive and negative on the grandest of scales.

The outcome of a modern Renaissance with such influence is always unpredictable and has to be guarded. The outcome of the 15th century Renaissance lay in the hands of the individuals who carved a name for themselves in the history books. Similarly, the outcome of this modern Renaissance, depends on the individuals who are living through it and allow things to happen. Unfortunately, it is often greed and competition that drives the results. Decisions and actions are not always taken in order to benefit the world and the people who live here. The future of our world depends on understanding the quality of people everywhere, with equal rights. The stakes could not be higher.