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Wednesday, December 08, 2004


how much murder and anarchy?

from bertrand russell's history of western philosophy, book 3 chapter 1, "the italian renaissance"

most of the humanists retained such superstitious beliefs as had found support in antiquity. magic and witchcraft might be wicked, but were not thought impossible. innocent viii, in 1484, issued a bull against witchcraft, which led to an appalling persecution of witches in germany and elsewhere. astrology was prized especially by free-thinkers; it acquired a vogue which it had not had since ancient times. the first effect of emancipation from the church was not to make men think rationally, but to open their minds to every sort of antique nonsense.

morally, the first effect of emancipation was equally disastrous. the old moral rules ceased to be respected; most of the rulers of states had acquired their position by treachery, and retained it by ruthless cruelty. when cardinals were invited to dine at the coronation of a pope, they brought their own wine and their own cup-bearer for fear of poison. except savonarola, hardly any italian of the period risked anything for a public object. the evils of papal corruption were obvious, but nothing was done about them. the desirability of italian unity was evident, but the rulers were incapable of combination. the danger of foreign domination was imminent, yet every italian ruler was prepared to invoke the aid of any foreign power, even the turk, in any dispute with any other italian ruler. i cannot think of any crime, except the destruction of ancient manuscripts, of which the men of the renaissance were not frequently guilty.

outside the sphere of morals, the renaissance had great merits. in architecture, painting, and poetry, it has remained renowned. it produced very great men, such as leonardo, michelangelo and machiavelli. it liberated educated men from the narrowness of medieval culture, and, even while still a slave to the worship of antiquity, it made scholars aware that a variety of opinions had been held by reputable authorities on almost every subject. by reviving the knowledge of the greek world, it created a mental atmosphere in which individual genius could flourish with a freedom unknown since the time of alexander. the political conditions of the renaissance favored individual development, but were unstable; the instability and the individualism were closely connected, as in ancient greece. a stable social system is necessary, but every stable system hitherto devised has hampered the development of exceptional artistic or intellectual merit. how much murder and anarchy are we prepared to endure for the sake of great achievements such as those of the renaissance? in the past, a great deal; in our own time, much less. no solution of this problem has hitherto been found, although increase of social organization is making it continually more important.
greek city-states rose from orphic mysticism and pythagoras to high culture and then declined into amoral decadence and individualistic chaos. the romans usurped that culture as it declined, adding only ancillary achievements, and were subsequently corrupted by it and fell into decadence and the chaos of the third century. christianity rose from that chaos by virtue of ascetic piety and neoplatonic mysticism, rose to the high culture of the scholastic centuries, and then declined into the chaos and amorality russell here describes.

and what of our modern civilization? borne of the piety of the reformation and infused with the seeds of the renaissance, the west rose to create one of the world's great civilizations whose art and ideas echoed around the globe. and yet, it too has denuded itself of any morality and given itself over to individualism supreme. america, the petulant but powerful latecoming usurper in the mold of rome, finds itself corrupted now -- praising wealth and freedom over all things, destroying the bonds that bind us together, all the while denying the possibility of the disaster that such antisocial hubris must bring.

and so we exist in waiting for the collapse -- the debris of which will yet sow the seeds of the next pious rising culture.

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