Kalev’s Anti-Blog: The Renaissance and the post-Renaissance World of Rembrandt and Caravaggio and the Human Soul

The Renaissance died in 1620 in much the same way that the same way as the US Depression started with the stock market crash of `1929. There are many reasons for it, but if we want to be very contemporary about it one would have to say that the Renaissance died because in 1620 the economic structure of Europe based on trade stopped. Moreover, as the Thirty Years War became all-consuming in parts of Europe, economic depression and insecurity devastated any effort to keep the classical world alive. The Thirty Years War and Oliver Cromwell’s destruction of Catholic Ireland were so terrible that much later the revolutionaries in the former British colonies fashioned a First Amendment to prevent religious wars. The Reformation and the equally protestant Counter-Reformation made puritans of practically of everybody in Europe, not just in Britain, where in a generation after Shakespeare the Puritans closed all the theatres. The great extravagances of the Duke of Lerma in Spain, of Maria de Medicis in France, and of the Duke of Buckingham in England were swept away. There were great monarchies in Europe and they were all afraid that they, too, would be swept away. Thus, there were great “statesmen” whose work was to preserve the monarchies, men like the Cardinal Richelieu or the Count-Duke of Olivares (whose face glows in the portraits of Valázquez), and the Archbishop Laud who attempted to save the last Renaissance court, that of Charles I in England. War, depression, and eventually the creation of the nation-state meant that there could never be another Renaissance again. That’s one approach.

But that kind of analysis is what we would find when we read historians who are enraptured of the politics and the economics of the times. But there is something that is rarely incorporated into the histories. It is the radical change in thought arising from Machiavelli, Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, and later Spinoza and many others. Art and thought and politics radically changed, because the classical world that the Renaissance rediscovered had been abandoned and thrown away.

What I am about to say about Renaissance art is controversial and will seem too simplistic. Apologies, as I am not writing a long dissertation. Somewhere along the line, Italians looked around them and saw Roman ruins with which they had lived for centuries. Some began to study the works of the pagans, and they discovered a world that was entirely different than their own Christian way of life. They also re-discovered the Greek word mimesis, i.e., imitation as the method with which art works. The notion that art is the imitation of nature was first articulated by Aristotle, but today it is no longer understood. When Dr. Johnson said of Shakespeare that he held a mirror to nature, he did not mean that Shakespeare was a documentarian or that he had found a way to show the world exactly as it is. No, what Aristotle meant was that all beings have a natural development and a natural end or perfection, even if in nature these higher developments are rare to find. What art can do is to present what is potential in nature, including the perfection of something. The ability of that freedom-loving fiction is to show what is truly rare, something that has reached its proper natural end, both for good and bad. For example, Shakespeare wrote a sequence of history plays which encompassed the most difficult of times for England, i.e., of the civil wars that racked that country from the time of the overthrow of Richard II to the defeat of Richard III on Bosworth Field by the Earl of Richmond. This history is not a history as we know it. In fact, a large part of it is simple fiction that never happened. However, oddly, Shakespeare’s version of those years is better than the real thing, because it shows the political and human problems against a canvas that clarifies what the true problems are in a way that ordinary history cannot. Another example: Although Lear never existed as Shakespeare made him out to be, Lear represents the very epitome of the political perfection that English kings had sought. Not only does Lear rule a united England and the English isles, but his chief rivals, the Kings of France and Burgundy, are at his court currying favor to marry his daughters. We see how the most powerful of men undoes his entire kingdom and his own life simply because he loves his youngest daughter best. That he is the greatest king makes his fall and his love truly tragic. This mimetic approach to art imitating the perfection of nature is what gives Shakespeare his universality. Even though Shakespeare writes about some very parochial place in Italy, at the end one experiences the love of Romeo and Juliet not as some puny “feeling” between two kids, but as something universal about love itself.

Imitation of nature was a truly pagan approach to art. What made the Renaissance so classical was that it rediscovered that the Greeks and Romans in their art had attempted to show man not as he is, but as he could be, both for good and bad. Da Vinci, for example, did long studies of the relations of the various parts of the body, not in the way they usually are, but in their “ideal.” The pagan statues of the gods, for example, were perfect in their proportions, including the emphasis on the head through the reduction of the size of the penis (small was better than large for the Greeks), and these forms informed the Renaissance Italians in their statues of everything from the great David in Florence to the Michelangelo’s Moses for the grave of Pope Julius II. The entire pagan approach to art totally reinvigorated the primitive mythology of the Bible and Christianity, for example, its apotheosis probably being the Sistine Chapel.

The second and very important part of Renaissance art was not just the rediscovery of the Greek and Roman gods and goddesses, but their revival as gods and goddesses, all done in a Christian age. This remarkable development is ignored today, because people assume that the pagan gods as they were portrayed and housed on canvas and in marble were simply some kind of affectation of decoration and fantasy. However, that was not the case. It was a mass movement to revive these gods, but was done in a way that was meant not to arouse Christian resentment and censure. One can think of, for example, what one of the most beautiful books of all time, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, had done. The so-called The Strife of Love in a Dream is a vast myth where the erotic gods and goddesses are evoked without any interference from Christianity in the privacy of the dream.

Of course, perhaps the most essential thing about the pagan gods is their unabashed nudity. While the eroticism of these gods is self-evident, our ignorant modern sensibility fails to see that this nudity is symbolic of perfection itself. Michelangelo, for example, paints the pre-fall beings naked, because that was the state of man before Adam takes a bite out of the apple. Nudity and perfection also meant that the artist had reflected on how the human form can reflect the divine and it is amazing how remarkably beautiful the Renaissance bodies are.

Of the various examples that intrigue me, the most interesting to me is Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. Venus or Aphrodite rises out of the water, naked, with a face that is human, but a face that no woman has had or will have. Botticelli doesn’t merely show us some quaint little story: He has painted a divine moment and how it must truly be. It is as much a revelation as the claim that the Decalogue presented on Sinai is a revelation. We know what divine revelation is through Botticelli’s Venus. It is the mimesis of the presence of the goddess among us.

And it must be noted that these gods and goddesses did not just go away. They are revealed in the works of Giovanni Bellini, Guido Reni, Bernini, Poussin, and even in Rembrandt’s The Rape of Persphone. Many other examples of the presence of these deities are found throughout the 15th-17th centuries, not just in painting and sculpture, but in architecture as well, as in the Villa d’Este. Underlying these deities is an assumption about the human soul. It is that the soul is part of the truth of all things, of the cosmos itself, i.e., that an understanding of the human soul is a key to the understanding of the whole of all things.

Then, out of nowhere there is a first-rate painter, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, who appears briefly in the early 1600s towards the end of the Renaissance. A homosexual and perhaps a murderer and perhaps murdered himself at a young age, Caravaggio’s techniques, his use of light, his use of the secretive character of chiaroscuro, had an impact on painters all over Europe. But Caravaggio did something that no Renaissance painters before him did. Let us look at it in this way: Imagine a moment, you are painter and you are commissioned to paint a Madonna. You need a model, and you hire a well-worn prostitute to sit for you for a few coppers. You give her a costume and then you paint her. But unlike a Renaissance or Medieval painter, you simply paint her the way she is, facials marks and all. The portrait is that of a prostitute with a costume; the title has something to do with Mary. The technique of the painting is so different, so exciting, that is appears that Mary is truly there in the art, rather than a prostitute. Caravaggio did precisely that, but in a less muted way that I have described it.

Caravaggio did not “idealize” his subjects. Today, his paintings look harmless, even the ones that are obviously in part homosexual erotic fantasy. However, in his day, they were revolutionary. His paintings were no longer Renaissance as were the works by Raphael or da Vinci. They were something new. One of the painters he influenced was Rembrandt van Rijn and with Rembrandt there is a decisive change that put an end to the Renaissance approach to art, as well as in the view of the human soul itself.

The man who brought this problem to the fore is the late-Howard B. White of the New School for Social Research in his remarkable essay, “Rembrandt and the Human Condition,” which was published in the 1978 book Antiquity Forgot. White was a student of Leo Strauss, and Strauss both tapped and lobbied to have White replace him in the New School when Strauss decided to move to the University of Chicago. [A bit of extraneous polemics: There is a portion of today's rightwing that assumes and promotes Strauss as a conservative as in neocon or even in the Bachmann mold. At the same time, there are liberals who have swallowed the propaganda that was somehow the father of the neocon movement. These views are totally false. It should be noted that White was a socialist and he knew what a socialist is, as opposed to someone like Michelle Bachmann who doesn't have any idea of what a socialist or a communist is. It should also be noted that one of most important of Strauss's intellectual friends was Alexandre Kojève, who happened to be a rather eccentric communist. So much for the conservative nonsense, which I just wish would just go away.]

White, who was not an art historian, pointed out Rembrandt, like Caravaggio and Titian and other artists, found that the classical approach to art as Aristotle conceived of it, i.e., of imitation of nature and that of painting what is perfection, was too restrictive and that it was possible to replace that classical approach with a dramatic use of light and darkness as Caravaggio did years before and the affirmation of compassion for what was depicted. White writes: “Rembrandt in implicitly raises the question as to why, in response to the development of universality, in the face of the great metaphysical systems like that of Descartes, it was necessary to turn to the soul and the self.”

White makes the case that Rembrandt saw the truth of the soul as soul (i.e. the self) is not related to the truth of the whole of all things. This decisive step in art has ramifications with which we live even today. Apparently, there is an agreement that the young Rembrandt had painted or drawn at least 90 and probably more self-portraits. These portraits are self-portrait, not portraits of his soul. To divorce the soul from the truth of all things is the same as thing as establishing the self as primary over the soul. White compares the numerous Rembrandt self-portraits to the various confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, where Rousseau exposed his self from everything from his best thinking to his masturbatory fantasies and his sexual deviances. What is important here is that Rousseau, too, never concerned with his soul, but with his self.

Throughout his life, Rembrandt made self-portraits, including portraits that were incorporated into other themes, in a way as if he were constantly looking into a mirror, a mirror not to nature, but a mirror that captures his physical shape. My favorite of his self-portraits is in the Frick Collection in New York. It is an amazing work, where Rembrandt’s hand seems completely malformed if one approaches the painting too closely. You also see colors in the flesh that are not in any human hand, but in the painting at a proper distance look exactly like flesh. The distance from the portrait has a lot to do with how one sees it. But these portraits are not a leap to universality, but it is a quest for individuality, an absorption into one’s individuality and the expression of compassion for that self.

White, however, interpolates something that is entirely unexpected when one reads his essay for the first time. It is that White believes that the philosopher Descartes, who was living as a nomad in the Netherlands, a very tolerant place and nearly secularist society, at the time, was an acquaintance of Rembrandt. Descartes is one of the founders of modernity, along with Machiavelli, Bacon, and Hobbes. Descartes doubted all pre-scientific knowledge, i.e., all traditional metaphysics as well as any god and found that there was only one thing he could trust: Cogito ergo sum—I think, therefore I am. He created what is now known as the Cartesian duality. Descartes knew he had a mind, but that mind knows only what one can make and mathematics. The rest of the world is “extension,” that is, mere matter that goes on and on and is ordered mechanically. One might say that Descrartes’ duality is a radical “self,” which is radically subjective. The self, because it has no longer relation to any kind of universal truth, is thus completely relative to whatever the individual thinks about his self.

White evokes Leo Strauss about this problem of whether one makes a soul portrait as Shakespeare did or as a self-portrait as Rembrandt did. He quotes one of my favorite passages from Strauss:

Not a few people who have come to despair of the possibility of a decent secularist society, without having been induced by their despair to question secularism as such, escape into the self and into art. The “self” is obviously a descendant of the soul; that is, it is not the soul. The soul may be responsible for its being good or bad, but it is not responsible for its being a soul; of the self, on the other hand, it is not certain whether it is not a self by virtue of its own effort. The soul is part of an order which does not originate in the soul; of the self it is not certain whether it is a part of an order which does not originate in the self. Surely, the self as understood by the people in question is sovereign or does not defer to anything higher than itself; yet it is no longer exhilarated by the sense of its sovereignty, but rather oppressed by it, not to say in a state of despair.

Descartes had replaced virtue, that activity that is directed beyond the self to the soul, by the passions, which are totally tied up with the self. White notes; “Rembrandt certainly had a hierarchy of the passions, wherever he got it. He either replaced virtue with the passions or identified virtue and the passions.” What makes Rembrandt such an interesting painter is that he subordinates everything to light and dark, instead of imitating the natural development or perfection of human activities and thought. The subordination of everything to light and dark is a rich way to appeal to the passions.

This fascination with the self that is Rembrandt has become a fascination throughout modern life and modern art. I had students who wanted to write novels and inevitably they wanted to write autobiographical novels, as if their lives were of paramount interest to the world. Occasionally, one would do it with remarkable technique and verve that would make me overlook the fact that the life that was the object of the writing was very boring, vulgar, and uninteresting. But inevitably, the success of such a novel rested on its evocation of what is light and airy, and what is dark. The students who wrote short stories or parts of novels that simply were about their lives were annoying small in scope and interest. But these students were really writers, as they were young people exploring the physicality, the materiality, of their lives and they wanted to know their selves, but not their souls, and as such their work were never satisfactory to read.

After Rembrandt, any evocations of classical things, including classical gods and goddesses, were simply conventional. They lost their natural character, and became signs or social symbols. The putti we find in Renaissance art are certainly not the putti we find in Victorian art, as the latter is not divine, but a quite decoration. Inevitably, because the soul was no longer of interest in art or imitating nature in the Aristotelian sense was no longer the method of art, painters and other artists were able to convert art into self-expression rather than a search of the expression of what is universal and true or, for that matter, what is just beautiful. Eventually, self-expression meant that there was no need for any examination of the self on the canvas. You could hammer away at two or three big squares all your life and then commit suicide after the squares went from a blood-orange glow to a dreary black surrounded by gray.

In a 1959 interview with poet and art critic Frank O’Hara, painter Larry Rivers said:

In the past you would walk right up to a painting if you were attracted, and the nearer you got the more intimate you felt with the work. There was something to examine close up. Today it doesn’t make a difference how close you get, you’re still just as far as away as you were. There’s nothing to learn from detail. Paintings are done close up. But today their impact is at a distance—the kind of painting that looks the same thirty feet away as it does at five feet. They’re practically made to be in buildings. But I think there should be an appreciable difference being near, in the detail. I thought that used to differentiate me from the others, but it’s fading fast. I’m trying to hold on to it. Just to add to my difficulties, I was talking to the painter Grace Hartigan the other day and she agreed with me. She said, “Yes, what is detail today?” Very depressing.

I only mention this passage, because I was thinking about Botticelli’s Primavera. It has more detail up close that it might take years of discovery to make a sense of, while at the same time at a distance it has another life.

In any event, in the Renaissance, there was an effort to universalize and to bring the soul to the fore, while today we are so absorbed in the self that we can’t even see what the self is any more. It is the same whether we are close or far away from it. What’s even better now is that one doesn’t have to learn to draw or to paint. The computer does it better. That sure makes the world a happier place.

About Kalev Pehme

I am an icastic artist and a Straussian. I am not a conservative or neocon Straussian. Sadly, there are too many of them. My interests are diverse, however, and sometimes quite arcane. I have a deep interest in Daoism, Indo-Aryan religion, Buddhism, Plato, Aristotle, and whole lot more. I love good poetry. I also enjoy all things ancient. And I would like to meet any woman who is born on May 29, 1985.
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18 Responses to Kalev’s Anti-Blog: The Renaissance and the post-Renaissance World of Rembrandt and Caravaggio and the Human Soul

  1. Interesting essay.

    For Rembrandt and Caravaggio the immanent is divine and it is beautiful e.g. real divinity is to be found in a prostitute, not just in the Virgin Mary as mother of Christ. This is Spinoza – the mundane is the REAL divine, as opposed to the false divine promoted by proponents of transcendence (or the “ideal”). To understand reality and to be reconciled to reality is to see that reality itself is perfect and beautiful.

    I’m not sure I agree that this distinction between soul and self is quite what it is being made out to be. We have compassion for another’s self because it is like our own selves e.g. it suffers like we do and so on. So the “self” is not entirely individual and unique – it is common to all human beings i.e. it is a soul. “Modernity” properly understood, reveals the inner life of even “insignificant” human beings, thus showing that all human beings have souls. The peculair thing is that all human beings are the same as each other, but all human beings are also different from each other.

    I find it hard to agree with what you say about Descartes. Descartes is thoroughly Socratic. I would go so far as to say that there is no figure in intellectual history who more resembles Socrates than Descartes. When Descartes says “doubt is the origin of wisdom” he merely restates Socrates: “I know only that I know nothing”. Descartes says “If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.”

    Like Socrates, Descartes’ philosophical task is essentially ethical and moral – it is concerned with virtue. As Descartes says: “It is necessary also to examine singly the NATURE of plants, of animals, and ABOVE ALL of man … Thus, all Philosophy is like a tree, of which Metaphysics is the root, Physics the trunk, and all the other sciences the branches that grow out of this trunk … By the science of MORALS, I understand the HIGHEST and MOST PERFECT which, presupposing an entire knowledge of the other sciences, is THE LAST DEGREE OF WISDOM.”

  2. Kalev Pehme says:

    Descartes a Socratic? You mean, the man that doubted everything that Socrates relied on, including the Good, is a Socratic? Mr. Barrington, really? Descartes is anti-metaphysical, while Socrates is the validation of metaphysics. I must say that it appears to me that you have fallen for Descartes’ rather careful rhetoric. That is only the connection between Socrates and Descartes; however, Descartes’ esotericism is political, while Socrates’s esotericism is metaphysical.

  3. Like Socrates, Descartes teaches without claiming to have attained wisdom: “God is in truth the only being who is absolutely wise, that is, who possesses a perfect knowledge of all things; but we may say that men are more or less wise as their knowledge of the most important truths is greater or less.”

    Like Socrates, Descartes advocates ethical, political and religious moderation. Descartes says he will “obey the laws and customs of my country, adhering firmly to the faith in which, by the grace of God, I had been educated from my childhood and regulating my conduct in every other matter according to the most moderate opinions, and the farthest removed from extremes, which should happen to be adopted in practice with general consent of the most judicious of those among whom I might be living.”

    Like Socrates, Descartes did not live in a university, but in the wide world. After his bookish, specialised education Descartes “RESOLVED NO LONGER TO SEEK ANY OTHER SCIENCE THAN THE KNOWLEDGE OF MYSELF, OR OF THE GREAT BOOK OF THE WORLD.”

    Descartes thus spent his time “in traveling, in visiting courts and armies, in holding intercourse with men of different dispositions and ranks, in collecting varied experience, in proving myself in the different situations into which fortune threw me, and, above all, in making such reflection on the matter of my experience as to secure my improvement. For it occurred to me that I should find much more truth in the reasonings of each individual with reference to the affairs in which he is personally interested, and the issue of which must presently punish him if he has judged amiss, than in those conducted by a man of letters in his study, regarding speculative matters that are of no practical moment, and followed by no consequences to himself, farther, perhaps, than that they foster his vanity the better the more remote they are from common sense; requiring, as they must in this case, the exercise of greater ingenuity and art to render them probable. In addition, I had always a most earnest desire to know how to distinguish the true from the false, in order that I might be able clearly to discriminate the right path in life, and proceed in it with confidence.”

    All of this is very Socratic.

    Like Plato’s Socrates, starting from the initial position of doubt, Descartes affirms the existence of the soul, and of God, and of matter.

    The teaching of Descartes is closer to the teaching of Socrates than to that of any other person. Can you think of a person who is closer? Maybe you have fallen for Strauss’s careful “anti-modern” rhetoric?

  4. Kalev Pehme says:

    Not really. While both Socrates and Descartes inquire into the ethical and moral, they do so from opposite directions and there is no enantiodromia here. Descartes’ doubt is of all pre-scientific knowledge (science in the modern sense of the word). As such, he doubt and then denies the Socratic quest completely. As for god, really, Mr. Barrington, don’t you see that Descartes is quite the atheist? The Cartesian doubt of necessity denies god, as the Cartesian mind can only know what is mathematical and what it can make. When Descartes says, Je pense, donc je suis, he says that nothing else but Descartes is thinking. God is not thinking, as he can doubt that. If you re-read the Meditations between the lines, I think you’ll find that one of the best ways of refuting god is by trying to prove his existence.

  5. Descartes is as much an atheist as Socrates is (I’m chossing my words carefully there).

    Descartes affirms the existence of God as a perfect being i.e. as the Good. He is in complete agreement with Plato’s Socrates in all this.

    Like Socrates, Descartes’s ultimate concern is ethics. He says that the science of morals is the highest and most perfect science, and the last degree of wisdom.

    Like Socrates, Descartes is a political and religious moderate. If anything, Socrates is much more radical than Descartes. Descartes goes into exile – Socrates is much more radical and refuses to go into exile – Socrates is charged with undermining belief in the gods of the city, and he is found guilty. Then Socrates chooses to die rather than compromise with the city.

    Descartes is politically and religiously moderate “It would indeed be preposterous for a private individual to think of reforming a state by fundamentally changing it throughout … Large bodies, if once overthrown, are with great difficulty set up again, or even kept erect when once seriously shaken, and the fall of such is always disastrous. Then if there are any imperfections in the constitutions of states (and that many such exist the diversity of constitutions is alone sufficient to assure us), custom has without doubt materially smoothed their inconveniences, and has even managed to steer altogether clear of, or insensibly corrected a number which sagacity could not have provided against with equal effect; and, in fine, the defects are almost always more tolerable than the change necessary for their removal; in the same manner that highways which wind among mountains, by being much frequented, become gradually so smooth and commodious, that it is much better to follow them than to seek a straighter path by climbing over the tops of rocks and descending to the bottoms of precipices.”

  6. Kalev Pehme says:

    There is no agreement between Socrates and Descartes about a god. First, in Plato and Xenophon, Socrates has no god in the monotheistic view that comes from the followers of the desert gods of the Middle East. Socrates’s Good, writ large, is not a god, but is the whole of things that is beyond all beings. The world is in a state of Heraclitean flux, because all beings are radically defective as they don’t possess the Good and depend on other beings and thus on other beings. It is only when a being possesses the Good that a being is perfected. The Cartesian view of god is totally modern (after all, Descartes is a founder of modernity), i.e., that there is no god and that the world that is outside of man’s mind is extension. This extension is completely mechanical, not a Heraclitean flux. The mind, as it is located in the pituitary gland, is as material as is everything else. When the world is materialized completely, there can be no god. Of course, what Descartes does is rather amusing. He uses the notion that god is beyond all understanding. Of course, the only understanding there is in Descartes is mathematics and technology, i.e., what we can know. Hence, god is so beyond knowledge that we cannot even know that there is a god. The very concept is beyond everything we can possibly know. The point is very simple: The Socratic view is that the whole and the metaphysical realm is more than readily accessible to man’s intellect, because man’s intellect is an integral part of the whole. The Cartesian view is that man’s intellect is separate from the whole of things and that the whole of things, as well as all metaphysical realms, including anything that could be considered a god or angels, etc.. In other words, the intellect is man’s alone and is radically limited to a very limited range of knowledge. Really, Mr. Barrington, you can’t equate these two totally different approaches to life and wisdom.

    • “The Socratic view is that the whole and the metaphysical realm is more than readily accessible to man’s intellect”.

      If this is the case then why is Socrates most famous for saying that he knows only that he knows nothing? Why condemn Descartes for advocating doubt and not attack Socrates? Socrates is at least as famous for advocating doubt as Descartes is.

      The idea of the soul or mind being separate from the mundane\material world is hardly something that is not found in Plato’s Socrates. Arguably Plato has done more to promote dual-world thinking than any other philosopher ever. That is the reality. If Plato’s intention was otherwise then he should not have written as he did. If you don’t like dualism then you should be attacking Plato as well as Descartes – all Descartes was doing was continuing what Plato started.

      “One of the best ways of refuting god is by trying to prove his existence.”

      If that is the case then Aquinas must have been a very effective refuter of God’s existence. Do you think Aquinas was an atheist?

      But your attempted attack on Descartes is confusing. On the one hand you appear to be critcising Descartes for thinking that the mind is as material as everything else (“The mind, as it is located in the pituitary gland, is as material as is everything else. When the world is materialized completely, there can be no god.”); on the other hand you appear to be criticising Descartes for thinking that the mind is fundamentally separate from everything else. You can’t have it both ways.

      Is it really the case that “When the world is materialized completely, there can be no god.”? What about Spinoza’s God?

      It is very likely that both Socrates and Descartes ultimately love the same God and worship the same God. They are both philosophers after all.

  7. Hugh Gillis says:

    There is a exhibit on Caravaggio here in Ottawa this summer. I will add my commenst, for what they are worth . after I have seen it.

  8. Kalev Pehme says:

    I have very great respect for Caravaggio’s work. He is such a good painter. I think you’ll enjoy his work.

  9. “The Socratic view is that the whole and the metaphysical realm is more than readily accessible to man’s intellect”.

    If this is the case then why is Socrates most famous for saying that he knows only that he knows nothing? Why condemn Descartes for advocating doubt and not attack Socrates? Socrates is at least as famous for advocating doubt as Descartes is.

    The idea of the soul or mind being separate from the mundane\material world is hardly something that is not found in Plato’s Socrates. Arguably Plato has done more to promote dual-world thinking than any other philosopher ever. That is the reality. If Plato’s intention was otherwise then he should not have written as he did. If you don’t like dualism then you should be attacking Plato as well as Descartes – all Descartes was doing was continuing what Plato started.

    “One of the best ways of refuting god is by trying to prove his existence.”

    If that is the case then Aquinas must have been a very effective refuter of God’s existence. Do you think Aquinas was an atheist?

    But your attempted attack on Descartes is confusing. On the one hand you appear to be critcising Descartes for thinking that the mind is as material as everything else (“The mind, as it is located in the pituitary gland, is as material as is everything else. When the world is materialized completely, there can be no god.”); on the other hand you appear to be criticising Descartes for thinking that the mind is fundamentally separate from everything else. You can’t have it both ways.

    Is it really the case that “When the world is materialized completely, there can be no god.”? What about Spinoza’s God?

    It is very likely that both Socrates and Descartes ultimately love the same God and worship the same God. They are both philosophers after all.

  10. Kalev Pehme says:

    I think you have missed the point of the Cartesian doubt. What he doubts is all pre-scientific knowledge, i.e., all metaphysical knowledge as Socrates saw it. The “scientific” knowledge he accepts is simply technological knowledge, what we make, and what is mathematical knowledge. Because you are such a Hegelian, you somehow accept that somehow Descartes is an advancement in history, which, of course, he is not. In any event, to deny all metaphysical knowledge means to deny any cosmos and any cosmic schemes that include a god. Descartes was a hard-core atheist, Mr. Barrington, who covered his tracks by careful rhetoric and having his manuscripts read by very orthodox churchmen. If it passed them, then Descartes knew he was safe.

    Descartes’ doubt of all pre-scientific knowledge ends with his _cogito ergo sum_. The radicalism of this proposition is seen when we go back to, say, Aristotle. With Descartes, there is only one thinking being, man, or, to be more precise, Descartes. The traditional notion that god was the ultimate thinking being is rejected by Descartes.

    Moreover, Descartes also extols the passions over the intellect. This change is a way to reject eros, both philosophical and ordinary. Plato’s rejection of a cosmic eros and centering eros in man alone is at the very core of Socrates’s philosophical way of life. Descartes’ rejection of philosophical eros is completely modern and in keeping with the austerity of modernity. It is a rejection of ancient philosophy in favor of the new science and the new philosophy which is all material over any kind of immaterial knowledge or ends.

    As for the problem of the Cartesian duality, the confusion is not mine. It is Descartes’ confusion, one which Hobbes laughed at and rejected. Hobbes, the complete materialist, rejected the notion that there could be “mind” which is apart from extension, although he did accept the notion that the only knowledge man could have was mathematical and technological. The Cartesian duality is a huge problem today, because it is at the heart of all modern natural science. That means that if the duality is not true, then modern natural science has been theoretically off a great deal.

    Descartes basically hated the Socratic approach to philosophy. They do not agree.

  11. “The traditional notion that god was the ultimate thinking being is rejected by Descartes.”

    Not at all. Descartes clearly says: “God is in truth the only being who is absolutely wise, that is, who possesses a perfect knowledge of all things; but we may say that men are more or less wise as their knowledge of the most important truths is greater or less.”

    “You somehow accept that somehow Descartes is an advancement in history.”

    Not at all. I keep on saying that Descartes is basically the same as Socrates. At the very least, they have more in common with each other than they do with almost anyone else. It is only historicists like Leo Strauss who think that philosophers are fundamentally different from one era to the next, or from one place to the next. Descartes caused a rebirth of true Socratic philosophy, saving it from Christianity, Scholasticism and Neoplatonism

    Descartes liked maths. So did Plato – “let no one who is ignorant of mathematics enter here” and all that.

    Descartes is like Socrates in that he does not dismiss non-scientific thinking, and he advocates common sense – an admirable kind of moderation. Descartes regulates his “conduct in every other matter according to the most moderate opinions, and the farthest removed from extremes, which should happen to be adopted in practice with general consent of the most judicious of those among whom I might be living”. “When it is not in our power to determine what is true, we ought to act according to what is most probable; and even although we should not remark a greater probability in one opinion than in another, we ought notwithstanding to choose one or the other, and afterwards consider it, in so far as it relates to practice, as no longer dubious, but manifestly true and certain”.

    Descartes may have been an atheist in the sense that he did not believe in the gods of the City (in this case, the Christian God). For Descartes, God is Truth. So in that sense, he was not an atheist. He loves and worships the same gods as Socrates.

  12. Kalev Pehme says:

    You miss Descartes’ irony. That god is absolutely wise is something that the limitations of man’s intellect cannot even comprehend or even possibly know whether god is wise of not or even if there is such a god. The Cartesian mind can only truly know are mathematics and technology, that which we make. The alleged perfection of god’s wisdom is totally separate and apart from human beings, thus rendering man stupid, if there is such a god in the first place. If there is no god, then only man is a thoughtful being and as such is the only being with any claim to any kind of wisdom. Descartes’ universal doubt takes the partisan side of not of god, but man. The traditional god of Aristotle (Plato has no such god) is the sphere that encompasses all and thinks all things into being and passing away. This god has separate intelligences, one of which is man’s, although man’s intelligence is polluted by _fantasia_. The universal doubt of Descartes locates all thought solely in the individual man, Rene, in such a way that it is not connected to anything outside of itself. The extension is completely dumb in all senses of the word. There is nothing like that in Socrates, whether it be the Socrates of Aristophanes, Plato, or Xenophon.

    As for philosophers being alike, yes, I agree that is the case to a certain extent. However, philosophy is a matter of dispute over the ages, and clearly there is a difference between modern and ancient philosophy. While it may be that Descartes and Socrates both care for the truth, the truth that both men have relied on are completely opposite in character. Moreover, philosophers are wrong about things all the time. Philosophy may be the quest for wisdom and knowledge, but philosophy, although it can be the knowledge of the whole, is not omniscience. The problem for all philosophers is to articulate the truth in a way that the very articulation of the truth is indicative of what reality is. Descartes, plainly speaking, is mistaken and has erred about the duality, a duality that does not exist for Socrates or the ancients for whom wisdom, thought, and everything else are part of an integrated whole, whether it be an Aristotelian theos or a world in flux that culminates in the Good.

  13. Roman Stranger says:

    From extant police records we learn that (in the tradition of the classics) Caravaggio appealed to Nature as his only teacher. He was as little obsessed with “the [modern] self” as Rembrandt was when the latter painted, “The Philosopher.”

  14. Roman Stranger says:

    When Merisi spoke of Nature as his *only* teacher he meant that he would not depend upon any vision of divined perfection. Neither did Buonarroti, clerical opinions notwithstanding.

  15. Kalev Pehme says:

    This radical shift in the understanding of “nature” to which you allude is the transition between the ancients and moderns. I am not so sure that it applies to Buonarroti as you indicate. I find him to be more complex and far more an “artist” than a theoretician.

  16. Roman Stranger says:

    When Merisi spoke of himself as the only contemporary who imitated Nature (beyond others who “painted well”), he did not mean that as a painter he set out to follow the motion of matter (cf. Processo Baglione, 13 Sept. 1603). Elsewhere he spoke of “perfection” (perfettione) suggesting that the genuine divination of perfection does not leave “inferior nature” (e.g. inanimate/”dead” forms of experience, ravens’ wings, and other things ordinarily left in the “dark”) behind, What is high is not originally imposed upon what is low “super-naturally”; rather, what is low is integrated into higher forms, and finally into FIGURE (human forms) pointing “naturally” to a divine perfection that is beyond and presupposed by the tension between light/good and dark/evil).

    As other Renaissance painters, Merisi imitated the divine perfection of nature (where to divine is to gather “matter” into civil/human imitations or allegorical representations of divine perfection) without depending upon–though never rejecting–any theological revelation thereof. The Roman Catholic Church *provided* M with the occasion to draw what is low into poetic imitations of divine forms. (On the “Aristotelianism” of Merisi’s sources, see e.g. Maurizio Marini’s 1987 “Caravaggio”).

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