The Renaissance was specifically the rebirth of reason, the liberation of man’s mind, the triumph of rationality over mysticism—a faltering, incomplete, but impassioned triumph that led to the birth of science, of individualism, of freedom.
The Renaissance—the rebirth of man’s mind—blasted the rule of the [mystics] sky-high, setting the earth free of [their] power. The liberation was not total, nor was it immediate: the convulsions lasted for centuries, but the cultural influence of mysticism—of avowed mysticism—was broken. Men could no longer be told to reject their mind as an impotent tool, when the proof of its potency was so magnificently evident that the lowest perceptual-level mentality was not able fully to evade it: men were seeing the achievements of science.
The Renaissance represented a rebirth of the Aristotelian spirit. The results of that spirit are written across the next two centuries, which men describe, properly, as the Age of Reason and the Age of Enlightenment. The results include the rise of modern science; the rise of an individualist political philosophy (the work of John Locke and others); the consequent spread of freedom across the civilized world; and the birth of the freest country in history, the United States of America. The great corollary of these results, the product of men who were armed with the knowledge of the scientists and who were free at last to act, was the Industrial Revolution, which turned poverty into abundance and transformed the face of the West. The Aristotelianism released by Aquinas and the Renaissance was sweeping away the dogmas and the shackles of the past. Reason, freedom, and production were replacing faith, force, and poverty. The age-old foundations of statism were being challenged and undercut.
The Renaissance was the great rebirth intellectually, but not politically. Still seeking order and unity, men attempted to solve the problem of feudal tyranny by replacing many small tyrants with a single big one. This was the birth of modern absolute monarchies.
The Renaissance of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was a conscious rebellion against the anti-human, otherworldly values of medieval Christendom. In its metaphysics and epistemology, the Renaissance was essentially Aristotelian. Every aspect of the period, from science to literature to art, reflected the Aristotelian view that man is a worthy being, capable of understanding the universe, and that the universe is worthy of man’s interest and study. Mysticism, which had saturated every aspect of medieval life and culture, lost its stranglehold on man’s mind. A rebirth of reason and of concern with this earth, was the base of all the achievements of the Renaissance.
In terms of its morality, the Renaissance was split in two: it was part-Aristotelian, part-Christian. As Aristotelians, the men of the Renaissance displayed the virtues of intelligence and pride, and pursued the value of happiness on earth. As Christians, they upheld the virtues of humility, renunciation and self-sacrifice, and the value of rewards in Heaven. Thus the existentially brilliant era of the Renaissance was marred, spiritually, by a profound moral conflict.
That conflict appeared, in different degrees, in virtually all of the Renaissance art. For the most part, sculpture did reflect an affirmative view of man. Although the subject matter was largely Christian, sculptors abandoned the stylistic features of medieval art. They restored weight, three-dimensionality and natural proportions to the human body. They reintroduced free-standing figures. They were keenly aware of human anatomy, and created images of potentially active bodies, or of bodies engaged in energetic movement. And, equally significant, the naked body was featured in the representation of both Christian and pagan subjects.
The statues present men who have intelligence, courage, determination and strength of character; but they do not convey a sense of happiness. The moral conflict tinged the Renaissance view of life, and in the faces of the statues there is a touch of sadness or uncertainty or tragedy, an expression of longing for an ideal never fully reached.