IMG_2602The Limits of Salvation: from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment

Preface: Most human beings find the concept of eternal bliss to be vaguely pleasing. Some do not, referencing an abstract sensation of sleepless nights, emphasizing the eternal. Other relevant concerns float about, but these aforestated are primary. The history of humanity is riddled with attempts to invent or prove that heaven-like domains can or do exist. Indeed, such explorations and assertions invoke either the terrestrial (hereafter, utopia) or the ethereal (hereafter, heaven). Utopias tend to underscore perfect bliss, whereas heavens are reliant upon the idea of eternal life. In most cases, both perfect bliss and immortality are mutually inclusive or irrelevantly distinguished, and shall be treated as such. This essay attempts to make an exclusively historical case for its contained theses.

Candide pronounces, “We are going to a new world…and no doubt it is there that everything is for the best; for it must be admitted that one might lament a little over the physical and moral happenings of our own world.” This, Candide’s reliable absurdity, had its limits. Tired of searching for the best of all possible worlds, Candide finally shrugs-off his master’s charge, as well as the flaking paint of his simplistic caricature: disillusioned, Candide says measuredly, “All that is very well, but let us cultivate our garden.”

From the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, cultivating one’s garden, or steadfastly occupying one’s time with building a better world – rather than expecting to happen upon one such world (e.g. Eldorado, Atlantis, the Judeo-Christian afterlife) – had increasingly become the new mode of thought in Europe. Knowledge production through these four centuries incited several methodological shifts in the search for a final state, a lasting salvation. The first method pursued an end which was given, earned or endowed; something most like a heaven overseen by God. The intermediary method pursued an end which was hidden, searched-for and findable; this was often referred to as a utopia, governed by an enigmatic other or imagined self. The third method pursued an end which was itself a state of pursuit; it lacked the satisfactory stasis of a formal end, thus rendering the applied designation a definitive misnomer.

All three trends are preceded by early instantiations; though the question of causation will be left unanswered here. The poli- and mono-theistic interpretation of heavenly endowment is scattered throughout pre-Renaissance traditions. The annals of Plato (Atlantis) and Marco Polo (enigmatic other) are dated well before what is generally considered to be the time of western exploration and early colonialism. Leon Battista Alberti’s strategic child-rearing process meant to quell “men’s desires and appetites” is an anachronistic precursor to Voltaire’s process of cultivation and Rousseau’s balancing-act between rural isolation and societal co-dependence. The marked emergence of trends is not undermined by these anomalies, but rather is noted as a correlative phenomenon.

The specific trend of making interpretation of God’s heaven had been something of a default form of salvation. That is, from the earliest worship of the sun; to the polytheistic inclinations of ancient theocracy; to the eschatology of the Medieval Crusades; to the Boccaccian “pestilence;” to the moral theodicy of Leibnitz; et cetera, given, earned or endowed salvation had been the predominant concern. On November 4th, 1494, Florentine merchant, Luco Landucci writes in his diary, “…for he heard the tears, sighs, and prayers of his faithful, who walk in truth and who pray to him throughout the day to show favor to the good and right-hearted, who hold the honor and the glory of God dearer than all else, who praise him in adversity as in prosperity, and whose only wish and desire is to fulfill the will of God.”

Where there is writing from the Renaissance, there is mention of God. Heiress, Alessandra Strozzi, in the many letters she addressed to her figlio, scarcely misses an opportunity for consecration and supplication: “In the name of God, 4 November 1448…May God give every [one of you] the grace and virtue I wish for you…God give him [the wisdom] to make the right decision…May God give me reason to be pleased…May God send us peace everywhere.” Of course, most Renaissance writing was born of the scholastic refractions of clerics and the new humanism of lettered men.

When Erasmus quipped, “Surely no one wants to suppress their version or do away with it for fear it may look as though there were some things which the older generation of specialists in Aristotelian philosophy did not know?,” he was no doubt asserting the nature of a preexisting, eternal, godly salvation. After Wycliffe’s earlier metaphysical dilemma of bread and body existing in the same space at the same time, and about one hundred years after Jan Hus was incinerated for his anti-indulgence “Wycliffisms,” Erasmus breaches from Aristotelian orthodoxy. This is followed by Martin Luther’s posting of 95 unsanctioned Theses, leading to his 1520 excommunication.

About sixty years proceed between Luther’s official defection and Calvin’s Institutes. During these years, dialogues about interpretational salvation produce both continued confessional fracturing along with conservative reactions, epitomized by Ignatius of Loyola in the founding of the Jesuit congregation. Proprietors of the Counsil of Trent made attempts to repave a crumbling central Catholic doctrine just as Sepulveda and de las Casas debated over the rights of men-like West Indian natives. Thomas More’s possibly reformative parody of the good-not-place (Utopia) is a grotesque of Plato’s original rendering of Atlantis and utopian exhortations involving philosopher kings. By the time Shakespeare wrote the last word of The Tempest, in 1611, Marco Polo’s nomadic 13th Century Tartars and Guicciardini’s “misfortunes of Italy” seem Montaignesque, in that they are semi-self-conscious mirrors.

Not until Kant does one identify the crystal edge of self-historicalization, in Kant’s contemporary use of the word Enlightenment. Nonetheless, the reformative search for ethereal heaven had become complicated by the colonial search for utopia. The year of Luther’s excommunication, when Cortés wrote to King Charles V of “this great city…surrounded on all sides by lofty and rugged mountains,” he was expositing on how society might be perfected. Indeed, this bears an unmistakable yellow clay-laden relation to Voltaire’s later invention of El Dorado, in which Candide and Cacambo pass through “a chain of inaccessible mountains” arriving in a land of plenty. In his 1623 The New Atlantis, Bacon draws not a heaven but a utopia.

“We have,” Bacon writes, “dispensatories, or shops of medicine…divers mechanical arts…perspective-houses…precious stones of all kinds…sound-houses…perfume-houses…engine-houses…a mathematical house…houses of deceits of the senses…” Among the many institutions that are recommended by way of positive description exists a kind of vestigial heaven wherein ethereal salvation finds itself housed within the furniture of terrestrial salvation. Even this remnant eventually dissipates with those whose works don’t require the static perfection of heaven or utopia. Though Descartes’ tautology of final cause initially requires a teleological deity to get the engine cranking, thereafter, the act of proving or pondering existence – the transcendentally significant process – does not actually require a god.

The works of Descartes, Galileo, Spinoza, Locke, Boyle and many others of the 17th century aren’t ever read as quibbling over the interpretational nature of a given, earned or endowed salvation. Likewise, the charms of utopia were beginning to be abandoned for less miraculous (Hume) forms of salvation. Self-reasoning humanist, Agostino Scilla, notes in 1696, “…there is no need to turn to the murky abstractions of Metaphysicians.” Enlightenment formulations of salvation don’t cement until the much-jaded ideas of Rousseau and Voltaire meet the prodigal decadence of France’s Ancien Régime. Thus, prescriptions for utopia still present themselves alongside Spinoza’s rejection of retrospective determinism, alongside Galileo’s “…pleasure of contributing whatever the intellect occasionally provides…”

Throughout what is now called the Scientific Revolution, Bacon’s Atlantean construction is found as fairly anomalous. The idea of the perfect state as an attainable end is becoming ever more slippery a subject, especially amidst the relentless – now, somewhat magical – pursuit of heavenly endowment. In 1598, two bellwether manuscripts were conceived: the Edict of Nantes, which, in granting Huguenot sovereignty within a Catholic state, sanctioned two opposing versions of salvational conduct; treatise, The Trew Law of Free Monarchies, by King of James VI and I of Scotland and England, respectively, asserted interpretational salvation as being endowed via a free monarch. It turned out that the states established in accordance with a heavenly model weren’t as tidy as the people of Europe had dreamt.

Fading were the times of merely pitching one’s sword against the throat of an indigenous people and reading the words, “But, if you do not [convert to Christianity], and maliciously make delay in it, I certify to you that, with the help of God, we shall powerfully enter into your country, and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their Highnesses; we shall take you and your wives and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as their Highnesses may command; and we shall take away your goods, and shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can, as to vassals who do not obey, and refuse to receive their lord…” This final paragraph of the “Requerimiento,” written in 1513 at the Counsil of Castile, marks perhaps the bloodiest and most obvious use of heavenly authority in the record of Iberian statecraft.

As certain philosophies remain entrenched in heavenly salvation, others seek utopian stability. Henry IV acknowledges his choice of utopia over heaven when saying “Paris is worth a mass.” In the context of a heavenly perfection, Paris is a “Frankenstein-”state with too many heavens; through the lens of an earthly finality, Paris is in pursuit of utopia. According to James IV & I, the Trew Law of the state began and ended with God’s earthly vicar, an unbound monarch. The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 attempted to squeeze many disparate but equally perfect modes of salvational conduct into the same world-scape – something of a heavenly capitulation. Grotius’s “just war” pivoted on whether the other-in-question called themselves Christian. Loyseau’s Orders prioritized the First Estate in accordance with its closeness to a salvational rectitude ordained by God.

In that same year of 1610, Galilei’s pamphlet, Starry Messenger, looked out into the still-heavenly night sky to assert neither heaven nor utopia, but visually observable empirical descriptions. Thus, new worldview heuristics were at play. Within the learned classes, Europeans were not only a people contra West Indian cannibals due to works like those of Montaigne and Xavier; they now were becoming an Earth contra faraway terrestrial orbs as a result of works by Galileo; resulting from the work of Newton, Pascal, Boyle et al, Europeans were becoming entities subject to material interactions. It is from these productions which make scarce mention of heaven or perfect civilization that the “Age of Reason” and its anti-pure-reason detractors are seen to emerge.

In 1781, Kant outlaid what he believed to be Hume’s conflict between empiricism and ratiocination, or reason-ism.  Reasoning was a way of thinking which permitted one to deduce knowledge, a priori, from subject backwards to the predicate. Empiricism dictated that all knowledge was constructed of observed phenomena. This, Bacon’s empiricism, held that knowledge was inductive, or that, a posteriori, a subject bore new particulars not formerly proper to the predicate. The idea of synthetic truth, e.g. 5 + 7 = 12, wherein the subject 12 is not directly constructed of the predicate 5 + 7 =, acknowledges a new breed of truth. The idea of heaven and utopia has been left behind for processory salvation, perfect only in its synthetic mutability over time. As the late Descartes had said, “…bodies are not properly perceived by the senses nor by the faculty of imagination, but by the intellect alone.”

The idea of synthetic truth, or so named, the state of pursuit, is manifest all throughout the 18th century. In his Principia, Newton had even invented a static mathematical description of movement, called calculus. Limits to infinity, for instance, could be formalized and identified in discreet terms. Rousseau recognized the absurdity invited by the idea of utopia when he spoke of the oxymoronic “noble savage.” Rousseau’s “Man was born free, but everywhere he is in chains” directly speaks to the impossibility of utopia outside of the pre-societal natural state. Diderot, in his co-compilation the original Encyclopédie, remarked, “I am unable to believe that it is within the power of a single man to know all that can be known.” These are all anti-utopian statements, in that they purge any kind of earthly perfection from the conversation.

French democracy is a result of processory salvation or the state of the pursuit of salvation. According to Rousseau, the best state is one in pursuit of a general will; a state’s sovereignty is a mosaic of mutually sovereign citizens who have all colluded to suppress delusions of perfect autonomy. In 1774, when controller general, Turgot, wrote concernedly to Louis XVI, saying, “The cause of evil, Sire, stems from the fact that your nation has no constitution,” one of France’s chief officers had just resigned to the idea of a fractionalized body politic. The idea that heavenly salvation could bear out utopian salvation through a singular monarch, or that either type of salvation could exist independently by any account of knowledge, was succumbing to an environment of disparity. Paintings of the Kings Louis were beginning to look more like a misty Boucher hedonism.

Embracing the process of salvation is what untethered peoples from former ideals of the ethereal and the terrestrial states of perfection. Viefville des Essars’s 1790 On the Emancipation of the Negroes exhibits how the pursuit of a non-existent or unknowable salvation is better than the assertion of knowledge of certain salvation. He declaims against antiquated ideals and works to diversify the plot of mankind. A year later, de Gouges writes, “Women is born free and remains equal to man in rights.” Though these are assertions, they are born of the attitude of pursuit, not of perfect moral wisdom. The conversations about equal rights, freedom and democracy come from a perspective of variability echoing backwards into the Reformation, Renaissance and beyond.

Speaking to Cacambo, Candide says, “I own, my friend, once more that the castle where I was born is nothing in comparison to this; but, after all, Miss Cunégonde is not here…” For Voltaire, the idea of a perfect, unchanging state that one could claim to have knowledge of is absurd and leads to offensive action. Over the centuries, Europe has seen various modes of salvation-seeking wax and wane. Amid the apparent continuums, trends do seem to have emerged from the rugged compendium of historical record. Heaven, utopia and the state of pursuit will continue their animation in humanity’s endless effort to understand what is, what isn’t and what could be.


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