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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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History is a mirror by means of which the present
peers into the past in order to see itself as it would
wish to be seen by the future. The present either abuses
the past by attributing to it unworthy qualities from
which it has been able triumphantly to cleanse itself
and thus to create its own character, rather in the
manner of the jealous son slaying his father so that
he can take his place, or it uses the past as an ideal
by which it whips the present and finds its own self
wanting; in neither case is the present able to see the
past as it was, dooming itself in effect to a like failure
of comprehension when its turn inevitably comes. Thus
the Church Fathers either abjured their pagan heritage
altogether or, contrariwise, claimed they were its only
legitimate descendants, a technique of eating the cake
of the past and having it too subsequently employed
by all succeeding radical movements, religious or po-
litical. The Renaissance deprecated the Middle Ages
(which it had first to invent before it could destroy)
in order to assert its own identity; the neo-classicists
had to find their predecessors crude and unpolished;
the romantics were bound to reject neo-classicism as
unnatural and to shatter its cosmopolitanism into na-
tional fragments; their own needs forced the Victorians
to invent rational Greeks, contented medieval peasants,
and passionate Renaissance men; and T. S. Eliot had
to rewrite the history of English literature so as to
support the legitimacy of his style. It is worth noting
in passing that the comparative method seems almost
always to end up, not as a step toward international
understanding, but as a weapon in the raw hands of
chauvinism and xenophobia.

Seen from the scarcely serene heights of the late
twentieth century, the brute energy which the Renais-
sance expended and the ingenious means which it
employed to tear itself out of the reluctant womb of
the Middle Ages have an almost mesmeric effect. The
Renaissance rewrote history with a ruthless hand, but,
as we see, history is now taking its ironic revenge. For
if we think of the Renaissance as ultimately the revolu-
tionary force which succeeded in destroying a static,
hierarchical, and reactionary mode of thought and
behavior and replaced it with one which broke open
the way to the comparatively unhindered exercise of
individual virtù in private and public life alike; that
is, the freedom, if not always the possibility, of the
person to move in many directions, economic, social,
political, emotional, intellectual, and moral; that is,
towards capitalism, a bourgeois form of society, repre-
sentative government, science, freedom of conscience
and belief, faith in the rational, the supremacy of the
authentic and self-justifying self, and devotion to the
word as the highest form of expression; then we must
be prepared to admit that that world is now in process
of ending, if it has not already done so, under the
impact of new (or should we not say renewed?) modes
of thought and behavior: the power of the collectivity
over the individual, of feeling over expression, of
touching over speaking, of action over persuasion, of
shapelessness over structure, of things over thoughts.
In short, the story of the emergence of the Renaissance
tells a story which, though it comes too late to be of
use (assuming the lesson could or would be used) is,
nevertheless, a plot whose mythos is well worth

In the history of ideas, there will always be found
a number of assumptions about the course of history,
that is to say, the way men act and under what im-
pulses, whether recognized by them or not, which help
to explain the attitudes they take toward major histori-
cal problems; sometimes these assumptions are explicit,
but more often they are implicit in the work itself.
By this is meant that men have certain ways of looking
at and judging past events which enable them to make
intelligible patterns out of the flux of phenomena, for
in dealing with history, the recognition and judgment
of events implies some sort of preconceived way of
looking at and evaluating them which is applied to
the interpretation of the material. Now, in the Renais-
sance there were a number of methodological assump-
tions about the course of history which in varying
degrees affected contemporary thinking about the past
and about the Renaissance itself. Of these, six are


especially significant; they are the idea of progress, the
theory of perfectibility, the climate theory, the cyclical
theory of history, the doctrine of uniformitarianism,
and the idea of decline.

These six ideas are not of equal importance and the
last three are in fact in ideological opposition to the
first three. Nevertheless, all are fundamental to our
understanding of the ways in which the Renaissance
thought. Of the six, the idea of progress is of the most
consequence, for it is involved in the rise of the idea
of science which marks out the modern world from
the preceding eras. The concept of modernity, of the
modern world emerging in the Renaissance and con-
tinuing as a unity, but with variations within it, to the
present day, is at bottom the consequence of the rise
of the idea of science, and therefore of the Renaissance
itself. But the triumph of the idea of science was not
an easy one; it had to meet the opposition of a number
of powerful counter-ideas before it was accepted. The
conflict between the idea of progress and the theory
of perfectibility on the one hand and the cyclical
theory of history, the doctrine of uniformitarianism,
and the idea of decline on the other is but the first
stage of a controversy which reached its height and
was resolved with the victory of science in the seven-
teenth century.

The attack on the doctrine of the superiority of the
ancients, the overcoming of the attitude of skepticism
toward the achievements of the moderns, the refutation
of criticisms directed against the idea of progress, the
opposition to the pessimism inherent in the cyclical
theory of history and the idea of decline, all these
measures had to be taken in the seventeenth century
before the idea of science could be securely established.
But the genesis of this struggle goes back to the six-
teenth century when it was first given its character
and direction. Nevertheless, it should be pointed out
that the conflict of ideas described in this paper is of
late Renaissance origin. Up to the second half of the
sixteenth century, the Renaissance still believed in the
authority of the ancients. But under the impact of the
discoveries and inventions and of the great changes in
the economic structure of society, the influence of the
ancients was gradually undermined, though the con-
tention lasted for over a century.

The humanists have usually been depicted as men
who looked backward; to them the revival of learning
was literally a return to the world of a way of life
which had disappeared for a thousand years but which
now was back. It is as though the ancient civilization
had flourished, had disappeared, and had reappeared
without change, except that the man of the Renaissance
looked up to the ancients for the wonders they had
achieved. So far as many of the writers of the Renais
sance were concerned, the Middle Ages were a blank;
they looked on themselves as the inheritors and con-
tinuers of a tradition which had lapsed, and it would
not be putting it too strongly to say that they felt
themselves the contemporaries of the ancients.

Now, there was another group of men whose faces
were not turned backward but rather forward. They
too thought that the ancients had accomplished great
things; they too thought that the Middle Ages had been
unfruitful, but what distinguishes them is the fact that
they thought their own age was different both from
the classical period and the Middle Ages. In other
words, it was their belief that the era of the Renaissance
represented a way of life which was unique and which
had never before existed on the face of the earth. In
their estimation, what distinguished the modern period
was the rise of science, which to them meant the
discoveries and the new information they uncovered,
the invention of instruments the ancients had not
known, the effects of these inventions, and finally the
application of science toward more discoveries and
inventions in increasing numbers of disciplines so that
the outlook for the future was not one of sameness
but of continuous change and change to the better.

Louis Le Roy sets the pattern which the moderns
followed and elaborated on. If, he proposes, we take
a balance, no previous age has done more in the arts
and sciences than this, neither the age of Cyrus, nor
of Alexander the Great, nor of the Arabs, because
within the last hundred years that which had been
covered by the shades of ignorance has come into the
light, but also much which had never been known has
emerged: new fashions of men, laws, costumes; new
plants, trees, minerals; new inventions such as printing,
weapons of war, instruments of navigation; lost lan-
guages restored (Le Roy, Considérations, pp. 7-9).
According to Étienne Pasquier (II, 605-06), the foun-
dations of a new method of inquiry superior to that
of the ancients were laid down by Copernicus,
Paracelsus, and Ramus, and in such fields as far apart
as surgery and the investigation of magnetism, their
leading exponents could each claim superiority over
the ancients (Paré, A4 recto; Gilbert, pp. ii recto-ii
verso). Thus the way toward a complete working out
of the methods and implications of science was sur-
veyed before Francis Bacon. Alvarez, Ramus, Surius,
and Postel agree with Le Roy that their century has
seen greater progress in men and learning than has
been seen in the whole course of the previous fourteen

Now, on what basis did they make this astounding
claim? There is no doubt that their optimism and
confidence are based on their belief in progress
grounded on science. In his Of the Interchangeable


Course, or Variety of Things (1594), Le Roy has worked
out the philosophy of progress in relation to science
which is the manifesto of the moderns. The book is
in essence a complete statement of the argument of
the moderns: progress, scientific method, perfectibility,
the plenitude of nature, the attack on decay, even the
very title itself of the most complete exposition of the
aims and methods of the moderns. So hopeful is his
vision of the future that it inspires Le Roy to the
heights of eloquence: “The greatest things are difficult,
and long in comming.... How many haue bin first
knowen and found out in this age? I say, new lands,
new seas, new formes of men, manners, lawes, and
customes; new diseases, and new remedies; new waies
of the Heauen, and of the Ocean,... and new starres
seen?... That which is now hidden, with time will
come to light; and our successours will wonder that
wee were ignorant of them” (Variety, pp. 127 recto-
127 verso).

Of the innovations made by the rise of science none
received more attention than the discoveries and the
invention of gunpowder, the compass, and printing.
Typical is this sentence from Jerome Cardan's auto-
biography. “Among the extraordinary, though quite
natural circumstances of my life, the first and most
unusual is that I was born in this century in which
the whole world became known; whereas the ancients
were familiar with but little more than a third part
of it” (pp. 189-90). This note of intense self-awareness
is repeated in Amerigo Vespucci's letter to Lorenzo
Pietro de' Medici relating his own discoveries (p. 1).
In his Histoire Generalle des Indes Occidentales &
Terres Neuues
(1552), Francisco Lopez de Gomara
delivers a scathing attack on the ancients' knowledge
of geography. He shows that the world is round, that
it is inhabited, that there are inhabitants on the other
hemispheres, and that the ancients did not know how
to compute correctly longitude and latitude. Le Roy
lists the new things which have come into the world
as a result of the discoveries: sugar, pearls, spices, herbs,
trees, fruit, and gold. George Best makes a similar list
and shows how the discoveries have brought about an
economy of abundance (I, 14).

The importance of the invention of printing was soon
recognized, especially from the point of view of its
effects on the Reformation. Many writers of the
Renaissance discuss the significance of printing, and the
consensus is that printing has brought about a great
increase in the diffusion of knowledge and has been
instrumental in causing the revival itself. But it is John
Foxe who brings the praise of the printing press to
its highest pitch. In a section called “The Invention
and Benefit of Printing,” Foxe discusses the date of the
invention of the press, considers the various claimants
to its invention, and describes the process. He con-
cludes with a recital of its accomplishments: it has
come from God to abolish the papal tyranny, to confute
the Church of Rome, and to bring about the victory
of the truth; it has diffused knowledge, reduced the
price of books, made learning and reading more easily
accessible, has encouraged the composition of worth-
while books, and has caused God's word to prevail (III,

The result of this activity in the sciences was the
formulation of a doctrine of progress. It was held that
the modern world was different from previous worlds
because it knew more, did more, and hoped to accom-
plish more. The future seemed to promise ever in-
creasing inventions and discoveries of such magnitude
as made the present achievements seem small by
comparison, not that the present was bad, but that the
future would be better. There therefore was no turning
back to the past for only the future mattered. The rise
of science, then, introduced a new element into the
Renaissance idea of its own times. Men were aware
of their era not because it was like another period
which had died away and was reborn but because it
was different from any other era; its uniqueness was
its mark.

Those who apply the idea of progress to nature hold
that, contrary to the beliefs of those who hold to the
idea of retrogression, nature is not running down, that
men are as good as they once were, and that it is
perfectly just to expect continued improvements in the
arts and sciences. This point of view is in reality an
attack on the doctrine of the superiority of the an-
cients; at the same time, it makes possible, as we have
seen in the work of Le Roy, a justification for the study
of science. For if nature has run down, there is nothing
new to discover, and if men's wits are becoming
feebler, there is no possibility of increasing knowledge.
Gabriel Harvey argues that reason still functions as
well as it always did and goes so far as to assert that
the first age was not the golden age; he cites Jean Bodin
to declare that the golden age is now (pp. 85-86).

Richard Eden points out that the great advances
made in geometry, astronomy, architecture, music,
painting, arms, inventions, and the like in modern times
are an indication that men can now be superior to the
ancients, for they have the same abilities as the an-
cients; furthermore, since the number of things to be
found out is infinite, so the number of inventions and
discoveries is infinite (pp. xlvi-xlvii). Le Roy reports
that there is a frequent complaint to the effect that
manners are getting worse daily, but if this were so,
he asks, then men should “... ere this haue come to
the height of iniquitie; and there should now be no
more integrities in them: which is not true.” Bodin


makes a strong attack on the idea of retrogression in
his Methodus (pp. 308-407). What the theory of
perfectibility contributed to the idea of the Renaissance
was the belief that it was possible to equal, if not
overtake, the ancients.

According to the climate theory of history, the influ-
ence of the elements may bring about changes in men's
affairs. Thus Giorgio Vasari points out that the air the
early painters breathed stimulated them to produce the
works of art which help bring about the revival of the
arts. While Bodin is most closely identified with this
idea, it was not unknown to other writers, such as
Thomas Proctor (p. iiir), and Fulke Greville (iv, 78-79).
Bodin makes the point that a concurrence of the proper
climatic conditions will bring about changes in history
and that certain areas are more favorable for the
cultivation of the arts and sciences than others; he does
not, however, work this out in connection with his own

The assumption about the course of human history
which is most widely held in the Renaissance is the
cyclical or tide theory. According to this point of view,
men and nations and the arts have their origin, rise,
flourishing, and decay; when the process is once
completed, it does not stop but repeats itself over and
over again. Or if we take the tide image, civilizations
ebb and flow, and ebb and flow, and again the process
is a continuous one. Seen in the relation to the idea
of the Renaissance, this theory may be a help or a
hindrance to its development, depending on the point
in the cycle at which an historian wishes to place it.
If the Renaissance is seen as part of the ascending
curve, it will be described as the apex of human history
up to that point; on the other hand, if it is part of
the descending arc, it will be looked on as a state of
decay in comparison with the peak reached by the
ancients; in point of fact, both approaches are to be

Niccolò Machiavelli expresses the idea of cyclical
change in The History of Florence (1532) and Gabriel
Harvey applies the cyclical theory to the course of
learning and especially to its history in his own lifetime.
Indeed, the imagery which both use to express the
cyclical theory is strikingly similar. Machiavelli writes:

For since it is ordained by Providence that there should
be a continual ebb and flow in the things of this world;
as soon as they arrive at their utmost perfection and can
ascend no higher, they must of necessity decline; and on
the other hand, when they have fallen, through any disorder,
to the lowest degree that is possible, can sink no lower,
they begin to rise again

(I, 213-14).

He is echoed by Harvey:

There is a variable course and revolution of all things.
Summer gettith the upperhande of wynter, and wynter
agayne of summer. Nature herselfe is changeable, and most
of all delightid with vanitye; and arte, after a sorte her ape,
conformith to the like mutabilitye.

Similar exemplifications of the cyclical theory are
found in Guicciardini (I, 2) and Vasari (I, 20-21, 32-33).
Le Roy attributes the greatness of the several notable
eras in history, including the Renaissance, to the
cyclical course of events:

... the excellency of armes, and learning, to haue bin first
in Egypt, Assyria, Persia, and Asia the lesser: consequently
in Greece, Italie, and Sarasmenia: and finallie in this age,
in which we see almost all auncient, liberal, and Mechanical
Arts to be restored with the tongues; after that they had
bin lost almost twelue hundred yeares, and other new,
inuented in their places.

As a dynamic theory of history, the idea that events
have their rise, flourishing state, and fall enabled the
writers of the Renaissance to account for the
emergence of a new way of life when, in their estima-
tion, there had been no changes in human affairs for
a millennium.

The central doctrine of the theory of uniformitarian-
ism holds that human nature never changes, that men
at all times and places have always been the same,
and that therefore there is nothing new under the sun.
Thus Montaigne makes the point that the world is
neither in a state of decrepitude nor in a state of
progress; it is as it always has been, and nature has
neither lost its power nor suddenly produced men of
outstanding qualities (III, 115-16). And Pierre Charron
takes the very evidence which led Le Roy to announce
the doctrine of progress to arrive at the conclusion that
the world has not seen nor ever will see anything new:

That this great body which we call the world, is... in
perpetual flux and reflux; That there is nothing said, held,
believed at one time, and in one place, which is not likewise
said, held, believed in another year, and contradicted,
reproved, condemned elsewhere;... That all things are
setled and comprehended in their course and revolution of
nature, subject to encrease, changing ending, to the muta-
tion of times, places, climates, heavens, airs, countries


By denying the possibility of change or progress, the
doctrine of uniformitarianism helped to put a damper
on the enthusiasm for the achievements of the modern
world. Its influence was more pervasive than indicated
here and it continued to exercise a retarding effect on
the idea of progress into the seventeenth century.

Finally, there is the idea of decay, which held that
the world was on the downgrade. The best period in


history had been at the beginning of the world, and
history was but the record of the increasing degeneracy
of man and his works. Nature itself was running down
and there was no hope for the present, and certainly
none at all for the future. Thus there is developed a
strong strain of pessimism which, when applied to the
idea of the Renaissance, denied either the uniqueness
or the advances made in modern times. If we add to
this the theological opposition to the things of this
world and its insistence on the depravity of man, we
get a steady counter-current to the idea of progress.

Basic to the idea of decay is the belief in the exist-
ence of a past golden age from which all subsequent
history is judged and found wanting; Edmund Spenser

So oft as I with state of present time,
The image of the antique world compare,
When as mans age was in his freshest prime
And the first blossome of fair vertue bare,
Such oddes I finde twist those, and these which are,
As that, through long continuance of his course,
Me seemes the world is runne quite out of square,
From the first point of his appointed sourse,
And being once amisse growes daily wourse and wourse

(Faerie Queene, V, stanza 1 of the Proem.).

And he is echoed by Fulke Greville's “A Treatise of
Monarchy” (I, 5-6, 11-12).

The golden age theme brings with it a feeling of
pessimism, of lack of faith in progress and in the ability
of human reason to deal adequately with the problems
which confront man; and this is a strain of anti-
intellectualism which merges very easily into theolog-
ical distrust of the reason, as in the poems of John
Davies and John Norden. The Renaissance has been
described as the optimistic age; it is also the pessimistic
age, for on all sides one hears the cry: “We are fallen
into the barren age of the worlde,” and “Our age, and
aged world, even doating olde,” and “... the world
declineth to an old age, and bringeth not forth his
fruites with that vigor and vertue it hath done in times
past;... the vertue and goodnesse of man seemeth
to defect from that of former ages, and to wax old
and decay....” The idea of decay is perhaps the
strongest impediment to the immediate acceptance of
the idea of the Renaissance and so great was its influ-
ence that it needed the full efforts of Bacon and his
followers to put an end to its vogue in the philosophical
area though it kept alive by becoming a convention
in poetry.

On how these six ideological preconceptions
operated to affect Renaissance thinking, however, one
or two conclusions suggest themselves. One is that these
ideas are widespread. They are both English and Con-
tinental in scope, and range over the length of the late
Renaissance as it is ordinarily conceived. A second
point to be noticed is that they are not confined to
any particular type of intellectual activity but are to
be found in all fields of Renaissance endeavor. Another
conclusion is that these are not new ideas; their origins
are deep in classical culture and some of them have,
for the most part, a vigorous history through the Mid-
dle Ages. This fact suggests that much of Renaissance
thinking is not altogether the jumble of ideas it is
usually thought to be. What is new about the Renais-
sance is not so much the ideas themselves, but the ways
in which they were recombined into new intellectual
constructions. The clue for historical research then is
not so much to seek original ideas as to discover the
cumulative flow of old ideas, and to analyze what new
combinations have been made and under the impetus
of what new needs and forces. The ideas themselves
retain certain fairly constant characters; what changes
as a result of new demands is the forms of recombina-
tion of old ideas.

Revived from late classical antiquity and locked
together in the Renaissance mind, the idea of progress
and the cyclical theory of history, reinforced when
need by the doctrine of uniformitarianism and the
concept of perfectibility, were welded together to form
the idea of science as the basis of a continuously
expanding future; that is, of an ever-spreading
modernity to which there could be no end. It is worth
asking the question: Why, if the idea of progress and
the cyclical theory of history were of classical origin,
did they fall into disuse, and why did their potential
have to wait for recognition and use until the
Renaissance? The answer, it appears, lies in yet another
clustering of ideas within the Renaissance mind: the
fusion, this time, of the idea of science with two ideas
unique to the Renaissance, the idea of nationalism and
the idea of capitalism. Nationalism gave the Renais-
sance its force, the motivating energy which moved
men to action; capitalism gave them the economic
resources from which their aspirations could be put
into actual effect. Thus, for the first time in the history
of man, it became possible to foresee a time when man,
escaped from the tyranny of an economy of scarcity,
could be free to move as they willed: nationalism
motivated them, capitalism gave them security, science
showed them the way, and progress gave them the
hope that utopia could be had here and now, on this
earth and within their literal grasp.

Some centuries have passed since this vision first
burst from the imagination of the Renaissance and its
realization has proved to be far more difficult than the


optimism of the scientists of the seventeenth century
foresaw, yet it remains an indispensable, indeed central,
part of the modern mind: abundance equals freedom
equals happiness—except for those who have already
acquired them. At the very moment when the Renais-
sance finally achieves its ends, it comes to an end.


George Best, The Three Voyages of Martin Frobisher, ed.
V. Steffanson and E. McCaskill, 2 vols. (London, 1934). Jean
Bodin, Methodus ad facilem historiarum cognitionem (Lyons,
1583). Jerome Cardan, The Book of My Life, trans. J. Stoner
(London, 1931). Pierre Charron, Of Wisdome, trans. S.
Lennard (London, 1670). Richard Eden, The First Three
English Books on America,
ed. E. Arber (Birmingham, 1885).
John Foxe, Actes and Monuments, eds. S. R. Cattley and
G. Townsend, 8 vols. (London, 1843-49). William Gilbert,
De magnete (1600), trans. P. Fleury Mottelay as On the
(London, 1900). Fulke Greville, Works, ed. A. B.
Grosart (n.p., 1870). Francesco Guicciardini, The History
of Italy,
trans. A. P. Goddard, 10 vols. (London, 1753-56).
Gabriel Harvey, Letterbook, ed. E. J. L. Scott (London,
1884). Louis Le Roy, Considérations sur l'histoire universelle
(Paris, 1567); idem, Of the Interchangeable Course, or Vari-
ety of Things,
trans. R. Ashley (London, 1594). N.
Machiavelli, The Works, trans. E. Farneworth (London,
1762). M. de Montaigne, The Essays, trans. J. Zeitlin, 3 vols.
(New York, 1936). Ambrose Paré, Works, trans. T. Johnson
(London, 1678). Étienne Pasquier, Oeuvres, 2 vols.
(Amsterdam, 1723). Thomas Proctor, Of the Knowledge and
Conducte of Warres
(London, 1578). Giorgio Vasari, Lives,
trans. Mrs. J. Foster, 5 vols. (London, 1850-52). Amerigo
Vespucci, Mundus novus (1503), trans. G. N. Northrup
(Princeton, 1916).


[See also Ancients and Moderns; Chain of Being; Cycles;
Historiography; Nationalism; Perfectibility; Progress;Ren-
aissance Humanism
; Uniformitarianism; Wisdom of the