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A Practical Impetus for the Aristotelian Renaissance in 17th Century England

May 21, 2010

During the days of Richard Hooker, England was experiencing a time of intellectual revival. For decades the various faculties of Oxford and Cambridge had experienced a decline, not only in matriculation of students, but in the intellectual creativity of their instructors. The time between Erasmus and Bacon is often seen as a veritable Dark Ages. This decline came in part from the rise and fall of the various Tudors, particularly Mary, and partly from the comprehensive reshaping of society that was the Reformation. Yet, under Queen Elizabeth, England once again experienced a Renaissance of learning. During this renewal, exemplified by men such as William Shakespeare and Edmund Spencer, there was also a revamped interest in the corpus of Aristotle; and this Renaissance of Aristotelianism may need some explanation.

In 1593 and Richard Hooker had just published his now famous Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity in which he explained to the more radical wing in the Anglican Church why it is not necessary for every nation to imitate Geneva’s ecclesiastical polity. In defending Anglican polity and the ability of human reason to guide the affairs of the civic realm, Hooker relied on Aristotle’s method. But, he did not really have much of a choice in the matter. Every man is a product of his time. All of Hooker’s theological predecessors were Aristotelian in some form, whether they be Medieval such as Thomas and Scotus, Reformed such as Vermigli and Jewel, or the divines who preceded him at Corpus Christi College such as William Cole and John Rainolds.

Hooker was also influenced by the writings of Plato (as Torrance Kirby has demonstrated) and one of his contemporaries, Everard Digby, was the first English Neo-Platonist of the Seventeenth century; Digby’s Theoria Analytica popularized the Neo-Platonic texts of Proclus and the Cabala and later inspired the Platonism of the Cambridge Platonists. Yet, even with the advent of Neo-Platonism and Renaissance Humanism, Aristotelianism remained the foundation of the liberal arts curriculum at Oxford and Cambridge. Charles Schmitt explains the very practical reason for this, a reason that still held sway in the mid-1630s:

If arts education was meant to be reasonably comprehensive and to embrace the range of reliable knowledge, were there alternatives to the Aristotelian synthesis? The writings of Bruno were certainly not systematic enough for teaching purposes. The new philosophies of Telesio or Patrizi were possibilities, but neither covered a significant portion of the range of subjects to be taught. The same could be said of ancient works such as those of Plato or Pliny. The approach to knowledge produced by the sixteenth-century humanistic movement was curiously one-sided, with whole areas of positive knowledge left unaccounted for. The new synthesis of Gassendi, of Descartes, of Newton, were all in the future, if by only a few years or decades. . . In short, Aristotelianism still was the best comprehensive philosophy available. When genuine and useful alternatives did emerge a few decades later, they were taken up rather quickly by the universities of England. (Schmitt, John Case and Aristotelianism in Renaissance England, p. 44)

John Case is another example of an English Aristotelian of this time period, one who has received little attention aside from Schmitt’s work. Case is one of the first in England to use the notion of the prisca theologia gleaned from the Corpus Hermeticum. According to Schmitt, he was the most widely read Aristotelian from the 1550s to the 1650s, thus setting the intellectual climate for Bacon and Herbert of Cherbury. Case, just as Hooker, used a variety of sources but was an Aristotelian at heart. As Schmitt notes, Case as well as other English educators at this time used the sources that were available (i.e., Aristotle) to build the curriculum by which they sought to perfect the next generation because those sources were available and all encompassing.

One lesson in historical interpretation to learn from this is that the primacy of a certain philosophical system for a certain body of people at a certain time does not always indicate a staunch loyalty for that particular system. (By “staunch loyalty,” I mean a loyalty for a particular way of systematizing truths vs. a loyalty toward the pursuit of the truth itself) Usually that system just happens to be the best option at the time. When new ideas correct or add greater clarity to the old ones, new curricula are formed out of necessity. The corpus of Aristotle continued to supply the basis of college curriculums even after the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century until more updated and modern systems arrived that were capable of replacing it.

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