Dr. Peter Redpath

Dr. Peter Redpath


In the inaugural issue of Classical Homeschooling magazine, I issued a homeschool manifesto, a philosophical call, to renew American culture through a homeschool renaissance.1 At the start of the “Prologue” to a little treatise that he wrote around the age of thirty, St. Thomas Aquinas warns his readers that, according to Aristotle, small mistakes in the beginning eventually become large mistakes in the end.2 Such being the case, prudence dictates that, as we initiate this homeschool renaissance, we avoid making initial errors. To do this, prudence also dictates that we call upon historical experience.

Thus, to help us avoid initial mistakes, and to establish our renaissance on a solid foundation, a good place for us to start our work is from a study of beginnings of the last great Western Renaissance, the

Italian Renaissance of the fourteenth century. When we do this, we find a time dominated by a peculiar intellectual spirit that conflated poetry, rhetoric, and theology, one increasingly anti-philosophical and anti-Scholastic. We commonly identify the start of this Renaissance with the Italian humanist Francesco Petrarcha, Petrarch (1304-1374). Paul Oskar Kristeller is generally recognized as the twentieth-century’s leading historian of Renaissance thought. Kristeller tells us that reading ancient Latin writers and seeing Rome’s ancient monuments evoked in Petrarch and many other Italian humanists a strong nostalgia for the political greatness of the Roman Republic and Empire and that the central idea that guided Petrarch in his dealings with the Pope and political figures was hope to restore this greatness.3

Kristeller’s point is that, at least in part, a political project motivated the Italian Renaissance’s growth: the desire to restore the political greatness of Roman culture. At least three things are crucial to understand to comprehend this project: (1) it first arose within the nostalgic minds and wills of Italian humanists, (2) it caused certain humanists to develop an apocryphal notion of philosophy that identified the birth of philosophy with the Israelites, not the Greeks, and, especially, with Moses, and (3), Kristeller reports that, before student slang coined the term “humanist” during the fifteenth century, humanists were usually known by the name “poets”, although many of them would hardly deserve the label by modern standards. This notion also may help us to understand why the defense of poetry, one of the favorite topics of early humanist literature, involved a defense of humanist learning as a whole.

No less important than poetry was the humanist study of rhetoric or oratory, and again the “humanists” were very often identified as orators, or as poets and orators, before the term humanist had come into use.4

Desire to rebuild Roman political greatness by restoring Roman culture in a new and better Christian version had motivated Italian humanists to read classical poets and rhetoricians. In Christian culture during Petrarch’s time, poetry lacked the prestige of the other liberal arts. Medieval schools often studied poetry, like history, as part of rhetoric, generally as a mode of composition within rhetoric called the “art of letter writing” (ars dictaminis).5 “So considered, no separate division of poetry existed within the Medieval liberal arts curriculum.”6 And many people viewed suspiciously any reading of pagan poets because pagan poets had been idolaters and polytheists who portrayed the gods in morally negative terms.7 Petrarch’s project had a serious obstacle to overcome. To transcend the pagan poets the humanists had to read them.

To overcome this obstacle, Charles Trinkhaus indicates that humanists started to assert “the importance of form and style” to replace “the older trivium and quadrivium as preliminary studies to theology, law or medicine,” and “to end the elevation of dialectic and the downgrading of grammar, rhetoric and poetry in the Arts faculties of the universities.”8 Thanks to the efforts of Petrarch and fellow Italian humanists, by the fifteenth century, school documents and library classification schemes indicate the studia humanitatis had usurped the classical understanding of the liberal arts by removing logic from the trivium and adding poetry, history, and moral philosophy, to constitute a new discipline of the humanities divided into five parts: grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, and ethics.9

Starting with Petrarch, Italian humanists began to allegorize and figuratively interpret classical Greek philosophy and Western history, and they revived an apocryphal version of the origin of philosophy initially fabricated by Alexandrian Jewish apologists as far back as the second century B.C. Humanists commonly maintained that philosophy is an inspired, esoteric system of revelation, a lofty metaphysical and moral doctrine, an original monotheistic religion. Most often they traced the origin of this system to Moses. They often claimed that idolaters, such as Babylonians, Chaldeans, and Egyptians, had stolen this doctrine from the ancient Israelites, and that ancient poets had hidden this sacred teaching beneath lofty and allegorical language and exceptional individuals such as magi, prophets, priests, and epic poets like Vergil had esoterically transmitted it across the ages. Later humanists, starting with Lorenzo Valla, further maintained that truth lies in original linguistic usage and that this doctrine had been first revealed in an original, ancient language.

More specifically, Petrarch and other humanists: (1) asserted that, to protect their lofty metaphysical and moral truths from the common masses, and confound and inspire awe in the “vulgar,” ancient poets fabricated ridiculous, hyperbolic, allegorical stories about gods and heroes that any rational person would recognize as false; (2) used allegorical and figurative interpretation to unravel the true philosophical and Christian theological meaning of poetic works; (3) promoted William of Ockham’s nominalistic thesis that nature “occulty” produces universals, or abstract general ideas, in the mind and the nominalist view that the world is a book the meaning of which is wrapped in oracular language; (4) maintained that only someone with a special poetic, or prophetic, gift of revealing concealed meanings can confront these individual, sensible beings and elevate them to the status of universals; and (5) claimed that, over time, pagan philosophers corrupted and passed on to Medieval Christian theologians, principally Scholastics, a counterfeit version of the true system of philosophy. The humanists then united these five elements with a deconstruction of the Scholastic psychological foundations for the sciences and combined this with an attack on Aristotle’s teaching about forms.10

In short, part of Petrarch’s project of reviving Roman political greatness was to conflate poetry, religion, philosophy, and theology to develop a new profession and discipline: the profession of theologizing poets (poetae theologisantes) and the discipline of poetic theology (theologia poetica). Humanists achieved this by making the object of philosophical knowledge a historical act of revelation and the method for revealing this object a religious act of inspiration and historical transmission. Petrarch thus initiated a general humanist view of philosophy as poetic transmission of religious history.11

Clearly, part of the early humanist program was to set the humanities against natural science and Aristotelian logic. It involved more, however: undermining the union of philosophy and Scholastic theology. Early on, therefore, humanists engaged in apologetic defenses of poetry. These are no historical eccentricity. They constitute part of a well-conceived and designed apologetic to elevate poetry’s status and diminish the influence of the other liberal arts and philosophy within the university.

As humanists strengthened the identification of poetry with theology, the Medieval view of theology as the queen of the sciences, the stature accorded to the nominalist views of William of Ockham at centers like Oxford and Paris, from which many poets had recently emigrated to Italy, and resort to a centuries-old rhetorical technique of allegorizing other disciplines, coupled with the theological practice of figurative interpretation, helped early humanists solidify the notion of poetry as the divinely-inspired queen of the arts.12

As far back as ancient poetry we witness this practice of allegorization of other disciplines in Hesiod’s attack on Homer’s veracity. The Ionian philosophers extended this attack to include a critique of mythological reasoning as a whole. Plato extended the Ionian attack through allegorization and figurative interpretation of epic poetry, banishment of most of poetry from the ideal city, and removal of the gods from matter and the earth. The Stoics used the same methods to reverse the philosophical onslaught against poetry to the point that Seneca could mockingly remark: “All the schools of philosophy find that their doctrines are in Homer.”13 In late pagan activity, poets and rhetoricians extended Seneca’s attack. By this time, poetry and philosophy became divisions of, and assimilated to, rhetoric. And, by the time of St. Augustine, the notions of rhetor and philosopher were indistinguishable.14

Hellenized Jews of the Diaspora and Philo Judaeus further complicated this practice of allegorization and figurative interpretation of other disciplines. Many ancient Greeks tended to portray Jews as cultureless barbarians. Alexandrian Jews reacted against this depiction of them through an apologetic that involved allegorization and figurative interpretation of Greek philosophy. They started to defend the worth of their culture by maintaining that “Greek philosophy owed its origin to the Jewish patriarchs and principally to Moses, who became, to late Judaism, ‘the most important figure in the entire history of religion,’ the ‘true teacher of mankind, the ‘superman.’”15

Moses and Abraham thus became philosophers. In the second century B. C. Eupolemius wrote: “Moses was the first sage and the first to teach the Jews, and the Greeks from the Phoenicians; and Moses was the first to write laws for the Jews.” A couple of centuries later Artapanus claimed that Abraham “taught astrology to the Egyptians and the Phoenicians.” He further maintained that Moses was actually Musaeus, Orpheus’ teacher, and added: “As a mature man he [Moses] bestowed many things of great use upon mankind. He invented ships and machines for transporting stones, as well as weapons of the Egyptians and machines for irrigation, implements of war, and philosophy.”16

The famous Jewish philosopher Philo continued this process of allegorization and figurative interpretation of philosophy “by describing Moses as a philosopher and Judaism as the source of philosophy.”17 The Christian apologists Clement and Origen passed on this apocryphal history of philosophy to Sts. Ambrose and Augustine. Augustine conflated the notions of liberal arts, music, philosophy, and rhetoric, and, like Ambrose, he justified the study of pagan culture as right and proper expropriation of personal Christian possessions. In his treatise On Christian Doctrine, Augustine went so far as to maintain that “Plato probably learned about Jewish revelation when he had travelled to Egypt and that whatever the Platonists say which is ‘good and truthful’ they took from the Israelites.”18

The crucial point to note from this short excursion into ancient and early Medieval history is that, starting with Petrarch, Italian humanists attempted to elevate the status of the disciplines of poetry and rhetoric by allegorizing and figuratively interpreting classical Greek philosophy and Western history to revive an apocryphal version of the origin of philosophy that traces itself to antiquity. They coupled this fabrication with the Ockhamist thesis that nature “occulty” produces universals, or abstract general ideas, in the mind and the popular Medieval view that nature is a book. Then they united these elements with a deconstruction of the Scholastic psychological foundations for the sciences and combined this with an attack on Aristotle’s teaching about forms.

Scholastic thinkers generally adopted a psychology similar to the one most people do today. They recognized that we have five external senses (touch, taste, smell, hearing, and sight). To these they added four internal senses (imagination, sense memory, a common or synthetic sense, and particular reason or estimative sense), and emotional appetites. They topped these off with an intellect (which they divided into active and passive and to which they attributed theoretical and practical acts of reason), abstract memory, and will. Most of us today do not talk about a synthetic sense and particular reason, but we do recognize that we have some way of sensing that the act of one sense faculty is not the act of another. Scholastics generally attributed this ability to the common, or synthetic, sense. We also recognize that we have some sort of rudimentary ability to sense distances and to sense things as good or bad for us, or the ability that Scholastics attributed to particular reason or the estimative sense. Finally, we recognize that we have an abstractive intellectual ability, an ability to extract general meanings from individual observations, and that this ability is different from our ability to think about things just for the sake of thinking (theoretical reasoning) or to think about things for the sake of doing or making something (practical reasoning).

To deconstruct the Scholastic psychological foundations for the sciences, the humanists confounded the notions of the human imagination, the practical intellect, and the agent intellect. In Scholastic thought, the agent intellect acts as the mediator between mind and the world by abstracting universals, general ideas, from sense images. To elevate poetry over classical philosophy, humanists intentionally confounded the notions of imagination and practical reason and identified both these notions with poetry. They replaced the act of intellectual abstraction with the poetic act of imagination, thereby making poetry mediator between the human senses and the abstract general ideas that act as the ground of all knowing and science. Further to support their project, they promoted the notion that abstract general ideas are occult beings, quasi-magical and largely inert entities that lie prefigured beneath the surface of the material world. As Trinkhaus indicates, Petrarch deliberately initiated a program of locating universals as hidden beneath surface meaning or, through appeal to divine inspiration, infused sacred meaning into a poet’s work. Humanists also promoted the notion that the world is a book wrapped in oracular language, identified truth with original linguistic usage, and maintained that only someone with a special poetic, or prophetic, gift of revealing concealed meanings can confront these individual, sensible beings and elevate them to the status of universals.19

In short, part of Petrarch’s project of reviving Roman political greatness was to develop a new profession and discipline: the profession of theologizing poets (poetae theologisantes) and the discipline of poetic theology (theologia poetica). Crucial to development of this new profession and discipline was a means of conflating poetry, religion, philosophy, and theology. Humanists achieved this by making the object of philosophical knowledge an act of revelation and the method for revealing this object a religious act of inspiration and historical transmission: theological poetry. Petrarch attempts this conflation by maintaining that “To know God, not the gods, is the true and highest philosophy,” and that the testimony of Scriptures and Aristotle, who called the first poets “theologizers,” “support the contention that theology is simply poetry dealing with God.”20

The polytheism of the ancient poets and their “depiction of the gods as lustful, envious, fraudulent, duplicitous, mendacious, and so on” presented Petrarch’s program with a serious obstacle.21 He sought to use allegorical and figurative interpretation to overcome these problems. Hence, he maintained that the ancient poets were not polytheists and did not literally accept the portrayal of the gods that they gave. Instead, he claimed the ancient poets were closet monotheists who intentionally depicted the gods in an unbelievable fashion and created the art of poetry and use of hidden meaning to confound, and inspire awe among, the “vulgar.”22 While the “vulgar” might not be able to understand the hidden meaning of ancient poetry, Petrarch maintained that intelligent Christians could recognize the evident absurdities and illusory nature of ancient myth. He also held that the ancient poetic works prefigure Christian revelation which is philosophy’s one true teaching.23 Petrarch thus started a general humanist view of philosophy as poetic transmission of religious history, thereby developing an interest in proper reading of all sorts of ancient religious writings.”24

Five Renaissance thinkers, especially, refined Petrarch’s agenda to conflate poetry, philosophy, true religion, and Jewish and Christian theology: Giovanni Boccaccio, Coluccio Salutati, Cristoforo Landino, and Lorenzo Valla, and Marsilio Ficino.

Boccaccio took up Petrarch’s mantle by writing a highly influential Genealogy of the Gods (De genealogia deorum) in which he considered the origins of religion, theology, and poetry. Within the context of this work, Boccaccio maintained that “Moses was the first poet (priscus poetae),” poetry’s originator, and poetic and prophetic transmission from the Israelites is the origin of the arts among the gentiles.25

Specifically, Boccaccio claimed that religion was originally monotheistic. Noah’s descendants corrupted true religion through polytheism, and this corruption reached considerable dimensions around Abraham’s time. In preparation for Christ’s advent and a return to monotheism, God rose up prophets from among the Israelites, Moses being the most famous. Purportedly, the ancient Greek poets were Moses’ historical descendants and prophets who used outward images in their poetry to conceal deeper mysteries. The ancient Greek philosophers depersonified and allegorized Greek myth, thereby further encrusting these theological mysteries in their ideas and technical jargon. As a result, Boccaccio thought that Plato’s work contained all of Homer and Judaism.26

Salutati extended the identification of true poetry, philosophy, and Judaism by shifting their origin from Moses to Noah’s grandson Enoch, who supposedly started them by starting monotheism. Salutati connected pagan poetry’s origin to idolatry’s origin, which he traced through a crucial passage in Chapter 14 of the Book of Wisdom, a reference that will occur repeatedly in humanist and later philosophical writings, including the works of Newton, Kant, and Hegel. According to Salutati’s interpretation of the Book of Wisdom, idolatry originated from the practice of a grieving father who, on the occasion of his son’s death, fashioned an image of his dead son and forced his slaves to hide their true beliefs and worship it. Salutati thought that the pagan poets continued this practice of hiding their true monotheistic beliefs from public anger under the veil of a double truth and a layer of myths. He also thought that “philosophers are incipient, or prefigured, poets and theologians, because, while the ancient poets intentionally hid their truth behind an eloquent language, the philosophers vulgarized poetic language and did not even comprehend its hidden meaning.”27

Landino further specified the apocryphal philosophical history started by Petrarch by uniting the notion of theological poet with Platonic theology. Landino argued that poetic knowledge, inspiration, transforms human beings to a semi-divine state, higher than human, not quite a god. This state changes an ordinary human being into a theologian. Supposedly, “the ancient pagan poets incorporated within their work insights from Moses and the prophets. The poets transmitted these revealed truths to the prisci pagan theologians, who transmitted them to Plato.”28

According to a direct order of transmission, then, Landino maintains, that, in a prefigured form, the works of the ancient poets and philosophers contain the hidden revelation of Christianity, Plato contains the whole of Christian revelation, and, through Plato’s influence on Vergil, the greatest ancient poet and philosopher, and Vergil on Dante, Dante has passed on the whole of ancient wisdom to Renaissance poets.29

Valla immersed himself in the study of Quintillian’s rhetoric with the intention of deconstructing medieval Scholastic philosophy and elevating the status of rhetoric over logic by developing a “theological rhetoric” (theologia rhetorica).30 Valla locates the content of abstract general ideas in original linguistic usage. Purportedly, we find original truth in original historical usage. “For this contains the hidden, or prefigured meaning which transcends the meaning which exists in books.” And original truth grounds all human learning.31

Ficino accepted the same sort of fabricated history of philosophy. He thought that the wise and holy men of all nations were priests and philosophers. He claimed that the Hebrew prophets maintained both roles, the Persian philosophers were Magi and priests, Egyptian priests were metaphysicians and mathematicians, Hindu Brahmins studied nature and were priests, and so did the ancient Greek poets and sages, the Celts, Romans, and ancient Christian bishops. Of all religions, he thought that Christianity is the most true because it is the most sincere or pure. He thought that, in creating the world through His Incarnate Word, God the Father sent Fourth into creation in Christ the idea of perfect religion. For Ficino, Christ is a body of knowledge, a repository of divine ideas, including the ideas of perfect religion and incarnate science, underlying the world. Hence, he maintained that Christianity is the origin of all other religions, lying hidden and prefigured underneath them in Christ Incarnate.32

Anyone somewhat familiar with the influence of Ficino’s Platonic Academy on subsequent thought can readily see how Ficino contributed to transmitting many intellectual errors to subsequent thinkers, including views of deism, a historicist conception that philosophy is a hidden system or body of knowledge, the close identification of the roles of philosopher, poet, priest, and theologian, and the Jewish origin of philosophy. The Italian humanist Polydore Vergil exercised a similar influence through the sixteenth-century publication of a reference book entitled De inventoribus rerum, in which, through the authority of Eusebius and Porphyry, Vergilio traced the origin of philosophy to Moses, from whom the Ionian Thales and the Italian Pythaogras purportedly initiated two new beginnings of philosophy, with the Italian Pythagoras coining the name “philosophy.” “Thanks, in part, to the recent invention of the Gutenberg press, Vergilio’s work had appeared in thirty Latin editions by the time of the author’s death in 1555,” was “still influential in Leibniz’s time,” “and by the early eighteenth century more than a hundred versions had accumulated in eight languages, including Russian.”33

The first authors of modern histories of philosophy, like Thomas Stanley and Georg Horn, were humanist rhetoricians, not philosophers. They continued and solidifed the historical scholarship and “concordist notion that philosophy is revealed, unitary system or body of truth which had been first given directly by God to Moses. They also popularized the claim that this hidden system of knowledge had been later buried in hermetic and cabalist writings, and had eventually been passed on through ancient pagan poets up to Plato and beyond.” 34

Had it not been for seventeenth-century attacks against mathematicians in the Jesuit schools and the apologetic efforts of Christopher Clavius, Galileo Galilei and Rene Descartes in defense of mathematicians, this apocryphal notion of philosophy as systematic transmission history, that is, as transmission of a historical system, might have had little connection with modernity. When, however, Renaissance humanists like Benedict Pererius and Alessandro Piccolmini started to attack the reliability of mathematical abstraction and the notion of mathematics as a science, Clavius responded by preparing a disquisition for the Jesuits defending the mathematical disciplines; Galileo answered by observing that, while nature might be a book, because its characters are “triangles, circles and other geometrical figures,” the mathematician, not the poet, possesses the method to open it to our gaze, and Descartes replied that while philosophy is a revealed system, it lies buried in the human mind, and Descartes, not Moses, has been the first one to discover it.35

In short, while the original humanists like Petrarch would never have intended to give birth to Descartes and modern subjection of the liberal arts to physical science, their politically-motivated view of philosophy was elitist, replacing the natural acquisition of science and wisdom through abstract habits of natural reason with dependence on inspiration and historical transmission of hidden teaching through one or another form of language expert.36 Renaissance humanism started out as a political project connected to the age-old academic of battle of the liberal arts, a battle that Plato describes in Book 10 of his classic Republic. It began by attacking our natural ability to form abstract general ideas and replaced this ability with a poetic act of inspiration. In so doing, it rooted itself in skepticism, superstition, and naive fideism. No wonder, then, that after the Italian Renaissance spent the wealth of Scholastic wisdom and classical philosophy, it generated skepticism, superstition, and blind fideism. Beings act according to their nature.

The great historian of philosophy Etienne Gilson warns us that we think the way we can, not the way we wish. And once we lay down philosophical principles they develop according to a logic all their own.37 A small mistake in the beginning winds up being a large mistake in the end. Late Medieval neglect of poetry and rhetoric led Renaissance thinkers like Petrarch, Boccaccio, Landino, Salutati, and Valla to exaggerate the status of these disciplines within the order of human learning and unjustifiably to attack Scholasticism, mathematical learning, and abstraction. This inflationary reaction unwittingly led to the modern identification of all science with mathematics and subjection of our ordinary sense experience of reality, of literary and fine arts, and of philosophy to despotic rule of mathematicism, scientism, and moral relativism.

Educationally and politically, we live in a perilous time. To overcome this peril we need to free ourselves from the sophistry of our age, to transcend the intellectual imperialism to which scientism and moral relativism presently hold our culture hostage, and restore ordinary sense experience, the literary and fine arts, and philosophy to their proper places in the order of human learning. To head in this right direction in this new homeschool renaissance, we need to learn from the mistakes made by the founders of the last great Western Renaissance. We will never accomplish these goals if we confound the orders of learning and ground this renaissance on a renewed battle of the arts. To found this renaissance aright we must cautiously distinguish the orders of learning, identify their natures, and relate them properly. Otherwise, like the last Renaissance, our project will be fated to produce another cycle of skepticism, superstition, and blind fideism. Apart from writing articles in Classical Homeschooling, a good way to start such a sound foundation would be through a homeschool conference devoted to the Homeschool Renaissance and the Battle of the Arts. Hopefully, we will see such a conference within the near future.

[Note: Such a conference was held on June 1 & 2, 2001 in Lawrence, KS by Classical Homeschooling magazine.]

1 Peter A. Redpath, “A Philosophical Call to Renew American Culture: The Homeschool Renaissance,” in Classical Homeschooling, Summer 2000, 23-38.
2 St. Thomas Aquinas, On Being and Essence, trans. Armand A. Maurer (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies), 28.
3 Paul Oskar Kristeller, Eight Philosophers of the Italian Renaissance (Stanford: Standord University Press, 1964), 7.
4 Peter A. Redpath, Wisdom’s Odyssey from Philosophy to Transcendental Sophistry (Amsterdam and Atlanta: Editions Rodopi, 1997), 72 and 86-125.
5 Ibid., 93.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid., 95.
8 Ibid., 92-93.
9 Ibid., 93.
10 Ibid., 97-98, 104.
11 Ibid., 96, 103-104.
12 Ibid., 94-95.
13 Ibid., 42.
14 Ibid.
15 Ibid., 43.
16 Ibid.
17 Ibid.
18 Ibid., 47.
19 Ibid., 96.
20 Ibid., 96, 103-104.
21 Ibid., 96.
22 Ibid., 97.
23 Ibid., 98.
24 Ibid., 104.
25 Ibid., 98.
26 Ibid.
27 Ibid., 98-100.
28 Ibid., 102.
29 Ibid., 102-103.
30 Ibid., 105.
31 Ibid., 106
32 Ibid., 113-118.
33 Peter A. Redpath, Cartesian Nightmare (Amsterdam and Atlanta: Editions Rodopi, 1997), 7-9.
34 Ibid., 9.
35 Redpath, Wisdom’s Odyssey, 89, 103.
36 Ibid., 67-68.
37 Etienne Gilson, Unity of Philosophical Experience (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1965), 302.