The second chapter of William Wright’s book is really fine stuff. He explains the philosophical movements of the early Italian Renaissance, particularly focusing on the role of skepticism in humanism. Wright briefly explains the role of William of Ockham in leading up to these intellectual movements and then goes on to investigate in more detail the works of Petrarch, Lorenzo Valla, and the Neo-Platonists: Ficino, Pico, and Giles of Viterbo. Brief mention is also made of other critics. The most significant figure for Luther, according to Wright, is clearly that of Lorenzo Valla and his brand of humanism.
Wright begins with Ockham, an important precursor to the Renaissance and humanist thinkers. Ockham critiqued the Realists, particularly taking issue with abstractions and the multiplication of terms. Wright points out that Ockham “reduced the number of Aristotelian categories from ten to two, retaining only substance and quality” (47). Yet Ockham was not a skeptic. Even though his emphasis on will seemed to undermine the intellectual status quo, Ockham still intended on resolving problems.
The intellectual skepticism which characterized the Renaissance humanists owed its inspiration to a more global picture. According to Wright, the larger academic culture was quite capable of producing new doubt:
One may point to several other sources of the general threat to certainty at the onset of the sixteenth century. Increasing trade and continuing warfare with the Moslems introduced competitive religious and cultural ideas. The Portuguese beginnings of European exploration and expansion along the coast of Africa during the mid-to late fifteenth century raised doubts about the authority of Aristotle and other ancient authorities with regard to the nature of humankind and what constituted human society. Accounts of the Spanish explorations in the New World fed a growing curiosity in Europe. Astronomical observations and theorizing raised questions about the accuracy of the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic understanding of the universe (Weltbild) and cosmology. The recovery and translation of early manuscripts brought forgotten ideas back to the forefront and sharpened the differences between ancient authorities. All of this information, both new and old, was widely disseminated by the newly developed printing press.
Skepticism was thus perfectly understandable, as the vast amount of that which we did not know became apparent. The humanists would use this in their critiques against traditional human knowledge, but as Wright repeatedly points out, they did not use this skepticism against religion. To the contrary, religion was many times the great antidote to this situation.
Wright focuses on Petrarch as the father of humanism, but shows that the figure behind Petrarch is Cicero. Inspired by him, Petrarch prioritized rhetoric over metaphysics, believing that speech was the truest gateway to the mind. He also, significantly, rejected doubt in God’s mercies, for they were invisible and as such were improper objects of rational scrutiny. Whereas traditional philosophy was open for critique, religious truths were not.
The next major figure in this chapter is Lorenzo Valla. Much attention has been given to Valla’s influence on Luther, but Wright particularly highlights Valla’s philosophical method of contrasting the abilities of strict intellect and the abilities of persuasion. Essential to this is Valla’s Epicureanism. Showing a strong distaste for the asceticism of earlier days, Valla’s first work was entitled On Pleasure. In it he argued that “happiness itself… is generated from our vision and knowledge of God,” and “Loving itself is delight, or pleasure, or beatitude, or happiness, or charity, which is the final end goal for which all other things are” (63).
Valla defends this view of pleasure based on the divine goodness of creation, but he also shows his commitment to the difference between intellectual “knowledge” and persuasion or “willful knowledge.” This division is important in that it opens up two different methods. Wright explains and again quotes Valla saying, “From the beginning, the orator noted, ‘there was one set of criteria for observing divine requirements and another for earthly ones'” (64). These two ways anticipate the two kingdoms of Luther to come.
Valla’s view of persuasion led him to share the humanists’ preference for rhetoric to syllogisms but to also go further than his predecessors. Wright states:
Valla defined a different kind of rhetorical persuasion in matters of religion, where the probable truth of Ciceronian dialogue did not suffice for the task at hand. In these works, already, Valla had provided a solution to the problem of skepticism: it was an epistemological response to the threat of doubt regarding religious matters.
Wright explains that Valla replaced the Scholastic method with rhetoric, particularly employing philological criticism. He famously re-evaluated ancient texts and demanded that Scripture take the foundational place in all Christian theology. This was basic to Luther’s own intellectual commitments, and indeed this emphasis on the word, both spoken and written, would dominate the entire Reformation.
Valla also separated the mind and the will. Because rhetoric was an art of persuasion, its aim was to move the will to certainty, and only afterward could the mind begin its own ever-incomplete quest. Valla insisted that people could not understand how providence and free will could exist harmoniously, yet they were called to believe it. The will assented to a position based on faith, and the mind followed.
Valla extended this notion of persuasion to the Scripture itself. This is essential, as Valla was himself pioneering textual criticism. Instead of applying his intellectual skepticism to the Scriptures, however, Valla insisted that there was an “interior sensus,” something that “touches the individual’s emotions and, so, represented a rhetorical approach to understanding” (70). Wright points out that Valla believed the Scripture to transport the soul to a “loftier place,” even effecting proper exegesis. This was not Platonic though, for “like Luther, Valla did not confuse spiritual matters with eternal ideas in the mind, but rather understood scriptural truths as a reality, separate from the mind, which affected the will and the heard” (70).
Wright’s concluding paragraph on Valla displays how significant all of this is for understanding Martin Luther:
It is clear that Valla developed a new rhetorical philosophy, which was based on his humanistic epistemology. It is important to note that Valla’s beginning point was epistemological. Words were actions in God and in humankind. It was trhough the Word that people understood God’s revelation (God’s Word was His action), and people created their understanding thereof through words. But, in addition, with this epistemology, he prepared the way for Luther by promoting a Pauline understanding of Scripture, the mystery of predestination and free will, and the emphasis on appealing to the heart rather than the intellect.
Wright follows Valla with a brief look at the Italian Neoplatonists. Of these, he specifically interacts with Ficino, Pico, and Giles of Viterbo. Each of these men engaged in a synthesis of Christianity and pagan philosophy, with Pico even venturing into Cabala. Intriguing as each of these men are, none play any significant role in Luther’s intellectual formation. Wright also mentions the critics of these men, but these too are minimally influential for Martin Luther. What they did manage to do, however, was increase the skeptical climate to which Luther would emerge and, with Valla’s lead, offer a solution to skepticism in the Word.