The core principle of Renaissance humanism was man as the ‘living image of God’ (imago viva Dei), with the capacity to be a ‘human god’ and a ‘second creator’ (capax Dei). This was best expressed in a founding text of the Renaissance, Dante’s Divine Comedy.
On the way to Paradise, Dante’s pilgrim symbolically assumed both crown and mitre, the power over things temporal and spiritual.1
Rather than a passive acceptance of the existing order as inevitable, Dante’s work heralded a revolutionary new-found belief in man’s ability to shapethe world for the betterment of mankind.
These were the revolutionary ideas that inspired Nicholas of Cusa, Gemistos Plethon, Erasmus and Thomas More, amongst many others, providing the intellectual groundwork for the flowering of art, culture, philosophy and political ideas that had the potential to lift mankind out of bestiality and into a deified realm. They shared a worldview that reached its apogee with More’s Utopia.
If the core principle of the Renaissance was the unique ability of man to effect change upon the world, then its polar opposite was the determinist philosophy of Spinoza, the Karl Marx of his time. With such a philosophy, Spinoza led what is popularly known as the Enlightenment revolution, but which was, in reality, as I have described elsewhere, the Counter-Renaissance.
Rooted in Judaism and Lurianic Kabbalah, Spinoza’s core principle was that the best man could hope for was to understand necessity and adapt to it.
Spinoza did not consider human reason to be an autonomous capacity. Taking a lead from Luria’s writings, there is but the One, Ein Sof, or as Spinoza referred to it, the Substance, or God. The roots of such belief are Judaic. There is no room here even for Christic-Judaist modifications to the Substance in the form of the incarnation and concept of the Trinity. Human beings are but individual modes of the oneSubstance.
Consequently, any notion that man has an autonomous, creative, imaginative capacity is but a dangerous aberration that manifests itself in the evils of the world. It is to be likened to a state of exile (a predominant Marrano metaphor), from which there will ultimately be a return.
‘Return’ to a Marrano meant a state of affairs in which the status and privileges of the exiled Jews would be restored within a trading world unhindered by sovereign states.
This return to the One in Lurianic Kabbalah was described as the process of Tikkun.
In reality this meant the shackles of Spinozist determinism and the death of the self, a consequence laid bare in the empiricism of Spinozist JohnLocke.
To embellish Marx’s words - all that was sacred about Renaissance humanism would be profaned.
Indeed, for the Marrano Sabbatai Zevi, Tikkun would take the form of outright profanity against accepted norms of behaviour.
Think of Spinozism as the Marxism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
For the young Fichte of his student years and others of his generation, Spinozism was the radical philosophy with which to over-topple monarchist absolutism. Just like the Marxists a century later, having insight into the necessity behind the events to which others were blind permitted one to enter a ‘masonry’ of brother intellectuals, the future governors of the world.
To have history on one’s side was a thrilling source of intellectual strength, which also pandered to the arrogance of privileged minds.
All that stood between the people and the application of the demands of necessity was absolutist sovereignty. This was fated to fall at the hands of the French revolutionaries and Napoleon.
And the young Spinozist Fichte too was at the intellectual barricade, that is, until Sarpi’s ‘Republick of Merchants’ began to emerge from the clearing smoke.
1. Dante, ‘Purgatorio Canto XXVII:115-142 Virgil’s last words to Dante’, The Divine Comedy,
© John Dunn.