What a piece of work!

Hamlet: What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason,
how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how
express and admirable, in action how like an angel,
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world, the paragon of animals—and yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust?

Continuing from yesterday, it is important to note that religious sentiments did not suddenly cease to matter. In fact, as Newton illustrates, many of the greatest minds – scientific and otherwise – looked for ways to incorporate this new paradigm (bounded always by the orthodox views of the time) that placed humanity as but a speck amidst a universe of unimaginable immensity. While the Renaissance is commonly thought of as a reawakening of interest in Ancient Greek and Roman learning, what that means in real terms can be seen through an examination of painting. The shift from medieval iconography to Renaissance shows a dramatic change in interest in the human form. In the former, human beings are two-dimensional and indistinct – a medium for the theological principle. Renaissance artists are still using the religious theme, but the greater appeal is now in the detailed, three-dimensional human being – the “reality”, if you like, of the figures rendered.

Medieval crucifixionPietro Cavallini (1259 – c. 1330)

Renaissance crucifixionMatthias Grunewald (c. 1470 – 1528)

Because of our abiding self-interest, even if our preeminence in creation couldn’t be supported by the universe’s design in itself, surely the inherent nobility of the human form could substitute? Add to that the emerging sense of human capability as evidenced through the burgeoning arts in general, as well as rapidly advancing scientific discovery, and a revised picture of human value begins to emerge. Proof of God’s favour can be found in our obvious superiority to all other created things. Alone among the creatures of the world, we can reason and examine and, most importantly for the development of technological humanity, we can PROGRESS.

This sense of possibility found concrete realization in the Industrial Revolution and in many other spheres of activity, especially the scientific. Rather than being stuck with a mysterious and unknowable universe – a reflection of God’s inscrutability – human beings, through science, were unlocking “mysteries” with increasing speed (something that continues to accelerate in certain ways in our time). So even if our central place in creation had been undermined, mounting evidence suggested we were still at the top of the creator’s creations, to put it one way.

Such self-confidence was being challenged, by writers and thinkers alike, as the realities of urban life in factories and other consequences of rapid industrialization were becoming evident. Charles Dickens is the name most associated with critiques of this era but he certainly wasn’t alone. Two more “paradigm shifts” are especially important in the midst of all this, though: evolution and Freudian psychology.

The first one, considering how it can still manage to be contentious among fundamentalist religious groups, is easy to grasp. Human beings, for the most part, had never thought to question the fixed nature of themselves. Even without the religious element to support the idea, humanity’s inherent ascendancy over all other things was clear. However we managed it, who could question that human beings were, in some way, qualitatively superior to all other living things? And then along came Darwin suggesting that we were simply the top of a rather elaborate food chain, nature’s fortunate winner of the natural selection sweepstakes, you might say. To go from God’s image to the best ape nature could fashion in the course of 400 years or so couldn’t help but be a blow to the collective ego.

So what was left? At least we had the primacy of reason, of the mind. We were conscious beings who could fashion our destinies with forethought, hard work, and education. And then came Freud, providing another undermining of the self with his suggestion that we were not as “in control” as we thought. In fact, we, and our actions, were, possibly, no more than the product of unseen urges and forces at work within us of which we might not even be aware. It wasn’t enough that the world and everything outside of us was becoming increasingly unknown; that same mystery now extended to us. In essence, as a species, we were becoming the living embodiment of the old saying “the more you know, the more you realize how little you know.”


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