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Northern Renaissance Writers

Among the Northern Renaissance writers and philosophers, Erasmus was the finest critic, while François Rabelais was its richest and warmest thinker. His thought was the great French contribution to the movement. He was one of the century trio of geniuses, as Montaigne and Bacon were his contemporaries.

Northern Renaissance Writers - Rabelais
François Rabelais

Montaigne was the skeptic, the founder of Modern Skepticism. He was also the critic, who, knowing neither fear nor limits, applied to life and the universe the same acute discernment, which Erasmus only applied to institutions and ideas. Bacon, the first English master of scientific method, saw that he who would learn must start from fact and build upwards instead of deducing knowledge from preconceived theory. With his Inductive Method he inaugurated a new era in the study of phenomena and in metaphysics.

If Bacon was the most inventive philosopher of the epoch, Rabelais was the most imaginative of the Renaissance writers. Rabelais said: "Wisdom cannot enter an unkind spirit, and knowledge without conscience is the ruin of the soul." "We establish sovereign good," he says," not by taking and receiving, but by giving with both hands. There is only one thing that I dislike, and that is contempt of the commonplace."

Rabelais, like Erasmus, was an escaped monk. Like Erasmus, he became the secretary of a prelate, the literary Cardinal Du Bellay, and accompanied him to Rome. Unlike Erasmus, he became a doctor, and an apostle of positive science. He was the first man in France to brave the Pope by dissecting a corpse, an heretical experiment considered to interfere with the resurrection of the body. His double life, a rebel monk and a doctor, gave him a new vision of the universe.

After thirteen years, Rabelais left the monastery, disgusted with the monastic ignorance and immorality. Still in his monk's dress, he journeyed southward, enjoying the life of tavern and roadside. He wandered in France for six years, he studied at the Universities, he learned dancing at Toulouse and medicine at Paris. He lectured at Montpellier, he practiced there as doctor of the hospital, he dissected at Lyon. Here, in 1532, his Pantagruel was printed. His massive philosophical fantasia, which took nothing seriously but Truth and God, created an epoch.

Utopias were in vogue in his day, and it is interesting to place side by side the three best-known examples: Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, Rabelais' Thelema, and Bacon’s New Atlantis. That by Sir Thomas More, the social philosopher, author and statesman, is the most classical and the most spiritual, with its belief in a kind of aristocratic socialism. The Atlantis is the most scientific and intellectual, founded upon Christianity, but more truly upon a Christian theory approved by reason than upon a living faith from within.

It is Rabelais who puts a heart into Nature, who brings a sense of the artist's religion. He declares the interdependence of soul and body. His Utopian cloister for men and women fulfils his hopes for the world.

Michel De Montaigne, the first Essayist (1533-1592), presented the world not with new thought, but with old thought looked at by a new thinker. His Essays, first published in 1595, under the guise of easy talk and anecdote, were the exposition of a philosophy made up of elements apparently inimical. Montaigne was both Epicure and Stoic. Eat and drink, he said, for to-morrow you die, but eat and drink wholesomely, and die with dignity. Life is not happy, it is interesting.

Montaigne lived according to his creed. He spent his most fruitful hours with his books, in the tower he built for himself as a refuge from the disturbances of domesticity, in the famous library where he had collected the works of the Ancients he loved.

Northern Renaissance Writers - Francis Bacon
Sir Francis Bacon

He invented the Essay, and used this new form to tell us more about his habits, and tastes. He may also be said to have invented the art of autobiography, the taste for personal detail, which began the modern era and foreshadowed modern psychology.

Sir Francis Bacon, 1st Viscount Saint Alban (1561-1626), was the first critic to make discovery the principal goal of science. His quest was "the inquiry of Truth, which is the love-making or wooing of it; the knowledge of Truth which is the presence of it; and the belief of Truth, which is the enjoying of it . . . Truth, which only doth judge itself."

The complete edition of his Essays appeared in 1625. His "Advancement of Learning" appeared in 1605, and his "Novum Organum" in 1620. This is his chief book, the setting forth of his great Inductive method. And then there is his greater unfinished project, the "Instauratio Magna", a survey of the whole of knowledge presenting the world with a systematic classification of all sciences.

He was a Renaissance man. He ordered music in the room next to that in which he meditated. He had flowers and herbs scattered on his dining-table, "to refresh his spirits and memory."

Among all Renaissance writers and philosophers, Bacon speaks with the tongues of men and of angels, in a style which is the voice of Truth made musical, a style of classical descent.

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