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Change, in the Western Renaissance

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This essay does not propose an exercise in historiography. Though it presents evidences of difference with respect to what may be “medieval” or “Renaissance” or “Enlightenment” values, its end is not to elaborate clear periodicity in Western history. It argues that historical and cultural changes are cumulative and that positive change, as opening to a future, is recognized experientially in terms of a certain perdurance of the past. It has little to say about well-studied Renaissance developments—the Reformation, advances in technology and cosmology—in favor of important cultural shifts that have been somewhat less emphasized: Petrarchan humanism as a balance between the idiosyncratic and the sacred, history as ideally an “heterology” (M. de Certeau), syncretism as the instantiation of temporal “recursion” (Giambattista Vico), the evolution of Western Christian icons, missionary propaganda and doctrinal pluralism, new balances between faith and reason—including the possibility of “things indifferent” (Richard Hooker), irenism, and the early discourses of human liberty. What follows also responds to a unique scholarly context—the June 2014 Beijing conference on “Time and Change in China and the West.” Specific points are adduced here in the light of contemporary tensions and dialogues between the West and China; brief references to Machiavelli and Bacon are especially apposite to that Beijing context. This paper—synthetic of necessity—concludes in the terms of how the eighteenth century philosopher Giambattista Vico looked at the Western Middle Ages and Renaissance, that is to say, at his own, immediate past.

Affiliations: 1: Italian and Comparative Literature, Boston


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