Fr. Ted of Fr. Ted’s Blog has just finished an excellent series of posts on theories of evolution and their implications for the Christian understanding of humanity; the series is also available in PDF here. I highly recommend giving it a read.
Unfortunately, the popular imagination tends to view the Renaissance as a “rebirth” of knowledge and the arts after a “Dark Age” of barbarism and ignorance; this common view, however, as with most popular imaginings, is about as far from the truth as one can get. On the contrary, the Renaissance was not a break with the Middle Ages, but was the culmination and, finally, the apex of the great Medieval synthesis of the Judaic with the Greco-Roman within the context of Christianity.
It is well known by now that the Italian Humanists differed from their Scholastic rivals less in essential doctrines than in stylistic predilections, forms of presentation, and classical mentors. Medieval Catholic thought had long made its peace with Greek logic and psychology, and the view that there was any hostility between medieval thinkers and the pagan classics (Christianly interpreted, of course) is a figment of some modern imaginations. To a certain extent Humanism was Scholasticism without the complexities and subtleties; hence the main interest of the Humanists was in simplification and purification of “barbarisms.” Similarly the elaborate care with which the Scholastics, in particular Thomas Aquinas, had reconciled Aristotelian classical philosophy with Catholic doctrine had its influence in the fact that the Humanists, for the most part, simply took it for granted that there was no conflict between Catholicism and the classics; that the latter were pagan in form but Christian in content; that the Greek mythology and pantheon might legitimately be employed as a vehicle for expressing thoughts about Christian holy persons and saints. Furthermore, on the crucial moral question of the capacities and potentialities of man, the Humanist notions of man as a microcosm and theories of ethical freedom rested on the same metaphysical foundations as the orthodox views of man’s place in the scale of being and his capacity for continuous regeneration; Scholastic emphasis on free will and its rationalistic-moral approach to psychology were matched by both Stoic and Neo-Platonic schools of Humanist thought.
Charles Edward Trinkaus, Jr., The Renaissance Philosophy of Man, pp. 148-9
Barzun’s swan-song, which consists of 800+ pages of historical information, interesting quotes, anecdotes, insights, and reflections, is the literary equivalent of sitting at the feet of a great master and venerable elder. The wide swath of knowledge encompassed in this book, including such varied aspects of Western culture as ballet, opera, Dadaism, mystery crime novels, and hippies, and the balanced bird’s eye view and authoritative approach taken to each is indicative of the long life (now over 100 years) of a penetrating and curious mind.
Barzun’s style throughout the book is nearly conversational as he discusses the various topics, people, and ideas we encounter along the way. He takes us down side trails that connect seemingly disparate elements of culture, such as Bach and the rise of National Socialism or street gangs and Andy Warhol, bringing together facts that are normally compartmentalized, separated, and sorted, and giving us, throughout, his own knowledgeable assessment. And, in the end, he offers us his thoughts on the current state of Western Civilization, what we have become and what he believes will become of us.
For all of this, I think any attentive disciple (that is, reader) cannot help but whisper “thank you” as he closes the book, even after a second or third read of it, and to wish, hope, and pray, no matter the odds against, that Barzun could have another 100 years.