Review: Heretics and Heroes: Ego in the Renaissance and the Reformation

Heretics and Heroes: Ego in the Renaissance and the Reformation
Heretics and Heroes: Ego in the Renaissance and the Reformation by Thomas Cahill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As has become the norm with his Hinges of History series, Cahill offers here an engaging and informative look at the Renaissance, the Reformation, and their impact on subsequent history. The modus operandi with Cahill’s books in this series is to look at the various figures and ideas which populate a particular era through fresh, even if often judgmental, eyes and to look for those ideas and institutions in the modern world which they worked to inspire. He has done this rather well in all of the previous volumes in this series and does not fail to do so here.

He examines the great figures of the Renaissance, focusing especially on the artists with a few honorable mentions for philosophers (Petrarch and Erasmus, for example) and discusses how their Platonic outlook and passion for learning worked to create not only some of the most beautiful artwork in the history of the world but a distinctive Western culture. He also examines the ideas of certain of the Reformers, focusing especially on Martin Luther as the founding figure of Protestantism, and how this movement led to the great modern focus on individualism as well as the more communal movement called nationalism.

The great flaw of this book, as with Cahill’s previous volumes, however, is that he tends to view people as either heroes or villains (the title of this particular volume should be enough to suggest as much). Ignatius Loyola is a villain. Martin Luther is a hero. Petrarch is a hero. The popes are almost always villains. Etc. Not only is this tedious, it is only fraught with danger. Complex individuals, as all individuals are, are cast into a constricting mold which removes their complexity and therefore their individuality. When Cahill encounters someone so complex as to entirely defy even his attempts to thus categorize them, he seems tense and unable to discuss them in any meaningful way altogether, as with John Calvin in this volume.

Aside from this flaw (and it is a significant one), this is a fine basic introduction to an important period in the history of Europe and its effect on those (that is, us) who have followed in its wake. If you are interested in Renaissance and/or the Reformation, I recommend this volume, but with plenty of other supplementary reading alongside it.

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