The Magazine

Remains of the Day

A post-mortem on the 'great five-hundred year Humanist experiment.'

Jun 1, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 35 • By CHRISTOPHER BENSON
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The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, another painting by Holbein, plots "humanism's first step, to destroy the authority of Christianity." Depicting Christ as a dead man rather than a resurrected Savior, "Holbein hit the central nerve of humanist thought, and with it every member of the modern West. No one can escape the elongated, bony middle finger of Holbein's Christ as it collapses downwards onto the stone slab--the new world is empty of authority. Mortality rules." To stave off this "death worship," Cervantes introduces Don Quixote, a heroic knight whose action is possible only through "a sizeable dose of unreal fantasy."

The Protestant Reformation chastens the humanist heroes. Against the intrepid knight, Luther argues that "free choice is a pure fiction." No man controls his destiny because God determines his comings and goings, similar to "the metaphysics of Greek tragedy." Luther's doctrine of sola fide is multi-pronged, designed to impale the "nihilistic humanism" of Holbein and Hamlet, the so-called Christian humanism of Erasmus, and the Roman Catholic doctrine of works. Against the grandeur of the gentleman, Calvin offers "a vision of the littleness of the human, in contrast with the harsh magnificence of God." The pilgrim emerges as a "counterideal to that of the Renaissance." What characterizes him is "the darkness of faith where neither law nor reason shines," the fearlessness of death because, to use Luther's expression, "death killeth death"--the crucified Christ overcomes "the thrall of the skull."

If the Protestant Reformation was a "demolition from the north," the Alternative Reformation was a demolition from the middle, specifically France. Carroll focuses on the painter Poussin. Along with three Italian predecessors--Donatello, Raphael, and Caravaggio--Poussin extracts the best of Protestantism to assault Catholicism, notably the doctrine of potestas clavium (the power of keys) which "put into the hands of the Church and its priesthood total control over salvation." Carroll describes Poussin's paintings as visual representations of sola fide. For instance, The Plague of Ashdod presents an allegory of a chaotic, diseased town whose only hope of renewal is from an outsider--a young boy who bears the gift of order and grace. If the town is the Church of Rome, the boy is the Alternative Reformation, breathing new life into the archetypal story of Jesus.

Part two addresses the middle acts of the story, which begins with two artists who explore "the immediate post-Reformation trials of humanism." For the secular trial, there is Velásquez and his painting Las Meninas, "the first direct representation in Western culture of the artist as a great man, the free, world-conquering individual." Here the artist is equal to God and king, advancing the Protagorean boast, "Man is the measure of all things." For the religious trial, there is Rembrandt and his painting The Sacrifice of Isaac, a test that determines whether the principle of sola fide is absurd. Here "Luther's darkness of faith is too intimidating and even the greatest of men, the father of faith, could not bear up."

After these trials, a "bourgeois fusion" emerges, "an attempt to integrate the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation by forming a composite-character ideal of gentleman and Puritan." Vermeer and Bach herald this bourgeois fusion: Vermeer with his paintings that depict the "home as sanctuary" and Bach with his music that wrestles "bourgeois consciousness away from the profanely worldly, and onto the journey of the suffering, but immortal soul." Carroll regards this period as "the most stable and enduring of the humanist offspring," with its major contributions to education and parliamentary democracy. But alas, the flower fades.

Humanism was "a parasitic form" from its inception, Carroll astutely observes, feeding off the strengths of Catholic, aristocratic, and Protestant cultures.

As the bourgeois fusion itself began to disintegrate there was one last attempt to revive humanism, by two polarized schools. One, the Enlightenment, reverted to a narrow, hard-core humanism stipulated on a deified reason; the other, Romanticism, stakes its individualism on trying to invest passion with sacred status.