Discontent with the increasing wealth and unchecked corruption of the Roman Catholic church helped to interrupt and eventually break down the stagnant worldview of the Dark Ages, and the long slumber of free inquiry slowly began to end. For the first time in a thousand years, investigations into the nature of things could be directed without clerical tampering and the threat of heresy.
Consequently, astounding discoveries further undermined Church-authorized explanations. With heliocentrism, Copernicus not only demolished the notion of cosmic order, which had dominated for a thousand years, but he also succeeded in ejecting human beings from their privileged position at the center of the cosmos and left them whirling through space on an insignificant clump.
We celebrate the Renaissance for uncovering new horizons and its role in giving shape to the modern world, but the period also inaugurated many of the various miseries which are ingredients of the modern experience. The celebration of humanism, individualism, and rationalism also brought with it increased suspicion and secularization. This trend frightened the Catholic theologian Donoso Cortés, who anticipated if left unrestrained, growing skepticism would result in the abolition of all authority, to anarchy and finally to the total collapse of all civilization. While the increasing wealth of Europe helped foster innovative thinking, it also cultivated a new venality, stimulated corruption and violence, and brought misery to thousands living in minor states where Machiavellians feuded for political and economic advantage.
For the hoi polloi there was no such thing as the Renaissance, because just like in the past, they were preoccupied with the same banal struggle for survival that had preoccupied the lives of their ancestors – doubtless a struggle made more difficult by decaying myths and traditions. Given the anxieties which absorbed many, it wasn’t surprising that many distinguished Renaissance personalities had an eerily dark vision of the future.
Many examples in the art and literature of the period presented a fixation with death and meaninglessness and confirm that the disappointing human condition was still a fascinating theme. Peter Breughel’s Blind Leading the Blind demonstrated the stupidity of man and the indifference of the universe, while his Netherlandish Proverbs captures the foolishness of the world.
Leonardo da Vinci, the quintessential Renaissance man, was obsessed with the vision of an apocalypse in which no one would escape an agonizing death. In several of his plays, William Shakespeare pondered on the emptiness and futility of existence. And everywhere throughout Europe were seen representations of the danse macabre, complete with skeletons ogling at the living and ridiculing them with death.
*Nothing new under the sun