In the last two articles, we explored the origins of nominalism in an obscure medieval controversy, and the sharp break it represented with past traditions in philosophy. The prior model of knowledge had been based on mathematics, where definitions, deduction, and a priori reason yielded certain knowledge. The certainty of knowledge arrived at through these means created secure links between God, the individual, and the world—the very opposite of that nihilistic abyss that so preoccupies and distresses modern thinkers. That abyss was created, Gillespie argues, not in the time of Nietzsche, but in the time of William of Ockham—which is to say, not in the nineteenth century, but in the fourteenth. It was created, in his view, by nominalism.
Nominalism insists on the radical individuality of all things, as against the rationalistic view that places them all within a type. The primary attributes of the nominalist God were volition and omnipotence, where the rationalistic view of God emphasized reason and omniscience. Nominalist theologians held that all of creation was an arbitrary display of God’s power, and hence genuinely knowable only by God, who was under no obligation to his creatures. Such a God could not be bound by any human category, including notions like “goodness,” “love,” and “justice.” Such a God could have very different notions of what those terms meant, and, being God, could admit no right of appeal from his creatures. Where the rationalist God was knowable through such categories, which had exactly the same meaning for human beings (at least the philosophical ones) as for God, the nominalist God could not be known through reason, and thus became distant, arbitrary, terrifying. The elimination of categories as real entities existing in the universe was no merely intellectual matter. According to Michael Allen Gillespie, it created the modern conception of self.
To see one instance of the shift involved, let’s consider the ancient conception of humanity. Aristotle defined human beings as the “rational animal.” What he actually said was “life that has speech,” and the connection between the original and the translated term is revealing. For Aristotle, speech implies reason. But it also implies community. To speak is to speak to someone, and since speech and reason are approximately equivalent, you can’t have reason outside of a community. Thus the “rational animal” is also the “political animal,” for all communities have to make decisions, and thus have politics. To be a human is to be a member of the polis, to be a citizen. The Stoic philosophers later expanded this notion to one of world-citizenship. Their ideal human is not the loyal member of the city, but the loyal member of the human race. But the operative metaphor is still one of formal community, of citizenship. Augustine later transferred this notion to his concept of the “two cities”: the city of the world, and the city of God. The citizens of the city of the world live according to its laws, and those of the city of God according to God’s.
Throughout antiquity, right up to the Renaissance, to be a human is to be a citizen, however that citizenship is construed. The community comes first, the individual second. I think we can see a parallel between this conception of humanity and the rationalist position outlined earlier. The rationalist believes in the reality of types, of categories. For the rationalist, the type takes precedence over the individual. The individual as individual does not exist—rather, the individual exists as the collection of categories to which they belong. The individual passes away, but the categories persist, and, on the rationalist conception of knowledge, it is what doesn’t change, what doesn’t come into or go out of being, that has reality.
In the time of the Renaissance this conception of humanity was challenged, Gillespie argues, because nominalism had undercut the reality of the categories that were supposed to define what a human being was. With no categories, each human became, not a member of a category, but a unique, self-authorizing individual. To know the individual meant not to know to which types they belonged, but to know them as individuals, in all their transient uniqueness. It was Petrarch, the father of the Renaissance and of humanism, who first taught us to think of ourselves in this way.
For Petrarch, human beings are, like God, primarily volitional beings. They are restless, aspirational, striving, and that striving defines them. But this does not mean that they should follow their whims or live a disorganized life. Rather, it means that they can only discover how they ought to live through self-examination. The great mistake of life would not be to fail to live up to a transcendent moral code, but to fail to be what one really was and should have been. "Each person," Petrarch says, "whether saint, solider, or philosopher, follows some irresistible call of his nature." Thus a thorough self-examination is the beginning of knowledge.
The great obstacle that we face in our quest for self-knowledge is other people, the community (or, less charitably, “the crowd.”) Other people press in on us with their desires, demands, opinions, hopes, and fears. They try to make us what they think we ought to be. In order to understand who we are, to acquire real self-knowledge, we have to put some distance between them and us. Petrarch advises a retreat into private life. It should be said right away that this is a very aristocratic conception of the good life; it presumes the means and leisure to simply choose to not be involved in the everyday hassle of earning a living. Not everybody has this, of course, so Petrarch thinks that the good life is not for everybody, and cannot be.
This is another important break with the past, and in a sense, a return to Greek and Roman antiquity. Aristotle did not think that the good life was for everybody either. It was for the citizens. What enabled one to be a citizen was, in the first place, wealth, because it was wealth that secured one’s ability to contribute to the community, whether by contributing to its prosperity in peacetime or to its defense in wartime. In a modern military, the state provides the training and equipment. People don’t have to purchase their own fighter jets in order to join the air force. But in the military of the Greek city-states, one had to bring one’s own equipment. You couldn’t be in the cavalry if you couldn’t afford a horse. If all you could afford was a sharp stick, then that’s what you went into battle with. So your ability to contribute to the defense of the city was proportional to your wealth, which, in turn, brought proportional rights within the city. As a matter of not just convention or convenience, but of law, the wealthier you were, the more rights and privileges you had. The “good life” was thus not an abstract, but a concrete concept for the Greeks. It meant, in the first place, a life of wealth and leisure, and only then, and only for the philosophically inclined, a life of study and contemplation, such as Aristotle lived.
Christianity had marked an important shift in emphasis. “Blessed are the poor.” “Blessed are the meek.” Jesus had been, from the point of view of the Roman aristocrats, a peasant nobody, and the cruel and degrading manner of his execution was deemed appropriate for low-class criminals. Christianity was very much a lower-class, urban phenomena before the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in 325. There was only one pagan emperor after Constantine, so it became prudent and fashionable over the succeeding generations for upper-class Romans to convert. In this way, Christianity spread both upward from the lower class and downward from the upper class of Roman society. Christianity certainly did not abolish class inequalities in the Roman (or other) societies, but by attributing divinity and ultimate authority to a peasant nobody, it subverted the class ethos of the ancient world.
Petrarch’s preference for private life—the life of study and contemplation, which alone afforded one the opportunity to find out who one really was, and thus to pursue one’s true goals and values—represented a reversion to the older, aristocratic ethos. It was a very long way away from the Christian ideal of the martyr, or the monastic who takes a vow of poverty.
Art is therefore divine in two respects: it imitates God in the creative act, and it provides a means of knowing God through the symbolic representation of truth.
Nominalism is also apparent in another aspect of the Renaissance, pioneered by Lorenzo Valla: the veneration of art. Because human beings are, like God, primarily volitional beings, they must create. They do so in order to express themselves, and also because it gives them pleasure. Art does not need to be justified by something outside of it—the creative, self-expressive act is its own justification, for beings whose highest good is the realization of their own true nature. Further, a God who is infinite cannot be grasped through rational argument, or through a formula. God can only be known through symbol and allegory—in other words, through art. Art is therefore divine in two respects: it imitates God in the creative act, and it provides a means of knowing God through the symbolic representation of truth.
Petrarch’s humanism is optimistic in its orientation to life. Provided you have the means and leisure to make a really thorough self-examination, or to learn the skills of poetry, sculpture, or art, there is no reason you shouldn’t be thoroughly at home in this world. It has often been said that Christianity is an other-worldly, life-denying religion, where humanism is this-worldly, and life-affirming. Nietzsche is perhaps the most well-known expositor of this point of view. His contempt for Christianity, as inculcating a “slave morality” of humility and kindness, as against a proper, Greek “master morality” of dominance and self-expression, has persuaded many people. But this criticism only focuses on one aspect of Christian theology. It is true that Christian theology contains a doctrine of the fall—the assertion that the world, and life, are not as they should be, but marred by sin and human depravity. That is one side of the equation. The other side, which is neglected by this argument, is that of the Imago Dei. According to this doctrine, human beings are made in the image of God, and can therefore participate in God’s divinity. In practice, this has meant different things for different intellectuals. For Aquinas, it meant the ability to know nature by grasping the divine reason. For Valla, it meant the ability to imitate the divinity through art. For some contemporary, mainline Protestant theologians, it means life in community.
Renaissance humanism strongly emphasized the doctrine of the Imago Dei as against that of the fall, and thereby arrived at a this-worldly concept of Christianity. Today, humanism has no necessary reference to nominalism or to God, and often seems most at home in a secular context. It perhaps seems strange to suggest, as Michael Allen Gillespie has argued, that it has a theological and a nominalist origin. But it seems to me the connections are there. A thousand commercials, posters, and self-help books tell us to “be ourselves” and to “reach our full potential.” We are not supposed to compromise our principles, just because they are ours, because they are expressions of our very being. The notion that somebody else can tell you what is best for you is regarded, by many people, as intrinsically repugnant—only you can know what is best for you, and “find your own way.”
All of this presumes the radical individuality of being—that your quality as a person, not your membership in a race, gender, class, religion, or any other kind of group or category, is what counts. The existentialist quest for “authenticity” is but a more recent manifestation of this same underlying, nominalist impulse. In the humanist vision of life, each of us is a miniature of the long-forgotten God of nominalism, a being composed not of reason and stasis, but of will and motion. Like the nominalist God, we are always free to change the terms of our engagement with the world, and with each other. We are always free to reinvent ourselves, and thus terrifying in our unknowability.
This essay is part of a series; the previous essay can be found here.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the History of Science and Technology. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.