Homocentrism is that philosophical tendency which centers itself upon man as a finite subject who dominates his own history. According to an influent albeit antiquate historiographical position which traces back to J. Burckhardt, Renaissance is the age of homocentrism and of first individualization of singular personalities with flourishing characters par excellence.
Heritage and Rupture with the Tradition
Commonly contrasted with theocentrism, homocentrism as tendency of thought and action denominates those philosophical and theological conceptions which are grounded on a preeminent consideration of men, in reference to whom every theorical and practical perspective is referred: “homocentrism is that discursive formation which centres itself upon man as a finite subject who dominates his own history” (Lemert 1979, p. 16).
During the Renaissance in particular, the centrality of men as active and transformative force distinctively emerges as never before. Renaissance philosophy on the whole can be said to be anthropological as such, since its main interest is always centered in the pivotal role of man, both as individual and as mankind. In what has been often called the “manifesto of the Renaissance,” Pico della Mirandola advocated the human capacity of being artifex of own destiny and fortune (Oratio de hominis dignitate, 1486; Garin 1994). “Renaissance philosophy… transfers the Promethean power of giving form ever more to the individual subject; the activity of the individual is even juxtaposed to the activity of the Creator and to that of the Saviour” (Cassirer 1927/2000, pp. 108–109, in reference in particular to Boccaccio but also to Pico, Cusano, Ficino, Bruno, and others).
Renaissance has been regarded not only as the age of emergence of homocentrism but also of the development of the individual character. The historiographical origin of this old conception can be found in the seminal work Die Cultur der Renaissance in Italien by Jacob Burckhardt (1860) and in particular in its famous chapter on The development of the Individual. He identified the cause of that fortunate conjunction in the deliverance that took place in Italy from the political constraints of the medieval and feudal age, in beneficial patronages of the arts and literary otia pursued by the tyrants and lords of the time, and finally in the exceptional nature of men endowed with polyvalent genius and free personality. “In Renaissance Italy – Burckhardt maintained – an objective treatment and consideration of the state and of all the things of this world became possible; the subjective side at the same time asserted itself with corresponding emphasis; man became a spiritual individual [geistiges Individuum], and recognized himself as such… then arose the “all-sided man” – “l’uomo universale” – [e.g., Leon Battista Alberti, Benvenuto Cellini, Leonardo da Vinci]. In Italy at the time of the Renaissance, we find artists who in every branch created new and perfect works, and who also made the greatest impression as individual men” (Burckhardt 1860/1878, pp. 70; 73).
Along these lines, according to Federico Chabod, uninhibited “individualism” in practical philosophy (e.g., Machiavelli, Guicciardini) and politics (e.g., Francesco Sforza, Lorenzo de’ Medici, Cesare Borgia) should be intended, together with artistic “realism,” as one of the most representative traits of that “reality of the spirit” that we call Renaissance. The discontinuity in respect to the Middle ages on these issues did not regard their presence, common to both periods, but rather the attitude with which they were pursued, now not necessarily religious in their intentions. In fact, “realism and individualism, as love for glory and imitation of ancient culture (cf. Borinski 1919, pp. 20–21), were accepted also in the Medieval life, but just as particular steps for a higher purpose; on the other hand, in the Renaissance times those attitudes were pursued freely, as an end in themselves” (Chabod 1948, p. 79). Renaissance historiography, for example, started to describe the evolution of events neither as the realization of a divine unknown plan nor as the fight against the contrivancies of evil but rather as the fruit of the determination of human will, the immediate author of all actions and choices. Also art and poetry started to be made for the glory of men, in primis the poets and artists themselves and possibly their patrons, before than for the glory of God. The fading away of the previous collective religiosity in favor of a new self-centered humanism was recognized as due to the fact that in the European history, between the fourteenth and the fifteenth century, aggregating global forces as papacy and the empire collapsed in favor of the formations of fragmented national states and local feuds. As in Burckhardt’s view, it was the political fragmentation that inevitably triggered social individualization.
Other historians have emphasized the inner aspect of Renaissance homocentrism, since apparently “the early Renaissance – again largely through Petrarch’s example and the resuscitation of Augustinian considerations, invents the notion of the inner self” (Kirkpatrick 2002, p. 126). Renaissance homocentrism and the development of an unprecedented notion of inner self has been related also to the rise of autobiographical writings or private memories in secular literature (coupled with the invention of the printing press), so as to the spread and use of personal mirrors, now possible because of improvements in the glassmaking manufacturing (MacFarlane and Martin 2002, pp. 70–72).
Burckhardt/Chabod’s interpretation of Renaissance homocentrism has been criticized at length, as anachronistic, bourgeois, and unaware of the social framework in which the process of individualization actually took place. For example, Baron counter-emphasized the civic involvement and the intellectual engagement in the governmental life that always accompanied those men that were first of all citizens of their epoch and members of political societies (Baron 1969). For others, the Renaissance self should not be taken as the voice of an expressive independent individual but rather as a contingent product of its time, which is always a result of social, economic, and political forces that shape and mold its identity. For, “fashioning oneself and being fashioned by cultural institutions – family, religion, state – were inseparably intertwined […] indeed, the human subject itself began to seem remarkably unfree, the ideological product of the relations of power in a particular society… [being] not an epiphany of identity freely chosen but a cultural artefact” (Greenblatt 1980, p. 257).
Therefore, from an operational point of view, “the Renaissance self seems suddenly more complex than we might at first suspect. And yet, if we are to understand the Renaissance, we need to know… at least something of how Renaissance men and women viewed themselves; how they constructed, experienced, and understood their identities” (Martin 2004, p. 4).
However the parabola of Renaissance homocentrism was descending since different issues contributed to its progressive decline. Among the motives for the de-centering of the self-referentiality, we shall certainly count the new astronomical evidences and in particular the Copernican shift of the Earth (and its inhabitants) from the center universe, the unprecedented anatomical-comparative studies that questioned the exceptionality of the human body as such, the explorative intercontinental voyages and the discovery of other-than-Western civilizations, and last but not least the finding of new animal species, and of anthropomorphic primates in particular, that challenged the scholastic fracture in the “chain of being” between human rationality and morality and what was believed as mere animality (Baricalla 2000).
Nonetheless still today, as a Western tendency that in fact roots in the Renaissance and remerged strong during the Age of Enlightenment, “anthropocentrism, the belief that humans enjoy special, central, even cosmic significance, lives as present in everyday thought as an attitude toward other animals and the environment generally” (Butchvarov 2015, p. 1; cf. Guervich 1995).
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