Infinity, Faith and Time: Christian Humanism and Renaissance by John Spencer Hill

By John Spencer Hill

This article is an exploration of Renaissance literature and the significance of a strong culture of Christian-Platonist rational spirituality derived from St. Augustine and Nicholas of Cusa. John Spencer Hill argues that this practice had a formative function within the considered Renaissance writers by means of permitting them to assimilate into their international view important discoveries of the Renaissance - that the universe is countless and that human existance is certain and controlled by way of the passage of time.

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Copernicus was a conservative and his postulation of a heliocentric universe in place of a geocentric one - a deduction from mathematics, not observation - is presented with what now seems a strangely apologetic timidity. He makes no effort to challenge Aristotelian physics in a systematic way and, in fact, continues to accept most of its essential features. The universe of De Revolutionibus, like that of De Caelo, is spherical, eternal, unique, and finite - a circumscribed, hierarchical structure of concentric spheres bounded by a stellatum of fixed stars.

Nothing is in vain," Thomas Traherne would say, "much less Infinity. Evry man is alone the Centre and Circumference of it... It is the Eternal and Incomprehensible Essence of the Deitie ... 3). Perhaps Traherne was recalling his Cusanus. It is not surprising that the sixteenth century, an age of Utopias, should have found another in infinity. Unlike Cusanus, however, sixteenth-century infinitists were rhapsodic literalists for whom the material heavens were, in the end, largely their own reward.

From 1660 to 1700, the professed intention of English science was to accommodate reason to faith, to employ rational inquiry not to supplant but to supplement revealed truth. 8 "The tribute of praise that we owe our Maker," said Joseph Glanvill in 1676, "is not a formal slight confession that His works are wonderful and glorious, but such an acknowledgment as proceeds from deep observation and acquaintance with them" (quoted in Westfall 47). The motto of these English virtuosi might have come from De Docta Ignorantia: "understanding is guided by faith, and faith is increased by understanding, 37 Rational Spirituality and Empirical Rationalism [and] where there is no sound faith, there is no true understanding" (Cusa4 149).

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