Lucien Febvre committed conceptual harm with his still too influential 1982 volume, “The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: The Religion of Rabelais.” Febvre made the flawed case for denying that systematic atheism was impossible before the end of the 17th Century. He argued that people did not have the conceptual tools to develop a lack of belief in the Christian god any earlier than the end of the 17th Century. He dealt with the fact that accusations of atheism were being brought against people during the Renaissance by alleging that such accusations were: “… insults rather than accurate descriptions.”
Febvre’s theory is not salient. We shall see how he contradicted his own theory in a later work. During the era he described, there were accusations of atheism leveled against suicides, people who did not believe in witchcraft, and people believed to be immoral and/or physically self-indulgent. Should contemporary thinkers accept the claim that just because people of the Renaissance and Reformation had not yet developed probability theory, it followed they were not aware of probability? That is Febvre’s position. But betting and games of chance were quite popular during those times, just as they are today. The people who engaged so fully in such pastimes had to have had some awareness of probabilities. Febvre’s argument can be reduced to a claim without much evidence.
It has also been alleged, by Febvre and others, that the insults of atheism hurled against people were merely insults, with no specific meaning of the word, “atheist”. But Nicholas Davidson makes a cohesive argument that people of that era used a number of representative words as insults, and not exclusively the word, “atheist.” Davidson uses an excellent example from the 1533 Venetian Council of Ten who warned their officials in Verona that the friars of S. Fermo, who they claimed had engaged in many “filthinesses” with the Magdalene nuns, that “…do not want to live under the rule of their founder, but as sons of iniquity… as Epicureans and Lutherans.”
It is important to keep in mind that the Greek philosopher, Epicurus, who founded his school in Athens around 306 BCE, was not technically an atheist. But his well-known interpreter, Lucretius, was one. Lucretius’s Epicurean poetic work, “The Nature of Things,” from the first century BCE was widely available to the intellectuals and the educated people of the Renaissance. (For an extended discussion of Lucretius’s atomism, and his impact on the Renaissance, please see “How Atomism and Lucretius Made the Renaissance Modern: An Atheist Perspective” at AtheistScholar.org.)
As Davidson states, nobody would now suggest that in the 16th Century, the word, “Lutheran”, referred to something that did not exist, even if inaccurately used. The use of the word, “atheist,” during the Renaissance era, surely indicates an awareness of the possibility of serious unbelief. Davidson points out that the word, “atheist”, had to have some sort of agreed meaning.
It is well known that Renaissance theologians argued against atheism. I am using the term as it is used in the modern sense as meaning no belief or an absence of belief in god. Church apologists in early modern Italy wrote and circulated what many historians describe as all the “arguments necessary for a fully developed atheism.” In fact, Paul Kristeller has made the suggestion that religious authors had come up with arguments against atheism that might have helped atheists form their thinking concerning non belief. Perhaps the necessity to refute Christian theologians served to crystallize the thinking of non believers.
Davidson and other scholars point out that all the different ideas linked to atheism by skeptical thinkers of the Renaissance were likely to appear in “any systematic denial of god’s existence.” Those ideas included a rejection of belief in a non-material creator. There was rejection of the authority of the Christian bible, as that volume speaks about the act of creation by a god. Other ideas linked to atheism during the Renaissance included doubt about the independent existence of any spiritual beings, as well as disbelief in the human soul and of an afterlife. If any of those ideas had been completely absent, the development of atheism would have been impossible, but we know that all those positions were in play during the Renaissance.
A minor argument attempted by a few thinkers who would deny the existence of atheism during the Renaissance should be mentioned, although it is not a salient one. Such historians make the claim that any atheism from the Renaissance is a regressive one. They attempt to dismiss atheism during that era because it references classical philosophers of the ancient world, such as the aforementioned Epicurus. There can be no difference or dismissal of Renaissance atheism even if it was influenced more by ancient thinkers rather than scientific discoveries. One might as well dismiss modern philosophies which have been influenced by classical thinkers. It was atheism that was embraced by the non believers of the Renaissance, no matter what the source. However this paper will discuss the most recent research that demonstrates that new scientific and navigational discoveries had significant influence on thinkers of that era.
Another difficulty with discovering the existence of atheism from Renaissance history is the obvious fact that to have been outspoken about non belief in any Christian doctrine was to invite torture, confiscation of property, imprisonment, exile or death. In 1647, Torquato Accetto quite openly recommended an “honest dissimulation” for the wise men who knew the truth but were also aware of the necessity for silence. He was not the only intellectual who recommended such a course. Tactics of reserve and of silence were well known in the Renaissance. It is impossible to doubt that silence served atheists and doubters well, which makes it even more difficult to find open statements of atheism from that era.
There were some Renaissance intellectuals and even some common people who doubted many doctrinal and traditional beliefs about god, creation, immortality, the divinity of Christ, biblical authority and Christian morality. According to Davidson, there were enough people who doubted all such Christian beliefs to make up a quiet community. The existence of that community of dissenters and the writings concerning unbelief from that era show that all the materials were available to allow a fully formed atheism to develop.
There is the account of one Italian non believer, a famous one, who expressed his atheism openly. Giulio Cesare Vanini was born in 1585 CE, and later educated by Jesuits and then at the University of Naples. Vanini joined the Carmelite Order in 1603, and achieved a doctorate in law around 1606. He lived in Padua in 1608 and then preached in Venice around 1611. However, in 1612, rumors that he was unorthodox reached the Carmelite General.
Vanini wisely left Venice and moved to England. He kept on the move after that, never in one place long enough to become enmeshed with the Church authorities. In 1614 he was in Flanders, then Paris, Liguria, Lyons and Toulouse. Two books were published at his death, one in Lyons in 1615. The second book, “De admirandis”, published in Paris in 1616, is of the most interest. It was written in dialogue form, between “Alexander” and “Julius Caesar”, the two famous conquerors of the ancient world. Both characters are clearly identified with Vanini himself.
Vanini’s break with orthodox theology is very clear in his second volume. He asks the same questions being debated in the society of the time between atheists and theists. He asks how an immaterial god could create a material world. Then he makes the claim that nature worship is the only true worship. He states that matter is eternal and mocks the doctrine of Christian creation. He states that non-material beings, such as ghosts, demons, spirits and the immortal soul are non-existent.
Vanini writes that religions such as Christianity are fictions that priests and rulers invented to secure their power. He states that miracles that appear to be caused by prayer have natural explanations. He believes that immorality is caused by illness or diet. He was finally apprehended in 1619, and burned to death in Toulouse at the age of thirty-four. Did such a thinker lack the conceptual tools to become a non-believer?
There was another open atheist in Italy at that time. Although he did not leave any known writings or books, his sentence by the Venetian Inquisition in 1577 and his prior confession were published in 1580. Here is what the prisoner, Capuano, stated in his confession. He claimed that he believed that the world was created by chance, that Christ was the adopted son of the Madonna, born as other men. Capuano said that he did not believe in angels, demons or witches. He did not, he said, when asked if he were an atheist, believe that god existed. He believed the only law to be obeyed was the law of nature, that Christian miracles were actually natural occurrences, and that the entire Old Testament was a superstition.
There were other men with similar views, such as Monsignor Gaspar Varella, Francesco Vimercati and Cesare Cremonini. The three men were suspected of having been influenced by the classical philosopher, Aristotle. Simon Simoni was likely an atheist, as was Paolo Sarpi, who was excommunicated in 1623. Sarpi and Antonio Foscarini were both believed to be the heads of “atheist companies.”There was the apostate Franciscan, Francesco Calcagno, who was sentenced to death in 1550 for saying that god, the soul and immortality did not exist.
A very interesting case was that of a Florentine exile, Pietro Strozzi. He was a cousin of Catherine de Medici. Strozzi fought with the French military forces from 1536. He became a chamberlain to the King of France, colonel general of the infantry, general of the galleys, and commander of the French forces in the pay of Sienna. Strozzi commanded Paul IV’s troops against the Spanish in 1557. According to Davidson, Strozzi was also a well-educated mathematician, who translated Caesar into Greek, and who was a collector of books and antiquities. As he lay dying in 1558, he renounced god and denied there was immortality.
There were cases of atheism among some of the common people, those who were fairly well educated and who some scholars have called advocates of “popular atheism”. There is some question whether non belief had filtered down to them from the intellectuals of the time. The Inquisition seemed to believe that atheists had always been influenced by other non believers.
But there were some cases where common people confessed that they had arrived at atheism through reflection. As Davidson states: “It was possible for individuals to piece together a patchwork philosophy from sometimes contradictory forces: some written, some verbal elements that matched their circumstances or conformed to their own prior conclusions were adopted, and the rest were discarded. The final pattern was original, though the component parts may well have been second-hand.”
It is obvious that Febvre was wrong, that Renaissance (1300- 1700 CE) and Reformation (1517- 1645 CE) atheism was both conceivable and actual. Without doubt, there were various sources that influenced the educated and sometimes the uneducated, beyond personal reflection. Ancient authors had been discovered by Renaissance scholars before 1500, science was slowly making some small headway in the culture, and there were growing alternatives to monolithic Catholicism.
The brave people I have written about were open about their atheism and paid a high price for their candor. It is not within the realm of possibility that they were alone. There were many others who had the same doubts that sometimes resulted in atheism. Those men (and surely some women) held their tongues and are lost to history. I believe that despite the so-called lack of probability theory, there is no doubt that atheism existed during the periods of the Renaissance and Reformation. Those early atheists did not need that conceptual tool to come to the conclusion that god did not exist.
I have more points to make against the arguments of Febvre and Alan Charles Kors, another advocate of the belief that atheism was non-existent in the Renaissance and Reformation. This paper will spend some time with the history and development of Febvre’s thought in order to detail how it developed and then contradicted itself.
The original issue of the Febvre volume was first published in 1942. An earlier critic, Abel Lefrance, had stated in his 1922 introduction to Francois Rabelais’s 16th Century volume, “Gargantua and Pantagruel,” that Rabelais was a militant atheist. But when Febvre wrote a refutation of Lefrance’s position, his aim was much more extensive than a simple rejection of Lefrance.
Half of Febvre’s 1983 volume, “The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: The Religion of Rabelais”, is devoted to a detailed refutation of Lefrance’s opinion on Rabelais. But Febvre was most determined to demonstrate the error of reading the opinions of a critic’s time into those of earlier eras, such as the Renaissance and the Reformation. He believed that certain ideas, such as atheism, only became possible after the scientific revolution and the 18th Century Enlightenment.
A cautionary restraint against anachronistic readings of earlier works is always in order. But Febvre went much too far with his claim that people of the 16th Century did not have the necessary conceptual tools to express, or even think, anti-Christian ideas. As D.P. Walker argues, such a thesis is very fragile and vulnerable. It is easily refuted by the number of vocal atheists that have been shown to exist during that era. Anti-Christian ideas were present and expressed in the 16th Century.
Atheism was existent and expressed as well, either covertly or overtly. It can be assumed that given the risk of voicing any opinions contrary to official Church doctrine, such expression of anti-Christian and atheist theories were the tip of the iceberg. As has been mentioned, there were some writers who condoned or advised the telling of “lies” or engaging in subterfuge when writing on dangerous topics.
In fact, as D.P. Walker aptly points out: “Febvre soon refuted his own thesis by publishing a 1942 study of “Cymbalum Mundi”, an anonymous 1537 work which Febvre took to be radically anti-Christian. In his study, “Origene et Des Periers ou l’enigme du Cymbalum Mundi,”(Paris, 1942), Febvre made a much different argument from his earlier one concerning unbelief in the 16th Century. He contended that the anti-Christian arguments of the 2nd Century CE writer, Celsus, refuted but also extensively quoted by the Church Father, Origen, in his 248 CE “Contra Celsum”, provided the necessary philosophical framework and terminology for the anti-Christian writer of the “Cymbalum Mundi.” He believed the author of that so-called anonymous work was Bonaventure Des Periers. I shall be returning to the “Cymbalum Mundi” question again in this paper.
D. P. Walker cites two other strong refutations of Febvre’s original position that there was not enough intellectual framework for there to be atheism in the 16th Century. I have mentioned Lucretius’s “De rerum natura” from 1st Century Rome and my paper on that work at AtheistScholar.org. Lucretius’ great Epicurean work was discovered and circulated by Renaissance collectors and scholars. Those scholars were aware of Epicurean atomism.
Walker points out that the skeptical work of the 2nd Century Sextus Empiricus was known to Renaissance writers of the late 16th Century. Sextus Empiricus was a proponent of ancient skepticism. His work was sometimes incorrectly used by Church Fathers to defend Christianity from philosophical attack. But his writing was more often employed to demonstrate the irrationality of defending dogmatism in all forms. It is odd that Febvre would not have used ancient skepticism to strengthen his own argument. At the same time, he omitted the fact that Renaissance thinkers were well-acquainted with Epicurean atomism through Lucretius’s work.
Febvre’s style is a mix of rhetorical questions, dashes and so on, which makes for colorful reading, but also allows for making bold assertions without making use of the accuracy of historical fact. The first part of his book is not completely incorrect. Rabelais was not an atheist, but a humanist Christian influenced by Erasmus or Malancthon.
It is important to discuss Febvre’s inaccuracy in the second part of his volume at some length because of the inordinate influence his book has exercised on views of Renaissance unbelief and atheism. What is most astonishing about such views is Febvre’s own book , a study of the 1537″Cymbalum Mundi”. I mentioned Febre’s study of “Cymbalum” earlier in this paper. Laurent Calvie has discussed the importance of “Cymbalum”. Calvie explains that it was nearly three hundred years later that scholars began to understand the importance of the work, which was composed of four written allegories. The allegories and anagrams, published anonymously in Lyons, France in the style of Lucian, an ancient satirist, ridicule all beliefs and religious forms of knowledge, both Catholic and Protestant.
The Queen of Navarre was the patron of the probable author, Bonaventure des Periers. When his atheist volume was published, she publicly disavowed the man who had acted as her valet de chambre, but continued to help him privately until about 1541. Francois I requested that the book be condemned and it was apparently set on fire almost as soon as it was published. Bonaventure’s name was never mentioned at the volume’s trial.
The publication of “Cymbalum” created many bitter enemies for its author. After enduring years of bitter poverty, Bonaventure was said to have literally fallen on his sword and ended his life in 1544. Note the year of “Cymbalum’s” publication, 1537, and the immediate hostile response to it by the intellectual, scholarly, religious and political quarters of the time. The book’s contents were understood to be a threat to religion. Jean Morin was arrested because he published the book, which did not reappear until a re-edition in 1711.
The “Cymbalum Mundi” is the work which confounded Febvre and about which he wrote. It is difficult to comprehend why scholars refer to Febvre when incorrectly arguing that radically anti-Christian ideas were literally “unthinkable” in the 16th Century. David Gregory regrets that Febvre did not read Tullio Gregory’s excellent 1979 book on the mid 17th Century treatise, the “Theophrastus Redivivus”, which was openly atheistic and anti-Christian. Its author claimed that all the great philosophers had been atheists.
A.C.Kors, the author of the 1990 ” Atheism in France, 1650-1729″, was acquainted with the “Theophrastus”. He did acknowledge that there was one exception to his claim that there was no atheism until the early 18th Century. Since the “Theophrastus” is undeniably an atheist volume, Kors dismissed the author as an isolated figure who had plundered ancient classics for various atheist arguments and had nothing new to say. Such a position has all the earmarks of a canard.
Tullio Gregory’s brilliant volume on the anonymous “Theophrastus Redivus” is in thorough opposition to Kors and Febvre. David Wooton points out in his essay,”New Histories of Atheism,” that Gregory set out to display what the author of the “Theophrastus” had read. Gregory found that many of the anonymous author’s sources were classical. That was to be expected.
But the “Theophrastus” writer was also clearly acquainted with early 17th Century writers who were widely believed to be unbelievers.
Some of the authors he had read were Machiavelli and Vanini, the skeptics Montaigne and Charron, and philosophers who denied the immortality of the soul, such as the 15th Century Pietro Pomponazzi. In his book, Gregory brilliantly reconstructed the library of an atheist. The “Theophrastus” author’s collection of books was made up of the same volumes that important theologians agreed were read by atheists. Wooton states: “The “imaginary” atheist of the theologians corresponds perfectly to the “real” atheist.”
Gregory demonstrated how the “Theophrastus”author extracted the core of the atheist arguments from those volumes, ignoring the conventional remarks and pieties in them which were written as a cover for irreligion. Many of the writers, such as Vico and Sarpi, were considered irreligious in their own time and there is manuscript evidence that demonstrates the authors had radical views concerning religion which they did not dare to publish. The author of “Theophrastus” read those early 16th Century authors correctly when he read “between the lines.” The contemporary reader is correct when she does so as well.
The fact that atheism existed in Italy from 1500 to 1700 CE is impossible to ignore or deny. It is also impossible to ignore the cross cultural exchanges between Italy, France, England, the Netherlands and many other nations during that time period. This paper will continue to discuss atheism in Italy, but it is important to keep in mind that England was quite aware of the frequent occurrence of atheism in Italy during the Renaissance and Reformation.
Roger Ascham was the tutor of the young Queen Elizabeth I. In 1551, he reported that in Italy: “…a man may freely discourse against what he will against whom he list: against any Prince, against any government, yea, against God himself and his whole religion.” In the early 17th Century, a scholar stated that Italy was “… a land of pox, poisoning and atheism”. Such allegations are insults and exaggerations about Italy, but the fact that atheism did occur in that nation during the Renaissance and Reformation cannot be denied.
Now I would like to turn to the question of atheism in England during the Renaissance and Reformation. One hears or reads at lectures, in articles and in books, that there was no true conceptual apparatus for people of that time to arrive at an atheistic stance. I have quoted two of the leading scholars who helped spread that misleading idea.
I am gratefully indebted to George Buckley’s 1932 volume, “Atheism in the English Renaissance,” for my sources. Buckley painstakingly studied the drift of atheist writers and ideas from Italy and France into England. He also perused non belief brought about as a reaction against the warring religions in England. Buckley then studied various writings and documents by atheists or descriptions of such non believers by other writers. It is impossible to deny atheism existed in England during the Renaissance and Reformation when so much was written and spoken about it in reaction against it.
Englishmen of learning were not unaware of the revival of classical work that was taking place in Italy and France. Buckley has found that one of the favorite books of the Renaissance was the natural history of Gaius Plinius Secundus, which was reprinted three times before 1600 in England. Pliny stated unequivocally that there was no god, unless it was the world itself. He believed that since we are born more helpless than beasts, there could not be a beneficent, all-powerful god watching over us. He recognized the expediency of religious beliefs for political purposes in a state.
I have already discussed Lucretius’s 1st Century “De rerum natura.” Lucretius was an advocate for Epicurean philosophy. Both Epicurus and Lucretius were surely agnostics, and Lucretius was likely an atheist. Both of them wrote of atoms making up all matter and natural laws . There were vigorous replies to Lucretius by such notable intellects as Sir Philip Sydney and Sir John Davies.
The doctrine of the immortality of the soul was denied by many classical writers as well, such as Cicero, Lucian and Plutarch. Translations of such works were available in the England of the Renaissance and Reformation. The Fourth Sermon of Hugh Latimer was preached before Edward VI in 1549. Latimer referred to a “wicked man” who had died in 1539, who he claimed did not believe in the immortality of the soul.
In 1551, Ralph Robinson’s translation of Thomas More’s 1516 “Utopia” was published. More stated that one of the main principles of Utopian philosophy was belief in the soul’s immortality. Robinson put in a marginal note which claimed: “The immortality of the soul, whereoff these dayes certine Christians be in doubt.” Although such reports of people denying the immortality of the soul are not proofs of atheism, it is impossible to deny that such questions and such doubts were existent. The religious were already opening verbal battle against the non believers.
In 1559, Gabriel DuPreau’s “Nostrorum temporum calamitas”contained a denunciation of those whom he claimed were the numerous unbelievers that doubted the existence of god and his Providence. It is necessary to keep in mind that god’s Providence was an important concept in the Renaissance, particularly the belief that god governed as a loving creator or father to humans, and that he worked all things for ultimate good.
There were other religious authors who continued the verbal battle against those who denied many aspects of religious doctrine. Geveran wrote in 1577 against atheists in his work, “Of the End of This Worlde”, saying: “…men which neyther believe there is any god or divine providence at all.” There were also frequent denunciations of atomism. Theodore de Beze’s “Job Expounded” in 1589 complained: “Who knoweth not the wicked opinion of the Epicures attributing all things to the concourse or meeting of their small motes which they call Atomi.” Thomas Lodge wrote “Wit’s Miseries, and the World’s Madness” in 1596. He denounced what he called the devil, Blasphemy. He stated that : “…this devil says there is no god if you talk of Divine justice.”
John Davies’s Mirum in Modium (1602) tried to demonstrate god’s Providence against the claims of atheists who stated there was no god. In 1605, Thomas Tymme warned against the Epicures, of whom he said: “…acknowledge no other god but nature”. The first part of a 1601 “Treatise concerning Policy and Religion” assailed those who were atheists, “… who denie that there is a god.” The famous poet and cleric, John Donne (1572-1631), gave a sermon reproving those who claimed that: “…naturall accidents are matters which would fall out as though there were no god.”
The reigning theology of the day was Calvinist theology, not only in the Anglican Church, but in the universities and among those educated people who did not scoff at the notion of god. Calvin and the skeptical thought of writers like Montaigne, the author of the 1580 “Essays”, ironically assisted with forming the idea of a distant god. Montaigne (1533-1592) wrote that it was a great vanity for man to guess at god or god’s nature. His work contributed to the idea of an inaccessible deity. Calvin (1509-1564) stated that god was an invisible divinity, “… whose wisdome, power and justice is incomprehensible.” Calvin and/or Montaigne’s thinking were the ideas adopted by most of the educated people of the time. Elton states that men such as Francis Bacon (1561-1626) emphasized piety, but adopted empiricism as their practice. The idea of an invisible, distanced deity encouraged the empiricism of the Renaissance.
Denial of the soul’s immortality can be traced from Aristotle, through the Paduan School of Pomponazzi in the 16th Century, through France and finally to England. Additionally, the works of Machiavelli (1429-1527) and his philosophy spread through England and created reaction against them by 1580 and after. The cut throat and devious politics of the era that preceded “The Prince” (1513) and “Discourses on Livy”(1531) rivaled any account Machiavelli could make of them. But while the writer of “The Prince” revealed a non belief that seems mild to a modern reader, it was revolutionary in its time.
Machiavelli was writing about the realpolitik of his time. He asserted that it was not necessary for an effective ruler to be humane, charitable or religious. He counseled that rulers would do well to appear religious and he cautioned concerning religious appearance:” . . . he (The Prince) ought to pretend to more than ordinarily because men do judge by the eye.”
Looking at certain papers of a Cardinal Pole reveals his conversation with the head of the English Church, Thomas Cromwell, in 1528. Cromwell was sounding Pole out about the question of King Henry VIII’s divorce. Pole wrote that Cromwell claimed that kings had a right to use the names of religion and other virtues to attain their ends, as long as they did not display open unbelief in religion or truth. Pole did not receive a promised copy of “The Prince” from Cromwell, but he obtained one of his own and found it “satanic”. People were reading, or reading about Machiavelli’s works, as references were made to them in statements and letters of the early 16th Century. Such testimony confirms that educated people were familiar with Machiavelli and that some blamed him for the spread of atheism in England.
Another factor in the rise of unbelief was the fierce rivalry and spread of various religious sects during the 16th Century. There were the popular Anabaptists, The Family of Love, the Unitarians, the Brownists, the Puritans and so on. They were important because their various belief systems challenged and questioned the dogmas of the established state religion. The dissenters were called atheists by their opponents but most were not atheists in the modern sense of the word. Atheism as understood in some quarters during the 16th Century might mean denial of the Trinity, the immortality of the soul and other rigidly held traditional beliefs. But the varied opinions among the warring sects helped create a climate of skepticism in which active denial of god became possible for some thinkers.
George Buckley is correct when he states that finding definitive statements of English atheism during the 16th Century is very difficult. I am of the opinion that we do not easily find such statements from atheists of that era because it was extremely dangerous to voice denial of god’s existence. It must be kept in mind that a skeptic or non believer could be tortured, imprisoned, burned at the stake or hung. A person’s property could be confiscated as well, leaving spouses and family impoverished. It was mainly people who belonged to a dissenting religion who felt obliged to express and suffer for their beliefs.
But does it seem likely that the English churchmen of the Reformation would so strongly assail atheism, and by atheism, I mean the atheism that we contemporary thinkers embrace- that there was no god- unless they were afraid of actual, not imagined, atheism? Does it stand to reason that the hard-headed churchmen and the religious writers and thinkers of that era would thunder against miasmas? It is quite possible to learn a great deal about atheism in England by perusing the attacks on atheists.
The reaction against atheism came from churchmen, intellectuals, writers and poets. Buckley notes that readers are led to infer the existence of two groups holding atheist opinions. He has identified one faction as the literary men of London, the majority of whom came from the universities where they had learned about the writings of Machiavelli and been exposed to other irreligious thought. He states that the second group was termed the “London Epicures,” apparently made up of political hangers-on, petty criminals and the general riff-raff, all of them unprincipled, that live in any large city.
The defenders of religion in England accused atheists of denying immortality, denying the immaculate conception, denying the Providence of god, denying the Trinity and denying the divinity of Christ. A few of those writers provided “proof of god” and excoriated those atheists who believed the world was created by chance, as Lucretius had claimed, or that it was eternal and not created at all, as Aristotle (384 BCE- 322 BCE) believed.
But of all the writers inveighing against atheism, we have one of the clearest descriptions from the father of modern science, Francis Bacon. Bacon was a philosopher and of a religious turn of mind. He believed a small, incomplete study of science might end in atheism, but that much scientific study would bring a man back to religion.
Bacon dealt with atheism briefly, but succinctly, in his “Meditationes sacrae” of 1597. The volume was a collection of Bacon’s essays. One of them was titled: “Of Atheism.” He took as his opening text: “The fool has said in his heart there is no god.” He identified a complete atheism. He did not accuse people as atheists who were followers of Machiavelli or Lucretius, or who denied Christ’s divinity or god’s Providence. Bacon emphasized that “the fool said in his heart there was no god”, a description of atheism as it is understood in the present day. Bacon’s stated belief that a study of science was conducive to atheism was the first time anyone in England had claimed such a fact. The observation had added force coming from Bacon, who knew more about science than anyone else in England at that time. He did emphasize that a complete study of science would provide conviction that there was a god, thus emphasizing that belief came with thoroughgoing knowledge.
There is additional proof of atheism from a self-confessed atheist on his death bed, Robert Greene. Greene was one of a group of Cambridge University men who sprang into literary prominence after 1590. In his repentant 1592 “Groats-worth of Wit”, Greene was quite explicit. He addressed the famous English playwright, Christopher Marlowe, in that piece. We shall take up the question of Marlowe’s atheism later in this paper. Greene said to Marlowe: “Wonder not, … thou famous gracer of tragedians, that Greene who hath said with thee, (like the fool in his heart), there is no God.”
Greene blamed reading Machiavelli and Epicureans such as Lucretius for his atheism. Buckley writes that Greene stated in another connection: “For my contempt of God, I am contemmed of men.” It seems logical to assume that others in the 16th Century believed there was no god but skirted the issue for fear of the authorities and possibly to protect their own reputation.
Very few writers who inveighed against atheism in England placed the blame for it on the discoveries of science and navigation, such as those made by Galileo and Magellan. Buckley concludes by saying that he does not regard the scientific discoveries of the time as a major source for religious incredulity in England prior to 1600. Contemporary writers and researchers do not agree with Buckley’s assessment. Before turning to Christopher Marlowe, and then to William Shakespeare, two important Renaissance playwrights, in order to assess what effect the new intellectual currents and the scientific discoveries of that era had on their work and thought, I would like to consider the influence of science on the growth of atheism in England.
I am very much indebted to Dan Falk’s 2014 volume, “The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright’s Universe”, for the following section of Atheism in the Renaissance. There were new scientific discoveries and ideas circulating in Italy, France and other parts of Europe that made their way into England during the years of the Renaissance and Reformation. England also had its share of fine scientists. Science existed contemporaneously with superstition. Astrology was popular as well as astronomy during the Renaissance and Reformation, as were magic and alchemy, the turning of base metals into gold. The Church decried all such superstitious practices but they flourished nevertheless.
It is impossible to make the claim that Shakespeare and Marlowe were not affected by the new ideas that were circulating or that they did not come into contact with such thinking. They moved in the social and intellectual circles where such scientific discoveries and secular thinking had to have been discussed. They were not ignorant men. I shall be considering the fact that Shakespeare had read Montaigne, the great French skeptic, later in this paper. Marlowe was a known scoffer, probably an atheist and certainly a double agent. Both writers moved in groups that would be more than aware of the new secularism creeping into England.
I would like to quote Paul Kocher: “Was it still possible to believe that god made the world for man? Here lay the great question for Christianity as the geocentric gave place to the heliocentric universe. It was a highly complex question demanding no simple answer. Man’s uniqueness, the quality of God’s moral government of the universe for human good, the possibility of miracles, the authority of Scriptures to teach truth about the physical world- these and many cognate issues seemed at stake.”
Copernicus, the 16th Century German mathematician and astronomer, formulated a model of the universe which differed from the accepted one of the time. Ptolemy, an astronomer who worked about 100 CE, had formulated a model which placed the earth at the center of the solar system and his was the standard prevalent for many centuries. Copernicus waited to publish his important volume, “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres” just before his death in 1543.
Copernicus’s great discovery was that the earth was not the center of the cosmos but that the Sun was the center. He explained that Earth and all the planets moved, and not merely moved, but spun. The cosmos began to be conceived as vast and some thinkers started to imagine the possibilities of other worlds. Copernicus was responsible for the beginning of the slow process of demonstrating the cracks in the foundation of the antiquated notion of the fixity and stability of things.
England was not ignorant of Copernicus’s discoveries. Thomas Digges (1546- 1595) wrote about a new star in the skies above England in 1572. Many people became interested in the new star and in Digges’s opinion. Digges decided that the parallax of the new star, or more accurately, the data gleaned from it, could determine which view of the cosmos, the Ptolemaic or the Copernican, was the correct one. He insisted that despite other claims, Copernicus had intended that his description of the solar system was meant to be a physical fact rather than a mathematical hypothesis. According to Falk: “… his (Digges) revised edition of the ” A Prognostication Everlasting” would go through at least seven editions before 1605, with an eighth published in 1626. Falk has established a strong connection between Shakespeare and the Digges family in his volume, “The Science of Shakespeare.”
The famous Italian scientist, Galileo (1564-1642), moved to Padua in 1592. It was in Padua he learned about an optical device that had been developed in Holland which made distant objects appear close by. Galileo set about improving the Dutch invention. He soon had an excellent scientific instrument, the telescope, which he first put to use as a military tool. When Venetian statesmen placed a telescope at the top of the highest bell tower in Venice, Galileo showed them they could recognize ships coming into port hours before their arrival.
But around 1609, Galileo turned his new invention to the skies. Some of his discoveries were disquieting. He found the sun and moon were imperfect, with dark spots. This contradicted the fanciful descriptions of them from antiquity. He discovered four moons that belonged to Jupiter and he found that Saturn appeared to be elongated. Galileo’s work was provided with a definite observational proof of its correctness. It could be regarded as a physical description of the universe.
Falk describes the “telescopic fever” which became a craze. England took up the new telescopic observation enthusiastically. The royal courts of many nations, the philosophers, and the thinkers, including Thomas Hobbes, the author of the secular and cynical 1651 “Leviathan”, began to buy Galileo’s 1610 “The Starry Messenger.”
The new discoveries were announced in 1610, but Shakespeare still had two more plays of his own to compose and several others to complete with John Fletcher. It would have been nearly impossible for Shakespeare not to have heard something about Galileo’s work. A few critics believe they have found traces of such knowledge in Shakespeare’s later plays. I am not attempting to make a case for the notion that the new ideas circulating in Europe were given a prominent place in Shakespeare’s creations. Some critics have done so, but there is a higher probability that the author’s plays were not a vehicle for the new ideas and discoveries. They were great works of a writer with sophisticated literary powers and prodigious creative imagination.
However, it would be unlikely for either Shakespeare or Marlowe not to have been aware of the advance of knowledge during their era. They could both read Latin, having attended English grammar schools. Marlowe was a Cambridge graduate. They both traveled in sophisticated circles and would have heard about the voyages of discovery and the new people that had never been mentioned in the Bible.
Beyond scientific and maritime discoveries, one must take into account the travels made by people, often literate and philosophic people, between countries, particularly between Italy, France and England at that time. Such voyages helped the spread of the new ideas. Among the travelers were religious dissenters who voiced their contrarian views and raised the church’s suspicions against them. Many thinkers who were heretics, or at the very least, potential heretics, took temporary refuge in both France and England. The Netherlands had a flourishing, and relatively uncensored, publishing industry which spread criticism of the Church and Church doctrine throughout Europe.
An important visitor to England was Giordano Bruno (1548-1600). Bruno passed through England in the 1580’s. He had been a Dominican monk and had attained the priesthood as well, but his heretical ideas forced him to flee his native land of Italy.
Bruno spent the next twenty years reading, writing proofreading, and teaching all over Europe. He spent over two years in England from 1583 to 1585. Bruno embraced the Copernican model and actually published two books defending it in 1584. He was invited to Oxford, already an important learning center, where he delivered a series of lectures on cosmology and philosophy. Some ridiculed his ideas, but others listened to what he had to say.
Bruno not only claimed that Earth was merely one of the planets, but that there were an infinite number of worlds similar to ours and that there was an infinite universe. He also accepted Lucretian atomism. Lucretius’s work, “On the Nature of Things” had impressed and deeply influenced him. Bruno was not an atheist, but his embrace of the heliocentric model and of atomism made him a dangerous heretic in the eyes of the Church. He declared that there were many atoms and that they existed in a state of endless flux. He did believe that god was “everywhere and unchanging”, an eternal world soul. He sometimes compared his idea of deity to the ocean.
Bruno’s views were considered most dangerous. His greatest error was to return to Italy. The Church promptly arrested him and eventually condemned him to death. He was burned at the stake by the Catholic Church in 1600. There is a large, brooding and impressive statue of Bruno in Rome, on the site where he was executed.
Shakespeare would surely have been aware of Bruno and Bruno’s ideas. An affluent Londoner with Italian roots, John Florio, became close friends with Bruno. While at a dinner party at Whitehall Palace, it was reported that Florio told the guests about Bruno’s theory of “multiple, inhabited worlds”. Florio had been a tutor to a patron of Shakespeare’s, the Earl of Southampton. There is little doubt that the playwright would have had some exposure to the ideas of Bruno, most likely on account of his connection with Florio and Southampton.
The new ideas, both scientific and philosophical, were circulated throughout Europe. Shakespeare and Marlowe were both engaged in the activity and the ideas of their time. They did not sit in lonely studies writing their popular plays all of the time. They were men of their era and the times were exciting. As we look more closely at the two playwrights we shall discover some of the contradictions and questions of the Renaissance and the Reformation were embodied in their works.
Christopher Marlowe (baptized 1564 – died 1593)
According to his biographer, David Riggs, Christopher Marlowe was born on the threshold of the modern theatre, before the words, “playwright” and “dramatist” had entered the English language. What had been a makeshift enterprise, with skilled actors but indifferent scripts and theatre goers who were new to plays, was transformed by writers like Marlowe.
Copernicus’s theory had begun to permeate England as Marlowe grew up. The playwright was born around 1564. This paper has already discussed Giordano Bruno, who was at Oxford and London while Marlowe was attending Cambridge. Bruno had famously stated: “God pervades the whole world and every part thereof… matter is an absolutely excellent and divine thing.” Bruno did not stop there. He went on to insist that “…we need not search for divinity removed from us if we have it near; it is within us more than we ourselves are.”
Marlowe gave the London stage great dramatic masterpieces in his short and turbulent life. Theatre goers saw and loved Tamburlaine the Great, Dr. Faustus, The Jew of Malta and Edward II. Marlowe was accused of being a spy, a counterfeiter, and an atheist. The first two charges have been fairly well established. The last important accusation is more uncertain. His own words exposed him as a denier of most Christian doctrine. I believe that he was an atheist.
Born into a relatively poor family, Marlowe was able to complete his education with a degree from Cambridge. During Marlowe’s university years, Calvin, the Protestant theologian, was read by every educated person. Although religion was solidly entrenched at the institutions of higher learning, there was an equal respect for the humanism of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds. Briggs explains that young scholars were exposed to what was called “the truth of religion and the pureness of the Latin tongue together.” But the hopeful desire that scholars would retain trust in religion was frustrated by the fact that bright young boys picked up the practice of emphasizing style at the expense of piety. There was a strong implication that the work of classical Roman authors was superior to the Scriptures.
Marlowe has been quoted as saying: “… all the New Testament is filthily written.” That remark was not quite as iconoclastic as it sounds. He had been trained to that view from about the age of ten. He went on to voice his poor opinion of Christ’s disciples. He said that “they were fishermen and base fellows with neither wit nor worth.” The supposed piety of the apostles made no difference to the educated Marlowe.
It should be emphasized that many of the books that Marlowe had been exposed to, even some of the pious ones, let scholars know that duplicity in matters of faith was “perfectly acceptable”. Calvinist theology assumed that the visible Church was available to all, the godly and the ungodly. It also assumed that only a few of the educated young men spoke from the heart. The rest of them might well be doomed to ‘everlasting’ torment for their ‘dead faith.’ There was a general acknowledgment that lack of faith or sincerity was acceptable if not spoken aloud or written and shared.
The future Archbishop of Canterbury admitted in 1574 that the Church was quite full of “hypocrites, papists, atheists and other wicked persons.” The prelate elaborated on his statement with more descriptions of those undesirables, saying they were “…drunkards, dissemblers, whoremongers and so on.” Riggs states that the prelate seemed to have “… no misgivings about this state of affairs; it was just the way things were in the corrupt, post-apostolic Church.”
Elizabeth I made certain that some types of Protestant ritual observances were made legally exclusive. She and her councilors were rigid about matters of outward observance, but very tolerant of inward belief or doubt. Francis Bacon, the essayist and scientist, applauded the queen for her temperance. He thought that it had a down side, however, as he was convinced that atheists must be cauterized from society in the end. But Bacon accepted the “Don’t Ask; Don’t Tell” position of the Queen. Atheists were regarded as a public menace, so most people who disagreed with Church doctrine were publicly silent. Christopher Marlowe was one of the few exceptions.
When the playwright graduated, he was in competition with many other university graduates for paid positions as religious ministers. There were less and less “livings”, parsonages where ministers were paid, and more and more graduates who were competing for them. Marlowe had to find money to live on and relatively stable employment. He gravitated to the theatre.
Marlowe wrote “Tamburlaine The Great, Parts 1 and 2,”in blank verse around 1586-1587. According to Riggs, Tamburlaine was the first public exhibition of an unrhymed English line that merited comparison with the classical hexameters devised by the classical poets. Tamburlaine is the story of a man who is self-created. He rises from a Sythian shepherd to conqueror, burning territories and killing scores of people to achieve his great height. The play raised religious questions. It is often linked to Renaissance humanism, which placed great emphasis on human potential. But the overreaching of Tamburlaine and his immorality made for confusion concerning whether he was a hero or anti-hero. Such ambiguity created moral and religious difficulty for pious viewers, but the play was popular with Renaissance audiences.
Dr. Faustus (1589) was based on an earlier tale, a popular story made use of by many writers. In his plot, Marlowe conveyed the penury and difficulty that scholars underwent despite their great learning. He was an expert on the subject, as he was a victim himself. The play is written in blank verse and it is the story of a scholar well-versed in the law, logic, science and theology who remains unsatisfied and turns to Mephistopheles and Lucifer. The scholar conjures both devils from Hell by making use of the “dark arts.” He agrees to have twenty-four years on earth with Mephistopheles as his personal servant and with the magic arts at his command. But he must give his soul to the devil at the end.
Although Faustus is portrayed with much the same ambition as Tamburlaine, the overreaching of a man attempting power over reality, this play is ironic about humanist ambition. It is also an interrogation of Calvinist ideas of predestination. Faust does nothing worthwhile with his power, playing practical jokes and conjuring up Helen of Troy. He does not repent at the end, and is torn apart by devils.
The Jew of Malta (1589) is another dark comedy, with the title character as a Machiavellian figure. The Massacre of Paris (1593) is most likely a reminder and a warning about the threat Catholics were to Protestants. Marlowe based the play on the 1572 St. Bartholomew Day’s Massacre of Huguenot Protestants by Paris Catholics.
Edward II (1592) is a very homophobic drama. Marlowe was accused of being gay and it is very likely that he was inclined to men. What is most interesting about the play is the change that had taken place in Marlowe’s work over a period of several years. The writer had moved from depicting a protagonist who was overreaching and triumphant to one who became a victim. Some critics have seen Marlowe’s own sense of cultural and religious difficulties reflected in Edward II’s victimization.
It is known that Marlowe had many tribulations. According to his biographers, he had likely been a counterspy for some time by 1592. Perhaps his activities had begun while at Cambridge or shortly thereafter, as he needed money to live on. The history of religious spying and counter spying during the Protestant Elizabeth I’s (1533- 1603) reign reveals a culture that was engaged in activities that were byzantine, convoluted and impossible to adequately sort out. It is a sorry tale of people pretending to be Catholic or Protestant spies or sympathizers in order to gain the confidence and admissions of people and then turning them in to the authorities.
Many highly placed people in Elizabeth’s court, such as Francis Walsingham, paid such counterspies, released them when they were arrested and were not able themselves to ascertain if such spies could be trusted at all. Marlowe was almost certainly a counterspy. David Riggs’s biography of Marlowe follows the twisted paths of Marlowe and his colleagues as well as can be expected, given the secrecy and deception surrounding them.
Marlowe turned up in Flushing in 1590-1592. He lodged there with Richard Baines, another counter spy, and with a goldsmith by the name of Gifford Gilbert. The three men began to turn out counterfeit money, using the goldsmith’s expertise. They had just begun to circulate it when Baines, their confederate, betrayed the other two men to the authorities. When arrested, Marlowe and Baines each accused the other of not only counterfeiting but of being Catholic spies. There was a Catholic plot afoot in the low countries, so there remains the suspicion that Marlowe and Baines had been sent there by the English government to flush it out. When Marlowe finally returned to England, he went free, and it appears was neither pardoned or punished.
By May 9th, Marlowe was arrested once again for making threats against a constable and a beadle. Just two and a half years earlier, he had been tried and acquitted on suspicion of murder. He was a contentious man, as was his father and most of his family. The circumstances around the playwright’s death, which was most likely murder, are again byzantine and shadowy. The play houses of London were closed for a time by the Privy Council in 1592 because they were believed to be a public menace. All sorts of harlots, con men, pilferers and so on hung about the playhouses hoping to gain some profit. With the closing of the playhouses, Marlowe needed money more than usual.
Rumors of Marlowe’s atheism were widespread. Earlier in this paper, Greene’s deathbed accusations about Marlowe’s atheism were detailed. Marlowe’s former roommate, Thomas Kyd, a playwright, was arrested on May 12 and tortured. He gave up Marlowe and made accusations that are on the record. Kyd claimed Marlowe was an atheist who joked about Moses and Jesus. Marlowe was said to have claimed that there were humans alive before Adam.
Kyd also accused Marlowe of saying that Christ was a bastard and his mother dishonest. Kyd claimed Marlowe had said that if the Jews killed Jesus, they knew best. Marlowe, according to Kyd, proposed a new religion with a new moral: “… that they that love not boys and tobacco are fools.” He was supposed to have said that Jesus and John the disciple were gay lovers. There was more evidence as well, the written deathbed confession by the romantic pamphleteer, Greene, the former atheist who claimed that Marlowe did not believe in god. There was also a man named Thomas Fineaux, who was apparently converted to atheism by Marlowe, but later repented.
The Privy Council took up the matter of Marlowe and his suspected atheism. When it was reported to her, Queen Elizabeth I ordered the matter to be prosecuted to the full. Yet Marlowe continued at large and the truth concerning the events leading to his death remain cloudy. Apparently he was invited to an unsavory party where some of the guests were spies of his acquaintance. Whether the party took place in a private house or public house is unclear, but it was described as a private party. Reportedly, there was a quarrel about the bill. Ingram Frizer, a known swindler, plunged his dagger in just above Marlowe’s right eye. The dagger entered Marlowe’s brain, instantly killing him.
It is likely that Marlowe’s murder was not an accidental occurrence. The playwright was killed only a few days after Elizabeth I insisted that he be prosecuted. On June 15,1593, a report on the incident was released to the palace. Elizabeth I pardoned Marlowe’s murderer just two weeks later.
It is fairly certain that Marlowe was an atheist. Of all the accusations against him, Robert Greene’s seems to be the most conclusive. Greene was on his death bed, was not tortured to accuse Marlowe, and was himself a repentant atheist. We shall never know the true facts, but there is more than enough evidence to believe that Marlowe was a heretic and blasphemer with regard to Christian doctrine. He was also most likely an atheist in the modern sense, a man who said there was no god.
William Shakespeare (baptized 1564 – died 1616)
There is no evidence to support any claims that William Shakespeare was an atheist. But he knew people who were in contact with the astronomer, Thomas Digges, and with philosophers like Giordano Bruno who were conveying the new humanist ideas to England. The eminent Shakespeare scholar, Stephen Greenblatt states: “I think the moment Shakespeare was born into-1564- was terrifically important for him.”
According to Dan Falk: “Many features of the intellectual landscape found at that time would disappear within a generation, including the animistic soul-drenched worldview that, at the time of Shakespeare’s birth, still held enormous appeal.” But new thinkers had appeared on the scene- Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Giordano Bruno, Thomas Harriot, and just before the end of Shakespeare’s last plays, Galileo Galilei. Scott Maisano says: “Shakespeare was neither indifferent nor ignorant of the new science.”
An important piece of evidence concerning Shakespeare’s interest in skepticism comes from his reading of the famous essayist and skeptic, Montaigne. Falk states: “Scholars have long remarked on the similarity between numerous passages from Shakespeare’s plays and the essays of Montaigne, published in 1580. Sometimes the borrowing approaches word for word.”
A critic notes that generally in Shakespeare’s plays, and particularly in his 1608 “King Lear”, Shakespeare “… seems indebted to the French essayist not only for the phrases and ideas, but also for the skeptical attitude that pervades the play.” There are twenty-three passages in Lear that directly borrow from Montaigne’s “Essays”. Millicent Bell points out that there are more than a hundred words in Lear that Shakespeare had not previously used, but that occur in John Florio’s translations of the “Essays”. It is important to remember that Florio had been a tutor to Shakespeare’s patron, the Earl of Southampton.
The plot of “King Lear” is quite intricate. The pre-Christian King Lear decides to retire and divide his kingdom between his three daughters. He foolishly asks for declarations of their love. The two dishonest daughters, Regan and Goneril, give Lear the assurances he seems to need. But his favorite, Cordelia, refuses to speak her love and he banishes her. The King of France marries her even though Lear has refused to give her a dowry. The irritable, foolish Lear is soon turned out of his daughters’ homes. He starts to go mad and wanders the heath in a storm.
A subplot of the play concerns one of Lear’s loyal courtiers, Gloucester, who has been tricked by his own illegitimate son, Edmund, into believing that his legitimate and loyal son, Edgar, is plotting against him. Gloucester is blinded by Regan’s men. Gloucester and Edgar are finally reunited. Lear is also reunited with Cordelia, but through many errors, she is hanged before a death sentence against her can be removed. The faithless, vicious daughters of Lear and other traitors who have plunged the country into war are punished, and the honest son of Gloucester, Edgar, becomes the ruler of the kingdom.
“King Lear” is one of Shakespeare’s bleakest plays. People die in his other works, but this play seems to repudiate any idea of meaning, morality and justice in the world. Cordelia’s death appears to be wholly gratuitous, based on accident and poor timing. King Lear accumulates wisdom in the course of his tribulations, but the loss of his daughter makes wisdom seem a very cold comfort. The belief in a just world, guided by god’s Providence, seems to have been completely repudiated by the end of King Lear.
George Santayana’s 1900 volume, “Interpretations of Poetry and Religion, contains an illuminating essay titled: “The Absence of Religion in Shakespeare.” Santayana observes that Shakespeare frequently adopts the Christian cliches of the time in his work. But Santayana concludes that the clichés do not have much religious devotion attached to them.
Santayana finds few genuinely pious speeches in Shakespeare’s plays. He cites a mere two examples, from the plays “Richard II” and “Henry V”. Both of those examples, he cautions, speak more of battle than religion. The rest of Shakespeare’s characters speak and behave as though there were nothing in their world but secular concerns. Hamlet talks of death and the afterlife as an “undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.” Santayana explores Shakespeare’s sonnets as well. He regards the sonnets as spiritual, because their passion is transmuted into the discipline of poetic art. But the passion is most truly a passion for youth and beauty. None of Shakespeare’s works, Santayana concludes, is Christian.
Santayana states: “Shakespeare is remarkable among the greater poets for being without a philosophy and without a religion. In Shakespeare’s drama, there is no fixed conception of any forces, natural or moral, dominating and transcending our own moral energies.” Santayana elaborates by explaining that in Shakespeare’s time and country, to be religious meant to be puritanical, and “… in the divorce between the fullness of life on one hand and the depth and unity of faith on the other, there could be no doubt to which side a man of imaginative instincts would attach himself. A world of passion and beauty without a meaning must have seemed to him more interesting and worthy than a world of empty principle and dogma, meager, fanatical and false.”
Contemporary research has successfully contradicted the opinions of some earlier critics that the ending of “King Lear” is one of Christian redemption. The final act is so bleak, so nihilistic, so barren of hope, that such critiques of the play are more incorrect readings due to wishful thinking than careful interpretation of the drama.
In his 2004 “Shakespeare’s Philosophy,” Colin McGinn notes that King Lear is “cosmic as well as human.” McGinn finds the play has “an abstract grandeur.” The play repeatedly interrogates the concept of “nothingness.” When King Lear initially intends to give away his kingdom to his three daughters, he demands that Cordelia speak her love and asks her what she can say to win a “more opulent” third of the kingdom than her sisters. Cordelia answers: “Nothing, my lord.” Lear becomes furious and threatens her with: “How? Nothing can come of nothing. Speak again.”
McGinn notes that the repetitive “nothing” voiced throughout the play echoes the cosmological debates of that era. There was a great deal of philosophical questioning about whether god had made the universe from nothing. But if god had not made the universe, then had the original event come from nothing at all? Such inferences brought unease into the discussions on the beginnings of the universe.
McGinn points out that Lear’s two daughters, who have nothing in their hearts, create something, an excellent legacy, with their loving words. But Cordelia is reduced from plenitude to nothing, by the failure of her utterance. Later, when the Fool parries with Lear, the King impatiently tells him: “Nothing can be made from nothing.” The fool answers that Lear has left nothing in the middle, referring to the King trusting his two villainous daughters and banishing the one child who truly loves him.
Edgar, the legitimate son of Gloucester, betrayed by his illegitimate brother, Edmund, disguises himself as a beggar. He says: “Edgar nothing I am.” Characters in King Lear frequently refer to things being nothing, people being nothing, things being reduced to nothing. McGinn states that the tragedy “… is waste, loss, diminishment, ruin, death and all these are types of absence.” In his essay titled: “An Apology for Raymond Sebond”, Montaigne wrote: “In truth we are but nothing, and a few paragraphs later speaks of “…the emptiness, the vanity, the nothingness of Man.” McGinn notes that King Lear is a kind of dramatic expression of Montaigne’s thesis about the essential nothingness of man.
But beyond who or what has created our universe, there is additional discussion about causation in King Lear. Shakespeare interrogates the nature of heredity in his play. McGinn notes that something-children- come from almost nothing, with so little in the way of original materials and yet so large an outcome. Lear has produced two terrible daughters, Goneril and Regan, killers and criminals.
Yet he has also produced Cordelia, a very virtuous human. The relatively decent father, Gloucester, is partly responsible for the birth of the villain, Edmund, and the birth of the heroic Edgar. Lear speaks to Cordelia of “the mystery of things”. Shakespeare is interrogating nature, or causation. Lear says to Regan, his ungrateful daughter: “I gave you all,” and yet his daughter gives him nothing back, not even love. McGinn notes that: “… his everything causes her nothing.”
Nature is a causal system but not an intelligible one- it often behaves both inimically and randomly, without regard for reason or right. Lear and Cordelia and all humans are caught up in that process; we cannot evade it. Yet its randomness is often difficult to accept, and when it is perceived as cruel, hard to bear.
McGinn comments on the fact that King Lear finally admits that only Cordelia has had cause to wrong him. Yet she heartbreakingly replies to the old man: “… no cause, no cause.” This answer shows her kindness to her father, but McGinn believes there are abstract undertones in her answer as well. “No cause” can also refer to a universe in which “the tidy logic of rational causation breaks down.
Cordelia’s death is a horrid, heartbreaking example of random causation. Edmund ordered that she be hanged in prison, then repented, but it was too late to save her. McGinn believes her accidental death is integral to the entire meaning of the play. He writes: “… it reflects the deeper meaning of the play: for it reflects the irrational, random, unjust nature of causation. It is less a principle of cohesion and one of chaos. It destroys as much as it creates.”
There is no supernatural element in King Lear: there are no witches, or fairies or ghosts or other imaginary creatures. The play takes place in the natural world. What the playgoer sees is the natural order. “King Lear” presents a system of “mindless, natural causality and adds the malice of most of the human characters.” Many critics have noted that god, or the gods, are all the more conspicuous by their absence.
Shakespeare set the play in a pre-Christian era. It is very likely that he could express and interrogate such dangerous ideas by removing them from the Christian present of his time, a present that was rapidly breaking away from the certainties a beleaguered Church was attempting to maintain. McGinn notes that the unjustly blinded Gloucester intervenes with the warning: “No words, no words, hush.” Gloucester attempts to silence the glib pronouncements of people who believe they know that they have gotten to the bottom of things. Shakespeare’s position is that they have not, nor have we.
“King Lear” carried a great deal of significance for those people troubled by the unsteady and changing world of the late Renaissance. Shakespeare’s atheism is an unanswered question, but Santayana has attempted to provide a possible solution to the playwright’s state of mind. Santayana believes that Shakespeare’s practice as a playwright sheds light on the issue. He states: “For Shakespeare in the matter of religion, the choice lay between Christianity and nothing. He chose nothing… The cosmos eludes him; he does not seem to feel the need of framing that idea. He depicts human life in all its rawness and variety, but leaves that life without a setting, and consequently, without a meaning.”
But Santayana is not correct on this point. The meaning of each play comes from the depiction of the life in it, the human nature that Shakespeare so skillfully and sympathetically depicts. He was one of the first, perhaps the first, author to understand that human nature is “a fit study for literature.” Human nature was not incidental to the moral, or religious or mythological purpose of a work, but could be the subject of the work itself.
Not all the Renaissance thinkers, explorers, scientists and authors were atheists. But some were and less notably, there were other people who had no belief in god. It has been established beyond a doubt that there were atheists in the 16th Century. But there were other thinkers and innovators who were either indifferent to religion, such as Shakespeare, or who used secular methods for exploring reality, like Francis Bacon. Such people were dedicated to reality in a way not seen since classical antiquity but with the instruments and tools to measure reality beyond the ability of the ancient world.
Shakespeare and people like him left the stifling beliefs and dogmas of their age behind by submitting themselves to nature. It was said of Shakespeare: “He didn’t impose his own vision on reality; he let reality impose itself on his vision.” After Galileo, after Montaigne, after all the great scientists, explorers and philosophers, and particularly after Shakespeare, reality never looked the same again. It had been purged of the mists of mythology, of religion, and of superstition. Shakespeare and many of his peers were responsible for reality emerging with clarity, in all its vitality and all its grandeur and all its immensity.
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