November 08, 2005

Mirandola, Malebranche, Mandeville, Mendelssohn

If there is such a thing as a "manifesto" of the Italian Renaissance, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494)'s "Oration on the Dignity of Man" is it; no other work more forcefully, eloquently, or thoroughly remaps the human landscape to center all attention on human capacity and the human perspective. Pico himself had a massive intellect and literally studied everything there was to be studied in the university curriculum of the Renaissance; the "Oration" in part is meant to be a preface to a massive compendium of all the intellectual achievements of humanity, a compendium that never appeared because of Pico's early death. Pico was a both a Neoplatonist and a humanist; in fact, Pico is one of the most read of the Renaissance philosophers because his work synthesizes all the strains of Renaissance and late medieval thinking: Neoplatonism, humanism, Aristoteleanism, Averroism (a form of Aristoteleanism), and mysticism. ©1996, Richard Hooker
Nicholas Malebranche (1638-1715)'s most important work, The Search After Truth, was Cartesian in inspiration and asserted views connected with the mechanical philosophy including the rejection of Scholastic apparatus of substantial forms, real qualities and powers in favor of the doctrine that the behavior of bodies must be explained by the configuration and movement of their parts and the claim that there is nothing in bodies like our ideas of color, taste and smell. Malebranche agreed with Descartes that awareness of mental states is immediate and infallible, perception of bodies is indirect and fallible, and that knowledge of things comes from clear and distinct ideas grasped by reason, and not by sensation or imagination. Malebranche also maintained some specifically Cartesian metaphysical doctrines such as the definition of matter as extension, that animals are machines, and that man has a soul really distinct from his body. Among Malebranche's most distinctive and original views are:
  • the doctrine that we have knowledge of extended things only because we "see all things in God";
  • that God alone is the true cause of all events, and
  • that God, as the good in general, is the only intrinsically lovable being.

In his Fable of the Bees, subtitled "private vices, publick benefits", Bernard de Mandeville, (1670-1733) recounts how evil vices such as luxury, greed, envy, etc., all lead to public benefits by encouraging enterprise. Although apparently often treated as a defense of laissez- faire - "Thus every Part was full of Vice/Yet the whole Mass a Paradice" - the Fable can also be seen as a presentation of early underconsumption theory. Anticipating Keynes's paradox of thrift, Mandeville argued that the "moral" activity of saving was actually the cause of recessions whereas luxurious consumption (a "vice") was a stimulus. Indeed, Mandeville argued for government intervention, including the Mercantilist policy of protection to promote internal consumption. Thus "private Vices by the dextrous Management of a skilled Politician may be turned into publick benefits." History of Economic Thought Website

Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) modeled his philosophy after that of Christian Wolff (a prominent philosopher of the Enlightenment) and Gottfried Leibnitz (a European rationalist). He wrote some general philosophical works, including many dealing with the theory of art, but his most well known writings deal with Judaism. Mendelssohn conceived of God as a perfect Being and had faith in God’s wisdom, righteousness, mercy and goodness. He argued that, "the world results from a creative act through which the divine will seeks to realize the highest good." He accepted the existence of miracles and revelation as long as belief in God did not depend on them. He also believed that revelation could not contradict reason. Like the deists, he claimed that reason could discover the reality of God, divine providence and immortality of the soul. He was the first to speak out against the use of excommunication as a religious threat. He recognized the necessity of multiple religions and respected each one. By Shira Schoenberg

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