In this article, Ong divides his thoughts on how Renaissance humanism is relevant to twentieth century American Catholics into seven sections.  In the first section, Ong makes it clear to readers that he has a fair amount of skepticism when it comes to the topic of Renaissance humanism:  first, he believes that it is impossible to revive the past (one of the goals of the Renaissance humanists), and second, trying to revive the past advocates a cyclical view of history (Ong prefers the linear, evolutionary view of history advocated by Christianity).  Despite these objections to the whole idea of the Renaissance, Ong explains that he uses the term "Renaissance" because it does describe a particular historical period and, perhaps more importantly, the typical frame of mind of the people living during that period.

Still, Ong finds it strange that the name of a historical period could dictate the way future generations would be allowed to view it, so one of the reasons he has chosen to discuss this particular topic is to show the implications of idolizing Renaissance humanism in the twentieth century.  Because the Renaissance itself was an attempt to recover the past, twentieth century advocates of humanism end up trying to recover two pasts:  the Renaissance and its humanist movement and the Middle Ages and its scholastic tradition (which the Renaissance humanists were trying to overthrow).  These two pasts, Ong asserts, are not entirely compatible, so twentieth century humanists must understand the relationship between these two pasts.

In the second section of the article, Ong explains that Renaissance humanism and medieval scholasticism really are polar opposites, a tension illustrated well by St. Thomas More's derogatory comments about the work of Peter of Spain, a primary figure in medieval scholasticism.  Generally, twentieth century scholars accept the dichotomy between these two historical periods and privilege Renaissance humanism over medieval scholasticism, but this act of privileging is often based on a lack of knowledge about scholasticism.  Even those scholars who identify themselves as neo-scholastics base their philosophy on the work of St. Thomas Aquinas who, as a theologian, was completely removed from the core of the medieval scholastic movement, M.A.s (not theologians) who taught in the arts program in the universities.  The work of Peter of Spain, one of the most important figures in the scholastic movement and the "target" of many Renaissance humanists' attacks on the movement, was not even available to neo-scholastics until 1947.

In the third section of the article, Ong states that contemporary interest in the scholastic movement typically does not show up in philosophy anyway, but among contemporary physicists and logicians.  This is appropriate since the whole of arts scholasticism in the medieval period was physics and logic.  In fact, there was absolutely no metaphysics or theology in the program; when people in the arts read St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, they did not read his Summa theologiae (read by neo-scholastics today) but his works on Aristotle and Plato, and his how-to book on aqueduct systems.  Ong's point in this section is that the relationship between medieval scholasticism and the contemporary world is not through philosophy but through the physical sciences, so much so that we can think of medieval schoalsticism as a forerunner to modern science, based on Newtonian physics.  To the Renaissance humanists, medieval scholasticism was too mathematical and too technical, and a similar view of purely scientific education is held by contemporary humanists.

In the next two sections of the article, Ong lays out the objectives of the Renaissance humanists, primarily that they wanted more linguistic training in the college curriculum since they believed that life was about communication between humans and the curriculum needed to reflect that.  In advocating more linguistic training, the humanists did not emphasize semantics but relied on a revival of the past by focusing on the works of ancient authors.  Yet the humanists' approach reflected the influence of scientific method in their own age, for while the ancients looked at linguistics through the spoken word, Renaissance humanists privileged the written word over the spoken (which upheld the scientific bias of sight over sound).  This evidence of scientific method in the Renaissance humanist movement brings Ong to the question:  Did the humanists really overthrow medieval scholasticism or was there simply a shift within an established system from an emphasis on the sciences to an emphasis on ancient literature?

In the sixth section of the article, Ong answers this question by asserting that revolutionary movements can never reject entirely what they want to overthrow; instead, these movements reject the old at the same time they "live off it."  For example, one irony of the Renaissance period was that it was both the age of reviving ancient languages and the age of vernacular languages.  Another irony is that while the humanists wanted to incorporate more literature into the curriculum, they actually had little success achieving this mission; it was not until the end of the nineteenth century that the study of literature had a solid place in the academy.

In the last section of the article, Ong turns to the issue of what contemporary people can learn from the Renaissance humanists.  While we sometimes believe that we can reconcile the relationship between the sciences and letters by looking to the Renaissance humanists for guidance, that really is not the case.  But we can recognize something about our own educational system, which is influenced by Renaissance humanism more than we realize.  While many Americans perceive our educational system as being too specialized, Ong points out that it is actually much less specialized than that of Continental Eruope, where students have an extra year of high school but are much more specialized once they enter college.  In fact, the approach of the American system is probably more thoroughly humanistic than Renaissance schools ever were (though the American system certainly lacks the langauge training of the Renaissance humanists' approach, and the approach to teaching literature in the contemporary American system differs significantly, with much more emphasis on exploration of ideas than indoctrination through literature, which was the Renaissance approach).

In conclusion, Ong asserts that while there are similarities between the Renaissance system and the contemporary American system, we are much more future-oriented than the Renaissance humanists were, and we must be careful not to give up this perspective by idolizing the Renaissance humanists too much.  This is especially true for teachers of literature, who too often look at literature only as the glorification of youthful days, and for Catholics, whose position as a religious minority in the United States often leads them to rely too heavily on the past in order to preserve their heritage.

Return to Listings