Courage and Self-affirmation: Spinoza

Stoicism retired into the background when faith in cosmic salvation replaced the courage of cosmic renunciation. But it returned when the medieval system which was dominated by the problem of salvation began to disintegrate. And it became decisive again for an intellectual elite which rejected the way of salvation without however replacing it with the Stoic way of renunciation. Because of the impact of Christianity on the Western world the revival of the ancient schools of thought at the beginning of the modern period was not only a revival but also a transformation. This is true of the revival of Platonism as well as of that of Skepticism and Stoicism; it is true of the renewal of the arts, of literature, of the theories of the state, and of the philosophy of religion. In all these cases the negativity of the late-ancient feeling toward life is transformed into the positiveness of the Christian ideas of creation and incarnation, even if these ideas are either ignored or denied. The spiritual substance of Renaissance humanism was Christian as the spiritual substance of ancient humanism was pagan, in spite of the criticism of the pagan religions by Greek humanism and of Christianity by modern humanism. The decisive difference between both types of humanism is the answer to the question whether being is essentially good or not. While the symbol of creation implies the classical Christian doctrine that “being as being is good” (esse qua esse bonum est) the doctrine of the “resisting matter” in Greek philosophy expresses the pagan feeling that being is necessarily ambiguous insofar as it participates in both creative form and inhibiting matter.

This contrast in the basic ontological conception has decisive consequences. While in later antiquity the various forms of metaphysical and religious dualism are tied up with the ascetic ideal—the negation of matter—the rebirth of antiquity in the modern period replaced asceticism by active shaping of the material realm. And while in the ancient world the tragic feeling toward existence dominated thought and life, especially the attitude toward history, the Renaissance started a movement which was looking at the future and the creative and new in it. Hope conquered the feeling of tragedy, and belief in progress the resignation to circular repetition.