Intellectual History

Programme Line: Intellectual History – Key concept: Neo-Latin as medium for Early Modern Philosophy and Intellectual spreading

(Valerio Sanzotta, Florian Schaffenrath, Gábor Almási)


In the second phase of the LBI (2018-2024), this research line (the direct heir of the Religion Line) will contribute to the understanding of the ways humanist cultures in the 16th and more heterogeneous baroque cultures in the 17th and the 18th centuries reacted to social, political and religious challenges, incorporating and elaborating new philosophical concepts, intellectual questions and perspectives.


In Early Modern Europe, with the crisis of scholasticism, public philosophical debates increasingly went beyond the traditional university curricula, penetrating the religious, civil, political, artistic, and literary sphere. Influential new intellectual groups emerged and a fresh generation of scholars experienced a wide circulation of philosophical ideas through manuscripts, prints and scholarly correspondence. The high regard for Latin language and culture of these intellectual groups was a direct consequence of their profound humanist education. It also proves that—despite a cultural commonplace regarding vernacular as a leading language of non-university philosophy—Latin remained dominant in most areas of philosophy in the Early Modern period. Not only was Latin a crucial means of promotion of philosophical ideas originally written in Greek or even in the vernacular, but also original philosophical works were constantly written in Latin until the end of 18th century. Nevertheless, scholars have rarely acknowledged the long-lasting importance of Neo-Latin culture and of the role of Latin as means of informal philosophical and intellectual exchanges. Consequently, the huge amount of Latin material produced by these intellectual groups still remains in the shadow. By applying a philological and literary perspective in our study we will consider the concrete evidence of the circulation of new philosophical ideas conveyed by these texts in both restricted intellectual circles and within broader audiences. Such an approach will also include the analysis of stylistic, linguistic, rhetorical and textual questions arising from the production, transmission and circulation of Latin philosophical writings, which is in many important cases still a desideratum.


First project. The early years of the sixteenth century witnessed the emergence of a complex web of intellectual circles and spiritually unsettled individuals in Switzerland and Germany. Men of letters seeking to meet the apparent need for spiritual and ecclesiastic renewal in this intellectual context could turn to the Italian philosophical tradition, which—along with the ideas of Humanism more generally—had taken root across the Alps and had given rise to new forms of religiosity, new doctrinal developments and new ecclesiastical inclinations. These innovative spiritual positions would come to have much in common with the core ideas of the Reformation, although they remained heterodox and can seldom be reduced to Protestantism in the strict sense. The first project of this research line arises from a set of crucial questions. Which was the philosophical fundamentum that those intellectual circles elaborated at the dawn of the Reformation? Which pre-existing philosophical tools did they reinterpret and adapt to their questions of moral and spiritual reform? How and through which ways were those groups acquainted with new philosophical texts? How did they change their approach to these texts after the Reformation became an institutionalized movement? With these questions in mind, on the wake of the fundamental works of Delio Cantimori, the aim of this project is to demostrate that Florentine Neo-Platonic tradition, and in particular the religious and ethical writings of Marsilio Ficino, played a crucial role in the establishment of a valid philosophical basis for Protestant circles in Switzerland and Germany in the first decades of the sixteenth century. More specifically, Ficino’s ideas on issues with a concrete bearing on spiritual life, such as Christocentricity, love as a foundation for ethics and the question of natural religion aroused particular interest in the Protestant world. This project’s approach will pay close attention to the scholarly practice of the intellectual figures and their circles at the centre of this story. Using a pre-existing set of tools, such as bibliographies, library catalogues and typographical annals, as well as unpublished material such as manuscripts and archival documents, this project aims to map the circulation of Ficino’s Latin works in Germany at the beginning of the sixteenth century.


Second project. From the outset of the Early Modern period to the end of the eighteenth century, authors of didactic poetry were enormously productive, also in the vernaculars, but first and foremost in Latin. They dealt with a great variety of different topics, but philosophy was held in especially high esteem, due to one of the most important Roman models, i.e. Lucretius and his didactic poem De rerum natura on the philosophy of Epicurus. Philosophical didactic poetry from the Early Modern period will be the topic of the second project of this research line. Following the ancient division of philosophy into physics, logics and ethics, we can leave out the first category here, and focus instead on the two remaining parts of philosophy. In 2003, Yasmin Haskell published her classical study Loyola’s Bees, where she writes about all kinds of didactic poems, written by Jesuits of French and Italian circles. A comparable book about Neo-Latin didactic poetry from the German speaking world—in general, the cultural activities of the Jesuits in this part of the world are quite well studied, compared to other regions—is still something most desirable. It seems that an especially fruitful starting point for our study could be the immensly rich poetic production of Caspar von Barth (1587-1658), who spent his lifetime mostly in Halle and Leipzig. This versatile author, who was studied so far only as a lyric poet, has also written a great number of Latin didactic poems, among them the Zodiacus vitae Christianae, a protestant reaction on Palingenius’ eponimous poem, or an analysis of Neo-Stoic positions in De fide salvifica et de constantia. Detailed studies about Barth’s intended audience, his poetic models, about the aim of his poetry will be another important target of this research project.


Third project. Until around the middle of the seventeenth century, Machiavelli remained an enormous source of inspiration, particularly in Italy, France, and the Netherlands, but also in Spain and England. His influence on German philosophical thought was allegedly more limited and indirect, but as this project wants to argue, still very remarkable. Significantly, in the application of Machiavellian and Reason of State thinking, ‘New Humanism’ – which can still be considered humanism for the centrality of classical authors, but had rather different functions, scopes, values and audiences than Ciceronian humanism – raised a number of ethical questions, which remained at the core of philosophical debates of the time. Starting from the figure and activity of the Catholic agent Kaspar Schoppe (1576–1649), a most talented philologist and an immensely influential and prolific pamphleteer, the third project of this research line will study these transitions of political philosophy in the dominantly Latin language political literature of the times with a special focus on the interplay between German and Italian intellectual traditions. It will be against the background of this diverse corpus of sources that the project will aim to offer a new understanding of the different ways New Humanism responded to the challenge of Machiavelli’s political philosophy, whether this happened in Protestant cultures of Germany that entirely shunned his name, identifying it with the Jesuits (but at the same time elaborating on his problems and methods), or among reformed Catholics of Italy and Germany, who were striving to lay Catholicism on new political and psychological foundations. Through this broader concept of sources and our original approach of political philosophy – concerned, next to the transmission of ideas, also with questions concerning method, rhetoric, audiences (including the limits imposed by censorship and self-censorship) it is hoped that this study will correct our understanding of German political philosophy as relatively unresponsive to Machiavelli’s thought and offer a more dynamic view of philosophy in this crucial epoch.