The Specter of Anthropological Pessimism

In my presentation of past articles on the origin of what I call the “age of utopia”–the story of which I’ve been writing in recent months–this one helps establish the context in which the “father of humanism,” Francesco Petrarch, made his breakthrough into modernity. In a real sense it was a reaction against a pessimism that had never sat well within Christendom.


What historians call the late middle ages was a difficult period in the history of western Christendom. From about 1300 to about 1500, a series of horrible events occurred including the Black Death and the Hundred Years War.

Illustration of Victims of Bubonic Plague from the Toggenberg Bible Dying Victims of Black Death

As they did, they caused new features of western culture to appear. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that these catastrophes acted as abrasives across the surface of an otherwise verdant Christian culture, exposing stones that had long remained buried beneath it.

One of these long buried stones was what can be called anthropological pessimism, a emphatically negative view of the human condition in this world.

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Why Hesychasm Mattered

This repost from several years ago discusses one of the essential differences between the old Christendom of the East and the new Christendom born of the Papal Reformation. That difference is hesychasm, and it can be seen in the iconography that was abandoned when the new Christendom turned to naturalistic painting during the Renaissance.


In yesterday’s post I presented the movement in fourteenth-century  eastern Christendom known as hesychasm as a sort of foil (or contrasting device) against the disaffection that was stirring at the time among western thinkers such as Petrarch. The necessary link in this case was Barlaam of Calabria, the theologian who lived temporarily in Byzantium but fell out with the hesychastic current there and ultimately returned to his native Italy. There he converted to Roman Catholicism. Serving as Greek tutor to the illustrious Petrarch, it is conceivable that his agnosticism about the possibility of man experiencing the immediate presence of God in this world (what I call “paradise”) was passed on to his pupil, soon to be known as the father of modern humanism.

And so, we not only have a moment when a new stage in the history of Christendom is discernable–what I called the symbolical birth of utopia–but also…

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The Birth of Utopia

Having released volume two in my history of the rise and fall of what the West once was, I have been writing the first chapters of its sequel. Since this blog is designed to share the ideas that go into this next volume (as well as the one that follows), I will be reposting some of my earlier posts in the weeks ahead. The one I am presenting today tells the interesting but little known story of a philosopher named Barlaam and his impact on the “father of humanism,” Francesco Petrarch.


It has been several months now since my last post, and I apologize to my readers for the long delay. It is due in part to obligations and tasks that arose soon after Christmas and which required my attention. It is also due to the fact that in presenting my reflections I came to a point that required a pause as I prepared for a new phase in the project. This post represents the beginning of that new phase, as I take a step back in time from from what for the most part has so far been reflections on the twentieth century. Modern Christendom, the subject of this blog, is after all the result or product of cultural shifts occurring over a period much greater than the few generations that separate us from the rise of things like militant atheism.

So far I have been interested mainly in recent history…

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On the Diminution of Angels

The reorientation of modern Christendom toward an untransfigured world was, as I indicated in in another post, the central project of the Renaissance. This Renaissance project was inspired by the values of the classical pagan world, but it was also motivated more immediately by the desire to escape the increasingly pessimistic anthropology of medieval western Christendom. Humanists like Mirandola proclaimed a new humanity to their generation, one that possessed free will, one that enjoyed complete autonomy. This was the dream of the Renaissance, and it became over the centuries an inalienable feature of our modern culture. Continue reading