November 5, 2012

Plato’s Stepson: Tommaso Campanella – Renaissance Philosopher

Tommaso Campanella by Francesco Cozza

By Niccolò Graffio
“Man is not born crowned like the natural king
Of beasts, for beasts by this investiture
Have need to know the head they must obey”— Campanella, Tommaso:  XVI, What Makes a King; The Sonnets of Michael Angelo Buonarroti and Tomaso Campanella: Now for the First Time Translated into Rhymed English. 1878
With the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD large swaths of territory in that part of Europe suffered massive political, economic and social upheavals that were to last centuries.  Cities emptied either due to migrations or disease.  Trade between various parts of Western and Southern Europe declined dramatically.  Hordes of uncivilized Germanic tribesmen left their ancestral homelands in the north to settle the warmer climes farther south.  Under these circumstances, it was hardly surprising the production in art, music and literature suffered.  Many to this day remember this time as the “Dark Ages”.

The so-called Dark Ages, to those who still hold onto the term, lasted from roughly the 5th century AD to the 10th century AD.  Due to its negative connotations, plus the fact intellectual and cultural activities still existed in the Byzantine and Islamic-controlled areas of Southern Europe, many historiographers prefer to use the term “Early Middle Ages” to describe this period, instead.
  
The advent of the so-called “High Middle Ages” (c. 1100-1300) witnessed a population explosion across Europe.  With this sizeable increase in population (and an end to barbarian invasions) came renewed commerce between various areas of the continent. This commerce made many merchants and local rulers quite wealthy.  They, in turn, “shared the wealth” by promoting a number of artisans and intellectuals.  As things progressed, it seemed to suggest the whole of Europe was on its way to a flowering of civilization not seen since the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West.

Alas, it was not meant to be!  The Late Middle Ages (c. 1300-1500), which should have witnessed the flowering of cultural and intellectual endeavors, instead saw a major regression of civilized activity as the continent of Europe was plunged into a series of crises.    
The Battle of Mons Lactarius by Alexander Zick. Decisive battle fought near Naples (553 AD), in which the Byzantine army defeated the Goths. 

The Medieval Warm period (c. 950AD-1250AD) freed up large expanses of arable land.  The abundance of food that resulted caused a tremendous surge in population across the continent.  With the end of the period Northern Europe experienced successive years of bad weather and crop failures.  The result was the Great Famine of 1315-17.  

The famine stretched across the whole of Northern Europe from the British Isles to Russia.  It affected everyone from peasant to nobleman.  Peasant farmers were forced to butcher their farm animals and eat seed stock in order to survive.  Chroniclers of the time reported cannibalism was widespread.  Many parents were even forced to abandon their children and let them fend for themselves.  The horrors of the Great Famine survive as echoes in children’s fairy tales such as Hansel and Gretel.  

Though the Great Famine ‘officially’ ended in the summer of 1317 it would be another eight years before crop yields would rise sufficiently to allow population increases once more.  Modern historians estimate the death toll at between 10-15% of the population of Northern Europe.

The effect on European history was manifold.  In addition to the large loss of life, criminal activity increased in every country as people not normally inclined to crime did literally anything they could to feed themselves and their families.  Governments passed and enforced more draconian laws to deal with lawbreakers.  Even warfare became more brutal than it had been in the previous two centuries of prosperity.

Europeans had scarcely put the Great Famine behind them when they were rocked by an even greater nightmare.  Though Europe had suffered large scale warfare and famine in the centuries following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, it had been spared disease pandemics since the middle part of the 8th century AD.  All that would change in the early to mid part of the 14th century.

The Black Death is believed to have begun in either Central Asia or China proper.  It is now believed to have consumed ¼ of the population of China in the early part of the 14th century AD.  Trade routes with the West guaranteed the spread of the disease into Western Asia. 

In 1343 it had reached the Crimean Peninsula. There, a Mongolian khan by the name of Yannibeg was laying siege to a Genoese colony in the port of Kaffa.  The plague struck the khan’s army, devastating it. The Khan, determined that his enemies would share in his men’s suffering, ordered the bodies of plague victims flung with catapults into the city.  

The Genoese abandoned the colony, fleeing by ship to the Sicilian port of Messina.  From there the disease spread rapidly into the heart of Europe and from there, to the four corners of the continent.

Conservative estimates put the European death toll at over 30%, with others going much higher.  It is believed the population of France alone was reduced by as much as 60% in only a four-year period!  Unlike the Great Famine, the Black Death hit Southern Europe much harder than it did the north.  Some modern historians put the death toll in Spain, the south of France and Italy as high as 75%!
The Triumph of Death (1446),
fresco in the Regional Gallery of Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo
Attempts to halt the spread of the plague were futile as the disease spread so rapidly it often quickly consumed those who were trying to help.  Pope Clement VI, in an attempt to ease the (spiritual) suffering of the afflicted, issued a decree that stated anyone who died of the plague would automatically receive remission of sins.  Otherwise, secular and religious authorities were at a loss to explain the cause of the outbreak or how to stop it.

The rapid death unhinged many, who resorted to blaming anyone they could in an attempt to find a cause.  Lynch mobs roamed the European countryside attacking anyone even remotely suspected of being a vector for the disease.  Beggars, lepers, Gypsies, foreigners, etc were all singled out for destruction.

One group particularly targeted for “special treatment” was Jews.  This was especially true in the areas comprising modern Germany.  Fear-crazed mobs were easily led by religious fanatics who accused Jews of “poisoning Christian wells”.  Ignorance of the Germ Theory of Disease, which was unknown at the time, helped fuel the rampage.

Though the Black Death eventually “burnt itself out” after several years, it would return periodically to haunt Europeans over the next several centuries.  It would thankfully, though, never again churn out the number of bodies it did in the mid-14th century.

Thanks to advances in modern biotechnology, the consensus among epidemiologists today is the Black Death was caused by variants of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes the bubonic plague.  Though modern antibiotics (plus increased sanitation) have put the plague on a very short leash, medical researchers point out that as antibiotics lose their efficacy, the plague could return as a significant health problem.

The changes upon European society wrought by the Black Death were far more reaching than those that occurred during the Great Famine.  For starters, the deaths of so many millions of peasants caused a severe labor shortage.  The cost of labor subsequently went up.  Governments attempted to enforce wage and price controls but these measures were of limited success.  

It has been argued the Black Death put the nail in the coffin of feudalism.  While historical evidence shows feudalism was already slowly on its way out, there can be no argument the plague sped up the process.  By how much, though, remains a source of debate among historians.

The dearth brought about by the Great Famine and the Black Death, plus changing climatic conditions due to the Little Ice Age, caused widespread political, economic and social instability in Europe.  Open warfare in the 14th and 15th centuries was the result.  Whether it was civil war between nobles or war between nations, Europe’s history during this period was painted a dark red.

Among the more sanguinary conflicts of this time was the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) between England and France.  In addition, during this timeframe there were no less than nine conflicts between the Kingdom of Poland and the Teutonic Knights.  Ottoman Turks at this time began expanding into Europe.  In 1453 a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions occurred when the Byzantine capital of Constantinople, long a bulwark against Asiatic encroachment into Europe, fell to the Ottoman swine Mehmed II and his hordes.
The Entry of Mehmed II into Constantinople by Benjamin Constant 

One positive that occurred at this time in history was the Russians, under the leadership of the Grand Prince Ivan III, forced a large Tatar-Mongol army under the command of Akhmat, Khan of the Great Horde, to withdraw from their encampment on the banks of the Ugra River in what is now Kaluga Oblast (1480).  This act ended forever Tatar rule over Russia and signaled the beginning of the end of the Turko-Mongolian Empire.

While all this upheaval was occurring throughout the continent of Europe a remarkable cultural movement was beginning on the Italian peninsula in the city of Firenze (Florence).  Though Italy was devastated by the Black Death, almost paradoxically the survivors and their descendants wound up being better paid and better fed than those who lived prior to the plague.  The surplus monies meant more people could buy luxury goods.  This stimulated artisanship.  

In addition, negative perceptions of the Church, brought about by all the plague deaths, caused a decrease in influence of that ecclesiastical body.  This stimulated a renewed interest in learning not seen since the heyday of the Roman Empire.  This interest was furthered along by an influx of learned Greek scholars who were refugees from the collapsing Byzantine Empire to the east.  Finally, the lean times of the 14th century caused a shortage of investment opportunities.  As a result, many rich individuals who might otherwise have invested their wealth in business chose instead to put their monies in art and culture. 

This climate of interest in art, learning and culture is remembered today as the Italian Renaissance.  What began in the city of Florence spread out to cover the whole of the Italian Peninsula and the island of Sicily. Eventually it would spread to the rest of Europe.

When one today in America reads up on the history of the “Italian Renaissance” one usually winds up reading only what happened, culturally speaking, in the northern part of the peninsula.  This is in large part due to the cultural hegemony practiced by our northern conquerors, who would have everyone believe the Renaissance was exclusively a phenomenon of the north.  Of course, longstanding Anglo-American perceptions of Southern Italy as a ‘backwater’ contribute to this, as well.

Those of us who have undertaken a study of the history of this area of the world know better.  We know of the artistic genius of Antonello da Messina, the famed Sicilian Renaissance master whose paintings were so renowned they influenced the Venetian School!  What about the great Neapolitan Renaissance philosopher and cosmologist, Giordano Bruno?  Dante Alighieri, the famed Florentine writer and poet, praised the Sicilian School of Poetry.  

The city of Naples was unquestionably the center of Renaissance learning in Southern Italy.  During the Renaissance (and afterwards) Naples was a must-visit place on the “Grand Tour” of Europe.  In fact, before the infamous Risorgimento in 1860 it was the third largest city in Europe and quite possibly the richest!  It attracted men of learning from across the continent.  It also helped to produce one of the most important philosophers of the late Renaissance.

Tommaso Campanella

Giovanni Domenico Campanella was born on September 5th, 1568 in the town of Stilo, Calabria in what was then the Kingdom of Naples.  Though of humble origins, at an early age he displayed considerable mental prowess.   By the time he had reached the age of 12 he had mastered nearly all the Latin authors his teachers had presented to him.  A year later he was already writing prose and poetry of a caliber in excess of his years.

At the age of 14 he entered the Dominican Order in part to pursue his love of learning.  He took the name Tommaso in honor of Thomas Aquinas.  While there he came under the influence of the teachings of Bernardino Telesio, a philosopher and natural scientist from Cosenza who inaugurated the Renaissance empiricist reaction against the practice of reasoning without reference to concrete data.  Telesio rejected revealed knowledge and believed instead that all knowledge was sensation; that what we call “intelligence” was a collection of isolated data provided by our senses.  For this heresy, after his death his works were placed by the Church on the Index of Forbidden Books

Tommaso traveled to Naples in 1589 without having received permission from the Order to do so.  While there he published Philosophia sensibus demonstrata (1591; “Philosophy Demonstrated by the Senses”).  Like the works of his mentor, it reflected concern for an empirical approach to philosophy.  It stressed human experience as the basis for philosophy and rejected the hierarchically united worldview of Scholastic Aristotelianism.  For this he was arrested, tried, convicted and spent a brief time incarcerated for heresy.

Released from prison, he subsequently traveled to Padua where he was again arrested, this time charged with sodomy (1593), acquitted, but then arrested again later and tried for debating a Jew over matters of Christian faith.  Sent to Rome in 1596 for trial, he avoided imprisonment by denouncing the heresy for which he had been arrested.

By the summer of 1598 he was back in Stilo where he became involved in a plot against the Spanish, who at that time were the rulers of the Kingdom of Naples.  The following year two members of the conspiracy were arrested, and under torture, revealed the existence of the plot plus Campanella’s involvement in it.  The Spanish quickly sent troops into Calabria to suppress it. Campanella was arrested and brought back to Naples in chains.  

Forced under torture (and crippled) to admit his leadership in the conspiracy, he was imprisoned and would most certainly have been executed but for the fact he convinced his jailors he was mad by setting fire to his cell.  He was eventually sentenced to life imprisonment and kept confined in various fortresses including the Castel Sant’Elmo and Castel Nuovo in Naples.
Castel Nuovo (Photo by New York Scugnizzo)
The Aragonese triumphal arch and cenotaph, added in the fifteenth century by Alfonso I, is considered one of the great architectural masterpieces of the Renaissance. (Photos by New York Scugnizzo)
He would spend a total of 27 years in various states of confinement.  While there he affected a return of sorts to Roman Catholic orthodoxy.  It was also during his imprisonment he composed the bulk of his writings, laying the groundwork for his philosophy.  This included his greatest work, La città del sole (“The City of the Sun”).  This important, early utopian work was inspired by Plato’s Republic.  In it, Campanella envisioned a unified, peaceful society governed beneficently by a theocratic monarchy.  In this society, goods, women and children were to be held in common.   

Two things about Campanella’s utopia that struck readers – the painted walls that surrounded his city. The walls not only enclosed and protected the city but the paintings upon them illuminated the arts and sciences for the citizenry. Campanella was greatly interested in the learning and spread of knowledge. In his utopian world there would be no books.  All the writings would be inscribed openly for all to see!

The other was his advocacy of the community of goods and women.  Campanella believed only the community of goods could relieve the poverty that perpetually plagued mankind. He also thought it stupid people paid great attention to the selective breeding of dogs and horses but not to other humans.  The City of the Sun would presage the later scientific socialism of Karl Marx and the eugenics of Francis Galton.

The City of the Sun was first written in Italian in 1602.  It was later rewritten in Latin in 1613-14.  While in prison Campanella was visited by a learned man from Saxony by the name of Tobias Adami who smuggled some of his most important works (including The City of the Sun) to Frankfurt where they were published 1617-23.  In addition to his philosophical works, Campanella wrote a great number of sonnets and lyrical poetry. Sadly, most of these are now lost.  Those that have survived are considered by some critics to be the most original poetry in Italian literature for that time.

While in prison he also wrote a celebrated defense of the Pisan astronomer Galileo Galilei, who at the time was having his own troubles with the Inquisition.  However, due to Campanella’s own poor reputation with the “Holy Office”, it is highly doubtful Galileo would have wanted the help.

King Philip IV of Spain 
by Diego Velázquez
(Photo by New York Scugnizzo)
He was finally freed from imprisonment in 1626 by the intercession of Pope Urban VIII, who appealed to King Philip IV of Spain for his release.  He was taken to Rome where he was kept under house arrest by the Inquisition until 1629.  He succeeded in ingratiating himself to Pope Urban VIII (who was a very superstitious man) by his impressive knowledge of astrology.

Soon, however, he found himself embroiled in new scandals.  One of his pupils, Tommaso Pignatelli, was fomenting rebellion against the Spanish back in Calabria.  In addition, Campanella’s enemies in Rome accused him of engaging in superstitious practices (astrology), threatening to compromise the Pope.  As a result, he was “persuaded” to leave Italy.  With the aid of friends he was able to flee to France, where he was received warmly at the court of King Louis XIII and especially by the redoubtable Cardinal Richelieu, who gave him his protection and secured for him a generous pension from the King.

He spent his last days living in safety and comfort at the convent of Saint-Honoré in Paris, where he continued his writings.  His last work was a poem celebrating the birth of the Dauphin, the future King Louis XIV of France.  He died on May 21, 1639.

In truth, Tommaso Campanella was neither an original or systematic thinker. Yet he is important in the study of Western thought for the simple fact he stands as one of the precursors of modern, empirical science.  In addition, his philosophy foreshadowed and no doubt influenced the later, more influential ones of René Descartes and Baruch Spinoza. 

Further reading:
• John M. Headley: Tommaso Campanella and the Transformation of the World; Princeton University Press, 1997
• Tommaso Campanella (Author) & Sherry Roush (Editor & Translator): Selected Philosophical Poems of Tommaso Campanella: A Bilingual Edition; The University of Chicago Press, 2011
• Tommaso Campanella: The City of the Sun; Wilder Publications, 2008