Divine and Poetic Freedom in the Renaissance

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Divine and Poetic Freedom in the Renaissance: Nominalist Theology and Literature in France and Italy by Ullrich Langer.

Langer Divine and Poetic Freedom in the Renaissance

Langer insists that his study “does not intend to demonstrate the influence of one cultural domain on another,” but in charting certain historically-situated “possibilities of thought”–the emergence of the modern episteme centered on the individual–he compares literary composition, theology, and politics in their handling of the concepts of freedom, will, and sovereignty. The “nominalist theology” of the title is a feature of late scholasticism exploring God’s omnipotence and freedom by distinguishing His theoretically absolute power of creation and change from His actually ordained power situated in the Universe that He has undertaken. The literary dimension of Langer’s study is that of the French and Italian Renaissance, with the works of Rabelais as its lodestone. The book is extremely chewy, treating profound concepts and demanding a patient and informed reader. 

Langer discusses the theological notion of “hypothetical necessity,” which characterizes God’s relationship to creation, and is mirrored in the modern sense of an author’s relationship to his work. Langer uses Rabelais’ various explicit overtures to the reader to demonstrate this hypothetical necessity at work in fiction: if you are a Pantagruelistic reader, then the book will please you

Another concept from nominalist theology is the anti-Pelagian emphasis on “congruous merit,” by which the absolute sovereign (i.e. God) provides “reward” according to his own free and arbitrary impulse (i.e. grace), as opposed to “condign merit,” by which he would be obligated to reward a deserving subject. Langer identifies a tension between these two forms of merit in the Abbey of Theleme, and he shows how the characters of Gargantua and Pantagruel illustrate the gratuitous mechanisms that reward congruous merit.

A third nominalist theological concept is that of divine potentia absoluta as being without prior determination or cause. In a careful analysis of the prologue to Rabelais’ Third Book, Langer shows how the maitre rhetorically undermines his own putative inspirational succession from Diogenes, thus emphasizing Rabelais’ independence as an author, and making his historical references an effect rather than a cause of his narrative. 

The chapter “Free Choice in Fiction: Will and Its Objects in Rabelais” looks at choices made by some of Rabelais’ characters, using as a lens the scholastic distinction between the antecedent and consequent divine will. The evidently unmotivated decisions of Gargantua and Pantagruel in the first two books are contrasted with the agonized vacillation of Panurge in the third. There is also a related discussion of the priority of the faculty of will over understanding, as it had developed in the Late Middle Ages. 

Langer’s exploration of the satirical mode in Renaissance literature tends to explain it as a gambit to advance the sovereignty of the author. This topic is the only one in which he does not explicitly orient to Rabelais, but the relevance of Saint Francois is still clear. Throughout the study, Langer compares and contrasts Rabelais with other authors of his period in their conformity to these themes and ideas. 

In an epilogue on “Will and Perspective,” Langer adds the Renaissance innovation of linear perspective in painting to the early modern philosophical mix that he has outlined in his book. “One’s freedom is pure priority, as it were: the spectator/creator has a choice, absolutely speaking, of where to situate the point of view, but once that point is chosen, all is determined.” And this comparison provided the final element that helped me integrate the conundrum of nominalist theology with the Law of Thelema. The absolute freedom of True Will inheres in the personal genius, the unconscious self or “dwarf-soul”; while the ordained freedom of will can be understood in the condign “Rights of Man” to do as he will, and to act with integrity on the basis of his conscious desires. 

As long as you live, as long as you are an individual, you cannot possess heaven; you cannot lack a point of view. [via]