Greetings to all,
This week we looked at the 30 Years War and previewed the coming change towards the ‘Scientific Revolution.’
The 30 Years War was a devastating conflict in terms of loss of life. But it was also devastating in a psychological, moral sense. For decades Catholics and Protestants killed each other, burned towns, committed atrocities, all in the name of the Christian faith. The map below shows the casualties in various parts of Germany alone.
Part of the reason the war became so destructive is that various nations, like Sweden, Spain, and France found reasons to get involved at various times during the war and extended it artificially. But part of the reason that religious conflicts persist in general is that:
- It is difficult to compromise or negotiate with religious belief
- Victory in a religious war is hard to define
One can only come to terms in a religious war when either
- Both sides are completely exhausted, or
- You change what the war is about, making it something that you can compromise on, such as possession of territory.
This is in fact what happened, and this second reason is a clue to the coming transformation in the worldview of Europe. Since the start of the Reformation, Catholics and Protestants had both lead with religion in the political and philosophical realm. Now, their focus shifted towards the more tangible and measurable. If you have the time, this clip from Kenneth Clarke’s ‘Civilisation’ series makes the transition in art and thought clear:
Essentially, Clark argues that the shift was from theory, which would include intellectual ideas as well as the unproven realm of ‘faith,’ to experience, observation, and the natural world. It is the Dutch school of the 17th century that exemplified this change. One can see it in the work of Van Hals:
Here are practical, reasonable men. They are a long way from the emotionally and spiritually moved men from, say, Carravaggio’s work just a few decades earlier. This passion for representing reality apart from meaning reached it’s peak with this work of Paulus Potter:
I agree with Clark when he argues that here the passion for representing measurable reality has gone about as far as it can go. The technical skill is remarkable, but for me at least, there is no ‘heart’ or ‘meaning’ in the work. As we shall see, the problem with this painting was the same lurking problem faced by the Scientific Revolution.
Probably the artist who married the best of the observational school with meaning had to be Rembrandt. He depicted people “realistically,” but he managed to depict them as morally imaginative as well. We think of him as a painter, but he was best known in his day for his etchings. Here is one example:
If the Dutch exemplified the change in art, the French did so in the political realm. Cardinal Richelieu is known for many things, but this quote exemplifies his philosophy:
‘People are immortal, and thus subject to the law of God. States are mortal [that is, ‘unnatural,’ artificial, man-made creations], and are thus subject to the law of what works.’
Richelieu believed that nations did not interact with each other in the way that individuals did. After all, people cannot kill each other, but nations can have armies that kill each other without necessarily sinning. People can’t lie, but nations can send spies to other places where they ‘lawfully’ engage in deception. It might be similar to people bluffing in poker. They are trying to deceive, but are they sinning? Most would say not, because when we play poker we enter into a world that has its own set of rules set apart from normal life. Frenchmen will be judged by God. But the geographical entity we call ‘France’ will pass away, it will not be judged. Thus, ‘France’ could play by different rules than Frenchmen.
This famous painting of him shows his famously lean, intelligent frame:
With this perspective, Richelieu astounded and infuriated his contemporaries. As France’s chief minister, he sought to serve the entity ‘France.’ This meant that:
- France would intervene on behalf of Protestants in the 30 Years War, despite the fact that they were a Catholic nation. Except that Richelieu didn’t see ‘Catholic France,’ but ‘France, where most people are Catholic.’ Richelieu fought not to protect Catholics, but the entity France, which he did not want surrounded by Catholic Spain. Spain fought in the 30 Years War in part to recover the Netherlands, territory they had lost in the early 1600’s. This new perspective shocked many, but it would be the way of the future
- He believed that strengthening France would have to mean strengthening the king. This in turn meant weakening the nobles. We will see this European turn away from the feudal era, and toward more centralized authority. It would be another Frenchmen, Louis XIV, that would push these ideas even further later in the 17th century.