Learning vs. Damnation

John Addington Symonds, The Revival of Learning:

All through the Middle Ages uneasy and imperfect memories of Greece and Rome had haunted Europe. Alexander, the great conqueror; Hector, the noble knight and lover; Helen, who set Troy town on fire; Virgil, the magician; Dame Venus lingering about the hill of Hörsel—these phantoms, whereof the positive historic truth was lost, remained to sway the soul and stimulate desire in myth and saga. Deprived of actual knowledge, imagination transformed what it remembered of the classic age into romance.

The fascination exercised by these dreams of a half-forgotten past over the mediæval fancy expressed itself in the legend of Doctor Faustus. That legend tells us what the men upon the eve of the Revival longed for, and what they dreaded, when they turned their minds towards the past. The secret of enjoyment and the source of strength possessed by the ancients, allured them; but they believed that they could only recover this lost treasure by the suicide of their soul. So great was the temptation that Faustus paid the price. After imbibing all the knowledge of his age, he sold himself to the Devil, in order that his thirst for experience might be quenched, his grasp upon the world be strengthened, and the ennui of his inactivity be soothed. His first use of this dearly-bought power was to make blind Homer sing to him. Amphion tunes his harp in concert with Mephistopheles. Alexander rises from the dead at his behest, with all his legionaries; and Helen is given to him for a bride. Faustus is therefore a parable of the impotent yearnings of the spirit in the Middle Ages—its passionate aspiration, its conscience-stricken desire, its fettered curiosity amid the cramping limits of imperfect knowledge and irrational dogmatism. That for which Faustus sold his soul, the freedom he acquired by magic, the sense of beauty he gratified through visions, the knowledge he gained by interrogation of demons, was yielded to the world without price at the time of the Renaissance.

Homer, no longer by the intervention of a fiend, but by the labour of the scholar, sang to the new age. The pomp of the empires of the old world was restored in the pages of historians. The indestructible beauty of Greek art, whereof Helen was an emblem, became, through the discovery of classic poetry and sculpture, the possession of the modern world. Mediævalism took this Helen to wife, and their offspring, the Euphorion of Goethe’s drama, is the spirit of the modern world. But how was this effected? By long and toilsome study, by the accumulation of MSS., by the acquisition of dead languages, by the solitary labour of grammarians, by the lectures of itinerant professors, by the scribe, by the printing press, by the self-devotion of magnificent Italy to erudition. In this way the Renaissance realised the dream of the Middle Ages, and the genius of the Italians wrought by solid toil what the myth-making imagination of the Germans had projected in a poem.

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