The Concept of Philosophy in the Sixteenth Century: Leone Ebreo and the Italian Renaissance. (Jewish Teacher)

By Seidel, Esther | European Judaism, Autumn 2002 | Go to article overview

The Concept of Philosophy in the Sixteenth Century: Leone Ebreo and the Italian Renaissance. (Jewish Teacher)


Seidel, Esther, European Judaism


When I heard what the subject chosen for me tonight was, namely, `The concept of Jewish philosophy in the sixteenth century', I was at first not a little worried. Were there any Jewish philosophers in the sixteenth century, and if so, did they produce a Jewish philosophy? I must admit that for me and other historians of Philosophy, the Kabbalah or Jewish Mysticism does not qualify as philosophy and therefore would have to be excluded from my talk.

However, Jewish philosophy proper, in the sixteenth century, does not exist! This rather radical view was put forward by Colette Sirat. Perhaps you will allow me to examine why Sirat could possibly have held such a view.

As we all know, medieval Jewish philosophy had been a subject well defined. It had emerged in Muslim lands and followed the Muslim philosophical traditions: the Mu'tazilite Kalam, Neoplatonism and then Aristotelianism, with works written first in Arabic, then in Hebrew, the latter during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, during which `an indigenous Hebrew philosophical culture' was created, (1) on the basis of the works of Aristotle as presented and interpreted by the giants of Islamic thought: Ibn Rushd, Al-Farabi, Al-Ghazzali and Ibn Sina.

At the end of the fifteenth century, the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula were still under the traumatic impact of their expulsion, so at this stage, during the sixteenth century, many of them were trying to build a new life for themselves in the multiethnic society of the Ottoman Empire and in Italy. Here, they encountered the culture of the Renaissance, so that when we speak of a Jewish philosophy in the sixteenth century, we refer to Jewish Italian Renaissance philosophy.

Strictly speaking, this hybrid had already started a century earlier, running parallel to the two phases of the humanist tradition then prevalent in Italy:

1. There was Latin or civic humanism, introduced by Petrarca's call to return to the Latin manuscripts of antiquity and the ideals of Roman civilisation. The core discipline at that time, cherished above all others, was rhetoric, the art of ornamental speech, and its role was threefold: to advance diverse ideological positions, to gloss over logical inconsistencies and, most importantly, to articulate the new view of the Renaissance man as a mysterious bundle of (different) ... energies: sensual, emotional, intellectual, spiritual-religious. At the same time, no concrete philosophical substance could be pinned down: rhetoric was a device to use language for the sheer delight of expression. (2)

What was the Jewish response to this first humanist phase?

Although the Jewish population in Italy during the Renaissance was relatively small, it took an active part in it with the result of an intellectual cross-fertilisation which was unique in Europe. Italian Jews appropriated non-Jewish culture, while Italian Christian scholars were keen to make use of the wisdom of the ancient Hebrews. (3)

As far as the art of eloquence was concerned, a Jewish response was given in the book entitled The honeycomb's flow (Nofet Tsofim), by Judah Messer Leon in 1476. Using the image of the flowing honey to portray eloquence, the author states that it is indeed beneficial, but only if it complements the moral and intellectual perfection of man, and he advances the claim that it is the Torah rather than pagan oratorial skill which best exemplifies perfect speech. (4)

However, we shall not look at Messer Leon's philosophy in greater detail as he belongs to the fifteenth century, during which the second phase of the humanist Italian tradition was marked by the recovery of the ancient Greek texts and the revival of Plato's thought, and also of Neoplatonism and Hermeticism.

There had also been a renewed interest in Aristotle through the works of his most famous commentator Ibn Rushd which were now being translated a second time into Latin, but this time from Hebrew, by Elijah del Medigo (1458-93), the teacher of the Italian Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola.

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