The Graeco-Roman Cultural Legacy Helped Shape the Renaissance and the Rise of Individualism in Europe

Students of European history recognize that after the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe entered a difficult period of stagnation, known generally as the “Dark Ages”.  A religious elite dominated Europe with its strict interpretation of scriptural authority and its unwillingness to accept freedom of thought or belief.  At the same time, a feudal system kept the majority of people enslaved and illiterate.  Learning was concentrated in the clergy and was focused on enforcing Christian orthodoxy rather than looking at the world with open eyes and a questing mind.  After a long period of this stagnation, the Protestant Reformation and the secular Renaissance began a period that began to break down the strict conventionalism of the Mediaeval Age.  We saw then an outflowering of science, music and art, the development of a broader access to education and printed books, the search for new relations to alter the stifling feudal system, and a breaking down of the walls in almost every field of life that had hemmed in the entire society in narrow bonds of convention.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “For, eventually, the evolution of Europe was determined less by the Reformation than by the Renascence; it flowered by the vigorous return of the ancient Graeco-Roman mentality of the one rather than by the Hebraic and religio-ethical temperament of the other.  The Renascence gave back to Europe on one hand the free curiosity of the Greek mind, its eager search for first principles and rational laws, its delighted intellectual scrutiny of the facts of life by the force of direct observation and individual reasoning, on the other the Roman’s large practicality and his sense for the ordering of life in harmony with a robust utility and the just principles of things.  But both these tendencies were pursued with a passion, a seriousness, a moral and almost religious ardour which, lacking in the ancient Graeco-Roman mentality, Europe owed to her long centuries of Judaeo-Christian discipline.  It was from these sources that the individualistic age of Western society sought ultimately for that principle of order and control which all human society needs and which more ancient times attempted to realise first by the materialisation of fixed symbols of truth, then by ethical type and discipline, finally by infallible authority or stereotyped convention.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 2, the Age of Individualism and Reason, pg. 19