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The Donations of Constantine were in fact a fraud - a fact that could only have been revealed through the subjecting of the "original" document to unbiased evaluation. Yet Leonardo Bruni, much more than Valla, deserves the credit for shaping the modern idea of history. Advancing on the style and technique of such Classical authors as Herodotus and Thucydides, Bruni developed a more modern, and scientific approach to the subject. Though not all of his writings can be taken as shining exemplars of the new commitment to accuracy and truth, Bruni at his best, charted new territory for historical scholarship.
Bruni's monumental Historiarum Florentini Populi Libri XII (hereafter Historiae) is often singled out as an exemplary work, one that set the whole enterprise of history writing on a new plane.... Bruni destroys the legends surrounding the founding and early history of Florence, and then recasts the story on the basis of hard evidence.... Bruni's recourse to... classical rhetorical devices did not in itself preclude the application of critical categories.... Bruni's Historiae are best seen as a projection of the values championed by the city's emerging political elites. Bruni's critique of earlier versions of the Florentine past is thus not the product of a pure scholar seeking to reconstruct the past. It corresponds instead to a new ethos, one of whose chief characteristics was a detached, skeptical attitude towards consolidated traditions, both cultural and political.
Once the questioning begins it is difficult to stop. Renaissance scholars soon took the fledgling historical method in new directions.
Niccolo Machiavelli extended the discussion of the past to a discussion of the present. Machiavelli's the Prince was meant to serve as a model for the rulers of his own day. Broadening the scope of scientific investigation, Machiavelli saw history as akin to medicine.
Medicine and history resembled one another in that both stored up past experience for present practical purposes. In the preface to the Discourses, he noted that the basis of medicine was "nothing other than the experiments made by the ancient physicians, on which present physicians base their judgements," and deplored the failure of princes and republics to use ancient experience of government in the same way.
To most individuals of the New Millennium, there can be few disciplines that are more scientific than medicine. To conceive of a connection in method between history and medicine, was to realize that history could be as minutely and factually dissected as the human body. It also meant that the lessons of the past could be seen as part of a genuinely verifiable formula for development. One could examine past "experiments," rate their effectiveness, and use the data gained therefrom to postulate new experiments, and new outcomes. In the Prince, Machiavelli was endeavoring to show the rulers and politicians of his own day that politics was a science, like anything else. It was his acceptance of the validity of investigation leading to proof - his validation of the scientific method - that gave added weight to his own theories. The new ideas postulated by Machiavelli could be shown to possess a firm factual underpinning. The rulers of Fifteenth Century Italy could understand the utility of things that had been proved to work. They could also glean the new lesson that logic, reason, and scientific methods of deduction were of value to themselves and their successors. The Prince encouraged rulers to govern in a rational manner. This great work of political science ushered in a new era in state administration, foreign relations, and the response of governments to a whole range of potential problems.
Machiavelli's ideas would be the inspiration for still others. Erasmus would, in the following century, put forth a clear statement of the historical method. He employed rigid theoretical guidelines in his work on St. Jerome.
Erasmus wrote a critical and well-documented life of Jerome which also had a definite rhetorical character and which shared in his basic aim to reform theology. In the opening section of the life he also set down the critical standards that would guide him in his narrative, and he produced a remarkable statement on historical method.
Erasmus' work once more expanded the range of the historical method, and scientific, rational thinking. By applying the historical method to a work of theology, the philosopher was recognizing that even the mystical cosmos conformed to certain recordable and reproducible laws. He also showed the way forward to a learned discussion of ideal situations based on real-life past instances, and a spirit of experimentation. Erasmus attempt to describe a possible Utopia represented a more comprehensive, and still more humane, use of the historical method than that which had been attempted by Machiavelli. Machiavelli had employed the rationality of the historical method, and historical perspective, in what was essentially a primer for dictatorship - a guide to the personal aggregation of absolute power.
The Utopia of St. Thomas More was the logical Renaissance outcome of applying the historical method, and historical perspective, in a scheme designed to effect the greatest possible good for the widest segment of society. Though contemporary with Erasmus, More's work employed historical science to postulate the existence of a world that, as of yet, had a reality only in the mind. It was the logical outcome of a firm belief in scientific exploration, of cause and effect, and of proof through experiment. More was showing that, through a judicious use of the historical method, and the kindred historical perspective, one could, based upon the lessons of history, formulate a plan for a better world - a world that had never actually existed, but which potentially could exist. "Since one of the universal elements of Western society in the Middle Ages -- corporative life above the level of the family -- is wholly lacking in Utopia, in this important respect Utopia is distinctly unmedieval."
More's work, like Erasmus', served as a synthesis of the beliefs of the time, combined with theories brought to their logical conclusion. Both men were postulating the existing of an ideal world that was founded on Christian Humanism - a world in which all men and women were dedicated to the creation of the best possible society, and to those plans that would benefit as much of humankind as scientifically possible.
The Renaissance's discovery of the concept of historical perspective was to have dramatic consequences at the time, but even more astounding consequences for the future. The realization that actions had direct consequences, that a provable pattern actually existed, forced human beings to look at, and analyze their actions. Things could be seen to work because they truly made sense; and those things that "did not make sense" could be dispensed with - dispensed with the full understanding of what it was that was wrong with them. Our generation has inherited the taste for scientific experimentation that began in those far-off centuries. A reliance on the firm belief that there is a real logic to the world, and the cosmos, has permitted us to make discoveries that would have been impossible for our ancestors. Once upon a time, human beings took everything on Faith. Yet, Faith left many things unexplained, and many problems without answers. The understanding of historical perspective has taught us that the human world is what we make it. Faith and Divinity are not illogical - they are part of the rational scheme. Understand the Past, and we can hope to make a better future.
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