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"Human Limits and Pride in Greene’s 'Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay' and Marlowe's 'Doctor Faustus' " (Part 1)

Updated on October 4, 2016

Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay

Introduction to Renaissance Thought

Renaissance thinkers sought to create a society in which humankind not only realized, but also sustained its fullest potential. Whereas earlier periods considered heavenly things as paramount in importance, the Renaissance liberated man’s mind and heightened his appreciation for nature. This enhancement, however beneficial it may have been, introduced a possible danger—the marginalizing of the spiritual in favor of the natural.

Such a dilemma poses certain questions: Are humanity’s capabilities—his ambitious nature and insatiable drive both to discover and harness the powers of all the wonders of the universe—merely whims granted to him by eternal matter and therefore “meant” to be used with unlimited freedom, or did a supernatural Creator endow men and women with gifts limited as to scope and having specific purposes attached? Has God forbidden man to explore the ramifications of certain areas of knowledge, or does the latter have the right to try to control the spiritual realm to fulfill his own prideful desires?

In this essay I propose to argue, through an examination of pertinent sections from the plays Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, and Doctor Faustus, that the main characters, meddling in affairs that were beyond their purview, exhibited a pride empowered by magic that flouted divine boundaries and deserved divine judgment. Friar Bacon’s humiliation at the hand of God proved to him that he was neither spiritually nor intellectually qualified to circumvent divine limits on his knowledge in favor of his own freedom. At its end the paper will show a striking contrast, as it also explores the life of Doctor Faustus. The reader will discover that while Bacon repented of his pride and found forgiveness, Faustus so persevered in his foolish use of forbidden knowledge that he was unable to turn from it, and consequently suffered damnation.

Francis Schaeffer

Thomas Aquinas

Man's Will is Fallen?


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Lack of Repentance=Damnation


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Result of a "Freed" Will


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Philosophical Shift

Before discussing the plays, however, it is instructive to consider a short historical sketch of the philosophical shift that occurred in Europe which encouraged that continent’s erudite to proclaim that man should operate beyond the limits that God had placed on his knowledge. To show this shift, we must first explore the concepts of “nature” and “grace.”

“Nature” represents the created, earth and earthly things, and man’s body. Francis Schaeffer, noted lecturer and author, believes that Thomas Aquinas opened the door to the birth of the humanistic Renaissance by teaching that man’s will is fallen, but not his intellect (10). Thus, in Aquinas’ world, man’s intellect is autonomous and can function apart from the authority of Scripture. With the autonomy of the intellect, philosophy soon became free, and it was separated from revelation. In the process of time other realms of man’s knowledge took wings (11-12). As a result, belief in the occult became more widespread. Kerr and Crow note the existence of “Renaissance esotericism . . . [such as] astrology, palmistry, and magical healing” (2).

“Grace” envelops the Creator, heaven and heavenly things, and man’s soul. It encompasses the element of freedom, and provides meaning and significance to nature. Up until Aquinas’ time, heavenly things held the pre-eminence, but were not pictured realistically; artists portrayed them only as symbols.

As nature became more autonomous, it began to “eat up” grace; that is, nature began to overwhelm grace. The Madonna, once iconographical, appeared in the Renaissance in the likenesses of well-known mistresses (Schaeffer 16). Within the grace realm, Renaissance lyric poets taught “spiritual love”; novelists and comic poets, representing nature, expressed “sensual love,” and pornographic literature began to flood the market (27).

This component of the Renaissance did not stop with books themselves, but carried over into the quality of men’s lives. The division between nature and grace flowed into the whole structure of Renaissance life, and “the autonomous ‘lower story’ always ate up the ‘upper’” (27-28). That is, the ‘lower story’ (nature) became so powerful in men’s lives that its influence overwhelmed the world of the “upper story” (grace).

John Mebane, well-known author of studies in Renaissance Cabalist magic, makes an assertion that does not contradict Schaefer’s argument :

. . . magic became the most powerful manifestation of the growing conviction that humankind should act out of its potential in the free exercise of its powers on the social and natural environment; moreover, those who explored “natural magic” often asserted that the quest for truth should not be limited by traditional religious, political, or intellectual authorities (3).

Nature’s autonomy influenced all segments of society. Clerics, holding an important role in that world, translated and taught the Scriptures. But as one might expect from the general tenor of the period, they made little effort to interpret them accurately; yet experimentation with the occult in Renaissance monasteries persisted. In Italy, enthusiasts for reform fervently adopted Cabala, a form of Jewish mysticism. Neoplatonism and other hermetic philosophy influenced Francesco Giorgi, the Franciscan friar. In turn, Franciscan mysticism strengthened the hand of Christian Cabala (Yates 5).

In addition, Copenhaver points out that Aquinas et al actively “acknowledged and defended principles of occultism” in their writing because they found that “the elements of the magical worldview were common ideas well respected by ancient philosophers” (qtd. in LaGrandeur 411).

Both authors whose works are under scrutiny in this essay seized upon the issue. Robert Greene took advantage of the atmosphere, which was produced when the culture seemingly banished God from the scene by its acceptance of the occult, and transferred it onto the pages of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay. Nevertheless, within this milieu he also made room for a decisive act of divine discipline upon the pride of one who most expertly learned and tried to use this secret knowledge on a national scale. Christopher Marlowe used Doctor Faustus’s disbelief in the God of grace to make him gamble with his eternal destiny by consorting with demons; to Faustus hell was fable and fantasy until his erstwhile servants turn on him and drag him into this very real place. We will consider the turmoil of both men in this essay, but let’s first examine how Bacon eventually went too far in his “scientific” pursuits in Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay.

© 2015 glynch1

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