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Dan Sportiello | Thursday, February 2, 2012

Men would not be free, Denis Diderot quipped, until the last king was strangled with the entrails of the last priest.

In hindsight, this was an exaggeration.

In 1401, the Florentine Guild of Cloth Importers held a competition to determine who would design the new east doors to the Baptistery. The two finalists were Filippo Brunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghiberti, each of whom had submitted a single panel, cast in bronze, depicting the Sacrifice of Isaac. Though the Guild pronounced the contest a tie and asked the two winners to collaborate on the new doors, Brunelleschi was furious at the suggestion that he was merely equal to Ghiberti; giving up sculpture entirely, he left for Rome to study architecture.

Brunelleschi eventually returned to Florence and, in 1418, defeated Ghiberti in the competition to design the dome — which would dwarf any before attempted — of the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Flower, the cathedral across the street from the Baptistery. In the meantime, however, the Renaissance had begun.

The reason is as much philosophical as it is artistic. Despite its depth, Brunelleschi’s bronze panel is designed as though it were flat: it shows Abraham, Isaac and the angel as though we were looking at them from the side — almost as though in the abstract. Ghiberti’s bronze panel, on the other hand, shows the characters from the angles at which we would actually see them if we looked at them in the concrete: it shows the angel flying toward us while Isaac, his body twisted in space, looks back at it.

Regardless of the indecision of the Guild of Cloth Importers, Ghiberti saw something that Brunelleschi did not. For the panel of Ghiberti, unlike that of Brunelleschi, employs perspective — the recognition that the point from which we look at things determines how they appear to us: we see things, he realized, not as they are in themselves but rather only as they are conditioned by how we look at them. The Renaissance discovered we are even more limited than we realized: we have, it seems, eaten of the Tree of Knowledge no more than of the Tree of Life.

But this insight is not limited to art. Far from seeing the orbits of the planets as they are in reality, Nicolaus Copernicus realized, we see them only as they appear from our perspective here on Earth: the planets seem to circle Earth only because we are ourselves on Earth. But Earth is not the center of things: we see things, as it were, from a funny angle — just as Ghiberti shows Isaac and the angel from a funny angle.

 In physics, of course, perspective is called relativity. Indeed, the Scientific Revolution came into its own when Galileo Galilei asserted that what we see is not absolute motion but rather only relative motion — motion, that is, toward or away from us, toward or away from our perspective. Galileo realized that there is neither absolute position nor absolute direction — just as, three centuries later, Einstein realized that there is neither absolute distance nor absolute duration: position and direction, distance and duration, are the products of our interaction with the world, not aspects of the world itself.

This insight is not limited to theory. For once one realizes that how one experiences the world is the product of what one brings to that experience, much that once seemed beyond question suddenly seems to be no more than prejudice. No medieval could have faced the sort of existential crisis that every modern risks: that men and women were meant for salvation was, in that age, overwhelmingly obvious — was indeed so far below the threshold of doubt as to make it difficult to even articulate the alternative. With perspective, however, came the worry — one that drove the world mad — that the purposes that one sees in the world are not in the world at all — that they are the product not of perception but rather of confusion.

Or, perhaps, of indoctrination. That men and women were meant for salvation — were meant, that is, to play the roles in kingdom and congregation assigned to them — began to look suspiciously like an invention of the kings and priests who assigned those roles. The Age of Revolution and the Reformation were sparked, ultimately, by the conviction that neither kings nor priests have a privileged perspective upon what is best for us — just as capitalism presupposes that there is no value to things beyond how much we happen to want them.

That kings still breathe and priests still digest is a red herring: we have freed ourselves — paradoxically, by renouncing our hope to transcend the limitations of our perspective. It takes no special brilliance to see that this renunciation has left a yawning emptiness within us — one that has, periodically, threatened to destroy us. But that is a story for another time.

Daniel John Sportiello is in his fourth year in the philosophy Ph.D. program. He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.