An Intellectual Genealogy of the Revolt against “Esprit de Système”

From the Renaissance to the Early Enlightenment

in Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques
Jeffrey D. Burson Georgia Southern University

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This article suggests the further resituating of the origins of the early European Enlightenment in what William J. Bouwsma has called the “waning Renaissance.” The waning Renaissance was more than simply a Neoplatonic reaction first against humanism and second against a moribund Aristotelianism. Instead, it bequeathed to the early Enlightenment a chastened, initially less optimistic humanism among scholars whose work prepared the way for the eighteenth-century aversion to system-building, and a greater respect for meticulously circumscribed, useful certainties. This article argues that the “waning Renaissance” derived from the increasingly pervasive perception by writers that eclectic systems fusing Hermeticism, scholasticism, and humanism represented an overweening confidence in the ability of humankind to perfect the natural and human orders. In diverse ways, this article contends that the reactions to such overconfidence by John Calvin, Francis Bacon, the Paduan Aristotelians, and Galileo foreshadowed early Enlightenment skepticism and empiricism.

Contributor Notes

Jeffrey D. Burson is Associate Professor of History at Georgia Southern University. He is the author of The Culture of Enlightening: Abbé Claude Yvon and the Entangled Emergence of the Enlightenment (University of Notre Dame, 2019, forthcoming); The Rise and Fall of Theological Enlightenment: Jean-Martin de Prades and Ideological Polarization in Eighteenth-Century France (University of Notre Dame, 2010); and has co-edited Skeptical Enlightenment: Doubt and Certainty in the Age of Reason with Anton M. Matytsin (Oxford University Studies on the Enlightenment, 2019 forthcoming), The Jesuit Suppression in Global Context: Causes, Events, and Consequences with Jonathan Wright (Cambridge University, 2015), and Enlightenment Catholicism in Europe: A Transnational History with Ulrich L. Lehner (University of Notre Dame, 2014). Email:

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