Research Stream


Kirk Essary
The University of Western Australia

“More of the Heart than the Brain”: Impassioned Knowledge and the Christian Philosophy in the Renaissance and Reformation

This project examines the role of the passions in epistemology and theological anthropology in the early modern period in order better to understand what seems to be a shift in the intellectual landscape related to a newfound appreciation of the emotions in humanist thought, both Protestant and Catholic.

“More of the Heart than the Brain”: Impassioned Knowledge and the Christian Philosophy in the Renaissance and Reformation

Image: photographic reproduction of "Folly in the pulpit (L'Eloge de la Folie, Amsterdam: 1731): engraved imitation of Hans Holbein's illustration from the 1515 Basel edition of Erasmus' Encomium Moriae".

Through an analysis and comparison of theological, philosophical, and exegetical works in the 15th and 16th centuries, this project attempts to trace the importance of the passions in the apparent epistemological shift in certain thinkers associated with the early modern movement occasionally referred to as biblical humanism. Erasmus and John Calvin, for example, sought to distinguish themselves from the “Sorbonnist sophists,” who, to their way of thinking, over-intellectualized Christian theology. True wisdom, for Calvin, is a thing “more of the heart than the brain,” and for Erasmus (following Paul) is “a certain kind of folly.” Taking Paul’s privileging of celestial foolishness over human forms of reasoning seriously, Erasmus and Calvin redefine epistemology in the Christian tradition, and an examination of the reception of Paul in this regard serves as a nice jumping off point for the project. Moreover, a diminution of the intellect in theological anthropology entails the elevation of the passions, and a study of how this is articulated and its implications in certain trajectories of early modern thought will provide a fuller portrait of the conception of the passions and how they relate to learning in this period.

Relevant Publications

Essary, K. Erasmus and Calvin on the Foolishness of God: Reason and Emotion in the Christian Philosophy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017.

'Fiery Heart and Fiery Tongue: Emotion in Erasmus’ Ecclesiastes'. Erasmus Studies 36:1 (2016), 5-35.

'"Milk for Babes": Erasmus and Calvin on the Problem of Christian Eloquence'. Reformation and Renaissance Review 16:3 (2014)

'Calvin’s Interpretation of Christ’s Agony at Gethsemane: An Erasmian Reading?' Toronto Journal of Theology 29:1 (Spring, 2014)