The Renaissance constituted a major shift in focus from God to the human. It started in the middle of the fourteenth century, after the Black Death (plague, 1347–1377) killed almost one-third of the population of Europe. Although the economy suffered, the remaining population earned higher wages and quickly filled in the gaps in the market. A renewed interest in classical literature, language, and philosophy fed the intellectual movement of the Renaissance: Humanism. Humanism was responsible for raising man to a level of dignity and intellectual importance that actually threatened the viability of the Church. As humanists worked to integrate pagan classical philosophy with Christian, Jewish, and gnostic theology and mysticism, they developed the notion that man can achieve redemption through his faith, independent of the grace of God. This change accompanied a growing awareness of and discomfort about the extensive corruption of the clergy. The practice of selling indulgences began to be questioned by an emerging and somewhat educated middle class that did not share the traditional values of the ruling elite. Knowledge and ideas were more widely available due to the invention of the printing press (1457–1458) and a gradual urbanization of society. The Church still maintained its political, social, and economic power, but the Protestant Reformation was questioning its theology, and a new branch of Christianity was in its formative phase. A Counter Reformation helped to refine Church procedures and reduce corruption, but the schism between competing models of individual salvation led to the formation of Protestant denominations. Although the Church sanctioned persecution of witches and instituted the Spanish Inquisition as a backlash against the Protestant Reformation, Europe was divided along religious lines, and nations such as England went back and forth between Catholocism and Protestantism until leaders were able to stabilize society and appoint a national religion or manage to incorporate a policy of religious toleration. In this hotbed of social and philosophical turbulence, a new mode of critical thinking allowed for significant discoveries in science. New respect for individual achievement, the scientific revolution that allowed open scientific inquiry, and an established wealth led to the revolutionary discoveries of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton and set the stage for innovations in art such as the application of the golden mean in architecture, the portrayal of visual perspective in drawing and painting, and the realistic modeling of musculature in human sculpture. Niccolo Machiavelli explored human psychology to develop a theory about the role of power in politics that became the basis for modern political realism. In drama, playwrights such as Shakespeare portrayed intimate psychological studies of the human mind as it undergoes a crisis. In these and other ways, the Renaissance surpassed the achievements of classical Greece and Rome that it had rediscovered.
The birth of Humanism occurred in the Italian city-states during the fourteenth century, when Francesco Petrarch decided to devote himself to the study of Latin (and later, Greek) and to search for ancient lost manuscripts of classical Rome and...
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Love of Language
As the humanists discovered neglected or lost classical manuscripts and distributed them through printing, they developed a discerning taste for those classical writers who expressed their thoughts in the most elegant forms of Latin. They also discovered errors in transcription as they compared different versions of the same text. Philology, the love or study of language, grew out of the humanist desire to perfect their translations of ancient texts and to write textual commentaries on their newly discovered texts. Writing in Latin themselves, they sought to express themselves in the most elegant forms of this language. Thus, ancient Roman writers such as Cicero and Caesar became models of Latin prose, replacing the medieval Latin of scholastic Latin grammar texts. In many ways, philology lies at the heart of the humanist movement, since it engendered a focus on the historical context in which ancient texts were written as well as on textual criticism. In fact, the early humanists invented the concept of textual criticism. Philology is central to historical study because it is a valid means of authenticating records of historical events and thinking.
Rhetoric and oratory—in Latin—were important skills to the humanists. They disapproved of the scholastic style of disputation, which they considered a show of superficial knowledge as opposed to true wisdom or virtue. The scholastic method of disputation involved searching through texts to find statements to use as evidence to support a given opinion, even to the point of taking statements out of context. The scholastic method of teaching Latin and rhetoric was through rote memorization, with corporal punishment for poor performance. Students learned how to imitate the classical Latin writers but often had no idea of the meaning of the words they said. In contrast, the humanists wanted their students to follow Cicero’s three duties of the orator: to teach, to please, and to move (appeal to...
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The Enlightenment Period
Some historians say that the humanist movement that began in the Renaissance did not fully flower until the Enlightenment period of the eighteenth century, also called the Age of Reason. During this period, human faith in science and rational thinking spread beyond the intellectual elite, who included most of those who espoused Humanism during the Renaissance. With a larger literate population and a booming middle class that could afford their books, the intellectual thinkers and philosophers of the eighteenth century influenced their societies with their ideas that human reason was supreme and that religion based on superstition and meaningless ritual should not dictate human behavior. Some Enlightenment thinkers were actually atheists; however, many simply eschewed formal religion in favor of the concept of a supreme being whom man could not prove definitively. A group of French thinkers known as the philosophes, including Denis Diderot (1713–1784), Charles Montesquieu (1689–1755), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), and Voltaire (1694–1778), among others, prepared an Encyclopédie (1751–1780) to contain all human knowledge, rationally arranged. Religion was notably missing and in fact was treated as superstition. In another of his essays, Voltaire made the scandalous proposition that religious differences should be tolerated: since God could not deny heaven to classical thinkers such as Socrates, Plato, and Solon, how could he deny it to men of other contemporary religions? Many of the contributors to the encyclopedia were imprisoned for their heretical views. Nevertheless, the massive Encyclopédie stood as a testimony to the doctrine of man’s essential supremacy. The Enlightenment thinkers and philosophers were also fascinated by how humans acquire knowledge and, with religion losing its authority as a moral standard, morality. Many of them wrote treatises on the human mind, including David Hume (1711–1776), who considered human feeling as the source of ethical behavior. Hume also claimed that since God existed only as an idea in the mind, he did not exist. Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) proposed that humans make ethical decisions based upon the pleasure principle: that in seeking to avoid pain, each human’s ethical decision would contribute to the common good. In Germany, Immanual Kant (1724–1804) proposed that all moral actions be measured against a kind of golden rule that said that an action was moral if it could be applied categorically to all, which was another form of locating morality in the human mind rather than in divine revelation. In America, Thomas Paine (1737–1809) accused religion of inspiring the worst moral...
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Compare and Contrast
1100–1400: The most devout Christians, the monks and nuns, lead lives of quiet piety, cloistered away from the cares of the world.
1450–1600: Pious men begin to realize that piety can be practiced here on earth, so many humanist scholars, who are at the same time highly religious, invest themselves in making society a better place to be.
Today: Religious men and women devote themselves to the betterment of the underprivileged here on earth as do the humanists.
1100–1400: In the west, Christianity is a common aspect of life. People of other religions are sometimes treated as strangers, infidels, or unbelievers and are persecuted.
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Topics for Further Study
In many ways, the economic and social setting of fourteenth-century Florence, Italy, made it the perfect place for the birth of Humanism. Florence was a center of trade, and powerful families trained their sons to become ethical, successful merchants. What is the relationship between the society in Florence and the development of a new way of thinking about humanity and its role in the world?
The early humanists were devout Christians, yet the humanist movement has evolved to one that is frankly opposed to religious ideology, and many of today’s humanists are active atheists. Research the ideas of the Renaissance humanists as compared to those of modern Humanism. How do you account for this substantial change in...
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Published in 1500 by Erasmus of Rotterdam, the Adages (Adagia) initially comprised more than three thousand proverbs from Greek and Roman antiquity. Erasmus added to the collection in the 1508 and 1515 editions. This befits the spirit of the Adages, for in it Erasmus speaks of the importance of the richness (copia) of using the right number of adages in speaking. The introduction gives specific advice on how to polish these gems and use them to enhance speech. He says, “And so to interweave adages deftly and appropriately is to make the language as a whole glitter with sparkles from Antiquity, please us with the art of rhetoric, gleam with jewel-like words of wisdom, and...
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What Do I Read Next?
Renaissance art shows the ideals of the period. One important painting by Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio, 1483–1520), “The School of Athens” painted in 1510–1511, captures the spirit of Humanism, with its portrayal of humans learning from other humans. Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, and other classical scholars also appear in the painting.
The idea of artistic perspective was growing during the time of the Renaissance humanists, too. Essentially a product of mathematical calculations to portray the illusion of depth on a flat, painted surface, perspective allowed painters and sculptors to integrate their subjects into the context or background of the painting more realistically. Painters of the Renaissance were almost...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Baier, Annette, Postures of the Mind, University of Minnesota Press, 1984, pp. 147, 293.
Dresden, S., Humanism in the Renaissance, translated by Margaret King, World University Library, 1968, p. 11.
Edwords, Fredrick, “The Humanist Philosophy in Perspective,” in the Humanist, American Humanist Association, January–February 1984.
Fowler, Jeaneane, Humanism: Beliefs and Practices, Sussex Academic Press, 1999, p. 33.
Ingersoll, Robert Green, “A Humanist Credo,” in Humanist Anthology from Confucius to Attenborough, edited by Margaret Knight, Prometheus Books, 1995, pp. 117.
Kurtz, Paul, Humanist Manifesto I...
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