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...
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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...
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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,...
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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.
1450–1600: As Christianity splits into Catholicism and Protestantism, religious persecution continues, now between the two branches. Persecution of Jews, Muslims, and people who practice neither Catholicism nor Protestantism is also rampant.
Today: Religious tolerance is a hallmark of a liberal society. There are still places in the world that persecute people of religions other than their own, and their intolerance has become one of the key challenges of the twenty-first century.
1100–1400: Both scholars and clergy accept Christian teachings as presented by the Catholic Church.
1450–1600: Humanist scholars and clergy begin to feel skepticism about some Catholic teachings and therefore develop...
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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 philosophy?
All religions play a role in reinforcing moral behavior and attempt to explain the purpose of human life. The major religions—Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam— share these goals. Study one or more of the major religions and compare the methods of approaching these goals with the methods proposed by humanists. What underlying principles are shared by all of these belief systems?
The rise of Humanism accompanied exciting changes in art, such as the invention of perspective and the development of portraiture. In addition, artists studied human physiognomy in order to portray human figures more realistically. Did these artists subscribe to humanist thinking? How did humanist ideas find...
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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 charm us with titbits of wit and humour.” The book became one of the most influential of the Renaissance period, since it both preserved the wisdom of the ancients and served as a how to book on oration.
Book of the Courtier
Published in 1528 by Italian knight, diplomat, and courtier Baldassare Castiglione, Book of the Courtier (Il Cortegiano) describes the perfect gentleman and lady. It consists of a dialogue among typical courtiers, discussing how to comport oneself with grace. A group of courtiers led by the Duchess of Urbina describes the perfect gentleman and his talents, which range from hunting, swimming, leaping, running, playing tennis, and playing music to avoiding envy. The perfect...
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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 obsessed with perspective. Notable pieces that show perspective are “The Holy Trinity” by Masaccio (Tommaso di Giovanni di Simone Guidi, 1401–1428) and “Dead Christ” by Andrea Mantegna (1431–1506). Portraits were another “invention” of the Renaissance, stemming from the humanist belief in the essential dignity of man.
Of the many classical writers who laid the groundwork for Humanism, several are still pertinent today and also highly readable. Plato’s Republic, which describes the ideal state, inspired many humanist thinkers. The Republic explores the facets of the ideal state through a dialogue conducted by Socrates.
Besides researching classical writers and writing to them in...
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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 and II, Prometheus Books, 1973.
Lamont, Corliss, The Philosophy of Humanism, 7th ed., Continuum Publishing Company, 1990, pp. 12, 42.
Paine, Thomas, “Revealed Religion and Morality,” in Humanist Anthology from Confucius to Attenborough, edited by Margaret Knight, Prometheus Books, 1995, p. 75.
Radest, Howard B., The Devil and Secular Humanism: The Children of the Enlightenment, Praeger, 1990, p. 31.
Rorty, Richard, Philosophy and Social Hope, Penguin Putnam, 1999.
Werner, Michael, “Humanism and Beyond the Truth,” in Humanism Today, Vol. 13: Beyond Reason?: Essays from the Humanist Institute, North American Council for Humanism, 1999....
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