Briefly explain how the “individual” in Europe became so much more possessive of status during the late Middle Agers and early Modern period.  Make certain to provide at least two major causes...

Briefly explain how the “individual” in Europe became so much more possessive of status during the late Middle Agers and early Modern period.  Make certain to provide at least two major causes for this development.

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Stephen Holliday | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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As your question implies, the rise of the individual (in its collective sense, we refer to this as humanism) began in the late Middle Ages (ca. 1100-1350 BCE) and saw its greatest evolution in the Renaissance (14thC-16thC).  Humanism can be loosely defined as the stress on the importance of human beings, individually and collectively, and their function in the world--a human-centered universe--as opposed to the Middle Age view that man was a part of a rigid hierarchy in both civil and church life, and that the individual existed only to serve his earthly master and God.  The Renaissance virtually turned the view of man upside-down (or, rightside-up, depending on your point of view).  The causes of this sea-change in social, cultural, and religious thought are endlessly debated still, but there is consensus that the rise of humanism and the Renaissance can be attributed (at least) to the following.

In 1347, the Black Death, brought by trading ships from Asia Minor, ravaged Europe and England, eventually killing about 25 million people, approximately 30% of Europe's population.  The disease, which was incurable, is particularly horrific and it permanently scarred (no pun intended) the survivors.  From a social and cultural perspective, however, the plague killed so many people from all classes that two important things happened: 1) the survivors began to question their place in God's world and God's justice, and 2) the survivors became more important as individuals in the reconstruction of their societies.  In short, people became more valuable because they were a commodity whose numbers had decreased dramatically in a few years.

Just as the Black Death is a physical cause behind the rise of the individual, one of the most important intellectual causes has its origin in the fall of Constantinople, the remaining seat of the Roman Empire, in 1453.  Although the destruction of the "eastern" Roman Empire was a political and cultural catastrophe for the eastern part of what is now Europe, it created the opportunity for a tremendous migration of intellectuals to Italy, France, and Germany, who brought with them Greek classical literature and philosophy that was not widely known in the West.  A hallmark of Greek and Roman philosophy, literature, and culture is the importance of the individual in the life of society.  Along with this emphasis on the individual, there is a de-emphasis on the importance of religion.

The rise of humanism can easily be traced in the writings of philosophers writing at the early stages of the Renaissance.  Leonardo Bruni (ca. 1370-1444), a humanist, philosopher, and historian, spent a great deal of time translating classical works into Italian.  From that endeavor, he developed one of the most telling descriptions of man's new place in the world:

It is, rather, life and action according to reason. Whoever uses his reason with ability and excellence fulfills proper work for which he was naturally constituted. To live and act well: that is the highest good of man we are seeking.... (Isogogue of Moral Philosophy, unpaginated)

The critical themes here are "life and action according to reason" and "to live and act well," two themes that become staples of all further developments of humanism (or the importance of the individual).  In other parts of the Isogogue, Bruni stresses the importance of reading, of understanding history and philosophy, and he argues that a happy and useful life is grounded in both private and public virtue--all characteristics of the rise of humanism and the Renaissance.

Because learning is an important element in the rise of humanism and the Renaissance, the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg in 1440 sparked an explosion in learning.  Texts from classical Greek and Roman writers could now be distributed and read widely, with the result being that thousands of scholars, not hundreds, began an evolution from Middle Age church-centered philosophy to what would become a Renaissance human-centered philosophy of life that centered on the individual's right to achieve, by his own efforts, a virtuous and productive life.

Another important event, but I mention only in passing, is the Reformation, which began in Germany with Martin Luther in 1517.  This is the religious counterpart to the humanism of the Renaissance because it emphasized the importance of the individual's relationship with God, without the intervention of an intermediary like a priest.  The Reformation ultimately led to the printing of the Bible in the vernacular, a tremendous element in the rise of the individual's importance and the spread of literacy.

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