What are some major features of Renaissance Humanism?

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In many respects, Renaissance humanism represented a reaction against Medieval scholasticism. The scholastics viewed intellectual pursuits primarily through the lens of theology, and Medieval culture, so focused as it was around the church, had a history of subordinating temporal affairs in favor of spiritual ones.

While still existing within a devoutly Christian culture, the humanists criticized this earlier mindset, holding that it was not enough to focus one's attention primarily towards the non-material. On the contrary, humanists called for the cultivation of civic virtue and for active engagement within a civic community.

At its core, humanism was animated by the rediscovery and proliferation of classical texts. Humanists idealized the classical past and viewed themselves as reviving that classical legacy. Indeed, humanism's focus on civic virtue and civic engagement represents, in and of itself, a direct link to those older classical ideals: ideals that are most famously embodied in the highly political cultures of Ancient Athens and (for the humanists, most importantly) Ancient Rome. Thus, the humanists placed a particular focus on the great rhetoricians and orators of the ancient world, whose example could be directly applied towards their own efforts in civic life.

These ideals and values represented a dramatic departure from the Medieval mindset and proved critical in shaping Renaissance culture.

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Renaissance Humanism was a cultural movement that began in Italy around the fourteenth century and spread across Western Europe in the following centuries. It affirmed that man was at the center of his own universe and stressed the importance of education, literature, classical arts, and science. The invention of the printing press by Gutenberg in 1450 made possible the widespread dissemination of ideas related to Renaissance Humanism. Several major features characterized this movement.

Renaissance Humanists studied manuscripts of classical literature in pursuit of universal human truths. They subjected these texts to analytical questioning to uncover knowledge that could transform life from its chaotic and mundane exterior into a sublime experience.

Realism was important to Renaissance Humanism. Instead of relying on traditional assumptions, humanists sought perceived experience, which gave rise to the importance of the study of history, social science, and political science. This realism also relied on the honest evaluation and moral criticism of human folly, uncertainty, and immorality.

The importance of the individual became critical in Renaissance Humanism. Humanists believed that freedom was essential for proper critical scrutiny. As a result of this inherent individualism, there were no limits to human aspiration.

Renaissance Humanists believed that the ultimate goal of learning was the performance of virtuous action. Without effective action brought on by moral awareness, wisdom was incomplete. For this reason, Renaissance Humanism stressed social responsibility.

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The main distinction between the humanist movement in the Renaissance and the previous intellectual conversation is aptly described in the name: humanism focused on the exploration of human beings, as opposed to exploring the nature of God and religion. One can see this in the difference between Renaissance paintings and medieval paintings. In medieval paintings, God, Jesus, and the saints take up most of the canvas, with ordinary people painted very small at the bottom. In the Renaissance, ordinary people began to take up more of, or even became the focus of, these paintings. Art, both painting and sculpture, was a big part of the humanist movement—people like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonnaroti are examples of great Renaissance artists.

This focus on the human both came from Greek and Roman influences and led to greater interest in them. The movement began in Italy and then spread to other parts of Europe over time. The Renaissance is called the Renaissance—French for "rebirth"—because Renaissance humanists brought back texts and interests that scholars hadn't focused on for centuries. They learned Greek and Latin and began to translate important pieces of literature such as The Iliad, The Odyssey, and the works of the great Greek playwrights. These epics and plays explored human nature for its own sake as well as in relationship to the divine. Writers like Shakespeare emulated classical literature by placing great men at the center of their works and looking at how humans behave in challenging situations.

The sciences gained new energy from humanism as well. The interest in the human led to closer examinations of the body, as anatomists like Andreas Vesalius began to describe the workings of the human frame more accurately than medieval scientists had done. In architecture, Filippo Brunelleschi began to use innovative techniques based on those of the Romans. Nicolaus Copernicus theorized the heliocentric model—that the earth goes around the sun rather than the opposite—and Galileo Galilei invented the telescope in order to investigate heavenly bodies more closely.

In every arena of human knowledge, the study of classical texts brought new ideas and new energy to the work of scholars and creators.

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Renaissance Humanism was an international movement in European culture. Its major focus was on revival of classical Greek and Latin culture, in opposition to the scholasticism of the late middle ages. The humanists advocated a return "ad fontes" (to the sources). This meant a concerted effort to find original Greek manuscripts of both the Bible and ancient literary, scientific, and philosophical texts and to engage in meticulous editing to recuperate the original phrasing and meaning. 

While scholastic philosophy was very technical and scientific, accessible only to specialists, the humanists had a greater appreciation for what we now would consider belles lettres, essayistic writing aimed towards a general educated audience. The humanists were especially interested in letter writing and saw Cicero's letters as models for emulation. 

Latin was the international language of humanism. In a rebellion against what they considered the barbaric nature of Church Latin, humanists attempted to revive classical traditions of Latin vocabulary, syntax, and pronunciation, increasing the divide between the Latin in general use and emerging vernaculars.

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