Renaissance humanism
Renaissance humanism
Humanism is an approach in study, philosophy, world view or practice that focuses on human values and concerns. In philosophy and social science, humanism is a perspective which affirms some notion of human nature, and is contrasted with anti-humanism....

was an activity of cultural and educational reform engaged by scholars, writers, and civic leaders who are today known as Renaissance humanists. It developed during the fourteenth and the beginning of the fifteenth centuries, and was a response to the challenge of Mediæval scholastic education, emphasizing practical, pre-professional and -scientific studies. Scholasticism
Scholasticism is a method of critical thought which dominated teaching by the academics of medieval universities in Europe from about 1100–1500, and a program of employing that method in articulating and defending orthodoxy in an increasingly pluralistic context...

 focused on preparing men to be doctors, lawyers or professional theologians, and was taught from approved textbooks in logic, natural philosophy, medicine, law and theology. The main centers of humanism were Florence
Florence is the capital city of the Italian region of Tuscany and of the province of Florence. It is the most populous city in Tuscany, with approximately 370,000 inhabitants, expanding to over 1.5 million in the metropolitan area....

 and Naples
Naples is a city in Southern Italy, situated on the country's west coast by the Gulf of Naples. Lying between two notable volcanic regions, Mount Vesuvius and the Phlegraean Fields, it is the capital of the region of Campania and of the province of Naples...


Rather than train professionals in jargon and strict practice, humanists sought to create a citizenry (sometimes including women) able to speak and write with eloquence and clarity. Thus, they would be capable of better engaging the civic life of their communities and persuading others to virtuous and prudent actions. This was to be accomplished through the study of the studia humanitatis
The word humanitas was used by Cicero to describe the formation of an ideal speaker who he believed should be educated to possess a collection of virtues of character suitable for an active life of public service; these would include a fund of learning acquired from the study of bonae litterae ,...

, today known as the humanities
The humanities are academic disciplines that study the human condition, using methods that are primarily analytical, critical, or speculative, as distinguished from the mainly empirical approaches of the natural sciences....

: grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry and moral philosophy.


Early humanists, such as Petrarch
Francesco Petrarca , known in English as Petrarch, was an Italian scholar, poet and one of the earliest humanists. Petrarch is often called the "Father of Humanism"...

, Coluccio Salutati
Coluccio Salutati
Coluccio Salutati was an Italian Humanist and man of letters, and one of the most important political and cultural leaders of Renaissance Florence.-Birth and Early Career:...

 and Leonardo De Vinci, were great collectors of antique manuscripts. Many worked for the organized Church and were in holy orders (like Petrarch), while others were lawyers and chancellors of Italian cities, like Petrarch's disciple, Salutati, the Chancellor of Florence, and thus had access to book copying workshops...

In Italy, the humanist educational program won rapid acceptance and, by the mid-fifteenth century, many of the upper classes had received humanist educations. Some of the highest officials of the Church were humanists with the resources to amass important libraries. Such was Cardinal Basilios Bessarion, a convert to the Latin Church from Greek Orthodoxy, who was considered for the papacy and was one of the most learned scholars of his time. There were several fifteenth-century and early sixteenth-century humanist Popes one of whom, Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini (Pius II), was a prolific author and wrote a treatise on "The Education of Boys".These subjects came to be known as humanities, and the movement they inspired is shown as humanism.

With the adoption of large-scale printing after the end of the era of incunabula (or books printed prior to 1501), Italian Humanism spread northward to France, Germany, Holland and England, where it became associated with the Protestant Reformation
Protestant Reformation
The Protestant Reformation was a 16th-century split within Western Christianity initiated by Martin Luther, John Calvin and other early Protestants. The efforts of the self-described "reformers", who objected to the doctrines, rituals and ecclesiastical structure of the Roman Catholic Church, led...

. In France, pre-eminent Humanist Guillaume Budé
Guillaume Budé
Guillaume Budé was a French scholar.-Life:Budé was born in Paris. He went to the University of Orléans to study law, but for several years, being possessed of ample means, he led an idle and dissipated life...

 (1467–1540) applied the philological
Philology is the study of language in written historical sources; it is a combination of literary studies, history and linguistics.Classical philology is the philology of Greek and Classical Latin...

 methods of Italian Humanism to the study of antique coinage and to legal history, composing a detailed commentary on Justinian's Code
Corpus Juris Civilis
The Corpus Juris Civilis is the modern name for a collection of fundamental works in jurisprudence, issued from 529 to 534 by order of Justinian I, Eastern Roman Emperor...

. Although a royal absolutist (and not a republican like the early Italian umanisti), Budé was active in civic life, serving as a diplomat for Francis I
Francis I of France
Francis I was King of France from 1515 until his death. During his reign, huge cultural changes took place in France and he has been called France's original Renaissance monarch...

 and helping to found the Collège des Lecteurs Royaux
Collège de France
The Collège de France is a higher education and research establishment located in Paris, France, in the 5th arrondissement, or Latin Quarter, across the street from the historical campus of La Sorbonne at the intersection of Rue Saint-Jacques and Rue des Écoles...

 (later the Collège de France). Meanwhile Marguerite de Navarre
Marguerite de Navarre
Marguerite de Navarre , also known as Marguerite of Angoulême and Margaret of Navarre, was the queen consort of Henry II of Navarre...

, the sister of Francis I, herself a poet, novelist and religious mystic, gathered around her and protected a circle of vernacular poets and writers, including Clément Marot
Clément Marot
Clément Marot was a French poet of the Renaissance period.-Youth:Marot was born at Cahors, the capital of the province of Quercy, some time during the winter of 1496-1497. His father, Jean Marot , whose more correct name appears to have been des Mares, Marais or Marets, was a Norman from the Caen...

, Pierre de Ronsard
Pierre de Ronsard
Pierre de Ronsard was a French poet and "prince of poets" .-Early life:...

 and François Rabelais
François Rabelais
François Rabelais was a major French Renaissance writer, doctor, Renaissance humanist, monk and Greek scholar. He has historically been regarded as a writer of fantasy, satire, the grotesque, bawdy jokes and songs...


Paganism and Christianity in the Renaissance

Many humanists were churchmen, most notably Pope Pius II (Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini), Sixtus IV
Pope Sixtus IV
Pope Sixtus IV , born Francesco della Rovere, was Pope from 1471 to 1484. His accomplishments as Pope included the establishment of the Sistine Chapel; the group of artists that he brought together introduced the Early Renaissance into Rome with the first masterpiece of the city's new artistic age,...

 and Leo X
Pope Leo X
Pope Leo X , born Giovanni di Lorenzo de' Medici, was the Pope from 1513 to his death in 1521. He was the last non-priest to be elected Pope. He is known for granting indulgences for those who donated to reconstruct St. Peter's Basilica and his challenging of Martin Luther's 95 Theses...

, and there was often patronage of humanists by senior church figures. Much humanist effort went into improving the understanding and translations of Biblical and early Christian texts, both before the Protestant Reformation
Protestant Reformation
The Protestant Reformation was a 16th-century split within Western Christianity initiated by Martin Luther, John Calvin and other early Protestants. The efforts of the self-described "reformers", who objected to the doctrines, rituals and ecclesiastical structure of the Roman Catholic Church, led...

, on which the work of figures like Erasmus and Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples
Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples
Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples or Jacob Faber Stapulensis was a French theologian and humanist. He was a precursor of the Protestant movement in France. The "d’Étaples" was not part of his name as such, but used to distinguish him from Jacques Lefèvre of Deventer, a less significant contemporary, a...

 had a great influence, and afterwards.

The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy describes the rationalism of ancient writings as having tremendous impact on Renaissance
The Renaissance was a cultural movement that spanned roughly the 14th to the 17th century, beginning in Italy in the Late Middle Ages and later spreading to the rest of Europe. The term is also used more loosely to refer to the historical era, but since the changes of the Renaissance were not...

This view, however, of the Renaissance as a return to "paganism", although popular in the nineteenth century, is no longer accepted by historians. Nevertheless, the discovery of classical philosophy and science would eventually challenge old beliefs.

In 1417, for example, Poggio Bracciolini
Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini
Poggio Bracciolini was an Italian scholar, writer and humanist. He recovered a great number of classical Latin texts, mostly lying forgotten in German and French monastic libraries, and disseminated manuscript copies among the educated world.- Biography :Poggio di Duccio was...

 discovered the manuscript of Lucretius
Titus Lucretius Carus was a Roman poet and philosopher. His only known work is an epic philosophical poem laying out the beliefs of Epicureanism, De rerum natura, translated into English as On the Nature of Things or "On the Nature of the Universe".Virtually no details have come down concerning...

, De rerum natura, which had been lost for centuries and which contained an explanation of Epicurean doctrine, though at the time this was not commented on much by Renaissance scholars, who confined themselves to remarks about Lucretius's grammar and syntax. Lorenzo Valla
Lorenzo Valla
Lorenzo Valla was an Italian humanist, rhetorician, and educator. His family was from Piacenza; his father, Luciave della Valla, was a lawyer....

, however, puts a defense of epicureanism in the mouth of one of the interlocutors of one of his dialogues. Valla's defense (or adaptation) of Epicureanism was later taken up in The Epicurean
Epicureanism is a system of philosophy based upon the teachings of Epicurus, founded around 307 BC. Epicurus was an atomic materialist, following in the steps of Democritus. His materialism led him to a general attack on superstition and divine intervention. Following Aristippus—about whom...

, by Erasmus, the "prince of humanists:"
This passage exemplifies the way in which the humanists saw pagan classical works such as the philosophy of Epicurus
Epicurus was an ancient Greek philosopher and the founder of the school of philosophy called Epicureanism.Only a few fragments and letters remain of Epicurus's 300 written works...

 as being in harmony with Christianity
Christianity is a monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus as presented in canonical gospels and other New Testament writings...

, when properly interpreted.

Renaissance Neo-Platonists, such as Marsilio Ficino
Marsilio Ficino
Marsilio Ficino was one of the most influential humanist philosophers of the early Italian Renaissance, an astrologer, a reviver of Neoplatonism who was in touch with every major academic thinker and writer of his day, and the first translator of Plato's complete extant works into Latin...

, whose translations of Plato were still used into the nineteenth century, attempted to reconcile Platonism with Christianity, according to the suggestions of the early Church fathers, Lactantius
Lucius Caecilius Firmianus Lactantius was an early Christian author who became an advisor to the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine I, guiding his religious policy as it developed, and tutor to his son.-Biography:...

 and Saint Augustine. In this spirit, Pico della Mirandola, who was not a humanist but an Aristotelian trained in Paris, attempted to construct a syncretism
Syncretism is the combining of different beliefs, often while melding practices of various schools of thought. The term means "combining", but see below for the origin of the word...

 of all religions, but his work did not win favor with Church authorities.

Historian Steven Kreis expresses a widespread view (derived from the nineteenth-century Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt
Jacob Burckhardt
Carl Jacob Christoph Burckhardt was a historian of art and culture, and an influential figure in the historiography of each field. He is known as one of the major progenitors of cultural history, albeit in a form very different from how cultural history is conceived and studied in academia today...

), when he writes that:
The period from the fourteenth century to the seventeenth worked in favor of the general emancipation of the individual. The city-states of northern Italy had come into contact with the diverse customs of the East, and gradually permitted expression in matters of taste and dress. The writings of Dante, and particularly the doctrines of Petrarch and humanists like Machiavelli, emphasized the virtues of intellectual freedom and individual expression. In the essays of Montaigne the individualistic view of life received perhaps the most persuasive and eloquent statement in the history of literature and philosophy.

Two noteworthy trends in Renaissance humanism were Renaissance Neo-Platonism and Hermeticism
Hermeticism or the Western Hermetic Tradition is a set of philosophical and religious beliefs based primarily upon the pseudepigraphical writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus...

, which through the works of figures like Giordano Bruno
Giordano Bruno
Giordano Bruno , born Filippo Bruno, was an Italian Dominican friar, philosopher, mathematician and astronomer. His cosmological theories went beyond the Copernican model in proposing that the Sun was essentially a star, and moreover, that the universe contained an infinite number of inhabited...

, Cornelius Agrippa, Campanella
Tommaso Campanella
Tommaso Campanella OP , baptized Giovanni Domenico Campanella, was an Italian philosopher, theologian, astrologer, and poet.-Biography:...

 and Pico della Mirandola sometimes came close to constituting a new religion itself. Of these two, Hermeticsm has had great continuing influence in Western thought, while the former mostly dissipated as an intellectual trend, leading to movements in Western esotericism such as Theosophy
Theosophy, in its modern presentation, is a spiritual philosophy developed since the late 19th century. Its major themes were originally described mainly by Helena Blavatsky , co-founder of the Theosophical Society...

 and New Age
New Age
The New Age movement is a Western spiritual movement that developed in the second half of the 20th century. Its central precepts have been described as "drawing on both Eastern and Western spiritual and metaphysical traditions and then infusing them with influences from self-help and motivational...

 thinking. The "Yates thesis" of Frances Yates
Frances Yates
Dame Frances Amelia Yates DBE was a British historian. She taught at the Warburg Institute of the University of London for many years.She wrote extensively on the occult or Neoplatonic philosophies of the Renaissance...

 holds that before falling out of favour, esoteric Renaissance thought introduced several concepts that were useful for the development of scientific method, though this remains a matter of controversy.

Though humanists continued to use their scholarship in the service of the church into the middle of the sixteenth century and beyond, the sharply confrontational religious atmosphere following the Protestant reformation
Protestant Reformation
The Protestant Reformation was a 16th-century split within Western Christianity initiated by Martin Luther, John Calvin and other early Protestants. The efforts of the self-described "reformers", who objected to the doctrines, rituals and ecclesiastical structure of the Roman Catholic Church, led...

 resulted in the Counter-Reformation
The Counter-Reformation was the period of Catholic revival beginning with the Council of Trent and ending at the close of the Thirty Years' War, 1648 as a response to the Protestant Reformation.The Counter-Reformation was a comprehensive effort, composed of four major elements:#Ecclesiastical or...

 that sought to silence challenges to Catholic theology, with similar efforts among the Protestant churches.

With the Counter Reformation initiated by the Council of Trent
Council of Trent
The Council of Trent was the 16th-century Ecumenical Council of the Roman Catholic Church. It is considered to be one of the Church's most important councils. It convened in Trent between December 13, 1545, and December 4, 1563 in twenty-five sessions for three periods...

, positions hardened and a strict Catholic orthodoxy based on Scholastic philosophy
Scholasticism is a method of critical thought which dominated teaching by the academics of medieval universities in Europe from about 1100–1500, and a program of employing that method in articulating and defending orthodoxy in an increasingly pluralistic context...

 was imposed, and some humanists, even moderate Catholics such as Erasmus, risked being declared heretics for their criticism of the church.

The historian of the Renaissance Sir John Hale
John Rigby Hale
Sir John Rigby Hale was a British Renaissance historian, translator, editor, and university professor.John Rigby Hale was born September 17, 1923, in Ashford, Kent, in the United Kingdom. He was educated at Jesus College, Oxford . He also attended Johns Hopkins University and Harvard University...

 cautions against too direct a linkage between Renaissance humanism and modern uses of the term: "Renaissance humanism must be kept free from any hint of either "humanitarianism" or "humanism" in its modern sense of rational, non-religious approach to life ... the word "humanism" will mislead ... if it is seen in opposition to a Christianity its students in the main wished to supplement, not contradict, through their patient excavation of the sources of ancient God-inspired wisdom"

According to George Makdisi, certain aspects of Renaissance humanism has its roots in the medieval Islamic world
Islamic Golden Age
During the Islamic Golden Age philosophers, scientists and engineers of the Islamic world contributed enormously to technology and culture, both by preserving earlier traditions and by adding their own inventions and innovations...

, including the "art of dictation
Dictation (exercise)
Dictation is the transcription of spoken text: one person who is "dictating" speaks and another who is "taking dictation" writes down the words as they are spoken.-La dictée:...

, called in Latin
Latin is an Italic language originally spoken in Latium and Ancient Rome. It, along with most European languages, is a descendant of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language. Although it is considered a dead language, a number of scholars and members of the Christian clergy speak it fluently, and...

, ars dictaminis
Ars dictaminis
The ars dictaminis was the medieval description of the art of prose composition, and more specifically of the writing of letters . It is closely linked to the ars dictandi, covering the composition of documents other than letters. The standing assumption was that these writings would be composed in...

and "the humanist attitude toward classical language
Classical language
A classical language is a language with a literature that is classical. According to UC Berkeley linguist George L. Hart, it should be ancient, it should be an independent tradition that arose mostly on its own, not as an offshoot of another tradition, and it must have a large and extremely rich...

", in this case classical Arabic
Classical Arabic
Classical Arabic , also known as Qur'anic or Koranic Arabic, is the form of the Arabic language used in literary texts from Umayyad and Abbasid times . It is based on the Medieval dialects of Arab tribes...


See also

  • Greek scholars in the Renaissance
    Greek scholars in the Renaissance
    The migration of Byzantine scholars and other émigrés from southern Italy and Byzantium during the decline of the Byzantine Empire and mainly after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 until the 16th century, is considered by some scholars as key to the revival of Greek and Roman studies and...

  • Humanist Latin
    Humanist Latin
    Renaissance Latin is a name given to the distinctive form of Latin style developed during the European Renaissance of the fourteenth to fifteenth centuries, particularly by the Renaissance humanism movement.- Ad fontes :...

  • Legal humanists
    Legal humanists
    The legal humanists were a group of scholars of Roman law, which arose in 16th century France as a reaction against the Commentators. They had a general disdain for the Middle Ages and felt nothing good could come from then. They also had a great love of antiquarianism and were greatly concerned...

  • New Learning
    New Learning
    In the history of ideas the New Learning in Europe is a term for Renaissance humanism, developed in the later fifteenth century. Newly retrieved classical texts sparked philological study of a refined and classical Latin style in prose and poetry....

Further reading

  • Bolgar, R. R. The Classical Heritage and Its Beneficiaries: from the Carolingian Age to the End of the Renaissance. Cambridge, 1954.
  • Cassirer, Ernst
    Ernst Cassirer
    Ernst Cassirer was a German philosopher. He was one of the major figures in the development of philosophical idealism in the first half of the 20th century...

    . Individual and Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy. Harper and Row, 1963.
  • Cassirer, Ernst (Editor), Paul Oskar Kristeller (Editor), John Herman Randall (Editor). The Renaisssance Philosophy of Man. University of Chicago Press, 1969.
  • Cassirer, Ernst. Platonic Renaissance in England. Gordian, 1970.
  • Celenza, Christopher S. The Lost Italian Renaissance: Humanism, Historians, and Latin's Legacy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 2004 ISBN 978-0-8018-8384-2
  • Erasmus, Desiderius. "The Epicurean". In Colloquies.
  • Garin, Eugenio
    Eugenio Garin
    Eugenio Garin was an Italian philosopher and Renaissance historian. He was recognised as an authority on the cultural history of the Renaissance...

    . Science and Civic Life in the Italian Renaissance. New York: Doubleday, 1969.
  • Garin, Eugenio
    Eugenio Garin
    Eugenio Garin was an Italian philosopher and Renaissance historian. He was recognised as an authority on the cultural history of the Renaissance...

    . Italian Humanism: Philosophy and Civic Life in the Renaissance. Basil Blackwell, 1965.
  • Garin, Eugenio
    Eugenio Garin
    Eugenio Garin was an Italian philosopher and Renaissance historian. He was recognised as an authority on the cultural history of the Renaissance...

    . History of Italian Philosophy. (2 vols.) Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi, 2008. ISBN 9789042023215
  • Grafton, Anthony
    Anthony Grafton
    Anthony Grafton is a historian and the current Henry Putnam University Professor at Princeton University. He is also a corresponding fellow of the British Academy and a recipient of the Balzan Prize...

    . Bring Out Your Dead: The Past as Revelation. Harvard University Press, 2004 ISBN 0674015975
  • Grafton, Anthony. Worlds Made By Words: Scholarship and Community in the Modern West. Harvard University Press, 2009 ISBN 0674032578
  • Hale, John
    John Rigby Hale
    Sir John Rigby Hale was a British Renaissance historian, translator, editor, and university professor.John Rigby Hale was born September 17, 1923, in Ashford, Kent, in the United Kingdom. He was educated at Jesus College, Oxford . He also attended Johns Hopkins University and Harvard University...

    . A Concise Encyclopaedia of the Italian Renaissance. Oxford University Press, 1981, ISBN 0500233330.
  • Kallendorf, Craig W, editor. Humanist Educational Treatises. Cambridge, Mass.: The I Tatti Renaissance Library, 2002.
  • Kraye, Jill (Editor). The Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Humanism. Cambridge University Press, 1996.
  • Kristeller, Paul Oskar
    Paul Oskar Kristeller
    Paul Oskar Kristeller was an important scholar of Renaissance humanism. He was awarded the Haskins Medal in 1992. He was last active as Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Columbia University in New York, where he mentored both Irving Louis Horowitz and A...

    . Renaissance Thought and Its Sources. Columbia University Press, 1979 ISBN 978-0231045131
  • Pico della Mirandola, Giovanni
    Giovanni Pico della Mirandola
    Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola was an Italian Renaissance philosopher. He is famed for the events of 1486, when at the age of 23, he proposed to defend 900 theses on religion, philosophy, natural philosophy and magic against all comers, for which he wrote the famous Oration on the Dignity of...

    . Oration on the Dignity of Man. In Cassirer, Kristeller, and Randall, eds. Renaissance Philosophy of Man. University of Chicago Press, 1969.
  • Skinner, Quentin
    Quentin Skinner
    Quentin Robert Duthie Skinner is the Barber Beaumont Professor of the Humanities at Queen Mary, University of London.-Biography:...

    . Renaissance Virtues: Visions of Politics: Volume II. Cambridge University Press, [2002] 2007.
  • McManus, Stuart M. "Byzantines in the Florentine Polis: Ideology, Statecraft and Ritual during the Council of Florence". Journal of the Oxford University History Society
    Journal of the Oxford University History Society
    The Journal of the Oxford University History Society is the on line peer-reviewed journal associated with the Oxford University History society . It has published articles by postgraduate students and young scholars from Oxford University, Yale University, Brown University, the Sorbonne and...

    , 6 (Michaelmas 2008/Hilary 2009).
  • Nauert, Charles Garfield. Humanism and the Culture of Renaissance Europe (New Approaches to European History). Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  • Plumb, J. H. ed.: The Italian Renaissance 1961, American Heritage, New York, ISBN 0-618-12738-0 (page refs from 1978 UK Penguin edn).
  • Rossellini, Roberto
    Roberto Rossellini
    Roberto Rossellini was an Italian film director and screenwriter. Rossellini was one of the directors of the Italian neorealist cinema, contributing films such as Roma città aperta to the movement.-Early life:Born in Rome, Roberto Rossellini lived on the Via Ludovisi, where Benito Mussolini had...

    . The Age of the Medici: Part 1, Cosimo de' Medici; Part 2, Alberti 1973. (Film Series). Criterion Collection.
  • Symonds, John Addington
    John Addington Symonds
    John Addington Symonds was an English poet and literary critic. Although he married and had a family, he was an early advocate of male love , which he believed could include pederastic as well as egalitarian relationships. He referred to it as l'amour de l'impossible...

    .The Renaissance in Italy. Seven Volumes. 1875-1886.
  • Trinkaus, Charles. The Scope of Renaissance Humanism. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983.
  • Wind, Edgar
    Edgar Wind
    Edgar Wind was a German-born British interdisciplinary art historian, specializing in iconology in the Renaissance era. He was a member of the school of art historians associated with Aby Warburg and the Warburg Institute as well as the first Professor of art history at Oxford University...

    . Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance. New York: W.W. Norton, 1969.

External links

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