Renaissance Humanism

The Humanism of the Renaissance

Humanism (the philosophy that people are rational beings) became quite popular during the Renaissance. The dignity and worth of the individual was emphasized. This movement originated with the study of classical culture and a group of subjects known collectively as the “studia humanitatis”, or the humanities.

Humanism and the humanities disciplines included studies in speaking, grammar, poetry, ethics and history. The humanist preference was to study them as much as possible in their original classical texts (mostly Latin). The more traditional educational approach was that of scholasticism, which concentrates on logic, natural science and metaphysics.

The scholars from each philosophy often clashed with each other. The more traditional scholastic training prepared students to become doctors, lawyers and theologians. The new humanism believed that the focus on education should be broader and encompass more professions. Humanists proposed a more rounded education that placed the emphasis not only on intellectual learning, but also on physical and moral development.

This new humanism also placed importance in the individual’s responsibilities of citizenship and leadership, including the participation in the political process in the community. The general humanism belief was that the scholastic type of education did not instill a respect for public duty.

It was controversial for the new humanists to believe that the ancient ways of thinking had been outgrown and that a person’s thoughts should no longer be of abstract speculation or rely on Christian thinking. Humanisms popularity grew as more urban residents learned of it. These people tended to object to the traditional education system that was monopolized by the clergy and effectively excluded them. They could see that the new humanism could include them.

Humanism relied on flexible thinking and being open to all of the possibilities of life and less concerned with the thinking of the past (antiquity).

The First Great Humanist

Francesco Petrarca (commonly known now as Petrarch) was born in 1304 near Florence and is known as the first great humanist. He was raised in Italy but traveled widely collecting ancient texts. One can see the urban emphasis in his teachings and his emphasis in the experiences of daily life like climbing mountains or traveling.

Petrarch was pulled between two worlds, the ideal world of antiquity and his desire to improve the current world. He believed he could learn to make the world a better place by studying classical literature. He, along with other humanists, admired the formal beauty of classical writing. He attempted to share the teachings of classical texts by studying them, and then, imitating them in Latin writings of his own.

Humanism Spreads

After Petrarch, the humanism philosophy spread first through Italy, then into other parts of Europe. During the mid to late 14th century, a number of scholars in Florence followed Petrarch’s lead and collected and studied ancient works. They lectured about them, imitated the style of the ancient works and the city of Florence became a center of humanistic learning.

As the movement grew, some extremist emerged. For the most part, humanists became experts in rhetoric and some town governments would frequently employ them to give humanistic style to their formal documents and to write official histories. Some of these humanists went to the extreme and became so pretentious and artificial that they would lose sight of their true objective and concentrate solely on the technique and detail of their work. Some of the extreme humanists had honed their style to such a pureness that they would only employ words used by the ancient Roman orator Cicero. It was this type of extremist humanists that caused some to accuse the humanists of being a frivolous pursuit. The detractors even accused the humanists of killing the Latin language by making it so isolated from their everyday life that it excluded everyone except the humanists themselves.

Other humanists used their study of the classical writing to approach the world of politics. Florence had many humanists, led by historian Leonardo Bruni, become extremely patriotic. This was during a time when they were frequently attacked by Milan, a rival city-state. They applied classical teachings and used them to help solve their current problems. They found in the ancient Roman literature a love of country and then applied the patriotism to their current problems.

Some of the humanists broke from tradition and applied classical literature standards to their own language in everyday writing. This is the foundation for literary development in non Latin writings and their intense patriotism allowed them to write about the city’s history, today, this gives us the modern historical perspective.

The study of texts was expanded by some humanists, during the 15th century, to include Greek. For the first time, Greek texts were read in the original language of Western Europe. The inclusion of Greek texts opened up new ideas for the humanists. One of the outcomes is the more precise understanding of Greek philosophy.

There was one Greek philosopher, Plato, who increasingly gained respect among the new humanists. A close follower of Plato was Marsilio Ficino, who persuaded the Florentine Academy, during the late 15th century, to take a more serious study of all of Plato’s works. Ficino hoped that Plato would be the guide for new Western humanists thought, like Plato’s student Aristotle had been for the traditional scholastic thinkers.

Humanism Spreads Throughout Europe

Italy started as the hub for the new humanist education and attracted many students from other countries as well as sending many of their scholars to work in other countries. The ideas of Italian humanism had spread into many parts of Western Europe before the end of the 15th century.

The roots of humanism are based in the past and the humanism of the countries North of Europe was strongly influenced by their past too. The differences between Italian and Northern humanism is, in great part, due to their differing histories.

The Italian humanists identified strongly with Rome. The Northern Europeans did not have such a strong tie to Rome and their form of humanism often viewed the history of the Middle Ages with more sympathy. The Northern humanists also retained stronger ties to Christianity than did Italy and were, in general, less hostile to the traditional educational system of scholasticism.

Because the humanism movement took longer to move into Northern Europe, its arrival and acceptance coincided with the Reformation. Sometimes northern humanism is identified with Christian humanism. Christian humanism attempted to use the scholarly techniques of humanism and apply them to the study of the Bible while ignoring prior medieval interpretations.

Humanists also read biblical texts in their original Greek and Hebrew and discovered discrepancies among the sources. These discrepancies led to more questions about the Catholic Church’s policies and practices. These questions evoked more support for the reform movement.

The Christian humanists, like other religious reformers of the Renaissance, generally considered themselves good Catholics. The best known Christian humanist was Desiderius Erasmus. He had numerous works, including a Latin translation of the New Testament as well as a Greek edition. Erasmus favored flexibility and tolerance and condemned overly rigid belief systems. He had an unequaled reputation as a biblical scholar and his view influenced large numbers of people (both Catholic and Protestant). Although receptive to change, the biblical humanists generally believed in the unity of the church and wanted to preserve reformed Catholic traditions. When Martin Luther condemned some of the basic teaching of the Catholic Church, Erasmus, along with some other Christian humanists, refused to accept Martin Luther’s arguments.

Without united support for either side, the Christian humanisms contributions to the Reformation were of a more indirect nature. The Reformation inspired skepticism and encouraged questioning of past beliefs and religious traditions, but Christian humanists simply could not embrace Martin Luther’s assertions that, with absolute certainty, major doctrines of the Catholic Church could be proved wrong.

18 thoughts on “Renaissance Humanism”

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