Renaissance Humanism

History of Humanism With Ancient Renaissance Philosophers

Petrarch
Petrarch. De Agostini Picture Library/Getty

The title “Renaissance Humanism” is applied to the philosophical and cultural movement that swept across Europe from the 14th through 16th centuries, effectively ending the Middle Ages and leading into the modern era. Pioneers of Renaissance Humanism were inspired by the discovery and spread of important classical texts from ancient Greece and Rome which offered a different vision of life and humanity than what had been common during previous centuries of Christian domination.

Humanism Focuses on Humanity

The central focus of Renaissance Humanism was, quite simply, human beings. Humans were praised for their achievements, which were attributed to human ingenuity and human effort rather than divine grace. Humans were regarded optimistically in terms of what they could do, not just in the arts and sciences but even morally. Human concerns were given greater attention, leading people to spend more time on work that would benefit people in their daily lives rather than the otherworldly interests of the Church.

Renaissance Italy Was the Starting Point of Humanism

The starting point for the Humanism of the Renaissance was Italy. This was most likely due to the ongoing presence of a commercial revolution in the Italian city-states of the era. At this time, there was a tremendous increase in the number of rich individuals with disposable income that supported a luxurious lifestyle of leisure and arts.

The earliest humanists were the librarians, secretaries, teachers, courtiers, and privately supported artists of these wealthy businessmen and merchants. Over time, the label Literoe humaniores was adopted to describe the classic literature of Rome, in contrast to the Literoe sacroe of the church’s scholastic philosophy.

Another factor which made Italy a natural place for launching the humanist movement was its obvious connection to ancient Rome. Humanism was very much an outgrowth of increased interest in the philosophy, literature, and historiography of ancient Greece and Rome, all of which offered a stark contrast to what had been produced under the direction of the Christian Church during the Middle Ages. Italians of the time felt themselves to be the direct descendants of the ancient ​Romans, and thus believed that they were the inheritors of Roman culture — an inheritance which they were determined to study and understand. Of course, this study led to admiration which, in turn, also led to imitation.

Rediscovery of Greek and Roman Manuscripts

An important feature of these developments was simply finding the material to work with. Much had been lost or was languishing in various archives and libraries, neglected and forgotten. It is because of the need to find and translate ancient manuscripts that so many early humanists were deeply involved with libraries, transcription, and linguistics. New discoveries for works by Cicero, Ovid, or Tacitus were incredible events for those involved (by 1430 nearly all ancient Latin works now known had been collected, so what we today know about ancient Rome we owe largely to the Humanists).

Again, because this was their cultural inheritance and a link to their past, it was of the utmost importance that the material be found, preserved, and provided to others. Over time they also moved on to ancient Greek works — Aristotle, Plato, the Homeric epics, and more. This process was hastened by the continuing conflict between the Turks and Constantinople, the last bastion of the ancient Roman empire and the center of Greek learning. In 1453, Constantinople fell to Turkish forces, causing many Greek thinkers to flee to Italy where their presence served to encourage the further development of humanistic thinking.

Renaissance Humanism Promotes Education

One consequence of the development of humanist philosophy during the Renaissance was the increased emphasis on the importance of education.

People needed to learn ancient Greek and Latin in order to even begin to understand the ancient manuscripts. This, in turn, led to further education in the arts and philosophies which went along with those manuscripts — and finally the ancient sciences which had for so long been neglected by Christian scholars. As a result, there was a burst of scientific and technological development during the Renaissance unlike anything seen in Europe for centuries.

Early on this education was limited primarily to aristocrats and men of financial means. Indeed, much of the early humanist movement had a rather elitist air about it. Over time, however, the courses of study were adapted for a wider audience — a process which was greatly hastened by the development of the printing press. With this, many entrepreneurs began printing editions of ancient philosophy and literature in Greek, Latin, and Italian for a mass audience, leading to a dissemination of information and ideas much wider than previously thought possible.

Petrarch

One of the most important of early humanists was Petrarch (1304-74), an Italian poet who applied the ideas and values of ancient Greece and Rome to questions about Christian doctrines and ethics which were being asked in his own day. Many tend to mark the beginning of Humanism with the writings of Dante (1265-1321), yet though Dante certainly presaged the coming revolution in thinking, it was Petrarch who first really set things in motion.

Petrarch was among the first to work to unearth long-forgotten manuscripts. Unlike Dante, he abandoned any concern with religious theology in favor of ancient Roman poetry and philosophy. He also focused upon Rome as the site of a classical civilization, not as the center of Christianity. Finally, Petrarch argued that our highest goals should not be the imitation of Christ, but rather the principles of virtue and truth as described by the ancients.

Political Humanists

Although many humanists were literary figures like Petrarch or Dante, many others were actually political figures who used their positions of power and influence to help support the spread of humanist ideals.

Coluccio Salutati (1331-1406) and Leonardo Bruni (1369-1444), for example, became chancellors of Florence in part because of their skill in using Latin in their correspondence and speeches, a style which became popular as part of the effort to imitate the writings of antiquity before it was deemed even more important to write in the vernacular so as to reach the wider audience of common people. Salutati, Bruni, and others like them worked to develop new ways of thinking about Florence’s republican traditions and engaged in a great deal of correspondence with others to explain their principles.

The Spirit of Humanism

The most important thing to remember about Renaissance Humanism, however, is that its most important characteristics lie not in its content or its adherents, but in its spirit. To understand Humanism, it must be contrasted with the piety and scholasticism of the Middle Ages, against which Humanism was regarded as a free and open breath of fresh air. Indeed, Humanism was often critical of the stuffiness and repression of the Church over the centuries, arguing that humans needed more intellectual freedom in which they could develop their faculties.

Sometimes Humanism appeared quite close to ancient paganism, but this was usually more a consequence of the comparison to medieval Christianity than anything inherent in the beliefs of the Humanists. Nevertheless, the anti-clerical and anti-church inclinations of the humanists were a direct result of their reading ancient authors who didn’t care about, didn’t believe in any gods, or believed in gods who were far and remote from anything that the humanists were familiar with.

It is perhaps curious, then, that so many famous humanists were also members of the church — papal secretaries, bishops, cardinals, and even a couple of popes (Nicholas V, Pius II). These were secular rather than spiritual leaders, exhibiting much more interest in literature, art, and philosophy than in sacraments and theology. Renaissance Humanism was a revolution in thinking and feeling which left no part of society, not even the highest levels of Christianity, untouched.