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Renaissance Humanism was a European intellectual movement that was a crucial component of the Renaissance, beginning in Florence in the later half of the 14th century. The humani Social or civic humanism rose out of the republican ideology of Florence at the beginning of the fifteenth century. It sought to create citizens capable of participating in the civic life of their community by placing central emphasis on human autonomy. Leonardo Bruni's Panegyric is one expression of this philosophy. The emancipated and literate upper bourgeoisie of the independent Italian communes adapted 14th-century Burgundian aristocratic culture and manners to an intensely patriotic civic life. Humanism was a pervasive cultural mode, not merely the product of a handful of geniuses, like Giotto or Leon Battista Alberti.


Relationship to Christianity

As Renaissance Neo-Platonism replaced the Aristotelianism of Thomas Aquinas, attempts were made to join the great works of antiquity with Christian values in a syncretic Christian humanism, such as those by Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola.

One example of such pagan philosophy and Christian doctrine melding is found in The Epicurean, by Erasmus, the "prince of humanists:"

If people who live agreeably are Epicureans, none are more truly Epicurean than the righteous and godly. And if it is names that bother us, no one better deserves the name of Epicurean than the revered founder and head of the Christian philosophy Christ, for in Greek epikouros means "helper." He alone, when the law of Nature was all but blotted out by sins, when the law of Moses incited to lists rather than cured them, when Satan ruled in the world unchallenged, brought timely aid to perishing humanity. Completely mistaken, therefore, are those who talk in their foolish fashion about Christ's having been sad and gloomy in character and calling upon us to follow a dismal mode of life. On the contrary, he alone shows the most enjoyable life of all and the one most full of true pleasure. (Erasmus 549)

This passage exemplifies the way in which the humanists saw pagan classical works such as the philosophy of Epicurus as being fundamentally in harmony with Christianity, rather than as a nemesis to be pitted against Christianity. Although Renaissance humanists were more accepting of pagan philosophy than their Scholastic contemporaries, they assumed that Christian understanding should be dominant over other modes of thought. Many humanists were churchmen, most notably Pope Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini Pius II, Sixtus IV, and Leo X,[1][2] and there was often patronage of humanists by senior church figures.[3] Much humanist effort went into improving the understanding and translations of Biblical and early Christian texts, both before the Protestant Reformation, on which the work of figures like Erasmus and Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples had a great influence, and afterwards.

As humanists increasingly opposed the strict Catholic orthodoxy of Scholastic philosophy, some began to intermingle pagan virtues with Christian virtues, and revive religious ideas from the late-classical Greek world, and some risked being declared heretics for distancing themselves from the church.[4] The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy describes the secularistic flavor of classical writings as having tremendous impact on Renaissance scholars:

Here, one felt no weight of the supernatural pressing on the human mind, demanding homage and allegiance. Humanity—with all its distinct capabilities, talents, worries, problems, possibilities—was the center of interest. It has been said that medieval thinkers philosophized on their knees, but, bolstered by the new studies, they dared to stand up and to rise to full stature.[5]

Renaissance humanism's divergence from orthodox Christianity was in two broad directions. Firstly there was Renaissance Neo-Platonism and Hermeticism, which through humanists like Giordano Bruno, Marsilio Ficino, Campanella and Pico della Mirandola introduced new and wide-ranging ideas of supernatural forces, and sometimes came close to constituting a new religion itself. Secondly, and especially towards the end of the movement, there was the secular world-view of humanist-influenced writers such as Niccolò Machiavelli and Francesco Guicciardini, the agnosticism and skepticism of Francis Bacon and Michel Montaigne, and the anti-clerical satire of François Rabelais[6]. Of these two directions, the latter 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 and New Age thinking.[7] The "Yates thesis" of Frances Yates 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, the sharply confrontational religious atmosphere following the Protestant reformation resulted in the Counter-Reformation that sought to silence challenges to Catholic theology,[8] with similar efforts among the Protestant churches.

The historian of the Renaissance Sir John Hale 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"[9]


See also


  1. ^ Löffler, Klemens (1910). "Humanism". The Catholic Encyclopedia. VII. New York: Robert Appleton Company. pp. 538–542. 
  2. ^ Origo, Iris; in Plumb, pp. 209ff. See also their respective entries in Hale, 1981
  3. ^ Davies, 477
  4. ^ "Humanism". Encyclopedic Dictionary of Religion. F-N. Corpus Publications. 1979. pp. 1733. ISBN 0-9602572-1-7. 
  5. ^ ""Humanism"". "The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, Second Edition. Cambridge University Press. 1999. 
  6. ^ Kreis, Steven (2008). "Renaissance Humanism". Retrieved 2009-03-03. 
  7. ^ Plumb, 95
  8. ^ "Rome Reborn: The Vatican Library & Renaissance Culture: Humanism". The Library of Congress. 2002-07-01. Retrieved 2009-03-03. 
  9. ^ Hale, 171. See also Davies, 479-480 for similar caution.

References and external links

  • Cassirer, Ernst. 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
  • Davies, Norman. Europe: A History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996, ISBN 0-19-820171-0
  • Erasmus, Desiderius. "The Epicurean". In Colloquies.
  • Garin, Eugenio. Science and Civic Life in the Italian Renaissance. New York: Doubleday, 1969.
  • Garin, Eugenio. Italian Humanism: Philosophy and Civic Life in the Renaissance. Basil Blackwell, 1965.
  • Grafton, Anthony. Bring Out Your Dead: The Past as Revelation. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004 ISBN 0674015975
  • Grafton, Anthony. Worlds Made By Words: Scholarship and Community in the Modern West. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009 ISBN 0674032578
  • Hale, John. A Concise Encyclopaedia of the Italian Renaissance. Oxford University Press, 1981, ISBN 0500233330.
  • Kreis, Steven. "Renaissance Humanism"
  • Kristeller, Paul Oskar. Renaissance Thought and Its Sources. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979 ISBN 978-0231045131
  • Pico della Mirandola, Giovanni. Oration on the Dignity of Man. In Cassirer, Kristeller, and Randall, eds. Renaissance Philosophy of Man. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969.
  • Catholic Encyclopedia article
  • Trinkaus, Charles (1973). "Renaissance Idea of the Dignity of Man". in Wiener, Philip P. Dictionary of the History of Ideas. ISBN 0684132931.; Retrieved 2009-12-02. 
  • Skinner, Quentin. 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, 6 (Michaelmas 2008/Hilary 2009).
  • Melchert, Norman (2002). The Great Conversation: A Historical Introduction to Philosophy. McGraw Hill. ISBN 0-19-517510-7. 
  • Plumb, J.H. ed.: The Italian Renaissance 1961, American Heritage, New York, ISBN 0-618-12738-0 (page refs from 1978 UK Penguin edn).
  • "Renaissance Humanism" in the Dictionary of the History of ideas
  • Symonds, John Addington.The Renaissance in Italy. Seven Volumes. 1875-1886.
  • Wind, Edgar. Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance. W.W. Norton, 1969.
  • Rossellini, Roberto. The Age of the Medici: Part 1, Cosimo de' Medici; Part 2, Alberti 1973. (film) Criterion Collection.

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