The one philosophy most essential to the Renaissance was that of humanism. Humanism first appeared in the 1300s, when Italian scholars began reading the works of classical Greek and Roman authors. In these writings they discovered a new worldview, one that challenged the medieval paradigms then dominating Europe. Whereas the Middle Ages had stressed religious dogma and Catholic authority, the new humanism emphasized individual experience and worldly living. With its celebration of artistic beauty and intellectual openness, humanism soon overtook Europe and set the Renaissance in motion.
In the fifth century, Augustine's "City of God" had implored readers to turn away from the present world and focus on the next. This thinking had informed much of the medieval worldview. However, the classical authors that the humanists read predated Christianity. They saw earthly existence as its own reward, a concept that deeply influenced humanist thought. In response, art and literature now took on secular themes, such as in Cervantes' "Don Quixote" and Raphael's "School of Athens." The new worldliness also induced early scientists such as Galileo and da Vinci to favor reason over religion.
Medieval authors had written exclusively in Latin, in a style widely considered inaccessible. Since few readers understood Latin, humanist authors opted for native (or vernacular) languages. This began with Dante, who composed his "Divine Comedy" in Italian. In the late 1340s, Boccacio followed suit with his "Decameron." It was in this tradition that Cervantes wrote "Don Quixote" in Spanish, and Shakespeare composed in English. The few humanists who did write in Latin, such as Desiderius Erasmus, quickly saw their works translated as well.
The ancient Greek and Roman philosophers had written extensively on art and beauty. The humanists who came behind them rapidly absorbed these principles and put them into use. Renaissance art now saw a new emphasis on realism. Painters such as da Vinci and van Eyck depicted human expressions and motions more fluidly and naturally. They made much use of linear perspective, which had only been recently discovered. They also celebrated human beauty, most famously in the sculptures of Michelangelo, who rendered elegant and expressive forms out of cold slabs of marble.
Though Renaissance humanism did not fully embrace science and rationalism, the value of human intellect nonetheless took great strides forward. This too grew out of the discovery of classical writings, in which figures such as Aristotle strove to explain existence in rational terms. In response, Renaissance educators developed the "studia humanitatis" (study of humanities), a new curriculum emphasizing literature, rhetoric, history and moral philosophy. Human reasoning also played a role in the period's scientific ventures, such as Leonardo da Vinci's detailed studies of human anatomy.
During the Middle Ages, individualism had been stifled both by religion and social hierarchy. But in the humanist era, it began to reassert itself. Art and literature became as varied and stylized as the figures behind them. Humanist scholars also made a point of emphasizing individual experience. French author Michel de Montaigne wrote more than 100 personalized pieces he called "essays," in which he drew upon his own views and experiences. Neither individualism nor rationalism were as significant as they would be in later eras. But it was during the Renaissance that both became important aspects of European culture.
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Desiderius Erasmus
- The History Guide: Renaissance Humanism
- The History Channel: Italian Renaissance
- California Polytechnic State University: Medieval Attitudes Toward Vernacular Literature
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Art of Renaissance Europe: A Resource for Educators
A longtime author of lifestyle articles, Gregg Newby has written extensively on personal finance, health and wellness, fitness, education, and more. His work has been syndicated by several major news websites, including FOX, CBS, and Accuweather. Newby holds a master's degree in history and is an ardent pluviophile.