What was Renaissance Humanism?

Renaissance Humanism was a philosophical tradition that came out of the reemergence of ancient Greek and Latin philosophy initially in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in Florence, that then spread out across Western Europe, impacting the philosophical, theological, and in some cases political outlook of intellectuals and scholars across Europe and in the overseas European colonies during the sixteenth and into the seventeenth century.

Humanism largely drew inspiration from the writings of Plato, a new turn in the long history of contention between Platonist and Aristotelian philosophy. Prior to the rise of Humanism, a number of Aristotelian philosophical traditions including Scholasticism were prevalent in Europe’s universities, based especially at the University of Paris. Humanism was as much a reaction to the complexities of Scholasticism as it was an attempt to renew the philosophical traditions of the pre-Christian Roman Empire.

Humanism in Italy largely drew on this pre-Christian Greek and Roman literary tradition, turning to ancient authors like Plato, Cicero, and Virgil for inspiration. Italian Humanism did not consider connecting and implementing Humanism in a religious setting to be quite as an imperative, instead seeing Humanism itself as a guide to good, virtuous living. Nevertheless, these same Humanist currents found their way into works of political realism like Machiavelli’s The Prince, which in a very humanist manner cites pre-Christian examples of good princes alongside their Christian counterparts.

In Northern Europe, Humanism took a different turn. There Humanism was most greatly impacted by the works of the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, who created a variant of Humanism distinct from that discussed in Italy, that has become known as Christian Humanism. Christian Humanism intended to merge the lessons of Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy with the morals and teachings of pre-Reformation Christianity, what today is Roman Catholicism, in an effort to promote a new understanding of what made for a good, virtuous, life.

Erasmus’s Christian Humanism was particularly well received in England, where early English humanists like John Colet and William Grocyn introduced it to the centres of English learning at Oxford and Cambridge. They in turn taught a young Thomas More to read and write Greek. Today More is widely considered to be the most prolific English humanist of the sixteenth century. Through the letters of both Erasmus and More, as well as many other Humanists, we can see how they saw their own world, and what they wanted to accomplish with their new philosophical tradition, which today we call Renaissance Humanism.

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