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Renaissance humanism was an activity of cultural and educational reform engaged by scholars, writers, and civic leaders who are today known as Renaissance humanists. It developed during the fourteenth and the beginning of the fifteenth centuries, and was a response to the challenge of Mediæval scholastic education, emphasizing practical, pre-professional and -scientific studies. Scholasticism focused on preparing men to be doctors, lawyers or professional theologians, and was taught from approved textbooks in logic, natural philosophy, medicine, law and theology. There were important centers of humanism at Florence, Naples, Rome, Venice, Mantua, Ferrara, and Urbino.
Humanists reacted against this utilitarian approach and the narrow pedantry associated with it. They sought to create a citizenry (frequently including women) able to speak and write with eloquence and clarity and thus capable of engaging the civic life of their communities and persuading others to virtuous and prudent actions. This was to be accomplished through the study of the studia humanitatis, today known as the humanities: grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry and moral philosophy. As a program to revive the cultural—and particularly the literary—legacy and moral philosophy of classical antiquity, Humanism was a pervasive cultural mode and not the program of a few isolated geniuses like Giotto or Leon Battista Alberti as is still sometimes popularly believed.
Early humanists, such as Petrarch, Coluccio Salutati and Poggio Bracciolini, were great collectors of antique manuscripts. Many worked for the organized Church and were in holy orders (like Petrarch), while others were lawyers and chancellors of Italian cities- like Petrarch's disciple, Salutati, the Chancellor of Florence- and thus had access to book copying workshops.
In Italy the humanist educational program won rapid acceptance and, by the mid-fifteenth century, many of the upper classes had received humanist educations. Some of the highest officials of the Church were humanists with the resources to amass important libraries. Such was Cardinal Basilios Bessarion, a convert to the Latin Church from Greek Orthodoxy, who was considered for the papacy and was one of the most learned scholars of his time. There were several fifteenth-century and early sixteenth-century humanist Popes one of whom, Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini (Pius II), was a prolific author and wrote a treatise on "The Education of Boys". These subjects came to be known as the humanities, and the movement they inspired is shown as humanism.
With the adoption of large-scale printing after the end of the era of incunabula (or books printed prior to 1501), Italian Humanism spread northward to France, Germany, Holland and England, where it became associated with the Protestant Reformation. In France, pre-eminent Humanist Guillaume Budé (1467–1540) applied the philological methods of Italian Humanism to the study of antique coinage and to legal history, composing a detailed commentary on Justinian's Code. Although a royal absolutist (and not a republican like the early Italian umanisti), Budé was active in civic life, serving as a diplomat for Francis I and helping to found the Collège des Lecteurs Royaux (later the Collège de France). Meanwhile Marguerite de Navarre, the sister of Francis I, herself a poet, novelist and religious mystic, gathered around her and protected a circle of vernacular poets and writers, including Clément Marot, Pierre de Ronsard and François Rabelais.
Many humanists were churchmen, most notably Pope Pius II (Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini), Sixtus IV and Leo X, and there was often patronage of humanists by senior church figures. 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.
The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy describes the rationalism of ancient 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.
This view, however, of the Renaissance as a return to "paganism", although popular in the nineteenth century, is no longer accepted by historians. Nevertheless, the discovery of classical philosophy and science would eventually challenge old beliefs.
In 1417, for example, Poggio Bracciolini discovered the manuscript of Lucretius, De rerum natura, which had been lost for centuries and which contained an explanation of Epicurean doctrine, though at the time this was not commented on much by Renaissance scholars, who confined themselves to remarks about Lucretius's grammar and syntax. Lorenzo Valla, however, puts a defense of epicureanism in the mouth of one of the interlocutors of one of his dialogues. Valla's defense (or adaptation) of Epicureanism was later taken up 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)
Renaissance Neo-Platonists, such as Marsilio Ficino, whose translations of Plato were still used into the nineteenth century, attempted to reconcile Platonism with Christianity, according to the suggestions of the early Church fathers, Lactantius and Saint Augustine. In this spirit, Pico della Mirandola, who was not a humanist but an Aristotelian trained in Paris, attempted to construct a syncretism of all religions, but his work did not win favor with Church authorities.
Historian Steven Kreis expresses a widespread view (derived from the nineteenth-century Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt), when he writes that:
The period from the fourteenth century to the seventeenth worked in favor of the general emancipation of the individual. The city-states of northern Italy had come into contact with the diverse customs of the East, and gradually permitted expression in matters of taste and dress. The writings of Dante, and particularly the doctrines of Petrarch and humanists like Machiavelli, emphasized the virtues of intellectual freedom and individual expression. In the essays of Montaigne the individualistic view of life received perhaps the most persuasive and eloquent statement in the history of literature and philosophy.
Two noteworthy trends in Renaissance humanism were Renaissance Neo-Platonism and Hermeticism, which through the works of figures like Giordano Bruno, Cornelius Agrippa, Campanella and Pico della Mirandola sometimes came close to constituting a new religion itself. Of these two, Hermeticsm 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. 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 and beyond, the sharply confrontational religious atmosphere following the Protestant reformation resulted in the Counter-Reformation that sought to silence challenges to Catholic theology, with similar efforts among the Protestant churches.
With the Counter Reformation initiated by the Council of Trent, positions hardened and a strict Catholic orthodoxy based on Scholastic philosophy was imposed, and some humanists, even moderate Catholics such as Erasmus, risked being declared heretics for their criticism of the church.
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"
According to George Makdisi, certain aspects of Renaissance humanism has its roots in the medieval Islamic world, including the "art of dictation, called in Latin, ars dictaminis," and "the humanist attitude toward classical language", in this case classical Arabic.
See also Kristeller's Renaissance Thought I, "Humanism and Scholasticism In the Italian Renaissance", Byzantion 17 (1944–45), pp. 346–74. Reprinted in Renaissance Thought (New York: Harper Torchbooks), 1961.
Early Italian humanism, which in many respects continued the grammatical and rhetorical traditions of the Middle Ages, not merely provided the old Trivium with a new and more ambitious name (Studia humanitatis), but also increased its actual scope, content and significance in the curriculum of the schools and universities and in its own extensive literary production. The studia hunanitatis excluded logic, but they added to the traditional grammar and rhetoric not only history, Greek, and moral philosophy, but also made poetry, once a sequel of grammar and rhetoric, the most important member of the whole group. —Paul Oskar Kristeller, Renaissance Thought II: Papers on Humanism and the Arts (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1965), p. 178.
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