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Renaissance Humanism

History of Humanism With Ancient Renaissance Philosophers

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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.

The central focus of Renaissance Humanism was, quite simply, human beings. Humans were praised for their achievements — achievements 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.

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 — a 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.

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.

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