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Renaissance Humanism

Renaissance Humanism & Education

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One consequence of the development of humanist philosophy during the Renaissance was the increased emphasis on the importance of education. People needed to learn ancient Greek and Latin in order to even begin to understand the ancient manuscripts. This, in turn, led to further education in the arts and philosophies which went along with those manuscripts — and finally the ancient sciences which had for so long been neglected by Christian scholars. As a result, there was a burst of scientific and technological development during the Renaissance unlike anything seen in Europe for centuries.

Early on this education was limited primarily to aristocrats and men of financial means. Indeed, much of the early humanist movement had a rather elitist air about it. Over time, however, the courses of study were adapted for a wider audience — a process which was greatly hastened by the development of the printing press. With this, many entrepreneurs began printing editions of ancient philosophy and literature in Greek, Latin, and Italian for a mass audience, leading to a dissemination of information and ideas much wider than previously thought possible.

One of the most important of early humanists was Petrarch (1304-74), an Italian poet who applied the ideas and values of ancient Greece and Rome to questions about Christian doctrines and ethics which were being asked in his own day. Many tend to mark the beginning of Humanism with the writings of Dante (1265-1321), yet though Dante certainly presaged the coming revolution in thinking, it was Petrarch who first really set things in motion.

Petrarch was among the first to work to unearth long-forgotten manuscripts. Unlike Dante, he abandoned any concern with religious theology in favor of ancient Roman poetry and philosophy. He also focused upon Rome as the site of a classical civilization, not as the center of Christianity. Finally, Petrarch argued that our highest goals should not be the imitation of Christ, but rather the principles of virtue and truth as described by the ancients.

Although many humanists were literary figures like Petrarch or Dante, many others were actually political figures who used their positions of power and influence to help support the spread of humanist ideals. Coluccio Salutati (1331-1406) and Leonardo Bruni (1369-1444), for example, became chancellors of Florence in part because of their skill in using Latin in their correspondence and speeches, a style which became popular as part of the effort to imitate the writings of antiquity before it was deemed even more important to write in the vernacular so as to reach the wider audience of common people. Salutati, Bruni, and others like them worked to develop new ways of thinking about Florence’s republican traditions and engaged in a great deal of correspondence with others to explain their principles.

The most important thing to remember about Renaissance Humanism, however, is that its most important characteristics lie not in its content or its adherents, but in its spirit. To understand Humanism, it must be contrasted with the piety and scholasticism of the Middle Ages, against which Humanism was regarded as a free and open breath of fresh air. Indeed, Humanism was often critical of the stuffiness and repression of the Church over the centuries, arguing that humans needed more intellectual freedom in which they could develop their faculties.

Sometimes Humanism appeared quite close to ancient paganism, but this was usually more a consequence of the comparison to medieval Christianity than anything inherent in the beliefs of the Humanists. Nevertheless, the anti-clerical and anti-church inclinations of the humanists were a direct result of their reading ancient authors who didn’t care about gods, didn’t believe in any gods, or believed in gods who were far and remote from anything that the humanists were familiar with.

It is perhaps curious, then, that so many famous humanists were also members of the church — papal secretaries, bishops, cardinals, and even a couple of popes (Nicholas V, Pius II). These were secular rather than spiritual leaders, exhibiting much more interest in literature, art, and philosophy than in sacraments and theology. Renaissance Humanism was a revolution in thinking and feeling which left no part of society, not even the highest levels of Christianity, untouched.

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