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2.1: Humanism

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    Renaissance thinkers and artists very consciously made the claim that they were reviving long-lost traditions from the classical world in areas as diverse as scholarship, poetry, architecture, and sculpture. Much of the Renaissance began as an attempt to mimic or copy Greek and Roman art and scholarship (corresponding to one another in classical Latin, for example). Although inspired by the classics, some thinkers sought to be creators in their own right.

    One theme of Renaissance thought was humanism, an intellectual paradigm that emphasized both the beauty and the centrality of humankind in the universe. In other words, humankind was inherently rational, beautiful, and noble, rather than debased, wicked, or weak. These thinkers sought to celebrate the beauty of the human body in art, of the human mind and human achievements in scholarship, and of human society in the elegance of architectural design. Humanism was, among other things, an optimistic attitude toward the artistic and intellectual possibilities that cited the achievements of the ancient world as proof that humankind was the crowning achievement of God’s creation.

    Renaissance humanism was the root of the modern notion of individuality, along with the idea that education ought to arrive at a well-rounded individual. This shift was a true, meaningful change over medieval forms of learning that emphasized clarification of religious questions or better intellectual support for religious orthodoxy.

    Along with the idea of a well-rounded individual, Renaissance thinkers championed the idea of Civic Humanism: one’s moral and ethical standing was tied to devotion to one’s city. For example, the rich and powerful Medici family of Florence made a tremendous effort to invest in the city in the form of building projects and art. This action was tied to the prestige of the family, but it was also a heartfelt dedication to one’s home, analogous to the present-day concept of patriotism.

    Further, there was a shift in the practical business of education from medieval scholasticism, which focused on law, medicine, and theology, to disciplines related to business and politics. Renaissance learning was born in the cities of northern Italy because of the wealth of northern Italy. Princes and other elites wanted skilled bureaucrats to staff their merchant empires, especially with a knowledge of law and mathematics. Some city governments began educating children directly, along with the role played by private tutors. These schools and tutors emphasized practical education: rhetoric, math, and history. This new form of education is usually referred to as "humanistic education", and spread from Italy to the rest of Europe by the late fifteenth century. By the sixteenth century, a broad cross-section of European elites, including nobles, merchants, and priests, were educated in the humanistic tradition.

    Drawing from the work of thinkers like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Virgil, Renaissance thinkers came to support the idea of a virtuous life that was not the same thing as a specifically Christian virtuous life. It was possible to become a good person simply through studying the classics – all of the major figures of the Renaissance were Christians, but they insisted that one’s moral status could and should be shaped by emulation of the ancient virtues, combined with Christian piety. While medieval intellectual life prospered during the High Middle Ages, there was definitely a distinct kind of intellectual courage and optimism that came out of the return to classical models over medieval ones during the Renaissance.

    2.1: Humanism is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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