The BackShop Journal

A Gallery of Thoughts on Arts, Culture and Orthodox Christian Spirituality

Renaissance Humanism

The “discovery” and the subsequent assimilation of Greek and Roman literature and philosophy into Renaissance thought brought about a sudden diversity in opinions and world outlook that needed to be dealt with on several levels: spiritual, historical and aesthetical. This new interest in the ancients, coupled with the fascinating discoveries about our planet and the universe, spurred a heightened awareness of the changing world In mid-16th century, people who said they were living in a new age were thinking, apart from the revival of antiquity, about the invention of printing and gunpowder, and about the discovery of the New World. The discoveries affected the imagination of many Europeans, including the sense of their position in space and time. At the end of the 16th century, the notion of universal knowledge was crumbling. 

The study of the New Worlds, including the Ancient Greek and Roman world, resulted in the weakening of traditional norms and in the idea of relativism, an awareness of the human world full of unique historical entities, such as laws, institutions, and states. The affirmative side of the new relativism provided the opportunity and material for literary and artistic creation. The gulf between past and present had provided Petrarch with a golden opportunity for emulating the ancient literary genre of the letter, and the sense of anachronism provided him with this very subject matter. Far from being exclusively problematic, the experience of relativism could become the occasion for “creative mental play,” (Schiffman).

The new interest in antiquity brought about a serious dichotomy between the teaching of the Church and the beliefs of the ancients. Especially problematic was the fact that the Greek and Roman writers and philosophers were all pagan. Renaissance humanists dealt with this problem in various ways. The attempts to reconcile two different worlds were tackled with various success and degrees of caution. It is evident, though, that the Veralltäglichung (domestication, quotidianization, routinization) of the Renaissance resulted in the weakening of the Catholic Church, in Reformation and in general secularization of society. The Renaissance humanists tried to return to the teachings of the early Church Fathers, but only in an attempt to simplify the exaggerated ceremonial character and exclusivity of the Roman Catholic Church. In general, they opposed scholasticism, chiefly because of their striving for linguistic purity and classical eloquence, and through their effort the scholastic interpretation of Aristotle, an attempt at reconciling Christianity with Aristotle’s metaphysics, did not survive. Scholastic theology based on Aristotelian empricism that developed in the 12th and 13th centuries, on the other hand, did survive, and in time it deeply influenced the faith, equally contributing to the above processes.

Studia humanitatis

It is easier to fix the beginning of Renaissance in Europe than its end. Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374) is usually considered the first Italian in whose works the Renaissance found its full expression. The movement did not spread into France until the mid 1400s. The term humanism comes from the Latin humanitas, used by Cicero and others in classical times to label the cultural values that derive from what used to be called a liberal education: the studia humanitatis constituted the study of “arts” – language, literature, history and moral philosophy in particular. The movement is defined as a concern with the legacy of antiquity, mainly literary, and it involves above all the rediscovery and study of ancient Greek and Roman texts, the restoration and interpretation of them, and the assimilation of the ideas and values they contain. The new atmosphere is expressed in the interest in the Greek language, poetry, philosophy and mythology, and the use of common, secular language in literature. In the cultivation of the terrestrial garden, people started specializing in particular disciplines. These two features are pointed out in Gargantua’s letter to Pantagruel in Rabelais: “Now all the disciplines are restored, languages established." The restoration of all the disciplines is incited and accompanied by an insatiable thirst for encyclopedic knowledge.

The new interest in learning brought about a complete revision of the educational practices in Europe. A great many teachers in Europe and employed the methodology outlined by Erasmus in his theoretical treatises De ratione studii and De pueris instituendis, following his fundamental conviction “Man is not born a man, he becomes one” by study and by the fruitful collaboration between teacher and pupil.  In his De copia, Erasmus, for example, explains that an abundant and varied style can be achieved by two methods: thickening the verbal texture and adding to the subject-matter.  In the same work, he has the examples of 200 ways of saying “your letter pleased me greatly.” Changing the curricula in schools proved to be of far-reaching consequence in the education of young humanists. The two main subjects revived from the antiquity were rhetoric, which teaches a variety of means of persuasion, including self-presentation, manipulation of the audience, emotional appeals and the use of figures of speech, and dialectic, which concentrates on argument, for Aristotelians exemplified in the syllogism. “Commonplace books,” widely used in 16th- and 17th-century classrooms, were collections of quotes from the ancients that could be used in an argument. They were employed by students for documenting interesting and useful maxims and thoughts under different topics, and this practice influenced the habit of reading through mental filing, following the story or an argument, and also noting the development of a debate between the points of view expressed by the various characters or participants in a dialogue. Another educational device was progymnasmata, fourteen short exercises in composition, including the fable, tale, proverb, characterization and description.


European humanism was greatly influenced by Desiderius Erasmus (1467-1536), a Dutch humanist, theologian and scholar. Erasmus did not have any misgivings about blending pagan and Christian wisdom; it just had to be undertaken with the correct attitude: “Do you like belles-lettres” he asks in his Manual of a Christian Soldier.  “You are right to do so, providing it is in the service of Christ”. Moreover, Erasmus succeeded beyond all others in combining the classical ideal of humanitas and the Christian ideal of pietas, and he believed it was his life’s mission to bring about this fusion.  The Dutch humanist believed the flowering of letters had the power to transform Europe, and he saw himself as the vanguard of the movement.  His practice of criticizing the medieval church and its practices, and in offering a new moral philosophy based on a humanist reading of Christian sources is often referred to as philosophia Christi.

Erasmus was educated with the Brethren of Common Life, who, like Calvin, stressed the direct spiritual contact with God without any ceremonialism. He argued that learning is a complement to piety, and learning can make one even more humble; the weapons for a “Christian soldier” should be prayer and knowledge. Erasmus best expressed his credo in his “Praise of Folly”: his classicism (quoting Lucian in particular); his attitude towards Socrates, whom he likened to Christ; Plato’s separation of soul and body; his pietism; learning (this work is also an educational treatise); his satire; and, perhaps most importantly, the declaration of freedom reflected in his refusal to side with anyone. 

Erasmus was accused of “laying the egg that Luther hatched.” He used humanist education and morality in the service of religious and ecclesiastical reform, and his attack on the immorality of European society and defects of the church established him as the leader of the religious reformers. Erasmus published the original Greek text of the New Testament together with his translation and commentaries. His application of literary critical methods to the sacred text was a scandal to the conservative theologians, who argued that the Latin tradition was a better guide than literary criticism combined with the schismatic Greek tradition. Erasmus was sympathetic to Luther because they had the same enemies – those who were against learning. He thought the pope’s excommunication of the German protestant leader represented a victory for obscurantists, and he publicly expressed his concern. He ironically stated that Luther erred by attacking the pope’s crown and the monk’s bellies. In the New Colloquies, Erasmus poured scorn on Christian pilgrimages and blamed the immorality of the clergy for all the troubles. When things became serious, nevertheless, he moved away from the Lutheran stance—perhaps mostly because of the aforementioned desire for independence—but went even further in the reformed ideas by rejecting the spirit as an infallible guide in the interpretation of the Scripture.

Humanist theology

The statement of Etienne Gilson that the Renaissance was the Middle Ages minus God seems exaggerated, since hardly any writer in that period denied the existence of God, but it is obvious that the humanists were much more concerned with human problems—hence the name—and they gradually placed man in the center of the universe. Humanists who dealt with theological questions used moral philosophy as a bridge uniting their literary and philosophical interests to standard theology, and they used the ancients, such as Cicero and Plutarch, as models. When they discussed standard theological questions such as free will, they did it with little concern for the dogmatic ideas developed in the Middle Ages. Humanists saw theology as a series of religious themes united in a rhetorical form that could provide a functional morality. Theologia rhetorica, the presentation of theological concepts in an eloquent fashion aimed at moving the will of the hearer or reader to embrace them more fully and easily, is a clear development from the principles of ancient rhetoric that displays the full blending of theology with humanistic educational principles.

It was the Italian Renaissance humanists who had first extolled the dignity of man. In Giannozzo Manetti’s 15th-century treatise, the dignitas humanis was based not only on man’s biblical similarity to God, but above all on his varied achievements in the arts and sciences, which are described at great length. No single topic so perfectly epitomized the humanist approach to God and man as this one, because it permitted a humanist to bring together both classical and Christian themes into a unity that expressed their attitude toward man in the world. Anthropomorphic ideas were fundamental to the view of man as a microcosm of the universe and as God’s spiritual image. The need to assure the Christian he was performing valuable service while carrying out his civic duties led the humanists to present man as a positive actor in the cosmos. When restating the Neoplatonic conception of universe as made of degrees of being—extending from God at the summit to the corporeal world at the bottom—Marsilio Ficino revised the scheme, assigning a privileged place in its center to the rational soul of man. Pico della Mirandola went even further. In his famous Oration on the Dignity of Man, he stated that man does not occupy a fixed location in the universal hierarchy, but can freely choose his place in it. Pico’s treatise became a classic statement of humanist theology.

A term popularized by the Renaissance scholar Charles Trinkaus, anthropological theology, refers to the humanists’ balancing of the principles of salvation with difficulties people experience on Earth living with families and in society. It addressed the tribulations of secular life, the tensions implicit in any Christian who maintained an active life in the world. The ideal of St. Francis of Assisi, as well as other saints, of giving all to the poor and serving only God clashed with the need of man to feed his family and serve his state. The medieval model was slowly giving way to secular concerns, and the humanists were looking for ways to relieve their conscience and justify their worldly concerns. In an attempt to blend the humanist and scholastic ideas, Coluccio Salutati, the leader of the Florentine humanist movement, found the active will superior to the passive intellect. The active life, therefore, rather than the contemplative life, could provide man with the means of embracing the divine. It necessitated on man’s part the task of choosing the right action; hence, he had to possess free will. Petrarch had already agreed with Augustine that faith is dependent on the will, not the intellect; voluntarism was a natural part of humanist rhetoric, since it was the will that the orator was trying to influence, John D’Amico explains.

The weakening of Christianity and increased interest in other religions brought about prescriptions for religious tolerance, ecumenicalism, even employment of non-Christian practices. Ficino, who helped spread Neoplatonism by translating the major Platonic and Neoplatonic works, insisted that religion was natural to man, and that all religions, though different in their practices and in the degree of their perfection, contained a common core of truth and expressed in some way the worship of the one true God.  Pico, on the other hand, believed hermetic and kabalistic writings can be used to establish the truth in Christianity. His works were “rediscovered” in the 20th century by scholars and lay people who were seeking an alternative spirituality. The emphasis on the active life led away from the monastic ideal of the middle ages to the worldly and practical orientation of the modern man. Moreover, the ideal of the theoretical or contemplative life in Western Europe became during the Renaissance dissociated from monasticism, and identified with the private existence of the scholar, writer, and scientist, no doubt under the influence of ancient philosophy. This secularization of the contemplative life is nowhere exemplified better than in the life of Montaigne, who retired to his castle in order to dedicate the remainder of his days to contemplation and writing.  The result of this introspection was a portrait of himself. The subjective and personal character of humanist thought, found its most conscious and complete philosophical expression in Montaigne’s Essais.  

Svetozar Postic

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