Humanism and the Renaissance

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Humanism and the Renaissance were two cultural streams which gradually changed Europe fundamentally: from a focus on groups and organizations to a focus on the individual; from state authority and church authority to principles of human rights.

Humanism is so called because it puts people - latin: homo - in the centre. Neither Luther nor the Catholic church was focused on respect for the individual or the individual's possibilities of personal development and freedom in this world. The church focused on heavenly salvation. Humanism insists on the equality of all human beings and that the individual has a value in itself.

"Renaissance" means rebirth and refers to the philosophical richness of antiquity being reborn after it had been forgotten or even suppressed in the Middle Ages.

New ideas in Italy

In the late 13th century, there was a rich, bustling commercial life in the northern Italian republics, which led to developments in the banking system. During the 14th century, culture and philosophy were slowly catching up. Dante (1265-1321) wrote the satire The Divine Comedy, which pours scorn on the church and makes a lot of fun of the Pope, and Boccaccio (1313-75) wrote the Decameron, about 10 disillusioned young people who are fleeing the plague and go off the rails in self-indulgence and eroticism.

In the early 15th century, Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72) wrote Della Famiglia (On The Family). The book was a defence of bourgeois liberty and the family, which also ran counter to the belief in fate, insisting that human beings shape their own lives.

Characteristic for Dante, Boccaccio and Alberti is that none of them were theologians, and all three of them rebelled against the domination of Latin as the only written language. Instead they wrote in the local everyday language.

This was the beginning of the Renaissance and, from Italy, these new ideas spread to the rest of Europe.

New ideas in Europe

Since the 3rd century, there had been no real, individual portraiture, but now painters again began to study and portray the individual, and so did philosophy and literature.

Early in the 15th century, the Dutch painter Jan van Eyck (1390-1441) refined the technique of painting with oils and, in 1434, he painted a portrait of Giovanni Arnolfi and his wife. The portrait has a certain stiffness about it, but it represents the rebirth of the portrait of the individual.

In the mid 15th century, a German printer, Johannes Gutenberg (1396-1468), invented the printing press with movable type, and this resulted in entirely new possibilities for spreading all the new ideas. The unending power struggles in Europe play a significant role here; because Europe's kings and princes were in constant conflict with the nobility, the Catholic church and each other, and no-one had total power in Europe, none of the rulers succeeded in stopping the development of the printing press. Critical pamphlets galore, or books challenging the established truths, could in most circumstances make life uncomfortable for various rulers. But if a printer was subjected to censorship where he was living, there was always another principality, or another kingdom, he could settle in.

At the same time, science and philosophy freed themselves from Christian faith and theology. In 1494, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-94) wrote De hominis dignitate (On the Dignity of Man). Mirandola's work was directly based on the fact that he had read the Arabic philosophers, and he speaks in the text about the ability of the individual to shape himself and his life. Like Alberti, he broke with the church's view of human nature.

Erasmus of Rotterdam (1469-1536) is the one who, in a Christian context, is referred to as the father of Humanism. He gets a special mention from the church, probably because he was a monk and remained faithful to the Pope and the church throughout his life. In the early 16th century, he wrote about personal free will and the resulting individual responsibility. In this, he was directly confronting Luther, who in response wrote the work On the Bondage of the Will.

New ideas about politics

A groundbreaking work from the same period, which to some extent is also about the individual, is Niccolò Machiavelli's (1469-1527) book Il Principe (The Prince). In this, he reviews how princes and emperors through the ages have acquired power, and what they have done to keep it. The book is about power politics, and thus it is also about the choices available to a prince or an emperor and the consequences these choices have. The work is especially ground-breaking because the analysis is conducted systematically and is devoid of religious considerations; Machiavelli gives human beings total free will and sole responsibility for their actions. Machiavelli wrote The Prince in 1513, but the book was first released 5 years after his death in 1532. The Prince has been a major work of political literature ever since, whatever form of government is being discussed.

Early in the 16th century, the English statesman and philosopher Thomas More (1478-1535) wrote the book Utopia. This describes the options for a different way of organising of society than the existing one and laid the foundation for a common right of ownership and the idea that it is up to the people to determine the organisation of the state. Moreover, he acknowledged no royal authority in ecclesiastical affairs, including the question of secession from the Papacy. This led to accusations of treason, a trial and ultimately to his execution during the reign of Henry VIII.

Later in the 16th century, Michel de Montaigne (1533-92) wrote about how the world is constantly changing - a world view that stood in stark contrast to the Christian world view, in which God had created the world once and for all. In this changing world, according to Montaigne, human beings had to be prepared both to transform themselves and to organise society so that it was adaptable to change. He was strongly influenced by the Stoics and did not believe that there is an afterlife. It is up to the individual to draw benefit from this life for its own sake.

In 1625, the Dutch jurist and statesman Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) wrote De Jure Belli ac Pacis (On the Law of War and Peace). He stripped the law out of religion and reintroduced the idea of natural law, which the Stoics and later thinkers had written about. Moreover, he argued that the laws of war and peace were based on principles rooted in human reason. The key principle is that promises and treaties must be respected, including the social contract between the state's citizens and their legitimate ruler. Wars can only be justified if they serve to counteract a violation of this natural law.

New philosophical trends

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) wrote in the middle of the 17th century - in line with what some of the philosophers of ancient Greece thought - that our sense of the world is subjective, and that our values ​​are relative. Moreover, he insisted that the state was not an expression of the will of God, but of the choice of the people. Hobbes also reintroduced the idea of ​​natural law and believed that there is a natural state, which is the war of all against all, but that through reason, it is possible to formulate laws that protect people against each other. These laws are the natural law, and thus he gave mankind an innate ability to reason its way forward to such laws and justice.

However, we cannot exactly call him a democrat, since the ideal society, which people according to his conviction had to arrive at, had a sovereign ruler who administered the laws. On the other hand, Hobbes was the first to realise that state power is an abstract power that is above both the ruler and his subjects. Both the ruler and his subjects are subject to the principles of the State and its laws.

The French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) wrote that the existence of the ego is the precondition for all knowledge and cognition: Cogito ergo sum, he said: I think, therefore I am. Thus he made ​​subjective experience the centre for perception of the world and, in this way, fundamentally changed the significance of the individual.

If we are to nominate one philosopher as the one who "draws a line in the sand" and introduces the foundations of democracy, then Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) is a good choice. Spinoza is the first to insist on free speech and the separation of state and religion. If we are to have peace and stability in society, then there must be freedom of belief and religion must not be allowed political power.

A political and cultural patchwork

All these ideas came out in a political and religious situation which was quite unusual, and it cannot be ruled out that it is precisely this unusual situation that has been critical to the ideas arising.

As mentioned earlier, Europe at that time consisted of a host of political and geographic entities which were experimenting with various forms of government. The church was striving for supremacy throughout Europe, and the kings were fighting with the nobility and the church for power. At the same time, there were still town councils here and there which were controlled by a few powerful men, and in some individual market towns, the citizens themselves selected their mayor. There were also assemblies of the estates of the realm where kings consulted the nobility, the burghers and the peasants at variable intervals. Under absolute monarchies, therefore, some aspects of the democratic tradition could be retained by local communities but, at the state level, absolute monarchy resulted in dictatorial power.

Precisely because the church failed to combine religious and secular power, and because religion itself was split, a diversity of world views and political interests was created. Now and then, the various religious groups made determined attempts to kill each other, but in the end they were forced to live side by side. There was thus diversity and pluralism, leading to new ideas.

Art and science

In painting, portrait art was refined throughout the the 15th century. One of the greatest portrait painters around 1500 was Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), who was also one of the greatest scientists and inventors.

Leonardo da Vinci reintroduced systematics and supported observation as central for science, freeing it completely from religious speculative thinking. He was also the first scientist to systematically write down what he did, making it possible for us now to reconstruct many of da Vinci's experiments and reach the results that he reached. In other words, we can verify his results and thereby have the foundation for arriving at common, objective knowledge.

This objective form of knowledge was another of the Renaissance's significant breaks with religion. The religious world view just cannot be documented in any way. Generally speaking, this new scientific perception emerged during the Renaissance - often in spite of the church, not because of it.

In 1512, Copernicus (1473-1543) presented the theory that the Earth orbits the Sun. This was contrary to the biblical world view in which the earth is the centre of the universe. But he didn't publish his theory publicly and was also unsure whether it was true. This probably saved his life. The theory didn't become known until his work De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres), appeared on his death in 1543.

Others did not hesitate, but published their thoughts and were persecuted by the church. Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) believed - like Epicurus some 2,000 years earlier - that the world is infinite. Bruno was burned at the stake by the Inquisition in 1600. Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) presented the evidence in favour of Copernicus' theory, and it cost him both torture and house arrest, though not his life - probably because of his advanced age.


One of the main features of the Renaissance was scientific exploration of the world. Science was simply reinvented. One of the things that is crucial for science is measurability and measurement of the things we sense and experience. Measurable things can be discussed objectively by means of reason; religious ideas and experiences cannot. Galileo's slogan for his work was: "Measure everything that is measurable, and make measurable what is not so."

During the Renaissance, European thinkers also rediscovered the individual. They did so partly through the ancient Greeks and Romans via the Muslims. A common feature of Renaissance philosophers was that they distanced themselves from Plato's totalitarian ideas and his theory of a perfect world of Forms. On the other hand, they took the Stoics to heart and Cicero became the Renaissance's most quoted philosopher from antiquity.

A direct outcome of the rediscovery of individuality was the English Law of Habeas Corpus from 1679, which stated that no-one can be imprisoned without a trial.

Alongside the increased scientific and philosophical perception, the ideas of Humanism on the unique and important in every human being were gradually emerging.

Next chapter: The Enlightenment