Renaissance Humanism


Writers and philosophers of the Renaissance expressed their opinions about human nature and humans’ roles in the universe through their writings. Francesco Petrarch pioneered the first intellectual movement called humanism. An Italian poet and man of letters, he attempted to apply the values and lessons of antiquity to questions of Christian faith and morals in his own day. He believed that true eloquence and ethical wisdom had been lost during the Middle Ages and could only be found by looking to the writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans, particularly Virgil and Cicero. Petrarch shows contempt for the education of his own era. “…O, glorious age! that scorns antiquity, its mother, to whom it owes every noble art…Such are the times, my friend, upon which we have fallen; such is the period in which we grow old.” He criticizes his contemporaries for their ignorance of ancient writers: “They condemn Plato and Aristotle, and laugh at Socrates and Pythagoras…Not content with losing the words of the ancients, they must attack their genius and their ashes.” Petrarch hoped to revive the individuality, beauty, and purity, which he perceived in the classical works, and wished for the awakening from the darkness of the medieval order, to the birth of new attitudes concerning the role of man in his relationship to the world and to God.


Renaissance humanists were often devout Christians, but they promoted secular values and a respect and love for classical antiquity. Along with Petrarch, other humanists, such as Pico della Mirandola, believed that the Greek and Latin classics contained both all the lessons one needed to lead a moral and effective life and the best models for a powerful Latin style. Pico della Mirandola’s “Oration on the Dignity of Man”, glorifies humanity and praises the human ability to reason. Pico believes that humans were the last creatures created by God, and that God’s purpose in creating them was to fulfill his desire for someone to appreciate the great wonders and beauties of his world: “But when the work was finished, the Craftsman kept wishing that there were someone to ponder the plan of so great a work… Therefore… He finally took thought concerning the creation of man.” It is also Pico’s belief that when humans were created, they were given qualities both divine and earthly, and could become whatever they chose: “We have made thee neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, so that with freedom of choice… thou mayest fashion thyself in whatever shape thou shalt prefer.” Free will is a part of human nature, men can know and will the good; men can will virtue.


Because humanists believed that man’s free will could be trained to virtue and that the piety and the civil and moral virtues they particularly admired could be taught, moral education was central for humanism. Three subjects they felt most suitable for achieving this purpose were: Latin and Greek-including classical literature and speech, history, and moral philosophy or ethics. This curriculum was designed to educate laymen rather than priests, to form citizens rather than monks or scholars, to produce free and civilized men. History, offers concrete examples of the precepts implanted by moral philosophy; it teaches ethics by examples. Moral philosophy taught a student the secret of true freedom, and defined his duty to God, family, country, and himself. The one shows what men have said and done in the past and what lessons can be drawn for the present day, and the other shows what men should do. The humanistic program, whether that of Petrarch or other humanists, was the cultivation of eloquence. Eloquence is indispensable because it enables us to persuade our fellow men to follow the lessons of history and the duties of ethics in their private and public lives. All three subjects are interrelated, as they are all disciplines of doing and were uniquely appropriate for training useful citizens. They are guides for humans to attain and practice virtue and wisdom. They train and develop the body and mind, which ennoble men to rank next in dignity to virtue. They liberate, hence the term “liberal studies,” they make men free. Now if one seriously believes that the goal of moral philosophy is to produce better citizens, better Christians, or