The Renaissance

The Renaissance, also known as “Rinascimento” (in Italian), was an influential cultural movement that brought about a period of scientific revolution and artistic transformation at the dawn of modern history in Europe. It marks the transitional period between the end of the Middle Ages and the start of the Modern Age.

The Renaissance is usually considered to have begun in the fourteenth century in Italy and the sixteenth century in northern Europe. Much of the foundations of liberal humanism were laid during this time. For some, this usurps God’s rightful place as the author of values and as the director of history. But positively, the contemporary universal outlook, respect for the dignity of all people on which democracy is based, thirst for knowledge and for ways of bettering the human lot, all derive from the Renaissance.

During the last quarter of the twentieth century, many scholars took the view that the Renaissance was perhaps only one of many such movements. This is in large part due to the work of historians like Charles H. Haskins (1870–1937), who made a convincing case for a “Renaissance of the twelfth century,” as well as by historians arguing for a “Carolingian Renaissance.” Both of these concepts are now widely accepted by the scholarly community at large; as a result, the present trend among historians is to discuss each so-called renaissance in more particular terms, e.g., the Italian Renaissance, the English Renaissance, etc. This terminology is particularly useful because it eliminates the need for fitting “The Renaissance” into a chronology that previously held that it was preceded by the Middle Ages and followed by the Reformation, which many believe to be inaccurate. The entire period is now often replaced by the term “Early Modern.”

The predominant view is that the Renaissance of the fifteenth century in Italy, spreading through the rest of Europe, represented a reconnection of the west with classical antiquity, the absorption of knowledge—particularly mathematics—from Arabic; the return of experimentalism; the focus on the importance of living well in the present (e.g. Renaissance humanism); an explosion of the dissemination of knowledge brought on by printing; and the creation of new techniques in art, poetry, and architecture, which led to a radical change in the style and substance of the arts and letters. The Italian Renaissance is often labeled as the beginning of the “modern” epoch.

Today most historians view the Renaissance as largely an intellectual and ideological change, rather than a substantive one. Moreover, many historians now point out that most of the negative social factors popularly associated with the “medieval” period—poverty, ignorance, warfare, religious and political persecution, and so forth—seem to have actually worsened during this age of Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527), the Wars of Religion, the corrupt Borgia Popes, and the intensified witch-hunts of the sixteenth century.

Many of the common people who lived during the “Renaissance” are known to have been concerned by the developments of the era rather than viewing it as the “golden age” imagined by certain nineteenth-century authors. Perhaps the most important factor of the Renaissance is that those involved in the cultural movements in question—the artists, writers, and their patrons—believed they were living in a new era that was a clean break from the Middle Ages, even if much of the rest of the population seems to have viewed the period as an intensification of social maladies.

The Reformation

Protestantism encompasses forms of Christian faith and practice that originated with doctrines and religious, political, and ecclesiological impulses of the Protestant Reformation. The word Protestant is derived from the Latin protestatio, meaning declaration. It refers to the letter of protestation by Lutheran princes against the decision of the Diet of Speyer in 1529, which reaffirmed the edict of the Diet of Worms condemning the teachings of Martin Luther as heresy. The term Protestantism, however, has been used in several different senses, often as a general term to refer to Western Christianity that is not subject to papal authority, including some traditions that were not part of the original Protestant movement.

The roots of Protestantism are often traced to movements in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries which protested against the wealth and exploitation of the medieval Catholic hierarchy in Europe. Among them were Waldensians, Hussites, Lollards, and other groups denounced as heretical, but whose main opposition to the institutional church centered on issues of the corruption of the clergy, the rights of the laity, and translation of the scriptures into the vernacular languages. In addition, the Christian humanism of the Renaissance stimulated unprecedented academic ferment and a concern for academic freedom in the universities, which were still basically religious institutions.

Protestants generally mark their separation from the Roman Catholic Church in the early sixteenth century. The movement erupted in several places at once, particularly in Germany beginning in 1517, when Martin Luther, a monk and professor at the University of Wittenberg, called for reopening of debate on the sale of indulgences. The advent of the printing press facilitated the rapid spread of the movement through the publication of documents such as Luther’s 95 Theses and various pamphlets decrying the abuse of papal and ecclesiastical power. A parallel movement spread in Switzerland under the leadership of Huldrych Zwingli.

The first stage of the Reformation resulted in the excommunication of Luther and condemnation of the Reformation by the pope. However, the support of some of the German princes prevented the Church from crushing the revolt. The work and writings of John Calvin soon became influential, and the separation of the Church of England from Rome under Henry VIII soon brought England into the fold of the Reformation as well, although in a more conservative variety.

Although the Reformation began as a movement concerned mainly concerned with ecclesiastical reform, it soon began to take on a theological dimension as well. Beginning with Luther’s challenge to the doctrine of papal authority and apostolic succession, it moved into questions of soteriology (the nature of salvation) and sacramental theology (especially regarding the Eucharist and baptism), resulting in several distinct Protestant traditions. The Luthean principle of sola scriptura soon opened the way to a wide variety of Protestant faiths based on various interpretations of biblical theology.

The Five Solas are five Latin phrases (or slogans) that summarize the Reformers’ basic theological beliefs in contrast to the Catholic teaching of the day. The Latin word sola means “alone” or “only.” The five solas were what the Reformers believed to be the only things needed for salvation. This formulation was intended to oppose what the Reformers viewed as deviations in the Catholic tradition from the essentials of Christian life and practice.

  • Solus Christus: Christ alone: Christ is the only mediator between God and man, affirmed in opposition to the Catholic dogma of the pope as Christ’s representative on earth and of a “treasury” of the merits of saints.
  • Sola scriptura: Scripture alone: The Bible alone, rather than Church tradition, is the basis of sound Christian doctrine.
  • Sola fide: Faith alone: While practicing good works attests to one’s faith in Christ and his teachings, faith in Christ, rather than good works, is the only means of salvation.
  • Sola gratia: Grace alone: Salvation is entirely the act of God, based on the redemptive suffering and death of Jesus Christ. Since no one deserves salvation, the believer is accepted without any regard for the merit of his works or character.
  • Soli Deo gloria: Glory to God alone: All glory is due to God, and not to human beings or the institutions they create, even in God’s name.

Renaissance Humanism

Renaissance Humanism, was an intellectual movement embraced by scholars, writers, and civic leaders in 14th- and early-15th-century Italy. The movement developed in response to the medieval scholastic conventions in education at the time, which emphasized practical, pre-professional, and scientific studies engaged in solely for job preparation, and typically by men alone. Humanists reacted against this utilitarian approach, seeking to create a citizenry who were able to speak and write with eloquence and thus able to engage the civic life of their communities. In contrast to the scholastics, the humanists valued rhetoric and art and promoted study of classical literature. This was to be accomplished through the study of the “studia humanitatis,” known today as the humanities: grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry, and moral philosophy. 

It’s important to note that, while modern humanism does have its roots in Renaissance humanism, the two are not the same. While modern humanism typically denies the existence of God in favor of the elevation of the human spirit, Renaissance humanists sought to connect God and humanity. Most Renaissance humanists were Christian theologians hoping to find a stronger connection to God through the study of virtue and eloquence.

Humanists first called themselves philosophers, poets, or orators. Humanistic thought began with a desire to imitate Cicero’s concept of humanitas (the development of human virtue) and his eloquence. Humanism introduced a program to revive the cultural—and particularly the literary—legacy and moral philosophy of classical antiquity. The movement was largely founded on the ideals of Italian scholar and poet Francesco Petrarca, which were often centered around humanity’s potential for achievement. In fact, for Humanists, the goal of education was to equip men to live a good life.

Core Beliefs of Humanism:

  • Individuals are important
  • Humans can achieve great things
  • Find beauty in all things

While Humanism initially began as a predominantly literary movement, its influence quickly pervaded the general culture of the time, re-introducing classical Greek and Roman art forms and contributing to the development of the Renaissance. Humanists considered the ancient world to be the pinnacle of human achievement, and thought its accomplishments should serve as the model for contemporary Europe. There were important centers of Humanism in Florence, Naples, Rome, Venice, Genoa, Mantua, Ferrara, and Urbino.

Humanism was an optimistic philosophy that saw man as a rational and sentient being, with the ability to decide and think for himself. This belief spurred the focus on education for all because every person had the ability to become better. Believing that the common man had the ability to elevate himself let to rebellion against authority and cultural reform.

Renaissance Humanists saw no conflict between their study of the Ancients and Christianity. The lack of perceived conflict allowed Early Renaissance artists to combine classical forms, classical themes, and Christian theology freely. Early Renaissance sculpture is a great vehicle to explore the emerging Renaissance style. The leading artists of this medium were Donatello, Filippo Brunelleschi, and Lorenzo Ghiberti. Donatello became renowned as the greatest sculptor of the Early Renaissance, known especially for his classical, and unusually erotic, statue of David, which became one of the icons of the Florentine republic.

The bronze statue depicts David with an enigmatic smile, posed with his foot on Goliath's severed head just after defeating the giant. The youth is completely naked, apart from a laurel-topped hat and boots, bearing the sword of Goliath.

Donatello’s David: Donatello’s David is regarded as an iconic Humanist work of art.

Some of the first Humanists were great collectors of antique manuscripts, including Petrarch, Giovanni Boccaccio, Coluccio Salutati, and Poggio Bracciolini. Of the three, Petrarch was dubbed the “Father of Humanism” because of his devotion to Greek and Roman scrolls. Many worked for the organized church and were in holy orders (like Petrarch), while others were lawyers and chancellors of Italian cities (such as Petrarch’s disciple Salutati, the Chancellor of Florence) and thus had access to book-copying workshops.


During the Renaissance, Humanism played a major role in education. Humanists —proponents or practitioners of Humanism during the Renaissance—believed that human beings could be dramatically changed by education. The Humanists of the Renaissance created schools to teach their ideas and wrote books all about education. Humanists sought to create a citizenry able to speak and write with eloquence and clarity, thus capable of engaging in the civic life of their communities and persuading others to virtuous and prudent actions. This was to be accomplished through the study of the humanities: grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry, and moral philosophy.

The Humanists believed that it was important to transcend to the afterlife with a perfect mind and body, which could be attained with education. The purpose of Humanism was to create a universal man whose person combined intellectual and physical excellence and who was capable of functioning honorably in virtually any situation. This ideology was referred to as the uomo universale, an ancient Greco-Roman ideal. Education during the Renaissance was mainly composed of ancient literature and history, as it was thought that the classics provided moral instruction and an intensive understanding of human behavior.

The educational curriculum of Humanism spread throughout Europe during the 16th century and became the educational foundation for the schooling of European elites, the functionaries of political administration, the clergy of the various legally recognized churches, and the learned professionals of law and medicine.


A painting symbolizing the liberal arts, depicting seven individuals representing the seven areas of liberal arts study, all circling around Plato and Aristotle.

Philosophia et septem artes liberales

A painting symbolizing the liberal arts, depicting individuals representing the seven areas of liberal arts study, all circling around Plato and Socrates.

One of the most important Humanist schools was established by Vittorino da Feltre in 1423. The school was in Mantua, which is a small Italian state. The ruler of Mantua had always wanted to provide a Humanist education for his children, and the school was a way to help him.

Most of Feltre’s ideas were based on those of previous classical authors, such as Cicero and Quintilian. The main foundation of the school was liberal studies. Liberal arts were viewed as the key to freedom, which allowed humans to achieve their goals and reach their full potential. Liberal studies included philosophy, history, rhetoric, letters, mathematics, poetry, music, and astronomy. Based on the Greek idea of a “sound mind,” the school in Mantua offered physical education as well. This included archery, dance, hunting, and swimming.

The children that attended the schools were generally from upper-class families, though some seats were reserved for poor but talented students. Females were not usually allowed to attend, but were encouraged to know history, learn dance, and appreciate poetry. Some important females that were educated during the Renaissance were Isotta Nogarola, Cassandra Fedele of Venice, and Laura Cereta.

Overall, Humanist education was thought at the time to be an important factor in the preparation of life. Its main goal was to improve the lives of citizens and help their communities. Humanist schools combined Christianity and the classics to produce a model of education for all of Europe.

Here is a brief introduction to humanism from St. John’s Timeline:

Humanist View of Rhetoric

Classical rhetoric gave humanists a system of rules for communicating ideas effectively. Since the purpose of all communication was to “guide men toward virtue and worthwhile goals,” this system prioritized rhetorical skill in directing human affairs (Gray, 498). They believed that eloquence was the primary goal, and that could only come from joining wisdom and style in speech.

In order to be a good orator, humanists believed a person must be well-educated, have good moral character, and have the ability to use communication to move men toward worthwhile goals. “Without his eloquence, truth would lie mute, knowledge would never serve the reality of human affairs…” (Gray 504)

Scholastic communication was criticized because it did not live up to the humanist ideals of eloquence and a higher purpose in communication. This represented a fundamental difference in the goals of knowledge and speech. While scholastics goal was to find answers to questions and often quibbled about minor details, humanists wanted their work to matter to real people–to help them make their lives better.

Scholastic vs Humanist Ideals

The following table shows a comparison between Scholastic and Humanist thought. While it’s useful to have a basic idea of the differences between the two, it’s important to remember that most scholars did not fall completely into either category. As Nauert notes, “Even the most established members of the scholastic Establishment sometimes admitted that the fruits of humanistic study (for example, reform of grammar, or textual work on ancient authors) ought to be incorporated into the university curriculum, while at the same time humanists not only sought but often achieved a place within the universities for themselves and their studies, and also shared many of the traditional intellectual concerns of the scholastics.” Further, even though I have separated the two schools of thought in this text, they actually co-existed for quite some time, which blurred the lines between the two, as well.



Corporate solidarity Individual freedom
Latin Common Speech
Logical and metaphysical questions; natural philosophy Problems of immediate concern in daily life—rhetoric and ethics; literature
Merely intellectual Actively persuasive
Eternal truths Can people understand God? Should they try?
Asking Questions & Relying on tradition Looking at context and textual analysis ***
Authority of the church & testimony of the faithful Authority of scripture (sola scriptura)
Authority is innate/born Authority is earned

***Valla’s discovery that the Donation of Constantine was a forgery

***Latin vulgate text misinterprets the meaning of the Greek NT

Table created from information gleaned from this article:

Nauert, Charles G. “The Clash of Humanists and Scholastics: An Approach to Pre-Reformation Controversies.” The Sixteenth Century Journal, vol. 4, no. 1, 1973, pp. 1–18. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2539764. Accessed 29 Jan. 2020.

Key Figures

Dante (6/1/1265-9/14/1321)

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Durante degli Alighieri, better known as Dante, was an Italian and Florentine poet. His greatest work, the epic poem The Divine Comedy, is considered the greatest literary statement produced in medieval Europe.

Dante is credited not only with creating a magnificent poetry; he is also considered to be the father of the modern Italian language itself. This may be somewhat of an exaggeration, for while the very language of The Divine Comedy would become so widespread that it would form the basis from which the Italian language would emerge, Dante was by no means alone in writing luminous works in this formative period of Italian literature. He was a contemporary of Petrarch

Dante is sometimes considered to be the most important poet of the Renaissance. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that the Renaissance begins with Dante; he made the first steps out of the ancient world and into the modern world. Often ranked with Homer and Virgil as one of the great epic poets, Dante is certainly the most modern. While the epic poets of ancient times tended to celebrate the greatness and heroism of their respective nations (for Homer, Greece; for Virgil, Rome) Dante’s objective in his epic is decidedly different: to explore Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven and, in so doing, reconcile Europe’s Hellenic past with its Christian present.

The Divine Comedy describes Dante’s journey through Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio), and Paradise (Paradiso), guided first by the Roman epic poet Virgil and then by his beloved Beatrice. While the vision of Hell, the Inferno, is vivid for modern readers, the theological nuances presented in the other books require a certain amount of patience and scholarship to understand. Purgatorio, the most lyrical and human of the three, also has the most poets in it; Paradiso, the most heavily theological, has the most beautiful and ecstatic mystic passages, in which Dante tries to describe what he confesses he is unable to convey.

Dante wrote the Comedy in his regional dialect. By creating a poem of epic structure and philosophic purpose, he established that the Italian language was suitable for the highest sort of expression, and simultaneously established the Tuscan dialect as the standard for Italian. In French, Italian is nicknamed la langue de Dante.

It often confuses readers that such a serious work would be called a “comedy.” In Dante’s time, all serious scholarly works were written in Latin (a tradition that would persist for many hundreds of years more, until the waning years of the Enlightenment), and works written in any other language were assumed to be comedic in nature.

The Divine Comedy is notable not just for its content, although that in itself is revolutionary. Dante is the first major poet to write an epic in the Christian tradition, and in so doing he demonstrated the durability of Biblical figures (such as Heaven and Hell, Satan and God) for telling stories of great drama and intrigue. Moreover, he is one of the first poets, major or otherwise, to tell a story not of heroes and battles but of personal crisis and introspection. Dante’s ideal guide through Purgatory and Heaven is his true love, Beatrice; and in many ways it was through Dante that the ideal of a true, romantic love would come to permeate Western culture.

Dante’s Works

The Divine Comedy

Petrarch (7/20/1304-7/19/1374)

Francesco Petrarca or Petrarch was an Italian scholar and poet, most famous for having invented the sonnet. He was a primary initiator of the philosophical movement of Renaissance humanism. While humanism later became associated with secularism, Petrarch was a devout Christian and did not see a conflict between realizing humanity’s potential and having religious faith.

Petrarch was an aesthetic conservative who sought to recover the lost heights of Roman and Hellenic culture. He spent much of his time championing the ancient poets and literally digging through libraries in search of lost works. Ironically, despite his advocacy of classical Latin as the language of high art, he would write his most enduring poems in the Italian vernacular. In addition to his contributions to poetry, Petrarch was famous as a scholar, literary critic, and historian. For Petrarch, the study of ancient history and literature was vital, and he believed that, while the classics were a guide to rhetorical technique, they should not be a moral guide. In particular, he studied Augustine and Cicero.  His poetry and his prose espoused realism and a dedication to empirical knowledge, virtues which would be central to the Renaissance, which more than any other individual, Petrarch’s activity would help to initiate.

Petrarch believed in the immense moral and practical value of the study of ancient history and literature – that is, the study of human thought and action. A highly introspective man, he shaped the nascent Humanist movement a great deal because many of the internal conflicts and musings expressed in his writings were seized upon by Renaissance Humanist philosophers and argued continually for the next two hundred years. It is not an exaggeration to say that the Renaissance, and by extension, the beginnings of modern Europe, all begin with Petrarch.


Boccaccio (6/16/1313-12/21/1375)

Boccaccio licensed under Public Domain.

Giovanni Boccaccio was an Italian author and poet, a friend and correspondent of Petrarch and author of a number of notable works, including On Famous Women, the Decameron, and his poems in the vernacular. Boccaccio’s characters are notable for their era in that they are realistic, spirited, and clever individuals who are grounded in reality, in sharp contrast to the characters of many of his contemporaries, who were generally emblematic of Medieval virtues like chivalry, piety and humility. Through this emphasis of realism over outdated scholasticism, Boccaccio helped to found the Renaissance movement of humanism. His poetry and stories had a rhetorical point, and he often argued that humans must make the most of life. His writing inspired the Canturbury Tales.

Boccaccio’s poetry would be some of the most widely influential in any language—writers ranging from Chaucer and Shakespeare to Montaigne and Goethe would directly borrow material and techniques from him. In this way, he is one of the seminal influences for both Renaissance art and philosophy. Like his Florentine contemporaries Dante and Petrarch, Boccaccio continues to be one of the most important figures in Italian literature.

Mirandola (1463-1494)

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Pico della Mirandola was an Italian philosopher & Platonist who traveled and studied many different traditions.

He believed that there were levels of existence from raw matter up to God. His belief that people could choose their own place in the hierarchy illustrates his belief in the freedom of humans to choose their own destiny.

What follows is an excerpt from The Renaissance: Studies in Art and History by Walter Pater. This book is in the Public Domain.




Pico was the youngest of the family, and his mother, delighting in his wonderful memory, sent him at the age of fourteen to the famous school of law at Bologna. From the first, indeed, she seems to have had some presentiment of his future fame, for, with a faith in omens characteristic of her time, she believed that a strange circumstance had happened at the time of Pico’s birth—the appearance of a circular flame which suddenly vanished away, on the wall of the chamber where she lay. He remained two years at Bologna; and then, with an inexhaustible, unrivaled thirst for knowledge, the strange, confused, uncritical learning of that age, passed through the principal schools of Italy and France, penetrating, as he thought, into the secrets of all ancient philosophies, and many eastern languages. And with this flood of erudition came the generous hope, so often disabused, of reconciling the philosophers with each other, and all alike with the Church. At last he came to Rome. There, like some knight-errant of philosophy, he offered to defend nine hundred bold paradoxes, drawn from the most opposite sources, against all comers. But the pontifical court was led to suspect the orthodoxy of some of these propositions, and even the reading of the book which contained them was forbidden by the Pope. It was not until 1493 that Pico was finally absolved, by a brief of Alexander the Sixth. Ten years before that date he had arrived at Florence; an early instance of those who, after following the vain hope of an impossible reconciliation from system to system, have at last fallen back unsatisfied on the simplicities of their childhood’s belief.

The oration which Pico composed for the opening of this philosophical tournament still remains; its subject is the dignity of human nature, the greatness of man. In common with nearly all medieval speculation, much of Pico’s writing has this for its drift; and in common also with it, Pico’s theory of that dignity is founded on a misconception of the place in nature both of the earth and of man. For Pico the earth is the centre of the universe: and around it, as a fixed and motionless point, the sun and moon and stars revolve, like diligent servants or ministers. And in the midst of all is placed man, nodus et vinculum mundi, the bond or copula of the world, and the “interpreter of nature”: that famous expression of Bacon’s really belongs to Pico. Tritum est in scholis, he says, esse hominem minorem mundum, in quo mixtum ex elementis corpus et spiritus coelestis et plantarum anima vegetalis et brutorum sensus et ratio et angelica mens et Dei similitudo conspicitur.—”It is a commonplace of the schools that man is a little world, in which we may discern a body mingled of earthy elements, and ethereal breath, and the vegetable life of plants, and the senses of the lower animals, and reason, and the intelligence of angels, and a likeness to God.”—A commonplace of the schools! But perhaps it had some new significance and authority, when men heard one like Pico reiterate it; and, false as its basis was, the theory had its use. For this high dignity of man, thus bringing the dust under his feet into sensible communion with the thoughts and affections of the angels, was supposed to belong to him, not as renewed by a religious system, but by his own natural right.

Mirandola’s Works

Letter to  Ermoloa Barbaro: https://archive.org/details/memoirsofangelus00gres/page/194/mode/2up

Machiavelli (5/3/1469-6/21/1527)

Machiavelli: “Evenings I return home and enter my study; and at its entrance I take off my everyday clothes, full of mud and dust, and don royal and courtly garments; decorously reattired, I enter into the ancient sessions of ancient men. Received amicably by them, I partake of such food as is mine only and for which I was born. There, without shame, I speak with them and ask them about the reason for their actions; and they in their humanity respond to me.”
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Machiavelli licensed under public domain.

Niccolò di Bernado dei Machiavelli was an Italian political philosopher, musician, poet, and playwright. He was a key figure of the Renaissance, best known for his treatise on realist political theory, The Prince (Il principe) (1513). His other major work, Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy, deserves to be better known for its exposition of the political theory and practice of democratic states.

Active in politics during a tumultuous era that saw popes leading armies, the wealthy city-states of Italy falling one after another into the hands of foreign powers, and governments rising and falling within a few weeks, Machiavelli analyzed the successes and failures he saw around him. The Prince describes various means by which a prince could gain and retain control of his kingdom, evaluating each means in terms of how well it would strengthen the position of the prince while serving the public interest. He wrote about the power of rhetoric and focused on how to get and keep power, seeming to believe that the end justified the means. For him, The goal is for “Everyone to see who you appear to be, and few to sense who you really are” (Smith, 205). Machiavelli’s focus on practical success at the expense of traditional moral values in this book earned him the reputation of an amoralist. The term “Machiavellian,” originally used by some of his contemporaries in discussions of “just” reasons of state, has come to describe one who deceives and manipulates others for gain, and judges the importance of actions by how well they achieve the desired result.

The ideas expressed by Machiavelli in The Prince have been the subject of controversy since the sixteenth century, when some denounced him as an apostle of the devil. The main object of debate was Machiavelli’s attitude toward conventional moral and religious standards of human conduct, which some considered to be immoral. He has been called a “teacher of evil” on the grounds that he counseled leaders to avoid the common values of justice, mercy, temperance, wisdom, and love of their people, and to use cruelty, violence, fear, and deception, while others  viewed Machiavelli as simply a “realist” or a “pragmatist” advocating the suspension of commonplace ethics in matters of politics.

Machiavelli’s Works

Machiavelli on cruelty, an excerpt from The Prince

Erasmus (10/27/1465-12/12/1536)

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Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus (also Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam)  was a Dutch humanist and theologian. Known as one of the greatest humanists of all time, Erasmus believed in free will, and he used Quintilian’s work to create a textbook on rhetoric. Erasmus deeply influenced Christian theology during the first half of the sixteenth century. Although not a Protestant, he contributed to the intellectual foundations of the Reformation. In particular, Erasmus encouraged the development of an “inner religion” in every person through the study of the New Testament. He produced the first Greek New Testament in 1516, making the original text directly accessible to theologians. His Enchiridion Militis Christiani, the Handbook of the Christian Soldier (1503), a guide to the New Testament for lay men and women, which suggested that the church could be renewed and reformed by a collective return to the writings of the Church Fathers and Scripture, went through twenty-three editions in six years.

Erasmus lived his entire life as an independent scholar, unhindered by any connection that might interfere with his freedom of intellect and literary expression. He was offered many academic positions, but declined them all, preferring to maintain his independence. Erasmus’ influence was exercised through his personal contacts, his editions of classical authors, and his own writings. He was acquainted with most of the scholars of Europe, including the English intellectuals, Thomas More, John Colet, Thomas Linacre, and William Grocyn.

His revolt against the forms of church life did not result from doubts about the truth of the traditional doctrine, nor from any hostility to the organization of the Church itself. Rather, he felt called upon to use his learning in clarifying the doctrine and in liberalizing of the institutions of Christianity. As a scholar, he tried to free the methods of scholarship from the rigidity and formalism of medieval tradition; but he was not satisfied with this. He saw himself as a preacher of righteousness. It was this lifelong conviction that guided Erasmus as he subjected the Catholic church to sound criticism, frankly and without fear. This conviction gave unity and consistency to a life which might otherwise seem full of contradictions. Erasmus held himself aloof from all entangling obligations, yet he was in a sense the center of the literary movement of his time. He corresponded with more than five hundred men of importance in the world of politics and of thought, and his advice on all kinds of subjects was eagerly sought, if not always followed.

Erasmus is still widely read today because of his open-minded and rational approach to religion and daily life and because of his satire and sense of humor. He was instrumental in introducing a higher stage in the development of the Christian’s relationship to God, in which people would relate directly and personally to God through their own free inquiry and study of Scripture, without the mediation of a priest or even the church. It was this inner religion that he prized, more than sacraments and religious rites. The Greek/Latin edition of the New Testament, which Erasmus published in 1516, served as the basis for Martin Luther’s translation of the New Testament into German, and William Tyndale’s translation into English in 1526.

Erasmus’ Works

In Praise of Folly

The Education of Children

Martin Luther (11/10/1483-2/18/1546)

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Martin Luther in the Public Domain.

Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk who was also the first and most prominent leader of the Protestant Reformation. Essentially, Luther sought to recover core New Testament teachings that he claimed had been obscured by corruption and worldly traditions of medieval Catholicism. In particular, Luther opposed the idea, popularized by certain indulgence-sellers of his day, that one could buy salvation through monetary donations to the Church. Ever against this, Luther held that human beings could be saved by faith alone (sola fides)

He came to this understanding over the course of a long and tortuous personal struggle. Having resolved his inner conflicts by means of an “evangelical breakthrough,” Luther began a public ministry that altered the course of Christianity and European history.

Luther’s “evangelical breakthrough” did not come all at once, but unfolded within the context of his teaching and pastoral responsibilities. However, a turning point came in 1515, when he was lecturing on Romans, in particular the passage on the “righteousness of God” (1:17). Luther previously regarded God’s righteousness as an impossible standard by which human beings were punished. Now, based on his immersion in Psalms and Romans, he came to see that the righteousness of God was a gift to be received. Christ, through the cross, had taken on all human iniquity and desolation. To be righteous, one simply needed to accept this. Luther, following Saint Paul, affirmed that one who is righteous through faith “shall live.” Once he understood that human beings were “justified” before God by faith and not works, Luther wrote, “I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise.”

Renaissance humanists, intellectuals, and moderate reform-minded Catholics afforded Luther an early base of support. Luther used the printing press as a means to distribute his thoughts, and his supporters secretly translated the 95 Theses from Latin into German and saw to it that they were spread across Europe by means of the recently invented movable-type printing press. As proponents of “new learning,” humanists deeply believed in the freedom of inquiry and supported efforts to read the Bible in its original biblical languages as a way to revive Christianity. They opposed indulgences, pilgrimages, and masses for the dead, in short, the whole “mechanical side” of the Church, which they regarded as little more than legalism or superstition. At the same time, there were points of tension between humanist and Lutheran reform programs, which led to their eventual separation. Disagreement over the nature of human beings, Luther’s virulent polemics, and the mutual roles of theology and ethics doomed any hopes of mounting a common cause.

These disagreements came to a head in the parting of the ways between Luther and Erasmus. Erasmus provided discreet support for Luther, intervening on his behalf with princes of the state and church, while attempting to be outwardly neutral. For his part, Luther was a great admirer of Erasmus, in particular, Erasmus’ 1516 publication of the New Testament in the original Greek. In his first letter to Erasmus, Luther termed him “Our delight and our hope,” even going so far from 1517-19 as to adopt the humanist fad of Hellenizing vernacular names, calling himself “Elutherius” or “the free man.” Their mutual admiration, however, became a casualty of the increasingly polarized times. Erasmus, given his international repute, was pressed to take a definitive stance on Luther, which led to an irreparable split.

Erasmus, in On the Freedom of the Will (1524), argued in favor of the late medieval church view that the human will and God’s grace cooperated in the process of salvation. This ran counter to Luther’s emphasis on sola fides and he answered Erasmus with a point-by-point refutation in On the Bondage of the Human Will (1525). Declaring himself to be a predestinarian, Luther upheld humankind’s absolute dependence on God’s grace. Had their dispute remained theological, it may have been contained. However, Luther proceeded, in characteristic fashion, to hurl all manner of rude epithets at Erasmus to which the learned humanist replied: “How do your scurrilous charges that I am an atheist, an Epicurean and a skeptic, help your argument?” This underscored Erasmus’ more basic concern that Luther’s acrimony was incongruent with the spirit of the apostles and divided Christian Europe into armed camps. He was especially unnerved by the way Luther enlisted the support of the German princes.

The ambiguities in Luther’s legacy are rooted finally in his core theological doctrine of justification by faith alone. Though saved, Luther held that Christians are simultaneously sinners. He expressed the condition of the Christian as being simul justus et peccator (at once righteous and sinful). This paradox lies at the root of Luther’s mixed legacy. He attempted to reform the church but, in fact, divided it. He upheld public order, but within a century of his protests ferocious religious warfare associated with the Thirty Years’ War ravaged much of Germany, killing a third of its population. He promoted marriage and the family, but sanctioned divorce and, in exceptional cases, even bigamy. He defended the rights of religious conscience, yet he attacked humanists, drove spiritualists out of Saxony, considered Catholics captive to the anti-Christ, and assented in the persecution of Anabaptists and Jews.

Embracing Aristotle and Cicero, Luther believed that rhetoric was a servant of God. He was an earthy man who spoke his mind in blunt language. Many of his comments, were down-to-earth and provocative, which endeared him to the German public, who regarded him as one of the best orators of his day. Many of his comments grew out of specific circumstances, and Luther never intended them to be turned into systematic dogmatics. Luther emphasized human fallibility, both of priests and believers, and believed that, through constant preaching, hearing the Word, and continual study of the Bible, God would reveal himself in fragments. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that he translated the Bible into German and made sermons the center of the protestant church service. 

Luther initiated a Reformation in Western Civilization that, combined with the Renaissance, paved the way for the modern democratic world. While demanding obedience to his teachings and his princes, he planted the idea that people are ultimately accountable to God and should glorify him through their work. This unleashed a productive work ethic and self-reliance that led to great creativity and prosperity.

John Calvin (7/10/1509-5/27/1564)

John Calvin image
Image of John Calvin by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

John Calvin was a prominent Christian theologian during the Swiss Protestant Reformation and is the namesake of the system of Christian theology called Calvinism. Jean Chauvin (or Cauvin) was born in Noyon, Picardie, France. French was his mother tongue; Calvin derives from the Latin version of his name, Calvinus. In 1517, when Calvin was only eight years old, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses.

Reformed and Presbyterian churches trace themselves from his reforms, while others including Congregationalist and Baptist and the English Puritans draw on his theology. Calvinism dominated the England and Scotland Civil Wars and Cromwellian period. It also subsequently influenced Anglican thought. Calvin wrote numerous significant works, but his personality remains somewhat opaque. He wrote a constitution for Geneva, and virtually ruled over an experiment in Christian government, where clergy were involved in the governance of the city, though he did not officially hold any office other than chief pastor. He has been described as the first thinker to try to organize social life and governance entirely on Biblical principles.

Calvin’s emphasis on work (which became known as the “Protestant work ethic”) had a direct impact on the Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism. His influence is felt on the development of several European nations as commercial and colonial powers as well. Calvin is widely known for his “doctrine of election,” which lay behind his work ethic—a sign of being numbered among those whom God has predestined for salvation is an industrious, pious, and successful life lived according to the commandments of God.

Calvinism stresses self-denial, sobriety, thriftiness, efficiency, and morality, which can result in high production and low consumption, creating a surplus that cannot be consumed, which is instead invested for the greater glory of God. Calvin also advocated that all believers have a calling, not just the clergy, which opened up the possibility of service inside and outside the church and also made faith more relevant to secular life, sanctifying work as a holy activity.

On the one hand, Calvin recognized social responsibility; on the other he stressed individual responsibility to live a good, productive, and moral life before God. Stressing the dignity of man, Calvin’s social reforms included relief for the poor, construction of hospitals, schools (which were free), new prisons, consumer protection laws, provisions for refugees, and a sanitation system that made Geneva one of the cleanest and healthiest cities in Europe. Calvin was morally strict but humane, concerned with reaching the hearts and the minds of men and women.

Calvin’s name does not evoke as much affection as Luther’s, nor was he as popular in his lifetime, though he did enjoy respect. Calvin’s training in rhetoric at law school has been noted as the reason for his success. In fact, many have called him the greatest theologian of his time. The French humanist and biographer of Jesus, Ernest Renan (1823–1892) described him thus: “Careless of wealth, of titles, of honors, indifferent to pomp, modest in his life, apparently humble, sacrificing everything to the desire of making others like himself, I hardly know of a man, save Ignatius Loyola, who could match him in those terrible transports … [he was] the most Christian man of his century… (l’homme le plus chrétien de son siècle)” (cited in Schaff 2002, 68).

His idea that grace must penetrate all of life and sanctify it and that God calls men and women to replenish the earth and subdue it also led to scientific progress. The English Puritans, inspired by Calvin, would diligently explore science and physics, believing that the mandate to explore and develop human knowledge is based on Genesis 1:28-30. The Christian should strive to be perfect in every good work, and as he strives he will come to know that it is only God who can make him perfect (see Heb. 13:21). Most of the founding members of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, usually referred to as the Royal Society, were Puritan (1660). In 1663, 62 percent of the members were Puritans. One of the founders, Robert Boyle, often called the “father of chemistry,” set up a trust fund in his will for a series of eight lectures to be given annually in a London Church as an apology for Christian faith.

Calvin’s predestinarian theology may not have attracted universal support, but his system of church order has dominated Protestantism, so that all Protestants churches allow lay participation in leadership, none are run solely by clergy. His vision of a humane society covenanted together under God inspired early settlers in America to try to create commonwealths as foretastes of the Kingdom that is to come. In the extreme, Calvin has even been represented as the father of the American way of life. His emphasis on education led to the establishment of several eminent universities, and Calvinism has dominated the theological schools in such countries as Scotland and the Netherlands, where Reformed Christianity took root. In the United States, Princeton, Yale, and Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, are among other institutions founded by Calvinists.

Calvin’s Works:

Institutes of Christian Religion (1537)

Other Notable Renaissance Humanist Figures

  • Trebizond (1395-1486) A rhetoric teacher who wrote commentaries on Aristotle and Cicero. He was a critic of Plato.
  • Savonarola (1452-1498) A Dominican friar who gained fame for correctly predicting future events. He burned many classical manuscripts and contemporary paintings.
  • Agricola (1444-1485) & Melanchton (1497-1560) “Endorsed the interconnections of hermeneutics, argumentation, and rhetoric” (Smith, 208). Agricola believed that speakers should do research on their topics before beginning to write a speech. Melancthon believed that God and man meet in hermeneutics and used biblical examples for his lessons on rhetoric. Since he believed that humans were used by God to do good in the world, he taught that rhetoric was a means to heal and inspire men to do good deeds.
  • Ramus (1515-1575) He was a martyr who considered rhetoric only useful for embellishment and attacked Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian and was embraced by Oliver Cromwell, John Milton, and Calvinists. His works inspired early Harvard curriculum.
  • John Wyclif (1320-1384) & William Tyndale (1494-1536) Both created English translations of the Bible. Tyndale’s version is credited with standardizing English and inspiring Shakespeare.



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