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Humanism And The Renaissance Essay, Research Paper

Humanism and the Renaissance

The Random House Dictionary of the English Language defines humanism as “1. Any system or mode of thought or action in which human interests, values, and dignity are taken to be of primary importance, as in moral judgments. 2. Devotion to or study of the humanities. 3. The studies, principles, or culture of the Humanists.” But the true definition of humanism cannot be relegated to dictionary text alone; it must be expanded upon to include its origins and historical significance. The ancient Greeks and Romans first developed the idea of humanism as a very simplistic idea- to achieve excellence in life through one’s own accomplishments and endeavors.

For hundreds of years, this was the primary definition of humanism. That all changed during the fourteenth century. A rebirth in an interest in things classical or ancient Greek and Roman encompassed geographic areas spanning from Italy to northern Europe. This movement became known as the Renaissance. The Renaissance incorporated ideas from the past with renewed passions in science, history, poetry, languages, and, most importantly, religion. Mirroring the ideas and theories of this era, new definitions of humanism were formulated during the Renaissance.

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola typified the mindset of the fifteenth century humanist. As one of the most brilliant scholars of his time, Pico della Mirandola was proficient in Latin, Hebrew, Greek, Arabic, and Chaldee. This knowledge of languages enabled him to be extremely well read in original versions of ancient Greek and Arabic texts as well as the Holy Bible. Pico della Mirandola practiced both Renaissance and Classical humanism. He focused on the relation of the human to the divine, seeing in human beings the summit and purpose of God’s creation. Renaissance humanists were concerned about defining the human’s place in God’s plan and the relation of the human to the divine. Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man epitomizes his humanist rational. In Oration, he cites sources ranging from Plato to Aristotle: ” There I read the same things which we read every day in the pages of Paul and of Dionysius, Jerome and Augustine. In philosophical matters, it were as though one were listening to Pythagoras and Plato ” Adapting Greek ideas, thinking, and accomplishments to one’s own Christian life was a characteristic of Classical humanism. Throughout Oration, Pico della Mirandola emphasized man’s free will and his right to choice. Before the Renaissance, it had been held that man occupied a definite place in the Great Chain of Being. Pico della Mirandola, however, challenged the position of man in the world. He asserted that God had first created all forms of existence except man and giving them each a place in the chain. Man He created last- with no place in the great chain of being- free to find his own place:

I have placed you at the very center of the world, so that from that vantage point you may with greater ease glance round about you on all the world contains. We have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer. It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine.

No longer was a man’s destiny predetermined. This new notion of man’s ability to choose his destiny in life embodied Renaissance humanism thinking. Pico della Mirandola believed that through righteous acts and proper worship, man may not only attain salvation, but become God Himself, because He had given man that power: ” and there, if, like Moses, we shall prove entirely faithful, most sacred theology will supervene to inspire us with redoubled ecstasy And at last, smitten by the ineffable love as by a sting, and, like the Seraphim, born outside ourselves, filled with the godhead, we shall be, no longer ourselves, but the very One who made us.”

Bartolome de las Casas was a member of the Dominican Preaching Order during the Renaissance. He, like Pico della Mirandola, also preached humanism. But the type of humanism de las Casas practiced varied in emphasis. De las Casas was a Christian humanist. To a certain extent, Christian humanists were further removed from classical humanism than the Renaissance humanists. Although all humanistic practices were derived from the same basic principles, Christian humanism stressed the importance of the use of faith to better their lives as Christians. Christian humanists spent less time analyzing ancient texts and more time glorifying God and Christianity. “Sickened by the endless warfare among princes and outraged by the abuse of power Christian humanists dreamed of ideal societies based on peace and morality.” Bartolome de las Casas was one such humanist. Appalled by the unethical treatment and slaughter of the Indians in the New World by the Spanish conquistadors, he composed The Devastation of the Indies: A Brief Account. In it, he testifies on the nature of the indigenous people:

And of all the infinite universes of humanity, these people are the most guileless, the most devoid of wickedness and duplicity, the most obedient and faithful to their native masters and to the Spanish Christians whom they serve. They are by nature the most humble, patient, and peaceable, holding no grudges, free from embroilments, neither excitable nor quarrelsome. These people are the most devoid of rancors, hatreds, or desire for vengeance of any people in the world.

Throughout the text, de las Casas refers to the Indians as “lambs” and the Spaniards as “wolves” or other carnivorous animals: “And those lions and tigers attacked the helpless sheep.” This symbolism can be traced back biblical texts that depict sheep representing good and wolves personifying evil. De las Casas believed that the Spaniards, rather than promoting Christianity, were giving their faith a bad name:

Pause now to consider what progress in religion can be mad with such examples of Christians as Spaniards who go out to the Indies. What honor do they procure for the true God? What effort do they make to bring the knowledge of God to the Indians and bring them to worship Him?

As a Christian Humanism, de las Casas wanted to end this destruction and bring Christianity to the Indies in a peaceful manner. His purpose was not only to save the Indians, but also save his fellow Spaniards from the wrath of God:

I, Fray Bartolome de las Casas, a Dominican Friar, through the mercy of God, was induced to come to this court of Spain to bring about the ending of that inferno in the Indies and the irremediable destruction of souls that were redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ; and to set up a work that would bring those souls to know their Creator and Savior. I am also here because of the compassion I have for my native land, Castile, that it not be destroyed by God as punishment for the great sins committed by Spaniards devoid of faith.

The goals of a humanist in the Renaissance varied with each person. Both Pico della Mirandola and de las Casas were well versed in historical texts, both were well educated, and both shared beliefs in Christianity. Pico, as a Renaissance and Classical humanist, chose to take a path in which to enlighten other scholars of his time. De las Casas, on the other hand, chose to spread the word of Christianity to the Indians. Although the two may have differed in their approaches to their faith, both shared a common goal- to attain salvation through their works. Typically, for the people of the Renaissance, life on earth was not a sad or bad place, but rather a place in which to foster the talents and abilities of human beings as far as they could be taken. They believed that humans should develop their potentialities; and that is the essence of all humanism.


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