The designation "Renaissance philosophy" is used by scholars of intellectual history to refer to the thought of the period running in Europe roughly between 1355 and 1650 (the dates shift forward for central and northern Europe and for areas such as Spanish America, India, Japan, and China under European influence). It therefore overlaps both with late medieval philosophy, which in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was influenced by notable figures such as Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, William of Ockham, and Marsilius of Padua, and early modern philosophy, which conventionally starts with René Descartes and his publication of the Discourse on Method in 1637. Philosophers usually divide the period less finely, jumping from medieval to early modern philosophy, on the assumption that no radical shifts in perspective took place in the centuries immediately before Descartes. Intellectual historians, however, take into considerations factors such as sources, approaches, audience, language, and literary genres in addition to ideas. This article reviews both the changes in context and content of Renaissance philosophy and its remarkable continuities with the past.
The structure, sources, method, and topics of philosophy in the Renaissance had much in common with those of previous centuries.
Particularly since the recovery of a great portion of Aristotelian writings in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, it became clear that, in addition to Aristotle's writings on logic, which had already been known, there were numerous others roughly having to do with natural philosophy, moral philosophy, and metaphysics. These areas provided the structure for the philosophy curriculum of the emerging universities. The general assumption was that the most 'scientific' branches of philosophy were those that were more theoretical and therefore more widely applicable. During the Renaissance too, many thinkers saw these as the main philosophical areas, with logic providing a training of the mind to approach the other three.
A similar continuity can be seen in the case of sources. Although Aristotle was never an unquestioned authority (he was more often than not a springboard for discussion, and his opinions were often discussed along those of others, or the teaching of Holy Scripture), medieval lectures in physics consisted of reading Aristotle's Physics, lessons in moral philosophy consisted of examinations of his Nicomachean Ethics (and often his Politics), and metaphysics was approached through his Metaphysics. The assumption that Aristotle's works were foundational to an understanding of philosophy did not wane during the Renaissance, which saw a flourishing of new translations, commentaries, and other interpretations of his works, both in Latin and in the vernacular.
In terms of method, philosophy was considered during the late Middle Ages as a subject that required robust enquiry on the part of people trained in the subject's technical vocabulary. Philosophical texts and problems were typically approached through university lectures and 'questions'. The latter, similar in some ways to modern debates, examined the pros and cons of particular philosophical positions or interpretations. They were one of the cornerstones of the 'scholastic method', made students who proposed or responded to questions quick on their feet, and required a deep familiarity with all of the known philosophical tradition, which would often be invoked in support of or against specific arguments. This style of philosophy continued to have a strong following in the Renaissance. Pico della Mirandola's Disputations, for instance, depended directly on this tradition, which was not at all limited to university lecture halls.
Given the remarkable range of Aristotelian philosophy, it was possible to discuss all kinds of issues in medieval and Renaissance philosophy. Aristotle had treated directly problems such as the trajectory of missiles, the habits of animals, how knowledge is acquired, the freedom of the will, how virtue is connected with happiness, the relationship of the lunar and the sublunar worlds. Indirectly he had stimulated discussion on two points that were particularly of concern to Christians: the immortality of the soul and the eternity of the world. All of these continued to be of considerable interest to Renaissance thinkers, but we shall see that in some cases the solutions offered were significantly different because of changing cultural and religious landscapes.
Having established that many aspects of philosophy were held in common during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, it will now be useful to discuss in what areas changes were afoot. The same outline as above will be used, to show that within trends of continuity one can also find surprising differences.
It is therefore useful to reconsider what was mentioned above about philosophical sources. The Renaissance saw a significant broadening of source material. Plato, known directly only through two and a half dialogues in the Middle Ages, came to be known through numerous Latin translations in fifteenth century Italy, culminating in the hugely influential translation of his complete works by Marsilio Ficino in Florence in 1484. Petrarch was not able to read Plato directly, but he greatly admired him. Petrarch was also a great admirer of Roman poets such as Virgil and Horace and of Cicero for Latin prose writing. Not all humanists followed his example in all things, but Petrarch contributed to a broadening of his time's 'canon' (pagan poetry had previously been considered frivolous and dangerous), something that happened in philosophy as well. In the sixteenth century anyone who considered himself 'au fait' read Plato as well as Aristotle, trying as much as possible (and not always very successfully) to reconcile the two with each other and with Christianity. This is probably the main reason why Donato Acciaiuoli's commentary on Aristotle's Ethics (first published in 1478) was so successful: it blended the three traditions beautifully. Other movements from ancient philosophy also re-entered the mainstream. This was never really the case for Epicureanism, which was almost always caricatured and considered with suspicion, but Scepticism and Pyrrhonism did make a comeback thanks to writers like Michel Montaigne, and the movement of Stoicism made an impressive re-appearance in the writings of Justus Lipsius. In all of these cases it is impossible to separate the pagan philosophical doctrines from the Christian filter through which they were approached and made legitimate.
While generally the Aristotelian structure of the branches of philosophy stayed in place, interesting developments and tensions were taking place within them. In moral philosophy, for instance, a position consistently held by Thomas Aquinas and his numerous followers was that its three subfields (ethics, economics, politics) were related to progressively wider spheres (the individual, the family and the community). Politics, Thomas thought, is more important than ethics because it considers the good of the greater number. This position came under increasing strain in the Renaissance, as various thinkers claimed that Thomas's classifications were inaccurate, and that ethics were the most important part of morality. Other important figures, such as Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch) (1304-1374), questioned the whole assumption that the theoretical aspects of philosophy were the more important ones. He insisted, for instance, on the value of the practical aspects of ethics. Petrarch's position, expressed both strongly and amusingly in his invective On His Own Ignorance and That of Many Others (De sui ipsius ac multorum ignorantia) is also important for another reason: it represents the conviction that philosophy should let itself be guided by rhetoric, that the purpose of philosophy is therefore not so much to reveal the truth, but to encourage people to pursue the good. This perspective, so typical of Italian humanism, could easily lead to reducing all philosophy to ethics, in a move reminiscent of Plato's Socrates and of Cicero.
If, as mentioned above, scholasticism continued to flourish, the Italian humanists (i.e., lovers and practitioners of the humanities) challenged its supremacy. As we have seen, they believed that philosophy could be brought under the wing of rhetoric. They also thought that the scholarly discourse of their time needed to return to the elegance and precision of its classical models. They therefore tried dressing philosophy in a more appealing garb than had their predecessors, whose translations and commentaries were in technical Latin and sometimes simply transliterated the Greek. In 1416/1417 Leonardo Bruni, the pre-eminent humanist of his time and chancellor of Florence, re-translated Aristotle's Ethics into a more flowing, idiomatic and classical Latin. He hoped to communicate the elegance of Aristotle's Greek while also making the text more accessible to those without a philosophical education. Others, including Nicolò Tignosi in Florence around 1460, and the Frenchman Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples in Paris in the 1490s, tried to please the humanists either by including in their commentaries on Aristotle appealing historical examples or quotations from poetry, or by avoiding the standard scholastic format of questions, or both. The driving conviction was that philosophy should be freed of its technical jargon so that more people would be able to read it. At the same time, all kinds of summaries, paraphrases, and dialogues dealing with philosophical issues were prepared, in order to give their topics a wider dissemination. Humanists also encouraged the study of Aristotle and other writers of antiquity in the original. Desiderius Erasmus, the great Dutch humanist, even prepared a Greek edition of Aristotle, and eventually those teaching philosophy in the universities had to at least pretend that they knew Greek. Humanists were not, however, great fans of the vernacular. There is only a handful of examples of dialogues or translations of Aristotle's works into Italian during the fifteenth century. Once it had been determined, however, that Italian was a language with literary merit and that it could carry the weight of philosophical discussion, numerous efforts in this direction started to appear, particularly from the 1540s onward. Alessandro Piccolomini had a programme to translate or paraphrase the entire Aristotelian corpus into the vernacular. Other important figures were Benedetto Varchi, Bernardo Segni and Giambattista Gelli, all of them active in Florence. Efforts got underway to present Plato's doctrines in the vernacular as well. This rise of vernacular philosophy, which quite predated the Cartesian approach, is a new field of research whose contours are only now beginning to be clarified.
It is very hard to generalize about the ways in which discussions of philosophical topics shifted in the Renaissance, mainly because to do so requires a detailed map of the period, something we do not yet have. We know that debates about the freedom of the will continued to flare up (for instance, in the famous exchanges between Erasmus and Martin Luther), that Spanish thinkers were increasingly obsessed with the notion of nobility, that duelling was a practice that generated a large literature in the sixteenth century (was it permissible or not?).
Earlier histories gave perhaps undue attention to Pietro Pomponazzi's pronouncements on the immortality of the soul as a question that could not be resolved philosophically in a way consistent with Christianity, or to Pico della Mirandola's Oration on the dignity of man, as if these were signals of the period's increasing secularism or even atheism. In fact, the most successful compendium of natural philosophy in the period (Compendium philosophiae naturalis, first published in 1530) was authored by Frans Titelmans, a Franciscan friar from the Low Countries whose work has a very strong religious flavour. We must not forget that most philosophers of the time were at least nominal, if not devout, Christians, that the sixteenth century saw both the Protestant and the Catholic reformations, and that Renaissance philosophy culminates with the period of the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648). In other words, religion had a massive importance in the period, and one can hardly study philosophy without remembering this.
This is true among others for the philosophy of Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499), who reinterpreted Plato in the light of his early Greek commentators and also of Christianity. Ficino hoped that a purified philosophy would bring about a religious renewal in his society and therefore transformed distasteful aspects of Platonic philosophy (for instance, the homosexual love exalted in the Symposium) into spiritual love (i.e., Platonic love), something later transformed by Pietro Bembo and Baldassar Castiglione in the early sixteenth century as something also applicable to relationships between men and women. Ficino and his followers also had an interest in 'hidden knowledge', mainly because of his belief that all of ancient knowledge was interconnected (Moses, for instance, had received his insights from the Greeks, who in turn had received them from others, all according to God's plan and therefore mutually consistent; Hermeticism is relevant here). Although Ficino's interest in and practice of astrology was not uncommon in his time, one should not necessarily associate it with philosophy, as the two were usually considered to be quite separate and often in contradiction with each other.
In conclusion, like any other moment in the history of thought Renaissance philosophy cannot be considered to have provided something entirely new nor to have continued for centuries to repeat the conclusions of its predecessors. Historians call this period the 'Renaissance' in order to indicate the rebirth that took place of ancient (particularly classical) perspectives, sources, attitudes toward literature and the arts. At the same time, we realize that every reappropriation is constrained and even guided by contemporary concerns and biases. It was no different for the period considered here: the old was mixed with and changed by the new, but while no claims can be made for a revolutionary new starting point in philosophy, in many ways the synthesis of Christianity, Aristotelianism, and Platonism offered by Thomas Aquinas was torn apart in order to make way for a new one, based on more complete and varied sources, often in the original, and certainly attuned to new social and religious realities and a much broader public.
16th-century philosophy is generally regarded as the later part of Renaissance philosophy.
Early 16th-century philosophy is often called the High Renaissance and is considered to succeed the Renaissance philosophy era and precede the Age of Rationalism. Notable philosophers from the time period include Desiderius Erasmus, Niccolò Machiavelli, Martin Luther, Samuel von Pufendorf, Nicolaus Copernicus, and Michel de Montaigne.The 16th century is characterized by a mixture of humanist and scholastic traditions. Notable developments in vocabulary occurred, with the introduction of the words ‘psychology’ (coined by Marko Marulic) and ‘anthropology’ (first used by Magnus Helt). ‘Psychology’ in the 16th century context referred to discussions of the origin of the human soul. ‘Anthropology’ was used in a narrower context than we are used to today, in strict reference to the relationship between both the human soul and human anatomy as they both comprise human nature.Logic (as represented by the likes of John Mair) began to fall out of favor among most European countries around the early to mid 16th century, and a directional shift occurred towards Aristotelian interpretations.
Erasmus' work Antibarbarians was published in 1520, thirty years after he wrote it, defending the study of ancient philosophers and scholars, broadly referred to as 'classical education,' while conveying the belief that the study of philosophy is crucial in order to preserve the Christian faith.Academic skepticism had a growing influence, represented by people like Omar Talon and Cornelius Agribba von Nettesheim, who wrote On the Vanity and Uncertainty of the Arts and Sciences and the Excellence of God’s Word.Overall, the writings of Aristotle were one of the most commonly used subjects of great philosophical commentary. One of the most influential aspects of Aristotle informing 16th century thought was that the soul could be viewed as belonging on two axes of sensitive-intellective (emotions and desires) and cognitive-appetitive (the will).
Juan Luis Vives, a humanist considered to be ‘the father of modern psychology,’ was one of a few to attempt to explore an alternative to the Aristotelian psychological model, rejecting metaphysical approaches to understanding the soul and instead placing priority on understanding it through describing its functionality (although fails to successfully arrive at a fully formed alternative). His arguments centered around humanity’s intellectual inability to completely understand what a soul is.The individual, in the 16th century, was understood only (again through an Aristotelian lens) through their political community or homeland, with the task of pursuing moral virtue. Humanity’s tendency towards fostering political communities was seen as both a natural and entirely unique characteristic belonging to man.Accademia Fiorentina
The Accademia Fiorentina was a philosophical and literary academy in Florence, Italy during the Renaissance.Accademia degli Infiammati
The Accademia degli Infiammati ("Academy of the Burning Ones") was a short-lived but influential philosophical and literary academy in Padua, in northern Italy. It was founded in 1540 by Leone Orsini, and was dissolved somewhere between 1545 and 1550.
This academy should not be confused with another Accademia degli Infiammati which was established at Forlimpopoli in 1624 by Dominican friar Giovanni della Robbia.
The Paduan Academy's emblem featured Hercules on fire on Mount Oite, with the motto Arso il mortale al ciel n’andrà l’eterno ("Burned being the Mortal, to Heaven will Ascend the Eternal"). Notable members and collaborators were Sperone Speroni, Benedetto Varchi, Pietro Aretino, Girolamo Preti Luigi Alamanni, Ugolino Martelli, Alessandro Piccolomini, and Angelo Beolco (el Ruzante).
Some of the Academy's activities were conducted in Greek and Latin. However, the vulgar Venetian and Tuscan languages became prevalent after Speroni, a staunch defender of the vernacular, presided over the academy in 1542.
In this period the Academy promoted lectures (Lezioni) on vernacular poetry, such as on Bembo's sonnets Piansi e cantai l'aspra guerra and Verdeggi all'Apennin la fronte, e 'l petto, by Martelli, and on Forteguerri's sonnet Ora ten va superbo, or corre altero, by Piccolomini.
In 1540, Giovanni Mazzuoli da Strada founded at his home in Florence the Accademia degli Umidi ("Academy of the Wet Ones"). Originally meant to be just a parody of the newly created Paduan Academy, devoted to amateur and burlesque activities, it eventually became the respectable and prestigious Accademia Fiorentina.Arthur Hyman
Arthur Hyman (1921–2017) was a professor of philosophy at Yeshiva University.Duquesne University Press
Duquesne University Press, founded in 1927, is a publisher that is part of Duquesne University, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
The Press is the scholarly publishing arm of Duquesne University, and publishes monographs and collections in the humanities and social sciences. In particular, the university press's editorial program includes the following specific fields: literature studies (Medieval and Renaissance), philosophy, psychology, religious studies and theology, spirituality, and creative nonfiction.Geohumoral theory
Geohumoral theory or Geohumoralism was a racialist concept propounded in Renaissance Europe. Briefly, it "held that variations in topography and climate produced variations in national characteristics" (Wilson 133).This embodied the early modern "...common way of understanding human nature...through analyzing how European bodies altered as a result of being in one climate rather than another – some Europeans, notably those in cold northern climes, such as the English and Scots, and those in southern climes, such as those close to the shores of tropical Africa, had their bodies altered sufficiently by environmental factors so as to be morally defective and physically decrepit" (Abulafia qtd. in Burnard par. 7). Geohumoralism was, in part, a philosophical justification for the European imperial encroachment upon the New World.Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition
Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition is a 1964 non-fiction book by British historian Frances A. Yates. The book delves into the history of Hermeticism and its influence upon Renaissance philosophy and Giordano Bruno.
With the publication of Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, Yates transformed Renaissance historiography. In it, she revealed the hermeticism with which the Renaissance was imbued, and the revived interest in mysticism, magic and Gnosticism of Late Antiquity that survived the Middle Ages. In the face of longstanding conventional interpretations, Yates suggested that the itinerant Catholic priest Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600 for espousing the Hermetic tradition rather than his affirmation of heliocentricity.
The book is cited by the bestselling British author Philip Pullman, as a central inspiration for his own writing.List of Renaissance commentators on Aristotle
This is a list of Renaissance commentators on the works of Aristotle, particularly those on natural philosophy and ethics.Machiavellianism
Machiavellianism is defined as the political theory of Niccolò Machiavelli, especially the view that any means can be used if it is necessary to maintain political power. The word comes from the Italian Renaissance diplomat and writer Niccolò Machiavelli, born in 1469, who wrote Il Principe (The Prince), among other works.
In modern psychology however, Machiavellianism is also the name of a personality trait, characterized by a duplicitous interpersonal style, an absence of morality, a lack of empathy, and a focus on self-interest and personal gain.Marilyn McCord Adams
Marilyn McCord Adams (1943–2017) was an American philosopher and Episcopal priest. She specialized in the philosophy of religion, philosophical theology, and medieval philosophy. She was Horace Tracy Pitkin Professor of Historical Theology at Yale Divinity School from 1998 to 2003 and Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford from 2004 to 2009.Mary T. Clark
Sister Mary Twibill Clark, RSCJ (October 23, 1913 – September 1, 2014) was an American academic and civil rights advocate. She was best known as a scholar of the history of philosophy, and was associated especially with Augustine of Hippo.Modern philosophy
Modern philosophy is philosophy developed in the modern era and associated with modernity. It is not a specific doctrine or school (and thus should not be confused with Modernism), although there are certain assumptions common to much of it, which helps to distinguish it from earlier philosophy.
The 17th and early 20th centuries roughly mark the beginning and the end of modern philosophy. How much of the Renaissance should be included is a matter for dispute; likewise modernity may or may not have ended in the twentieth century and been replaced by postmodernity. How one decides these questions will determine the scope of one's use of "modern philosophy."Neostoicism
Neostoicism was a syncretic philosophical movement, founded by Flemish humanist Justus Lipsius, that attempted to combine the beliefs of Stoicism and Christianity. In his seminal period in the Northern Netherlands (Leiden, 1578–1591), Lipsius published two most significant works: De Constantia (1583) and Politica (1589).
Not to be confused with modern Stoicism, a similar movement in the early 21st century.Outline of the Renaissance
The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to the Renaissance:
Renaissance – cultural movement that spanned roughly the 14th to the 17th century, beginning in Italy in the Late Middle Ages and later spreading to the rest of Europe. The term is also used more loosely to refer to the historical era, but since the changes of the Renaissance were not uniform across Europe, this is a general use of the term.Platonism in the Renaissance
Platonism, especially in its Neoplatonist form, underwent a revival in the Renaissance, as part of a general revival of interest in Classical antiquity. Interest in Platonism was especially strong in Florence under the Medici.R. James Long
Raymond James Long (born December 15, 1938) is an American academic and professor emeritus of philosophy at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Connecticut. He is also a faculty member at St. John Fisher Seminary in Stamford, Connecticut. Long was the president of the Society for Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy.Long has published nine books, including The Life and Works of Richard Fishacre, O.P., Prolegomena to the Edition of his Commentary on the "Sentences", published in 1999; editions of parts one and two of the second book of Fishacre's Sentences Commentary (2008 and 2011); "Adam of Bockenfield, 'Glossaae super De vegetabilibus et plantis': A Critical Edition with Introduction"; and, most recently "Hagar's Vocation. Philosophy's Role in the Theology of Richard Fishacre" (CUA Press, 2015).
Of German and Italian ancestry, Long has also authored more than 60 articles on medieval philosophy (which include editions of the works of such writers as Alfred of Sareshel, Bartholomaeus Anglicus, the anonymous author of a Peterhouse manuscript on the science of botany, in addition to his work on Fishacre and Adam of Bockenfield), and was the recipient of numerous academic awards, including a Fulbright Scholarship, a Canada Council Postdoctoral Fellowship and a NEH Text and Editions Grant. Long received a licentiate in medieval studies from the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies in 1966 and earned his doctorate from the University of Toronto in 1968.
Long is married to former Broadway actress Wendy Lesniak, with whom he has three sons: Damian, Justin, and Christian.Ramism
Ramist redirects here. It may also refer to followers of the composer Jean-Philippe Rameau.
Ramism was a collection of theories on rhetoric, logic, and pedagogy based on the teachings of Petrus Ramus, a French academic, philosopher, and Huguenot convert, who was murdered during the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre in August 1572.According to British historian Jonathan Israel:
"[Ramism], despite its crudity, enjoyed vast popularity in late sixteenth-century Europe, and at the outset of the seventeenth, providing as it did a method of systematizing all branches of knowledge, emphasizing the relevance of theory to practical applications [...]"Society for Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy
The Society for Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy is a learned society established in 1978 to support teaching and research relating to medieval and renaissance philosophy. Presidents of the society have included Arthur Hyman, Marilyn Adams, James Ross, Jorge Gracia, Mary Clark, and R. James Long.Étienne de La Boétie
Étienne or Estienne de La Boétie (French: [etjɛn də la bɔesi] (listen), also [bwati] or [bɔeti]; Occitan: Esteve de La Boetiá; 1 November 1530 – 18 August 1563) was a French judge, writer and "a founder of modern political philosophy in France". He is best remembered as the great and close friend of the eminent essayist Michel de Montaigne "in one of history's most notable friendships", as well as an earlier influence for anarchist thought.