The Renaissance

The word Renaissance means “rebirth.” In a historical context it refers to a period of revival of interest in classical culture, specifically the arts and literature, which began in mid-fourteenth-century Italy. In philosophy, the Renaissance covers the period from 1400 to 1600, when Plato and Neo-Platonism were revived due to the availability of Latin translations, and witnessed the revival of ancient systems of thought such as Stoicism and skepticism. The key thinkers of the early Renaissance are Desiderius Erasmus and Martin Luther. By the end of the Renaissance, however, the significant figures were scientific thinkers, especially Nicolaus Copernicus, a mathematician and astronomer, and Galileo Galilei, a central figure in the scientific revolution.

The Humanistic Period: Cultural Developments

The cultural movement of the Renaissance began in Italy in the fourteenth century. Philosophically it began as Latin translations of Plato's dialogues became available. Plato seemed like fresh air compared to the logic-chopping and disputes of Scholastics more associated with the works of Aristotle. Philosophy could now be enjoyed for itself, not just for its use to bolster and defend religious orthodoxies.

Technology was essential to the Renaissance. The invention of the printing press in the mid 1400s made the works of great authors widely available. Books once hand-copied were now mass-produced. Under Cosimo de Medici forty-five copyists working feverishly for two years had produced just 200 volumes; by the year 1500 some 1,000 printers had produced over 9 million books.

Erasmus and Machiavelli

Two of the most important philosophers of the humanistic period of the Renaissance were Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536) and NiccolÒ Machiavelli (1469–1527). Erasmus combined an enthusiasm for the classics with a populist, entertaining style. A Christian, Erasmus celebrated the human spirit in his writings and saw no tension between the classics and religious faith. In “the Godly Feast,” a dialogue he wrote in 1522, one of his characters says:

Sacred scripture is of course the basic authority for everything; yet I sometimes run across ancient sayings or pagan writings — even the poets — so purely and reverently and admirably expressed that I can't help believing their authors' hearts were moved by some divine power. And perhaps the spirit of Christ is more widespread than we understand, and the company of the saints includes many not in our calendar.

Erasmus had been bolder in an earlier, more famous work, The Praise of Folly (1509). This satirical work takes jabs at many targets, most of all the church. Erasmus believed that the church was laden with “folly”: the monks could be petty, corrupt, and ignorant. Its officials possessed power and could do greater wrongs because of that power. While his work inspired the Protestant reformers to follow, especially Martin Luther with whom Erasmus feuded, he did not wish to break the church but only to heal it.

Humanism, a philosophy prevalent during the Renaissance, is the belief in and celebration of the potential and abilities of humans, without dependence on divine intervention to solve humankind's problems.

Machiavelli is undoubtedly the most important political philosopher of the era and is best known for The Prince. During his political career (1494–1512) he served as secretary of the chancellery of the Council of Ten at Florence. The book attests to the corrupt practices among leaders in Renaissance Italy. Not only does the book justify the amoral political standards of the time, but more importantly it is a practical guide to unscrupulous rulers — in his own time and ages to come — who wished to gain or retain power over the masses.

The author's justification of “might is right” politics gave rise to a word that lives on. Machiavellianism is now a pejorative term stating that in politics the “end justifies the means.” It condones the attainment of political power, without questioning how such power is attained. Power is praiseworthy in itself, regardless of what moral standards are used to achieve it, according to Machiavelli.

Machiavellianism, named for the Renaissance political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli, has come to mean any form of political ruthlessness wherein the end justifies the means. It now has a thoroughly negative connotation and is hurled as an epithet to attack one's opponents.

Machiavelli had practical advice for rulers. A wise ruler will eliminate even those who aided him in his rise to power. Such people know too much about the ruler's techniques used to gain power and could threaten his rule. The ruler should have the traits of a fox (in order to outwit his opponents) and a lion (in order to intimidate his enemies). In addition, he is better served by building an appearance of dignity and virility, without a hint of effeminacy.

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