Humanism in the Renaissance: Recognizing the Beauty of the Individual

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  • 0:07 The Definition of Humanism
  • 0:35 Why Humanism Developed
  • 2:40 Humanism and…
  • 4:25 Humanism and…
  • 6:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

In this lesson, we will be discussing how humanism changed the idea of the individual from something sinful and controlled by the Church into something of great beauty and worth.

The Definition of Humanism

Today we'll be discussing the concept of humanism, the term generally applied to the overreaching social and intellectual philosophies of the Renaissance era, in which the beauty of the individual was elevated to preeminence. To put it in simpler terms, humanism is the belief that man has beauty, worth, and dignity. Therefore, life here on Earth should be cherished rather than simply endured.

Why Humanism Developed

As the power of the Church began to decline, humanism grew in popularity
Church Decline

Before we delve headlong into humanism and the effect it had on the individual, we must first discuss the reason behind its development. During the Middle Ages, between about the 3rd and 13th centuries, life and culture were primarily focused on the Church and religion. However, toward the beginning of the 14th century, the power of the Church began to greatly decline. This decline is the main reason for the development of humanism, as people became less interested in thinking about God, the afterlife, and the saints and more interested in thinking about themselves, their natural world, and the here and now.

Many historians believe there were two main causes of this decline, the first being the bubonic plague which ravaged Europe and killed over half of many countries' populations. As the plague devastated and destroyed, the Church was helpless to stop it. People prayed, and people filled cathedrals, yet loved ones continued to die. This led many to disenchantment, causing them to seek out other explanations beyond the spiritual for human suffering and loss.

The second, and perhaps most profound reason for the decline of the Church, was the rise of the market economy. As money began to be amassed through trade, the power of the Church declined even more. From this rose city-states and monarchies governed more by economy than religious restriction. All in all, the Church became too stuffy, too impractical, and too rigid; thus, it was replaced with the secular human's capacity to learn, create, and especially, enjoy! In short, it was replaced with the idea of humanism, where the study of human progress and human nature is at the center of all things.

Now that we've covered the reason for the development of humanism, we can dive into what this actually meant for the individual in the areas of independence and interests.

How Humanism Changed Individual Independence

Prior to the 14th century, wealth was based on land ownership and the poor had to work the land

First, humanism radically changed the idea of individual independence. Prior to the 14th century, much of Europe, and especially Northern Europe, practiced the feudal system in which wealth was based on land ownership. Generally speaking, under this system, people were seen as part of a collective whole to keep feudal society and the manor system intact. Serfs, or the poor workers, were tools used by the wealthy to work their land holdings and keep their wealth intact. Adding to this imprisonment of sorts, the Church believed that to be concerned with yourself and your rights was nothing more than arrogance, rebellion, and sin! One should only be concerned with obeying the rules and following them without question.

However, as we mentioned earlier, thanks to the plague and the rise of trade, the power of the Church and feudalism shrank and the importance of the individual grew. Man and human nature were no longer seen as totally sinful and in need of punishment but instead as independent, beautiful, and individual creations of God. This is particularly seen in the writings of Petrarch, the Father of Humanism, in which he states, 'Sameness is the mother of disgust, variety the cure!,' or in other words, 'Go on and express yourself!' These ideals were further expressed in the famous speech, The Dignity of Man, in which the renowned orator Mirandola states, 'You with no limit or no bound, may choose for yourself!' Again, he's saying, 'You're an individual - you're an independent - you're free!'

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