The Renaissance Period began at different times in different countries – some scholars date the period from the middle 13th century in Italy to the 17th century in England. There was enormous productivity in art, architecture, science and literature, and a renewed interest in classical philosophy. Late Medieval scholars began disseminating ideas that lead Renaissance scholars to study and expand upon classical grammar, rhetoric, history, literary studies and moral philosophy. Emphasis on the importance of the individual and an appreciation for humanity’s achievements were hallmarks of the period. Humanism was a Renaissance program of study, but the term "humanism" was not introduced until the 19th century.

Human Perfection and the Arts

The Catholic Church’s influence on the arts declined during the Renaissance. More secular patronage and less emphasis on spirituality freed painters and sculptors to create more realistic images. Architects incorporated classical design with a new appreciation for mathematical principles. Musicians created new instruments and musical forms. Scholars began to see humanity as a work in progress. Artist and scientist, Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) typifies the period with his realistic depictions of the human form and his painstaking investigation into the mechanics of the human body. Works of writers including Italy’s Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) and Giovani Boccaccio (1313–1375), France’s Michel de Monaigne (1533–1592) and England’s Edmund Spenser (1552–1599) were printed in the vernacular making humanistic thought available to non-clerical readers.

The Learning of the Ancients

Scholars went in search of ancient Greek and Latin manuscripts, rescuing them from monastery libraries and attics. Italian scholar Francesco Petrarca, or Petrarch (1304–1374), borrowed from and updated classical teachings. Petrarch discovered classical texts, especially in Latin, and published discussions of these works, using their style in his own writings. He and other Renaissance teachers particularly valued the literary content and style of Cicero, a politician and orator of the Roman Republic. Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494), known as Pico, was a well-traveled scholar whose teachings incorporated influences from Judaism and Islam.

“Studia Humanitatis”

“Humanistas” described teachers of educational disciplines outside of theology and natural science, putting the emphasis on humanity rather than on God. Scholars in the middle ages began the “studia humanitatis” or studies of human nature, which progressed vigorously in the Renaissance. In addition to rediscovering the learning of classical scholars, Renaissance academics began pursuing scientific, historical and philosophical inquiry with an eye to discovering workings of the natural world, including human beings. Pico taught that humanity was a part of the “great chain of being,” placing humans on a hierarchy of existence somewhere between raw matter and God.

Redefining Classical Philosophies

Petrarch, Pico and other Neo-Platonist humanists revived and updated the teaching of classical philosophies. Classical Stoicism emphasized endurance in the face of trials. Petrarch taught that Stoicism -- the cultivation of scholarly work and ethical perfection -- should be the highest aim of human life, providing a defense against emotional pain. Humanists like Cosma Raimondi viewed Epicureanism not as mindless pursuit of pleasure, but as the good derived from enjoyment both for the mind and the body, ultimately guiding and producing virtue. Skepticism in the teachings of Aristotle taught that humanity was capable of ultimately learning everything about the world through the exercise of intellect and examination.

Society and the Human Mind

Thomas More (1478–1535) whose book Utopia criticized the ruling classes and their relentless acquisition of wealth and exploitation of the poor, predicted socialism. More envisioned a world where no individual was wealthy, but all had access to everything necessary to live a happy and productive life. Francis Bacon (1561–1626), like other humanists, was an avid student of the classics, reading and writing in both Latin and English. He wrote that inquiry and study were the most precious things on earth and would result in the improvement of humanity by bringing about a return to the innocence of Eden. He was critical, however, of the superstitions of the ancient world and felt that it would be a shame if human intellectual advancement became fossilized with too much reverence for ancient knowledge. He also criticized some of his fellow humanists for their preference of classical style over modern substance.