What Ethical Issues Did Humanists Struggle With During the Italian Renaissance?

Leonardo da Vinci often combined knowledge from multiple fields into single projects, reflecting the humanist ideal of seeking truth across multiple fields.
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The Renaissance was a period of rapid advancement in science, art, government and society that began in Italy around the end of the 14th century. Humanism was a renaissance movement that placed the study and progress of mankind above the advancement of any singular religion or school of scientific thought. Humanists struggled to find answers to man's fundamental questions and moral dilemmas that were based in human nature, rather than the divine. Humanists also rejected the idea that the hard sciences could answer all of life's questions. Instead, they turned toward the humanities.

1 Humanism and Dignity

Renaissance humanists placed a large emphasis on understanding and preserving the dignity of man. If a person's life on earth was to be understood in worldly terms, it was necessary to ascertain from where their basic rights arose. They saw dignity as innate, and its preservation as the key to a better future for society. It was from this innate dignity that basic rights were seen to originate, rather than through the blessing or decree of God.

2 Humanism and Religion

Many people automatically assume that all humanists were secular. This is not the case. Some prominent humanists, such as Erasmus, were churchgoers. Humanism did not call for an outright rejection of religion. Rather, it simply suggested that values could be found in the secular world too. The term "Renaissance man", which refers to a person who possesses knowledge in a wide variety of fields, describes the humanist ideal. The humanists called on society not to turn only to religion, science or the humanities for answers to life's fundamental dilemmas. Rather, they implored them to seek answers from each field, and combine them to arrive at universal truths.

3 Humanists and Politics

The humanists placed a great deal of importance on interactions between men. They saw participation in society as one of man's fundamental callings in life. Because of this, they believed that the more active a citizen an individual was, the better they were fulfilling their purpose. Participation in politics replaced participation in the church as something that could be used to gauge goodness. Politics were important because a stable society was necessary in order to allow people to engage with one another socially.

4 Humanism and Worldly Pleasures

Religion generally advised individuals to avoid worldly pleasures like decadent food, alcohol and the pursuit of fine things. Humanists took an opposite stance on worldly pleasures. They saw man's fundamental purpose on earth not as pleasing God, but rather as participating in society. In order to participate fully they believed man needed to indulge in the experiences that were available to him. Humanists also often encouraged idleness. They believed time could be well spent in contemplation. Religion, they argued, generally encouraged hard work rather than deep thought.

Alexandra Corbella has been writing for more than 10 years. She has been published everywhere from the "The Collector" to popular blogs like Beauty Collection and Collective310. She holds a Political Science degree, and has worked for several politicians. She earned a M.A. in History in 2012.