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Humanism and the Renaissance + Protestant Reformation Essay

The later Middle Ages is characterized as a time of great transition and advancement, especially pertaining to areas of politics, economics, art and intellect. A new trend towards the pursuit of new knowledge and ideas first emerged in fifteenth century Renaissance Italy. This new area of intellect marks the emergence of humanism, which essentially came to be the defining characteristic leading up to the Scientific Revolution in the eighteenth century. The Protestant Reformation can be seen as the second catalyst to the Scientific Revolution, which occurred around the turn of the fifteenth century.

It was the combination of the expansion of humanism first witnessed during the Renaissance creating the desire for knowledge, greater meaning and ultimate truths, with the power gained on part of the individual during the Protestant Reformation allowing for the pursuit of these new questions and ideas which, at the time, opposed existing knowledge that was universally accepted to be true; this combination ultimately culminated in the methods, principles, knowledge and foundations realized during the Scientific Revolution.

The Renaissance is a seen a distinct period of time emerging in the beginning of the fifteenth century, immediately following what is now termed the Middle Ages. First manifesting itself in Italy, it is considered “a period which witnessed transition from the medieval to the modern age, that is to say, the latter part of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth century” (Bishop, 130).[i] Renaissance literally means “rebirth,” referring to the rebirth of antiquity, or Greco-Roman civilization. Prior to this, “the advanced knowledge of the natural world possessed by the ancient Greeks meant little to the Romans, and for a long time that knowledge went into decline,” – this is, until now (Henry, 557).[ii] Many aspects of life were greatly impacted, including areas of politics, economics, art and intellect. This new outlook sparked the initiation of a movement toward greater education.

Education was seen as the key to living a prosperous and fulfilled life. In particular, the importance of liberal studies was widely agreed upon. Several key events during this time allowed for the spread of knowledge, creating the “beckoning toward wider horizons” (Buttimer, 11).[iii] For example, the invention of the printing press encouraged the printing of books, which culminated in scholarly research. Additionally, there was a greater availability to the lay people than ever before; previously, there was simply no access to such information. A historian describes this occurrence: “alien tongues and races have been drawn together, and have learned once again to understand each other’s speech, and to enter into each other’s thought” (Bishop, 131).[iv] Intellect and education began bringing people together who otherwise would not have ever circulated his or her new ideas and thoughts.

Some individuals in particular are credited with the fact that “the reforms enacted were substantial. At an increasing number of Northern universities, Greek became a regular subject and specialists were hired to teach it. Old Textbooks … were abandoned after having been used for centuries and were replaced with products of humanism” (Nauert, 429).[v] Among the individuals most recognized for their impact on this time in history exists Desiderius Erasmus. Inarguably, Erasmus can be seen as a perfect demonstration of a humanist. “Erasmus was before all else a scholar and a humanist. He was filled with a genuine enthusiasm for learning” (Bishop, 137).[vi] It was this motivated spirit that drove the culmination of the humanistic movement.

Intellect and scholarly research was greatly dedicated to religion. Erasmus “insisted that the dialectic method of the academic theologians had produced a theological science that concentrated on trivial, abstruse questions of little or no real value to the needs of the church” (Nauert, 431).[vii] This argument became the basis for much of Erasmus’ highly esteemed, accredited work; he was “determined to defend [his] status as orthodox Catholic” (Nauert, 431).[viii]

Soon, modern humanists greatest opposition was the church. Many criticized Erasmus, believing that he “lacked theological training and hence had neither a legal nor an intellectual right to speak and publish on questions involving theology and the Bible” (Nauert, 431).[ix] Until this point in my discussion thus far, not much opposition has been mentioned. It is very important and essential to note that this new topic of new knowledge created extreme amounts of tension, ultimately culminating in the Protestant Reformation.

At the same as scholars such as Erasmus, Bacon and Galileo emerged, “scholastic theologians arrogantly sat back and issued condemnations,” which greatly hindered the advancement of intellect (Nauert, 431).[x] Clearly established thus far was the recently renewed desire for new knowledge; in response, many new education establishments received great support and ideas began to circulate. In order for the continuing and pursuit of the ever evolving goals of humanists, there needed to be some change that would allow for this. This is one contributing factor to Erasmus’ dedication to reforming the church. Conflicts among humanists and scholars “reflect[ed] a disharmony that is fundamental,” and furthermore came to define “the dispute over academic competency and ‘exacerbation of the debate during the Reformation’ as the two forces” behind the matter (Nauert, 432).[xi]

By this point in time it was seen as a necessity that religion be transformed. Among several attempts throughout history, “the Protestant Reformation is the only attempt that was successfully institutionalized” (Bellah, 369).[xii] So much work thus far had been the foundational truth: “scholastic philosophers and theologians spent long years acquiring the skills of dialectical argumentation and familiarity with the opinions of the past authorities, both ancient and medieval” (Nauert, 433).[xiii] It would take great influence to override these criticisms, but Erasmus laid the foundation for Martin Luther.

“Erasmus’ pains were those of a delicate body and a sensitive and intellectual mind, amid surrounds which were uncongenial and indeed fatal to any humane culture” (Bishop, 135).[xiv] Whereas this was so, “Luther’s misery arose from the pains and travail of his moral nature in his endeavor to find peace with God” (Bishop, 135).[xv] For, it was “out of these throes of conscience a great religious movement was to be born” (Bishop, 135).[xvi] It was the combination of the significant influence witnessed having been imparted by Erasmus and Martin Luther that finally instigated the long time coming Protestant Reformation.

The Protestant Reformation was the main event occurring during the Renaissance that allowed for the institutionalizing of knowledge and new ways of obtaining and exploring it. The defining characteristic concerning the Protestant Reformation is “the collapse of the hierarchical structuring of both this and the other world” (Bellah, 368).[xvii] It was the leadership of modern intellectuals, or humanists, such as Erasmus and Luther that proved to be a catalyst to the movement: “Luther by a spiritual declaration of independence in which he boldly cast off, once and forever the ecclesiastical authority of Rome” (Bellah, 370).[xviii] It was the consistency marked by the motivation of the ever evolving humanists, with the newly found sense of confidence toward the ability to influence society that culminated in the beginnings of the Scientific Revolution.

“During the late Middle Ages ,the application of natural philosophy logic to theology transformed it into an analytic discipline. The extraordinary nature of this transformation is manifested when we see the kinds of questions that were routinely discussed in the average theological treatise.”[xix] The humanists’ demands for answers and unceasing attitudes at the time finally paid off. Prior to the Protestant Revolution, the many attempts of humanists to voice their opinion and freely explore their new interests without having to fear the authorities. Historians have “emphasized human attitudes and values” in this fight for intellectual freedom” (Buttimer, 5).[xx] The Protestant Reformation as a continuation of the beginnings of the humanism movement paved the way for the Scientific Revolution.

“Before science could have reached the stage it did in the seventeenth century, there had to be a widespread use of reason and reasoned analysis. The medieval universities supplied the intellectual context for all of Western Europe. They developed a new approach to nature” (Grant, 420).[xxi] The new religious organization allowed for intellectuals and humanists of the time to truly pursue their ideas that were in opposition to previously existing knowledge that had been universally accepted as being true. Overall this culmination of the split between Church and State, the power granted to the individual due to the Protestant Reformation, and the defining characteristics of humanism during the Renaissance were the leading factors in the birth of the Scientific Revolution.

Intellectuals in the seventeenth century soon came to view the world and universe as never before. For example, it was now known that rather than existing in an earth-centered universe, they were in fact living in a sun-centered universe. Famous figures in history existing at this time continued the already established tradition, and were able to impart great influence. These figures include, but are not limited to, Galileo, Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, and Isaac Newton. There emerged a shift from thinking the abstract, such subjects that previous philosophers had once been dedicated to, to pondering and experimenting the physical world around them. Prior to this time, Aristotle, Galen and Ptolemy were relied on for foundations concerning the fields of physics, medicine, and astronomy.

Just as there were certain individuals and movements that laid the foundations previously, there are also those researchers who were responsible for the carrying on of life into the Scientific Revolution. “It remained for Galileo, however, to apply the mean speed theorem to the motion of real falling bodies and to devise and experiment to determine if bodies really fall with uniform acceleration. Thus began the new science of mechanics and the beginnings of modern physics” (Grant, 421).[xxii] Before Galileo was even able to begin his investigations concerning the previous, it was essential that the events and transformations during the fifteenth to sixteenth centuries occurred. More modern discoveries attributed to the seventeenth century and furthermore during the Enlightenment, would have been seriously delayed had this transformation not occurred. People were finally granted the power, and discovered a new found sense of confidence when it came to the pursuit of new knowledge and ideas. If it had not been for this fight, individuals like Galileo would have had this job to do themselves.

It is important to note that the culmination of the Scientific Revolution did “originate with the great scientific minds of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, from the likes of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton” (Grant, 421).[xxiii] Furthermore, this historian in particular states that “although it is possible to insist that the full-blown concept of intertia did not appear before Newton, there can be no denying that Galileo, Pierre Gassendi, and Descartes played a role in opposing the Aristotelian concept that everything that moves must be continuously moved by something else and in suggesting instead that once something was moving perhaps it might simply carry on moving until something else stopped it” (Henry, 554).[xxiv]

Several important foundations for the study of nature, and in general life at its core, were products of the Renaissance, Protestant Reformation, and ultimately the Scientific Revolution. If it were not for the perseverance of humanists, and their sense of devotion, the advancements included in the Scientific Revolution may have not come for some time down the road. One of the most important outcomes that is still used as a basis today for scientific experimentation is the scientific method. “The scientific method is such that, whatever the weaknesses of human endeavor, scientific truths will steadily emerge and will come to be recognized and established as a matter of inevitability” (Henry, 555).[xxv] In a way, Henry’s definition of the scientific method can be seen as already applying to the transformation that created it.

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ENDNOTES:

[i] Bishop, W. S. B. (1906). The sewanee review. Erasmus,14(2), 129-148. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/27530759

[ii] Henry, J. H. (2008). Isis. Ideology, Inevitability, and the Scientific Revolution, 99(3), 552-559. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/591713

[iii] “Geography, Humanism, and Global Concern.” Anne Buttimer. Annals of the Association of American Geographers , Vol. 80, No. 1 (Mar., 1990), pp. 1-33.

[iv] Bishop, W. S. B. (1906). The Sewanee review. Erasmus,14(2), 129-148. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/27530759

[v] Nauert, C. G. N. (1998). The sixteenth century journal.Humanism as Method: Roots of Conflict with the Scholastics , 29(2), 427-438. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2544524

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[vi] Bishop, W. S. B. (1906). The Sewanee review. Erasmus,14(2), 129-148. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/27530759

[vii] Nauert, C. G. N. (1998). The sixteenth century journal.Humanism as Method: Roots of Conflict with the Scholastics , 29(2), 427-438. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2544524

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[viii] Nauert, C. G. N. (1998). The sixteenth century journal.Humanism as Method: Roots of Conflict with the Scholastics , 29(2), 427-438. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2544524

[ix] Nauert, C. G. N. (1998). The sixteenth century journal.Humanism as Method: Roots of Conflict with the Scholastics , 29(2), 427-438. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2544524

[x] Nauert, C. G. N. (1998). The sixteenth century journal.Humanism as Method: Roots of Conflict with the Scholastics , 29(2), 427-438. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2544524

[xi] Nauert, C. G. N. (1998). The sixteenth century journal.Humanism as Method: Roots of Conflict with the Scholastics , 29(2), 427-438. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2544524

[xii] Bellah, R. N. B. (1964). American sociological review.Religious Evolution, 29(3), 358-374. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2091480 [xiii] Nauert, C. G. N. (1998). The sixteenth century journal.Humanism as Method: Roots of Conflict with the Scholastics , 29(2), 427-438. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2544524

[xiv] “Bishop, W. S. B. (1906). The sewanee review. Erasmus,14(2), 129-148. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/27530759

[xv] Bishop, W. S. B. (1906). The sewanee review. Erasmus,14(2), 129-148. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/27530759

[xvi] Bishop, W. S. B. (1906). The sewanee review. Erasmus,14(2), 129-148. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/27530759

[xvii] Bellah, R. N. B. (1964). American sociological review.Religious Evolution, 29(3), 358-374. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2091480 [xviii] Bellah, R. N. B. (1964). American sociological review.Religious Evolution, 29(3), 358-374. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2091480 [xix] Grant, E. G. (2004). Scientific Imagination in the Middle Ages.


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