Italian Renaissance Humanism and the Role of the Individual

Throughout history, the individual has held a variety of roles within the larger societal frameworks he is a part of. Periodically, these roles have been significantly altered as a result of a grander paradigm shift that makes the previous social scheme entirely obsolete. Within relatively recent history, one of the more drastic of these shifts occurred during the Italian Renaissance of the 14th and 15th centuries, with the spread of humanist ideas and ideals among Italy’s intelligensia. By fundamentally transforming the philosophies and institutions of Renaissance Italy, humanism served to shift society’s view of individuals from mere members of a whole to a worthwhile beings in and of themselves.

Humanism’s resurrection of classical knowledge and thinking directly resulted in the revival of Platonism, a philosophy that strongly influenced Italian society’s concept of the individual. Platonism, the school of thought named for the Greek philosopher Plato, and the neo-Platonist ideas of other classical scholars were investigated by humanists fimply because of their antiquity. These ideas had been ignored throughout the centuries of medieval dominance by the Church, but in the 15th century a variety of factors combined leading to the foundation of an academy in Florence for the study of Platonism and related ways of thinking. As a part of a more ideal, long vanished society - that of the Greeks - these philosophies were studied and discussed extensively by the humanist scholars who made up the bulk of the Academy. Platonism centers around the concept of human reason as a part of an “eternal sphere” of being, thus elevating the capabilities of mere mortals to an almost immortal level in importance and power. In his Oration on the Dignity of Man, Pico della Mirandola, a leader of the Florentine Academy, discussed human free will as the most divine of possible traits. This concept echoes its Platonic roots; free will enables humans to elevate themselves to the level of the angels or lower themselves to that of animals. These ideas appealed to many Renaissance thinkers, resulting in a weakening of the longstanding Church teaching that man existed solely to serve God. Although Platonism in its classic form and in the form rediscovered by the Church Fathers in no way disputes the importance of God, it does demonstrate man’s worth as more than a servant of the church. As Mirandola discusses, this is because there is within each person the potential to be whatever they desire. The overall effect of the Platonic revival was a reinforcement of the humanist idea that individuals had the potential, and the privelege, to be worthwhile members of society in their own right, a drastic change from the perspective of the Middle Ages.

However, the effect of humanism was not limited to the philosophical level; humanist reforms of educational institutions changed the very way in which a single human fit into the fabric of society. Humanists prized education above all else, and, unlike their Scholastic predecessors, insisted that this learning could not occur for its own sake, but should be motivated by a true goal to improve oneself. Scholars like Baldassare Castiglione worked to codify and describe all the various areas in which a truly fulfilled person, one living up to their full divine potential, should be educated and trained. It was particularly Castiglione’s vision of the perfect courtier that resulted in the modern perception of the “Renaissance man” – educated and successful in a wide range of disciplines. As education for the sake of personal improvement caught on, more and more people began to escape the oppressive traditional boundaries imposed by institutions like the Catholic Church and Scholastic-run universities. It was during this time that earthly accomplishments began to replace spiritual ones as a basis for a person’s value: just being “good enough” to get into heaven was no longer enough to make one an accomplished person. This change was a direct result of humanists and their educational reforms, for it was in part the study of the classics and the achievements of the individual greats of the Greek and Roman cultures that motivated this transformation of values. Finally, Italian humanists sowed the seeds for education reforms that were to continue in the next centuries throughout Europe. As education spread and literacy rates climbed, the laity of the entire European continent developed from a mindless mass to a truly empowered conglomerate of individuals, with more self-confidence and power over themselves. All these factors combined to weaken the suppressive educational and religious institutions of the period, freeing individuals from their traditional place. In general, it was the Italian humanists’ educational ideas, ideals, and reforms that led to such an amazingly rapid change in the role of the individual in a society.

By replacing many of the basic philosophies and institutions of medieval Europe with more modern and sophisticated forms, the humanists of the Italian Renaissance served to redefine the very way in which society perceived each and every human being. Such a dramatic change in direction was representative of the catalytic environment of the Italian Renaissance as a whole. Clearly, the social and cultural upheaval of this period holds an important place among the most exciting and far-reaching of revolutions in all history.

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