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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Two Interpretations. Renaissance humanism is the
name for an intellectual movement that developed in
Italy from the middle of the fourteenth century to the
end of the fifteenth, and which had as its aim a new
evaluation of man, of his place in nature and in history,
and of the disciplines which concern him. The first
characteristic feature of this movement is that it origi-
nated and was carried on not by professional philoso-
phers but by men of letters, historians, moralists, and
statesmen, in dispute with the philosophers of the time,
to whom they opposed the aurea sapientia (“golden
wisdom”) of the philosophers and writers of the classi-
cal period. The philosophers of that time who were
teaching in the Italian universities, or in those of Paris
or Oxford, were to all intents and purposes Ockhamists,
followers of the logica moderna, that is of nominalistic
or terministic logic. Very often they used this logic in
treating physical and mathematical questions and es-
pecially in the solution of the difficulties inherent in
the concept of infinite quantity; that is, of a quantity
which can be made greater or smaller than any given
quantity. The De sensu composito et diviso (“Of
Compounded and Divided Meaning”) of Heytesbury
(fl. 1340) and above all the Liber calculationum (“Book
of Calculation”) of Swineshead (fl. 1340) (also called
Suseth or Suiseth) found in the Italian schools of the
second half of the fourteenth century numerous
imitators and followers, and there was a proliferation
of Sophismata, Insolubilia, and Obligationes which
claimed to solve innumerable paradoxes; from the more
ancient ones, characteristic of the Megarian-Stoic
School (like that of the liar), to the later ones connected
with the augmentation or diminution ad infinitum of
size, intensity, motion, velocity, weight, etc.

When between 1351 and 1353 Petrarch collected
his Familiares (“Familiar Letters”), he placed among
the first some letters which contained a stringent criti-
cism of this type of philosophy. It seemed to Petrarch
to be a dialectic in the worst sense of the word; that
is, not a genuine logic, but a sophistic artifice aimed
at routing the adversary without respect for truth. The
questions treated by this dialectic appeared futile and
idle to Petrarch, unworthy of the attention of men
preoccupied with attaining true wisdom. True wisdom
concerns mankind and his deeds, the conduct of private
life and the governance of the state, the enjoyment
of beauty and the contemplation of truth. These have
always been the ends which the classical philosophers
pursued. Modern philosophers disregard these ends and
mistakenly take dialectic, which is a simple means of
inquiry, for an end in itself. But if it is useful for
training youth in discussion, it becomes a futile and
ridiculous game in the hands of mature men who ought
to confront the real problems of life.

This polemical position was renewed by all the
Italian humanists between the fourteenth and fifteenth

Coluccio Salutati, who for thirty years was chancel-
lor of the Signoria of Florence, Leonardo Bruni, and
Lorenzo Valla to name only the major figures, took
over as their task Petrarch's condemnation, and insisted
on the necessity of a man's education being based on
the disciplines which are closely connected with the
nature and conduct of man, such as poetry, eloquence,
history, philosophy, ethics, politics, and economics; on
those disciplines, in short, which already in Cicero's
time, Aulus Gellius (Noctes Atticae, XIII, 17) had
maintained constituted the true paideia and humanitas,
that is, the education of man as man, insofar as he is
distinguished from all the other animals.

This debate between humanists and Scholastics
might at first sight seem like a debate between the “two
cultures,” that is, between a culture of a scientific
tendency and one of a rhetorical or literary tendency.
In fact, that is how it has been interpreted by some
who have seen in humanism an “essentially medieval
and essentially Christian” phenomenon; hence the
continuation and elaboration of a doctrine that had
already been prevalent (Bush, p. 30).

From this point of view humanism has no specific
character. Already in the thirteenth century there had
been a rebirth of classical culture and especially of the
theological conceptions of Plato and Aristotle, to which
Saint Thomas had given a new form. Werner Jaeger
in particular insisted on this point in an essay
Humanism and Theology (Milwaukee, 1943), which has
thrown light upon the close connection between
classical theology and the concept of paideia, that is,
humanistic education. A corollary of this interpretation


is that far from aiding in the birth of modern science
—which coincided with the work of Leonardo and
Galileo—humanism really constituted a retarding
influence; that it is thus a “counter-Renaissance,”
actually a counter-humanism, according to Hiram
Haydn (The Counter-Renaissance, 1950); and that the
antecedents of science should be sought (as Duhem had
already done) in the development of medieval Aris-
totelianism. Even the latter had been retarded, and not
promoted, by Renaissance humanism (M. C. Clagett,
1959; John H. Randall, Jr., 1961).

This interpretation, however, is opposed not only
to the explicit assertions of the humanists, who believed
they were living in a new epoch, but also to the other
interpretation which takes literally the assertions of the
humanists seeking to justify its validity by showing that
if humanistic culture has from many points of view
the same content as medieval culture, it has a different
form which shows a new spirit, that is, a new attitude
towards the world. This thesis has been sustained in
classic works (Burckhardt, Dilthey, Voigt, Cassirer), and
has been taken up with renewed vigor and greater
balance by competent scholars, both Italian and non-
Italian. In its more aware and modern form this inter-
pretation does not take literally all the these of the
humanists. It does not deny the historical continuity
between medieval and humanistic culture which are
both fed from the same sources, those of classical
antiquity. It does not deny the permanence in
humanism of the theological presuppositions that
classical antiquity and medieval philosophy had made
their own. It does not agree with those humanists when
they pretend that the whole medieval period was an
epoch of barbarism, and that man's every effort must
be directed towards emerging from this state of
barbarism, and entering into the promised land of truth
and freedom. At the same time they retain the idea
that humanism constituted a force of radical innovation
and that it alone had laid the foundations of what today
we call “the modern world.”

The Historical Method. The comparison and critical
evaluation of these two interpretations, which in their
extreme or simplified form are antithetical, can be
made not by expounding merely the ideas of the
humanists but also and above all by considering if and
how far they form a turning point in the civilization
of their time, and if they have indicated the directions
along which civilization developed in the centuries that
followed. The crucial problem of Italian humanism can
be expressed then as follows: has this humanism made
a decisive contribution to the history of the ideas that
still today constitute the patrimony of western civili-
zation, and in what does this contribution consist?

Put in this form the problem becomes susceptible
of a solution which takes account of all the funda-
mental facts. Let us begin by considering the primary
and most obvious aspect of humanism: the rebirth of
classical studies. These certainly had not been
neglected in the preceding centuries, which had indeed
used them as the principal source of their culture. But
when Lorenzo Valla, in his celebrated De falso credita
et ementita Constantini donatione Declamatio
proved the falsity of the donation that the Emperor
Constantine was supposed to have made to Pope
Silvester, the donation of the supreme political author-
ity over the whole Roman Empire. In order to show
the “stupidity of the concepts and words” which
emerged from this document, that is, their incongruity
and inexactitude, he made use of the lack of reliable
testimony or other historical sources which would have
validated it and of its contrast with Roman, Hebrew,
and Christian law. He thus showed that he knew how
to make use of all the instruments of which modern
historical investigation still avails itself. The discovery
and use of these instruments was the first great conquest
of Italian humanism.

The humanists did not accept classical antiquity in
the form which it had assumed during the preceding
centuries. They wished to discover its authenticity and
its original sources, both in their true perspective. The
medieval writers ignored this perspective, just as me-
dieval painting ignored optical perspective, which was
developed in the great painting of the Renaissance. For
them, the “ancients” were contemporaries or, better,
were out of time and history, as, in fact, they felt
themselves to be. The perception of historical distance,
which is an indispensable condition of historiographical
work, hence of the situation of a work, of a person,
of a fact of any sort, in a determinate time and place,
was lacking almost entirely. The humanists acquired
this perception and made the best possible use of it.
The humanists found medieval language “barbarous,”
because it was a deformation or corruption of classical
Latin. They saw that the interpretation which medieval
writers had given of ancient works was weakened by
ignorance of the genuine texts, and of many works
which they did not possess or of which they took no
notice, by their confusion of doctrines and diverse
points of view, and by their inability to recognize in
their true nature the writers (or the works), of classical
antiquity. They continued, it is true, like all medieval
authors, to esteem such writers as the masters of all
wisdom, as models of all art, of all poetry, and of all
human achievement. But they were far from accepting
them just as they stood, from attempting to imitate
them. They wished to rediscover them as guides and


masters of a kind of work which had been initiated
by them, and which, interrupted by “barbarism,”
should be taken up again and carried forward.

There is no doubt that these demands have been
answered at times adequately and at times inade-
quately. But there is no doubt either that these de-
mands, just as they were formulated, still constitute
the directives today of historiography.

Freedom. But the rebirth of classical studies was not
an end in itself for the humanists. Nor was its range
limited to the domain of language, of literature, of art,
and of history. Its main scope was that of returning
to man capacities, powers, and attitudes that medieval
culture had obscured or negated. The humanists were
aware that they were living in a world which was
rapidly changing and in which the medieval structures
(the Empire, the Church, feudalism) had lost their
validity. The Italian republics and signorial states were
headed by the new bourgeois class which, moreover,
was beginning to acquire political importance also in
the great monarchies of France, England, and Spain.
It was the era in which trade, voyages, and exchanges
of all sorts came to the forefront: the era which starts
with Columbus' undertaking the discovery of the new

In these circumstances the humanists claim for man
a new position in the world. The old political
hierarchies, which held themselves to be repre-
sentatives and guardians of a cosmic order, ordained
and established directly by God, still made their force
felt; fires were still kindled for witches and heretics,
and life itself in the Italian cities was lacerated by
internecine quarrels. The Golden Age, the peaceful
and happy republic of which Plato had spoken, was
very remote from the reality in which the humanists
lived. But they held that man could and should work
to construct it.

This is the significance of the “discovery of man”
in which many historians have seen the principal ac-
complishment of humanism. The humanists had faith
in man's power to plan his life in the world, to com-
mand his destiny and direct it towards freedom, justice,
and peace. All Christian, patristic, and scholastic phi-
losophy had defended “free will,” and had made
countless attempts to reconcile it with divine provi-
dence and the immutable cosmic order in which it is
manifested. The humanists frequently took over these
attempts and repeated more or less the same solutions.
But what truly interested them was not free will as
an attribute inseparable from nature and the human
will, but what free will makes it possible for man to
be and to do, the capacity which it gives him of trans-
forming himself and his world. Giannozzo Manetti,
Pico della Mirandola, and Marsilio Ficino take their
cue from the old discussions of free will precisely in
order to show that capacity in mankind. Manetti
expressed the significance of human life with the for-
mula, Agere et intelligere, which he understood as
meaning “to know how and to be able to govern and
rule the world which was made for man.” In Pico's
oration, De dignitate hominis (1486), which has been
called the “Manifesto of the Italian Renaissance,” he
speaks of man as a being who, unlike all others, has
no fixed location nor aspect, nor determined form, nor
laws which determine his nature; but is one who can
choose for himself his location or nature, or whatever
form he wishes, and give his own laws to himself. Man
can, says Pico, either degenerate among inferior beings
or be regenerated among superior and divine beings.
All depends on his choice.

This confidence is shared by all the humanists and
not only the Italians. As has been said, it is only par-
tially an expression of the historical situation in which
humanism flourished, a situation in which, while new
forces were arising, the old forces of traditional institu-
tions and beliefs still fought vigorously and often had
the upper hand. It was rather a seed sown for the
future, a new plan of life for man and human society,
a new model of the relations that should be established
between man and the world of nature and of history.
It is an optimistic plan of which, now at a distance
of centuries, we can perceive the naïveté, because we
know that the real possibilities that are offered to man
are not infinite, but subject to restrictive conditions
of all kinds. In any event the humanists, making their
own the maxim Agere et intelligere, set as their first
aim a principle which we can hardly doubt today: the
limits of human planning are the same as the limits
of human knowledge.

The Return to Origins. It is a fact that the humanists
maintained the theological conception substantially
intact. They held that the natural world has an order
which is rational and that the origin of this order is
God. Their preference went nevertheless towards
Plato, or better towards Neo-Platonism, although
Aristotelianism also had an important role in the
thought of the Renaissance (to which we shall return
below). The foundation of the Platonic Academy in
Florence and the work of Marsilio Ficino and his
followers are the best evidence of the preference of
the humanists for Platonism. What were the reasons
for this preference?

Platonism was better suited than Aristotelianism to
placing man in the ideal center of the world. In the
Theologia platonica (1482) Marsilio Ficino distin-
guished five levels of reality: body, quality, soul, the


angel, and God. The soul is at the middle point and
is the third essence or median essence; whether
ascending from body to God or descending from God
to body, it is on the third level. Thus it is the living
knot of reality. God and body are at the two extremes
of reality and neither the angels nor quality mediate
these two extremes, because the angels are turned
towards God, and quality towards body. As a creature
endowed with soul, man can therefore turn either
towards corporeal things or towards divine things and
is thus free, because what he is or becomes depends
on his choice.

These features of Ficino's Platonism, which recur
also in his numerous followers, have nothing in com-
mon with classical and medieval Platonism. The con-
ceptual structures of Platonism remain, but are utilized
only in granting to man a specific capacity, a freedom
of choice not even known to beings superior to man.

The second reason for the diffusion of Platonism
among the humanists is that the doctrine furnished
them with a theme which returns like a leitmotiv in
their writings: that of the return to origins. In ancient
and medieval Neo-Platonism this theme is of a strictly
religious nature. The origin is God and the return to
this origin consists in reversing the emanative process
which goes from God to things, in remounting the
pathway upward and in tending to identify oneself with
God. This religious meaning remains in the works of
the humanists, but to it is joined, or at times substituted,
a worldly and historical meaning, according to which
the origin to which one should return is not God but
the earthly origin of man and the human world.

Already Dante had written in the Convivio (IV, 12),
“The highest desire of each thing, and the first given
by nature, is the return to its origin.” Pico della
Mirandola in De ente et uno defined happiness as “the
return to the origin,” which is also the return to the
primordial knowledge of man; this knowledge is
diffused and diversified through the many channels of
his history, but remains one in its substance and in its
unity, and ought to be reintegrated by reconciling
religion and philosophy, Platonism and Aristotelianism,
moral science and natural philosophy, natural philoso-
phy and theology.

With the return to origins, according to Pico, au-
thentic religious peace can be realized, because it can
be seen that all religions, all philosophies, and the most
diverse forms of wisdom which humanity possesses
derive from a single source which is God Himself.
Renaissance humanism means by religious tolerance
not the peaceful coexistence of different religious pro-
fessions, but something founded on the unity of origin
which deprives religious differences of any value.

Obviously in classical Platonism or Neo-Platonism
there was nothing similar. The return to origins was
only the mystic ascesis for the reunification of the soul
with God.

But outside of Platonism the return to origins
assumed a definitely worldly and historical character.
Machiavelli understood it as the instrument which
human communities used to renew themselves and to
recapture their primordial strength. In states, he says,
the reduction to origins is brought about by extrinsic
accident or intrinsic prudence. In ancient Rome defeats
(in battle) were often the cause of men's seeking to
return to the original order of their community; these
were extrinsic accidents. And appropriate institutions,
such as that of the tribunes of the people or of the
censors, as well as the work of individuals of excep-
tional virtue, had the task of recalling the citizens to
their original virtue; this was the intrinsic prudence
of the Roman state. But also, religious communities
are saved only by a return to their origins. The Chris-
tian religion would have dwindled to nought if it had
not been returned to its origin by Saint Francis and
Saint Dominic, who with the poverty and example of
the life of Christ, restored its primitive strength
(Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio, III, Ch. 1).
And in fact the historical research of Machiavelli was
carried on precisely as a model by which the Italian
community, finding new knowledge of itself in its
original political orders, might renew itself and regain
strength and political unity. In Renaissance humanism
these innovative graftings of new interpretations on
old trunks are very frequent. If one looks only at the
old trunks, one does not see the originality of
humanism. But if one sees what has been grafted onto
the trunks, its originality and its modernity emerge as

Naturalism. If one considers the frequent polemics
that the humanists conducted against the study of
physics, and particularly that of Aristotle, humanism
would appear to be an antinaturalism. In his De
nobilitate legum et medicinae
Coluccio Salutati put the
study of law, which concerns men and their interrela-
tions, above that of medicine, and in general above
the sciences of nature, which are concerned with
things. In the Isagogicon moralis disciplinae Leonardo
Bruni asserted that those who passed over moral phi-
losophy and devoted themselves, on the contrary, to
physical science, seemed, so to speak, to be occupied
with matters that are foreign to them while neglecting
those that are close. Analogous ideas were expressed
by Matteo Palmieri in his work Della vita civile (ca.
1440) and Bartolommeo de' Sacchi in De optimo cive.
All these humanists contrast the “moral Aristotle” with
the “physical Aristotle.” The same Leonardo Bruni
translated from Greek into Latin the Nicomachean


Ethics, the Politics, and the Economics of Aristotle, with
the polemical purpose of calling attention to that part
of Aristotle's work that deals precisely with man and
his life in society and which had been neglected or
even ignored by the medieval writers.

But this polemical attitude did not prevent the
humanists from finding, translating, or retranslating,
and circulating the basic texts of ancient science. The
De medicina of Celsus (42 B.C.-A.D. 37), unknown in
the Middle Ages, had just been discovered in 1426 by
Guarino and was then widely circulated and studied
(printed in 1476, English trans., 1876). It was quoted
by Leonardo da Vinci. The writings of Hippocrates
and Galen were, still in the fifteenth century, retrans-
lated and provided with commentaries. The works of
Archimedes already circulated in Greek in the first
decades of the fifteenth century and were translated
towards the middle of the century. From these works
Galileo obtained decisive inspiration for his own work.
Precisely through the knowledge of these texts, pro-
vided by the humanists, the renewal of science was
being prepared. “Endeavoring to see in nature what
Greek writers had declared to be there, European
scientists slowly came to see what really was there”
(Marie Boas, p. 49).

At the same time the flowering of painting with its
new perspective, of architecture, and of craftsmanship
in many forms and refinements, demonstrated the
increasing search for new techniques and for the
knowledge which was indispensable for putting them
into practice. The ideal approach towards art, in that
period, and towards the Renaissance itself, is charac-
terized by a return to nature, in contention against the
stereotyped symbolic forms of medieval art; that is,
by a tendency to seek in nature and to represent in
art the authentic aspects of nature herself, no longer
mediated by the symbolic-linguistic forms that the
Middle Ages had used.

However, the same Renaissance Aristotelianism that
had flourished between 1400 and 1600, above all in
the school of Padua, drew its sustenance from the texts
rescued by the humanists, and from their researches
and contributions to the affirmation of scientific
naturalism; especially in their refusal to admit the
possibility of miracles, and their insistence on the nec-
essary order which governs all natural objects.

But notwithstanding the polemics against the study
of Aristotelian physics, a study which the humanists
thought of as a piétiner sur place (“marking time”) and
incapable of leading to knowledge that was really new
and useful to man, Italian Renaissance humanism can
be considered as a naturalism in the most exact sense
of the term, i.e., the belief that man is not a casual
guest of the natural world but must make of this world
his home and thereby recognize that the fundamental
needs of his life bind him to it. The humanists in
general did not deny the transcendent end of man, his
supernatural life and beatitude. But they set up a new
evaluation of man's needs and of the relations that bind
him to nature, and hence they tried from this point
of view to modify radically the scale of moral values.
The De voluptate (1431) of Lorenzo Valla is the basic
document concerning this point. The thesis of the work
is that only pleasure is the authentic good of man and
that all the other goods can be reduced to pleasure.
It is the end that nature herself has indicated to man,
furnishing him also with the means of obtaining it.
External goods, like riches, health, honor, power, are
desirable only because of their being sources of pleas-
ure. Music, song, wine are sources of pleasure that one
need not depreciate; and vice is an evil because it does
not leave the soul in peace but disturbs it by the
memory of that which has been done. The heroic
sacrifices of which both ancients and moderns speak
have also been made for pleasure; because he who is
placed in the impossibility of finding it seeks at least,
in subordinate order, to avoid the pain of its privation.
Glory and contemplative life are likewise desired for
the pleasure that they confer. And Valla does not
hesitate to say that “courtesans and harlots are more
deserving of humankind than holy and chaste virgins”
(De voluptate, I). On pleasure is founded human
solidarity itself, because since the origins of humanity
no one has desired or seen with joy another's evil, but
on the contrary has desired the good of another and
has rejoiced when it has befallen him. One can miscal-
culate all this and desire something that seems to be
a pleasure both for oneself and others, and then reveals
itself on the contrary to be a pain and an evil. But
the error can be avoided by prudent calculation.

These ideas of Lorenzo Valla have inspired a vast
humanistic literature in which the polemic against
asceticism, held to be one of the basic values in medie-
val life, was united to a reevaluation of Epicurus,
whose doctrine was believed in the Middle Ages to
be synonymous with impiety and immorality, and
whom on the contrary the humanists recognized as a
true master of human wisdom. “Epicurus,” said Cosma
Raimondi, “put the highest good in pleasure because
he examined more deeply the force of nature and
understood that we have been formed by nature in such
a way that nothing is more akin to us than having all
the members of the body whole and healthy and pre-
serving them in this condition without being affected
by any spiritual or corporeal evil.”

When one contrasts the literary and rhetorical char-
acter of humanism with the scientific interest which
had animated certain scholastics of the fourteenth cen-


tury (John Buridan, Nicolas of Oresme, Albert of
Saxony), and from this comparison concludes that there
was a retarding action of humanism on natural science,
which would have been better promoted by these
Scholastics, an important fact is neglected: the Scho-
lasticism of the fourteenth century derives its interest
from being a critique of traditional Aristotelianism, and
from having initiated its dissolution. The theory of
impetus which Buridan applied to the motion of the
heavens and which thus rendered useless the moving
intelligence assumed by Aristotle to explain this mo-
tion; the doubts of Nicolas of Oresme expressed in his
Commentario (ca. 1377) on the De caelo, on the entire
Aristotelian cosmology; and in general the empiricist
and critical orientation which the major Scholastics of
the fourteenth century showed in their Aristotelian
commentaries, constituted decisive attacks on the au-
thority of Aristotle. But it is precisely against this
authority that the humanists' criticism was directed.
The Dialecticae disputationes (1439) of Lorenzo Valla
attacked the Scholastics who accepted supinely the
authority of Aristotle and induced their pupils to swear
not to discuss him. These, says Valla, are superstitious
and nonsensical men who depreciate their own merits
and deprive themselves of the faculty of seeking the
truth. That which, in the Scholasticism of the four-
teenth century, indicated the beginning of an inde-
pendent investigation of the natural world, found a
support, not an obstacle, in the humanistic critique of

We must finally recall that the first steps of modern
science were taken by Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo
and were guided by the belief that nature has a mathe-
matical order or, as Galileo says, “The book of nature
is written in mathematical characters.” This belief is
an integral part of the Platonic tradition which the
humanists brought back to life. And it was this belief
which inspired the work of Leonardo da Vinci, who
called himself “a man without letters,” whose only
intention was to read “the book of nature.” He main-
tained that this book could be read only by consulting
experience directly and that through experience can
be discovered the reason which operates in nature, a
reason that is made manifest in immutable laws which,
however, can be interpreted and understood only in
terms of number, weight, and measure (numero,
pondere, et mensura

On the other hand the sympathy that the humanists
showed for magic was inspired especially by the active
or operative character of the magical practices, i.e.,
of their capacity for intervening in natural events,
putting them, to a certain extent, under the control
of man.

Most probably without the proclamation of the
humanists that man is part of nature and that in her
we must live and work; without the close connection
that humanism established between man and his
worldly activity, and not only with literature and art,
but also with the crafts and daily labor, the empirical
investigation of nature which avails itself primarily of
direct observation would not have been initiated, or
would have been initiated only much later. The scho-
lastic doctors, at whom the humanists shot their arrows,
made many fine speeches on cosmology and Aristotel-
ian physics, but did not put a hand to operations of
research. The polemic of Galileo against “the paper
world” of the Aristotelians, which gave rise to modern
science, continued and carried to its legitimate conclu-
sion the battle of the humanists.

Towards a New Logic. A methodological consid-
eration regarding the historiographic approach to a
phenomenon like Italian humanism of the Renaissance
(or any other historical phenomenon) might perhaps
be appropriate here. Some historians emphasize with
good reasons the continuity of humanism with the
Christian philosophy of the Middle Ages; others with
equally good reasons insist on the discontinuity be-
tween the two phenomena, hence on the originality
of humanism itself. The contrast between the two
schools derives principally from the ambiguousness of
the concept of “continuity.” If by continuity is meant
the existence of discoverable relations between the
recurrent these of humanism and those of Christian
medieval philosophy, it is undeniable. But relations are
not only of similarity and identity. They can be of a
different nature.

They can be the result of a greater or lesser impor-
tance attributed to certain conceptions; and of the use
which is made of them and of the polemical ends to
which they are subordinated. The revival of Platonism,
for example, is not the simple repetition of medieval
Platonism; it takes issue with the Aristotelian concep-
tion of the world and tends to disseminate another
conception in which the position of man and his ca-
pacity for planning have a determining part. The har-
mony, in which the humanists believed, between faith
and reason, between the teachings of Christianity and
the results of philosophic research, is another trait
which binds them to the medieval world; but this
harmony served Saint Thomas, for instance, to subor-
dinate reason to faith while it served the humanists
to give reason a new dimension of freedom. The sub-
stantial identity which Pico maintained existed be-
tween different faiths and different philosophies would
have been a heresy in the medieval world; but this
was the interpretation which he gave to the principle
of harmony between reason and faith that had been
predominant in that world.


When one opposes to Renaissance humanism—as,
for instance, Haydn does in the book already
mentioned—a “counter-Renaissance,” in which, in the
polemic against the humanists' enthronement of the
intellect and reason as normative principles in every
sector of life, an almost exclusive value is attributed
to faith, to natural instinct, to “the facts,” to what is
empirically real; and when Machiavelli, Montaigne,
Luther (and in general the whole Protestant Reforma-
tion) are designated as representatives of this counter-
Renaissance, one forgets the manifold relations which
bind these figures and movements to Renaissance
humanism. Machiavelli shared substantially with the
humanists their interest in the world of humanity and
the principle of the “return to origins.” Montaigne like
the humanists turned back to classical wisdom and
obtained from it (and especially from Stoicism and
Skepticism) data for interpreting the human condition.
And the entire Protestant Reformation (the real pre-
cursor of which was the humanist Erasmus) was an
attempt to bring Christianity back to its sources, i.e.,
to reattach it directly to the Bible, setting aside the
ecclesiastical tradition which had constituted the base
of medieval religion. The reevaluation of social life,
of work, of human activity as the only “divine service”
by which the Christian bore witness to his inner faith,
is another humanistic aspect of the work of Luther.
On the other hand, the criticism of the intellect and
of reason which is common to the cohorts of the so-
called Counter-Renaissance is in reality the critique of
the intellect and of reason in the Aristotelian sense of
those terms, that is, of the intellect as the faculty
of apprehending first principles as self-evident, and of
reason as the faculty of deducing or drawing necessary
conclusions by means of the syllogism from those prin-
ciples. But the critique of those faculties thus under-
stood was initiated actually by the humanists. In the
Dialecticae disputationes of Lorenzo Valla, which is
a fundamental text in this respect, logic is conceived
as an art which does not have absolute principles at
its disposal and does not guarantee the truth of its
demonstrations. It is merely an organon, i.e., an instru-
ment to give order and coherence to human language,
to the discourse which men commonly use in their
affairs. Aristotle, according to Valla, had been wrong
in his failure to concern himself with these affairs, and
thus his logic is useless for the purpose of disciplining
communication among men, communication which
deals with objectives such as the administration of
provinces, the leading of armies, the discussion of law-
suits, the practice of medicine, legislation, the writing
of history, or the composition of poems. Superior to
Aristotle have been those who, like Hippocrates and
Euclid, restricted themselves to a single science but
at least elucidated the indubitable principles of that
science. As for the syllogism, Lorenzo Valla compared
it to the art of making bread: the three parts that
compose it, the major premiss (propositio), and the
minor premiss (assumptio) are the water and the flour
from which the baker makes the dough, the conclusion
(conclusio), which is good if its components are good.

Valla's controversy led to this new approach toward
logic, which a century later was to be developed in
the work of Peter Ramus; to the contrast between the
logic of invention, which aimed at disciplining human
discourse and which was directed towards the dis-
covery of new truths, and syllogistic logic, which was
capable only of giving order to truths already known.

It is certainly to the criticism of Lorenzo Valla (or
of his many followers) that Galileo refers when in the
First Day (Prima Giornata) of the Two Main Systems
... (Due massimi sistemi..., 1632) he asserted that
if logic is the instrument with which one philosophizes,
one learns to play the instrument from him who knows
how to play it and not from the instrument maker.
And so demonstration is learned by reading books full
of demonstrations, which are those of mathematicians
and not of logicians.

In conclusion, if Italian Renaissance humanism was
not an explosion of absolute novelty in the history of
ideas (and perhaps no movement in this history is an
explosion of this kind), neither was it merely the con-
tinuation of the ideas that dominated the medieval
world. It was, in the first place, an attempt to regain
possession of the authentic legacy of the classical world
and hence of the techniques suitable to discovering this
legacy. In the second place, it was an effort to rescue
human knowledge from the authority which still
oppressed it and to vindicate its freedom. In the third
place, it was the first attempt to construct a body of
knowledge which met the demands of man's daily life,
private and public, and therefore could serve as an
effective instrument for his plans in the future.

From the distance of centuries, we can recognize
that the attempt made by the humanists to break with
their recent past, and to open to man the possibility
of a different kind of life, was not in vain. This attempt
has not always been maintained along the lines which
they indicated, and even when it has, there have been
deviations and stagnations; but when all is said and
done it is still the direction followed by human knowl-
edge today.


For a systematic bibliography, see Hans Baron, “Renais-
sance in Italy,” Archiv für Kulturgeschichte, Band XVII
(1927), 266ff.; Band XXI (1931), 95f. P. O. Kristeller and
J. H. Randall, Jr., “The Study of the Philosophies of the


Renaissance,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 2 (1941),
449-96. W. K. Ferguson, The Renaissance in Historical
(Cambridge, Mass., 1948).

For references in the article see Marie Boas, The Scientific
Renaissance, 1450-1630
(London, 1962); Douglas Bush,
Renaissance and English Humanism (London, 1939);
Marshall C. Clagett, The Science of Mechanics in the Middle
Ages: 1200-1400
(Madison, 1959); Hiram Haydn, Counter-
(New York, 1950); John H. Randall, Jr., The
School of Padua and the Emergence of Modern Science

(Padua, 1961).

The following books by Eugenio Garin probably contain
the most balanced and documented interpretation of
humanism: L'umanesimo italiano (Bari, 1952), trans. P.
Munz as Italian Humanism (New York, 1966); Medioevo e
(Bari, 1954); La cultura filosofica del
Rinascimento italiano
(Bari, 1961); La cultura del
(Bari, 1967). On the same subject see also
Cesare Vasoli, La dialettica e la retorica dell'umanesimo
(Milan, 1968).


[See also Ancients and Moderns; Education; Humanism in
Machiavellism; Platonism in the Renaissance;
6">Ramism;Reformation; 8 dv4-19 dv4-20 dv4-21">Renaissance.]