What historical developments helped to start Renaissance humanism?

The historical period of the Renaissance is usually considered to include the years from 1450 to 1600. This time is associated with the transition between the medieval and modern periods. From its beginnings in Italy, the Renaissance was marked by a new interest in literature, poetry, and painting in a shift of attention from the mainly religious preoccupations of life in the Middle Ages to the secular, perceptible world. The Western world changed, along with this transformation of values: the Copernican revolution radically reconfigured the place of human life in the physical cosmos; inquiries leading to the scientific revolution began; seeds for nation states were sown in political thought and action; the great age of exploration and travel by Europeans to Asia, Africa, and the Americas for adventure, science, and wealth began. All of these factors during the Renaissance changed the course of philosophy.

What was Marsilio Ficino's contribution to the spirit of the Renaissance?

Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) was ordained a priest in 1473, and from the center of cultural life in Florence he attempted to draw people to Christ through Platonism. Although he was the first to translate Plato's dialogues into Latin, he was not a purist; he also provided translations of Plotinus (205-270) and other Neoplatonists.

Ficino believed that Plato got his ideas from a legendary Egyptian magician, Hermes Trismegistus, whose work he also translated. Ficino claimed a form of wisdom that combines religion and philosophy. His own Three Books on Life suggested the idea of a world soul that was connected to the world's body by occult means. In human beings, a similar relationship holds insofar as the "astral body" connects body and soul. This parallel structure of the world and human beings is what makes spiritual advancement, as well as the attainment of worldly goods, possible through the practice of magic.

Ficino's worldview and spiritual beliefs were so clearly opposed to Aristotelian Christianity—as well as probably being heretical—that their very circulation signaled important cultural changes, if not the demise of orthodoxy.

Marsilio Ficino was a priest who used the works of Plato to argue for Christianity (Art Archive).

Marsilio Ficino was a priest who used the works of Plato to argue for Christianity (Art Archive).

What was Pico Della Mirandola known for?

Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola (14631494) is most famous for his "Oration on the Dignity of Man," which was the introduction to his 900 Theses, which he wrote in order to debate publicly in Rome. A papal commission censored 13 of the theses, but after Pico attempted to justify them with his Apology, they were all condemned by Pope Innocent VIII (1432-1492).

Pico sought refuge in France, and after he was imprisoned there he went back home to Florence, where he continued his writing. He had a strong interest in the same hermetic tradition introduced by Ficino, although he argued against part of it in his Disputations against Astrology.

While Pico's "Oration on the Dignity of Man" has been heralded as a classic example of Renaissance humanism, Pico believed that the dignity of man was located in his proper place in the cosmos. The freedom of man, which Pico is so famous for proclaiming, is thus not the freedom for human beings to create themselves or chart their own destinies, but rather the traditional christian freedom of being able to choose between good and evil as defined by christianity.

Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola was persecuted by the Church for his

Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola was persecuted by the Church for his "Oration on the Dignity of Man" (iStock).

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