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Renaissance Humanism

Major Themes

The term humanism, as it applies to the Renaissance, does not mean “humanitarianism.” That is, it does not refer to a deep concern about the welfare of humans. Nor does it refer to humaneness—treating one’s fellow humans with respect, sensitivity, and dignity. As it applies to the Renaissance, human- ism denotes an intense interest in human beings, as if we were discovering ourselves for the first time. During this time, interest was focused on a wide range of human activities. How do we think, behave, and feel? Of what are we capable? These and related questions are reflected in the

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There is no single reason for this reawakening of the spirit of objective inquiry; several factors are believed responsible. One was Aquinas’s acceptance of reason and the examination of nature as ways of knowing God. Once sanctioned by the church, the human capacity to reason was applied everywhere, including upon church dogma. Another factor was the work of the humanists that we will consider next. Humanist philosophy recaptured the spirit of open inquiry reflected in the Greeks and also stressed the human potential to act upon the world and change it for the better.

In addition, two other broad events are consid- ered key factors in the acceptance of the objective study of nature because they weakened the author- ity of the church. The first of these was exploration and contact with other peoples. Some examples are as follows:

■ The explorations of central Asia and China from 1271 to 1295 by Marco Polo.

■ Discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus (1492).

■ Circumnavigation of the globe by Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition (1519–1522).

Such events vastly expanded the known world. The discovery that the earth was filled with strange peoples with strange customs created many prob- lems for the church. For example, a long debate occurred concerning whether “savages” found in America had rational souls (it was decided that they did). The second key event was Johannes Guten- berg’s development of metal mov- able type in the West, thus creating modern printing techniques.

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