Humanism during the Renaissance


During the renaissance, there was a renewed interest in the arts, and the traditional views of society came into question. People began to explore the power of the human mind. A term often used to describe the increasing interest in the powers of the human mind is humanism. Generally, humanism stresses the individual?s creative, reasoning, and aesthetic powers. However, during the Renaissance, individual ideas about humanism differed.

Writers and philosophers of the Renaissance time period expressed their opinions about human nature and human?s roles in the universe through their writings. Pico della Mirandola?s ?Oration on the dignity of man?, which glorifies humanity and praises the human ability to reason, offers the opposing view to Shakespeare?s Hamlet and Montaigne?s essay ?Man?s presumption and Littleness? which both suggest that humans are no higher in the universal order of things than any other of God?s creatures.

Pico begins his essay by informing his readers that he knows where humans stand in the divine order of the world. Pico believes that humans were the last creatures created by God, and that God?s purpose, in creating them, was to fulfill his desire for someone to appreciate the great wonders and beauties of his world:

When the work was finished, the Craftsman kept wishing that there were someone to ponder the plan of so great a work? therefore? he finally took thought concerning the creation of man. (Mirandola 224)

It is also Pico?s belief that when Humans were created, they were given qualities both divine and earthly, and could become whatever they chose:

We have made thee neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, so that with freedom of choice? thou mayest fashion thyself in whatever shape thou shalt prefer. (Mirandola 225)

Pico?s conclusion about human ranking among the divine order of things was that while some people were almost celestial, others were no better than animals, and that this great variance of character among the human population only served to increase their importance and uniqueness from all other of God?s creatures. His essay, which praised human greatness and exalted the powers of humanity, was opposed by more negative views of humanity, as expressed in the works of Montaigne and Shakespeare.

Montaigne?s essay ?Man?s presumption and Littleness? belittles the greatness of man so much that he becomes no more than another beast among beasts, possibly even lower than some of God?s other creatures. Montaigne cannot imagine why man believes himself so great:

Is it possible to imagine anything so ridiculous as that this miserable and puny creature, who is not even master of himself? should call himself master and emperor of the universe, the least part of which is not in his power to understand, much less command? (Montaigne 1808)

With this statement, Montaigne not only communicates his disbelief that man is great, but also his doubt that he can obtain any knowledge of the world around him.

Montaigne goes to length to point out the faults and failures of humanity. Where Pico takes pains to explain the greatness of man, Montaigne does the same to prove his ?littleness? ?Presumption is our natural and original malady.? (Montaigne 1810) Speaking of animals and humans, he writes:

This defect that hinders communication between them and us, why is it not just as much ours as theirs? ?We do not understand them any more than they do us. By this same reasoning, they may consider us beasts, as we consider them? we must notice the parity there is between us. (Montaigne 1811)

In his writing, Montaigne not only suggests our likeness to other creatures, but goes even further, to suggest the superiority that most creatures have to us.

We recognize easily enough? how much superiority animals have over us? by making Nature? accompany them and guide them? while us she abandons to chance and fortune? and denies us? the natural resourcefulness of the animals; so that their brutish stupidity surpasses? all that our divine intelligence can do. (Montaigne 1813)

In the conclusion of his essay, Montaigne sums up his views about the divine order, and the place that humanity might occupy in that order.

If it is true that he alone of all the animals has this freedom of imagination and this unruliness in thought that represents to him what is, what is not, what he wants, the false and the true, it is an advantage that is sold to him very dear? for from it springs the principle source of