The Renaissance

William Shakespeare

“Shakespeare” by National Portrait Gallery. Public domain.

The end of the Middle Ages was witnessed by the birth of the Renaissance (1400–1600), and with it the rise of Humanism, a movement that brought such thinkers and writers as Petrarch, Francis Bacon, Albertus Magnus, Joseph Webber, Ben Jonson, William Shakespeare, Thomas More, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, and Kant. This emergence also produced the great discoveries of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton. In architecture it brought about the revival of the classical style. And in the fine arts it inspired new schools of painting in Italy, such as Raphael, Leonardo, Bellini, Michael Angelo, Giorgione, and the Flemish school in the Netherlands.

The Renaissance is the name of the great intellectual and cultural movement of the revival of interest in classical culture that occurred in the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries. The Renaissance began in Italy as a major revolt against an intellectually barren medieval spirit, and especially against scholasticism, in favor of intellectual freedom. A hunger developed for all things classical. Greek scholars were encouraged to travel to Italy. Florence became the cradle of classical revival. Latin classics were in demand. Libraries were built. And schools for the study of Greek and Latin in their classic forms were opened in Rome and other major cities.

The Humanists

Friedrich Niethammer

“Friedrich Immanuel Niethammer” by DALIBRI. Public domain.

The second period of the Renaissance produced a continued passion for classical study, which was later coined “Humanism” in 1808 by a German educator, F.J. Niethammer, to describe a program of study distinct from scientific and engineering educational programs. Of all the practices of Renaissance Europe, nothing is used to distinguish the Renaissance from the Middle Ages more than Humanism as both a program and a philosophy.

The Humanists began by rediscovering lost Latin texts, rather than searching for classical Greek extants. The two most important classical authors of the Renaissance were Cicero and Quintilian, not Aristotle or Plato. Petrarch spearheaded the rediscovery of Cicero; and one of the texts he found, the Brutus, a handbook on rhetoric, became one of the most important books in the Renaissance. Quintilian later became the basis of the Humanistic education curriculum. The most important influences on Petrarch were Cicero and Augustine. He took from Cicero the principles of composing Latin and much of his philosophy; and from Augustine he derived his ideas about the relationship of the human to the divine. Throughout the Renaissance, the single most important author, classical or otherwise, during the entire Humanist movement is Cicero.

Love is the crowning grace of humanity, the holiest right of the soul, the golden link which binds us to duty and truth, the redeeming principle that chiefly reconciles the heart to life, and is prophetic of eternal good. – Petrarch

Interested in the human world as constructed through language, rather than the natural world, the Humanists focused on the human epistemologically. They emphasized the world of human culture and language, believing in the power of the word not only because it gives those with a command of it special advantage in daily interactions, but because of its inherent capacity to disclose to the world of humans. The Italian Humanists believed rhetoric, not philosophy, to be the primary discipline because it is through language that humans gain access to the world.[1]

Rene Descartes

“Portrait of René Descartes” by Frans Hals. Public domain.

A second trend in rhetoric also began during the Renaissance — a trend that dominated the theories of rhetoric to follow. Rationalism, represented by the work of Peter Ramus (1515–1572) and René Descartes (1596–1650), sought objective, scientific truths that would exist for all time. Foss et al., wrote that, “Not surprisingly, the rationalists had little patience for rhetoric: while poetry and oratory might be aesthetically pleasing, they were seen as having no connection to science and truth.”[2]

Howell (1956) claimed that Ramus was a French scholar who made rhetoric subordinate to logic by placing invention and organization under the rubric of logic and leaving rhetoric with only style and delivery. Ramus argued that invention should not be an intellectual process governed by contingencies, as Aristotle or Cicero would have it. He presented invention as a rhetorical procedure that must conform to the theory of logic. He successfully argued that rhetoric must be concerned with the canons of style and delivery only. Ramus’ identification of rhetoric with style launched a denigration of invention that lasted for centuries.[3] (, 2007).

René Descartes is one of the most important Western philosophers of the past few centuries. During his lifetime, Descartes was just as famous as an original physicist, physiologist and mathematician. But it is as a highly original philosopher that he is most frequently read today. He attempted to restart philosophy in a fresh direction. For example, his philosophy refused to accept the Aristotelian and Scholastic traditions that had dominated philosophical thought throughout the Medieval period; it attempted to fully integrate philosophy with the “new” sciences; and Descartes changed the relationship between philosophy and theology. Descartes believed that in order to reach certain knowledge, the foundations of thought provided by others had to be abandoned. He was willing to accept only that which would withstand all doubt. He rejected truths established in speech or in the course of social or political action. Language became only a means of communicating the truth once it was discovered, not a powerful sphere in which human life emerges. [4]

I think; therefore I am. – Rene Descartes

  1. Foss, S.K.; Foss, K.A.; Trapp, R. (1991). Contemporary Perspectives on Rhetoric. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.
  2. Foss et al. 1991, p. 8
  3. (2007). Retrieve on January 26, 2007 from
  4. Foss, et al., 1991