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Renaissance means ‘rebirth’ or ‘recovery’, has its origins in Italy and is associated with the rebirth of antiquity or Greco-Roman civilization. The age of the Renaissance is believed to elapse over a period of about two centuries, approximately from 1350 to 1550. Above all, the Renaissance was a recovery from the Middle Ages and all the disasters associated with it: the Black Death, economic, political and social crises. For the intellectuals, it was a period of recovery from the “Dark Ages”; a period, which was called so due to its lack of classical culture.
First Italian and then intellectuals of the rest of Europe became increasingly interested in the Greco-Roman culture of the ancient Mediterranean world. This interest was fostered especially by the migration of the Greek intellectuals during the Middle Ages and the fact that the ancient Greek works could then be translated more precisely into Latin. Increasing popularity of archeology and discovery of ancient Roman and Greek constructions also participated in this intense interest for the classical culture.
But the Renaissance was not exclusively associated with the revival of classical antiquity. It is believed that precisely from the fifteenth century great changes took place affecting public and social spheres of Europe and then the rest of the world; the basis of the modern European civilization and capitalist system were then founded. Technological innovations increased the rates of economic development. Great geographical discoveries opened up the boarders of the Western world, thus accelerating the formation of national, European and world markets. Major changes in art, music, literature and religion wrecked the system of medieval values.
Another period marked by significant changes, is the eighteenth century or an age of Enlightenment. Although present throughout Europe, the origins of the Enlightenment are closely associated with France and its philosophers such as Voltaire, Rousseau and others. The Enlightenment has been fostered by the remarkable discoveries of the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century. It was during this period that the ideas of the Scientific Revolution were spread and popularized by the philosophers (intellectuals of the 18th century).
Reason – was the word used the most frequently during the Enlightenment; it meant a scientific method, which appealed to facts and experiences. It was the age of the reexamination of all aspects of life, a movement of the intellectuals “who dared to know” and who were arguing for the application of the scientific methods to the understanding of all life. For these intellectuals it was also a recovery from the ‘darkness’ since all that could not be tested and proved by the rational and scientific methods of thinking was darkness. Blind trust and acceptance was darkness, while reason, knowledge and examination – was the ‘light’ that would lead to a progress and better society.
There are similarities that can with certainty be traced between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Many of the eighteenth-century philosophers saw themselves as the followers of the philosophers of antiquity and the humanists of the Renaissance. To them, the Middle Ages were also a period of intellectual darkness whereby the society was dominated by the dogmatic Catholic Church, allowed faith to obscure and diminished human reason. Secularization that first arose in the Renaissance erupted with new strength and particular intensity during the Enlightenment. Development of secular art, music, literature and way of thinking of the Renaissance was followed and further spread by the philosophers of the Enlightenment. Both, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment were primarily the preserve of the wealthy upper classes who constituted a small percentage of the population. Achievements of both, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment were the product of the elite, rather than a mass movement. Gradually though, they did have an irreversible impact on ordinary people. Another apparent similarity between the two periods, of course, was the fact that both of them were marked by great political and social changes. However, since evolution and progress cause changes, and achievements of one century are built on those of the previous one, there are probably more differences than similarities between the two periods. Taking a look at different social and public spheres, we shall examine the differences and the similarities between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.
Consider the intellectual areas of the two periods. The Renaissance saw the emergence and growth of humanism. Humanism was a form of education and culture based on the study of classics. Being primarily an educational form, it included the study of such liberal arts subjects as grammar, rhetoric, poetry, ethics and history that were based on the examinations of classical authors. Humanists occupied mainly secular positions such as teachers of humanities in secondary schools or professors of rhetoric in universities; they were mostly laymen rather than members of clergy. Education was central to the humanist movement since humanists believed that education could change immensely the human beings. Humanists wrote books on education and developed secondary schools based on their ideas. Their schools though, were principally reserved for the wealthy elite; children from the lower social classes as well as females were largely absent from them. During the Enlightenment, as during the Renaissance, private secondary schools were most of the times dominated by religious orders, especially by the Jesuits. However, a great difference with the Renaissance was the development of new schools designed to provide a broader education, which offered modern languages, geography and bookkeeping, preparing students for careers in business.
In Renaissance philosophy a change was expressed through an assimilation of Platonic philosophy into Christianity by means of translation and interpretation. This led to the emergence of a new form of philosophy known as Neoplatonism. Renaissance humanists saw a human occupying central position in the great chain of being between the lowest form of physical matter (plants) and the purest spirit (God). A human being was the link between the material world (through the body) and the spiritual world (through the soul). M. Ficino (1433-1499) was one of the most important humanists that contributed to the emergence of the Neoplatonism. Concerning religion, Renaissance philosophers were not rejecting Christianity, they mostly believed in God and were only against the policies and practices of the Catholic Church at that period.
The Enlightenment philosophers such as Voltaire (1694-1778) or Diderot (1713-1784) went beyond Renaissance philosophers. They severely criticized traditional religion and actively called for religious toleration. Moreover, the Enlightenment philosophers, Voltaire in particular, championed, among other things, deism. Deism was based upon Newtonian world-machine, which implied the existence of a mechanic (God) who had created the universe, but did not have direct involvement in it and allowed it to run according to its own natural laws. These philosophers believed that God did not extend grace or respond prayers. Diderot, who advocated similar ideas, made a great contribution to the Enlightenment with creation of the famous Encyclopedia (Classified Dictionary of Science, Arts and Trades), which included works and ideas of many philosophers. Thanks to the Renaissance printing and the reductions in the Encyclopedia price, Enlightenment ideas became available to general literate public of the century.
One of the innovations in history during the Renaissance was in the way history was recorded. In writing of history, humanists divided the past into ancient world, dark ages and their own age, thus providing a new sense of chronology. Humanists were also responsible for secularization of history. By taking new approaches to historic sources, humanist historians sensibly reduced the role of miracles in history. Concerning history, the Enlightenment philosophers had a similarity with the Renaissance humanist-historians in that they also placed their histories in purely secular settings. However, the difference between the two was that if Renaissance historians had de-emphasized the role of God and miracles, the Enlightenment philosophers-historians, such as Voltaire, eliminated it altogether. Also, philosophers-historians extended the scope of history over the humanists’ preoccupation with politics by paying increasing attention to economic, social, intellectual and cultural developments.
Among the most important technological innovations of the renaissance was printing. J. Gutenberg played an important role in bringing the process of printing to completion between 1445-1450. This process was vital for the diffusion of knowledge and humanist ideas. Printing spread very rapidly around Europe and its effects were soon felt in many areas of European life. Continued after the invention of printing process, the expansion of both, publishing and the reading public, became particularly visible during the Enlightenment. Even though, as during the Renaissance, most of the published works were aimed at small groups of educated elite, there appeared more publications for the new reading public. This new reading public consisted mainly of the middle classes and included women and urban artisans. An important role in the increase of these publications played the development of magazines for the general public and emergence of daily newspapers – an innovation unknown to the Renaissance.
In art, Renaissance humanism and naturalism revealed themselves through the exposition of the world of beauty and human body. Flat, static paintings of the medieval art left their place to the three-dimensional, salient and convexo-concave style of the Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Michelangelo (1478-1564) and other great artists of the Renaissance demonstrated in their works an ideal individual in whom the physical beauty and that of the soul converged together according to the standards of antique aesthetics. Renaissance artists considered the imitation of nature of their primary goal, human beings became the focus of attention. To the great discontent of the Church, themes of human nudity also became present in works of the Renaissance artists. Likewise, a human being with his basic desires and passions appeared in literature.