Renaissance Europe 1300-1600: Philosophy

Arts and Humanities Through the Eras. Editor: Edward I Bleiberg, et al. Volume 4. Detroit: Gale, 2005.

Scholasticism in the Later Middle Ages


The term scholasticism, a word invented by sixteenth-century humanist critics, has long been used to describe the dominant intellectual movement of the Middle Ages. The humanists used the term to attack the verbose style and arid intellectualism they perceived to be the defining features of medieval intellectuals. Humanists criticized the scholastics for concentrating on legal, logical, and rationalistic issues at the expense of genuine moral and ethical problems. In truth, the thought of the schoolmen possessed considerable variety and depth. These thinkers often engaged in debating complex moral and intellectual issues in ways that were far from arid and which dealt with realistic considerations. There was not, moreover, a single set of assumptions about philosophical issues within the scholastic movement. Instead it possessed great variety and witnessed continued vitality and development throughout the later Middle Ages. But humanist philosophers came to contrast their own method of discussing and writing about philosophical problems against those of the scholastics and to argue that their ideas were more original and morally relevant than those of the medieval schoolmen. At the same time humanist thinkers were often indebted to the ideas of the scholastics, and the gulf that separated the two movements was less profound than many humanists often imagined.


Scholasticism first developed in schools attached to Europe’s cathedrals in the twelfth century. By 1200, the most successful of these schools had emerged as universities. These first universities—places like Oxford in England, Bologna in Italy, and Paris in France—shared a common educational outlook, even though each specialized in different kinds of learning. These institutions were carefully nourished, both by the church and their local states, since the students that they trained provided a pool of eligible talent to assume positions of authority in secular and religious governments. The medieval universities enjoyed special legal status as largely autonomous bodies, free from local control. As a result, “town and gown” rivalries often erupted, even at this early point in their development. The curriculum taught in the universities changed little over time. Students began their instruction at the universities in their mid-teens after completing their preparatory work at home or in the secondary schools in Europe’s cities. Since all instruction within the universities was in Latin, most students required years of elementary and secondary instruction, either formally or informally, before they could enter a university. The course of primary and secondary education differed from place to place, as did the number of schools available to educate young boys in the basic instruction that they would need before they entered the university. While there were a few notable exceptions of talented, young women who attended universities in the Middle Ages, women were prohibited from taking degrees. And as a rule, women received no instruction in Latin, so that in all but extraordinary cases, this prevented them from pursuing higher learning. Before a student entered university, he needed a basic knowledge of the seven liberal arts: the trivium (which included rhetoric, grammar, and logic) and the quadrivium (astronomy, geometry, arithmetic and music). A university’s curriculum was more systematic, though, and during the four or five years a student was enrolled in the Bachelor of Arts curriculum he was expected to master logic and the other tools of the scholastic method. At the end of this course, a student usually took the degree. The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were a great period in the expansion of university education throughout Europe. University education still was a rare thing, but universities spread in this period to almost every corner of the continent. In 1300 there were only 23 universities in Europe. During the fourteenth century, an additional 22 were founded, and in the fifteenth century 34 new institutions appeared. This growth was strongest in Germany, Eastern Europe, and Spain. As new universities appeared throughout the continent, the number of individual colleges within these institutions also grew, as nobles, wealthy burghers, kings, and princes moved to endow new schools within the framework of existing universities. Medieval universities also specialized, as universities do today, in particular areas of expertise. Until the sixteenth century, Paris remained Europe’s premier theological university, while Bologna in Italy was known for its legal studies. It trained many of the lawyers who practiced in the church’s courts. Salerno, in Sicily, was Europe’s first medical school. As university specialization increased in Europe at the end of the Middle Ages, a new kind of itinerant scholar appeared. Many fourteenth- and fifteenth-century students migrated from university to university, spending only a year or two in each place, before taking the B.A. at one institution. In this way students took advantage of the lectures given at particular places by the most expert of professors. Rising complaints of students who lacked direction and seriousness, though, also accompanied these changes, and the European system of degrees allowed students to remain in school for many years. For those who desired the academic life and who possessed the resources to pursue education, the Masters of Arts degree could be attained with another two to three years of study. At this point the most dedicated students usually became teachers for several years before pursuing the doctoral degree, which required another seven or eight years to complete.

Scholastic Method

A common way of teaching known as the scholastic method dominated in most universities. The scholastic method—often attacked by later humanists for its verbose style—was, in reality, a logical way of examining problems from contrary points of view. The scholastic thinker set out a proposition to be debated and then he proceeded to present arguments on both sides of this question. He carefully answered each argument in support of this proposition and each in opposition before coming to a final conclusion about the matter. To practice this method, students relied upon a highly technical form of Latin, one which humanists attacked as barbaric in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. A thorough knowledge of the ideas of previous authorities was also a key skill needed by those students who hoped to succeed in mastering the method. The accomplished scholastic was expected not only to be able to deal with problems in their discipline logically, but to recall and manipulate the ideas of previous authorities on a subject. These skills were put to the test in oral debate, as students were called upon to demonstrate mastery of the material through engaging their peers in verbal matches.

Pervasiveness of the Scholastic Method

This style of examining intellectual questions was common in all the disciplines that were taught in the medieval university and was particularly important in the development of law, theology, natural philosophy (that is, those studies concerned with matter and the physical world), and medicine. Philosophy itself was not an independent discipline in the medieval university, as it is today, although its methods of rational analysis and its logic pervaded all studies. Much of what we would identify today as “philosophy” was concerned with theological issues, although in every area of academic endeavor, medieval scholars wrote works that were philosophical in nature. The importance of philosophy in the medieval curriculum, especially in theological studies, had grown during the course of the high Middle Ages (the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries). In the eleventh century, for instance, many of those who taught in Europe’s cathedral schools had been wary of the use of ancient philosophy within theological studies, but over time the rational and logical analysis that philosophy offered influenced theological study more and more. In the twelfth century Peter Abelard (1079-1142) compiled his Sic et non, a work that presented the conflicting statements of the scriptures and of early church fathers concerning doctrinal issues. Although Abelard was a Platonist as were many scholastics of his day, he relied on Aristotle’s dialectical method as a means to analyze and harmonize contradictory statements. Peter Lombard (c. 1100-c. 1160) built upon his efforts to construct his Sentences, a work that examined the sum of the church’s theology, and which attempted to harmonize the contradictory statements of the ancient church fathers concerning the key teachings of Christianity. In many cases, however, Lombard’s Sentences left the contradictions that existed between early Christian authorities unresolved, and thus his work became an important textbook for those theological students who followed him. Students were expected to weigh the contradictory statements of ancient church authorities and the Scriptures the Sentences contained, and to construct their own theological judgments by confronting and harmonizing those contradictions through reasoned and logical analysis. As the Sentences became more popular the dialectical method of Aristotle and the teachings of ancient philosophy concerning the science of logic became increasingly important to European theologians, many of whom wrote commentaries on Lombard’s work. By the thirteenth century, in fact, logic had a pre-eminent position in the theological curriculum of universities throughout Europe.

Increasing Importance of Aristotle

Aristotle’s increasing prominence in medieval theology arose, not just from his expertise in logic or the dialectical method, but because the philosopher came to be accepted as a pre-eminent authority on science, nature, and ethics. Early scholastics like Peter Abelard and Peter Lombard had advocated the adoption of Aristotelian forms of reasoned argumentation, but they had remained Platonic in their theological outlook and often wary of Aristotle’s ideas. During the twelfth century, though, Western thinkers had begun to re-acquire a firmer understanding of Aristotle’s works. They were aided in their efforts by the studies of Aristotle that had been undertaken by Jewish and Muslim scholars in previous centuries, since firsthand knowledge of Aristotle’s texts had largely disappeared in medieval Europe. As more and more European scholastics studied the philosopher’s works, Aristotle’s influence grew, and the sense of uneasiness that had once existed regarding his “pagan” philosophy disappeared. Aristotle became a powerful ally in the attempt to construct a reasoned defense of the Christian faith. By the thirteenth century key aspects of Aristotle’s ideas, including his system of logic, his science, and his moral philosophy, helped to fashion a new Golden Age of scholastic theology. Theologians saw in Aristotle’s science and metaphysics—particularly in his emphasis on a Prime Mover—new ways to prove the existence of God. They embraced his ethics because they saw in it ways to defend Christian moral imperatives. Aristotle also provided a set of logical tools that allowed theologians to systematize the doctrines derived from the Bible and church tradition. They also relied on these tools to make the church’s system of the sacraments rationally coherent. During the thirteenth century, then, the philosopher’s largely secular-spirited philosophy served as a foundation for theologians’ attempts to interpret the Bible and to explain the workings of the Christian religion and its sacraments. This new marriage between theology and ancient philosophy also played an important role in defining the limits of secular and ecclesiastical authority.

Reason and Revelation

At the high point of scholasticism’s development in the thirteenth century many scholastic philosophers were convinced that human knowledge could be harmonized with divine knowledge. They believed, in other words, that faith and human reason were complementary and that human reason could be used to prove the tenets of the Christian religion. This confidence in the compatibility of human reason and the Christian religion was nowhere more profoundly displayed than in the works of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Aquinas was an Italian by birth who entered the Dominican Order, and eventually studied at the University of Paris, then Europe’s preeminent theological institution. After spending some time in Cologne, he returned to teach in Paris before retiring to Italy in his later years. His career thus exemplifies the international nature of university education in the thirteenth-century world. An indefatigable scholar whose literary output was vast, he was sometimes observed writing one work while dictating another. One of his greatest achievements was his Summa Theologiae, or Theological Summation. In this work Aquinas argued that many of the truths of the Christian religion were beyond rational explanation and that they must, by their very nature, be treated as mysteries of a “divine science.” At the same time, he applied Aristotelian logic, metaphysics, and ethics to theological problems to make the intellectual issues of the faith readily intelligible and rationally coherent. Almost invariably in the Summa, each article follows a set form. Its title asks whether something is true, such as “Is the Existence of God Self-Evident?” This question is then followed by the words “It seems that” as well as a series of objections that refutes the initial question. These objections include statements from the scriptures, the church fathers, the saints, and other Christian authorities, although in some cases they present purely philosophical statements about logic or nature. The side of the argument Thomas wants to defend is then introduced with the words “but on the contrary,” and is accompanied by the quotation of the same kinds of authorities previously presented under the objections. Then Thomas turns to the heart of the article with the words “I answer that” in which he shows by logical argument and the citation of authorities that “what seems” is incorrect, and that what he has stated following the words “on the contrary” is, in fact, correct. He then disposes of the initial “objections,” most often by showing that if one interprets them correctly, they actually do not support the erroneous side of the argument. The Summa in its entirety—in its four parts and hundreds of questions—is always built upon these same balanced and orderly principles of argumentation. Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae is thus a work of theology, but one that nevertheless relies on philosophical methods and ideas to defend many Christian teachings. In other writings, particularly his Commentaries on Aristotle, he treated subjects that were more purely philosophical in nature, but most of Aquinas’s works are best described as works of theology that make use of philosophy’s tools. As a theologian, Aquinas was well aware of the problems that might arise from a too heavy reliance on logic and reason to prove Christianity’s premises. At the same time, a confidence existed in his work that the mind of man mirrored the mind of God, and thus human beings might strive to understand the Christian faith aided both by divine revelation (the sacred Scriptures and those authorities that had commented upon them) and human reason.


In the decades following Aquinas’s death a number of scholastic theologians criticized what they felt was a too heavy reliance on reason in his and other thirteenth-century theologians’ works. The issues that precipitated this debate involved the nature of universals, an issue that had been debated by theologians since ancient philosophy had begun to make inroads into scholasticism in the twelfth century. The issues surrounding universals seem to modern minds to be erudite and removed from practical considerations, but to thinkers in the high and later Middle ages, the debate over universals was part of a broader set of discussions about the science of epistemology, that is, the science of how human beings can establish the truth of what they know. These epistemological debates became fundamental to theologians’ considerations of their discipline and to their treatment of Christian truth, the church’s sacraments and institutions, and even to their considerations of the relationships between religious and secular authority. Until the thirteenth century many scholastics had relied on Platonic realism to explain why human beings shared certain ideas and concepts. Plato had taught that the human mind had been imprinted at birth with knowledge of archetypes or universals that existed in a perfect realm, and this knowledge allowed human beings to recognize and react to the ideas and objects they observed on earth. As a human being saw the elements that made up the world, in other words, each particular object or idea forced the mind to recall its correspondence to a perfect universal. When the human eye turned to look at a chair, for example, the mind recognized it as a chair because of its relationship to the pre-existing universal idea of chair. This way of interpreting earthly reality as a shadowy emanation of a realm of pure forms or universals has often been called realism. It proved particularly amenable to the needs of some early scholastics desirous of proving the Christian faith using reasoned arguments. In the eleventh century, for example, St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) had relied on realism to prove the existence of God. According to Anselm’s proof, if God was conceived in the mind as that “being which nothing greater could be conceived” then the very presence of this notion in the mind proved God’s existence. As a realist, in other words, Anselm believed that certain concepts were imprinted on the mind at birth that pointed to the reality of their existence in the realm of universals. As scholastic theology matured, however, new positions on the subject of universals had multiplied. Some thirteenth-century thinkers had remained faithful to realism and had even become “ultra-realist” in their attitudes toward universals. Others insisted that the precise nature of universals was unknowable and they refused to pronounce any opinion on the matter. Still others, like Aquinas, forged positions on universals that were somewhere in between both alternatives.

Aquinas’s Reformulation of Universals

While Aquinas insisted on the reality of universals, he argued at the same time that human knowledge derived from sensory experience working in tandem with these ideas in the mind. The eyes, ears, and hands provided the mind with a reliable picture of the world, even though universal knowledge shaped and gave meaning to sensory perceptions. With this notion of universals, Aquinas was able to treat concepts like the existence of God in new ways. He avoided the old means of proof based upon a priori notions imprinted upon the mind at birth, notions that had once played such an important role in the work of figures like St. Anselm. Instead he looked to the natural world and argued that the senses might provide human beings with some reliable proofs for God’s existence. Aquinas argued that wind, the flow of water, and the life cycle of flora and fauna all pointed to the presence of a prime mover, a planner that had set these processes in motion. Thus Aquinas’s reformulation of the concept of universals allowed him to forge a new kind of theology that linked science, human reason, and divine revelation together, even if he continued to insist that neither nature nor human reason could provide sufficient proofs for the Christian religion on their own. The theologian, according to Aquinas, still had to rely on a detailed and logical study of sacred scriptures and the church’s authorities to arrive at religious truth. Although Aquinas’s formulations concerning these problems continued to be influential among many later medieval scholastics, particularly in the Dominican Order, his concepts were soon challenged after his death. By 1300, a new group of thinkers began to attack the concept of universals altogether, and in a skeptical vein they insisted that there were clear limits to human reason’s ability to understand God and religious truth. As they attacked the concept of universals, they insisted that their precise nature was indeterminable and that each and every object in the world was endowed with its own peculiar, unique qualities. The terms that human beings used to describe these things, in other words, did not have their origin in universals imprinted on the mind, as earlier scholastics had argued. Instead they insisted that philosophical concepts were mere names that arose from human attempts to categorize and comprehend what they observed in the world.

Ockham’s Razor

This philosophy eventually became known as nominalism, taking its name from the Latin word for “name” (nomenus). The nominalists generally tried to limit the use of human reason in understanding the Christian faith. In place of the trust that Aquinas and other thirteenth-century thinkers had placed in logic and the mind’s ability to comprehend the Christian religion, they argued that faith could not be proven by strictly rational means. Instead there were truths of faith that were not reliant on human reason, and truths of science that were independent of religion. The nominalist critique of the notion of universals was made most cogently by William of Ockham (1285-1349), a brilliant English philosopher and theologian. Ockham had a diverse and interesting career as an academic, a political theorist, and a campaigner for reform in the church. His impact on philosophy, though, proved to be his most enduring contribution. He denied the nature of universals and instead insisted on a simpler explanation for human knowledge. The concept he pioneered, today known as “Ockham’s Razor,” proposed that the simplest explanation for a phenomenon should win out over a more complex one. Ockham divided all human knowledge into intuitive and abstract categories. Intuitive knowledge is by far the more common, since it is the basis upon which all human understanding of the world is constructed. Intuitive knowledge is acquired through experience and from discussing one’s experiences with others. Through their intuition human beings discover that the sky is blue, water is wet, and wood is hard. These intuitive conclusions, though, are nothing more than names which human beings use to describe the realities that they observe in the world. The second category of human knowledge, abstract knowledge, arises from human beings’ ability to imagine. Here Ockham cites the example of the unicorn as a typical invention of humankind’s abstract knowledge. A fantastic and concocted being, the unicorn is not an expression of a heavenly archetype, but is instead a completely imaginary animal created within the human mind out of the intuitive knowledge of horses and horned animals. From their ability to think in abstract terms, human beings possess the ability to create, but Ockham cautioned that abstract knowledge can also err and, as in the case of the unicorn, create ideas that are completely imagined. In this way Ockham argued for a dramatic reduction of the role of universal truths, one of the fundamental building blocks of scholastic philosophy up to his time. Instead of insisting that universals were pre-existing archetypes in the mind of God, Ockham argued that they were little more than ideas that human beings created to name the things that they observed while living together in the world. This denial of universals or archetypes had a profound effect on philosophy and theology. Fueled with his new understanding of how the mind operated, Ockham argued that the truths of religion could not be understood using human reason. The human mind, in fact, could not establish the reality of God’s existence, nor could the truths of religion be defended using an abstract system of logic. Human knowledge existed in a realm completely separate from the majesty of God, and it could only establish the absolute truth of the things that it witnessed through its own observations.


Despite his criticisms of the limits of human reason, Ockham remained a devout Christian. As a result, he and his followers stressed the absolute power of God on the one hand, and the necessity for philosophers to confine their speculations to what they could prove through their observation on the other. His nominalist philosophy was particularly important in the University of Paris, Europe’s leading theological institution. A second group of philosophers, known as Scotists, elaborated the positions of John Duns Scotus (1266-1308), a Scottish scholastic who had emphasized the will over human reason in his works. Scotus’s thought had been complex and had merged elements of both Aristotle’s and Plato’s philosophies. Because he was so adept in harmonizing these two conflicting figures, Scotus became known as the “subtle doctor.” Scotus’s followers emphasized freedom of the will and the necessity of both good works and divine grace in the process of human salvation. Their theory of knowledge differed from the nominalists because the Scotists continued to affirm the role of universals in human thought. Scotism was most widely developed as a philosophical movement among members of the Franciscan Order. While Scotism was a more conservative movement in some ways than nominalism, Scotists often joined forces with nominalists in the later Middle Ages to oppose Thomists, and together the two philosophies became known as the via moderna or “the modern way.” While the gulf that separated both traditions was pronounced, both Scotists and Nominalists were skeptical about the mind’s ability to fathom the truths of the Christian faith rationally. Despite the growth of these two movements, Thomism continued to attract supporters in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but outside the Dominican Order its influence was slight. In contrast to the via moderna, Thomism was known as the via antiqua or the “old way.” Like Thomas Aquinas, followers of the “old way” continued to express a confidence in the human mind’s ability to understand sacred things. Within university faculties generally, bitter disputes often raged between followers of the “old” and “new” ways. Scotism and Thomism continued to attract support throughout the Renaissance, but nominalism would be the most definite force for change on the scholastic horizon. It helped to shape new ways of conducting theological study and new modes of asking philosophical questions. The simplifying effects of Ockham’s teaching, in particular, have long been seen as laying the groundwork for the ideas of later Protestant Reformers. Martin Luther began his career as a scholastic theologian within the tradition of the “modern way.” That philosophy also helped to shape John Calvin’s theology, with its emphasis on the majesty of God and the importance of understanding the covenants that He had established with humankind in the scriptures. Beyond its religious implications, many have seen in Ockham’s defense of empirical truths over abstract logic a development that helped to influence the course of Western science.

Political Theories

William of Ockham also involved himself in the political issues of his day, including the long-standing controversies that revolved around church and state power. Ockham became embroiled in these matters while defending the concept of Franciscan poverty against Pope John XXII (r. 1316-1324), who had declared a radical interpretation of the order’s teachings on poverty to be heretical. In 1324, the pope summoned Ockham to Avignon, and Ockham, displeased with the papal behavior he witnessed, quickly became an opponent. After leaving Avignon, he joined forces with radical leaders in the Franciscan Order who had taken up residence at the court of the German emperor Louis the Bavarian. From there, Ockham wrote several works defending the outcast Franciscans and attacking John XXII as a heretic. These tracts argued that the pope should be deposed and they defended the power of church councils and the state over the papacy. Ockham’s political philosophy was unusual in its arguments concerning the nature of church truth. Theologians had long argued that the church, guided by the Holy Spirit, could not stray from the truth. Ockham, for his part, noted that while truth always prevailed in the church in some quarters, the papacy and even church councils could err and stray from true Christian teaching. While his ideas shared certain affinities with later Protestant attacks, most late-medieval theologians and philosophers did not support them. Ockham’s more limited defense of church councils to resolve the issues facing the church would be influential later in helping to resolve the crisis of the Great Schism (1378-1415). (See Religion: The Church in the Later Middle Ages.)

Marsilius of Padua

Ockham’s radical political philosophy had been partly influenced by the ideas of Marsilius of Padua, who had completed his influential Defender of the Peace in 1324. Although Italian by birth, Marsilius rose to become the rector of the University of Paris and, like Ockham, became an outspoken opponent of Pope John XXII. Eventually, he, too, left his position to join the court of the emperor Louis the Bavarian. In the Defender of the Peace Marsilius stressed that the will of the people was the basis for all government. Power did not flow from God to the pope and into secular rulers, as many political philosophers had long supposed. Instead it rose from the people, who established governments in order to live by the rule of law. At first glance, these ideas might seem a democratic manifesto, but Marsilius still envisioned that kings, princes, and nobles would play a greater role in defining government than common people. The importance of his work lay in its strong support of the secular power of princes over that of the church. Throughout this political treatise Marsilius criticized the power of the clergy by insisting that they were only one part of society, and as such, bound by the laws the entire community enacted. As he turned his attention to papal power, he argued that the pope was merely a humanly appointed executive, responsible to the Christian community in the same way that all rulers were. The members of the church acting in a general council could, when circumstances warranted, depose him. While Marsilius’s Defender of the Peace was an early defense of the principles of representative government, it did not influence political philosophy until much later. In the fourteenth century those secular rulers who prized it did so because it supported their power against the pope.


These strains of political theorizing continued in the fifteenth century, too. They can be seen in the works of the scholastic philosopher Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464), a German and a cardinal. In his Catholic Concordance Cusa examined the history of the church, including the long-term relationships between the German Empire and Rome. Cusa showed that the Donation of Constantine, one of the foundations of papal authority, had left no trace in historical documents throughout the ages, thus calling into question one of the foundations of the pope’s secular authority in Western Europe. Like Marsilius of Padua, his Concordance argued that the basis of all government lies in the will of the people, although Cusa would take his conclusions farther than Marsilius. As the monarch of the church, Cusa argued, the pope should be elected by a body of cardinals that was truly representative of the entire church. Church councils, moreover, were the ultimate arbiters of Christian teaching because they derived their powers directly from Christ.

Learned Ignorance

Even as he devoted himself to writing political philosophy, Cusa was also an academic philosopher who embraced mysticism in other works. His On Learned Ignorance displayed a skepticism about the human mind’s ability to understand God rationally and instead argued that God could be best understood through the way of negation. The deity, in other words, was most easily comprehended in terms of what He was not, rather than in terms of what He was. This small treatise advocated a mystical path toward union with God, a God that Cusa perceived as present everywhere in an infinite universe. On Learned Ignorance demonstrates another keen interest of the late-medieval scholastics: their fascination with mathematics and the natural sciences. In this work Cusa relied upon geometry to demonstrate the infinitude of the universe, a realm he described as having no center or circumference. As a result, his theory denied the traditional notion that the earth was at the center of the universe. For Cusa, the center of the universe was everywhere, a space that God alone occupied. He admitted that his concepts were difficult for the human mind to grasp, and he often relied on difficult mystical terms to present his ideas. At the same time his work was one of the first Renaissance philosophical documents to present a notion of the shape of the world that was different from the traditional “earth-centered” models that had long been accepted as orthodoxy.

Natural Philosophy

Cusa’s interest in considerations about the shape of the universe illustrates another dimension of late-medieval philosophy: its continuing interest in nature and metaphysics. Before the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century, universities treated the physical sciences largely as branches of natural philosophy, an important part of the philosophical curriculum in both the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Aristotle’s ideas concerning matter and the physical universe had largely shaped the development of medieval natural philosophy, and Aristotelian ideas continued to be important in Renaissance natural philosophy, too. Over the centuries, though, some Christian, Neoplatonic, and Islamic commentaries had been added to the corpus of works treated in the universities’ natural philosophical instruction. But as a discipline, natural philosophy continued to be dominated largely by Aristotle. Two of his commentaries were especially important: the Physics and De Anima (On the Soul). These provided the discipline with many of its underlying assumptions. Natural philosophy was concerned chiefly with understanding natural bodies—their form, motion, shape—and the causalities that altered or affected these bodies. Motion had been introduced into the world by a Prime Mover, and now everything in the world that moved contrary to its natural course did so because of the force being applied to it. Following Aristotle and other Antique writers on nature, natural philosophers accepted that there was an inherent purpose or potential in every created thing, for nothing had been created by chance or without a reason. Matter tended to fulfill these natural purposes and in doing so, it came to a state of rest. Natural philosophers debated these questions of purpose through intellectual speculation and by studying previous writings in their discipline. They only rarely observed or experimented with matter. Aristotle’s influence, too, prevented them from stepping outside traditional ideas. Although some experiments disproved Aristotle’s physics in the fourteenth century, his authority tended to survive unquestioned. In the fifteenth century this began to change, as natural philosophers embraced alternative theories about nature. The revival of Plato was of key importance in questioning Aristotelian ideas about natural philosophy as Plato’s works became better known through more accurate Latin translations and Greek editions. Nicholas of Cusa had relied upon Platonic ideas about nature when he created the infinite universe of his On Learned Ignorance. But Cusa was not alone, and fifteenth-century natural philosophers now investigated other ideas in the works of ancient authorities, including those of Pythagoras, the Stoics, the Epicureans, and the Hermetic tradition. The rise of knowledge of these alternative systems of physics complicated the natural philosophy taught in the Renaissance, and opened up the possibility of new hybrid approaches to the discipline. Over time, too, observation and the testing of the assumptions contained in natural philosophical texts through experiments became more common. But until the advent of Galileo’s modern scientific method after 1600, the observation of nature was not seen as a means of establishing a truth, but as a way to confirm what one had read in the works of other authorities. Renaissance thinkers, in other words, remained wedded to the notion of “textual” truth.

Scholastic Survivals

Although scholasticism is typically thought of as a medieval phenomenon, the movement survived long after the Middle Ages. Scholasticism’s vitality persisted in the sixteenth century, helping to shape the teachings of both Protestantism and Catholicism. In Spain many of those who became leaders within the Society of Jesus had trained as scholastic philosophers, and they mixed Thomist teachings with humanism in their educational schemes. Of the Jesuits’ many philosophers, the most influential in shaping the development of the society’s teaching was Francisco Suarez (1548-1617), who taught a version of Thomism that nevertheless included powerful theological and philosophical arguments drawn from Scotism and nominalism. As a result of the Council of Trent (see Religion: The Council of Trent and the Catholic Reformation), Thomism increasingly became the position of the official theology of the Roman Catholic Church, helping to sustain scholastic instruction into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Scholasticism, too, affected the development of early-modern Protestantism. Protestants like Martin Luther may have criticized medieval philosophy, but Protestant universities soon welcomed the scholastic method. In Germany, Philip Melanchthon and others re-introduced Aristotelian logic and metaphysics into the university curriculum. They adopted the scholastic method in university instruction as well. Elsewhere, in Protestant England, Scotland, and the Netherlands, scholastic philosophy continued to play a role in the early-modern period. And by virtue of the planting of new universities by missionaries and settlers in North and South America, scholasticism exercised an influence in Europe’s colonies overseas.

Humanism in the Early Renaissance


While scholasticism was dominant in Europe’s universities during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, humanism also appeared at this time as the primary intellectual innovation of the Renaissance. Humanism first developed in Italy’s cities in the fourteenth century, and underwent a process of maturation before affecting intellectual life throughout Europe around 1500. The word “humanism,” though, is a modern term created to describe a broad and diffuse movement. There was no intellectual manifesto for humanism, no set of beliefs that all humanists shared, as in modern Marxism or existentialism. Instead humanism describes an intellectual method and a pattern of education that Italy’s umanisti or humanists embraced in the fourteenth century. These humanists practiced the studia humanitatis, the origin of the modern humanities. They believed that an education rooted in the classical texts of ancient Greece and Rome would help to bring about a rebirth of society. Their interests in Antiquity were wide ranging, embracing both the writers of the pagan and the early Christian world. Humanists desired to revive classical literary style and to create graceful speakers and writers who would encourage their audience to pursue virtuous living. The incubator for these ideas was the Italian city, and throughout humanism’s long life, the movement often treated the problems that arose from Europe’s rapidly urbanizing society. The specific disciplines the humanists stressed in their studies differed across time and place, but an emphasis on rhetoric (the art of graceful speaking and writing), grammar, moral philosophy, and history was usually shared as a common vision. Thus in place of the university’s scholastic method with its emphasis on logic, the humanists’ vision of education stressed the language arts. From the first, the humanists distinguished themselves from the scholastics. They attacked the scholastics for their “barbaric,” uncultivated Latin style, and for emphasizing logic over the pursuit of moral perfection. This rivalry at first made the universities resistant to humanist learning. In Italy, the movement developed in the cities, in ducal courts, and in monasteries and other religious institutions before it eventually established a foothold within the universities in the fifteenth century. As humanism spread to Northern Europe in the later fifteenth century, it experienced similar resistance. Universities continued to be dominated by the scholastic study of theology and philosophy. By 1500, though, most of Europe’s distinguished centers of learning had begun to establish training in the “New Learning,” a signal for the adoption of humanist patterns of education. In early-modern Europe the emphasis on the Classics and the humanities became signs of intellectual and cultural distinction and helped to create the modern vision of liberal arts instruction within the universities.


The first humanist to achieve international renown was Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374), and his interests and ideas shaped the humanist movement for several generations. Petrarch gave up the study of law when he was young and instead devoted himself to literature, particularly the literature of classical Rome. He took the example of the ancient poet Vergil as the model for his poetry, while Cicero was important in shaping his prose. Petrarch self-consciously styled his letters to other humanists to be read by an audience, and in one of these he set forth a new idea of Western history. In place of the traditional periodization, which had stressed the birth of Christ as a key date, Petrarch saw the collapse of Roman authority in Western Europe as decisive. Constantine’s abandonment of the Western Empire had given rise to an era of barbarism, from which Petrarch believed that European civilization was only beginning to recover in his time. Thus Petrarch helped to shape the notion of European history as divided into ancient, medieval, and modern periods. In 1341, Petrarch became the first of the humanists to accept the poet laureate’s crown, an event that humanists over the following centuries considered the highlight of their revival of letters. Petrarch staged this ceremony himself as a way of self-consciously identifying with the poets of classical Antiquity. His coronation as poet laureate, though, helped spread his celebrity throughout Europe, and for the remainder of his life Petrarch continued to extend his fame through his writing. In these works he expressed a love for St. Augustine, particularly the autobiographical Confessions. Petrarch took this work as a model for his The Secret, or the Soul’s Conflict with Desire, a work that was unprecedented since Augustine’s time in revealing the internal psychological dimensions and tribulations of its author.


Petrarch’s thought lacks a systematic current, but is instead characterized by several recurring themes. Petrarch was deeply Christian in his outlook, but because of his admiration for Antiquity, his Christianity was broad and inclusive. His love for classical literature, too, meant that he was often critical of the scholastics. He disliked intensely the logically structured arguments of medieval philosophers like St. Thomas Aquinas, and he berated the scholastics’ style as mere “prattlings.” Petrarch argued instead that the chief end of philosophy should be to help human beings to attain moral perfection, not the logical understanding of philosophical truths. These truths were ultimately unknowable and they did not prompt human beings to live virtuous lives. He expressed this position in his famous and often quoted dictum, “It is better to will the good than to understand truth.” Petrarch realized that harnessing the human will was essential in any effort to achieve virtue, and so his writings often contained deeply introspective passages in which he recorded his efforts to overcome human passions and to lead a more virtuous life. Petrarch’s emphasis on the will in his writings gave rise as well to his argument that rhetoric—the art of persuasive and graceful writing and speaking—inspired morality more profoundly than the study of logic or ethics. The ancient Roman rhetoricians Cicero and Seneca, for instance, prompt their readers to live virtuous lives. By contrast, Aristotle’s Ethics may promote an intellectual knowledge of morality, but it is incapable of making its readers into better human beings. These ideas together with Petrarch’s life and literary corpus provided a powerful example to humanists of his own generation and those that followed. Later humanists emulated Petrarch’s love for classical literature and learning, his powerful individuality, and his advocacy of the study of rhetoric in place of traditional scholastic logic.


It was in Florence that a distinctly humanist culture first emerged in Renaissance Italy. Coluccio Salutati (1331-1406), a disciple of Petrarch, was a key figure in the development of humanism within the city. Salutati served the city as its chancellor or chief administrator in 1375 and he remained there until his death. His success in this post helped to quiet Florence’s long-standing tradition of factional infighting among its powerful families, and in the quieter years after Salutati’s arrival, learning began to flourish in the city. Salutati encouraged the development of humanism in Florence by inviting scholars to come to the town. Of the many immigrants who took up residence during Salutati’s years in Florence, Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459) was important in deepening knowledge of classical Antiquity. Salutati had hired Bracciolini to copy important classical manuscripts so that their insights might be made available to other scholars at work in the city. But Poggio did far more than merely serve as a scribe. He combed through Florence’s rich monastery libraries and those in surrounding Tuscany. He used his trips outside Tuscany to deepen his knowledge of classical literature, too. While attending the Council of Constance (1414-1417), he spent his free hours searching for texts in the libraries of Southern Germany and Switzerland. The result of his research there uncovered many of Cicero’s orations as well as ancient rhetorical manuals, which became guides to Florence’s humanists as they tried to recover a purer classical Latin style. Knowledge of these texts circulated quickly through Florence’s growing humanist contingent, in part through the efforts of Niccolò Niccoli (1363-1437), who collected these texts and founded Europe’s first lending library to serve the city’s scholars.

Revival of Greek

Humanists of Petrarch’s generation had confined their efforts to the study of classical Latin texts, but around 1400 knowledge of the Greek classics began to expand dramatically. In this regard, Florence led the way by establishing the first European professorship of Greek in 1360. Of those who held this position, Manuel Chrysoloras (c. 1350-1415) was chiefly responsible for creating a resurgence in the study of Greek. He arrived in Florence in 1397 at Salutati’s instigation, and during his three-year tenure in the city, he taught Greek to many outstanding humanists, including Salutati, Poggio Bracciolini, Leonardo Bruni (1370-1444), and Pier Paolo Vergerio (1370-1444 or 1445). Chrysoloras’s tenure at Florence produced great enthusiasm for the study of Greek, and knowledge of the language steadily grew among humanists during the fifteenth century. After leaving Florence in 1400, Chrysoloras taught in a similar fashion in Milan and Pavia, and his activities in these places produced similar results. In the next few decades as humanists throughout Italy devoted themselves to recovering antique texts, knowledge of the Greek tradition expanded apace with the recovery of Latin sources. In 1418 Ciriaco D’Ancono traveled to Greece to collect classical texts, and in 1423 Giovanni Aurispa returned from a journey there laden with more than 230 volumes of classical Greek manuscripts. As a result of his reception in Italy during the Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438-1445) the Greek Cardinal Bessarion later left his collection of more than 800 Greek works to the city of Venice, where they became the foundation for the city’s Marciana Library. While knowledge of Greek grew in the fifteenth century, many humanists were still unable to master the language. Translations out of the Greek and into Latin continued to feed the desire of many scholars for a more direct knowledge of the Greek classics. Of the many translation projects undertaken by the humanists in the fifteenth century, none was more important than Marsilio Ficino’s translation of all the surviving works of Plato into Latin during the 1460s. With the completion of this project, Italy’s humanists finally possessed a detailed knowledge of the entire scope of Plato’s ideas, something that scholars had longed for since the days of Petrarch.

Civic Humanism

The humanist culture that Salutati and others introduced into Florence matured during the period between 1400 and 1440. A lineage of humanist chancellors succeeded Salutati, of whom Leonardo Bruni was the most notable. Bruni served as chancellor during the period between 1427 and 1444, continuing the tradition that had by then developed of civic support for the arts and humanist scholarship. A number of artistic projects undertaken during Bruni’s period as chancellor gave Florence the veneer of a classical Roman city. These included the doors of the baptistery, the dome of the cathedral, and a number of churches, public buildings, and patrician palaces. These new movements evoked the antique past and were largely designed and executed by the Renaissance artists Filippo Brunelleschi, Leon Battista Alberti, and Michelozzo Michelozzi. Artists established ties with Florence’s circle of humanists. Alberti, for instance, was both a practicing architect and a humanist, and he spent his time writings treatises on marriage and family life even as he codified the rules of visual perspective and revived ancient architectural style. Although Bruni’s day-to-day government work consumed his time, he continued to nourish his scholarly interests. He completed Latin translations of works of Aristotle, Plato, Plutarch, and other Greek writers, which became models of cultured style imitated by other Florentines. His History of the Florentine People was a widely popular work among the city’s humanist circle, and although written in Latin, each volume’s immediate translation into the local Tuscan dialect reached the broadest possible audience. In the work, Bruni argued that Florence had been founded during the Roman Republic, and not, as had been previously thought, in the era of the empire. The work, together with other monuments of Florence’s artistic and literary life, glorified Florentine patriotism for its defense of civic liberty. More generally, an emphasis on civic values and the arts of good government was a subject that the Florentine humanists frequently took up in the works written in this period. The “civic humanism” that appeared in these years advocated an active life engaged in government and society as the most conducive to virtue. The town’s civic humanists also celebrated the republican virtues of ancient Rome and they saw Florence as the modern heir to the ancient arts of good government.

Humanism Beyond Florence

In part because of the success of the humanists at Florence, elites in northern and central Italy embraced humanism as the preferred means of preparing men to enter into government service. Often, students who had trained with Salutati, Bruni, and other Florentine scholars spread the new learning to cities throughout the peninsula. By 1450, humanists were active as civil servants, diplomats, and secretaries in most of Italy’s important city governments, and humanist training became more and more essential as preparation for those who wished to undertake careers in government. Outside urban governments, humanists also worked in the courts of Italy’s dukes and in the governments of church officials, including those of the pope. In addition, many who had received humanist training served as private tutors in the households of the elite, while humanists also taught in Italy’s secondary schools and universities. The most fortunate of humanist scholars sometimes became “scholars-in-residence” at the courts of Italian dukes, in the church at Rome, or in the households of merchant princes. In these positions a scholar received a salary merely in exchange for pursuing his studies. Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) was one such humanist, who was singled out by the Medici family in Florence for patronage. The son of the family’s physician, Ficino exhibited precocious scholarly talents at an early age. When not yet thirty, the Medici set him up with a pension and a town house and a villa outside Florence in which he pursued his studies and translations of Plato. Lorenzo Valla (1405-1457), one of the outstanding humanists of the fifteenth century, received similar appointments, first in the household of the king of Naples and later at the papal court at Rome. Most humanist scholars, though, struggled to pursue their love of learning while working in government positions or teaching their craft.

Intensification of Literary Studies

As humanism spread from Florence throughout Italy, an increasing sophistication developed in the movement’s critical study of languages. The career of Lorenzo Valla exemplifies this trend. Valla was the most distinguished of the many students trained by Leonardo Bruni at Florence and early in his life he displayed a keen understanding of classical Latin and Greek. When he was not yet thirty he had written a grammar of classical Latin entitled The Elegancies of the Latin Language. During the next century the Elegancies became the dominant Latin grammar used by students of the language. Valla’s nature was impetuous, though, and the criticisms that he made of scholasticism’s barbaric Latin style offended his colleagues at the University of Padua. Soon after he completed the Elegancies, Valla fled Padua for Naples. There he enjoyed the most productive period of his career, devoting himself to perfecting the philological method. As Valla developed philology, it became a tool for studying the original meanings of words in texts. With the disciplined techniques that he developed, he was able to authenticate or deny the originality of documents that historians had long relied upon. He found many of the texts that had long been used to justify historical developments to be forgeries. His studies disproved the authenticity of The Donation of Constantine, a document that had long been a foundation of papal authority. Valla examined the text, which reputedly ceded secular control over Western Europe to the Roman pope. He found words, phrases, and concepts used in the document that had not existed during Constantine’s life, and he demonstrated that the Donation was probably written in the late eighth or early ninth century, hundreds of years after the Roman emperor’s death. Other philological studies that he undertook in this period denied the authenticity of the Apostle’s Creed and pointed out inaccuracies in St. Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate, that had long been used in Western Europe. Valla’s critical scholarship raised the suspicions of the Inquisition at Naples, but although they questioned him, they allowed him to continue his studies. In the final years of his life he took up a position at Rome under the patronage of Nicholas V, the first humanist-trained pope.


Until Valla’s time most humanists had been attracted to those ancient philosophies that stressed self-denial and the pursuit of moral perfection. In the generations following Petrarch the humanists had often argued that mastering the human will through self-examination and self-denial was key if one hoped to attain a virtuous life. Lorenzo Valla’s life and ideas, though, point to the growing philosophical variety of fifteenth-century humanism. Early in life he had been drawn to the ideas of the ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus, who had argued that the pursuit of pleasure was humanity’s life-giving principle. Valla made use of Epicurus’s insights concerning the importance of pleasure to create a surprisingly original philosophy. In On Pleasure, a work completed during Valla’s final years at Rome, he outlined a synthesis of ancient Greek Epicureanism with Christianity. On its surface, the text seemed to praise the joys and pursuits of the ancient pagans. But beneath this surface, Valla presented a highly moral Christian philosophy that would later be echoed in the works of sixteenth-century Protestants like Martin Luther and John Calvin. Only Christianity, according to Valla, offered a way out of the cycle of human sinfulness. The sinful human will, according to Valla, could not be overcome, nor could human beings hope to achieve moral perfection. But Christianity, through its pursuit of the higher aim of love, offered a means for human beings to substitute the pursuit of God’s love for earthly pleasure. In this way the Christian religion presented humankind with a genuine way out of the dismal cycle that the pursuit of pleasure created. While these ideas were highly original, Valla’s Christian Epicureanism found few admirers during his lifetime. His critical scholarly methods, though, inspired humanists in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.

Renaissance Platonism


Medieval scholastic philosophers had often revered Plato, even though very few of his works were directly known to them. Plato’s dualism (the notion that the spiritual was inherently superior to the physical) and his realism (the notion that the realm of ideas shaped our sensory perception of the world or that the things that we see are only dim reflections of universal ideals or forms) seemed to fit with Christian ideas about the world. Very few of Plato’s works, though, had survived in the Middle Ages. Some were available in Greek, but knowledge of Greek was almost non-existent in medieval Europe. Most scholastics knew of Plato’s ideas only secondhand. They were known, in other words, from the writings of St. Augustine, the late antique Platonic philosopher Plotinus, and the early medieval scholar Boethius. Francesco Petrarch had collected some of Plato’s works in their original Greek, but he struggled unsuccessfully to learn the language. With the revival of the knowledge of Greek that occurred in Florence and other Italian cities after 1400, scholars began to read Plato and other Greek philosophers in their original texts. By the mid-fifteenth century knowledge of Greek expanded even further because of the political situation in the Eastern Mediterranean. By 1450, the Byzantine Empire, the descendant of ancient Rome, faced conquest at the hands of Islamic Turks. Although Byzantium had long been wealthier and more sophisticated than Western Europe, the empire building of Islamic states, particularly the Turks in the Eastern Mediterranean, had caused the empire’s power and dominions to shrink over the last few centuries. Italy now became home to many cultivated scholars fleeing Islamic domination in the East. Among these, George Gemesthis Plethon (c. 1355-1450 or 1452) and Cardinal Bessarion (1403-1472) were important in helping to spread a detailed knowledge of the Greek classics and to advance the study of Plato in Italy. Both Plethon and Bessarion attended the Council of Ferrara-Florence in 1439, where they exercised a profound influence on humanist scholars.

New Translations

In 1462, Cosimo de Medici, patriarch of the merchant banking house, asked Marsilio Ficino to complete a translation of Plato’s works from a collection of manuscripts he had recently purchased. Even by the cultured standards of fifteenth-century Florence, Ficino was an extraordinary figure. The son of the Medici family physician, he had entered the University of Florence at an early age to study Latin grammar and rhetoric. He received training in Aristotelian physics and logic, too, but his father had intended that he pursue a career as a physician, and so he completed medical training. Healing became an important concept, both in his writings on medicine and in those that treated philosophy. His philosophical works, in other words, frequently aimed to heal the human soul. Ficino’s interests were wide ranging. From his medical training he was also well versed in pharmacology and astrology (an important science to those who practiced medicine). He was a practicing alchemist, nourished an interest in music and music theory, and was an accomplished poet. He was also ordained a priest, wrote theological treatises, and was even considered at one point in his life for election as a bishop.

Platonic Academy

It was long supposed that the Medici had supported the development of a formal academy in Florence to study the works of Plato, in which Marsilio Ficino served as the director. This myth of the Florentine Academy as a school seems, in part, to have been created by the sixteenth-century Medici to bolster their reputation for long-standing patronage of the arts. While a group of scholars seems to have coalesced around Ficino from the 1460s, they were a loosely knit society who met to discuss philosophical issues and to learn from Ficino’s encyclopedic knowledge of Plato. The kind of philosophy that arose from this group was eclectic, and stressed privacy and contemplation. The Florentine Platonists placed a high value on meditation and mysticism with the goal to become God-like, something they thought was possible to humankind because of the race’s creation in the likeness of God. The Florentine interest in Platonism during the second half of the fifteenth century marked a turning away from the active life of public duty that the civic humanists had advocated in the early 1400s. This transformation was part of a general shift away from civic involvement in the later Italian Renaissance to more personal modes of mystical contemplation. Renaissance Platonism became one of the most important intellectual fashions of the age, and its teachings spread throughout Europe to shape religious beliefs, the visual arts, and learned culture over the next century and a half.

Ficino’s Platonism

During the 1460s Ficino completed most of his translations of Plato’s works from the manuscripts supplied to him by the Medici, but he continued to revise his translations until their publication in 1484. While working on the Platonic translations, Ficino received a request from Cosimo de Medici to complete a Latin translation of the Corpus Hermeticum. These were mystical and magical texts that survived in fragmentary form from ancient Egypt and which ranged over a variety of occult subjects, including alchemy, astrology, and numerology. These texts treated the knowledge of the occult as branches of practical science. Ficino interrupted his studies of Plato to complete the translation of these hermetic works, and influences from his readings of these magical texts found their way into his most important work, his Platonic Theology. Ficino began this work in 1469 and completed it five years later. He intended the Theology to be a philosophical summation, like the medieval summas of figures like Aquinas, that would merge Plato’s teachings with Christianity. The work’s length, not to mention its repetitive and difficult nature, prevented a thorough examination of its ideas by most students of philosophy, including most of Ficino’s own fifteenth-century disciples. While many of his followers adopted its ideas concerning the soul’s divine nature, they were less rigorous in emulating Ficino’s complex metaphysics. Some disciples popularized smatterings of the text’s metaphysical ideas, but few understood all of Ficino’s complex notions. Ficino saw his role as being one of harmonizing Christianity with Platonism. To be sure, Christian thinkers had long relied on Platonic concepts to make Christianity intelligible as a philosophic system. But Ficino was the first Western thinker to understand Plato’s ideas and those of his commentators in their entirety. Harmonizing true ancient Platonism with Christianity was considerably more of a challenge. Like Plato, the most important dimensions of Ficino’s thought were his strong dualism and realism. Ficino thought that the realm of universals or Platonic forms shaped all human life on earth and all human perceptions. In addition, his thought stressed that the physical world was inherently inferior to the spiritual, or internal world. Ficino and other Florentine Platonists championed the doctrine of Platonic love that became immensely popular in the sixteenth century. The term today describes non-sexual attractions between the sexes. For Ficino and other Renaissance Platonists, Platonic love meant a great deal more than this. This form of attraction was a true meeting of the minds on the highest plane of reality, that is, in the realm of universals. Since the Platonists were usually men, Platonic love occurred within the male sex. According to Platonists like Ficino, this intellectual love was inherently superior to erotic attraction. Ficino and some of his disciples consequently advocated chastity just as vigorously as had medieval monks.


According to Ficino, human beings inhabit a cosmos filled with spheres and intelligences. In the highest or supercelestial sphere one finds God, and beneath God is a many-storied universe consisting first of the angels and intelligences (ideas and semi-animate beings that motivate actions in people), the planets and fates, the souls of men, and finally the realm of the natural world. According to Ficino and later Platonists, every realm above humankind has the power to shape and influence human life, thought, and actions. The realms of God, the angels, intelligences, and fates affect human beings’ mind, soul, and intellect. In addition, however, human beings are governed from below by their instincts. The human creature, then, is distinct among all Creation because it occupies an intermediate position between the realms of higher ideas, intelligences, and so forth, and the physical world. Human beings can decide which realm—spiritual or physical—they want to inhabit. For Ficino, though, the central task of philosophy became to wean oneself away from attachment to earthly or physical things and to find ways to return to God. Thus much of his Platonic Theology dealt with learned magic or the “occult sciences” which Ficino believed could aid the human soul in returning to its origins in God. The soul’s reunion with God could also be accomplished through cultivating poetry, prophecy, and meditation, or occur in the dream world of sleep, the unconsciousness of comas, and in certain psychological states.

Ancient Theology

Renaissance Platonism had its origins in humanism’s hunger for knowledge of classical Antiquity. It is hardly surprising, given Ficino’s bent toward philosophical synthesis, that he adopted a new stance concerning ancient religion and philosophy. Throughout his works he frequently argued that God had granted the ancient pagans a line of religious teachers who had taught philosophical insights that ran parallel to those he had supplied to the Jews through the Hebrew prophets. Ficino called this notion prisca theologica, meaning that a divinely inspired ancient theology ran through all pagan religions. The fountainhead of this wisdom had been the Persian teacher Zoroaster, but Ficino insisted that the tradition of the ancient theology had achieved its full and final expression in the works of Plato. Thus Christians could profitably study the religious works of antique pagans as divinely inspired wisdom that mirrored the truths God had also given to Moses. In this way Ficino moved to christianize the works of the ancient philosophers.


Many of Ficino’s ideas reached a broader audience through the brief but notable career of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494). Pico was a nobleman, born to an ancient family of counts, but he renounced his inheritance in exchange for money to underwrite his studies. At fourteen he left home to study law in Bologna, but soon moved on to the universities at Ferrara and Padua. In the last institution, Pico became familiar with the works of Marsilio Ficino, and he soon began to correspond with Lorenzo de Medici and other Florentine humanists. Pico left Italy for the University of Paris in 1485, and he returned a year later. Upon his return he circulated and had printed a collection of 900 Theses he had culled from his studies of ancient religions and philosophies. Like Ficino, Pico believed in a shared unity of religious and philosophical truths across the ancient religions, and he intended his Theses to be a definitive statement of these shared truths. He drew these from the works of pagans, Muslims, Christians, and Jews, and he intended to have his Theses debated at a conference to be held at Rome. But Pico’s adventurous reading of texts from various religious traditions and his assertion that all religions shared in the same truths as Christianity caused the pope to examine the Theses. A commission appointed by Pope Innocent VIII declared thirteen of the work’s assertions to be heretical, and when Pico refused to recant, the pope responded by condemning the entire document. The philosopher left for Paris shortly afterward, although he reconciled with the church shortly before his untimely death. Despite his short life, Pico’s fame continued to live on, primarily through the document that has long been known as his Oration on the Dignity of Man. That work, which Pico circulated to stir debate for his Theses, extravagantly praised human dignity because of its spiritual descent from the mind of God. It argued that the highest calling of the human race was to seek the communion of the angels and higher intelligences that populated the celestial spheres. But it admitted that human beings were often “chameleon-like,” and were more interested in emulating the beasts of the field than they were in rising to the heavens.

Influences on the Arts and Science

Renaissance Platonism praised creativity as a sign of humankind’s creation in God’s likeness. It became a widely popular philosophy, particularly in Florence, during the second half of the fifteenth century. There its ideas helped to shape the artistic world that would soon be known as the High Renaissance. The Platonists celebrated human creativity as evidenced in poetry and literature as divine attributes and they searched for ways in which the soul could return to commune with God. Artists relied on these and other ideas from the movement to argue that, like the poet, their creations were the product of humankind’s divine genius. In this way they helped begin the process that elevated the artist’s status above the medieval notion of a craftsman. Although he was not a humanist, Michelangelo Buonarroti was influenced by the vogue for Renaissance Platonism in his native Florence, and its ideas found expression in his poetry and other writings. Even during his lifetime, he was frequently interpreted as someone sparked with the flame of divine inspiration, an interpretation that would have been largely unthinkable without Platonism’s celebration of creativity as a sign of humankind’s creation in God’s likeness. Michelangelo’s sonnets also praised the skill of the sculptor to liberate Platonic forms that lay hidden and pre-existent in the marble he sculpted. And his painted compositions made use of Renaissance Platonism’s ideas about the importance of shapes; he frequently relied on circles and triangles to give his compositions form, shapes that had been praised by Renaissance Platonists for their strength and mystical meanings. Elsewhere in Italy, the philosophical movement’s influence helped inspire the popularity of central-style churches. Within these buildings—constructed either as a Greek cross or in the round—the most distant worshiper could be no farther from the altar than another in the remaining three wings of the church. The architect Bramante had originally planned the new St. Peter’s Basilica (begun after 1506) in this way, but the plan was later altered to make the building conform to the more traditional pattern of a Latin cross. Architects also used the harmonies and proportions that Platonic philosophers insisted lay hidden within the universe, and this emphasis on the importance of shape and mathematical proportion influenced the sciences, too. Renaissance Platonism taught that the heavenly spheres, intelligences, and angels that populated the celestial realms influenced life on earth. Through Natural Magic the Platonist hoped to use these relationships to best advantage in one’s daily affairs. Thus astrology and other occult sciences were often profoundly important to the Platonist. In spite of this strikingly non-scientific way of thinking about the world, some Renaissance Platonism ideas proved important in the shaping of a more modern scientific mentality. For the Platonist, mathematical laws governed all natural processes and the numerical relationships that were in evidence in Creation were part of the hidden mysteries of the universe that might be unlocked through mathematical investigation. Platonism thus helped to promote a growing arithmetical sophistication in Europe, as disciples of the movement frequently searched for the harmonies and numerical relationships they perceived as underlaying Creation. Nicholas Copernicus and Johannes Kepler, promoters of the sun-centered or heliocentric universe, were just two of many Renaissance scientists whose thinking about the natural world was, in part, shaped by Platonism.

Spread of Renaissance Platonism

In the second half of the fifteenth century Florence had been the center of Renaissance Platonism. By 1500, though, disciples of the movement appeared in every country in Europe. In Germany, the Christian Hebraist Johannes Reuchlin was one of the first to be attracted to the movement. Through his friendship with Ficino and Pico he became convinced of the profound spiritual insights that Platonism offered. He devoted himself especially to studying the collection of Jewish mystical writings known as the Cabala, an interest he shared with Italian Platonists. Through two treatises he popularized their study within Germany’s growing group of humanists. His taste for Jewish wisdom eventually embroiled him in international controversy, and led to his condemnation by Rome (see Religion: Humanism: Reuchlin Affair). In France, Jacques Lefèvre D’Etaples (1450-1536) was also a disciple of Pico and Ficino, and he nourished an interest in mystical writers. He published Ficino’s translations of the hermetic texts and continued to pursue the studies of the Jewish Cabala that Pico and Reuchlin had begun. In England, Renaissance Platonism took root earlier than in many parts of Northern Europe thanks to a group of English scholars who had traveled to study with Ficino and Pico in the 1460s and 1470s. By the early sixteenth century the movement produced the brilliant scholar John Colet, who served as the dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. In a series of famous lectures on the Epistles of St. Paul, Colet inspired a generation of English humanists with his dedication to Christian reform and the Platonic ideals of scholarship. His lectures also deeply affected Desiderius Erasmus. Platonism survived in England as a philosophical movement longer than in most European countries. It produced scholars like John Dee in the sixteenth century, who practiced the occult sciences in the court of Queen Elizabeth I, and the physician Robert Fludd, whose career stretched into the mid-seventeenth century. A revival of Platonism in seventeenth-century Cambridge produced a group of scholars who became known as the Cambridge Platonists and who professed a metaphysical worldview that had its origins in Ficino’s Platonic Theology.

Humanism Outside Italy


In the fifteenth century humanism spread beyond the boundaries of Italy, first to Spain and Portugal and somewhat later to Northern Europe. In the Iberian Peninsula humanists often wrote in Spanish and Portuguese, adapting the literary style of Petrarch, Boccaccio, and other Italian humanists to their own local languages. Northern European humanists continued to rely on Latin, although there were notable exceptions of humanists who dedicated themselves to using and expanding their local languages. Outside Italy, humanists promoted notions about their movement similar to those already expressed in Florence and other Italian cities. They celebrated their movement as the birth of a new “Golden Age” in which religion and learning would be invigorated by the examples of Antiquity and a renewal in moral philosophy. In Northern Europe and Spain, humanism became associated with plans for Christian reform and placed less emphasis on the rhetoric of Cicero and other ancient writers. For this reason humanism outside Italy has sometimes been called “Christian humanism.” The philosophers and writers of this movement advocated a renewal of Christianity that would be illuminated by the new knowledge of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew and envisioned a reform of the church that would rely on the knowledge of Antiquity and the study of the scriptures in their original languages. They emphasized the importance of moral philosophy rather than scholastic logic, and were often just as critical of the scholastics as their Italian predecessors had been. But as in Italy, the gulf that separated humanism from scholasticism was not so deep as many humanists claimed. Some humanists, for instance, studied both scholasticism and the newer forms of learning, but their anti-scholastic rhetoric made many universities initially resistant to the humanists. By 1500, though, humanists had gained a foothold in many institutions of learning north of the Alps and in Spain and Portugal.

Germany and the Netherlands

In both Germany and the Netherlands, the humanist movement exhibited signs that were similar to the Renaissance elsewhere in Northern Europe. Like its Italian version, humanism here owed a great debt to the classics of Greek and Roman Antiquity. Rediscovering and studying classical texts became a burning desire of humanists in Germany and the Netherlands; these scholars argued that literary study was more conducive to human virtue than the arid logical considerations of scholasticism. For these reasons, the humanists initially encountered opposition as they tried to assume positions in Dutch and German schools and universities. Eventually, these barriers were overcome, and by 1500, the humanists had gained a foothold. In the educational institutions in which they taught, the humanists argued for a reformed curriculum based upon the study of the classical languages. But as the movement developed in Germany and the Netherlands, they also advocated religious reform and an ideal of learned Christian piety. In Germany, the first great scholar of humanism was Rudolph Agricola (1444-1485). Like many later German and Dutch humanists, Agricola had been schooled by the Brethren of the Common Life, the lay monastic movement that had developed in the Netherlands and Germany from the Modern Devotion movement. When he was 25, Agricola traveled to Italy, studying the Classics at Ferrara and Pavia. After ten years he returned to Germany, where he spent the remainder of his life encouraging the development of humanistic studies from his post at the University of Heidelberg. Agricola’s religious ideas were conservative and traditional, but he laid great emphasis on the study of the scriptures, something that later Dutch and German humanists embraced enthusiastically. Although he died relatively young, he had by the time of his death developed a group of disciples that included Conrad Celtis and Jakob Wimpheling, two scholars who expanded the cause of humanism in Germany. Their efforts saw humanism embraced in the imperial court, as the emperor Maximilian I appointed a number of classical scholars to serve as secretaries, historians, and astrologers in his government. One of the greatest of these was Johannes Reuchlin, who accepted several imperial appointments during the 1490s and 1500s. Reuchlin was one of the most widely traveled scholars of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. He studied at the universities of Orlèans, Basel, Paris, Tübingen, and in Rome and Florence, before devoting himself to the study of the Hebrew language and Jewish literature. He authored the first grammar of Hebrew intended for Christian students of the language, and he published several monumental studies of the Jewish Cabala. Because of these involvements, Reuchlin was eventually drawn into a controversy over the study of Jewish books (see Religion: Reuchlin Affair). Many of the imperial humanists that Germany produced in these years were advocates of German nationalism. In their historical works these court humanists tried to address a sense of cultural inferiority. They attempted to show in their works that Germans had not been barbarians (an interpretation of German history that Italian humanists had kept alive through their knowledge of Tacitus and other ancient Latin writers). The Dutch humanists did not share this focus on national identity. But like their German counterparts, they took an interest in the study of traditional mystical texts and in the newer metaphysical ideas of Renaissance Platonism.


The Dutch-born Desiderius Erasmus (c. 1466-1536) was the commanding figure produced by the Renaissance in Northern Europe. Erasmus was a religious thinker of profound depth, a writer of some of the sixteenth century’s most brilliant and cultivated prose, and a philosopher of some sophistication. Like Agricola and other German and Dutch humanists, he had been trained in youth in the traditions of the Brethren of the Common Life, and the concept of the imitation of Christ advocated by the Modern Devotion had shaped his early life. To these early interests, Erasmus added training in the methods of both humanism and scholasticism. Erasmus’s writings fall into three categories. First, he produced works of critical scholarship, editing important classical works and translations, including his definitive translation of the New Testament. Second, Erasmus published a number of comic and satirical works, including his famous Colloquies. He wrote the Colloquies as a series of conversational dialogues, and teachers used them to train young men in the knowledge of Latin. The works mocked the foibles and superstitions of people, most especially of monks and scholars. Finally, a third category of Erasmus’s works aimed for a re-establishment of early Christian teachings in Europe. In this last kind of work, Erasmus frequently outlined his “Philosophy of Christ,” a set of teachings he believed were revealed in the gospels, particularly in the Sermon on the Mount. Among the several works that Erasmus wrote in this vein, his Handbook of the Militant Christian (1503) was the most influential in attracting disciples to his ideas and plans for Christian reform. The work argued that the kernel of all Christ’s teachings consisted in love, charity, and respect exercised toward one’s neighbors. “Wish for good, pray for good, act for good to all men” is how he summarized this great rule in the Handbook. Erasmus’s beautiful literary style and his engaging summation of the core of Christian teachings attracted numerous admirers throughout Europe in the sixteenth century. To many educated humanists, his works presented a middle path between the extremes of traditional Catholicism and the newer and more radical forms of Protestantism. Vestiges of his reform ideas survived in the works of many humanists, many of whom served in Christian reform efforts throughout Europe. His ideas, for instance, were particularly important in shaping the course of the Reformation’s teachings in England, and had admirers at the same time in the Catholic reformers in Spain and Italy. As the sixteenth century progressed, though, and religious positions hardened on both sides of the Protestant and Catholic divides in Europe, Erasmus attracted increasing criticism from many quarters. Catholic traditionalists identified in Erasmus’s emphasis on the spiritual nature of Christianity a set of teachings that was subversive to the sacraments and religious discipline. By the end of the century, a number of his works had been placed upon the Index of Prohibited Books, a list of books which Catholics were forbidden to read. For committed Protestants, too, Erasmus’s denial of the concept of justification by faith and his loyalty to Rome helped limit his appeal.


Renaissance humanism attracted significant support from English intellectuals at the end of the fifteenth century, despite the conservative character of intellectual life in the country at the time. Many aspects of English learning remained tied to medieval scholasticism, and chivalric ideals still dominated English elite society in the late fifteenth century. Still, during the 1460s and 1470s a group of English scholars traveled to Italy to study with humanists and several were students of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Marsilio Ficino. These included Thomas Linacre, William Sellyng, and William Grocyn. This last figure was particularly important in building a circle of humanist scholars in England. Grocyn served as court physician and a royal tutor during the time of Henry VII and Henry VIII. While he did not write a great deal, like Rudolph Agricola in Germany, he helped to popularize humanistic studies among England’s intellectual elite. The first undeniably accomplished English humanist, though, was John Colet (1466-1519), who was a member of the clergy and dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Colet had spent four years in Italy during his youth, much of it in close affiliation with Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. When he returned to England, he helped to spread knowledge of Ficino and Renaissance Platonism. Like Erasmus and other Northern Renaissance humanists, he was critical of the corruption of the church and the popular superstitions of the people, and his sermons argued for a reform of ecclesiastical abuses. His great achievement, though, lay in fostering the study of the humanities in England through his foundation of St. Paul’s School in London. This cathedral school opened the way for the training of members of the English elite in the classics and it exerted a significant influence on English intellectual life during the following centuries.


Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), an admirer of John Colet, exemplifies a different path taken by some English humanists. He was a layman and a lawyer who occupied the highest political positions in the court of Henry VIII. More received his Bachelor of Arts at Oxford before studying law at the Inns of Court in London. By 1510, he had become an official in the City of London and he soon rose to serve in Henry VIII’s diplomatic service. It was while on a diplomatic mission to Flanders that More wrote part of his famous Utopia, a work that has since his time been the model for many imaginary visions of a perfect society. The Utopia, one of the best examples of sixteenth-century literature, also reflects More’s personal philosophy (see Literature: Utopia). He was skeptical of humankind’s ability to achieve virtue, and the society he imagined in his work was tightly ordered and highly disciplined so that its people could avoid their natural inclinations toward wrong-doing. More was well read, and an excellent stylist in Latin prose; he was also well connected among humanists in England and in Europe. Among his correspondents, he maintained a close friendship with Erasmus throughout his life, and Erasmus dedicated his Praise of Folly to him. Religiously, though, More was more conservative than the Dutch humanist. He engaged in prayer vigils and practiced ascetic disciplines like the wearing of a hair shirt. While he enthusiastically supported charities, he was also an unswerving opponent of heresy. As a royal official, he supported the persecution of heretics, including those who were drawn to the new Protestant ideas that began to circulate in England in the 1520s. The same sword of royal authority that More wielded to eradicate Protestants in England would eventually be turned against him. Because of his loyalty to the Roman Church, he refused to recognize Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, and he was condemned and beheaded in 1535.


In France, humanism developed within the same time frame as it did in Germany, the Netherlands, and England. While the country’s intellectual centers, particularly the University of Paris, were resistant to the new studies, humanists had established themselves at Lyon and Paris by the late fifteenth century. Both towns were important printing centers, and they played a key role in spreading the new humanistic knowledge throughout Europe. Robert Gaguin (1433-1501) was the first in a distinguished lineage of French humanists. In his works he tried to harmonize classical philosophy with Christian teaching, a goal that would be pursued by a number of French Renaissance thinkers. Gaguin’s influence upon his students at Paris helped to permanently establish the humanities within the university. His influence, though, was soon to be eclipsed by Giullaume Budé (1467-1540) and Jacques Lefèvre D’Etaples (1450-1536), the two most accomplished scholars of the French Renaissance. By training, Budé was a lawyer, and found no university appointment until he established his own college late in life. He was a particularly astute philologist, who translated the Greek works of Plutarch and wrote treatises in Greek even in his youth. Of the many honors that Budé received during his lifetime, one was to prove particularly important for posterity: his appointment as the head of the king’s library enabled him to purchase a number of important Greek manuscripts. Jacques Lefèvre D’Etaples, by contrast, took a different turn in his scholarship. Inspired by the example of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Lefèvre became convinced of the unity of philosophical truth. As a result he ranged broadly in his studies, dedicating himself to the works of Italian Renaissance Platonists, the medieval scholastics and mystics, the Jewish cabalistic writers, and hermeticism. As he matured, though, he concentrated his efforts on biblical scholarship, and in his studies of the New Testament he developed ideas that were similar to many German Protestants. Lefèvre remained a devout Catholic, but as a consequence, his scriptural studies shaped the ideas of some of France’s early Protestant reformers.

Spain and Portugal

Humanist influences can be seen in both Spain and Portugal from the early fifteenth century as the works of Petrarch and Boccacio became popular in the peninsula. In both countries, as elsewhere in Europe, the demand for properly trained secretaries and diplomats helped to fuel the popularity of humanism. The presence of an increasing number of skilled Latinists within the region in the fifteenth century encouraged the study of classical texts, as well as the importation of works by the Italian humanists and their translation into Spanish and Portuguese. During the reign of the married monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, humanist study within the two kingdoms of Castile and Aragon expanded. The project for a new polyglot Bible at Alcala, which became known as the Complutensian Polyglot, brought many humanists to Spain in the early sixteenth century. But it was not until the reign of the Spanish emperor Charles V (r. 1516-1556) that a true Renaissance in Spanish learning occurred. During the early part of Charles’ reign Spain’s humanists revered the works of Erasmus, including the Handbook of the Militant Christian, which for a time became the country’s most widely read devotional book. Its influence persisted even after its placement on the Index in 1559. In Charles’ Spain, a number of distinguished humanists were actively engaged in the king’s service. These included Diego Hurtado de Mendoza, Juan de Valdés, and Antonio de Guevara. The greatest of Spain’s humanists, Juan Luis Vives, was also from a family of recent converts to Christianity. Known as conversos, these former Jews or descendants of Jews were particularly receptive to the ideas of Erasmian humanism. Vives studied in Spain until his teenage years, when he moved to the University of Paris. When still young, he distinguished himself through the publication of his The Fable of Man, a work tinged with Renaissance Platonism. As a result of his literary successes, Vives became a professor of literature at the University of Louvain, and eventually served as the royal tutor in the court of Henry VIII. When he failed to endorse Henry’s divorce of Catherine of Aragon, he was forced to emigrate, and he settled in Bruges in Flanders where he spent the remainder of his life. Vives’ death came before a great change in attitude toward humanism began to sweep across his native Spain. At home, fears of Protestantism gave rise after mid-century to attempts to suppress the Erasmian humanism that had circulated in Spain relatively freely during the first half of the century. Humanists came to be suspected of heresy, and followers of Erasmus, together with Spanish mystics (known as the Alumbrados) became victims of persecution. In Portugal, the rise of counter-reforming sentiments similarly discouraged a nascent humanist culture.

New Trends in Sixteenth-Century Thought

New Questions

The character of intellectual life in sixteenth-century Europe was traditional and not given to dramatic reassessments or change. Nevertheless, in many areas of life new questions arose that could not be easily answered by the wisdom that had been received from Antiquity or the Middle Ages. The discovery of other parts of the globe, for instance, raised questions about cultures and histories that had apparently not been mentioned in the Bible or in ancient authorities. Most thinkers continued to try to fit their new knowledge of these societies and exotic lands into the textual knowledge they had received from tradition. The authority of the church came under attack in the sixteenth century, too. The Protestant Reformation began with dramatic blows against the power of the clergy and the pope, yet during the remainder of the century, Protestant leaders recreated political authority in ways that were essentially traditional and conservative. Most intellectuals opposed radical change and revolutionary ideas, and even the most radical religious and social reformers of the century usually argued that they were restoring, not destroying, tradition. At the same time there were truly revolutionary thinkers at work within the sixteenth century whose ideas eventually altered the course of intellectual debate. While their scholarship was not completely integrated into the fabric of sixteenth-century intellectual life, they raised questions that Europe’s intellectuals returned to again in early-modern and modern times. These thinkers had been trained in the traditions of medieval scholasticism and Renaissance humanism, but they broke the mold of these traditions to ask new questions and to answer them in ways that eventually led to more dramatic change.


At the same time as Platonism became one of the intellectual fashions of the later Renaissance, a revival of Aristotle was also underway, particularly in Italy at the University of Padua, an institution long associated with the ideas of the great Greek philosopher. In Northern Europe scholasticism had relied on Aristotle’s philosophy and logic to support the teachings of the church. At Padua, though, scholars had been more concerned with the study of Aristotle’s Physics and with the insights that his philosophy offered in natural philosophy (the branch of knowledge concerned with nature and matter) and medicine. Padua’s Aristotelians had long developed a venerable tradition of commenting upon the works of Aristotle. They were also largely responsible for transmitting knowledge of the great Aristotelian Averroës among Europeans. The twelfth-century Averroës was a Spanish Arab, and his works had emphasized the superiority of reason over faith. While the tradition of studying and commenting upon Aristotle and Averroës remained strong in fifteenth-century Padua, it was now to be affected by the revival of knowledge of Greek. Now enlightened by their knowledge of Aristotle’s original language, Paduans re-examined his works. The results produced a reassessment of Aristotle’s philosophy similar to that which was occurring with Plato among Florence’s Platonists.


The greatest thinker this new scholarship produced was Pietro Pomponazzi (1462-1525), a native of Mantua who had studied at Padua and later became a professor there. Pomponazzi treated many subjects in his popular lectures at Padua since his interests ranged across natural philosophy, psychology, and logic. His most famous published work was On the Immortality of the Soul, which denied that philosophy could prove the soul’s eternal existence. Pomponazzi’s position was not entirely new, but the methods that he used to prove the mortal nature of the human soul were innovative. They fascinated his students, even as they sparked controversy. Pomponazzi identified the human soul with the intellect, and he argued that a human being’s intellect was a mere organic phenomenon that perished with the body. Pomponazzi realized that his ideas were a challenge to morality. For if the soul did not survive death, why should someone lead a moral life? To this question, Pomponazzi responded that virtuous living was its own reward. A person who leads a good life, in other words, need never suffer guilt. But many intellectuals throughout Italy responded to Pomponazzi’s challenge to human immortality by denouncing his work, publishing tracts against him, and, at Venice, even by burning his book. In 1514 at the Fifth Lateran Council, the church reaffirmed the concept of the immortality of the soul against Pomponazzi’s challenge. For his part, Pomponazzi defended his denial of the soul’s immortality by insisting that he had come to those conclusions, not on religious grounds, but through the logical methods of philosophy. Philosophy, in other words, could not prove the soul’s immortal existence; that truth must be accepted through faith. And faith, Pomponazzi had already pointed out toward the end of his On Immortality, is a realm that is superior to philosophy. Whether Pomponazzi actually believed that the Christian faith transcended human reason remains an open question. In the remaining years of his life he continued to devote himself to daring philosophical studies, publishing two more important treatises before his death in 1525. The first of these, On Fate, was strongly deterministic and largely denied the freedom of the human will, while the second, Of Incantations, explained away miracles by using naturalistic explanations. Pomponazzi’s naturalistic philosophy, while popular in some quarters in the early sixteenth century, did not produce a long-lasting circle of followers. In the era of heightened religious controversy that occurred as a result of the Protestant Reformation, the church discouraged attempts like those of Pomponazzi to explain away concepts like human immortality. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, though, European philosophers resurrected for discussion the questions he had posed.


Another challenge to traditional morality appeared in late Renaissance Italy in the political ideas of Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527). Machiavelli was born in a Florence that had been tightly controlled by Lorenzo de’ Medici. Very little is known about his early life. He received a humanist education, but did not learn Greek. His father was an impoverished lawyer, and so Machiavelli entered public life in 1498 as a member of the Florentine government. Machiavelli’s career in Florentine politics occurred during the Republican period that followed the expulsion of the Medici and which lasted until 1512. As a member of the government Machiavelli was soon charged with important diplomatic missions, and these allowed him to witness the treachery that occurred in Italian foreign relations. In 1512, Machiavelli’s career was cut short when the Medici returned to power and removed those who had served the Republic. He retired to his country home and spent the remaining years of his life writing plays, satires, poetry, and other literary works. Some of the most important works completed in this period include The Prince, Florentine Histories, and Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy. In 1526, the Medici government of Florence once again recalled Machiavelli to public life, but within a few months the family was expelled again. The officers of the new Republic removed Machiavelli from office, and he died several months later.

Political Theory

While most famous for The Prince, Machiavelli developed a consistent theory of the state in several of his works that was novel for its insight. He wrote these works during one of the low points of Italian political history, as French, German, and Spanish forces invaded the peninsula and used Italy’s disunity to play one state against the other. Machiavelli dealt with these issues in his works and tried to present solutions to Italy’s problems. But he also theorized in his political tracts about government in general. He argued that immutable laws ruled politics, laws that did not operate according to the considerations of personal morality. He advocated secular government, kept free from all interference from the church. Although he believed that organized religion was necessary in a society, he saw it as little more than a mysterious force that bound a state’s subjects together in a common set of beliefs. He also supported a strong military, even in a republic, as a necessary protector of public welfare. Machiavelli has often been accused of amorality, of justifying in his works any and all means to achieve an end. This charge has most frequently been levied against The Prince, the work Machiavelli intended as a manual to inspire an Italian ruler to build a unified coalition that would expel Italy’s foreign invaders. Even in The Prince, though, Machiavelli does not advocate that a ruler use any and all means to obtain and maintain his power. Instead he observes that when faced with certain circumstances, he must put aside his own morality and act in a way that accomplishes the greatest good for the greatest number. This same argument appears in Machiavelli’s treatise on republican government, The Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy. There he approves of ancient Romulus’ decision to murder his brother Remus, because it allowed for the creation of a strong republic, a task that must be completed by one person. During the rest of his life Romulus vindicated the murder by dedicating himself to building an effective state that secured the liberty of its citizens. Passages like these celebrated the valor and bravery of the ancient Romans, values Machiavelli often saw as lacking in his own time. But while he was sometimes pessimistic about his contemporaries’ ability to achieve the virtues of the ancient Romans, he was more often cautiously optimistic. His works expressed a fervent desire that a revitalized Italy, animated by the ancient spirit of military valor, might successfully expel its foreign invaders.


The Prince had advocated strong government under the authority of a determined monarch as the solution to Italy’s political woes. In the sixteenth century “Machiavellianism,” as the political philosophy of The Prince came to be known, became synonymous with evil and amorality in public life, and thus political philosophy did not immediately follow the lead that Machiavelli had laid out in his work. In Germany, France, the Netherlands, England, and Scotland, religious controversies fostered a new critical examination of the power of governments, and theories of resistance to state tyranny were the result. Protestantism was largely the incubator for these new attitudes toward government, and it was in Germany that these ideas first began to appear. Martin Luther had always been careful in his career as a religious reformer to stress the Christian’s duty to submit to the power of the state. Political authority was part of the divinely established realities that the pious must accept. His essentially conservative attitude had helped to protect his reform movement from the charge of political subversion, particularly in the 1520s and 1530s when other more radical groups like the leaders of the Peasants’ War of 1524-1525 and the Anabaptists had argued for more extreme social and political changes (see Religion: Radical Reformation). By the mid-sixteenth century, though, a group of Lutheran conservatives encountered a dilemma. Their states began requiring them to profess teachings that ran counter to their conscience and their theological interpretations. Meeting at Magdeburg in 1550-1551, the group wrote its own manifesto. Known as the Magdeburg Confession, the document soon circulated throughout Europe, where its strains of resistance to governmental authority inspired a number of groups. Supporters of this “resistance theory” soon produced a spate of tracts and pamphlets that outlined under what circumstances subjects might disobey their rulers. In France, Protestant writers, including Theodore Beza (1519-1605) and Philippe du Plessis Mornay (1549-1623), were particularly active in developing this political theory, especially after the slaughters of Protestants that occurred during the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacres of 1572. John Knox, the Calvinist reformer of the church in Scotland, the Dutch Calvinists who revolted against Spain in the later sixteenth century, and English Puritans all developed resistance theories, too. Beza’s works, though, had an especially wide appeal because he was careful to outline precisely how, when, and why subjects might oppose their rulers. His works did not argue that everyone had the right to resist the will of a monarch. Instead he concentrated on the French nobility, who had long shared power with the king in France’s national assembly, known as the Estates General. Many of France’s nobles were Calvinists, and Beza hoped to invigorate them to oppose royal plans to suppress Calvinism. His works emphasized that obedience to God was more important than obedience to a king, and that natural law granted subjects the right to depose a monarch who acted contrary to the will of God. Beza’s reading of biblical and ancient history was broad, and his works pointed to numerous instances in which lower officials like the French nobles had resisted the authority of a tyrant.


Beza’s opponents saw his attempts to sanction resistance as a prescription for anarchy, and the second half of the sixteenth century saw numerous attempts to defend the sovereign power of the monarch against those who supported resistance. The political tide of the period was on the side of those who supported the strong central authority of the monarch over the state, although Beza and other Protestant resisters continued to inspire readers and rebels in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe. Wracked by internal civil conflicts born of the country’s religious disunity, some French legal scholars downplayed the role that religion should play in public life. They argued instead that the survival of the state was more important than religious differences between Catholics and Protestants. For this reason, their opponents mocked them at the time as politiques, because they emphasized political goals at the expense of spiritual issues. Jean Bodin (1530-1596) was one of the most important of this group, and his ideas would have an impact, not only in France, but also across Europe. They helped to form the foundations of the later seventeenth-century theory of absolutism, but, when he wrote, Bodin saw his ideas as a solution to the political and religious intrigues common in his times. He pleaded with his countrymen—both Catholic and Protestant—to respect the power of the monarch. In his Six Books of the Commonwealth, first published in 1576, he argued that the king’s authority over the state must be respected. The survival of the state—an entity that could do the greatest good for the greatest number—was more important than the goal of enforcing religious uniformity. Similar pleas for a limited tolerance of religious differences to foster civil peace appeared in the works of other politiques, including the famous late sixteenth-century essayist, Michel de Montaigne. While the political program advocated by the group fell in and out of royal favor in the last two decades of the sixteenth century, the program of monarchical unity amidst religious disunity that the politiques envisioned would eventually be established by Henry IV (r. 1594-1610). A Catholic convert, Henry eventually granted a limited degree of religious toleration to his former Protestant compatriots, the Huguenots, helping to lay the foundations for the strong centralized monarchy that developed in seventeenth-century France.


Politics had initially shaped the strikingly original insights of Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), one of the greatest minds of the late sixteenth century. Montaigne had been trained as a humanist, and as the son of a prosperous nobleman he had been brought up to assume a role in public life. He practiced law and became a member of the royal court, but he was horrified by the Wars of Religion and retired from public life to his country estate. There he soon began the task that would consume the rest of his life: the writing of his Essays, a collection of internal thoughts and debates he conducted with himself over two decades. The Essays show that Montaigne was not a systematic thinker, even though the works are rich in moral insight. In them, Montaigne ranged over his thoughts about the most diverse of subjects. He found the ideological dogmatism of both contemporary Catholics and Calvinists wanting, and was skeptical generally about all attempts to establish moral absolutes. Instead his sermons counseled tolerance of divergent opinions. Montaigne was one of the most important spokesmen for the positions of the politiques, the party who argued that religious differences were less important than the need to preserve the peace of the state. Montaigne’s ideas as recorded in his Essays seem to bear little imprint from his own Catholic up-bringing. He solves the intellectual dilemmas and problems that he treats in these short pieces in a completely secular way, with little recourse to traditional Christian morality or church teaching. Montaigne was also a liberal thinker, able to train his penetrating glance upon the behavior of his countrymen, to criticize their barbarity, and to express his distaste for their extremism in all its forms. He was also intellectually curious about those areas of the globe recently discovered by explorers. One of his most famous essays, Of Cannibals subjects the customs that have been discovered among Indians in the New World to searching questions and compares it to the behavior of Europeans. Montaigne concludes that all cultures are relative and are produced by a combination of history, religion, and environment. He concludes, moreover, that there is a hint of barbarism in all peoples, and there is little to suggest that Europeans are more civilized than the inhabitants of the New World. In this and many ways, Montaigne questioned the received wisdom long accepted by most European intellectuals, and he began the process of questioning the underlying assumptions of intellectual culture in ways that would be continued by later seventeenth-century philosophers.


While the character of religious and intellectual life remained conservative in sixteenth-century Europe, thinkers like Montaigne, Beza, Machiavelli, and Bodin posed new questions that extended the boundaries of intellectual debate. Their ideas were not completely integrated, nor were the issues they raised exhausted by the controversies they inspired in their own times. During the following two centuries European philosophy returned to the skepticism that Montaigne expressed in his penetrating Essays. Thinkers examined the claims that Machiavelli, Bodin, and the politiques made for the central authority of the state. And they revisited the criticisms that resisters made of the unfettered authority of monarchs over the human conscience. The sixteenth century, then, presents us with a time in which a new breed of intellectuals set the agenda for the intellectual debate to be pursued during the early-modern period.