Renaissance philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-C035-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved February 26, 2020, from

1. Historical and social factors

Three historical events were of particular importance. First is the Turkish advance, culminating in the capture of Constantinople in 1453. This advance produced a migration of Greek scholars (like George of Trebizond) and Greek texts into the Latin-speaking West (see Humanism, Renaissance §4; Platonism, Renaissance §3). It also led to a search for new trade routes. The European discovery of the Americas and the first voyages to China and Japan widened intellectual horizons through an awareness of new languages, religions and cultures (see Scepticism, Renaissance §2). New issues of colonialism, slavery and the rights of non-Christian peoples had an impact on legal and political philosophy (see Latin America, colonial thought in §1; Vitoria, F. de; Soto, D. de; Spain, philosophy in §3; Suárez, F.). The study of mathematics and science (especially astronomy) was also affected by developments in navigation, trade and banking, by new technology such as the telescope and other instruments (see Kepler, J.; Galilei, Galileo), as well as by the recovery of Greek mathematics and the favourable attitude of Plato towards mathematical studies (see Platonism, Renaissance §6).

Second is the development of printing in the mid-fifteenth century (see Humanism, Renaissance §6). This allowed for the publication of scholarly text editions, for the expansion of learning beyond the universities, and for the increased use of vernacular languages for written material (see Humanism, Renaissance §4). These changes particularly affected women, who were most often literate only in the vernacular. Christine de Pizan, Paracelsus, Ramus, Montaigne, Bruno and Charron are among those who used vernacular languages in at least some of their works.

Third is the Protestant reformation in the first part of the sixteenth century (see Luther, M.; Calvin, J.). Protestant insistence on Bible reading in the vernacular strengthened both the use of the vernacular and the spread of literacy (see Melanchthon, P. §1). The Catholic Counter-Reformation also affected education, particularly through the work of the Jesuit Order (founded 1540), which set up educational institutions throughout Europe, including the Collegio Romano in Rome (founded 1553) and the secondary school at La Flèche, where Descartes was educated (for further examples, see Collegium Conimbricense; Aristotelianism in the 17th century §2). Political philosophy took new directions (see Hooker, R., for example) and theological studies changed. As the Protestants abandoned the Sentences of Peter Lombard and emphasized the church fathers, so the Catholics replaced the Sentences with the Summa theologiae of Thomas Aquinas. In turn, these changes affected the undergraduate curriculum, which (for other reasons as well) became less technically demanding, especially in relation to logic studies (see Logic, Renaissance). Personal liberties, too, were affected. Both Catholics and Protestants censored undesirable views, and the first Roman Catholic Index of Prohibited Books was drawn up in 1559. Bruno was burnt for heresy, Campanella was imprisoned and the philosophical atheism of Vanini led to his execution. Calls for tolerance by such men as Montaigne and Lipsius were not always favourably received. The books of all these men, and others such as Erasmus, Machiavelli and Rabelais, were placed on the Index or required to be revised. At the same time, Calvinist Geneva prohibited the printing of Thomas Aquinas and Rabelais.

Social factors also affected philosophy which, as an academic discipline, was tied to the universities. These continued to accept only male students, and to teach in Latin, the universal language of learning and of the Roman Catholic Church, but more students came from higher social classes than during the Middle Ages. They expected a curriculum with less emphasis on technical logic and natural science and more on rhetoric, modern languages, history and other practical disciplines. Such curricular changes owed much to humanism, as did the spread of new secondary schools (see Humanism, Renaissance §7; Montaigne, M. de §1).

The Renaissance was also notable for the spread of learning outside the university. Some men largely relied on the patronage of nobles, princes and popes (among them Valla, Ficino, Pico della Mirandola and Erasmus), some were medical practitioners (including Paracelsus and Cardano), some had private resources (like Montaigne). Nor was it only men that were involved: Christine de Pizan, for example, was a court poet (see Feminism §2).

Jewish thinkers, too, were active outside the university (see Jewish philosophy §3). Yohanan ben Isaac see Alemanno and Judah ben Isaac Abravanel (known as Leone Ebreo) are particularly important figures of the Italian Renaissance.

Citing this article:
Ashworth, E.J.. Historical and social factors. Renaissance philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-C035-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2020 Routledge.

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