Chapters in Western Civilization - Vol. 1

By Columbia College | Go to book overview

IX
THE MORAL THOUGHT OF RENAISSANCE HUMANISM

Paul Oskar Kristeller

In the Western tradition that began with classical antiquity and continued through the Middle Ages down to modern times, the period commonly called the Renaissance occupies a place of its own and has its own peculiar characteristics. Historians have tried for a long time, and in various ways, to describe the civilization of the Renaissance. As a result, there has been so much controversy and difference of views that the so-called problem of the Renaissance has become the subject of an entire literature.

The traditional view of the Renaissance was formulated exactly 100 years ago, by Jacob Burckhardt. In a most perceptive synthesis which focused on Italy in the fifteenth and early sixteenth century, he described the achievement of the period in the arts, literature, and scholarship, and stressed such general characteristics as individualism, the revival of antiquity, and the discovery of the world and of man. This picture was expanded and popularized by J. A. Symonds and others, among them those who stressed the pagan tendencies of the period more than Burckhardt had ever done. Other historians engaged in the task of analyzing the Renaissance as a broader European phenomenon, especially during the sixteenth century, and of exploring both the Italian influences and the national characteristics which the period assumed in each of the major European countries.

Burckhardt's views were challenged and criticized in a number of ways. Historians of the Middle Ages discovered that this period, especially in its later phases, had its own impressive achievements as a civilization, and was very far from a "dark age" that needed to make room for a period of "rebirth." In many instances, phenomena considered peculiar to the Renaissance were found to have had their counterparts or precedents in the Middle Ages. Historians of French literature, followed by those of other literatures, tended

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