The Renaissance:

The Renaissance refers to the “rebirth” of the Classical (Greek and Roman) humanist cultural legacy, or the belief that you can reach true faith through humanism.

Beginning in 14th century Italy and spreading throughout Europe into the 17th century, Europeans rediscovered the quite literally lost (to Europe, at least) literature of Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Ovid and hundreds of other Greek and Roman authors, and in so doing rediscovered the genius and beauty of the human mind. 

Centrally, Renaissance man learned to see humanity – the human form, intellect and experience – as an object of brilliance and beauty, rather than of sin.  This vision occurred at once in the literal, physical sphere and in the psychological sense, in a new melding of Greek and Judeo Christian perception: that the human form represented God’s own beauty and His love for His most sacred creation: humankind. 

We can see this reborn vision most clearly by tracing the development of Renaissance Humanism in Art.

The Renaissance also sparked (or worked in tandem with) a renewed interest and ability to comprehend the algebraic and geometric theories that had helped unlock and harness the workings of the physical universe, so without the Renaissance there would have been no soon following Scientific Revolution: the Copernicus or Galileo, and thus no Bacon or Newton. 

This is not to say that most or even many 14th-16th century Europeans or Classical Greeks or Romans were free thinkers, or scientific thinkers, but rather that those who attempted to do so were often allowed to do so, and that they had the intellectual ability to do so

Intellectual Freedom
It also means that although the Renaissance refers to an artistic rebirth – to the literature of Dantes and Shakespeares and art of Michaelangelos and Berninis -- this birth was not possible without a more general blossoming of political and intellectual freedom; there is no artistic freedom without political and religious freedom – the ability to create great art is as much a political freedom as an intellectual one – if you cannot read what you want, you cannot develop the ideas necessary to write new ideas…not to mention that others must be free to read what you write.

So, while the Renaissance refers mainly to an artistic movement, it brought with it the seeds of a rebirth in the Athenean political concepts of liberty and democracy, predicated on reason and the rule of law, in turn based on the right to think for oneself.  .

Consider then that one cannot read Plato or Aristotle or Aeschylus or Cicero or Seneca – or even Homer – without encountering the Greek and Roman Republican ideals of self governance: republican democracy.

And consider how threatening these were to the existing Catholic and feudal Medieval social and political order.

Yes, the Atheneans put Socrates to death for freethinking and challenging the established order, but Plato and Aristotle and their students were allowed to live and think and teach, and the great playwrights like Aeschylus and Sophocles etc. could challenge the gods and laws without being put to death.  And while in the Renaissance  the church put Galileo under house arrest, banned and burned his books and threatened to execute or excommunicate anyone who simply read or possessed his book, who here still believes the sun and stars revolve around the earth?

As A Christian Movement
Throughout the Renaissance, the church – and after the Reformation, “the churches”, plural – continued to play a massive central role in the civic, intellectual and, of course, spiritual lives – these men are not atheists or pagans, and there will be no entirely secular government until the establishment of the United States – so the change here is that Renaissance artists no longer see Classical humanist values as opposed to Christian values and culture.

Since we all take these artistic, political and religious freedoms for granted, it’s hard  to understand what a radical revolution this was over the nearly thousand years that proceed it – in order to understand the importance of Dante or Shakespeare’s genius, we need to consider the Medieval world from which they emerged. 

Since 1184 The Inquisition had made it a crime to challenge the Church’s authority on any and all religious dogma; those who translated or read the Bible from any language but Latin were put to death;  there was no medical science at all, and thus no scientific concept of disease – because the very concept of Aristotelian scientific thinking was seen as a threat to faith and Biblical revelation.  Consider, for example, that it was illegal to examine a human corpse to understand human anatomy or examine the nature of disease.  Heck, there wasn’t even plumbing throughout Europe because the mathematical and organizational principles necessary to create such technology had been swept aside with the Roman Empire.

The Real Revolution: A Change In Human Consciousness
Before this era, Michelangelo could not have sculpted the David in part because the technical ability to create a free standing statue like this had been lost for nearly 1000 years, as had the desire to do so, so the more important reason is that Medieval Europeans could not see or understand the human form in this kind of detail, and they could not even begin to grasp the human form as an object of beauty;  until the Renaissance this way of seeing the human form would have been considered sinful and pointless (consider how this Medieval Christian disregard for the human form is also rooted in Neo-Platonism).

Shakespeare could not have written Romeo And Juliette because a few hundred years earlier no Englishman would have read a Greek or Roman tragedy, and no Englishman would have a well developed, conscious conception and appreciation for Greek tragedy – or perhaps even of the beauty inherent to Romantic love.  He could not have written  Hamlet before his own time because, quite simply, before this time there was no one capable of thinking as humanistically -- as deeply, openly and honestly -- about the nature of human existence, devoid of theological-supernatural explanations.  It is not simply that Shakespeare could write with genius, it is that he could conceive of genius -- that is that Shakespeare could conceive of a mind as deep and skeptical as Hamlet's mind -- and that there were people who understand and learn from this genius.  In other words, it takes genius to understand and then represent what it's like to be genius.

Copernicus (1473 – 1543), Kepler (1571-1630) and Galileo’s (1564 – 1642) disproving the Church’s doctrine that the earth is the center of the universe doesn’t just mark the fact that Europeans had rediscovered Greek mathematics and learned how to apply them to the natural world: the real miracle is that these men were capable of even thinking to challenge Aristotle and the Bible, that it even occurred to them that such a thing was possible, that it even occurred to them that they, themselves, mere mortal men, could look up into the sky and into their equations and chart the heavens and explain our place in it.


And of course their books were banned and burned and Galileo spent his remaining years under house arrest.  So, the change did not occur overnight – and for millions of people on this planet, who still view the universe through Medieval superstition, it never occurred – and it did not occur without a bitter and often violent struggle. But the change begins here, in the 14th century, in, ironically, the seat of the most powerful Medieval authority: the Catholic church.