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5 Key Ideas of the Renaissance | History Hit

The Renaissance, the great "rebirth" of art, literature, and learning that took place in Europe between the 14th and 17th centuries, was one of the most pivotal eras in human history. Many of the key ideas that emerged during this time laid the foundation for our modern world. As we‘ll explore, the Renaissance celebrated the potential of the individual, rediscovered the wisdom of the ancients, opened new frontiers in art and science, and sowed the seeds of our globalized, secularized, knowledge-based society.

At the heart of Renaissance thought was humanism, a philosophy that put human agency, achievement, and worldly life at center stage. No longer content with being mere spectators in the cosmic drama of the afterlife, Renaissance thinkers turned their gaze to the earthly realm and marveled at all that humans could create and discover. This humanistic spirit lives on in the values of human progress and flourishing that animate modern institutions and individuals alike.

The Renaissance also gave birth to a radical new sense of individualism. From Leonardo da Vinci to Michelangelo, the ideal was the "Renaissance man"—the creative individual of multiple talents who left a unique imprint on the world. Artists boldly signed their increasingly realistic portraits and sculptures, writers penned personal essays and memoirs, and courtiers defined themselves by their wit and sophistication. Today, this ethos of individuality and self-expression suffuses our culture, from the suits and selfies of our social media personae to the "be true to yourself" morality of children‘s movies.

Driving the celebration of the individual was a spirit of bold inquiry and exploration. Renaissance thinkers questioned traditional dogmas and looked to nature—and to the classical texts being rediscovered—for new answers. Astronomers like Copernicus and Galileo overturned the earth-centered view of the cosmos, artists studied anatomy and perspective to depict the world more realistically, and navigators sailed uncharted seas, expanding the boundaries of the known world. In many ways, the Renaissance laid the groundwork for the scientific revolution and the age of discovery, eras whose ethos of ceaseless striving we have inherited.

This striving was made possible, in large part, by another Renaissance innovation: the printing press. By enabling the rapid reproduction and dissemination of texts on an unprecedented scale, the printing press became the engine of a new knowledge economy. Much as digital media does today, print media in the Renaissance put information and ideas into wider circulation, sparking fresh thought and accelerating change. The spread of knowledge became a force for disruption, hastening the breakup of old power structures.

Indeed, perhaps the most consequential development of the Renaissance was the loosening of the Church‘s grip on society. As new, secular avenues of fulfillment opened up, in the arts, commerce, politics, and science, the Church‘s spiritual monopoly began to crumble. Reformation criticisms further undermined its authority and seeded concepts of individual conscience and religious pluralism. While the transition was gradual, the Renaissance set in motion the long arc of secularization, the effects of which—from the global marketplace to the separation of church and state—structure our world to this day.

For all their distance in time, the seminal ideas of the Renaissance continue to shape our culture in profound ways. To examine the Renaissance is to discover the root of modern individualism, humanism, secularism, and globalism; the wellsprings of our scientific, commercial, and artistic enterprises; and the origins of how we see ourselves and our place in the world. The Renaissance, in short, made us who we are, and its legacy is everywhere to be seen—even, and perhaps especially, in how we strive to advance beyond it.