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1.1 Introduction
1.2 The Invention of the Idea
1.3 Developments in Italy
1.4 New Groups: Lawyers and Notaries
1.5 Humanism
1.6 New Education
1.7 Print
1.8 Secular Openings
1.9 Realism vs. Moralism
1.10 Summary
1.11 Glossary


This is the first Unit of the course and is being treated as the entry point to an understanding of modern world. ‘Renaissance’ is an Italian word meaning re-birth. But over the last two centuries the word has come to acquire a new meaning. Renaissance as we understand it today is associated with major social and cultural developments in Europe between the 13th and the 15th centuries. The contribution of the Renaissance to the emergence of modernity in early modern Europe has been for many years an appropriate entry point to the history of the modern world. However much intellectuals of the third world dislike such an euro-centric vision, there is no escape from the fact that it was in renaissance Italy and subsequently in certain parts of the sixteenth century Europe that a new view of man as a creative individual possessing the power to shape his destiny without depending on god became a major inspiration for social thinking and political action. In a loose sense this is what is conveyed by what we know as renaissance humanism. Michelangelo’s painting of the creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel, in an artistic sense was a celebration of the newly discovered greatness of man. The idea of a free and creative man was not however a consequence of renaissance social thought alone. Reformation, which came quickly on the heels of the Renaissance also, made its distinct contribution to a spirit of self-consciousness by privatizing religious practice and Protestantism fundamentally fostered an individualistic psyche.

MICHELANGELO, The Creation of Adam (About 1511) 7


It is interesting to know that, prior to the 19th century, the major socio-cultural developments in Europe during the 13th- 15th centuries were not understood and codified as renaissance. In this section you will become familiar with the process in which renaissance became a part of our knowledge.

In 1860, Jakob Burckhardt formulated the influential concepts of ‘Renaissance’ and ‘humanism’, in his pioneering masterpiece of cultural history, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. Burckhardt’s book was a “subtle synthesis of opinions about the Renaissance that had grown powerful during the Age of the Enlightenment”. He seemed to be confirming a story told by secular, liberal intellectuals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who were searching for the origins of their own beliefs and values, that after the collapse of classical civilization a period of darkness and barbarism had set in, dominated by the church and the humdrum of rural life. Eventually, however, a revival of commerce and urban life laid the foundations for a secular and even anti-religious vision of life. The new vision, which glorified the individual and the attractions of earthly life were strongly reinforced by the rediscovery of the pagan literature of the Antiquity. The new secular and individualistic values, which were somewhat incompatible with Christian beliefs, constituted a new worldly philosophy of life known as ‘humanism’, drawing its main ideas and inspiration from ancient times. Humanism subsequently became the inspiration for questioning the moral basis of the feudal and Christian inheritances in Europe.

Burkhardt’s work, which dominated the 19th century perception about the Renaissance, came to be subjected to criticisms later. For a time in the late 1940s and the 1950s, the very idea of a Renaissance came under attack, when the rich growth of scholarship on medieval history made the inherited view of a dark and uncivilized Middle Ages look untenable, “as medievalists discovered squarely in the Middle Ages all the essential traits supposedly typical of the later period, and also discovered within the Renaissance many traditional elements which seemed to prove that the Middle Ages lived on into the Renaissance”. Medievalists found renaissances in the sense of periods of classical revival in Carolingian France, Anglo-Saxon England and Ottonian Germany. One of these medieval revivals, the ‘twelfth-century Renaissance’, became a subject of major historical enquiries, since the coinage of the term by Charles Homer Haskins in his The renaissance of the Twelfth Century (1927). Haskins maintained that the term ‘renaissance’, in the sense of an enthusiasm for classical literature, was an important feature of the twelfth century and that this cultural renewal was the ancestor of subsequent civilizational progress in early modern Europe.

Yet historians have not discarded fully the concept and the term ‘Renaissance’ in the sense Burckhardt had used it. For historical realities, which Burckhardt had described, cannot be dismissed with quibbles about terminology. Burckhardt rightly saw the emergence of a new culture and also located one of its main sources in Italian humanism by linking it to a unique set of social, political, and economic conditions. This new culture might seem to be the product of the growth of commerce and cities in northern Italy from the late eleventh century. But urban growth and commercial expansion since the 11th century, does not explain why the new culture flowered almost at the end of the 14th century even as it is true that Italy during the
12th and 13th centuries had become the most highly developed, the wealthiest and the most urbanized region of Europe. The urban and commercial growth of Italy stands in contrast to other parts of Europe in the north of the Alps, where the
8 scholastic philosophy, Gothic art, and vernacular literature of these centuries were clearly associated with the clergy and the feudal aristocracy of the medieval age.


Italy too was not totally free of this older aristocratic and clerical culture. Yet the dynamic part of Italy, the north, was dominated not by clerics and feudal nobles but by wealthy urban merchants, ‘and during the 12th and 13th centuries, the cities of northern Italy in alliance with the popes broke the military and political power of the German kings, who called themselves Roman emperors and attempted to assert control over northern Italy’. Strong, centralizing monarchy of the kinds that developed in France and England did not emerge in Italy. Northern Italy was dotted with virtually independent urban republics. Although the people of these urban communities were deeply religious people, the position of the clergy in Italian city life was marginal. The cities were governed by wealthy merchants and the dependent petty traders and artisans, though from the 13th century, more and more of them came under the control of military despots who offered protection from internal disorder and external invasion.

Most of these Italian towns existed as markets for local communities, as links between the surrounding country and the distant markets, generally purchasing its cereals from the vicinity. A few large urban formations, like Genoa or Florence, were centres of international trade, which had expanded so enormously during the 12th and 13th centuries that the urban communities in such sprawling towns became larger than the usual small communities in the city republics. The administration of these towns came to depend increasingly on a professional civil service with legal training. As the activity of the towns became more complex, they came to gradually acquire permanent civic institutions including a class of magistrates. This was the time when the communities came to display features of a city-state.

The city-states in practice were republican oligarchies where crucial decisions were taken by a small minority of office-holding wealthy merchants, even though a considerable part of the male population was recruited in the citizen’s militia. Over time however, the existence of the city republic in many instances became precarious. The townsmen were fighting each other, a feature that Machiavelli, the great Florentine thinker of renaissance Italy explained as a result of enmity between the wealthy and the poor. The situation was further complicated by factional rivalries within the ruling groups. The city councils became so divided along factional lines that in most cities before the end of the 14th century the regime of a single individual began to be increasingly preferred. To escape the problem of civic strife, most cities turned from republicanism to signoria (the rule of one man), who could either be a member of the urban aristocracy or a military captain who had been hired by the city councils for organising the city’s defence from external enemies. Republican survivals were exceptions, the rule of the signor became universal. With the exception of Venice, most Italian cities experienced this transformation. The signori in most cases chose to rule through existing republican institutions combining the hitherto antagonistic principles of municipalism and feudalism.

The advent of signori resulted from the fragility of republican institutions, yet the triumph of the signori did not eliminate the need for scholar administrators. The city- states with enlarged functions including diplomacy, warfare, taxation and governance in an expanding and complex urban environment was an ideal breeding ground for a certain consciousness of citizenship. Whether it fostered individualism, as claimed by Burckhardt, still remains a problem. The kind of control that the municipal authorities imposed on traders and artisans fell far short of free private enterprise, yet it is possible to argue that the development of private wealth against the backdrop of an expanding commerce and a measure of involvement of the cities’ elites in the
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actual governance of the city were capable of reinforcing the individualist self consciousness in some of the city’s leading men.


In a society where commerce dominated the scene the most important educated groups were the lawyers and the notaries (a combination of solicitor and record keeper) who drew up and interpreted the rules and written agreements without which trade on a large scale was not possible. With the growing scale of commerce there was an acute need for men skilled in drafting, recording, and authenticating contracts and letters. These were the notaries, specialists who did not need the long and costly education provided by law schools but who did receive training in Latin grammar and rhetoric. Such training in letter-writing and drafting legal documents was often given by apprenticeship, but at major centres of legal study such as Padua and Bologna, there were full-time professional teachers who taught not only the conventional legal forms of drafting various kinds of business documents and the correct type of handwriting for documents of public record but also provided some instruction in Roman law. Unlike in the middle ages when virtually all intellectual activities were carried on by churchmen, in the Italian cities this was pursued by members of the new professions. In more than one sense they were the real precursors to renaissance humanism.

Padua, a university town especially noted for the study of law and medicine, produced enthusiasts for the language and literature of ancient Rome. An important figure in this movement was Lovato Lovati (c. 1240-1309) a judge who showed many characteristics of humanism. His younger contemporary Albertino Mussato (1261-
1325), who was a notary by profession, became widely known throughout Italy. During this early phase of the growth of humanism, Florence, the city associated with the later flowering of humanistic culture, played a marginal role. The great Florentine literary and intellectual figure of this age, Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), is linked more with medieval rather than Renaissance culture whose generation in Florence, despite the persistence of old cultural beliefs, still thought about a certain conception of cultural renewal through reinterpretation of classical literature and a conscious repudiation of the values of medieval civilization. The arrival of Petrarch, a century later, brought about this change in Florentine culture, more decisively. Petrarch realised that antiquity was a distinctive civilization which could be understood better through the words and the languages of the ancients. Petrarch’s stress, therefore, was on grammar, which included the close reading of ancient authors from a linguistic point of view. With language, eloquence and the study of rhetoric, the ultimate purpose of this educational programme was to project a certain idea of good life that was suffused with secular meanings.


Since the nineteenth century, historians have labeled this new culture as ‘humanism’, though it appears nowhere in the writings of the Renaissance period itself. The term that did exist was ‘humanistic studies’ (studia humanitatis), implying academic subjects favoured by humanists. By the first half of the fifteenth century, the term
‘humanist’designated masters who taught academic subjects like grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, and moral philosophy. They were members of a particular professional group who taught humanities and liberal arts – humanitas, a classical word earlier used by Cicero as a substitute for the Greek Paideia, or culture. Cicero was trying to make the point that it was only human beings who were capable of this knowledge about their own selves.

Renaissance humanism, conceived as ‘a new philosophy of life’ or a glorification of human nature in secular terms, eludes precise definition. Indeed there is no definable set of common beliefs. More than a heightened sense of individualism, the primary characteristic, was the new pattern of historical consciousness that emerged first in the thought of leading 14th century . poet. Petrarch. The sense of being deeply engaged in the restoration of true civilization after many centuries of barbarian darkness
– an unfair position at that - finds its first clear statement in the works of Petrarch, and some such claim is common to virtually all of those writers - like Salutati, Poggio, Valla and Ficino to name a few - whom historians identify as the leading personalities in the history of Italian humanism. The humanist self-image as free agents of civilization was sharpened by such historical consciousness which enabled them to distinguish their time as an age of light from the preceding one of darkness. They believed that a dark age had set in after the decline of the Roman Empire as a result of the invasion of the barbarians. The humanists belonging to different generations returned to this theme of belonging to a new time, inventing the concept of the middle ages between the collapse of Rome and the cultural renewal in the age of renaissance. Leonardo Bruni, for sometime the chancellor of Florence, in his history of Florence or Flavio Biondo in a work covering the period from the sack of Rome by Alaric in
410 A.D. to the writer’s own time betrayed this new sense of modernity.

The sense of the novelty of their age was entwined with a conscious imitation of the works of the ancient Greek and Roman writers. A certain consciousness of the newness of their time turned the great figures of renaissance into believers in progress. Without doubt, the poet Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca, 1304-74) was its first great figure, the real founder of the new culture, who tried to bring back to life the inner spirit of ancient Roman civilization. His love for ancient Latin literature was dovetailed with a repudiation of the inherited medieval culture. He transformed classicism into a weapon in a struggle to regenerate the world and to create a distinctive new culture built on the solid foundation of a lost but retrievable antiquity.


Petrarch’s dream of a cultural and moral regeneration of Christian society, based on the union of eloquence and philosophy, had important implications for education. In late medieval and renaissance Italy, there were three types of schools other than the universities and schools conducted by religious orders exclusively for their own members. Most of the teaching at all three levels was done by self-employed schoolmasters who took tuition-paying pupils and, working either alone or with one assistant, taught them whatever subjects their parents paid for. But many towns in northern Italy also organized community schools, in which the local government selected and hired a schoolmaster, who was bound by a very specific contract to teach certain subjects up to a certain level. Communal schools began to appear in the13th century. Communal schools in small towns ensured that competent preparation for university study would be available for the sons of the ruling elites.

Despite the growth of humanism, in the 14th century the curriculum of these schools did not change much. The textbooks used were predominantly medieval and Christian in origin, and many of them had been deliberately compiled for classroom use in teaching correct Latin and sound moral principles. This medieval curriculum aroused the contempt of Petrarch and virtually all later humanists, who attacked this curriculum on the ground that most of its intellectual content, was inadequate and that its moral indoctrination had no relevance in the lives of the citizens of Italian cities. Leonardo Bruni acknowledged that it was Petrarch who had outlined a programme of study
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by which the classical ideas would be achieved. It included grammar, rhetoric, poetry, moral philosophy and history. The humanists also insisted upon the mastery of classical Latin and Greek, so that the ancient authors could be studied directly to the exclusion of medieval commentaries.

The humanists taught in a variety of ways. Some founded their own schools where students could study the new curriculum at both elementary and advance levels; some humanists managed to find their way into universities where teaching continued to be dominated by law, medicine and theology and the humanist curriculum had a peripheral presence. The majority achieved their mission by teaching in numerous grammar schools. But formal education was not the only way through which they shaped the minds of their age; literature, art and drama were the other vehicles of transmission of humanist ideas.


The growing influence of humanist schoolmasters in the Latin grammar schools in the Italian towns did much to establish humanism as the major force in Italian culture. Yet another source of humanism’s growing dominance was the new art of printing. By 1500, many classical texts had been printed in Italy, mostly in Latin. Printing, apart from standardizing the new editions of the classics also helped in their dissemination. Before printing, most books existed only in a few copies; printing increased their numbers. As a result, the cost of books also fell exposing the students to a new kind of learning instead of depending solely on lectures. A printed book promoting new ideas, could quickly reach hundreds of readers. Ideas, opinions, and information moved more widely and more rapidly than ever before. Surely one reason why the humanistic culture of Italy spread more rapidly across the Alps toward the end of the 15th century is that books were circulating in print.


One of the most important features of the renaissance is a beginning of a loosening control of religion over human life. In this sense it may be said that renaissance created conditions for the emergence of a secular ideology.Anew focus on humanism also fed into this secular opening. But it is important to understand exactly how, and to what extent, this secular opening was created. Although humanism may have challenged the conventional authorities of the academic world, including scholastic theologians, it was not necessarily meant to be a challenge to Christian faith or to Catholic orthodoxy. Petrarch, for example, expressed doubts about his own spiritual beliefs, but he never doubted the truth of Christianity. He also objected to the Italian scholasticism of his time not on the ground that it was too religious but that it was materialistic and at times subversive of the teachings of the church. Salutati did endorse the active secular life for most people and followed that course in his own life, but he still respected the monastic ideals. In the 1390s he and his family were attached to a revivalist movement that was based on traditional forms of devotion. The inherent and general irreligiosity of Renaissance humanism is to a large extent a creation of
19th century historiography.

This is not to imply that men were not interested in worldly things, even when the educated classes as well as plain folk were deeply moved by religious revivalism and devotionalism. Certainly renaissance Italians were strongly attracted to material wealth, to power, and to glory. Yet those who preferred to live a happy and successful life were not necessarily irreligious, even though humanism as a culture of the talented urban people in the wealthy Italian town was giving rise to a secular morality.

Fransceco Barbaro, a Venetian humanist of the first generation, wrote a tract concerning marriage which repudiated the traditional ideas of poverty and defended acquisition of wealth as a virtue. Bracciolini Poggio (1380-1459), who was the most celebrated excavator of lost manuscript in Florence, in a tract On Avarice defended acquisition of wealth, going to the extent of justifying usury which had always been condemned by orthodox Christianity as an unchristian act, as a legitimate form of business. In addition numerous humanist treatises like for example On Civil Life written by Matteo Palmiry upheld the superiority of an active life over one of contemplation. Such opinions did express values of the prosperous classes. This set of values was secular; it regarded marriage, wealth and politics as natural and worthy of pursuit. Yet they were not fundamentally anti-Christian. Their authors were practical moralists who presented a moral code appropriate for the ambitious people, rather than monks, while accepting that there could be a spiritual life beyond one’s worldly existence.

The glorification of secular life, however, was more a literary reflection of changing social attitudes than an aspect of classical studies. The classical studies nonetheless contributed to the glorification of human nature, even though humanists were also conscious of its frailties. Lorenzo Valla (1406-1457), who believed that study of history led man to live a life of perfection, in his work, On Pleasure, condemned within a profoundly Christian mentality the conventional Christian injunction against pleasure. In some other writings, there was a rejection of the view that wise men should suppress passion, on the ground that such suppression was thoroughly unnatural. The theme of human dignity occupies a central place in such works to the degree that in a number of places, as the one written by Marsilio Ficino, a neo- Platonist thinker of Florence, human nature was endowed with super natural power. Human beings occupying a crucial middle position in the great chain of being was the point of contact between the material world and the world of god. Such sentiments had already informed the writing of the 13th century humanists like Leonardo Da Vinci. Ficino’s glorification of human nature takes the pursuit of the human glory beyond the everyday life of the middle class Florentines. Ficino, despite his knowledge in platonic philosophy on which he regularly lectured before students in his platonic academy, was a believer in magic and astrology. Ficino belonged to a circle of some prominent intellectual figures, which included a young prince of Medici family whose name was Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola. Mirandola’s most famous work, ‘Oration on the dignity of man’, published in 1496 deals with the theme of human dignity by suggesting that of all God’s creation man received complete freedom to choose his own place in the Great chain of being. By his own free choice man creates himself either in a spiritual fashion or in the manner of a beast. His view of human nature did not look towards divine grace but celebrated worldly achievement.

The secular morality of the humanists, therefore was grounded in a belief in man’s intellectual and moral capacity, a new sense of history, and a highly sophisticated mode of learning. Faith in human capacity came form the realisation that the educated could attain wisdom without the help of priests or intellectuals. The conception was strengthened by a renewed acceptance of the ancient proposition that virtue was knowledge. Behind this lay a belief that knowledge could elevate human beings. These attitudes constituted an idea not just of individualism but also a different ideal of public man, setting out not just a few new assumptions about humanity but also a normative procedure for assessing human actions.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, the scholars, the artists, the architects, the musicians and the writers, all those who shaped the culture of Humanism, began to experience a more general sense that their society had entered upon a new age, an age which
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has removed the ‘darkness’ of the preceding centuries: the ‘Renaissance’. While this interpretation of history was an exaggeration of what they were professing, it was yet undeniable that a new vision of man was being created. The ‘new man’ was considered sovereign in the world and, with his reason and creative powers, was able to refashion the world in accordance with his will.

Increasingly, the studium humanitatis and the general cultural climate of the Renaissance produced texts which showed this deepening interest in the essence of what made man more civilized, humane being and which were therefore called humanist literature. Texts written on a variety of subjects sought to expose what man was and could do both as an individual and as a member of society. The autobiography, in which a person tells his own, unique story of his life was born in humanist circles. A fine example of this kind of writing was the one written by the famous goldsmith and sculptor, Benvenuto Cellini (1500-71), it was a secular and realistic work which told the story of his life. His readers were persuaded to see the world around him through his eyes, not according to all sorts of idealizations which the Church had earlier imposed on Christian communities.

Thus, Cellini writes of the necessity to record one’s deeds, and in the process informs the posterity about his experience and engagement with reality. He writes about the ancient monuments that inspired him, giving an idea of the sense of life and movement in Michelangelo’s work, often graphically describing Michelangelo’s quarrels with his competitors. Another instance of this genre of writings is Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, in which the author, who was himself an artist, reflected on the achievements of some of his contemporaries in relation to their personalities, in short describing the place of the creative individual in society. His work, as those of other great names of the renaissance like Niccolo Machiavelli was informed by the sentiments that all men were capable of achieving wisdom and glory – a feeling which merged into the new humanist ideas in the intellectual circles. This enabled them to understand afresh the history of texts, in the process laying out the groundwork for classical scholarship of modern times. A consequence of such intellectual interest enabled the humanists to develop a new understanding of man in society.

The moral basis of this ideal was derived from the belief in man’s capacity to understand truth on the strength of his reason and worldly sense – an idea that the intellectuals of the renaissance had inherited from classical learning. At one level this human capacity was looked upon as a divine gift; at another level human achievement depended on free choice which implicitly acknowledged a certain self definition of goals and responsibilities by an individual, who was as much capable of sound decisions as of faulty strategies. The description of man incorporated both virtue and vice. The historian Buckhardt wrote about the development of the individual as an aspect of this new consciousness, attributing this to the material life and political culture of the Italian city states. This new consciousness created the ideal of the universal man in the sense of a certain recognition of the individual personality and private achievements. To men like Machiavelli pursuit of glory was a perfectly human virtue.


Apart from the pursuit of glory, the self-development of an individual personality through cultivation of ‘arts and sciences’ emerged as another social ideal allowing a great flowering of creative activity. The cult of artistic personality was the other side of the same coin – an ideal which figures prominently in Vasari’s Lives who linked artistic excellence to a psychology of achievement. To some extent Vasari had followed

the procedure which had been adopted by the celebrated Roman biographer Plutarch. Plutarch had presented before the humanists a vision of man in society whose achievements were results of their pursuit of glory and entwined with a certain conception of virtue.

The idea was attractive and powerful because of its intense realism. Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), a Florentine scholar, who, in his famous 1513 tract The Prince, describes the role of man in that segment of society which is called politics. Machiavelli, too, was secular and a realist; he showed that the will to power was a dominant motive in human action though often coated with nice words of religious and ethical nature. Upon a closer look it revealed itself as pure self-interest; and more importantly there was nothing wrong about it. Machiavelli’s political thought is often interpreted as “the activation, in one sense or another, of a pagan morality, without being contaminated by Christian asceticism”. It is also argued that being a realist he suggested a dual morality. What was moral in the public sphere might have been immoral in one’s private life. Machiavelli’s condonation of cunning on the part of a ruler in the larger interest of the realm, is the well-known example of the dual morality. Machiavelli apparently was interested more in what men did in the public sphere than what they preached. Scholars like Quentin Skinner have painstakingly argued that this was essentially a pre-Christian pagan morality where success was worshiped as virtue. Even though Machiavelli had a gloomy opinion about the way life was governed by fortune, he placed a large premium on the appropriate initiatives by men to overpower fortune. In a sense this was a celebration of man as a self- determining being.

Such a dynamic concept of man which appears with the renaissance, like humanism, cannot be precisely defined. It certainly implied an individualistic outlook and has often been described as ‘renaissance individualism’. In a way it fell far short of the individualism of a mature bourgeois society, yet it was bourgeois individualism in its embryo. Probably the ideal of the self-made man which renaissance humanism proclaimed was suggestive of the way the individuals were capable of shaping their own lives rather than the more mundane pursuit of power and money. This ideal was closely tied with certain versatility or many-sidedness of human nature going against the ordered existence that was imposed on man by Christianity and feudalism. The Christian concept of man was founded on the idea that man necessarily had a depraved existence and could be delivered only by the grace of god. At another level he was a member of a feudal order or an estate. The status of an individual either as a member of a feudal order or as a member of the Christian community allowed him an extremely narrow range of freedom. One could of course rebel against the church and could be condemned as a heretic. But even that rebellion was staged in the name of the Christ, always weighed down by the belief in man’s essential sinfulness derived from the Biblical notion of the original sin. The renaissance view of man replaced this with the dynamic view in which “the two extreme poles were the greatness of man and also his littleness”.

Whether great or small, man began to be looked upon as a relatively autonomous being, ‘creating his own destiny, struggling with fate, making himself’. This was no more than an idealised image of actual man, backed up adequately by a pluralism of moral values reversing a value system based on the seven cardinal sins and seven cardinal virtues of medieval Christianity. The pluralism of moral values appears boldly in the way the renaissance intellectuals began to respond very differently to different human propensities. If the striving for power was perfectly acceptable to Machiavelli, to some others, like Thomas More, it was a source of much mischief. To put it simply the renaissance experienced the development of what may be labeled
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as realistic ethics, suggesting a situation where values became relative and contradictory calling upon man to look for the appropriate measure to distinguish between good and bad against the background of a significant transformation of social life.

The new ideal of man presumes a larger amount of freedom of action which the medieval Christian community did not allow. The city state was one sphere in which it became increasingly evident that man is the maker of his own world together with others instead of being determined by either Christian or feudal rules of conduct. One of the consequences was the gradual fading away of the old notion of sin. The man of the age began to measure his action by their success or the lack of it. The emergence of such practical atheism was an important aspect of renaissance thinking about man. It also existed as the basis of the rational Christianity or a tolerant religion of reason taking its position against dogmatism and allowing a certain freedom of individuality and choice. Ficino, for example, made a significant attempt to reconcile some of his platonic philosophical ideas with Christian thoughts imbued with the awareness of the creative power of man. The great renaissance figures discovered that the attributes of god in fact were the attributes of man as well. One can perhaps think of an attempt towards the deification of man as one of the wonders of the world. There are many illustrations from renaissance sculptures where human heroes appear as divine figures. Michelangelo’s David looks like a Greek god. A man like Ficino not only argued that god created man, but also stressed that once created, man created himself over and over again. Ficino also spoke of the eternal restlessness and dissatisfaction of human mind returning to the same dynamic concept of man which refused to acknowledge any limits like an early modern merchant motivated by boundless opportunities for profits.

This vision of the greatness of man dovetailed with man’s essential frailties. Machiavelli himself believed that ‘all men are bad and ever ready to display their vicious nature partly because of the fact that human desires are insatiable’. The most powerful motive Machiavelli sees as the incentive for every human action is self-interest. The vileness of human nature therefore had nothing to do with any deliberate design for evil and what Machiavelli described as human nature is synonymous with the general ethical belief of the emerging bourgeois society in which reliance was placed mainly on the unbiased observation of facts and behaviour. This precisely was the ethic of experience which occupies a central place in Machiavelli’s definition of human nature when he writes that ‘the desire to acquire possession is a very natural and ordinary thing, and when those men do it who can do it successfully they are always praised and not blamed’.

Artists presented this new vision of man as well. For the material remains of classical culture were now sought as assiduously as the surviving ancient texts: the 15th and
16th centuries saw the birth of archaeology. Numerous works of art were discovered in the ruins of ancient Rome, and the finds reinforced the new view of man that had been developing in the previous century. A multitude of paintings and sculptures of
‘perfectly’ proportioned men and women was the result. A new, ideal-type human being was created, which has captured our imagination through the ages. Early in the 14th century life like frescos of Giotto di Baondone, had brought about significant changes in the artistic visualization of human figure breaking away from the mechanical style of the middle ages. In 1416, the Italian sculptor Donatelo broke new ground with figures like his nude David, anticipating the more well known work on the same subject by Michelangelo in 1503. Leonardo da Vinci painted Monalisa, which has remained as one of the symbols of female beauty in modern times.

Besides incorporating the secularist and individualist aspects of humanism, the reborn age or Renaissance should be called realistic as well. In painting, attempts were made to represent everything as it appeared. Though not totally absent in the previous ages, one can certainly maintain that for many centuries realism had been relatively unimportant. Already in the 14th and 15th centuries, during the first phases of humanist culture, painters increasingly attempted to reproduce reality, casting off preconceived ideas about what was morally or religiously acceptable. Increasingly, what the eye could measure or observe was painted incorporating distance, depth and colour in order to make the painting more realistic. In sculpture too people were individualized, with recognizable faces, whereas the art of the preceding centuries had been a component of an architectural background - reliefs more than free- standing figures; in the changed context sculpted images presented man according to his newly-won vision of himself as an independent and free personality, displaying a certain pride in the beauty of the body, both the male and, in view of the conventions of the preceding age, the female too.

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Whereas woman for a long time had been ‘stereotyped due to the limits imposed upon her role by the society, she now seemed to regain some stature as an individual person, in whose body the perfection of God’s creation was made as visible as in the male’. This was the case even when paintings and sculptures served religious purposes, and were composed in such a way that they aroused an appropriate devotional reaction in the viewers, like the Madonna and her child by the Italian painter Raphael or the huge frescos, mosaics and statues that adorned walls and ceilings and cupolas in the Church.


Inevitably, trade and travel, military conquest and diplomatic contacts linked the new culture of the Italian towns and courts with the world beyond. The new culture was admired and imitated all over Europe although, of course, by the better educated and the wealthy, only. For both south and north of the Alps, Humanism and the Renaissance were elite phenomena. Only very few of the new ideas and thoughts filtered down to the ordinary man who, after all, could not read or write the polite language, lacking, as the cultivated mind of the age saw it, the ability to acquire virtue and wisdom.

Yet in the15th and early 16th centuries, the educational institutions in northern Europe produced many humanists. Like their Italian colleagues, they too, began to focus on the classical Greek and Roman texts along with the holy books of the Christians. Desiderius Erasmus, one of the most famous of these north European humanists, in a series of treatises, tried to lay down the rules for an educational system that despite its Christian foundation, came to be animated by the critical spirit of Humanism. Indeed, one should not forget that, contrary to what often has been suggested, most people living the culture of Renaissance and humanism did not display a ‘heathenish’, pagan spirit but remained firmly tied to a view of man and the world as, essentially, redeemable only by a Christian God.

By the beginning of the 16th century humanist values had begun to refashion the intellectual life of northern Europe. John Colet and Sir Thomas More popularised them in England, Jacque’s Lefevre’d Etaples and Guillaume Bude in France, Conrad Celtis and Hohann Reuchulin in Germany and Erasmus in Holland were the leading humanists in early 16th century Europe. But unlike Italy, where professionals dominated the humanist movement and gave it a secular character –even atheist in some cases – in European humanism the leading protagonists were mostly members

of the clerical order. Their reassessment of Christian theology set the stage for the Reformation by calling upon Christians to practice religion in the way it had been stated in the ancient texts of the Christian religion, by discarding unnecessary and unpalatable rituals, condemned as later accretions to a simple religion. With the advent of the Reformation, the humanist ‘Self Congratulation on living in a golden age’ was eclipsed by theological battles of the time. ‘The waning of the Renaissance’ had begun. Yet the new view of man as a free rational agent was a principle to which the post-Renaissance philosophy returned over and over again, inspired by the belief in a distant god who created man but allowed him complete freedom to live his life freely, in pursuit of happiness ‘here and now’.


This unit has tried to explain to you the different ways in which the Renaissance created the condition for the making of a new world. It starts by explaining that significant commercial, socio-cultural and literary developments in Europe during the 13th-15th centuries came to be viewed and conceptualized as Renaissance only in the 19th century. The Renaissance was marked by the emergence of a new culture with roots in Italian humanism. This culture was the product of a set of unique social, political and economic conditions prevalent in parts of Europe from the late 11th century onwards. These conditions were most conspicuous in the northern part of present-day Italy with the growth of commerce and cities. These developments brought about an important shift in the centres of political power from the clerics (men associated with the Christian Church) and feudal nobles to wealthy urban merchants. At the same time there was also a tendency towards a consolidation of political power. These crucial developments along with the emergence of new social groups (lawyers and notaries), new ideologies (humanism and tendencies towards secularism) and new technologies (print) cumulatively transformed the socio-cultural and political landscape of Europe. These developments also created new forces which, in the centuries to follow, worked towards a greater cohesion and integration of the world.


Euro-centric Vision : a way of looking at history and the world that places Europe and its history at the centre.

Oligarchies : a small group of people in control of state power in the society.
This term was generally used for the rulers of the city-states in medieval Europe.

Pagan : used here to refer to small religious tradition that existed outside, and prior to, the dominant world religious traditions.

Antiquity : used here in the sense of a distant past prior to the middle ages in the history of Europe.

Usury : the practice of money lending at a high rate of interest.

Theology : used here in the sense of the study of god and religious subjects.
Renaissance and the Idea of the Individual



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