Scholasticism and Humanism During the Italian Renaissance

By Danielle Brandli

The term humanism is a broad philosophy that is defined a little differently for each kind of humanism. A broad, modern-day definition of humanism is: “a philosophy of joyous service for the greater good of all humanity in this natural world and advocating the methods of reason, science, and democracy” (Lamont 12). Catholic humanism stems from the philosophies of Thomas Aquinas during medieval times (Lamont 21-22). Naturalistic humanism or religious humanism was derived in the twentieth century by clergymen (Lamont 23-24). The broad time span between Catholic humanism and naturalistic humanism shows the growth of humanism and the creation of new sects of humanism over time. This essay will focus specifically on Renaissance humanism which can be deemed as the origin of the philosophy of humanism. Renaissance humanism received its name from its formation during the Renaissance period of Europe and more specifically the Italian Renaissance during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Before discussing the studies of humanists during the Italian Renaissance, it is important to be knowledgeable of the classical authors that were studied. The three most prominent classical authors studied were Cicero, Plato, and Aristotle. These classical authors were unknown to Europeans during the Middle Ages and medieval times (Praag 18). The Latin philosopher Cicero first introduced Greek thought to Western Europe (Praag 18). The Italian philosopher who initially began the humanistic movement was Francesco Petrarch, whose main source of information on classical Greeks was through the classical Latin writings of Cicero (Kristeller 8). The theories of the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle both stemmed from Socrates who was considered the father of philosophy. Plato was a pupil of Socrates and Aristotle was a pupil of Plato yet, Plato and Aristotle’s theories often contradict one another. The theories and classical teachings of Plato and Aristotle were translated and extensively reformed during the Italian Renaissance.

Before 1400 BCE, poet and philosopher Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374) and his student Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) dominated the world of Italian prose (Kohl 125). Petrarca, also called Petrarch, and Boccaccio acted as the initial developers of Renaissance humanism and started the transition to a more classical study of Latin works (Kohl 125). Boccaccio is credited with leading the expedition for the attainment of classical works (Dresden 19). Petrarch created his own legend that was mostly based on his personality instead of his actual accomplishments (Kelley 7). Petrarch spoke of himself as a being whose live purpose was to study the classics of Cicero and others as well as write works that continued Cicero’s classics (Davies 73). Petrarch was devoted to Christianity along with his dedication to classical antiquity (Kelley 8). These two devotions often clashed and caused Petrarch to question whether virtue was based on reason or faith (Kelley 10). Petrarch’s movement towards the study of ancient writings and away from the scholastic learning of the medieval period was the foundation of humanism during the Renaissance period.

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Renaissance Italy created an ideal environment for the commencement and growth of a humanistic attitude that was already established by Petrarch (Goodman 118). A student of Petrarch, Coluccio Salutati (1331-1406), along with Niccolo Niccoli (1364-1437) and Leonardo Bruni (1370-1444) carried Petrarch’s humanistic study into the fifteenth century (Goodman 120). Salutati introduced the study of Classical Greece while Niccoli directed his studies on ancient Latin (Goodman 120). Bruni focused on both Latin and Greek classics including, Cicero, Aristotle, and Plato (Goodman 121).

Italian scholasticism and Italian humanism both prospered before, throughout, and after the Renaissance (Kristeller and Mooney 100). Italian humanists were greatly opposed to the scholastic learning of medieval times and focused on the study and continuation of Greek works. This return to and revival of the learning and ideas of classical Greece can be defined as Renaissance humanism (Kelley 74). Through the revival of classical ideas, humanists discovered a distance between the past and present learning and noticed the need to define the present as differentiated from the past (Rabil 143). The basis of this return to “studia humanitatis,” or the study of humanities, included grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry, and moral philosophy (Kelley 74). The Trivium, formed by grammar and rhetoric, along with the Quadrivium, formed by arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy, were used as the main learning methods of the Renaissance (Kelley 74, Kristeller and Mooney 101). The teaching of the Trivium and Quadrivium were an attempt to move away from medieval scholasticism; however, the Trivium and Quadrivium taught using old knowledge and did not develop new knowledge, thus making both scholastic (Kelley 3).

The humanistic teaching methods of the Renaissance may have been scholastic, yet dynamic learning was still occurring among the humanist philosophers of the time period. While humanists scholastically translated and copied texts of ancient Greek and Latin philosophers, humanists also expanded on those texts and texts of other humanists in their own essays and dialogues. These new texts extended classical ideology and incorporated humanistic views inspired by the artist, literary, and intellectual environment known as the Italian Renaissance. Humanism and scholasticism grew side-by-side throughout the Renaissance.

Lorenzo Valla (1407-1457) was born in Rome and taught at the University of Pavia (Kristeller 24). Valla studied Greek historians and his contribution to the philosophy of humanism is provided by three of his works (Kristeller 25). In the dialogue On Free Will, Valla shows that divine power and human free will are both compatible. For this dialogue Valla is credited as a philosopher, not just a humanist (Kristeller 26-27). Valla’s second dialogue On Pleasure discusses what true good, or virtue, for human beings is; Valla claims that virtue has but one oppose vice, instead of two which was originally philosophized by Aristotle (Kristeller 27-33). The third dialogue of Valla, titled Dialectical Disputations, is seen as Valla’s attempt to reform and simplify the idea of logic from that of Aristotle and other scholars (Kristeller 33-35). Valla ties logic to rhetoric and classical Latin usage in an effort to replace medieval scholastic learning and bind logic to the new humanistic learning of the Trivium (Kristeller 35). Valla’s work was influential in much of Europe and helped to form a bridge between Renaissance humanism in Italy and humanism throughout Western Europe (Kristeller 35).

Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) was well-known for reviving and developing Platonism and leading the Florentine Academy (Dresden 21-24). Ficino translated and continued works of Plato, Plotinus, and other Greek philosophers (Kristeller 37). The Florentine Academy acted as a medium for Ficino’s revival of Platonism and his investigation of the different aspects of Platonism (Kristeller 37). In his most prominent work Platonic Theory, Ficino interprets Classical Greek thoughts on immortality and expands on them to provide his own philosophies of human existence and the goals of life (Kristeller 46). Ficino also explored the concept of Platonic love which became a key influence of Italian, as well as European, literature in the sixteenth century (Kristeller 48). Platonic love, as dynamically expanded by Ficino, became the humanistic concept that “true love and friendship between several persons is derived from the love of the individual for God…” (Kristeller 48). Ficino’s teachings in Platonism spread from Italy, through his personal connections and dispersal of his writings, to other European countries.

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) attended the Florentine Academy and was closely linked with Ficino (Kristeller 54-57). The works of Pico integrated and defended both Platonic and Aristotelian theories (Kristeller 59). Dissimilar to the medieval belief of God being the center of the universe, Pico theorized that man was the focal point (Dresden 12). Pico emphasized the humanistic principle of freedom of action and thought of mankind and believed that man should use that freedom to aspire after God (Dresden 14). Pico’s principles stemmed from Platonism and would continue to be taught throughout the Renaissance.

Pietro Pomponazzi (1462-1525) turned away from the common humanistic focus on Plato and concentrated his work on the classical teachings of Aristotle (Kristeller 76). Pomponazzi’s views on the role of humans within the universe come from his study of the humanists Pico and Ficino while Pomponazzi’s notion of “…virtuous action without expectation of a reward is superior to one that aims at reward…” is a dynamic humanistic extension of Aristotelian ideals (Kristeller 75, 83). Aristotle may have been attacked by Petrarch and other humanists during the Renaissance period, yet Pomponazzi dynamically accepted and expanded Aristote’s teaching and thus Pomponazzi became known as an Italian Aristotelian (Kristeller 74, 77). Italian Aristotelianism was also studied and spread through the University of Padua, which Pomponazzi was a pupil of (Kristeller 74). The free and off-the-beaten-path thought of Italian Aristotelians is credited as the model for the free thinkers of the French Enlightenment (Kristeller 89). The importance of free thought to dynamic learning will be explained in the latter section about Giordano Bruno.

Bernardino Telesio (1509-1588) studied Aristotelianism at the University of Padua (Kristeller 96-97). Telesio’s works examined and refuted Aristotelian ideals while expanding on other classical teachings of natural philosophy (Kristeller 98-99). In his work De rerum natura, Telesio deems heat and cold as the active principles of all things and matter as the passive principle of all things (Kristeller 98). Telesio also attacks Aristotle’s idea of space and defines space as “…something that is capable of containing bodies and distinct from the bodies which it contains” (Kristeller 98). Telesio’s theories of space and time dynamically disproved Aristotle and started a movement towards absolute time, which would later be developed by Newton (Kristeller 103).

Francesco Patrizi (1529-1597), similar to Telesio and Pomponazzi, studied at the University of Padua (Kristeller 113). Patrizi wrote poems, translated classical Greek works, and published dynamic writings furthering or refuting Platonic or Aristotelian philosophies (Kristeller 117). Consistently, Patrizi’s humanistic ideas corresponded with or continued Platonic theories while contesting theories of Aristotle (Kristeller 123). Patrizi clearly represents a transitional humanist thinker who dynamically transitioned from the ideology of classical Greek teachings to creating his own original theories (Kristeller 125-126).

Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) focused on the art of memory, Lullian art, and mathematics which led to his philosophical expansion of the Neo-Platonist and Aristotelian views of forms and matter (Kristeller 127-129). Bruno researched the art of memory and looked for ways to increase the memory capacity of humans (Kristeller 130). Bruno also studied Lullian art, invented by Ramon Lull, was art that would “…lead to the discovery and demonstration of all other knowledge…” through the use and combination of letter, figures, and other symbols (Kristeller 130). His philosophical writings, which were somewhat contradictory, were concerned with metaphysics that extended on the ideas of classical Greek authors (Kristeller 131). The most prominent philosophy of Bruno was his humanistic view of the infinite relationship between God and the infinite universe as a whole (Kristeller 135-136). Bruno’s contribution to Renaissance humanism was relatively non-influential due to the long outlawing of scholars to read or cite his work (Kristeller 138). This ban of Bruno’s works was due to his execution in 1600 for his philosophical opinions and this martyrdom caused other humanists to be concerned with philosophical liberty (Kristeller 129). The call for freedom of thought, inspired by Bruno, is a key component of dynamic learning; for true dynamic learning to occur, learners must be able to explore all aspects of their study no matter where that study takes them.

These Renaissance humanists started a transition away from the scholasticism of medieval times and focused on reviving ancient Greek theories and teachings. The preservation of Greek classics and the rise of classical education throughout time stem from the Italian humanists of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The translation of ancient Greek texts created easier access to the theories of Plato and Aristotle. The movement away from scholasticism led to scholastic copying of classical texts and the dynamic extension of classical theories and creation of new theories. The teaching of the humanities through the Trivium and the Quadrivium during the Renaissance was very scholastic yet, humanists dynamically expanded on classical texts after learning the Trivium and Quadrivium. Dynamic learning during the Italian Renaissance led to the rise of the philosophy of humanism and led to the focus on humanity’s role in the universe.


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