Humanism During The Renaissance

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During the Renaissance, there was a renewed interest in the arts and a questioning of traditional societal views. People began to explore the power of the human mind, often referred to as humanism. Humanism emphasizes the individual’s creative, reasoning, and aesthetic abilities. However, opinions about humanism varied during this time period. Renaissance writers and philosophers expressed their beliefs about human nature and humanity’s role in the universe through their writings.

Pico della Mirandola celebrated humanity and praised our ability to reason in his “Oration on the dignity of man”. His viewpoint contrasts with Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Montaigne’s essay titled “Man’s presumption and Littleness”. Both Shakespeare and Montaigne suggest that humans are not superior to other creations of God in the universal order of things.

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In his essay, Pico begins by asserting where humans stand in the divine order according to his understanding. He believes that humans were created last by God because he desired someone who would appreciate the wonders and beauty of his world. The Craftsman wanted someone who would ponder over his great work, leading to the creation of mankind (Mirandola 224). Pico argues that at their creation, humans possess both divine and earthly qualities. They have the ability to determine their own nature and shape themselves according to their preferences.Pico argues that humans possess a wide range of celestial status within the divine hierarchy, from nearly celestial beings to those no better than animals. This vast diversity in human nature only serves to highlight their unique and significant position among all other creatures created by God. However, Montaigne and Shakespeare present more pessimistic views on human greatness and power, contrasting with Pico’s optimistic perspective.

Montaigne’s essay “Man’s presumption and Littleness” diminishes the greatness of man to the point where he is reduced to being just another animal among animals, possibly even beneath some of God’s other creatures. Montaigne finds it unimaginable why man considers himself so grand: Is it possible to conceive anything as absurd as this pitiable and insignificant creature, who doesn’t even control himself, claiming to be the master and ruler of the universe, of which he can neither comprehend nor control even its smallest part? (Montaigne 1808) Through this statement, Montaigne not only expresses his disbelief in man’s greatness, but also his uncertainty in man’s ability to grasp any understanding of the world around him.

Montaigne extensively discusses the flaws and inadequacies of human beings, contrasting Pico’s efforts to emphasize the greatness of mankind. Montaigne similarly highlights man’s insignificance by asserting that “Presumption is our natural and original malady.” (Montaigne 1810) When discussing animals and humans, he argues that our inability to communicate with them is just as much our fault as it is theirs. We do not comprehend them any better than they comprehend us. Consequently, they may regard us as beasts, just as we regard them, indicating the equality between us. (Montaigne 1811) In his writing, Montaigne not only implies our resemblance to other creatures but also suggests their superiority over us.

According to Montaigne’s essay, animals have a clear advantage over humans because Nature supports and guides them, while leaving us to rely on chance and fortune. This lack of innate resourcefulness in humans allows the animals’ brute stupidity to surpass even our divine intelligence. Montaigne concludes his essay by reflecting on the divine order and contemplating humanity’s role within it. (Montaigne 1813)

Montaigne (1817) argues that humans have a distinct capacity to imagine and think independently, enabling them to differentiate between reality and fiction and understand their own desires. Nevertheless, this freedom has its drawbacks as it is responsible for various afflictions experienced by humanity, including sin, illness, indecisiveness, confusion, and despair. Montaigne proposes that instead of being beneficial, these abilities of imagination and reasoning actually impede human existence by giving rise to these specific problems.

Like Montaigne, Shakespeare expresses doubt about the greatness of humanity. In his play Hamlet, the tragic hero ponders the purpose of humanity in the universe and suggests that we are simply part of an ongoing cycle where we are born and return to the earth, no different from any other creature. He describes the earth as nothing more than a repulsive and disgusting gathering of vapors. Shakespeare presents man as possessing admirable qualities with his statement “what a piece of work is man!” He acknowledges that man is noble in reason, possesses limitless abilities, behaves like an angel, and understands like a god. However, Hamlet concludes by saying “and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man does not bring me joy.” Although it may seem that initially Hamlet praises human qualities, his final words indicate a different perspective. He questions the significance of these qualities and wonders why they should be considered great. To him, the world does not benefit from them. Hamlet further expresses his views on the cyclical nature of existence when he discusses how Alexander was buried and returned to dust. He contemplates whether human beings are truly important when they are part of the earth just like all other animals.Shakespeare uses Hamlet’s words to raise the same question as Montaigne: Are humans truly as significant as Pico and others asserted?

Both Montaigne and Shakespeare express the fragility of humans and highlight their minor position in nature. They contrast with writers like Pico, who celebrated humanity and praised its unique attributes. These thinkers may have been influenced by scientific advancements and newfound knowledge about the universe more than their contemporaries. The suggestion of a heliocentric model and questioning of the church’s authority allowed for further scientific exploration. If we were mistaken about our planet’s nature and our understanding of God, could we also be mistaken about our significance in the universe? If the sun is at the center, if the pope’s importance decreases, do we truly understand our own significance? It is possible that we overestimate ourselves. While it may be difficult to comprehend why Montaigne and Shakespeare devalued humanity, it is easier to understand why Pico felt compelled to prove mankind’s exceptional qualities. Everyone desires to feel special and view their role in the universe as significant. During the Renaissance, there was a strong belief in human nature’s virtues and humans’ important place within the divine hierarchy of the universe. The discoveries made during that time seemed to confirm the power of human thinking and reasoning.Consequently, there are philosophers who argue that our ability to reason can elevate us to a higher state of divine being. However, as an atheist in the 1990s, I personally question this perspective. I acknowledge the uniqueness of humans and their capacity for reasoning but remain skeptical about these qualities placing us higher in the universe’s order or granting us greater divine knowledge. In practical terms, we utilize logic, reasoning, and determination to achieve progress in life: acquiring a better job, a nicer home, more leisure time, and an improved quality of life. While logic and reasoning are valuable for personal growth and enhancing our lives, I believe they rarely lead us to a higher or divine state.

I believe that humankind is not superior or inferior to any other kind. If I were to describe human kind, I would say that it simply exists without a specific purpose or significance. Are we connected to the Earth? Yes, we are. Are we presumptuous? Not all of us, although some individuals might be. It wouldn’t be fair to make such a broad statement. Humans are born and die while the world continues its course. I agree with certain ideas expressed by the aforementioned authors – like Shakespeare in Hamlet, I believe in the cycle of life on Earth where people perish and become the means for others’ survival. In alignment with Montaigne’s essay, I also believe that animals are somewhat superior to humans and they may even perceive us as beasts. Lastly, similar to Pico, I believe that human beings have the freedom to choose their life path whether they make significant contributions or waste their years.

Pico della Mirandola, Shakespeare, and Montaigne held strong beliefs about human nature and our role in the universe. Pico advocated for the greatness of humanity, while Shakespeare and Montaigne argued for our insignificance in the bigger picture. Today, many people still struggle with the question that sparked controversy during the Renaissance: “where do we belong in the universe?” Although opinions may vary, it is an important question to contemplate, utilizing the rational and logical abilities that were highly prized during that era.

Works Cited
Mirandola, Pico della. “Oration on the Dignity of Man.” The Renaissance Philosophy of Man. Ed. Cassirer, Kristeller, & Randall. 1948. 223-35
Montaigne, Michel de. “Man’s Presumption and Littleness.” The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces. Ed. Maynard Mack. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1992. 1808-16
Shakespeare, William. “Hamlet.” The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces. Ed. Maynard Mack. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1992. 2046-97

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Humanism During The Renaissance. (2019, Apr 23). Retrieved from

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