Comparison of the Renaissance and Enlightenment
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Renaissance means ‘rebirth’ or ‘recovery’, has its origins in Italy and is associated with the rebirth of antiquity or Greco-Roman civilization. The age of the Renaissance is believed to elapse over a period of about two centuries, approximately from 1350 to 1550. Above all, the Renaissance was a recovery from the Middle Ages and all the disasters associated with it: the Black Death, economic, political and social crises. For the intellectuals, it was a period of recovery from the “Dark Ages”; a period, which was called so due to its lack of classical culture.
First Italian and then intellectuals of the rest of Europe became increasingly interested in the Greco-Roman culture of the ancient Mediterranean world. This interest was fostered especially by the migration of the Greek intellectuals during the Middle Ages and the fact that the ancient Greek works could then be translated more precisely into Latin. Increasing popularity of archeology and discovery of ancient Roman and Greek constructions also participated in this intense interest for the classical culture.
But the Renaissance was not exclusively associated with the revival of classical antiquity. It is believed that precisely from the fifteenth century great changes took place affecting public and social spheres of Europe and then the rest of the world; the basis of the modern European civilization and capitalist system were then founded. Technological innovations increased the rates of economic development. Great geographical discoveries opened up the boarders of the Western world, thus accelerating the formation of national, European and world markets. Major changes in art, music, literature and religion wrecked the system of medieval values.
Another period marked by significant changes, is the eighteenth century or an age of Enlightenment. Although present throughout Europe, the origins of the Enlightenment are closely associated with France and its philosophers such as Voltaire, Rousseau and others. The Enlightenment has been fostered by the remarkable discoveries of the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century. It was during this period that the ideas of the Scientific Revolution were spread and popularized by the philosophers (intellectuals of the 18th century).
Reason – was the word used the most frequently during the Enlightenment; it meant a scientific method, which appealed to facts and experiences. It was the age of the reexamination of all aspects of life, a movement of the intellectuals “who dared to know” and who were arguing for the application of the scientific methods to the understanding of all life. For these intellectuals it was also a recovery from the ‘darkness’ since all that could not be tested and proved by the rational and scientific methods of thinking was darkness. Blind trust and acceptance was darkness, while reason, knowledge and examination – was the ‘light’ that would lead to a progress and better society.
There are similarities that can with certainty be traced between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Many of the eighteenth-century philosophers saw themselves as the followers of the philosophers of antiquity and the humanists of the Renaissance. To them, the Middle Ages were also a period of intellectual darkness whereby the society was dominated by the dogmatic Catholic Church, allowed faith to obscure and diminished human reason. Secularization that first arose in the Renaissance erupted with new strength and particular intensity during the Enlightenment. Development of secular art, music, literature and way of thinking of the Renaissance was followed and further spread by the philosophers of the Enlightenment.
Both, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment were primarily the preserve of the wealthy upper classes who constituted a small percentage of the population. Achievements of both, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment were the product of the elite, rather than a mass movement. Gradually though, they did have an irreversible impact on ordinary people. Another apparent similarity between the two periods, of course, was the fact that both of them were marked by great political and social changes. However, since evolution and progress cause changes, and achievements of one century are built on those of the previous one, there are probably more differences than similarities between the two periods. Taking a look at different social and public spheres, we shall examine the differences and the similarities between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.
Consider the intellectual areas of the two periods. The Renaissance saw the emergence and growth of humanism. Humanism was a form of education and culture based on the study of classics. Being primarily an educational form, it included the study of such liberal arts subjects as grammar, rhetoric, poetry, ethics and history that were based on the examinations of classical authors. Humanists occupied mainly secular positions such as teachers of humanities in secondary schools or professors of rhetoric in universities; they were mostly laymen rather than members of clergy. Education was central to the humanist movement since humanists believed that education could change immensely the human beings. Humanists wrote books on education and developed secondary schools based on their ideas. Their schools though, were principally reserved for the wealthy elite; children from the lower social classes as well as females were largely absent from them. During the Enlightenment, as during the Renaissance, private secondary schools were most of the times dominated by religious orders, especially by the Jesuits. However, a great difference with the Renaissance was the development of new schools designed to provide a broader education, which offered modern languages, geography and bookkeeping, preparing students for careers in business.
In Renaissance philosophy a change was expressed through an assimilation of Platonic philosophy into Christianity by means of translation and interpretation. This led to the emergence of a new form of philosophy known as Neoplatonism. Renaissance humanists saw a human occupying central position in the great chain of being between the lowest form of physical matter (plants) and the purest spirit (God). A human being was the link between the material world (through the body) and the spiritual world (through the soul). M. Ficino (1433-1499) was one of the most important humanists that contributed to the emergence of the Neoplatonism. Concerning religion, Renaissance philosophers were not rejecting Christianity, they mostly believed in God and were only against the policies and practices of the Catholic Church at that period.
The Enlightenment philosophers such as Voltaire (1694-1778) or Diderot (1713-1784) went beyond Renaissance philosophers. They severely criticized traditional religion and actively called for religious toleration. Moreover, the Enlightenment philosophers, Voltaire in particular, championed, among other things, deism. Deism was based upon Newtonian world-machine, which implied the existence of a mechanic (God) who had created the universe, but did not have direct involvement in it and allowed it to run according to its own natural laws. These philosophers believed that God did not extend grace or respond prayers. Diderot, who advocated similar ideas, made a great contribution to the Enlightenment with creation of the famous Encyclopedia (Classified Dictionary of Science, Arts and Trades), which included works and ideas of many philosophers. Thanks to the Renaissance printing and the reductions in the Encyclopedia price, Enlightenment ideas became available to general literate public of the century.
One of the innovations in history during the Renaissance was in the way history was recorded. In writing of history, humanists divided the past into ancient world, dark ages and their own age, thus providing a new sense of chronology. Humanists were also responsible for secularization of history. By taking new approaches to historic sources, humanist historians sensibly reduced the role of miracles in history. Concerning history, the Enlightenment philosophers had a similarity with the Renaissance humanist-historians in that they also placed their histories in purely secular settings. However, the difference between the two was that if Renaissance historians had de-emphasized the role of God and miracles, the Enlightenment philosophers-historians, such as Voltaire, eliminated it altogether. Also, philosophers-historians extended the scope of history over the humanists’ preoccupation with politics by paying increasing attention to economic, social, intellectual and cultural developments.
Among the most important technological innovations of the renaissance was printing. J. Gutenberg played an important role in bringing the process of printing to completion between 1445-1450. This process was vital for the diffusion of knowledge and humanist ideas. Printing spread very rapidly around Europe and its effects were soon felt in many areas of European life. Continued after the invention of printing process, the expansion of both, publishing and the reading public, became particularly visible during the Enlightenment. Even though, as during the Renaissance, most of the published works were aimed at small groups of educated elite, there appeared more publications for the new reading public. This new reading public consisted mainly of the middle classes and included women and urban artisans. An important role in the increase of these publications played the development of magazines for the general public and emergence of daily newspapers – an innovation unknown to the Renaissance.
In art, Renaissance humanism and naturalism revealed themselves through the exposition of the world of beauty and human body. Flat, static paintings of the medieval art left their place to the three-dimensional, salient and convexo-concave style of the Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Michelangelo (1478-1564) and other great artists of the Renaissance demonstrated in their works an ideal individual in whom the physical beauty and that of the soul converged together according to the standards of antique aesthetics. Renaissance artists considered the imitation of nature of their primary goal, human beings became the focus of attention. To the great discontent of the Church, themes of human nudity also became present in works of the Renaissance artists. Likewise, a human being with his basic desires and passions appeared in literature.
In the Enlightenment art, the similarity with the Renaissance was that the Baroque style largely used in Renaissance continued into the eighteenth century. Also, Neoclassicism persisted to have a wide support. Neoclassicism was the revival of the classical style of ancient Greece and Rome. Nonetheless, by 1730s, a new style known as Rococo (a French innovation) began to gain great popularity. Unlike the Baroque, which accentuated majesty and power through the use of grand diagonals and games of light, Rococo emphasized grace and gentleness. This style could be seen in the works of important artists of the eighteenth century such as A. Watteau (1684-1721) and G. B. Tiepolo (1696-1770). In architecture, a combination of the Baroque and Rococo gave rise to some of the most beautiful architectural constructions such as Vierzehnheiligen church decorated by the great architect B. Newmann (1687-1753).
A major change in music during the Renaissance was the change in the composition for the mass. To replace Gregorian chants, the Renaissance madrigal saw its emergence as a chief form of secular music in Italy and France. Major changes also took place in the music of the Enlightenment period. Eighteenth century saw the rise and increasing popularity of classical music with its operas, orchestras, sonatas, concerts and symphonies. This period gave the world such remarkable composers as J. S. Bach (1685-1750), G. F. Handel (1685-1759) and, of course, W. A. Mozart (1756-1798). However, music did not become completely secularized; Bach, for example, was still composing religious music. Another similarity with the Renaissance age was that most of the musicians still depended on a patron such as an aristocrat or prince.
As for medicine, certainly there were differences concerning it between the two periods, since the two centuries that separated them did bring some improvement into medical practices. The surgeons experienced significant changes during the eighteenth century. In the 1740s they started organizing their own guilds, separate from the barbers. Furthermore, surgeons started to be licensed what required clinical experiences. This had brought in some selection into the ranks of those practicing surgery.
Technological innovations such as the rudder facilitated the great geographical discoveries of the Renaissance. Here are some of the most important discoveries: in 1456 Portuguese ships reached the Green cape and in 1486 Africa has been sailed around from the south. While familiarizing African coasts, Portuguese were sending their ships to the west and southwest Open Ocean leading to the discovery of Assorian Islands and Madeira Islands. In 1492 Columbus on his way to India crossed Atlantic Ocean and embarked on Bahamas Islands thus discovering a new continent of America. In 1498 a Spanish traveler V. De Gama sailing around Africa brought his ships to the Indian coasts. From XVI c. Europeans reach China and Japan of the existence of which they have only had a vague image before.
The perception about the Earth’s shape has changed as well; F. Magellan’s (1519-1522) trip around the world confirmed that the Earth was round. As if the world boarders became wider; trade routes now passed through the oceans, linking different continents between each other. Thus commenced the first phase of the emergence of the world civilization and globalization. During the Enlightenment this process accelerated even more with the creation of new public and private banks, acceptance of paper money and development of triangular trade. With colonization of Americas, India and Africa, the term global economy was more than appropriate. Triangular trade linked Europe, Africa, the East and the Americas, making eighteenth century merchants and traders more and more wealthy and powerful.
Among the multiple discoveries of the Renaissance, one was especially complicated and frightening. This was the Copernicus’ (1473-1543) heliocentric theory, which gave a new vision of the Universe, the Earth and thus the human being. Before, the Earth was believed to be the center of the world with other heavenly spheres rotating around it. Now, the Earth became a tiny point in the emptiness of Space revolving about its axis and the Sun in the center. The Enlightenment, on the other hand, did not know much of the scientific discoveries, but it was the age when the scientific ideas of the Scientific Revolution were popularized. Scientific ideas were not spread so much by the scientists themselves, but by such individuals as B. de Fontenelle (1657-1757). He was secretary of the French Royal Academy of Science (1691-1741) and contributed a lot to the communication of the scientific discoveries especially in astronomy.
Concerning politics, the Renaissance saw the beginning of modern politics, whereby interests of the state are of the principal consideration. Fundamental to politics were the works of an Italian politician N. Machiavelli (1469-1527). In his famous work “The Prince” he introduced political ideas that would have a great impact not only on the rulers of that period, but on the political leaders centuries later. He believed that morality was not among the top priorities in the political activities of that time. Therefore, he maintained that if a ruler is to stay in power, he should be prepared to do wrong when necessary. He continued that the state’s main preoccupation was to provide stability and in order for a ruler to rule efficiently, he should use diplomacy and be neither too loved, nor too feared. Hence, the concept of the balance of power emerged as popular political thought of the Renaissance. According to this concept, a country should not get involved in a war with a neighboring country the leader of which is strong. It is better to have a strong neighboring ruler with whom you can negotiate and agree, rather than to create a chaos and thus uncertainty and danger.
Just like Machiavelli was a giant of political thought in the Renaissance, Montesquieu (1689-1755) was for the Enlightenment, though his propositions were much different from those of Machiavelli. In his works he called for the separation of powers into legislative, executive and judiciary, advocated religious toleration and denounced slavery. Another great philosopher of the Enlightenment was J. J. Rousseau (1712-1778). In his work “Discourse on the Origins of the Inequality of Mankind” he explained why the government was “an evil, but a necessary one”. In his another very famous work “The Social Contract” he tried to accord individual liberty with governmental authority. All these political ideas were new and thus very different from the political thoughts of the Renaissance.
The Renaissance political thoughts contributed to the centralization of power of monarchial governments. Of course, the degree to which monarchs were successful in consolidation and extension of their political authority varied from country to country. While France, Spain and England emerged as centralized and more or less consolidated monarchies during the age of the Renaissance, the Holy Roman Empire and the Ottoman Empire saw a decline. Central and Eastern Europe also experienced a decentralization of political authority, rather than its centralization. During the Enlightenment the process o centralization and growth of states continued. Most European states enlarged their bureaucracies and consolidated their governments. However, as a result of all the geographic discoveries and following overseas trips and colonization, European economy started to shift from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic seaboard.
By the eighteenth century, England and France appeared as great commercial empires. Also, Eastern and Central Europe emerged as major international players in the European political arena. Russia, Austria and Prussia – three of five major European states were located in Eastern or Central Europe. These states became so powerful that they managed to completely destroy Poland by dividing its lands between themselves. Although the ideas of the Enlightenment did leave an impact on the eighteenth century rulers, few of them actually attempted to implement the enlightened reforms into practice. The majority of rulers still believed that for a state to run effectively and prosper, it needed a strong absolute ruler.
In religion, clerical corruption, the popes’ preoccupation with secular matters such as finances and territorial power led to the growing discontent with the Church during the Renaissance period. J. Hus (1374-1415) and J. Wyclif (1328-1384) are viewed by many as the forerunners of the Reformation. Both of them attacked the excessive power of the papacy within Catholic Church and called for reforms. Although remaining a very important institution, Catholic Church and its religious practices became increasingly questioned and criticized by the Renaissance humanists. As during the Renaissance age, Catholic Church of the Enlightenment still had a lot of power and remained hierarchically structured. Religious devotion also remained strong during the eighteenth century. Nonetheless, critics and skepticism against the Church became more and more intense. Philosophers of the Enlightenment were more than ever calling for religious toleration and acceptance of religious minorities. Among the intellectuals of that period more and more turned to deism and believed in natural laws.
The great majority of women of the Renaissance was not educated and was not considered intellectually equal to men. There were some exceptions of course, but, as such, women did not play any important role in the intellectual life of the Renaissance. This has changed during the Enlightenment. Some of the eighteenth century intellectuals, such as Diderot, expressed more positive views of women. Moreover, women themselves begun to emerge as important intellectual thinkers, questioning their rights and proposing ways to improve their situation. M. Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) was regarded by many as the founder of modern European feminism. Another important difference from the Renaissance concerning women, was their role in the spread of new ideas of the Enlightenment. Of course, here we are talking again about the women of the elite or wealthy upper class. By organizing salons, women such as Madame Geoffrin (1699-1777) or Marquise du Duffand (1697-1780) brought together writers and artists with aristocrats, government officials and other members of literate elite. These women could affect political decisions and influence literary and artistic tastes.
Completely different to the Renaissance was the emergence in the eighteenth century of a “science of man” or social sciences. Social sciences were based on the philosophers’ believes that certain human actions were governed by natural laws. One of the pioneers of a social science such as psychology was Scottish philosopher D. Hume (1711-1776). Other famous philosophers such as A. Smith (1723-1790) and F. Quesnay (1694-1774) were viewed as founders of the modern economics. They rejected mercantilist concepts by arguing the economic primacy of agriculture. They also advocated the doctrine of laissez-faire, which rejected the state’s intervention in the economic activity and called for letting the natural forces of demand and supply to work freely. In his famous “Wealth o Nations” Smith presents his major ideas on the origins of wealth and functions of government in the economy, thus laying down the foundations of the nineteenth century economic liberalism.
As we could observe from the analysis above, the Renaissance and Enlightenment indeed had a lot of differences, but they also had a lot of similarities. And this could not be otherwise, because all of the achievements and discoveries of the Renaissance became the building blocks of the Enlightenment progress. Just as human beings are prone to progress, they are also prone to traditions. That is why many of the Renaissance values continued into the Enlightenment. Each period in history marks human society in some way and even in our days we still hear the echo of previous centuries and still find some similarities between our time and those far-away centuries.