Humanism: Renaissance and Merchant Class

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Essay on Humanism

The Renaissance is the label we put upon the emergence of a new perspective and set of ideals in Europe. This does not mean that it was sudden, neat and clean. It was gradual, inconsistent, and variable from place to place. The Renaissance had its origins in Italy because a powerful merchant class arose in its cities that replaced the landed aristocracy and clergy as the leaders of society. This new class, along with many aristocrats and clergy, embraced humanist ideals. Generally speaking, humanism was a new worldly ideal to replace the medieval focus on eternal life. Humanism was founded on the idea that humanity is capable of greatness by its own means--through wealth, knowledge, art--and does not need to place all its efforts and hopes in God's salvation and the world of spirit and eternal life. One must immediately say that these two viewpoints were not perceived to be mutually exclusive. A change in the view of human capacity did not mean that there was no room for God or eternal life. Instead, it was a change in the way both God and salvation were viewed--although it is true that some people in the Renaissance did become almost completely interested and absorbed in human rather than spiritual concerns. Renaissance humanists of all types shared a great optimism that humanity's (God-given) artistic and intellectual abilities could raise humanity individually and collectively to a higher plane of life.

The Renaissance was made possible by new wealth and the rise of the merchant classes, particularly in Italy. In the century after 1450, Europe generally and in particular Italy, Rhineland Germany, and the Low Countries (Holland and Flanders) experienced a great recovery of trade and manufacturing after the war-torn and plague-ravaged late Middle Ages. The population expanded again, and prices rose. Merchants traded wools, linens, wine and other goods to the Muslim east for luxury goods such as silk and spices from China, Indonesia and India, including such goodies as pepper, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger, which were valuable in making bland foods and slightly spoiled meats delicious and exciting. The most important social result of this new was the rise of the merchant class. They were an exclusive business elite, making up about 2% of the population of great Italian trading cities. They were wholesalers, bankers, distributors, and manufacturers--sometimes all at the same time. In many wealthy Italian cities like Venice or Florence, wealthy merchant families came to power either collectively (in a republic) or individually by establishing themselves as princely rulers. The papacy itself fell into the hands of these powerful families, who through intrigue and fighting attempted to get their own family members elected Pope. They built new palaces, such as the Medici's palace in Florence, and maintained courts.

The social influence of this merchant class was very important. Naturally, they developed a different social and moral outlook on life from the traditional aristocrats and clergy of the Middle Ages. They had a kind of secular ethic, not in the sense that they were atheist--they were not--but in the sense that they believed worldly accomplishments and wealth were honorable--just as honorable as fighting or praying had been in the middle ages. Landed aristocrats and clergy would deny this. Medieval monks or friars like St. Francis would say that wealth was dangerous to the soul, and usury was a sin. For knights, fighting was the chivalric ideal. Merchants, on the other hand--though they borrowed much from Christian and chivalric ideals (such as courtly love)--had their own code. They honored trade and wealth, and the earthly and spiritual good that wealth could produce: the wellbeing of the family, the state, the church, learning and art. In short, merchants and manufacturers believed that they ought to be...
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