There’s no doubt that the European Renaissance, which lasted from the 14th to the 17th century, had a huge impact on the arts, culture, and human development. In fact philosophy, one of the main fields of study at a liberal arts college in Chicago and elsewhere, actually owes quite a bit to the Renaissance.
With so many notable thinkers born during this era, it’s difficult to pinpoint whose ideas were the most significant. Instead, we’ve established a group of philosophers who we think had a major influence during and after the Renaissance, and whose presence we still feel when studying the thoughts and ideas of humans today.
There’s a reason why René Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy is part of every great books college reading list. He is widely considered the father of modern and western philosophy, and his highly skeptical approach laid the groundwork for modern thinking. What many people might not know is that Descartes also had a huge impact in the field of mathematics, through his Cartesian coordinate system.
Possibly one of the main reasons he ended up as a father of philosophy is that he decided not to blindly trust the work of those who came before him, just as he refused to trust his own senses. People have trusted his work, however, for centuries after his death.
To say Martin Luther was influential is a considerable understatement. A friar and later a priest, he spent his time working on a theological philosophy that would ultimately lead to the Protestant Reformation (and a branch of Protestantism named Lutheranism). His split with the church and his own marriage made it finally possible for Protestant priests to marry.
When his followers translated the Bible into the modern vernacular and printed copies using the recently invented printing press, the cultural impact was immeasurable. It not only influenced the art of translation and methods of communication, but it also greatly affected the development of the German language and culture, undeniably impacting English language as well.
Renaissance philosophy is credited with influencing the creation of several new fields of study. Political science and political ethics both came into existence through the philosophical writings of Florentine politician Niccolò Machiavelli. He was quite a controversial writer in his time, and still is today. The term Machiavellian is still used to describe unscrupulous manipulation in politics and an “ends justify the means” approach to anything (though whether or not that quote can actually be attributed to him is currently being disputed).
At the start of the Renaissance, science and philosophy were one and the same. Thanks to the scientific revolution spurred by the prevalent use of the scientific method, they split into two distinct fields of study. This was only possible because Francis Bacon, the father of empiricism, not only championed the scientific method in his philosophical work, but also invented it. In fact, it was frequently and still is occasionally referred to as the Baconian method.
Are you inspired to learn more about these philosophical giants of the Renaissance at liberal arts college? Are there any other renaissance philosophers whom you feel were just as influential?