Western Civilization Humanism

Published 09 Mar 2017

The 1500’s was an age defined by enlightenment and exploration. From Columbus, to Copernicus, to Michelangelo and Erasmus, all were great thinkers, artists and explorers who pushed the boundaries of human achievement and redefined our world in irrevocable ways. That the sixteenth century should be the period of the Renaissance or “rebirth” is not by accident. Man, after several hundred years of “hibernation” during the Middle Age, was ready for a renewal of spiritual and creative energies. Thus, this period in Western Civilization was marked by extraordinary advancements in the Arts and Sciences, achievements that would not have been possible without the resurgence of Humanism.

It might be said the Renaissance was the ultimate expression of Humanism, after the classical Greek civilization. While to most of us, Renaissance was defined by artistic heights, historians consider the Renaissance as a turning point, the period that marks the beginning of Modern History. After hundreds of years of stagnation, the world underwent upheavals that are rooted in the Renaissance principles of Humanism, or the “principles of freedom and self-expression and the emphasis on human values and the return to classical learning.” (Kristeller, 1990, p. 3) The Renaissance as inspired by the values of Humanism, upon liberating human though created a domino effect that made the Reformation and all the succeeding events thereafter possible. After all, you cannot make the colors disappear to one who has seen the light. Truth, once known, is a point of no return. As Burckhardt once said, “Culture, as soon as it freed itself from the fantastic bonds of the Middle Ages… needed a guide, and found one in the ancient civilization… Both the form and the substance of this culture were adopted with admiring gratitude…” (1990, p. 123)

So what exactly is Humanism? Norman refers to Humanism as “a celebration of the qualities that make us human, perhaps also with the suggestion that recognizing these qualities can inspire us to use them to the full.” (2004, 1) The ideals of humanism are firmly rooted on the magnificent accomplishments of ancient Greece and Rome. Humanists believe that Greek and Roman civilization defined the heights of human accomplishment, especially in terms of intellectual prowess, and as such, modern people can learn a lot by going back to that time. Humanism as a branch of academics focused on the study of the liberal arts such as Latin and Greek, philosophy, ethics, rhetoric, poetry, and history. The return to classical literature led

The broad concept of Humanism makes it difficult to pigeonhole or define. The fact that Humanism is all about the search for truth makes the concept as elusive as truth itself. In this regard, because Humanism rejects blind adherence to an ideology or principle, and as such, supports scientific thinking. Similarly, Humanism argues that truth can only be arrived with consistent reasoning and constant desire to explore and discover. It proclaims that we are individually capable of going beyond our conceived limitations and achieve self-determination and self-actualization. Humanists believe that man is capable of choosing his destiny and determining the course of his own life. Wherever that journey takes us, whether to greatness or some other kind of life, is something that is entirely up to us and the choices that we make along the way.


  • Burckhardt, Jacob. The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. Trans by S. G. C. Middlemore. Contributor Peter Burke & Peter Murray. Penguin Classics. 1990. p. 123.
  • Humanism: Beliefs and Practices By Jeaneane D. Fowler Published 1999 Sussex Academic Press
  • Kristeller, Paul Oskar. Renaissance Thought and the Arts: Collected Essays. Princeton University. 1990. p. 3.
  • Norman, R. (2004). On Humanism. Routledge
Did it help you?