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Comparison of the Renaissance and Enlightenment (Сравнение Ренессанса и Просвещения)

Comparison of the Renaissance and Enlightenment (Сравнение Ренессанса и Просвещения)

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


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


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


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.