10 Most Influential Philosophers from the Renaissance Era
The Renaissance (14th century to 17th century) was a very significant period in European history. Famed for ushering in the Age of Enlightenment, the Renaissance period saw the growth of many disciplines, including arts, philosophy, science, and music. The period gave birth to some renowned thinkers whose ideas would shape the way we pursued knowledge and viewed the world around us.
Below are ten of the most influential philosophers that emerged during the Renaissance Era.
Thomas More (1478–1535)
Until his execution on July 6, 1535 on Tower Hill in London, England, renowned English philosopher and statesman Thomas More was one of the most powerful people in his native country. The son of a successful attorney, Sir John More, this Renaissance humanist was known for his ideas on topics like religion and politics.
Sir Thomas More is best remembered for his 1516 controversial book titled “Utopia”, which was initially published in Latin. Planting his beliefs in the ecclesiastical laws and argumentation of the Catholic Church, his book has been described as a guide to improve European society.
He went on to write other books with the most popular ones titled “A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation” and “Responsio ad Lutherum”.
The English scholar was widely known for his stance against the teachings of German philosopher Martin Luther as well as the Protestant Reformation. He clashed with Henry VIII of England on many issues, making him a very unpopular man among the king’s officials.
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More’s teachings have been studied by many prominent figures over the years. Renowned English playwright William Shakespeare and 19th Century philosopher John Henry Newman were some famous scholars who paid attention to the works of More. For example, Shakespeare, when writing his masterpiece “Richard III”, derived a lot of inspiration from More’s 1510s Renaissance work “History of King Richard III”. The biography, which was published in both Latin and English after More’s death in 1535, has been interpreted by many historians as a criticism of royal tyranny.
Though he had a cold relationship with Henry VIII, More was appointed to some important political positions. In 1523, he served as the speaker of England’s Lower House, the House of Commons. Two years later, he occupied another significant office in the land, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. He held the post until 1529, when he was appointed the Lord Chancellor. He served in that position until May 1532.
Why was Thomas More executed?
The social philosopher woes began when he opposed his boss’s (i.e. Henry VIII) decision to part ways with the Catholic Church. Bent on annulling his first marriage (to Catherine of Aragon), the English monarch took the bold decision of separating the English church from the Roman Catholic Church. Henry went on to make himself the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. When More was asked to profess his loyalty to the monarch by taking the Oath of Supremacy, the English philosopher refused to do so. More always considered himself first a servant of God and then a servant of the King. To the philosopher, taking the Oath of Supremacy was something that went against everything that he stood for.
Per the Act of Supremacy of 1534, it was a treasonable offence for a public or church official in England to refuse to take the Oath of Supremacy. Therefore, Thomas More was charged with treason, found guilty and then executed on July 6, 1535.
Did you know…?
- In 2000, Thomas More was made a patron saint of politicians and statesmen by Pope John Paul II. 65 years prior to that he was canonized as a saint by Pope Pius XI.
- He had four children, including English writer Margaret Roper.
Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527)
Often referred to as “the father of political science”, Niccolò Machiavelli is generally acclaimed as one of the most influential thinkers of the late 15th Century and early 16th Century. He mostly held the view that, leaders were not to be feared but should rather be obeyed and loved. He was of the opinion that being a good person does not necessarily make you a good leader.
In his book titled “The Prince” (Il Principe), which was published in 1532, the Italian philosopher argued that the objectives of a Prince (ruler) can validate the means used in achieving those goals. According to him, it was okay for a political leader to use immoral means so long as it benefits the whole country.
Though his book is regarded as the description of modern-day politics, it has also been termed as a guide for deceitful leaders who want to capture power at all cost.
Influenced by the likes of Greek philosopher Plutarch (c. AD 46 – c. AD 119) and Roman politician Publius Cornelius Tacitus (c. AD 56 – c. 120), Machiavelli published other interesting works, including “Discourses on Livy” (1517), “History of Florence” (1525) and “Decennale secondo” (1509). The third, which was published in 1509, is a poem and an update on his previous work, “The First Decade” (Decennale Primo), published in 1504.
Scholars influenced by Machiavelli’s works
As the originator of the “Virtù” concept, Machiavelli’s works have been studied by many scholars and politicians over the years, most famous among them are English philosopher Francis Bacon and Dutch philosopher Benedict de Spinoza. For example, his ideas were used by renowned German philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906 – 1975), who wrote the 1958 book titled “The Human Condition”, and British political theorist James Harrington (1611 – 1677).
French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, German philosopher Friedrich Hegel, U.S. president John Adams, and English philosopher James Harrington were also influenced by some of the works of the Italian Renaissance thinker. In Harrington’s work “The Common-wealth of Oceana” (1656) praises Machiavelli, describing as the “prince of politicians”. In “Social Contract” (1762), a brilliant work by renowned French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-177), Machiavelli is praised as a patriotic man who provided honest answers to many political issues of his era. Rousseau describes Machiavelli’s The Prince as “the book of republicans.”
Did you know…?
- His most well-known political treatise “The Prince”, first published in 1513, was inspired by his interaction with Cesare Borgia, a senior official of the Papal States. It is also said that treatise was written by Machiavelli as a way to win back the favor of the very powerful Medici family.
- In the end, the treatise failed to mend the broken relationship with the Medicis. Furthermore, the Renaissance philosopher was shunned by the Florentine society. Considering the fact that he believed he had devoted a significant part of his life in service of Florence, Machiavelli died a very sad and bitter man.
- The “Machiavellian” term, which is mostly used to describe political deceit and deviousness, was named after him.
Martin Luther (1483–1546)
Following closely is German-born philosopher and theologian Martin Luther. This name sounds familiar right? Despite the similarity in name, this scholar had no relation with the renowned American civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. In fact, the latter’s father adopted this name after moving to Germany to study the works of the former.
Let’s take a look at who this 16th-century German philosopher was. An author and theologian, Luther is praised as a figure who had profound impact on modern-day Christianity. He’s regarded as the pioneer of what would be known as the Protestant Reformation.
Luther gained notoriety for his stance against some practices and teachings of the Catholic Church. According to him, the Holy Bible was the main source of divine knowledge. After publishing the “Ninety-five Theses” in 1517, he challenged leaders of the Church to change some of their rules. This eventually led to his expulsion from the Church by Pope Leo X four years later. The German philosopher and priest was also condemned as an outlaw by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. While he was away, he had the opportunity to translate the Bible into his native German.
According to many critics, this was the beginning of what would be known as the Protestant Reformation. To a very large extent, his ideas caused the splitting of the Western Church, bringing forth Protestantism which includes Anglicanism, Calvinism, and Lutheranism. The German priest opined that salvation and eternal life did not come simply through one’s good deeds; instead they should be seen as a free gift from God which is earned by one’s unshakable faith in Jesus Christ.
Luther’s teachings in so many ways flew against established doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. They challenged the Pope’s authority, maintaining that the Bible was the only true source one had to better understand the Creator.
Was Martin Luther an anti-Semite?
There are some historians that look at the few anti-Judaistic works of Martin Luther to explain the rise of antisemitism in Germany. Luther stated in some of his later works that Jews ought to be expelled from the country. He was critical of the Jews because they rejected the divinity of Jesus Christ. However, some of his sermons did encourage people to be kind to the Jewish community. He hoped that such a gesture could be used to convert them to Christianity. When that failed to yield any result, he stepped up his anti-Semitic sermons. In “Von den Juden und Ihren Lügen” (On the Jews and Their Lies) and “Vom Schem Hamphoras und vom Geschlecht Christi” (On the Holy Name and the Lineage of Christ), both published in 1543, the German priest called for Jewish synagogues and prayerbooks to be destroyed.
Some other interesting facts about Martin Luther
- Martin Luther was ordained a priest in 1507. The following year, he joined the University of Wittenberg as a lecturer of theology.
- On June 13, 1525, a 41-year-old Martin Luther tied the knot with 21-year-old Katharina von Bora. His wife was one of the 12 nuns that he helped escape from a German convent. The couple had six children, including Elisabeth (1527-1528) and Paul (1533-1593). The latter, a successful physician and chemist, served in the courts of John Frederick II, Duke of Saxony.
- His marriage to Katharina set the precedence for Protestant priests to marry.
- Martin Luther’s followers are often termed as Lutherans.
- The German priest died on February 18, 1546, aged 62. In his final decade, his health had deteriorated as he suffered severe chest pains and later an apoplectic stroke. He was laid to rest in the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg.
- His excommunication remained in place till his death in 1546.
Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466–1536)
A close pal of English philosophers Thomas More and John Fisher (1469-1535), Dutch philosopher and theologian Erasmus of Rotterdam was highly respected for his innovative ideas. His teachings about humanity might be the reason why he was nicknamed the “Prince of the Humanists”. An assiduous Catholic theologian, Erasmus was committed to the synergism doctrine which explains that there must be some relationship between human freedom and divine grace before one can receive his or her salvation.
He was widely celebrated for his 1524 work titled “The Freedom of the Will”. His other publications such as “On Civility in Children”, “In Praise of Folly” and “Copia: Foundations of the Abundant Style” have all helped in the study of humanity. In addition to Thomas More and John Fisher, the Dutch philosopher’s writings had profound influence on St. Francis Xavier, St. Ignatius of Loyola, John Milton, and Wolfgang Capito.
How is he remembered in his native country?
Erasmus is one of the most prominent figures in the history of the Netherlands. In view of that, many popular places and landmarks have been named after him. The Gymnasium Erasmianum, and the Erasmus University Rotterdam are two of the numerous institutions named in his honor.
The Erasmusbrug, a 2,631-foot bridge in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, was named after this Renaissance philosopher in 1992.
Giordano Bruno (1548–1600)
Next on our list is another Italian thinker named Giordano Bruno. He was widely known for his argument about the infinite universe. He expressed the opinion that the universe had no center. His theories on the existence of multiple worlds made him a well-known figure during the Renaissance age.
A student of the works of ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides of Elea, Bruno’s works were mainly focused on moral and cosmology (the study of the universe). He documented his ideas in his numerous books such as “On the Infinite Universe and Worlds (De l’infinito universo e mondi)” and “The Ash Wednesday Supper (Cena de le Ceneri)”.
Through his publications, Bruno had a lasting effect on other scholars including German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, Italian polymath Galileo Galilei, German polymath Gottfried Wilhelm, and Irish novelist James Joyce.
How he has been portrayed in recent years?
As one of the most popular thinkers in history, Bruno has been portrayed in many literature, films and music over the years. His ideas were mentioned in Joyce’s novel titled “Finnegans Wake” which was published in 1939. He was also the subject of Alexander Volkov’s 1963 publication “The Wandering”.
American music group Avenged Sevenfold gave an account of his death in their song titled “Roman Sky” which was released in 2016.
Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464)
Spending most of his active years as a priest in the Catholic Church, Nicholas of Cusa focused his study on the spiritual aspect of humanity. He was of the opinion that when it comes to God and the universe, man’s knowledge is limited. His main aim was to unite and reform the Roman Church and the universe.
The German philosopher was widely known for his “learned ignorance” argument which he stated in his 1440 publication titled “De docta ignorantia”. In his book, he argued that one needs supra-rational understanding in order to understand the works of God. He centered most of his works on the teachings of 6th-century Greek author Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. He was also influenced by the works of Greek philosopher Aristotle and Italian priest Thomas Aquinas.
Nicholas’ numerous publications made him one of the most influential figures in the 1400s. His works are still relevant despite being centuries old. Some of his best-known works were titled “On Divine Sonship (De filiatione Dei)”, “On the Vision of God (De visione Dei)” and “The Globe Game (De ludo globi).
Some prominent scholars that Nicholas Cusanus influenced
Thomas More, Nicolaus Copernicus, and Galileo Galilei were some of the early scholars who studied the works of Nicholas of Cusa. In recent years, German-Swiss philosopher Karl Theodor Jaspers (1883 – 1969) and Brazilian scholar Mário Ferreira dos Santos (1907 – 1968) have all been affected by his works.
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Francisco Suárez (1548–1617)
Francisco Suárez was a Spanish theologian and philosopher whose range of knowledge cut across many fields including ethics, politics, metaphysics, and law. It is believed that his ideas facilitated the growth of second scholasticism, a period in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in which the scholastic system of theology and philosophy was revived.
This Renaissance philosopher was also a leading member of the movement known as the School of Salamanca which began in Spain. Widely influenced by the likes of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, Suárez was regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of his generation. It was for this reason that he was given the honorable title “Exceptional and Pious Doctor” (Doctor Eximius et Pius).
His most popular work was the 1597 book entitled “Disputationes Metaphysicae”. For over a century, this publication has been studied by many institutions across the globe. A product of the University of Salamanca, Suárez made some interesting arguments in his other publications such as “Defensio fidei” and “De fide, spe et charitate”.
Some of his disciples
German polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and political philosopher Samuel von Pufendorf were influenced by some of Francisco Suárez’s works. Other scholars such as Arthur Schopenhauer, a German philosopher, and Spain’s Gustavo Bueno Martínez also drew inspiration from his teachings.
Galileo Galilei (1564–1642)
The study of physics will not be complete without the mentioning of Galileo Galilei. The Italian physicist, astronomer and philosopher contributed to a number of fields including gravity, velocity, and speed. He has been credited for developing important building blocks of the “scientific method”. The Italian scholar played an integral part in the scientific revolution during the 17th Century.
Throughout his career, he made many inventions including the military compasses and the thermoscope. He also improved the telescope which was initially invented by Hans Lipperhey (1570 – 1619), a Dutch spectacle maker. Through his observations, he discovered many celestial objects including lunar craters, Jupiter’s four satellites, and rings of around the planet Saturn. He went on to discover other heavenly bodies which he mentioned in his book titled “The Sidereal Messenger (Sidereus Nuncius)”.
Despite his scientific background, Galilei was seen as a great philosopher. His wide range of knowledge baffled many people. He was also in support of Nicolaus Copernicus’ idea that the planets, including the Earth, orbits round the sun which he believed is stationed in the middle of the Universe.
His views were documented in his 1632 publication entitled “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems”. His observation and contributions to science earned him the description “father of observational astronomy”.
German physicists Albert Einstein described Galilei as the “father of modern science”. The Pisa-born scientist mentored other prominent scholars including Italian scholars Benedetto Castelli (1578 – 1643) and Mario Guiducci (1583 – 1646).
Francisco de Vitoria (c. 1483-1546)
Next is another member of the School of Salamanca movement. In fact, Francisco de Vitoria has been credited as the founder of the aforementioned 16th century movement. His contributions were mostly in the field of international law, and he is regarded as one of the fathers of the discipline.
He paid close attention to the difference between politics and religion. In his 1537 lecture titled “De Indis”, the Spanish philosopher made an interesting argument about the rights of the native Indians against their colonial rulers, Spain. He stated that the Indians should not be seen as slaves.
Vitoria was of the opinion that every human was entitled to some natural rights. His ideas were later published and given many titles including “De Indis et De Jure Belli” and “De matrimonio”. His works were mostly influenced by that of Thomas Aquinas.
Vitoria has been an inspiration to other critical thinkers such as France’s Joseph de Maistre (1753 – 1821) and British philosopher Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797).
Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592)
Michel de Montaigne’s works ridiculed the arrogance of the so-called intellectuals. He held the opinion that one’s intelligence is one way or the other limited. He argued that “Our lives consist partly in madness, partly in wisdom”.
The French Renaissance philosopher has been credited for advancing the essay form of writing. His work “Essais” (Essays) is considered a game-changer in the study of literature. His ability to combine humorous anecdotes and serious intellectual ideas made him a key figure during the Renaissance period.
A big admirer of the works of Greek philosopher Plato and Roman poet Ovid, Montaigne contributed to topics such as human action, happiness, and motivation. He was also concerned about child education. On that issue, he made some relevant points in his books such as “On Experience” and “On the Education of Children”. He emphasized on the need for concrete experience rather than abstract learning. He also explored the different aspects of life and human nature.
Who are his followers?
The works of this French Renaissance philosopher have affected many writers over the years. It is believed that his writings and teachings had some impact on the works of famed English writer William Shakespeare. Other prominent scholars that he influenced were French mathematics Blaise Pascal and French political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Did you know…?
- In 1557, he was appointed a counselor of a Bordeaux-based Parlement.
- He had six children with Françoise de la Cassaigne whom he married in 1565-