Political Effects of the Renaissance
History has shown us how civilizations evolve over time. Broadly
interpreted, the age of Diocletian marked a decisive stage in the
transition from the classical, the Greco-Roman, civilization of the
ancient Roman Empire to the Christian-Germanic civilization of the
early Middle Ages. Similarly interpreted, "the age of the Renaissance
marked the transition from the civilization of the Middle Ages to the
modern world"(Ferguson 1). Therefore, the Renaissance is the beginning
of the modern world and modern government.
In law the tendency was to challenge the abstract dialectical
method of the medieval jurists with a philological and historical
interpretation of the sources of Roman Law. As for political thought,
the medieval proposition that the preservation of liberty, law, and
justice constitutes the central aim of political life was challenged
but not overthrown by Renaissance theorists. They contended that the
central task of government was to maintain security and peace.
Machiavelli maintained that the creative force (virtj) of the ruler
was the key to the preservation of both his own position and the
well-being of his subjects, an idea consonant with contemporary
Italian city-states were transformed during the Renaissance from
communes to territorial states, each of which sought to expand at the
expense of the others. Territorial unification also took place in
Spain, France, and England. The process was aided by modern diplomacy,
which took its place beside the new warfare when the Italian
city-states established resident embassies at foreign courts. By the
16th century, the institution of permanent embassies spread northward
to France, England, and the Holy Roman Empire.
Renaissance churchmen, particularly in the higher echelons,
patterned their behavior after the mores and ethics of lay society.
The activities of popes, cardinals, and bishops were scarcely
distinguishable from those of secular merchants and political figures.
At the same time, Christianity remained a vital and essential element
of Renaissance culture. Preachers, such as San Bernardino of Siena,
and theologians and prelates, such as Sant'Antonino of Florence,
attracted large audiences and were revered. Moreover, many humanists
were concerned with theological questions and applied the new
philological and historical scholarship to the study and
interpretation of the early church fathers. The humanist approach to
theology and scripture may be traced from the Italian scholar Petrarch
to the Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus; it made a powerful impact on
Roman Catholics and Protestants.
Some medievalists contend that the inflated eloquence and dull
neoclassicism of much humanist writing undermine the claim that the
Renaissance was a turning point in Western civilization. Although
these contentions are valid to some degree, the Renaissance clearly
was a time in which long-standing beliefs were tested; it was a period
of intellectual ferment, preparing the ground for the thinkers and
scientists of the 17th century, who were far more original than the
Renaissance humanists. The Renaissance idea that humankind rules
nature is akin to Sir Francis Bacon's concept of human dominance over
nature's elements, which initiated the development of modern science
and technology. Medieval notions of republicanism and liberty,
preserved and defended with classical precedents by Renaissance
thinkers, had an indelible impact on the course of English
constitutional theory and may have been a source for the conception of
government espoused by the Founding Fathers of American
constitutionalism. Above all, however, "the age of the Renaissance
marked a decisive stage in the transition from Middle Ages to the
modern world"(Ferguson 1).
Morgan, Michael. Classics of Moral and Political Theory.
Indianapolisis: Hacket Publishing Company, 1992. 417-419.
Ferguson, Wallace. The Renaisance. New York: Harper & Row Publishing
Inc., 1963. 1-29