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).


Works Cited

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

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