Comparison of the Renaissance and Enlightenment

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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.