The Renaissance

The Renaissance is rightly celebrated for its creativity in the arts. For the history of psychology it initiated the transition from medieval to modern times. The distinctive development of the Renaissance was the reappearance of humanism: placing importance on individual human beings and their lives in this world as opposed to medieval concern with feudal social status and religious concern with their future lives in heaven or hell. As psychology is the science of individual mind and behavior, it owes a debt to humanism.

Although the Renaissance helped give birth to modern secular life, it began (as in the works of Francesco Petrarch. 1304-1374), by looking backward rather than forward. Renaissance writers derided the Middle Ages as dark and irrational and praised the Classical Age as enlightened and full of wisdom. The Party of the Ancients believed that people could do no more than imitate the glories of Greece and Rome. Right through the eighteenth century (the Enlightenment and Age of Reason) the influence of the Ancients lingered, as artists, architects, and political leaders looked to the Classical past for models of taste, style, and sound government.

Renaissance humanism turned the focus of human inquiry away from God and heaven toward nature. Freed from medieval religious prohibitions on dissection of the human body, artists such as Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and physicians such as Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) undertook their detailed anatomical study, beginning to see the body as an intricate but understandable machine. a key to scientific psychology. Since the dawn of time, people had closely observed nature but had rarely interfered in its operations. In the Renaissance, however, a new relationship between humans and nature took shape. Led by Francis Bacon (1561-1626), scientists began to interrogate nature by means of experimentation and sought to use their knowledge to control nature; Bacon said “knowledge is power.” Throughout the twentieth century, psychology has followed Bacon’s maxim, aiming to be a means of advancing human welfare. Applied psychology began with the Italian political writer, Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), who linked the study of human nature to the pursuit of political power. Although he did not discard religious notions of right and wrong, Machiavelli looked unsparingly at human nature in the new naturalistic spirit, seeing humans as made more for sin than salvation. He told princes how to exploit human nature for their own ends while avoiding tempting paths of selfishness that could harm their nations.

From the Renaissance interest in understanding nature came a point of view halfway between religion and modern science: Renaissance naturalism. Magnets are mysterious: How does a special lump of metal attract and repel others? Traditional explanations cited the supernatural: The magnet is inhabited by a demon or is under the spell of a sorcerer. Renaissance naturalism, however, attributed the magnet’s power to “a secret virtue, inbred by nature, and not by any conjuration.” The magnet’s power lay in the inherent nature of magnets, not in a demon or spell imposed on nature from without. Rejecting supernatural explanation represented a step toward science, but without an explanation of how magnetism worked, secret virtues remained as mysterious as demons.

Greater mysteries than magnetism, however, are life and mind. Why do living things move, but not stones? How do we perceive and think? Religion said a soul dwelled in bodies, making them alive and giving them experience and the capacity for action. In Greek, psuche meant “breath of life” (soul). Renaissance naturalism suggested that perhaps life and mind, like magnetism, were outcomes of natural powers possessed by living bodies, not infusions into nature from the soul. With regard to the mind, Renaissance naturalism suffered two drawbacks. As in the case of magnetism, it lacked any explanation of how the body caused mental activity. More disquieting was naturalism’s implication that humans have no souls, so that our personalities will perish with our bodies. To a large degree, scientific psychology was created as scientists, beginning with Rene Descartes, wrestled with these questions. Psychology seeks to give detailed explanations of mind and behavior without invoking a supernatural soul.

The Renaissance Party of the Ancients, which looked to the Classical past as the source of all wisdom, was challenged by the Party of the Moderns, who asserted that modern men and women were equal to the creative giants of the past. They proved they were right with the Scientific Revolution.