A New Thought

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The Trial of Socrates

As the Renaissance movement began to gain momentum throughout Europe, scholars and intellectuals began to look back upon ancient texts in order to apply the knowledge to their everyday lives. This renewed interest in historical knowledge inevitably led these scholars to the works of Plato and Aristotle - philosophers from Ancient Greek.

One of the defining moments of Ancient Greece was the Trial of Socrates which became one of the roots for skepticism, individualism, secularism, and humanism.
The Trial of Socrates

Occurring in 399 BC, Socrates was charged with “corrupting the youth” and impiety. He was found guilty and sentenced to death by drinking a hemlock-based liquid. It should be noted however, that he was not anti-religious, he was merely skeptical of the claims the church made. He had begun to ask one of the most important questions that we can ask ourselves: why?

-Leonardo Da Vinci

The roots of skepticism can be traced back to the ancient Greek schools of philosophy, mainly Platonism and Epicureanism. The writings of Sextus Empiricus were the basis for Renaissance-era skepticism and were quite popular as they went through multiple new editions made possible with the development of the printing press.

The practical definition of skepticism during the Renaissance differs greatly from the one we use today. The Catholic and Protestant Church still maintained significant amounts of power, and any doubt or questioning that led to a public denunciation of one’s faith would be met with harsh reaction. Proclaimed atheists were often put to death and the punishment for blasphemy was severe even up until the late 17th century. As a result, skepticism was regarded as a questioning of purported truths and claims of knowledge made by those other than religious institutions. This is quite different than the contemporary definition of skepticism which often includes religious skepticism. In the 21st century there has been a significant rise in the prevalence of atheism - the fastest growing minority in the USA. In the Western world, the public floor is open to any questions regarding any topic without fear of retribution.

Famous Renaissance Skeptics

There are two famous Renaissance skeptics that have had a large impact on modern day skepticism: Michel Eyquem de Montaigne and Blaise Pascal.

Montaigne’s most famous work was Essais. It was a collection of essays that gave prominent place and helped develop skeptical argumentation. He states that any attempt to garner knowledge is misguided because it has the underlying assumption that the natural world exists solely for the satisfaction of our idle curiosity. His skepticism goes beyond just the external world - he questions the accuracy to which our senses gain gather evidence and says that logical reasoning cannot reliably be done without circularity, asking “What do I know?” He concludes his anthology by proposing that we would be better off forgoing the claims of truth and knowledge in favour of doubting everything and resting with our own opinions.

Pascal is most well known for his (fallacious) argument of Pascal’s Wager - one that justifies a belief in God and therefore a virtuous life. His belief is aptly described by the following table:

In regards to skepticism, he was often in the defending position of religion. He attempted to show the inconsistencies the views that skeptics hold by clashing with Montaigne’s arguments. He believed that reason cannot tell us anything about God and therefore rational proofs for his existence ultimately fails.

-Kurt Vonnegut

Humanist Ideology

Humanism is an ideology revolving around the value of being a human being. The basis of humanist thought is that humans had unlimited potential as craftsman of being. This view revolves around human expression that is not tied to religion, with secular value. Artists and writers would have creative motivations through artistic means instead of purely religious factors. In the renaissance, writers began taking a secular viewpoint of history, meaning that for the first time, history was being recorded without just a religious perspective.

Humanist Values

Value in the humanist view was more materialistic in nature, as well as expressing the natural pleasures of life as an integral part of society. Humanism also took a role in education, placing emphasis on subjects such as math, grammar, poetry and history in pursuit of a well-rounded individual. An academic focus on literature and writing was paired with the teaching of ancient European civilizations. Greek and Roman influenced philosophy was revitalized during the Renaissance, as intellectuals respected the teachings of past philosophers. Humanists studied the work of Aristotle, Virgil, Homer and Plato as society experienced a cultural evolution through emerging ideas.

Humanism and the Modern Day

Through humanist influences, society continued to develop intellectually, eventually reaching a period known as “The Enlightenment”. By establishing primitive forms of science and innovation, humanism provided a base for discoveries like the scientific method, thereby starting the scientific revolution.

The value placed on Greek and Roman ideology by the humanist movement in the Renaissance allowed for democracy to rise again in the modern era. Materialism was a prime contributor to the development of capitalism, which is the basis for trade and development in current society. Art and education today also arose from influences related to the humanist viewpoint. Math, science, paintings and architecture all experienced extensive development in the Renaissance as intellectuals pieced together ancient teachings as well as adding their own contributions, leading to modern institutions of creativity along with education.

What is Individualism?

Individualism is the belief that the individual's interests, desires, and goals are of paramount importance. A new thought that began to emerge within the Renaissance era was the recognition of an individual's efforts. This new idea is embodied in the artists of this time, as they signed their paintings and other works.

Signing of Artistic Works

These artists realized that by simply leaving their name on their work, they could greatly increase their chances of becoming known and thus extend their reach to areas distant from where they were working. Due to the lack of signing artistic works prior to the Renaissance Era, many works in previous years such as the Middle Ages are still anonymous and uncredited. The reason why artists in the Middle Ages did not want to include their names on the works is because the sole purpose of the art was to glorify God. An artist's signature was not needed on the particular work as it held no significance in glorifying the Lord, and can be seen as an attempt by the artist to draw attention upon themselves, and thus away from God. This leads into the second new Individualistic thought which sprung from the Renaissance; individual education.

Individual Education

Contrary to the past, the Renaissance Era encouraged people to learn as many fields and areas as possible, in order to become more knowledgeable as an individual. As a result, artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo tried to master every medium that they worked with . A Renaissance sculpture called David by Michelangelo was a prime example of the spreading Individualism. David, a marble statue of a male nude is a rendering of the David from the Bible. Although the character is biblical and has strong ties to Christianity, it was unlike the sacred works of the previous time because Michelangelo's portrayal of David exuded confidence which was not seen before in the humble works of the Middle Ages' Christians. Michelangelo wanted to convey with David's confident pose that anything is possible for man.

The shift of focus from the Christian God to the man brought the proliferation of secularism. Secularism is essentially the rejection of religious considerations. Prior to the renaissance paintings were often drawn with a Christian tone or a religious tone in general. However as minds shifted so did the art produced by them. This is reflected on the paintings that were produced then. In the late 15th century the artistic form of portraits flourished. Instead of grandiose paintings artists began to paint miniatures for nobles. The religious factor started to fade from paintings, the nude is the embodiment of this separation. There were often paintings such as the sleeping beauty which were recognized for their lack of symbolism, paintings that were made just to admire the body as an object of beauty. Ancient texts of Greek and Roman were analyzed during this period, not as a form of worship but to understand the thoughts of men. Similarly ancient mythology were prevalent in renaissance paintings not as a form of worship but as a reflection of man’s mind.

Beyond paintings secularism was prevalent in the scientific discoveries during the renaissance. Although the church maintained a strong grasp many blasphemous research were published. Arguably the most famous example of this was Galileo’s advocacy of Copernicus’ heliocentric model of the solar system. Secularism had a significant impact on the study of chemistry during this time. The church was against the study of alchemy. However due to the change in mind shift of the renaissance era alchemy became more common. Research into alchemy rapidly advanced our knowledge of chemicals as their properties were greatly analyzed. In fact Boyle came up with his law of ideal gas in this period. Boyle’s research is now known to be the beginning of modern chemistry.

The Trial of Socrates 2.0

The Renaissance Trial of Socrates
The above video is a depiction of how the Trial of Socrates would have gone down in the Renaissance Era. New ideas began to be embraced and individualism encouraged; the four -isms discussed in this flyer have huge ramifications even today.