Classical Greece & Renaissance Italy

Of significant historical interest are the societies that operated in the time of Classical Greece and the socially-reforming period that originated in Renaissance Europe. The two cultures, while separated in time, shared many similar aspirations in terms of fostering an inquiry into humankind and of the natural world in a period of relative intellectual freedom. One can compare the two cultures, describe the similarities, but more importantly appreciate the social and political possibilities that open to a society when some liberal opportunities become available to a greater portion of the population.

Today, communication is seen as a fundamental force for societal change. In Greece, literacy was responsible for developing a sensibility of logic, of rational thought, scepticism and for growth of the individual (Murray, 1993, p. 98-99). The power that literacy played in shaping Grecian society was fundamental, for writing constituted the basic ingredient of Greek education. While the spoken word became a sharp instrument for the politics of the day, it was writing that became the medium for the promotion of culture as it permitted the dissemination of knowledge previously restricted or forbidden (Vernant, 1982, p. 52).

A literate people can make for themselves informed decisions regarding all facets of culture. The knowledge and values communicated in Greece eventually became elements of common culture. In this way, they were exposed to public scrutiny, and submitted to criticism and controversy by a public that would no longer accept a concept on a mere superficial notion (Vernant, 1982, p. 51).

The more liberated intellectual environment for those inclined offered space to explore the realms of natural science, mathematics and geometry, astronomy and theories on life itself. Greece at this time may have lacked the mechanical apparatus to test such theories, this had to wait until the age of the scientific revolution inspired those during the Renaissance and beyond.

Why did Europe, and in particular Italian society embrace a new freedom of thought and intellectual pursuit that we now term the Renaissance? It was during the course of the 14th and 15th centuries that scholars began to develop a more critical understanding of history, appreciating what could be learnt. This new appreciation influenced the way learned men and women approached art, architecture and literature (Black, Greengrass, Howarth et al., 1993, p. 26). Most importantly, it influenced the way one proposed to study the individual.

The idea of the prime manifestation of the human spirit and of human values underpins the notion of a humanist philosophy. Humanism in the renaissance stood for a view of life that reflected a society that was more concerned with worldly, of concepts dealing with the self-conscious awareness of the human individual (Hale, 1971, p. 16). In this way, an empowerment of the individual stood at the centrepoint of academic pursuit. Renaissance attitudes brought together the greater achievement of the potential of the nature of humankind. This period gave priority to the highest development to individuality, through the study of humankind in all forms of expression (Burckhardt, p. 158). The exterior world, the world of appearances not only mattered to Renaissance thinkers, but it was the inner workings of the mind and soul that intrigued many scholars.

The beliefs of the Greek and Roman philosophers became of interest in Renaissance Italy after the 12th century. Such an interest led to a revival in the study of astrology, Platonism and hermetic philosophies, translated from Greek, such writings encouraged a trend to the study of pre-Christian metaphysical thought (Black, Greengrass, Howarth et al., 1993, p. 132). The study of alternate forms of wisdom opened up new avenues of exploration, debate and evaluation that disseminated among the learned. New facets about the world could be discovered, discussed and recorded for prosperity. New knowledge could make a city potentially wealthy, so the collecting and the organising of information and facts became part of the academic process of learning. The Renaissance placed the human individual at the pinnacle of enquiry of study and of representation and curiosity. This happened within the political and social framework of Italy at this time, coinciding with many other developments including that of technology, travel, cultural expansion and religious conflicts.

Both ancient Greece and Renaissance Italy fostered an art in praise of human beauty, the human ideal - "Humanism's debt to the classical past, and its rejection of Medieval culture is clearly evident in the painting and sculpture emanating from the period, by such artists as Botticelli, Raphael and others" (Hale, 1971, p. 26-27). It appears that sometimes, human ideals will manifest at different times throughout history, and the actual manifestations will depend very much on the society that embraces them.

In a historical sense the liberalisation of education and literacy opens up more choices for an intelligent and inquiring people. Opportunities exist to experiment with social practices. These are the benefits that democratic social freedoms can bring. Greek and Italian cultures shared this experience to a large degree, with Greece originating the concepts, while the Italians appropriated the ideas and built upon them. Free expression of thought unhindered by religious orthodoxy is crucial for social advancement of a society. A literate and critical population is necessary for informed policies and judgments to make their way into mainstream political thought. Art expression, both visual and dynamic fosters a creative spirit. Inquiry into the workings of nature, progress of a scientific tradition enables a society to build, construct and employ the machines of experiment and industry. Freedom of expression, and the ability to document, record and preserve such expressions is crucial for the progressive advancement of human society. Classical Greece and Renaissance Italy shared this worldview.


Jean-Paul Vernant, The Origins of Greek Thought, Ithica, New York, 1982.

Oswyn Murray, Early Greece (second ed.), London, 1993.

John R. Hale, Renaissance: Great Ages of Man, A HIstory of the World's Cultures, Time-Life International, USA, 1971.

C.F. Black, Mark Greengrass, David Howarth, et al., Cultural Atlas of the Renaissance, Prentice Hall General Reference, New York 1993.

Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, Phaidon Press, Vienna, copyright edition.