History Philosophy

Renaissance Humanism and the Sanctification of the Conscience: Humanism & Modernity

Renaissance Humanism laid the foundations for modernity. So much so, neo-traditionalists—especially of the Western variety—condemn the Renaissance more-so than even the Enlightenment (which was, in many ways, a continuation of Renaissance ideals). The Renaissance in Europe principally emanated from Catholic clerics and intellectuals who engaged with Islam, post-Crusades, intellectually, rather than violently, and the recovering of classical (mostly Greek) texts. Humanism, therefore, emerged through inter-faith and inter-textual engagement: Islam on one hand and Neoplatonic mysticism (principally) on the other.

The core idea of the Renaissance humanists, best exemplified in cleric-scholars like Nicholas of Cusa and Marsilio Ficino, was their elimination of the codified notion of religion and their turn to the conscience and its sanctity. Religio, in Latin, means “to bind.” Dealing with why people would prefer to worship God in its Islamic form rather than the truth of Christianity, and also dealing with how the Greek mystics and philosophers could be truthful in their spiritual and philosophical annunciations without having been Christian (let alone baptized), the humanists argued that the real meaning of religion was the interior heart (or soul) and its impulse to worship Transcendence and the primacy of the self, or conscience, in deciding how to orient itself in this instinctive desire to give gratitude for existence (Ficino goes as far as to say that the Platonic quest for knowledge and conception of love prepares the Platonist for knowledge and love of God, thus synthesizing how Platonism can be a bridge to Christianity without the direct encounter with the sacraments of the Church). What united people in religion wasn’t monastic vows or ecclesial submission (the traditional view) but the instinct to worship for the gratitude of existence. This instinct of the heart, or soul, was inherent to every human being (whether they acknowledged God or not or knew God or not). As I use the term “religion” now in the rest of this post, it means interior life and the conscience since that’s what the humanists reinterpreted religion to mean.

Drawing on antecedent principles found in the New Testament (principally in the Book of Acts when Paul visits Athens, but also Paul’s Letter to the Romans) and in the patristic fathers (most notably Saint Augustine and to a lesser extent Saint Justin Martyr), the humanists maintained the reason that Neoplatonic mysticism and even Islam could be compatible with Christianity is because they just needed to hear the truth of the Gospels in order to direct (convert, convertire) their instinctive impulse to worship to the revealed God. (Humanists like Pico Mirandola argued that other religious traditions contained the truths of Christianity and Ficino wrote a systematic work synthesizing Christian theology with Platonism.) What was needed, then, was the enlightening of the intellect to achieve this “conversion” or proper orientation. The Neoplatonic mystics and the Muslims all exhibited the truth of religion: the interior desire to worship for the gratitude of being; they were already “on the right path.” Now they just needed explication by Christians as to what they seeking to worship (in the case of the Neoplatonists) or what they were missing (in the case of Muslims—the divinity of Christ).

What came from this Renaissance belief was the primacy of conscience. The individual, and the individual alone, was responsible for their religious (spiritual/interior) life. While the humanists believed the intellect/conscience could be persuaded by evidence, they rejected the belief in forced conversion and separated “religion” (the interior life and conscience) and state. One can read, for example, Marsilius of Padua’s Defensor Pacis (Defender of the Peace) as an early example of separation of religion (the interior life) and state wherein he argued the purpose of the state is to secure peace and order to permit the interior life of its citizens. This ideal of the separation of religion and state, which is really the defense of individual conscience against forced external pressure, was subsequently picked up by the Reformers during the Protestant Reformation as integral to their critique of ecclesiastical authoritarianism. The highest maturation of this defense of conscience was John Milton’s Areopagitica (Milton was educated in the humanistic tradition at Cambridge) and the non-conformist movements which relied on arguments of the free conscience for their liberty (for instance, Roger Williams, the famous Puritan theologian and pastor exiled from Massachusetts, wrote in defense of the free conscience when he founded Rhode Island as a haven for religious dissenters).

Men like Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin (and their heirs) developed systematic theologies of the heart (interiority). While it was, of course, preferable to have Christian civil servants, the civil authority was separate from religious authority. And the only ultimate religious authority was the individual: hence Luther’s sincerity of the heart and the Reformed doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers.” While this was often imperfect and messy even in Reformation lands, the contests between dissenters and civil authorities (especially in England) and the principles of sincerity and religious conscience (in Lutheran and Calvinist lands) produced the mature views of the free conscience we have inherited and further developed today. By the early nineteenth century, Friedrich Schleiermacher’s theology of sincerity was the next continuation of the Renaissance humanistic spirit insofar, as Schleiermacher articulated, true religion was found in the sentiment of the soul and not the liturgies or sacraments of the churches (Schleiermacher goes as far as to say that the interior feelings and sincerity one has is the Gift of the Holy Spirit.)

At the same time as Schleiermacher articulated a theology of interior sincerity, late Enlightenment Europe further bifurcated the primacy of conscience to its now recognizable form we have in modernity. From Milton and Locke and other English dissenters, the freedom of conscience was explicitly tied to spiritual matters. The late Enlightenment eventually dropped the spiritual origin of the freedom of conscience.

This produced the freedom of conscience in our modern, secular, or post-spiritual, sense. Nevertheless, as all educated and literate people know, this freedom of secular conscience is historically derived from a religious origin in the Late Renaissance and the non-conformist Protestant tradition. Today’s primacy of conscience in all matters, especially ethics, is the current manifestation of the humanist ideal begun in the Renaissance. “My body, my choice,” is now the most manifest example of this ideal divorced from its religious origin.

The outgrowth of humanism has many manifestations, of which we find two roads (broadly speaking) today: religious humanism and secular humanism. But even the most educated secular humanists (not internet trolls or the ignorant hoi polloi on social media) know this; hence why they created the term “secular humanism” in the 20th century to differentiate themselves from their religious humanists compatriots. The secular humanist takes the post-Enlightenment bifurcation to its secular conclusion: I, and I alone, live my life according to the values I determine as best for me.

Religious humanists come in a multiplicity of forms, the two most common being—faute de mieux—relativists and compatibilists. Religious relativists in the humanist tradition emphasize the individual and their spiritual journey: “Jesus is God to me but maybe not to you” is a common view among religious relativists, they affirm religious interiority and its importance but stop short, in the Christian context (or any confessional context), of promoting conversion. Religious compatibilists in the humanist tradition are the “conservative” heirs of the Renaissance humanists who assert the relativity of religious impulses, once enlightened, lead to Christ (in a specific Christian context). This is perhaps best exemplified in Vatican II (which represented, properly understood, the ascendancy of humanist theology in the Catholic Church as dogma): “As created beings, people are subject to many limitations, but they feel unlimited in their desires and their sense of being destined for a higher life” (Gaudium et Spes, no. 10) and “The church believes that Christ, who died and was raised for the sake of all, can show people the way and strengthen them through the Spirit so that they become worthy of their destiny” (Ibid.). Here we see the affirmation of universal interiority followed by the assertion that the desire of the spiritual life finds its completion in Christ (compatibilism). Then there is the affirmation of conscience in Dignitatis Humanae: “He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters.”

The compatibilists, again, believe that the instinctive desire for worship of a “higher life” leads to Christ once explained (reaffirming the persuasion of the intellect without forced violence or penalty by ecclesial or state authorities). Thus all religions and all religious impulses are compatible (with Christianity). Universal nature compels us to an interior, or spiritual, desire. This universal spiritual desire is not incompatible with a confessional or revealed reality: hence the compatibilism. (This view is rejected by the neo-reactionaries and neo-traditionalists.)

The world we have today with its primacy of intellect and conscience, the notion of religion as relating to the interior life, and even secular and atheistic and agnostic DIY ethics are all derivative manifestations of Renaissance Humanism. More-so than the Enlightenment (which was the secularization or materialization of Humanist principles), the most important epoch that laid the seeds for our world today was the Renaissance. Yet we are mostly ignorant of the ironies of an originally religious impulse (the attempt to provide a synthesis of Neoplatonic mysticism and Islam with Christianity) laying the groundworks for our now mostly secular disposition.

Our modern beliefs in the primacy of conscience, separation of religion (the interior life) and state (the civil/public life), and synthetic views of religiosity, even our beliefs in individualist ethics, are all ultimately derivations—in some form—of Renaissance Humanism and its elevation and sanctification of the conscience (the interior life) against any and all external forces (be it state, church, or other humans).


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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