The Renaissance, an intellectual movement in European history that occurred at different places and various times, saw a rebirth of ancient ideas and philosophy. By examining the past, intellectuals of early Europe were able to invigorate society and lay the foundation for modernity.
The very essence of human nature was reexamined and redefined, but the ideas that were reflected in the literature of the time are still alien to our current sensibilities and still depended on a medieval world view (or universal perspective) that was unchallenged for a thousand years.
Some examples from the writings of Pico della Mirandola, Miguel de Cervantes, and William Shakespeare offer insight into early Europe’s understanding of human nature and how it compares to our own.
Pico della Mirandola and the Great Chain of Being
Pico della Mirandola traveled across Europe for his education, studying at many early universities until he settled in Florence, Italy where he would eventually butt heads with the papacy, perhaps resulting in his mysterious death. A humanist, Pico sought to understand humanity through a Platonic/Christian view of the universe illustrated by the Great Chain of Being. The Universe was a hierarchy with God and angels ruling above in the heavens, and man below on earth ruling only over the animals.
Pico de Mirandola says in his Oration on the Dignity of Man “That man is the intermediary between creature, close to the gods, master of all the lower creatures” Controversially Pico hailed man as the most fortunate of all creations of god because of our free will. One historian says that
“for Pico, humanity was even more important…man is the one part of the created world that has no fixed place, but can freely choose whether to rise to the realm of the angels or descend to the realm of the animals”
How does this view compare to ours today? Obviously, we do not believe in a earth-centric universe and the importance of a heavenly hierarchy, at least not to the extent of our past counterparts. But to most of Western civilization, free will, the ability to choose one’s one path, is our most defining feature.
Today we still praise rags to riches stories and are told to follow our dreams and that goals can be accomplished with hard work. This belief in our ability to work our way up the social ladder is not so different from Pico’s belief in man’s ability to raise or lower himself on the spiritual ladder, only today we would not be imprisoned for expressing these views.
Social Hierarchy in Don Quixote
Of all early modern literary figures, Miguel de Cervantes probably lived the most interesting life. Merry Wiesner-Hanks sums up his exploits “Cervantes studied in Italy, fought and was wounded in the Battle of Lepanto, was captured by pirates, was sold as a slave, and was eventually ransomed at a price that would ruin his family”
In his life Cervantes wrote many romances, plays, and his most well-known novel Don Quixote wherein we can find many similarities with our novels for movies today. Dynamic characters, dangerous adventures, bold heroes, and comedy are found in Miguel de Cervantes’ story, but what concerns us here is Cervantes’ view of human nature and the natural social hierarchy that must be respected. Not unlike the hierarchy of the universe in Pico’s work, social hierarchy was taught to be respected.
In a scene from Don Quixote Sancho, the main character’s squire, begins to laugh at his master’s fear so Don Quixote beats him which a pike, rather comically. After scolding his squire, Don Quixote goes on to say,
“From all I have said thou wilt gather, Sancho, that there must be a difference between master and man, between lord and lackey, between knight and squire: so that from this day forward in our intercourse we must observed more respect and take less liberties.”
Our modern-day opinions tend to reject this type of social hierarchy, as we now express more equalitarian views that all men are equal. In our relationships between employer and employee (master and man), we typically do not believe the wealthy and powerful are superior to ourselves.
Shakespeare: Voice to the Early Modern “Every-Man”
Yet an every-man view can be linked to certain early literary figures, one of which being the great playwright William Shakespeare. While Don Quixote was written in the vernacular, meaning in a native European language that was not Greek or Latin, Shakespeare’s works were performed so that even the illiterate could know his work.
Shakespeare came from a middle-class background and did not have a formal humanist education, and as Merry Wiesner-Hanks points out,
“Shakespeare’s talent was so great that some people have doubted whether someone from such a middling background could actually have written the plays, but his use of classical and historical sources, and of both medieval and humanist forms of language, demonstrate how widely humanist education had spread.”
Shakespeare wrote in a way that both resonates with the “every-man” of the past and also with us today. In Shakespeare sonnet XXIX: When in Disgrace with fortune and Men’s Eyes he expresses that romantic love is to be valued above wealth and status. Love can bring joy to an otherwise sad life, a message that continues to find its way into our modern ideas of human nature and our values of romance.
 Mirandola, Pico della, Oration on the Dignity of Man, 1486.
 Merry E Wiesner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789, 2nd ed, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 139.
 Ibid, 145.
 Cervantes Miguel de, Don Quixote, Part II, 1605.
 Merry E Wiesner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789, 2nd ed, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 147.