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What is the Difference Between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment?

By S. Mithra
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Renaissance and the Enlightenment name two distinctly different periods of European history. They both heralded major changes in culture, art, philosophy, science, and mathematics. The Renaissance is associated with advances in literature, architecture, humanism, and a world economy, while the Enlightenment is associated with the scientific method, industrialization, rationality, astronomy, and calculus.

The Renaissance occurred during the 14th-16th centuries, following the Middle Ages. In French, the name translates as "rebirth," meaning that this was a Golden Age of artistic, cultural, and intellectual thought and production. During this era, great contributions were made to music, astronomy, painting, architecture, poetry, drama, and philosophy. Some famous people of this period include Galileo, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Niccolo Machiavelli.

Financial, political, and technological innovations contributed to this explosion in civilization. The Black Plague killed many people but ended up redistributing wealth, remapping cities, and establishing a literate middle class. The Gutenberg press allowed people to translate and widely distribute written material. Advents in ship building and ocean navigation enabled closer economic ties between all of Europe and the East, not to mention the New World. Knowledge was accessible when Greek and Roman texts were translated from Latin into Italian, French, and English, so scholars could expand upon Ancient wisdom.

From about 1650-1800, Europe and the New World experienced an Enlightenment that introduced new paradigms of morality. This, too, was a period of discovery, but is generally limited to the realm of science, mathematics, and technology. Logic and reason reigned as thinkers became convinced that society and the natural world were like a giant, united machine that, while it may be complicated, could eventually be dismantled, studied, and mastered. The scientific method, which relied on the notion of objective observation leading to verifiable conclusions, spurred developments in astronomy, philosophy, medicine and physiology, transportation, chemistry, and ethics.

Empirical data suddenly displaced people's superstitious notions of how the world functioned by explaining mystical phenomena such as lightning, eclipses, disease, or hallucinations. The new authority in this part of the world was research and science, rather than the Church and God. Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilei, and Gottfried Liebnitz are associated with the new fields of science such as calculus, cosmology, and physics. Society valued truth and the acquisition of knowledge as worthwhile pursuits that informed philosophy. Ethical behavior to treat everyone fairly was described in treatises by Thomas Hobbes and Baruch Spinoza.

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Discussion Comments
By anon251475 — On Mar 01, 2012

How come Galileo is mentioned in both periods? Was he reincarnated?

By anon249092 — On Feb 20, 2012

It wasn't called "Black Plague" it was called either the "Great Plague," or the "Black Death." The only place where it's called the Black Plague is here in the USA, where people tend to get things like this, as well as metaphors, a little muddled.

By recapitulate — On Jan 16, 2011

@behaviourism, and then of course the Romantic period was a reaction to the Enlightenment.

I teach British literature, and it really interesting to see the way that things from the Dark Ages to the Renaissance, then the Renaissance to the Age of Reason, and then the Age of Reason to the Romantics are all, in so many ways, reactions to one another; either responses which contradict the previous era or continuations of what happened before, done more strongly. We are now talking about the Victorians, and I am already seeing how it relates to what changed in the world after the Romantic Period.

By aaaCookie — On Jan 14, 2011

Some people who prefer the Enlightenment like to say that education during the Renaissance was less advanced. On the contrary, many people were studying things like mathematics and science, they just focused less on them than they did on things like art, music, and writing beautiful poetry.

By behaviourism — On Jan 12, 2011

Generally, the Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason, can be seen as a direct response to the Renaissance.

While the Renaissance was a period of exploration in art, poetry, and literature that focused on emotion, faith, and mystery, the Age of Reason was just that- a focus on science, logic, and solving the seemingly unsolvable with the senses.

By anon8314 — On Feb 11, 2008

On my website I'm making the connection between a renaissance, enlightenment, genius, philosophy, religion, art, science, mind, body, spirit, soul, tennis, ....

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