Sandro Botticelli, Saint Augustine in His Study, 1480, fresco, Ognissanti, Florence
Wikimedia Commons, public domain
An Emerging Sense of Human Value
Through the Middle Ages, Western Europeans largely viewed humanity as ultimately weak in the light of God, and our time on earth as merely transitory. The Church taught that God was everything with the heavenly realm being the true reality to which we will one day arrive. Early Church Father Saint Augustine helped to establish this long held view of our earthly existence in relation to God’s universe.
While the institution of the Church remained strong, it’s during the Italian Renaissance that intellectuals began to place more value on human capability and earthly experience, even to the point of comparing human strengths and intellectual capacity to God’s own power.
To see evidence of this change, you’ll be reading three primary sources. One is by Saint Augustine. Written in the last years of the 4th Century, Saint Augustine wrote Confessions, where he directs his conversation to God. In the passage you’ll be reading, Augustine is with his dying mother and their time together leads them to consider the value of earthly existence. You only need to read the Confessions paragraphs marked 23 through 26. The other two sources are from the Renaissance. One is an essay called “The Soul of Man”, written around 1474 by Florentine philosopher Marsilio Ficino. The other is a brief ode to the human eye written by Leonardo da Vinci in his Notes on Painting from the early 1500’s. The readings are posted to Week 1 of the course.
For this assignment, contrast medieval ideas as expressed in the excerpt from Saint Augustine’s Confessions to the ideas found in the two Renaissance sources. How does Augustine envision our earthly existence in relation to God’s heaven? And what ideas do the Renaissance writers present on the value of being human here on earth?