1450-1500 CE

Home Up Erasmus Machiavelli Wang Yang-ming Copernicus More Vives Rabelais

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Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536 CE), the illegitimate son of a priest,  was born at either Rotterdam or Gouda in Holland. He was ordained a priest in 1492. He published an appeal for a return to the spirit of early Christianity, with its emphasis on mutual love, sharing, and rejection of the pursuit of material riches. His later satire, Praise of Folly, had a stinging wit, but he remarked that he wanted to advise, not to rebuke, to do good, not injury, to work for, not against, the interests of men. In his many letters he discussed the folly of war, the value of books, and the need to act from judgment rather than impulse.



Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527 CE) was born in Florence. He entered public life in 1494 as a clerk, later becoming a secretary of Florence, exercising control over departments of interior and war. In 1512  he wrote The Prince, which sets out rules for government of a principality. Machiavelli was motivated by a concern for the good of the people through stability in government. He recognized, however, that a prince must be ready to be cruel and devious, because in the long run this is often kinder than to expose citizens to the turmoil, riots, or invasions that typically occur under a weak ruler.


Wang Yang-ming

Wang Yang-ming (1472-1529 CE) was born near Yuehch'eng, China. He held that what he called the intuitive faculty is a characteristic possessed by all men and is the primary source of moral guidance. It is manifested in sympathetic feeling, true sincerity and commiseration, and is to be used in daily tasks in order to evaluate moral choices and hold firmly to the truth. Wang also discovered that there can be no real knowledge without action. He concluded that the individual should act in the ways that his intuitive knowledge of good enables him to do. 



Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1527 CE)  was born Mikolaj Kopernik in Torun, Poland. He become canon of Frauenberg in 1512, but was not an ordained priest. His major work on the heliocentric view of the solar system (The Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) was published in 1543, shortly before his sudden death in May of that year. Copernicus argued that the earth rotates daily on its axis, that the Moon rotates around the earth, and that the earth-moon system rotates about the sun. He saw nature as a harmonious whole that is disturbed only by violence: that things left in accordance with nature preserve themselves in their own best arrangement.



Thomas More (1478-1535 CE) was born in London, England. He learned Latin at St. Anthonyís School, Greek at Oxford, and the law at Lincolnís Inn, London. He was a Catholic humanist, influenced by friends from Oxford and by Erasmus. He pursued an active career as a lawyer and also in public service: under-sheriff of London, diplomat, Speaker of Parliament, Lord Chancellor. He was executed after refusing to recognize the religious policies of Henry VIII. In his account of the fictional country, Utopia, More argued against abuses of power, for religious tolerance, for reform of the criminal justice system, for abandonment of wars of conquest, and for equitable distribution of property.



Juan Luis Vives (1492-1540 CE) was born in Valencia, Spain, into a Jewish family that was forced to convert to Christianity. He attended the University of Valencia and the Faculty of Arts in Paris. His became a friend of Erasmus and Thomas More and gained acquaintance with the Netherlands circle and its humanistic philosophy. The influence of this shows in the emphasis that Vives subsequently gave to humanism in social policy and education, as well as in moral philosophy. He was an activist, writing letters to heads of state urging a search for peace and avoidance of war. Vives also spent much effort on plans for the reform of education and for the elimination of poverty.



Francois Rabelais (about 1494-1553 CE) was born in Chinon, France. He was ordained a priest and embarked on a life of study in a Franciscan monastery. There he developed a strong interest in humanism, exploring Greek philosophy and literature. In 1530 he left the monastery  to study medicine at the University of Montpellier, where he received a bachelorís degree. He became a physician at Lyon but as his interests turned increasingly to literature he began his series of satirical books on the giants Gargantua and Pantagruel, for which he is most famous. In these, he mocked religious practices and held war and legal proceedings up for ridicule.