Through the groundwork laid by the Hundred Years War, the Black Death, and the Protestant Reformation, Italian Renaissance humanism nearly single-handedly allowed for the modern concept of individuality. The rebirth of classical literature, and especially the attempts among the philosophical elite to translate this literature, helped bring this “enlightening” knowledge to the gradually more literate masses. Also, the frenzy for education of these masses allowed the concept of individuality to spread to all social classes. Even peasants, the dredges of European society, believed (and were allowed to believe) they could achieve a level of intellectual intelligence equal to the great classical philosophers.
Francesco Petrarch, the great Renaissance humanist, noted other humanists, “and innumerable others like them,” signifying the vast popularity classical literature had gained in the then recent past. The popularity of classical literature, however, pales in comparison to the strength of the individual fostered by these humanist ideals. Pico della Mirandola, a Florentine writer, stated in his On the Dignity of Man, that there are no limits placed on what man can accomplish. His rationalization was that man was not subject to the fate of God; rather that he controls his own destiny, and that his accomplishment were limitless within the spectrum of achievements available to man, that is, that man’s greatness falls somewhere in between that of the angels and that of the insects, the beasts. Leon Battista Alberti noted his belief that “Men can do all things if they will,” and truly, this was the belief of the people, especially with the vast growth of universities in the High Middle Ages. Leonardo da Vinci may have been known at his time as a great painter, but he may also have been one of the greatest mathematicians of that era. Renaissance artists, such as Michelangelo and Raphael, writers and philosophers such as Petrarch and Machiavelli, the great composers like Mozart and Bach, athletes who revived ancient Roman athletics such as disc and javelin competitions, and even the popes, who, unfortunately, were sometimes no more than successful businessmen before fulfilling their holy duties, were, in all groups, somewhat of a peasant heritage.
Humanism in the Italian Renaissance fostered an increased surge of individualism allowing people to believe that, in the words of Alberti, “Men can do all things if they will.” This thought laid the groundwork for the development of modern society.