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Humanist Lives of Classical Philosophers and the Idea of Renaissance Secularization: Virtue, Rhetoric, and the Orthodox Sources of Unbelief

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 November 2018

Ada Palmer*
University of Chicago


Humanists seeking to defend the classics in Christian-dominated Europe often reframed ancient philosophers as virtuous proto-Christians. This is particularly visible in the biographical paratexts written for printed editions of ancient philosophers such as Pythagoras, Epictetus, and Democritus, whose humanist editors’ Christianizing claims grew stronger over time. Pious humanists intended and expected the classics to strengthen and reaffirm Christian orthodoxy, but humanists’ own claims that pre-Christian sages, by the light of reason alone, had deduced the central truths of theology and surpassed Christians in the exercise of virtue inadvertently undermined the necessity of scripture and paved the way for later deism.

Research Article
Copyright © 2017 Renaissance Society of America

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