Humanists and Humanism

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HUMANISTS AND HUMANISM. Humanism was the dominant intellectual movement among the educated classes of Europe from the Renaissance to the seventeenth century. The term reflects the belief that certain academic subjects known since ancient times as the studia humanitatis (humanistic studies) must shape the education and culture of those who rule society. Humanism was closely linked to the Renaissance desire to broaden knowledge about antiquity as a means of recovering not only more information but also the inner spirit that had made Greece and Rome flourish. The "humanistic" subjects were five in number: grammar (chiefly Ciceronian Latin), rhetoric (the art of persuasive speaking and writing), moral philosophy (the guide to making responsible choices in personal and political life), history, and poetry. The first three of these were taught in medieval universities, though humanists charged that they had been eclipsed by the inordinate attention given to dialectic. Those who promoted humanism contended that the mastery of the "humanities" was essential for the intellectual and moral development of an educated man.

This definition of humanism is based on the work of Paul Oskar Kristeller (19051999), who believed that the nineteenth-century historian Jacob Burckhardt (18181897) introduced confusion into Renaissance studies when he defined humanism as a new philosophy of life even though he never succeeded in defining a coherent set of philosophical ideas held by all humanists. Kristeller defined humanists as essentially grammarians and rhetoricians who regarded the languages and literatures of ancient Greece and Rome as a precious heritage that they must recover. Some scholars still follow Burckhardt and define humanism as a secular philosophy of life that foreshadows the modern world, but Kristeller's approach predominates.


The roots of humanism lie in the unique social and political conditions of Italy about 1300. Northern Italy had become a commercial society dominated by independent city-republics. Chivalric literature and scholastic learning were remote from the primary concerns of urban laymen. But lawyers and notaries developed a professional subculture that led some individuals to become interested in ancient literature, and about 1300 a Paduan judge, Lovato dei Lovati (c. 12401309) and his friend Albertino Mussato (12611329), a notary, produced Latin works that imitated ancient Roman models.

Although these Paduan classicists may be the first humanists, the true founding figure was the poet Petrarch (13041374), the first humanist to gain international fame and to lead a group of disciples. The son of a Florentine notary attached to the papal curia at Avignon, Petrarch was attracted to poetry and classical literature. His father sent him to study law, but he devoted his life to poetry and Latin literature. His vernacular poems established his literary fame. He also wrote Latin poetry and produced a collective biography of famous Romans and an epic poem inspired by Virgil's Aeneid. Petrarch's dismay at the physical and moral decay of contemporary Rome led him to a new conception of ancient history. Unlike medieval thinkers, who never fully realized that they lived in post-Roman times, he saw that the Rome he loved had died a thousand years ago. In his opinion, the intervening millennium was a Dark Age. Good learning had perished. His goal was to restore knowledge of ancient Rome through study of its literature and thus to recapture the inner secret of Rome's greatness. So Petrarchan humanism was associated with a desire to bring about a "renaissance" of civilization. Petrarch was far more troubled by religious concerns than were most of his Italian contemporaries. His Secretum (Secret book) displays his awareness of discord between his desire for eternal salvation and his desire for worldly fame. He favored the contemplative over the active life and disdained the worldly concerns (politics, family, wealth) that captivated his Italian contemporaries. Hence his early following was limited to admirers of his poetry and of ancient literature.

The association of humanist learning with contemporary life was the work of Coluccio Salutati (13311406), chancellor of the Florentine republic. Salutati gained fame as an advocate for the republic at a time of political crisis. As the person who conducted the city's diplomatic correspondence, he created a network of humanist friends scattered throughout Italy. His activity made Florence the center of Italian humanism. In 1397 he persuaded the city to hire the Byzantine scholar Manuel Chrysoloras (13501415) to teach Greek, thus creating Italy's first generation of Hellenists and initiating the recovery of Greek literature. Salutati contributed to the triumph of humanism as the common culture of the ruling classes, first at Florence but eventually throughout Italy. A growing number of Florentine fathers chose humanistic education for their sons because they believed that the skills it taught and its Roman ethos of citizenship would prepare their heirs to assume their rightful place in society.


By the early Quattrocento (fifteenth century), humanism had become the dominant culture of educated Italians. Salutati's disciples at Florence made secular interestsespecially politicsthe focus of humanism. Leonardo Bruni (c. 13701444) associated Florentine republicanism with the cause of liberty for all Italians. His History of the Florentine People (14151444) explicitly proclaimed the superiority of a republican constitution to a monarchy. He attributed the greatness of Rome to its republican constitution and its later decline to the tyranny of the emperors. His republican ideology and his ideal of political involvement became the hallmark of Florentine humanism. Yet humanistic skills could also be useful in the service of a monarch, and humanism thus became the prevailing culture in Italy's princely courts as well as in its republics.

The fashion for humanism is reflected in a series of educational revolutions in fifteenth-century Italy and sixteenth-century France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, and England. Many of the town schools of Italy, which had taught traditional subjects, were transformed during the fifteenth century because ambitious city councillors wanted humanistic education for their sons. They hired humanists as headmasters and specified that instruction should be based on classical authors. In the sixteenth century, the municipal colleges of France and Spain experienced a similar transformation. Humanistic reform of northern universities proved far more difficult than reform of grammar schools and produced bitter conflicts in the early sixteenth century, but eventually humanists succeeded in winning an important place in most universities.

Since humanists admired classical literature, they were eager to discover lost works of ancient authors. Petrarch hunted for manuscripts and made important finds, including many of Cicero's letters; but the early fifteenth century was the golden age for rediscovery of Latin authors. The recovery of Greek literature was even more striking. Italian humanists brought back from Constantinople hundreds of previously unknown Greek books. Since relatively few Western students learned to read Greek well, the crucial moment in the availability of a Greek book was its translation into Latin. During the fifteenth century, the work of translation advanced rapidly. The most influential addition to the body of translations was the previously little-known works of Plato, translated by the Florentine philosopher Marsilio Ficino (14331499). By 1600, most of the Greek literature now known was available in printed Latin translations.

Fifteenth-century humanists also defined new standards for editing texts. Early humanist textual scholarship was driven more by enthusiasm than by rational criticism. Lorenzo Valla (14071457) was a pioneer in the development of a critical spirit. His greatest achievement was his realization that language itself is a product of history and changes with the passage of time. This idea is the foundation of modern philological scholarship. It was the basis of Valla's influential guide to good Latin style, Elegances of the Latin Language (1471). He demonstrated its power to evaluate texts in his treatise on the "Donation of Constantine" (c. 750800), which he proved to be a forgery, and in his annotations on the New Testament, which showed how the ability to read Greek could aid the study of Scripture.


Since northern culture remained far more traditional than Italian, at first only scattered individuals in the north displayed interest in humanism. Many northerners who spent time in Italy, especially students of law or medicine, became interested in humanism and continued to pursue this interest after returning home. Not until about 1450 did their interests begin to spread. Several Germans who studied in Italy became itinerant lecturers, moving from university to university to lecture on humanistic subjects. The most influential was Peter Luder (14151472). After returning from Italy in 1456, he lectured at several universities. His announced goal was to restore the purity of the Latin language, which had declined into "barbarism." Early German humanists presented humanism in the secularized form that they had found in Italy. They were classicists, educational reformers, even German patriots, but they did not associate humanism with religious revival. Yet a longing for spiritual renewal had become a powerful force in northern Europe.

The movement called "Christian humanism" explicitly applied humanist studies as a means to regenerate Christian faith. In Germany, an early example was Johann Reuchlin (14551519), who became expert in the biblical languages, Greek and Hebrew, and sought to apply Neoplatonism and Jewish mysticism (Cabala) to deepen his understanding of Scripture. In France the chief figure was Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples (14551536). His initial goal was to improve the teaching of Aristotelian philosophy at the University of Paris. But in 1508 he retired from teaching and devoted himself to study of the Bible. His biblical publications included his Fivefold Psalter (1509) and his commentary on the Epistles of St. Paul (1512).

By far the greatest Christian humanist was Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466?1536). As a young man he won attention for his elegant Latin style, and as a student of theology at Paris, he became close to Parisian humanists. Erasmus became known as a Latin poet, an editor of classical authors, and the author of a collection of classical proverbs. From about 1500 he also published on religion. His book of spiritual counsel to laymen, Enchiridion Militis Christiani (1503; Handbook of the Christian warrior), became a religious best-seller. Erasmus concluded that mastery of Greek was essential for study of the New Testament and of the church fathers. Reexamination of the scriptural and patristic sources of Christian faith could liberate both theology and spiritual life from the spiritual morbidity of the unreformed church. He called his ideal "the Philosophy of Christ." Although this ideal of a religion expressed in righteous living rather than in dogma and ritual might seem to have little connection with scholarship, Erasmus found the connection in the need of the Christian community to recapture the inspiration that had made the early church spiritually powerful. His goal was a renaissance of genuine Christianity to match the other humanist goal of a renaissance of classical learning. His scholarship culminated in his edition of the Greek New Testament (1516). Between about 1516 and 1521, he became the leader of a humanist campaign to effect gradual and peaceable religious reform through scholarship and the education of a new generation of leaders.


The outbreak of the Protestant Reformation in 1517 thwarted these hopes. Although Martin Luther also favored humanistic studies as a preparation for the reform of the church, and at Wittenberg led a university reform that made humanistic subjects the center of the curriculum, humanism split apart over the Reformation. Erasmus and the older generation of humanists were appalled at the prospect of a divided church, and ultimately nearly all of them remained Catholic. Many of the young humanists, however, had come to admire Luther even more than Erasmus; they became leading Protestant clergymen. Although they accused Erasmus of lacking the courage to follow his own best principles, Protestant humanists still admired him. The humanists who remained in the old church, including Erasmus himself, came under attack by conservative Catholics who accused them (Erasmus in particular) of being the source of Luther's heresies. The religious upheaval that followed did not destroy humanism but did narrow its scope. As denominational barriers hardened, humanists of the later sixteenth century tended to avoid trouble by putting aside aspirations for sweeping spiritual renewal and institutional reform. They narrowed the scope of their studies to classical scholarship and the perfection of the philological tools of textual criticism; religion they left to the theologians.


On the purely technical side, post-Reformation humanism remained productive. The scholar-printer Robert Estienne (15031559) produced an authoritative Latin dictionary (1531) that was used for centuries. His son Henri (15281598) published an edition of Plato that still governs scholarly citation practices. He also compiled a dictionary of Greek (1572) to match his father's Latin one. Comparable in importance was Josephus Justus Scaliger (15401609), whose work on ancient chronology, Opus Novum de Emendatione Temporum (1583), was a pioneering effort to integrate the dating systems of various ancient cultures. As a Protestant, Scaliger felt free to apply his critical skills to demolish the traditional authority of the patristic author known as Dionysius the Areopagite (first century c.e.), proving that Dionysius was not converted by St. Paul but lived centuries later. Isaac Casaubon (15591614) performed a similarly destructive criticism of the tracts attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, supposedly a divinely inspired treasury of Egyptian religion but actually a jumble of unrelated and unimportant texts.

Late Renaissance humanism also produced a challenge to the jurisprudence of the medieval universities, attacking the commentaries of medieval professors as a distortion of Roman law and calling for a fresh look at the original text of the laws. This "legal humanism" was foreshadowed by the critical scholarship of Valla, the Florentine humanist Angelo Poliziano (14541494), and the French humanist Guillaume Budé (14681540); it reached maturity in the teaching of Andrea Alciati (14921550) at Avignon and Bourges. But as French legal humanists probed the legal foundations of their own society, they discovered that French institutions and much of French law did not come from Rome at all. François Hotman (15241590) concluded that French laws originated not with Rome but with the customs of the early Franks and the legislation of the medieval kings. Humanism provided the linguistic method used by Hotman, but French patriotism was what drove him to discover the medieval origins of his nation. In a sense, he and other legal humanists invented medieval history by discovering the documentary sources of medieval French law. Another special direction of later humanism was patristic scholarship. In Catholic Europe this became a specialty of the monastic orders. The Benedictine Congregation of St. Maur in France became famous for editions of the church fathers and for development of important tools of scholarship, such as Jean Mabillon's (16321707) De Re Diplomatica (1681) and the Paleographia Graeca (1708) by Bernard de Montfaucon (16551741).

By the seventeenth century, humanism in the sense understood by its Renaissance creators was gone. The Renaissance dream of applying classical learning in order to revitalize civilization and the church perished in the conflicts of the Reformation. Humanism survived in three forms: the specialized field of classical scholarship, especially classical philology; the recovery of nearly the whole body of Latin and Greek literature; and the educational changes that transformed schools and universities from centers for the study of scholastic logic and metaphysics into centers for teaching the classical languages and the literary curriculum that dominated Western schools from the fifteenth to the twentieth century.

See also Education ; Erasmus, Desiderius ; Luther, Martin ; Reformation, Protestant ; Universities .


Baron, Hans. The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance: Civic Humanism and Republican Liberty in an Age of Classicism and Tyranny. Rev. ed. Princeton, 1966.

Burckhardt, Jacob. The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy: An Essay. Translated by S. G. C. Middlemore. 3rd ed. London, 1950. The best of many editions. Translation of Die Cultur der Renaissance in Italien: Ein Versuch (1860). The classic study of the Renaissance and humanism. Though often criticized, it still dominates all discussion of the period.

Garin, Eugenio. Italian Humanism: Philosophy and Civic Life in the Renaissance. Translated by Peter Munz. New York, 1965. Translation of L'umanesimo italiano (1958).

Grafton, Anthony. Defenders of the Text: The Traditions of Scholarship in an Age of Science, 14501800. Cambridge, Mass., 1991. Traces the emergence and development of classical philology.

Grafton, Anthony, and Lisa Jardine. From Humanism to the Humanities: Education and the Liberal Arts in Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-Century Europe. Cambridge, Mass., 1986. Challenges the humanists' own claims for the cultural significance of their program of education.

Grendler, Paul F. Schooling in Renaissance Italy: Literacy and Learning, 13001600. Baltimore, 1989. A study of the "educational revolution" caused by Italian humanism.

King, Margaret L. Women of the Renaissance. Chicago, 1991. Studies the relatively few Renaissance women who attempted (with limited success) to participate in humanistic culture.

Kristeller, Paul Oskar. Renaissance Thought: The Classic, Scholastic, and Humanist Strains. New York, 1961. One of several collections of essays by Kristeller. This volume contains the most influential of the essays in which he develops his definition of humanism and its relationship to ancient and medieval culture.

Nauert, Charles G. Humanism and the Culture of Renaissance Europe. Cambridge, U.K., 1995. A synthesis of recent scholarship on humanism, both Italian and non-Italian.

Rabil, Albert, Jr., ed. Renaissance Humanism: Foundations, Forms, and Legacy. 3 vols. Philadelphia, 1988. Massive collection of essays by specialists on many aspects of humanism.

Rummel, Erika. The Confessionalization of Humanism in Reformation Germany. Oxford, 2000. Discusses the mutual interaction of the Reformation and German humanism.

Trinkaus, Charles. "In Our Image and Likeness": Humanity and Divinity in Italian Humanist Thought. 2 vols. London and Chicago, 1970. Study of Italian humanists' views on human nature.

Witt, Ronald. "In the Footsteps of the Ancients": The Origins of Humanism from Lovato to Bruni. Leiden, 2001. Re-examination of the origins and nature of early Italian humanism.

Charles G. Nauert

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Humanists and Humanism

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