views updated May 18 2018














c. 1350

Humanism is an educational and cultural philosophy that began in the Renaissance when scholars rediscovered Greek and Roman classical philosophy and has as its guiding principle the essential dignity of man. Humanism was the intellectual movement that informed the Renaissance, although the term itself was not used to describe this discovery of man until the early nineteenth century. Humanist thinking came about as a response to the scholasticism of the universities. The Schoolmen, or scholastics, valued Aristotelian logic, which they used in their complicated method of defending the scriptures through disputation of isolated statements. Humanists accused the scholastics of sophistry and of distorting the truth by arguing philosophical phrases taken out of context. By contrast, humanists researched the historical context and lives of classical writers and focused on the moral and ethical content of the texts. Along with this shift came the concept that "Man is the measure of all things" (Protagoras), which meant that now Man was the center of the universe instead of God. In turn, the study of man and human acts on Earth led humanists to feel justified in entering into the affairs of the world, rather than leading a life of monastic asceticism, as did the scholastics.

The first humanist Francesco Petrarch coined the term "learned piety" (docta pietas) to indicate that a philosopher may love God and learning, too. The common thread among all Renaissance humanists was a love of Latin language and of classical (Greek and Roman) philosophy. The humanist interest in authenticating classical texts would become the field of textual criticism that still thrives in modern times. Humanism, too, thrives in the early 2000s, although it has been transformed to encompass humanitarian concerns such as providing aid to those who are suffering. Secular humanists at the beginning of the twenty-first century reject religion and turn their attention to charitable works and an ethical, meaningful life.


Irving Babbitt (1865-1933)

Irving Babbitt was born August 2, 1865, in Dayton, Ohio. He studied at Harvard University and at a school in Paris, taking degrees in classics and Sanskrit. He taught romance languages and French literature, eventually settling into a professorship at Harvard. Babbitt introduced the study of comparative literature to that institution and, while there, developed his ideas which would form the New Humanism movement that lasted from 1910 to 1930. Babbitt began his humanistic work with a critique of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Enlightenment philosopher noted for his influence on Romanticism. Babbitt and his ideas were controversial but also influential. He was denounced by contemporaries such as Ernest Hemingway and Sinclair Lewis, but he was also an important influence on a young T. S. Eliot, a student of his. Babbitt died on July 15, 1933, which effectively brought the New Humanism movement to an end, although interest in Humanism continued into the late twentieth century.

Baldassare Castiglione (1478-1529)

Baldassare Castiglione was born on December 6, 1478, at Casatico near Mantua, Italy. An Italian diplomat, knight, and courtier, Castiglione served in the court of Urbino for a good part of his life, observing and taking part in its elegance. He wrote a fictional dialogue intended to represent the best of court life in his Book of the Courtier (1528). This book was highly influential, setting the standard for behavior among the elite. It included rules regarding how to comport oneself with a casual nonchalance and how to give the impression that one's learning and grace are natural talents, effortlessly expressed. He explains, "Therfore that may be said to be a very art that appeereth not to be art, neyther ought a man to put more diligence in any thing then in covering it: for in case it be open, it loseth credit cleane, and maketh a man litle set by" (as translated by Sir Thomas Hoby, 1561). Castiglione died at the height of his fortune on February 2, 1529.

Desiderius Erasmus (c. 1466-1536)

Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam was born in October of 1466 or 1467, an illegitimate child whose parents died of the plague. He was put into a monastery, where he was prepared for the priesthood. However, Erasmus became a scholar and one of the first humanists and did not join the priesthood. He initially supported the Reformation but abandoned the movement when it led to religious conflict. Influenced by Valla's Book of Elegances, a Latin grammar, Erasmus studied Latin classics of the pagan authors of Ancient Greece and Rome. He also became interested in education, partly in reaction to his own brutal treatment at the hands of his early school-teachers, and he wrote a collection of sayings, Adages, for use as a Latin textbook. Erasmus proposed that schools follow the education precepts of classical Roman Quintilian (c. 35-c. 99), to train orators by focusing first on their personal integrity, then on their persuasive skills. To this end, Erasmus suggested that students practice extemporaneous writing to encourage candor, thus departing from the traditional school model in which the schoolmaster read from a single text while students copied the lectura (reading) word for word. With his great faith in the power of words, Erasmus considered religious feeling to stem from a direct reading of the scriptures, which he felt had a nearly magical ability to influence people to follow the example of Christ. Like Luther, whom he at first admired, Erasmus felt that the key to religious feeling was the change of heart that could occur when a person reads the scriptures, not from unthinking obedience to the rituals of a corrupt church. Erasmus was a humanist in his belief that humans can achieve piety through their own endeavors and in his passion for Latin rhetoric. He combined humanist scholarship with reformist ideology. Erasmus died July 12, 1536, in Basel, Switzerland.

Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499)

Marsilio Ficino was born in Florence, Italy, on October 19, 1433, and began his student life as a scholastic, studying the traditional Aristotelian philosophy. However, he had a religious epiphany during which he decided that Plato's philosophy was a divine revelation designed to prepare the pagan world for the arrival of Christ. Ficino's somewhat antithetical beliefs were symbolized in two votive candles he kept in his room: one in front of a picture of Plato and another in front of an image of the Virgin Mary. He studied Greek and read and translated into Latin the complete works of Plato as well as the works of the Neoplatonists, Greek Platonic scholars (primarily Plotinus) of the third century AD The Neoplatonists expanded Plato's philosophy to describe a system in which humans live in a state of "sleep" in this world and must go through several phases to reach a state of hyperconsciousness, the final stage achieved by the soul, which is beyond the level of reasoning.

During the forty years that he spent translating Plato and the Neoplatonists, Ficino held informal lectures for interested scholars at his home in Florence, which became known as the Platonic Academy. Ficino's gatherings and written works helped to spread Plato's ideas among the humanists. He himself, however, was not a true humanist, since his interests lay in the philosophy of Plato; he ignored the philological aspects that preoccupied most of the true humanists, and he did not pay scrupulous attention to authenticating his sources, as most of the other humanists did. Ficino had an interest in the occult and magic. He also studied the Jewish mystical book called the Cabala (written in Hebrew) and the hermetic tracts of the Egyptians as well as the (lost) works of Pythagoras. His enthusiastic belief that these works held divinely inspired ancient secrets that passed through Plato proved infectious to his followers. Ficino has been accused of elitism because his brand of Gnostic Christianity gave his followers a sense of superiority, since it required a great amount of study to become initiated into its secrets. Ficino died in Corregio on October 1, 1499.

Sir Thomas More (c. 1478-1535)

Sir Thomas More was born around February 7, 1478, in England. He authored the satire Utopia, an imaginary state loosely based on ideas from Plato's Republic, among other classical sources. This work was written early in More's life, before he became lord chancellor and then became embroiled in the king's "great matter," wherein King Henry VIII granted himself sovereignty over the Church of England so that he could command that the Church condone his divorce of Catherine of Aragon, allowing him to marry Anne Boleyn and try to beget a male heir with her. More foresaw that this crisis in English history would inevitably lead to a schism between church and state and so refused to provide the public support that Henry wanted. Henry charged More with treason and ultimately had him beheaded.

More was a avid proponent of humanist ideas, having befriended Erasmus on one of his visits to England. More used his significant skills in Latin oratory to defend the study of classical Greek other secular literature against scholasticism. He felt that studying the ancient classics better promoted knowledge and virtue than did the traditional fare of scholasticism, with its emphasis on disputation of minor points of theology. Nevertheless, More remained very much a medieval thinker and scholar, steeped in scholastic learning, despite his liberal acceptance of the new humanist ideas. Even though, as befits a humanist, More eschewed monastic study and happily entered the world of politics, statesman-ship, and law, he was a product of the scholastic form of education, since he relied upon the skills he learned in scholastic disputation. Convicted of treason on false evidence, More was beheaded on July 6, 1535. He was widely admired for his sincere religious piety, especially after his martyrdom.

Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374)

Francesco Petrarch was born July 20, 1304, in Arezzo, Italy. Known as the "Father of Humanism," Petrarch promoted the study of works by Cicero (106-43 BC) and Virgil (70-19 BC) as models of Latin eloquence. He actively sought new manuscripts of their work, along with those by other classical Roman writers such as Quintilian and Seneca, and his travels across Europe uncovered a number of hitherto lost works by Cicero and others. Petrarch valued Cicero for his ideas about morality, oration, and the purpose of education as a means to train good citizens. It was Petrarch who identified the decline of the Roman Empire as a historical event, and he defined the period of history after its fall as a "dark age," or a "Middle Age" between the golden era of antiquity and the current "rebirth" of antiquity in Petrarch's own time. By this it was meant that ancient texts were once again valued for their unique contribution to human history. Petrarch is perhaps best known for his sonnets inspired by a mysterious woman he calls simply "Laura," who did not return his love. Petrarch died on July 18, 1374, in Arquá, Italy.

Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494)

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola was born February 24, 1463. He was a brilliant student who gave up his share of the Mirandola ancestral property in order to pursue his education by traveling to the major universities of Europe. Like Ficino, Mirandola became enamored of the mystical Jewish Cabala, and he once bought a number of fake Hebrew manuscripts purported to contain ancient secrets. He sought to construct a universal religion derived from Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, and he believed that Platonist philosophy could be reconciled to their common ideas. When he returned from his educational saga, he wrote nine hundred theses on a wide variety of topics and challenged any and all scholars to join him in Rome to dispute them. No one came, for the Church determined that some of his propositions were heretical. He had to flee to France for a time until it was safe to return. Pico della Mirandola says in his opening to the theses, which came to be known as Oration on the Dignity of Man (1496), that "nothing in the world can be found that is more worthy of admiration than man." His work served as a manifesto for the humanist movement in that it promulgated the idea that man should take his rightful place as the center of the universe yet also exhorted man to give up worldly aspirations and physical pleasure to seek peace through the contemplation of God. Pico della Mirandola died November 17, 1494.

Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498)

Girolamo Savonarola was born on September 21, 1452. He was a charismatic monk from Ferrara, Italy, who preached fiery sermons in Florence on the subject of proper piety. An accomplished orator and rhetorician, Savonarola quickly became famous for his sermons and drew large crowds. Even though Savonarola was not a humanist himself, he influenced the work of Pico della Mirandola and Marsilio Ficino, who were in Florence when he was preaching there. His sermons called for a "bonfire of the vanities" in which were burned all heretical books, images, and objects of vice. Savonarola was charged with heresy by the Church; he was excommunicated, then tortured, hanged, and burnt at the stake on May 23, 1498.

Lorenzo Valla (c. 1405-1457)

Lorenzo Valla was born in Rome, Italy, around 1405. He was a philologist who disputed the validity of the claim that the Emperor Constantine (306-337), who converted to Christianity and made Constantinople into a haven of Christian ideology, had donated half of his empire to Pope Sylvester for curing him of leprosy. Valla's argument rested on linguistic evidence, the first argument of its kind. Among other evidence, he proved the donation document a forgery by exposing anachronisms (words that did not exist in the fourth century) in the Latin text. Valla also wrote Elegantiae (or Book of Elegances), a Latin grammar that sought to improve the quality of spoken and written Latin, with over three thousand examples of correct Latin usage (elegances). Valla, along with Petrarch, promoted a revival of classical Latin in its purest form; Renaissance philologists considered the classical period as a golden age of the Latin language that was followed by a period of degeneration when vernacular languages flourished and Latinists lost their interest in the pure forms of the language. Valla's legacy to Humanism was to initiate the field of textual criticism, which studies the authenticity of texts and seeks to correct errors that occur in manuscripts as they are copied. Valla died in Rome on August 1, 1457.



Published in 1500 by Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, the Adages (Adagia) initially comprised more than three thousand proverbs from Greek and Roman antiquity. Erasmus added to the collection in the 1508 and 1515 editions. This befits the spirit of the Adages, for in it Erasmus speaks of the importance of the richness (copia) of using the right number of adages in speaking. The introduction gives specific advice on how to polish these gems and use them to enhance speech. He says, "And so to interweave adages deftly and appropriately is to make the language as a whole glitter with sparkles from Antiquity, please us with the art of rhetoric, gleam with jewel-like words of wisdom, and charm us with tidbits of wit and humour." The book became one of the most influential of the Renaissance period, since it both preserved the wisdom of the ancients and served as a how-to book on oration.

Analects of Confucius

The Analects of Confucius is a book that collects the wisdom and deeds of Chinese philosopher Confucius (551-479 BC). Confucius is the oldest known humanist philosopher. The Analects were compiled after his death by his disciples and have been a significant influence on moral and proper behavior in Southeast Asia for more than two thousand years. While evidence indicates that the Analects were altered in small ways over time to reflect changes in the political and social climate, the primary humanistic message remains intact. The Analects opens with the Chinese character for "learning," demonstrating the importance Confucius put on study of the world around one as well as personal reflection. His teachings advocated valuing human life over material objects and learning sound judgment, both fundamentals for what would later be known as Humanism.

Book of the Courtier

Published in 1528 by Italian knight, diplomat, and courtier Baldassare Castiglione, Book of the Courtier (Il Cortegiano) describes the perfect gentleman and lady. It consists of a dialogue among typical courtiers, discussing how to behave with grace. A group of courtiers led by the Duchess of Urbina describes the perfect gentleman and his talents, which include hunting, swimming, leaping, running, playing tennis, and playing music, and avoiding envy. The perfect gentlewoman is also described. For both, looks are important, but the end result of one's toilet should give no hint of effort, such as excessive plucking of hairs or using too much makeup. Grace consists of "a certain recklessness," or sprezzatura, which involves acting gracefully without seeming to "mind it." It means that one avoids seeming curious or angry. Talent in speaking and writing is also paramount, and the group goes into a lengthy discussion about the use of oratorical figures of speech and the need to shun antiquated sayings. The final chapter describes courtly love. Castiglione's Book of the Courtier was soon translated into other languages for use at courts across Europe and in Japan.

Book of Elegances, or Elegances of the Latin Language

Begun circa 1435 by Lorenzo Valla (an Italian humanist, philosopher, and literary critic) and published in 1444, this anthology of three thousand exemplary Latin phrases became a standard text throughout Europe for training students in Latin philology (the study of words or language). Within one hundred years of its writing, the huge and costly Book of Elegances had been printed in sixty editions.

Familiar Letters

Francesco Petrarch, over a period of many years beginning in 1325, wrote a series of letters addressed to writers from classical Greek and Roman antiquity, such as Cicero, admiring his oratorical qualities; Homer or imitators of Homer, including the talented Virgil; and Socrates. He speaks with these figures from the past about his own critics as if he were writing to his contemporaries and personal friends. Among the letters, too, is one "To Posterity" in which he describes himself and his life and works in an early version of the informal autobiography. Speaking to posterity, he refers to himself in the past tense, as in this example: "I possessed a well-balanced rather than a keen intellect, one prone to all kinds of good and wholesome study, but especially inclined to moral philosophy and the art of poetry." Other letters were addressed to contemporaries: Giovanni Boccaccio, who was a friend, and Tomasso de Messina, a philosophical enemy and supporter of Scholasticism to whom Petrarch writes of his distaste for Aristotelian logic and preference for the works of Plato.

Oration on the Dignity of Man

In 1486, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola had completed seven years of classical education at various universities in Europe. He independently came up with the idea to formulate a universal religion comprising the essential elements of the existing major religions. He put together some of his ideas in nine hundred theses on a wide variety of topics that he wanted to dispute with other scholars in Rome, but the debate did not occur because the Church claimed that some of his propositions were heretical, and Pico della Mirandola had to flee to France for safety. The opening oration to the theses, which came to be known as Oration on the Dignity of Man (published posthumously in 1496), describes man as not being constrained by the laws of nature, such that man, through free will, may determine his own limits and nature. Further, it places mankind at the center of the universe; Pico della Mirandola says that "nothing in the world can be found that is more worthy of admiration than man." The opening oration has been called the manifesto of Humanism. Although Pico della Mirandola was not a true humanist, since he held on to the Aristotelian concept of forms, a scholastic ideology, his work galvanized humanist thinking in the way that it pulled together the best of Jewish, Christian, Zoroastrian, and Arabic philosophies, expressing the intellectual freedom and dignity of humankind.


Sir Thomas More wrote Utopia while on an extended diplomatic mission to Bruges and published his work in 1516. It is the story of the mythical island called No Place (Utopia), where the people get along through their virtue, reason, and charity. The vices of greed and jealousy have been engineered out of the society by ordaining that everyone wear the same clothes and that houses be exchanged every ten years. More based his allegory of England on Plato's Republic, among other classical (and biblical) sources. More's Utopia is a celebration of the potential for human virtue and pleasure on Earth and thus a seminal work of humanist literature.



Education is an important facet of Humanism. Not only did the humanists revere learning, but they disseminated their ideas through a radical change in educational methods. Humanism was primarily a movement in opposition to the traditional mode of education, called Scholasticism, of the medieval period. Scholasticism had been a new style of learning in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, which accepted as a maxim that God


  • In many ways, the economic and social setting of fourteenth-century Florence, Italy, made it theperfect placefor thebirth of Humanism. Florence was a center of trade, and powerful families trained their sons to become ethical, successful merchants. What is the relationship between the society in Florence and the development of a new way of thinking about humanity and its role in the world?
  • The early humanists were devout Christians, yet the humanist movement has evolved to one that is frankly opposed to religious ideology, and many modern humanists are atheists. Research the ideas of the Renaissance humanists as compared to those of modern Humanism. How do you account for this substantive change in philosophy?
  • All religions play a role in reinforcing moral behavior and attempt to explain the purpose of human life. The major religions—Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam—share these goals. Study one or more of the major religions and compare the methods of approaching these goals with the methods proposed by humanists. What underlying principles are shared by all of these belief systems?
  • The rise of Humanism accompanied exciting changes in art, such as the invention of perspective and the development of portraiture. In addition, artists studied human physiognomy in order to portray human figures more realistically. Did these artists subscribe to humanist thinking? How did humanist ideas find expression in art? What role did patronage play in the development of the new artistic style of the Renaissance or the new humanist way of thinking?

existed and that God's Truth was a given that did not need to be proved. The Schoolmen (as the scholastics were called) merely had to refute attacks on the Truth, in a sort of legalistic argumentation style that derived from their understanding of Aristotelian logic. It took the form of arguing over minute details, according to seventeenth-century philosopher Francis Bacon. The flaw in scholastic thinking was that it relied too much on statements taken out of context and then disputed. Texts were treated as authorities, and each statement was disputed as either false or true, with no consideration for the context of the statement or the circumstances under which it was written. Instead, individual and unrelated statements were gathered into books of wise sayings. For example, a standard text was called the Book of Sentences (1472) by Peter Lombard, in which opinions by various writers were arranged by topic. St. Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologiae is also compilation of opinions removed from their original context. Because individuals and their complete theories were not as important as their individual statements, scholastic education had devolved into argumentation over minutiae, seriously considering such questions as how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Scholars wanting to prove such a point would pick through the available statements in works like the Book of Sentences to find those that supported their own ideas. Rhetorical skill was disdained by scholastics as inclined to appeal through emotions, rather than the intellect.

Scholasticism came into being because of the recognition in the medieval period that people must be trained to understand and accept Christian theology. The scholastics believed that humans were lost and could only be redeemed through God's grace, not through their own efforts, and that they should revere God. Therefore, monasteries, schools, and itinerant teachers flourished during the so-called Dark Ages, spreading the word of Christianity using the scholastic method of education. This method consisted of the trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and logic, along with the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. The goal of these studies was to support the study of theology. Of the few classical philosophers whose ideas supported Scholasticism, Aristotle is primary. Aristotle said that theoretical knowledge could be substantiated by beginning with core principles and deriving further truths from them, as one proceeds in mathematical reasoning. His form of syllogistic reasoning (deductive reasoning from established premises or principles) lies at the heart of Scholasticism.

By contrast, the humanists, or as they were sometimes derogatorily called, the Umanista (little grammar teachers), chose the curriculum of the study of humanities, or the liberal arts. The humanists sought to understand a writer's complete theory. They also looked at ancient writings in their historical contexts, in order to discover the nature of the writer as well as the historical import of his words. Humanists, too, studied grammar and rhetoric but did so in order to identify and master eloquence in Latin expression. In addition, they studied history, poetry, and moral philosophy. Humanists opposed scholasticism because of its limited scope, since isolated statements taken out of context could be easily misunderstood and misrepresented. They also objected to the Aristotelian method of deductive logic, that is, inference from a general to a specific statement, on the same grounds, that it could easily be distorted. Humanists preferred Platonic and Neoplatonic philosophy over scholastic logical disputation.

Revival of Classical Learning

The humanists of the early Renaissance initiated a revival in appreciation for ancient classical Greek writers. While the scholastics included the thoughts of Aristotle in their learning, the humanists leaned toward those of Plato. However, they transformed his ideas to fit with Christian ideology as well as with some of the ideas in Gnosticism and Judaism. In this, the humanists participated in a long tradition of philosophical thought known as Neoplatonism. In the third century AD, Plotinus, perhaps the most well-known of synthesizer and proponent of Neoplatonic thought, merged Platonic ideas with the goal of personal salvation that came about through Christianity. In other words, Plotinus took an essentially philosophical idea and merged it with religious ideology. Neoplatonism started with Plato's doctrine of innate knowledge, the concept that the human soul has true knowledge that will be awakened through proper questioning. This idea fit well, according to some humanists, with the idea of personal salvation, a tenet of Christianity. Neoplatonism also adopted Plato's distinction between knowledge and opinion, as elucidated in his Republic. In Neoplatonic thought, the only way to find God (or the One) in the physical world is to shun worldly life through ascetic privation in order to contemplate pure ideas and thus rise to oneness with the divine mind. Neoplatonists were inclined toward mysticism, and they approached theology through analogy and metaphor rather than logic. The humanists adopted Neoplatonist thinking because it emphasized human intellect and contemplation and because it seemed to provide a spiritual link between the ancients and Christian theology. They believed that classical philosophers were divinely inspired to write their philosophies to pave the way for Christianity.


Love of Language

As the humanists discovered neglected or lost classical manuscripts and distributed them through printing, they developed a discerning taste for those classical writers who expressed their thoughts in the most elegant forms of Latin. They also discovered errors in transcription as they compared different versions of the same text. Philology, the love or study of language, grew out of the humanist desire to perfect their translations of ancient texts and to write textual commentaries on their newly discovered texts. Writing in Latin themselves, they sought to express themselves in the most elegant forms of this language. Thus, ancient Roman writers such as Cicero and Caesar became models of Latin prose, replacing the medieval Latin of scholastic Latin grammars. In many ways, philology lies at the heart of the humanist movement, since it engendered a focus on the historical context in which ancient texts were written as well as on textual criticism. In fact, the early humanists invented the concept of textual criticism. Philology is central to historical study because it is a valid means of authenticating records of historical events and thinking.


Rhetoric and oratory—in Latin—were important skills to the humanists. They disapproved of the scholastic style of disputation, which they considered a show of superficial knowledge as opposed to true wisdom or virtue. The scholastic method of disputation involved searching through texts to find statements to use as evidence to support a given opinion, even to the point of taking statements out of context. The scholastic method of teaching Latin and rhetoric was through rote memorization, with corporal punishment for poor performance. Students learned how to imitate the classical Latin writers but often had no idea of the meaning of the words they said. In contrast, the humanists wanted their students to follow Cicero's three duties of the orator: to teach, to please, and to move (appeal to emotions). Humanist oration was not a recitation but a speech that considered the audience as well as the choice of material. In addition, humanists wanted their students to learn the subjects so that they would speak with authority. They followed the adage to teach students to "Grasp the subject, the words will follow." To do so would lead students to acquire real understanding of subjects, and this knowledge would help them make good decisions and become better citizens. This method is consistent with another of Cicero's rules, which proposes that students not try to master "absolute truth" but look to their own virtue instead. Thus the teaching of oratory was linked to character education. Erasmus wrote several works designed to help students acquire a mastery of Latin. HisAdages contained thousands of worthy sentiments elegantly phrased in Latin. He also wrote a work called Formulas for Friendly Conversation (printed in 1518) to help students converse rather than simply repeat Latin sayings. Ultimately, advanced students of Latin would need to master skills of "oratorical abundance" or copia. By this was meant the ability to speak at length on a topic, to layer speech with numerous pertinent sayings, and to choose adages that fit the occasion. The latter skill is referred to by Shakespeare's Hamlet when he tells the troupe of actors visiting his castle to "suit the action to the word, the word to the action." That Shakespeare echoed the humanist program of oratory is testimony to the extent to which their program of oratory and rhetoric had filtered into public schools such as the one that Shakespeare attended in his small town of Stratford-upon-Avon in the sixteenth century.


The humanist interest in biography and autobiography stems from the father of Humanism, the Italian poet and scholar Francesco Petrarch. Petrarch deplored his own age and felt that classical Roman times and people were more virtuous than his. He became obsessed with reading works of ancient Roman writers in the original Latin. He also searched for lost manuscripts so that he could piece together a society that he felt was far superior to fourteenth-century Italian society. When he found collections of personal letters written by his favorite classical writer, Cicero, he pored over them, trying to get to know the man and the culture that produced him. Petrarch even wrote fictional letters to some of his best-loved Roman writers, in which he praised the classical period and talked about his dissatisfaction with his own time. Then Petrarch wrote a set of biographies, which he called Of Illustrious Men (De viris illustribus) (1338). These twenty-four sketches are a model of classical scholarship and insight into human behavior. His friend Boccaccio wrote a parallel work on the lives of over one hundred women, called Famous Women (De mulieribus claris) (1362). Little did either of these two scholars and literary geniuses know the impact their obsession with classical Rome and Greece would have on posterity in fostering the genre of biography, which would remain popular for centuries.


The Enlightenment Period

Some historians say that the humanist movement that began in the Renaissance did not fully flower until the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, also called the Age of Reason. During this period, human faith in science and rational thinking spread beyond the intellectual elite, who included most of those who espoused Humanism during the Renaissance. With a larger literate population and a booming middle class that could afford to own books, the intellectual thinkers and philosophers of the eighteenth century influenced their societies with their ideas that human reason was supreme and that religion based on superstition and meaningless ritual should not dictate human behavior. Some Enlightenment thinkers were actually atheists; however, many simply eschewed formal religion in favor of the concept of a supreme being whom man could not prove definitively. A group of French thinkers known as the philosophes, including Denis Diderot (1713-1784), Charles Montesquieu (1689-1755), Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), and Voltaire (1694-1778), among others, prepared an Encyclopédie (1751-1780) to contain all human knowledge, rationally arranged. Religion was notably missing and in fact was treated as superstition. In one of his essays, Voltaire made the scandalous proposition that religious differences should be tolerated: Since God could not deny heaven to classical thinkers such as Socrates, Plato, and Solon, how could he deny it to men of other contemporary religions? Many of the contributors to the encyclopedia were imprisoned for their heretical views. Nevertheless, the massive Encyclopédie stood as a testimony to the doctrine of man's essential supremacy. The Enlightenment thinkers and philosophers were also fascinated by how humans acquire knowledge and, with religion losing its authority as a moral standard, morality. Many of them wrote treatises on the mind, including David Hume (1711-1776), who considered human feeling as the source of ethical behavior. Hume also claimed that since God exists only as an idea in the mind, he does not exist. Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) proposed that humans make ethical decisions based upon the pleasure principle: that in seeking to avoid pain, each human makes ethical decisions that contribute to the common good. In Germany, Immanual Kant (1724-1804) proposed that all moral actions be measured against a kind of golden rule that said that an action was moral if it could be applied categorically to all, which was another form of locating morality in the human mind rather than in divine revelation. In the American colonies, Thomas Paine (1737-1809) accused religion of inspiring the worst moral behavior, saying that "The most detestable wickedness, the most horrid cruelties, and the greatest miseries that have afflicted the human race, have had their origin in this thing called revelation, or revealed religion." The role of the Enlightenment period, in regard to Humanism, consists in taking the humanist faith in humanity a step further—toward questioning and even rejecting organized religion. It was a period of the triumph of intellectual reasoning over religious belief, and it affirmed the idea of virtue on Earth for the sake of pleasure on Earth. In this thinking lay the seeds of the humanist work of the next century, that of social consciousness and reform.

Modern Secular Humanism

The social reformist thinking of the nineteenth century was an outgrowth of Renaissance and then Enlightenment Humanism. Belief in the Great Chain of Being with its divinely ordained hierarchies in each category, including among various kinds of people, legitimized imperialism with the idea of "civilizing" undeveloped nations abroad and contributed to the sense of social responsibility that eventually developed into better living and employment conditions at home, where working-class people led "lives of quiet desperation" (Thoreau, 1854). Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899) wrote "A Humanist Credo," in which he defined this responsibility:

We are satisfied that there can be but little liberty on earth while men worship a tyrant in heaven. We do not expect to accomplish everything in our day; but we want to do what good we can, and to render all the service possible in the holy cause of human progress. We know that doing away with gods and supernatural persons and powers is not an end. It is a means to an end—the real end being the happiness of man.

Later humanist ideology evolved from a program that focused on social reform to one that embraced humanitarianism in general, and this form of Humanism dominated the twentieth century. According to humanist Corliss Lamont, Humanism is "A philosophy of joyous service for the greater good of all humanity in this natural world and advocating the methods of reason, science, and democracy." Several manifestos were composed and signed by leading scholars, scientists, and writers indicating their support of a form of Humanism that eschews organized religion and embraces human responsibility for realizing human potential, which includes such ideas as opposing nuclear war, promoting pro-choice on the abortion question, promoting organ donation at death, and accepting euthanasia under certain circumstances. With such a wide range of issues to support, Humanism of the twentieth century and into the 2000s, also called Ethical Humanism, does not advocate any particular combination of them but rather subscribes to the notion of situational ethics, of making moral decisions on a case-by-case basis following the underlying humanist principles of respect for human dignity, faith in science and technology, freedom, and respect for nature. These principles have no regard for religious mythology but instead focus on human life on Earth. Paul Kurtz explains in his Humanist Manifesto I and II that "Ethics is autonomous and situational, needing no theological or ideological sanction. Ethics stem from human interest and need . . . we strive for the good life here and now." Secular humanists are those who are religiously devoted to the principles of Humanism. They are to be distinguished from religious humanists, such as the Quakers, who do not use this term but who are devoted to humanitarian concerns as an integral part of their religion and who eschew rituals, costumes, and dogma in their faith. There have been many notable people who claimed Humanism or Secular Humanism as their personal doctrine. These include the atheist American lawyer Clarence Darrow (1857-1938); the German-born American psychoanalyst Eric Fromm (1900-1980); British biologist and grandson of Aldous Huxley, Julian Sorrell Huxley (1887-1975); pacifist and leading English philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970); scientist and Science Fiction writer Isaac Asimov (1920-1992); French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980); scientist Carl Sagan (1934-1996), German-born scientist Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965); Spanish-born philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952); Chinese-born writer Lin Ytang (1895-1976); and philosopher Corliss Lamont (1902-1995), among many others. The challenges faced by humanists of the twenty-first century, who include philosopher Paul Kurtz, feminist historian Riane Eisler, social journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, feminist writer Alice Walker, science fiction writer Kurt Vonnegut, former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan, just to name a very few, involve dealing with globalization and ecological concerns.


The Renaissance

The Renaissance constituted a major shift in focus from God to man. It started in the middle of the fourteenth century, after the bubonic plague (Black Death, 1347-1377) killed almost one-third of the population of Europe. Although the economy suffered, the remaining population earned higher wages and quickly filled in the gaps in the market. A renewed interest in classical literature, language, and philosophy fed the intellectual movement of the Renaissance: Humanism. Humanism was responsible for raising man to a level of dignity and intellectual importance that actually threatened the viability of the Church. As humanists worked to integrate pagan classical philosophy with Christian, Jewish, and Gnostic theology and mysticism, they developed the notion that man can achieve redemption through faith, independent of the grace of God. This change accompanied a growing awareness of and discomfort about the extensive corruption of the clergy. The practice of selling indulgences began to be questioned by an emerging and somewhat educated middle class that did not share the traditional values of the ruling elite. Knowledge and ideas were more widely available due to the invention of the printing press (1457-1458) and a gradual urbanization of society. The Catholic Church still maintained its political, social, and economic power, but the Protestant Reformation was questioning its theology, and a new branch of Christianity was in its formative phase. A Counter Reformation helped to refine Church rocedures and reduce corruption, but the schism between competing models of individual salvation led to the formation of Protestant denominations. Although the Church sanctioned persecution of witches and instituted the Inquisition as a backlash against the Protestant Reformation, Europe was divided along religious lines, and nations such as England went back and forth between Catholicism and Protestantism until leaders were able to stabilize society and appoint a national religion or manage to incorporate a policy of religious toleration. In this hotbed of social and philosophical turbulence, a new mode of critical thinking allowed for significant discoveries in science. New respect for individual achievement, the scientific revolution that allowed open scientific inquiry, and an established wealth led to the revolutionary discoveries of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton and set the stage for innovations in art such as the application of the golden mean in architecture, the use of perspective in drawing and painting, and the realistic modeling of musculature in human sculpture. Niccolo Machiavelli explored human psychology to develop a theory about the role of power in politics that became the basis for modern political realism. In drama, playwrights such as Shakespeare portrayed intimate psychological studies of the human mind as it undergoes a crisis. In these and other ways, the Renaissance surpassed the achievements of classical Greece and Rome that it had rediscovered.

Italian City-States

The birth of Humanism occurred in the Italian city-states during the fourteenth century, when Francesco Petrarch decided to devote himself to the study of Latin (and later, Greek) and to search for ancient lost manuscripts of classical Rome and Greece. The Italian city-states were a perfect breeding ground for a new ideology because they were not as committed to Scholasticism as were the urban areas of the rest of Europe. Whereas universities in other parts of Europe taught theology, the universities in the


  • 1100-1400: The most devout Christians, the monks and nuns, lead lives of quiet piety, cloistered away from the cares of the world.

    1450-1600: Pious men begin to realize that piety can be practiced here on Earth, so many humanist scholars, who are at the same time highly religious, invest themselves in making society a better place to be.

    Today: Religious men and women devote themselves to the betterment of the under-privileged here on Earth as do the humanists.

  • 1100-1400: Religion is a common aspect of life. People of other religions are sometimes treated as strangers, infidels, or unbelievers and are persecuted.

    1450-1600: As Christianity splits into Catholicism and Protestantism, religious persecution continues, now between the two branches. Persecution of Jews, Muslims, and people who practice neither Catholicism nor Protestantism is also rampant.

    Today: Religious tolerance is a hallmark of a liberal society. There are still places in the world that persecute people of other religions, and their intolerance has become one of the key challenges of the twenty-first century.

  • 1100-1400: Both scholars and clergy accept Christian teachings as presented by the Catholic Church.

    1450-1600: Humanist scholars and clergy begin to feel skepticism about some Catholic teachings and therefore develop the ideology that people can seek revelation on their own. Their ideas are considered heretical.

    Today: Secular humanist scholars flatly deny any credence to religious belief. Secular Humanism itself serves as a kind of religious belief in human dignity.

Italian city-states taught law and medicine. In the rest of Europe, society depended upon the clergy at the universities to educate the sons of the elite in established Christian doctrine so that they would be able to compete for positions at court. However, the Italian city-states were either self-governing (Florence and Venice) or run by a patriarchal family, like the Medici, and so needed only to teach young men how to use language and writing to conduct business and city matters. Italy was a locus of trade, which required that merchants be conversant in law and the cultures of the many merchants from other kingdoms who traveled there to trade. In Florence, no university existed until an institution was chartered in 1321. Instead, young men of elite families were trained to their trade in schools that contracted annually with a teacher to present a prearranged curriculum. This fluidity made it easier for the city-states to shift to the new humanist way of thinking, since there was not a philosophically or theologically oriented university faculty devoted to the promotion of a particular philosophy or doctrine. The practicality of a merchant trade culture demanded that students acquire an ethical foundation that would make them good businessmen. Furthermore, the city-state schools taught their students skill in politics and rhetoric, so that they could serve in the republican form of government and also make good heads of their family households.

The fall of Constantinople in 1453 brought an influx of expatriate Greek scholars to Italy. These scholars found work teaching the young elite of the wealthy merchants in the city-states, spawning interest in the study of Greek language and literature, so that studies of ancient Greek literature in the original language contributed to humanist thought.

The Reformation

The Reformation was a reaction to the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church, which was raising money by selling indulgences (pieces of paper promising that the purchaser would have all of his earthly sins excused in heaven). The Reformation was a theological movement, led by Martin Luther, who in 1517 attached ninety-five theses (criticisms of the Church) to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg. He was promptly excommunicated. However, his ideal of religious revelation through personal experience of the Bible and God through faith rather than through religious works was an idea that took hold among the growing middle class. Although scholarly humanists eventually withdrew their support from what they could see was an attack on the Church itself and not just on its corruptions, the reformist movement succeeded in creating an alternate branch of Christianity known as Protestantism. The Reformation became a political conflict as nations began to emerge from the fiefdoms of the medieval period and the leaders of these nations, such as King Henry VIII of England, saw in the Reformation potential for making inroads into the formidable power of the Church. The Church's power to generate revenue exceeded that of the crown through money gained from services related to birth, first communion, marriage, and death. The Church also wielded authority equal to and greater than that of the crown, with its threat of excommunication, which was believed to guarantee condemnation to hell after death. The Reformation was questioning the validity of that power, in light of extensive corruption among the clergy and even within the Vatican itself. Henry VIII took advantage of the weakening of Church authority and in 1538 dissolved the wealthy monasteries, taking their treasuries into his own coffers. He further weakened papal authority in England when, through his Act of Supremacy (1534), he assumed authority over the Church in England.


Johannes Gutenberg, German inventor of the printing press using movable type, produced a 1,282-page Latin Bible between 1453 and 1455. By 1465, two German printers had set up shop in Italy, where they produced a Latin grammar and a work of Cicero, in addition to the more popular fare of devotional books and the lives of the saints. By the middle of the fifteenth century, lost classical texts were being rediscovered by Petrarch and his disciples and Boccaccio and Salutati, among others. With the rapid proliferation of printing presses in major cities, the opportunity for a profitable business arose, and the cost of books dropped so that each student in a school could own his own Latin grammar and one or two important books instead of having to copy texts as the teacher recited them aloud. In addition, the professionalization of printing resulted in a greater reliability of the texts; not only were the texts being published amended by diligent humanist scholars, but large printing jobs reduced the number of textual variants. The impact of printing on Renaissance culture was significant. New ideas spread more quickly to a populace whose literacy was increasing exponentially as schools multiplied and, due to the availability of new books, were increasingly effective.


The early humanists were attacked by the School-men (scholastics) and other clergy as lacking true faith. They were denounced as pagans and were considered heretical. However, the humanists in fact were quite devout. Indeed, leaders, such as Erasmus, never deviated from Catholicism, even though they disparaged Church corruption. These humanists are known as Christian humanists, for they did not question faith itself. Nevertheless, Erasmus was vilified by traditional churchmen throughout his life. Renaissance poet Sir Philip Sidney struggled to synthesize religious faith and humanism in his life and work, as argued by Steven R. Mentz in his examination of Sidney's incomplete text, the New Arcadia. Businessmen were skeptical of the humanist curriculum and did not want their sons to waste time studying nonessential topics such as poetry and philosophy. The humanist commitment to public service eventually won over those who feared that humanist study was impractical. Another means of defense happened accidentally. Many humanists found employment with the new print shops, setting type and proofreading copies. They soon discovered that they could carry out their disputes over points of philosophy quite effectively through this new medium instead of staging a formal public debate. Ultimately, their participation in the fledgling industry spurred its success, and in turn, the humanists benefited by reaching a wider audience through their printed essays, tracts, and letters.

During the eighteenth century, humanist thinkers tended to embrace the idea of empirical science developed during the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. At the same time, scientists naturally gravitated toward a system of belief that could be developed by reason and produced measurable and predictable results. The combination led humanists further from religious belief, and atheism became a part of Humanism. As Howard Radest explains in his book, The Devil and Secular Humanism, "The point of separation [between religion and Humanism] was the Enlightenment; the impulse to separation was modern empirical science." Radest sees the roots of modern secular Humanism as stemming primarily from the Enlightenment period, with its emphasis on the "Rights of Man," with only distant roots coming from the Renaissance. This is because modern Secular Humanism is openly atheistic (a concept foreign to Renaissance thinkers) and has been criticized for this by religious fundamentalists. When the first "Humanist Manifesto" was released to newspapers in 1933, it was met with a huge public outcry against its atheistic principles; Humanism was seen as a dangerous trend away from core religious values. In fact, many outspoken religious conservatives today blame humanists for modern consumerist culture because they see humanists as technocrats, quick to sacrifice nature for the sake of human gain. They decry Humanism as a religion without a god and without a moral framework. Humanist Paul Kurtz defends his beliefs in his book, In Defense of Secular Humanism, in which he reminds detractors that Humanism does rest upon a set of ethical principles. Whether a given humanist subscribes to Kurtz's particular view of Humanism, modern humanists take on current, difficult ethical issues, such as the teaching of evolution in schools, abortion rights, and the right to euthanasia. As humanist Jeaneane Fowler declares, "Humanism has no creed, but many convictions."


Carole Hamilton

Hamilton is an English teacher at Cary Academy in North Carolina. In this essay, Hamilton explores how Humanism continues to thrive as an attractive belief system in the postmodern world.

Postmodernism, the belief that reality is a social construct in which each person creates his or her own personal truth, has declared the "end of history" following Nietzsche's declaration of the "death of God." According to postmodernists,


  • Renaissance art shows the ideals of the period. One important fresco by Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio, 1483-1520), "The School of Athens" painted in 1510-1511, captures the spirit of Humanism, with its group portrait of the great philosophers, scientists, and artists of the classical period and the Renaissance. Aristotle and Plato are depicted in the center with such contemporary artists as Michelangelo and Raphael himself also included.
  • The way to convey perspective was discovered by Renaissance painters. The visual illusion of depth conveyed on a flat surface, perspective allowed painters to place their subjects in a realistic, seemingly three-dimensional context. PaintersoftheRenaissancewerefascinatedby perspective and by the logic it gave to their depiction of scenes. Notable works that show perspective are "The Holy Trinity" by Masaccio (Tommaso di Giovanni di Simone Guidi, 1401-1428) and "Dead Christ" by Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506). Portraits were another fashion of the Renaissance, stemming from the humanist belief in the essential dignity of man.
  • Of the many classical works that laid the groundwork for Humanism, several remain relevant in the 2000s and are frequently studied. Plato's Republic, which describes the ideal state, inspired many humanist thinkers. The Republic explores the facets of the ideal state through a dialogue conducted by Socrates.
  • Besides researching classical writers and writing to them in fictional letters, Petrarch wrote lovely sonnets, consisting of fourteen lines, the first eight of which state a problem that the final six lines resolve. The Italian, or Petrarchan, sonnet rhymes a-b-b-a, a-b-b-a in the octave, and the sestet may rhyme c-de-c-d-e or c-d-e-d-c-e. Most of Petrarch's sonnets are written to "Laura," a real or fictional woman who did not return his love.
  • Robert Bolt's play A Man for All Seasons is thoroughly researched and captures the essence of early humanist Sir Thomas More as he struggles with his own conscience in opposing the king's separation from the Catholic Church and decision to head a new Church of England.
  • For twentieth-century portrayals of humanist ideology, any episode of humanist Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek will provide two lessons based on humanist values: one personal and one societal.
  • African American Humanism: An Anthology (1991), edited by Norm R. Allen, presents evidence that African-American writers such as Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston carry on the tradition of humanist ideals in their work. As an alternative, read Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) about a young girl's longing for independence, or Wright's Native Son (1940), or Black Boy (1945). Richard A. Wright proposes in his work African Philosophy (1979) that African Humanism stems from Greek sources.

there is no possibility for a single, all-encompassing, objective belief. Everything is subjective, open to interpretation. This entails, according to postmodern French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, the "end of narrative," or explanatory stories, as well. Lyotard claims that the "grand narrative," or universalizing belief system, "has lost its credibility." This means that for postmodernists, neither religious nor scientific "stories" can be relied upon as Truth. Instead, they say, humans act as they want to act, according to self-interest, and then rationalize their actions by espousing the tenets of a handy belief system. Some point to fundamentalist beliefs, whereas others claim to be inspired by reason or science. These belief systems provide principles that justify their actions.


Humanists, too, have been rationalizing their position by attaching it to long-held values. Because it espouses popular principles, Humanism has survived and shows every sign of flourishing in the future. This is because the humanist grand narrative has shifted over the centuries, responding to changes in the market of human beliefs. In doing so, Humanism has maintained its viability in a way that can carry it into future generations.

A survey of three of the most influential manifestos of modern Humanism demonstrates how the grand narrative of Humanism has evolved, making it attractive to followers and allowing it to address the problems of the age, specifically those that threaten human life and dignity. The humanist manifesto of 1933 attaches its agenda to the value of science. In doing so, the modern humanists who signed the 1933 humanist manifesto rejected all forms of supernatural belief, making a clear break with religion that their Renaissance founders could neither envision nor support. The 1933 manifesto outlines in no uncertain terms that "the end of man's life [is to] seek development and fulfillment in the here and now." It is a manifesto that discourages sentimentalism and seeks "social and mental hygiene" instead. This manifesto was written after the end of World War I, during the time of military build-up between France and Germany. It was the period of the Lost Generation, who had lost faith in God as well as in human virtue. Many people were stunned by the loss of life and the devastation of the world war; they saw life on Earth as bleak and unfulfilling, yet they longed for a meaningful purpose for their lives. The 1933 manifesto served as a call to the social conscience of a disaffected populace. It had an appeal to a world inclined toward agnosticism, the belief that humans are not capable of proving whether God exists or not. In this it succeeded by suggesting that it was admissible to seek happiness here on Earth.

The "Humanist Manifesto II" of 1973 shows another shift in the phrasing of the grand narrative of Humanism, this time moving it closer to the realm of a scientific rather than a religious foundation. The new manifesto espouses complete faith in science as the dominant ideology, which now extends to technology. Humans not only understand the world better, they now have the means to control it. This concept is consistent with the Renaissance faith in man, and the Renaissance humanists also were comfortable with technology to the extent that they used the new printing press as a means to distribute their ideas. However, modern Humanism places technology in the center of its faith. The "Humanist Manifesto II" came on the heels of a successful space program and the sense that the Cold War could be evaded through nuclear deterrence. Ironically, this manifesto calls for an end to "the use of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons," while expressing a complete faith in technology as "a vital key to human progress." This manifesto also declares atheism as a definitional aspect of Humanism. Religious belief is not just a point of skepticism but is vilified as dangerous because it does not partake of reason. The early humanists would have been shocked by this change in their beliefs. However, they would have been gratified by another change: the emphasis on social responsibility. And, they might have been intrigued by this manifesto's expression of hope for global governance, a new thought for Humanism. The only idea that remains consistent with early Humanism is the privileging of human dignity as a central belief.

Coming just seven years later, "A Secular Humanist Declaration" of 1980 contains sentiments quite similar to "Humanist Manifesto II." However, the demands for the future are more specific, and the underlying ideology has shifted, again. "A Secular Humanist Declaration" appeals to democracy as a necessary component of morality. This is the first instance of a political agenda for Humanism. It specifically addresses current policies of secular politics, from allowing evolution to be taught in schools to the tax status of nonprofit secular human rights associations. No such political concerns appear in the earlier manifestos. Clearly, the political uncertainly of the late seventies had left its mark on humanist thinking.

The shift in Humanism from its Renaissance basis in Christianity to one that is atheistic and focused on secular politics is progressive because belief must be organic enough to adapt to the changing social environment. Instead of relying on dogmatic statements that must be defended against competing ideologies, Humanism has, over time, changed its course to stay consistent with human needs. The humanist rhetoric about reason and scientific method is really a way of saying that Humanism intends to adapt to what is empirically true. Although it appears to rely on claims to transcendent principles, the nature of its abiding principles is fluid. One of these abiding principles is the commitment to preserving human life and human dignity. Thus, despite the evolution in rhetorical appeals to God, and then to reason, science, and democracy, the real beliefs of Humanism still have not changed. They are expressed in Thomas Paine's statement, "All mankind are my brethren; to do good is my religion."

The looseness of the word "good" in Paine's statement is a necessary aspect of humanist thought, which allows humanists to participate in the situational or conditional ethics required by the twenty-first century. While fundamentalists attempt to coerce followers through attempts to limit access to or to discredit competing ideologies, Humanism holds onto the crucial little narratives and lets the grand narrative evolve as it may. Humanists today concern themselves with the ecosystem, with globalization, and with human rights, all issues that threaten human life, human worth, or human dignity. They also recognize and accept the postmodern distrust of consensus, seeing that universal consensus would be another form of absolutism. In this sense, most contemporary humanists partake of pragmatist philosophy, which says that ideas are measured not by their universal truth but by their practical results. In Philosophy and Social Hope, pragmatist Richard Rorty suggests that "we simply give up the philosophical search for commonality" because "moral progress might be accelerated if we focused instead on our ability to make the particular little things that divide us seem unimportant." Rorty advocates removal of all grand narratives from the humanist rhetoric. Another humanist, Frederick Edwords, in his essay "The Humanist Philosophy in Perspective,"also acknowledges the necessity to stay flexible, saying that scientific knowledge, moral choices, and social policies "are subject to continual revision in the light of both the fallible and tentative nature of our knowledge and constant shifts in social conditions." Edwords admits that giving up the hope for a universal truth is risky, but he asserts that today's humanists

have willingly sacrificed the lure of an easy security offered by simplistic systems in order to take an active part in the painstaking effort to build our understanding of the world and thereby contribute to the solutions of the problems that have plagued humanity through the ages.

These and other forward-thinking humanists realize that an ideology needs nothing more than the sense that an action is right and good because it benefits humanity, and that making these choices is not thereby made simple or formulaic.

Although they oppose indoctrination of any form, humanists today push for educational reforms that emphasize character education, moral virtues, and critical thinking skills. They want students to learn about evolution and other hotly contested subjects and then to decide for themselves. In this, humanists face opposition from fundamentalist religious groups. It appears that once again Humanism is facing off against organized religion in the arena of education. To do so, according to Rorty, is both inevitable and a necessary function of humanist educators, since, "the real function of the humanist intellectuals is to instill doubts in the students about the students' own self-images, and about the society to which they belong." The destabilizing effect of teaching a humanist curriculum is also necessary for the evolution of humanist thought, for, as Rorty continues, teachers "help ensure that the moral consciousness is slightly different from that of the previous generation." Allowing for change and adaptation in the future makes an idea viable and strong, and it accommodates the human need to express free will by making a choice among a competing market of ideas.

The reason that today's humanists accept the need for an evolving agenda and a changing source of authentication is that they recognize the postmodern truth that humans make decisions and then justify them through theology and philosophy. Michael Werner confirms this view in his article "Humanism and Beyond the Truth" when he says

we are not so much rational animals as much as we are rationalizing ones. Our overdeveloped powers of cognition are more often used to confirm our prejudices, maintain our power and control, and shield us from confronting our own irrational inconsistencies.

It seems clear that taking away the scaffolding of Humanism's grand narrative has had no effect on the ultimate objective of humanist thinking. Humanists continue to strive, as Felix Adler declared, to "Act so as to encourage the best in others, and by so doing you will develop the best in yourself." For today's humanists, faith takes the form of trusting that the philosophy of Humanism will evolve. As Annette Baier explains in her book, Postures of the Mind, "the secular equivalent of faith in God is faith in the human community and its evolving procedures." This trust amounts to faith in the postmodern condition to change and evolve. Today's post-modern humanists practice a "faith" that doing good for other humans now and in the future has its own value, one that does not require further justification. Bertrand Russell said that "The great use of a life is to spend it for something that outlasts it." Moral progress, as practiced by postmodern humanists, is a matter of gradually increasing the good of human worth, through acts that look beyond self-interest. Today's humanists know that the "death of God" and the "end of narrative" do not have to lead to the end of man.

Source: Carole Hamilton, Critical Essay on Humanism, in Literary Movements for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

Steven R. Mentz

In this essay, Mentz analyzes Sir Philip Sidney's New Arcadia, arguing that Sidney uses the three shipwrecks to explore how reason and faith facilitate understanding the human condition.

The New Arcadia begins with shipwreck. Sir Philip Sidney's narrator, in one of the Renaissance's most famous literary descriptions, portrays "a sight full of piteous strangeness: a ship, or rather the carcase of the ship, or rather some few bones of the carcase hulling there, part broken, part burned, part drowned—death having used more than one dart to that destruction." Amid the wreckage float mutilated corpses and a "great store of very rich things." This scene, when juxtaposed with the text's other shipwrecks, reveals a fictional structure through


which Sidney explores the relative merits of reason and faith in understanding human experience. As one might expect from an incomplete text, the New Arcadia does not yield any simple conclusions, but its elaboration of the ancient topos of shipwreck shows Sidney's understanding of reason and faith to be neither as Neo-Platonic nor as Calvinist as some critics have assumed. In three scenes of shipwreck, Sidney treats faith as superior to reason but sees the two as interactive, a position which allows him to qualify the Reformation's attack on this-worldly values with his hopes for human intellect.

Investigating this topic brings one face to face with the unsettled status of humanist reason and Protestant faith in Sidney studies. Where critics once held that Sidney—"that rare thing, the aristocrat in whom the aristocratic ideal is really embodied," as C. S. Lewis called him—embodied Renaissance humanism, recent work has emphasized Sidney's eclectic nature. The question has become not whether Sidney was a humanist, but which strain—civic, Neo-Platonic, Erasmian, Stoic, Ciceronian, hybrid—best fits him. Critical opinion has shifted from John Danby's confident description of Sidney's "conjunction of the Christian and the Nichomachean ethic" to studies that emphasize "contradiction and irresolution." Recent studies have made it clear that the tradition of describing Sidney as a "Platonist Protestant" does not do justice to his intellectual range and critical rigor. Arthur F. Kinney, who makes Sidney a centerpiece in his study of "humanist poetics," calls him "a man of contradictions" who not only embraced humanism but also produced "a considered reexamination of the precepts and practices advocated by Tudor humanists." Richard Helgerson further claims that the Arcadia represents a retreat from humanist principles, even though Sidney's first readers denied this. Wesley Trimpi has pointed out that Sidney's Defence of Poesy,often called Neo-Platonic, appears animated by a rejection of Neo-Platonic analysis of poetry in favor of a Ciceronian/Aristotelian approach. At every turn, Sidney's attacks on intellectual folly counterbalance his hopes for human reason; every "erected wit" has its "infected will."

Research on Sidney's Protestantism has advanced an alternate focus for his career, but Sidney's religion appears no less contradictory than his humanism. Politically, Sidney was part of the faction of the earl of Leicester and Francis Walsingham, who advocated an alliance with Dutch Protestants and sympathized with Calvinist doctrine. The notion that Elizabethan theology contained a "Calvinist consensus" regarding grace and election, however, has been challenged by revisionist historiography since the 1980s. Although the Book of Common Prayer took a semi-Calvinist position on the Eucharist, and godly preachers such as William Perkins and Arthur Dent were popular both on the pulpit and in print, the English Reformation appears ideologically very mixed in recent scholarship. When considering the four strains of English Protestantism that Penry Williamsseesasinfluential during thelateTudor period—reformers such as Edmund Grindal, anti-Presbyterians such as John Whitgift, proto-Arminians such as Lancelot Andrewes, and advocates of reason and natural law such as Richard Hooker—it has been standard practice to link Sidney to the reformers. (The poetic tribute to Grindal in Spenser's Shepheardes Calendar, a text dedicated to Sidney, emphasizes the point.) In the New Arcadia, however, Sidney appears less hostile to human reason than many reformers. Sidney's fictional defense of reason never becomes as explicit (or anti-Puritan) as Hooker's, but he strains against the orthodox reformed position. Sidney had no doubts about the superiority of faith to reason, but he refused to discount reason entirely.

Absolute Providential control was a tenet of Protestantism from which Sidney never wavered. Sidney's shipwrecks provide a fictional counterpoint to the project of his friend, the Huguenot theologian Philippe de Mornay, in the treatise De La Vérité de la religion chrestienne (1581): making divine Providence appear reasonable to human minds. For Mornay,

Prouidëce [sic] is nothing els but a wise guyding of things to their end, and that euery reasonable mynd that woorketh, beginneth his worke for some end, and that God (as I haue said afore) the workemaister of all things, hath (or to say more truely) is the souereine mynd, equall to his owne power: doth it not follow that God in creating the worlde, did purpose an end?

The crucial term, for Mornay and Sidney as Protestants, and for Sidney as a writer of romance, is "end." A purposed end imagines God as a Supreme Author, maneuvering the history of humankind according to His elaborate plotline. The end of the story redeems its beginnings. For Sidney's fictional characters, this problem becomes literal, as repeated shipwrecks make their "ends" seem likely to be death by drowning.

The tautology at the heart of Mornay's definition of Providence opens the door for Sidney's literary experiment. Mornay's God, "the work-emaister of all things," controls events in the world, but His "end" is irrevocably aloof from human experience. God is "the souereine mynd, equall to his owne power," but He is only "reasonable" in His own terms. Human reason cannot grasp the divine mentality. In a pre-Christian fiction, however, Sidney is released from religious orthodoxy into an arena of intellectual freedom. His pagan surrogates rely on human mental ingenuity without the saving crutch of faith. The New Arcadia, by combining a pagan setting with disembodied determinist control, creates a haven for reasoned speculation into theological truisms.

Sidney's concern with the status of reason in afallen world,asÅke Bergvall has noted, has made him "a focal point for a broader investigation of the interaction between humanism and reformation." Observing that a hard line between human reason and divine power was defended by Desiderius Erasmus as well as Martin Luther and Jean Calvin, Bergvall suggests that Sidney demonstrates the compatibility of humanism and Protestantism. By exploring the shipwrecks in the New Arcadia, I hope to complicate Bergvall's valuable observations. I believe that his notion of "compatibility" goes too far; the relationship Sidney explores is more fraught and combative. In fact, Bergvall's reading of the Arcadia—that it "warn[s] against the dangers accompanying the trespass over" the boundary between the "two Kingdoms"—fails to recognize how shipwreck problematizes that very boundary.

Even the most emphatic reformed spokesmen, as Bergvall observes, did not dismiss reason outright. Rather, Luther, Calvin, and their followers valued reason so long as it kept "within . . . boundaries." According to Calvin, reason by itself is "suffycyente for ryghte gouernaunce," but should not presume to judge questions of "personal ethics" or "moral law." Luther, in his debate with Erasmus, emphasizes the complementary point: "Human Reason . . . is blind, deaf, stupid, impious, and sacrilegious with regard to all the words and works of God." Despite the appeal (for modern as well as Renaissance humanists) of Erasmus's working together ("synergos") between human will and divine power, early modern Protestantism strictly limited reason's value. Sidney, while rejecting Erasmian compromise, was not content to let the barrier between human and divine remain impenetrable. The New Arcadia uses shipwreck to interrogate this barrier from a mortal perspective.

Examining the heroes' attitudes toward shipwreck reveals that, for Sidney, unlike Luther, reason is only partially blocked from the divine. Reason is valuable because it can reject false explanations, intuit a notion of Providential control, and then recognize its limits. To be sure, this modest hermeneutic accomplishment does little to alleviate terror on a sinking ship. It does, however, clarify the relation between reason and faith in Sidney's fiction. The two kingdoms are not absolutely separate, and reason can recognize the point at which it must give way and not claim more knowledge than it possesses.

Sidney's narrator offers no explanation for the opening wreck. His only conclusion is negative; he warns against false interpretations. This refusal to misunderstand typifies human reason at its most valuable. The sea is not entirely to blame: "And amidst the precious things were a number of dead bodies, which likewise did not only testify both elements' [the sea's and the storm's] violence, but that the chief violence was grown of human inhumanity . . . which [blood] it seemed the sea would not wash away that it might witness it is not always his fault when we condemn his cruelty." Sidney's narrator rejects the assumption that the wreck was caused by divine wrath or caprice. "[H]uman inhumanity" is a contributing cause, and human causes should be sought before divine ones. This modest but rational approach forestalls misinterpretation without advancing a coherent explanation. Neither weather nor poor sailing are to blame; it is "a shipwreck without storm or ill-footing." The cause remains a mystery of the deep, which is not cleared up for some three hundred pages.

The fishermen who accompany Musidorus offer a rival interpretation, broadly comparable to Protestantism in its deference to divine power. The fishermen are pagans, but like rigid reformed believers they believe the wreck's cause must be purely supernatural: "assuredly . . . it was some God begotten between Neptune and Venus that had made all this terrible slaughter." They see no role for human malice. Full of "superstition," the fishermen "ma[ke] their prayers" instead of throwing Pyrocles a line. Their pagan naiveté, however, should not obscure their possible insight into the wreck. The fishermen are not wrong to seek a supernatural explanation; they simply invoke the wrong supernatural vocabulary. Their interpretation can be taken as an extreme version, or a pagan parody, of Calvinist predestination.

In contrast to these alternatives is Sidney's ideal understanding of shipwreck, a model always out of reach for his characters, the biblical wreck of Saint Paul (Acts 27-8). When Paul and his companions fear for their lives during "a tempestuous wind," Paul is granted a saving vision: an "angel of God" comes to him and says "Fear not, Paul ...and, lo, God hath given thee [safety for] all them that sail with thee" (Acts 27:14, 23, 24 [AV]). Paul and his companions take heart in divine revelation and thereby conquer their fears. Sidney's heroes, unfortunately, do not ship with Saint Paul; in fact, they predate him. The assurance Paul receives from the angel they can only struggle to reach with unaided reason. Like Pamela refuting Cecropia, they must derive the core of Christianity without angels or sacred texts. The challenge of shipwreck in the New Arcadia is duplicating the results of Paul's faith without receiving his vision.

Sidney's romance begins by juxtaposing the fishermen's faux-Calvinist submission to divine power against the narrator's claims for "human inhumanity." Reconciling these points of view becomes one of the text's central interpretive challenges. Shipwrecks recur at two other crucial junctures in the plot. These moments are scattered within the expanse of the New Arcadia, but I believe that Sidney intends them to be read against each other. All three wrecks initiate important narrative transitions. Wrecks drive the two young princes to Asia Minor (initiating the adventures of book 2) and later to Arcadia (for book 1), and a final wreck brings Euarchus to them for the denouement (book 5). These episodes are structurally identical: shipwreck wrenches control from the heroes' hands, and Sidney's plot shifts direction.

Taken together, the shipwrecks subject Sidney's heroes to trials in which relying on the virtues of dry land—especially humanist reason—becomes a weakness rather than strength. Looking at Pyrocles, Musidorus, and Euarchus as shipwrecked sailors inverts the standard hierarchy in which Euarchus is a model king, Musidorus a prince-in-training, and Pyrocles a youth who cannot contain his desires. (This reading has been challenged recently, but still claims impressive advocates.) Pyrocles, whose reason falls most abjectly to his passion, gains the most insight from shipwreck; Musidorus remains largely baffled, and Euarchus learns nothing at all. This new hierarchy among these heroes implies a critique of reason and ethical rectitude; these virtues are valuable in crises such as shipwreck only to the extent that they recognize and accept human dependence on extrahuman forces.

Since the details of Sidney's revision will never be known, it is uncertain which shipwreck he wrote first. I shall examine the wrecks in order of increasing comprehension by the primary hero involved, starting with Euarchus's failure to understand his wreck, then moving to Musidorus's politicized oversimplification of the wreck off Asia Minor, and last to Pyrocles' partial explanation of the opening mystery, the wreck that brings the princes to Arcadia. This three-part reading may appear schematic, but it has the virtue of exposing a basic structural feature of Sidney's romance. In these episodes Sidney develops a positive interplay between the resources of reason and the demands of faith. None of the princes understands Providence, but by refusing false explanations Pyrocles perceives more than his father or cousin. Acknowledging powers that he cannot explain leads him to a middle position between the rationality of the narrator and the superstition of the fishermen. He uses reason to move toward partial recognition of divinity, which is as far as reason can take him.


Euarchus's shipwreck, one of the few revisions Sidney made to book 5, presents the simplest handling of the topos in the New Arcadia. It portrays the limits of unaided reason. This wreck replaces Euarchus's sudden decision in the Old Arcadia to make "a long and tedious journey to visit his old friend and confederate the duke Basilius." A meeting that once arose from Euarchus's fellow-feeling for a neighboring head of state is now caused by God's storm. Book 5 needs Euarchus to step into the power vacuum Basilius's apparent death has left in Arcadia, but it is not his political acumen that gets him to the troubled kingdom.

The tempest that redirects Euarchus's ship is simple and inexplicable: "[Euarchus] had in short time run a long course when on a night, encounteredwithanextreme tempest, hisships were so scattered that scarcely any two were left together." In the phrase, "encountered with an extreme tempest," not very different from the Old Arcadia's "terrible tempest," Euarchus's navy and his earthly kingdom disappear, leaving the king a solitary adventurer on the "unhappy coast of Laconia"—exactly where the young princes were cast away in book 1. Once again, shipwreck shifts a Greek prince from political adventures (the princes' exploits in Asia Minor, Euarchus's defeat of Byzantium) to interpersonal ones (the princes' love affairs, Euarchus's judging of the Arcadian crisis). Euarchus, however, fails to realize that the game has changed. His attempt to apply rigorous justice and reason to the Arcadian crisis will nearly cause disaster.

Euarchus is an ideal king in Macedonia, but events in Arcadia expose him as overly dogmatic. His errors stem from his inability to make the cognitive leap shipwreck requires. He trusts human reason and forgets superhuman control. The first four books of the New Arcadia idealize him, but always in a political context, on dry land. Musidorus describes him as the perfect king: "For how could they choose but love him, whom they found sotrulytolovethem?...Insum...I mightaseasily set down the whole art of government as to lay before your eyes the picture of his proceedings." Like Xenophon's Cyrus, Euarchus represents the political duty that Sidney's generation felt it owed the Elizabethan state.

Scattering Euarchus's navy and casting him ashore in Arcadia turn the ideal king into an untutored romance hero. Viewing his character this way can clarify one of the critical controversies surrounding book 5, in which the ideal legislator appears willing to execute his own son. Numerous recent critics have pointed out flaws in Euarchus's justice. While Pyrocles and Musidorus use their shipwrecks to start new phases of education, Euarchus enters Arcadia believing his rational code is all he needs to know. I concur with critics who see book 5 as criticizing Euarchus, but even Stephen Greenblatt's conclusion that the trial shows that "wisdom can be hopelessly inadequate" fails to account for Sidney's interweaving of human reason and divine power. Wisdom alone is inadequate, but the text does not quite abandon its reader to the hopelessness Greenblatt and others have suggested. The New Arcadia suggests that human reason can be trusted only so far, but it replaces "wisdom" with a combination of reason and a partial perception of extrahuman Providence. The lesson Euarchus misses is the lesson of Paul's tempest: do not judge what you cannot know. Recognition of divine control, which is (barely) comprehensible to human reason, can supplement the rational humanism that Greenblatt and others rightly see book 5 criticizing.

Euarchus's problem is his limited point of view. He cannot understand shipwreck because it is not subject to rational interpretation; he is an excellent prince, but a poor theologian. A political triumph added to the New Arcadia further highlights this disjunction. Before leaving Macedonia, Euarchus provides an example of statecraft at its best, discouraging a rebellion by the Latines. He preempts their violence with a show of force and maintains his kingdom equitably for all. His tactics, however, impersonate the tempest that will later cast him ashore: "[Euarchus] by many reasons making them see that though in respect of place some of them might seem further removed from the first violence of the storm, yet being embarked in the same ship, the final wreck must needs be common to them all." This attempt to make a tempest part of a political program inverts the status of storms in Sidney's text. Euarchus's metaphor of the ship of state cannot accommodate the topos that makes a shipwreck an occasion for supplementing human reason with the direct manifestation of divine will. Understanding this aspect of shipwreck falls to younger heroes than Euarchus.


Learning from shipwreck is not easy for any of Sidney's heroes. Musidorus, like Euarchus, fails to do so because he cannot escape politics. Unlike Euarchus, however, Musidorus recognizes the mystery of shipwreck. When he narrates his adventures to Pamela, he interprets the shipwreck off Asia Minor as a cruel act of fate:

[W]hen the conspired heavens had gotten this subject of their wrath upon so fit a place as the sea was, they straight began to breathe out in boisterous winds some part of their malice against him, so that with the loss of all his navy, he only with the prince his cousin were cast a-land far off from the place whither their desires would have guided them. O cruel winds, in your unconsiderate rages why either began you this fury, or why did you not end it in his end?

Musidorus fails to see that the "cruel winds" of the "conspired heavens" make possible his adventures with Pyrocles in Asia Minor, which not only advance his education but also comprise the narrative of his courtship of Pamela. Musidorus sees only the "boisterous winds" and their "malice," rather than the Providential plot they advance. He does ask "why" the storm strikes him, and this acknowledgment of ignorance exceeds his uncle's self-sufficiency. He recognizes the role of supernatural forces. He is no more open to reevaluating shipwreck, however, than Euarchus.

Tailoring his speech to appeal to Pamela, the politically minded heir to the Arcadian throne, Musidorus makes politics his governing metaphor. For Musidorus, the sea can be only loyal subject or traitor. When he and Pyrocles set sail, "The wind was like a servant, waiting behind them so just, that they might fill the sails as they listed; and the best sailors, showing themselves less covetous of his liberality, so tempered it that they all kept together like a beautiful flock which so well could obey their master's pipe." The pastoral relation between shepherd and flock subtends this fantasy of perfect transparency between power and service, of a "beautiful flock" who love to "obey their master's pipe." Musidorus describes a world he can control. Playing on a metaphor common in Tudor poetry, Musidorus and the fleet "consider the art of catching the wind prisoner to no other end but to run away with it." Conventionally "catching the wind" is an image of futility, but for this crossing of the Mediterranean, it works just fine.

As readers no doubt expect, Musidorus's idyll falls apart. The storm that arises shatters the fleet:

For then the traitorous sea began to swell in pride against the afflicted navy under which, while the heaven favoured them, it had laid so calmly, making mountains of itself over which the tossed and tottering ship should climb, to be straight carried down again to a pit of hellish darkness; with such cruel blows against the sides of the ship (that, which way soever it went, was still in his malice) that there was left neither power to stay nor way to escape. And shortly had it so dessevered the loving company which the day before had tarried together, that most of them never met again but were swallowed up in his never satisfied mouth.

Musidorus shows some awareness that the ideal service of wind and sea has been the result of heavenly favor, but his vocabulary mingles the language of traitors and faithful servants with the "pit of hellish darkness." The pit is a more nearly Christian image than the fishermen's Neptune and Venus, but Musidorus interprets divine hostility in the same simplistic way they had. He omits any role for "human inhumanity," or mortal error. The "traitorous sea" is his ultimate villain.

As so often in Sidney, paired images, in this case the calm and the storm, serve as an interpretive test. Musidorus reads the shift from calm to storm in political terms, and this method precludes seeing the storm as part of a divine plan. The storm, as even Musidorus knows, is not a traitorous servant, but an unknowable power: "[T]he ship wherein the princes were (now left as much alone as proud lords be when fortune fails them) though they employed all industry to save themselves, yet what they did was rather for duty to nature than hope to escape." That he feels himself left alone "when fortune fails" exposes Musidorus's failure to understand predeterminism, in which fortune (or Providence) never fails. Musidorus and his cousin remain trapped, waging a continual struggle "rather for duty than hope to escape." The alternative Musidorus never considers is that shipwrecks may be beneficial, not malicious, as he thinks, or even capricious, as the fishermen believe.

Musidorus rails against "the tyranny of the wind and the treason of the sea" as he describes fetching up on Asian shores. In these terms, the cost of the storm is immense. The fleet is destroyed, and Leucippus and Nelsus, brothers who have loyally served the princes, must sacrifice themselves for their masters. The ship's rib, on which the four float, provides a keen metaphor for difficult political decisions in a world of scarce resources. The rib will only float two, so the servants must give way to the masters or become traitors. The servants do not present their sacrifice in zero-sum terms, but their deaths suggest that the politics of Musidorus's wreck are strikingly cold-blooded: either servants or masters must die. Musidorus accepts their sacrifice as a matter of course, explaining that he and Pyrocles had ransomed them from captivity. The servants' ultimate fidelity, however, further undercuts Musidorus's insistence on "treason" as a governing metaphor.

The shipwreck divides the two princes, and Pyrocles washes up in hostile Phrygia, while Musidorus arrives in friendly Pontus. Pyrocles' fate in Phrygia, as Musidorus narrates it, takes him from oceangoing storms to a land-locked one: "And in this plight, full of watchful fearfulness, did the storm deliver sweet Pyrocles to the stormy mind of that [Phrygian] tyrant." The tyrant's "stormy mind" reprises Musidorus's flawed interpretation: he reads storms as political acts, tyrannies of wind and sea. The princes' political education—the new task to which this shipwreck brings them—begins with Pyrocles being held captive in Phrygia and Musidorus maneuvering for his release outside. Musidorus remains bound by political reason. Pyrocles, by contrast, refuses Musidorus's explanations when he describes the subsequent wreck off Arcadia. His refusal to pronounce decisively is as close as any Arcadian prince gets to understanding how shipwreck operates in their world.


Sidney matches each prince's weak point with the subject of his narrative. Thus Musidorus, whose strengths are active and political, narrates a mysterious shipwreck, which, if interpreted better, might reveal the need to accept supernatural control. Pyrocles, by contrast, narrates a shipwreck which is not as obviously a product of supernatural power. At the end of book 2, Pyrocles finally explains the mysterious opening disaster. This shipwreck poses a special challenge for him because his gentle nature recoils from Plexirtus's treachery. Unlike Musidorus, he condemns not disloyal service but the entire gruesome episode:

But while even in that little remnant, like the children of Cadmus, we continued still to slay one another, a fire which (whether by the desperate malice of some, or intention to separate, or accidentally, while all things were cast up and down) it should seem had taken a good while before, but never heeded of us (who only thought to preserve or revenge) now violently burst out in many places and began to master the principal parts of the ship. Then necessity made us see that a common enemy sets at one a civil war; for that little all we were (as if we had been waged by one man to quench a fire) straight went to resist that furious enemy by all art and labour: but it was too late, for already it did embrace and devour from the stern to the waist of the ship; so as labouring in vain, we were driven to get up to the prow of the ship, by the work of nature seeking to preserve life as long as we could: while truly it was a strange and ugly sight to see so huge a fire, as it quickly grew to be, in the sea, and in the night, as if it had come to light us to death.

With the simile of Cadmus's children, Pyrocles laments "human inhumanity" more than Plexirtus's treachery. Calling the battling mariners "that little all we were" emphasizes the crisis's symbolic role as a microcosm of human experience. Pyrocles refuses Musidorus's political metaphor. The fire still "master[s]" and "devour[s]" the ship, but Pyrocles does not name it or the sea a traitorous servant. He remains unwilling to pass judgment, on the fighting men or even on the fire itself, which paradoxically appears "as if it had come to light us to death."

Plexirtus's evil captain exposes the nihilistic apex of his master's treachery when "with a loud voice [he] sware that if Plexirtus bade him, he would not stick to kill God himself." The captain transforms "human inhumanity" into a fantasy of superhuman power. With a heresy exceeded only by Cecropia's atheism, he wants to invert the mechanism of shipwreck and strike a human blow against divinity. As Pamela shows in her debate with her aunt, pagan reason can deduce that (some kind of) God exists, without scriptural revelation. Pyrocles replies to the captain in the only words he speaks aloud during the episode: "Villain . . . dost thou think to over-live so many honest men whom thy falsehood hath brought to destruction?". He recognizes that the captain's violence is based on "falsehood," even if he has no straightforward truth with which to replace it.

Amid this chaos, Pyrocles and Musidorus distinguish themselves by abstaining from violence. Pyrocles describes their refusal as a moral victory: "Formycousin andme, trulyIthinkwenever performed less in any place, doing no other hurt than the defence of ourselves and succouring them who came for it drave us to: for not discerning perfectly who were for or against us, we thought it less evil to spare a foe than spoil a friend." Compared to the zero-sum game that forces Leucippus and Nelsus off the ship's rib, Pyrocles' reticence is striking. Even as the melee progresses to the point where "no man almost could conceive hope of living but by being last alive," Pyrocles refuses the role of judge and executioner. Pyrocles' careful distinctions cede judgment to extrahuman dispensation: he will not decide who is to live or die, but resigns the choice to fortune and fire. He knows by his reason to abandon reason.

Accepting his fate does not force Pyrocles into passivity. From the text's first image of him clinging to the ship's mast, he always struggles to preserve himself. The narrator's initial description of this moment, however, seems misleading: "For holding his head up full of unmoved majesty, he held a sword aloft with his fair arm, which often he waved about his crown as though he would threaten the world in that extremity." While "unmoved majesty" captures Pyrocles' combination of semipassive resignation with unabated effort, the gesture need not be a threat against the world. The narrator's narrow focus on "human inhumanity" interprets everything as a struggle between antithetical forces. Pyrocles, when he renarrates the scene, makes it clear that the fewer violent actions he performs, the better. He recognizes that his best victory will be the avoidance of error. The interpretive problem—why does Pyrocles wave his sword?—embodies the larger mystery of the wreck. Rather than striking out blindly, Pyrocles calls attention to himself and his plight while waiting for rescue.

When Pyrocles narrates the scene, he reveals that he was not, in fact, threatening the world. He slays the evil captain, but he never bewails his fate, nor does he rail against the treachery of wind and water as Musidorus does. Rather, after killing the captain, he sits patiently on the mast: "there myself remained, until by pirates I was taken up." Pyrocles balances on the cusp of active struggle and passive resignation. He sends the captain, who has proven himself evil, "to feed fishes," but then gives himself over to the pirates. Throughout the episode, he never loses hope. He cannot know that shipwreck is part of a Providential plan, but he refuses to act on any motivation he knows to be erroneous.

Pyrocles' refusal to draw conclusions about the shipwreck is a partial victory. His resigned hope approximates the imperfect knowledge of shipwreck that the reader has at the text's opening: these disasters are mysteries and opportunities, occasions for the divine Author to surprise with the circuitry of His story. Pyrocles will not judge individual sailors in the shipboard melee, nor will he judge the way he arrives in Arcadia. He cannot reach the Christian solution available to Sidney and his peers, but he refuses error. The image of Pyrocles atop the mast epitomizes his interpretive high point: he maintains hope in a plan of which he knows nothing. The conclusion of the romance, had Sidney lived to write it, would presumably have requited this patient endurance.


Thehappy endingsofliteraryromance parallel but do not precisely mirror the Providential "end" that Mornay describes. Theologically, the end of salvation comes to the elect in the next world, while a romance presents an idealized ending in a (fictional) human world. Romance condenses the Christian overplot into a human drama. In absolute terms, the fiction miniaturizes the Christian telos, giving Sidney a scale model for his experiment. Sidney may have feared that a conventional ending would trivialize his theology. Much of the revision of the Arcadiaappears a sustained attempt to reinforce his text's seriousness. Even an updated version of the ending of the Old Arcadia might have slighted the revised version's more somber tone. Sidney's literary dilemma, which he never solved, was how to write a human triumph for his heroes that would not minimize the unreachable insights toward which they have been striving.

In bringing together reason and faith, the shipwreck scenes in the New Arcadia explore how difficult it is to cling to Providence in the face of human catastrophe. The princes' struggle to comprehend shipwreck's causes of divine fiat and "human inhumanity" echoes Sidney's struggle to bring together reason and faith in his world. Accepting Mornay's notion of Providence as God's "end," Sidney found in Greek romance a world that operates under an analogous dispensation. He used Heliodoran fiction as a human model to approximate God's design. In both schemes, danger (shipwreck/the Fall) opens the door for the complex workings of Providence to create an unlooked-for triumph (the happy marriage/Christian revelation). Learning to accept shipwrecks, and even to thrive in a world suffused with them, becomes Sidney's literary analogy for imagining the interrelation of human reason and divine Providence. The unfinished text gestures toward a mutual accommodation between reason and faith.

The final irony is that the New Arcadia, unlike most romances, has no end. The fragmentary revision leaves the literary Providential ending incomplete. Speculation about Sidney's reasons for breaking off the revision, or his plans had he lived to continue it, are ultimately fruitless, but in religious terms the rupture makes perfect sense. Heliodorus's pre-Christian Ethiopian History imagines the happy ending of romance as a theological triumph on mortal soil: the hero and heroine become high priest and priestess, and the nation of Ethiopia eschews human sacrifice forever. For a Protestant such as Sidney, however, placing divine grace inside a literary fiction exceeds the province of mortal artistry. The final end rests in divine hands. Sidney's abandonment of the revision and subsequent early death ceded the New Arcadia's "end" to God and posterity alone.

Source: Steven R. Mentz, "Reason, Faith, and Shipwreck in Sidney's New Arcadia," in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. 44, No. 1, Winter 2004, pp. 1-18.

Lauro Martines

In the following essay excerpt, Martines examines the origins of Italian Humanism and describes its five interrelated disciplines.


The velocity and extent of change in the cities of late medieval Italy had a profound effect on consciousness. Especially susceptible were the dominant political and social groups who made the fundamental decisions. In the course of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, a new awareness gradually dawned upon them, an awareness or redirection most effectively articulated by their literary and educational spokesmen. In one of its manifestations this awareness was humanism. We may therefore look upon humanism as a phase in the history of consciousness—the consciousness of the men who fashioned the destinies of the Italian cities. Seen in this light, the true burden of the historian of humanism is to identify the link between humanism and the values, moral and ideological, of the dominant social groups within the cities. The point of the succeeding pages will be to do this.


Changes of consciousness gave rise to changes in the methods and scope of education. Between about 1250 and 1400, church schools lost their exclusive control over education for the laity. Florence and other cities saw the establishment of private schools run by and for laymen. The schoolmasters were often professional notaries, and their schools were designed to teach the elements of Latin and commercial arithmetic to the sons of tradesmen, urbanized noblemen, and merchants who trafficked on an international scale. Strictly utilitarian in its aims—for Latin was the language of contracts and formal diplomatic dispatches—this development was the first phase in a gradual but basic change in the aims of education.

At the level of university instruction, the late fourteenth century witnessed the beginning of a new current, with the lecturing in Florence of men like Giovanni Malpaghini (1346-1417), who taught rhetoric, poetry, and moral philosophy, and Manuel Chrysoloras (d. 1415), who taught Greek to an audience of adult enthusiasts. In the fifteenth century, the vanguard in course offerings at the universities was held by the humanistic subjects—rhetoric, poetry, history, and moral philosophy. But the next phase of far-reaching educational change at a more basic level really began around 1400, with the founding of small but select schools run by humanists: that of Roberto de' Rossi (1355?-1417) at Florence, of Gasparino Barzizza (1359?-1431) at Padua, of Guarino Guarini (1374-1460) at Venice, Verona, and Ferrara, and of Vittorino da Feltre (1373-1446) at Mantua. In these schools Christianity was taken so much for granted—indeed, Vittorino had his pupils attend daily Mass—that the major classical writers could occupy the heart of study. Henceforth the studia humanitatis—"the humanities"—provided the substance for the most innovative and vigorous wave in primary and secondary education.

Human, humane, the humanities: these words are no more than a remote echo of what the nouns humanista and studia humanitatis meant in fifteenth-century Italy. We must not confuse vague twentieth-century notions with their more precise Renaissance forebears.

Italian humanism put man where it was both most flattering and most dangerous to be: at the center of active inquiry. The first modern treatise on painting (Della pittura, 1435), composed by the humanist Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472), directs painters to determine the sizes of objects in the picture space by the scale of the human figures there represented. Alberti's statement of this "law" conveyed an attitude of discovery. "Man is the measure." Protagoras had long since asserted the same thing, but after the achievements of Alberti and his circle neither painting nor sculpture was to recover from that perception.

In its most general and genuine sense Italian humanism was education for practical and worthy living; but it was education based on the study of the classical Roman and Greek writers. Florentine, Venetian, and other Italian humanists believed that classical literature held the rich and communicable remains of a momentous civilization, that it expressed a viewpoint centered on the value of man's activities in the world. This recognition was combined, as we shall see, with a keen appreciation of the secularity of time, the historical nature of time. There was no necessary conflict between these attitudes and Christianity, but the fact that the classical world was mainly pre-Christian was not entirely beside the point.

It is astonishing to note how many humanists were either members of the legal profession or career officials in government chancelleries, and just as many were born into professional or intensely political families. Three of the most celebrated—Petrarch (1304-1374), Lorenzo Valla (1407-1457), and Angelo Poliziano (1454-1494)— were sons of, respectively, a notary, a canon lawyer, and a civil lawyer. Four others of great preeminence—Coluccio Salutati (1336-1406), Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459), Pier Candido Decembrio (1392-1477), and Giovanni Pontano (1426?-1503)—were leading municipal, papal, and royal secretaries. In Venice nearly all of the most able humanists were drawn from the political partriciate.

These facts are mentioned in order to show that the humanist enterprise proceeded under the direction of, and in keeping with the values of, men brought up for practical activity in the urban community, whether in politics, the rough-and-tumble world of municipal administration, the law courts, the business of drawing up contracts (then the stock-in-trade of the notary), or the counting house. Immersed in practical affairs and oriented toward the accomplishment of everyday ends, such men had an urgent sense of time, a recognition of man's inescapable place in the world, and a sense of his achievements and possibilities. Thus the great appeal for them—or at least for the learned among them—of Aristotle's emphasis on action in his Ethics; and the even greater appeal of Cicero, with his emphasis not only on action and knowledge ("the true praise of virtue is in action") but also on eloquence, felicity, and force of verbal expression. Evidently, in the context of the evolved city-state, the orator easily came to represent the ideal fusion of action with wisdom, of will with contemplation.

Appropriately, in the history of modern Europe, the first great private libraries of classical works were built up by men of the sort described above: e.g., Niccolò Niccoli (1364-1437) and Antonio Corbinelli (1377?-1425), the sons of wealthy Florentine wool merchants; Giovanni Corvini (d. 1438?), political secretary to the last Visconti Duke of Milan; or rich citizens who stood at the forefront of public life, like the Florentines Palla Strozzi (1372-1462) and Cosimo de' Medici (1389-1464). No less than the most celebrated humanists, these men applauded the ardent search for the neglected manuscripts of ancient works, a pursuit first strikingly taken up in the first quarter of the fifteenth century.

Why did the break with medieval habits of thought not come sooner, in the thirteenth century, when Italian cities were at the peak of their economic and political vitality? The answer seems to be that the break was retarded by the very condition of urban experience: in this case the raw atmosphere of new cities populated by rustics, large numbers of illiterate noblemen, and tradesmen struggling to survive or to amass enormous fortunes. Since the traditional forms of orientation and feeling must often have seemed inappropriate, it must be that the experience of the urban populace—or whatever was novel in that experience—could not easily generate its own finished forms of expression over a short period of time, except perhaps in song. Particularly resistant in this regard was the fund of experience belonging to the new class of merchants and urban administrators, who eventually gave rise to humanism and provided the audience for it. In some respects their experience had to conflict with the prevailing modes of apprehension and cognition, which better suited a feudal society and an ecclesiastical intelligentsia. The intellectual tradition, after all, condemned all interest as usury. Temporal lordship was assigned heavenly essences. Government was often seen as punishment for sin. "Getting and spending" were regarded as inferior a priori to the gallant professions of arms, prayer, and contemplation.

Ideas of unity, hierarchy, and order; an overriding emphasis on authority, essences, and metaphysical reality—these provided the framework and foci for twelfth-and thirteenth-century thought. In a sense the entire fourteenth century, at all events in the world of the city-state, marks a decisive drift away from the more static and hierarchical assumptions of the late Middle Ages. But even Marsilius of Padua (c. 1275-1342), the most inquiring political thinker of the fourteenth century, was unread by his Italian contemporaries: his basic presuppositions were too much in conflict with established opinion concerning the temporal authority of the church. In the early fifteenth century, one of the most sophisticated conceptions of the unity of Christian society, that elaborated by the French thinker Jean Gerson (1363-1429), was still governed by a strict notion of the interlocking relationship between heavenly and earthly hierarchies. And within this scheme man had a fixed place.

Italian humanism worked a radical break with this tradition of thought. It put man at the center of intellectual and artistic inquiry but gave him no fixed nature, no metaphysical trappings or underpinnings. It focused on his humanity and his potential, and offered temporal glory rather than salvation. It therefore emphasized the study of history, recognizing that man lives in a changing temporal continuum; and it laid great emphasis on the study of moral philosophy (hence, on the dilemma of choice), having stripped man of his fixed nature. Humanism assigned vast importance to rhetoric—the art of persuasion and eloquence—for the practice of this art (i.e., effective and graceful verbal expression) combined action and wisdom, taught a certain control over the emotions (of others and so of one's own), and underlined man's reliance upon the immediate social and civil community. Finally, humanism turned philology—the rigorous historical and grammatical study of language and literature—into its primary intellectual tool, thus opening the way to a better understanding of the literature of antiquity.

In short, it was by means of philology that the humanists approached the classical world, maintaining critical detachment from it, and at the same time sharpening their sense of identity and of their own creative role in the hammering out of a new age. Paradoxically, therefore, the intensive study of classical literature was a process of self-realization. The humanists looked to antiquity to affirm the vitality, value, and experience of the present. In this way the old modes of thought were revolutionized: the impact of accumulated experience was finally able to determine the direction of intellectual and artistic development.

The syllabus of humanism had five interrelated disciplines: grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, and moral philosophy. By cultivating these subjects, the fifteenth-century humanists altered the course of intellectual history.

1. Grammar meant, first, the study of Latin and then, ambitiously, Greek. It was a commonplace of Renaissance educational theory that all serious preparation for civil life began with the study of Latin grammar. In its highest form, grammar was indistinguishable from philology, for it entailed not only a mastery of the elements of grammar, of syntax, diction, usage, and orthography, but also a true understanding of their development: that is, a grasp of their precise place in the history of the language. This obviously meant a thorough-going familiarity with the history of literature. In this sense grammar was both a tool and a way of life; it opened all the doors of the intellect, but its mastery was the fruit of an austere schooling.

Lorenzo Valla was the outstanding philologist and in some ways the most brilliant humanist of the fifteenth century. Born in Rome in 1407, the son of a North Italian papal lawyer, Valla published his first work, A Comparison of Cicero and Quintilian (now lost), at twenty. He taught rhetoric at the University of Pavia in the early 1430s, thereafter drifting to Milan, Florence, and Genoa. In 1435 he settled in Naples, where he became secretary to King Alfonso of Aragon and Naples. In the 1430s and 1440s he brought out a variety of remarkably provocative works—philological, philosophical, and historical. Intellectually he was intensely combative: swift, arrogant, and courageous. Transferring himself to Rome in 1448, he served in a secretarial capacity under Popes Nicholas V and Calixtus III, and died there in 1457. His major philological work, On the Graces of the Latin Language (1435-1444) is a combined critical and historical grammar, as well as a handbook of rhetoric and style. It is marked by an astonishingly able grasp of the history of the Latin language. With Valla the possibilities of historical criticism receive a virtuoso demonstration, and in his perspicacity we have one of the first unmistakable examples of the modern historical sense. Nor did he hesitate to address his philology to Holy Scripture and church documents, as in his Notes on the New Testament (1449) and his learned harangue on The Falsity of the Alleged Donation of Constantine (1440).

2. Rhetoric or eloquence—the art of graceful but forceful persuasion—could obviously not be learned until the rules of grammar had been mastered. Cicero and Quintilian, the classical Roman rhetoricians, were taken to be the models in this realm, the princes of oratory. The choice of the word oratory is deliberate: it emphasizes that aspect of rhetoric pertaining to action, to a job of doing. For in their writings the humanists turned and returned to the practical and useful nature of eloquence, most especially in connection with its utility for civil or community service. In his humanistic treatise Concerning Excellent Traits (ca. 1402), addressed to a son of the lord of Padua, Pier Paolo Vergerio (1370-1444) observes that "speaking and writing elegantly affords no little advantage in negotiation, be it in public or private affairs . . . but especially in the administration of the State." And in a short essay on literary education, De studiis te litteris liber, (ca. 1425), one of the most distinguished of all humanists, Leonardo Bruni (1372?-1444), holds—almost casually—that knowledge should have an application: "The high standard of education referred to earlier can only be achieved by one who has seen much and read much . . . but to make effective use of what we know we must add the power of expression to our knowledge."

These were views which found a ready audience in the intense social world of the city-state, particularly among the more alert and ambitious members of the governing classes.

3. Poetry helped to complete the individual; it enlarged his vision and added to his humanity. From it he could draw a fund of examples and enhance the force and variety of his own speech. The preferred poets were Virgil and Homer, then Seneca, Ovid, and Horace; but the vernacular poets, Dante and Petrarch, were by no means neglected. Carlo Marsuppini (1398-1453), first secretary of the Florentine republic from 1444 to 1453, translated the first book of the Iliad into Latin verse. He was followed in this effort by a major poet who was also the leading philologist of the second half of the century, Angelo Poliziano (1454-1494). At sixteen, Poliziano had translated books II-V of the Iliad into Latin verse, an accomplishment which brought him into Lorenzo de' Medici's entourage.

The most talented of all humanist poets, Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374), is sometimes called "the father of humanism" (as if such a designation made any historical sense). The son of a Florentine notary who suffered political disgrace and exile, Petrarch spent his life abroad, studied law for a time but soon rejected it for a life of writing and reflection. After taking minor religious vows, which gave him financial independence, he traveled widely and found patronage at Avignon, Rome, Milan, Padua, Venice, and elsewhere. Of particular interest for the fortunes of humanism—apart from his De viris illustribus (lives of famous Romans) and his stinging self-analysis in the Secretum—are Petrarch's Latin letters, known as the Familiares, which exhibit his boundless admiration for the world of antiquity, a longing to read Greek, a love of Cicero, familiarity with the history of ancient Rome, and an abandoned attachment to the elegance of classical Latin literature.

4. History was in some respects the unifying discipline of humanism. An affirmative view of the ancient world was, primarily, what the humanists had in common. When they united this view of the past with their study of the literature antiquity, they invented philology and brought historical scholarship into being. Yet we must not think that their attitude toward history presupposed an abstract approach. They looked at the past in terms of specific men and events, and their impulse to study history had a limited ground: here. . . .

Source: Lauro Martines, "The Italian Renaissance," in The Meaning of Renaissance and Reformation, edited by Richard L. DeMolen, Houghton Mifflin, 1974, pp. 27-70.


Baier, Annette, Postures of the Mind, University of Minnesota Press, 1984, pp. 147, 293.

Chan, Wing-Tsit, "The Humanism of Confucius," in A Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy, Princeton University Press, 2001.

Chin, Annping, The Authentic Confucius: A Life of Thought and Politics, Scribner, 2007.

Dresden, S., Humanism in the Renaissance, translated by Margaret King, World University Library, 1968, p. 11.

Edwords, Fredrick, "The Humanist Philosophy in Perspective," in the Humanist, American Humanist Association, January-February 1984.

Fowler, Jeaneane, Humanism: Beliefs and Practices, Sussex Academic Press, 1999, p. 33.

Ingersoll, Robert Green, "A Humanist Credo," in Humanist Anthology from Confucius to Attenborough, edited by Margaret Knight, Prometheus Books, 1995, pp. 117.

Kurtz, Paul, Humanist Manifesto I and II, Prometheus Books, 1973.

Lamont, Corliss, The Philosophy of Humanism, 7th ed., Continuum, 1990, pp. 12, 42.

Lora, Ronald, "The New Humanism of Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More," in Conservative Minds in America, Rand McNally, 1971.

Mentz, Steven R., "Reason, Faith, and Shipwreck in Sidney's New Arcadia," in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. 44, No. 1, Winter 2004, pp. 1-18.

Paine, Thomas, "Revealed Religion and Morality," in Humanist Anthology from Confucius to Attenborough, edited by Margaret Knight, Prometheus Books, 1995, p. 75.

Panichas, George, Critical Legacy of Irving Babbitt: An Appreciation, ISI Books, 1998.

Radest, Howard B., The Devil and Secular Humanism: The Children of the Enlightenment, Praeger, 1990, p. 31.

Rorty, Richard, Philosophy and Social Hope, Penguin Putnam, 1999.

Werner, Michael, "Humanism and Beyond the Truth," in Humanism Today, Vol. 13: Beyond Reason? Essays from the Humanist Institute, North American Council for Humanism, 1999.


Ackroyd, Peter, The Life of Thomas More, Random House, 1999.

Ackroyd provides a balanced biography of Sir Thomas More that successfully places the man in his historical context and reveals the source of his moral courage as well as his basic humanity.

Arangno, Deborah C., The Modern Heretic: Principles for a New Humanism, PublishAmerica, 2006.

Arangno's book provides humanistic arguments to contemporary issues such as abortion rights and whether and/or where to teach Intelligent Design.

Davies, Tony, Humanism, Routledge, 1997.

This work is an overview of the historical context of Humanism from the Renaissance to modern times.

Hale, John, The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance, Simon & Schuster, 1993.

Hale offers an historical account of the transformation of Europe that occurred between 1450 and 1620 in art, literature, politics, and culture.

Knight, Margaret, Humanist Anthology from Confucius to Attenborough, Prometheus Books, 1995.

Knight's text is a compilation of short pieces, sometimes excerpted from larger works, by well-known humanists.

Kraye, Jill, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Humanism, Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Kraye's book is a compilation of scholarly articles on aspects of Humanism, from rhetoric and philology to the humanist's relationship to art and science.

Lamont, Corliss, The Philosophy of Humanism, 7th ed., Continuum, 1990.

This work is a defense of modern Humanism as a philosophy with an account of its historical traditions and its ethical beliefs.

Margolin, Jean-Claude, Humanism in Europe at the Time of the Renaissance, translated by John L. Farthing, Labyrinth Press, 1981.

Margolin compiles a survey of humanist literature, its proponents, and its connection to educational systems in Europe.

Nauert, Charles, Humanism and the Culture of Renaissance Europe, Cambridge University Press, 1995.

This offering is a contextual history of Humanism from its beginnings through the end of the Renaissance.

Ross, James Bruce, and Mary Martin McLaughlin, The Portable Renaissance Reader, Viking Portable Library, 1977.

This comprehensive anthology contains literature from the Renaissance, including samples from most of the key humanist thinkers.

Tracy, James D., Erasmus of the Low Countries, University of California Press, 1996.

Tracy's biography of Erasmus interprets his writings in light of his education, travels, and allies.

Trinkaus, Charles, The Poet as Philosopher: Petrarch and the Formation of Renaissance Consciousness, Yale University Press, 1979.

Trinkaus provides a comprehensive biographical account of Petrarch's life and works.


views updated May 18 2018


The term humanism has a number of more or less distinct meanings, all referring to a world view in some way centered on man rather than on the suprahuman or the abstract. In its strictest sense, the word refers to a literary and intellectual movement, the "new learning," running from 14th-century Italy through Western culture generally into the 17th century or, more vaguely, even beyond, and marked by devotion to Greek and Latin classics as the central and highest expression of human values. The term has been extended to comparable movements in the Middle Ages, notably to the 12th-century educational reform typified by the ideals of john of salisbury (d. 1180) and to Carolingian scholarly activity centering around alcuin (see carolingian renais sance). Humanism refers at times also to certain specific 20th-century developments. One of these early in the century, growing out of the work of William james, John Dewey, and F. C. S. Schiller, envisioned joining scientific concerns with the "higher" life of the human spirit. A second was that of Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More, who reacted strongly against vocational specialization and scientism. Twentieth-century Neothomism, particularly as propounded by Jacques Maritain, has often viewed itself as a Christian humanism (see neoscholasti cism and neothomism; humanism, christian). More recently, Christian humanism has acquired further meanings, some of them associated with the views of Pierre teilhard de chardin, SJ (with whom, however, the term humanism itself found little favor). Taking mankind in a fuller cosmic setting, these later humanisms make much of the "hominization" of the globe, its increasing subjection to man, as the culmination of the cosmic evolutionary processes to which the Incarnation gives a new and final significance. On the other hand, an atheistic type of existentialism has been proposed by Jean Paul Sartre and others as a humanism, a view of life centered on man conceived of as creating himself for himself in his own system of values. The term secular humanism is often used for this and various other systems of thought that propose purportedly integrated views of life which, often in a highly polemic spirit, exclude belief in the existence of God.

The present article is concerned with humanism in the strict sense. Often styled Renaissance humanism, this 14th-century movement is sometimes taken as coextensive with the Renaissance itself, and sometimes as a more specific manifestation. In its specific sense, Renaissance humanism is basically academic. Humanists as such were textual scholars and devisers of curriculaon the one hand the successors of the medieval scribes, that is, of the masters of the ars dictaminis, and on the other hand more or less professional educators. At the core of humanism lay the studia humanitatis of the Renaissance, a specific educational curriculum that stressed grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry, and ethics, all studied in classical texts, and competed as an educational alternative with the established scholasticism of the arts course or scholastic "philosophy," which had stressed logic or dialectic and natural philosophy (something akin to modern "science," of which it was one of the seedbeds), with some token interest in ethics and metaphysics (see scholasti cism, 1). Attentive to man's life in the world as such rather than to abstractions, humanism encouraged music and the visual arts as well as the cultivation of manners and at times, especially in Italy, of athletic skills. As a concrete educational program, humanism incorporated various and even competing ideologies and resources; and, although it effected changes, its breaks with the immediate past were seldom clean. Scholastic dialectic and humanist rhetoric, for example, often clearly overlapped not only in matter but even in method: typical humanist rhetorical

procedure was far more committed to logical formalism than what is generally considered rhetoric today.

Humanism, even in the strict sense of an academic phenomenon, is connected with and often intimately dependent on political, intellectual, artistic, social, and other cultural developments. Thus interpretations of humanism have varied in accord with interpretations of the Renaissance itself. Since the Renaissance is handled in a separate article, the present article treats humanism chiefly in its academic aspects.

Beginnings. Humanism developed in an academic tradition that had never associated serious teaching with any language other than Latin, and it represents in great part a crisis within the use of that language.

Linguistic and Cultural Background. When, between the 6th century and the 9th, the modern romance languages were evolving out of Latin and new non-romance languages were flooding into the late Roman Empire, schools and learned circles in western Europe generally had continued to conduct their business as usualthat is, with Latin texts, which did not change as the spoken language did and had no competition since virtually nothing was written in the vernaculars.

At first there was relatively little difference between the Latin of the schools and that which was spoken, but, as the spoken language changed more and more, even speakers of languages developed out of Latin found it necessary to study Latin as more or less a foreign language in order to go to school. The problem of translating Latin texts into the hundreds of rapidly evolving and largely unwritten dialects was too vast to be seriously considered. These dialects did not even have words needed to express what was studied in school (grammatical terms, for example), so that classroom explanation itself had somehow to be couched in Latin. After antiquity the Latin used in learned circles changed somewhat, but negligibly. Medieval Latin added greatly to its vocabulary and devised or favored some few characteristic structures of its own, and some medieval users knew Latin better than others; but essentially the language remained Learned Latin, a written language modeled on the Latin of classical antiquity.

Humanism and the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages thus remained in contact to a degree with the ancient world and were consistently nourished by it directly or indirectly. In the early Middle Ages classical works that were directly utilized tended to be those serving in a utilitarian fashion the study of the Latin language and of rhetoric, but by the 11th and 12th centuries works of literary and scientific value were widely used. Ovid, Horace, Persius, Juvenal, and Terence were among the favorites, as well as the first two treatises of Aristotle's Organon, translated into Latin, of course, often from Arabic versions. Knowledge of Greek was exceedingly rare. In the mid-13th century even a scholar of the distinction of St. thomas aquinas could do without a personal mastery of Greek in explaining Greek authors themselves, relying on his younger Dominican brother, william of moer beke, who had gone to Greece to learn the language, as his philological adviser.

As a continuation of the medieval dependence upon texts of classical antiquity, Renaissance humanism was thus not only nothing new but was rather one of the most typically medieval phenomena the Middle Ages produced. Humanism did, however, reorient and intensify devotion to antiquity, making of this devotion a symbol of something new, opposed to the cultural status quo. It is this reorientation and intensification that needs to be explained.

The Role of Petrarch. petrarch is generally identified as the first significant writer to evince the kind of enthusiasm for the ancients that was typical of Renaissance humanism. He was an enthusiast for literature as a manifestation and implement of the "good life," that is, of a self-conscious, urbane, moderately austere, but open and genial appreciation of the goods of the natural world, combined with a sense of the limitations of human existence, of the "tears of things." Thus viewed, this "good life" did not foster the other-worldly religious intensity of either a St. ignatius loyola or a Martin luther, but as Petrarch viewed it, it was nevertheless Christian. Europe in places, notably in northern Italy, had reached a state of opulence (Florentine humanists were rather uniformly of the wealthy class), civic organization, and cultural self-confidence sufficient for Petrarch's type of enthusiasm to have appeal and to be indulged on a significantly wider scale than before. Petrarch and his circle found little to feed this love of literature and the good life in the world of scholasticism, whether "philosophy," medicine, law, or theology, but much to nourish it in classical antiquity.

Petrarch and later Renaissance humanists, however, appropriated classical writers quite selectively, apotheosizing only those who struck a responsive chord and downgrading those, largely technical or "abstract" writers such as Aristotle, who had chiefly interested the Middle Ages. The good life was served at best only to a limited extent by technical, abstract knowledge and utilitarian approaches to the natural world. Science, if indulged, was to be pursued in leisurely and genteel fashion. The master art for Petrarch was rhetoric, which had dominated liberal education in antiquity and which related to human action, not dialectic or logic, which had to do with technicalities and were at best a part of elementary education not worth the attention of mature men.

Petrarch's love of the classics was closely tied to Italian patriotism and to the feeling that the Rome of his day and that of the ancient Republic were one. He wrote a book (De viris illustribus ) on the great men of the ancient Roman Republic, and here, as elsewhere, laid the ground for the cult of fame and glory and of gracefully competent and spectacular individual achievement, or virtù, which was to remain a noteworthy feature of Renaissance humanism. Under Cicero's influence, Petrarch had believed that Latin literature was far superior to Greek, but by 1342 he began to learn Greek; while he never became fully adept in the language, he prepared Italy for the reception of ancient Greek culture. Petrarch's devotion to the classics was crucial in arousing the interests of his compatriot Giovanni Boccaccio in ancient Latin literature.

Manuscripts and Libraries. Humanism fed on addiction to reading, grown notably stronger during the Middle Ages; the ancients had been more deeply committed to the spoken word both in educational procedure and in cultural life. Petrarch himself was a manuscript hunter and collector, as were Boccaccio and the chancellor at Florence, Coluccio salutati. The age immediately following Petrarch'sthat of poggio Bracciolini (13801459), Niccolo dei Niccoli (13631437), and nicholas of cusawas marked by the greatest discoveries of Latin manuscripts the West had ever seen.

Interest in texts bred interest in textual criticism, and the humanist drive toward textual accuracy manifested itself in efforts to get at the two principal substrata underlying Western Latin literary culture, namely, Greek and Hebrew. Humanist interest in Greek has sometimes been dated from the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 and the consequent flight to the West of Greek Christians, who were fluent in classical Greek because their own vernacular Greek had kept close to the classical and because the study of classical Greek had remained the basic tradition in Eastern schools as had the study of Latin in the West. But it is certain that interest in Greek texts was growing massively in Italy long before 1453. The correspondence of the Camaldolese monk Ambrogio Traversari (13861439) lists acquisitions of Greek manuscripts sent by Giovanni Aurispa and Francesco Filelfo to Florence upon their return from the East in 1424 and 1427. The fall of Constantinople simply stimulated existing activities. The archbishop of Nicaea, Cardinal bessarion, who adhered to Rome after the Council of florence (143845), put much of his energy into acquiring Greek manuscripts, and John (or Janus) Lascaris, one of the refugee Greek scholars, collected for the medici, and brought back, over 200 Greek manuscripts at one time in 1492.

Hebrew manuscripts, extant in Europe through the Middle Ages but virtually ignored by medieval Christians, also began to make their way into Christian collections at this time, although to a limited degree. Giovanni pico della mirandola owned more than 100 Hebrew manuscripts, and Federigo, Duke of Urbino, had nearly as many.

Many of the great European libraries date from this period of manuscript collecting, when the vatican li brary in particular began to acquire its preeminence under nicholas V (144755), himself a copyist, manuscript collector, and patron of the arts.

Greek Revival, Florentine and Other Academies. In the humanists' self-conscious return to the past and their general expansion of intellectual horizons, Greek played the most significant linguistic role, with Rome, Venice, and Florence the chief centers of activity. Nicholas V patronized the great project of translating the principal Greek prose authors into Latin, carried forward by the Greek exiles Bessarion, George of trebizond, known also as Trapezuntius, and Theodore of Gaza (c. 140075), as well as by Italian scholars such as Lorenzo valla, Niccolo Perotti (143080), Poggio Bracciolini, and Guarino da Verona (13741460). The Venetian humanist printer Aldus manutius and the scholars he had gathered around him in the Venetian Academy undertook the printing of careful first editions of the Greek texts of many of the authors translated into Latin at Rome.

Florence a Center. Florence became especially important as a center of Platonic studies, which were undertaken largely by some of the most well-to-do among the citizenry. Manuel Chrysoloras, a Byzantine schoolmaster turned diplomat, had taught Greek at Florence and translated Plato's Republic at the beginning of the 15th century. Gemistos plethon, a native of Constantinople and teacher of Bessarion, as a representative of the Greek Church at the Council of Florence had fanned the interests of the Florentine Cosimo de' Medici in platonism, and, with Theodore of Gaza on the opposite or Aristotelian side, had touched off the controversy between Platonists and Aristotelians that polarized much philosophical discussion for generations. Cosimo founded the Accademia Platonica of Florence, where scholars gathered to exchange ideas and thus cultivate the good life. The Accademia achieved its greatest fame under Lorenzo de' Medici, "The Magnificent," who reigned from 1469 to 1492, the "incarnation of the spirit of the Renaissance," politician, poet, patron of the arts, philosophy, and classical learning. This academy had counterparts in Naples and Rome. The Roman Academy flourished especially under leo x (Giovanni de' Medici) from 1513 to 1521, with the future cardinals Pietro Bembo and Jacopo sa doleto as members, together with Paolo Giovio (14831552) and Baldassare Castiglione.

Ficino and Pico della Mirandola. These academies, particularly that of Florence, gave humanists an interest in intellectual speculation largely missing among the early Greek immigrants, men who had often found a place in the Western intellectual world because they knew Greek rather than because they had serious intellectual interests. The center of the Florentine academy was Marsilio ficino, who, when still a mere boy, had been selected by Cosimo to be educated in Greek. Ficino and Giovanni pico della mirandola, who together set the tone of the academy, depended more on the Neoplatonism of plotinus and of pseudo-dionysius than on Plato himself for their deepest inspiration. Ficino's Platonic philosophy was based on the harmony he believed existed between Platonism and the Christian faith, and in its holistic approach resembled the thought of the early Fathers of the Church, particularly augustine, rather than that of the scholastics, although Ficino perceived less of a gulf between Platonism and faith than had Augustine. Both philosophy and the Christian religion were for Ficino manifestations of the spiritual life, as the created worlds emanate from God in a descending hierarchical order. He emphasized the divine element in man and other created things, from literature to sexual love (aroused by beauty and terminating in the begetting of children), and put high value on many forms of ardor, such as the drives toward glory, honor, and patriotism. Ficino, a devout Christian ordained at the age of 40, was more tolerant of the material world than ancient pagan Greek thinkers had been: although the soul finds happiness only in God, it retains permanently its affinity to matter, so that the body itself must have its eternity.

Ficino's thought was complemented by that of Pico della Mirandola, whose view of man somewhat anticipated certain elements of 20th-century existentialism: man's distinctive humanness is due to his power of free choice. For Pico, however, this power of choice does not isolate man but rather enables him to share in the properties of all other beings. The holistic sense of actuality here evident appears also in Pico's other important idea of the unity of all philosophical thought, a unity that, as Paul Oskar Kristeller has explained, is not a blurred product of fuzzy syncretism or skepticism but is quite clear-cut: in various philosophers, Pico maintains, one can isolate specific instances of clearly articulated truths that bind the philosophers together despite varying admixtures of error. Even more than Ficino, Pico made use of the scholastic heritage, which he often defended against other humanists.

Ficino and Pico were typical in that they processed Greek thought somewhat in Western terms, for contact with that thought did not cure the Renaissance of its clearly Western bias, marked by a stress on sobriety and order, on dignity and a sometimes ponderous magnificence, rather than on Greek spontaneity, grace, and venturesomeness. The spirit of ancient Greece came more alive for the West only in the 19th century.

Although with Renaissance humanism ancient Greek literature entered into the mainstream of Western thought as never before, the end result of the humanist excursion into Greek as a language fell short of sanguine humanist ambitions. Under humanist encouragement, Greek was indeed added to the regular program of the best schools throughout Europe from the 15th century on, but it was regularly accorded only a fraction of the curricular time assigned to Latin. Greek never remotely approached Latin as a means of communication among educated men. But, scarce as they always remained, Western scholars who had truly mastered ancient Greek were still numerous enough during the Renaissance to have a tremendous effect on the intellectual life, as they always have had since.

Hebrew Revival. Hebrew, the third of the major ancient languages championed by humanists, never achieved more than a small fraction of the limited currency of Greek, despite the brave talk at institutions such as the Collegium Trilingue for Latin, Greek, and Hebrew founded in Louvain in 1517 by Jerome Busleiden. Yet the work of Renaissance Hebrew specialists was of major importance.

Italy and Spain were the first centers of Hebrew scholarship. In early 15th-century Italy, Ambrogio Traversari had studied Hebrew, and, under Nicholas V, Giannozzo Manetti was known as a Hebrew scholar and collector of Hebrew manuscripts. In Spain, where Jewish exegetical and mystical thought had developed greatly in the Middle Ages, often under the direct influence of ara bian philosophy, the influence of both the Jewish caba la and the talmud had begun to be felt in Christian thinking by the second half of the 15th century.

To Christian Neoplatonists, the Jewish works appeared often to provide welcome, because seemingly independent, confirmation of some of their own persuasions, particularly those regarding divine tran scendence and the importance of love in the scheme of things. In fact, however, the Christian Neoplatonists were picking up in the Jewish works chiefly echoes of their own Neoplatonic sources, which had come into Jewish thinking through the Arabs.

Pico della Mirandola, the outstanding Hebrew scholar of his day, shows the influence of Jewish thought in much of his encyclopedic work. Following Pico's premature death, the greatest Hebraist of the age was the Alsatian Johann reuchlin, who began his study of Hebrew in Italy and published the first Hebrew grammar for Christians in 1506. He immediately became embroiled in the dispute over the activities of a converted Jew, Johannes pfefferkorn, who, under a mandate from the Emperor Maximilian, was supervising the destruction of those Jewish works he considered a danger to Christianity; according to his accusers, he was extorting bribes from wealthy Jews for immunity. As referee in the disputes swirling around Pfefferkorn, Reuchlin pleaded moderately for minimal destruction of dangerous books and for a positive approach by Christians to the study of Jewish literature. He was attacked by Pfefferkorn, who soon had the Dominicans of Cologne on his side, while champions of the new learning made common cause with Reuchlin. The controversy occasioned a major Latin satirical work, the anonymous epistolae obscurorum virorum, which attacked religious and scholarly obscurantism and helped discredit both the Church and older methods of teaching.

Textual Scholarship, Biblical and Other. The Reuchlin-Pfefferkorn controversy showed how central the question of textual scholarship had become to the intellectual life of the age affected by humanist learning. Intent on matters of style, Petrarch and his successors had focused attention as never before on the exact way a document originally read. Resulting close textual study alerted thinking men to the temporal and geographical variations in human experience and expression, sowing the seeds not only of modern "scientific" history political, intellectual, religious, and otherbut also of modern linguistics, cultural anthropology, sociology, political science, comparative religion, and many other areas of study.

The work of Lorenzo Valla was both epoch-making and representative. He was able to show (1440) on stylistic grounds that the donation of constantine could not have been written at its supposed date but was in fact a Carolingian production. The demonstration had interesting implications, since it made law dependent on philology. Valla turned also to the textual study of the Scriptures; in his Annotationes he pointed out various errors and suspect translations in the Latin Vulgate by comparing it with Greek texts. erasmus, who found this work of Valla's unpublished and edited it in 1505, set himself the task of producing his own new Latin version of the New Testament, with a commentary (1516). Meanwhile, the University of Alcalá, founded (1508) by Cardinal Francisco ximÉnez, was laboring on the Complutensian Polyglot Bible (the Latin for Alcalá is Complutum ). This edition (completed 1522) ranged in parallel columns the Old and New Testaments in their original languages and the Vulgate version. However great the admirable industry devoted to this edition, the aims of Ximénez were less in accord with the ideals of modern scholarship than were the aims of Erasmus, whose critical attitude toward textual study represented the best in Renaissance tradition and was, indeed, in many ways far ahead of his own time. Ximénez presented the original texts as supports rather than sources of the Vulgate.

Humanism and Typography. Alphabetic typography, developed toward the middle of the 15th century when humanism was in full career, was intimately connected with the humanist desire for controlled texts. It resulted from the application of mechanical techniques (in which the Middle Ages, by and large, had advanced far beyond ancient Greece and Rome) and accumulated capital to scribal problems, manifesting that juncture of craftsmanship, business sense, and scholarly interests which is one marked feature of the humanist milieu. Although the first typographers were hardly working under direct humanist inspiration, the concurrence of the invention of printing with the peak of humanist activity is something more than a coincidence, for the drive toward alphabetic typography grew out of the general avidity for textual material that had been built up by the end of the Middle Ages, and which formed a seedbed for humanism itself.

Typography gave Renaissance humanistic scholar-ship much of its effectiveness. The effort put into textual scholarship could now be conserved with only negligible error instead of being dissipated by successive copyists. Moreover, information-retrieval techniques, such as indexing, eventually cut down on the time and effort consumed by massive memorization. The indexing of manuscripts had never been very inviting because each handmade copy would have to have its own specially made index, which was seldom worth the time required. Printing and indexing helped give special contours to humanist educational techniques. One of the humanists' most widespread methods of teaching classical literature and of doing their own writing was through use of indexed excerpts or loci communes.

The close alliance of humanist and typographic interests can be seen everywherefrom Venice, where the printer Aldus Manutius preempted the services of exiled Greek scholars, through Basel, Strasbourg, and Paris to London, where St. Thomas more's brother-in-law, John Rastell, was a printer. The plaque on Erasmus' tomb in Basel openly advertises the printer-publisher-humanist alliance: it was erected by the three great Basel printing firms of Johannes Amerbach, froben, and Episcopius.

Humanist Methods of Study. These all cluster around the doctrine and practice of imitation of the classics.

Imitatio. This had roots in antiquity but became especially critical in humanist procedure because the humanists were training in a language no longer the vernacular it had been for Cicero's and Virgil's world (al-though humanists almost never discussed this obvious fact). Boys generally came to Latin in medieval and Renaissance times not with a limited vocabulary and limited modes of expression, as schoolchildren come to the study of their own languages today, but with no vocabulary at all, no ability to say anything. They had to be taught simultaneously even the most elementary Latin words and the proper way to use them. This meant for humanists the way classical writers had used them, particularly Cicero, whose usage was admired by everyone and proposed by some Ciceronian extremists, such as Cardinal Bembo, as practically the sole model for Latin style.

To foster imitation, humanists undertook among other things to cut up the entire corpus of classical Latin (and, less successfully, Greek) writings into excerpts. Of the hundreds of major collectors of classical phrases, turns of expression, and anecdotes, Erasmus was the most indefatigable and influential. As he read through the classics, he digested virtually the entire corpus into a series of anecdotes and phrases for classroom use in his De copia verborum et rerum, his Adagia, his Apophthegmata, and other works, which indexed the excerpts under appropriate headings; one could find exactly what classical writers had said about virtue, vice, death, learning, ignorance, and so on, including anecdotes ranged under such headings, and variant ways of expressing an idea.

In the De copia, for example, Erasmus listed over 400 different ways, each presumably found in a classical Latin writer, to say "has delighted" in the Latin equivalent of "Your letter has delighted me." Collecting and arranging excerpts under headings was essentially the same procedure used by the Middle Ages in compiling its florilegia of stories for preachers. The humanists, however, who scorned the medieval florilegia, generally cited their sources and kept the exact original expressions, for they were interested in manner as much as in matter. Schoolboys often translated the passages from the classics into the vernacular and then, with the original text removed, from the vernacular back into Latin. In the process, no direct attention at all was given to vernacular training.

This method crammed the minds of even very young boys with a mass of classical loremythological, historical, philosophical, medical, and much otherand it accounts in great part for what appears to be fantastically wide reading in such writers as Shakespeare. The method produced a Latin style close to, but not identical with, the classical. The difficulty with the method was its assumption, never fully articulated but still operative, that the total effect of a work of literature is the sum of separate impressions. Humanist literary criticism, like most previous criticism, was much more able to treat special rhetorical effects in separate passages than to deal with sophisticated questions of overall organization.

Relation to Oral Performance. It is becoming more and more apparent that the humanist approach to literature by excerpts to be stored on the page or in the mind and then retrieved as occasion offered and "rhapsodized" or "stitched together" to form a whole was a technique belonging more properly to oral performance than to literature or writing as suchthe technique of tremendously skilled, generally illiterate verbalizing experts such as Homer. This is not to say that the approach did not help produce effective writers. If it did not place the value on "originality" that post-romantic writers did, neither did it value sheer plagiarism; one should have an abundant store (copia ) of material so that one could weave together a whole never before put together quite this way. Not originality, but superlative skill, virtù, was of prime value. Pope's "What oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed" catches the feeling of the older tradition, which was essentially conservative, as oral performance or orally oriented performance must be.

The oral residue in the humanist mentality was heightened by the humanist revival of interest in rhetoric and in the classical ideal of the public speaker as the most fully or most liberally educated man. But the humanists were ambiguous on this point: when they said rhetoric or oratory they often meant writing. Erasmus' program was concerned essentially with written expression.

Humanism and Vernacular Languages. Although, as has been seen, humanism itself was directly concerned only with the "learned languages," Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, together with related tongues such as Arabic and "Chaldean" (now known as Aramaic), the effect of the movement on the vernacular languages was massive. Since the vernaculars as such were not taught in school, writers inevitably imported into the vernaculars the procedures, literary values, and even the vocabulary ("inkhorn terms") they learned studying Latin.

Imitations of the classical genres, such as epics, odes, satires, pastoral, stage plays, and orations (which often served the functions later to be fulfilled by the essay when this developed out of the collections of loci communes ), proliferated in most European languages, and not the least in English. Translations of the classics supplied the needs of those who had not been to school (this included women generally, for schools had from antiquity been only for boys, so that girls could learn Latin only privately) or of the countless thousands who, despite 6, 8, or 10 years of Latin, had never acquired fluency in the language. Modern scholarship has made it evident, however, that Renaissance writers, like their successors, by no means always read, even in translations, the works they refer to or quote. They often knew classical works in snippets, acquired either in school or from the multitudinous books of reference compiled by humanist scholars. But in one way or another the classics were a massive presence. Virtually all Renaissance vernacular literature, except such popular non-academic forms as the ballad, show classical influence, many of them predominantly. By putting the classics in the mouths of educated persons generally, humanism thus enabled the vernaculars to mature quickly: they could borrow from the classics some of the sophistication they themselves lacked because, largely through the work of the humanists, the classical heritage had been made a permanent part of Western sensibility. Moreover, by intensifying study of language in the classics, humanism sensitized western European man to language generally and improved vernacular expression by raising vernacular ideals. Groups of vernacular writers, such as the 16th-century Pléiade in France or the group around the Countess of Pembroke, Sir Philip Sidney's sister, in England, undertook explicitly to raise the vernacular to the level of the classical languages. The vernaculars eventually became the real heirs of humanism, for the humanists' program deliberately to rehabilitate Latin was, in fact, advance notice of the effective demise of Latin as an academic lingua franca.

Humanism, Change, and History. One of the noteworthy features of humanism, as of the Renaissance itself, is its sense of involvement in change. Petrarch, Valla, Erasmus, and their circles were aware that they were doing something to make man's life-world different. With some exceptions, they were commonly inclined to think of the change they ambitioned as a revivification of the remote past, involving a repudiation of their immediate scholastic predecessors, particularly the logicians. But the very return to the past and the accumulation of knowledge implemented by printing produced a sense of historic distance, not so developed as that of 20th-century man, but far more active than that of the Middle Ages, which had been curiously insensitive to the reality of time.

The close textual scholarship fostered by humanism led inevitably to recognition that many dimensions of existence previously taken for granted as inalterable were not indeed so: conditions had been quite different in other ages. In historians such as Francesco Guicciardini, human motives and free decisions are seen as shaping man's life and history, and both history and biography are freed from the fatalistic and unconsciously pagan determinism so common in the Middle Ages. At that time the typical saint's life was a pastiche of predestinarian patterns, built around clear signs present from the moment of the saint's birth, or even before, showing that he was unerringly destined for sainthood, and minimizing the real decisions that actually structure any person's life. Direct personal accounts of historical developments, such as the Memoirs of Philippe de Comines, register the new outlook. They contrast with the older-style world chronicles that had lumped side-by-side contemporary and Biblical events in settings and costumes suggesting that they had all occurred simultaneously.

The humanist break with the immediate past in favor of antiquity was not always clear-cut. St. Thomas More's Richard III (1557), touching and full of human interest though it is, predestines its protagonist to villainy and mounts him on the cyclic wheel of Fortune, guaranteeing the fall of the mighty from high places in the style of medieval works de casibus virorum illustrium. More's Utopia (1516) is more typical of the Renaissance in its message, somewhat enigmatically delivered, that men can plan society to be different from the way it has been and different from the way it is.

Spread of Humanism. Outside Italy, humanism at first developed more rapidly in the territories of the Empire. They were relatively free of the nationalism growing in France, England, and Spain, where scholarly talent was often siphoned off into governmental work.

Germany. The community-minded German principalities often patronized humanists for their local schools. Moreover, the Empire, whose universities were newer than those of France, England, or Spain, was prone to accept Italian cultural leadership (and then, of course, to resent it) possibly more than the other countries. Shortly after the mid-15th century, humanist centers were to be found at Vienna, Heidelberg, Wesel, and Emmerich. Rudolphus Agricola, a kind of minor Erasmus, played a major role in importing Italian humanism to German lands, and Conrad Celtis, who was crowned poet laureate by Frederick II in the late 1480s, in domesticating and disseminating it. Agricola's early education had been under the brethren of the common life, who conducted a complex of humanist-oriented schools in the Low Countries. The brothers of this order can be credited also with some of the early training of the most universally influential and in many ways the greatest of all Renaissance humanists, Erasmus of Rotterdam.

France. French humanism, initiated when Jean de Montreuil (13541418) espoused the cause of Petrarch, was slow in really getting under way until the military expedition of Charles VIII in quest of the Kingdom of Naples in 1495 aroused enthusiasm for the Renaissance as a byproduct among French courtiers. The group of professeurs royaux, or regius professors, later known as the Collège de France, was founded in 1530 by Francis I, inspired by the Italian academies. Perhaps the most famous of these regius professors was their first "dean," the programmatically anti-Aristotelian Peter ramus (pierre de la ramÉe). He was a polymath who had read exhaustively in the classics but notoriously lacked poetic sense; his passion for a supersimplified logical "method" nullified the original Petrarchan humanist program for gracious and technically uncomplicated academic living. Ramus's "method" was taken over throughout Europe, largely in Calvinist circles, where it fostered a perfunctory encyclopedism developed extensively among 3rd-and 4th-generation German humanists through the late 16th and 17th centuries. Humanism in countries adjacent to the Empire, such as the Scandinavian and Slavic countries, grew largely under German influence.

England. In England, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, was educated by Italian teachers and collected Renaissance manuscripts. Early English visitors to Renaissance Italy, such as Gloucester's younger contemporary John Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester, William Grey (d.1478), and John Free (or Phreas), however, were to become servants of State or Church, with little time for spreading classical learning. The first noteworthy flowering of humanism in England occurred in the circle of the physician Thomas linacre, the Oxford dons William Grocyn and Hugh latimer, and William Lily, the first headmaster of St. Paul's School, founded under humanist inspiration by another of this group, John colet, Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral. All these men were associated with the young Thomas More, later lord chancellor and finally martyr, and, with Erasmus, a frequent house guest of More's. Less closely involved with this group, but still a patron of the new learning and in particular of Erasmus, was More's fellow martyr under Henry VIII, John fish er, Bishop of Rochester, canonized with More in 1935 (see more, school of).

Colet and More were the most interested in new ideas and in literary style, and it is significant that Erasmus' most subtle piece of writing was his Encomium Moriae (1511), a pun on More's name meaning simultaneously "The Praise of Folly" and "The Praise of Moreishness." The work caught the spirit of More's own bantering seriousness and advertised the fact that, although More was a competent scholar, his humanism transcended imitation of the classics to concern itself with social improvement, notably in his Utopia.

With few exceptions, English humanism did not succeed in producing classical scholars of the competence of those on the Continent. The chief literary monuments to humanism in the British Isles are in the vernacular literature, which shows the marks of the movement in style, literary genres, subject matter, literary theory, and criticism. Many Englishmen, such as Arthur Golding (1536?1605?), Sir Thomas North (1535?1601?), Philemon Holland (15521637), and George Chapman (1559?1634?), produced English translations of classical Latin and Greek writings. The work of the mid-17th-century philosophers known as the cambridge plato nistsRalph Cudworth, Henry More, John Smith, and Nathanael Culverwelmay be regarded as a late flowering of British humanism.

Humanism and Religion: Scholasticism, Reformation and Counter Reformation, Secularism. The relationship between humanism, the Protestant reformation, and reform within the Catholic Church itself has always been a live question. The age of humanism coincided closely with the age of the Reformation. Humanism and Protestantism both sought a return to conditions reputed to have existed in the remote past and to have been "corrupted" in the intervening ages, and certain humanist preoccupations, such as textual criticism, were related closely to certain Protestant principles, such as the necessity of reading the Bible. Moreover, humanism tended to mingle a concern for the reform of society generally, including ecclesiastical institutions, with its concern for bettering the education of the members of society.

Early humanism in Italy, Spain, France, and England generally managed to effect changes within the existing intellectual and educational framework without physical or intellectual violence. The humanist temperament was in accord with St. Thomas Aquinas's teachings on the positive relationships obtaining between nature and grace (see grace and nature). These relationships were worked out on various grounds by various humanists. Typical of Florence was the Neoplatonism of Ficino and Pico, mentioned above. In Spain, Cardinal Ximénez made specific provision for accord between the older scholasticism and the new learning as part of his reform program within the Church, which he brought under rather effective, and austere, secular control. France had as a typical figure Jacques lefÈvre d'Étaples, who mingled medieval Christian mysticism, textual work on the Scriptures, and a strong preference for Biblical over scholastic formulas with a professional interest in developing the technicalities of logic inherited from the Middle Ages. He appeared to the theology faculty at Paris to be aligned with Luther, and they therefore condemned him. But he repudiated the reformers and died in communion with Rome.

Humanists expressed divergent views regarding religious orders. The humanist authentication of the natural world led some, such as Valla, to condemn the taking of the vows of religion, which appeared to pass adverse judgment on the naturally good life, but other humanists, such as Coluccio Salutati, were more favorably disposed; indeed, some, such as the Carmelite Latin poet Bl. Giovanni Battista Spagnuoli (14471516), known as Mantuanus from his birthplace, were themselves members of religious orders. In his Enchiridion Militis Christiani (1504), Erasmus expressed the view that the value of monastic life depended on the suitability of the individual for it. The Society of Jesus, approved by Pope Paul III in 1540, can be seen as influenced in its Constitutions by the humanist spirit: its members bound themselves by the three vows of religionpoverty, chastity, and obediencebut they also retained contact with the secular world to a degree unusual among earlier religious orders.

Scholasticism. In England, the circle of St. Thomas More reveals some of the underlying issues between humanism and scholasticism. Although medieval scholasticism had been far from being purely, or even chiefly, a religious phenomenon, since it governed logic, natural philosophy (physics, meteorology, etc.), medicine, law, and other miscellaneous disciplines quite as much as or even more than it governed theology, the humanist attack on scholasticism did have a special religious relevance. The attack was commonly made not on scientific groundshumanists had no logic or physics seriously competing with these scholastic disciplinesbut in terms of value judgments: scholasticism was thorny, knotty, tortured, and generally repulsive to man as man.

The qualities that More objected to in scholastic logic were actually its technical virtues, the suppositional and other theories that carried medieval logic far beyond Aristotle toward modern quantified formal logic (see logic, history of). But technical virtues are not always humanly appealing. Insofar as scholasticism was used to purvey or explain religious truths, this kind of attack was particularly telling, for what is religion if it is not adapted to man and his real life-world? By contrast with technical scholastic treatments, John Colet's historical and humane approach to St. Paul in his sermons had tremendous religious immediacy. Still, the most virulent humanist attacks were directed not against scholastic theologians but against scholastic logicians such as peter of spain. The great theologians, such as St. thomas aquinas and St. bonaventure, were often not skilled in the technicalities of scholastic logic propounded by their contemporaries, and, as a matter of fact, Erasmus, with some warrant grouped Aquinas with the Fathers of the Church rather than with scholastic logicians.

Reformation and Counter Reformation. If the humanists' attacks on scholasticism had religious implications, the humanists themselves were assaulted by two kinds of religious zealots: first, by anti-Greek "Trojans" who were addicted to scholastic manipulation of abstract theological questions in a historical and philological vacuum, and, second, by pietists who maintained that humanist interest in the natural world was irreligious and that many humanist writers, particularly Italians, purveyed pagan immorality by teaching the classics. St. Thomas More indicted and convicted the "Trojans" of gross ignorance and of seeking to protect themselves by means of what today are called defense mechanisms. The pietists he found guilty of betraying the Catholic tradition that grace works with nature. He further pleaded that both types of accusers deny the patristic heritage and narrow the scope of Catholic teaching to their own forms of thoughtindeed, that the scholastics make revelation itself worldly with their logic. Each side thus accused the other of secularism, and both with some warrant (see pi etism).

In the Empire the struggle between advocates of the old order and the new took on particularly violent religious overtones, in part because the absence of a central secular authority left the Church the most obvious target for deep-seated resentments about the state of society at large. German humanism has been divided into three successive schools in terms of religious attitudes. The first group consisted of earlier, more scholastic humanists, such as Rudolphus Agricola and Alexander Hegius, who were loyal supporters of the Church.

A second, later group of humanists protested strongly against scholasticism and abuses in the Church, wishing to put humanism to the service of Church reform. Reuchlin belonged to this group, but Erasmus was its outstanding representative, proposing a docta pietas or educated piety as a pedagogical ideal. Like St. Ignatius Loyola and Luther, Erasmus advocated an interiorization of religious motivation, but his concern with corresponding religious institutions was minimal. To many Catholics Erasmus seemed to favor Luther; yet he was certainly a loyal Catholic, whose loyalty, however, did not lead him to countenance obscurantism, of which Catholic apologists were not always innocent. Even after Luther's break with Catholicism, Erasmus continued to speak his mind as pre-1517 critics of the Church had regularly done, never fully recognizing the fact that the Church was under siege and that what was once commendable frankness could now be taken as disloyalty. In this sense Erasmus was living in the past. In another sense he was far ahead of his age and his spirit more like that of later 20th-century Catholicism: he felt that the truth would not destroy anything in the Church worth saving and that Catholics generally should be able to live as he himself did, with some unresolved tensions concerning the relation-ship of ancient classical culture and Christianity. Erasmus has sometimes been taken to be a "rationalist"; if this means that he believed in the powers of natural intelligence, he was. But in his truly profound Encomium Moriae (1509), written at More's instigation, he satirized those who would place reason above faith and, indeed, ultimately vindicated, above everything, the Christian folly of the cross. Erasmus ultimately repudiated Luther and Luther's break with Rome as spelling the ruin both of the Church and of humanistic studies. The future of re-form and of true scholarship lay for him within the old unity.

Secularism. The third and later group of German humanists felt otherwise than Erasmus. These were avowedly Protestant humanists, typified by Ulrich von hutten, one of the principal authors of the abovementioned Epistolae obscurorum virorum. Hutten's protestations in favor of liberty were at best somewhat disorganized and at worst licentious, hardly representative of the best in Protestantism. Even among more devout reformers, however, the relationship of humanism to the Protestant spirit was uneasy. Luther's stress on the depravity of human nature appeared to rule out genuine humanism, and Protestant mobs sacked the studies of humanist scholars such as Conrath Muth (Mutianus Rufus, c. 14711526). But Luther's close associate Philipp melanchthon was a great humanist scholar and educator and had hundreds of distinguished Protestant successors. Among Calvinists, humanism, often under Ramist influence, tended to run to encyclopedism. Encyclopedic humanism was strong in Lyons and Geneva, and up the Rhine valley from Leiden through Frankfort on the Main to Basel.

Results and Interpretations of Humanism. As a pedagogical program, humanism advanced classical scholarship and vastly improved critical and historical methods. In its sensitive concern with literature and history, it directed serious effort to the mature interpretation of concrete everyday human experience, which possessed great cultural, intellectual, and scientific potential, and about which scholasticism had been inarticulate. In the process, humanism opened the way to modern philology and to the vast fields of study which philology in turn has opened into, as mentioned above. The influence of humanism on painting, sculpture, architecture, and other arts is seen in the proliferation of classical themes and forms in these fields, where such themes and forms have not played out even today.

Insofar as it competed with scholasticism as a pedagogical program, humanism can hardly be said to have won any clear-cut victory. While humanist scholarship grew and while scholastic logic after about 1530 lost its medieval vigor and seriousness, which it never completely recovered, scholasticism continued through much or most of the 18th century to dominate school curricula in the West. Far from becoming the all-encompassing mature pursuit that Erasmus and other humanists wanted it to be, the humanist study of rhetoric, with which poetic was in effect more or less identified, remained virtually always a course to perfect the student in his early teens in the practical use of Latin so that he could go on to logic, philosophy, and, if he wished, medicine, law, or theology. Scholastic philosophy (including physics) commonly remained at the top of arts curricula. In Jesuit schools, for example, the student typically ceased studying literature as such around age 13: the "humanities" were basically an elementary school subject by today's standards (see ratio studiorum). Individual scholars might, of course, devote their whole lives to philology and its manifold derivatives. But the establishment of literature as such in the upper reaches of the curriculum hardly began before the mid-19th century and became widespread only in the 20th. In the extent, depth, and maturity of academic literary and cultural studies, humanism, for all its weaknesses, is in a far stronger condition today than ever, most notably in the U.S.

One of the results of humanism has been the widespread study of humanism itself as a historical phenomenon. Until recently, the accepted view, derivative from the work of Georg Voigt and Jakob Burckhardt in the 19th century, had seen humanism as a definitive break with the Middle Ages, antischolastic, antiauthoritarian, and even anti-Christian. This concept was modified when more detailed studies of medieval culture by Heinrich Thode, Charles Homer Haskins, Paul Renucci, and others revealed many elements of Renaissance humanism in the Middle Ages and much medievalism in the Renaissance. The concept of humanism as essentially and unequivocally pagan was quite completely discarded by the mid-20th century, but Giuseppe Toffanin's reduction of humanism to a body of appealing truths perennially accessible to natural reason and in incontestable accord with Christianity has not found wide acceptance. The relationship of humanism to religion and to the maturing knowledge of the natural world has come to be recognized as exceedingly complex, with humanists and anti-humanists on both Catholic and Protestant, religious and irreligious sides. Earlier views of humanism as favorable to modern science, based on the uninformed assumption of a simple opposition between medieval scholasticism and the modern mind, have been seriously modified as it has become apparent that the scholastic mind was often more scientific in tone, if not always in content or procedure, than the minds of typical humanists.

The relationship of humanism, an academic movement, to other cultural developments is still actively debated. In recent decades the work of Charles Trinkaus revived the notion that a Burckhardtian individualism was to be found in the texts of Renaissance humanists, but this humanism, he argued, was more religious and spiritual than Burckhardt had originally characterized it. By contrast Hans Baron labored to show how actively humanism was allied with civic life, stressing the movement's political impact in Florence and in subsequent centuries. Still others have viewed humanism as a basically conservative textual movement, often more antiquarian in its outlook than revolutionary in its impact. Clearly the last word about humanism has not been written. Most scholars continue to recognize a link between the movement and modern forms of education and consciousness, although they often disagree about the precise influence the movement has had on those phenomena.

Bibliography: h. baron, The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance, 2 v. (Princeton 1955). r. r. bolgar, The Classical Heritage and Its Beneficiaries (Cambridge, England 1954). w. j. bousma, The Interpretation of Renaissance Humanism (Washington 1959), pamphlet. j. c. burckhardt, Die Cultur der Renaissance in Italien: Ein Versuch, 2 v. (Basel 1860), Eng. tr. available in many eds., e.g., The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, ed. h. holborn, tr. s. g. middlemore (New York 1954). d. bush, The Renaissance and English Humanism (Toronto 1939). e. garin, L'educazione in Europa, 14001600 (Bari 1957). m. p. gilmore, The World of Humanism, 14531517 (New York 1952). e. h. harbison, The Christian Scholar in the Age of the Reformation (New York 1956). c. h. haskins, The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century (Cambridge, MA 1927). p. o. kristeller, "Studies on Renaissance Humanism during the Last Twenty Years," Studies in the Renaissance 9 (1962) 730. l. martines, The Social World of the Florentine Humanists, 13901460 (Princeton 1963). w. j. ong, Ramus: Method, and the Decay of Dialogue (Cambridge, MA 1958). a. renaudet, Humanisme et Renaissance (Geneva 1958). p. renucci, L'aventure de l'humanisme européen au Moyen Age, IV e- XIV e siècle (Paris 1953). j. e. sandys, History of Classical Scholarship, 3 v. (Cambridge, Eng.), v. 1 (3rd ed. 1921), v. 2, 3 (2d ed. 190608); repr. (New York 1958). h. thode, Franz von Assisi und die Anfänge der Kunst der Renaissance in Italien (2d ed. Berlin 1904). g. toffanin, History of Humanism, tr. e. gianturco (New York 1954). b. l. ullman, Studies in the Italian Renaissance (Rome 1955). g. voigt, Die Wiederbelebung des classischen Alterthums, ed. m. lehnerdt, 2 v. (3d ed. Berlin 1893). a. grafton, Defenders of the Text (Cambrige, MA 1991). d. kelley, Renaissance Humanism (Boston 1991). b. kohl, Renaissance Humanism, 13001550: a Bibliography (New York 1985). c. trinkaus, In Our Image and Likeness, 2 vols. (Chicago 1970).

[w. j. ong]


views updated May 29 2018


HUMANISM . The Christian humanism of the Renaissance and Reformation period was a complex intellectual movement, primarily literary and philological in nature, but with important historical, philosophical, and religious implications. Humanism was rooted in the love of classical antiquity and the desire for its rebirth, both in terms of form (primarily a search for new aesthetic standards) and of norm (a desire for more enlightened ethical and religious values). The return to original sources is reflected in a parallel way in the reformers' emphasis upon the scripture as norm and New Testament Christianity as the ideal form of church life. Humanism developed in Italy during the fourteenth century and persisted through the Reformation well into the age of the Enlightenment.

The word humanism came from the phrase studia humanitatis or humaniora, the liberal arts or humane studies, a concept derived largely from Cicero. The liberal arts curriculum emphasized grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, and moral philosophy. While the course of studies owed something to the traditional education of the medieval cathedral schools, it was less concerned with dialectic or logic, natural science, and Scholastic metaphysics. The term humanist was originally applied to professional public or private teachers of classical literature who continued the medieval vocation of the dictatores, who taught the skills of letter-writing and proper style in speech and writing. But the word gradually came to assume a more comprehensive meaning, referring to all devotees of classical learning. Humanism came to be cultivated not merely by professional educators but by many men of letters, historians, moral philosophers, statesmen, and churchmen, including regular as well as secular clergy. They set the aurea sapientia, or golden wisdom, of the ancients against the arid dialectic of the Scholastic doctors. Christian humanism tended toward religious syncretism, moralism, and ethical Paulinism, and also toward a Christocentrism that emphasized Christ as an example of good living, rather than a Christology that focused on Christ's sacrifice on the cross as sin-bearer, substitute, and savior.

Italian Renaissance Humanism

It was natural that humanism should emerge most strongly in Italy, given the Roman inheritance and the artistic and architectural reminders of ancient glories. Toward the end of the thirteenth century, a form of protohumanism developed in the north of Italy, in Padua, Verona, and Vicenza, and in Arezzo and Florence in Tuscany. But the "father of humanism" was Francesco Petrarch (13041374), who gave to Italian literary humanism its basic character. He is perhaps best remembered for his vernacular lyrics, chiefly love poems to Laura; he was crowned poet laureate on the Capitoline Hill in Rome in 1341. Petrarch stressed the purity of the classical Latin style, revived enthusiasm for ancient Rome, and helped develop a sense of distance from the past and a revulsion toward the medieval "dark ages." He raised important personal and religious questions in such writings as On the Solitary Life, the Secretum, Ascent of Mount Ventoux, and On His Own Ignorance and That of Many Others, in which he wrote as an apologist for the Christian view of humanity and the humanists' appreciation of the worth of the individual against certain neo-Aristotelians whose natural philosophy subverted those values.

Petrarch's friend Giovanni Boccaccio (13131375) gained renown for his Decameron, a collection of a hundred short stories, for books on famous men and women, and for an encyclopedic Genealogy of the Gods, an important handbook of mythology. Petrarchan humanism spread through Italy, largely as a lay, upper-class, and elitist movement. In the search for classical manuscripts, humanists such as Poggio Bracciolini (13801459), Francesco Filelfo (13981481), Cyriacus of Ancona (c. 13911457), and Giovanni Aurispa (13741450) excelled, rediscovering key works of Cicero, Quintilian, Vitruvius, Plautus, Pliny the Younger, Tacitus, Thucydides, Euripides, Sophocles, and other ancient authors.

Humanism gained new momentum and direction with the Greek revival. In the final decades of the fourteenth century the Byzantine emperor, threatened by the Ottoman Turks, who were encircling Constantinople, made two expeditions to the West, in 1374 and 1399, to seek help. His efforts were futile, but some Greek scholars, such as Manuel Chrysoloras (c. 13551415), John Bessarion (14031472), and Gemistus Plethon (c. 13551450), remained in the West and introduced Greek literature, patristics, and philosophy. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, other scholars fled to the West, notably John Argyropoulos, Demetrius Calcondylas, and John and Constantine Lascaris, adding new momentum to the Greek revival and broadening the dimensions of philosophical discussion.

Certain humanists placed their rhetorical gifts in the service of the Florentine republic against the threatening tyrants of Milan and Naples. These civic humanists, such as chancellor Coluccio Salutati (13311406) and Leonardo Bruni (c. 13701444), stirred up the patriotic impulses of the citizenry for the defense of the state. In a broader sense civic humanism was more than an ideology of embattled republicanism, for it stood for a life of action spent for the common good. Giannozzo Manetti (13961459), who wrote On the Dignity and Excellence of Man, once described the whole duty of humanity as being to understand and to act. Leon Battista Alberti (14041472), a truly universal man, the architect of Renaissance churches, palaces, and fountains, wrote treatises that for many decades dominated theory on architecture, painting, and the family.

In order to convey humanist ideals to youth, humanist educators not only wrote influential treatises on education but also established schools to put their theories into practice. Generally optimistic about the educability at least of the upper classes, the humanists cultivated the liberal arts to develop leaders with sound character and lofty vision. Pietro Paolo Vergerio (13701444) wrote a treatise on the morals befitting a free man, drawing extensively on Plato, Plutarch, and Cicero. Vittorino Rambaldoni da Feltre (13781446) and Guarino da Verona (13701460) set up model schools with a humanist curriculum and introduced such innovations as physical education and coeducation.

Among the disciplines emphasized was history, for the humanists valued both ancient and contemporary history. What the humanists learned from classical historians was reflected in their own histories, from the History of Florence of Leonardo Bruni to the History of Florence of Niccoló Machiavelli and the History of Italy in His Own Times by Francesco Guicciardini (14831540). Flavio Biondo (13891463), the founder of modern archaeology, produced massive topographical-historical works on Rome and all of Italy. Lorenzo Valla (14071457) anticipated many of the questions raised later by Luther, such as free will and predestination, errors in the Vulgate, and the value of lay piety in contrast to monasticism. In a treatise titled On the Donation of Constantine, he proved with philological and historical critical arguments that the Donation of Constantine was a forgery purporting to prove that when Constantine moved the capital of the Roman empire to the East, he had given the Lateran Palace and outlying provinces to Pope Sylvester I and his successors, as well as conferring immense privileges upon them.

During the second half of the fifteenth century classical scholarship was more closely integrated with literary composition in the vernacular, printing spread rapidly following the establishment of the first printing press in Italy in 1465, and a new metaphysical emphasis superseded the relatively uncomplicated moral philosophy of the literary and civic humanists with the development of Neoplatonic, neo-Pythagorean, neo-Aristotelian, Hermetic, and qabbalistic philosophies and theodicies. Neoplatonism became the most prominent and characteristic form of Renaissance philosophy. The renewal of interest in patristic writings, aided by scholars such as Ambrogio Traversari (13861439), and especially in the Greek fathers, added impetus to the Greek revival. Nicholas of Cusa (14011464) was concerned with the search for unity between the infinite One and the infinite multitude of finite things, the coincidentia oppositorum, a panentheism that raised the specter of pantheism. Marsilio Ficino (14331499), the most eminent Renaissance philosopher, presided over the "Platonic Academy" endowed by Cosimo de' Medici, the de facto ruler of Florence. Ficino did editions of Plato's works and edited the Enneads of Plotinus and works of Greek pagan Neoplatonists such as Proclus and Porphyry, as well as of Dionysius the Areopagite, whose christianized Neoplatonism was so influential throughout the medieval period. Among his own influential works were the Theologia Platonica and the De religione Christiana, in which he used Neoplatonism apologetically as a support for the Christian faith. His understudy, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (14631494), sought to find the religious truth common to Christianity, Platonism, Aristotelianism, Hermetism, Islam, and Qabbalah. He published for public disputation nine hundred theses, the Conclusiones, in which he sought to summarize all learning. In his oration On the Dignity of Man, sometimes described as the most characteristic Renaissance document, he places humankind at the center of the "great chain of being," the object of special creation, able to rise upward toward God or to sink downward to the sensate animalistic level, as it chooses. Giordano Bruno (15481600), combining Nicholas of Cusa's Neoplatonism and Hermetic ideas with the physical implications of Copernican astronomy, synthesized a philosophy that verged on pantheism. Aristotelianism persisted in the universities, and Neo-Aristotelianism found advocates such as Pietro Pomponazzi (14621525), who wrote on the nature of immortality, fate, free will, predestination, and providence.

Northern Humanism

Thanks to close political, commercial, ecclesiastical, and university ties with Italy, the new humanist culture came earlier to Germany than to other countries of northern Europe. The pioneers included wandering poets such as Peter Luder, schoolmaster humanists such as Johannes Murmellius and Rudolf von Langen, half-Scholastic humanists such as Conrad Summenhart and Paul Scriptoris, and moralistic critics of church and society such as Heinrich Bebel, Jacob Wimpfeling, Sebastian Brant, and the preacher Johann Geiler von Kaisersberg. But the man credited with being the father of German humanism was Roelof Huysman (Rodolphus Agricola, 14441485), known as the "German Petrarch." After a decade in Italy he returned to "the frozen Northland" and presided over a group of young humanists in Heidelberg, to whom he expounded his theories of rhetoric. One of his disciples, Conrad Pickel (Conradus Celtis, 14591508), the "German arch-humanist," organized young humanists into the Rhenish and Danubian sodalities to promote humanism and to do a topographical-historical work entitled Germania illustrata, never completed.

At the universities humanists struggled with Scholastics for positions, and by 1520 humanism had spread to urban centers and to both ecclesiastical and princely courts. The lawyer Conrad Peutinger, the historian Johannes Turmair (Aventinus), the city councilor Willibald Pirckheimer, a friend of Conrad Pickel, and the Nuremberg artist Albrecht Dürer were patrons and advocates of humanism. The clash of humanists and Scholastics came to a head in the celebrated Reuchlin controversy. Johannes Reuchlin (14551522) did a Hebrew vocabulary and grammar and wrote two major works, On the Wonder-Working Word and On the Qabbalistic Art, in which he used the Jewish mystical Qabbalah in support of Christianity. Reuchlin defended some Hebrew books from a vicious book-burner, Johannes Pfefferkorn, a converted Jew, and was in turn attacked by certain Scholastic doctors at Cologne. An Erfurt humanist, Johann Jäger (Crotus Rubianus, c. 14801545), and the young knight Ulrich von Hutten (14881523) wrote a biting satire, The Letters of Obscure Men, ridiculing the Scholastics and defending Reuch-lin. In Gotha the canon Mutianus Rufus (14711526) gathered a circle of young humanists from the University of Erfurt to promote classical learning.

Although there were early ties with Italy during the Avignon papacy and some promise of a flowering early in the fifteenth century, for example in the circle gathered around chancellor Jean de Montreuil (13541418), the Hundred Years' War and the struggle between France and Burgundy delayed the full development of humanism in France. The great flowering of humanism came from 1515 to 1547, during the reign of Francis I, a great patron of art and literature. Guillaume Budé (14681540) did a commentary on the Pandects (a digest of Justinian's law), a work on numismatics, a commentary on the Greek language, and a major work on Hellenism. Lefèvre d'Étaples (14551536) worked on biblical texts, doing a critical edition of Psalms and commentaries on Paul's letters and on the four Gospels; this work was important to Luther and the French reformers. Margaret of Angoulême, Francis I's sister, was not only an author but also a patroness of humanists and young reformers, along with Bishop Guillaume Briçonnet. François Rabelais (c. 14951553), author of the witty, gross, and satirical Gargantua and Pantagruel, offered criticism through the story of a giant and his son. Although sometimes called a skeptic, Rabelais is now seen more as an Erasmian Christian humanist interested in reform. The famous essayist Michel de Montaigne (15331592) was the greatest French literary figure of the age.

In Spain, Erasmianism, Lutheranism, and mysticism found followers, but nonconformity was effectively suppressed. Cardinal Jiménez de Cisneros (14361517) instituted rigorous clerical reforms, founded the University of Alcalá with a trilingual college, and endowed the publication of the Complutensian Polyglot Bible. Antonio de Nebrija (14411522), at Salamanca, was an outstanding classicist. The greatest literary figure of Spanish humanism was Miguel de Cervantes (15471616), author of Don Quixote.

English humanism developed during the fifteenth century from political and ecclesiastical contacts with Italy. Classical studies were cultivated seriously at Oxford by Thomas Linacre (c. 14601524), William Grocyn (c. 14661519), and William Latimer (c. 14601543). John Colet (14671519), dean of Saint Paul's and founder of Saint Paul's School, modeled somewhat after the humanist schools of Italy, corresponded with Ficino and was intrigued by Neoplatonism. But he had a serious theological bent, and in his lectures on Romans he emphasized humanity's sinfulness and need for God's forgiveness. Thomas More (14781535) wrote the most famous work of English humanism, Utopia.

The prince of the northern humanists was Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1469?1536), who articulated the loftiest ideals of Christian humanism. A great classicist and patristics scholar, he expressed social and ecclesiastical criticism in The Praise of Folly and the Colloquies, expounded his "philosophy of Christ" in the Enchiridion and in Paraclesis, and did editions, with long introductions, of Latin and Greek classical authors and church fathers. His fame was eclipsed by the advent of the Reformation, and he reluctantly attacked Luther on the question of the freedom of the will. Erasmus inclined toward moralism and spiritualism rather than consequential soteriology, emphasizing Christ the teacher and example rather than the Savior who died on the Cross for the salvation of humankind.

Humanism and the Reformation

The Reformation owed much to humanism for its success; contributing to an atmosphere favorable to the Reformation were humanism's emphasis on knowledge of the biblical languages and a return to the sources; its criticism of ecclesiastical and social abuses; its negative attitude toward Scholasticism; a concomitant romantic cultural nationalism; the use of the printing press; and the activities of the cadres of young humanists who carried Luther's message to all parts of the Holy Roman Empire in the early years. Luther referred to the Renaissance as akin to John the Baptist heralding the coming of the gospel. The so-called magisterial reformers, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Melanchthon, Bucer, Beza, and others, were all university men with some background in classical studies and humanist learning. Led by Luther, they reformed the university curricula in favor of humanist disciplines, reformed old and founded new universities, and established secondary schools, Gymnasium s and lycée s, to promote the liberal arts. They insisted upon compulsory education for boys and girls, thus expanding education beyond the elitist upper-class concerns of the Italian humanists. They stressed teaching as a divine vocation. While Luther loved the classics, rejected Scholasticism, and favored humanism, his colleague Philipp Melanchthon (14971560) was the major influence in promoting classicism. In line with Italian humanism, the reformers deemphasized dialectic and stressed the value of rhetoric, poetry, moral philosophy, and history. Along with their concern for pure theology, the proper distinction between law and gospel, and the centrality of sin and grace, the reformers viewed higher culture as a sphere of faith's works and became strong advocates of humanist learning. Learned Protestants such as the polymath Joachim Camerarius (15001574), the educator Johannes Sturm (15071589), the historian Johannes Philippi (Sleidanus, 15061556), the irenic theologian Georg Calixtus (15861656), and a host of neo-Latin poets, playwrights, and philosophers carried humanism into the seventeenth century and the beginnings of the Enlightenment. Catholic reformers, too, especially the Jesuits, saw the value of the humaniora, or humane studies, and introduced them into their academies, colleges, and universities. The Reformation owed much to humanism and repaid the debt richly by broadening the popular base of education and carrying humanist learning into modern times.

The Reformation brought to an end the role of Renaissance humanism as an independent cultural force, for thereafter it became associated closely with the various Christian confessions. Lutheran, Calvinist, Catholic, and radical humanist learning was cultivated in secondary schools and universities. Where humanism was transmitted in this academic way, it was preserved much longer than where it remained a matter of a few individuals or groups; but humanism took on a more pedantic and less spontaneous character in the universities.

Humanist impulses were not only widespread horizontally on a European scale but reached down vertically through the centuries. Where humanist influence was strong, it nourished tendencies toward universalism, or at least toward latitudinarianism, especially in England and the Netherlands, and fostered an irenic spirit. The humanist way of thinking has remained in evidence into the twentieth century.

See Also

Bruno, Giordano; Enlightenment, The; Erasmus, Desiderius; Ficino, Marsilio; Neoplatonism; Nicholas of Cusa; Pico della Mirandola, Giovanni; Reformation; Scholasticism.


For the historical background of Renaissance humanism, such standard works as The New Cambridge Modern History, vol. 1, The Renaissance, 14931520, edited by G. R. Potter (Cambridge, 1957), and Myron P. Gilmore's The World of Humanism, 14531517 (1952; reprint, Westport, Conn., 1983) serve as excellent guides. Wallace K. Ferguson's The Renaissance in Historical Thought: Five Centuries of Interpretation (Boston, 1948) provides a survey of the changing currents of historiography.

The most excellent work on the thought of the Italian humanists is Charles E. Trinkaus's In Our Image and Likeness: Humanity and Divinity in Italian Humanist Thought, 2 vols. (Chicago, 1970), which in a detailed, profound, and comprehensive way shows how the humanists integrated the surging secular activities and achievements of early modern Europe into the beliefs and practices of the Christian inheritance. See also his brilliant essays in The Scope of Renaissance Humanism (Ann Arbor, 1983). The Florentine scholar Eugenio Garin, in his Italian Humanism: Philosophy and Civic Life in the Renaissance (New York, 1965), offers a succinct analysis of humanism as a reflection of the new urban civic life. The most prolific author and bibliographer of Italian humanism is Paul O. Kristeller, who holds that humanism derived from the studia humanitatis in the Italian universities and offered an educational alternative to Scholasticism. Among his many writings one may cite the representative titles Studies in Renaissance Thought and Letters (Rome, 1956), Renaissance Thought: The Classic, Scholastic and Humanistic Strains (New York, 1961), Eight Philosophers of the Italian Renaissance (Stanford, Calif., 1964), and Renaissance Thought and Its Sources (New York, 1979). The most discussed book on civic humanism is Hans Baron's The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance: Civic Humanism and Republican Liberty in an Age of Classicism and Tyranny, rev. ed. (Princeton, N.J., 1966), in which Baron argues that the threat to Florence from the Visconti tyrants of Milan led the humanist chancellors of the city to write in defense of the republic.

Significant titles for the study of northern humanism include Itinerarium Italicum: The Profile of the Italian Renaissance in the Mirror of Its European Transformations, edited by Heiko A. Oberman and Thomas A. Brady (Leiden, 1975), on the reception of Italian Renaissance culture in France, the Low Countries, England, and Germany; Eckhard Bernstein's German Humanism (Boston, 1983); my book The Religious Renaissance of the German Humanists (Cambridge, Mass., 1963); James H. Overfield's Humanism and Scholasticism in Late Medieval Germany (Princeton, N.J., 1984); Franco Simone's The French Renaissance: Medieval Tradition and Italian Influence in Shaping the Renaissance in France (London, 1969); and Douglas Bush's The Renaissance and English Humanism (Toronto, 1939).

On the Reformation and humanism, see E. Harris Harbison's The Christian Scholar in the Age of the Reformation (New York, 1956); Marilyn J. Harran's Luther and Learning (Selingsgrove, Pa., 1985); Gerhart Hoffmeister's The Renaissance and Reformation in Germany (New York, 1977); Manfred Hoffmann's Martin Luther and the Modern Mind (New York and Toronto, 1985); and Quirinus Breen's John Calvin: A Study in French Humanism, 2d ed. (Hamden, Conn., 1968), underscoring the continuity of humanism in Reformation thought.

New Sources

Gifford, Paul, ed. 2000 Years and Beyond: Faith, Identity, and the "Common Era." New York, 2003.

Kraye, Jill, and W. F. Stone, eds. Humanism and Early Modern Philosophy. New York, 2000.

Mizruchi, Susan, ed. Religion and Cultural Studies. Princeton, 2001.

Olin, John. Erasmus, Utopia, and the Jesuits: Essays on the Outreach of Humanism. New York, 1994.

Radest, Howard. The Devil and Secular Humanism: The Children of the Enlightenment. New York, 1990.

Southern, R. W. Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe. Vol. 1: Foundations; Vol. 2: In the Heroic Age. Oxford, U.K. and Cambridge, Mass., 1995.

Witt, Ronald. In the Footsteps of the Ancients: The Origins of Humanism from Lovati to Bruno. Leiden and Boston, 2000.

Lewis W. Spitz (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated May 17 2018



In the widest sense, humanism is conceived as referring to an approach to understanding the world and of living in that world focused first and foremost on humans rather than on God or on nature. Although individualistic, never organized in the form of a movement, and highly variegated and including religious and nonreligious forms, humanisms have exhibited various combinations of freedom and responsibility, learning and observation, reason and values. The term itself only dates from the mid-nineteenth century. The descriptive term, humanist, however, gained wide currency from the late 1400s, and the advent of humanism in the West is usually associated with the classical revival of what has come to be known since the nineteenth century, now often contentiously, as the Italian Renaissance.

Humanists were particularly scholars of the Greek and Latin literae humaniores and engaged in teaching what Cicero (10643 bce) had termed studia humanitatis based on a liberal education, especially grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry, and philosophy. From early in the fourteenth century, they began to develop a periodization of history that, unlike the continuity experienced in the Middle Ages, was marked by a break with the civilizations of Greece and Rome. Thus in antiquity could be found alternative models for thought and life. Humanist scholars then, with Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch, 13041374) and his friend Giovanni Boccaccio (13131375) in the lead and establishing a model widely emulated, were engaged in the recovery of classical texts. Using a philological method, humanists further sought to establish the integrity and the original meaning of the classics in the context in which they were written.

Their passion for antiquity and the proclaimed break with the medieval world presented Renaissance humanists with the problem of reconciling Christian and pagan values in a new historical and intellectual climate. Humanists had attacked scholasticism and, instead of in Aristotle (384322 bce), eventually found more congenial philosophical bases in Plato (427347 bce). An associated question was that of an active versus contemplative life and the role of the scholar in public affairs. Lino Coluccio di Piero Salutati (13311406, chancellor of the Florentine Republic 13751406) and the generation of the first half of the fifteenth century tipped the balance toward civic virtue, civic humanism, and made Florence the center of humanist studies. The life and work of Leon Battista Alberti (14041472) epitomized humanism in the arts. Personifying the Renaissance ideal of the universal man, he shared with many humanists a taste for archaeological studies and campaigned for a return to classical models. He advanced realistic representation, systematized perspective, advocated for principles of harmony and the social function of architecture, and put these into practice himself as an architect. The humanists interests in perspective, anatomy, and the mathematical bases of proportion and harmony (including that of music) provided material groundwork for the development of the natural sciences as an autonomous domain of knowledge production.

Humanist thought and practice spread widely beyond the original center in Florence to other parts of Italy and, following the invasion of the Italian Peninsula in 1494, extended rapidly to the north as the new learning. Education, the key to the discovery of ones humanitas, was a fundamental element in the development of humanism. Although the old universities remained in the grip of scholasticism, existing schools were revitalized and new ones established all over Europe to make available a classical education, at least to an elite, and humanist thought prospered in informal groups, correspondence networks, and academies.

While the violence and dislocations of the Wars of Religion of the late 1500s and the attacks on what was considered the heretical idea of personal freedom of thought in the Reformation and Counter-Reformation shook optimism and faith in fundamental human dignity, a renewed sense of confidence and the possibility of progress; a belief in freedom, including freedom of thought and expression, in reason, and in science; and especially an emphasis on a critical outlook marked the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. The corollary to the accent on emancipation and the individual was secularism, indeed an anticlericalism and atheismdifferent from the accommodation that had satisfied Renaissance humanists. However, the reaction to the French Revolution (17891799) offered a sharp rebuff to the way the Enlightenment philosophes had envisioned the world. The ineluctable reality of change brought forth contradictory attitudes toward the meaning of progress and was translated into the mutually exclusive politicsbased on conflicting value setsof conservatives and radicals. Nonetheless, a belief in the centrality of the human experience and the value of reason and education continued to color nineteenth-century attitudes.

During the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, humanism evolved in the Germanies with an emphasis on the individual (even to the detriment of social concerns), the pursuit of classicism in the arts, education reform, and the assertion of classical roots as a fundamental element in the establishment and development of the German state. In England in the early 1880s, the relative merits of the arts (especially schooling in the classics) and the sciences (and the unbiased truths they produced) in education were debated by Matthew Arnold (18221888), champion of culture and a liberal of the future, and T. H. Huxley (18251895), Charles Darwins (18091882) apologist. But their positions were not so far apart; both were needed. Indeed after mid-century, liberal humanism was characterized by a confidence in a future of incremental material and social progress, supported by the emerging social sciences, whose principle actor or subject, however, was an autonomous, entrepreneurial, propertied white male. By the end of the century, the new liberalism had co-opted much of both the conservative and radical agendas, and the common culture espoused by Arnold was offered as a substitute for equality.

From the late nineteenth century, the European avant-garde contested realist representation (associated with a bourgeois establishment) and the positivist attitude by figuring an internal world, and the twentieth-century wars undermined confidence in an innate human decency and the improvements to be expected from scientific progress. Furthermore, over the second half of the twentieth century, the humanist tradition was assailed in a series of developments in the production of knowledge itself. In 1946 Jean-Paul Sartre (19051980) extolled existentialism as a humanism, not the liberal/bourgeois humanism with its metaphysical assumptions but a humanism grounded in choice and commitment that linked the individual to the community. In 1947 Martin Heidegger (18891976) responded, rejecting humanism and existentialism as metaphysical; instead of the thinking subject, he placed the accent on being.

The scope of critiques of the possibility of any universal humanism widened from the 1950s through the mid-1960s. Léopold Sédar Senghor (19062001) pronounced négritude, a direct attack on universalizing, Eurocentric culture at the world scale, to be a humanism. Alain Robbe-Grillet, speaking for the nouveau roman and in a debate with Sartre, pointed to the double-edged and paralyzing nature of existentialism that underwrote a hegemony of man, a fundamental ideological pillar of modern thought. For Michel Foucault (19261984), conceding the influence of Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900), not only had humanism as a philosophy reached an end but man, a concept of recent invention, would also have to be abandoned (Foucault 1966).

In response to the crisis on the left occasioned by the events of 1956Hungary, Suez, Nikita Khrushchevs (18941971) secret speechE. P. Thompson (19241993) promoted socialist humanism, which was humanist because it places once again real men and women at the centre of socialist theory and aspiration socialist because it re-affirms the revolutionary perspectives of Communism faith in real men and women (1957, p. 109). The movement, founded on the early Karl Marx (18181883), attracted wide support. In 1964 Louis Althusser (19181990) took the couplet to task, associating the terms socialist with science and humanism with ideology by singling out what he called Marxs break with every theory that based history or politics on an essence of man ([1965] 1986, p. 227). Althusser argued that Marxs structural account of social relations gave rise to theoretical antihumanism, which, however, did not rule out ethical commitments. Despite the many valid criticisms, Althussers work was the primary source for what came to be known as structuralist Marxism and rendered humanist agendas on the left suspect.

By far the most far-reaching development was that of structuralism. Based on the work in linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure (18571913), the structuralisms offered the promise of a new rigor and scientific status, nonreductionist and nonpositivist, for the human sciences. But the emphasis on constructedness spelled the end for any humanism founded in essentialist categories, whether human or material. Saussure insisted that languages, systems of signs that express meaning, should be studied not just in terms of their individual parts, diachronically as philologists had, but also in terms of the relationship between those parts, synchronically. The model rehabilitated a version of relational thinking and was appropriated by the social sciences and applied to nonlinguistic phenomena.

The term secular humanism is generally applied to those who embrace humanist principles and contend that these lead to secularism and who reject the supernatural, especially religious faith, while maintaining a belief in the inherent dignity of humankind. It has at times acquired a pejorative tonality, especially when used by religious conservatives to describe nonreligious opponents such as some scientists and intellectuals.

Edward Said (19352003) reclaimed the term humanism in a positive sense to describe a practice for what is in the end a defense against inhumanity: historical, rational, and critical thinking (which includes the philological method) informing responsible, activist social agency.

SEE ALSO Althusser, Louis; Aristotle; Enlightenment; French Revolution; Hungarian Revolution; Plato; Poststructuralism; Revolution; Said, Edward; Schooling; Social Science; Socialism; Structuralism; Thompson, Edward P.


Althusser, Louis. [1965] 1986. For Marx. Trans. Ben Brewster. London: Verso.

Burckhardt, Jacob. [18551860] 1995. The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. 2 vols. Trans. S. G. C. Middlemore. Oxford: Phaidon.

Davies, Tony. 1997. Humanism. London: Routledge.

Dosse, François. 1997. History of Structuralism. 2 vols. Trans. Deborah Glassman. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Foucault, Michel. [1966] 1973. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Vintage.

Said, Edward. 2004. Humanism and Democratic Criticism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Soper, Kate. 1986. Humanism and Anti-Humanism. London: Hutchinson.

Thompson, E. P. 1957. Socialist Humanism. New Reasoner 1 (1): 105143.

Richard E. Lee


views updated Jun 27 2018


Humanism in the present era signifies an ideological doctrine that places human beings, as opposed to God, at the center of the universe. Although a focus on human nature and human life can be traced back ultimately to ancient Greek thought, humanism in the modern sense, with its anthropocentric belief in the boundless potentiality of unfettered human reason and its secular conviction that human destiny is entirely in human hands, has its roots in the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. This philosophical orientation should not be confused with the intellectual movement known as Renaissance humanism. Unlike its contemporary namesake, Renaissance humanism was not specifically concerned with promoting and exalting human values. It was, instead, a hugely influential cultural and educational program dedicated to the revival of the classical ideal of cultivated and civilized learning, referred to in Latin as humanitas and in Greek as paideia. For humanists of the Renaissance and their successors, the only way to achieve this ideal was through the studia humanitatis, the study of Graeco-Roman civilization through its literature, history, philosophy, and surviving artifacts. The zeal for recovering and reviving antiquity reached its height from 1300 to 1650. Recent scholarship has, however, highlighted earlier periods in which brief bursts of enthusiasm for ancient learning can be identified.

Humanism in the Middle Ages

An intensified interest in the classical legacy, leading to a general cultural revival, occurred in the Islamic world during the tenth century. In contrast to Western Europe, where the Latin heritage was always supreme, Arab scholars, both Christian and Muslim, were concerned exclusively with Greek erudition. Moreover, their interest was entirely in the scientific and philosophical patrimony of ancient Greece, leaving aside its literary and historical works. During this period a large number of texts by Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Ptolemy, Hippocrates, and Galen were translated into Arabic, sometimes via Syriac intermediaries. The philological efforts that went into this enterprise bore fruit in the achievements of thinkers such as Avicenna (9801037) who were able to build up their own philosophical, scientific, and medical systems by drawing on the Greek material newly available to them.

Two epochs during the Western European Middle Ages witnessed revivals of ancient learning that have been seen as foreshadowing the humanism of the Renaissance. The first, associated with the reign of Charlemagne, occurred in the eighth and ninth centuries. In this period a small group of scholars, most notably Lupus of Ferrières (c. 805862), studied, edited, and copied texts by Cicero, Valerius Maximus, and Aulus Gellius, among other Latin authors. It was partly thanks to their philological interests and skills that these works survived and were transmitted to later generations. Another Carolingian intellectual, John Scotus Eriugena (c. 810c. 877), used his knowledge of Greek, a rare accomplishment in the Middle Ages, to gain access to Neoplatonic sources, which played a significant role in his highly original philosophical and theological writings.

The second period of medieval humanist activity took place in the twelfth century. A coterie of scholars, mainly located in northern France, began to study writings from classical antiquity with a new intensity and sense of purpose. They explored a wider range of Latin texts than their Carolingian predecessors, including late ancient translations of Greek works, such as Chalcidius's partial version of and commentary on Plato's Timaeus, dating from the fourth century, and the Aristotelian translations and commentaries of Boethius (c. 480c. 524). They pursued predominantly scientific and philosophical interests, though less single-mindedly than the Arab scholars of the tenth century, and with a considerable emphasis on the Roman as well as the Greek tradition. The outlook of John of Salisbury (c. 11151180), an Englishman educated in Chartres and Paris, reflects the characteristic strains of humanism in this era. His knowledge of Latin literature, much of it culled from medieval florilegia, or anthologies, rather than through direct acquaintance with the ancient texts, was impressively broad though often shallow and perforce patchy. He wrote in a fluent and accomplished Latin style though without any attempt to imitate classical authors; and though he peppered his treatises with quotations and anecdotes from ancient literature, these snippets were deployed solely for his own purposes with no concern for their original context and import. Other twelfth-century scholars engaged in cosmological speculation and provoked accusations of heresy by employing Platonic concepts to investigate the relationship between God and the created universe.

From Medieval to Renaissance Humanism

Another product of twelfth-century France was the development of a new approach to Latin grammar based on a philosophical and logical analysis of syntax rather than on the careful study of Roman authors. Codified in two enormously influential manuals, Alexander of Villedieu's Doctrinale (1199) and Evrard of Béthune's Graecismus (1216), both written in verse for easy memorization, this unclassical method of teaching grammar quickly spread to Italy where it remained the staple of elementary education in Latin until the end of the fifteenth century. Equally successful was Geoffrey of Vinsauf's Poetria nova, a verse textbook on rhetoric written between 1208 and 1213. Devoid of classical examples, it provided rules for obtaining an abstract eloquence unrelated to the prose of ancient Roman authors. This technique fitted in well with the ars dictaminis, a simplified method of composing public letters that had been widely adopted in Italy for the training of notaries, lawyers, and chancery officials. Their need for a practical, efficient, and uncluttered form of Latin expression led to a rejection of Roman models.

The first glimmerings of humanism appeared against the background ofand most likely in reaction tothis neglect of the classical tradition in thirteenth-century Italy. The Paduan notary and judge Lovato dei Lovati (c. 12401309), usually described as a pre- or protohumanist, broke new ground with his attempt to write Latin verse epistles in the style of Roman poets. Medieval scholars who took an interest in classical literature had not aspired to write Latin in an authentically ancient manner. Lovati, by contrast, made a deliberate (though far from successful) effort to imitate the vocabulary, meter, and tone of the Roman poetry he admired, including the tragedies of Seneca, whose metrics he explained in a brief treatise, and the lyric poems of Catullus, Tibullus, and Propertius, which were hardly known at the time. In his official capacity, however, Lovati continued to write the traditional Latin of the ars dictaminis. His disciple Albertino Mussato (12611329) not only composed a Senecan verse tragedy, Ecerinis, but also extended the classicizing reform of Latin to prose by modeling his history of Emperor Henry VII on Livy. Yet he, too, continued to use medieval Latin in public letters and speeches, as did other humanists throughout the fourteenth century.

It was with Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca, 13041374) that the nascent humanist movement came into its own. He became an exemplary figure whose predilections, interests, and activities set the agenda for later generations of humanists. In his own Latin compositions, he emulated both the prose and poetry of Roman authors as well as working out a sophisticated theory of imitation. He collated and edited manuscripts of Livy and applied his philological acumen to the correction of other classical texts. He recovered works that had been effectively lost since antiquity, including Cicero's letters to Atticus. He rejected medieval scholasticism, with its emphasis on Aristotelian logic, natural philosophy, and metaphysics, and favored instead the rhetoric of Cicero and Seneca, which had the power to move hearts and stir emotions. He felt that he was living at the dawn of a new era following a dark age of ignorance and barbarism; and he believed that the moving force behind this large-scale cultural transformation was the gradual recovery of the heritage of classical antiquity through his own efforts and those of like-minded scholars.

Renaissance Humanism in Fifteenth-Century Italy

There have been attempts by modern scholars to connect the rise of Renaissance humanism with the political circumstances of fifteenth-century Italy. Its origins have been linked to the struggle of republican Florence against the monarchical tyranny of Milan in the early years of the century, or it has been seen as both reflecting and fostering a new spirit of active engagement of the citizenry in communal affairs. This notion of civic humanism has not stood up well in the face of overwhelming evidence showing that humanism flourished in a wide variety of political and social contexts. Similarly, the multiplicity of mutually contradictory views held by humanists on any given subject has undermined persistent efforts to align the movement with a particular ideological bent or philosophical persuasion. The only conviction that humanists demonstrably held in common was their passionate dedication to study of classical antiquity.

Paul Oskar Kristeller's definition of a humanist as a professional teacher of the studia humanitatis therefore corresponds most closely to the historical facts and has consequently won widespread acceptance. The term humanist, or umanista, in fact derives from late fifteenth-century Italian university slang that denoted a teacher or student of the studia humanitatis, just as a legista was someone who taught or studied law. The expression studia humanitatis itself had even longer associations with the movement. Petrarch noted it in his manuscript of Cicero's Pro Archia, a speech he himself discovered in 1333, and his devoted follower Coluccio Salutati (13311406), the first in a long line of humanist chancellors of Florence, began using it in 1369 to describe the study of classical literature. It soon became a frequent refrain, indeed a battle cry, among humanists defending or promoting their own activities.

Although Kristeller's account of the studia humanitatis as consisting of five academic subjectsgrammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, and moral philosophyhas also been widely adopted, it needs further refinement. These subjects may have been at the center of the Italian humanist curriculum during the fifteenth century. Yet their own interests ranged far beyond these fields, extending into all disciplines that relied on the wisdom of the ancients. In the Renaissance this meant almost every branch of learning: medicine, law, science, political thought, music, architecture, and all branches of philosophy. It was on this basis that Angelo Poliziano (14541494), the most learned classical scholar of the Italian Renaissance, decided that he would no longer lecture at the University of Florence on Latin and Greek literature, the normal subjects for a humanist professor but, instead, give a course on Aristotelian logic. Such an audacious move predictably provoked cries of derision from the philosophers whose academic territory he was invading. He responded to this outrage by maintaining, in his inaugural lecture of 1492, that as an expert on antiquity he was qualified to interpret any ancient text, not just poetry, history, and rhetoric, but also medicine, law, and philosophy. He further demonstrated this point in a dazzling series of philological investigations ranging over a broad spectrum of texts, including the Corpus iuris civilis (the sixth-century codification of Roman law), the scientific writings of Pliny the Elder, and the Greek sources of Latin medical terminology.

Fifteenth-century Italian humanists contributed to the studia humanitatis, broadly construed, in a number of ways. In the first place, they uncovered manuscripts of classical Latin texts that had been virtually unknown throughout the Middle Ages. In the wake of Petrarch's discovery of Cicero's letters to Atticus and Pro Archia, Salutati turned up a copy of his familiar letters while a humanist of the next generation, Poggio Bracciolini (13801459), found more unknown speeches of Cicero. Poggio's energetic hunt through monastic libraries in northern Europe also produced a complete copy of Quintilian's Education of the Orator, previously circulating in fragmentary form, and a masterpiece of Roman poetry, Lucretius's On the Nature of Things. Other important works unearthed by Italian humanists include the histories of Tacitus and the Brutus of Cicero.

When humanists found new works, or more accurate copies of ones that were already known to them, they ensured their further survival and diffusion, before the invention of printing, by copying and circulating them in manuscript. One of the innovations introduced by Italian humanists was to replace the crabbed and illegible gothic handwriting used in the late Middle Ages with an elegant and readable script that they believed was modeled on ancient Roman letter forms but that, in reality, dated from the Carolingian era. They also devised a cursive script, which is the ancestor of our italic character. In addition to copying texts, humanists also attempted to correct the errors that had inevitably crept into those texts through centuries of scribal transmission. They did this by comparing readings in different manuscripts or by making conjectural emendationstechniques that classicists still use today though with far greater methodological sophistication.

The next stage in dealing with the text of an ancient author was to explain and interpret it, often for the benefit of students. A large number of humanist commentaries on classical works grew out of university lectures. At a lower level, humanists also made their living as schoolteachers, equipping youngsters with the basic tools of Latin literacy that would enable them to gain access to the literary monuments of antiquity. Humanists such as Pier Paolo Vergerio (13701444) and Battista Guarino (14341503) wrote treatises touting the novelty of their teaching methods and boasting that the classical education they provided would inculcate a love of virtue and nobility in their young charges. Such extravagant claims no doubt assisted humanists to corner the educational market in the Renaissance. As is now known, however, the textbooks used in elementary Latin training changed relatively little from the thirteenth to the end of the fifteenth century. Moreover, the pedagogical techniques employed by humanists, which emphasized rote memorization and focused on grammatical, historical, and literary minutiae, were ill-suited to produce moral improvement. At the later stages of schooling, humanists made a greater impact, giving Virgil and Cicero a more prominent place in the curriculum than they had previously enjoyed and downgrading late ancient authors such as Boethius.

Fifteenth-century Italian humanists continued the classicizing reform of Latin style initiated by Lovati, Mussato, and Petrarch. By the early decades Cicero had become the accepted model for prose writers though it was not until the end of the century that a slavish and exclusive imitation of Cicero came into fashion. As an aid to writing correct classical Latin, Lorenzo Valla (14071457) compiled his Elegantiae, a catalogue of subtle linguistic distinctions, fine shades of meaning, and nuances of usage, based on his exhaustive knowledge of the entire Roman literary canon. In a bravura display of humanist historical scholarship, Valla deployed this same knowledge to discredit the "Donation of Constantine," a document underwriting papal claims to temporal sovereignty, as a crude medieval forgery. He also believed, like Poliziano, that his superior command of Latin permitted him to interpret the Corpus iuris civilis more accurately than the legal scholars of his day.

Valla not only had an unrivaled mastery of classical Latin, he also knew ancient Greek well enough to translate the historians Herodotus and Thucydides. His expertise in both languages also allowed him to point out errors in the Vulgate, the standard Latin version of the New Testament, by comparing it with the Greek original. The revival of the study of Greek, which was well on its way by Valla's time, was one of the most important achievements of humanism. Very few medieval scholars had any acquaintance with Greek; and even though the works of some authors, including Aristotle, had been translated into Latin, the bulk of Greek philosophy, science, history, and literature was unknown in Western Europe. Beginning with Petrarch, humanists recognized the importance of recovering the Greek as well as the Latin heritage of antiquity. By traveling to Greece or studying with Byzantine émigrés in Italy, they learned the language and started to apply the techniques of editing and interpretation that had been developed for Latin texts to Greek ones. Greek, nonetheless, remained the preserve of a minority of humanists who served the larger intellectual community by translating a large body of texts into Latin. The writings of the Greek Church Fathers, many of them translated by Ambrogio Traversari (13861439), general of the Camaldulensian Order, formed an important element in this corpus.

Humanists were not concerned solely with texts. The material remains of antiquity, which were especially plentiful in Italy, were also of great interest to them. They visited architectural ruins and avidly collected Roman coins, inscriptions, and sculptures. Humanist historians, such as Flavio Biondo (13921463), subjected these artifacts to critical scrutiny and used them to supplement written records. This aspect of humanism laid the groundwork on which the disciplines of archaeology, numismatics, and epigraphy were later constructed.

Renaissance Humanism in Sixteenth-Century Europe

By the turn of the sixteenth century, humanism had begun to spread from Italy to other European countries. The movement took on new contours and colors, reflecting the different cultures into which it was transplanted. Nonetheless, the humanist program that had taken shape in fifteenth-century Italy did not undergo radical changes but continued to develop within the same broad outlines. This process is well illustrated in the writings of the most outstanding and influential humanist of the period, Erasmus (c. 14691536). In his educational works the Dutch scholar banished the last vestiges of the medieval tradition of learning Latin and presented a thoroughly humanist pedagogical method firmly based on the study of Roman and Greek authors. Erasmus also brought the humanist reform of Latin style to new heights. With the entire resources of classical Latin at his command, he adopted and promoted a flexible and eclectic approach to prose composition, rejecting the rigid Ciceronianism of his day. Carrying forward the achievements of Valla and Traversari, Erasmus demonstrated the relevance of humanism to Christian as well as pagan antiquity by applying philological techniques to the text of the New Testament and producing numerous critical editions and translations of the Church Fathers.

The inroads that fifteenth-century Italian humanists had made into disciplines such as medicine, philosophy, and law were extended during the sixteenth century by scholars from all over Europe. The Englishman Thomas Linacre (c. 14601524) helped to edit the Greek text of Galen and translated many of his treatises into Latin. The Flemish scholar Justus Lipsius (15471606) reconstructed the philosophical system of the ancient Stoics, relying on Greek as well as Latin sources, and gave impetus to a popular fad for Stoicism that lasted until the 1660s. The French humanist Guillaume Budé (c. 14671540) brought the weight of his vast classical erudition to bear on the elucidation of obscure passages and terms in Roman law. He also wrote learned treatises on Roman coinage and Greek grammar.

Though Latin remained the lingua franca of humanism, facilitating communication among scholars of different nations, a feature of the movement in the sixteenth century was the increase of humanist writings in the vernacular. This phenomenon was not unheard of in the fifteenth century: Leon Battista Alberti (14041472) wrote a humanist treatise on household management in Italian, partly in order to demonstrate that the language was a suitable vehicle for scholarly discourse. Now, however, it proliferated and attained a respectability that it had previously lacked so that even a hard-core humanist such as Budé was prepared to write his treatise on the education of the prince in French. The Prince of Niccolò Machiavelli (14691527) and the Essays of Michel de Montaigne (15331592) are just two examples of influential works in the vernacular that were steeped in humanist culture.

The Legacy of Renaissance Humanism

The humanists' aim of reviving and restoring the heritage of classical antiquity was largely achieved by the seventeenth century. Although a few discoveries were yet to be made, almost all ancient Greek and Latin writings known today were available to scholars who could consult them in printed editions, often accompanied by learned commentaries and, in the case of Greek works, Latin translations. It was at this stage, however, that the seismic changes in European culture brought about by the Scientific Revolution, and the rise of modern philosophy made this body of knowledge, so revered by the humanists, increasingly irrelevant to contemporary needs. They continued to develop ever more sophisticated methods of investigating the textual and material remains of antiquity, gradually transforming themselves into the classicists and archaeologists of the present day. By 1809, when the term humanism was first coined by a German philologist to defend the study of Greek and Latin, the movement had become synonymous with the profession of classical scholarship. Although greatly marginalized since its heyday in the Renaissance, humanism continued to exert a significant and widespread cultural influence until well into the twentieth century through the resilient ideal of the classical education.

See also Aristotle; Avicenna; Carolingian Renaissance; Cicero, Marcus Tullius; Enlightenment; Erasmus, Desiderius; Galen; Hippocrates and the Hippocratic Corpus; John of Salisbury; Petrarch; Plato; Stoicism.


Baron, Hans. The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance: Civic Humanism and Republican Liberty in an Age of Classicism and Tyranny. 2 vols. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1955.

Black, Robert. "Humanism." In The New Cambridge Medieval History, Vol. VII: c. 1415c. 1500, edited by Christopher Allmand. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Black, Robert. Humanism and Education in Medieval and Renaissance Italy: Tradition and Innovation in Latin Schools from the Twelfth to the Fifteenth Century. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Celenza, Christopher S. The Lost Italian Renaissance: Humanists, Historians, and Latin's Legacy. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.

Garin, Eugenio. Italian Humanism: Philosophy and Civic Life in the Renaissance. Translated by Peter Munz. New York: Harper and Row, 1965.

Gersh, Stephen, and Bert Roest, eds. Medieval and Renaissance Humanism: Rhetoric, Representation and Reform. Leiden: Brill, 2003.

Goodman, Anthony, and Angus MacKay, eds. The Impact of Humanism on Western Europe. London: Longman, 1990.

Grafton, Anthony. Defenders of the Text: The Traditions of Scholarship in an Age of Science, 14501800. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991.

Grafton, Anthony, and Lisa Jardine. From Humanism to the Humanities: Education and the Liberal Arts in Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-Century Europe. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Hankins, James, ed. Renaissance Civic Humanism: Reappraisals and Reflections. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Kallendorf, Craig, ed. and trans. Humanist Educational Treatises. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Kraye, Jill, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Humanism. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Kraye, Jill, and M. W. F. Stone, eds. Humanism and Early Modern Philosophy. London: Routledge, 2000.

Kraemer, Joel L. Humanism in the Renaissance of Islam: The Cultural Revival during the Buyid Age. Leiden: Brill, 1986.

Kristeller, Paul Oskar. Renaissance Thought: The Classic, Scholastic and Humanist Strains. New York: Harper and Row, 1961.

Kristeller, Paul Oskar. Renaissance Thought II: Papers on Humanism and the Arts. New York: Harper and Row, 1965.

Nauert, Charles G., Jr. Humanism and the Culture of Renaissance Europe. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Otten, Willemien. From Paradise to Paradigm: A Study of Twelfth-Century Humanism. Leiden: Brill, 2004.

Rabil, Albert, Jr. ed. Renaissance Humanism: Foundations, Forms, and Legacy. 3 vols. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988.

Reynolds, L. D. and N. G. Wilson. Scribes and Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature. 3rd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.

Rummel, Erika. The Humanist-Scholastic Debate in the Renaissance and Reformation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Seigel, Jerrold E. Rhetoric and Philosophy in Renaissance Humanism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968.

Trinkaus, Charles. In Our Image and Likeness: Humanity and Divinity in Italian Renaissance Thought. 2 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Weiss, Roberto. The Renaissance Discovery of Classical Antiquity. 2nd ed. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988.

Wilson, N. G. From Byzantium to Italy: Greek Studies in the Italian Renaissance. London: Duckworth, 1992.

Witt, Ronald G. In the Footsteps of the Ancients: The Origins of Humanism from Lovato to Bruni. Leiden: Brill, 2000.

Jill Kraye (2005)


views updated May 29 2018


Humanism was a cultural movement that promoted the study of the humanities—the languages, literature, and history of ancient Greece and Rome. Humanist scholars used the works of ancient authors as models in writing, scholarship, and all aspects of life. The movement began in Italy in the 1300s and eventually spread throughout Europe. It had a great impact on many areas of Renaissance culture, including literature, education, law, and the arts. By the mid-1600s humanism began to fade as other intellectual movements emerged. All the same, it left a lasting impression on European culture and society.


The humanist movement was born in Italy. However, its roots lay partly in the work of French scholars of the late Middle Ages. Humanism blossomed in Italy as scholars became increasingly familiar with classical* texts.

Early Italian Humanists. During the 1100s, Latin grammar, literature, and history were widely studied in France. French poets produced books on these subjects as well as poetry in Latin. By comparison, Italian writers showed little interest in these subjects. However, after about 1180 Italian scholars began to read Latin works and to produce Latin poems and grammar manuals of their own.

Italians took an interest in antiquity* partly because they felt a close connection to ancient Rome. Writers of the 1200s, such as Brunetto Latini of Florence, saw Rome as a good model for the Italian city-states of their time. Latini and many other writers of his day encouraged Italians to return to the Roman values of civic* harmony and cooperation. They hoped that these values would help end the power struggles between rival factions* in the city-states. To promote the ideas of ancient Rome, many scholars in northern Italy began translating Latin works into their own language. Latini translated several texts by the Roman orator Cicero.

Around the same time, Italian poets began producing Latin verses in the style of the ancients. Lovato dei Lovati (ca. 1240–1309) was one of the first Italian writers to capture the style and rhythm of classical poetry. An expert on ancient literature, he considered the Roman style to be the highest form of verse. By the early 1300s, the interest in classical style had spread to prose writing. In 1315 Alberto Mussato published a work of history and a tragic drama based on ancient examples. Gradually, authors abandoned medieval* styles and adopted classical models for other forms of writing, such as letters and speeches.

Petrarch. Francesco Petrarca (1304–1374), known as Petrarch, was one of the most influential Italian humanists. Born in central Italy, he grew up in the French city of Avignon, home to the papacy* at the time. Petrarch trained as a lawyer, but later abandoned the field to study classical literature. Impressed by the historical sites in Rome, he held ancient Roman culture in high regard. In Petrarch's view, Roman culture had fallen into a decline after the death of the emperor Constantine in the 300s. Europe had then entered a long "dark age," from which it was just beginning to emerge. In this way, Petrarch divided history into ancient, medieval, and modern eras.

Petrarch stressed the importance of rhetoric* as a form of argument. In his view, rhetoric had the power to convince people to make positive changes in their lives. Although scholars of the Middle Ages had placed more emphasis on logic in argument, Petrarch argued that simply knowing what goodness is would not make a person better. The stirring words of a skilled orator, however, could inspire people to become good.

Petrarch was also one of the first humanists to introduce religious ideas to the movement. Early humanists had been mainly secular* in their outlook and interests. Perhaps inspired by his years in the papal seat of Avignon, Petrarch added various Christian elements to humanism. This spiritual approach held particular appeal for religious scholars in northern Europe.

The Growth of Italian Humanism. Humanism first took hold in Florence and spread from there to the rest of Italy. Coluccio Salutati (1331–1406), the chancellor of the city, promoted the movement. He invited other humanists, including Poggio Bracciolini and the Greek scholar Manuel Chrysoloras, to live in Florence. This generation of intellectuals unearthed a large number of ancient texts, including works on rhetoric that became the basis of humanist education.

The growth of humanism in Florence was closely tied to the artistic Renaissance of the 1400s. Artists such as Donatello studied classical principles of art and imitated ancient models. Leon Battista Alberti wrote a landmark book, On Painting (1436), in which he argued that painters should study history and poetry and associate with poets and orators. Alberti's book played a key role in elevating painting from a craft to one of the liberal arts.

Humanist ideas spread rapidly throughout Italy. In the early 1400s Manuel Chrysoloras traveled to the northern province of Lombardy to teach Greek. Other scholars brought humanism to Milan, Venice, Padua, and Verona. By the mid-1400s the movement had reached Rome, where Pope Nicholas V actively supported humanism by hiring humanist scholars to translate Greek texts into Latin. Alfonso I, the king of Naples, also encouraged the growth of humanism. The prominent humanist Lorenzo Valla and the poet Jacopo Sannazaro did their most important work in Naples.

Humanist Literature and Education. Humanists wrote in a variety of literary forms, including poetry, dialogue, letters, history, and biography. One of the more popular genres* was the personal letter, an idea revived by Petrarch. Later humanists, such as Salutati, used this form frequently. Some writers produced lengthy letters in which they explored and debated ideas in detail. Others kept their letters brief and examined more complex issues in dialogues. Humanist dialogues usually featured two characters arguing different sides of an issue, such as the nature of nobility or the relative merits of pleasure and virtue.

Humanists explored many of their ideas about culture and society in works of history. Humanists broke with the medieval view of history as a steady decline from a glorious past to the present. Instead, they saw their own era as a time of revival after the long dark age that had begun with the fall of Rome. They also believed that the lives of historical figures could serve as valuable examples of virtuous behavior. As a result, they became interested in biography, a form of writing unknown during the Middle Ages.

Humanists also introduced major changes to the educational system. They rejected the medieval curriculum, which had emphasized logic, religion, and writing according to strict rules. Instead, they favored a system based on five subjects—grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, and moral philosophy—all based on the classics of ancient Greece and Rome. They argued that all civilized people needed this kind of education because it would teach them to speak and write well and to make sound moral decisions. This view came to dominate Italian, and later European, education for hundreds of years.


During the 1400s humanism spread throughout Europe. Scholars in many nations learned to read Latin and Greek, and classical learning became a basic part of education. As translations of ancient works became more widely available, writers continued to apply classical ideas to the important issues of their own day.

Humanism in France. In the mid-1300s, Italian scholars at the papal court in Avignon brought humanism to France. When the papacy returned to Rome in the early 1400s, the center of French humanism shifted to the College of Navarre in Paris. Known as the "cradle of French humanism," the school attracted scholars such as Jean de Gerson, Jean de Montreuil, and Nicolas de Clamanges. In the 1450s Guillaume Fichet introduced Italian humanism to the University of Paris. He also founded the first French printing press, which produced editions of classical works and books by Italian humanists.

French humanism reached its peak in the 1500s under Jacques Lefèvre d'Ètaples (ca. 1460–1536) and Guillaume Budé (1467–1540). Lefèvre first gained fame through his translations and commentaries on the works of the Greek philosopher Aristotle. He later became a leader among Christian humanists with his translations of the Bible. Budé wrote books on literature, Roman law and coinage, and Greek grammar. At the same time, he served as a diplomat, secretary, and cultural adviser to the French king Francis I. In 1530 Budé founded the Royal College, which provided free public instruction in Greek and Hebrew. The College gradually expanded its program to cover a wide range of academic subjects.

In the late 1500s a series of civil wars broke out in France over the issue of religious rights for Protestants. Prominent French humanists spoke out on various sides of the debate over religious reform. Meanwhile, other humanists, such as Henri Estienne, continued to focus their efforts on the critical study of classical works. Through their influence, the works of the Roman authors Seneca and Tacitus came to public attention. These authors' writings eventually replaced those of Cicero as models for European writers. French scholars also exposed many forgeries, modern works created to resemble ancient ones.

Humanism in Spain. Humanist ideas reached Spain in the early 1400s. Spanish translations of classical texts and Italian humanist works spread throughout the country. By the mid-1400s educated Spaniards began to express an interest in the country's Roman heritage. They explored historical sites in Spain and studied the works of Spanish-born classical authors.

In the 1490s, Spanish humanism began to take on a more international flavor. The leading Spanish humanist of this period was Antonio de Nebrija (1444–1522). Nebrija promoted education reforms that emphasized classical studies. He also produced Latin and Spanish grammar texts. His Spanish grammar was the first such text in a modern language.

In 1516 the throne of Spain went to Charles I, who later went on to become Holy Roman Emperor* as Charles V. Leading Spanish humanists, such as Juan Luis Vives and Diego Hurtado de Mendoza, helped promote the new king's political goals. In their writing they expressed support for eliminating abuses within the Roman Catholic Church, uniting the Christian world under the leadership of Spain, and converting the Turks and Moors* to Christianity. In Charles's court the ideas of the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus gained wide popularity. However, during the 1520s and 1530s some Catholic leaders came to see Erasmus as a supporter of Protestant ideas. Many of his supporters were jailed and his works were banned.

Humanism in Portugal. Humanism grew slowly in Portugal. Humanist ideas first began to have an impact there in the mid-1400s. Over the next 100 years, Portuguese monarchs such as Alfonso V, João II, Manuel I, and João III welcomed groups of humanists at the court. At the same time, Portuguese scholars studied abroad in Paris, Padua, Bologna, Louvain, and Salamanca, where they encountered humanist ideas. The Portuguese diplomat and historian Damião de Góis (1502–1574) worked closely with Erasmus and met the religious reformers Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon.

Humanist educational reforms, however, were slow to take root in Portugal. Not until the late 1530s did the university at Coimbra update its curriculum to place more emphasis on classical grammar and rhetoric. An independent school, known as the College of the Arts, opened in Coimbra in 1547. More than 800 students enrolled in the first year.

Beginning in the 1540s, religious forces in Portugal gradually suppressed the humanist works of Erasmus. Authorities banned his writings because they feared they would promote Protestant ideas. Eventually they banned all books in English, Flemish*, and German (the languages of Protestant Europe). Several humanists were jailed as heretics*. Under the influence of the Jesuits*, Portuguese education became solidly Catholic.

Humanism in Germany and the Netherlands. In northern Europe, humanism developed a distinct character that emphasized scholarship, religion, and national culture. Trade with Italy first brought humanist ideas to northern Europe. In addition, the major church councils held at Constance (in Germany) and Basel (in Switzerland) brought many well-known humanists to the region in the early 1400s. These humanists included Poggio Bracciolini and Pier Paolo Vergerio, who later returned to northern Europe as visitors.

Debates arose about the merits of humanism as schools in northern Europe considered whether to adopt it. Humanist scholars spoke out in favor of the new learning and prepared the way for its acceptance. Writers such as Erasmus, Melanchthon, and Rudolf Agricola produced textbooks that eventually replaced older texts from the Middle Ages. By the mid-1550s universities in Germany and the Netherlands had firmly embraced humanist ideas.

Humanism developed a strong religious element in northern Europe. Erasmus promoted the idea of learned piety, in which the goal of studying was "to become better no less than wiser." Both Erasmus and Melanchthon believed that a decline in learning had led to corruption in the church. In their view, a revival of sound learning would bring about a renewal of religious faith. Some people believed that humanist ideas, such as the importance of studying Scripture in its original languages, had played a role in starting the Protestant Reformation*.

The outbreak of the Thirty Years' War in 1618 interrupted academic life in Germany and the Netherlands. By the time peace returned in 1648, humanism had lost much of its momentum. In the late 1600s the rise of modern science and the Baroque* movement in the arts replaced humanism as the main intellectual influences in northern Europe.

Humanism in Britain. In Britain, an interest in classical ideas blossomed in the late 1400s. Several British scholars traveled to Italy to study classical languages. The arrival of printing in Britain in 1475, which made books in Latin and Greek more available, contributed to the rise of classical learning.

Sir Thomas More (1478–1535), who served as chancellor to the English king Henry VIII, was the greatest early British humanist. His home became a gathering place for humanist scholars such as Erasmus, who stayed there during his first visit to England. Two prominent medical scholars—Thomas Linacre and Thomas Elyot—were also members of More's circle. Linacre translated the works of the Greek physician Galen into Latin (but not into English, since he did not want patients trying to diagnose themselves). Elyot, on the other hand, translated ancient medical texts into English. He also wrote on politics and education and compiled the first English dictionary of classical Latin.

English humanism reached its peak during the early 1500s under Henry VIII. After England broke away from the Roman Catholic Church in the 1530s, scholars began focusing more attention on religious ideas. However, humanist ideas continued to influence Renaissance culture in England. During the 1600s, writers such as John Milton and William Shakespeare drew heavily on Greek and Roman history and literature in their works. British architects such as Inigo Jones used classical styles in their building designs.

Humanist ideas began to affect Scotland during the reign of James IV (1488–1513). King James, a well-educated man who spoke several languages, encouraged the founding of new universities in Scotland. He also passed a law in 1496 providing for the eldest sons of all major landowners to study Latin, law, and the arts. Throughout the 1500s and early 1600s, Renaissance humanism had an impact on Scottish education, law, religion, philosophy, literature, medicine, and astronomy.

The political turmoil of the English Civil War (1642–1648) brought an end to the British Renaissance. Even so, humanism and classical culture remained a powerful influence in Britain. During the 1700s and 1800s architects designed new buildings in the classical style, and education focused on Latin and Greek languages and literature.

Legal Humanism. At the beginning of the Renaissance, European law was based on the ancient Roman civil law, known as the Corpus iuris civilis. The Roman emperor Justinian had put together this code in the 500s. The work contained many contradictions and linguistic problems that medieval legal scholars had tried to resolve through logical analysis. These scholars believed that the Corpus presented a set of unchanging, universal laws that were as valid for their own time as they had been for the ancient Romans. They attempted to make the laws of the Corpus fit the circumstances of medieval Europe.

In the 1400s humanist scholars began to challenge this approach. Italian writer Lorenzo Valla criticized the use of logical analysis in addressing the problems of the Corpus. Valla pointed out that judges had used many of the Latin legal terms in the work in several different ways. He claimed that inconsistencies of this sort were impossible to avoid. He also argued that the law is not a fixed set of truths, but something that changes over time. Inspired by Valla's work, the French humanist Guillaume Budé set out to interpret the difficult passages in the Corpus. Drawing on his knowledge of Roman history and literature, he clarified the meanings of many contradictory terms in the text.

The work of Valla, Budé, François Hotman, and others weakened the authority of Roman law in northern Europe. These writers argued that legal scholars should study the laws of many lands, not just those of ancient Rome, and select the best legal traditions as a foundation for their nations' laws. They moved away from the heavy emphasis on classical thought found in early humanism and introduced a more sophisticated method of reading and criticizing sources.

(See alsoBiography and Autobiography; Catholic Reformation and Counter-Reformation; Classical Antiquity; Classical Scholarship; Councils; Education; Forgeries; History, Writing of; Ideas, Spread of; Individualism; Latin Language and Literature; Man, Dignity of; Popes and Papacy; Protestant Reformation; Translation; Wars of Religion. )

* classical

in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome

* antiquity

era of the ancient Mediterranean cultures of Greece and Rome, ending around a.d. 400

* civic

related to a city, a community, or citizens

* faction

party or interest group within a larger group

* medieval

referring to the Middle Ages, a period that began around a.d. 400 and ended around 1400 in Italy and 1500 in the rest of Europe

* papacy

office and authority of the pope

* rhetoric

art of speaking or writing effectively

* secular

nonreligious; connected with everyday life

* genre

literary form

* Holy Roman Emperor

ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, a political body in central Europe composed of several states that existed until 1806

* Moor

Muslim from North Africa; Moorish invaders conquered much of Spain during the Middle Ages

* Flemish

relating to Flanders, a region along the coasts of present-day Belgium, France, and the Netherlands

* heretic

person who rejects the doctrine of an established church

* Jesuit

refers to a Roman Catholic religious order founded by St. Ignatius Loyola and approved in 1540

* Protestant Reformation

religious movement that began in the 1500s as a protest against certain practices of the Roman Catholic Church and eventually led to the establishment of a variety of Protestant churches

* Baroque

artistic style of the 1600s characterized by movement, drama, and grandness of scale

Equal Opportunity Humanism

Although men dominated Renaissance culture, a few women became noted humanist scholars. The most famous was Isotta Nogarola of Verona, a student of Latin and Greek, who was perhaps the most learned woman of the 1400s. Another outstanding female humanist was Cassandra Fedele of Venice. In the late 1480s Queen Isabella of Spain invited the 22-year-old Fedele to join her court. However, the Venetian senate prevented Fedele from accepting the offer, claiming that the state could not afford to lose her.


views updated Jun 27 2018


Humanism in its broadest sense can be traced to the philosophical movement that originated in Italy in the second half of the fourteenth century and that affirmed the dignity of the human being. Although over the centuries there have been numerous varieties of humanism, both religious and nonreligious, all have been in agreement on the basic tenet that every human being has dignity and worth and therefore should be the measure of all things.

Humanism, as practiced in sociology, starts from two fundamental assumptions. The first of these is that sociology should be a moral enterprise, one whose fundamental purpose is to challenge the views and conditions that restrain human potential in a given society. The second is that sociology should not be defined as a scientific discipline that embraces "positivism"—the position that facts exist independently of the observer and that the observer should be a value-neutral compiler of facts.

Sociologists operating in the humanist tradition hold that the study of society begins with the premise that human beings are free to create their social world and that whatever impinges on that freedom is ultimately negative and destructive. They argue that the use of one of the traditional methodological tools of science—dispassionate observation—has not only taken sociology away from its Enlightenment origins in moral philosophy but is based on a faulty epistemology.

Although diverse theoretical frameworks, such as Marxism, conflict theory, phenomenology, symbolic interaction, and feminist sociology, can all be said to have some form of a humanistic orientation as a part of their overall framework's, humanism in sociology is most readily identified with those sociologists who in their teaching, research, and activism gravitate around the Association for Humanist Sociology (AHS), which was founded in 1976 by Alfred McClung Lee, Elizabeth McClung Lee, and Charles Flynn.

The fundamental underpinnings of sociological humanism can be traced back to two traditions that came out of the Enlightenment: moral philosophy and empiricism. Although Modern sociologists see these traditions as separate, to the Enlightenment French and Scottish philosophers (collectively known as the philosophes) they were intertwined and interdependent. The philosophes called for a fusion of morals and science, for a social science that sought to liberate the human spirit and ensure the fullest development of the person. It is this emphasis on moral philosophy and empiricism, as modified by German idealism and more recently by the American philosophical tradition of pragmatism, that constitutes the foundations of humanism in sociology, today.


Although the Enlightenment philosophes initiated the enterprise of modern sociology through their call for the application of scientific principles to the study of human behavior (Rossides 1998), humanist sociologists stress that the philosophes were first and foremost moral philosophers. Science and morality were to be fused, not separated; the "is" and the "ought" were to be merged into a moral science, a science for the betterment of humankind. It was Jean Jacques Rousseau, with his arguments against inequality and for the dignity of the person, who best represents this tradition of moral science tradition Rousseau (1755–1985) started with the fundamental assumption that all people are created equal and from this formulated a radical system of politics. Rousseau and the philosophes were wedded to the idea that individual liberty and freedom prospered only under conditions of minimal external constraint that had to be consensually based. In the eighteenth century, the philosophes articulated their doctrine of individual liberty and freedom chiefly in the idiom of natural rights (Seidman 1983).

The philosophes held that the most important value was the freedom of the individual in a humane society that ensured this freedom. Not having any developed psychology of the individual, of the subjective side of human behavior, or of how institutions are formed, they could not go beyond this modest beginning. They could not fashion a full-blown vision of the free individual within a society based on the principle of human freedom.

This tradition of a moral science is overlooked by contemporary sociologists, who instead focus on the empiricism of the philosophes; but although empiricism without doubt played the greatest role in the rise of social science, it is only one part of what the philosophes advocated. In their dismissal of the moral science tradition and in their virtually unquestioning embrace of the positivism of Comte, Spenser, Durkheim, and the other early founders of sociology as a discipline, contemporary sociologists overlook the philosophes' concern that there was an epistemological dilemma inherent in the new empirical science they envisioned. If a social science was to arise out of the Enlightenment, it had to have a new conception of knowledge, one that rejected Greek and medieval Christian epistemology. The Aristotelian view held that a definite entity resided within the human body, an entity that passively observed what was going on in the world, just as a spectator does. The observer sees a picture of the world, and it is this passive observation that constitutes experience. Science, in the Aristotelian model, was the process of observing objects as they were thought to be conceived in the human mind. Following Newton, the world was to be understood in terms of mathematical equations by means of axioms that were put in the minds of humans by God and that enabled the mind to picture reality. John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding ([1690] 1894) represented an early attempt to show that the extreme rationalist notion that the world precisely followed mathematical axioms was in error. Locke argued that first principles did not exist a priori but came from the facts of experience. Locke, however, became caught up in the epistemological dilemma that experience was mental, and not physical, and therefore still had to be located in the "unscientific" concept of mind. This led Locke, like David Hume (1711–1776), to conclude that an exact science of human behavior was unattainable (Randall 1976). Only probabilistic knowledge could be arrived at, and this could only modestly be used to guide humankind.

Although the epistemological dilemma posed by Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers was real to them, the development of sociology in France, England, and later in the United States discarded these concerns and embraced positivism as the cornerstones of the discipline. Sociology, however, developed differently in Germany, and it is through German social science that the tradition of humanism in sociology was kept alive.


German social science, unlike its English, French, and later American counterparts, was much more influenced by idealism than by empiricism. This influence is due to two giants of philosophy: Immanuel Kant and Georg William Freidrich Hegel.

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). Kant ([1781] 1965) was interested in answering the basic question of how autonomy and free will were possible in a deterministic Newtonian universe. His answer led him back to Locke's epistemological dilemma. According to Kant, there is a phenomenal and a neumenological self. Kant called the world as experienced by the individual phenomena and the thing in itself neumena. Since science is concerned with experience, Kant relegated it to the study of phenomena. The neumenon is beyond the scientist's realm of inquiry, because Kant wanted to claim the neumenon for the moral philosopher. For Kant, the basis of moral philosophy was to be found in the human mind; moral law located a priori in the mind and can be deduced rationally. Kant, like Locke before him, was faced with the dilemma of how the mind works.

Kant's explanation was that objects of scientific investigation are not simply discovered in the world but are constituted and synthesized a priori in the human mind. The external world that human beings experience is not a copy of reality, but something that can only be experienced and understood in light of a priori forms and categories. According to Kant, these forms and categories determine the form but not the content of external reality. Causation is a product of the mind and is a necessary precondition for the conception of an orderly universe.

Kant believed that he had solved the problem of knowledge through the forms and that he could do the same for ethics. Morally right action, too, is located in the mind. Going back to Rousseau and before him to the fourteenth-century humanists, Kant ([1788] 1949) focused on the dignity of the human being. His notion of the categorical imperative, that each person be treated as an end and never as a means, solidifies the importance of the person as the cornerstone of philosophical inquiry and of humanism. Natural rights are part of the neumenal world, part of the moral self. Kant thus began to look to the mind, to the self, as the primary origin of society. Moral values come from human consciousness: but, lacking a viable theory of consciousness, Kant could go only so far. It was Hegel who took up the challenge and subsequently made further progress toward the development of a humanistic orientation in sociology.

Georg Wilhelm Freidrich Hegel (1770–1831). Hegel was well versed in the social and moral philosophy of his day, and was particularly steeped in the work of Kant, who was the dominant figure in Germany philosophy at the time. Although Hegel ([1821] 1967) held that Kant's epistemology was successful in explaining how scientific knowledge was possible, he differed with Kant by rejecting Kant's belief that the categories were innate and therefor ahistorical. For Hegel, the human mind has to be understood in the context of human history. Human reasons is the product of collective action and as such is constantly evolving toward an ultimate understanding of its own consciousness. There are adumbrations of the sociology of knowledge in Hegel's view, specifically in his arguments that the Kantian categories, which are used to make sense of the world, change as the political and social climate changes. Hegel is very close to modern sociology in other aspects of his thought, and it is extremely unfortunate that he is so often dismissed because of his ultimate reliance on the metaphysical assumption that total understanding would only come with the realization of the absolute spirit in human history. When Hegel's contributions are mentioned, it is usually only as having had an influence on Marx, and even then it is inevitably pointed out that Marx turned Hegel "upside down." These interpretations overlook the fact that Hegel was the first modern theorist to develop an antipositivistic critical approach to society. Hegel rejected positivism because of its overreliance on empiricism, which forces the individual to find sense impressions meaningful. As was Kant's philosophy, Hegel's philosophy was humanist at its core.

Also overlooked is the fact that Hegel not only offered an active epistemology but a social one as well. This socially based epistemology (the categories are conditioned by social and political factors) also led him to conceive of a socially based moral philosophy. Whereas Kant held that the concept of freedom was based in the mind of the individual, Hegel, like Rousseau, believed that freedom could only be expressed in terms of a supportive community.

Perhaps Hegel's most important contribution to modern social science is that he was among the first theorists to look at the social development of self, something that makes him a forerunner of humanist sociology. For Hegel ([1807] 1967), the self must be understood as a process, not as a static reality. The self develops as the mind negotiates intersubjectivity. We experience ourselves as both an intending subject and as an object of experience. The mind develops and strives for ultimate truth in this context, which, to Hegel, is freedom. The essence of being is, therefore, a self-reflexive struggle for freedom. Hegel's idealism led him to conclude that objective analysis is always mediated by subjective factors and points toward freedom. In Hegel, there is the outline of a critical, humanistic sociology. He offered an active, antipositivistic, socially conditioned epistemology, with an emphasis upon freedom through the seeking of self knowledge, along with a critique of any non-morally based society.


The importance of pragmatism for a humanistic orientation in sociology lies in its assumption of an active epistemology that undergirds an active theory of the mind, thereby challenging the positivistic behaviorism of the time made popular by the likes of John B. Watson. For the pragmatists, how the mind comes to know cannot be separated from how the mind actually develops.

George Herbert Mead ([1934] 1974) exemplifies the pragmatists' view concerning the development of mind. Consciousness and will arise from problems. Individuals ascertain the intentions of others and then respond on the basis of their interpretations. If there were no interactions with others, there would be no development of the mind. Individuals possess the ability to modify their own behavior; they are subjects who construct their acts rather than simply responding in predetermined ways. Human beings are capable of reflexive behavior: that is, they can turn back and think about their experiences. The individual is not a passive agent who merely reacts to external constraints, but someone who actively chooses among alternative courses of action. Individuals interpret data furnished to them in social situation. Choices of potential solutions are only limited by the given facts of the individual's presence in the larger network of society. This ability to choose among alternatives makes individuals both determined and determiners (Meltzer et al. 1977).

What Mead and the pragmatists stressed was the important notion that the determination of ideas—in particular, the impact of social structure on the mind of an individual—is a social-psychological process. Thinking follows the pattern of language. Language is the mechanism through which humans develop a self and mind, and language is social because words assume meaning only when they are interpreted by social behavior. Social patterns establish meanings. Language sets the basis for reason, logic, and by extension all scientific and moral endeavors. One is logical when one is in agreement with one's universe of discourse; one is moral when one is in agreement with one's community. Language is a mediator of social behavior in that with a language come values and norms. Value judgments and collective patterns exist behind words; meaning is socially bestowed.

Although Mead was the most important pragmatist for understanding the development of self, the epistemology of pragmatism was most precisely formulated by John Dewey (1929, 1931). Dewey's epistemology represented a final break with the notion that the mind knows because it is a spectator to reality. For Dewey, thought is spatiotemporal. Eternal truths, universals, a priori systems are all suspect. Experience is the experience of the environment—an environment that is physical, biological, and cultural. Ideas are not Platonic essences but rather are functional to the experience of the individual (Dewey 1931). This position is antipositivistic in that the mind deals only with ideas and, therefore, does not ponder reality, but only ideas about reality. Truth is not absolute but is simply what is consistent with experience.

The individual is engaged in an active confrontation with the world; mind and self develop in a social process. The pragmatists provided an epistemological justification for freedom (the basic tenet of humanism). The mind develops in a social context and comes to know as it comes into being. Any restriction on the freedom of the mind to inquire and know implies a restriction on the mind to fully develop. The pragmatists rounded out Hegel's ([1807] 1967) view that ultimate truth is freedom by showing that the mind needs freedom to develop in a social context. Epistemology and freedom are inseparable.

Pragmatism, by joining epistemology and freedom via the social development of mind, also provides a solution for the seeming incompatibility between an instrumental and an intrinsic approach to values. The value of freedom is instrumental in that it is created in action (the action of the developing mind); but it is also intrinsic in that the mind cannot fully develop without the creation of an environment that ensures freedom. This integrated epistemological framework provides the basis for a humanistic methodology for sociology.


Dewey and Mead developed a methodology that gave social scientists a different frame of reference from that of the "traditional scientific methodology." Flexibility was the main characteristic of their pragmatic methodology—it did not offer specific forms or languages to which social problems had to be adapted. Instead, the form and language of the method grew out of the problem itself. The social scientist, thus, fashions his or her own methodology depending upon the problem studied. New concepts and methodologies arise from efforts to overcome obstacles to successful research. Techniques are developed that enable the researcher to be both a participant in and observer of social structures. There is an instrumentalist linkage between theory and practice as it is incorporated into the humanist sociologist's life. This is what Alfred McClung Lee (1978), a leading humanist sociologist, meant when he wrote: "Sociologists cannot be persons apart from the human condition they presumably seek to understand" (p. 35). This is what C. Wright Mills (1959) meant when he wrote: "The most admirable thinkers within the scholarly community . . . do not split their work from their lives." (p. 195).

For the humanist sociologist, the main purpose in amassing a body of knowledge is to serve human needs; knowledge must be useful. By accepting this dictum, humanist sociologists extend the analysis of what is to the analysis of what ought to be. Knowledge should provide answers for bringing about a desired future state of affairs, a plan that can be achieved through the methodological insights of pragmatism whereby the researcher is both participant and observer.

The dilemma of which values to choose is answered by opting for the pragmatist's emphasis upon responsibility as a moral standard which assumes that a fundamental quality of human beings is their potentiality for ethical autonomy. People not only are but ought to be in charge of their own destiny within the limits permitted by their environment. Individual character development takes place to the extent that persons can and do decide on alternative courses of action (Dewey 1939).

Pragmatism is grounded upon an assumption of freedom of choice. However, choice among alternatives is always limited. It is in pointing out these limitations in the form of power relations and vested interests behind social structures that humanist sociology builds upon pragmatism and thereby confronts the basic sociological criticism of pragmatism—that it lacks a viable notion of social structure. Humanist sociology seeks to fashion a full-blown vision of the free individual within a society based on the principle of human freedom.


Humanist sociology has moved beyond pragmatism via its attempt to spell out the social structural conditions for the maximization of freedom. Humanist sociology is based on moral precepts, the foremost of which is that of freedom—"the maximization of alternatives" (Scimecca 1995, p.1). This is assumed to be the most desirable state for human beings—and the goal of sociology is to work toward the realization of conditions that insure this freedom. Given its Meadian theory of self (an active theory of self that chooses between alternatives), humanist sociology is concerned with how this is best realized within a community. Humanist sociology begins with the fundamental assumption that all varieties of humanism hold—that individuals are the measure of all things. Using a nonpositivistic epistemological foundation, humanist sociologist's employ their methods of research to answer the most important question that can be asked by a humanist sociologist about human behavior, the one originally raised by the Enlightenment philosophes: How can social science help to fashion a humane society in which freedom can best be realized?


Dewey, John 1929 The Quest for Certainty. New York: Minton, Balch and Company.

——1931 Context and Thought. Berkeley: University of California Press.

——1939 Freedom and Culture. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons.

Flynn, Charles 1976 Association for Humanist SociologyNewsletter 1(1) pp 1–2.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Freidrich (1807) 1967 The Phenomenology of Mind. New York: Harper Colophon Books.

——(1821) 1967. The Philosophy of Right. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Kant, Immanuel (1788) 1949 The Critique of PracticalReason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

——(1781) 1965 The Critique of Pure Reason. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Lee, Alfred McClung 1978 Sociology for Whom? New York: Oxford University Press.

Locke, John (1690) 1894 Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mead, George Herbert (1934) 1974 Mind, Self and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Meltzer, Bernard N., John W. Petras, and Larry T. Reynolds 1977 Symbolic Interactionism: Genesis, Varieties, and Criticisms. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Mills, C. Wright 1959 The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.

Randall, John Herman, Jr. 1976 The Making of the Modern Mind. New York: Columbia University Press.

Rossides, Daniel W. 1998 Social Theory: Its Origins, History, and Contemporary Relevance. Dix Hills, N.J.: General Hall.

Rousseau, Jean Jacques (1755) 1985 Discourse on HumanInequality. New York: Penguin Books.

Scimecca, Joseph A. 1995 Society and Freedom, 2nd ed. Chicago: Nelson-Hall.

Seidman, Steven 1983 Liberalism and the Origins of European Social Thought. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Joseph A. Scimecca


views updated May 14 2018




Origins. While scholasticism dominated northern Europe in the fourteenth century, humanism came to the fore among Italian intellectuals. Humanism is the term used for the literary side of the Renaissance. The word came from studia humanitatis, the Latin phrase for the liberal arts. The liberal arts the Italians emphasized were rhetoric, poetry, and history, not logic and metaphysics. These were subjects that placed mankind at the center of attention. The humanists were by no means irreligious, but theology had little place among their interests. Humanism developed out of the attitudes and prejudices of the Italian bourgeoisie, who looked to Rome as the ideal city-state. Italian humanists hoped the glory of Rome could be reestablished in the Italian city-states. Thus, they believed that Roman literature had a great deal to say on politics, the economy, and society to the secular, urbane merchants who governed the city-states.

Center of Activity. Italy was the home of humanism for several reasons. One was the presence, largely in the north, of various independent city-states. These areas were run by prosperous merchants who believed that their sons needed a different education for success in business and politics than could be found in the northern universities, where students were being prepared primarily for careers as churchmen. Naturally, merchants preferred rhetoric over logic; the best rhetoricians were ancient Romans, especially Cicero. A second reason humanism flourished in Italy was that the universities of Italy concentrated on the teaching of Roman law, which sparked interest in Roman culture and history. Third, throughout the Middle Ages many secular schools were founded in northern Italy where boys learned elementary subjects without any thought of becoming clerics. Most early humanists were educated in such schools and received an introduction to the studia humanitatis in them. Fourth, there were many physical reminders of the grandeur of Rome found throughout Italy. Fifth, the wealth of the larger city-states, in particular Florence, provided patronage for specialists in the subjects that interested the merchants. The Church had been the only patron of learning in the Middle Ages, and few prelates were interested in the subjects that enthralled the humanists, although late in the Renaissance popes and cardinals would become patrons of humanists.


Florentine Humanist Lorenzo Valla extols the importance of the Latin language in the development of civilized society.

As our ancestors, wirming high praises, surpassed other men in military affairs, so by the extension of their language they indeed surpassed themselves, as if, abandoning their dominion on earth, they had attained to the fellowship of the gods in Paradise. If Ceres, Liber, and Minerva, who are considered the discoverers of grain, wine, oil, and many others have been placed among the gods for some benefaction of this kind, is it less beneficial to have spread among the nations the Latin language, the noblest and the truly divine fruit, food not of the body but of the soul? For this language introduced those nations and all peoples to all the arts which are called liberal; it taught the best laws, prepared the way for all wisdom; and finally, made it possible for them no longer to be called barbarians.

Why would anyone who is a fair judge of things not prefer those who were distinguished for their cultivation of the sacred mysteries of literature to those who were celebrated for waging terrible wars? For you may most justly call those men royal, indeed divine, who not only founded the republic and the majesty of the Roman people, insofar as this might be done by men, but, as if they were gods, established also the welfare of the whole world. Their achievement was the more amazing because those who submitted to our rule knew that they had given up their own government, and what is more bitter, had been deprived of liberty, though not perhaps by violence. They recognized, however, that the Latin language had both strengthened and adorned their own.... First, that our ancestors perfected themselves to an incredible degree in all kinds of studies, so that no one seems to have been pre-eminent in military affairs unless he was distinguished also in letters, which was not inconsiderable stimulus to the emulation of others; then, that they wisely offered honourable rewards to the teachers of literature; finally, that they encouraged all provincials to become accustomed to speak, both in Rome and at home, in the Roman fashion.

Source: Lorenzo Valla, The Glory of the Latin Language, m The Portable Renaissance Reader, edited by James Bruce Ross and Mary Martin McLaughiin (New York: Viking, 1968), pp. 131–132.

Classical Literature. The core of humanism was studying the literature of classical antiquity. While interest in the contents of the classical works was never absent from the Middle Ages, the monks were more pleased to possess the manuscripts in their libraries than to read them. Early monks had done so fine a job of copying the Latin classics

that early humanists were convinced they were reading copies done by the Romans themselves and adopted the style of handwriting from them. The copies had in fact been made during the Carolingian Period (seventh century to tenth century C.E.), and thus the Carolingian minuscule became the modern style of handwriting. What might be called the first phase of humanism—the search for manuscripts of the Latin classics—was under way by 1350, when Francesco Petrarch and Giovanni Boccaccio, two Florentines, met for the first time. They and other humanists began a systematic search for the classical manuscripts across Europe and improved on the rather haphazard search that Petrarch had been pursuing for twenty years. Boccaccio, for example, is credited with finding Tacitus's Histories (circa 100–110 C.E.), a major work by a Roman historian. Patrons supported the effort by buying the manuscripts or having them copied for their libraries. By 1420 most of the Latin classics known today were circulating among the educated elite of Italy.

Boccaccio. Unlike later humanists, who wrote in classical Latin, Petrarch and Boccaccio wrote extensively in their vernacular, Tuscan Italian, helping to establish it as the literary language of modern Italy. Boccaccio's most famous work, the Decameron (1353), was a set of one hundred tales told by ten young Florentines who had fled their city to escape the Black Death (1347–1351). The tales are about contemporary Italian life, especially romance and love, often depicting nuns and priests involved in illicit sexual affairs. The Decameron is noteworthy both for being unusually risque for its era, and for its keen understanding of human nature. For all of their talent in writing in Italian, Petrarch and Boccaccio had much to do with the decline in writing in the vernacular among humanists who followed them. Both men were unabashed admirers of classical Latin as the only proper way to express themselves. They consciously imitated classical forms in their literary works in Latin. They agreed that the style of Latin in use by the Church and the scholastics was corrupt and barbarian. Medieval Latin was seen as proof of how far from the heights of civilization Europe had fallen since the Roman Empire had collapsed. The term Middle Age was coined by a humanist well after Petrarch, but the basic division of history into classical, medieval, and modern was present in his thought. For them the classical world was a golden age to which they sought to return their era by overcoming the corruption and barbarism of the centuries since. They established the basic principle of humanism: Anything the Romans had done was superior to their own time. Only by returning to the ancient models could Italy and Christendom recover its past greatness.

Errors in the Text. By 1400 the large number of manuscript copies of the Latin classics the humanists had uncovered was creating a new problem. It soon became clear that two copies of the same work were rarely identical. As the monks of past centuries had copied them, errors had crept in. Words, lines, and even whole paragraphs had been skipped, copied twice, or misread. The task of determining what is the original text of a work is called textual criticism, and humanists of the early fifteenth century were the first critical scholars. Textual criticism required excellent knowledge of not only classical Latin, but also knowledge of the culture and history in which the Roman author had lived. The humanists met these challenges amazingly well, so well that modern scholars often find little to improve on when producing critical editions of the classics. The most-famous figure in the second phase of humanism was Lorenzo Valla, a native of Rome who spent much of his life as secretary to the king of Naples. Valla established his reputation by producing critical editions of Latin classics, especially those written by Cicero. He had much to do with establishing the late Republican period in which Cicero had lived as the true golden age for the Latin language. Late in life, Valla turned his attention to early Christian works. He criticized the style and accuracy of the Vulgate, the official Catholic translation of the Bible done by St. Jerome. Valla's most notorious act was demonstrating that the document called the Donation ofConsfanfine (circa 775) was a forgery. It was supposedly a grant of power over the Western Roman Empire that Emperor Constantine had given to the Pope when Constantine had departed Rome for Constantinople. The papacy and its lawyers had used it frequently to argue for papal control over the rulers of Catholic lands. Valla proved, through his analysis of its words and style, that it could not have been written before feudalism had become established in the ninth century. This revelation did not hurt Valla's career, and he died as a papal secretary.

Civic Humanism. While humanists like Valla pursued scholarly careers in the classics, others made greater use of the ancients for political purposes. What has been called civic humanism appeared in Florence around 1400 at a time when Florence was under attack by the duke of Milan. Several men who were major figures in Florentine government were important humanists. Most prominent among them were Coluccio Salutati and Leonardo Bruni. They applied the principles that they learned from classical literature to Florentine politics. The ideal for them was the Roman Republic, which was the most successful city-state in history, and Cicero, the outspoken supporter of the republic, was their favorite classical author. History, a major concern of humanism, was the central focus of the civic humanists. They studied the great Roman historians such as Livy and Tacitus and wrote histories of the post-classical era that imitated them. Bruni's History of the Florentine People (1610) used Roman sources to prove that Florence had been founded during the Roman Republic and shared in the same republican virtues. Both Petrarch and Boccaccio had retired late in their lives from their scholarship and turned to religion. For the civic humanists, being active in the world and especially in their city-state served as the highest form of human activity; the possibility of retreating into religious life was foreign to them. It was not that they were irreligious, but they could not conceive of entering a monastery and being shut off from the world. They argued that one could attain salvation as a busy merchant or politician as easily as a monk could. This view began to sanctify daily life, a notion absent from the medieval worldview. It also resulted in the humanists' ever increasing criticism of monks and nuns as parasites, who were denounced for living unproductive lives. Civic humanists took a deep interest in education, since they understood the need to prepare boys from the governing classes for an active life as businessmen and politicians through the right curriculum. Their concept of education involved a broader development of the person, including physical education, than was true of most medieval schools. The development of moral character and virtue was important to the humanists, and their choice of models came from classical literature. Pietro Paulo Vergerio made the case well in his On the Manners of a Gentleman and on Liberal Studies (1393). Skill in reading and writing classical Latin would necessarily lead to an appreciation of the values and virtues found in the classics and make the student a worthy citizen as well as a good Christian. Humanists saw nothing incompatible between the two.

Limited Tenure. The length of time in which civic humanists held power in Florence and other city-states was brief. After 1450 the political situation in northern Italy shifted greatly from what it had been a century earlier. Most of the small cities had been absorbed into the larger ones, which had no intention of allowing local republican institutions of self-government to exist in their subjects. The remaining city-states were being taken over by tyrants, a term that indicated someone who had illegally seized power and thereby violated the civic humanists' concept of good politics. In Florence, the Medici family dominated politics while keeping the trappings of republicanism. The result was a shift from practical elements in humanism, especially the sense that it was preparation for an active life in politics. A shift in patronage for the humanists also took place in the mid fifteenth century. With the election in 1458 of a humanist as pope, Pius II, the papacy began to take an active role in Renaissance culture, something it had largely ignored up to then, due to its preoccupation with the Great Schism and counciliarism. The popes began to employ humanists as secretaries, whose eloquence in classical Latin was regarded as appropriate ornamentation for the papal court. Also, after the Councils of Constance (1413–1415) and Basel (1430–1449) met north of the Alps, Italian humanists began leaving Italy for the royal courts of northern realms.

Measure of All Things. In the third phase of humanism there occurred the cultivation of classical learning as a good in itself without any practical value. Humanists began to argue that anything worth saying had to be said in classical Latin. Literary style became more important than the content of the classical works. For instance, Cicero's eloquence and flair for public speaking became more valued than his political commentary. A second feature of later humanism was the study of Greek and Greek literature. The interest in Greek began with the arrival of the Greeks in 1439 for the Council of Florence, but the key development was the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Its fall brought many Greek scholars to Italy, often with their manuscripts of ancient Greek works. As humanists came to appreciate the learning found in the ancient sources, learning Greek became a badge of honor for them. Unlike classical Latin, which was easily mastered by an audience educated in the despised medieval form, classical Greek was difficult to learn and thus limited to a small number of humanists. Those humanists turned to manuscripts of the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. The scholastics had known the works of Plato and Aristotle largely through Latin translations from Arabic, not the original Greek. Critical editions of the original Greek texts and translations in Latin directly from the Greek demonstrated that there was much in their thought that the scholastics had misunderstood. Humanist study of philosophy received a boost with the founding of the Platonic Academy in Florence, when Cosimo de Medici in 1462 gave a villa to Marsilio Ficino as a center for the study of Plato. Plato appealed to humanists because of his eloquence and compatibility with Christian beliefs. Ficino was convinced that a great spiritual revival could be brought about through the study of Plato. He wrote The Platonic Theology in 1474 to propose that Plato had believed in the immortality of the individual soul, unlike Aristotle who had denied it, and that Plato's philosophy of love prefigured the Gospel. Ficino and the Platonists also found in Plato support for the humanist principle: “Man is the measure of all things.”

Pomponazzi. The humanists found Aristotle less appealing, but the critical editions of his works pointed out how the scholastics had misread him, which was a useful stick with which the humanists could beat their rivals, as the antagonism between them and the scholastics heated up after 1500. Providing accurate texts of Aristotle's scientific works revealed how mistaken his medieval commentators had been in their understanding of his scientific thought, which helped lay the foundation of the Scientific Revolution. The center of Renaissance Aristotelian studies was the University of Padua in Italy, where scholars were eager to claim the true Aristotle for humanism. The most prominent Aristotelian among the humanists was Pietro Pomponazzi. In his major work, On the Immortality of the Soul (1516), Pomponazzi dealt with the fact that Aristotle had not believed in an immortal soul. He affirmed that as a philosopher he found Aristotle was correct in denying it, but as a Christian he believed it by faith. Pomponazzi opposed the idea that moral behavior required belief in an afterlife where the soul would be punished or rewarded. He argued that doing good is its own reward, while evil is its own punishment. This was a step on the way to a natural code of morality not dependent on religious belief.

Machiavelli. Pomponazzi's contemporary, Niccolo Machiavelli, is far more notorious for proposing that political activity also was not dependent on religion. Machiavelli served in the Florentine government during the years 1494 to 1512, when he lost his office. He then turned to writing, and in his first work, The Prince (1513), he bemoaned his misfortune under the guise of discussing the nature of politics and history. Unlike St. Augustine's view of history, which provided the basic framework for medieval history, Machiavelli did not see the hand of God in the unfolding of historical events. In his History of Florence (1519) he argued that studying Roman history provided the best foundation for a life in politics. He believed that since human nature was unchanging, patterns in history would repeat themselves, including the decline of states, the situation into which he saw Florence and all of Italy slipping. By imitating the Romans of the Republic, Italians could reestablish the golden age of Rome and drive the foreign armies from Italy. Francesco Guicciardini, another historian who served Florence after 1512, was less confident that Rome's golden age could be restored. He was also aware that people had changed since the time of Rome. Thus, he was more realistic in his major work, The History of Italy (1534). Guicciardini understood how individuals could influence history by their vices and virtues. While greed and love of power, the principal motives involved in politics, were largely the same everywhere, their interplay with a given situation would be different from one time to another, so that there were no general patterns that repeated themselves. Guicciardini believed each historical era was unique, even if it had similarities to earlier ones.

Castiglione. By 1512 the political situation in Italy had changed vastly from what it had been two centuries earlier. Most of the once independent city-states had lost their autonomy, and the large territorial states that now existed were being ruled by princes, as happened in Florence where the Medici had taken the title of duke for themselves. The Spanish king ruled Milan and Naples. The changing political scene in Italy was well reflected in Baldassare Castiglione's The Courtier (1528). Although he received an excellent training in classical Latin and Greek, he wrote the book in Italian. Castiglione describes at great length the qualities of the ideal gentleman. He should be skilled in the use of the sword but slow to use it, be good at gambling but not addicted to it, know Greek and Latin and their literatures, write and speak well, know music, paint with some skill, and in general be a “Renaissance man.” Castiglione also described the ideal Renaissance lady. She had her own distinctive qualities that were to complement those of the males. Castiglione insists that a lady ought to be equally well educated in liberal arts, for a well-educated mind is as valuable to a woman as to a man. It no longer was the hurly-burly of city politics that was the central focus of the proper life, but service at the court of a powerful duke or king.


De Lamar Jensen, Renaissance Europe: Age of Recovery and Reconciliation (Lexington, Mass.: D. C Heath, 1981).

Donald Kelly, Renaissance Humanism (Boston: Twayne, 1991).

Paul Kristeller, Renaissance Thought: The Classic, Scholastic, and Humanistic Strains (New York: Harper, 1961).


views updated May 18 2018


Humanism is a philosophy and way of life (a lifestance) based on empathy, reason, and experience. To humanists, empathy—which is the starting point for compassion and social action—is a product of human nature: the fact that humans are highly developed social animals. Reason is a product of human intelligence that, when combined with experience, leads to the scientific method. And humanists regard the scientific method as the only reliable tool for both acquiring and validating the knowledge necessary to realize the aims of human compassion. To the twentieth-century philosopher Bertrand Russell, the whole concept could be summed up this way: "The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge" (Russell 1957, p. 56).

Given this premise, humanism is an essentially proscience outlook. And because science becomes socially beneficial primarily through technology, humanists tend to be supportive of technology. Nevertheless, because empathic concerns are basic to humanism, and consequently to humanist ethics, any technology that proves itself more harmful than good in regard to humanity and living nature will be challenged by humanists. This is why humanists have been active in efforts to protect the environment, outlaw certain weapons, ensure product safety, minimize negative social impacts evident in widespread technologies, and so on.

On the other hand, because of the humanist focus on science as the primary means of knowing, there is no place for supernatural belief in humanist thought. Humanism is a completely naturalistic and nontheistic worldview. As such, it leaves humanists with the recognition that humanity alone must take responsibility for making the world better. Along these lines, Humanist Manifesto II (1973) states: "No deity will save us; we must save ourselves." Therefore humanists tend to be relatively fearless in the face of admonitions against scientific hubris and dire warnings that given technologies will allow humans to "play god." In the humanist view, science and technology are tools that allow humans to take charge of their lives, protect themselves from diseases and other dangers, and generally improve the human condition. Therefore, emerging technologies of great promise have tended to be welcomed by humanists rather than feared.

The roots of the humanist worldview are complex, so much so that this background is most clearly understood when pursued as three separate histories: that of the word humanism, the ideas of humanism, and the organized humanist movement.

The Word

The Roman grammarian Aulus Gellius, who flourished circa 160 c.e., noted (in Noctes Atticae [Attic nights] the dual usage of the Latin humanitas (humanity). One usage was comparable to the Greek concept of philanthropia and indicated an attitude of general benevolence or humanitarian sympathies, while the other was comparable to the Greek paideia and indicated the achievement of being humanized (humanissimi) through acquired learning in the liberal arts. Because this latter usage was seen as a capability that separated humans from animals—giving humans the power of independent judgment—it had been favored by the Roman orator and philosopher Cicero (106–43 b.c.e.) and the Roman scholar Varro (116–27 b.c.e.) as a civilizing force.

Such an autonomous, cultured view of life fell largely out of fashion during the Middle Ages, replaced by a notion that human beings were defined players within set hierarchies of the cosmic order, as maintained by the authority of the church, the empire, and the feudal system. But as a few cities and communes gained political independence in the fourteenth century, intellectual independence followed. And with it came a revival of the ancient Greco-Roman spirit. This took the form of a Renaissance literary and philosophic movement of scholars calling themselves humanists. Through a revival of classical letters and a focus on the humanities, Renaissance humanists promoted religious tolerance, worldly ethics, a sense of history, and an interest in nature. In the latter case, what had begun as a revival of humane letters became an impetus for the advancement of science, thus broadening humanism's meaning. Additional broadening occurred as humanist ideas came to be advocated not only by Roman Catholics but also by Protestants, Jews, and nonreligious skeptics.

During the subsequent period of the Enlightenment the term was little used. But in 1853 a democratic organization appeared in England, calling itself the Humanistic Religious Association of London and declaring emancipation "from the ancient compulsory dogmas, myths and ceremonies borrowed of old from Asia and still pervading the ruling churches of our age." Around the same time, in France, the pioneer sociologist Auguste Comte (1798–1857) formulated a "religion of humanity" out of his science-oriented, nontheistic philosophy of positivism.

In 1867 a group of radical Unitarians and freethinkers in the United States formed the Free Religious Association and eventually, by the end of the century, many came to propound what they called humanistic theism—essentially a mix of the most liberal Unitarianism, Universalism, and Reformed Judaism of the time together with freethought critiques of more traditional faith. Among the radical Unitarians was Edward Howard Griggs who in 1899 wrote a popular book, The New Humanism: Studies in Personal and Social Development, advocating science (particularly Darwinism), "the Greek ideal," Christian spirituality, and social change (including women's rights). These positions were all rolled into an idea for a new religion that would "teach the divinity of common things" and proclaim "the infinite significance of humanity." Another radical Unitarian was the Reverend Frank Carlton Doan, whose 1909 Religion and the Modern Mind set forth a more inner-directed, psychological humanism that promoted meditative self-awareness as the starting point for social progress.

Throughout the first three decades of the twentieth century, Irving Babbitt (1865–1933), Paul Elmer More (1864–1937), and Norman Foerster (1887–1972) developed what has been variously termed academic humanism, literary humanism, and the new humanism. This reactionary outlook called for a return to a classics-based education, declared the humanities superior to science, proclaimed human beings superior to nature, and advanced a puritanical morality of decorum. Vestiges of this viewpoint remain in the early twenty-first century among some specialists in the humanities (who sometimes term themselves humanists), often expressed through a distrust of science and technology.

Among philosophers, F. C. S. Schiller in England published Humanism: Philosophical Essays in 1903 and Studies in Humanism in 1907, advocating a subjectivist form of pragmatism. Later, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) developed an existential humanism and Jacques Maritain (1882–1973) a theocentric Catholic humanism drawing on the thought of Thomas Aquinas. There have even been both Marxists and Social Darwinists who have taken the humanist label.

While many or all of the above have been regarded as representing different types of humanism, it would be more correct to understand them as different usages of the same word. From this perspective, it is possible to see the current usage of the term humanism as more or less serendipitous and possessing largely superficial rather than substantive connections to the ideas of those who had used the word earlier. The origin of current usage is as follows.

During World War I, the American Unitarian minister John H. Dietrich (1878–1957), having doubts concerning his earlier Christian convictions, adopted a naturalistic, pro-science, ethical worldview linked to a progressive social outlook. But he had no name for this combination of ideas until he read a 1915 article by a positivist, Frederick M. Gould, published in a magazine of the British Ethical Societies. Gould used the term humanism to express a belief and trust in human effort. This was somewhat different from the Renaissance usage already familiar to Dietrich—which suggested that the word could be adapted to his own nontheistic form of Unitarianism. So Dietrich began using it.

Independently, in 1916, another American Unitarian minister, Curtis W. Reese, arrived at similar conclusions. His term of choice, however, was the religion of democracy. He argued that democratic religion is human centered in contrast with the authoritarianism of theocratic religion. Edwin H. Wilson, in his 1995 book, The Genesis of a Humanist Manifesto, tells how the two men met in 1917 at the annual Western Unitarian Conference: "While Reese was speaking … on 'The Religion of Democracy,' Dietrich pointed out: 'What you are calling the religion of democracy, I am calling humanism.' It was a momentous convergence of minds—and at that moment, a movement was launched" (pp. 7–8).

The Ideas

In The Philosophy of Humanism (1997), Corliss Lamont sees a number of historic ideas, trends, and movements as converging over time to create contemporary humanist thought: these being empirical science, ancient and modern philosophies of materialism and naturalism, free thought, liberal religion, democracy and civil liberties, Renaissance humanism, and literature and the arts—in other words, most of the Western intellectual tradition. There are similar trends in the histories of non-Western cultures, together with cross-pollination with the West, so Lamont also draws attention to relevant intellectual traditions in China, India, and the Middle East. This sort of approach, however, can be accused of creating a pedigree out of ancestors adopted for their compatibility.

Therefore, William F. Schulz, in his 2002 book, Making the Manifesto, focuses on more proximate antecedents: nineteenth-century science, the impact of Charles Darwin (1809–1882) and Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), cultural anthropology and the higher criticism of the Bible, free thought and religious modernism, progressivism and the social gospel, and the philosophies of pragmatism and critical realism. Nevertheless, because humanism is not the sum of these things, and because it continues to evolve, it is best described less in terms of its origins and more in terms of what it is: a worldview with the following features.

Humanism's epistemology is derived from the Instrumentalism (the view that the abstract concept of "truth" is best replaced by the more empirical concept of a "warranted assertion") of the American educator and philosopher John Dewey (1859–1952). Metaphysically it is naturalistic (the view that the universe is natural and there is no supernatural). Its worldly ethic is essentially altruistic but because of the humanist commitment to reason, it also involves elements of the Utilitarianism of the English philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), which holds that acts are good only to the extent that they have practical social benefits that can be rationally decided. Thus humanist ethics are situational (changing with situations) in a context of compassion as well as egoistically consequentialist (taking consequences into account from the standpoint of enlightened self-interest). In the social and political realm this dichotomy reveals itself in a recognition of the inherent conflict between individual liberty and social responsibility, leading to the conclusion that moral dilemmas are real and a necessary part of life and law. Democratic values—including social justice, the enfranchisement of the disenfranchised, and the open society—are central to humanism as an expression of the Golden Rule (do to others as you would have them do to you), which is itself a formula derived from the human capacity for empathy. In matters of personal self-development toward a meaningful life, humanism has been informed by Bertrand Russell's The Conquest of Happiness (1930).

The Movement

In 1876 the Society for Ethical Culture was founded by Felix Adler, a Reform Jew who was active in the Free Religious Association. Ethical Culture was a new religion that promoted ethical behavior and social service—deed above creed—with its values derived from neo-Kantian principles. By around 1950, however, the various Ethical Culture societies in the United States and England had evolved Adler's philosophy into humanism or had come to understand it as such. As a result, the American Ethical Union became one of the founding member organizations of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), the world coalition of humanists.

In 1916 Reese and Dietrich began preaching humanist ideas from the pulpits of their Unitarian churches. Slowly humanism spread among Unitarians, aided by the creation of the Humanist Fellowship at the University of Chicago in 1927 and the founding of the New Humanist magazine one year later. In 1929 the Unitarian minister Charles Francis Potter left the denomination to found the independent First Humanist Society of New York, a church that would eventually count among its members Albert Einstein and Helen Keller.

Meanwhile in India in 1925 Periyar launched Self-Respect, a humanist political and social reform movement devoted to human rights and opposed to the caste system. Openly nontheistic and critical of Hindu and other religious beliefs, it was and remains a proponent of scientific and technological development.

A Humanist Manifesto, published in the New Humanist in 1933, was the first major document to lay down the basic principles of humanism. It was signed by prominent academic philosophers (including Dewey), clerics (Ethical Culture, Jewish, Unitarian, and Universalist), educators, journalists, scientists, and social reformers.

In 1941 a number of the manifesto signers founded the American Humanist Association and its magazine, the Humanist. Both continue into the twenty-first century, and the organization has counted among its presidents the Nobel Prize–winning geneticist Herman J. Muller and the science popularizer Isaac Asimov.

Following World War II a number of humanist organizations sprung up in Europe, India, and elsewhere. This international growth led to the founding of the IHEU in 1952 at a humanist conclave in Amsterdam chaired by the English biologist Julian Huxley. In the early 2000s the IHEU indirectly represents millions of humanists worldwide in national and local organizations on six continents.

In his 1957 book, New Bottles for New Wine, Huxley coined the term transhumanism out of a recognition that humanity "is in point of fact determining the future direction of evolution on this earth" and therefore a term is needed to signify "man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature" (pp. 14, 17). Huxley's word has been taken up by futurist-oriented humanists engaged in exploring the possibilities of radical improvements in the human condition and human capabilities through the likes of cyber-, bio-, and nanotechnology. To foster dialogue and advance this pursuit, the World Transhumanist Association was founded in 1998. Since then a growing number of people have been calling themselves transhumanists.


SEE ALSO Humanization and Dehumanization;Science, Technology, and Society Studies.


American Humanist Association. (1973). "Humanist Manifesto II." The Humanist 33(5): 4–9. Though out of date, this remains the most frequently cited expression of humanism and its social applications.

American Humanist Association. (2003). "Humanism and Its Aspirations: Humanist Manifesto III." The Humanist 63(3): 13–14. The most recent basic expression of humanism.

Bragg, Raymond B., ed. (1933). "A Humanist Manifesto." The New Humanist 6(3): 1–5. The original, basic expression of humanism, with multiple authors and signatories.

Doan, Frank Carleton. (1909). Religion and the Modern Mind, and Other Essays in Modernism. Boston: Sherman, French & Company. An early example of the effort to make personal psychology and emotional well being a starting point for ethics.

Griggs, Edward Howard. (1908). The New Humanism: Studies in Personal and Social Development, 6th edition. New York: B.W. Hubesch. Modern religious liberals would find much to agree with in this expression of humanistic theism. First edition published in 1899.

Huxley, Julian. (1957). New Bottles for New Wine. New York: Harper & Brothers. Science intersects with moral and social questions in this popular collection of essays.

Kurtz, Paul. (2000). Embracing the Power of Humanism. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield. Offers an exuberant expression of humanism as a positive and personally rewarding lifestyle.

Lamont, Corliss. (1997). The Philosophy of Humanism, 8th edition. Amherst, NY: Humanist Press. Recognized as the standard work on humanism. First edition published in 1949.

Olds, Mason. (1996). American Religious Humanism, rev. edition. Minneapolis, MN: Fellowship of Religious Humanists. The most complete survey of the early history of religious humanism.

Russell, Bertrand. (1958 [1930]). The Conquest of Happiness. New York: Bantam Books, Inc. A practical book on achieving happiness that doesn't insult the intelligence of philosophically-minded readers.

Russell, Bertrand. (1957). Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects, ed. Paul Edwards. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc. A significant number of humanists and freethinkers name this book as the one most influential in bringing about their break with traditional religion.

Schiller, F. S. C. (1903). Humanism: Philosophical Essays. London and New York: Macmillan. The first book to approach humanism academically as a philosophy.

Schiller, F. S. C. (1907). Studies in Humanism. London: Macmillan and Co., Limited. The author further develops his philosophy of humanism as a subjective form of pragmatism.

Schulz, William F. (2002). Making the Manifesto: The Birth of Religious Humanism. Boston: Skinner House Books. An analytical history of the first Humanist Manifesto by a Unitarian universalist minister who personally interviewed a number of the original signers, all who are now deceased.

Wilson, Edwin H. (1995). The Genesis of a Humanist Manifesto. Amherst, NY: Humanist Press. The history of the first Humanist Manifesto told by one of the people most responsible for it.


views updated May 08 2018


The term humanism over the past several centuries of Western thought has been used to express two different concepts. It is not too much to say that humanism in its original form created the intellectual foundation of the Renaissance. In modern times, humanism has most often come to mean an approach that characterizes all things in a human, rather than theistic, framework and emphasizes human rationality and experience in contrast to classic authority. It is arguable, however, that the adversarial relationship between theism and the human, including scientific knowledge and rationality, that is often imputed to modern humanism is unnecessarily simplistic, ignoring, for example, today's Christian humanists. Moreover, it is possible to detect the evolution of a new, more integrative, humanism as a response to a world whose natural cycles and processes are increasingly dominated by the human.

Humanism in its original sense meant simply the rediscovery and study of classic Greek and Latin language and texts, and the use of them to assess the work of doctrinal Scholastics and secondary commentaries of late Medieval Europe. Humanism during this time was more a cultural attitude and an academic program than a formal conceptual framework or a particular philosophy. Indeed, the first self-conscious humanist, the Italian poet Francis Petrarch (13041374), is notable for urging a new curricula based on original classical sourcesthe studia humanitatis, consisting of grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, and moral philosophy. During this period, the term humanist had no ideological content and simply referred to anyone, layperson or Church official, who had a competence in classical Greek, Latin, and to a lesser extent Hebrew, and some familiarity with classical texts.

Early humanism led to the recovery of the direct study of the Bible. Many early medieval Church figures such as Thomas More (14781535) and Desiderius Erasmus (14691536), and a number of reformers, strongly supported the humanist approach. In general, however, early humanism was stronger in Italy than in the more medieval north of Europe. Thus, Pope Nicholas V (14471455) is referred to by Bertrand Russell in A History of Western Philosophy (1945) as "the first humanist Pope" (p. 498). Nicholas's apostolic secretary was the epicurean humanist Lorenzo Valla (14071457). Reflecting their culture, the vast majority of humanists were practicing Christians, although they tended to react against the medieval Scholastic veneration of authority. Valla, for example, wrote a long treatise somewhat inelegantly titled Restructuring of All Dialectic with the Foundations of the Whole of Philosophy, in which he purported to demonstrate the invalidity of Aristotelian logic, a foundation of Scholasticism.

As Western culture evolved, however, humanism inevitably began to challenge medieval world-views in fundamental ways. Rather than the authority of Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.), Augustine of Hippo (354430), and Thomas Aquinas (c. 12251274), humanists rediscovered and began to teach classical texts of all types. These not only greatly broadened the knowledge base available to scholars and the educated, but stimulated both increased curiosity about the world in general and a different concept of validity. During the early medieval period, reference to accepted authority was the highest demonstration of truth; humanism over time led to increased reference to the physical world as the ultimate source of validity in argument. The authority of Galen (c. 130201 c.e.) in medicine or Aristotle in physics was increasingly challenged by data and argument derived not from accepted texts but from observation of the world itself. In doing so, humanism created the foundations for the profound ontological shift from the otherworldliness of medieval faith to scientific knowledge that characterized the Enlightenment and, subsequently, modernity.

The Enlightenment is often characterized as a conflict between faith and reason, but that is misleading. Major Enlightenment figures, including on the nascent rationalist side Francis Bacon (15611626) and, later, Isaac Newton (16421727), clearly viewed their scientific work as aligned with the Christian faith, even mandated by it. On the literary side, the Romantic project was seen by many of its leading figures as an effort to modernize and humanize Christian theology in light of Enlightenment science, which had come to represent an independent and in some ways equally powerful ontology. Thus, the poet John Keats (17951821) saw his goal as creating "a system of Salvation which does not affront our reason and humanity" (quoted in Abrams, p. 33), a goal that can be broadly attributed to the Romantic movement in general.

Attitudes toward modern humanism mirror the distortions of the Enlightenment characterization. In particular, the attacks by Christian fundamentalists on "secular humanism" in the United States, especially regarding the teaching of evolution, have created an impression that humanism is necessarily opposed to religion. Secular humanism, a tradition flowing from eighteenth-century Enlightenment rationalism and subsequent freethinking movements, is indeed characterized by a Promethean suspicion of theism and religious authority, and a belief that humans are the measure of all things; it is, however, but one branch of the humanist project. Modern humanists fall into many categories, including literary humanism, characterized by a devotion to the humanities; cultural humanism, the rational, empirical tradition derived from ancient Greece and Rome that forms the basis of modern Western societies; and philosophic humanism, systems of thought focused on human needs and realities.

Of particular interest, however, are the schools of humanism that explicitly integrate religious and scientific worldviews. Thus, Christian humanism, the philosophy that posits the self-fulfillment of humans within the framework of Christian principles and beliefs, has evolved from More and Erasmus through elements of the Anglican and German pietist traditions and philosophers such as Immanuel Kant (17241804). It is represented by modern theologians such as Jacques Maritain, Hans Küng, Paul Tillich, and James Luther Adams. More explicitly, the Unitarian Universalist tradition includes among its seven Principles three that are obviously humanist; they affirm (1) the "inherent worth and dignity of every person," (2) justice, "equity and compassion in human relations," and (3) a "free and responsible search for truth and meaning." The Unitarian Universalists also identify as among the sources of their tradition humanist "teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit."

This integration of faith and rationality will become increasingly important in light of the recognition that, as a result of the Industrial Revolution, population and economic growth, and globalization, the dynamics of most major natural systems are increasingly influenced by human activity. Since this results in a world where teleologies and belief systems are increasingly reified in natural systems through intentional human activity, a rational humanistic understanding, combined with the religious faith that is central to the human experienceperhaps an "Earth systems" humanismmay well be a future evolutionary path of humanism.

See also Aristotle; Augustine; Christianity; Creationism; Evolution; Newton, Isaac; Teleology; Thomas Aquinas


abrams, m. h. natural supernaturalism: tradition and revolution in romantic literature. new york: norton, 1971.

adams, james luther. on being human religiously: selected essays in religion and society. boston: beacon, 1976.

allen, michael j. b. "humanism." in the columbia history of western philosophy, ed. richard h. popkin. new york: columbia university press, 1999.

allenby, braden richard. "observations on the philosophic implications of earth systems engineering and management." batten institute working paper. charlottesville, va.: batten institute at the university of virginia darden school of business, 2002.

derr, thomas sieger. environmental ethics and christianhumanism. nashville, tenn.: abingdon, 1996.

küng, hans, and, schmidt, helmut, eds. a global ethic and global responsibilities: two declarations. london: scm, 1998.

noble, david f. the religion of technology. new york: knopf, 1998.

russell, bertrand. a history of western philosophy (1945). new york: simon and schuster, 1972.

unitarian universalist association. "principles and purposes." available from

brad alleby

About this article


All Sources -
Updated Aug 13 2018 About content Print Topic