Humanism is a system of education and a mode of inquiry that emerged in northern Italy during the 13th and 14th centuries. It subsequently spread throughout continental Europe and England. The emphasis in this approach is placed on the human realm, and it encompasses a variety of Western beliefs, philosophies, and methods.
Renaissance humanism is an alternative name for this historical movement that was so influential that it is considered a distinct historical period. The concept of renewal and reawakening that defines the Renaissance is rooted in humanism, which sought its philosophical foundation in earlier times and continued to wield influence long after the Renaissance ended.
Origin and meaning of the term humanism
The ideal of humanitas
The term “humanism” has its origins in the Latin word “Humanitas,” which means “human nature” or “humanity.” In the context of the Renaissance period, humanitas referred to a broad education that emphasized the study of language, literature, history, and ethics in order to develop a well-rounded, informed, and virtuous individual.
The ideal of humanitas was also associated with the concept of the Renaissance man, or uomo universal in Italian, which referred to an individual who was skilled in many fields and had a wide range of knowledge and interests. Humanism emphasized the value of human beings and their abilities, as well as the importance of human achievement and potential.
As humanism developed as a movement, it came to encompass broader philosophical and cultural perspectives that emphasized the autonomy and dignity of the individual, as well as the importance of reason, critical thinking, and inquiry in understanding the world. Humanism also emphasized the value of classical learning and the arts as means of promoting human flourishing and improving society.
The term humanism has been applied in various ways due to its broad allusive nature. Apart from the historical movement mentioned earlier, there are three main types of humanism: Classicism, the modern concept of humanities, and human-centeredness.
Some scholars consider any revival of the Classics to be humanistic. This view has led to the application of the term humanist to various historical figures, such as St. Augustine and Alcuin, and even to literary criticism movements such as the New Humanism of the early 20th century.
The term humanities, derived from Studia Humanitatis, is commonly used to refer to scholarly disciplines such as language, literature, philosophy, and art history. Scholars in these fields are often referred to as humanists.
In modern times, humanism has been used to describe various doctrines and techniques that prioritize human experience. Examples include pragmatic humanism, Christian humanism, and secular humanism.
However, these different definitions can be confusing and sometimes redundant. It is unnecessary to label all Classical revivals as humanistic, as Classical suffices. Referring to all humanities scholars as humanists is vague, as these fields lack a common rationale. The definition of humanism as human-centeredness is more accurate, but it can cause confusion when applied to Classical literature.
The Principles and Attitudes Underlying Humanism
Humanism, a movement that emerged during the Renaissance, was characterized by certain principles and attitudes that shaped its development. Among these was a deep appreciation for the classics, not just as objects of nostalgia or awe, but as expressions of an intrinsic and permanent human reality.
Early humanists like Petrarch and Coluccio Salutati wrote letters to the ancient authors, treating them as living and approachable friends. For Niccolò Machiavelli, reading the classics was a ritualistic and transformative experience, enabling him to enter the councils of the great and gain sovereign wisdom of human affairs.
Another important principle of humanism was realism, which rejected traditional assumptions and aimed at objective analysis of human experience. Humanists avidly read, taught, and wrote history, believing that the proper historical method could enhance their active role in the present. For Machiavelli, history became the basis of a new political science, and experience took precedence over traditional wisdom.
The unblinking examination of human uncertainty, folly, and immorality was also a characteristic of humanism, evident in the works of Petrarch, Boccaccio, Erasmus, More, Rabelais, and Montaigne. But humanism did not postulate an ideal of absolute purity; instead, it emphasized a mature and healthy balance between mind and body, endorsing the pursuit of fame and the acquisition of wealth.
Finally, humanism brought a realistic critique to the Roman Catholic Church, calling it into question as a political institution rather than a theological one. However, the intention was not radical or destructive. Rather, humanism aimed to reform social order through an understanding of what was fundamentally and inalienably human. This tradition would eventually lead Francis Bacon to assert in the 17th century that passions should become objects of systematic investigation.
The early humanistic movement
The early humanistic movement was characterized by a critical attitude and a manifesto of independence from preconceptions and inherited programs. This critical self-reliance was evident in various humanistic endeavors, including textual emendations and interpretations of myth, as well as a profound concern for precise details of perceived phenomena.
This emphasis on specificity had a profound impact on the rise of modern science, as seen in the increasing prominence of mathematics as an artistic principle and academic discipline.
The emergence of personal autonomy was central to humanism, as exemplified by Petrarch and later humanists. An intelligence capable of critical scrutiny and self-inquiry was considered free intelligence, and the ability to analyze experience was an integral part of the virtue that could conquer fortune.
Renaissance individualism emerged alongside this sense of personal autonomy, though it had its darker aspects, as seen in Machiavelli’s depiction of a grim world where individuals must exploit the weakness of the crowd or fall victim to its indignities.
Despite these challenges, the experience of the individual took on a heroic tone, and the idea of human dignity became a favorite theme of humanism. While backed by medieval sources, humanists such as Petrarch, Manetti, Lorenzo Valla, and Marsilio Ficino asserted humanity’s earthly preeminence and unique potentialities with even greater vigor.
In his De Hominis Dignitate oratorio, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola conveyed this notion with unprecedented force, asserting that humanity had no fixed character or limit but was free to seek its own level and create its own future. This radical affirmation of human capacity showed the influence of Ficino’s contemporary translations of the Hermetic writings, which emphasized the straining toward absolutes that would characterize major elements of later humanism.
Active virtue, which emphasizes virtuous action as the ultimate goal of learning, was a central principle of humanism. This idea was championed by Salutati, the chancellor of Florence, who embodied the humanistic concept of armed wisdom that combined philosophical understanding and powerful rhetoric to achieve virtuous policies and reconcile action with contemplation.
Other humanists, such as Pietro Paolo Vergerio and Matteo Palmieri, believed that just and benevolent action was the purpose of humanistic education and that effective action was impossible without the necessary faculties for it. They believed that the true merit of virtue lay in its ability to inspire effective action.
Later humanists, such as Machiavelli, saw action not only as the goal of virtue but also as the basis for wisdom, while Castiglione developed a psychological model for active virtue in his ideal courtier, emphasizing moral awareness as a key element of just action. Rabelais used the idea of active virtue as a basis for anticlerical satire, as seen in his work Gargantua and Pantagruel.
The idea of active virtue also characterized the work of English humanists from Sir Thomas Elyot to John Milton, reflecting their sense of social responsibility and the instinctive association of learning with politics and morality. As Salutati put it, “One must stand in the line of battle, engage in close combat, struggle for justice, for truth, for honor.”
Early History of Humanism
Humanism emerged during the Renaissance period in Italy, specifically in the 14th century. It was a cultural and intellectual movement that was characterized by a renewed interest in classical learning, a focus on human potential and achievement, and an emphasis on reason and critical thinking.
The origins of humanism can be traced back to the Italian city-states, particularly Florence, where wealthy patrons supported the arts and humanities, and scholars rediscovered ancient texts and ideas. These scholars, who became known as humanists, believed that classical learning offered a path to wisdom and enlightenment that was superior to medieval scholasticism, which they viewed as overly reliant on religious dogma and superstition.
Humanists sought to revive and adapt the classical ideals of ancient Greece and Rome to the contemporary context, emphasizing the importance of education, the arts, and civic engagement. They promoted the study of literature, history, and philosophy as a means of developing critical thinking skills and fostering ethical behavior.
Some of the leading figures of early humanism in Italy included Petrarch, Boccaccio, and Salutati. They were followed by a new generation of humanists, including Pico della Mirandola, Erasmus, and Thomas More, who further developed and expanded the movement in the 15th and 16th centuries.
The influence of humanism extended beyond Italy, spreading throughout Europe and shaping the intellectual and cultural landscape of the Renaissance. Its legacy can be seen in the development of the scientific method, the rise of human rights and individualism, and the emergence of secularism and democracy.
Humanism was a cultural and intellectual movement that emerged in Italy in the 14th century and spread throughout Europe in the following centuries. It was a response to medieval scholasticism that had dominated European thought for centuries and was characterized by a renewed interest in the classical texts and values of ancient Greece and Rome.
The humanists believed that the study of these classical texts would lead to a better understanding of human nature and a more complete education, and they sought to revive the educational methods of the ancient world. They also emphasized the importance of individual freedom, reason, and the pursuit of happiness, and rejected the blind acceptance of dogma and tradition.
One of the key figures of early humanism was Petrarch, who is often considered the father of humanism. He was a poet, scholar, and humanist who sought to revive the classical literary and philosophical traditions. He collected and studied ancient manuscripts, and his letters and writings were influential in shaping the humanist movement.
Another important figure was Giovanni Boccaccio, a writer, and scholar who was a friend of Petrarch. He is best known for his work, the Decameron, a collection of 100 stories told by a group of young people who have fled the city to escape the Black Death. Boccaccio’s work reflected the humanist values of individualism, reason, and secularism.
Other important humanists of the time included Coluccio Salutati, Leonardo Bruni, and Marsilio Ficino, who translated and studied the works of Plato and other ancient philosophers. They sought to integrate these ideas into Christian theology, creating a new synthesis of classical and Christian thought that came to be known as Christian humanism.
The humanist movement had a profound impact on European culture, shaping literature, art, and education for centuries to come. Its emphasis on reason, individualism, and the pursuit of happiness would help to lay the foundations for the modern world.
The prominent philosopher who advocated humanism
Irving Babbitt (1865-1933)
Irving Babbitt was an American literary scholar and cultural critic who lived from 1865 to 1933. He was a professor of French literature at Harvard University and one of the founders of the New Humanism movement, which sought to revive classical education and traditional values in response to the perceived moral and cultural decline of modern society.
Babbitt’s literary criticism emphasized the importance of form, style, and moral substance in literature, and he was particularly critical of what he saw as the decadence and aestheticism of many modern writers. He also argued for the value of studying classical literature as a means of cultivating moral and intellectual virtues in students.
In addition to his literary criticism, Babbitt was a prominent cultural commentator who wrote extensively on issues such as education, politics, and religion. He was a conservative thinker who opposed what he saw as the excesses of liberalism and democracy, and he advocated for a return to traditional values and a hierarchical social order.
Babbitt’s most famous works include “Rousseau and Romanticism” (1919), “Democracy and Leadership” (1924), and “Literature and the American College” (1908). His ideas were influential in shaping the intellectual and cultural climate of the early 20th century, and his emphasis on the importance of moral education and character formation continues to be debated and discussed today.
Baldassare Castiglione (1478-1529)
Castiglione began his career as a diplomat in the service of the Gonzaga family in Mantua and later served as a papal envoy to the courts of Spain and England. He also served as governor of the city of Genoa.
In “The Book of the Courtier,” Castiglione presents a vision of the ideal courtier, or gentleman, who is skilled in many areas, including music, art, poetry, and sports. He also emphasizes the importance of moral characters and social graces, such as tact and courtesy, in order to navigate the complex social and political world of the court.
Castiglione’s book was widely read and admired in his time and had a profound influence on the development of European courtly culture. It also helped to establish the ideal of the Renaissance courtier, which would continue to be celebrated in literature and art for centuries to come.
Desiderius Erasmus (c. 1466-1536)
Desiderius Erasmus was a Dutch philosopher, theologian, writer, and humanist scholar who lived during the Renaissance period. He was born in Rotterdam, Netherlands, around 1466, and died in Basel, Switzerland, in 1536.
Erasmus was known for his critical views on the practices and beliefs of the Catholic Church. He believed that the Church had become too concerned with wealth and power and that its teachings had become corrupted. He called for a return to the original teachings of Christianity, and he advocated for reform within the Church.
Erasmus was also a prolific writer, and he is best known for his works of scholarship, including the “Adagia,” a collection of proverbs, and “The Praise of Folly,” a satirical work that criticized the excesses of the Church and society. He also produced new Latin translations of the New Testament and the writings of the Church Fathers, which helped to spread knowledge of these texts throughout Europe.
Erasmus was a key figure in the humanist movement, which emphasized the importance of education, critical thinking, and the study of classical texts. His ideas and writings had a profound impact on the intellectual and cultural life of Europe, and he is considered one of the greatest thinkers of the Renaissance period.
Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499)
Marsilio Ficino was an Italian philosopher, scholar, and musician born in Figline Valdarno, Italy, in 1433. He is most well-known for his revival of Platonism in the Renaissance era and for his translations of Plato’s works from Greek to Latin.
Ficino was the son of a physician, and he received an excellent education, studying philosophy, mathematics, and theology. He was particularly interested in the works of Plato and other ancient Greek philosophers, and he devoted much of his life to studying and translating their works.
In 1462, Ficino became the head of the Platonic Academy in Florence, which was founded by his patron, Cosimo de Medici. Ficino’s translations of Plato’s works, along with his own writings on Platonic philosophy, had a significant influence on the Renaissance and helped to shape the intellectual and cultural landscape of Europe.
Ficino believed that Platonic philosophy could be used to reconcile the teachings of Christianity with the ideas of the ancient Greeks, and he saw himself as a mediator between these two traditions. He also believed that music had a powerful spiritual influence, and he was a skilled musician himself, composing both sacred and secular music.
Ficino died in 1499, but his legacy lived on through his many writings and translations, which continued to influence European thought for centuries to come.
Sir Thomas More (c. 1478-1535)
Sir Thomas More was an English lawyer, statesman, and author who lived from 1478 to 1535. He is best known for his book “Utopia,” which described an ideal society based on communal living and common ownership of property. More served as the Lord Chancellor of England under King Henry VIII from 1529 until 1532.
More was a devout Roman Catholic who opposed the Protestant Reformation and the break with the Catholic Church that occurred in England under Henry VIII. He refused to acknowledge Henry as the head of the Church of England and was ultimately executed for his beliefs in 1535.
More’s works also include theological treatises, letters, and translations of classical works. He was known for his wit and his skill in Latin, which he used in his writing and in his correspondence with scholars throughout Europe. His legacy as a philosopher, humanist, and defender of the Catholic faith continue to be studied and debated by scholars today.
Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374)
Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374) was an Italian scholar, poet, and humanist who is often credited with being the “father of humanism.” He was born in Arezzo, Tuscany, but spent much of his childhood in Avignon, France. Petrarch is best known for his poetry, which helped to popularize the sonnet form, but he was also an accomplished scholar, who wrote extensively on classical literature, philosophy, and history.
Petrarch was one of the first to advocate for the study of classical texts and the rediscovery of ancient wisdom. He believed that the study of these works would help to create a more enlightened and virtuous society, and he encouraged others to pursue knowledge and learning for their own sake.
In addition to his literary and scholarly pursuits, Petrarch was also active in politics, serving as a diplomat for various Italian city-states. He was a vocal advocate for the unification of Italy and wrote extensively on the topic.
Petrarch’s influence on Renaissance humanism was immense, and his ideas helped to shape the intellectual and cultural landscape of Europe in the centuries that followed. His poetry and prose continue to be studied and admired by scholars and readers around the world.
Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494)
Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) was an Italian Renaissance philosopher and scholar. He was born in Mirandola, a town in northern Italy, into an aristocratic family. Pico was a brilliant student and a polymath who studied philosophy, theology, mathematics, and languages.
Pico is best known for his “Oration on the Dignity of Man,” which he delivered in 1486 at the age of 23. In this work, Pico argued that humans have the potential to become like gods through their own efforts and intellectual pursuits. He also emphasized the importance of free will and individuality, which were groundbreaking ideas at the time.
Pico was a prolific writer, and his works include commentaries on Aristotle, Plato, and other philosophers, as well as theological and mystical treatises. He was also involved in various intellectual and religious controversies of his time, and his ideas often brought him into conflict with the authorities of the Catholic Church.
Pico died at the age of 31, possibly as a result of poisoning. Despite his short life, his ideas had a significant impact on Renaissance thought and continue to be studied and debated by scholars today.
Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498)
Girolamo Savonarola was an Italian Dominican friar and preacher who lived during the Renaissance era. He was born on September 21, 1452, in Ferrara, Italy, and died on May 23, 1498, in Florence, Italy.
Savonarola was known for his fiery sermons, which criticized the corruption of the Catholic Church and the excesses of the Renaissance. He gained a large following in Florence, where he became the leader of a movement known as the “Piagnoni” or “the weepers,” who were dedicated to reforming the city’s government and society.
Savonarola’s teachings included a call for a return to a more simple and humble way of life, as well as a rejection of the secular humanist values that were popular in the Renaissance. He also called for the destruction of artwork and literature that he deemed immoral or corrupting, which led to the infamous “Bonfire of the Vanities” in 1497, where a large number of books, paintings, and other objects were burned in the central square of Florence.
Savonarola’s teachings and actions eventually led to his downfall. He was excommunicated by the Catholic Church in 1497, and the following year, he was arrested by the Florentine authorities and charged with heresy and sedition. He was tortured and executed by hanging, and his body was burned in the same square where he had conducted his famous Bonfire of the Vanities.
Despite his controversial legacy, Savonarola remains a significant figure in the history of the Renaissance and the Catholic Church, and his ideas continue to inspire discussion and debate among scholars and historians.
Lorenzo Valla (c. 1405-1457)
Lorenzo Valla was an Italian humanist, philologist, and theologian who lived in the 15th century. He was born in Rome in around 1405 and died in Naples in 1457. Valla is best known for his critical analysis of texts, particularly his exposure to the Donation of Constantine as a forgery.
Valla received a classical education in Rome and was deeply influenced by the ideas of the ancient philosophers, particularly Aristotle. He became a prominent figure in the Italian Renaissance and was known for his sharp wit and critical approach to traditional sources of authority.
One of Valla’s most famous works is his “Elegances of the Latin Language,” a treatise on Latin grammar and style that became a standard text in the humanist curriculum. He also wrote extensively on theology, philosophy, and history, and his works were widely read and admired by his contemporaries.
Valla’s critical analysis of the Donation of Constantine, a document purporting to grant vast territories to the Pope, was a groundbreaking achievement in the field of textual criticism. His exposure of the document’s many anachronisms and inconsistencies undermined the claims of the Papacy to temporal power and helped to lay the groundwork for the Protestant Reformation.
Valla’s legacy as a pioneer of critical scholarship and humanistic thought has endured to the present day, and his work continues to be studied and debated by scholars in a wide range of fields.
Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam published the Adages (Adagia) in 1500, which initially contained over three thousand proverbs from ancient Greek and Roman cultures. Erasmus expanded the collection in the 1508 and 1515 editions, aligning with the Adages’ essence that emphasizes the importance of using the appropriate number of adages in communication.
The book’s introduction provides specific guidelines on how to skillfully incorporate these adages and use them to enhance speech. Erasmus believed that integrating adages in one’s language would make it sparkle with the wisdom of Antiquity, impress with the art of rhetoric, shine with wise words, and entertain with humor.
The Adages became one of the most influential books during the Renaissance period because they preserved the knowledge of the past and served as a manual for eloquent speech.
Erasmus’ Adages not only collected and preserved proverbs from ancient cultures, but also introduced them to a wider audience. The book’s popularity allowed these adages to spread beyond their original cultural and linguistic borders, making them accessible to a broader audience. The Adages’ success also reflects the Renaissance’s fascination with the classical world and its values, such as wisdom, eloquence, and wit.
In addition to its cultural and historical significance, the Adages offers valuable lessons on the art of rhetoric and communication. Erasmus believed that using adages in communication could help convey complex ideas more clearly and concisely.
By drawing on the wisdom of the past, speakers could inspire and persuade their audiences more effectively. Erasmus also emphasized the importance of adapting adages to the context and audience, demonstrating his understanding of the nuanced nature of communication.
Analects of Confucius
The Analects of Confucius is a collection of the teachings and actions of the renowned Chinese philosopher, Confucius (551-479 BC), who is considered to be one of the earliest humanist philosophers. His disciples compiled the Analects after his passing, and for over two millennia, it has served as a significant influence on ethical behavior in Southeast Asia.
Although there have been minor alterations made to the Analects to reflect changes in the political and social climate, its core humanistic message remains unchanged. The book begins with the Chinese character for “learning,” emphasizing the importance Confucius placed on the study of the world and self-reflection. His teachings prioritize the value of human life over material possessions and encourage the cultivation of sound judgment, which laid the foundation for what is now recognized as Humanism.
Confucius’ philosophy emphasized the importance of moral conduct and personal responsibility. He believed that individuals could achieve moral excellence by adhering to certain principles, such as filial piety, respect for authority, and sincerity. These principles were not only applicable to personal relationships but also to public affairs, where Confucius advocated for ethical leadership and social justice.
The Analects also highlights Confucius’ emphasis on the value of education as a means of achieving personal and societal progress. He believed that education should not only teach practical skills but also cultivate ethical values and develop moral character. Confucius saw education as a lifelong process that should be accessible to all, regardless of social status.
The Analects continues to be widely studied and revered in Southeast Asia and beyond. Its enduring influence on ethical behavior, education, and leadership has made it a significant philosophical work that continues to shape and inform contemporary thought.
Later Italian humanism
Italian humanism reached its peak with the achievements of Alberti, Federico, and the Medici, particularly under Lorenzo’s rule. However, as the movement progressed, it began to suffer from fragmentation and dilution. Even the Florentine academy’s enthusiastic Platonism, which emphasized contemplation, was seen as a significant digression from the essential humanistic principle of active virtue.
Pico della Mirandola, a prominent member of the academy, was even urged by a friend to abandon his ivory tower and assume his civic responsibilities. The contrasting extremes to which humanistic inquiry could lead scholars were evident in the fact that Pico and Machiavelli, who represented arch-idealism and arch-realism, respectively, lived in the same town at the same time.
Castiglione, who had been part of Federico’s son Guidobaldo’s court, was saddened by its decline and shocked when Charles V, another of his patrons, ordered the sack of Rome. The cause of these and other setbacks lay in the nature of the movement itself, as the same boundless diversity that nourished its strength also contained the potential for conflict.
The humanists’ acceptance of the Classical heritage was, in effect, an appropriation of the profound controversy implicit in that heritage. Rifts between monarchists and republicans, positivists and skeptics, idealists and cynics, and historians and poets became increasingly characteristic of humanistic discourse.
While some of these tensions had existed from the beginning, the 15th century, with the vast heterogeneity of Greek thought, multiplied and deepened them. Of these schisms, the res-verbal controversy and the split between Platonic idealism and historical realism were the most significant and had a profound impact on the course of humanism.
Things and words
The res-verbal controversy was a prolonged debate among humanists in which one camp believed that language was the ultimate human reality, while the other camp held that language was only a means to understand a more fundamental reality beyond it.
This dispute originated in the 5th-4th century BCE between the Socratic school, which argued that language was a crucial tool to comprehend deeper truths, and the Sophistic-rhetorical school, which believed that “truth” was a fiction that depended on individual human beliefs.
Petrarch, who lacked direct exposure to Plato’s works and had limited knowledge of his ideas, relied on Cicero and St. Augustine to develop a Christian-rhetorical standpoint. He believed that “willing the good” was more gratifying than “knowing the truth” and saw rhetoric as a powerful means of persuading people to pursue goodness.
The res-verbal controversy had a profound impact on the development of humanism during the Renaissance and beyond. Renaissance Platonists were unable to challenge the assertion that language constituted the ultimate reality due to their lack of proficiency in Platonic analytical methods.
The emphasis on language as the subject and object of humanistic inquiry is evident in the work of Lorenzo Valla and Poliziano. Valla considered language to be a “sacrament” and urged for its scientific and historical study as the synthesis of all human thought.
For Poliziano, there were two dialectics: one of the ideas and one of the words. He rejected the dialectic of ideas and emphasized the dialectic of words, which consisted of philology and rhetoric. This emphasis on the primacy of language constituted a departure from the teachings of earlier humanists, such as Bruni and Vittorino, who maintained that the value of language depended on its relationship to perceived reality.
However, philosophical humanism declined due to the lack of a systematic relationship between philosophy and rhetoric, between words and things. By the 16th century, Italian humanism became primarily a literary pursuit, and philosophy was left to develop on its own.
Despite significant challenges, the division between philosophical and literary studies solidified and became a fundamental characteristic of Western culture. Philosophers such as Pico continued to assert the preeminence of things over words, but their appeals were unable to reverse the trend toward literary humanism.
Idealism and the Platonic Academy of Florence
The Platonic Academy of Florence was heavily influenced by idealism, which drew from Plato’s theory of forms and his epistemological doctrines in the Symposium and Republic. However, the Florentine Platonists did not fully embrace Plato’s thought, notably his analytic method of dialectic. This absence was not due to linguistic barriers, as the complete Platonic corpus had been made available in Latin by Ficino.
Instead, the religious focus of the major Platonists of the mid-15th century, such as Plethon, Bessarion, and Nicholas of Cusa, and Ficino’s attempt to reconcile Plato with Christianity through a “pious philosophy” led to a neglect of dialectical analysis in favor of transcendental goals.
Furthermore, Ficino’s translation of the Hermetic writings, which also emphasized transcendence and divine authority, contributed to a Neoplatonic philosophy that lacked grounding in reality. Despite these limitations, Hermeticism provided an endorsement of reason and nature that resonated with those struggling to reconcile Christian doctrine with daily life and helped lay the foundation for the scientific revolution. Hermeticism also had a lasting impact on later cultural movements, including Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry, and the Enlightenment.
Niccolò Machiavelli’s realism was distinct from that of his humanistic predecessors, such as Ficino, Vittorino, and Salutati. While they focused on historical studies to discover examples of virtue, Machiavelli examined all of history, including its good, evil, and indifferent aspects, as a school of reality.
His concentration on human weakness and institutional corruption was reminiscent of Boccaccio, but he used these reminders not as topical satire, but as practical gauges of human nature.
Machiavelli’s views on republics and monarchies were ambiguous, but his methods were coherent and remained a significant contribution to social science and the history of ideas. He saw history as a source of power and examined it in an amoral and scientific manner, much like how Alberti, Galileo, and the “new science” examined physical events.
His work laid the foundations of modern social science, creating a discipline that adhered to humanistic methodology but disregarded humanistic morality. In doing so, Machiavelli highlighted a contradiction that had been implicit in humanism all along: the dichotomy between critical objectivity and moral evangelism.
Baldassare Castiglione, a prominent figure of Italian humanism, played a significant role in promoting humanistic thought beyond Italy’s borders. His famous work, The Book of the Courtier, not only encapsulated humanistic ideas but also explored their contradictions and conflicts. Castiglione’s approach was unique in that he did not seek to preach or argue for a particular viewpoint, but rather aimed to achieve a balance between different humanistic perspectives.
The Book of the Courtier was structured as a dialogue that presented various positions, including Platonist and Aristotelian, idealist and cynic, monarchist and republican, and traditional and revolutionary. Castiglione believed that every virtue had a corresponding weakness and that extreme positions often generate their own opposites.
He demonstrated this through the interplay of different characters in his dialogue, such as Bembo’s Platonic ecstasy and Bernardo Cardinal Dovizi da Bibbiena’s earthy humor. Castiglione’s work went beyond being a treatise on the ideal courtier and instead served as an essay in higher discretion, emphasizing the importance of wisdom over knowledge.
His work would go on to inspire European literature and manners of the 16th century and would be echoed in the works of Montaigne and Shakespeare. Castiglione’s legacy lies in his contribution to redefining humanism, which matured in irony and aimed to promote wisdom rather than simply knowledge.
During the 16th century in Italy, the humanistic approach was prevalent in literature and philosophy, resulting in a wide range of productions. Among them, Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberate (1581; “Jerusalem Liberated”) truly embodied the spirit of humanism.
The renewed interest in Aristotle’s works during the 15th century led to an Aristotelian Renaissance, with literary scholars primarily focused on Poetics. Tasso drew heavily on Aristotle’s ideas about the philosophical aspects of poetry in constructing his epic poem.
In his Apologia (1585), Tasso argued that poetry, by encompassing both particulars and universals, can seek truth in its complete wholeness, thus becoming a vehicle for philosophical truth. Furthermore, poetry could provide moral education by promoting virtues, such as those described in the Nichomachean Ethics, albeit from a Christian perspective. The revival of the poet’s role as a cultural reformer was a key component of the original humanistic constitution, which was facilitated by the Aristotelian Renaissance.
Humanism in Northern Europe and England
While the roots of humanism in northern Europe and England can be traced back to Italian origins, its development wasn’t solely dependent on later Italian humanism. Instead, scholars and poets from outside Italy drew inspiration from a wide range of Italian sources, including the earliest humanists, as well as figures like Castiglione and others who came later.
Desiderius Erasmus (1466/1469-1536) was a Dutch philosopher, theologian, and writer who was one of the most influential figures of the Renaissance. He is best known for his critical and satirical works on the Catholic Church and his promotion of a more humanistic and tolerant approach to Christianity.
Erasmus was born in Rotterdam, Netherlands, and was educated at a Catholic school before joining a monastic order. However, he eventually left the monastery and pursued an independent life of scholarship, traveling extensively throughout Europe and becoming a leading figure in the humanist movement.
Erasmus is perhaps best known for his work “In Praise of Folly,” a satirical essay that criticized the excesses and corruption of the Catholic Church. He also wrote extensively on topics such as education, language, and biblical scholarship, and his Greek New Testament translation was a major influence on the Protestant Reformation.
Erasmus was a proponent of the idea that Christianity should be more focused on living a good life and practicing ethical behavior, rather than just adhering to a strict set of dogmatic beliefs. He also believed in the power of education to promote intellectual and moral development, and he advocated for the reform of the educational system in Europe.
Erasmus’s influence on European intellectual life was immense, and his works played a significant role in shaping the intellectual and religious movements of the Renaissance and the Reformation.
The French humanists
The French humanists were a group of scholars, writers, and thinkers who emerged in France during the 16th century. They were influenced by the Italian Renaissance and sought to revive classical learning and culture in France. The French humanists were interested in a wide range of subjects, including literature, philosophy, history, and art.
One of the most prominent French humanists was François Rabelais, a writer, and physician who is best known for his series of novels about the adventures of Gargantua and Pantagruel. Rabelais was an advocate of humanist education, which he believed should be based on the study of ancient Greek and Roman literature.
Another important French humanist was Michel de Montaigne, a philosopher, and essayist who is famous for his work “Essais.” Montaigne wrote about a wide range of topics, including philosophy, politics, and religion, and he is known for his skepticism and his emphasis on the importance of personal experience.
Other notable French humanists include Pierre de Ronsard, a poet who is often regarded as the leader of the French Renaissance, and Guillaume Budé, a scholar who was known for his expertise in Greek and Latin literature.
François Rabelais (1494-1553) was a French Renaissance writer, physician, and humanist. He is best known for his series of novels about the adventures of Gargantua and Pantagruel, which are satirical, bawdy, and humorous in tone. The novels were hugely popular in Rabelais’s time and continue to be studied and admired today.
Rabelais was born in Chinon, France, and studied at the University of Paris. He was a Franciscan monk for a time but left the order to study medicine. He eventually became a physician and practiced in Lyon.
Rabelais was deeply influenced by humanist philosophy and believed in the importance of education and the study of classical literature. His novels are full of references to ancient Greek and Roman texts, and he often used humor and satire to criticize the religious and political institutions of his time.
In addition to his literary works, Rabelais was also an important figure in the development of French language and literature. He was one of the first writers to use the French language in a literary context, and his works helped to establish French as a literary language in Europe.
Michel de Montaigne
Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) was a French philosopher, essayist, and humanist who is considered one of the most important figures in the development of modern skepticism. His most famous work, “Essais,” is a collection of essays in which he explores a wide range of topics, from politics and philosophy to personal experiences and emotions.
Montaigne was born in the Aquitaine region of France and received a humanist education that emphasized the study of classical literature and philosophy. He served as a magistrate in Bordeaux and later retired to his family estate, where he spent the rest of his life writing.
Montaigne’s “Essais” is a unique blend of personal reflection, philosophical inquiry, and literary experimentation. He used his own experiences as a lens through which to explore broader philosophical questions, and he was skeptical of the dogmatism and certainty that he saw in much of the philosophy of his time.
In addition to his contributions to philosophy and literature, Montaigne was also an important figure in the development of the French language. He was one of the first writers to use the French language in a literary context, and his style had a profound influence on later French writers.
The English humanists
The English humanists were a group of scholars, writers, and thinkers who emerged in England during the 16th century. They were influenced by the Italian Renaissance and sought to revive classical learning and culture in England. The English humanists were interested in a wide range of subjects, including literature, philosophy, history, and theology.
One of the most prominent English humanists was Sir Thomas More, a statesman, lawyer, and writer who is best known for his book “Utopia.” More was a close friend of Erasmus, the famous Dutch humanist, and he shared Erasmus’s interest in classical literature and humanist philosophy.
Another important English humanist was John Colet, a theologian, and scholar who is best known for his role in the founding of St. Paul’s School in London. Colet believed that education should be based on the study of the Bible and the classics, and he sought to reform the Church from within.
Other notable English humanists include William Tyndale, a scholar and translator who is best known for his English translation of the Bible, and Roger Ascham, a scholar, and writer who is best known for his book “The Schoolmaster,” which advocated for a more humanistic approach to education.
More, Elyot, and Ascham
Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), Sir Thomas Elyot (1490-1546), and Roger Ascham (1515-1568) were three of the most important English humanists of the 16th century. They were scholars, writers, and thinkers who were deeply interested in the classical learning and culture of ancient Greece and Rome.
Sir Thomas More was a statesman, lawyer, and writer who is best known for his book “Utopia.” More was a close friend of the Dutch humanist Erasmus and shared his interest in classical literature and humanist philosophy. More was also a devout Catholic and opposed the religious reforms of the English Reformation, which ultimately led to his execution by King Henry VIII.
Sir Thomas Elyot was a diplomat, scholar, and writer who is best known for his book “The Book of the Governor,” which advocated for the education of young men in the principles of classical learning and moral philosophy. Elyot also served as a member of Parliament and as a diplomat for King Henry VIII.
Roger Ascham was a scholar, writer, and tutor who is best known for his book “The Schoolmaster,” which advocated for a more humanistic approach to education. Ascham believed that education should be based on the study of classical literature and that students should be encouraged to develop their own independent thinking skills.
Overall, Sir Thomas More, Sir Thomas Elyot, and Roger Ascham were important figures in the development of English humanism and made significant contributions to the fields of literature, philosophy, and education. Their ideas and writings continue to be studied and admired today.
Sidney and Spenser
Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586) and Edmund Spenser (1552-1599) were two of the most important English writers of the late 16th century, and both were deeply influenced by the ideals of humanism.
Sidney was a courtier, soldier, and writer who is best known for his pastoral romance, “Arcadia,” and his sonnet sequence, “Astrophil and Stella.” He was also a prominent advocate for the arts and literature, and his “Defense of Poetry” is considered one of the most important works of literary criticism of the period. Sidney’s writing is characterized by its elegance, wit, and moral idealism, and he is regarded as one of the greatest poets of the English Renaissance.
Spenser was a poet who is best known for his epic poem, “The Faerie Queene,” which celebrated the virtues of chivalry, honor, and morality. Like Sidney, Spenser was deeply influenced by classical tradition, and he drew heavily on classical mythology and symbolism in his writing. Spenser’s poetry is characterized by its rich imagery, complex allegories, and formal beauty, and he is considered one of the greatest poets in the English language.
Both Sidney and Spenser were important figures in the development of English literature and helped to establish a new poetic tradition that was deeply rooted in humanist ideals. Their writing continues to be admired and studied today for its beauty, elegance, and moral vision.
Chapman, Jonson, and Shakespeare
George Chapman (1559-1634), Ben Jonson (1572-1637), and William Shakespeare (1564-1616) were three of the most important writers of the English Renaissance. All three were deeply influenced by humanism and classical literature, and they made significant contributions to the development of English drama and poetry.
George Chapman was a poet and playwright who is best known for his translations of the works of Homer, Hesiod, and other classical authors. His plays, such as “Bussy D’Ambois” and “The Revenge of Bussy D’Ambois,” were notable for their dark, violent themes and their use of classical sources.
Ben Jonson was a playwright and poet who is best known for his plays “Volpone,” “The Alchemist,” and “Bartholomew Fair.” Johnson was a friend and rival of Shakespeare, and he was known for his intellectual wit and his ability to satirize contemporary society. He also wrote a number of influential poems, including “To Penshurst” and “Underwood.”
William Shakespeare was a playwright and poet who is widely regarded as one of the greatest writers in the English language. He wrote 38 plays, including such masterpieces as “Hamlet,” “Macbeth,” and “King Lear,” as well as over 150 sonnets. Shakespeare’s writing was characterized by its complex characters, its exploration of human psychology, and its use of language.
Overall, Chapman, Jonson, and Shakespeare were important figures in the development of English literature and drama, and their works continue to be admired and studied today for their artistic and intellectual achievements.
Humanism and the visual arts
Humanism is a philosophical and ethical stance that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and generally prefers critical thinking and evidence (rationalism, empiricism) over the acceptance of dogma or superstition. In the visual arts, humanism has played a significant role in shaping the way artists approach their work.
During the Renaissance period, humanism was a key factor in the development of art. Humanist ideas encouraged artists to explore the human form and depict it in a more realistic and naturalistic way. Artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo used humanist ideals to inform their work, striving to create images that reflected the human experience in a way that was true to life.
Humanist thinking also had an impact on the subject matter of art. Rather than depicting religious or mythological scenes, artists began to focus on the everyday experiences of ordinary people, portraying scenes from daily life and celebrating the human experience.
In the modern era, humanism has continued to influence the visual arts. Many artists have sought to use their work as a means of exploring and expressing humanistic ideas and values. For example, the Pop Art movement of the 1960s sought to critique and challenge consumer culture, while the feminist art movement of the 1970s sought to challenge patriarchal values and celebrate the experiences of women.
Realism is an artistic and literary movement that emerged in the 19th century in Europe, particularly in France. It sought to depict the world as it is, without idealization or romanticization. Realist artists and writers aimed to accurately represent the details of everyday life, often depicting ordinary people engaged in everyday activities. Realism rejected the fantastical and exaggerated, and instead focused on the truthful portrayal of reality.
Realism was a reaction against the idealism and romanticism of earlier art movements. It was influenced by the rise of photography, which allowed for more accurate and detailed depictions of the world. Realist artists sought to capture the essence of modern life, including the struggles of the working class, the impact of industrialization, and the social changes brought about by urbanization.
The realist movement had a significant impact on the development of art and literature in the 19th and 20th centuries. Realist painters such as Gustave Courbet, Jean-Francois Millet, and Winslow Homer captured the struggles and realities of ordinary people, often portraying the harsh realities of rural life or urban poverty. Realist writers such as Honoré de Balzac and Emile Zola used their works to critique social and political issues, highlighting the struggles of the working class and the injustices of the legal system.
In the 20th century, realism continued to influence art movements such as social realism, which sought to depict social and political issues, and photorealism, which aimed to create hyper-realistic depictions of the world using photographs as source material.
Classicism is an artistic and cultural movement that draws inspiration from the art and culture of ancient Greece and Rome. It emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe as a reaction against the ornate and flamboyant Baroque style, which was popular at the time. Classicism aimed to return to the principles of ancient Greek and Roman art, emphasizing clarity, simplicity, and balance.
Classicism was characterized by a focus on order, reason, and rationality. Classical artists sought to create works that were timeless and universal, depicting idealized forms that emphasized harmony and proportion. They used simple geometric shapes and symmetry to create a sense of balance and order in their compositions.
In architecture, classicism was characterized by the use of classical orders, such as the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian, which were originally used in ancient Greek and Roman architecture. Classical buildings were often symmetrical, with a central axis and a sense of balance and proportion in their design.
Classicism was also influential in literature, music, and philosophy. Classical writers such as Homer, Virgil, and Cicero were admired for their clarity and rationality, and classical themes and motifs were often used in literature and music.
Classicism had a lasting impact on art and culture, influencing later movements such as neoclassicism, which emerged in the 18th century and sought to revive classical art and culture. It also influenced the development of art and architecture in the United States, particularly in the design of government buildings and public spaces.
Anthropocentricity and individualism
Anthropocentricity and individualism are two related but distinct concepts in philosophy and social thought.
Anthropocentricity refers to the belief that human beings are the most important or significant beings in the world and that the world exists primarily for human benefit. It is the idea that humans are the center of the universe and that the rest of nature and the environment exists to serve human needs and desires. Anthropocentric thinking often emphasizes human interests and values over those of other living beings or the natural world.
Individualism, on the other hand, is the idea that the individual is the most important unit of society and that individual rights and freedoms are of paramount importance. It is the belief that individuals should be free to pursue their own goals and interests and that individual achievements and success are the primary measures of a person’s worth. Individualism often emphasizes self-reliance, independence, and personal responsibility.
Both anthropocentricity and individualism have been criticized for their negative impact on the environment and society. Anthropocentric thinking can lead to the exploitation and destruction of natural resources and the degradation of the environment. It can also lead to a lack of concern for the welfare of other living beings, such as animals or plants. Individualism can lead to a lack of concern for the needs and well-being of others and can contribute to social inequalities and the erosion of social cohesion.
Critics argue that a more holistic and ecological approach, which recognizes the interconnectedness and interdependence of all living beings and the environment, is needed to address the complex challenges facing society and the planet. This approach emphasizes the need for collective action, cooperation, and mutual respect for all forms of life.
Art as Philosophy
Art has been described as a form of philosophy, in that it can communicate complex ideas and concepts in ways that are accessible and engaging to a broad audience. Like philosophy, art can challenge our assumptions, expand our understanding of the world, and encourage us to reflect on our experiences and beliefs.
Many artists use their work to explore philosophical questions and ideas, such as the nature of reality, the meaning of life, and the role of human beings in the world. For example, the surrealist movement in art sought to explore the workings of the unconscious mind and the relationship between the real and the imaginary. The abstract expressionist movement emphasized the subjective experience of the individual and the power of intuition and spontaneity in creative expression.
In addition, many works of art have been interpreted as philosophical statements or critiques of social and political systems. For example, the work of the Italian painter Caravaggio often portrayed the darker side of human nature and challenged the prevailing religious and moral conventions of his time. The paintings of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo depicted the struggles of the working class and indigenous people in Mexico while questioning the role of art in society.
Artistic expression can also be seen as a form of personal philosophy, in that it reflects the artist’s worldview, beliefs, and values. The creative process can be a way for artists to explore and make sense of their experiences and emotions, and to communicate their unique perspectives to others.
Humanism, art, and science
Humanism, art, and science are all interconnected in their approach to understanding the human experience and the world around us.
Humanism is a philosophical and ethical stance that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and generally prefers critical thinking and evidence over the acceptance of dogma or superstition. Humanism places a high value on human potential and creativity and recognizes the importance of reason, empathy, and compassion in our relationships with others.
Art, on the other hand, is a form of creative expression that can be used to explore and communicate complex ideas and emotions. Art can be seen as a humanistic endeavor in that it emphasizes the unique qualities of the human experience and seeks to engage the emotions, senses, and intellect of the viewer.
Science, meanwhile, is a systematic and empirical approach to understanding the natural world through observation, experimentation, and analysis. It is based on the principles of evidence, logic, and rationality, and seeks to uncover objective truths about the world around us.
Despite their differences, humanism, art, and science share many common goals and values. All three seek to understand the human experience and our place in the world and to promote knowledge, creativity, and critical thinking. They also share a commitment to the values of reason, evidence, and empathy, and recognize the importance of collaboration and communication in advancing knowledge and understanding.
In fact, many of the greatest achievements in art and science have been the result of interdisciplinary collaboration, where artists and scientists work together to explore new ideas and ways of understanding the world. For example, the field of bio-art combines art and science to explore the intersections between living organisms and technology, while the field of cognitive neuroscience uses brain imaging technology to better understand how the brain processes and responds to visual art.
Humanism and Christianity
Humanism and Christianity are two distinct worldviews with different values, beliefs, and approaches to understanding the world and the human experience.
Humanism is a secular worldview that places human beings and their values, needs, and potential at the center of its focus. It emphasizes critical thinking, reason, and evidence over dogma, superstition, and tradition. Humanism also values social justice, human rights, and the importance of individual freedom and dignity.
Christianity, on the other hand, is a religion based on the belief in the existence of a transcendent God who created the universe and all that is in it. It emphasizes the importance of faith, grace, and salvation, and recognizes the value of prayer, ritual, and tradition in connecting with the divine. Christianity also places a high value on compassion, love, and the importance of serving others.
Despite their differences, there are some areas of overlap between humanism and Christianity. Both recognize the importance of compassion, empathy, and social justice, and both have a long history of promoting education and learning. Many humanists and Christians also share a commitment to peace, tolerance, and the importance of dialogue and understanding between different cultures and beliefs.
However, there are also significant differences between the two worldviews that can lead to conflict and disagreement. For example, humanism places a high value on individual freedom and autonomy, while Christianity emphasizes obedience to God and the importance of adhering to religious teachings and commandments. Humanism also rejects the idea of a transcendent deity, while Christianity places a central focus on belief in God and the importance of prayer and worship.
Later fortunes of Humanism
The fortunes of humanism have varied over time, with periods of growth and decline depending on cultural, political, and intellectual factors.
During the Renaissance, humanism experienced a resurgence as scholars rediscovered the classical texts of ancient Greece and Rome and sought to apply their ideas to contemporary society. This led to a renewed emphasis on human potential, individualism, and the importance of education and learning. The humanistic ideals of the Renaissance were reflected in art, literature, and architecture, and continue to influence Western culture to this day.
In the centuries that followed, humanism faced significant challenges from religious, political, and intellectual forces. The Protestant Reformation, for example, emphasized the importance of faith and scripture over human reason and tradition, while the Enlightenment emphasized the importance of reason and empirical evidence over religious dogma and superstition.
In the 20th century, humanism experienced a revival as a secular, human-centered philosophy that emphasized the importance of reason, evidence, and empathy in shaping our understanding of the world and the human experience. Humanism played an important role in promoting social justice, civil rights, and environmentalism, and continues to be an influential movement in contemporary culture.
However, humanism also faced challenges from postmodernism and other intellectual movements that questioned the objectivity and universality of human reason and values. Some critics also argue that humanism can be too individualistic and anthropocentric and that it fails to fully account for the complex and interconnected nature of the world and human society.
In conclusion, humanism is a multifaceted philosophical and cultural movement that places human beings and their values, needs, and potential at the center of its focus. Humanism has a long and complex history, dating back to the classical period of ancient Greece and Rome, and has been shaped by a variety of cultural, political, and intellectual factors.
Humanism has had a significant impact on Western culture, promoting individualism, rationalism, and the importance of education and learning. It has also played an important role in promoting social justice, civil rights, and environmentalism, and continues to be an influential movement in contemporary culture.
Despite its many achievements, humanism has also faced significant challenges from religious, political, and intellectual forces. These challenges have led to periods of decline and resurgence in the fortunes of humanism, and have shaped the way that humanism is understood and practiced in contemporary culture.