What is humanism?
‘Humanism’ is a nineteenth-century term coined from words which had been in use in the late fifteenth century, when it became common to talk about the liberal/non-theological arts subjects in a university curriculum as humanae litterae (literature which was human rather than divine in focus) and a scholar who had a particular enthusiasm for these subjects was called a humanista. In the Renaissance period it did not have its modern meaning of someone who rejects the claims of revealed religion. The vast majority of humanists were sincere Christians who wished to apply their enthusiasm to the exploration proclamation of their faith.
The term usually associated with humanism is `Renaissance' (rinascita), a term coined by Giorgio Vasari (1511-74) in his Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1550). This term came to define the broad cultural changes of a whole era not merely its art. It is a useful term because it shows that while something new was happening in Europe between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, it was seen as a rediscovery of something very old. The Italian humanist poet Francesco Petrarch (1304-74) [left] so admired the poetic achievements of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) that he proclaimed that they represented a rebirth of poetry as good as anything which had been written in ancient Rome.
The Renaissance began in the Italian cities, which had the advantage of a physical legacy of art and architecture that had survived from the Roman Empire. But by the sixteenth century it had spread to northern Europe where the universities began to adopt the humanist curricula.
The old and the new
Far from being `New Learning, humanism represented a refocusing of old learning. It brought a new concentration on and a new respect for sections of traditional scholarship that medieval universities had considered of secondary importance: the non-theological parts of their arts curriculum, especially poetry, oratory and rhetoric (the arts of political persuasion by speaking and writing). Humanists were lovers and connoisseurs of words, which they saw as sources of power that could change human society for the better. The words that inspired such excitement were found in ancient texts from Greece and Rome. This meant a quest to obtain the best possible version of the texts that were the main records of how those societies had thought and operated.
This intellectual excitement was not new – it had been seen in the Carolingian and twelfth-century Renaissances, the latter centred in Paris and Toledo, which was captured from the Muslims by Alfonso VI of Castile in 1085. Gerard of Cremona (c. 1114-87) was one of a group of scholars who translated Greek and Arab texts in astronomy, medicine and other sciences into Latin. He translated Ptolomy’s Almagest (from the Arabic for ‘Great Book’ ), Euclid’s Elements of Geometry and many of the works of Aristotle.
But in the fifteenth century the technology of printing on paper opened up far more rapid possibilities of distributing copies of the texts, and gave much greater incentives for the spread of literacy associated with these innovations; this in turn produced a far more intense search for ancient manuscripts often lying neglected in cathedral or monastery libraries since earlier bursts of enthusiasm for the past. Moreover, many more Greek manuscripts re-emerged from this latest treasure-hunt.
Medieval western Europe had access to remarkably little Greek literature; for example, Dante could not access Homer and his account of Odysseus (Ulysses) was taken from Virgil. (Homer’s Odyssey was not published in Europe until 1488.) If scholars knew a learned language other than Latin, it was likely to be Hebrew, for rabbis were more accessible than Greeks. Petrarch tried to learn Greek but gave up, though Boccaccio succeeded and in 1360 had a chair of Greek founded in Florence.
Petrarch had been a diligent hunter of manuscripts. On his death the Chancellor of Florence, Coluccio Salutati (1331-1405) acquired many of his books. Because of his official position he was unable to leave Florence to search for manuscripts as Petrarch had done, but he acted through friends and agents to build up a library of well over six hundred books.
His most important contribution was to invite the Byzantine teacher Manuel Chrysoloras (1350-1415) to teach Greek in Florence. For teaching materials he brought over Plutarch’s Lives, Plato’s Dialogues, Aristotle’s Politics and Ptolomey’s illustrated Geography. This led to a passion for book-collecting, with the purchase money being provided by rich merchants or their sons. In 1404 Guarino Guarini went back to Greece with Chrysoloras and returned six years later with more than fifty Greek manuscripts. In 1423 the Sicilian Giovanni Aurispa (1374-1459) brought back 238 books from Greece; these included Homer, Pindar, Aristophanes, Demosthenes, and the whole of Plato.
The Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453 brought other Greek-speaking scholars to the west. Florentine intellectuals such as Marsilio Ficino (1433-99) became increasingly interested in the ideas of Plato. Under the patronage of Cosimo de’ Medici (1389-1464), Ficino began to lecture to an informal group of Florence’s cultural elite which became known as the Platonic Academy. Angelo Poliziano (1454-1494) a tutor in the household of Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449-92) translated Homer into Latin.
Platonism: The most important contribution of the Academy lay in its promulgation of the doctrine of neo-Platonism, which scholars like Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-94) attempted to reconcile with Christianity. Pico's Oration on the Dignity of Man (c. 1480) has been seen as one of the key Renaissance texts though its Cabalistic, Platonic mysticism is hardly 'modern' in the usual sense of the word.
This reappearance of Plato was especially significant, because twelfth- and thirteenth-century western scholasticism had been shaped by rediscovering his very different pupil Aristotle. Plato’s mystical sense that a greater reality lay beyond the physical world was to have a profound effect on Renaissance thought.
Scholars found Platonic ideas not only in the Bible but also in the Cabala, metaphysical and astrological works attributed to an imaginary Egyptian philosopher, Hermes Trismegistus. This was an elitist philosophy centring around esoteric texts that could only be understood by the initiated.
The humanists also gained a new perspective on Latin culture, as more manuscripts were discovered in the libraries of western Europe. They developed a particular enthusiasm for Cicero (106-43BC). (But not all their searches were fruitful. In his enthusiasm to discover books Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459) visited England in 1420 but found only cookery books!)
The Influence of the Classics
Platonism was an obvious influence but two others were of great importance.
Civic Humanism: Cicero’s republican politics had a transforming effect on European thought. He was the inspiration for ‘civic humanism’ – the belief that the good life was the vita active rather than the vita contemplative. Petrarch had deplored Cicero’s political career: the Renaissance humanists celebrated it. Using his Letters, Salutati re-evaluated Julius Caesar as the man who destroyed Rome’s liberty and established the tyranny of monarchy.
Eloquence: In 1421 Cicero’s treatise on oratory was discovered in the cathedral library at Lodi; after this he became the model for powerful and persuasive prose down to the nineteenth century. In a famous letter to Guarino Guarini, Poggio Bracciolini described his discovery of the works of another great Roman orator, Quintilian in the monastic library of St Gall in Switzerland. One of the key works praising eloquence was Lorenzo Valla’s (c. 1406-1457) De Elegantiis Latinae Linguae (1444). This was the basis of the movement to reform Latin prose to a more classical and Ciceronian Latin.
The search for authenticity
This reverence for the classics led to a stress on the authenticity of texts. The humanists insisted on going back ad fontes. In earlier centuries, monks cheerfully forged documents on a huge scale for the greater glory of God, particularly charters proving their monastery’s claim to lands and privileges. They lived in a world where there were too few documents, and so they needed to manufacture the authority to things which they knew in their hearts to be true. That attitude would no longer do.
A particularly notorious example of a revered text demolished by scholarship was the Donation of Constantine, an eighth-century forgery claiming to be by the fourth-century convert Emperor Constantine I, giving the Pope sweeping powers throughout the Christian world. It is significant that three different scholars working independently - the future German Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa in 1432-3, the Italian Lorenzo Valla in 1440, and the English bishop Reginald Pecock in 1450 - all came to the conclusion that the style was radically wrong for the fourth century. The Spanish humanist Juan Lius de Vives, Mary Tudor’s tutor, mocked the Golden Legend. (However, this did not stop the book inspiring Renaissance artists.)
Eventually the Bible would come under the same scrutiny.
Secular and Christian humanism
To over-simplify, secular humanism is usually associated with Italy and Christian humanism with northern Europe. Machiavelli can be seen as the most extreme embodiment of secular humanism. Ficino’s Platonism was a form of Christian humanism. The most distinguished Christian humanist of his day was Erasmus of Rotterdam (1467?-1536). His friends included many leading scholars including Thomas More (1478-1535).