Study Guide


Humanism Biography


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” (Pythagoras), which meant that now Man was the center of the universe in place 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 between all Renaissance humanists was a love of Latin language and of classical (Roman and Greek) philosophy. The humanist interest in authenticating classical texts would become the field of textual criticism that still thrives today. Humanism, too, thrives today, although it has been transformed to encompass humanitarian concerns such as providing aid to others who are suffering. Today’s secular humanists actively reject religion and turn their attention to charitable works and an ethical, meaningful life on Earth.

Humanism Representative Authors

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 recorded a fictional dialogue to represent the best of court life in his Book of the Courtier (1528). This book was highly influential, setting the standard for the behavior of the elite, which was to comport oneself with a casual nonchalance, giving 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 dilgence 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 7, 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 ordained for 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 schoolteachers, 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 candidness, 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 faith that humans can achieve piety through their own endeavors, as well as 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 underwent 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 A.D. 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 was 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 also had an interest in the occult and magic. He also...

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