Humanism in the Postmodern World

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1863

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, 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...

(This entire section contains 1863 words.)

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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 postmodern 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.

Education, Wisdom, and Elegance in Humanist Works

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2544

Education: theory and practice Education was one of the chief humanist interests; from the time of Vittorino da Feltre and Guarino, who had schools at Mantua (1423–46) and at Ferrara (1429–36) respectively, humanists were often involved in the teaching of children, and they wrote many educational treatises. These stress the supreme importance of education: man cannot live by the promptings of nature alone, ‘doctrine’ (knowledge, teaching) must be added to experience, and the mind should be formed early. Three classical works in particular influenced humanist educational ideas: the pseudo-Plutarchan essay The education of children, from the Moralia, Cicero’s On the orator and above all Quintilian’s The education of an orator.

Humanist treatises frequently stress the special importance of sound education for the ruler and the governing class: the studia humanitatis lead to knowledge and virtue, and hence to good government. The English educational writers, Elyot and Ascham, both take this up, echoing the arguments of Erasmus and Castiglione. The standard example used to demonstrate the efficacy of education for the ruler was that of Alexander the Great, whose tutor was Aristotle and whose favourite author was Homer. Humanists do seem to have contributed to bringing about a change of attitude here; the medieval idea of a different education for nobles and ‘clerks’ (ecclesiastics, who often held bureaucratic posts) fell into disfavour, and the upper classes began to send their sons to the grammar schools, the universities and the Inns of Court; education came to be seen as essential for public life.

Complaints about the state of education and attacks on medieval teaching methods are common in humanist authors; Batt, in The antibarbarians, lavishes scorn on the ignorance of schoolteachers and on the stupidity of medieval grammars. Of course, there had been schools in the Middle Ages where classical authors were studied, for example the celebrated school of Chartres where Bernard taught the classics to John of Salisbury in the twelfth century. But by Erasmus’ day, there had been a decline. Classes were often very large. Generally only the master was provided with a textbook, and so everything had to be dictated and then learnt by heart. (Renaissance schooling benefited both from the invention of printing and from the spread of cheap paper, which meant that the boy could preserve copious notes on the authors he was studying.) Logic was the dominant discipline; logical disputation was begun early in the schools and even the teaching of grammar was affected by it, so that the boys learnt complex definitions of grammatical cases. This kind of thing was anathema to the humanists, as was the Latin usage taught:

All Latin adulterate, which ignorant blind fools brought into this world and with the same hath distained and poisoned the old Latin speech and the very Roman tongue which in the time of Tully and Sallust and Virgil and Terence was used, which also Saint Jerome and Saint Ambrose and Saint Austin and many holy doctors learned in their times—I say that filthiness and all such abusion which the later blind world brought in, which more rather may be called blotterature than literature, I utterly abanish and exclude out of this school.

Viewed by modern educational ideas, the education provided in the English grammar school of the Renaissance, which put into practice humanist ideas, was extraordinarily single-minded, perhaps even narrow-minded. The whole tenor was literary. Boys learnt to read and to write English, Latin and Greek, generally in that order and with the greatest attention being paid to Latin. Humanist educators believed that Latin grammar should be learnt not by rote but by observing and copying the practice of ‘good authors.’ In his influential Elegancies of the Latin language (1471), a study of classical usage, Lorenzo Valla had said, ‘I accept for law whatever has pleased great authors.’ The sentiment is echoed by English educationalists; ‘without doubt,’ writes Ascham in The schoolmaster, ‘grammatica itself is sooner and surer learned by examples of good authors than by the naked rules of grammarians.’ Latin literature was always read with an eye to imitating; particular authors were studied at the same time as particular kinds of composition were being mastered: for example, the relevant parts of Cicero were read while orations and epistles were being composed. The closest attention was paid to details of expression; the boy kept a notebook in which he jotted down phrases which he could employ in his own compositions. The aim of the system was rhetorical expertise, the ability to express oneself fluently on any topic. Hence all the innumerable exercises in translating from one language into another (it is worth noting that boys sometimes translated into English verse), in varying one thought in different words, in composing themes and orations.

It can hardly be chance that an educational programme of this kind coincided with a tremendous outburst of literary activity. Not only professional writers but men immersed in practical affairs could turn their hand to a poem and sometimes produce a masterpiece, as Sir Henry Wotton did in ‘Ye meaner beauties of the night.’ The emphasis on the cultivation of stylistic fluency had its effect. Shake- speare may laugh at pedantic schoolmasters in Holofernes (in Love’s labour’s lost), a trick of whose speech is variatio, the production of strings of synonyms:

Hol. The deer was, as you know, sanguis, in blood; ripe as the pomewater, who now hangeth like a jewel in the ear of coelo, the sky, the welkin, the heaven; and anon falleth like a crab on the face of terra, the soil, the land, the earth.

Nath. Truly, Master Holofernes, the epithets are sweetly varied, like a scholar at the least: but, sir, I assure ye, it was a buck of the first head,

but he is the supreme example in English literature of Erasmian copia, stylistic abundance. Reading habits learnt at school persisted in later life; Ben Jonson marked phrases in his books with an eye to redeployment in his own poetry. The teaching methods of the period may seem to us soul-destroying and Latin compositions sometimes schoolboyish, but when the poets came to compose in English, they could draw on a large stock of ideas and phrases. By the time the boy had left school, he had read very widely in classical literature and learnt a good part by heart; it is therefore not surprising if we find so many reminiscences of the classics in English Renaissance literature. . .

Wisdom and eloquence In the dedication of The garden of eloquence (1577), Henry Peacham speaks of ‘wisdom and eloquence, the only ornaments whereby man’s life is beautified.’ The coupling is significant; wisdom and eloquence are two parts of one ideal. Wisdom cannot express itself properly without eloquence; eloquence is so much empty verbiage without wisdom. It should be stressed again that the emphasis on style in Renaissance literary theory is not formalism. The intimate connection between style and thought is often reiterated; in the Apophthegms, Erasmus recounts an anecdote about Socrates, who said to a youth who had been sent by his father to be seen by the philosopher, ‘Speak that I may see you,’

signifying that the mind of man is manifested less in his face than in his speech (oratio), because this is the surest and least lying mirror of the soul.

Diseases of the mind issue in diseased speech; the idea is expressed in Discoveries and exemplified by the characters in Jonson’s plays, in the bombast of Sir Epicure Mammon, for example.

Wisdom and eloquence are the properties of the true orator. Humanists revived the classical ideal of the orator, whose aim was not just to know the good but, through eloquence, to move others to the good; passages from Cicero and Quintilian expressed this ideal eloquently. Humanists had what may seem an excessive faith in the power of word and the persuasive force of language.

How much eloquence can accomplish in the shaping of human life is known both from reading in many authors and from the experience of everyday life. How great is the number of those we recognise in our own day, to whom even examples were of no help, who have been aroused and turned suddenly from a most wicked manner of life to a perfectly ordered one simply by the sound of others’ voices,

wrote Petrarch. ‘Nothing among humans is more powerful at stirring all motions of the soul than speech (oratio),’ said Erasmus. Such faith pervades Daniel’s Musophilus. It is important to note that ideas about oratory were transferred to poetry; the argument of Sidney’s Defence of poesy centres on the moving power of literature:

Truly, I have known men, that even with reading Amadis de Gaule (which God knoweth wanteth much of a perfect poesy) have found their hearts moved to the exercise of courtesy, liberality, and especially courage. Who readeth Aeneas carrying old Anchises on his back, that wisheth not it were his fortune to perform so excellent an act?

and Ben Jonson adapts Quintilian’s definition of the orator to the poet in Discoveries. English poets made high claims for their art as a moral and cultural force: Spenser declared that the aim of The fairy queen was ‘to fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous and gentle discipline,’ and Milton thought Spenser ‘a better teacher than Scotus or Aquinas.’

To define what the humanists meant by wisdom is a delicate matter. If I may simplify a complex issue, they turned away from the Metaphysical ideal of the Middle Ages, when theology was queen of the sciences and its study was guided by logic, towards an ethical ideal, often with a bias towards the active life (the Neo-Platonism of Ficino and Pico della Mirandola in its advocacy of contem- plation looks back to scholasticism; but many humanists did still feel the attraction of the life of contemplation). Such an ideal was in harmony with Cicero’s ideas of wisdom. In hundreds of passages of Renaissance literature, we find pictures of wisdom as self-knowledge, self-rule, moderation, superiority to circumstance, constancy, rationality, which are thoroughly classical in spirit. Plutarch and Ben Jonson share a similar belief in reason. The humanist idea of wisdom tended to emphasise the part played by natural reason, with the caveat that such reason is implanted in us by God. ‘I call nature an aptness to be taught and a readiness that is grafted within us to honesty,’ wrote Erasmus, whose belief in the co-operation of nature and grace (here, he was in harmony with Aquinas) and in the natural tendency of men to the good (‘Now doth every man’s mind incline unto that which is wholesome and expedient for his nature’) was one of the issues in which he clashed with Luther, who viewed the will as corrupt and who accused Erasmus of paganism. Erasmus thought that the virtuous pagans might have been saved because of their behaviour (here, he was in harmony with Dante); Luther thought they were damned because they had no faith in Christ. Luther was, like St. Augustine, ambivalent in his attitude to pagan wisdom; both felt that it was in opposition to Christian wisdom and that it might be used but not enjoyed. Erasmus believed rather that it was in a continuum with the Christian revelation and that it must be used. As far as English literature is concerned, it was Erasmus’ view which was on the whole victorious (though there were sometimes tensions, as in the famous passage in Paradise lost, where Milton turns the pagan gods into devils, and there were attacks on pagan literature by both Catholics and Puritans throughout the Renaissance).

Humanists have sometimes been accused of anti-intellectualism, because of their attacks on the scholastic metaphysicians. There is certainly a trace of this in Petrarch’s essay On his own ignorance and that of many others, with its attack on Aristotle and the atheism of some of his modern followers, and the famous declaration that it is better to will the good than know the truth. However, in rejecting abstract philosophical speculation and also sometimes scientific enquiry, humanists did not come down on the side of simple innocence. Philosophy was replaced by scholarship and erudition. Elsewhere, Petrarch writes, ‘Ignorance, however devout, is by no means to be put on a plane with the enlightened devoutness of one familiar with literature.’ Erasmus speaks of ‘good letters, without which what is human life?’ and his Antibarbarians is a defence of learning against those who felt that it had no part in the Christian life; in it, he defines wisdom as ‘virtus cum eruditione liberali,’ virtue joined to liberal learning. Many passages from Erasmus praising cultivation of mind and making the Socratic connection between knowledge and virtue could be collected. ‘What is most pernicious to man? Stupidity’, he writes in On giving children and early and a liberal education, and in The education of a Christian prince he stresses the need of the ruler for knowledge:

How can anyone who does not know what is best direct it? Or even worse, if he considers the wickedest things the most desirable, being utterly misled by his ignorance or personal feelings? . . . There is only one means of deliberating on a question, and that is wisdom. If the prince lacks that, he can no more be of material assistance to the state than an eye can see when sight is destroyed.

Similar ideas are expressed by English writers. ‘Oh no, he cannot be good that knows not why he is good,’ says the wise councillor, Philanax, in the Arcadia, whose heroine, Pamela, is described as ‘she in whose mind virtue governed with the sceptre of knowledge.’ In an aside in The defence of poesy, Sidney writes, ‘it is manifest that all government of action is to be gotten by knowledge, and knowledge best by gathering many knowledges, which is reading.’ In Spenser’s poem, The tears of the Muses, Urania praises knowledge:

What difference twixt man and beast is left, When th’heavenly light of knowledge is put out, And th’ornaments of wisdom are bereft?

‘Men have been great, but never good by chance,’ wrote Jonson, whose poems are full of praises of action joined to knowledge, the man ‘that does both act and know’ (Marvell’s phrase from the Horatian ode), and attacks on the ignorant barbarians who oppose him (see the three odes to himself).

The humanist rejection of abstract reasoning may have influenced some writers in their presentation of ideas. Erasmus thought that truth could not be arrived at step by step, by the logical process; rather he preferred to suggest it obliquely. Hence his fondness for the dialogue form and for the ironies of Lucian; the reader has to make a synthesis which embraces all the complexities which the author has suggested. The praise of folly and Utopia notoriously elusive and complex works, and such qualities may be found in other Renaissance writers. Debate and alternative points of view play an important part in Shakespeare’s history plays, and Ben Jonson knew the value of ambiguity, irony and indirection in presenting moral issues, witness Volpone.

Source: Joanna Martindale, “Introduction,” in English Humanism: Wyatt to Cowley, edited by Joanna Martindale, Croom Helm Ltd., 1985, pp. 17–51.

The Italian Renaissance

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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. Hencefort 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.


Critical Overview