Humanism and the Classical Tradition

Written by Christopher S. Celenza

Two approaches can be employed and synthesized to understand the problem of humanism and its complex roots and origins in the ancient western world (Giustiniani; Buck; Blum, 21-43). The first approach is source-based: through etymology and history one can come to an understanding of what western thinkers have believed about terms like “humanity,” “human,” and so on. The second approach is more explicit about the commitments of the present-day interpreter but necessarily less precise when it comes to sources. That is, if one believes in the existence of something we can locate as “human” (beyond biological differentiation); that this human factor is a motivating force for action in the world; and that this conception of what is “human” is something worth defending, then it makes sense to look retrospectively and find earlier adumbrations, even implicit ones, of what one currently takes to be characteristic and defensible about humanity.

Until recently, one would not have needed to state the seemingly self-evident proposition that something called “human” exists. Now, however, one is presented with a world in which the use of psychotropic drugs to manipulate serotonin levels in the brain is a widely accepted practice, and the increasingly frequent de facto genetic selection occurring among certain segments of the population is carried out through artificial fertilization. In short, the existence of a stable human “self” has been called into question by an ethically neutral, evolving natural science, to such a point that some current thinkers are speaking of “our post-human future” (Fukuyama) and others can find no clear dividing line between human beings and animals (Singer). It may be the case that reaching back into the classical past to find the deep roots of a tradition that proclaims, unashamedly, the existence of and respect for the human is not only useful but also necessary.

The word “humanism” was first used in 1808 when the German educator Friedrich Immanuel Niethammer (1766-1848) employed it to argue for the importance of a secondary educational system based on the Greek and Roman classics (Niethammer; Campano; and Kristeller). A contemporary and colleague of Johann Gottlieb Fichte (himself so important for the practical implementation of the Humboldt university program), Niethammer believed it was necessary to set forth why an education based only on the seemingly more useful technical disciplines (engineering, natural science) would be insufficient for the development of a fully informed, humane citizenry. His adoption of the term “humanism” and his defense of the ideals he believed implicit in it invite us to return to its ancient roots, and to two Latin words, “humanitas” (humanity) and “humanus” (human). Writing once an age of classicism had been completed in the late second century CE, Aulus Gellius discussed the term “humanitas” in his miscellanistic work, the Attic Nights (13.17). There he wrote that those who use Latin correctly (as opposed to the crowd) distinguish the word “humanitas” from the Greek philanthropia, which means a benevolent love toward all men. The truer meaning of the Latin word, he suggests, is closer to the Greek paideia, what “we,” he continues, “call learning and education in the liberal arts…. In fact, the devotion to this kind of knowledge and the method that results from it has been given to man alone, out of all living creatures.” He then offers an example from Varro (116-26 BCE), who had written that the famous Greek sculptor “Praxiteles is unknown to no one who is in the least bit humane.” Gellius then comments, concluding this chapter, that “humane” here means someone who is well instructed and learned, who knows who Praxiteles was through books and through history.

It is clear from this citation that one principal meaning of the term “humanitas” in antiquity was bound up primarily with learning, a sphere admittedly proper to human beings but not one, equally clearly, in which all human beings partook. To be “humane” (humanus) meant not only to be a human being but also to have exercised one’s capacity as a human being to the fullest through learning. This meaning of the word “humane” was lost in the Latin Middle Ages and recovered only much later. Gellius’s historical position, toward the end of the classical period, suggests that one needs to return to certain key ancient authors who formed his background to flesh out these diverse themes related to the human.

“Man is the measure of all things, of the things that are, that they are, and of things that are not, that they are not.” Protagoras (c.490-420BCE), a traveling and highly respected teacher of rhetoric (or “sophist”), is reported by Plato to have made this statement. On the face of things Protagoras seems to remove the possibility of objective knowledge by reducing knowledge to individual perception. It was in his key dialogue on epistemology, the Theaetetus, that Plato had the interlocutor Socrates attribute this statement to Protagoras (Theaetetus, 152a). Protagoras’s sentiment and Plato’s report together tell us much about the emerging trajectory of thought on the human in the ancient world. For in the fifth century BCE, in the world of the polis, it became apparent that, in these small, face-to-face societies, the power to persuade one’s fellow citizens represented a key to worldly success and glory; and indeed, rhetoric, the art of persuasion, became a cornerstone of ancient education, which remained predominantly rhetorical until late antiquity. Sophists like Protagoras purported to be able to teach their students not only how to persuade people, but also to speak on any possible topic, “to make,” as Protagoras is also reported to have said, “the weaker argument the stronger.” (DK80b6) This connection between the sphere of language and what was considered proper to humanity remained a strong one from classical times onward. However, since it is possible to persuade people of things that are not only not salutary but even, at times, seemingly immoral, the sophists naturally provoked reactions, even if those reactions did not, at the time, decisively change the oratorical character of ancient society.

The most influential reaction to these relativistic ideas was that of Plato. Plato wrote in the inherently ambiguous genre of dialogue, and he did not set forth what to a later age might seem a “systematic” philosophy. He did, however, maintain throughout his dialogues a powerfully influential notion: that a doctrine or set of practices that assumed that the purely human represented a guideline for morally productive truth could never be satisfactory. Since opinions, perceptions, and judgments varied from person to person, if no standard beyond what we individually perceive could be found, then human beings were doomed to perpetual strife, guided as they must be by the ungrounded opinions of a capricious crowd. In his Republic (514a-520a), Plato presented, in his celebrated myth of the cave, a description of humanity radically opposed to the one seemingly implicit in Protagoras’s view. Plato asks his readers, again through Socrates, to imagine people in a cave. Its inhabitants sit with their backs to the entryway facing the interior wall opposite the cave’s opening. They see in front of them only shadows of the real beings who are acting and moving around outside the cave. They “believe reality to be nothing other than the shadows of the artificial objects” (515c), since the shadows projected on the wall in front of them imitate only imperfectly the realities dwelling outside.

Plato’s confrontation with the sophists reminds us of one very important point, if we are discussing “humanism,” especially as it is grounded in the classical tradition. No ancient figure held as axiomatic the notion that human beings and the human world alone provide a sufficient grounding for the determination of absolute (as opposed to practical or plausible) truth. The sophists were concerned with technique and with what “worked:” whether the gods existed or not was not, typically, a question they asked. Persuasion and the vagaries of everyday human life could indeed be successfully based on the contingencies of human language. It was not, however, until very recently that this rhetorically based model of truth-acquisition in ethical matters – that is, focusing on the human shorn of any exterior referent – became associated with a style of thought that we can term “humanism.” In short, proponents of the classical tradition hold almost universally that a reality greater than ours exists and that, in some measure, the measurement of truth for us must, however diversely, correspond to that greater reality.

Plato’s most important student, Aristotle (384-322BCE), presented one of the most lasting guides to human behavior and conduct in his Nicomachean Ethics. There he established that human excellence (arête in Greek, what would become “virtus” in Latin and either “virtue” or “excellence” in English) consisted, in one fundamental respect, in action. One of Aristotle’s key notions was that of hexis (“habitus” in Latin, “habit,” “disposition,” or even “capacity” in English). For Aristotle a hexis is a trained and trainable capacity brought from potentiality to actuality by action. Human “virtue” (arete) is a hexis: we are not born naturally brave, but we become brave by the repeated performance of brave acts, even as we all possess the hexis for bravery. Similarly with justice: “it is in the course of our dealing with our fellow-men that we become just or unjust.” (Nicomachean Ethics, 2.1).

Aristotle’s doctrine of the virtues entails activity on the part of a human being, and it is important to note that this activity can be as much intra-mental as externalized. Aristotle essentially concludes the Nicomachean Ethics by arguing that, of all the possible lives that one can pursue, the happiest will be the life of contemplation: action, but action of the mind. It is this life that makes one wise, and the wise man (provided he lives a complete life, that is, into old age) is the happiest man: he alone is self-sufficient, he alone can continue to practice his own proper activity (contemplation) long after the possibility for physical action has worn itself thin, and he alone, finally, possesses the ability to engage in an activity that is practiced for its own sake (10.7-8).

Concerning certain fundamental questions, then, the two fountainheads of ancient philosophy agreed: the realm of the divine and the realm of the human are different, and one of the best tasks for the human being was “to become like a god” as Plato would have it (Theaetetus, 176b1-2) or, with Aristotle, “to put on immortality.” (Nicomachean Ethics, 10.7.1177b33) The realm of the divine exists, and human beings can partake of it to a greater or lesser degree depending on their conduct. It was impossible to imagine a cosmos without the divine. Plato, disillusioned with the phenomenological world, wrote literary works in many of which he seems to devalue certain worldly pursuits or to suggest that the practitioners of those pursuits, living unreflectively, did not understand the subsistent truths with which they engaged as they practiced their activities. Aristotle by contrast was not so dour about the day-to-day world. He sketched in his Nicomachean Ethics a vision of the ethical life in which, though he deemed the contemplative way of life best, it was clear that worldly pursuits could and should be carried out well, that is, with a concern for the other human beings with whom the individual interacted both in private and in public.

After Plato and Aristotle, Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics all contributed in their own way to defining the realm of the human with respect to the divine. The Stoics grounded their ethics in the practice of virtues, which were thought of as interlinked, so that one could not really possess one virtue without possessing them all. The Stoics conceived of an exemplary figure, the “sage” (spoudaios or sophos) who practiced perfect virtue and whose soul was free of disturbance. This sort of figure could not be found in the daily world, so the “philosopher” was conceived as one who attempted to live “coherently” (homologoumenos), balancing a concern for the virtues with philosophical inquisitiveness. Epicureans conceived of pleasure as the highest human good and object of striving, but pleasure was regarded in a particular way, as having one’s desires satisfied. The fewer desires one had, the more easily one could satisfy them, and the more one could experience true pleasure. Self-discipline allowed one to reduce desire. Skeptics believed that the central problem of human life lay in the difficulty of finding an adequate criterion of truth: the human senses are deceptive, satisfactory answers to life’s most difficult questions are hard to find, and opinions vary endlessly. Given these factors, they strongly affirmed that one could and should doubt almost everything on the level of absolute truth, to be contented instead with the realm of the plausible.

All three Hellenistic schools of philosophy contributed to defining what is proper to human activity; and they had as a major focus of their ethical doctrines a conception of human life that functioned independently of the divine. Yet again, members of all three schools did not deny that there existed truths higher than human truths. For the Stoics, the cosmos was ruled by an ineluctable fate. For the Epicureans, the divine existed, though as one of the school’s most famous exponents, Lucretius (c.99-c.55 BCE), put it (On the Nature of Things, 2.646-51), “without any pain or danger, strong with its own resources and needing nothing of ours, that very divine nature is enticed by no prize and untouched by anger.” For the Skeptics, an absolute truth was assumed to exist; it was simply not our province to know it.

This multifaceted Greek philosophical inheritance found its way in to classical Latin sources, especially through Cicero (106-43 BCE), who synthesized and culturally translated Greek ideas for his Roman audience. Through different philosophical works, usually dialogues held among a number of interlocutors and set dramatically over more than one day, basic doctrines associated with Platonism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Skepticism became available to the Roman world. Cicero also brought to the fore the rhetorical concern that had been a part of the Greek inheritance, explicitly in the case of the sophists and implicitly in Plato’s carefully dialogical strategies for guiding his readers’ and listeners’ appropriation of his messages. Cicero saw language and the ability to persuade one’s fellow citizens as the distinguishing mark of humanity. As he wrote in On the Orator (1.8.31-33), “it is in this one respect that we stand out most markedly from beasts, that we converse among ourselves and that we can explain what we have felt by means of speech.” Here and elsewhere Cicero echoes a commonplace found in Greek authors, such as Isocrates (Nicocles, 5-6) and Aristotle (Politics, 1253a9) that although other animate beings may supersede humans in strength, swiftness, and so on, it is the power of language that distinguishes humanity.

Still, although these sentiments were relative commonplaces, Cicero’s appropriation of them is notable for two reasons. First, Cicero’s function as a cultural mediator between the Greek and Latin worlds meant that he consolidated the notion, inherited from the Greeks, that there was a realm of activity separate from the divine that was proper to humans, even as human beings needed to recognize their obligations to the divine. Second, owing to the Latin language’s subsequent domination in western history as a language of culture, it was through Cicero that much of ancient philosophy was known to the west until the fifteenth century. In Cicero, too, we see the use of the word “humanus” (“humane”) to signify learning and culture (cf. Cicero, Div., 1.1.2, Verr., 2.4.44), so that we are reminded again of the ancient determination that the propensity to focus on intellectual cultivation is what makes one most fully human.

One perceives a balance in the pre-Christian ancient world between regard for a properly human sphere and respect toward the divine; to the divine human beings owed allegiance but not constant devotion. This balance shifted in the early Christian era, as the legatees of the classical tradition took what they had inherited from the ancients (a concern for ethical human action combined with the notion of a supreme being who stood above all divinity) and combined these elements with the teachings of an important figure, the Jewish sage Jesus of Nazareth. Believed by his followers to be divine, Jesus represented the wonder-working sage well known to classical antiquity but with a difference: in his teachings he emphasized the merits of the downtrodden, creating an ethics of humility rarely glimpsed in the ancient world. He preached a supreme being who was at once an omnipotent arbiter of justice as well as a personal god, interested in individuals who, even the humblest among them, would be rewarded in the afterlife according to their conduct on earth. Though Jesus himself did not consciously weave into his thought elements from the classical tradition, one of his followers in the Jesus movement, Paul of Tarsus, did. The Platonic notion of our world being only a reflection of a greater, truer one that transcends earthly reality was given famous expression in Paul’s first Letter to the Corinthians. There, as Paul wrote of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, he suggested that human beings in their earthly lives would only experience one of those divine gifts, “love,” (agape) as if it were reflected “in a mirror, darkly,” but that someday, released from the body’s prison, one would experience divine love “face to face.” (1 Cor. 13) To experience this love and divine beatitude, however, one needed also to have divine grace, itself another gift from God. One could never be certain one had received this gift.

Various writings of one of the foremost exponents of the Pauline position in the early Christian world, Augustine (354-430CE), set the tone for how western thinkers might approach this issue in centuries to come. If, that is, one posited God as absolutely omnipotent, omniscient, and infinite, it was difficult to see how human beings, finite as they were, could earn the gift of grace. A shift had occurred: the worlds of transcendence that had been part of the classical heritage, whether adumbrated through myth (Plato) or extrapolated on the plane of logic and deductive reasoning (Aristotle), had now been theorized extensively and anchored in the notion of a supremely powerful being who was in charge of the world He had created. From the unarticulated but powerfully functional assumption that human beings were, basically, in control of what happened to them in the world of their day to day existence, a new notion arose: not by any means that one should be irresponsible, that wickedness could be excused, or even that human beings lacked free will on a day to day basis. Rather, this shift implied that, while the human world mattered, there was a larger world that mattered more; from Augustine on, one could view one’s life as a pilgrimage toward eternity rather than as an end in itself. In the west, importantly, this shift also became institutionalized, as Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, definitively by the end of the fourth century and the reign of Theodosius.

The vestiges of what we can call humanism were thenceforth preserved in texts. Monasteries did the vital work of copying and transmitting these texts, with major centers emerging in the era of Charlemagne (742/7CE-814). During the early middle ages, much of Greek literature and philosophy was lost, and the number of thinkers who were skilled in both classical languages declined dramatically. In the eleventh through thirteenth centuries, one sees the translation into Latin of many of Aristotle’s works (Minio-Paluello, ed.). The rise of medieval cathedral schools and eventually universities, along with the communities of intellectuals that naturally gathered around those institutions, meant that in Western Europe there ensued a rediscovery of the “auctores,” or “authors,” through which the canon of Latin classical texts was increased. Certain intellectuals of this period, most notably John of Salisbury (1115-76), demonstrated a lively interest in classical texts. In addition, one feature of humanism that would become particularly important in fifteenth-century Italy emerged: the tendency to question established canons of texts and to add to them in the service of a notionally better human life. Human life could be, and in most cases was, conceived as Christian in outlook, but the ability to theorize aspects particular to humanity as goods in themselves grew in this period.

Evolving humanism lacked a key element, however, until intellectuals began to be conscious of the language they used for their major works, Latin. The late thirteenth century saw a group of thinkers centered in northern Italy, especially the city of Padua, who consciously attempted to imitate classical Latin (Witt). Spurred on by the enthusiasm for classical texts present in the world of the French schools and universities, they derived contacts to that world both through travel to the University of Paris and by traveling poets. These early humanists were the direct ancestors of those more commonly considered Renaissance humanists. Comparatively little known today, thinkers such as Albertino Mussato and Lovato dei Lovati wrote poetic works in Latin in which they consciously attempted to reproduce ancient Latin style. Beyond stylistics they focused their enthusiasms largely on secular matters: for example Lovato “discovered” the location of the tomb of the ancient Trojan hero Antenor in Padua, mining classical sources as he did so. These thinkers and their direct heirs provided the essential background for the figure who made humanism a European phenomenon in the fourteenth century, Petrarch.

Francesco Petrarca (1304-74) possessed Florentine family origins, though he was raised in southern France in the environment of the papal court, which by the year 1308 was located in Avignon. His father, a notary, had gone there after having been exiled in the same series of political purges that drove Dante Alighieri from Florence. From his youth Petrarch possessed a conflicted sense of exile: not literal of course, but, perhaps because of his deracinated upbringing, for the first time we see a figure who, as Michel de Montaigne would do two centuries later, unabashedly took his own life as his subject matter. Petrarch united two passions without which no contemporary intellectual movement could hope to thrive, given prevailing social norms; and he added a third, which became a hallmark of the best Renaissance humanists. First, he engaged without reservation the contemporary, growing fascination with classical antiquity. Petrarch became an excellent Latinist, and in doing so, he saw distinctly that the Latin then in use, in the Church and in universities, did not seem to match in style the Latin he found in classical Roman sources. As he did pioneering philological work (on the text of Livy, for example), he also allowed this passion for antiquity to fuel a new historical sense. He realized the great distance between himself and the ancients, sometimes lamented it, but never allowed that distance to go unrecognized.

The second factor that fueled Petrarch’s humanism was his preoccupation with religion. Intellectuals of the two intellectual generations before Petrarch had been fascinated with the classical world; they had embraced a precise and classicizing Latinity, and they had shared in the evolving historical sense that grew along with this love of classical sources. Petrarch, however, took these engagements and redirected them. Drawing inspiration from classical sources, he used these sources and others in his constant, self-directed quest to become a better person and a better Christian. He derided contemporary scholastic philosophers (with the rhetorical exaggeration characteristic of his age) not only for their un-classical Latin style, but also because, in focusing, he claimed, too exclusively on non-Christian sources of philosophy, they actually veered dangerously close to rejecting true Christianity.

Petrarch’s religiosity was related directly and inevitably to his historical sense, and it teaches an important lesson to anyone who might un-historically equate humanism with anti-religiosity. If there is anything permanent and enduring about humanism, it is this: its leading figures, in whatever epoch, have always had the ability to situate themselves convincingly, effectively, and unflinchingly in the present. In Petrarch’s day, an integral part of this “present” was, in the west, Christianity. This is not to say that Petrarch necessarily supported institutional Christianity or its various epiphenomena, such as the papal court (which Petrarch lambasted in his letter-collection entitled Sine nomine, “Without a Name” as having abandoned its true mission) or certain segments of contemporary universities leading to the teaching of theology, the “Queen of the sciences.”

This anti- or extra-institutional bent represents the third formative aspect of Petrarch’ humanism and the one that lasted most durably throughout humanism’s history. Petrarch’s life was marked by itinerancy. He tended to travel where patronage was available, working at different times for a Cardinal, the Visconti despots of Milan, the Carrara of Padua, and the republic of Venice; clearly he had various institutional affiliations, and yet he still managed to express his own viewpoints in his writings. He expressed his identity as an intellectual from a deliberately extra-institutional vantage point. Petrarch served as the first humanist in Renaissance Europe to point out the dangerous sterility of intellectual orthodoxies, the way that intellectuals, gathered in groups and institutionally enfranchised, allowed themselves to reproduce in a social sense, stifling creativity. Renaissance humanists after Petrarch did not, by and large, cause by their writings great changes in institutional structures – the methods of elementary and secondary education, those of university learning, or the morality of the papal court – but they did serve as a voice advocating critique of fixed ideas. In one important respect, too, humanists did make an inroad: in their reform of the official language of education, Latin, a reform whose consequences for the life of humanism thereafter were momentous. In the five intellectual generations after Petrarch in Italy, humanists succeeded in fundamentally changing the way Latin was employed (Celenza[b]). First, from Petrarch’s day to the early fifteenth century and a thinker named Coluccio Salutati (1331-1406), in recognizing that the Latin currently in use did not match ancient Latin, humanists developed some of the toolkit we associate with historical thinking. Then, by the middle of the fifteenth century, humanists successfully imitated ancient Ciceronian Latin to such an extent that it became the gold standard of elite educations. In their dialogues, histories, orations, and letters, humanists such as Leonardo Bruni (1370-1444) and Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459) turned humanism’s sharp critical eye on contemporary society and made Latin an acceptable vehicle for a new kind of literature.

Italian humanism took a turn toward the philological in the mid to late fifteenth century, as its two most brilliant exponents, Lorenzo Valla (1405/7-57) and Angelo Poliziano (1454-94) went beyond the now achieved objective of successful imitation of classical Latin. Both wrote outstanding pieces of creative philosophical literature in Latin, with Valla concentrating much of his energy on what he perceived to be a Christianity gone astray. His penetrating dialogues, like his On Free Will or his On the Profession of the Religious ask some of early modern Christianity’s most penetrating questions: How can it be that a supremely good being, God, seems to allow people, his creations, freely to choose to perform evil acts, when with His omnipotence He could easily prevent them from doing so? What is the nature of the status of those who have taken religious vows? Does their vow count as a meritorious work and therefore bring them closer ipso facto to heaven, or are Christians who have not taken a vow equally rewarded if they have lived a just life? Since these works are true dialogues and thus at points strategically ambiguous, Valla’s messages, his powerful and controversial questioning, come through in a fashion that is more subterraneous than direct (Celenza[a], 85-100). Poliziano, an accomplished Tuscan poet, taught at the University of Florence, and he enjoyed at the same time Medici patronage. As he taught he wrote some of his most scintillating Latin works to accompany or to aid his teaching: sometimes these took the form of poetic introductions to the texts he was to teach in his courses, other times small but virtuosic solutions to textual problems in classical works which he then collected into his masterpiece of scholarship, the Miscellanies, still other times lengthier introductions, or praelectiones to the texts of his course, written in precise, elegant, and highly individualistic Latin.

Finally, by the late fifteenth century the ability to write acceptably classical Latin became routine among educated elites. Thereafter, the historical sense, the irony, the propensity to take the (sometimes imagined) position of the outsider in relation to existing intellectual institutions, all of these made their way outside of Italy, even as, within Italy, many of those inherently humanistic traits were transferred to the vernacular.

Part of the success of Italian Renaissance humanists had also to do with a factor that was, loosely speaking, curricular. In 1440, in a suggested library acquisitions list prepared for Cosimo de’ Medici, for the first time we see mentioned together a group of five, verbally oriented academic subjects. These subjects (grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry, and moral philosophy, known together as the studia humanitatis or “the humanities”) had been at the unarticulated center of the humanist movement since Petrarch (Kristeller; Kohl). They were at the center in the sense that it was these subjects that humanists cared about most, the ones in which and through which they discovered, learned, and employed their new Latin style. They were the subjects to which humanists referred obliquely when they talked about “these studies of ours” (haec nostra studia), as did so many in correspondence with one another. Humanists, especially in the early phases of the movement, were not always able to implement this new curricular and stylistic ideal in their practical, day-to-day work as educators, secretaries to princes or cardinals, or governmental bureaucrats. Still, these verbal arts represented an important thread that remained woven deep within humanism’s genetic texture from this point onward.

Humanism as a movement for stylistic reform of Latin succeeded completely on the level of education. From the era of Pietro Bembo (1470-1547), who wrote a definitive work on the Italian vernacular in 1525, Latin and the vernacular came to have clearly defined places, both within Italy and without. The vernacular, evaluated on classicizing lines, became a language suitable for serious intellectual work, in a way that only Latin previously had been. At the same time the basic language of western education was Latin, and the Latin in use from the early sixteenth century onward in education was basically Ciceronian. It is an easy, relatively uncontroversial thing to trace the progress of certain subjects, the studia humanitatis, for example. It is more difficult but no less useful to attempt to delineate how this verbal turn among certain intellectuals adumbrated what would turn out to be humanism’s greatest triumph: the definition and celebration of the individual human person, as a being in whom certain rights inhere precisely by virtue of being human. The full realization of this complex group of factors did not come to fruition until the eighteenth century.

In the meantime, Italian humanism’s main scholarly thrusts – a purified Latinity, a delight in the recovery of ancient classical texts, a concern for source criticism, a dialogical, sometimes ambiguous irony fueled by history, and an occasional propensity to take the posture of the iconoclastic outsider – took hold throughout early modern Europe in different ways. The most famous humanist of the early sixteenth century, Erasmus (1466-1536), performed numerous works of scholarship, not least his editing of the New Testament in Greek and his providing, quite controversially, a new Latin translation, a corrective to the Vulgate then in use, on which his Italian forbear Lorenzo Valla had earlier worked with acuity. In his own Latin writings he provided beautifully written short works, his Colloquies, designed to help schoolboys learn their Latin. Erasmus combined creativity and scholarship in one of his bestselling works, the Adages – a collection, which grew with every new edition, of proverbs annotated and explained by Erasmus with scholarly virtuosity. His fame was diffused throughout the learned world by constant letter writing, as he wrote letters that today illuminate the intellectual world of Renaissance humanism invaluably. His most lasting work, the Praise of Folly, served as a summing up of earlier Renaissance humanism. In it, Erasmus recapitulated Italian humanism’s penchant for a deliberately dialogical type of philosophizing, whereby the reader is made into a silent but powerful interlocutor: the narrator, “Folly,” is as such inherently unreliable, but she skewers mercilessly and humorously institutionalized learning and religion in a way that would have been familiar to Erasmus’s fifteenth-century Italian forebears. The work looks forward as well, in the sense that its boldness highlights a freedom of thought and expression soon to be extinguished by the forces of religious ideology. Most of Erasmus’s works were placed on the 1559 Index of Prohibited Books, a phenomenon that signals that the broader intellectual underpinnings of Italian humanism would be transformed decisively.

Vernacular early modern literature took some of the tendencies of Italian humanism and made them more broadly available. Michel de Montaigne (1533-92), who “never saw a greater monster or miracle” than himself, wrote his Essays to express his innermost feelings and predilections even as he was well aware of the impressions these would foster in the world of possible elite readers, accustomed as many were to norms of social restraint which had taken hold of elite Europe in the growing age of sovereign states. Montaigne’s self-scrutiny represented one result of the occasional focus on the individual person that reached back to the days of Petrarch. Another result of humanism’s growth was the continued interest in the kind of philological scholarship at which Poliziano had been adept. Figures like Isaac Casaubon (1559-1614) and Joseph Scaliger (1540-1609) brought their immense erudition to bear on a variety of Greek and Latin texts and produced definitive, lasting critical editions of them. In doing so they and others like them laid the groundwork for the encyclopedic scholarship characteristic of the Enlightenment. In turn, Enlightenment thinkers of various stripes, informed by ancient sources and having fully assimilated what was then available, went on to provide the foundations of modern humanism by coming to certain conclusions about the nature of the human person. The late eighteenth century saw the theory of the individual take shape effectively, for it was only then that the concept of the individual was buttressed in practice by being included, eventually, in law. One can add that thinkers such as John Locke (1632-1704), Voltaire (1694-1778), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78), differed in many respects, but in one they were united: they agreed that many of the social structures that evolve as people gather into groups can become stale, stultifying, intellectually sterile, and even patently immoral in their effects. Since there were limits to human understanding, it was important to come to an understanding of what those limits were and then base one’s theories and actions on the limits of that sphere.

These notions tended naturally to a lack of respect for traditional religion and a corresponding fear that the place of the transcendent would be erased from human life. In response to the seemingly anti-religious tendencies of British empiricism and French Enlightenment anti-religiosity, German thinkers such as Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-68), Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-81), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805), and others, all in their own way stressed the human but in a larger context. Themselves not lovers of traditional religion (in most cases Lutheranism), these thinkers drew inspiration from the ancient Greek world, finding there a love of harmony and beauty that they idealized. Early nineteenth-century thinkers such as Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) and Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) helped to translate these predispositions into a pedagogical program, and it was out of this environment that the word “humanism,” Humanismus, has its origin. The centrality of the classical Hellenic world meant largely an idealization of Plato and the creation of Plato as predominantly a metaphysical rather than a dialogical thinker. Secure in the knowledge of the eternal transcendent forms, humankind could dedicate itself to the pursuit of beauty and virtue without the structures of organized religion but grounded in the knowledge that transcendence existed. Another way to put this, and one from which many German thinkers drew inspiration, was related to the philosophy of the infinite, represented by Immanuel Kant (1722-1804). Humankind could be logically sure that infinity existed but could never fully know it in this world, even as the existence of the infinite provided mystery and inspiration to those pursuing truth. It was on this trajectory that the modern research university was set in the early nineteenth century, in the 1810 reform of the University of Berlin.

At the same time a radical change in the discipline of “philosophy” -- so implicated in the question of humanism -- occurred. Philosophy became professionalized in university settings, and as the first modern histories of philosophy were written, it was the metaphysical style of philosophy, associated with the idealization of Platonism, which received most emphasis (Celenza[c]). Late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century “Humanism,” or what is sometimes known as “neohumanism” (Neuhumanismus) became, in effect, idealism. Yet the encyclopedic, canon-expanding, and philological style of humanist thinking never died. One saw this style of thought in Valla and Poliziano, in the great early modern philologists, and even in the propensity toward encyclopedism that so entranced Enlightenment thinkers of all philosophical bents. Detail-oriented, this type of scholarship is inherently anti-metaphysical, suspicious of large umbrella-like theories which tend to obscure individual counter-examples, and is best seen in its modern form in the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). With respect to the classical tradition, Nietzsche presents the beginnings of a problem that would bedevil humanist thinking in the twentieth century. Before writing his Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche had received one of the best classical educations available in the neohumanist mode, at a classically oriented high school known as the Schulpforta in Naumburg, relatively near Leipzig and Halle. From his graduation onward, Nietzsche began publishing precise philological articles, and though the Birth of Tragedy signaled a departure in style, in substance throughout his career he remained a devotee of philology (Porter). For example, in his Genealogy of Morality, Nietzsche demolishes the notion that the ancient, pre-Socratic Greeks believed in an idealized transcendent world. For Homeric Greeks, he suggests, an action that they might have designated with the word “good” (agathos) did not mean that they believed that action somehow corresponded to a transcendent realm of “goodness” (a staple of the Platonic tradition, especially as this was refracted through German idealist interpretations). Instead, the Good, Nietzsche argued, represented no more than this: what the “good people,” the agathoi – in effect, the power-wielding nobility – did or deemed acceptable (Gen. Mor., 1).

The case of Nietzsche indicates the twin face of classically influenced humanism and the propensity its proponents have often shown to veer off into extremes. On the one hand, the dignity of humankind can sometimes be raised, rhetorically, to such a metaphysical level that it becomes anti-historical. Celebratory “humanists” of this orientation idealize humanity to such an extent that they are forced to find and ultimately bow before transcendent realms unable to be accessed in the world of day-to-day life. The danger is that one forgets the power of culture and history to shape events and becomes instead enamored of absolute ideas. One leaves people out. On the other hand, the philological side of humanism – the side whose representatives want to count every example and counter-example, to leave no text out, and to expand canons ever outward – tends when taken to extremes to set no limits and to veer off into nihilistic destructiveness. Here the danger is that, with no idealism of any sort, nothing is left unscathed, so that there is no persuasive way to make a case for any rules whatsoever: socially reproduced power rules all, and one realizes one has arrived at this point only after it is too late.

Reflecting on the classical tradition and its relation to humanism, one might wonder whether we have reached that point now. Most of our current laws and public ethical frameworks are based on the notion of a stable human person. This “person” is conceived as a being in whom certain rights reside and from whom certain obligations, conditioned by learning and culture, are expected. Yet it now seems that the value of learning and culture (with its accompanying social disciplining effects, both good and ill) has been deemphasized in favor of the seemingly more predictable controlling mechanisms of natural science. One wonders whether the classical virtues of historically informed moderation might help in returning meaningful discussion of the human to the forefront, or whether, because of the inexorable march of natural science, the human – as one of Nietzsche’s most destructive spiritual children, Michel Foucault, put it – will be “erased, like a face drawn in the sand at the edge of the sea.” (Foucault, 387)

Bibliography and abbreviations:

Paul Richard Blum, Philosophieren in der Renaissance (Stuttgart, 2004). August Buck, ed., Humanismus: Seine europäische Entwicklung in Dokumenten und Darstellungen (Freiburg and Munich, 1987). A. Campana, “The Origin of the Word ‘Humanist,’” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Insititutes 9 (1946): 60-73. Celenza(a) = Christopher S. Celenza, The Lost Italian Renaissance: Humanists, Historians, and Latin’s Legacy (Baltimore, 2004). Celenza(b) = idem, “Petrarch, Latin, and Italian Renaissance Latinity,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 35 (2005): 509-36. Celenza(c) = idem, “Lorenzo Valla and the Traditions and Transmissions of Philosophy,” Journal of the History of Ideas (2005): 483-506. DK = Hermann Diels and Walther Kranz, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, 6th ed. (Berlin, 1952). Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, English tr. of Les mots et les choses (1966) (New York, 1994). Francis Fukuyama, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution (New York, 2002). Vito Giustiniani, “Homo, Humanus, and the Meanings of ‘Humanism’,” Journal of the History of Ideas 46 (1985): 167-95. Benjamin Kohl, “The Changing Concept of the Studia Humanitatis in the Early Renaissance,” Renaissance Studies 6 (1992): 185-209. Paul O. Kristeller, “Humanism and Scholasticism in Renaissance Italy,” Byzantion 17 (1944-45): 346-74, now in Kristeller, Studies in Renaissance Thought and Letters, v.1:553-83. Lorenzo Minio-Paluello, ed., Aristoteles Latinus (Bruges, 1953-). James I. Porter, Nietzsche and the Philology of the Future (Palo Alto, 2000). Friedrich I. Niethammer, Der Streit des Philanthropinismus und Humanismus in der Theorie des Erziehungs-Unterrichts Unserer Zeit (Jena, 1808). Peter Singer, The Animal Liberation Movement: Its Philosophy, Its Achievements, and its Future (Nottingham, 1985). Ronald G. Witt, In the Footsteps of the Ancients: The Origins of Humanism from Lovato to Bruni (Leiden, 2000).

Publisher: Pázmány University Electronic Press - Budapest, ISSN 1785-6515
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