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ACADEMIC AMERICAN ENCYCLOPEDIA
Humanism, an educational and philosophical outlook that
emphasizes the personal worth of the individual and the central
importance of human values as opposed to religious belief,
developed in Europe during the RENAISSANCE, influenced by the
study of ancient Greek and Latin literature and philosophy.
Humanism thus began as an educational program called the
humanities, which inculcated those ancient secular values which
were consistent with Christian teachings. The Renaissance
humanists were often devout Christians, but they promoted
secular values and a love of pagan antiquity.
The founder of Renaissance humanism was PETRARCH (1304-74), an
Italian poet and man of letters who attempted to apply the
values and lessons of antiquity to questions of Christian faith
and morals in his own day.
By the late 14th century, the term studia
humanitatis ("humanistic studies") had come to mean a
well-defined cycle of education, including the study of
grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry, and moral philosophy, based
on Latin authors and classical texts. Key in ensuring the
permanence of humanism after Petrarch's initial success was the
Florentine chancellor Coluccio Salutati (1331-1406), who wrote
many learned treatises and kept up a massive correspondence
with his literary contemporaries. Salutati, together with his
younger follower Leonardo Bruni (1369-1444), used the studia
humanitatis as the basis for a life of active service to state
and society. Bruni in particular created a new definition of
Florence's republican traditions, and defended the city in
panegyrics and letters.
The 14th-century humanists had relied mainly on Latin. In the
early 15th century, however, classical Greek became a major
study, providing scholars with a fuller, more accurate
knowledge of ancient civilization. Included were many of the
works of Plato, the Homeric epics, the Greek tragedies, and the
narratives of Plutarch and Xenophon. Poggio Bracciolini
(1380-1459), a chancellor of Florence and papal secretary,
discovered important classical texts, studied Roman ruins and
inscriptions, and created the study of classical archaeology.
Poggio also criticized the corruption and hypocrisy of his age
in biting satire and well-argued dialogues. Lorenzo Valla (c.
1407-57), one of the greatest classical scholars and text
editors of his age, proved that the Donation of Constantine, a
medieval document that supported papal claims to temporal
authority, was a forgery.
The founding (c. 1450) of the Platonic Academy in Florence by
Cosimo de'Medici (see MEDICI family) signaled a shift in
humanist values from political and social concerns to
speculation about the nature of humankind and the cosmos.
Scholars such as Marsilio FICINO and Giovanni PICO DELLA
MIRANDOLA used their knowledge of Greek and Hebrew to reconcile
Platonic teachings with Jewish mysticism, the Hermetic
tradition (see HERMETIC LITERATURE), and Christian orthodoxy in
the search for a philosophia perennia (a philosophy that would
be always true).
The work of Italian humanists soon spread north of the Alps,
finding a receptive audience among English thinkers such as
John Colet (c. 1467-1519), who applied the critical methods
developed in Italy to the study of the Bible. Desiderius
ERASMUS of the Netherlands was the most influential of the
Christian humanists. In his Colloquies and Praise of Folly
(1509), Erasmus satirized the corruptions of his
contemporaries, especially the clergy, in comparison with the
teachings of the Bible, early Christianity, and the best of
In his Adages (1500 and later editions), he
showed the consistency of Christian teachings with ancient
pagan wisdom. Erasmus devoted most of his energy and learning,
however, to establishing sound editions of the sources of the
Christian tradition, such as his Greek New Testament (1516) and
translations of the Greek and Latin FATHERS OF THE CHURCH.
Erasmus' friend Thomas MORE wrote yet another humanist critique
of society--Utopia (1516), which attacked the corruptions of
power, wealth, and social status. By the middle of the 16th
century humanism had won wide acceptance as an educational
Later Types of Humanism
By the 18th century the word humanism had come to be identified
with a purely secular attitude--one that often rejected
Christianity altogether. In the 20th century the term has
taken on a number of different, often conflicting, meanings.
In the works of the pragmatist philosopher Ferdinand Schiller
(1864-1937) humanism is seen as that philosophical
understanding which stems from human activity. Irving BABBITT
used the word to describe a program of reaction against
romanticism and naturalism in literature. Jean Paul SARTRE
developed a scientific humanism preaching human worth based on
Marxist theory, and the Roman Catholic Jacques MARITAIN tried
to formulate a new Christian humanism based on the philosophy
of Thomas AQUINAS.
The American Humanist Association, which
grew out of the Unitarian movement, holds that human beings can
satisfy religious needs from within, discarding the concept of
God as inconsistent with advanced thought and human freedom.
In recent years, fundamentalist Christian groups in the United
States have declared their opposition to "secular humanism," an
antireligious ideology that they believe pervades American
society, including the major churches, and that they blame for
its moral failings.
BENJAMIN G. KOHL
Bibliography: Garin, Eugenio, Italian Humanism (1966); Kohl,
Benjamin G., and Witt, Ronald G., eds., The Earthly Republic:
Italian Humanists on Government and Society (1978);
Kristeller, Paul O., Renaissance Thought and Its Sources
(1979); Nash, Paul, Models of Man (1968); Trinkaus, Charles,
The Scope of Renaissance Humanism (1983).
Copyright (c) 1990 Grolier Electronic Publishing, Inc. All rights reserved.
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