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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.

Renaissance Humanism

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

pagan thinkers.

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.


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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