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Humanism, Renaissance

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-C018-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved March 24, 2019, from

Article Summary

The early nineteenth-century German educator, F.J. Niethammer, coined the word ‘humanism’, meaning an education based on the Greek and Latin classics. The Renaissance (for our purposes, Europe from about 1350 to about 1650) knew no such term. The Renaissance had, instead, the Latin phrase studia humanitatis (literally ‘the studies of humanity’), best translated ‘the humanities’. The Renaissance borrowed the phrase from classical antiquity. Cicero used it a few times, but it was the later grammarian Aulus Gellius who clearly equated the Latin word humanitas with Greek paideia, that is, with the classical Greek education of liberal learning, especially literature and rhetoric, which was believed to develop the intellectual, moral and aesthetic capacities of a child (pais in Greek; hence paideia).

Renaissance humanists understood by studia humanitatis a cycle of five subjects: grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history and moral philosophy, all based on the Greek and Latin classics. A humanist was an expert in the studia humanitatis. The dominant discipline was rhetoric. Eloquence was the highest professional accomplishment of the Renaissance humanists, and rhetorical interests coloured humanists’ approach to the other parts of the studia humanitatis. The Renaissance humanists were the successors of the medieval rhetorical tradition and the resuscitators of the classical rhetorical tradition. Renaissance humanism was, in the words of P.O. Kristeller, ‘a characteristic phase in what may be called the rhetorical tradition in Western culture’ ([1955] 1961: 11).

Renaissance humanism was neither a philosophy nor an ideology. It reflected no fixed position towards religion, the state, or society. Rather it was a cultural movement centred on rhetoric, literature and history. Its leading protagonists held jobs primarily as teachers of grammar and literature. Outside academia, they served as secretaries, ambassadors and bureaucrats. Some were jurists. The Renaissance humanists reasserted the importance of the humanities against the overwhelming dominance of philosophy and science in medieval higher education. As humanism penetrated the wider culture, it was combined with other disciplinary interests and professions so that one found humanist philosophers, physicians, theologians, lawyers, mathematicians and so forth.

Ideologically humanists were a varied lot. Some were pious, some were not. Some were interested in philosophy, most were not. Some became Protestants, others remained Catholic. Some scorned the vernacular while others made important contributions to it. Humanism influenced virtually every aspect of high culture in the West during the Renaissance. Depending on the humanist under discussion, one can legitimately speak of Christian humanism, lay humanism, civic humanism, Aristotelian humanism and other combinations.

Humanism had a profound effect on philosophy. Writing outside the philosophical establishment, humanists sought to make philosophy more literary in presentation and more amenable to rhetorical concerns. No less importantly, they recovered and translated into Latin a large reservoir of Greek classical texts unknown or ignored in the Middle Ages. Platonism, Stoicism, Epicureanism and scepticism all experienced revivals. The humanists challenged medieval Aristotelianism by offering new Latin translations of Aristotle that in some respects amounted to fresh interpretations. They also significantly enriched the Aristotelian corpus by translating the Poetics and the late ancient Greek commentators on Aristotle.

Renaissance humanism arose out of the peculiar social and cultural circumstances of thirteenth-century Italy. It came to maturity in Italy in the fifteenth century and spread to the rest of Europe in the sixteenth. It gradually lost its vitality in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as its focus on Latin eloquence became out of date in a world increasingly won over to the vernacular literatures and new science. In the nineteenth century, it did not so much die as become metamorphosed. Renaissance humanism sloughed off its rhetorical impulse and became modern scholarly classicism. Today the word humanism has taken on new connotations, but the heritage of Renaissance humanism runs deep in our culture. As long as we continue to value literature and history, and the functional skills and cultural perspective attached to these disciplines, every educated person by training will be a humanist in the Renaissance sense.

Citing this article:
Monfasani, John. Humanism, Renaissance, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-C018-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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