Humanism doesn’t get much good press these days. In many circles it comes accompanied by an adjective—secular—and a diatribe:
A war of philosophy and of what defines morality is being fought daily in the media, judicial benches, and legislative halls across the Western world. … On one side stand fundamentalist Protestantism and conservative Catholicism and on the other side secular humanism. The “religious right” claims that humanism is dragging the United States into an abyss of crime and relativism. … But throughout the 1800s proponents of humanism claimed scientific discovery discounted biblical accuracy. Evolution became the humanists’ answer to creation. Eventually, the religious beliefs of deism and the humanism of the 18th century evolved into modern secular humanism.
Now I don’t want to discuss religion per se here, which is something my mother taught me is unwise (except among very close friends.)What I do want to do is to suggest that once we historicize the term “humanism,” this binary understanding, like many others, is shown to be false.
The term “humanist” first came into regular usage in the early Italian Renaissance. Its nuances vary depending on which of the three key twentieth-century historians of humanism we choose to foreground. Paul Oskar Kristeller, for example, explains that the humanists came together in an effort to make two changes in the educational practices of their day. First, they worked to replace the seven medieval liberal arts, which were divided into language –and mathematically–based sections, with five disciplines that focused on what it means to be human: grammar and rhetoric, which we need to communicate with one another; moral philosophy, which we need to act properly; history, which is the record of our actions; and poetry, which reflects the artistic part of the human spirit. And second, we need to take as models the best people who ever lived, the Greeks and Romans.
Hans Baron, on the other hand, emphasized the social and political environment in which humanism developed. Zoom in to Florence at the turn of the fifteenth century. The upper classes were divided into two camps, one that favored a withdrawal from the aggravations of everyday life to study the classics, and another that favored a life of political involvement focused on the present. But grave danger threatened when the ruler of Milan bore down on Florence with a hostile army. Facing this threat, the two camps came together to defend the republican values of Florence, both with the sword and the pen, using Greek and Latin literature for propaganda alongside cannons and arrows for defense: Leonardo Bruni, for example, referenced Tacitus to argue that republics produced better people than monarchies. The Milanese ruler died before he could take the city, but the civic humanism that was born then in Renaissance Florence endured in various forms for centuries.
Finally, Eugenio Garin looked at humanism from another angle. Medieval thought tended toward the abstract and theoretical: how many angels, one might speculate, could dance on the head of a pin? Renaissance humanism, however, turned to the practical and concrete, to how real people had once lived, in specific historical circumstances. Our curiosity about the past should properly center on Greece and Rome, whose inhabitants were particularly interesting and demand to be understood as different from us, and worth studying in their differences.
So what is missing from all three of these explanations? The answer: a hostility to Christianity—indeed, there was no fundamental incompatibility between humanism and religion during this period. As a number of scholars have noted, Renaissance people, like people today, could be more or less pious, but unlike today, atheism as an intellectual category did not really exist yet.
Francesco Petrarca, the father of Renaissance humanism, held a minor position in the church; Ambrogio Traversari, a well-known Florentine humanist, was a monk; and Basilios Bessarion was a cardinal. The major intellectual project of Marsilio Ficino, another famous Florentine humanist, was to demonstrate the compatibility of Plato and Christianity, and he wrote a spirited defense of his faith; Maffeo Vegio divided his literary output between religious works and classicizing literature. Desiderius Erasmus, who is probably the most famous intellectual of the period, is another example of a scholar who devoted his life to integrating religion and humanistic studies.
To be sure, the Renaissance brought shifts in emphasis away from the medieval focus on the abstractions of systematic theology. The favorite Bible verse of the humanists, for example, is Genesis 1:26: “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness.”’ Attention shifted to the Incarnation, and people meditated on the life of Jesus, on his humanity as well as his divinity. The life and work of Plato mattered, but so did the life and work of Jesus.
So humanism, historically positioned, should indeed come accompanied by an adjective, but a different one: Christian.
Featured image credit: The Creation of Adam from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, 1511 by Michelangelo Buonarroti, by sailko. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.