An Essay by Jason Jewell
[ in partial fulfillment of Ph. D. comprehensive exams in humanities at Florida State University]
In the course of my high school and undergraduate study, I was exposed to several conflicting ideas about humanism, ideas which I did not examine closely at the time but will attempt to sort out in the following pages. My exposure to humanism was limited, in any event. When I took a Renaissance course at Florida State, I might have expected to cover the topic in more detail. However, the professor's approach to the Renaissance was, from my standpoint, quite unusual, for he treated it as a five-hundred-year process, following the model found in Lauro Martines's Power and Imagination, in which the Italian cultural flowering of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was the end result of a lengthy process of social change beginning in the eleventh century. The bulk of the course was spent covering the political structures of the northern Italian city-states and other related topics. The subject of humanism was not broached until relatively late in the semester, at which point the Italian humanists received attention in two or three lectures, while the northern humanists merited a like number. Several important humanists, such as Poggio Bracciolini and Conrad Celtis, were never mentioned, either in lecture or in our graduate-hour discussions. In fact, the only humanists we discussed in detail were Petrarch, Erasmus, and Machiavelli, and the latter was not even presented as having been a humanist. Needless to say, when I began looking at Renaissance humanism in some detail in preparing to write this essay, I felt to a degree that I was entering unfamiliar territory.
I soon realized that I could not be satisfied with a simple definition of humanism, such as the one I found in Jonathan Zophy's textbook on the Renaissance: "a movement which encouraged the study of the form and content of classical learning."(1) I began to gain an appreciation for the complexity of the humanist movement and the ways in which it evolved over the course of two centuries. At the same time, I held firm to the notion that there must be some characteristics, however few, which distinguished all humanists, from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries and from the south to the north. In addition, as I considered these problems, I remained dimly aware that my ultimate goal is to be able to explain all of this in terms which college freshmen can understand. This essay is my attempt to deal with all these issues.
In his essay "Renaissance Humanism's Formation and Development," Charles Trinkaus defines humanism as "the sum total of the activities, ideas, and direct influence of the Italian humanists."(2) I decided my first goal in reaching a better understanding of Renaissance humanism should be to decide which characteristics applied to all humanists. This led me to the problem of how to define "humanist." Obviously, the criteria I used to determine who was and who was not a humanist would have a bearing on my conclusions about humanism as a cultural phenomenon. According to Paul Oskar Kristeller, "Humanista in Latin, and its vernacular equivalents in Italian, French, English, and other languages, were terms commonly used in the sixteenth century for the professor or teacher or student of the humanities."(3)
This definition is very simple and straightforward if the term "humanities" is itself understood. Kristeller states that "humanities" is derived from studia humanitatis, a term which had been used since ancient times and which by the early fourteenth century and through the sixteenth century denoted "a clearly defined cycle of scholarly disciplines, namely grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry, and moral philosophy," all of which were to be studied in part by reading their "standard ancient writers in Latin and, to a lesser extent, in Greek."(4) Unfortunately, I found myself unable to apply the sixteenth-century definition of "humanist"which I take to mean as encompassing only those who were involved in education in a formal role as school teachers or university professorsstrictly, because to do so would eliminate from the ranks of the humanists some who clearly are considered as such by nearly all scholars, notably some distinguished civil servants such as Coluccio Salutati and Leonardo Bruni. Kristeller himself seems to bend this definition later by including "secretaries to princes or cities" alongside teachers; he also leaves room among humanists for those with still different occupations, leaving me unclear as to what specific criteria he uses to determine one's status as a humanist.(5)
Other empirical definitions of "humanist" proved to be unsatisfying as well. I considered adding to my list of humanists "professional rhetoricians" along with the educators in the humanities, as did Kristeller, but this too excluded figures such as Petrarch, who was wealthy enough not to find any kind of employment necessary. In the end, after examining all my sources, I formed the distinct impression that, with a few exceptions, there is in fact a certain broad agreement among scholars as to who the humanists were, even if there is not as much agreement on what humanism is. Therefore, I decided that, when I searched for common characteristics among the humanists, I would rely on this consensus to tell me who the humanists were, noting whenever there was disagreement about a particular individual. Once I had identified as many common characteristics as possible, I could use those characteristics as part of a working definition for "humanist." I felt this was the best I could do with my limited background in the subject.
After settling on this method of identifying humanists, I began eliminating alleged characteristics of Renaissance humanism that were part of the received impressions I had from popular literature and superficial study. I identified more of these false features of humanism than I had expected, partly because of my flawed understanding of humanism's evolution. What was true of humanists in certain places and times was not always universal, and it took some time for me to develop a more flexible construct for what I saw as the "bare essentials" of the humanist movement.
The first misleading impression about Renaissance humanism, and the easiest one to dispel, is that it was an inherently anti-Christian movement. This is a view formulated by some nineteenth-century historians who believed that the religious reformations of the sixteenth century were in some sense a conservative Christian backlash against a pagan humanism which was undermining the hold of religion on Western European society.(6) It is certainly true that most humanists were laymen and had a more secular outlook than the intellectual elite of the Middle Ages. However, this was by no means universal among humanists. The very existence of the phenomenon referred to as "Christian humanism," of which the two chief figures were Desiderius Erasmus and Jacques Lefèvre d'Etaples, is enough evidence to persuade me that humanism was not in itself anti-Christian. All my sources cite these two advocates of a "Christian Renaissance" as humanists.
Moreover, even many of the Italian humanists were not as exclusively secular as is often supposed. In Rhetoric and Philosophy in Renaissance Humanism, Jerrold Seigel shows that several of them were concerned with religious matters and defended the superiority of Christian wisdom over pagan wisdom. In addition to Petrarch, whose religiosity is well established, Coluccio Salutati affirmed that there was no truth without Christianity.(7) Even Lorenzo Valla, at times a fierce critic of the papacy, criticized those humanists who were too enamored with the classical pagans.(8) Charles Trinkaus adds Gianozzo Manetti to the list of religious Italian humanists, citing his deep involvement in scriptural and patristic studies.(9) It is quite clear to me that while some humanists reveled in pagan ideas, irreligion or opposition to Christianity was not a basic characteristic of either Italian or northern Renaissance humanism.
A second misconception, related to the issue of religion, is that humanism advocated an active life of public service (la vita activa) as preferable to the medieval ideal of seclusion and contemplation (la vita contemplativa). There is more substance to this notion than there is to the one discussed above, for several prominent humanists took precisely this position. The most notable of these may have been Leonardo Bruni, who served as a papal secretary and later as Florence's chancellor in the first half of the fifteenth century. In addition, as I later found, the humanist program had several inherent characteristics which lent themselves to the ideal of the active life. However, I located enough exceptions to this rule to eliminate it as a basic feature of Renaissance humanism.
To begin with, Bruni's advocacy of la vita activa involved criticism of Petrarch, a humanist by all counts, who lived in "selfish" solitude and failed to take an active role in civic life.(10) Later, after Bruni's death, many humanists experienced a renewed interest in la vita contemplativa through Platonic philosophy; Angelo Poliziano and Cristoforo Landino are two examples of this trend.(11) The contemplative urge existed north of the Alps as well, perhaps to a greater degree than in Italy. Donald Kelley labels the impulse for withdrawal from the active life "uncivic" humanism and notes that it was often found among humanists.(12) So, while the active life was an important feature of Renaissance humanism at times, I found myself eliminating it from my list of universal characteristics. It is probably more accurate to say that tension between the active and contemplative ideals was a constant in humanism, and that individuals resolved the tension in different ways.
A third idea I dispensed with is that humanism was inevitably republican. Thanks to the work of Hans Baron, the connection between Renaissance humanism and republicanism has been discussed extensively in the last fifty years. Evidence for such a connection exists in the writings of Salutati, Bruni, and Pier Paolo Vergerio, among others. I will deal with Baron's The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance and the Florentine republican version of history shortly. At this point, while not denying that republicanism played an important role in the development of humanism, I will say only that it is quite clear that many humanists were not sympathetic to republican ideals.
Although he greatly admired Cicero's literary style, Petrarch criticized the Roman for resisting the transition from republic to monarchy.(13) Salutati himself upheld the superiority of monarchy in his old age in De Tyranno, despite his earlier praise for Cicero's political actions.(14) Likewise, Vergerio later retreated from his republican stance. He became one of many Italian humanists who served at despotic courts; Milan, Padua, and Ferrara were among the cities which attracted these learned men.(15) A similar situation existed north of the Alps, where humanism flourished at princely courts. Clearly, a strict equation of humanism with republican ideals will not do when I attempt to arrive at a broad understanding of the subject.
One misconception about Renaissance humanism which stayed with me longer than almost any other is that, when it came to classical philosophers, humanists were pro-Plato and anti-Aristotle. I now believe that this idea is the byproduct of an older view which holds that "the Renaissance was basically an age of Plato, whereas the Middle Ages had been an age of Aristotle."(16) Paul Kristeller has shown that this generalization, if it is to be accepted at all, should be seriously qualified. He makes two important observations. First, Aristotelian philosophy was not even firmly established as part of university curriculum in Italy until the late thirteenth century, which is also the period in which the beginnings of humanism are often identified. Second, the influence of Aristotle remained quite strong throughout the Renaissance period, peaking in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.(17)
Obviously, the Platonism of contemporary philosophers such as Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola was very influential for Italian humanists in the second half of the fifteenth century. Apparently, many humanists found Plato's ideas more easily adaptable to their Christian spiritual values and their belief in creation and immortality.(18) Also, there is ample evidence that humanists' critiques of established academic culture frequently took the form of criticism of Aristotle; Petrarch once wrote, "Plato is praised by the greater men, Aristotle by the bigger crowd."(19) It took me some time to get past these relatively well-known observations and realize that many humanists had a high regard for Aristotle and devoted considerable study to his works. Controversies which erupted between humanists and traditional interpreters of Aristotle often revolved around methodology and how the philosopher's thought should be approached. This ties in with the idea of viewing the classics in their historical context, which I shall discuss later. For now, I will simply give a few examples of humanists who were by no means anti-Aristotelian.
The civic humanist Leonardo Bruni was an admirer of Aristotle. It appears that this admiration dates from the period of Greek teacher Manuel Chrysoloras's sojourn in Florence in the last years of the fourteenth century. Bruni learned Greek from Chrysoloras and subsequently produced new translations of several of Aristotle's works.(20) In addition to writing a biography of the philosopher, Bruni mentioned him often in his letters and drew heavily on his ideas when writing Introduction to Moral Philosophy. He stated that his teaching was not exclusively Ciceronian, and that his literary course was a "combination of Aristotelian doctrine with Ciceronian style."(21) New translations of Aristotle by Bruni and other Italian humanists eventually had a significant impact and caused controversy with scholastics, in large part over the changes in terminology resulting from the humanists' interpretation of the original Greek texts. According to Kristeller, the changes introduced by the newer translations were profound enough to have the result of presenting "an Aristotle who was different from that of the medieval tradition."(22)
Translations were not the only means by which humanists altered traditional approaches to Aristotle. They also endeavored to discover the philosopher's "true" thought by dispensing with the many layers of scholastic commentary on his work which had accumulated over centuries. Petrarch's writings pointed in this direction in humanism's early days. Although he criticized Aristotle's writings on moral philosophy because of their lack of eloquence, he did allow that the philosopher's medieval commentators did not do full justice to his work.(23) Bruni continued this trend by making the argument that in reality Aristotle had been a man of eloquence, something the scholastics had simply failed to understand.(24) Jacques Lefèvre d'Etaples is a good example of how this tendency matured. In 1490, using the new translations and without resort to medieval commentaries, he published a simple, straightforward explanation of the ideas in the first six books of the Metaphysics. In subsequent years, he produced paraphrases and commentaries of many of Aristotle's other works.(25)
Humanist activities such as these were not anti-Aristotelian, but scholastic authorities on Aristotle viewed them as an infringement of their rightful sphere of influence. Humanist polemic against scholastics frequently exempted the philosopher, focusing merely on his interpreters. Taking into account the cultural and professional divisions in the Italian context, Paul Kristeller describes this war of words as "an understandable expression of departmental rivalry, . . . a phase in the everlasting battle of the arts of which many examples may be cited from ancient, medieval, or modern times."(26)
Not even all the adherents of Platonic thought among humanists were necessarily anti-Aristotelian. Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola are two of those Renaissance figures about whom there is apparently some disagreement as to whether they should be considered humanists. However, whether they themselves were humanists or not, there is no doubt that they influenced Florentine humanists to a large degree. Both Ficino and Pico had Aristotelian backgrounds, and elements of Aristotle remained in both their developed philosophies. Ficino did openly criticize Aristotle's rationalism, which he viewed as detrimental to faith.(27) Pico, however, defended Aristotelianism in a well-known letter to the Venetian humanist Ermolao Barbaro.(28) He also developed a view of human nature which has been described as "a special blend of Neoplatonic and Aristotelian philosophy."(29) These examples and others make it clear that a simple description of all humanists as pro-Plato and anti-Aristotle is not accurate.
The fifth misconception I had to jettison, and the one I held onto the longest, is that humanism was always anti-scholastic. Formerly, I had assumed that the rivalry between humanism and scholasticism was axiomatic, and indeed their methods were fundamentally different. I must confess that I was very surprised to find evidence that individual humanists were friendly with some scholastics and that humanists even defended scholasticism at times. My sense is that this was more common in the early stages of humanism's development in a given area, and that competition between the two groups became more intense as time went on.
Petrarch's criticism of scholastic methods is well known among students of the period. Despite this, the poet was friendly with individual scholastics at times. One of these friends, the Florentine Augustinian friar Luigi Marsili, became an even closer friend of Salutati.(30) The latter's affinity with scholasticism is noteworthy, although he also engaged its adherents in polemic at times. As a city official, Salutati was involved in affairs of the University of Florence, which had a scholastic bent. He wrote letters praising scholastic teachers the city was trying to attract, and corresponded with several such men. Occasionally, he even adopted scholastic procedures of argument and composition, as in the treatise De nobilitate legum et medicinae.(31)
Pico della Mirandola's support for Aristotelianism extended in some cases to support for scholastics as well. In the aforementioned letter to Ermolao Barbaro, Pico defended the "barbarians," writing, "The barbarians have had the god of eloquence not on the tongue, but in the heart. . . if eloquence they lacked, they did not lack wisdom."(32) Again, although there is disagreement over Pico's status as a humanist, his attitude may have influenced Florentine humanists, given his stature in their circles.
Defense of scholastics and scholasticism was not unknown among humanists in the north, either. It was most likely to be found among the earliest generations of humanists, mostly before 1500. These were the most conservative, and the least likely to make significant breaks with tradition. One early German humanist who falls into this category is Jacob Wimpheling, who defended scholastic learning in a book written in answer to a humanist pupil of his who had challenged scholasticism's value.(33) So even though humanists and scholastics were frequently at odds, there are several examples of good or at least neutral relations between them, and I do not think an ironclad categorization of humanists as anti-scholastic is appropriate.
Having examined and eliminated so many things that I had at one time or another considered part of humanism, I found myself agreeing with the assessment of Paul Kristeller, who stated that "Renaissance humanism was not as such a philosophical tendency or system."(34) Most of the other authors I have consulted cite Kristeller as a major influence, and on this point at least, they all appear to be in agreement, Hans Baron being a possible exception. Donald Kelley states unequivocally that humanism did not imply a particular ideological program.(35) Charles Trinkaus writes that Kristeller's position, while not completely immune to controversy, has achieved wide acceptance.(36) Charles Nauert agrees, writing, "On its own terms, this [Kristeller's] position is unassailable."(37) After seeing humanists on both sides of each of the issues I have outlined above, I must concur with these assessments.
Nevertheless, I was able to identify characteristics which were common to all the humanists I examined. I will begin with the well-known theme of the revival of antiquity, because I think that, in a way, the humanists' approach to this subject helped determine how they dealt with other fields. The most important characteristic of this approach is what Charles Nauert calls the "concept of historical discontinuity," which he credits Petrarch with having invented.(38) According to Nauert, medieval thinkers did not have a developed sense of the uniqueness of historical events. To Dante, for example, history was an "undifferentiated flow of time and events."(39) His civilization was essentially the same as Augustine's, Cicero's, or Aristotle's. The experiences and writings of these and other authorities were considered applicable to the present, without regard for the particular circumstances in which they took place.
I do think that this idea can be carried too far when applied to medieval thinkers, principally because Christianity as a religion is rooted in specific historical events: the Fall of Humanity; the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Christ; and Christ's future return. Medieval writers obviously had some sense of history where religion was concerned. The writings of Joachim of Fiore, for example, while not exactly accepted orthodoxy, posit three ages of humanity; Bernard of Clairvaux also had a tripartite conception of human history. In the Commedia Divina, Dante himself, perhaps reluctantly, excludes from salvation the virtuous pagans who lived before Christ's Incarnation.
However, I think that Nauert is largely correct in saying that medieval historical thinking differed from that of the Renaissance in important ways. Medieval thinkers did not give much consideration to the historical context in which an ancient workor a medieval one, for that matterhad been written. Issues of culture, language, and specific circumstances surrounding a text were largely ignored. Isolated statements were taken out of context and applied to issues which bore no connection to the issues the writer had been addressing; logical analysis, presumably, would be sufficient to determine whether the cited opinion was correct. Nauert points out the well-known Sentences and Sic et Non as examples of this kind of treatment of ancient "authorities."(40)
Petrarch's new way of thinking about historyat least secular historyled to a rejection of this scholastic method. This early humanist came to the conclusion that the culture of the period in which he lived was worthless. Indeed, human civilization had been in a "dark age" since the decline of Rome. Petrarch essentially invented a new period of history, the Middle Ages, for he considered himself to be on the threshold of a new era which would revive the cultural glory of ancient Rome. Once it is established that the cultures of different periods are substantially different, a logical extension of that thinking is that records of a particular period must be examined with attention to that period's culture. "Whereas earlier enthusiasts for ancient culture had regarded the ancients from a perspective firmly fixed in their own time, the humanists sought to approach classical culture from a point of view within the ancient world itself."(41)
Nauert considers this historical-mindedness of the humanists to be the basis for their interpretation of all classical authors, even those who were well known in the Middle Ages.(42) He also attributes the "individualism" noted by Jacob Burckhardt to the humanists' sense of standing at a turning point in human history. "Burckhardt made the mistake of putting a secondary characteristic, a heightened sense of individualism, in place of the truly primary characteristic, the new pattern of historical consciousness that emerged in the thought of Petrarch."(43) Nauert goes on to say that virtually all of the significant humanists after Petrarch, from Salutati to Erasmus, made similar claims of restoring true culture after centuries of barbarism. This claim, he says, was "the defining characteristic of Renaissance humanism."(44)
I think Nauert's emphasis on the humanists' sense of history is useful because it helps point out an important difference between the medieval and early modern eras. It has been shown by several scholars that medieval thinkers were familiar with most of the classical texts the humanists knew. The "rebirth" of classical culture implied by the very term Renaissance was not so much the result of new manuscript discoveries, although these did occur, but rather the result of looking at the classical past in a new way. Nauert believes that this new historical sense, in fact, is one key reason why many humanists such as Petrarch, Salutati, Poggio Bracciolini, and Niccolò Niccoli worked so hard to recover manuscripts of ancient authors.(45)
As I mentioned earlier when I dealt with the alleged anti-Christianity of humanism, many humanists did not advocate a complete revival of classical culture, for they considered pagan wisdom inferior to Christian wisdom. This factor was important in the debate between the "ancients" and "moderns," as Charles Trinkaus points out in his essay "Antiquity Versus Modernity." He lists several issues on which humanists could and did disagree, including which aspects of ancient culture should be acceptable to modern Christians, and whether classical ethics and the Christian life were relevant to each other.(46) For example, while some humanists, including Leonardo Bruni and Poggio Bracciolini, argued for the applicability of classical morals to contemporary Italian life, others, including Coluccio Salutati and Lorenzo Valla, argued that Christian teachings had superseded the ancients' ethics and that the ancients' virtuous acts were in fact motivated by selfish pride and ambition. Trinkaus summarizes the matter thus:
"There was then a continuing debate among the humanists from the time
of Petrarch to that of Erasmus over the proper use of ancient culture:
whether it was to be venerated and imitated as the all-time highest and
classical model or whether it was to be stripped of its philosophical and
religious content, but its instruments of learning, that is, the arts,
were to be taken over and utilized in the service of Christianity and humanity."(47)
I will consider this debate from another angle shortly. The point I want to make here is that I do not think the positions Nauert and Trinkaus take are necessarily in conflict. The debate Trinkaus describes was not over whether ancient culture should be utilized but over the extent of that utilization. Although the humanists disagreed, their debate took place within the framework of Petrarch's historical consciousness; they were trying to determine what part of the classical world was applicable to their own context. I would therefore categorize the concerns for historical context and classical revival as characteristics common to all Renaissance humanists.
Another theme common to the humanists is an affiliation with the studia humanitatis. As noted, Kristeller's view of humanism is closely linked with this group of five scholarly disciplines. Charles Trinkaus provides support for this position in the essay "A Humanist's Image of Humanism: The Inaugural Orations of Bartolommeo della Fonte."(48) Bartolommeo was a "minor humanist" who taught at the University of Florence in the 1480s. In a series of public orations given in those years, he vigorously defended each branch of the studia humanitatis, claiming that the humanistic disciplines were superior to the professions of law and medicine, which were competing with the humanities for funds from a common budget; the theme of departmental rivalry is quite visible here! Trinkaus states that Bartolommeo's self-consciousness about his profession, his academic mediocrity (except as a textual critic), and his tendency toward stock formulations and clichés in the orations are evidence that his views are probably very representative of prevailing opinions among humanists at the time.(49) He concludes that Kristeller's emphasis on the rhetorical aspects of humanism is correct.(50)
After examining all my sources, I have come to the conclusion that while not all humanists were professional educators or rhetoricians, they were all devoted to the studia humanitatis, although their stress on its various branches may have varied. For example, Petrarch considered himself a "poet" and "moral philosopher."(51) Lorenzo Valla is best remembered as a defender of rhetoric. Johann Reuchlin might be best classified as a grammarian, and Conrad Celtis was primarily a poet. Of course, most humanists, including the ones above, had overlapping interests within the studia.
The studia humanitatis is a more complex topic than I had realized at first. Kristeller's treatment of it, which I briefly described above, seemed to imply that it was a fairly narrow body of knowledge. However, that impression is misleading, for although this course of learning consisted of only five disciplines, it had very broad applications and implications. In my opinion, the strongest point of Donald Kelley's Renaissance Humanism is its systematic treatment of each branch of the studia humanitatis. In the final chapter, he states, "The five disciplines comprising the studia humanitatis underwent. . . many interconnections and associations with other fields of learningincluding law, theology, and philosophy."(52) He also writes that these disciplines displayed "imperialistic" tendencies, that over time they expanded, claiming more and more territory as their own.(53) This helps explain why humanists often wrote on topics which, to the modern reader, do not appear to be connected with grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history or moral philosophy. To sharpen my own understanding of humanism, I focused on three of these branches: grammar and rhetoric, which were the core of the studia, and moral philosophy, which contains many of the implications later realized in the humanist movement.
Grammar, the first of the five branches, was part of the medieval trivium. It was held to be the foundation of all the liberal arts and even the "cradle of philosophy."(54) Aeneas Sylvius (later Pope Pius II) wrote that it was "the portal to all knowledge whatsoever."(55) Grammar consisted primarily of study of the Latin language, but many humanists also learned Greek in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
The humanists approached grammar differently than the scholastics. The latter viewed the subject as a first step toward the learning of logic, and they based their study of it within an Aristotelian framework, making it highly abstract and analytical. The humanists viewed this method as artificial and opted for a different approach. "In general, humanist grammar represented a shift from the formal and structural approach of the Scholastic 'modists' (modisti) to a more semantic, historical, and relativist conception."(56) Humanists came to view the classical languages as products of usage, like the vernacular languages of their own day.
This is very important because it led to new developments in textual criticism. At its simplest level, grammar is concerned with dictionary meanings of terms. Combining this idea with a historical awareness of language as a cultural artifact brought a new appreciation for the complexities of dealing with ancient texts. "Classical and biblical scholars were confronted with questions of anachronism, the instability of meaning, cultural context, and various kinds of linguistic relativity."(57) According to Jerrold Seigel, most modern students agree that the humanists were the founders of philology.(58)
Charles Nauert credits Lorenzo Valla with the discovery that language is a cultural artifact, and he states that this discovery was, after Petrarch's discovery of historical discontinuity, the second truly new idea of Renaissance thought.(59) This concept was in a sense an extension of Petrarch's historical thought, and I see it as a good example of how humanist ideas, and the studia humanitatis itself, could evolve and expand. Valla put his philological skills to effective use, most famously in his debunking of the "Donation of Constantine." Those who came after him had a significant impact as well. Angelo Poliziano broke new ground in textual editing and annotation of the classics by relying on the oldest available manuscripts and by consulting collateral sources to find linguistic parallels.(60) Erasmus gained great fameor notoriety, depending on one's viewpointfor his translation of the New Testament from the Greek, in which he altered key doctrinal passages for linguistic reasons.
The example of Erasmus is a good one for seeing how the humanists and their methods became controversial. The issues he raised with his translation were merely philological on the surface. However, they implicitly affected important theological questions such as penance, and critics alleged that this "grammarian's" tinkering with the wording of scripture was subversive.(61) Leonardo Bruni received similar criticism for his translations of Aristotle; his most vocal critic, Alonzo Garcia of Cartagena, did not know Greek but believed that Bruni, a grammarian and orator, should not meddle with philosophical texts.(62) I believe Nauert is accurate in asserting that the source of much of the conflict between humanists and defenders of traditional learning is the former's claim on all ancient texts, for that implied a degree of control in all fields which relied on those texts, including law, medicine, and theology.(63) Such was the influence of the seemingly innocent discipline of gramar.
Rhetoric, another part of the trivium and the second discipline in the studia humanitatis, is also a complex subject and was arguably even more important to the humanists. Their emphasis on rhetoric was part of a changing perspective on the uniqueness of humanity, according to Donald Kelley. Medieval thinkers had considered the capacity to reason to be what separated humans from the rest of creation. Humanists thought differently; as Erasmus put it, "I have learned from Galen that what differentiates man from the animals, or brutes, as they are called, is not reason, but speech."(64) Given this viewpoint, naturally, mastery of the art of speech would be very desirable indeed. As with grammar, the humanists shifted away from logic towards a focus on language.
Coluccio Salutati wrote, "If men are clearly distinguished from other living creatures because they can use words, how much more excellent than other men is he who. . . stands forth with brilliant eloquence."(65) Contrary to modern usage, "eloquence" in the Renaissance was not primarily a term indicating aesthetic quality. Rather, "eloquence meant, above all, persuasive power. The orator sought to teach and to entertain his hearers, but most of all to move them, to persuade them."(66) To the humanists, cultivation of rhetoric was an important part of the revival of ancient culture. In his famous work praising the liberal arts, Pier Paolo Vergerio wrote,
Rhetoric. . . is strictly speaking the formal study by which we attain
the art of eloquence. . . . It is now, indeed, fallen from its old renown
and is well nigh a lost art. . . . Oratory, in which our forefathers gained
so great glory for themselves and for their language, is despised; but
our youth, if they would earn the repute of true education, must emulate
their ancestors in this accomplishment.(67)
Although it was an important force throughout the life of the movement, rhetoric was particularly significant in the early stages of humanism, in the context of the Italian city-states. Humanists in republican and despotic states alike were greatly valued for their ability to compose works in the finest Latin style for state occasions and diplomatic purposes; Giangaleazzo Visconti of Milan said that one letter from Salutati, the Florentine chancellor, was "worth a contingent of cavalry."(68)
In the fifteenth century, at least, one of the most important issues involving rhetoric was its relationship to philosophy. Which was to be more highly prized, the content of a work or the form in which it was presented? Jerrold Seigel addresses this topic in his book Rhetoric and Philosophy in Renaissance Humanism. He notes that a key issue with which thinkers since Cicero had wrestled was the opposing ways by which the disciplines of rhetoric and philosophy approached the problem of knowledge. The philosopher seeks knowledge superior to opinion or customary belief, but the rhetorician is bound by the limitations of his audience.(69)
Seigel examines how Petrarch, Salutati, Bruni, and Valla dealt with this problem. Petrarch was very aware of the inherent contradictions between the goals of rhetoric and philosophy, but he maintained their unity as an ideal. He revived Cicero's views, which placed moral philosophy in the domain of the orator.(70) He gravitated toward the classical Peripatetic philosophers, believing that their message of excellence in everyday life and society harmonized best with rhetoric, but he also felt that the Stoic virtues, which could not be achieved within humanity's ordinary limits, were the ways to achieve the highest standards. Therefore, his writings contain inconsistencies which he was never able to resolve fully.(71)
Salutati inherited Petrarch's ideal of combining rhetoric and philosophy, but he also had to deal with the growing realization that contemporary scholastics were heirs to an anti-rhetorical tradition which also dated from classical times. Furthermore, "the recognition that the scholastics were, after all, philosophers in a sense in which the humanists were not, could not always be avoided."(72) Like Petrarch, Salutati tried to combine Peripatetic and Stoic principles, and like Petrarch's, his writings are marked with the same inconsistencies. Late in his life, Salutati argued with Poggio Bracciolini over Petrarch's statuspart of the "antiquity versus modernity" conflict to which I alluded above. Concerned that the younger humanists were exalting classical form above all else at the expense of content, Salutati finally subordinated eloquence to wisdom, showing that "even in the hands of the humanists themselves, the slogan of a combination of rhetoric and philosophy could be turned against the culture of professional rhetoricians."(73)
Bruni and Valla responded to Salutati's challenge in different ways. Bruni attempted to increase the humanists' claims to be men of wisdom as well as men of eloquence. Unlike Petrarch and Salutati, he appears never to have voiced a criticism of rhetoric or doubted its compatibility with philosophy. He downplayed the differences among ancient philosophical schools and stressed their similarities, avoiding the split personality his predecessors had displayed regarding the Peripatetics and Stoics, and justifying his own emphasis on Aristotle.(74) By claiming "the philosopher" for the humanist movement and by portraying him as a man of eloquence through new translations, Bruni was shielding rhetoric from attacks in philosophy's name.(75) Valla, on the other hand, took the very different route of subordinating philosophy to rhetoric. In On the True Good, he advanced the position that Christianity had exposed the failure of ancient philosophical culture to understand virtue, but had left the dignity of rhetoric untouched.(76) Later in life, he redefined "true" philosophy, essentially making it a part of rhetoric and confining all philosophical discussion within narrow limits.(77) Seigel ends his account with Valla, saying he represents the high point of the humanist celebration of eloquence, and that after him the problem of the relationship between rhetoric and philosophy ceased to be a burning issue among the humanists.
Echoes of Valla's thought, at least regarding the supremacy of rhetoric, are heard in Bartolommeo della Fonte's first oration, the subject of which was oratory and in which rhetoric is portrayed as a rival discipline to the other professions and the greatest skill worth having. "We can do nothing more humanly, nothing more rightly, nothing more admirably than to excel other men in that quality [speech] by which we are especially superior to the brutes."(78) Not surprisingly in the light of statements such as this one, rhetoric is often seen by scholars as the highest goal or the essence of the humanist movement. Paul Kristeller views humanism as "a characteristic phase in what may be called the rhetorical tradition in Western culture."(79) Hanna Gray believes that the entire studia humanitatis was geared toward the common purpose of eloquence.(80) It is clear that not all humanists held rhetoric in as high regard as Valla did, but I think the evidence supports the idea that rhetoric and linguistic concerns in general were a common denominator among all the humanists.
Seigel's book does not always make a clear distinction between moral and natural philosophy, but the humanists he described seem to be mainly concerned with the moral philosophers of antiquity. Moral philosophy was the fifth branch of the studia, and I think most of the confusion over Renaissance humanism stems from it in some way. One generalization often made about humanists is that they disliked abstractions and preferred to deal with "practical" questions. Although this was not true of all humanists, particularly the ones attracted to Platonism after 1450, it is true that moral philosophy did stress matters of this world rather than theoretical studies.
Charles Nauert believes that one reason humanism appealed to secular Italian culture is that the moral philosophy of the humanists seemed more practical than the natural philosophy which dominated most universities. This concept contains important assumptions about human nature. First, the absolute truth sought by the natural philosophers was not really necessary for everyday living. Second, the purpose of human life was not knowledge of truth, but the making of sound moral decisions based on probability, not logical certainty. In Nauert's words, there was a degree of "intellectual relativism" built into the humanist mentality.(81) Assuming Nauert is correct, it is easy to see why Renaissance humanism developed primarily as a secular movement rather than as a religious one. I think that this emphasis on moral philosophy is a source of the view that humanism was in essence the "study of man."
Examples of humanist stress on practical decision-making are numerous. The efforts of Petrarch and his successors to identify the best school of ancient moral philosophy were discussed above. Bruni and the civic humanists explicitly "extended these voluntarist moral views into the realm of political philosophy."(82) Perhaps one of the best examples is the "philosophy of Christ" Erasmus popularized, the practicing of the morality found in the Sermon on the Mount. Erasmus applied these ideals in his ecclesiastical, social, and political criticism, yet another example of how the studia humanitatis could expand into areas not immediately apparent.
Another recurring theme in the thought of the humanists is the "dignity of man," which was tied to moral philosophy because it established a context within which humans' moral decisions were meaningful. Medieval thinkers had already established most of the framework for the discussion, and Kelley affirms that there was "little novelty" in the major features of the humanists' approach.(83) My limited reading on the subject leads me to believe that the humanists faced the same sort of tension here as they did with the relationship between rhetoric and philosophy. Charles Trinkaus writes that humanists held to two divergent positions. On the one hand, they believed that man's dignity derived from his being created in God's image. On the other hand, they also held that human dignity was a result of individual and collective contributions to humanity's own creations of high culture and civilization.(84) The first idea implies that humans should try to transcend their limitations in an effort to become more like God, while the second implies that they should master the world around them. The humanist tendency was to juxtapose these ideas without attempting to reconcile them.(85)
Moral philosophy is the most confusing branch of the studia humanitatis to me, and it is the area where I probably need the most study in the future. I discuss it here not because it was a universal characteristic of humanists in the way grammar and rhetoric were, but because some of the directions in which humanism developed can be partially explained by the implications contained within the discipline. Although there may be other examples, I am thinking specifically of civic humanism, with its emphasis on the individual's political obligations, and Christian humanism, which envisioned a European-wide Christian Renaissance grounded in moral reform. I also think consideration of moral philosophy is important for students of the Renaissance because there seems to be more "gray area" here which gives rise to disagreement over the nature of humanism, so much so that scholars may never reach a full consensus.
At its simplest level, the studia humanitatis was, as Kristeller states, an educational curriculum, and I feel that is appropriate at least to mention here the role that formal education played in the humanist movement. One way of measuring the progress of Italian humanism is by tracking the university positions humanists acquired; in the course of the fifteenth century, men such as Bartolommeo della Fonte became more and more prevalent in the ranks of the Italian professors. According to Charles Nauert, however, the real educational revolution took place in the secondary schools, where most Latin instruction occurred.(86) As noted, the humanists approached the study of grammar and rhetoric"the essence of humanistic education"in a new way, and it was in these area where their educational impact was first felt.(87) Again, the cultural context was important. Humanists argued that their rhetoric-oriented curriculum was much more useful to citizens of the city-states than the traditional logic-oriented curriculum. Vergerio's writings on education became immensely popular, and three outstanding teachersGasparino Barzizza, Guarino Guarini da Verona, and Vittorino da Feltrecreated model schools which proved very influential in spreading humanistic education throughout Italy.(88) The advent of the printing press later in the fifteenth century also aided the humanists by rendering obsolete the traditional method of teaching by dictating a text. It could be argued that this educational revolution was the most important effect of the humanist movement on European culture. Together with printing, the humanists effected a diffusion of classical and rhetorical ideals throughout lay society.(89) In addition, they broke the male monopoly on education, starting with Vittorino's accepting of the principle of sexual equality in his school.(90) The effects of these changes were long lasting; we are still feeling them today.
A final point about the studia humanitatis and humanism in general, related to education, is that it was elitist, especially in its earlier phases. As Charles Nauert points out, the studia
implied a strong emphasis on the oratorical skills and the social attitudes
most needed by a ruling elite, precisely the subjects embraced by the humanist
programme of study: grammar, rhetoric, poetry (which was a special application
of rhetoric), history (which dealt largely with politics and with the consequences
of moral decisions), and moral philosophy (which included the issue of
Lauro Martines is one scholar who particularly emphasizes this theme, calling humanism a "program for ruling classes."(92) According to him, humanist rhetoric consistently targeted those in power. As an educational ideal, it was meant for those destined to hold leading social positions, the "movers and shakers of Renaissance society."(93) This was surely true of the studia humanitatis as conceived in classical times, so it should come as no surprise that Renaissance humanists adopted a similar outlook. As Martines says, even if the humanists had desired it, "humanism could not escape its union with privilege because of its necessary insistence upon long years of study."(94)
Barzizza, Guarino, and Vittorino all succeeded in attracting the sons of Italy's ruling families as pupils, although Vittorino also provided scholarships for some poor boys. The example set by these leading families helped advance the humanist cause and sent a message to poorer families that a humanistic education was a means of social advancement. The schools of the three great teachers further advanced their cultural program by turning out first-class graduates, men like Leon Battista Alberti and Lorenzo Valla who became leaders in Italian society.(95) According to Martines, humanists eventually succeeded in turning eloquence into an ideal for Italy's ruling classes.(96)
These are the main characteristics that were common to all humanists, as far as I can tell. They had a view of secular history which recognized discontinuity between eras and cultures, and they believed that a revival of classical culture could improve the world around them. They were devoted to the studia humanitatis (defined in a broad sense) as an educational ideal and a way of life, and most of them served as professional educators or as public officials utilizing their rhetorical skills, although some remained reclusive scholars or monks. Finally, they were elitist in their outlook.
Now that I have established some common denominators for the humanist movement, I will discuss that movement's evolution and various ways in which it manifested itself. The roots of humanism appear to lie in medieval Italy's social character. Unlike much of Europe, northern Italian society was dominated by wealthy urban merchants instead of feudal nobility and clerics. According to Charles Nauert, "In such a society, based on individual property and private contract, the most important educated groups were those who dealt with commercial and industrial activities."(97) Lawyers and notaries, or dictatores, who dealt with business contracts and rules of trade, were in demand, and by the thirteenth century, the best of them were striving for good Latin style and an understanding of ancient Roman law which could be applied in their work. Apparently, this led to renewed interest in other aspects of ancient culture; Charles Trinkaus writes,
"The newly developing taste for the study and imitation of classical
Latin poetry, history, and morality within the legal professions may well
have been stimulated by the very nature of attempts to interpret and apply
the Roman legal Code and the Digest of the Roman jurists to the juridical
problems of their own age."(98)
Interest in the classics may also have been inherited to a degree from the north, particularly France, where classical studies had flourished in the twelfth century. Paul Kristeller believes that humanism was the eventual result of a fusion between imported classical interests and the medieval Italian rhetorical tradition.(99) Several writers refer to the early examples of this trend, all of whom were lawyers or notaries, as "precursors of humanism" or "pre-humanists."
Padua was the center of much of this pre-humanist activity. Lovato dei Lovati, a judge, led a group of enthusiasts for ancient Roman literature, concentrating especially on Seneca's verse. Lovato's protege Alberto Mussato also admired Seneca, using his plays as a model for writing the first secular drama since antiquity. In addition, Mussato wrote history, using Cicero, Sallust, and Livy as models.(100) According to Ronald Witt, these and other pre-humanists "reinvigorated grammatical studies" in the areas of poetry and history, but did not challenge medieval tradition in oratory or letter-writing.(101)
Petrarch is generally considered to be the founder of the humanist movement. Although modern scholars interpret him in different ways, all of them agree that his view of the ancient world was key. Donald Kelley and Ronald Witt emphasize letter-writing, his attempts to recapture not only the form but also the goals of the classical personal letter.(102) Charles Trinkaus believes Petrarch broke with his predecessors "by viewing himself as confronted by demands of both Christian religious authority and classical moral authority."(103) Hans Baron writes that Petrarch, through his studies of republican Rome in his early career, made a new "discovery of human nature," specifically that the desire for glory was a necessity.(104) Charles Nauert focuses on the theory of historical discontinuity outlined above, and I think this idea links together the views of the other scholars, for they all deal with some form of cultural renewal.
Petrarch's successors engaged, in Trinkaus's words, in a "consolidation of humanism."(105) According to Lauro Martines, conditions in the time of the pre-humanists did not favor a renewed emphasis on the studia humanitatis for various social and political reasons, such as contests over the distribution of power in the city-states. In the course of the fourteenth century, these issues were largely resolved, and ruling elites firmly established themselves in most states. "Now such men were ready to look for flattering self-images, and they were ready to deck out their preeminence with myths and with sustained argument."(106)
The humanist program had rosier prospects under these circumstances, and Giovanni Boccaccio and Coluccio Salutati, along with many "minor practitioners" of the studia humanitatis, gained influence. A fervent follower of Petrarch, Boccaccio helped the former's ideas get a firm footing in Florence, which became the center of the humanist movement. Salutati helped make humanism "the cultural standard for members of the local ruling class"; his prestige as chancellor of Florence influenced governments in other city-states to find employment for humanists as well.(107) Trinkaus writes that by the beginning of the fifteenth century, humanism had been permanently established in four institutions: the civil and diplomatic services of the city-states, education (as tutors, school teachers, and university professors), ecclesiastical and monastic centers, and princely courts and private households.(108)
Salutati's generation also firmly established the study of Greek in the humanist curriculum. Manuel Chrysoloras's appointment to the University of Florence in 1397 was an important step toward the eventual establishment of the study of Greek in universities throughout Europe. The humanists' acquisition of the Greek language was responsible for the many controversial translations of Greek manuscripts which were to follow, so this development is very important. It also provided a tremendous boost to the ideal of ancient cultural revival; with the knowledge of Greek, writes Trinkaus, "the linguistic barrier to full knowledge of the extant works of classical antiquity was breached."(109)
We come now to one of the most controversial developments in the evolution of humanism, namely "civic humanism." The key interpretation concerning the rise of this phenomenon is that of Hans Baron, whose thesis revolves around Florence's republican government and a "crisis" it underwent in 1401-1402. In the late fourteenth century, many Italian city-states which had formerly been republics fell under the control of despots, and Florence found itself one of the few republics left. At the same time, Giangaleazzo Visconti of Milan began an aggressive expansion which threatened Florence's independence by the beginning of the fifteenth century. Fortunately for the Florentines, Giangaleazzo died unexpectedly in 1402, and the republic was no longer in immediate danger.(110)
In The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance, Baron argued that this episode was a crucial turning point in the history of humanism and the Renaissance as a whole. To begin with, he writes that the conflict between Milan and Florence was the first since ancient times in Italy that was not seen as simply another episode in the centuries-old struggle between the Guelphs and Ghibellines, with all its theological overtones and implications. Instead, the political situation became completely secularized; "the State of the Visconti stood for monarchic integration and centralized power, the Florentine Republic for the heritage of the free city-state."(111)
This in turn caused a "revolution" in Florentine historical thinking. Unlike earlier humanists like Petrarch and Salutati, who had regarded the Roman transition from republic to empire as a positive step in preparation for the coming of Christ, Leonardo Bruni and a younger generation of humanists began to view the Roman republic as the highest achievement of antiquity and the empire as a step backward. Medieval accounts of Florence's founding by a divinely-appointed imperial architect were debunked and replaced with a new humanist version which stated that the city was founded during the republic and had preserved since then the true spiritfor lack of a better termof the Roman heritage. In short, "Florentine republicanism. . . introduced a perspective of the historical past free from the medieval entanglement with theological concerns."(112)
In Baron's account, the Milan-Florence struggle is also what "rescued" humanism from its anti-social tendencies. I have already mentioned the "uncivic" attitude voiced by Petrarch and other humanists, and the debate between the "ancients" and "moderns." Baron writes that a militant insistence on antiquity as the only valid standard led in the fourteenth century to an "atmosphere of artificiality" in which imitation of the ancients was everything, contemporary society was disdained, and civic responsibilities were neglected.(113) Niccolò Niccoli is perhaps the best example of this phenomenon in Florence around 1400.(114)
According to Baron, the danger of Milanese domination caused Florentine humanists to reassert the necessity of taking an active role in civic life, something to which the studia humanitatis naturally lent itself, as we have already seen; and also to trumpet the virtues of republicanism over despotism. He finds this shift most apparent in the writings of Leonardo Bruni, for which he assigns different dates than are traditionally accepted. For Baron, Bruni's change in attitude is most clearly seen in the two Dialogi ad Petrum Paulum Histrum, which he believes were composed at different timesthe first before 1402, the second after.(115) Whereas the first dialogue displays Niccoli's militant classicism, the second is much more friendly toward contemporary society and includes attempts to defend Petrarch and Dante against the "ancients"; Bruni even tries to turn Dante into a republican by explaining away Brutus's and Cassius's presence in the Inferno's ninth circle.(116)
Bruni continued to laud republicanism and la vita activa later in his life. His Historiae Florentini Populi, written in the 1430s, is one of the strongest statements of the republican account of Florence's founding. His Life of Dante, also dating from the 1430s, contains a scathing passage directed against "uncivic" humanists such as Niccolò Niccoli: "And here let me say a word in reproof of the many ignorant folk who suppose that no one is a student except such as hide themselves away in solitude and leisure; whereas I, for my part, never came across one of these muffled recluses from human conversation who knew three letters."(117)
Baron believes that Bruni's change in views is representative of a larger shift in outlook among humanists in general and that this shift had lasting influence. He states that although the Milanese threat to Florence ended suddenly in 1402, the republic resisted similar despotic aggression throughout the first half of the fifteenth century, from Naples in the 1410s and from a resurgent Visconti regime in Milan in the 1420s, 1430s, and 1440s. Throughout the period Florence remained the leader of an alliance of republican states and a champion of city-state liberty.(118) The challenges of maintaining communal spirit and keeping the elites interested in political involvement endured. In Baron's words, "The answer to this double challenge was the rise of a humanistic education which endeavored to prepare citizens for engagement in the tasks of their own age and statecivic Humanism."(119)
According to this interpretation, civic humanism spread throughout Italy in the first half of fifteenth century, cementing the ties between humanist intellectuals and local elites. Although it lost favor in Florence after 1450 owing in part to a cultural shift toward Platonism among elites, the civic ideal remained alive and found new expression in the career of Niccolò Machiavelli. His status as a humanist has been challenged by some because of his pessimistic view of human nature, but the most recent of my sources classify him as one, and his view of history as well as his devotion to the classics and the studia humanitatis are consistent with what I have seen among other humanists.(120) Machiavelli was in several respects the heir to Bruni, as a champion of republican Florence and a historian of the city. Donald Kelley attaches great significance to Machiavelli, writing
The "Machiavellian moment" (as it has been called) was the classic expression
of civic humanism and the principal vehicle by which this cluster of political
valuesliberty, "virtue," and republican governmenthave passed
into the modern political tradition. It is in this sense that Renaissance
humanism became a public force in modern history.(121)
This, too, is the crux of Baron's argument: without its civic incarnation, which could only have developed in republican Florence, Renaissance humanism would have had a lesser impact on Western civilization. Specifically, "The western world would not now have as part of its heritage political pluralism in both thought and form, an orientation toward the future rather than toward the past, or vernacular literatures."(122)
Many scholars have criticized Baron's thesis for various reasons. Some do not agree with his revisionist dating of Bruni's works. Others question Bruni's sincerity in championing republican values; after all, he did leave Florence and work for the papal court not long after the "crisis" of 1401-1402.(123) Still others accuse Baron of allowing his personal politicsBaron was a liberal and an exile from Nazi Germanyto influence his interpretation of the past, of looking for an analogy to the liberal-fascist conflict in Europe and finding what he wanted to find in the Florence-Milan struggles of the fifteenth century. Charles Trinkaus voices a concern related to this one by writing that Baron's work suffers from a "genetic-modernist bias":
The trouble is that in this genetic-modernizing kind of history. . .
we tend to look for ancestors and not for understanding of the way things
were, that we do in fact tend to impose our reading of universal history
on a period that may have had a very different historical consciousness
from our own. . . . The consequence is that we can all-too-easily impose
issues and a line-up of forces and parties that essentially do not correspond
with the true concerns of the period in question, which are frequently
much more complex and problematical than we, in our quest for clarity,
sometimes make them."(124)
Personally, I have no problem accepting the existence of civic humanism, nor the notion that republican values played an important role in its formation. One thing I really like about Baron's work is the way it grounds the humanist movement in a political and social context and shows ways it responded to external pressures. I am, however, skeptical of some of the grand conclusions outlined above regarding the impact of civic humanism. This is probably partially due to my current stage of development as a historian. I am in a phasefor lack of a better termwhere I am trying to learn how best to meet the past on its own terms, and this makes me especially sensitive to the "search for ancestors," as Trinkaus puts it. I know I will continue to deal with this issue for some time, and my views will certainly evolve. At this point, I am more inclined to view civic humanism as one of several strands making up the greater humanist movement, not as the key to the birth of the modern world. In any event, I think it is clear that the values of la vita activa and republicanism were not too difficult to separate, and I would resist the notion that humanists who forsook the republican cause somehow betrayed their roots. As I mentioned before, many humanists found employment in the despotic states and monarchies of Europe, and I would still classify humanists who served as secretaries in these places as part of the civic humanist tradition.
By the second half of the fifteenth century humanism was beginning to exert a strong influence on courtly culture, and Charles Nauert discusses how it combined with older chivalric ideals. Professor Turner described this phenomenon as "court humanism," and I suppose this is as good a description as any. The classic example of this strand of humanism is of course Baldassare Castiglione's Il Cortegiano, which, although it was not published until the 1520s, described the court at Urbino in the late fifteenth century, where the ideal courtier was not just a good horseman and warrior but also an adherent of the studia humanitatis, able to speak Latin and Greek (grammar), carry on pleasing conversation (rhetoric), and compose verse (poetry), among other things.(125) Castiglione applies humanistic standards to the court ladies as well, writing that they should have the same talents as the men, except for the martial skills. The widespread success of Il Cortegiano, along with other popular books of manners written in the sixteenth century, is indicative of the great influence humanism achieved as a cultural ideal.(126)
Incidentally, Castiglione's work shows the marks of another intellectual trend that gained great currency in Italy after 1450: Platonic (or Neoplatonic) philosophy. As with civic humanism, the Platonic movement had its center in Florence and spread from there to the rest of Italy and the north. In contrast to civic humanism's stress on the active life of public service, Renaissance Platonism was introspective and contemplative, with mystical and magical overtones. Charles Nauert attributes the movement's success to a cultural change in a younger generation of Florentine aristocrats who lost interest in the civic values of their parents, becoming fascinated with questions of secret knowledge and a sense of spiritual as well as economic and social superiority instead.(127)
Scholars have taken different positions on the relationship between Platonism and humanism in this period. On the one hand, there is the view, taken by Donald Kelley, that humanism "claimed" Platonic philosophy in the course of its imperialistic expansion.(128) Adherents of this approach would most likely take the following positions: the Platonic Academy in Florence was a humanist organization; Nicolas of Cusa, Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola were humanists who expanded humanism's boundaries; Pico's views on the dignity of man were an expression or even the culmination of humanist thought.
Then there is the view taken by Paul Kristeller, which holds that humanism and Platonism remained separate programs, but that they converged in the second half of the fifteenth century; in other words, humanists were attracted to Platonic thought, while Platonists in turn adopted some humanist techniques. Kristeller feels that this approach is needed to give Platonism its due as an intellectual tradition:
Renaissance Platonism, in spite of its close links with classical humanism,
cannot be understood as a mere part or offshoot of the humanistic movement.
It possesses independent significance as a philosophical, not merely as
a scholarly or literary, movement; it is connected both with the Augustinian
and Aristotelian traditions of medieval philosophy; and . . . it became
a major factor in the intellectual history of the sixteenth [century],
and even afterwards.(129)
Adherents of this view are likely to take the following positions: the Platonic Academy included humanists but was not exclusively or even primarily a humanist organization; Cusanus, Ficino and Pico were professional philosophers, not humanists, although they were friendly with humanists and employed some of their techniques; Pico's views on the dignity of man were a unique spin on a subject many humanists had previously considered. This view is the one held by the majority of my sources.(130)
My own view tends more toward the second interpretation, because I think that Kelley's position, if taken to its extreme, would indeed reduce appreciation of Renaissance Platonism as an important movement in its own right. This may be another area in which my views will evolve. For now, I prefer to view the Platonic tradition as having a significant influence on humanism, strengthening the preexisting contemplative strand of the movement. I see it as roughly (but certainly not perfectly) analogous to the influence of republican values on humanism's civic strand. Like republicanism, Platonic philosophy was a set of beliefs with which many, but not all, humanists identified.
Most of my sources deal chiefly or exclusively with humanism in Italy, and I think that in the future I will need to do further study on humanism north of the Alps. However, I will briefly summarize the ways a couple of authors view the northern humanists. The focus here is on national incarnations and Christian humanism. I will mention the three regions where humanism had its greatest impact in the north: Germany, France, and England.
In the early twentieth century, nationalistic scholars in northern Europe often claimed that their home countries produced a humanist movement with little or no Italian influence. The search for native origins focused on movements like the Devotio Moderna, which opposed scholastic philosophy.(131) Now, by contrast, there seems to be general agreement that humanism was imported from Italy into northern countries, each of which adapted it to its own needs. According to Charles Nauert, this process began in the second half of the fifteenth century and was accomplished primarily by teachers who had studied a humanist curriculum in Italy and then returned to their home countries to take up positions in schools and universities; the pattern followed these lines:
. . .increasing penetration of the universities by humanists, but in
subordinate positions and without significant curricular change; the gradual
rise of humanist scholars to influential positions as headmasters of Latin
grammar schools; and the emergence of a number of outstanding individuals
whose growing fame and social prominence marks the transition of humanism
from being an eccentricity of scattered individuals to being a movement
of well-placed scholars having significant influence on the culture of
the local elites.(132)
As in Italy, we see here the emphasis on education and the connection to the society's elites. Nauert explains the greater prominence of universities in this process by noting that northern boys entered university at a younger age than Italians did, meaning that Latin instruction frequently took place there rather than in the schools.
Germany appears to have been the first northern country to develop a humanist movement. In the 1450s, itinerant devotees of the studia humanitatis such as Peter Luder were lecturing on classical literature at universities. The greatest humanist of this first generation was Rudolf Agricola, who both taught at Heidelberg and served as a city secretary in Gröningen. His book On Dialectical Invention joined dialectic to rhetoric, citing Cicero and Quintilian as the best guides.(133) By 1500, there were conservative humanists in universities and schools throughout Germany; Jakob Wimpheling, Johann Reuchlin, and Alexander Hegius are a few of the most important. Nauert gives Conrad Celtis, a wandering scholar with more radical tendencies, the credit for turning humanism into a true intellectual movement in Germany through his organizing of humanist clubs, which maintained a correspondence with each other, in various cities throughout the empire.(134)
Donald Kelley writes that German humanists were careful to emphasize their own national tradition even as they enjoyed the benefits of the Italian heritage. Celtis, for example, argued that the Italians' heyday had passed, and that it was now the Germans' turn to dominate politically and culturally. German humanists adopted Tacitus as "their" historian and popularized the idealized portrait of the German people found in the Germania.(135) Martin Luther was able to draw on these sentiments and add to them during his dispute with Rome.
According to Nauert, France was a less fertile field for humanism, in large part because France was the center of medieval culture, which humanism had repudiated to a great extent.(136) Nevertheless, humanists were active in France, adapting the studia humanitatis to their own needs and interests. In the late fifteenth century, Robert Gaguin, a monk, published vernacular translations of Latin classics and assembled around himself a group of enthusiasts for classical literature. He and Paolo Emilio, a royal historiographer, were instrumental in bringing the Brunian tradition of national history to France.(137) Perhaps the greatest of the French humanists was Guillaume Budé, who was renowned as a Greek scholar and philologist. His focus of study was the Justinian Digest, and his successors continued to study Roman law, forming a center of "legal humanism" in France after his death.(138) This incarnation of humanism suited the French well, for it also led to intensive study of medieval documents which, along with Roman law, had shaped the French legal tradition.(139)
Like Germany and France, English humanism drew on Italian precedents and was aided in particular through scholarly interchange; Poggio Bracciolini spent time in England, while English scholars such as Thomas Linacre and William Latimer were educated in Italy. John Colet, another Italian-educated Englishman, is often regardedby Kelley, among othersas an important humanist, largely due to his anti-scholastic views and his founding of St. Paul's School. Charles Nauert, however, writes that recent research shows Colet to have been a humanist only in a limited sense because his Italian studies were almost exclusively religious and philosophical (specifically, Platonic) and did not embrace Latin and Greek literature. The school he founded focused intensely on Christian authors until its first high master, William Lily, quietly reoriented it towards a wider body of classical literature, making it a center of humanistic education.(140) Humanism advanced in England gradually in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, quietly making inroads at the universities; one early victory was an establishment at Cambridge in 1488 of a salaried position for a lecturer on books of "humanity," in other words, grammar and rhetoric.(141) The growing need for public officials educated in Latin aided humanism's advance in England; Kelley believes that English humanism was quite utilitarian.(142)
According to Kelley, northern humanism consistently displayed more religious concerns than the Italian variety. Nauert agrees with this conclusion, but emphasizes that religious reform was not the primary concern of the northern humanists until after 1500. Several of the early humanists listed aboveLuder, Celtis, and Linacre, for examplehad interests which were largely secular. Even the monk Gaguin did not stress religious reform in his scholarship.(143) In the early sixteenth century, a connection was formed between humanism and a preexisting concern for reform of the institutional church; this phenomenon, which involved many but certainly not all northern humanists, is usually referred to as "Christian humanism."
Paul Kristeller identifies the Christian humanists as "those scholars with a humanist classical and rhetorical training who explicitly discussed religious or theological problems in all or some of their writings."(144) From the context of the statement, it is clear that Kristeller is discussing northern humanists; although I am not sure how this excludes the Italians, depending on how "religious or theological problems" is defined, I am prepared to accept it as a working definition. Kristeller also notes that one of the key humanist activities regarding religion was a renewed stress on the "Christian classics," i.e. the Bible and writings of the church fathers.(145) In my opinion, this is another facet of the revival of antiquity, albeit in a different form from that conceived by many of the earlier humanists.
My sources differ on who should be considered Christian humanists; I have already mentioned Nauert's and Kelley's differences regarding Colet. In general, Kelley and Kristeller are more apt to classify northerners as Christian humanists. Their lists include Johann Reuchlin, whose mastery of all three scriptural languagesLatin, Greek, and Hebrewbecame the educational ideal in the north;(146) Thomas More, the foremost English humanist of the early sixteenth century; Juan Luis Vives, who also carried on Pico's concept of humanity's quasi-divine nature;(147) and Guillaume Budé, who was drawn to "sacred letters" in his later years.(148)
Nauert, taking a narrower view, writes that "true" Christian humanism "conceived humanistic studies as an essential part of religious renewal and concentrated on both pagan and Christian Antiquity as a source of inspiration."(149) He focuses almost exclusively on Jacques Lefèvre d'Etaples and Desiderius Erasmus, two scholars who were more self-conscious in their efforts to combine scholarship and religious reform. Lefèvre, in contrast to medieval commentators, specialized in presenting simple, straightforward explication of biblical texts. His criticisms of some unbiblical traditions and of churchmen who stressed external forms over inward piety was viewed by many as subversive.(150)
Erasmus, of course, is the most famous Christian humanist by any standard; Kelley also refers to him as an example of "cosmopolitan humanism" because he strove for a reform of Christian society as a whole, irrespective of national boundaries.(151) Dutch by birth, he lived at different times in France, England, Italy, and Switzerland. He became a true international celebrity, aided in great part by his "discovery" of the printing press as a means of disseminating ideas. The "philosophy of Christ" he advocated has already been mentioned, as has his translation of the New Testament. The "Christian Renaissance" he and his supporters advocated even seemed a real possibility until the 1520s, but the dream faded after his break with Luther in 1524; the "end of Renaissance humanism" is sometimes dated around this time.(152)
None of my sources classify Luther as a humanist. Although he presided over the first real curricular revolution at a German university (which was really directed by Philip Melanchthon), favored Erasmus's philological-historical approach to scripture, and learned some Greek and a little Hebrew, his mentality was "far from the attitudes associated with the liberal arts."(153) Kristeller classifies him as a theologian who "presupposes certain scholarly achievements of humanism."(154) By contrast, both Kristeller and Kelley classify John Calvin as a Christian humanist, although Kelley implies that Calvin rejected classicism after his "conversion," a position which seems to coincide with that of Charles Trinkaus.(155) The statements made by these various scholars tend to reinforce the view I already had about the two reformers; I think it is more accurate to describe Luther and the post-conversion Calvin as theologians than as devotees of the studia humanitatis.
The only one of my sources to consider the problem of the end of Renaissance humanism in any detail is Nauert's Humanism and the Culture of Renaissance Europe. The author succinctly points out the difficulty of tracking humanism as the sixteenth century progressed: "Any attempt to trace humanism in European high culture of the later Renaissance is difficult because humanism is everywhere, in some form and to some degree."(156) He goes on to write that humanism survived at the end of the Renaissance by dissolving into several separate but related strands. Philology became a highly specialized field, as did classical studies. Humanist principles endured in literary movements, both Latin and vernacular, and classical models inspired poets, historians, and fiction writers. Education remained less reliant on dialectic and more oriented toward literature and the classics, although ancient books which challenged dominant cultural values were carefully censored. The sense of cultural relativism resulting from the humanists' way of viewing history persisted. As for cultural renewal through discovery of the values of classical civilization, Nauert points to Michel de Montaigne's writings as evidence that this central dream of Renaissance humanism had finally died.(157) Although I would like to have some other views to compare to Nauert's, I think this portrayal of the final stages of Renaissance humanism is much more accurate than the one which simply points to the Luther-Erasmus breach as the movement's death knell.
In this essay I have worked toward a definition of Renaissance humanism
by examining the views of various scholars, by trying to identify traits
common to all humanists, and by identifying the major ways in which the
movement evolved. Here is the definition I have formulated, based on my
readings to date:
Renaissance humanism was a cultural, literary, and educational movement,
centered around the studia humanitatis, which advocated the study
of ancient texts and the revival and application of classical culture to
contemporary life. It originated in Italy, from which it spread to most
of the rest of Europe, in the fourteenth century and lasted well into the
sixteenth century. It took several forms and accommodated itself to various
political, philosophical, and religious contexts. Although it was elitist
in nature, it had a lasting impact on European culture by establishing
new standards in education and also by imparting a sense of cultural relativism,
which affected and still affects the way people view themselves.
1. Jonathan Zophy, A Short History of Renaissance Europe: Dances Over Fire and Water (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1997), 69.
2. Charles Trinkaus, The Scope of Renaissance Humanism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983), 4.
3. Paul Oskar Kristeller, Renaissance Thought: The Classic, Scholastic, and Humanist Strains (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), 9.
4. Kristeller, 10.
5. Kristeller, 11.
6. Charles G. Nauert, Jr., Humanism and the Culture of Renaissance Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 162-63.
7. Jerrold Seigel, Rhetoric and Philosophy in Renaissance Humanism: The Union of Eloquence and Wisdom, Petrarch to Valla (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968), 83.
8. Seigel, 147.
9. Trinkaus, 255.
10. Donald R. Kelley, Renaissance Humanism (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991), 21.
11. Nauert, 66.
12. Kelley, 54.
13. Hans Baron, The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance: Civic Humanism and Republican Liberty in an Age of Classicism and Tyranny (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1966), 122-3.
14. Baron, 146.
15. Nauert, 33-34.
16. Kristeller, 24.
17. Kristeller, 36.
18. Kelley, 44.
19. Kelley, 9.
20. Seigel, 100.
21. Seigel, 101.
22. Kristeller, 39.
23. Nauert, 23; Kristeller, 38.
24. Seigel, 110.
25. Nauert, 113-114.
26. Kristeller, 43.
27. Nauert, 62.
28. Kristeller, 44.
29. Nauert, 68.
30. Seigel, 65-66.
31. Seigel, 66-68.
32. Seigel, 258.
33. Nauert, 108-9.
34. Kristeller, 10.
35. Kelley, 3.
36. Trinkaus, 52.
37. Nauert, 9.
38. Nauert, 19.
39. Nauert, 20.
40. Nauert, 18.
41. Seigel, 260.
42. Nauert, 20.
43. Nauert, 21.
44. Nauert, 21.
45. Nauert, 34-35.
46. Charles Trinkaus, "Antiquity Versus Modernity," in Benjamin Kohl and Alison Smith, ed., Major Problems in the History of the Italian Renaissance (Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Co., 1995), 299.
47. Trinkaus, "Antiquity Versus Modernity," 303.
48. Trinkaus, Scope, 52-87.
49. Trinkaus, Scope, 54.
50. Trinkaus, Scope, 70.
51. Seigel, 36.
52. Kelley, 122.
53. Kelley, 95.
54. Kelley, 77.
55. Kelley, 80.
56. Kelley, 77.
57. Kelley, 79.
58. Seigel, 261.
59. Nauert, 37.
60. Nauert, 41.
61. Kelley, 68.
62. Seigel, 125, 127.
63. Nauert, 54-55.
64. Kelley, 89.
65. Kelley, 82.
66. Seigel, xiii.
67. "Pier Paolo Vergerio on Liberal Learning, 1403," in Kohl and Smith, Major Problems, 307.
68. Zophy, 73.
69. Seigel, 8.
70. Seigel, 15.
71. Seigel, 56, 58.
72. Seigel, 62.
73. Seigel, 98.
74. Seigel, 106.
75. Seigel, 136.
76. Seigel, 157.
77. Seigel, 167.
78. Trinkaus, Scope, 55.
79. Kristeller, 11.
80. Hanna Gray, "Renaissance Humanism: The Pursuit of Eloquence," in Paul Kristeller and Philip Wiener, eds. Renaissance Essays from the Journal of History of Ideas (New York, 1968), 204.
81. Nauert, 15-16.
82. Kelley, 115.
83. Kelley, 45.
84. Trinkaus, Scope, 354.
85. Trinkaus, Scope, 357-58.
86. Nauert, 42.
87. Kelley, 25.
88. Nauert, 44-45.
89. Nauert, 53-54.
90. Kelley, 25.
91. Nauert, 13.
92. Lauro Martines, Power and Imagination (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1988), 191.
93. Kelley, 26.
94. Martines, 199.
95. Nauert, 53-54.
96. Martines, 201.
97. Nauert, 5.
98. Trinkaus, Scope, 10-11.
99. Kristeller, 108.
100. Nauert, 6.
101. Ronald Witt, "The Beginnings of Humanism," in Kohl and Smith, Major Problems, 219.
102. Kelley, 9; Witt, 220-221.
103. Trinkaus, Scope, 13. Emphasis mine.
104. Hans Baron, "Petrarch and the Discovery of Human Nature," in Kohl and Smith, Major Problems, 223-226, 237.
105. Trinkaus, Scope, 15.
106. Martines, 206.
107. Nauert, 26.
108. Trinkaus, 17.
109. Trinkaus, 18.
110. Nauert, 30.
111. Baron, Crisis, 445.
112. Baron, Crisis, 447.
113. Baron, Crisis, 451.
114. Nauert, 29.
115. Baron, Crisis, 226.
116. Baron, Crisis, 49-50.
117. Quoted in Nauert, 32.
118. Baron, Crisis, 453-454.
119. Baron, Crisis, 457.
120. Nauert, 70.
121. Kelley, 23.
122. Albert Rabil, Jr., "The Significance of Civic Humanism," in Kohl and Smith, Major Problems, 266.
123. Nauert, 32.
124. Trinkaus, Scope, xviii.
125. Nauert, 34; Zophy, 131.
126. Nauert, 184.
127. Nauert, 62.
128. Kelley, 44.
129. Kristeller, 58.
130. Trinkaus, Scope, 360; see also Nauert, 61-62.
131. Nauert, 97.
132. Nauert, 100, 102, 111-12.
133. Kelley, 56; Nauert, 104.
134. Nauert, 111.
135. Kelley, 58.
136. Nauert, 112.
137. Kelley, 60.
138. Kelley, 60.
139. Nauert, 168.
140. Nauert, 115-16.
141. Nauert, 121.
142. Kelley, 63.
143. Nauert, 143.
144. Kristeller, 86.
145. Kristeller, 75.
146. Kelley, 57.
147. Kelley, 65.
148. Kelley, 61. See also Kristeller, 87.
149. Nauert, 144.
150. Nauert, 145.
151. Kelley, 66.
152. Nauert, 164.
153. Kelley, 57.
154. Kristeller, 87.
155. Kelley, 61; Trinkaus, Scope, 317, 333.
156. Nauert, 194.
157. Nauert, 213.