A Return to the Ancient World? (2015)

An overview of Renaissance humanism: its nature, range, and interconnections with other areas of cultural life.
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  󰁃󰁨󰁡󰁰󰁴󰁥󰁲 󰀱  󰁁 󰁒󰁥󰁴󰁵󰁲󰁮 󰁴󰁯 󰁴󰁨󰁥 󰁁󰁮󰁣󰁩󰁥󰁮󰁴 󰁗󰁯󰁲󰁬󰁤󰀿 󰁍󰁡󰁲󰁧󰁡󰁲󰁥󰁴 󰁌. 󰁋􀁩󰁮󰁧 W􀁩󰁴󰁨󰁯󰁵󰁴 a doubt, humanism constituted the most important strand of intellectual cul-ture during the period from 󰀱󰀳󰀵󰀰 to 󰀱󰀶󰀵󰀰—roughly the era of the Renaissance. It was fuelled by an impassioned recovery of ancient thought and sensibility—the return to the ancient world queried in the title of this chapter—but it was more. It established the curriculum of studies for European elites that would endure into the nineteenth cen-tury. It affirmed the value of human activity in society and in the cosmos, and allowed for the assertion of the worth of women as intellectual and moral actors. It interacted dynamically with the major philosophical schools of the era—Aristotelian, Platonist, and Hermetic or occult—without being identified completely with any one of them, and so prepared the foundations for modern philosophy and science, its offspring. It created a lay culture that would be interwoven with the clerical culture of the Middle Ages and the contemporaneously unfolding movements for religious reform of every stripe and texture. It invented the tools of modern scholarship: the critical analysis of texts; the historical contextualization of literary works and authors; the abandonment of literal translation for translation according to sense; the emendation and stabilization of texts for scribal publication, at first, and in time print; the standardization of the components of the book; then utilizing all these tools, it conveyed to the modern world nearly all it now possesses of the most extensive cultural product of any ancient civilization, the cor-pus of Greek and Latin literature, history, philosophy, and science.And yet, humanism is o󰀀en misunderstood. It is dismissed by some as elitist, vacu-ous, and pedantic, and hyperbolized by others as the matrix of modern republicanism and individualism. Even those who do not dismiss it find humanism stubbornly difficult to define. In these few pages, an attempt is made to sketch what humanism is and is not, and to identify its main themes and vectors. OUP UNCORRECTED PROOF – FIRSTPROOFS, Mon Apr 06 2015, NEWGEN   acprof-9780199597260.indd 34/6/2015 9:57:00 PM  󰀴 󰁍󰁡󰁲󰁧󰁡󰁲󰁥󰁴 󰁌. 󰁋􀁩󰁮󰁧 W󰁨󰁡󰁴 H󰁵󰁭󰁡󰁮󰁩󰁳󰁭 󰁩󰁳, 󰁡󰁮󰁤 󰁩󰁳󰁮’󰁴 Two powerful misconceptions in particular interfere with a clear sense of the humanist movement: first, the conflation of humanism with a romantic theory of the Renaissance; and second, the identification of the humanism of the Renaissance era with the modern ideology of secular humanism.Historians and critics of the Romantic era invented the two terms ‘Renaissance’ and ‘humanism’—both related to, yet distinct from terms actually in use during the four-teenth through seventeenth centuries. ‘Renaissance’, for these neologists, denoted a period of cataclysmic change, when European civilization seemed, in their view, to be ‘born again’ a󰀀er a near-millennium of stagnation and obscurity. ‘Humanism’, likewise, signified the discovery of human potential a󰀀er a period in which it had been suppressed, liberating the individual from the constraints of institutional and intellectual hierarchies.Although neither concept is entirely without merit, both have required consid-erable revision over the last two centuries. e Renaissance—when the term is not entirely avoided—is now generally understood to describe the changes in artistic and intellectual culture occurring during the fourteenth through early seventeenth cen-turies. Humanism is now understood as an intellectual movement srcinating in the urbanized enclave of northern Italy, energized by the intense study and imitation of the Greco-Roman, or classical tradition.e modern ideology of ‘secular humanism’, sometimes simply called ‘humanism’, or as some adherents prefer, ‘Humanism’, capitalized, derives from Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment misreadings of Renaissance humanism. It is concerned with the cel-ebration and advancement of human existence, which it sees as self-sufficient, unbounded by philosophical limits or, emphatically, by the interventions from the divine realm. It has recently been the target of conservative Christian polemic, which construes modern, sec-ular humanism as inherently inimical to a Christian worldview. Yet Renaissance human-ism was most certainly not secular—nor was any other cultural movement in the era of the Renaissance—but rather saturated with Christian thought and sensibility.What then was the humanism of the Renaissance? At its core was a commitment to the classical tradition, the literary and philosophical legacy of Greek and Latin antiquity. e Christian authors of the last three centuries of the Roman era had known this tradi-tion thoroughly, and integrated it with the burgeoning Christian one, accomplishing the fusion of the classical and Christian traditions. eir devotional and theological works transmitted that hybrid culture to readers who could access them between the fi󰀀h and the fi󰀀eenth centuries: the era, roughly, of the Middle Ages.Medieval scholars also encountered directly those works available to them from the ancient, pre-Christian past. In Eastern Europe, the study of Greek texts, now lodged in a Christian framework, continued uninterruptedly from ancient times. In Western Europe, where knowledge of Greek was largely lost, Latin survived, though a reduced and impoverished Latin, as a common means of communication. At the same time, monastic scribes copied and recopied the ancient books that had been stored in monastic libraries, OUP UNCORRECTED PROOF – FIRSTPROOFS, Mon Apr 06 2015, NEWGEN   acprof-9780199597260.indd 44/6/2015 9:57:00 PM  󰁁 󰁒󰁥󰁴󰁵󰁲󰁮 󰁴󰁯 󰁴󰁨󰁥 󰁁󰁮󰁣􀁩󰁥󰁮󰁴 󰁗󰁯󰁲􀁬󰁤󰀿 󰀵 producing manuscript versions the oldest of which are the first versions of Latin works that we now possess.And so the classical tradition endured in the West: stowed in monastic reposito-ries, embedded in the thought of Christian theologians, displayed in a handful of fre-quently read and widely circulated Latin books (Cicero, Seneca, and Virgil the favoured authors). Periodically, enthusiasm for the classics crested in brief episodes identified as ‘Renaissances’ or ‘proto-Renaissances’: a Carolingian Renaissance in the eighth century; an Ottonian Renaissance in the ninth; a ‘Renaissance of the twel󰀀h century’, so profound that, for some scholars, it not only anticipated but pre-empted the later Italian-born Renaissance that is our present concern.e twel󰀀h-century Renaissance entailed, in addition to a renewed interest in clas-sical texts, the study and elaboration, in Italy, of the books of Roman civil law; and the translation into Latin from Greek and Arabic versions of most of the works of Aristotle. ese Aristotelian works transformed the structures of university study especially in France and England, giving birth to the characteristically medieval phase of European philosophical thought known as ‘scholasticism.’ Scholasticism, it should be noted, was thus born of the same surge of interest in the literary residue of classical antiquity that would also give birth to humanism.Renaissance humanism began in northern Italy in the last decades of the thirteenth century, with—once again—the intensified study and imitation of classical texts: a ‘return’ to the ancients, not in the sense of going back to a past time, but of its ‘recov-ery’ or ‘rebirth’; the German Wiederbelebung,  ‘a coming to life’, says it well. In prob-ing, digesting, and imitating the work of the ancients, mostly Latin, but also Greek, Renaissance humanists transformed European civilization, completing the synthesis of Greco-Roman and Christian culture begun by the Church fathers in the last centu-ries of the ancient world, and invigorating nearly every dimension of culture, includ-ing politics, philosophy, religion, and the arts. From Italy, where humanism flourished in the fourteenth and fi󰀀eenth centuries, the movement travelled beyond the Alps to dominate much of Europe in the sixteenth century, taking different form and coloration in multifarious social, political, and cultural settings. By the late sixteenth century, as Charles Nauert has said, humanism ‘was everywhere’, 󰀱  implicated in the cultural prod-uct of creators of all kinds who were not, strictly speaking, humanists; while those few who were humanists by profession had turned to specialization in classical and philo-logical studies, so anticipating the professionalization of those fields of the humanities deeply familiar to the readers of this book. T󰁨󰁥 T󰁨󰁲󰁥󰁥 G󰁩󰁡󰁮󰁴󰁳 e understanding of Renaissance humanism surveyed in the last few paragraphs is the product of a historiographical tradition srcinating more than a century ago. 󰀲  In 󰀱󰀸󰀵󰀹, the German scholar Georg Voigt described the humanist movement OUP UNCORRECTED PROOF – FIRSTPROOFS, Mon Apr 06 2015, NEWGEN   acprof-9780199597260.indd 54/6/2015 9:57:00 PM  󰀶 󰁍󰁡󰁲󰁧󰁡󰁲󰁥󰁴 󰁌. 󰁋􀁩󰁮󰁧 as a Wiederbelebung— a new ‘coming to life’—of classical antiquity. e Italian scholar Remigio Sabbadini published a similar work in 󰀱󰀹󰀰󰀵–󰀱󰀴, tracing the steps by which classical texts were discovered, copied, and analyzed in fourteenth- and fi󰀀eenth-century Italy. ese important investigations laid the groundwork for the more sophisticated discussions of humanism that followed by three preeminent scholars, born respectively in 󰀱󰀹󰀰󰀰, 󰀱󰀹󰀰󰀵, and 󰀱󰀹󰀰󰀹: the Germans Hans Baron and Paul Oskar Kristeller, and the Italian Eugenio Garin. e careers of all three were impacted in young adulthood by the rise of Nazism and Fascism, which thereby came to impas-sion their constructions of humanism, in which all three saw a rebuke to totalitarian-ism. In the late 󰀱󰀹󰀳󰀰s, Baron and Kristeller, both Jews, migrated to the United States from the European maelstrom, and died in their adopted homeland at advanced ages in 󰀱󰀹󰀸󰀸 and 󰀱󰀹󰀹󰀹. Remote from the centre during the Fascist period, Garin taught at high school level in Sicily and Sardinia, moved a󰀀er the war to Florence and Pisa, and died in Florence in 󰀲󰀰󰀰󰀴, four years into the twenty-first century. All three were expert classicists, who not only wrote about humanism but identified, edited, trans-lated, and expounded humanist works. eir views differed, but each of their visions of the humanist event, unfolded in many publications, was deeply rooted in the study of texts and a profound understanding of the past. eir longevity and continued productivity into advanced old age further ensured their domination of the field of humanist studies.Kristeller’s reading of humanism is the broadest. Resisting a forest of easy formu-lations, he precisely maps its relations to precursor and contemporary intellectual movements—to classicism and to scholasticism—as well as to other cultural streams such as philosophy and the arts. Fundamental is his distinction between scholasticism and humanism. ese he juxtaposes not as sequential, but as contemporary intellectual movements enlisting different participants for different objects. e scholastics were a university-based elite engaged in metaphysical speculation, to whom the Aristotelian corpus offered an invaluable framework. e humanists were a loose network of teach-ers, public officials and secretaries, learned clerics, and aristocratic amateurs, connected by their interests rather than by class or profession. Scholasticism and humanism related to each other, then, not as past versus present, or as obscurantism versus enlightenment, but as competing disciplines do within a university faculty.By drawing this line between scholasticism and humanism—horizontally, as it were, rather than vertically—Kristeller avoids, and implicitly challenges the Romantic con-cept of humanism and Renaissance alike. Equally important, he identifies what it is in the Renaissance humanist encounter with the classical tradition that distinguishes it from earlier ones. It lies in the construction of a new framework of study. e tradi-tional framework identified seven disciplines that constituted the ‘liberal arts’, as codi-fied in late antiquity—the three verbal arts of the trivium  (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and four mathematical arts of the quadrivium  (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music)—which preceded the higher studies of philosophy and theology. e humanists redefined the ‘liberal arts’ as consisting of five disciplines, which they called the studia humanitatis  (‘studies of humanity’)—the phrase from which, appropriately, the terms OUP UNCORRECTED PROOF – FIRSTPROOFS, Mon Apr 06 2015, NEWGEN   acprof-9780199597260.indd 64/6/2015 9:57:00 PM  󰁁 󰁒󰁥󰁴󰁵󰁲󰁮 󰁴󰁯 󰁴󰁨󰁥 󰁁󰁮󰁣􀁩󰁥󰁮󰁴 󰁗󰁯󰁲􀁬󰁤󰀿 󰀷 ‘humanist’ and ‘humanism’ would evolve. ose five were grammar and rhetoric, two of the traditional trivium, plus poetry, history, and moral philosophy.What sleight of hand! Mathematics, astronomy, and logic all eliminated, disciplines preparatory to the study of philosophy and theology in the university curricula! e humanists elevated those studies engrossed with words, and useful for understand-ing the experience of daily living, over those that might yield knowledge of the cosmos and of eternity. And Kristeller, by highlighting this curricular shi󰀀 as the fulcrum of the humanist movement, has explained why thinkers fascinated with the past yet introduce something entirely new into the mainstream of European civilization. Humanism offers a medium for the discussion of human existence as lived in the present moment, and detaches itself from the investigation—still valid and useful, but different—of ultimate things.Kristeller, then, locates in the studia humanitatis  a cultural programme that is com-mon to the humanists, and so, rather than any set of shared ideas, unites the movement. Garin and Baron, in contrast, identify what they see as humanism’s intellectual core, which they trace to the northern Italian context within which the movement srcinated.An Italian native, Garin is especially aware of the intersection between the ideas the humanists articulated and the civic setting from which they came. Even patterns of thought that were not explicitly political—as seen in works concerned with social or philosophical questions—can be recognized, as Garin presents them, as having been fuelled by the energy and pragmatism of an urban environment, which evoked an inter-est in the daily existence of humans, more than in their religious destiny.Baron goes further. For him, humanism is essentially ‘civic humanism’. It is concerned with the political and social world of the northern Italian cities, with specific works seen as triggered by specific events—as when, famously, the humanist Leonardo Bruni responded to the crisis of 󰀱󰀴󰀰󰀲, when the forces of the tyrant of Milan encircled and threatened Florence. Baronian humanism, in fact, conditioned by contemporary politi-cal events, becomes an ideology, if not a philosophy, valorizing the republican ideals especially of Florence, the epicentre of the humanist movement.As the Kristellerian, Garinian, and Baronian constructions of humanism absorbed American scholars in the postwar era, controversy ensued—the three authors of those constructs remaining nonetheless on the best of terms. Adherents of the ‘civic human-ism’ model resisted the neutral and cautious definitions and distinctions posed by Kristeller, while Kristeller disciples on both sides of the Atlantic, engaged in the archae-ology of manuscript traditions and the preparation of critical editions, largely ignored the politically laden and Florence-centred views of Baron, while they welcomed Garin’s less imperious formulations.All three of these visions have weaknesses and strengths. Only Kristeller’s, however, is able to account for the trajectory of the humanist movement as it vaults over the Alps to infiltrate and animate the whole of European culture. Baron’s theory is illuminating for Florence, but cannot explain the versions of humanism that emerged in nearby Venice or Rome, let alone Nuremberg or Paris. Garin offers a broader synthesis, but his range is still principally Italian, rooted in that region’s unique and precocious urbanization. OUP UNCORRECTED PROOF – FIRSTPROOFS, Mon Apr 06 2015, NEWGEN   acprof-9780199597260.indd 74/6/2015 9:57:00 PM
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