The Renaissance: Humanism, Civic Virtue, and the Revival of Classical Learning
Talk given by Dr. Robert Hansen on January 14, 1993. The following is edited from the lecture transcript.
I would like to thank the Humanists of Utah for inviting me to discuss Renaissance humanism for their meeting in January of 1993.
Our popular concept of the Renaissance as a distinct period in European intellectual history has become so well-entrenched over the last century that we need to be reminded that this is a problematic, although a useful, concept. Our use of the term “Renaissance” is primarily due to a single great historical work by the great Swiss historian, Jacob Burckhardt, published in 1860.
Perhaps one example will illustrate the usefulness of the popular concept of the Renaissance. Most of us probably associate that period with an ideal called “the Renaissance man.” We think of an individual like Leonardo da Vinci, celebrated as much for keen powers of observation and scientific imagination as for his artistic output.
The classical expression of that ideal is set forth by Baldesar Castiglione in The Book of the Courtier (1528). The book describes the qualities which should be possessed by the perfect courtier. Such a man should ideally be “born of a noble and genteel family” and have an impressive list of skills. As the servant of a king, the courtier should possess all the martial skills of a warrior. But the list of his skills has just begun. He should be a master of any physical activity even vaguely related to the skills of a warrior, and have all the social graces. He must also be a man of letters, an amateur musician who can play a variety of musical instruments, and know how to draw and have “an acquaintance with the art of painting itself.”
There is one other quality which Castiglione regards as just as important as the master of a variety of skills: “…above all, let him temper every action with a certain good judgement and grace, if he would deserve that universal favor which is so greatly prized.”
Thus, the ideal courtier, what we would now call “the Renaissance man,” needs to have two major qualities: versatility and grace. Castiglione explains the quality of grace and coins a new term, sprezzatura: the ability to perform a task not only skillfully as regards the outcome, but also with the appearance of effortlessness or nonchalance.
Imagine, for example, a game of billiards or pool. All of us have witnessed an overly fussy competitor who takes excessive pride in his skill. He eyes his target from every conceivable angle and assuming some contorted stance, finally takes a shot. If the shot fails, he looks like a fool. But even if the shot works, such a man has no sprezzatura. Now imagine a different player. He arrives at a tasteful bar accompanied by the most attractive woman in the establishment. Interrupting a casual conversation with a friend concerning the big bang and the prospects for a unified field theory, he takes a quick sip of his martini, casually puts down his glass, and having given the pool table a cursory glance, sinks a complicated combination shot. This is a man with sprezzatura! (Editor’s note: Perhaps Roger Moore’s James Bond is the modern equivalent!)
Clearly, it is an aristocratic ideal. It reflects the practices of many of the more prosperous and cultured people during Western European fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This has been most influential. Until recently it was precisely this model which shaped the structure of college education in Anglo-Saxon cultures. Note that this is a secular pattern of behavior. Though not directly opposed to Christianity, it is certainly an ideal which does not reflect the influence of medieval Christianity. Sprezzatura has little in common with Christian humility.
Our concept of the Renaissance is problematic not merely because the period is not precisely bounded at either end, but rather because many of the authors and works we think of as characteristically “medieval” are contemporaneous with the very authors and works which we regard as representative of Renaissance humanism. The Renaissance does not really follow the Middle Ages, and the Protestant Reformation, which begins no later than 1517, overlaps it at the other end, with the Scientific Revolution following quickly.
Thus no simple chronological criterion serves to demarcate the Renaissance, even if we confine our attention to intellectual history.
Perhaps we can best illustrate the subtlety of the distinction between medieval times and the Renaissance by comparing two of the most famous Florentine exiles: Dante Alghieri (1265-1321) and Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374). Viewed without any historical preconceptions, their dissimilarities are obvious. One significant difference is the contrast in their attitudes toward scholastic philosophy. In The Divine Comedy Dante refers to Aristotle as “the master of those who know.” Petrarch was opposed to the whole enterprise of scholastic philosophy, which was the attempt to base Christian theology on the natural philosophy of Aristotle. For all their similarities, Dante, celebrated as the author of The Divine Comedy, is commonly regarded as the greatest literary figure of the Late Middle Ages, while his younger contemporary, Petrarch, is regarded as the first Renaissance humanist.
It is typical of Dante’s attitude toward the great figures of classical antiquity that some of them are to be admired. Aristotle is “The Philosopher”, just as Virgil is “the Poet” and Paul is “the Apostle”. But Aristotle and Virgil, unlike St. Paul or even Moses, are consigned nonetheless to Limbo, since they lived by “the light of human reason” alone, having been denied the benefits of the Christian Faith.
Dante’s most systematic treatise, De Monarchia, is a decidedly medieval work in that it is focused on an issue which goes back to 1075 when Pope Gregory VII claimed the right to depose a Holy Roman Emperor. In 1198, Pope Innocent III made the papal claim that the Pope possesses an ultimate authority over all temporal rulers. Dante argues for the desirability of a single, secular, world-state. He contends that the government of ancient Rome existed de jure and by divine right, as is shown by the birth of Christ during the reign of Augustus, and that the authority of the Holy Roman Emperor is derived directly from God. Mankind, Dante says, has two distinct ends, temporal happiness and eternal salvation.Eternal salvation is the concern of the Church, and hence within the province of the Pope, since it depends on the faith and sacraments of the Church. Temporal power is to be achieved by philosophical instruction supplied by a secular state, and this is the province of the Emperor.
There is nothing radical about Dante’s insistence on the independence of the temporal power, since the champions of the Emperor were almost as numerous during the century and a half prior to Dante’s work as the champions of the papacy. If there is anything radical about the doctrine of Dante’s De Monarchia, it is Dante’s optimism concerning the possibility of earthly felicity and his emphasis on philosophical instruction which is to be provided by the state. If divine revelation is our only guide to happiness in the next life, the Ethics of Aristotle is the best guide to happiness in this life. Notice that nowhere does Dante dispute the doctrine that “there is one holy, Catholic and apostolic church” outside of which “there is no salvation or remission of sins.”
Now, Petrarch lives in the memory of most people today as a great Italian poet, but among his contemporaries he was a living representative of antiquity. Primarily on the strength of his unfinished Latin epic on the career of Scipio Afticanus (modelled on a work by Virgil) and his Country Songs and numerous Latin letters (modelled on the correspondence of Cicero) Petrarch was crowned poet laureate in 1341. Petrarch’s ambition, his undisguised thirst for fame, his seemingly endless penchant for self-praise exceed not only the bounds of Christian humility but even a modern sense of modesty. It is just these characteristics, along with Petrarch’s celebrated chronic melancholy or depression, that are cited by historians who see in Petrarch “the first modern man.” One wonders whether pathological megalomania is really a symptom of modernity.
An important point in his Secretum is that although some of the passions to which Petrarch confesses are traditional Christian vices, others are more “modern”, or at least less typical of medieval culture. However, the remedies are those of the traditional Christian.
In another Italian writing Petrarch wrote an elaborate reply to the charge that he was “certainly a good man, but a scholar of poor merit.” This work displays the character of his objections to scholasticism (the reconciliation of Aristotelian natural philosophy with Christian theology). Petrarch’s contention is undoubtedly correct that some of the fundamental doctrines of Aristotle are incompatible with Christianity. Aristotle did believe in the eternity of the world, and this belief is certainly incompatible with the Christian belief that the world is created. Another celebrated example is the question of the immortality of the soul. Petrarch’s contention that Aristotle’s works in moral philosophy, though correct in that the conclusions reached are true, are not psychologically effective. Reading them is not likely to make the reader a better person. Most ancient moralists, including Aristotle, believed that the object of studying moral philosophy is to become, in some sense, a better person.
Now if one seriously believes that the goal of moral philosophy is to produce better citizens, better Christians, or whatever else one might suppose to constitute better human beings, then it is entirely plausible to suppose that eloquence or moral persuasiveness in a moral philosopher is just as important, or even more important, than logical acumen. But, of course, Petrarch and most of his humanist successors subscribed to precisely that assumption.
For all his seemingly modern predilections, he remains very much a medieval man. An interesting passage from the “Letter to Posterity” links Petrarch’s adoration for Roman antiquity to his acute sense of alienation from the culture into which he was born: “… I devoted myself singly, amid a crowd of subjects, to a knowledge of antiquity: for this age of ours I have always found distasteful, so that, had it not been for the love of those dear to me, I should have preferred to have been born in any other.”
Here, at last, we find something which really does serve to distinguish Dante and his medieval contemporaries from Petrarch and his humanist successors. Dante, like his scholastic contemporaries, had a considerable reverence for the achievements of classical antiquity. But he was also very much at home in the culture of the Late Middle Ages. The humanists, on the other hand, while rarely repudiating Christianity, did reject the late medieval synthesis of Christian theology and Aristotelian natural philosophy (Scholasticism). They looked to classical antiquity to provide them with models and educational programs for their own medieval culture.
What we call scholasticism was a response to the first stage in the recovery of classical learning, the recovery of the works of Aristotle in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. For, as the knowledge of Greek rapidly dwindled in Western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire in the west in 476 A.D., medieval philosophers were left with a very slim remnant of classical Greek philosophy in Latin translation. Between 1100 A.D. and 1270 A.D. most of Aristotle’s works and a few of Plato’s works were translated into Latin. Although all the works we now have were available in the Byzantine Empire throughout the Middle Ages, relations between East and West were so strained after the Great Schism of 1054 A.D. that most early translations came either from Norman Sicily, or from Spain. By the end of the thirteenth century most of Aristotle’s works were not only available in Latin but had also been incorporated into the curriculum of European universities.
The second stage of the recovery of classical learning is an the attempt to reconcile the Aristotelian natural philosophy with Christian theology. Its other defining characteristic was a particular dialectical method in the form of many scholastic works divided into questions, followed by a list of quotations from various authorities, then the author’s response to objections and finally the author’s argument for his position. This task of reconciliation was urgent in part because Aristotle’s natural philosophy was the most advanced body of thought available at the time.
The project of scholasticism was from the very beginning quite problematic. One major problem is that there are a number of apparent inconsistencies between Aristotle and any mainstream version of Christian theology. Aristotle did not believe in the immortality of the soul or any other form of personal immortality, nor did his discussion of the soul lend itself readily to the doctrine of individual immortality. Another inconsistency is that, while Aristotle recognized a god of sorts, the celebrated “unmoved mover”, it would be difficult to confuse the unmoved mover with the God of Christianity. (Aquinas and others apparently succeeded in accomplishing that difficult feat.) The unmoved mover does not concern itself with the affairs of human beings: it neither answers prayers nor punishes sinners, above all, it is not a creator. (Since Aristotle believed in the eternity of the world, he had no need of a creator.)
When we think of scholastic philosophy today we tend to think of systematic theologies supplied by philosophers like St. Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1225-1274). This has been especially true since 1879, when the encyclical of Pope Leo XIII designated the philosophy of Aquinas as the official theology of the Catholic Church. The philosophy of Aquinas, however, enjoyed no such pre-eminence in the Late Middle Ages. Even in Petrarch’s day the philosophy of John Duns Scotus (ca. 1266-1303) rejecting Aquinas’ arguments for the existence of God on the grounds that they were not sufficiently formal was the predominant view in many European universities. The philosophy of William of Ockham was the most formidable challenger of Aquinas.
What was at issue was the question of the status of natural theology and the demonstrability of the existence of God. The official, orthodox Catholic position, as found in Aquinas, is that although there are theological questions which cannot be settled without appealing to revelation, there is a core of questions which can be rationally demonstrated. These questions comprise natural theology. In particular, proponents of natural theology commonly held that the existence, uniqueness and benevolence of God can be rationally demonstrated.
The contention is that Ockham holds that neither the existence, nor the uniqueness, nor the benevolence of God can be demonstrated. This does not, of course, make Ockham an atheist. He never denied that there was a God, nor was there any reason to doubt that Ockham supposed that there was a God. But Ockham’s conclusion does imply that there can be no natural theology. If accepted, this means the end of scholastic theology as it was understood by St. Thomas Aquinas and his predecessors.
How influential was Ockham’s position? The best indication is that there were university decrees directed against his teachings as early as 1339. From the number of his known followers throughout the next century, we can conclude that it was very influential indeed.
HUMANISM: philosophical and literary movement in which human values and capabilities are the central focus. The term originally referred to a point of view particularly associated with the RENAISSANCE, with its emphasis on secular studies (the humanities), a conscious return to classical ideals and forms, and a rejection of medieval religious authority. BOCCACCIO, ERASMUS, and PETRARCH were outstanding humanists. In modern usage, humanism often indicates a general emphasis on lasting human values, respect for scientific knowledge, and cultivation of the classics.
Earth In The Balance
The new Vice-President,by Senator Albert Gore, Jr., argues that only a radical rethinking of our relationship with nature can save the earth’s ecology for future generations. In Earth In The Balance published by Houghton Mifflin Co., 1992, Gore says one of our major problems is the Platonic assumption, adopted by most of the world’s major religions, that humans are separate from the world of nature. Gore makes a strong plea for us to recognize that we are not put on this earth supernaturally but rather we are part of the natural world and we have a responsibility to protect and enhance that relationship. He says as long as people see themselves as separate from the earth they will find it easy to devalue the earth. He also cites the population explosion as “the clearest single example of the dramatic change in the overall relationship between the human species and the earth’s ecological system.”
I was excited to realize that we now have a Vice-President of the United States promoting basic humanism!
Utah Libraries Accept Offer
The Humanists of Utah project to increase public awareness of humanism has been a major success. Last fall the Chapter was awarded a grant of $2,000.00 by the Fund for Chapter Expansion to finance the proposed project. The deadline for using the money was December 31, 1992. The project began with a letter to 80 public libraries in Utah asking if they would accept a subscription to the Humanist and display it in their reading room. They were also asked if they would accept and put into circulation a copy of Corlis Lamont’s book The Philosophy of Humanism. The response was better than expected. About 80% of the libraries replied to our survey letter. Some of the libraries already subscribe to the Humanist and some already have copies of Lamont’s book in circulation. Of the remaining institutions, 40 agreed to receive and display the Humanist magazine and 38 requested copies of The Philosophy of Humanism to add to their circulation shelves. The survey also revealed that the library at Utah State University has a nearly complete publication file of the Humanist magazine.
The success of this project will hopefully expose thousands of Utahns to humanism during the next three years. It could result in a major increase in the number of Utahns who become active members of AHA and perhaps result in the formation of more local chapters for Humanists of Utah.
The American Humanist Association and the Fund of Chapter Expansion has been very complimentary of the success of our project.
Flo Wineriter Speaks Out On Humanism
The following article was published in the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah on Sunday, November 22, 1992
“Humanism’s basic message is that man alone is responsible for the world and its dreams, and moral values derive their source from human experience,” said Florien J. Wineriter, President of the Utah Chapter of the American Humanist Association.
Wineriter spoke at a recent Unitarian meeting where he discussed humanism and its message. The former radio journalist said humanism is a quest for life’s values, and a belief that we can solve our own problems without having to ask for supernatural guidance. He has observed that religion attempts to teach moral values through fear of punishment, whereas humanism teaches moral values through caring.
Wineriter’s own journey into humanism was triggered by the events of World War II. As a religious young man he felt a concern about the ethics of killing another human being on the other side of the world who might believe in the same religion as he. After studying the many religious wars of the past, Wineriter concluded, “If beliefs in God create so much bloodshed, even among those who share the same religion, then I want and need a basic belief that holds more hope for the future of the human race, and for peaceful resolutions of conflicts.”
The Humanist Counselor believes we must have freedom of choice and experience a wide range of full liberties. “There is no area of thought that we are unwilling to explore, to challenge, to question, or to doubt,” as our philosophy tells us.
Humanists want to maintain a separation of church and state. “Our founders were fearful of religious domination because of past experiences when countries mingled faith and government.” Wineriter believes that churches should continue to have the freedom to lobby and take positions on issues, however the fault lies when individual lawmakers make decisions based on the belief that church should be the final authority because their leaders are spokespersons for God. “The authoritarian mentality is not conducive to democratic governments. This nation is politically and economically secular, and we must not equate religious affiliation with patriotism. Our Constitution provides that there shall be no religious test of any kind,” says Wineriter.
Prayer in public meetings should not be allowed because, in rural Utah especially, it becomes an extension of theocracy. “Prayer in civic meetings continues the mood of yesterday’s priesthood meeting,” as Wineriter put it. He believes humanists should take an active role in their communities by helping others recognize the difference between secular authority and religious authority.
Many religions are threatened by humanistic thoughts, says Wineriter. Garth Brooks’ recent song “We Shall Be Free” is presently being censored by radio stations in Tennessee because of its apparent secular message. The following lyrics appear to be the most controversial.
When we’re free to love anyone we choose,
When this world’s big enough for all different views,
When all can worship from our own kind of pew,
Then we shall be free.
“Brooks has summed up humanism in just a few simple words, and it has upset the traditional religious ideas of country music,” says Wineriter.
Being a humanist does not lead to immoral behavior, as some people believe. “Humanism teaches us to be responsible, caring people and to continually search for the highest human ideals” he emphasized.
As a Humanist Counselor, Wineriter performs marriages, memorial services, and child naming celebrations.