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Editor: Ira Mark Milne
Date: 2009
Document Type: Topic overview; Critical essay; Work overview; Brief biography
Pages: 31
Content Level: (Level 5)

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About this Person
Born: February 07, 1478 in London, England
Died: July 06, 1535 in London, England
Nationality: English
Occupation: Statesman
Other Names: More, Thomas, Saint
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Page 374



c. 1350


Humanism is an educational and cultural philosophy that began in the Renaissance when scholars rediscovered Greek and Roman classical philosophy and has as its guiding principle the essential dignity of man. Humanism was the intellectual movement that informed the Renaissance, although the term itself was not used to describe this discovery of man until the early nineteenth century. Humanist thinking came about as a response to the scholasticism of the universities. The Schoolmen, or scholastics, valued Aristotelian logic, which they used in their complicated method of defending the scriptures through disputation of isolated statements. Humanists accused the scholastics of sophistry and of distorting the truth by arguing philosophical phrases taken out of context. By contrast, humanists researched the historical context and lives of classical writers and focused on the moral and ethical content of the texts. Along with this shift came the concept that "Man is the measure of all things" (Protagoras), which meant that now Man was the center of the universe instead of God. In turn, the study of man and human acts on Earth led humanists to feel justified in entering into the affairs of the world, rather than leading a life of monastic asceticism, as did the scholastics.

The first humanist Francesco Petrarch coined the term "learned piety" (docta pietas) to indicate that a philosopher may love God and learning, too. The common thread among all Renaissance Page 375  |  Top of Articlehumanists was a love of Latin language and of classical (Greek and Roman) philosophy. The humanist interest in authenticating classical texts would become the field of textual criticism that still thrives in modern times. Humanism, too, thrives in the early 2000s, although it has been transformed to encompass humanitarian concerns such as providing aid to those who are suffering. Secular humanists at the beginning of the twenty-first century reject religion and turn their attention to charitable works and an ethical, meaningful life.


Irving Babbitt (1865-1933)

Irving Babbitt was born August 2, 1865, in Dayton, Ohio. He studied at Harvard University and at a school in Paris, taking degrees in classics and Sanskrit. He taught romance languages and French literature, eventually settling into a professorship at Harvard. Babbitt introduced the study of comparative literature to that institution and, while there, developed his ideas which would form the New Humanism movement that lasted from 1910 to 1930. Babbitt began his humanistic work with a critique of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Enlightenment philosopher noted for his influence on Romanticism. Babbitt and his ideas were controversial but also influential. He was denounced by contemporaries such as Ernest Hemingway and Sinclair Lewis, but he was also an important influence on a young T. S. Eliot, a student of his. Babbitt died on July 15, 1933, which effectively brought the New Humanism movement to an end, although interest in Humanism continued into the late twentieth century.

Baldassare Castiglione (1478-1529)

Baldassare Castiglione was born on December 6, 1478, at Casatico near Mantua, Italy. An Italian diplomat, knight, and courtier, Castiglione served in the court of Urbino for a good part of his life, observing and taking part in its elegance. He wrote a fictional dialogue intended to represent the best of court life in his Book of the Courtier (1528). This book was highly influential, setting the standard for behavior among the elite. It included rules regarding how to comport oneself with a casual nonchalance and how to give the impression that one's learning and grace are natural talents, effortlessly expressed. He explains, "Therfore that may be said to be a
Desiderius Erasmus Desiderius Erasmus(Public Domain) very art that appeereth not to be art, neyther ought a man to put more diligence in any thing then in covering it: for in case it be open, it loseth credit cleane, and maketh a man litle set by" (as translated by Sir Thomas Hoby, 1561). Castiglione died at the height of his fortune on February 2, 1529.

Desiderius Erasmus (c. 1466-1536)

Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam was born in October of 1466 or 1467, an illegitimate child whose parents died of the plague. He was put into a monastery, where he was prepared for the priesthood. However, Erasmus became a scholar and one of the first humanists and did not join the priesthood. He initially supported the Reformation but abandoned the movement when it led to religious conflict. Influenced by Valla's Book of Elegances, a Latin grammar, Erasmus studied Latin classics of the pagan authors of Ancient Greece and Rome. He also became interested in education, partly in reaction to his own brutal treatment at the hands of his early school-teachers, and he wrote a collection of sayings, Adages, for use as a Latin textbook. Erasmus proposed that schools follow the education precepts of classical Roman Quintilian (c. 35-c. 99), to train orators by focusing first on their Page 376  |  Top of Article personal integrity, then on their persuasive skills. To this end, Erasmus suggested that students practice extemporaneous writing to encourage candor, thus departing from the traditional school model in which the schoolmaster read from a single text while students copied the lectura (reading) word for word. With his great faith in the power of words, Erasmus considered religious feeling to stem from a direct reading of the scriptures, which he felt had a nearly magical ability to influence people to follow the example of Christ. Like Luther, whom he at first admired, Erasmus felt that the key to religious feeling was the change of heart that could occur when a person reads the scriptures, not from unthinking obedience to the rituals of a corrupt church. Erasmus was a humanist in his belief that humans can achieve piety through their own endeavors and in his passion for Latin rhetoric. He combined humanist scholarship with reformist ideology. Erasmus died July 12, 1536, in Basel, Switzerland.

Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499)

Marsilio Ficino was born in Florence, Italy, on October 19, 1433, and began his student life as a scholastic, studying the traditional Aristotelian philosophy. However, he had a religious epiphany during which he decided that Plato's philosophy was a divine revelation designed to prepare the pagan world for the arrival of Christ. Ficino's somewhat antithetical beliefs were symbolized in two votive candles he kept in his room: one in front of a picture of Plato and another in front of an image of the Virgin Mary. He studied Greek and read and translated into Latin the complete works of Plato as well as the works of the Neoplatonists, Greek Platonic scholars (primarily Plotinus) of the third century AD The Neoplatonists expanded Plato's philosophy to describe a system in which humans live in a state of "sleep" in this world and must go through several phases to reach a state of hyperconsciousness, the final stage achieved by the soul, which is beyond the level of reasoning.

During the forty years that he spent translating Plato and the Neoplatonists, Ficino held informal lectures for interested scholars at his home in Florence, which became known as the Platonic Academy. Ficino's gatherings and written works helped to spread Plato's ideas among the humanists. He himself, however, was not a true humanist, since his interests lay in the philosophy of Plato; he ignored the philological aspects that preoccupied most of the true humanists, and he did not pay scrupulous attention to authenticating his sources, as most of the other humanists did. Ficino had an interest in the occult and magic. He also studied the Jewish mystical book called the Cabala (written in Hebrew) and the hermetic tracts of the Egyptians as well as the (lost) works of Pythagoras. His enthusiastic belief that these works held divinely inspired ancient secrets that passed through Plato proved infectious to his followers. Ficino has been accused of elitism because his brand of Gnostic Christianity gave his followers a sense of superiority, since it required a great amount of study to become initiated into its secrets. Ficino died in Corregio on October 1, 1499.

Sir Thomas More (c. 1478-1535)

Sir Thomas More was born around February 7, 1478, in England. He authored the satire Utopia, an imaginary state loosely based on ideas from Plato's Republic, among other classical sources. This work was written early in More's life, before he became lord chancellor and then became embroiled in the king's "great matter," wherein King Henry VIII granted himself sovereignty over the Church of England so that he could command that the Church condone his divorce of Catherine of Aragon, allowing him to marry Anne Boleyn and try to beget a male heir with her. More foresaw that this crisis in English history would inevitably lead to a schism between church and state and so refused to provide the public support that Henry wanted. Henry charged More with treason and ultimately had him beheaded.

More was a avid proponent of humanist ideas, having befriended Erasmus on one of his visits to England. More used his significant skills in Latin oratory to defend the study of classical Greek other secular literature against scholasticism. He felt that studying the ancient classics better promoted knowledge and virtue than did the traditional fare of scholasticism, with its emphasis on disputation of minor points of theology. Nevertheless, More remained very much a medieval thinker and scholar, steeped in scholastic learning, despite his liberal acceptance of the new humanist ideas. Even though, as befits a humanist, More eschewed monastic study and happily entered the world of politics, statesman-ship, and law, he was a product of the scholastic form of education, since he relied upon the skills he learned in scholastic disputation. Convicted Page 377  |  Top of Articleof treason on false evidence, More was beheaded on July 6, 1535. He was widely admired for his sincere religious piety, especially after his martyrdom.

Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374)

Francesco Petrarch was born July 20, 1304, in Arezzo, Italy. Known as the "Father of Humanism," Petrarch promoted the study of works by Cicero (106-43 BC) and Virgil (70-19 BC) as models of Latin eloquence. He actively sought new manuscripts of their work, along with those by other classical Roman writers such as Quintilian and Seneca, and his travels across Europe uncovered a number of hitherto lost works by Cicero and others. Petrarch valued Cicero for his ideas about morality, oration, and the purpose of education as a means to train good citizens. It was Petrarch who identified the decline of the Roman Empire as a historical event, and he defined the period of history after its fall as a "dark age," or a "Middle Age" between the golden era of antiquity and the current "rebirth" of antiquity in Petrarch's own time. By this it was meant that ancient texts were once again valued for their unique contribution to human history. Petrarch is perhaps best known for his sonnets inspired by a mysterious woman he calls simply "Laura," who did not return his love. Petrarch died on July 18, 1374, in Arquá, Italy.

Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494)

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola was born February 24, 1463. He was a brilliant student who gave up his share of the Mirandola ancestral property in order to pursue his education by traveling to the major universities of Europe. Like Ficino, Mirandola became enamored of the mystical Jewish Cabala, and he once bought a number of fake Hebrew manuscripts purported to contain ancient secrets. He sought to construct a universal religion derived from Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, and he believed that Platonist philosophy could be reconciled to their common ideas. When he returned from his educational saga, he wrote nine hundred theses on a wide variety of topics and challenged any and all scholars to join him in Rome to dispute them. No one came, for the Church determined that some of his propositions were heretical. He had to flee to France for a time until it was safe to return. Pico della Mirandola says in his opening to the theses, which came to be known as Oration on the Dignity of Man (1496), that "nothing in the world can be found that is more worthy of admiration than man." His work served as a manifesto for the humanist movement in that it promulgated the idea that man should take his rightful place as the center of the universe yet also exhorted man to give up worldly aspirations and physical pleasure to seek peace through the contemplation of God. Pico della Mirandola died November 17, 1494.

Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498)

Girolamo Savonarola was born on September 21, 1452. He was a charismatic monk from Ferrara, Italy, who preached fiery sermons in Florence on the subject of proper piety. An accomplished orator and rhetorician, Savonarola quickly became famous for his sermons and drew large crowds. Even though Savonarola was not a humanist himself, he influenced the work of Pico della Mirandola and Marsilio Ficino, who were in Florence when he was preaching there. His sermons called for a "bonfire of the vanities" in which were burned all heretical books, images, and objects of vice. Savonarola was charged with heresy by the Church; he was excommunicated, then tortured, hanged, and burnt at the stake on May 23, 1498.

Lorenzo Valla (c. 1405-1457)

Lorenzo Valla was born in Rome, Italy, around 1405. He was a philologist who disputed the validity of the claim that the Emperor Constantine (306-337), who converted to Christianity and made Constantinople into a haven of Christian ideology, had donated half of his empire to Pope Sylvester for curing him of leprosy. Valla's argument rested on linguistic evidence, the first argument of its kind. Among other evidence, he proved the donation document a forgery by exposing anachronisms (words that did not exist in the fourth century) in the Latin text. Valla also wrote Elegantiae (or Book of Elegances), a Latin grammar that sought to improve the quality of spoken and written Latin, with over three thousand examples of correct Latin usage (elegances). Valla, along with Petrarch, promoted a revival of classical Latin in its purest form; Renaissance philologists considered the classical period as a golden age of the Latin language that was followed by a period of degeneration when vernacular languages flourished and Latinists lost their interest in the pure forms of the language. Valla's legacy to Page 378  |  Top of Article Humanism was to initiate the field of textual criticism, which studies the authenticity of texts and seeks to correct errors that occur in manuscripts as they are copied. Valla died in Rome on August 1, 1457.



Published in 1500 by Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, the Adages (Adagia) initially comprised more than three thousand proverbs from Greek and Roman antiquity. Erasmus added to the collection in the 1508 and 1515 editions. This befits the spirit of the Adages, for in it Erasmus speaks of the importance of the richness (copia) of using the right number of adages in speaking. The introduction gives specific advice on how to polish these gems and use them to enhance speech. He says, "And so to interweave adages deftly and appropriately is to make the language as a whole glitter with sparkles from Antiquity, please us with the art of rhetoric, gleam with jewel-like words of wisdom, and charm us with tidbits of wit and humour." The book became one of the most influential of the Renaissance period, since it both preserved the wisdom of the ancients and served as a how-to book on oration.

Analects of Confucius

The Analects of Confucius is a book that collects the wisdom and deeds of Chinese philosopher Confucius (551-479 BC). Confucius is the oldest known humanist philosopher. The Analects were compiled after his death by his disciples and have been a significant influence on moral and proper behavior in Southeast Asia for more than two thousand years. While evidence indicates that the Analects were altered in small ways over time to reflect changes in the political and social climate, the primary humanistic message remains intact. The Analects opens with the Chinese character for "learning," demonstrating the importance Confucius put on study of the world around one as well as personal reflection. His teachings advocated valuing human life over material objects and learning sound judgment, both fundamentals for what would later be known as Humanism.

Frontispiece of Sir Thomas Mores Utopia, illustrating an imaginary island Frontispiece of Sir Thomas More's Utopia, illustrating an imaginary island(W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.)

Book of the Courtier

Published in 1528 by Italian knight, diplomat, and courtier Baldassare Castiglione, Book of the Courtier (Il Cortegiano) describes the perfect gentleman and lady. It consists of a dialogue among typical courtiers, discussing how to behave with grace. A group of courtiers led by the Duchess of Urbina describes the perfect gentleman and his talents, which include hunting, swimming, leaping, running, playing tennis, and playing music, and avoiding envy. The perfect gentlewoman is also described. For both, looks are important, but the end result of one's toilet should give no hint of effort, such as excessive plucking of hairs or using too much makeup. Grace consists of "a certain recklessness," or sprezzatura, which involves acting gracefully without seeming to "mind it." It means that one avoids seeming curious or angry. Talent in speaking and writing is also paramount, and Page 379  |  Top of Articlethe group goes into a lengthy discussion about the use of oratorical figures of speech and the need to shun antiquated sayings. The final chapter describes courtly love. Castiglione's Book of the Courtier was soon translated into other languages for use at courts across Europe and in Japan.

Book of Elegances, or Elegances of the Latin Language

Begun circa 1435 by Lorenzo Valla (an Italian humanist, philosopher, and literary critic) and published in 1444, this anthology of three thousand exemplary Latin phrases became a standard text throughout Europe for training students in Latin philology (the study of words or language). Within one hundred years of its writing, the huge and costly Book of Elegances had been printed in sixty editions.

Familiar Letters

Francesco Petrarch, over a period of many years beginning in 1325, wrote a series of letters addressed to writers from classical Greek and Roman antiquity, such as Cicero, admiring his oratorical qualities; Homer or imitators of Homer, including the talented Virgil; and Socrates. He speaks with these figures from the past about his own critics as if he were writing to his contemporaries and personal friends. Among the letters, too, is one "To Posterity" in which he describes himself and his life and works in an early version of the informal autobiography. Speaking to posterity, he refers to himself in the past tense, as in this example: "I possessed a well-balanced rather than a keen intellect, one prone to all kinds of good and wholesome study, but especially inclined to moral philosophy and the art of poetry." Other letters were addressed to contemporaries: Giovanni Boccaccio, who was a friend, and Tomasso de Messina, a philosophical enemy and supporter of Scholasticism to whom Petrarch writes of his distaste for Aristotelian logic and preference for the works of Plato.

Oration on the Dignity of Man

In 1486, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola had completed seven years of classical education at various universities in Europe. He independently came up with the idea to formulate a universal religion comprising the essential elements of the existing major religions. He put together some of his ideas in nine hundred theses on a wide variety of topics that he wanted to dispute with other scholars in Rome, but the debate did not occur because the Church claimed that some of his propositions were heretical, and Pico della Mirandola had to flee to France for safety. The opening oration to the theses, which came to be known as Oration on the Dignity of Man (published posthumously in 1496), describes man as not being constrained by the laws of nature, such that man, through free will, may determine his own limits and nature. Further, it places mankind at the center of the universe; Pico della Mirandola says that "nothing in the world can be found that is more worthy of admiration than man." The opening oration has been called the manifesto of Humanism. Although Pico della Mirandola was not a true humanist, since he held on to the Aristotelian concept of forms, a scholastic ideology, his work galvanized humanist thinking in the way that it pulled together the best of Jewish, Christian, Zoroastrian, and Arabic philosophies, expressing the intellectual freedom and dignity of humankind.


Sir Thomas More wrote Utopia while on an extended diplomatic mission to Bruges and published his work in 1516. It is the story of the mythical island called No Place (Utopia), where the people get along through their virtue, reason, and charity. The vices of greed and jealousy have been engineered out of the society by ordaining that everyone wear the same clothes and that houses be exchanged every ten years. More based his allegory of England on Plato's Republic, among other classical (and biblical) sources. More's Utopia is a celebration of the potential for human virtue and pleasure on Earth and thus a seminal work of humanist literature.



Education is an important facet of Humanism. Not only did the humanists revere learning, but they disseminated their ideas through a radical change in educational methods. Humanism was primarily a movement in opposition to the traditional mode of education, called Scholasticism, of the medieval period. Scholasticism had been a new style of learning in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, which accepted as a maxim that God

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  • In many ways, the economic and social setting of fourteenth-century Florence, Italy, made it theperfect placefor thebirth of Humanism. Florence was a center of trade, and powerful families trained their sons to become ethical, successful merchants. What is the relationship between the society in Florence and the development of a new way of thinking about humanity and its role in the world?
  • The early humanists were devout Christians, yet the humanist movement has evolved to one that is frankly opposed to religious ideology, and many modern humanists are atheists. Research the ideas of the Renaissance humanists as compared to those of modern Humanism. How do you account for this substantive change in philosophy?
  • All religions play a role in reinforcing moral behavior and attempt to explain the purpose of human life. The major religions—Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam—share these goals. Study one or more of the major religions and compare the methods of approaching these goals with the methods proposed by humanists. What underlying principles are shared by all of these belief systems?
  • The rise of Humanism accompanied exciting changes in art, such as the invention of perspective and the development of portraiture. In addition, artists studied human physiognomy in order to portray human figures more realistically. Did these artists subscribe to humanist thinking? How did humanist ideas find expression in art? What role did patronage play in the development of the new artistic style of the Renaissance or the new humanist way of thinking?

existed and that God's Truth was a given that did not need to be proved. The Schoolmen (as the scholastics were called) merely had to refute attacks on the Truth, in a sort of legalistic argumentation style that derived from their understanding of Aristotelian logic. It took the form of arguing over minute details, according to seventeenth-century philosopher Francis Bacon. The flaw in scholastic thinking was that it relied too much on statements taken out of context and then disputed. Texts were treated as authorities, and each statement was disputed as either false or true, with no consideration for the context of the statement or the circumstances under which it was written. Instead, individual and unrelated statements were gathered into books of wise sayings. For example, a standard text was called the Book of Sentences (1472) by Peter Lombard, in which opinions by various writers were arranged by topic. St. Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologiae is also compilation of opinions removed from their original context. Because individuals and their complete theories were not as important as their individual statements, scholastic education had devolved into argumentation over minutiae, seriously considering such questions as how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Scholars wanting to prove such a point would pick through the available statements in works like the Book of Sentences to find those that supported their own ideas. Rhetorical skill was disdained by scholastics as inclined to appeal through emotions, rather than the intellect.

Scholasticism came into being because of the recognition in the medieval period that people must be trained to understand and accept Christian theology. The scholastics believed that humans were lost and could only be redeemed through God's grace, not through their own efforts, and that they should revere God. Therefore, monasteries, schools, and itinerant teachers flourished during the so-called Dark Ages, spreading the word of Christianity using the scholastic method of education. This method consisted of the trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and logic, along with the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. The goal of these studies was to support the study of theology. Of the few classical philosophers whose ideas supported Scholasticism, Aristotle is primary. Aristotle said that theoretical knowledge could be substantiated by beginning with core principles and deriving further truths from them, as one proceeds in mathematical reasoning. His form of syllogistic reasoning (deductive reasoning from established premises or principles) lies at the heart of Scholasticism.

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By contrast, the humanists, or as they were sometimes derogatorily called, the Umanista (little grammar teachers), chose the curriculum of the study of humanities, or the liberal arts. The humanists sought to understand a writer's complete theory. They also looked at ancient writings in their historical contexts, in order to discover the nature of the writer as well as the historical import of his words. Humanists, too, studied grammar and rhetoric but did so in order to identify and master eloquence in Latin expression. In addition, they studied history, poetry, and moral philosophy. Humanists opposed scholasticism because of its limited scope, since isolated statements taken out of context could be easily misunderstood and misrepresented. They also objected to the Aristotelian method of deductive logic, that is, inference from a general to a specific statement, on the same grounds, that it could easily be distorted. Humanists preferred Platonic and Neoplatonic philosophy over scholastic logical disputation.

Revival of Classical Learning

The humanists of the early Renaissance initiated a revival in appreciation for ancient classical Greek writers. While the scholastics included the thoughts of Aristotle in their learning, the humanists leaned toward those of Plato. However, they transformed his ideas to fit with Christian ideology as well as with some of the ideas in Gnosticism and Judaism. In this, the humanists participated in a long tradition of philosophical thought known as Neoplatonism. In the third century AD, Plotinus, perhaps the most well-known of synthesizer and proponent of Neoplatonic thought, merged Platonic ideas with the goal of personal salvation that came about through Christianity. In other words, Plotinus took an essentially philosophical idea and merged it with religious ideology. Neoplatonism started with Plato's doctrine of innate knowledge, the concept that the human soul has true knowledge that will be awakened through proper questioning. This idea fit well, according to some humanists, with the idea of personal salvation, a tenet of Christianity. Neoplatonism also adopted Plato's distinction between knowledge and opinion, as elucidated in his Republic. In Neoplatonic thought, the only way to find God (or the One) in the physical world is to shun worldly life through ascetic privation in order to contemplate pure ideas and thus rise to oneness with the divine mind. Neoplatonists were inclined toward mysticism, and they approached theology through analogy and metaphor rather than logic. The humanists adopted Neoplatonist thinking because it emphasized human intellect and contemplation and because it seemed to provide a spiritual link between the ancients and Christian theology. They believed that classical philosophers were divinely inspired to write their philosophies to pave the way for Christianity.


Love of Language

As the humanists discovered neglected or lost classical manuscripts and distributed them through printing, they developed a discerning taste for those classical writers who expressed their thoughts in the most elegant forms of Latin. They also discovered errors in transcription as they compared different versions of the same text. Philology, the love or study of language, grew out of the humanist desire to perfect their translations of ancient texts and to write textual commentaries on their newly discovered texts. Writing in Latin themselves, they sought to express themselves in the most elegant forms of this language. Thus, ancient Roman writers such as Cicero and Caesar became models of Latin prose, replacing the medieval Latin of scholastic Latin grammars. In many ways, philology lies at the heart of the humanist movement, since it engendered a focus on the historical context in which ancient texts were written as well as on textual criticism. In fact, the early humanists invented the concept of textual criticism. Philology is central to historical study because it is a valid means of authenticating records of historical events and thinking.


Rhetoric and oratory—in Latin—were important skills to the humanists. They disapproved of the scholastic style of disputation, which they considered a show of superficial knowledge as opposed to true wisdom or virtue. The scholastic method of disputation involved searching through texts to find statements to use as evidence to support a given opinion, even to the point of taking statements out of context. The scholastic method of teaching Latin and rhetoric was through rote memorization, with corporal punishment for poor performance. Students learned how to imitate the classical Latin writers but often had no idea of the Page 382  |  Top of Articlemeaning of the words they said. In contrast, the humanists wanted their students to follow Cicero's three duties of the orator: to teach, to please, and to move (appeal to emotions). Humanist oration was not a recitation but a speech that considered the audience as well as the choice of material. In addition, humanists wanted their students to learn the subjects so that they would speak with authority. They followed the adage to teach students to "Grasp the subject, the words will follow." To do so would lead students to acquire real understanding of subjects, and this knowledge would help them make good decisions and become better citizens. This method is consistent with another of Cicero's rules, which proposes that students not try to master "absolute truth" but look to their own virtue instead. Thus the teaching of oratory was linked to character education. Erasmus wrote several works designed to help students acquire a mastery of Latin. His Adages contained thousands of worthy sentiments elegantly phrased in Latin. He also wrote a work called Formulas for Friendly Conversation (printed in 1518) to help students converse rather than simply repeat Latin sayings. Ultimately, advanced students of Latin would need to master skills of "oratorical abundance" or copia. By this was meant the ability to speak at length on a topic, to layer speech with numerous pertinent sayings, and to choose adages that fit the occasion. The latter skill is referred to by Shakespeare's Hamlet when he tells the troupe of actors visiting his castle to "suit the action to the word, the word to the action." That Shakespeare echoed the humanist program of oratory is testimony to the extent to which their program of oratory and rhetoric had filtered into public schools such as the one that Shakespeare attended in his small town of Stratford-upon-Avon in the sixteenth century.


The humanist interest in biography and autobiography stems from the father of Humanism, the Italian poet and scholar Francesco Petrarch. Petrarch deplored his own age and felt that classical Roman times and people were more virtuous than his. He became obsessed with reading works of ancient Roman writers in the original Latin. He also searched for lost manuscripts so that he could piece together a society that he felt was far superior to fourteenth-century Italian society. When he found collections of personal letters written by his favorite classical writer, Cicero, he pored over them, trying to get to know the man and the culture that produced him. Petrarch even wrote fictional letters to some of his best-loved Roman writers, in which he praised the classical period and talked about his dissatisfaction with his own time. Then Petrarch wrote a set of biographies, which he called Of Illustrious Men (De viris illustribus) (1338). These twenty-four sketches are a model of classical scholarship and insight into human behavior. His friend Boccaccio wrote a parallel work on the lives of over one hundred women, called Famous Women (De mulieribus claris) (1362). Little did either of these two scholars and literary geniuses know the impact their obsession with classical Rome and Greece would have on posterity in fostering the genre of biography, which would remain popular for centuries.


The Enlightenment Period

Some historians say that the humanist movement that began in the Renaissance did not fully flower until the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, also called the Age of Reason. During this period, human faith in science and rational thinking spread beyond the intellectual elite, who included most of those who espoused Humanism during the Renaissance. With a larger literate population and a booming middle class that could afford to own books, the intellectual thinkers and philosophers of the eighteenth century influenced their societies with their ideas that human reason was supreme and that religion based on superstition and meaningless ritual should not dictate human behavior. Some Enlightenment thinkers were actually atheists; however, many simply eschewed formal religion in favor of the concept of a supreme being whom man could not prove definitively. A group of French thinkers known as the philosophes, including Denis Diderot (1713-1784), Charles Montesquieu (1689-1755), Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), and Voltaire (1694-1778), among others, prepared an Encyclopédie (1751-1780) to contain all human knowledge, rationally arranged. Religion was notably missing and in fact was treated as superstition. In one of his essays, Voltaire made the scandalous proposition that religious differences should be tolerated: Since God could not deny heaven to classical thinkers such as Socrates, Plato, and Solon, how could he deny it to men of other Page 383  |  Top of Articlecontemporary religions? Many of the contributors to the encyclopedia were imprisoned for their heretical views. Nevertheless, the massive Encyclopédie stood as a testimony to the doctrine of man's essential supremacy. The Enlightenment thinkers and philosophers were also fascinated by how humans acquire knowledge and, with religion losing its authority as a moral standard, morality. Many of them wrote treatises on the mind, including David Hume (1711-1776), who considered human feeling as the source of ethical behavior. Hume also claimed that since God exists only as an idea in the mind, he does not exist. Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) proposed that humans make ethical decisions based upon the pleasure principle: that in seeking to avoid pain, each human makes ethical decisions that contribute to the common good. In Germany, Immanual Kant (1724-1804) proposed that all moral actions be measured against a kind of golden rule that said that an action was moral if it could be applied categorically to all, which was another form of locating morality in the human mind rather than in divine revelation. In the American colonies, Thomas Paine (1737-1809) accused religion of inspiring the worst moral behavior, saying that "The most detestable wickedness, the most horrid cruelties, and the greatest miseries that have afflicted the human race, have had their origin in this thing called revelation, or revealed religion." The role of the Enlightenment period, in regard to Humanism, consists in taking the humanist faith in humanity a step further—toward questioning and even rejecting organized religion. It was a period of the triumph of intellectual reasoning over religious belief, and it affirmed the idea of virtue on Earth for the sake of pleasure on Earth. In this thinking lay the seeds of the humanist work of the next century, that of social consciousness and reform.

Modern Secular Humanism

The social reformist thinking of the nineteenth century was an outgrowth of Renaissance and then Enlightenment Humanism. Belief in the Great Chain of Being with its divinely ordained hierarchies in each category, including among various kinds of people, legitimized imperialism with the idea of "civilizing" undeveloped nations abroad and contributed to the sense of social responsibility that eventually developed into better living and employment conditions at home, where working-class people led "lives of quiet desperation" (Thoreau, 1854). Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899) wrote "A Humanist Credo," in which he defined this responsibility:

We are satisfied that there can be but little liberty on earth while men worship a tyrant in heaven. We do not expect to accomplish everything in our day; but we want to do what good we can, and to render all the service possible in the holy cause of human progress. We know that doing away with gods and supernatural persons and powers is not an end. It is a means to an end—the real end being the happiness of man.

Later humanist ideology evolved from a program that focused on social reform to one that embraced humanitarianism in general, and this form of Humanism dominated the twentieth century. According to humanist Corliss Lamont, Humanism is "A philosophy of joyous service for the greater good of all humanity in this natural world and advocating the methods of reason, science, and democracy." Several manifestos were composed and signed by leading scholars, scientists, and writers indicating their support of a form of Humanism that eschews organized religion and embraces human responsibility for realizing human potential, which includes such ideas as opposing nuclear war, promoting pro-choice on the abortion question, promoting organ donation at death, and accepting euthanasia under certain circumstances. With such a wide range of issues to support, Humanism of the twentieth century and into the 2000s, also called Ethical Humanism, does not advocate any particular combination of them but rather subscribes to the notion of situational ethics, of making moral decisions on a case-by-case basis following the underlying humanist principles of respect for human dignity, faith in science and technology, freedom, and respect for nature. These principles have no regard for religious mythology but instead focus on human life on Earth. Paul Kurtz explains in his Humanist Manifesto I and II that "Ethics is autonomous and situational, needing no theological or ideological sanction. Ethics stem from human interest and need . . . we strive for the good life here and now." Secular humanists are those who are religiously devoted to the principles of Humanism. They are to be distinguished from religious humanists, such as the Quakers, who do not use this term but who are devoted to humanitarian concerns as an integral part of their religion and who eschew rituals, costumes, and dogma in their faith. There have been many notable people who claimedPage 384  |  Top of Article Humanism or Secular Humanism as their personal doctrine. These include the atheist American lawyer Clarence Darrow (1857-1938); the German-born American psychoanalyst Eric Fromm (1900-1980); British biologist and grandson of Aldous Huxley, Julian Sorrell Huxley (1887-1975); pacifist and leading English philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970); scientist and Science Fiction writer Isaac Asimov (1920-1992); French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980); scientist Carl Sagan (1934-1996), German-born scientist Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965); Spanish-born philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952); Chinese-born writer Lin Ytang (1895-1976); and philosopher Corliss Lamont (1902-1995), among many others. The challenges faced by humanists of the twenty-first century, who include philosopher Paul Kurtz, feminist historian Riane Eisler, social journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, feminist writer Alice Walker, science fiction writer Kurt Vonnegut, former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan, just to name a very few, involve dealing with globalization and ecological concerns.


The Renaissance

The Renaissance constituted a major shift in focus from God to man. It started in the middle of the fourteenth century, after the bubonic plague (Black Death, 1347-1377) killed almost one-third of the population of Europe. Although the economy suffered, the remaining population earned higher wages and quickly filled in the gaps in the market. A renewed interest in classical literature, language, and philosophy fed the intellectual movement of the Renaissance: Humanism. Humanism was responsible for raising man to a level of dignity and intellectual importance that actually threatened the viability of the Church. As humanists worked to integrate pagan classical philosophy with Christian, Jewish, and Gnostic theology and mysticism, they developed the notion that man can achieve redemption through faith, independent of the grace of God. This change accompanied a growing awareness of and discomfort about the extensive corruption of the clergy. The practice of selling indulgences began to be questioned by an emerging and somewhat educated middle class that did not share the traditional values of the ruling elite. Knowledge and ideas were more widely available due to the invention of the printing press (1457-1458) and a gradual urbanization of society. The Catholic Church still maintained its political, social, and economic power, but the Protestant Reformation was questioning its theology, and a new branch of Christianity was in its formative phase. A Counter Reformation helped to refine Church rocedures and reduce corruption, but the schism between competing models of individual salvation led to the formation of Protestant denominations. Although the Church sanctioned persecution of witches and instituted the Inquisition as a backlash against the Protestant Reformation, Europe was divided along religious lines, and nations such as England went back and forth between Catholicism and Protestantism until leaders were able to stabilize society and appoint a national religion or manage to incorporate a policy of religious toleration. In this hotbed of social and philosophical turbulence, a new mode of critical thinking allowed for significant discoveries in science. New respect for individual achievement, the scientific revolution that allowed open scientific inquiry, and an established wealth led to the revolutionary discoveries of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton and set the stage for innovations in art such as the application of the golden mean in architecture, the use of perspective in drawing and painting, and the realistic modeling of musculature in human sculpture. Niccolo Machiavelli explored human psychology to develop a theory about the role of power in politics that became the basis for modern political realism. In drama, playwrights such as Shakespeare portrayed intimate psychological studies of the human mind as it undergoes a crisis. In these and other ways, the Renaissance surpassed the achievements of classical Greece and Rome that it had rediscovered.

Italian City-States

The birth of Humanism occurred in the Italian city-states during the fourteenth century, when Francesco Petrarch decided to devote himself to the study of Latin (and later, Greek) and to search for ancient lost manuscripts of classical Rome and Greece. The Italian city-states were a perfect breeding ground for a new ideology because they were not as committed to Scholasticism as were the urban areas of the rest of Europe. Whereas universities in other parts of Europe taught theology, the universities in the

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  • 1100-1400: The most devout Christians, the monks and nuns, lead lives of quiet piety, cloistered away from the cares of the world.

    1450-1600: Pious men begin to realize that piety can be practiced here on Earth, so many humanist scholars, who are at the same time highly religious, invest themselves in making society a better place to be.

    Today: Religious men and women devote themselves to the betterment of the under-privileged here on Earth as do the humanists.

  • 1100-1400: Religion is a common aspect of life. People of other religions are sometimes treated as strangers, infidels, or unbelievers and are persecuted.

    1450-1600: As Christianity splits into Catholicism and Protestantism, religious persecution continues, now between the two branches. Persecution of Jews, Muslims, and people who practice neither Catholicism nor Protestantism is also rampant.

    Today: Religious tolerance is a hallmark of a liberal society. There are still places in the world that persecute people of other religions, and their intolerance has become one of the key challenges of the twenty-first century.

  • 1100-1400: Both scholars and clergy accept Christian teachings as presented by the Catholic Church.

    1450-1600: Humanist scholars and clergy begin to feel skepticism about some Catholic teachings and therefore develop the ideology that people can seek revelation on their own. Their ideas are considered heretical.

    Today: Secular humanist scholars flatly deny any credence to religious belief. Secular Humanism itself serves as a kind of religious belief in human dignity.

Italian city-states taught law and medicine. In the rest of Europe, society depended upon the clergy at the universities to educate the sons of the elite in established Christian doctrine so that they would be able to compete for positions at court. However, the Italian city-states were either self-governing (Florence and Venice) or run by a patriarchal family, like the Medici, and so needed only to teach young men how to use language and writing to conduct business and city matters. Italy was a locus of trade, which required that merchants be conversant in law and the cultures of the many merchants from other kingdoms who traveled there to trade. In Florence, no university existed until an institution was chartered in 1321. Instead, young men of elite families were trained to their trade in schools that contracted annually with a teacher to present a prearranged curriculum. This fluidity made it easier for the city-states to shift to the new humanist way of thinking, since there was not a philosophically or theologically oriented university faculty devoted to the promotion of a particular philosophy or doctrine. The practicality of a merchant trade culture demanded that students acquire an ethical foundation that would make them good businessmen. Furthermore, the city-state schools taught their students skill in politics and rhetoric, so that they could serve in the republican form of government and also make good heads of their family households.

The fall of Constantinople in 1453 brought an influx of expatriate Greek scholars to Italy. These scholars found work teaching the young elite of the wealthy merchants in the city-states, spawning interest in the study of Greek language and literature, so that studies of ancient Greek literature in the original language contributed to humanist thought.

The Reformation

The Reformation was a reaction to the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church, which was raising money by selling indulgences (pieces of Page 386  |  Top of Articlepaper promising that the purchaser would have all of his earthly sins excused in heaven). The Reformation was a theological movement, led by Martin Luther, who in 1517 attached ninety-five theses (criticisms of the Church) to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg. He was promptly excommunicated. However, his ideal of religious revelation through personal experience of the Bible and God through faith rather than through religious works was an idea that took hold among the growing middle class. Although scholarly humanists eventually withdrew their support from what they could see was an attack on the Church itself and not just on its corruptions, the reformist movement succeeded in creating an alternate branch of Christianity known as Protestantism. The Reformation became a political conflict as nations began to emerge from the fiefdoms of the medieval period and the leaders of these nations, such as King Henry VIII of England, saw in the Reformation potential for making inroads into the formidable power of the Church. The Church's power to generate revenue exceeded that of the crown through money gained from services related to birth, first communion, marriage, and death. The Church also wielded authority equal to and greater than that of the crown, with its threat of excommunication, which was believed to guarantee condemnation to hell after death. The Reformation was questioning the validity of that power, in light of extensive corruption among the clergy and even within the Vatican itself. Henry VIII took advantage of the weakening of Church authority and in 1538 dissolved the wealthy monasteries, taking their treasuries into his own coffers. He further weakened papal authority in England when, through his Act of Supremacy (1534), he assumed authority over the Church in England.


Johannes Gutenberg, German inventor of the printing press using movable type, produced a 1,282-page Latin Bible between 1453 and 1455. By 1465, two German printers had set up shop in Italy, where they produced a Latin grammar and a work of Cicero, in addition to the more popular fare of devotional books and the lives of the saints. By the middle of the fifteenth century, lost classical texts were being rediscovered by Petrarch and his disciples and Boccaccio and Salutati, among others. With the rapid proliferation of printing presses in major cities, the opportunity for a profitable business arose, and the cost of books dropped so that each student in a school could own his own Latin grammar and one or two important books instead of having to copy texts as the teacher recited them aloud. In addition, the professionalization of printing resulted in a greater reliability of the texts; not only were the texts being published amended by diligent humanist scholars, but large printing jobs reduced the number of textual variants. The impact of printing on Renaissance culture was significant. New ideas spread more quickly to a populace whose literacy was increasing exponentially as schools multiplied and, due to the availability of new books, were increasingly effective.


The early humanists were attacked by the School-men (scholastics) and other clergy as lacking true faith. They were denounced as pagans and were considered heretical. However, the humanists in fact were quite devout. Indeed, leaders, such as Erasmus, never deviated from Catholicism, even though they disparaged Church corruption. These humanists are known as Christian humanists, for they did not question faith itself. Nevertheless, Erasmus was vilified by traditional churchmen throughout his life. Renaissance poet Sir Philip Sidney struggled to synthesize religious faith and humanism in his life and work, as argued by Steven R. Mentz in his examination of Sidney's incomplete text, the New Arcadia. Businessmen were skeptical of the humanist curriculum and did not want their sons to waste time studying nonessential topics such as poetry and philosophy. The humanist commitment to public service eventually won over those who feared that humanist study was impractical. Another means of defense happened accidentally. Many humanists found employment with the new print shops, setting type and proofreading copies. They soon discovered that they could carry out their disputes over points of philosophy quite effectively through this new medium instead of staging a formal public debate. Ultimately, their participation in the fledgling industry spurred its success, and in turn, the humanists benefited by reaching a wider audience through their printed essays, tracts, and letters.

During the eighteenth century, humanist thinkers tended to embrace the idea of empirical Page 387  |  Top of Article
Illustration of a sixteenth-century print shop Illustration of a sixteenth-century print shop(© Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Corbis) science developed during the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. At the same time, scientists naturally gravitated toward a system of belief that could be developed by reason and produced measurable and predictable results. The combination led humanists further from religious belief, and atheism became a part of Humanism. As Howard Radest explains in his book, The Devil and Secular Humanism, "The point of separation [between religion and Humanism] was the Enlightenment; the impulse to separation was modern empirical science." Radest sees the roots of modern secular Humanism as stemming primarily from the Enlightenment period, with its emphasis on the "Rights of Man," with only distant roots coming from the Renaissance. This is because modern Secular Humanism is openly atheistic (a concept foreign to Renaissance thinkers) and has been criticized for this by religious fundamentalists. When the first "Humanist Manifesto" was released to newspapers in 1933, it was met with a huge public outcry against its atheistic principles; Humanism was seen as a dangerous trend away from core religious values. In fact, many outspoken religious conservatives today blame humanists for modern consumerist culture because they see humanists as technocrats, quick to sacrifice nature for the sake of human gain. They decry Humanism as a religion without a god and without a moral framework. Humanist Paul Kurtz defends his beliefs in his book, In Defense of Secular Humanism, in which he reminds detractors that Humanism does rest upon a set of ethical principles. Whether a given humanist subscribes to Kurtz's particular view of Humanism, modern humanists take on current, difficult ethical issues, such as the teaching of evolution in schools, abortion rights, and the right to euthanasia. As humanist Jeaneane Fowler declares, "Humanism has no creed, but many convictions."


Carole Hamilton

Hamilton is an English teacher at Cary Academy in North Carolina. In this essay, Hamilton explores how Humanism continues to thrive as an attractive belief system in the postmodern world.

Postmodernism, the belief that reality is a social construct in which each person creates his or her own personal truth, has declared the "end of history" following Nietzsche's declaration of the "death of God." According to postmodernists,

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  • Renaissance art shows the ideals of the period. One important fresco by Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio, 1483-1520), "The School of Athens" painted in 1510-1511, captures the spirit of Humanism, with its group portrait of the great philosophers, scientists, and artists of the classical period and the Renaissance. Aristotle and Plato are depicted in the center with such contemporary artists as Michelangelo and Raphael himself also included.
  • The way to convey perspective was discovered by Renaissance painters. The visual illusion of depth conveyed on a flat surface, perspective allowed painters to place their subjects in a realistic, seemingly three-dimensional context. PaintersoftheRenaissancewerefascinatedby perspective and by the logic it gave to their depiction of scenes. Notable works that show perspective are "The Holy Trinity" by Masaccio (Tommaso di Giovanni di Simone Guidi, 1401-1428) and "Dead Christ" by Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506). Portraits were another fashion of the Renaissance, stemming from the humanist belief in the essential dignity of man.
  • Of the many classical works that laid the groundwork for Humanism, several remain relevant in the 2000s and are frequently studied. Plato's Republic, which describes the ideal state, inspired many humanist thinkers. The Republic explores the facets of the ideal state through a dialogue conducted by Socrates.
  • Besides researching classical writers and writing to them in fictional letters, Petrarch wrote lovely sonnets, consisting of fourteen lines, the first eight of which state a problem that the final six lines resolve. The Italian, or Petrarchan, sonnet rhymes a-b-b-a, a-b-b-a in the octave, and the sestet may rhyme c-de-c-d-e or c-d-e-d-c-e. Most of Petrarch's sonnets are written to "Laura," a real or fictional woman who did not return his love.
  • Robert Bolt's play A Man for All Seasons is thoroughly researched and captures the essence of early humanist Sir Thomas More as he struggles with his own conscience in opposing the king's separation from the Catholic Church and decision to head a new Church of England.
  • For twentieth-century portrayals of humanist ideology, any episode of humanist Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek will provide two lessons based on humanist values: one personal and one societal.
  • African American Humanism: An Anthology (1991), edited by Norm R. Allen, presents evidence that African-American writers such as Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston carry on the tradition of humanist ideals in their work. As an alternative, read Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) about a young girl's longing for independence, or Wright's Native Son (1940), or Black Boy (1945). Richard A. Wright proposes in his work African Philosophy (1979) that African Humanism stems from Greek sources.

there is no possibility for a single, all-encompassing, objective belief. Everything is subjective, open to interpretation. This entails, according to postmodern French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, the "end of narrative," or explanatory stories, as well. Lyotard claims that the "grand narrative," or universalizing belief system, "has lost its credibility." This means that for postmodernists, neither religious nor scientific "stories" can be relied upon as Truth. Instead, they say, humans act as they want to act, according to self-interest, and then rationalize their actions by espousing the tenets of a handy belief system. Some point to fundamentalist beliefs, whereas others claim to be inspired by reason or science. These belief systems provide principles that justify their actions.

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Humanists, too, have been rationalizing their position by attaching it to long-held values. Because it espouses popular principles, Humanism has survived and shows every sign of flourishing in the future. This is because the humanist grand narrative has shifted over the centuries, responding to changes in the market of human beliefs. In doing so, Humanism has maintained its viability in a way that can carry it into future generations.

A survey of three of the most influential manifestos of modern Humanism demonstrates how the grand narrative of Humanism has evolved, making it attractive to followers and allowing it to address the problems of the age, specifically those that threaten human life and dignity. The humanist manifesto of 1933 attaches its agenda to the value of science. In doing so, the modern humanists who signed the 1933 humanist manifesto rejected all forms of supernatural belief, making a clear break with religion that their Renaissance founders could neither envision nor support. The 1933 manifesto outlines in no uncertain terms that "the end of man's life [is to] seek development and fulfillment in the here and now." It is a manifesto that discourages sentimentalism and seeks "social and mental hygiene" instead. This manifesto was written after the end of World War I, during the time of military build-up between France and Germany. It was the period of the Lost Generation, who had lost faith in God as well as in human virtue. Many people were stunned by the loss of life and the devastation of the world war; they saw life on Earth as bleak and unfulfilling, yet they longed for a meaningful purpose for their lives. The 1933 manifesto served as a call to the social conscience of a disaffected populace. It had an appeal to a world inclined toward agnosticism, the belief that humans are not capable of proving whether God exists or not. In this it succeeded by suggesting that it was admissible to seek happiness here on Earth.

The "Humanist Manifesto II" of 1973 shows another shift in the phrasing of the grand narrative of Humanism, this time moving it closer to the realm of a scientific rather than a religious foundation. The new manifesto espouses complete faith in science as the dominant ideology, which now extends to technology. Humans not only understand the world better, they now have the means to control it. This concept is consistent with the Renaissance faith in man, and the Renaissance humanists also were comfortable with technology to the extent that they used the new printing press as a means to distribute their ideas. However, modern Humanism places technology in the center of its faith. The "Humanist Manifesto II" came on the heels of a successful space program and the sense that the Cold War could be evaded through nuclear deterrence. Ironically, this manifesto calls for an end to "the use of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons," while expressing a complete faith in technology as "a vital key to human progress." This manifesto also declares atheism as a definitional aspect of Humanism. Religious belief is not just a point of skepticism but is vilified as dangerous because it does not partake of reason. The early humanists would have been shocked by this change in their beliefs. However, they would have been gratified by another change: the emphasis on social responsibility. And, they might have been intrigued by this manifesto's expression of hope for global governance, a new thought for Humanism. The only idea that remains consistent with early Humanism is the privileging of human dignity as a central belief.

Coming just seven years later, "A Secular Humanist Declaration" of 1980 contains sentiments quite similar to "Humanist Manifesto II." However, the demands for the future are more specific, and the underlying ideology has shifted, again. "A Secular Humanist Declaration" appeals to democracy as a necessary component of morality. This is the first instance of a political agenda for Humanism. It specifically addresses current policies of secular politics, from allowing evolution to be taught in schools to the tax status of nonprofit secular human rights associations. No such political concerns appear in the earlier manifestos. Clearly, the Page 390  |  Top of Articlepolitical uncertainly of the late seventies had left its mark on humanist thinking.

The shift in Humanism from its Renaissance basis in Christianity to one that is atheistic and focused on secular politics is progressive because belief must be organic enough to adapt to the changing social environment. Instead of relying on dogmatic statements that must be defended against competing ideologies, Humanism has, over time, changed its course to stay consistent with human needs. The humanist rhetoric about reason and scientific method is really a way of saying that Humanism intends to adapt to what is empirically true. Although it appears to rely on claims to transcendent principles, the nature of its abiding principles is fluid. One of these abiding principles is the commitment to preserving human life and human dignity. Thus, despite the evolution in rhetorical appeals to God, and then to reason, science, and democracy, the real beliefs of Humanism still have not changed. They are expressed in Thomas Paine's statement, "All mankind are my brethren; to do good is my religion."

The looseness of the word "good" in Paine's statement is a necessary aspect of humanist thought, which allows humanists to participate in the situational or conditional ethics required by the twenty-first century. While fundamentalists attempt to coerce followers through attempts to limit access to or to discredit competing ideologies, Humanism holds onto the crucial little narratives and lets the grand narrative evolve as it may. Humanists today concern themselves with the ecosystem, with globalization, and with human rights, all issues that threaten human life, human worth, or human dignity. They also recognize and accept the postmodern distrust of consensus, seeing that universal consensus would be another form of absolutism. In this sense, most contemporary humanists partake of pragmatist philosophy, which says that ideas are measured not by their universal truth but by their practical results. In Philosophy and Social Hope, pragmatist Richard Rorty suggests that "we simply give up the philosophical search for commonality" because "moral progress might be accelerated if we focused instead on our ability to make the particular little things that divide us seem unimportant." Rorty advocates removal of all grand narratives from the humanist rhetoric. Another humanist, Frederick Edwords, in his essay "The Humanist Philosophy in Perspective,"also acknowledges the necessity to stay flexible, saying that scientific knowledge, moral choices, and social policies "are subject to continual revision in the light of both the fallible and tentative nature of our knowledge and constant shifts in social conditions." Edwords admits that giving up the hope for a universal truth is risky, but he asserts that today's humanists

have willingly sacrificed the lure of an easy security offered by simplistic systems in order to take an active part in the painstaking effort to build our understanding of the world and thereby contribute to the solutions of the problems that have plagued humanity through the ages.

These and other forward-thinking humanists realize that an ideology needs nothing more than the sense that an action is right and good because it benefits humanity, and that making these choices is not thereby made simple or formulaic.

Although they oppose indoctrination of any form, humanists today push for educational reforms that emphasize character education, moral virtues, and critical thinking skills. They want students to learn about evolution and other hotly contested subjects and then to decide for themselves. In this, humanists face opposition from fundamentalist religious groups. It appears that once again Humanism is facing off against organized religion in the arena of education. To do so, according to Rorty, is both inevitable and a necessary function of humanist educators, since, "the real function of the humanist intellectuals is to instill doubts in the students about the students' own self-images, and about the society to which they belong." The destabilizing effect of teaching a humanist curriculum is also necessary for the evolution of humanist thought, for, as Rorty continues, teachers "help ensure that the moral consciousness is slightly different from that of the previous generation." Allowing for change and adaptation in the future makes an idea viable and strong, and it accommodates the human need to express free will by making a choice among a competing market of ideas.

The reason that today's humanists accept the need for an evolving agenda and a changing source of authentication is that they recognize the postmodern truth that humans make decisions and then justify them through theology and philosophy. Michael Werner confirms this view in his article "Humanism and Beyond the Truth" when he says

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Detail of Raphaels The School of Athens showing Plato, Aristotle, and other classical and Renaissance figures Detail of Raphael's The School of Athens showing Plato, Aristotle, and other classical and Renaissance figures(Fresco by Raphael, c. 16th century art. © Ted Spiegel / Corbis)

we are not so much rational animals as much as we are rationalizing ones. Our overdeveloped powers of cognition are more often used to confirm our prejudices, maintain our power and control, and shield us from confronting our own irrational inconsistencies.

It seems clear that taking away the scaffolding of Humanism's grand narrative has had no effect on the ultimate objective of humanist thinking. Humanists continue to strive, as Felix Adler declared, to "Act so as to encourage the best in others, and by so doing you will develop the best in yourself." For today's humanists, faith takes the form of trusting that the philosophy of Humanism will evolve. As Annette Baier explains in her book, Postures of the Mind, "the secular equivalent of faith in God is faith in the human community and its evolving procedures." This trust amounts to faith in the postmodern condition to change and evolve. Today's post-modern humanists practice a "faith" that doing good for other humans now and in the future has its own value, one that does not require further justification. Bertrand Russell said that "The great use of a life is to spend it for something that outlasts it." Moral progress, as practiced by postmodern humanists, is a matter of gradually increasing the good of human worth, through acts that look beyond self-interest. Today's humanists know that the "death of God" and the "end of narrative" do not have to lead to the end of man.

Source: Carole Hamilton, Critical Essay on Humanism, in Literary Movements for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

Steven R. Mentz

In this essay, Mentz analyzes Sir Philip Sidney's New Arcadia, arguing that Sidney uses the three shipwrecks to explore how reason and faith facilitate understanding the human condition.

The New Arcadia begins with shipwreck. Sir Philip Sidney's narrator, in one of the Renaissance's most famous literary descriptions, portrays "a sight full of piteous strangeness: a ship, or rather the carcase of the ship, or rather some few bones of the carcase hulling there, part broken, part burned, part drowned—death having used more than one dart to that destruction." Amid the wreckage float mutilated corpses and a "great store of very rich things." This scene, when juxtaposed with the text's other shipwrecks, reveals a fictional structure through

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which Sidney explores the relative merits of reason and faith in understanding human experience. As one might expect from an incomplete text, the New Arcadia does not yield any simple conclusions, but its elaboration of the ancient topos of shipwreck shows Sidney's understanding of reason and faith to be neither as Neo-Platonic nor as Calvinist as some critics have assumed. In three scenes of shipwreck, Sidney treats faith as superior to reason but sees the two as interactive, a position which allows him to qualify the Reformation's attack on this-worldly values with his hopes for human intellect.

Investigating this topic brings one face to face with the unsettled status of humanist reason and Protestant faith in Sidney studies. Where critics once held that Sidney—"that rare thing, the aristocrat in whom the aristocratic ideal is really embodied," as C. S. Lewis called him—embodied Renaissance humanism, recent work has emphasized Sidney's eclectic nature. The question has become not whether Sidney was a humanist, but which strain—civic, Neo-Platonic, Erasmian, Stoic, Ciceronian, hybrid—best fits him. Critical opinion has shifted from John Danby's confident description of Sidney's "conjunction of the Christian and the Nichomachean ethic" to studies that emphasize "contradiction and irresolution." Recent studies have made it clear that the tradition of describing Sidney as a "Platonist Protestant" does not do justice to his intellectual range and critical rigor. Arthur F. Kinney, who makes Sidney a centerpiece in his study of "humanist poetics," calls him "a man of contradictions" who not only embraced humanism but also produced "a considered reexamination of the precepts and practices advocated by Tudor humanists." Richard Helgerson further claims that the Arcadia represents a retreat from humanist principles, even though Sidney's first readers denied this. Wesley Trimpi has pointed out that Sidney's Defence of Poesy,often called Neo-Platonic, appears animated by a rejection of Neo-Platonic analysis of poetry in favor of a Ciceronian/Aristotelian approach. At every turn, Sidney's attacks on intellectual folly counterbalance his hopes for human reason; every "erected wit" has its "infected will."

Research on Sidney's Protestantism has advanced an alternate focus for his career, but Sidney's religion appears no less contradictory than his humanism. Politically, Sidney was part of the faction of the earl of Leicester and Francis Walsingham, who advocated an alliance with Dutch Protestants and sympathized with Calvinist doctrine. The notion that Elizabethan theology contained a "Calvinist consensus" regarding grace and election, however, has been challenged by revisionist historiography since the 1980s. Although the Book of Common Prayer took a semi-Calvinist position on the Eucharist, and godly preachers such as William Perkins and Arthur Dent were popular both on the pulpit and in print, the English Reformation appears ideologically very mixed in recent scholarship. When considering the four strains of English Protestantism that Penry Williamsseesasinfluential during thelateTudor period—reformers such as Edmund Grindal, anti-Presbyterians such as John Whitgift, proto-Arminians such as Lancelot Andrewes, and advocates of reason and natural law such as Richard Hooker—it has been standard practice to link Sidney to the reformers. (The poetic tribute to Grindal in Spenser's Shepheardes Calendar, a text dedicated to Sidney, emphasizes the point.) In the New Arcadia, however, Sidney appears less hostile to human reason than many reformers. Sidney's fictional defense of reason never becomes as explicit (or anti-Puritan) as Hooker's, but he strains against the orthodox reformed position. Sidney had no doubts about the superiority of faith to reason, but he refused to discount reason entirely.

Absolute Providential control was a tenet of Protestantism from which Sidney never wavered. Sidney's shipwrecks provide a fictional counterpoint to the project of his friend, the Huguenot theologian Philippe de Mornay, in the treatise De La Vérité de la religion chrestienne (1581): making divine Providence appear reasonable to human minds. For Mornay,

Prouidëce [sic] is nothing els but a wise guyding of things to their end, and that euery reasonable mynd that woorketh, beginneth his worke for some end, and that God (as I haue said Page 393  |  Top of Articleafore) the workemaister of all things, hath (or to say more truely) is the souereine mynd, equall to his owne power: doth it not follow that God in creating the worlde, did purpose an end?

The crucial term, for Mornay and Sidney as Protestants, and for Sidney as a writer of romance, is "end." A purposed end imagines God as a Supreme Author, maneuvering the history of humankind according to His elaborate plotline. The end of the story redeems its beginnings. For Sidney's fictional characters, this problem becomes literal, as repeated shipwrecks make their "ends" seem likely to be death by drowning.

The tautology at the heart of Mornay's definition of Providence opens the door for Sidney's literary experiment. Mornay's God, "the work-emaister of all things," controls events in the world, but His "end" is irrevocably aloof from human experience. God is "the souereine mynd, equall to his owne power," but He is only "reasonable" in His own terms. Human reason cannot grasp the divine mentality. In a pre-Christian fiction, however, Sidney is released from religious orthodoxy into an arena of intellectual freedom. His pagan surrogates rely on human mental ingenuity without the saving crutch of faith. The New Arcadia, by combining a pagan setting with disembodied determinist control, creates a haven for reasoned speculation into theological truisms.

Sidney's concern with the status of reason in afallen world,asÅke Bergvall has noted, has made him "a focal point for a broader investigation of the interaction between humanism and reformation." Observing that a hard line between human reason and divine power was defended by Desiderius Erasmus as well as Martin Luther and Jean Calvin, Bergvall suggests that Sidney demonstrates the compatibility of humanism and Protestantism. By exploring the shipwrecks in the New Arcadia, I hope to complicate Bergvall's valuable observations. I believe that his notion of "compatibility" goes too far; the relationship Sidney explores is more fraught and combative. In fact, Bergvall's reading of the Arcadia—that it "warn[s] against the dangers accompanying the trespass over" the boundary between the "two Kingdoms"—fails to recognize how shipwreck problematizes that very boundary.

Even the most emphatic reformed spokesmen, as Bergvall observes, did not dismiss reason outright. Rather, Luther, Calvin, and their followers valued reason so long as it kept "within . . . boundaries." According to Calvin, reason by itself is "suffycyente for ryghte gouernaunce," but should not presume to judge questions of "personal ethics" or "moral law." Luther, in his debate with Erasmus, emphasizes the complementary point: "Human Reason . . . is blind, deaf, stupid, impious, and sacrilegious with regard to all the words and works of God." Despite the appeal (for modern as well as Renaissance humanists) of Erasmus's working together ("synergos") between human will and divine power, early modern Protestantism strictly limited reason's value. Sidney, while rejecting Erasmian compromise, was not content to let the barrier between human and divine remain impenetrable. The New Arcadia uses shipwreck to interrogate this barrier from a mortal perspective.

Examining the heroes' attitudes toward shipwreck reveals that, for Sidney, unlike Luther, reason is only partially blocked from the divine. Reason is valuable because it can reject false explanations, intuit a notion of Providential control, and then recognize its limits. To be sure, this modest hermeneutic accomplishment does little to alleviate terror on a sinking ship. It does, however, clarify the relation between reason and faith in Sidney's fiction. The two kingdoms are not absolutely separate, and reason can recognize the point at which it must give way and not claim more knowledge than it possesses.

Sidney's narrator offers no explanation for the opening wreck. His only conclusion is negative; he warns against false interpretations. This refusal to misunderstand typifies human reason at its most valuable. The sea is not entirely to blame: "And amidst the precious things were a number of dead bodies, which likewise did not only testify both elements' [the sea's and the storm's] violence, but that the chief violence was grown of human inhumanity . . . which [blood] it seemed the sea would not wash away that it might witness it is not always his fault when we condemn his cruelty." Sidney's narrator rejects the assumption that the wreck was caused by divine wrath or caprice. "[H]uman inhumanity" is a contributing cause, and human causes should be sought before divine ones. This modest but rational approach forestalls misinterpretation without advancing a coherent explanation. Neither weather nor poor sailing are to blame; it is "a shipwreck without storm or ill-footing." The Page 394  |  Top of Articlecause remains a mystery of the deep, which is not cleared up for some three hundred pages.

The fishermen who accompany Musidorus offer a rival interpretation, broadly comparable to Protestantism in its deference to divine power. The fishermen are pagans, but like rigid reformed believers they believe the wreck's cause must be purely supernatural: "assuredly . . . it was some God begotten between Neptune and Venus that had made all this terrible slaughter." They see no role for human malice. Full of "superstition," the fishermen "ma[ke] their prayers" instead of throwing Pyrocles a line. Their pagan naiveté, however, should not obscure their possible insight into the wreck. The fishermen are not wrong to seek a supernatural explanation; they simply invoke the wrong supernatural vocabulary. Their interpretation can be taken as an extreme version, or a pagan parody, of Calvinist predestination.

In contrast to these alternatives is Sidney's ideal understanding of shipwreck, a model always out of reach for his characters, the biblical wreck of Saint Paul (Acts 27-8). When Paul and his companions fear for their lives during "a tempestuous wind," Paul is granted a saving vision: an "angel of God" comes to him and says "Fear not, Paul ...and, lo, God hath given thee [safety for] all them that sail with thee" (Acts 27:14, 23, 24 [AV]). Paul and his companions take heart in divine revelation and thereby conquer their fears. Sidney's heroes, unfortunately, do not ship with Saint Paul; in fact, they predate him. The assurance Paul receives from the angel they can only struggle to reach with unaided reason. Like Pamela refuting Cecropia, they must derive the core of Christianity without angels or sacred texts. The challenge of shipwreck in the New Arcadia is duplicating the results of Paul's faith without receiving his vision.

Sidney's romance begins by juxtaposing the fishermen's faux-Calvinist submission to divine power against the narrator's claims for "human inhumanity." Reconciling these points of view becomes one of the text's central interpretive challenges. Shipwrecks recur at two other crucial junctures in the plot. These moments are scattered within the expanse of the New Arcadia, but I believe that Sidney intends them to be read against each other. All three wrecks initiate important narrative transitions. Wrecks drive the two young princes to Asia Minor (initiating the adventures of book 2) and later to Arcadia (for book 1), and a final wreck brings Euarchus to them for the denouement (book 5). These episodes are structurally identical: shipwreck wrenches control from the heroes' hands, and Sidney's plot shifts direction.

Taken together, the shipwrecks subject Sidney's heroes to trials in which relying on the virtues of dry land—especially humanist reason—becomes a weakness rather than strength. Looking at Pyrocles, Musidorus, and Euarchus as shipwrecked sailors inverts the standard hierarchy in which Euarchus is a model king, Musidorus a prince-in-training, and Pyrocles a youth who cannot contain his desires. (This reading has been challenged recently, but still claims impressive advocates.) Pyrocles, whose reason falls most abjectly to his passion, gains the most insight from shipwreck; Musidorus remains largely baffled, and Euarchus learns nothing at all. This new hierarchy among these heroes implies a critique of reason and ethical rectitude; these virtues are valuable in crises such as shipwreck only to the extent that they recognize and accept human dependence on extrahuman forces.

Since the details of Sidney's revision will never be known, it is uncertain which shipwreck he wrote first. I shall examine the wrecks in order of increasing comprehension by the primary hero involved, starting with Euarchus's failure to understand his wreck, then moving to Musidorus's politicized oversimplification of the wreck off Asia Minor, and last to Pyrocles' partial explanation of the opening mystery, the wreck that brings the princes to Arcadia. This three-part reading may appear schematic, but it has the virtue of exposing a basic structural feature of Sidney's romance. In these episodes Sidney develops a positive interplay between the resources of reason and the demands of faith. None of the princes understands Providence, but by refusing false explanations Pyrocles perceives more than his father or cousin. Acknowledging powers that he cannot explain leads him to a middle position between the rationality of the narrator and the superstition of the fishermen. He uses reason to move toward partial recognition of divinity, which is as far as reason can take him.


Euarchus's shipwreck, one of the few revisions Sidney made to book 5, presents the simplest handling of the topos in the New Arcadia. Page 395  |  Top of ArticleIt portrays the limits of unaided reason. This wreck replaces Euarchus's sudden decision in the Old Arcadia to make "a long and tedious journey to visit his old friend and confederate the duke Basilius." A meeting that once arose from Euarchus's fellow-feeling for a neighboring head of state is now caused by God's storm. Book 5 needs Euarchus to step into the power vacuum Basilius's apparent death has left in Arcadia, but it is not his political acumen that gets him to the troubled kingdom.

The tempest that redirects Euarchus's ship is simple and inexplicable: "[Euarchus] had in short time run a long course when on a night, encounteredwithanextreme tempest, hisships were so scattered that scarcely any two were left together." In the phrase, "encountered with an extreme tempest," not very different from the Old Arcadia's "terrible tempest," Euarchus's navy and his earthly kingdom disappear, leaving the king a solitary adventurer on the "unhappy coast of Laconia"—exactly where the young princes were cast away in book 1. Once again, shipwreck shifts a Greek prince from political adventures (the princes' exploits in Asia Minor, Euarchus's defeat of Byzantium) to interpersonal ones (the princes' love affairs, Euarchus's judging of the Arcadian crisis). Euarchus, however, fails to realize that the game has changed. His attempt to apply rigorous justice and reason to the Arcadian crisis will nearly cause disaster.

Euarchus is an ideal king in Macedonia, but events in Arcadia expose him as overly dogmatic. His errors stem from his inability to make the cognitive leap shipwreck requires. He trusts human reason and forgets superhuman control. The first four books of the New Arcadia idealize him, but always in a political context, on dry land. Musidorus describes him as the perfect king: "For how could they choose but love him, whom they found sotrulytolovethem?...Insum...I mightaseasily set down the whole art of government as to lay before your eyes the picture of his proceedings." Like Xenophon's Cyrus, Euarchus represents the political duty that Sidney's generation felt it owed the Elizabethan state.

Scattering Euarchus's navy and casting him ashore in Arcadia turn the ideal king into an untutored romance hero. Viewing his character this way can clarify one of the critical controversies surrounding book 5, in which the ideal legislator appears willing to execute his own son. Numerous recent critics have pointed out flaws in Euarchus's justice. While Pyrocles and Musidorus use their shipwrecks to start new phases of education, Euarchus enters Arcadia believing his rational code is all he needs to know. I concur with critics who see book 5 as criticizing Euarchus, but even Stephen Greenblatt's conclusion that the trial shows that "wisdom can be hopelessly inadequate" fails to account for Sidney's interweaving of human reason and divine power. Wisdom alone is inadequate, but the text does not quite abandon its reader to the hopelessness Greenblatt and others have suggested. The New Arcadia suggests that human reason can be trusted only so far, but it replaces "wisdom" with a combination of reason and a partial perception of extrahuman Providence. The lesson Euarchus misses is the lesson of Paul's tempest: do not judge what you cannot know. Recognition of divine control, which is (barely) comprehensible to human reason, can supplement the rational humanism that Greenblatt and others rightly see book 5 criticizing.

Euarchus's problem is his limited point of view. He cannot understand shipwreck because it is not subject to rational interpretation; he is an excellent prince, but a poor theologian. A political triumph added to the New Arcadia further highlights this disjunction. Before leaving Macedonia, Euarchus provides an example of statecraft at its best, discouraging a rebellion by the Latines. He preempts their violence with a show of force and maintains his kingdom equitably for all. His tactics, however, impersonate the tempest that will later cast him ashore: "[Euarchus] by many reasons making them see that though in respect of place some of them might seem further removed from the first violence of the storm, yet being embarked in the same ship, the final wreck must needs be common to them all." This attempt to make a tempest part of a political program inverts the status of storms in Sidney's text. Euarchus's metaphor of the ship of state cannot accommodate the topos that makes a shipwreck an occasion for supplementing human reason with the direct manifestation of divine will. Understanding this aspect of shipwreck falls to younger heroes than Euarchus.


Learning from shipwreck is not easy for any of Sidney's heroes. Musidorus, like Euarchus, fails to do so because he cannot escape politics. Page 396  |  Top of ArticleUnlike Euarchus, however, Musidorus recognizes the mystery of shipwreck. When he narrates his adventures to Pamela, he interprets the shipwreck off Asia Minor as a cruel act of fate:

[W]hen the conspired heavens had gotten this subject of their wrath upon so fit a place as the sea was, they straight began to breathe out in boisterous winds some part of their malice against him, so that with the loss of all his navy, he only with the prince his cousin were cast a-land far off from the place whither their desires would have guided them. O cruel winds, in your unconsiderate rages why either began you this fury, or why did you not end it in his end?

Musidorus fails to see that the "cruel winds" of the "conspired heavens" make possible his adventures with Pyrocles in Asia Minor, which not only advance his education but also comprise the narrative of his courtship of Pamela. Musidorus sees only the "boisterous winds" and their "malice," rather than the Providential plot they advance. He does ask "why" the storm strikes him, and this acknowledgment of ignorance exceeds his uncle's self-sufficiency. He recognizes the role of supernatural forces. He is no more open to reevaluating shipwreck, however, than Euarchus.

Tailoring his speech to appeal to Pamela, the politically minded heir to the Arcadian throne, Musidorus makes politics his governing metaphor. For Musidorus, the sea can be only loyal subject or traitor. When he and Pyrocles set sail, "The wind was like a servant, waiting behind them so just, that they might fill the sails as they listed; and the best sailors, showing themselves less covetous of his liberality, so tempered it that they all kept together like a beautiful flock which so well could obey their master's pipe." The pastoral relation between shepherd and flock subtends this fantasy of perfect transparency between power and service, of a "beautiful flock" who love to "obey their master's pipe." Musidorus describes a world he can control. Playing on a metaphor common in Tudor poetry, Musidorus and the fleet "consider the art of catching the wind prisoner to no other end but to run away with it." Conventionally "catching the wind" is an image of futility, but for this crossing of the Mediterranean, it works just fine.

As readers no doubt expect, Musidorus's idyll falls apart. The storm that arises shatters the fleet:

For then the traitorous sea began to swell in pride against the afflicted navy under which, while the heaven favoured them, it had laid so calmly, making mountains of itself over which the tossed and tottering ship should climb, to be straight carried down again to a pit of hellish darkness; with such cruel blows against the sides of the ship (that, which way soever it went, was still in his malice) that there was left neither power to stay nor way to escape. And shortly had it so dessevered the loving company which the day before had tarried together, that most of them never met again but were swallowed up in his never satisfied mouth.

Musidorus shows some awareness that the ideal service of wind and sea has been the result of heavenly favor, but his vocabulary mingles the language of traitors and faithful servants with the "pit of hellish darkness." The pit is a more nearly Christian image than the fishermen's Neptune and Venus, but Musidorus interprets divine hostility in the same simplistic way they had. He omits any role for "human inhumanity," or mortal error. The "traitorous sea" is his ultimate villain.

As so often in Sidney, paired images, in this case the calm and the storm, serve as an interpretive test. Musidorus reads the shift from calm to storm in political terms, and this method precludes seeing the storm as part of a divine plan. The storm, as even Musidorus knows, is not a traitorous servant, but an unknowable power: "[T]he ship wherein the princes were (now left as much alone as proud lords be when fortune fails them) though they employed all industry to save themselves, yet what they did was rather for duty to nature than hope to escape." That he feels himself left alone "when fortune fails" exposes Musidorus's failure to understand predeterminism, in which fortune (or Providence) never fails. Musidorus and his cousin remain trapped, waging a continual struggle "rather for duty than hope to escape." The alternative Musidorus never considers is that shipwrecks may be beneficial, not malicious, as he thinks, or even capricious, as the fishermen believe.

Musidorus rails against "the tyranny of the wind and the treason of the sea" as he describes fetching up on Asian shores. In these terms, the cost of the storm is immense. The fleet is destroyed, and Leucippus and Nelsus, brothers who have loyally served the princes, must sacrifice themselves for their masters. The ship's rib, on which the four float, provides a keen metaphor for difficult political decisions in a world of Page 397  |  Top of Articlescarce resources. The rib will only float two, so the servants must give way to the masters or become traitors. The servants do not present their sacrifice in zero-sum terms, but their deaths suggest that the politics of Musidorus's wreck are strikingly cold-blooded: either servants or masters must die. Musidorus accepts their sacrifice as a matter of course, explaining that he and Pyrocles had ransomed them from captivity. The servants' ultimate fidelity, however, further undercuts Musidorus's insistence on "treason" as a governing metaphor.

The shipwreck divides the two princes, and Pyrocles washes up in hostile Phrygia, while Musidorus arrives in friendly Pontus. Pyrocles' fate in Phrygia, as Musidorus narrates it, takes him from oceangoing storms to a land-locked one: "And in this plight, full of watchful fearfulness, did the storm deliver sweet Pyrocles to the stormy mind of that [Phrygian] tyrant." The tyrant's "stormy mind" reprises Musidorus's flawed interpretation: he reads storms as political acts, tyrannies of wind and sea. The princes' political education—the new task to which this shipwreck brings them—begins with Pyrocles being held captive in Phrygia and Musidorus maneuvering for his release outside. Musidorus remains bound by political reason. Pyrocles, by contrast, refuses Musidorus's explanations when he describes the subsequent wreck off Arcadia. His refusal to pronounce decisively is as close as any Arcadian prince gets to understanding how shipwreck operates in their world.


Sidney matches each prince's weak point with the subject of his narrative. Thus Musidorus, whose strengths are active and political, narrates a mysterious shipwreck, which, if interpreted better, might reveal the need to accept supernatural control. Pyrocles, by contrast, narrates a shipwreck which is not as obviously a product of supernatural power. At the end of book 2, Pyrocles finally explains the mysterious opening disaster. This shipwreck poses a special challenge for him because his gentle nature recoils from Plexirtus's treachery. Unlike Musidorus, he condemns not disloyal service but the entire gruesome episode:

But while even in that little remnant, like the children of Cadmus, we continued still to slay one another, a fire which (whether by the desperate malice of some, or intention to separate, or accidentally, while all things were cast up and down) it should seem had taken a good while before, but never heeded of us (who only thought to preserve or revenge) now violently burst out in many places and began to master the principal parts of the ship. Then necessity made us see that a common enemy sets at one a civil war; for that little all we were (as if we had been waged by one man to quench a fire) straight went to resist that furious enemy by all art and labour: but it was too late, for already it did embrace and devour from the stern to the waist of the ship; so as labouring in vain, we were driven to get up to the prow of the ship, by the work of nature seeking to preserve life as long as we could: while truly it was a strange and ugly sight to see so huge a fire, as it quickly grew to be, in the sea, and in the night, as if it had come to light us to death.

With the simile of Cadmus's children, Pyrocles laments "human inhumanity" more than Plexirtus's treachery. Calling the battling mariners "that little all we were" emphasizes the crisis's symbolic role as a microcosm of human experience. Pyrocles refuses Musidorus's political metaphor. The fire still "master[s]" and "devour[s]" the ship, but Pyrocles does not name it or the sea a traitorous servant. He remains unwilling to pass judgment, on the fighting men or even on the fire itself, which paradoxically appears "as if it had come to light us to death."

Plexirtus's evil captain exposes the nihilistic apex of his master's treachery when "with a loud voice [he] sware that if Plexirtus bade him, he would not stick to kill God himself." The captain transforms "human inhumanity" into a fantasy of superhuman power. With a heresy exceeded only by Cecropia's atheism, he wants to invert the mechanism of shipwreck and strike a human blow against divinity. As Pamela shows in her debate with her aunt, pagan reason can deduce that (some kind of) God exists, without scriptural revelation. Pyrocles replies to the captain in the only words he speaks aloud during the episode: "Villain . . . dost thou think to over-live so many honest men whom thy falsehood hath brought to destruction?". He recognizes that the captain's violence is based on "falsehood," even if he has no straightforward truth with which to replace it.

Amid this chaos, Pyrocles and Musidorus distinguish themselves by abstaining from violence. Pyrocles describes their refusal as a moral victory: "Formycousin andme, trulyIthinkwenever performed less in any place, doing no other hurt than the defence of ourselves and succouring them Page 398  |  Top of Articlewho came for it drave us to: for not discerning perfectly who were for or against us, we thought it less evil to spare a foe than spoil a friend." Compared to the zero-sum game that forces Leucippus and Nelsus off the ship's rib, Pyrocles' reticence is striking. Even as the melee progresses to the point where "no man almost could conceive hope of living but by being last alive," Pyrocles refuses the role of judge and executioner. Pyrocles' careful distinctions cede judgment to extrahuman dispensation: he will not decide who is to live or die, but resigns the choice to fortune and fire. He knows by his reason to abandon reason.

Accepting his fate does not force Pyrocles into passivity. From the text's first image of him clinging to the ship's mast, he always struggles to preserve himself. The narrator's initial description of this moment, however, seems misleading: "For holding his head up full of unmoved majesty, he held a sword aloft with his fair arm, which often he waved about his crown as though he would threaten the world in that extremity." While "unmoved majesty" captures Pyrocles' combination of semipassive resignation with unabated effort, the gesture need not be a threat against the world. The narrator's narrow focus on "human inhumanity" interprets everything as a struggle between antithetical forces. Pyrocles, when he renarrates the scene, makes it clear that the fewer violent actions he performs, the better. He recognizes that his best victory will be the avoidance of error. The interpretive problem—why does Pyrocles wave his sword?—embodies the larger mystery of the wreck. Rather than striking out blindly, Pyrocles calls attention to himself and his plight while waiting for rescue.

When Pyrocles narrates the scene, he reveals that he was not, in fact, threatening the world. He slays the evil captain, but he never bewails his fate, nor does he rail against the treachery of wind and water as Musidorus does. Rather, after killing the captain, he sits patiently on the mast: "there myself remained, until by pirates I was taken up." Pyrocles balances on the cusp of active struggle and passive resignation. He sends the captain, who has proven himself evil, "to feed fishes," but then gives himself over to the pirates. Throughout the episode, he never loses hope. He cannot know that shipwreck is part of a Providential plan, but he refuses to act on any motivation he knows to be erroneous.

Pyrocles' refusal to draw conclusions about the shipwreck is a partial victory. His resigned hope approximates the imperfect knowledge of shipwreck that the reader has at the text's opening: these disasters are mysteries and opportunities, occasions for the divine Author to surprise with the circuitry of His story. Pyrocles will not judge individual sailors in the shipboard melee, nor will he judge the way he arrives in Arcadia. He cannot reach the Christian solution available to Sidney and his peers, but he refuses error. The image of Pyrocles atop the mast epitomizes his interpretive high point: he maintains hope in a plan of which he knows nothing. The conclusion of the romance, had Sidney lived to write it, would presumably have requited this patient endurance.


Thehappy endingsofliteraryromance parallel but do not precisely mirror the Providential "end" that Mornay describes. Theologically, the end of salvation comes to the elect in the next world, while a romance presents an idealized ending in a (fictional) human world. Romance condenses the Christian overplot into a human drama. In absolute terms, the fiction miniaturizes the Christian telos, giving Sidney a scale model for his experiment. Sidney may have feared that a conventional ending would trivialize his theology. Much of the revision of the Arcadia appears a sustained attempt to reinforce his text's seriousness. Even an updated version of the ending of the Old Arcadia might have slighted the revised version's more somber tone. Sidney's literary dilemma, which he never solved, was how to write a human triumph for his heroes that would not minimize the unreachable insights toward which they have been striving.

In bringing together reason and faith, the shipwreck scenes in the New Arcadia explore how difficult it is to cling to Providence in the face of human catastrophe. The princes' struggle to comprehend shipwreck's causes of divine fiat and "human inhumanity" echoes Sidney's struggle to bring together reason and faith in his world. Accepting Mornay's notion of Providence as God's "end," Sidney found in Greek romance a world that operates under an analogous dispensation. He used Heliodoran fiction as a human model to approximate God's design. In both schemes, danger (shipwreck/the Fall) opens the door for the complex workings of Providence to create an unlooked-for triumph (the happy marriage/Christian revelation). Learning to accept shipwrecks, and even to thrive in a world suffused Page 399  |  Top of Articlewith them, becomes Sidney's literary analogy for imagining the interrelation of human reason and divine Providence. The unfinished text gestures toward a mutual accommodation between reason and faith.

The final irony is that the New Arcadia, unlike most romances, has no end. The fragmentary revision leaves the literary Providential ending incomplete. Speculation about Sidney's reasons for breaking off the revision, or his plans had he lived to continue it, are ultimately fruitless, but in religious terms the rupture makes perfect sense. Heliodorus's pre-Christian Ethiopian History imagines the happy ending of romance as a theological triumph on mortal soil: the hero and heroine become high priest and priestess, and the nation of Ethiopia eschews human sacrifice forever. For a Protestant such as Sidney, however, placing divine grace inside a literary fiction exceeds the province of mortal artistry. The final end rests in divine hands. Sidney's abandonment of the revision and subsequent early death ceded the New Arcadia 's "end" to God and posterity alone.

Source: Steven R. Mentz, "Reason, Faith, and Shipwreck in Sidney's New Arcadia," in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. 44, No. 1, Winter 2004, pp. 1-18.

Lauro Martines

In the following essay excerpt, Martines examines the origins of Italian Humanism and describes its five interrelated disciplines.


The velocity and extent of change in the cities of late medieval Italy had a profound effect on consciousness. Especially susceptible were the dominant political and social groups who made the fundamental decisions. In the course of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, a new awareness gradually dawned upon them, an awareness or redirection most effectively articulated by their literary and educational spokesmen. In one of its manifestations this awareness was humanism. We may therefore look upon humanism as a phase in the history of consciousness—the consciousness of the men who fashioned the destinies of the Italian cities. Seen in this light, the true burden of the historian of humanism is to identify the link between humanism and the values, moral and ideological, of the dominant social groups within the cities. The point of the succeeding pages will be to do this.

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Changes of consciousness gave rise to changes in the methods and scope of education. Between about 1250 and 1400, church schools lost their exclusive control over education for the laity. Florence and other cities saw the establishment of private schools run by and for laymen. The schoolmasters were often professional notaries, and their schools were designed to teach the elements of Latin and commercial arithmetic to the sons of tradesmen, urbanized noblemen, and merchants who trafficked on an international scale. Strictly utilitarian in its aims—for Latin was the language of contracts and formal diplomatic dispatches—this development was the first phase in a gradual but basic change in the aims of education.

At the level of university instruction, the late fourteenth century witnessed the beginning of a new current, with the lecturing in Florence of men like Giovanni Malpaghini (1346-1417), who taught rhetoric, poetry, and moral philosophy, and Manuel Chrysoloras (d. 1415), who taught Greek to an audience of adult enthusiasts. In the fifteenth century, the vanguard in course offerings at the universities was held by the humanistic subjects—rhetoric, poetry, history, and moral philosophy. But the next phase of far-reaching educational change at a more basic level really began around 1400, with the founding of small but select schools run by humanists: that of Roberto de' Rossi (1355?-1417) at Florence, of Gasparino Barzizza (1359?-1431) at Padua, of Guarino Guarini (1374-1460) at Venice, Verona, and Ferrara, and of Vittorino da Feltre (1373-1446) at Mantua. In these schools Christianity was taken so much for granted—indeed, Vittorino had his pupils attend daily Mass—that the major classical writers could occupy the heart of study. Henceforth the studia humanitatis—"the Page 400  |  Top of Articlehumanities"—provided the substance for the most innovative and vigorous wave in primary and secondary education.

Human, humane, the humanities: these words are no more than a remote echo of what the nouns humanista and studia humanitatis meant in fifteenth-century Italy. We must not confuse vague twentieth-century notions with their more precise Renaissance forebears.

Italian humanism put man where it was both most flattering and most dangerous to be: at the center of active inquiry. The first modern treatise on painting (Della pittura, 1435), composed by the humanist Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472), directs painters to determine the sizes of objects in the picture space by the scale of the human figures there represented. Alberti's statement of this "law" conveyed an attitude of discovery. "Man is the measure." Protagoras had long since asserted the same thing, but after the achievements of Alberti and his circle neither painting nor sculpture was to recover from that perception.

In its most general and genuine sense Italian humanism was education for practical and worthy living; but it was education based on the study of the classical Roman and Greek writers. Florentine, Venetian, and other Italian humanists believed that classical literature held the rich and communicable remains of a momentous civilization, that it expressed a viewpoint centered on the value of man's activities in the world. This recognition was combined, as we shall see, with a keen appreciation of the secularity of time, the historical nature of time. There was no necessary conflict between these attitudes and Christianity, but the fact that the classical world was mainly pre-Christian was not entirely beside the point.

It is astonishing to note how many humanists were either members of the legal profession or career officials in government chancelleries, and just as many were born into professional or intensely political families. Three of the most celebrated—Petrarch (1304-1374), Lorenzo Valla (1407-1457), and Angelo Poliziano (1454-1494)— were sons of, respectively, a notary, a canon lawyer, and a civil lawyer. Four others of great preeminence—Coluccio Salutati (1336-1406), Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459), Pier Candido Decembrio (1392-1477), and Giovanni Pontano (1426?-1503)—were leading municipal, papal, and royal secretaries. In Venice nearly all of the most able humanists were drawn from the political partriciate.

These facts are mentioned in order to show that the humanist enterprise proceeded under the direction of, and in keeping with the values of, men brought up for practical activity in the urban community, whether in politics, the rough-and-tumble world of municipal administration, the law courts, the business of drawing up contracts (then the stock-in-trade of the notary), or the counting house. Immersed in practical affairs and oriented toward the accomplishment of everyday ends, such men had an urgent sense of time, a recognition of man's inescapable place in the world, and a sense of his achievements and possibilities. Thus the great appeal for them—or at least for the learned among them—of Aristotle's emphasis on action in his Ethics; and the even greater appeal of Cicero, with his emphasis not only on action and knowledge ("the true praise of virtue is in action") but also on eloquence, felicity, and force of verbal expression. Evidently, in the context of the evolved city-state, the orator easily came to represent the ideal fusion of action with wisdom, of will with contemplation.

Appropriately, in the history of modern Europe, the first great private libraries of classical works were built up by men of the sort described above: e.g., Niccolò Niccoli (1364-1437) and Antonio Corbinelli (1377?-1425), the sons of wealthy Florentine wool merchants; Giovanni Corvini (d. 1438?), political secretary to the last Visconti Duke of Milan; or rich citizens who stood at the forefront of public life, like the Florentines Palla Strozzi (1372-1462) and Cosimo de' Medici (1389-1464). No less than the most celebrated humanists, these men applauded the ardent search for the neglected manuscripts of ancient works, a pursuit first strikingly taken up in the first quarter of the fifteenth century.

Why did the break with medieval habits of thought not come sooner, in the thirteenth century, when Italian cities were at the peak of their economic and political vitality? The answer seems to be that the break was retarded by the very condition of urban experience: in this case the raw atmosphere of new cities populated by rustics, large numbers of illiterate noblemen, and tradesmen struggling to survive or to amass enormous fortunes. Since the traditional forms of orientation and feeling must often have seemed inappropriate, it must be that the Page 401  |  Top of Articleexperience of the urban populace—or whatever was novel in that experience—could not easily generate its own finished forms of expression over a short period of time, except perhaps in song. Particularly resistant in this regard was the fund of experience belonging to the new class of merchants and urban administrators, who eventually gave rise to humanism and provided the audience for it. In some respects their experience had to conflict with the prevailing modes of apprehension and cognition, which better suited a feudal society and an ecclesiastical intelligentsia. The intellectual tradition, after all, condemned all interest as usury. Temporal lordship was assigned heavenly essences. Government was often seen as punishment for sin. "Getting and spending" were regarded as inferior a priori to the gallant professions of arms, prayer, and contemplation.

Ideas of unity, hierarchy, and order; an overriding emphasis on authority, essences, and metaphysical reality—these provided the framework and foci for twelfth-and thirteenth-century thought. In a sense the entire fourteenth century, at all events in the world of the city-state, marks a decisive drift away from the more static and hierarchical assumptions of the late Middle Ages. But even Marsilius of Padua (c. 1275-1342), the most inquiring political thinker of the fourteenth century, was unread by his Italian contemporaries: his basic presuppositions were too much in conflict with established opinion concerning the temporal authority of the church. In the early fifteenth century, one of the most sophisticated conceptions of the unity of Christian society, that elaborated by the French thinker Jean Gerson (1363-1429), was still governed by a strict notion of the interlocking relationship between heavenly and earthly hierarchies. And within this scheme man had a fixed place.

Italian humanism worked a radical break with this tradition of thought. It put man at the center of intellectual and artistic inquiry but gave him no fixed nature, no metaphysical trappings or underpinnings. It focused on his humanity and his potential, and offered temporal glory rather than salvation. It therefore emphasized the study of history, recognizing that man lives in a changing temporal continuum; and it laid great emphasis on the study of moral philosophy (hence, on the dilemma of choice), having stripped man of his fixed nature. Humanism assigned vast importance to rhetoric—the art of persuasion and eloquence—for the practice of this art (i.e., effective and graceful verbal expression) combined action and wisdom, taught a certain control over the emotions (of others and so of one's own), and underlined man's reliance upon the immediate social and civil community. Finally, humanism turned philology—the rigorous historical and grammatical study of language and literature—into its primary intellectual tool, thus opening the way to a better understanding of the literature of antiquity.

In short, it was by means of philology that the humanists approached the classical world, maintaining critical detachment from it, and at the same time sharpening their sense of identity and of their own creative role in the hammering out of a new age. Paradoxically, therefore, the intensive study of classical literature was a process of self-realization. The humanists looked to antiquity to affirm the vitality, value, and experience of the present. In this way the old modes of thought were revolutionized: the impact of accumulated experience was finally able to determine the direction of intellectual and artistic development.

The syllabus of humanism had five interrelated disciplines: grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, and moral philosophy. By cultivating these subjects, the fifteenth-century humanists altered the course of intellectual history.

1. Grammar meant, first, the study of Latin and then, ambitiously, Greek. It was a commonplace of Renaissance educational theory that all serious preparation for civil life began with the study of Latin grammar. In its highest form, grammar was indistinguishable from philology, for it entailed not only a mastery of the elements of grammar, of syntax, diction, usage, and orthography, but also a true understanding of their development: that is, a grasp of their precise place in the history of the language. This obviously meant a thorough-going familiarity with the history of literature. In this sense grammar was both a tool and a way of life; it opened all the doors of the intellect, but its mastery was the fruit of an austere schooling.

Lorenzo Valla was the outstanding philologist and in some ways the most brilliant humanist of the fifteenth century. Born in Rome in 1407, the son of a North Italian papal lawyer, Valla published his first work, A Comparison of Cicero and Quintilian (now lost), at twenty. He taught rhetoric at the University of Pavia in the Page 402  |  Top of Articleearly 1430s, thereafter drifting to Milan, Florence, and Genoa. In 1435 he settled in Naples, where he became secretary to King Alfonso of Aragon and Naples. In the 1430s and 1440s he brought out a variety of remarkably provocative works—philological, philosophical, and historical. Intellectually he was intensely combative: swift, arrogant, and courageous. Transferring himself to Rome in 1448, he served in a secretarial capacity under Popes Nicholas V and Calixtus III, and died there in 1457. His major philological work, On the Graces of the Latin Language (1435-1444) is a combined critical and historical grammar, as well as a handbook of rhetoric and style. It is marked by an astonishingly able grasp of the history of the Latin language. With Valla the possibilities of historical criticism receive a virtuoso demonstration, and in his perspicacity we have one of the first unmistakable examples of the modern historical sense. Nor did he hesitate to address his philology to Holy Scripture and church documents, as in his Notes on the New Testament (1449) and his learned harangue on The Falsity of the Alleged Donation of Constantine (1440).

2. Rhetoric or eloquence—the art of graceful but forceful persuasion—could obviously not be learned until the rules of grammar had been mastered. Cicero and Quintilian, the classical Roman rhetoricians, were taken to be the models in this realm, the princes of oratory. The choice of the word oratory is deliberate: it emphasizes that aspect of rhetoric pertaining to action, to a job of doing. For in their writings the humanists turned and returned to the practical and useful nature of eloquence, most especially in connection with its utility for civil or community service. In his humanistic treatise Concerning Excellent Traits (ca. 1402), addressed to a son of the lord of Padua, Pier Paolo Vergerio (1370-1444) observes that "speaking and writing elegantly affords no little advantage in negotiation, be it in public or private affairs . . . but especially in the administration of the State." And in a short essay on literary education, De studiis te litteris liber, (ca. 1425), one of the most distinguished of all humanists, Leonardo Bruni (1372?-1444), holds—almost casually—that knowledge should have an application: "The high standard of education referred to earlier can only be achieved by one who has seen much and read much . . . but to make effective use of what we know we must add the power of expression to our knowledge."

These were views which found a ready audience in the intense social world of the city-state, particularly among the more alert and ambitious members of the governing classes.

3. Poetry helped to complete the individual; it enlarged his vision and added to his humanity. From it he could draw a fund of examples and enhance the force and variety of his own speech. The preferred poets were Virgil and Homer, then Seneca, Ovid, and Horace; but the vernacular poets, Dante and Petrarch, were by no means neglected. Carlo Marsuppini (1398-1453), first secretary of the Florentine republic from 1444 to 1453, translated the first book of the Iliad into Latin verse. He was followed in this effort by a major poet who was also the leading philologist of the second half of the century, Angelo Poliziano (1454-1494). At sixteen, Poliziano had translated books II-V of the Iliad into Latin verse, an accomplishment which brought him into Lorenzo de' Medici's entourage.

The most talented of all humanist poets, Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374), is sometimes called "the father of humanism" (as if such a designation made any historical sense). The son of a Florentine notary who suffered political disgrace and exile, Petrarch spent his life abroad, studied law for a time but soon rejected it for a life of writing and reflection. After taking minor religious vows, which gave him financial independence, he traveled widely and found patronage at Avignon, Rome, Milan, Padua, Venice, and elsewhere. Of particular interest for the fortunes of humanism—apart from his De viris illustribus (lives of famous Romans) and his stinging self-analysis in the Secretum—are Petrarch's Latin letters, known as the Familiares, which exhibit his boundless admiration for the world of antiquity, a longing to read Greek, a love of Cicero, familiarity with the history of ancient Rome, and an abandoned attachment to the elegance of classical Latin literature.

4. History was in some respects the unifying discipline of humanism. An affirmative view of the ancient world was, primarily, what the humanists had in common. When they united this view of the past with their study of the literature antiquity, they invented philology and brought historical scholarship into being. Yet we must not think that their attitude toward history presupposed an abstract approach. They looked at the past in terms of specific men and Page 403  |  Top of Articleevents, and their impulse to study history had a limited ground: here. . . .

Source: Lauro Martines, "The Italian Renaissance," in The Meaning of Renaissance and Reformation, edited by Richard L. DeMolen, Houghton Mifflin, 1974, pp. 27-70.


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Arangno's book provides humanistic arguments to contemporary issues such as abortion rights and whether and/or where to teach Intelligent Design.

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This work is an overview of the historical context of Humanism from the Renaissance to modern times.

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Knight's text is a compilation of short pieces, sometimes excerpted from larger works, by well-known humanists.

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Kraye's book is a compilation of scholarly articles on aspects of Humanism, from rhetoric and philology to the humanist's relationship to art and science.

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This work is a defense of modern Humanism as a philosophy with an account of its historical traditions and its ethical beliefs.

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Margolin compiles a survey of humanist literature, its proponents, and its connection to educational systems in Europe.

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This offering is a contextual history of Humanism from its beginnings through the end of the Renaissance.

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This comprehensive anthology contains literature from the Renaissance, including samples from most of the key humanist thinkers.

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Tracy's biography of Erasmus interprets his writings in light of his education, travels, and allies.

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Trinkaus provides a comprehensive biographical account of Petrarch's life and works.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3279300023