- Humanism was the principal intellectual movement of the European Renaissance; a humanist was a teacher or follower of humanism. In the simplest sense, the term "humanism" implies that a certain group of school subjects known since ancient times as the studia humanitatis (humanistic studies) provides the best preparation for life and should become the central focus for the education of the ruling classes. The American scholar Paul Oskar Kristeller, who developed this definition of humanism, defined these "humanistic studies" as five: grammar (that is, the grammar of Latin, the language of education), rhetoric (the study of the art of effective communication and persuasion, both written and oral), moral philosophy (the art of making responsible choices in everyday life), poetry (which implied the reading of ancient literature), and history (regarded as a source of examples showing the consequences of moral choices).The "humanists" regarded these subjects (especially the first three) as the studies most practical for real life, contrasting them with the more theoretical subjects that had received greatest emphasis in medieval grammar schools and universities, such as logic, metaphysics, and natural science, subjects that dealt with abstract and theoretical issues rather than the issues faced daily by the ruling classes of the Italian cities. Humanists took as their immediate goal the revival of the classical Latin and Greek languages and literatures, but this goal was intimately linked with the broader purpose of transforming all aspects of European civilization along lines inspired by study of ancient literature, in other words, the goal of bringing about a cultural renaissance or rebirth.Some recent scholars have associated the origins of this classicizing intellectual movement with the emergence of self-governing urban republics in northern and central Italy in the late Middle Ages. Leading citizens of these republics found that the older medieval culture, attuned to a society dominated by clergy and aristocratic warriors, did not meet the needs of a rapidly developing urban milieu. Initially, the higher culture of the Italian cities was dominated by men trained in law and the art of dictamen, the composition of formal Latin letters, orations, and documents needed for political, diplomatic, legal, and commercial life. But by the end of the 13th century, there was a new interest in ancient Latin literature and a desire to create a modern Latin literature modelled on the heritage of ancient Rome. This interest in the classics spread from poetry to various prose genres, and by the end of the 14th century, humanism had come to imply a reorientation of preuniversity education in order to emphasize the studia humanitatis. Student slang called teachers of these subjects humanistae (humanists), but the term also covers people of many professions who shared the enthusiasm for ancient languages and literatures. The abstract noun, "humanism," was a coinage of a much later period, originating in early 19th-century Germany, but the terms "humanist" and "humanistic studies" have their roots in the language and life of the Renaissance itself.Sometimes, notably among humanists living in the republic of Florence and inspired by the humanist chancellors Coluccio Salutati and Leonardo Bruni, humanism was linked to the aristocratic republican ideology of Cicero and other leaders of the ancient Roman Republic. The example of Roman ideals of citizenship was used to inspire Florentine resistance to threats to the city's independence by the Visconti dukes of Milan. Some modern scholars have defined a subtype, "civic humanism," and contend that there was an undercurrent of hostility to monarchy and at least a latent preference for republican forms of government inherent in the admiration for Cicero and republican Rome shared by all humanists. The thought of Salutati, Bruni, and Niccolo Machiavelli does display some evidence of republican political ideology. In general, however, humanism seems to have been neutral on the relative merits of republicanism and monarchy. The ideal of humanist education as the best preparation of young men for political duty was easily adapted to the politics and court life of the monarchical regimes that prevailed in most Italian cities and in virtually all of transalpine Europe. The well-educated humanist could become the adviser to a prince just as well as he could be the active citizen of a republic. In either case, however, the excellence of humanistic education as useful preparation for public service could be upheld.In any case, the educational goals of humanistic education were clearly secular, intended to prepare boys from the urban elites to take their proper role in society. This secular orientation caused later scholars of Renaissance civilization to define humanism as a non-religious or even anti-religious philosophy of life that viewed a fulfilling earthly life as the goal of human activity and either rejected religion entirely or marginalized it as a set of rituals and superstitions that fostered the maintenance of social order. This definition of humanism as a secular philosophy of life is implied in the work of the most influential historian of the Italian Renaissance, Jacob Burckhardt, but it is essentially a product of Enlightenment and 19th-century thought and has little following among recent historians of humanism.From the end of the 14th century, humanistic culture was enriched by a growing interest in Greek language and literature. Renaissance humanists enthusiastically hunted for surviving works of ancient literature that had been unknown to educated people of the Middle Ages. After the 1450s, the new art of printing contributed greatly to the diffusion and development of humanistic culture. During the 15th and 16th centuries, humanists developed sophisticated techniques of textual, linguistic, and historical criticism that often challenged medieval beliefs and practices. Thus humanism came to imply certain assumptions about intellectual method that, while not constituing a formal system of philosophy capable of replacing medieval scholasticism, tended to erode confidence in traditional learning and exercised a generally solvent effect on established systems of belief. As humanism spread into northern Europe during the late 15th and early 16th centuries, humanists like Lefèvre d'Etaples and Erasmus extended their scholarly interests to embrace study of the documents of ancient Christian religion, giving rise to a movement sometimes called "Christian humanism" or "biblical humanism." This humanism aspired to apply knowledge about both pagan and Christian antiquity to produce a general reform and renewal of the church and Christian spirituality. "Christian humanism" was closely linked to the origins of the Protestant Reformation, which split the humanists into Protestant and Catholic camps but did not destroy the dominance of humanistic subjects and classical learning over the education of European elites.See also Script, Humanistic.
Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. Charles G. Nauert. 2004.