The Dignity of Renaissance Humanism

Written by on August 5th, 2013. Subject: History. Filed in Renaissance, about Humanism

|||Pico della Mirandola. On the Dignity of Man. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub, 1998|||

The Sistine Chapel But in truth, not only the Mosaic or Christian mysteries but also the theology of the ancients show the advantages for us and the dignity of these liberal arts about which I have come here to dispute. For what esle is meant by the degrees of initition that are customary in the secret rites of the Greeks? […] Who does not wish to have breathed into him the socratic frenzies sung by Plato in the Phaedrus, that by the oarlike movements of wings and feet he may quickly escape from here, that is from this world where he is laid down as in an evil place and be carried in speediest flight to the heavenly Jerusalem. We shall be possessed, fathers, we shall be possessed by these Socratic frenzies, which will so place us outside of our minds that they will place our mind and ourselves in God. […] For if through morality the forces of the passions will have been so stretched to the [proper] measure, through due proportions, that they sound tegoether in fixed concord, and if through dialectic, reason will have moved, keeping time in her forward march, then aroused by the frenzy of the muses, we shall drink in the heavenly harmony of our ears. Then Bacchus the leader of the muses, in his own mysteries, that is, int he visible signs of nature, will show the invisible things of God to us as we philosophize and will make us drunk with the abundance of the house of God. […] We raised up into the loftiest watchtower of theology, from which measuring with indivisible eternity the things that are, will be and shall have been, and looking at their primeval beauty, shall be prophets of Phoebus. pp. 13-4.

It is difficult to give a simple answer to the question ‘what is humanism.’ This is because, like its philosophic counterpart Realism, Humanism as a term is continually readapted and redefined. The Humanism of the early Greeks seems to be characterized by excellence (ἀρετὴ) and the ability to reason (λέγειν)1 while that of later Stoicism by excellence (ἀρετὴ) and prosperity (εὐδαιμονία). Pico Della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man invites Christians to exalt mankind because of the dignity of man’s relationship to God and his ability to fashion himself “into whatever he chooses to be.”2 In its enlightenment form Humanism became an attempt to understand and dominate nature.3 Today, the term “Humanism” is roughly equivalent with “Secular Rationalism” but owes its origin more to the early 19th century doctrines of positivism (especially that espoused later in the 20th C. by A. J. Ayer) than to historical humanism.4 And so, while it is important to categorize early Renaissance thinkers such as Petrarch, Nicholas of Cusa, and Rabaleis as humanists, it is more important to understand what type of humanism they upheld, and to characterize how and why they valued men, in what way they thought a man should act, and to what end, especially as compared to medieval scholastics, who they are said to supplant.

Renaissance Humanism for the most part embraced Christianity. The conflict between scholastics and humanists was not from a disagreement of “facts,” especially of Christian facts, but “a disagreement on [the] method”5 of interpreting those facts. At its root Renaissance Humanists did not wish to supplant the scholastic dialectical method,6 but rather to assert the necessity of textual or grammatical criticism before logical argumentation.7 More specifically, the humanist agenda was to oppose “the empty learning of the schools and … man’s self-annulment into the divine” and to promote texts which “nourish the soul and lead men to a virtuous, saintly life.”8 That is, the major conflict between the scholastics and the humanists was that of methodological integrity: the scholastics would assert that the humanists did not have the proper training to enable them to accurately identify or solve intellectual or theological problems9 while the humanists would retort that the scholastics would misrepresent or often purposefully skew the meaning of a primary source through a “shoddy intellectual procedure”10 that “disingenuously extracted isolated passages from authors.”11

Yet, this conflict of methodology is merely the manifestation of a more fundamental conflict, which is the purpose of learning and knowing. The humanist agenda, especially as upheld by Petrarch and others, seems to uphold the classical12 notion that liberal learning is done for its own sake, and not for the sake of something else. On the other hand, Scholasticism tended to organize knowledge for some other purpose, namely for professional argumentation or to teach what is true to others.13 When the humanists make an argument for the superiority of textual analysis and primary sources over the systemization of knowledge, what they are arguing for is not so much the invalidity of the dialectic process, but that the fundamental purpose of learning is not to win an argument or to merely systematize knowledge, but to partake in the good of knowledge itself–from which we gain understanding and by which we become capable in the first place of systemization. Reading primary sources, especially in its original, is paramount to understanding, and therefore becomes the prerequisite to intellectual synthesis. What Petrarch and other humanists recognize as inferior in the scholastic method is the reduction of knowledge to some fact or experience, convincing or otherwise, which may be true, but does not have at its base the condition of knowledge, or the primary understanding, of whatever is being explicated.14 To the Humanists the liberal arts were a habit. This is why as he ascended Mount Ventoux Petrarch had in his mind (if we are to take him at his word) the words of Vergil and of Ovid, why half way up he spoke to himself anecdotal words of wisdom, and why upon reaching the summit his first action was to read a passage from Augustine’s Confessions. This is why Rabaleis has Gargantua write to his son Pantagruel “I have no other treasure in this world but to see thee once in my life completely well-bred and accomplished, as well in virtue, honest and valour, as in all liberal knowledge and civility.”15 And why Nicholas of Cusa, in his writings, attempts to explain and not justify how his learning leads him to seek the divine: “we see by the gift of God there is present in all things natural desire to exist in the best manner in which the condition of each thing’s nature permits this.”16

That man is capable of knowing and therefore ought to pursue knowing is admitted by both scholastics and humanists. How they differ, however, is on the purpose of that knowledge. The scholastics recognized in learning some moral obligation. That is, a scholastic would tend to characterize bodies of knowledge (approvingly or disapprovingly) by their moral effect on either societies or individuals. Therefore it is difficult to justify the corpus of pagan writers since they seem more often than not to contradict the Christian teaching. And, although they have grounds through Justin the Martyr to assimilate all writers of good and true things (whatever their other faults), the scholastics often chose to isolate obviously true passages from other, more seemingly difficult passages. Hence, Lombard’s Sentences, or even today’s Scholastic manuals, especially to the humanist mind, was a sort of censorship when they are read without the primary sources which they reference at hand.

The relationship to knowledge and the Good in humanism is a bit harder to identify. Since the humanist seems to suggest that knowledge is gained for its own sake, the purpose of learning is never to make one a morally better person.17 But certainly Petrarch believed that the more he immersed himself in his studies the more ‘divine’ he would become, for at the end of his climb he relates, “nothing is admirable beside the mind; compared to its greatness nothing is great,”18 which suggests that there is at least some relationship between the moral and the intellectual Good.19 Similarly the aim of De docte ignorantia is to understand the truth of the matter, but since the subject matter is the divine it would be difficult to argue that he had in mind something other than the piousness and earnestness toward right knowing and right living. This is seen more clearly in De visione Dei where he says, “to taste of Your sweetness is to apprehend the sweetness of all delights–to apprehend it in its own beginning and by experiential contact.”20 That is, to understand through knowing (even in a limited fashion) is to partake in a knowledge of the Divine, for he says after, “it is to attain, in Your wisdom, to the Form of all desirable things.”21 The highest form of liberal knowing, we can infer, is the knowledge of the Divine, which by contact forms our moral habit. Even Aristotle, a pagan who hardly recognized the force of the divine in human affairs, has as his highest form of leisure, the contemplation of the divine.22

Since the humanists believed that through a contemplation of the divine man might come to his final end, which is the beatific vision, there is a clear relationship between the intellectual excellence of the humanist and his moral actions. It is supposed that a more liberal minded person would tend, naturally, toward the highest things and to act according to his knowledge. Compare this to the scholastic notion of knowing which becomes an argumentum ad baculum through which suppositions and positions are upheld or refuted, with the purpose of orienting people toward the knowable and the good.

Humanism to men such as Petrarch and others is something more than the practical acquisition of experiences, more than the taming of passions, but as we have seen, a habit, an illumination, characterized by leisure and a nobility of spirit which we seek because we recognize in it something noble and worthy of our efforts. Learning is something done for its own sake, for the enhancement of our own self, but it also enhances our ability to understand and appropriately react to the highest things, namely our relationship to and understanding of the Divine. This sort of humanism is particularly Christian and has nothing in it of the humanism common to our era.

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  1. I am thinking particularly of what Sextus Empiricus attributes to Protagoras: “πάντων χρημάτων εἶναι μέτρον τὸν ἄνθρωπον (that of all affairs man is the measure).” This is analyzed in Versenyi, Laszlo, “Protagoras’ Man-Measure Fragment,” The American Journal of Philology 83: 178–184. This quote is also referenced by Plato in his Protagoras and Diogenes Laertes in his Lives of the Eminent Philosophers

  2. Oration on the Dignity of Man 

  3. See Descartes’ Discourse on Method part 6. 

  4. I have in mind IHEU and Dawkin’s New Atheism. Both seem to hold to the idea that the self is the sole interpreter of reality. 

  5. Nauert, Charles G., “Humanism as Method: Roots of Conflict with the Scholastics.” The Sixteenth Century Journal (1998): 433 

  6. Humanism as Method, 428 “Humanism never for a moment became a comprehensive philosophic system rivaling the Aristotelian systems that we label scholastic. In Germany as in Italy, humanism was a limited cluster of academic subjects, the studia humanitatis.” 

  7. Humanism as Method , 436 “Humanists now wanted to intervene at the very outset of the interpretive process by insisting, as grammarians, that the grammarian–the humanist expert on languages and on the reconstruction of texts-—had to establish the text itself and explain to those who could not read the original what the words really meant. Only then, even if one conceded the appropriateness of applying dialectical method to a revealed text, could any more sophisticated explication begin.” 

  8. Montano, Rocco, “Italian Humanism: Dante and Petrarch.” Italica (1973): 215 

  9. Humanism as Method, 431 

  10. Humanism as Method, 434 

  11. Humanism as Method, 431 

  12. I say classical since it certainly has its roots in Plato and Aristotle, but it is unclear how much the humanist idea of leisure characterized by Petrarch, Erasmus, and More affect of our current understanding (and therefore interpretation of the classical term), especially as put forward by Newman or Pieper. 

  13. I say this broadly, for, although writers such as Thomas Aquinas would distinguish between the mechanical and the liberal arts, nevertheless his works (as with other philosophers), such as the Summa Theologiae, are pedagogical and therefore practical in nature, rather than liberal and for its own sake. 

  14. I am willing to admit that the argument may be somewhat anachronistic since I take as my model for liberal knowledge Newman’s Idea of a University, but I believe there are sufficient grounds to argue that the conflict between practical and liberal education is an age-old conflict, beginning with Plato, and very much alive during the 14th century. see Aristotle’s Politics bk. 2. 

  15. Pantagruel, 8 

  16. Learned, 1.1.2 

  17. Instead, learning and liberal mindedness gives a gentle, nobility of spirit. Yet, also, we must be careful not to confuse the purpose of learning with the effects of learning: often when one learns what is good and true about the world one becomes in the process a person who acts better and truer. But this need not be so. Consider, as an analogy, the athlete who, in the process of mastering some sport becomes stronger. It is never with the purpose strength that one masters a sport, although one almost never sees a weak professional athlete. 

  18. Ventoux, 10 

  19. I do not wish to stress the distinction too much except in contrast to scholasticism, which, when looked at practically, supposes the intellect to serve toward moral action. I merely wish to suggest that to the humanist, or to one who believes that liberal mindedness is its own end, which aids in the moral life, this is like suggesting that the purpose of food is to make one act morally, when in fact it aims toward health, without which one cannot act at morally or otherwise. 

  20. Vision, .5.14 

  21. ibid 

  22. Metaphysics, bk. 1.2