Writers in Humanism – Carlos Macasaet

This essay was written on 28 September 1998 while I was in 10th grade at Winchester Thurston School for European History with Dr. Patrick Dowd, Carlos Macasaet, carlos-m.net.

Humanism was a new way of thinking that came about in fourteenth century, the time of the Renaissance. Many scholars refer to it as the Spirit of the Renaissance. Humanism was a lay phenomenon that emphasized human beings as opposed to deities as well as their interests, achievements and capabilities. Humanism is derived from the Latin word humanitas, which Cicero, the noted orator of the Roman Empire, referred to as the literary culture needed by anyone who would be considered educated and civilized.

Humanism and Literature

Humanists searched for wisdom from the past. They copied the lifestyles of the ancient Greeks and Romans. They also traced their families back to the days of the ancient Romans. They endeavored on archaeological expeditions to recover ancient manuscripts, statues and monuments so that they may better understand human nature. The Christian humanists, however, were sometimes skeptical as to the authority of the ancient writers. Medieval humanists accepted pagan and classical authors uncritically. The humanists of the Renaissance, however, viewed the classics from a Christian perspective, Man is created in Gods image. They rejected any classical ideas that opposed Christianity but sometimes found an underlying harmony between secular and pagan ideas and the Christian faith.

The humanists of the Renaissance loved the language of the classics and thought it was finer and more pure than the corrupt Latin taught in medieval schools. They became more concerned with form rather than content. Literary humanists wrote in the style of the ancient writers. The leading humanists of the time were rhetoricians. They held discussions in the same style used in the ancient Platonian academy. They also sought more effective and eloquent methods of communication, both oral and written.

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola wrote an essay entitled Oration on the Dignity of Man, in which he said that the reason for mans dignity is that he was created in Gods image. He said that mans place in the universe is between the beasts and the angels, but because of his divine image, he can choose his fate and there are no limits to what he can accomplish.

Another literary humanist of the renaissance was Erasmus, who wrote The Shipwreck. Erasmus was a satirist who, in The Shipwreck, made fun of the way people practiced their religions. He showed how some people were hypocritical, they say one thing but practice something else. He also made fun of people who made extravagant offerings to many saints and gods alike.

Humanism and Art

In history, art has often been used by the church to educate the illiterate. The church invested money to decorate its churches and cathedrals with art depicting scenes from the Bible. Even if not commissioned by the church, artists often chose to depict Biblical scenes. As humanism became more widespread in Europe, however, art steadily became more secular. As classical texts brought about a deeper understanding of the ancient cultures, classical themes such as pagan gods appeared more often in art. Religious art, however, never disappeared. Artists depicted scenes differently. For example, medieval artists depiction of Genesis showed the fall from grace of Adam and Eve, whereas Renaissance artists depicted the creation of man. Normal looking people also entered into the artwork. Artists depicted humans as humans and did not give them unnatural qualities as they had in the past. As people became conscious of their uniqueness, they wanted themselves to be immortalized in art. Patrons asked that they be depicted in artwork, whether as the main figure in the piece or as bystanders. Artists also often made self-portraits or portrayed themselves in the background of their artwork. Gradually, art began to mirror reality more closely.

During the renaissance, a new style of art called International Style, emerged. It was characterized by rich color, decorative detail, curvilinear rhythm and swaying forms. It was called the International Style because many artists in Europe used it.

As humanism spread, artists became more interested with the human body. Donatello, who was appreciated for his variety in human nature, revived the nude as the subject of art in the Renaissance by creating a life-size statue of David from the Bible. The David he depicted was a lanky youth who did not look like a hero, but the expression on the statue’s face showed a man proud to have slain a Giant. Michaelangelo, however, depicted more heroic looking men. His depiction of David showed a strong looking man. In general, the artists of this period depicted the human body in a more scientific and natural manner. The female body was voluptuous and sensual while the male body was strong and heroic. This glorification of the human body showed the secular spirit of the period.

During this time, the social status of the artist improved. Rich and powerful people commissioned artists to create works for their private collections or for public places. Merchants, popes, noble men and princes supported the arts as a method of glorifying themselves. Artists depended on their patrons for support. Society respected and rewarded the artist as a genius. The social status of a distinguished artist would be secure for eternity. Also, an aspiring artist could now receive a formal education from a master for whom he worked.

Humanism and education

During the Renaissance, society became more concerned with the education of its following generations. Humanists wrote letters on how future rulers should be trained. At an early age, young men were prepared for public life. They learned history because it taught virtue from past examples, ethics because it focuses of virtue and rhetoric because it teaches eloquence. Castiglione wrote The Courtier to train, discipline and fashion young men into ideal gentlemen. In The Courtier, he said that the educated man of the upper class should be well educated in many subjects, his spiritual and physical capabilities should be trained and he should be familiar with dance, music and art. The Courtier was widely read in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and influenced the conduct of elite groups in the Renaissance and early modern Europe.

A new form of education called Studia Humanitatis also emerged. Studia Humanitatis, or the study of humanity, was a new form of education where one learned to cultivate their talents. It had a new program of studies: rhetoric, grammar, history, vernacular harmony, moral philosophy and poetry. It was taught to both boys and girls. They read may great texts from the past and learned about the dilemmas that people have had so that they can think before hand about what to do, should they ever encounter the same dilemma. They read mostly Greek and Roman texts because they believed them to be the greatest.

Humanism and Political Theory

The political theories that emerged because of humanism can best be illustrated with Niccol Machiavellis The Prince. The Prince described the actual competitive framework of the Italian states. It deals with problems of society and government that have always existed. Machiavelli said that the test of a capable government was whether or not it could provide justice, law, order among its citizens and whether or not the ruler increases his power. He also said that a ruler should only be concerned with the way things are, not the way things should be. He believed that political actions cannot be restricted by moral considerations, and that if the outcome of a decision is favorable, then the ends will justify the means.

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