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- International Humanist and Ethical Union - What is Humanism?
- Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy - Renaissance Humanism
- humanism - Student Encyclopedia (Ages 11 and up)
Humanism, system of education and mode of inquiry that originated in northern Italy during the 13th and 14th centuries and later spread through continental Europe and England. The term is alternatively applied to a variety of Western beliefs, methods, and philosophies that place central emphasis on the enlightening. It was first employed (as humanismus) by 19th-century German scholars to designate the Renaissance emphasis on Classical studies in endorsed by educators known, as early as the late 15th century, as umanisti—that is, professors or students of intellectual basis of the entire movement. Renaissance humanism in all its forms defined itself in its straining toward this ideal. No discussion of humanism, therefore, can have validity without an understanding of humanitas.
Humanitas meant the development of human virtue, in all its forms, to its fullest extent. The term thus implied not only such qualities as are associated with the modern word humanity—understanding, benevolence, compassion, mercy—but also such more assertive characteristics as fortitude, judgment, prudence, eloquence, and even love of honour. Consequently, the possessor of humanitas could not be merely a sedentary and isolated philosopher or man of letters but was of necessity a participant in active life. Just as action without insight was held to be aimless and barbaric, insight without action was rejected as barren and imperfect. Humanitas called for a fine balance of action and contemplation, a balance born not of compromise but of complementarity.
The goal of such fulfilled and balanced virtue was political, in the broadest sense of the word. The purview of Renaissance humanism included not only the education of the young but also the guidance of adults (including rulers) via philosophical poetry and strategic rhetoric. It included not only realistic social criticism but also hypotheses, not only painstaking reassessments of history but also bold reshapings of the future. In short, humanism called for the comprehensive reform of culture, the transfiguration of what humanists termed the passive and ignorant society of the “dark” ages into a new order that would reflect and encourage the grandest human potentialities. Humanism had an evangelical dimension: it sought to project humanitas from the individual into the state at large.
The wellspring of humanitas was ethics qua ethics, politics qua politics: it lacked the inhibiting medieval thought by the often-conflicting demands of copious discourse, as well as the model of eloquence combined with wise statesmanship. In eloquence humanists found far more than an exclusively aesthetic quality. As an effective means of moving leaders or fellow citizens toward one political course or another, eloquence was akin to pure power. Humanists cultivated rhetoric, consequently, as the medium through which all other virtues could be communicated and fulfilled.
Humanism, then, may be accurately defined as that Renaissance movement that had as its central focus the ideal of humanitas. The narrower definition of the Italian term umanisti notwithstanding, all the Renaissance writers who cultivated humanitas, and all their direct “descendants,” may be correctly termed humanists.
It is small wonder that a term as broadly allusive as humanism should be subject to a wide variety of applications. Of these (excepting the historical movement described above) there are three basic types: humanism as Classicism, humanism as referring to the modern concept of the pragmatic humanism of secular humanism, though differing from each other significantly in content, all showed this anthropocentric emphasis.
Not only is such a large assortment of definitions confusing, but the definitions themselves are often redundant or impertinent. There is no suffices. To say that professors in the many disciplines known as the humanities are humanists is to compound vagueness with vagueness, for these disciplines have long since ceased to have or even aspire to a common rationale. The definition of humanism as anthropocentricity or human-centredness has a firmer claim to correctness. For obvious reasons, however, it is confusing to apply this word to Classical literature.