The term "humanism"
was coined only in the 19th century. Its general sense was that
of a "literary education" as opposed to a "technical
and scientific" one.
The humanism of the 15th and 16th centuries has in fact two
It is first of all a cultural movement - aesthetic, literary
and pedagogical - motivated by the desire of its participants
to enfranchise themselves from the dominant thought in these
areas by a return to the ancient sources (reditus ad fontes).
Humanism is, so to speak, a progressive movement which seeks
its resources in the past. It is next a scholarly discipline,
the philology of ancient languages, founded upon a method, or
the beginnings of a method, that of textual criticism. Humanism
may thus be defined as the study, explanation, imitation and
promotion of ancient culture in order to make that most human
element of man, language, more beautiful and eloquent.
The dominant thought to which humanists reacted is generally
called scholasticism. The legitimate enthusiasm generated by
the rediscovery of Aristotle in the 11th century and the necessity
of establishing Christianity upon a logical philosophical system
had the result of profoundly modifying the nature of high school
and university studies. Among the three basic disciplines (the
triuium) - grammar, rhetoric and logic - the latter occupied
an increasingly greater place, at the expense of the two former.
Indeed, a language of dialectic, of philosophical communication,
had by necessity to develop and prosper. At the same time, the
mendicant orders (one may mention principally the Dominicans,
founded in 1216, and the Franciscans, 1219), which were ascending,
came to dominate the university system. To the minds of the
humanists, scholastic thinkers and "friars" were the
enemies of good style, fine literature, and progress. What was
the best way to resist, and to promote a more beautiful and
eloquent thought and style? Resuscitate and reestablish the
aesthetic of ancient literature. Thus it is that being all the
while fervent Christians, the humanists sought out their models
in a past which had not known Jesus Christ. The inevitable tension
between Christianity and paganism created a "neo-latin"
literature inspired formally by pagan authors, but Christian
or at least contemporary in its content.
As for the scientific aspect
of humanism, two considerations must be made. Firstly, it imparted
progress, in a direct way, to the science of textual criticism
thanks to the quest for manuscripts and a better knowledge of
the ancient languages. There was in the same way a strong effort
to explain and make known ancient culture. Indeed, humanists
were able to use to their advantage the invention of the printing
press (ca. 1450). Secondly, through their criticism of the texts,
they played an essential role in the diffusion of other forms
of knowledge. One must not forget that at that time, the sciences,
natural or other, remained largely book-based and literary.
Concerning, for example, the medicinal usage of plants, scholars
might be more interested in the narrations of the ancients than
in the observation of real use. But ancient literature had been
corrupted by the process of transmission. By undertaking to
reestablish these texts to their original state in order to
imitate them and to use them rationally, the humanists became
themselves essential links in the chain of transmission. They
thus came to master the dissemination of scientific knowledge.
James Hirstein, University
Professor and Researcher,
Member of the Society of the Friends of the Humanist Library