Understanding Humanism
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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 aspects.
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 of Sélestat.


Beatus Rhenanus

Erasme de Rotterdam

Alde Manuce (1449-1515)

Martin Bucer(1491-1551)

Lefebvre d'Etaples