The term humanism describes a literary and cultural movement that spread through western Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries. This Renaissance revival of Greek and Roman studies emphasized the value of the classics for their own sake, rather than for their relevance to Christianity. If you were looking for the Secular Humanism page, look here.

The humanist movement started in Italy, where the late medieval Italian writers Dante, Giovanni Boccaccio, and Francesco Petrarch contributed greatly to the discovery and preservation of classical works. Humanist ideals were forcefully expressed by another Italian scholar, Pico della Mirandola, in his Oration on the dignity of man. The movement was further stimulated by the influx of Byzantine scholars who came to Italy after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 and also by the establishment of the Platonic Academy in Florence. The academy, whose leading thinker was Marsilio Ficino, was founded by the 15th-century Florentine statesman and patron of the arts Cosimo de' Medici. It revived Platonism and particularly influenced the literature, painting, and architecture of the times.

The collection and translation of classical manuscripts became widespread, especially among the higher clergy and nobility. The invention of printing with movable type, around the mid-15th century, gave a further impetus to humanism through the dissemination of editions of the classics. Although in Italy humanism developed principally in the fields of literature and art, in central Europe, where it was introduced chiefly by the German scholars Johann Reuchlin and Melanchthon, the movement extended into the fields of theology and education, and was a major underlying cause of the Reformation.

One of the most influential scholars in the development of humanism in France was the Dutch cleric Desiderius Erasmus, who also played an important part in introducing the movement into England. There humanism was definitely established at the University of Oxford by the English classical scholars William Grocyn (1446-1519) and Thomas Linacre, and at the University of Cambridge by Erasmus and the English prelate John Fisher (1459-1535). Humanism spread throughout English society, paving the way for the flourishing of Elizabethan literature and culture.

by Benjamin G. Kohl

Humanism, an educational and philosophical outlook that emphasizes the personal worth of the individual and the central importance of human values as opposed to religious belief, developed in Europe during the Renaissance, influenced by the study of ancient Greek and Latin literature and philosophy. Humanism thus began as an educational program called the humanities, which inculcated those ancient secular values which were consistent with Christian teachings. The Renaissance humanists were often devout Christians, but they promoted secular values and a love of pagan antiquity.

Renaissance Humanism

The founder of Renaissance humanism was Petrarch (1304-74), an Italian poet and man of letters who attempted to apply the values and lessons of antiquity to questions of Christian faith and morals in his own day. By the late 14th century, the term studia humanitatis ("humanistic studies") had come to mean a well-defined cycle of education, including the study of grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry, and moral philosophy, based on Latin authors and classical texts. Key in ensuring the permanence of humanism after Petrarch's initial success was the Florentine chancellor Coluccio Salutati (1331-1406), who wrote many learned treatises and kept up a massive correspondence with his literary contemporaries. Salutati, together with his younger follower Leonardo Bruni (1369-1444), used the studia humanitatis as the basis for a life of active service to state and society. Bruni in particular created a new definition of Florence's republican traditions, and defended the city in panegyrics and letters.

The 14th-century humanists had relied mainly on Latin. In the early 15th century, however, classical Greek became a major study, providing scholars with a fuller, more accurate knowledge of ancient civilization. Included were many of the works of Plato, the Homeric epics, the Greek tragedies, and the narratives of Plutarch and Xenophon. Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459), a chancellor of Florence and papal secretary, discovered important classical texts, studied Roman ruins and inscriptions, and created the study of classical archaeology. Poggio also criticized the corruption and hypocrisy of his age in biting satire and well-argued dialogues. Lorenzo Valla (c. 1407-57), one of the greatest classical scholars and text editors of his age, proved that the Donation of Constantine, a medieval document that supported papal claims to temporal authority, was a forgery.

The founding (c. 1450) of the Platonic Academy in Florence by Cosimo de'Medici signaled a shift in humanist values from political and social concerns to speculation about the nature of humankind and the cosmos. Scholars such as Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola used their knowledge of Greek and Hebrew to reconcile Platonic teachings with Jewish mysticism, the Hermetic tradition, and Christian orthodoxy in the search for a philosophia perennia (a philosophy that would be always true).

The work of Italian humanists soon spread north of the Alps, finding a receptive audience among English thinkers such as John Colet (c. 1467-1519), who applied the critical methods developed in Italy to the study of the Bible. Desiderius Erasmus of the Netherlands was the most influential of the Christian humanists. In his Colloquies and Praise of Folly (1509), Erasmus satirized the corruptions of his contemporaries, especially the clergy, in comparison with the teachings of the Bible, early Christianity, and the best of pagan thinkers. In his Adages (1500 and later editions), he showed the consistency of Christian teachings with ancient pagan wisdom. Erasmus devoted most of his energy and learning, however, to establishing sound editions of the sources of the Christian tradition, such as his Greek New Testament (1516) and translations of the Greek and Latin Fathers of the Church. Erasmus' friend Thomas More wrote yet another humanist critique of society--Utopia (1516), which attacked the corruptions of power, wealth, and social status. By the middle of the 16th century humanism had won wide acceptance as an educational system.

Later Types of Humanism

By the 18th century the word humanism had come to be identified with a purely secular attitude--one that often rejected Christianity altogether. In the 20th century the term has taken on a number of different, often conflicting, meanings. In the works of the pragmatist philosopher Ferdinand Schiller (1864-1937) humanism is seen as that philosophical understanding which stems from human activity. Irving Babbitt used the word to describe a program of reaction against romanticism and naturalism in literature. Jean Paul Sartre developed a scientific humanism preaching human worth based on Marxist theory, and the Roman Catholic Jacques Maritain tried to formulate a new Christian humanism based on the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. The American Humanist Association, which grew out of the Unitarian movement, holds that human beings can satisfy religious needs from within, discarding the concept of God as inconsistent with advanced thought and human freedom. In recent years, fundamentalist Christian groups in the United States have declared their opposition to "secular humanism," an antireligious ideology that they believe pervades American society, including the major churches, and that they blame for its moral failings.


Bullock, Alan, The Humanist Tradition in the West (1985)

Garin, Eugenio, Italian Humanism (1966)

Kohl, Benjamin G., and Witt, Ronald G., eds., The Earthly Republic: Italian Humanists on Government and Society (1978)

Kristeller, Paul O., Renaissance Thought and Its Sources (1979)

Nash, Paul, Models of Man (1968)

Trinkaus, Charles, The Scope of Renaissance Humanism (1983).

Go Back to Shy David's Home Page.