The City of Man and the Roots of Humanism
One way to view history is as a play of societal causes and effects. Philosophical movements enter the social arena, flourish for a time, then give birth to new movements from the wisdom of their qualities and the disenchantment from their follies. Study of the 15th century reveals no lack of amenity from this very concept, as aptly demonstrated in the subject of Humanism.
It is a true paradox of late 15th century society that such a mentality as Humanism could co-exist in the same period as the fanaticism of the Spanish Inquisition. Such makes a fascinating study that brings us to question the common perspective of what life in that time was actually like, and how it has endured to the modern era. To take a view beyond the romanticism and the clichés that often create our initial impressions of the late medieval or early renaissance period grants us an understanding that the social environment was actually far more complex.
Humanism was conceived around the year 1400A.D. as a schismatic reaction to widespread corruption within the Church. Lasting until about 1650, when fundamental concepts of Humanism underwent some significant reformations, it can in many ways be considered highly representative of the transformation from medieval supernaturalism into what we might consider modern scientific reason. Examples of this are found not only in the adoption of the military condottiere system, but additionally in the very origins of modern economic, political, and even artistic philosophies. Theoretically it is Humanism that contributed to the incitement of the Protestant revolt, and became the root of Western individualism and independence. For these reasons alone the significance of this rebellious and daring line of new thinking cannot be easily understated.
The principles of Humanism are based on what would have at the time been referred to as ‘the City of Man’, as opposed to ‘the City of God’. What this means is that the perception of the universal frame of life shifted from Christian faith in Providence to Fortuna (chance) and individualistic worldly potential. Such radical (for the time) ideas of individualism, suppressed for many years by both the Church and the feudal caste system, helped inspire this dramatic turn of paradigms from seeing life as a stage of preparation for the afterlife to a pursuit of earthly accomplishment for ‘the now’. Contrary to the Church that had officially denied the importance of man and nature, Humanism denied the importance of the soul. Humanism dictated that life should be aesthetic, happy, adequate, and efficient and should not be concerned with matters that didn’t directly benefit you in the present. It said that ‘the self’ was more important than ‘the other’. This philosophy is clearly demonstrated in a quote from the staunch Humanist Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) from his book The Prince when he said: “A wise ruler ought never to keep faith when by doing so it would be against his interests”.
Public interest began more and more to focus on the Greek and Roman pagan literary and scientific classics, intellectualism, and personal profit. Education began to steadily increase, not just for the wealthy and exclusive few but also for the masses. Trade greatly increased which furthered the spread of secular knowledge and material prosperity. Individualism and an opposition to authority led to increased freedom, the rise of the middle class, invention, and eventually the Renaissance. Humanism undeniably had its very positive effects, some of which can be found in the rise of certain principles that were to become basic and essential to the development of Western nations. History would, however, come to show that such a philosophy as Humanism was indeed a ‘double-edged sword’. Alongside of these gains also came the profanity of the sacred, corporate tyranny, covert and ruthless power struggles, and a backlash of religious extremism in the form of the Spanish Inquisition. Religious opposition to the increasing power of Humanism additionally resulted in the death of millions, a resurgence of sexism, and a harsh conviction that new ideas were both dangerous and blasphemous. Indeed the conflict between these two ideologies was dangerous as hinted by Machiavelli in saying: “before all else, be armed”.
The late 15th century was truly a time of revolution. The old and established power structures were being questioned, and more so challenged, by a new breed of predominantly Italian, English, and German peoples who had become both ambitious and disillusioned. Some Humanists, like John Colet (1467-1519) and Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), tried to temper the situation by making a sort of conservative hybrid philosophy of Humanism and Christianity. The combination of two diametrically opposed views resulted in a mindset that was both confusing and contradictory, but perhaps could have been considered much safer than dedicating oneself to one side or the other. Dedicated humanists such as Machiavelli and the Italian historian and statesman Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540) who said “waste no time with revolutions that do not remove the causes of your complaints but simply change the faces of those in charge”, took a much bolder approach with public speeches and writings that directly attacked the authority of the Church. The survival of such individuals can only be presumably due to the power they acquired through the practice of Humanism and their royal contacts who favored their increase in autonomy from the restrictions of the Church. The irony of Humanistic opposition to authority is that it was so popular amongst the aristocracy. Perhaps this is explained in the idea that those who desire power desire the individual freedoms to more efficiently hold and obtain it. This is seen even today in the ‘joke’ of many modern politicians and their corruptions. Once again, as Machiavelli said: “a prince never lacks legitimate reasons to break his promise”.
In the end Humanism has, for good and bad, helped shape our modern society. It has left a legacy that can be discovered in much of what we today simply accept as ‘the way things are’ without really understanding why or where such ideas came from. Its indelible mark on our social structures, psychology, art, and even our religions is something we must face and hence deal with according to our understanding. As students of history we must admit the substantial influence that Humanism has had and reconfigure our perceptions of history to accept this often overlooked element. Things were not simply this way or that way in the past, but were a mesh of ideas, practices, causes, and effects all struggling to establish their place in the human experience. To our credit we will undoubtedly continue to unlock the doors of our unknown past, and hopefully by new discoveries broaden our understanding of the present. Seeing the connections between then and now is an essential factor to the study of our ancestors. I think it only befitting to then, on that note, conclude with the words: history is the teacher of the future.