Humanism and Renaissance

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Remarks: The except below discusses certain historical uses of the terms humanism and Renaissance. It is offered here as part of a series, with the intention of underlining the central importance of humanism and its core ideas. The importance of the term is both historical and current, and greatly overshadows its reduction to a synonym for atheism, a common yet arguably very misguided usage.


Source: “The Foundation of the Modern World. Late Middle Ages, Renaissance, Reformation.” By Ruggiero Romano und Alberto Tenenti. (Fischer Weltgeschichte, Band 12. “Die Grundlegung der modernen Welt.  Spätmittelalter, Renaissance, Reformation“. Translated from Italian by Helga Brissa, Heinz Wisman, and Dr. Egbert Türk.)



I. Humanism and Renaissance

The new cultural direction and revolutionary artistic streams gained their place and recognition in Florence, their favored city and crucible, shortly before the first half of the 15th century. One hundred years later, they had triumphed almost everywhere in Europe. The relative speed and extent of this process, its authentic significance, and the extraordinary quality of the forms that appeared have impressed scholars involved with this epoch for more than a century – which often misled them to give it the name Renaissance. One should add, immediately, that the term met with continual and increasing success from the middle of the 19th century. Yet apart from historical events the term might apply to, we must consider that it refers, above all, to a cultural movement of our present time. For Renaissance is a word expressing an art and manner for understanding certain aspects of Western culture, around 1500, as the beginning of modern European history. As a result of expanding the concept into a form with a related scope, it was then given to describe a period. Correctly viewed, this kind of expression is hardly usable as critical and historical. The core of the term, quite clearly, contains (a priori) a value judgement. In using this term, one apparently takes the Renaissance to have only been positive (– that is, unless the opposite is presented, as a reaction); and not only as postulated progress, and a general development in a relative and dialectical sense – but as absolute. The Renaissance then appears as a preferred moment of Western humanity, announcing a kind of secular revelation; the extended moment of the development of the modern world. Unlike other scholars, those researching the Renaissance are filled with the mysterious sensations associated with the birth of a living creature, in all its drama.

We do not want to deny here either the roll this concept does and has played in present culture, or its spread, or power. Also, without again analyzing its roots and meaning, it is clear that such an extended mythologizing in writing history reflects the crisis of its idealized values. As the concept Renaissance holds a certain undeniable myth-making, at least in part, the reader will not be surprised after these remarks that the word will not be further used. On the same basis, we will not pose the question whether the Renaissance did or did not exist, and even less, if it came into effect earlier or later. We simply want here to avoid a previously compromised and ambiguous term, that unavoidably causes confusion.

Every historical definition remains incomplete, yet one keeps and uses it as a means for work. When one accepts other historical terms as tendentious or having an ideal meaning, one can generally separate the given content from the form or word used for support. But the expression “Renaissance” immediately asserts, by its etymology and structure, a sequence of statements and interpretations in its formation; and a consequential part of its reputation is due to its linguistic ingenuity.

Many burdensome disadvantages follow from this first, foundational error. The values of the Renaissance should be spiritual and intellectual; especially artistic, ethical, and literary. If one extends these ideas over the entire epoch, as necessarily valid, one faces the very doubtful result of applying an ideal description to basically different content. One also arrives, with this approach, to speaking in general about people and people of the Renaissance. In outlining the area, exactly, where Renaissance manifestations are to be found, one must acknowledge that these did not have, by far, the dominant place in Europe. We have an even more negative result on the collective level, considering (conceptual) extent and consequence. In view of the above, one can only gain from avoiding and denying the validity of this term; which for a given art or literature in the life of Europe, between the 15th and 16th centuries, contains an arbitrarily postulated decisiveness.

As a somewhat separate issue: the long and persistent use of two different words (humanism and Renaissance), supposed to mark something identical or analogous, is obviously to be criticized. Naturally we have preferred the term humanism, and placed it over these pages. This is done in order to discuss many of the highest cultural achievements in Europe between 1450 and 1550. Of course this term must be made more precise from time to time, like any definition of historical reality, as it is used for various areas, circles, and periods. Yet our task is not more difficult, when we speak of humanists not only before 1450, but before 1350. Also, the fact one encounters humanism in the 17th and 18th centuries, or even later, does not complicate this task. Strictly taken, the essential features of this cultural movement need not always stand in the same relations. It is sufficient when with its dynamic changes, an adequate line of continuity, and a similarly clear and organic core are preserved. [ … ]

Translation (from German to English) by Edward Eggleston.