The Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy
First published 1988 Seventh printing 2007






Paul Oskar Kristeller



Humanism was one of the most pervasive traits of the Renaissance, and it affected more or less deeply all aspects of the culture of the time including its thought and philosophy.

Humanism has been described and interpreted in many different ways, and its meaning has been the subject of much controversy, just as has been the concept of the Renaissance itself.1 Whereas the term 'humanism' in current discourse often denotes an emphasis on human values unrelated to any intellectual or cultural traditions, Renaissance humanism was understood and studied by most historians of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as that broad concern with the study and imitation of classical antiquity which was characteristic of the period and found its expression in scholarship and education and in many other areas, including the arts and sciences. The modern term 'humanism' has been used in this sense since the early nineteenth century and was derived from the term 'humanist' coined in the late fifteenth century2 to designate a teacher and student of the 'humanities' or studia humanitatis 3 The word 'humanity' and its derivatives were associated with a 'liberal' education by several Roman writers, especially Cicero and Gellius.4 The term was revived by Petrarch, Salutati and others in the fourteenth century, and by the middle of the fifteenth century it came to stand for a well-defined cycle of studies, called studia humanitatis, which included grammatica, rhetorica, poetica, historia and philosophia moralis, as these terms were then understood. Unlike the liberal arts of the earlier Middle Ages, the humanities did not include logic or the quadrivium (arithmetica, geometria, astronomia and musica), and unlike the fine arts of the eighteenth century, they did not include the visual arts, music, dancing or gardening.5 The humanities also failed to include the disciplines

1. Kristeller 1979, chs. 1 and 5; The Renaissance: Essays in Interpretation 1982.

2. Riiegg 1946. 3. Kristeller 1979, ch. 5; Campana 1946.

4. Cicero, Pro Archia 1.1-111.4; Aulus Gellius, Nodes Atticae xm.17.1. 5. Kristeller 1980, ch. 9.


that were the chief subjects of instruction at the universities during the later Middle Ages and throughout the Renaissance, such as theology, jurisprudence and medicine, and the philosophical disciplines other than ethics, such as logic, natural philosophy and metaphysics. In other words, humanism does not represent, as often believed, the sum total of Renaissance thought and learning, but only a well-defined sector of it. Humanism has its proper domain or home territory in the humanities, whereas all other areas of learning, including philosophy (apart from ethics), followed their own course, largely determined by their medieval tradition and by their steady transformation through new observations, problems or theories. These disciplines were affected by humanism mainly from the outside and in an indirect way, though often quite strongly.


If we want to understand the role of the humanists and of humanism during the Renaissance and their impact on learning and philosophy, we must consider not only the place of their subject-matter, the humanities, in the classifications of the arts and sciences and among the subjects taught in the schools and universities, but also their professional activities and their literary production. The humanists are best known for their role as educators, and they actually played an important part as theorists, teachers and tutors in reforming secondary education, first in Italy and then in the rest of Europe.97 The core of their instruction was the careful study of classical Latin, its vocabulary and grammar, metrics and prose style, and to a lesser extent of classical Greek, and the attentive reading and interpretation of the major ancient writers, both Latin and Greek, in prose and in verse. The schools of Guarino da Verona in Ferrara and of Vittorino da Feltre in Mantua attracted students from all over Europe, and their curriculum and methods were followed everywhere, serving as a model for the Protestant Reformers as well as for the Jesuits. The humanistic school, animated by the idea that the study of classical languages and literature provided valuable information and intellectual discipline as well as moral standards and a civilised taste for the future rulers, leaders and professionals of its society, flourished without interruption, though with some significant changes, until our own century, surviving many religious, political and social revolutions. It has but recently been replaced, though not yet completely, by other more practical and less demanding forms of education.

The role of the humanists in Renaissance universities was not as powerful as in the secondary schools which they came to dominate completely, but it was not as insignificant as is often believed.98 The view expressed quite recently by authoritative scholars that humanism played no role in the universities of the Renaissance is certainly wrong.99 In the curriculum of the universities, grammar played a minor but persistent role as an elementary and preliminary subject, but rhetoric and poetry, which involved the reading of major classical Latin poets and prose writers, including the historians and the moralists, was a regular subject of teaching at the Italian universities from the early fourteenth century on, and the teaching of Greek language and literature was added with increasing frequency during the fifteenth century. By the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century, the chairs of Latin and Greek oratory and poetry had greatly increased in number and prestige and even in salary, and sometimes were given the more ambitious and fashionable title of'the humanities'. Moreover, if we study the career of individual humanists, we find that many of them, great and small, were professors at various universities, including the Florentine Studio, or provided advanced instruction with a public salary in cities which had no regular or complete university, such as Lucca, Venice or Milan.

Another professional activity frequently practised by the humanists was that of acting as chancellors or secretaries.100 Popes, cardinals and bishops, emperors, kings, princes and republics as well as many prominent patricians and businessmen needed and employed a large staff of trained people capable of composing and copying the numerous documents and papers, letters and speeches that constituted an essential part of the daily routine of politics and administration. As masters of Latin prose composition, the humanists were eminently equipped to perform these functions, and it is well known that numerous humanists, famous and obscure, had their careers, not as teachers or professors, but as chancellors and secretaries. Even Petrarch occasionally served the princes of Milan and Padua who were his patrons as an informal secretary or orator, and a long line of distinguished humanists served the papal Curia, the Florentine Republic, the kings of Naples, the dukes of Milan and other princes and republics.101 Humanist chancellors appear also at the courts of foreign kings and princes, and it was often the Italian humanists who pursued a career abroad.102 Many of the humanist chancellors both in Italy and elsewhere were also commissioned to write an official history of the kingdom or republic, for history was a part of their training, and they also had easy access to the archives that contained the source material for their undertaking. Machiavelli received a stipend from the University of Pisa for his history of Florence, and the Venetian Republic employed a whole series of official historiographers.103

Although the chanceries were important centres of humanist activities, they were not the only ones, as is often assumed. Apart from the humanist teachers mentioned above, we must also keep in mind that many of the students trained in humanist schools were princes or patricians who in later life were not obliged to earn a living on the basis of their humanist training, as were the teachers and secretaries, but were active as churchmen or statesmen, bankers or merchants. Many of them were patrons of humanist scholarship and literature, but some were distinguished and productive scholars and writers themselves in their leisure time. Pius II continued to write when he was a cardinal and pope, and many humanists happened to be bishops, clerics or monks, or members of the ruling circles in Florence or Venice.104 Moreover, after the middle of the fifteenth century, we encounter many professionals, lawyers and physicians, as well as theologians, who had received a more or less thorough humanist education in school or at university and who became humanist scholars or writers in their spare time, or even applied the standards of humanist scholarship to their professional work and thus helped to transform traditional and medieval subjects. Finally, we should not forget another more modest activity which provided a living for a large number of humanist scholars, that is, the book trade. The manuscript book had traditionally served the needs of monastic and cathedral libraries, or of ecclesiastical, princely and noble collectors, and later of university professors and students. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, there was a new demand for classical Latin texts and for the writings of contemporary scholars. We find many humanists who in their youth or in periods of unemployment worked as copyists or calligraphers and were employed by princely or patrician patrons who started or expanded their own private libraries, by successful scholars such as Petrarch who could afford to have their own secretaries, or by professional booksellers such as Vespasiano da Bisticci who sold their manuscripts to princes and scholars alike. The products of these humanist scribes were written in one of two new styles of handwriting that were both different from the earlier 'Gothic' script and were invented and propagated by the humanists: the so-called Roman script invented by Poggio Bracciolini after the model of the Carolingian minuscule which he mistook for an ancient Roman script; and the humanist cursive, presumably invented by Niccolo Niccoli, which was a favoured book hand during the second half of the fifteenth century and became the model for italic type. These two scripts, and especially the first, are the kind of writing we are accustomed to employ both in our longhand and our printed characters, and our use of the humanist rather than the Gothic script is the direct consequence of the reform brought about by the Italian humanists of the fifteenth century. It is perhaps the most lasting effect of Renaissance humanism on our modern world. The palaeographical analysis of Renaissance hands and of humanist script has only recently become a subject of serious study, and the identification of individual humanist hands is often an important instrument when it comes to establishing the date and authorship as well as the diffusion of Renaissance texts.105

The technique of printing with movable type was invented by Gutenberg in Mainz about 1450, but it took some time for it to reach other countries, and even after that time the manuscript book continued for many decades to compete and to coexist with the printed one. The contribution of the humanists to the production and diffusion of printed books was no less important than their role during the period of the manuscript book. The printing press was introduced to Italy in 1465, and from that time on an ever-increasing amount of printed books were published, first in Subiaco and Rome, and soon afterwards in many other cities, including Florence, Milan and Venice. Many of the early printed books contained classical Latin texts and the writings of contemporary humanists, and they were usually printed in the same roman and italic characters that had been used in the humanist manuscript books of the same or immediately preceding period, whereas many of the university textbooks and religious or popular writings were printed in Gothic characters. The humanists soon became involved with the printing presses in several ways. They saw their own writings through the press, as we know in a number of cases, and they acted from the very beginning as advisers for some of the texts to be printed, and as responsible editors for the classical Latin texts published by the presses. Giovanni Andrea de'Bussi, Bishop of Aleria, performed this service for the first classical editions printed in Subiaco and in Rome, and many of the first editions printed in Paris were selected and edited by Guillaume Fichet. The same is true of the first editions of Greek classical authors, which appeared rather sparingly during the first decades of printing and became more frequent only during the sixteenth century. Among the early printers we encounter a few humanist scholars of distinction, although they probably acted as publishers rather than as typesetters: Aldus Manutius in Venice and later several members of the Estienne and Morel families in Paris were all renowned for their scholarly editions of both Latin and Greek classical authors. By the sixteenth century countless printing presses were active all over Europe and in numerous towns, but the leading international centres of publishing and of the book trade were Venice, Lyons and Basle, especially for books of classical or humanist content. Humanist scholars continued to be active as editors of classical texts and of their own writings, and often also as proofreaders working for their publishers.106 Erasmus worked for years as an editor and proofreader for Aldus in Venice and for Froben in Basle, and he also maintained close relations with other publishing houses in Paris and Antwerp. Without these relations, his enormous scholarly production would not have been possible. We know that he travelled a good deal to supervise the printing of his works and of the texts edited by him, and we have reason to believe that a part of his income derived from the work he did for his printers and publishers.107


Having discussed the intellectual interests and the professional activities of the humanists, we must now briefly describe their scholarly and other achievements, and above all the form and content of their literary production, as well as some of the basic attitudes that underlie and pervade it.17 Needless to say, much of their production was closely related to their professional activities, although the tastes and preferences of individual humanists also played an important role.

The deep interest in classical literature and history which was common to all humanists was not only expressed in their activity as copyists and editors. Before a text could be copied or edited, it had to be located or discovered, and it was essential to find old and correct manuscripts that deserved to be copied or edited rather than late and inaccurate manuscripts which offered a corrupt text. The search for old manuscripts of the Latin classics all over Europe was a favourite concern of many leading humanists; Petrarch, Boccaccio, Salutati and Poggio were especially persistent and successful in this enterprise. They and their companions and successors found not only older, better or more complete manuscripts of known classical writers, but also discovered additional authors or writings that had not been well known or read during the preceding medieval centuries.108 It has been argued that we should not speak of real humanist discoveries since the manuscripts they found were copied in Carolingian times and hence not unknown to the copyists or to their contemporaries. Yet the fact remains that these texts survived in only one or two copies and that they had not been known or read for centuries, whereas the humanists introduced them into the mainstream of western scholarship and helped to bring about their wide diffusion in manuscripts and in printed editions. The newly discovered texts included Manilius and Celsus, a complete Quintilian, many works of Cicero, and above all, Tacitus and Lucretius. As for the Greek classics, prior to 13 50 the number of Greek and especially of classical Greek manuscripts in western libraries was very small. It was during the period from 13 50 to 1600 that most of the classical Greek manuscripts that are now in the West and that have been the basis of all modern editions were brought over from the Greek East, both before and after the Turkish conquest of Constantinople, by western scholars visiting the East and by Byzantine scholars who fled to the West.109

Once the Latin (and Greek) classical texts were available in manuscript and later in print, the humanists carefully annotated their texts, recording variant readings from other manuscripts and their own emendations, and adding explanatory notes and glosses. We have many manuscripts annotated by Petrarch, Salutati, Bruni, Valla and Leto, and many early printed editions annotated by Poliziano and numerous later scholars. We also have a large body of fully-fledged commentaries by humanist scholars on practically all ancient Latin texts then available, some in manuscript and some in print, which were usually the result of class lectures given on these authors at various schools or universities and copied by a student or sometimes by the teacher himself. Classical Greek authors were also copied and edited by the humanists, Byzantine or western, and frequently annotated and glossed in Latin. From the sixteenth century we have a number of Latin commentaries on Greek classical texts.

However, the knowledge of Greek, even among humanist scholars, was never as thorough or as widespread as was their knowledge of Latin, because the study of Greek was a new and purely scholarly pursuit that lacked the indigenous tradition and the practical usefulness which the study of Latin had inherited from the Middle Ages. As a result, a large amount of effort was dedicated by the humanists to the task of translating ancient Greek texts into Latin in order to make them available to a larger number of their contemporaries, even among the humanists. This effort was encouraged and rewarded by many important patrons, among them Pope Nicholas V and his successors, many princes and the early Medici. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the humanists translated into Latin practically all classical Greek authors then available, some of them more than once, and many for the first time, as well as making new translations of those texts that had been available in medieval Latin translations.110 These translations introduced for the first time practically all of Greek poetry, oratory and historiography as well as a sizeable proportion of Greek writings on mathematics, geography, medicine and botany, and also Greek patristic literature. The philosophical texts translated for the first time included many works of Plato and Proclus, all of Plotinus and of other Neoplatonic authors, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, Sextus Empiricus, Diogenes Laertius (who contains several texts of Epicurus), Lucian and Plutarch, and most of the Greek commentaries on Aristotle. In other words, most of the sources of ancient Platonism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, scepticism and popular philosophy were made available for the first time, while the writings of Aristotle came to be studied not only from the medieval Latin translations and commentaries but also from the Greek text, from new humanist translations and from the Greek commentators. The scholarly study of Hebrew and Arabic also made progress among western scholars, some of them humanists, and benefited the study of the Old Testament and rabbinical and cabalistic literature, as well as the Koran and Arabic philosophy.111

The reading public of the Renaissance consisted not only of people who had received a humanist or university education and hence were able to read Latin, but also of many intelligent and curious people, especially merchants, craftsmen and women, who knew no Latin but were eager to read not only poems and narratives but also works of varied instruction in their native vernacular. Many humanists catered to this audience, which also included many princes and noblemen, and made vernacular translations of both classical and humanist writings, or even composed some of their own works in the vernacular. This happened in Italy, especially in Tuscany, as early as the fifteenth century; and during the sixteenth century, if not before, a large body of classical and humanist literature was translated into French, Spanish, German and English.112 Also an increasing number of writings that were humanist in form and content came to be composed in those languages, the most illustrious example being the Essais of Michel de Montaigne.

In order to facilitate the reading and understanding of classical authors, the humanists wrote commentaries on Donatus, Priscian and other ancient grammarians, and also produced a number of textbooks of Latin grammar and a few of Greek. Niccolo Perotti added to his bulky Cornucopiae, a detailed commentary on parts of Martial, an extensive word index and thus provided for the first time a detailed vocabulary of classical Latin.113 In the sixteenth century the big Thesauri of Greek and Latin produced by the Estienne family were more than adequate and remained in use until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Whereas the study of Greek was mainly aimed at the reading of the classics, that of Latin served the additional purpose of mastering it as a written and even as a spoken language. The humanists were keenly aware of the great difference that separated medieval and especially scholastic Latin from that of the ancient Roman writers, above all Cicero. They made it their avowed goal to imitate in their own writings the Latin of classical writers and to avoid all those 'barbarous' features that separated medieval from classical Latin. They attempted with some success to imitate and restore classical Latin as a living language and to bring about a kind of linguistic and literary revolution that discredited and gradually abolished many, if not all, features of medieval Latin. This reform affected spelling, prosody and punctuation, vocabulary and phraseology, inflection and syntax, and the whole structure and rhythm of sentences. While some scholars allowed new words for objects and concepts unknown to the ancient Romans, others would ban any words not sanctioned by the usage of ancient Roman writers, especially Cicero. Lorenzo Valla's Elegantiae were composed as a handbook that would help students and scholars to write fluent Latin, to use the proper classical terms and phrases and to avoid barbarisms. It served this function for several centuries. The result was a neo-Latin language and literature that were much closer to those of the ancient Romans than anything written in Latin after the end of antiquity.114In the learned disciplines, including philosophy, this humanist reform tended to abandon the technical terminology that had become refined and precise through usage and discussion over several centuries and had often served to render in Latin some philosophical terms of ancient Greek origin that had not been adopted or rendered by Cicero or other ancient Roman writers. This humanist habit led in some instances to an emphasis on a smooth literary style and vague phraseology at the expense of the conceptual precision needed for an adequate philosophical discourse.

All the activities and writings described so far might be roughly subsumed undergrammatica, as this term was understood at the time. It now remains to mention briefly the literary contribution of the humanists to the other studia humanitatis. Rhetoric, which was the second of the humanities and in many ways the core of them all, consisted primarily in the theory and practice of prose composition, but also in the theory of plausible or probable arguments and in the theory of persuasion. The humanists produced a large number of commentaries on the rhetorical works of Cicero and Quintilian and later of Aristotle, and they also analysed Cicero's orations for their rhetorical qualities. They wrote a number of rhetorical textbooks that tended to multiply during the sixteenth century, as well as many treatises on more specific subjects, such as the figures of speech or imitation. Like their medieval predecessors, they used some of their own compositions as models of style to be imitated by their students, or composed formularies of fictitious letters or just parts of them, such as exordia or salutationes.115More important was the claim advanced by most humanists that the pursuit of eloquence (eloquentia) was a major task for the educated scholar and writer and that it was inseparable from the pursuit of wisdom (sapientia). This meant that philosophy should always be combined with rhetoric, an ideal for which Cicero served as a teacher and an example. In the name of this ideal, many humanists beginning with Petrarch criticised scholastic philosophy. Many of them tended to subordinate philosophy to rhetoric, and at least one leading humanist, Lorenzo Valla, came close to replacing philosophy with rhetoric, or at least with a kind of philosophy which he chose to call rhetoric.116

The rhetorical practice of the humanists was much more extensive than their theoretical literature. The genres most frequently cultivated by them were the oration and the letter, both of them closely connected with their professional activity as chancellors and secretaries. The speeches composed by them and often delivered by others were seldom of the judiciary or deliberative type prevalent in classical theory and practice, but usually epideictic and linked to the social and institutional practice of their time: funeral and wedding speeches, speeches by ambassadors in the name of their government, speeches of congratulation to newly elected popes or prelates, princes or magistrates, speeches of welcome to distinguished visitors, speeches at the beginning of a school year or of a particular university course, speeches given at the graduation of students, at the opening of lay or religious gatherings or of a disputation, or in praise of saints or other illustrious people, and many more.117 In fifteenth-century Italy the sermons preached on holidays or on special occasions were often delivered by priests or friars who had received a humanist education, and these sermons were influenced in their form and content, if not in their religious doctrine, by the secular oratory of the humanists. The extensive literature of humanist speeches was widely copied and printed, but it has not been frequently read or studied by modern scholars, although it contains a large amount of biographical, historical and scholarly information, and although some of it expresses the author's thought and touches on problems and themes often discussed in other writings of the same period.118

Even larger and probably more interesting is the literature of humanist letters.29 The ancient models for the letter were less numerous than for the speech or other genres, and ancient rhetorical theory provided but scanty guidance for its composition. Yet the state letter was the most important assignment for humanist chancellors and secretaries, and although they were bound to follow the example of their predecessors, the medieval notaries and dictatores, for the content and legal terminology, they did their best to improve upon the script, vocabulary and style of their official letters and documents. For their private letters, the humanists were not limited by any constraints, except their own taste and the example of such ancient writers as Seneca, Pliny the Younger and above all Cicero. They maintained an extensive correspondence with their patrons, friends and colleagues; and they often preserved, collected and edited their own letters, considering and treating them as an important part of their literary production. Actually, the letters of the humanists have enjoyed more favour with modern scholars and readers than most of their other writings. This is due to their elegant style and to their interesting content, which often reflects the life of the author and of his friends, the events of his day, and his thoughts and opinions on a variety of subjects. For reconstructing the thought of a humanist, his letters are as important witnesses as any of his other writings.

Although the skill of the humanists as orators and practising rhetoricians found its most direct expression in their speeches and letters, it also shaped the form and style, if not the content, of all their other prose compositions, including their historical and philosophical writings. As authors of histories and biographies dealing with ancient, medieval and contemporary subjects, and of antiquarian works dealing with ancient topography and mythology, the humanists cultivated a fluent and elegant style, and the fictitious speeches which they inserted in their histories after the example of their ancient and medieval predecessors gave them a special opportunity for showing their rhetorical expertise. On the other hand, and for this they have not always received due credit, they used their critical judgement and their knowledge of older sources and documents to expose forgeries and conventional errors and to reconstruct the events of the past in a rational and plausible fashion, and thus they often attained a high degree of accuracy and credibility.119 The humanists' concern with history led them to reflections on the method, sources and theory of history which first appeared in the prologues to their courses and commentaries on ancient historians and later found expression in special treatises on the art of history.31

Among the many prose works composed by the humanists on a great variety of topics, we find a considerable number of treatises dedicated to moral and other philosophical problems. They all show the same concern for style and elegance that characterises their other prose works, and also pay their tribute to ancient authors by frequent quotations, examples and allusions. Aside from the plain treatise, the humanists had a marked preference for the invective and the dialogue. The invective, often used by Petrarch and other humanists, had its models in some of Cicero's speeches and in the apocryphal invectives attributed to Cicero and Sallust, which enjoyed a wide circulation and popularity. It enabled the authors to give a more personal tone to their discourse and to exaggerate their points beyond the limits of plausibility, something they evidently enjoyed.120 The dialogue, usually patterned after the model of Cicero rather than of Plato, offered the advantage of presenting more than one opinion or viewpoint on the same subject without seeming to take a definitive stand (although the author's true opinion may often be inferred from his preface, from the composition of the dialogue itself or from his other writings). The dialogue also gave a personal and almost dramatic vivacity to the problems discussed. On the other hand, it provided a literary excuse for avoiding the tight argument and precise terminology that had characterised the philosophical literature of the ancient Greeks and of the medieval scholastics.121

The narrative prose of the humanists, apart from their historical works, is limited to a few short stories in Latin, some of them translations from Boccaccio's Decameron, and a few descriptions and eulogies of cities and countries.122 Much more extensive is their contribution to Latin poetry.35 It has with few exceptions not received much applause from modern critics, but has been more widely studied in recent decades. Apart from isolated pieces, there are many collections of epigrams and elegies composed on the model of the ancient Roman poets. Poliziano, Pontano and a few others have had a fairly continuous reputation, and several more have been rescued from oblivion by recent scholars. Odes and other Horatian strophes are much rarer because of their greater metrical difficulty and the limited knowledge of ancient prosody. There are quite a few long poems in epic hexameters which are historical or mythological, religious or didactic in content. Some of the didactic poems deal with philosophical or scientific topics and hence are interesting for their doctrinal content as well as for their literary form. There are some hymns and pastoral poetry patterned after Vergil's Eclogues, which had enjoyed great popularity ever since the early fourteenth century. More limited, though not without interest, is the humanist contribution to dramatic literature.123 They composed few Latin tragedies but a somewhat larger number of Latin comedies, most of which were written and performed at the universities of northern Italy. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the genres of Latin comedy and tragedy were much cultivated by the Jesuits, who in this sector, as in some others, followed the humanist tradition. Humanist influences came to be felt also in the vernacular literatures. Many of the genres of classical and humanist poetry came to be imitated and adopted in the vernacular literatures, and leading vernacular poets, including Ariosto, Ronsard and Spenser, received a humanist education.

The humanists also played an important role in the development of poetical theory and literary criticism. The defence of poetry against the theologians led to the formulation of some interesting principles. The commentaries on the ancient poets, especially their introductions, contained some pertinent reflections. Horace's Ars poetica was commented upon and occasionally imitated in separate treatises on poetics; and in the sixteenth century Aristotle's Poetics, which had been practically unknown during the preceding centuries, was extensively discussed in commentaries. There were also some treatises on poetics, culminating in the work ofjulius Caesar Scaliger.124

In concluding this survey of the literary production of the humanists, I should like to emphasise that it was characterised throughout by a desire to imitate ancient authors and to emulate them in the elegance of their style, vocabulary and literary composition, but that the humanists added a dimension that is not typical of ancient literature and that is largely new: the tendency to take seriously their own personal feelings and experiences, opinions and preferences. An air of subjectivity pervades all humanist literature from Petrarch to Erasmus and Montaigne that is absent from most classical literature and also from much modern literature prior to Romanticism. It accounts for the often uninhibited gossip, flattery and polemics present in much humanist literature, and it also helps to explain the Renaissance preference for such literary genres as the invective, the dialogue, the speech, the letter and the essay. I should like to think that this is what Jacob Burckhardt meant when he spoke of the individualism of the Renaissance, a concept that has been more often criticised than understood.38 In the sense in which I understand it, it is perfectly valid, if not for the Renaissance in all of its aspects, then at least for that large sector of its thought, learning and literature that is dominated by the humanists.


Since most of the contributions of the humanists to the philosophy of the Renaissance will be treated in other chapters of this volume, I shall limit myself in the remainder of this chapter to a brief history of Renaissance humanism and shall conclude my remarks with a short description of its impact on the philosophy and general thought of the period.

The origins of Renaissance humanism have traditionally been traced to the work and writings of Petrarch, but more recently to a group of scholars active in northern and central Italy during the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century.125 Among these pre-humanists or proto-humanists, Albertino Mussato of Padua stands out as the author of some Latin poems, a Latin tragedy and several historical works in the classical style, and as a defender of poetry. Giovanni del Virgilio of Bologna is notable as an early professor of rhetoric and poetry at his university, as a commentator on Ovid, and as the author of Vergilian eclogues that were addressed to, and answered by, no less a person than Dante Alighieri.126 For the appearance of classical studies and classicist literature at this particular place and time various explanations may be offered, including the first stirring of a national feeling that looked to the ancient Romans as the true ancestors of the Italians, and the economic and political rise of the city republics which in their institutions as well as in their intellectual interests felt more akin to classical antiquity than to the imperial, ecclesiastical and feudal culture of the rest of Europe and of their own immediate past. This early humanism was due to the merger of two previous traditions that had been quite distinct from each other and that in their combination brought forth something new and different. On the one hand, there was in Italy and especially in Bologna a strong tradition of rhetoric, called the ars dictaminis, which flourished from the late eleventh to the early fourteenth century and which with the help of textbooks and formularies provided instruction and training for future notaries and secretaries a large, influential and literate class of lay citizens - helping them to compose documents and letters, both public and private, and later also speeches, usually in Latin but sometimes also in the vernacular.127 The link with humanist epistolography and oratory is obvious, both in professional and in literary terms, and it is confirmed by the fact that Giovanni del Virgilio himself composed a treatise on dictamen. On the other hand, the dictamen tradition was purely practical, and it had in its patterns, style and content few if any classical features. The study and imitation of ancient writers was the job of the grammarians, not the rhetoricians, and the tradition of reading and interpreting ancient Roman writers in school was very much alive in France and other northern countries from the ninth to the early fourteenth century, whereas the Italian share in this tradition was very slight up to the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century. It is significant that the study of Roman writers began to emerge in Italy at a time when it had declined in France and the North, and we have at least some evidence that the French grammarians and commentators of the Middle Ages influenced their Italian successors.128 The fact that the medieval dictamen had some influence on the epistolography and oratory of the Italian humanists does not mean that the dictamen, even in conjunction with the grammatical tradition, should be credited with the activities and achievements of Renaissance humanism as a whole.

In the middle of the fourteenth century Italian humanism had its first culmination, if not its beginning, in Petrarch, whose work and personality attained international fame during his own lifetime and who was thus able to raise the prestige and to promote the diffusion of humanistic studies all over Italy and elsewhere. Petrarch's fame rested not only on his Italian poems, which have been rightly admired and imitated until modern times, but also on his voluminous Latin writings, which make him one of the leading humanist scholars and authors and which have been the subject of much recent study. They include a number of Latin poems, especially epigrams, eclogues and an epic poem of historical content, the Africa, a few speeches, several historical works, above all a series of treatises, some of them in the form of invectives or dialogues, and a very large number of private letters, which he carefully collected, edited and published. His invectives include his writings against the physicians and his treatise De sui ipsius et multorum ignorantia, in which he offers a defence of poetry, eloquence and ethics, that is, of the humanities against the claims of scholastic philosophy and science. These invectives document not the victory of humanism over scholasticism, as is often claimed, but the affirmative praise of the humanities as against the sciences, and they represent an interesting episode in that continuing battle of the arts and of various 'cultures' that is still with us. The De otio religioso and the De vita solitaria offer a defence of the contemplative life, and the latter work at least illustrates the secularisation of this ideal, transferring it from the monk to the lay scholar (although Petrarch himself was a cleric). The De remediis utriusque fortunae offers a detailed discussion of the virtues and vices, based on Stoic doctrines and patterned on a shorter treatise attributed to Seneca. The Secretum, a dialogue between the author and St Augustine (who was one of his favourite writers), offers a highly personal and moving account of his moral conflicts and includes some memorable reflections on fame and on melancholy. Petrarch's letters, the most extensive and probably the most impressive part of his work, are important for the wealth and variety of their biographical, historical and scholarly content and for their subtle and vivid style which echoes Seneca, and also for their thoroughly personal and subjective approach, obviously influenced by the letters of Cicero recently discovered in Verona. Petrarch was understood by himself and by his contemporaries as a poet and orator, historian and moral philosopher, and was crowned with the laurel as a poet and historian. He was not a grammarian in the ordinary sense of the word, for he was not a teacher and he left no commentaries, but his work as a classical scholar allows us to consider him as a grammarian as this term was understood in his time. His library included most ancient Roman authors and many Latin Church Fathers, two Greek manuscripts containing Homer and Plato, and almost no works of the medieval scholastics. Many manuscripts owned and annotated by him have been identified and studied. His glosses show his rich knowledge of Roman and patristic literature and of ancient history, as well as his exceptional skill as a careful reader and textual critic. His knowledge of ancient philosophy was limited to Latin writers, such as Cicero, Seneca and Boethius, Augustine and Jerome, and to some of the available Latin translations of Greek philosophers, such as Plato's Timaeus and Phaedo and Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. Some of his attitudes anticipated and influenced later developments: he encouraged Leonzio Pilato to translate Homer into Latin; he praised Plato as superior to Aristotle; and he opposed the original Aristotle to his medieval Latin translators and commentators.43 During Petrarch's later years and after his death, humanistic studies were carried on in various centres by his friends, correspondents and admirers,

43. Nolhac 1907; Sapegno 1948, ch. 5; G. Billanovich 1951; Wilkins 1961; Petrucci 1967; U. Bosco 1968; Kristeller 1983b.

such as Giovanni da Ravenna, and above all Boccaccio and Salutati in Florence. Boccaccio was the author not only of the Decameron and of many Italian poems but also of important antiquarian works in Latin that deal with ancient mythology and topography. He also discovered manuscripts of Tacitus and other ancient authors, and he sponsored Leonzio Pilato in his translation of Homer and in the teaching of Greek, which he offered in private and, as we now know, also in public.129 Salutati, for many years Chancellor of the Florentine Republic, played a major political role when in his state letters he defended Florentine liberty against its enemies. His extensive private correspondence is notable for his defence of poetry and for his frequent praise of the active life of the statesman and businessman. His prose treatises, many of which have been published only recently, deal with such topics as the secular and religious life, fate and fortune, the relative superiority of medicine and law, and an allegorical interpretation of the labours of Hercules. Like Petrarch, he was an ardent book collector, and we know a number of manuscripts that he owned, some of them copied by or for him or annotated in his own hand. He was responsible for bringing Manuel Chrysoloras, a distinguished Byzantine scholar, to the University of Florence as a teacher of Greek.130 It was not due to Leonzio but rather to Chrysoloras, who taught for a number of years at Florence and then at Pavia and who attracted many promising students from all over Italy, that the study of Greek language and literature came to acquire a firm and lasting place in the academic and intellectual life of Italy and later of Europe.131


The fifteenth century has been rightly considered as the high point of Italian humanism, and Italian and other historians have often called it the age of humanism.132 It was that century which witnessed a wide and unprecedented diffusion of classical Latin literature in manuscripts and later in printed editions, including some newly discovered authors, the beginnings and spread of humanist script and of humanist education, and a steady progress in the textual criticism and interpretation of ancient writers, and in the study of classical Latin grammar and vocabulary, spelling and prosody. It also witnessed the steady rise of Greek scholarship, and the arrival in the West of many prominent Byzantine scholars, who were able to transmit the methods and traditions of Byzantine scholarship to their western students and colleagues.133 A few western scholars were able to write in classical Greek,134 and later in the century Poliziano and Ermolao Barbaro attained a level of Greek scholarship that was still recognised during the following centuries. A large part of the humanist literature letters and speeches, histories and biographies, moral and other treatises and dialogues was produced in fifteenth-century Italy, as were numerous commentaries on the classics and countless Latin translations from the Greek. The antiquarian interests of the humanists also led to the beginnings of such related studies as epigraphy and archaeology.135

One aspect of Italian humanism that has attracted much scholarly attention in recent decades is the civic humanism of Bruni and other Florentine writers of the early fifteenth century. They used their classical scholarship for the defence of the Florentine Republic and of its free institutions in its struggle against the Visconti princes, and also advocated a classical education for the leading citizens of the republic.136 This is an important and attractive facet of Italian humanism, but it is limited to Florence during the early fifteenth century and characterises only one aspect in the work of Bruni and his friends. Within the comprehensive picture of Renaissance humanism, let alone of Renaissance thought, the civic humanism of Bruni and his circle represents only one out of many aspects and phases of a much more complex and varied movement.

When we reach the latter half of the fifteenth and the sixteenth century, a new phenomenon must be taken into consideration. Many scholars who had received a humanist secondary education proceeded to study other subjects at the universities or on their own, and many humanist scholars extended their interests and activities to fields other than the humanities in the strict sense of the term. Thus we find many humanists who were also philosophers, scientists, physicians and medical scholars, jurists or even theologians.52 It is this combination of interests that has often led to a vague or confused interpretation of Renaissance humanism and Renaissance thought and learning in general. We must distinguish between the contributions the humanists made to the humanities, which constituted their proper domain, and those they made to other branches of knowledge on account of their subsidiary scholarly interests or their amateur curiosity.

As the sixteenth century progressed, humanism in Italy changed its physiognomy and also lost some ground. It did not, however, disappear, as is often believed, but rather continued to flourish. The scholarly tradition of the humanities persisted, producing important philologists and historians.53 Vernacular literature increased in volume and importance and came to deal more and more with scholarly and philosophical topics, although often in a popular fashion, a development that had begun in the fifteenth century. Aristotelian philosophy and the other academic traditions actually gained new strength, although they did not remain untouched by humanism.54 The theological controversies of the Reformation also had repercussions in Italy, and there were many new developments in the sciences and in philosophy proper that did not derive either from humanism or from scholastic Aristotelianism.

Outside Italy, the sixteenth century was the great age of humanism, and it is at that time that northern humanism actually surpassed Italian humanism. Italian humanism had spread its influence to the rest of Europe during the fifteenth century, mainly through Italian humanists travelling or teaching abroad or dedicating their works to foreign patrons, and through foreign students and scholars who visited Italy and her universities and returned home with new books, new knowledge and new ideas.55 Thanks to Petrarch and others, Italian humanism reached other countries, especially Bohemia and France, as early as the fourteenth century; and during the fifteenth century the court of Matthias Corvinus in Hungary was for a while a leading centre of Italian humanism.56 Yet it was the sixteenth century when scholars of other countries, well read in ancient and Italian sources but trained at home or outside Italy, attained an international reputation and influence comparable to that of Petrarch and the leading Italian humanists of the fifteenth century and surpassing that of their own Italian contemporaries. It is sufficient to mention Johannes Reuchlin and Erasmus, Guillaume Bude, Thomas More and Juan Luis Vives, who made outstanding contributions to humanistic scholarship, including Greek, biblical, patristic and legal studies, to Latin literature and to moral thought. With reference to Erasmus and his circle, scholars have often spoken of

53. H.g., Pier Vettori and Carlo Sigonio. 54. Schmitt 1983a.

55. Roberto Weiss 1967; Parks 1954; Kristeller 1980, ch. 3. 56. Csapodi 1978.

Christian humanism and have contrasted it with the paganism of the Italians. The term has some validity if we denote by it those humanists who applied their classical scholarship to biblical and patristic studies and who adopted and defended in their writings some tenets of Christian religion or theology. Taken in this sense, Christian humanism is only one of many currents within the broader humanist movement. Moreover, many northern humanists were not Christian humanists in this sense, while many Italian humanists were.57 On the other hand, we should remember that most, if not all, humanists were Christian believers, although they may not have touched on religious subjects in their work as scholars or writers.

By the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, humanist Latin poetry and prose were as widespread in the North, West and East of Europe as in Italy, and flourished in Scotland, Portugal and Poland no less than in England, Spain, France and Germany. During the same period, France and the Low Countries became the leading centres of classical scholarship, both Latin and Greek.58 Earlier in the sixteenth century, Vives made the attempt to replace the scholastic tradition in all fields of learning with ancient and humanist scholarship, and this attempt had considerable influence on later educational theory and practice.59 In the seventeenth century pure classical scholarship tended more and more to loosen its ties with the rhetorical and literary endeavours which it had inherited from Renaissance humanism.


Renaissance humanism was thus rich, varied and pervasive. It was essentially a scholarly, educational and literary movement, and among its many concerns, philosophical thought was not the only or even the dominating one. On the other hand, Renaissance philosophy as a whole owed no less to the traditions of medieval scholasticism and to the original ideas of contemporary thinkers than it did to humanism and to the ancient ideas transmitted by the humanists. Much of the work of leading humanists and all of the work of many minor humanists has no significance whatsoever for philosophy in any sense of the term, but only for scholarship or literature. Vice versa, much of the philosophical literature of the Renaissance was not due to the humanists, but to Aristotelian philosophers

57. E.g., Petrarch, Lorenzo Valla, Giannozzo Manetti, and Ambrogio Traversari (on whom, see Stinger 1977).

58. It is sufficient to mention Adrien Turnebe,JustusLipsius,J.J. Scaliger and their numerous colleagues and successors. See Sandys 1908; R. Pfeiffer 1976, part in; Grafton 1983-.

59. Vives, De tradendis disciplinis (first published in 1531).

with a scholastic training, to Platonist metaphysicians influenced by both humanism and scholasticism and above all by Plato and the Neoplatonists, such as Ficino and his followers, or to original thinkers marginally influenced by humanism, from Nicholas of Cusa down to Telesio, Bruno and Francis Bacon.

The influence of humanism on philosophy was very great indeed, but its precise importance depends on our conception and definition of philosophy. If 'philosophy' is limited to the systematic and technical discussion of the subjects and problems defined by ancient, medieval and modern traditions, the humanist contribution is still significant, especially in ethics and politics and to a lesser extent in logic. It is much greater if philosophy is taken in a broader sense to include the wide areas of less systematic and more popular thought and discussion and the philosophical implications of other disciplines such as theology and jurisprudence, the arts and the humanities, and especially rhetoric and poetics, which occupied a place even in the Aristotelian corpus.

To assess this contribution, as will become apparent in other chapters of this volume, one must distinguish between the direct and the indirect contributions of Renaissance humanism to philosophy and between the contributions due to the movement as a whole and those due to individual humanists whose ideas and intellectual interests were not necessarily shared by other humanists.

The direct contribution of humanism to philosophy was concentrated in the area of moral philosophy and its ramifications, including political thought. Moral philosophy was the only branch of philosophy which was recognised as a part of the humanities and was hence of professional concern to the humanists. Even the university chairs of moral philosophy were at times, though not consistently, assigned to humanists, and it is the only area of philosophy where the humanists found themselves in direct conflict and competition with their scholastic contemporaries. The humanists actually produced a large body of moral treatises and dialogues, as we have seen, which expressed their ideas on a variety of traditional or new problems. It is this part of their work which has always and understandably attracted and even monopolised the attention of historians of philosophy. The moral thought of the humanists has been extensively studied,137 and it will be duly treated elsewhere in this volume. The humanists not only offered traditional or new thoughts on conventional problems, but also formulated or emphasised problems that were either new or had not occupied the centre of attention in earlier thought. They wrote extensively on such themes as fate and free will, the highest good, the various virtues and vices, the active and contemplative life, will and intellect, the immortality of the soul and the dignity of man.61 Moreover, the ideas of the humanists on a variety of moral and other philosophical questions were not only expressed in the treatises they dedicated to the respective themes but also often hidden away in their letters, orations or other writings.

Important contributions to other areas of philosophy are not due to humanism as a general current but to individual humanists. Most significant, and recently much discussed, is the form of logic attempted by a group ofhumanists from Valla and Agricola to Ramus and Nizolio.62 They were concerned with didactic clarity rather than with conceptual precision and replaced the syllogism with the invention of topics and arguments, a method evidently borrowed from rhetoric. Individual humanists made contributions to the arts and their theory (for instance, Alberti) or to mathematics (for instance, Giorgio Valla) whereas many of the leading philosophers and scientists of the late fifteenth and of the sixteenth century had a strong humanist background in addition to their specialised training, as was the case with Ficino and Pico, Copernicus and Vesalius, Patrizi and even Galileo.63

Of equal and perhaps of even greater importance was the indirect contribution of humanism to Renaissance thought. The humanists were actively involved in making the sources of ancient philosophy and science available to their contemporaries by discovering, copying and editing classical Latin texts, by translating Greek texts into Latin (and later into the vernaculars), and by discussing and interpreting them in their commentaries. Many important works of ancient and especially of Greek philosophy and science were made available for the first time, while others that had been previously known were more widely discussed and better understood. Many of the new texts contributed to the advance of mathematics, medicine, botany and other sciences. The direct knowledge of the Greek commentators on Aristotle influenced the interpretation of the philosopher by Renaissance Aristotelians, and the new knowledge of ancient philosophers who were outside the Aristotelian tradition led to increasing doubts about the exclusive validity and authority of that tradition, to a widespread eclecticism and to a renewed interest in, and

61. Di Napoli 1963; Kristeller 1979, chs. 9-11.

62. Ong 1958a; N. W. Gilbert 1960; Vasoli 1968a. 63. Rose 1975.

adherence to, other ancient schools of philosophy, especially Neoplato-nism, Stoicism, Epicureanism and scepticism (Academic and Pyrrho-nian).138 The libraries and the minds of Renaissance readers and thinkers were stocked with many texts and ideas unknown to their predecessors, and even if we were to deny any lasting validity to the doctrines of most Renaissance philosophers, the intellectual ferment brought about by the addition of new sources and of new ideas to the medieval heritage was an important factor in preparing the intellectual climate for the new science and the new philosophy of the seventeenth century. The great role played during the Renaissance by astrology, alchemy, magic and other occult sciences has few links with humanism or for that matter with Aristotelianism, but came to be associated with Platonism. But this area of thought was cultivated by at least some humanists and was influenced by some ancient sources made available by the humanists.139

The indirect influence of the humanists on thought and philosophy was not limited to the diffusion of ancient texts or of ancient and new ideas. It also affected, and perhaps in a more pervasive and lasting way, the style and pattern of philosophical literature. The philosophical dialogue continued to flourish to the early nineteenth century although it has since practically disappeared. However, if most philosophical literature in recent centuries, even the most technical, follows the form of the short essay or of the neatly composed treatise rather than that of the commentary or the quaestio, this fact is clearly due to humanism rather than to scholasticism, as is the practice of arguing precisely and also plausibly instead of accumulating arguments regardless of their relative strength, as had been the medieval scholastic practice. Philosophical literature has also followed the rules of Latin vocabulary, syntax and composition as defined by the humanists, rules that were later transferred to the modern vernacular languages after Latin ceased to be used for academic and scholarly discourse (which happened much later and much more gradually than is usually believed). In view of the fact that terminology has always played a vital part in philosophical discourse, the impact of humanism on the development of philosophical terminology seems to be in need of much further exploration. The subjective and individualistic attitude that characterises and pervades humanist discourse from Petrarch to Montaigne and that to some extent explains the humanist preference for the letter, the dialogue and the essay also tends to penetrate much philosophical and scientific literature during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and appears even in authors where we might least expect it, such as Pomponazzi.140 This tendency seems to recede in later philosophical literature, but it is not entirely absent in Descartes, Spinoza or Leibniz.

Finally, if we view Renaissance philosophy and Renaissance thought in the broader context of the history of western philosophy, we may assert that philosophy for a long time was linked, though not identified, with religion and theology, as in the Middle Ages, and with the mathematical and natural sciences, as during much of the last four centuries. We should not be surprised if philosophy during the Renaissance was to some extent allied with the humanities, that is, with rhetoric, poetry, and historical and classical scholarship. We might even wonder whether this may provide a lesson for the present and for the future. If philosophers were to pay greater attention to the humanities, as a few of them have done in our century, this might be beneficial not only for the humanities and humanist scholarship but also for philosophy and for a more complete and more balanced understanding of our world and experience.


Rambler's Top100
Hosted by uCoz