We receive from Nature what is central in ourselves…but in a rough and unfinished form; it is the function of letters to bring this to its highest perfection, and to work out in it a beauty comparable to the divine original. -Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto, De Pueris Recte Instituendis (1533)
What is Humanism? How has it Fueled Achievement?
The accomplishments of Western civilization owe a great deal to a tradition of learning, and to a set of key ideas. Our focus is on a the classical core of that tradition associatted with humanism– a movement which developed by looking both forward to a future made better by culture, and backwards to the lofty vision of the ancients.
Humanism was an intellectual movement at the core of the dramatic Renaissance (“rebirth”) of classical ideals in European history between the 14th-16th centuries. The Renaissance humanists were inspired by the idea of human dignity and by a certain bold confidence in human abilities.
Renaissance humanism revived the ancient Greek ideal of education (Paidea), which was defined by the great German classicist Werner Jaeger as “…the process of educating man to his true form, the real and genuine human nature.” Humanism therefore seeks the fullest and most complete cultivation of all human powers – intellectual, ethical, and even physical. A key element of humanism was enthusiasm for the classical cultures of ancient Greece and Rome in which this ideal first took root.
Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374), who gives our Institute its name, is generally considered the “father of humanism” for his energetic espousal of classical literature in the works of Cicero and Virgil. During the Italian Renaissance, the knowledge of Ancient Greek, nearly lost in Western Europe after the fall of the Roman empire in 476 A.D, was recovered thanks to the movement of Greek speaking Byzantines such as Gemistos Plethon and Manuel Chrysoloras to Italy.
Institutions such as the Florentine Academy under Marsilius Ficino (1433-1499) translated the works of Plato. So called “Civic Humanism” associated with Collucio Salutati and Leonardo Bruni emphasized the idea of an active life of patriotic responsibility. Educators like Vittorino de Feltre and Guarino of Verona established schools dedicated to imparting the humanist ideals.
From Italy, humanist ideals eventually spread throughout Western Europe inspiring the Northern Renaissance associated with Erasmus and Sir Thomas More. Great literary figures of the early modern epoch such as William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes received classical humanist educations.
The humanist curriculum was a universal rather than specialized form of education aiming at the cultivation of all facets of the person. It was organized around the five disciplines that made up the Studia Humanitatis:
Our own curriculum follows this tried and tested structure, and draws on the key idea that the liberal education is the best preparation not only for the contemplative life of the monk or scholar, but for an active life of commerce and politics. After all: the most developed person will also be the most effective, finest citizen.
For this reason humanism endured as the primary foundation of the educational system throughout the Western world for many centuries. An achievement such as the American Constitution with its republic and senate would be unthinkable without the deep knowledge of Roman history and politics which lace the debates and discussions of the classically trained founding fathers (Cicero was a particular hero to John Adams).
Until relatively recently much of the curricula and entrance requirements of Ivy League universities were based around knowledge of the classics. It is hard to argue with Christopher Dawson that “the humanist revival …laid the foundations of modern culture, not only by its classical learning and the recovery of Greek, but still more by the new ideals of life and education which it developed.”
The wealth and wisdom of the classical humanist is still available for the benefit of individuals, organizations, and society at large. The Institute’s mission is to share that wealth with you.
—Posted by A.S.R.P.
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