Misnomers – The Many Meanings of “Humanism”

The term “humanism” is one of the most important terms for understanding modern history and thought. At the same time it is also one susceptible to a wide number of meanings, and thus to certain misunderstandings. Sometimes “humanism” is confused with “humanitarianism” which refers to a generalized  concern for human welfare. Very often “humanism” is used as short hand for “secular humanism” – i.e. an avowedly non-religious world view  which believes in man as the highest being.

The Petrarch Institute instead turns to the more primordial  meaning of “humanism” in the sense of devotion to the literae humaniores or “humane letters.” “Humane” in this sense being defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as those disciplines which “..tend to humanize or refine, as the ancient classics, rhetoric, or poetry; hence elegant, or polite.”  The great Renaissance scholar Paul Kristellar in his work The Classics and Renaissance Thought notes that strictly speaking the term humanism(German: humanismus)  first appears rather late in the works of a German educator F.J. Niehammer in 1808 to describe the program of classical education. However according to Werner Jaeger the roots of the concept of “humane studies” in this sense of liberal education goes back much further to the Roman authors Cicero and Gellius. This was the sense expressed during the Renaissance by the Latin/Romance term humanista “humanist” to describe one who pursued the studia humanitatis(philosophy, poetry, history, grammar, and rhetoric.)

The Renaissance humanists were not in general anti-religious as a later sense of the term “humanism” might imply. Indeed  Christopher Dawson notes that:

“Liberal education was the education of a Christian gentleman or citizen…the great humanist educators like Lionardo Bruni, Guarino of Verona, and Vergerio were themselves devout Christians who wished to unite the intellectual and aesthetic culture of Hellenism with Christianity.”

At the same time the humanist learning did have a different orientation from the scholastic learning of the Middle Ages.


Classical Greek thought, especially the philosophical system of Aristotle indubitably played a very major role in scholastic education during the heyday of the medieval university in the 13th century when Latin translations of the great Greek philosopher were widely available. Moreover classical learning was preserved in the monasteries and universities through the system of the Artes Liberales - the seven liberal arts consisting of the Trivium(grammar, rhetoric, logic) and Quadrivium(arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music) – an inheritance of late Roman educators like Martianus Capella.  However for the medievals the liberal arts were essentially preparatory to the theological training of friars, monks and clergy.

The humanists saw a contrasting or perhaps complementary role for the Greek and Roman classics in the education of laymen for an active life in the world. In every walk of life, whether one was a scholar, a diplomat,a prince, or a man of commerce, classical culture was seen as a priceless asset. In our time we believe that whatever one’s personal beliefs or occupation the same holds true. Whether one works in government or the private sector, whether one is a high school student or a retiree, the possibilities for personal enrichment through classical learning remain boundless and open to all!



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