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Cartomancer's Avatar Jump to comment 26 by Cartomancer

The author, comment #13,

"Surely, the sources lie in ancient greek philosophy, yet they were transmitted to Europe by the humanists. What's wrong with that?"

Well, it depends what you mean by "the humanists". The word was only really used in its modern context in the nineteenth century, the word umanista used in fifteenth century Italy simply meant a teacher of classical literature. Yes, it is true that the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries did see the development of significant new cultural forms that acquired the name "Renaissance", and this is where the traditional model of historical development has seen the origins of "humanistic" thinking. In Jakob Burckhardt's classic nineteenth century formulation these were the "discovery of the individual", the appreciation of nature and aesthetics and the move in scholarship from a narrowly logical focus on patristic and biblical works to a more literary appreciation of the Greek and Latin classics. It is "humanistic" because it glories in the abilities and achievements of human cultures, human individuality and the human mind rather than in the "medieval" or scholastic preoccupations with societal hierarchy and the divine universal.

This model began with Petrarch's coining of the term "dark ages" and a conscious rejection by renaissance thinkers of a self-defined medieval "other". Their enlightenment and victorian inheritors perpetuated the antipathy of the European intellectual elite toward the middle ages, casting them as a period of sterile godbothering backwardness, and it remains the distorted stereotype we encounter all too commonly today. Serious medieval intellectual history is actually a comparatively young discipline that began in the early decades of the twentieth century with men such as Charles Homer Haskins.

Anyway, a century of study into the history of the period has confirmed that the traditional division of history into ancient, medieval and modern is far too simplistic. As far as the transmission of Greek philosophy is concerned the process most certainly did not begin with renaissance humanists. Historians now point to earlier "Carolingian" and twelfth-century "renaissances" when significant translation activity took place and the intellectual climate of europe was changed drastically. In the twelfth century for instance almost the entire aristotelian corpus was recovered, as were Plato's Phaedo and Meno, all of Ptolemaic and Arabic astronomy, the late antique medical tradition, Euclid's mathematics, the neoplatonic writings of Proclus and Plotinus and several other works. The Burckhardtian themes can be traced back well beyond the fifteenth century too - individualism, aesthetics and literary appreciation did not spring ex nihilo from the mind of Petrarch or the letters of Cicero he rediscovered. Just ask John of Salisbury, Walter of Chatillon, Suger of St. Denis or even Anselm. Of course medieval "humanism" (a term coined by the late, great Sir Richard Southern) differed from its quattrocento version, but there was no great moment of sea-change, no magic cut-off point when everyone suddenly realised what fools they had been for living in the middle ages, cast off their threadbare peasant smocks and started walking round in slashed pantaloons discussing republican theory and inventing gunpowder.

Instead it is better to see the development of ideas as a gradual change throughout the middle ages and renaissance periods. Of course there were times of quickening, but to ignore the medieval roots of humanism, science, or any other item of European and, I suspect, world culture is to unconsciously buy in to generations of uncritical anti-medieval self-definition. The truth is far more complicated than all that.

Finally, the idea of "sources" has to be treated in a more sophisticated manner. Simply having access to a new text is only a part of the story - people read these texts in very different ways depending on their cultural background, preoccupations, aims, wider reading and so forth. Similarly, people actively went out and found these texts - you don't go looking for such things unless you feel a pressing need for them which, by definition, cannot have come from the texts themselves.

Sat, 10 Nov 2007 20:26:00 UTC | #83027