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  Humanism (from Latin humanus, ‘centred on human beings’) was an intellectual movement in Europe which began in the 14th century and reached its peak at the time of the Reformation and Renaissance. Humanists reacted against medieval scholasticism by emphasizing human intellectual and cultural achievements rather than such things as divine intervention, the brevity and misery of life and the need for escape. The movement began in Italy with a strong emphasis on study of the classics of ancient Greek and Roman civilization. Characteristic figures were the 14th-century poet Petrarch (one of the first European writers to make a proper study of ancient Roman literature and to imitate its forms and themes), and the 15th-century thinkers Lorenzo Valla (who developed literary criticism in the light of newly-discovered classical manuscripts) and Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (who tried to unite secular philosophy with Christianity). In 1458, when the noted humanist and scholar Enea Silvio de Piccolomini was elected Pope (Pius II), the success of the humanist movement was assured.

The attempt, particularly in northern Europe (where such rulers as Francis I of France and Henry VIII of England encouraged the spread of the new learning) to unite evangelical piety with classical scholarship resulted in a ‘Christian humanism’, with the goal of returning to the sources of the Scriptures and of faith. Erasmus (who edited the works of the Church Fathers and the Greek New Testament) was the most important figure in this work. The influence of the humanist movement on the Reformation is important. Many Reformers, including Calvin, Melanchthon and Zwingli, had a humanist background and their thinking is clearly influenced by humanism, as were many of those who led the movement for reform within the Roman Catholic Church. The spread of all such ideas was greatly aided by the invention of new printing techniques, and humanists, such as R. Estienne and John Froben, published thousands of books and pamphlets.

The rediscovery of classical writings (not least the work of the Greek philosophers and scientists), and relaxation of the intellectual censorship which had been so characteristic of the medieval Church, led to a huge increase in philosophical, scientific and social study. It was not so much that God was marginalized, as that study of human beings, and of natural phenomena, was now possible without the need to kowtow to dogmatic, biblical explanations. It is no accident that the peak of humanist activity coincides with the first great period of European scientific research, with the work of such observers and thinkers as Bacon, Copernicus, Galileo, Harvey and Paracelsus.

In the arts, the rediscovery of classical (that is, pagan) literature sparked a fascination with the thoughts, emotions and preoccupations of ordinary people, as opposed to allegorical figures, aristocrats or religious intellectuals. This trend was particularly noticeable in drama, which was now permissible again after a millennium of church repression. The humanistic age is the time of the commedia dell\'arte, of Calderón, Lope de Vega and above all Shakespeare.

The second, great humanist period in European intellectual life was the 18th-century Enlightenment. Once again, the motivating idea was to prise intellectual activity away from the shackles of religion and to irradiate human life not with the assurance of God\'s mercy but with knowledge. This process continued throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the age of scientific rationalism. Darwinism, Freudianism, Quantum mechanics and the like were merely peaks along a continuous onward path. The shift was from intellectual hierarchies to pluralism, from certainty to enquiry (and often, disillusion), from artistic realism imbued with guilt (as shown in the fiction of, for instance, Dostoevsky or Zola) to documentary realism (as shown in the novels of such writers as Theodore Dreiser and H.G. Wells). At this point, the word ‘humanism’ first began to denote an avowedly antireligious stance where human beings were not only ‘the measure of all things’, but the only measure. Auguste Comte, in the 19th century, revived the term in his ‘religion of humanity’, which came to be associated with scientists defending Darwinism. Walter Lipmann, in his Preface to Morals (1929), introduced the concept of ‘scientific humanism’, a philosophy based on science and morals without religion. Secular humanism today emphasizes human worth and the rights of human beings, and its atheism is as dogmatic and uncompromising as the religious fundamentalism which led to its rise in the first place. EMJ KMcL

Further reading A.R. Hall, The Scientific Revolution; , E.H. Harbinson, The Christian Scholar in the Age of the Reformation.



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