Wednesday, May 26, 2010


Listening to an audio book this afternoon regarding the Enlightenment, I realized that I have not distinguished in my thought between several flavors or definitions of humanism. There is, of course, the modern sense of humanism being theories or doctrines “which take human experience as the starting point for man’s knowledge of himself and the work of God and Nature.” (New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought sv. Humanism).

However, the term was first coined in 1808 by F.J. Niethammer to describe the study of the classics, “the revival of which had been one of the distinguishing features of the Italian Renaissance, later spreading to the rest of Europe as ‘the New Learning’.” (Ibid.) So there is another sense of the word humanism, which basically describes the humanities.’s article concerning humanism includes this interesting section on the importance of sources:
The humanists' close study of Latin literary texts soon enabled them to discern historical differences in the writing styles of different periods. By analogy with what they saw as decline of Latin, they applied the principle of ad fontes, or back to the sources, across broad areas of learning, seeking out manuscripts of Patristic literature as well as pagan authors. In 1439, while employed in Naples at the court of Alfonso V of Aragon (at the time engaged in a dispute with the Papal States) the humanist Lorenzo Valla used stylistic textual analysis, now called philology, to prove that the Donation of Constantine, which purported to confer temporal powers on the Pope of Rome, was an eighth-century forgery.[24] For the next 70 years, however, neither Valla nor any of his contemporaries thought to apply the techniques of philology to other controversial manuscripts in this way. Instead, after the fall of the Byzantine Empire to the Turks in 1453, which brought a flood of Greek Orthodox refugees to Italy, humanist scholars increasingly turned to the study of Neoplatonism and Hermeticism, hoping to bridge the differences between the Greek and Roman Churches, and even between Christianity itself and the non-Christian world.[25] The refugees brought with them Greek manuscripts, not only of Plato and Aristotle, but also of the Christian Gospels, previously unavailable in the Latin West. After 1517, when the new invention of printing made these texts widely available, the Dutch humanist Erasmus, who had studied Greek at the Venetian printing house of Aldus Manutius, began a philological analysis of the Gospels in the spirit of Valla, comparing the Greek originals with their Latin translations with a view to correcting errors and discrepancies in the latter. Erasmus, along with the French humanist Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples, began issuing new translations, laying the groundwork for the Protestant Reformation. Henceforth Renaissance humanism, particularly in the German North, became concerned with religion, while Italian and French humanism concentrated increasingly on scholarship and philology addressed to a narrow audience of specialists, studiously avoiding topics that might offend despotic rulers or which might be seen as corrosive of faith. After the Reformation, critical examination of the Bible did not resume until the advent of the so-called Higher criticsm of the 19th-century German Tübingen school.
I think the study of sources, and of how some of these manuscripts came to be saved and enshrined in the corpus of Western thought whilst others disappeared forever is very interesting. Kind of like peering at the source code of Western civilization.