The Myth of Renaissance Secular Humanism

by James Hankins, appearing in Volume 39

"Christian humanism” seems an oxymoron. Since the nineteenth century, humanism has been widely understood as by definition non-religious, or as a substitute for religion. As Europeans and American elites lost their belief in Christianity following the Enlightenment, many people began to worry that the social order would come unglued without Christian dogma to hold it together. Some new source of moral authority was needed. Thus the modern humanist movement tries to base morality in the dignity of human nature itself, above all its rationality, shorn of its religious orientation.

   This idea of humanism is very far from the Christian humanism of the Renaissance. That was about humanizing Christianity and civilizing religion in general—an issue, in my view, far more pressing at the present time. Understanding Renaissance humanism as a movement that humanized and civilized Christianity makes far better sense of the surviving sources than an interpretation which sees it as part of a story about the secularizing of Western culture, for reasons I will now try to explain.

The Usualbut WrongNarrative

Sixtus IV appointing Platina as Prefect of the Vatican library, Melozzo da Forli, 1477. Photo: Domain

     But before I explain what I mean by civilizing religion, I will devote a few words to the historiographical tradition of Christian humanism, to show why the usual narrative about the role of Renaissance humanism in Western thought is defective and no longer relevant to our modern condition.

     The concept of Christian humanism, at least as it applies to the Renaissance, has in fact long been out of vogue with intellectual historians. Fifty years ago, both Christian and secular scholars drew a sharp contrast between the humanism of quattrocento Italy—considered secular, anti-clerical and even paganizing—and the humanism of Northern Europe at the beginning of the sixteenth century, dominated by the figures of Erasmus and Thomas More.

     There were scholars who knew better, like Ludwig Pastor, the first historian to exploit the Vatican Library and the Secret Archives for papal history. He pointed out that there was a “true, Christian Renaissance” in the quattrocento alongside the “false, pagan Renaissance” assumed by the historians of his time. Another scholar who knew better was Cardinal Giovanni Mercati, Vatican Librarian from 1936 to 1957, who devoted a surprising amount of his many-faceted activity as a scholar to the study of Italian humanism. He too rejected the caricature of Italian humanists as Enlightenment philosophes avant la lettre.

   Nevertheless, mere learning was not able to shift the lurid image of a pagan quattrocento painted by Jacob Burckhardt in his field-defining work, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, published in 1860. Since that image hardly fit with the humanism of the Age of Erasmus, devoted as the latter was to the reform of religion and the Church, an earlier generation of Renaissance scholars considered Christian humanism as a kind of early sixteenth-century offshoot of the main Renaissance movement.

    Less modern because less secular, it was a distinct movement that prepared the ground for the Reformation and indirectly for a century and more of religious violence. These scholars included Roland Bainton at Yale, John C. Olin at Fordham, and Augustin Renaudet at the Collège de France, and more recently Charles Nauert.

   Behind this story about Christian humanism lay an even more deeply-rooted narrative going back to Pierre Bayle and Voltaire, but repeated authoritatively in modern times by historians such as Eugenio Garin and Peter Gay. In this narrative the humanist “revival of classical antiquity” represented a key moment in the secularization of European culture between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries.

The Secularization Narrative

    I will call this the “secularization narrative.” From this perspective the Christian humanism of the early sixteenth century was even more of an anomaly, a cul-de-sac. It was a brief moment of counter-revolution in a movement whose fundamental tendency was to break down the dogmatism and exclusivism of the Christian religion and weaken the hold of scholasticism and superstition on the European mind.

    There is a great distance between modern secular, philosophical humanisms and the Christian humanism of the Renaissance. Since the nineteenth century it had been common in Italy and Germany to assume a continuity between Renaissance humanism and modern philosophies such as Kantianism and Hegelianism. In France the Italian humanists were sometimes seen, by the historian Jules Michelet for example, as forerunners of the philosophical and ethical humanisms of the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

     The latter had grown up in the wake of the Enlightenment, as in effect an attempt to answer Rousseau’s challenge in Émile to the philosophes: “Philosopher, your moral laws are very fine, but show me please their sanction. … Tell me what you will put in the place of the Bridge of Poul-Serrho?”

      If not from afterlife fables such as that of the Bridge of Poul-Serrho in Persian theology, where can secularists find sanctions as effective as the doctrines of rewards and punishments in the afterlife taught by the religions of the world?

     The vast majority of nineteenth- and twentieth-century humanisms were by definition secular. The Religion de l’Humanité founded by the positivist Auguste Comte in the 1850s was created precisely to replace traditional religions that claimed a transcendental source. The “New Supreme Being” to be worshipped was Humanity itself, Humanity in its highest manifestations.

    Comte’s humanism inspired American humanism, in the form of Ethical Culture Societies and Humanist Associations, which spread during the 1920s and 30s. It included prominent figures such as John Dewey, the great Columbia philosopher and educational reformer, who identified true, secular humanism with democracy.

    Humanism and what constituted “true humanism” became a major subject of debate among European philosophers in the mid-twentieth century, thanks to a famous debate between Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger on whether existentialism was a form of humanism. Today, according to the website of the humanist chaplain at Harvard’s Memorial Church, there are over a hundred secular humanist, ethical culture, and free-thought associations around in the world in more than forty countries.

    The secularization narrative still has some purchase today, especially in popular culture, and even in more ambitious works of imaginative literature, such as Stephen Greenblatt’s recent The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. But nowadays most Renaissance scholars are wary of it for reasons I will try to explain.

The Kristeller Thesis

     The secularization narrative, which saw Renaissance humanism as a chapter in a long story of how Europe liberated itself from the tutelage of religious authorities, took a massive body-blow from what has come to be called the Kristeller thesis.

     Paul Oskar Kristeller, who taught for most of his career at Columbia University, was the greatest authority on Renaissance humanism of the twentieth century. Grasping the clear distinction between the two species of humanism was his central insight.

    Kristeller, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, had a warm and admiring relationship with Cardinal Mercati at the Vatican Library, where he had taken refuge after being expelled by the Fascist government from the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa in 1938. In 1939 he arrived at Columbia University in New York City, where he found himself at the epicenter of the American Humanist movement.

     His closest colleague in the philosophy department was John Herman Randall, who like his mentor John Dewey had been a signer of the Humanist Manifesto in 1933. Another colleague was Corliss Lamont, the author of The Philosophy of Humanism, a book which traced the origins of modern secular humanism to the Renaissance. This book went through many editions and at one time was sent free of charge to all new members of the Humanist Association.

    When Kristeller began to develop his famous definition of humanism in the 1940s, one of his goals was to clarify that Renaissance humanism was a completely different animal from modern secular humanism. For Kristeller, Renaissance humanism was a literary, not a philosophical movement, and it was a movement populated by believing Christians, not atheists, crypto-pagans, proto-secularists, or enemies of the Church.

    He also denied that there was any genetic relationship between the humanism of the Renaissance and modern philosophical humanism. That such a continuity existed had been a theme of nationalistic scholarship in Italy in the hands of interpreters such as Francesco Fiorentino, Bertrando Spaventa, and Kristeller’s sponsor in Italy, Giovanni Gentile, as well as of the leading German historian of Renaissance philosophy of the early twentieth century, Ernst Cassirer.

     In Kristeller’s view it was vain to look for overarching philosophical themes in Italian humanism. Insofar as the humanists made use of philosophy in their literary writings they were eclectics, borrowing from the ancient philosophers they admired, yet eager to show the compatibility of ancient philosophy with Christian belief.

A Failed Narrative

    The view of Christian humanism as an offshoot of or episode within the history of Renaissance humanism began to collapse in the 1960s. Scholars such as Carlo Dionisotti, the great Italian literary historian, showed that the humanists of the Renaissance were deeply dependent on the patronage of the Church. Paul Oskar Kristeller documented in painstaking detail the large number of Italian humanists who were members of religious orders, and wrote a famous article unmasking “The Myth of Renaissance Atheism.”

     The tipping point came with Charles Trinkaus’ two-volume study of 1970, In Our Image and Likeness: Humanity and Divinity in Italian Humanist Thought. He demonstrated that central humanist thinkers of the early Italian Renaissance, from Petrarch through Coluccio Salutati, Giannozzo Manetti, Lorenzo Valla, Marsilio Ficino, and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, were religious thinkers who had devoted serious attention to a wide range of theological issues.

     A torrent of learned studies then followed. Scholars such as Cesare Vasoli, Charles Stinger, John O’Malley, Salvatore Camporeale, John D’Amico, and John Monfasani further explored the religious thought of quattrocento humanists. Famous humanists did some unexpected shape-shifting: Lorenzo Valla, formerly described as the trumpet of critical humanism and scourge of the papacy, was turned into a theological reformer. Marsilio Ficino, once considered the head of semi-secret Platonist sect or a proto-Deist, was revealed as a Renaissance theologian who called for a return of Christianity to its ancient Platonic roots.

    The important work of Italian humanists like Petrarch, the Camaldulensian monk Ambrogio Traversari, and Giannozzo Manetti in biblical and patristic scholarship was investigated. Pope Nicholas V, the founder of the Vatican Library, came into focus as a major patron of humanistic scholarship who promoted the translation of the Greek Fathers into Latin.

    By the 1990s, if not earlier, it had became impossible for professional historians to present quattrocento humanism as a paganizing or “secularizing” movement, at least in the modern sense of the word secular. From Petrarch to Erasmus and the early Jesuits, the humanist movement had always included among its leading representatives some who advocated reforming the Christian religion and theology on the model of ancient Christianity.

     Christian humanism was not, therefore, an anomalous offshoot, lasting a few decades, of a larger, religiously tepid literary movement. “Christian” was an adjective that could be used to characterize the movement as a whole.

    In this way Renaissance scholarship succeeded in killing off—for serious researchers, if not for Hollywood screenwriters and popular novelists—the Burckhardtian image of Italian humanists as crypto-pagans and religious skeptics. It did not quite kill off, however, the secularization narrative. It was still possible to argue—as Trinkaus in fact argued—that the humanist interpretation of Christianity nevertheless destabilized dogmatic religion and challenged Church authority in ways that ultimately contributed to secularization.

Rethinking Christian Humanism

      One obvious corollary of the modern understanding of Renaissance humanists as religious reformers, which is now generally accepted in the world of Anglophone scholarship, is to remove Renaissance humanism from its key role in the story of Western secularization. That in my opinion is all to the good.

     The whole idea of a long-term history of secularization courts anachronism at every turn. It places the historian in constant danger of equivocation, since the pre-modern definition of the secular—Saint Augustine’s definition of the secular—is not “the opposite of the religious,” but “the opposite of the eternal.”

     The secular for Petrarch, for example, is what belongs to our time and is oriented to the temporary ends of this life—as opposed to the realm of eternity, where immortal human souls are oriented to salvation and the enjoyment of God’s love and truth. Understood in this sense, there is no necessary conflict between humanism and Christianity. That is not something modern historians of secularization or de-Christianization want to hear.

    It does draw attention, however, to a second, less happy corollary of the more recent understanding of Renaissance humanism. If Renaissance humanism has nothing to do with secularization, if it’s not relevant to that major theme in the secularist narrative of the West, there would seem to be far less reason to study it.

    It is far harder to see how Renaissance humanism has anything to do with us, unless we happen to be classicists or specialists in Neo-Latin literature, a tiny and shrinking group. To make the study of Renaissance humanism relevant to present concerns, we historians have to start asking some different questions.

Christianity & Renaissance Humanism

Capella Niccolini, 1447, with frescoes by Fra Angelico. Photo: Domain

   A few years ago I was myself provoked into asking some new questions about Christianity and Renaissance humanism, oddly enough, by a remark of President Obama at a National Prayer Breakfast. I will quote his remarks, which were made in the context of discussing some recent outbreaks of religious violence in Africa perpetrated by radical Islamists.

    “So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities—the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religions for their own murderous ends?” he asked. “Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”

     The speech had some wise, even profound things to say about the kind of religious passions and convictions that are compatible with modern pluralistic societies. It started me wondering, in my historian’s way, why it is that the praxis of religious belief in some times and places turns out to be more civilized and humane than in others.

     All the major world religions, not excluding Buddhism, have experienced, in some places and in some phases of their history, a corrupt praxis of their principles. All religions, including secular religions, have the potential to become exclusivist, intolerant, triumphalist, prone to violence, dehumanizing, allies of tyrannical governments, and enemies of freedom of thought.

     It seems to me that the usual explanations for the corrupt praxis of a religion are not entirely adequate. We might explain differences of praxis by reference to the ideas of religious founders—to say, for example, that the differences between the praxis of religion in Christian societies and in Muslim societies is explained by differences between the message of Christ and the Prophet Mohammed. But that approach doesn’t really get us very far.

   Though faithful Christians should hold that Christianity remains undiminished in its essence through time, that is not to say that the praxis of Christianity has not varied and even at times been corrupted so as to endorse acts contrary to what Christ might have intended. By the same token, “externalist,” marxisante explanations that explain corrupt praxis by appeal to socio-economic conditions or political oppression also seem to me incomplete, and in some forms positively insulting to the agency of people of faith.

    Clearly, “internalist” explanations are also needed. One cannot come to an understanding of differences in religious praxis and the causes of corrupt praxis without comprehending the lived experiences of people of faith. For that we need intellectual history.

A Saving Understanding

A fresco in the Vatican library shows the obelisk in Saint Peter's Square being moved to its current location in 1586. The ancient Egyptian obelisk is around 4,000 years old and was first brought to Rome in AD 37. Photo: van Beem

    So I will end by giving an example to support the claim I made earlier: that understanding Renaissance humanism as a movement that humanized and civilized Christianity would help us better to save the phenomena when making generalizations about the texts and documents upon which our descriptions of humanism are based.

    The secularization narrative of humanism was always embarrassed by one very large body of evidence that refused to fit into its story. That evidence documented the key role played by Nicholas V and many other humanist popes and cardinals in the patronage of humanist scholarship, and especially in founding a library of classical texts and translations in the Vatican. Indeed, Nicholas’s grand project to translate the whole of Greek classical and patristic literature into Latin and to create a library of Greek civilization in Rome must stand as the most important single cultural enterprise of the whole early Renaissance.

     Historians in the grip of the secularization narrative tended to avert their eyes from this phenomenon or produce some insubstantial bluster about humanist crypto-paganism and papal corruption inherited from sixteenth-century Protestant polemic. At best the secularists saw papal humanism as an amusing anomaly, at worst a contradiction in terms. They dismissed papal involvement in humanist scholarship as a political strategy, an ill-judged aping of cultural fashions that ultimately could only undermine the Church.

    But if we see the humanist movement of the Renaissance for what it was—a movement to build a more humane, virtuous, wise, tolerant and open-minded Christian civilization—we can more easily understand why the highest authority in that civilization, the papacy, would embrace its ideals. And we might conclude that it remains vital that Christianity and faith traditions around the world embrace those ideals still today.