Critiquing Humanism: Introductory Conversations

Arka Chattopadhyay, Sourit Bhattacharya


The word “humanism” is associated with the revival of classical antiquity in 13th -15thC Italy. “It involves,” as Nicholas Mann writes, “the rediscovery and study of ancient Greek and Roman texts, the restoration and interpretation of them and the assimilation of the ideas and values that they contain” (2). The assimilation was based on archaeological and philological attention to the details of all manner of written records - from inscriptions to epic poems – and pervaded all areas of post-medieval culture, including theology, philosophy, political thought, jurisprudence, medicine, mathematics, and the creative arts. Such a practice allowed humanist scholars to explore the meaning of local or foreign texts, use them for religious, socio-political or economic reasons, and form an international community of texts and discourses. Since the revival of classical learning was related with the popular rise of liberal education, especially literature, philosophy, and the arts, which had an important role in political propaganda, military discourse, and public morality, humanism also had a political role. But, the humanist political thinkers were not political in its ideological sense. As James Hankins tells us, the Italian humanists, because of the central role, the Church played in public and professional life, were seldom critical of establishment politics and spoke mainly about both the positive and negative sides in rhetorical manner, choosing to take the role of a pragmatist (Hankins 120). It was with the rise of Ottoman empire and fall and degradation of humanist learning that new humanist thinking came to take the central stage – mainly by Niccolò Machiavelli and Thomas More with shifting ideals on virtue (which for Machiavelli stood for ability, power, and prowess) and a specific focus on justice, equality and democracy (for More).

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