Humanism was a cultural movement, inspired by Francesco Petrarca and in part by Giovanni Boccaccio, aimed at the rediscovery of the Latin and Greek classics in their historicity and no longer in their allegorical interpretation, thus also inserting customs and beliefs of antiquity in their everyday life through which to start a “rebirth” of European culture after the so-called “dark ages” of the Middle Ages.

Petrarchan humanism, strongly imbued with neo-Platonism and tending to the knowledge of the human soul, spread in every area of the peninsula (with the exception of Savoy Piedmont), consequently determining the accentuation of an aspect of classicism according to the needs of the “protectors” of the humanists themselves, namely the various rulers. During the fifteenth century, the humanists of the various Italian states began to maintain strong ties of correspondence between them, updating each other on the discoveries made in the various capitular or cloistered libraries of Europe, allowing Western culture to rediscover authors and works hitherto unknown.

In order to corroborate the authenticity and the nature of the manuscripts found, the humanists, still in the wake of Petrarch, favored the birth of modern philology, a science intended to verify the nature of the codes containing the works of the ancients and determine their nature (i.e. the time when that codex was transcribed, the origin, the errors contained with which to be able to make comparisons based on variants). From the point of view of the areas of interest in which some humanists concentrated more than others, then, we can remember the various “ramifications” of humanism, passing from philological humanism to philosophical humanism.

Humanism, which found its basis in the reflections of the Greek philosophers on human existence and in some works drawn also from the Hellenic theater, also made use of the contribution of Roman philosophical literature, first of all Cicero and then Seneca. Although humanism proper was the Italian and then European one that spread in the fifteenth and most of the sixteenth century (until the Counter-Reformation), some historians of philosophy also used this term to express certain manifestations of thought within the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.



Humanism rejects belief in supernatural events for the resolution of human affairs, but not necessarily belief per se; in fact, some branches of humanism are compatible with some religions. It is generally compatible with atheism and agnosticism but does not require either. The word ignostic or “indifferentist” is sometimes applied to humanism on the assumption that humanism is an ethical process, not a dogma about existence or gods. Humanists simply do not need to worry about such matters. Agnosticism or atheism on the other hand are not necessarily humanism. Different and sometimes incompatible philosophies seem to be atheistic in nature. There is no ideology or range of behavior to which all atheists adhere, and not all are humanists.

Because humanism encompasses intellectual currents that traverse a wide range of philosophical and religious thought, many branches of humanism allow for the role of religions to be filled, supplanted, or supplanted, and in particular to embrace a complete philosophy of life. For more, see humanism (philosophy of life). In some countries, thanks to laws guaranteeing religious rights, secular philosophy of life has been legally recognized as the equivalent of “religion.” In the United States, the Supreme Court has recognized humanism as the equivalent of religion, in the limited sense of allowing humanists to perform ceremonies commonly the preserve of ministers of religion.


According to humanism, it is the duty of human beings to seek truth, as opposed to seeking it through revelation, mysticism, and tradition or whatever is not compatible with the application of logic to observable facts. Demanding that humans avoid blind acceptance of unsupported beliefs, humanism advocates skepticism and the scientific method, rejecting authoritarianism and extreme skepticism, and considers faith an unacceptable basis for action. Similarly, humanism asserts that knowledge of right or wrong is based on the best understanding of individual and common interests, rather than derived from transcendental truth or an arbitrary source.


Some have interpreted humanism as a form of speciesism, regarding humans as beings of greater importance than other species. Philosopher Peter Singer, himself a humanist, has stated that “despite many individual exceptions, humanists have been unable, in the aggregate, to free themselves from one of the most central Christian dogmas: the prejudice of speciesism.” He appealed to humanists to “stand up against…the mindless exploitation of other sentient beings” and raised issues with respect to the statements contained in the Second Humanist Manifesto, which he believes give “precedence to the interests of the members of our species.” He also pointed out, however, that the same Manifesto states that humans have “no God-given or inherent right to subjugate other animals” and acknowledges that “the organizations that have done the most for animals are independent of religions.”


Humanism has an optimistic attitude toward people’s abilities, though it does not believe, however, that human nature is purely good or that all people can live according to humanist ideals without help; rather, it argues that growing everyone’s potential is hard work that requires the assistance of others. The ultimate goal is human happiness, eudemonism, making life better for all human beings as a more conscious species, and promoting interest in the well-being of other sentient beings. The focus is on doing well and living well here and now, leaving the world as a better place for those who come in the future.

Historical notes

Humanism was preceded since the second half of the XIV century by isolated episodes (F. Petrarch), among which we could include the so called Carolingian renaissance and the “returns” of the XII century, which we can define with the name of pre-humanism, important and original, certainly fundamental in accelerating the passage of a whole system of life and thought from the Middle Ages to the modern age. The research of classical texts, the study of the Greek and Roman world, the same philological investigation do not constitute the essential aspect of humanism, but are almost secondary elements.

The essence of humanism lies in the conscious choice of a truly human ideal of life, that is, freed from the mystical terror of a religion that many humanists subject to a severe criticism, advocating a return to a serene paganism. Others, however, if they do not take refuge in an ambiguous compromise, also for the fear of ecclesiastical sanctions, try to reconcile the exaltation of the human mind with the idea of a God who is the origin and the ultimate goal of every labor of man (Giannozzo Manetti, Poggio Bracciolini, Tomaso Parentucelli, who will be Pope Niccolò V, Enea Silvio Piccolomini, the future Pope Pius II, Guarino Guarini, Vittorino da Feltre).

The origin of the term “humanism” is to be found in the definition given at the beginning of the fifteenth century by Leonardo Bruni of Arezzo (1370-1444) to literary studies (studia humanitatis), as suitable for forming a complete human personality. Moreover, the definition, together with that of humanae litterae, comes from the classics, those same classics to which the humanists referred, choosing them as models to imitate. Humanism broadened the horizons opened by pre-humanists with the discovery and dissemination of new codes and new authors, but especially with the rediscovery of the Greek world, favored by some random events.

In 1395 the Byzantine scholar Manuel Chrysolora arrived in Venice from Constantinople as an ambassador and was called by C. Salutati in 1397 to teach Greek in the Florentine Studio. The founders of the first humanistic cenacle of Florence were the theologian Luigi Marsili (ca. 1342-1394) and Coluccio Salutati (1331-1406), followers of Petrarch. It was Salutati himself who enunciated the programmatic formula of the philological humanism of the fifteenth century, when he affirmed that wisdom and eloquence are the principal gifts of man and that poetry is the summit of human knowledge. Starting from these premises, a meticulous search began for classical texts, hidden in private libraries and monasteries, of which in the Middle Ages there were only a few arid lists, and the importance of a historical link with antiquity was understood, in an attempt to erase the darkness of the long crisis caused by the barbarian dominations. Important above all was the conviction of many humanists that one should not slavishly imitate what had been done by the classics, but rather obtain models to create new values.

Among the researchers and philologists who distinguished themselves in that first period were the Sicilian Giovanni Aurispa (1376-1459), Guarino Veronese (1374-1460) and the Florentine Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459). The other event that favored a subsequent broadening of the humanistic horizon was the arrival in Italy of numerous Greek scholars on the occasion of the council that took place in Florence between 1438 and 1439 for an attempt of union with the Eastern Church and, later, after the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks (1453), the arrival of Greek theologians and polygraphs who sought asylum in Italy: Cardinal Giovanni Bessarione, Teodoro Gaza, Giorgio Gemisto (Pletone), Costantino Lascaris, Demetrio Calcondila, the aforementioned Crisolora, who became masters of classical and Hellenistic culture in the academies that arose in Florence and Rome and at some Italian courts where the new phenomenon of patronage was manifested, not always for the pure love of knowledge, but more often out of a desire for prestige or to create a political screen capable of mitigating the discontent of many for the loss of civil liberties.

The patronage, if on the one hand favored the creation of works of art of unrepeatable splendor, also caused the swarming of works aimed only at adulation and therefore destined to a premature death, as happened in Florence with the Medici, in Rome with the various pontiffs, in Milan with the Visconti and Sforza, in Urbino with the Montefeltro, in Naples with the Aragonese, in Mantua with the Gonzaga, in Ferrara with the Este, in Venice with the Serenissima.

Florence was the major center of humanism in the time of Cosimo the Elder (1389-1464) and Lorenzo the Magnificent: Cosimo founded the first public library in Italy (Laurenziana) and prepared the ground for the stupendous flowering of artists and humanists that graced Lorenzo’s lordship. Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) was the interpreter of Plato and head of the academy that took its name from the Greek philosopher; Leonardo Bruni was interested mainly in the philosophical and political doctrines of Aristotle and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola tried to reconcile the philosophical doctrine of Aristotle with that of Plato. However, the philosophers of the fifteenth century did not aim to seek dogmatic models, but rather to obtain a problematic orientation, striving to bend the metaphysics of the ancient masters to the teachings of the Christian religion, now understood as the exaltation of the spirit.

Towards the middle of the fifteenth century, the repugnance manifested by many against the vernacular and against the works of authors such as Dante, Petrarch and G. Boccaccio was attenuated. Among the defenders of the vernacular and of Dante, it is worth mentioning Cristoforo Landino (1424-1498); moreover, in 1441, Leon Battista Alberti called a “certame coronario” that was supposed to demonstrate the literary possibilities of the spoken language: the contrast between supporters of Latin and those of the vernacular dragged on for the whole of the 16th century, when with Pietro Bembo the question of language was officially opened, with the proposal to amalgamate the vitality of Florentine with the imitation of the classics. It is a mistake, however, to consider humanism an exclusively literary movement: the works in Latin are all influenced by imitation (Cicero was chosen as a model for prose, Virgil for epics, Catullus and the elegiacs for lyric poetry) and therefore attain, in the best of cases, a certain stylistic perfection, in which another of the motives of humanism consists: formal research as opposed to the didactic and allegorical research, and therefore content, of medieval authors.

In its humanistic phase, the Renaissance affirmed the value of culture as a commitment to build a society of free men, aimed at defending worldly values: from the first humanists, such as Salutati, Bruni and Bracciolini, who held the office of chancellors of the Florentine Republic, to N. Machiavelli and F. Guicciardini, the humanism of the Florentine Republic was based on the idea of a society of free men. Guicciardini, the evolution of humanistic ideals clearly manifests the firm will of the men of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to establish a primacy of the active life over any relic of medieval asceticism, and often even against the litteratum otium that had been dear to Petrarch and Boccaccio. The same initiatives taken by princes and pontiffs are a sign of this: it is enough to remember the foundation of the Vatican Library by Nicholas V (1397-1455) and that of the Roman Academy by Pomponio Leto (1428-1497) with literary and archaeological purposes, in the same environment to which Lorenzo Valla (1407-1457) and Flavio Biondo (1392-1463) belonged – one codifier of Ciceronian rhetoric, the other initiator of humanistic historiography.

In Naples, Alfonso the Magnanimous founded the first library in Italy that had regularly paid librarians and Antonio Beccadelli, known as the Panormita (1394-1471), founded, together with Giovanni Pontano who gave it its name, the Accademia Pontaniana. Great personalities worked in the humanistic spirit, from I. Sannazaro to M. M. Boiardo, to L. Pulci, to A. Poliziano, to Lorenzo the Magnificent himself; but the new moral, spiritual and cultural world triumphed in the following century. In the meantime, the seed of renewal had already been sown beyond the borders: in Germany with Niccolò Cusano (1401-1465), Rudolf Agricola (1443-1485), Johannes Reuchlin (1455-1522), Erasmo da Rotterdam (1466-1536); in France with Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples (ca. 1450-1537), Peter Ramo (1515-1572), Henry Estienne (1531-1598); in England with Thomas More (Thomas More, 1478-1535); in Spain with Juan Luis Vives (1492-1540), the pioneers of modern philology and thought.

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