Humanitas can mean at least 3 things.
1. A complex feeling, a mixture of human solidarity, tolerance, mercy and compromise derived from the ancient Romans and that can be independent of any kind of social correctness. Any hypocrisy or irrevocable condemnation are generally extraneous to it – many Italians are said to have ‘humanitas’ in this sense (see a discussion on it among Italians and Anglo-Saxons over at Blog from Italy.)
Humanitas can also be explained as a sort of vibrational energy based on consideration and respect for the human personality.
2. Humanitas can also mean the set of general knowledge a person can attain. According to this philosophical attitude man’s possibilities are limitless, hence learning, knowledge, wisdom, intellectual refinement should be developed as much as possible. The ‘homo universalis’ of the Renaissance, who knows a lot about a lot of things, and acts accordingly, is a product of humanitas. Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo (or Goethe, for ex.) are fully developed men according to this conception.
In Italy (Spain, France, Germany etc.) the term is related to ‘cultura’ or ‘cultura generale‘ (culture, Kultur etc.) meaning personal knowledge and refinement, which is also related to polymathy (see our post The Last Days Of The Polymath and the discussion around it.)
My impression is ‘culture’ in English has progressively lost its ‘humanistic’ meaning, of personal knowledge and refinement, which was instead well alive in the past if we have to believe J. C. Shairp, a Scottish man of letters, who wrote in the nineteenth century:
“What the Greeks expressed by their paideia, the Romans by their humanitas, we less happily try to express by the more artificial word culture.”
On this theme see our post Culture, Kultur, Paideia and the discussion around it with readers.
3. Humanitas is finally a wider philosophical concept. The Roman ideal of humanitas – as we said earlier – having to do with the education of individuals was first utilized by Cicero to describe a good human. This brought to the foundation of humanism, a European cultural movement developed during the Renaissance.
Simply said, humanistic is any conception where man has the courage to live without any fear of God or hell, without any superstition. Finding the meaning of life in ourselves, in shared human values and in cooperation for a common good, is humanistic.
In terms of European history one can say humanism is at the base of the so called modern world and of its secularisation, opposed to the dark ages, an idea first arrived to us from Petrarch, the first to utilize it (plus the first umanista even though we find some humanism in Dante too.) By dark ages Petrarch meant the period starting with the fall of the Roman empire and lasting until Petrarch’s time. So humanism is one of the axes of Western thought, stemming from the Greco-Romans and permeating: the Italian Renaissance, the European and American Enlightenment, the American Founding Fathers, the humanism of Goethe and Schiller etc. up to the present time.
Of some importance is the London-based NGO International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) founded in Amsterdam in 1952. It is a “world umbrella organisation embracing Humanist, atheist, rationalist, secularist, skeptic, laique, ethical cultural, freethought and similar organisations world-wide. The 1952 “Amsterdam Declaration“, a child of its time, has been reformulated in the Amsterdam Declaration 2002, a crystal-clear manifesto that summarizes (and updates) all that has been said in this writing.
See the Wikipedia for the development of humanism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in France, Germany, the UK and the United States.
HUMANITAS: Rethinking It All sheds light on how such philosophy is sometimes struggling to escape from the shackles of academia (in the bad sense of the word) and to adapt itself to the world of today.
Good materials can be found also on the British Humanist Association Web site.
One major Italian historian of Italian umanesimo is Eugenio Garin. His work ‘Umanesimo Italiano’ has been translated into English, Italian Humanism. Garin first opposed “the view that early Renaissance humanism primarily was an antiquarian and literary movement.” He argued that “it instead consisted in ‘a glorification of civic life and of the construction of an earthly city by man.’ ”
(quote from the Swedish Uppsala University page where one can also read an excerpt from Garin’s writings)
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