A Brief History of Humanism

Humanism was an influence at the very heart of the Renaissance, and sought to restore education that was based on ancient Greek and Latin writings in an effort to renew the best aspects of the civilizations of Greece and Rome. These classical writings were meant to serve as a moral compass for how to best live one’s life, with emphasis in philosophy, Greek, Latin, history and literature. This new approach to education was representative of a shift from a religious to a secular way of thinking.

Rather than being preoccupied with the afterlife, humanists such as Michel de Montaigne and Thomas More were focused on making the most of this life through edification and contemplation of the Greek and Latin classics and innate morality. Humanists trusted self-reliance to choose the best way to live and discern right from wrong rather than subscribing to the formulary dogma of religion for guidance.

In this way, the will of God became less important in guiding the lives of humankind during the Renaissance than the educated discernment of man himself. It should be noted, however, that Renaissance humanists were not always secular; some scholars, such as Petrarch, believed that the doctrine of Christianity could be integrated into the beliefs of humanism.

Both Montaigne and More were highly influenced by their classical education, and sought to change society and education through literature that extolled the virtues of the humanist way of thinking. Through careful study of classical Greek and Roman philosophers and scholars such as Plato, Socrates, Plutarch, Cicero and St. Augustine; these ground-breaking humanists paved the way for a re-emergence into the light of reason, bringing first Europe and then the entire modern world into a completely new stance on morality and self-reliance.

Humanism in More’s Utopia

More’s Utopia was published in 1516 in Latin under the name De optimo rei publicae deque nova insula Utopia, which literally translates to, “Of a republic’s best state and of the new island Utopia.” The most striking similarity for More’s Utopia is found in Plato’s Republic, written around 390BC. Both works describe a fictional city-state with particular detail described in these works on the political, justice and civil structures. While the Republic was governed by philosopher-kings, according to Plato’s notion that that nations will be happy “when either philosophers become kings or kings become philosophers,” Utopia was ruled by elected magistrates who were considered the wisest citizens.

In both fictional lands, everything is owned by all as communal property, with no true possession by any of person of any property. As gold and silver coinage is outlawed in Plato’s Republic, the Utopians were likewise said to scorn luxuries like gold and silver, instead making the most common objects – such as footstools – from these precious metals, and decorating their children with any gems they might find. One main difference in the two accounts is that Plato removes the family as a central unit for society, whereas in More’s Utopia, family is the basic societal unit.

utopia original illustration

Likewise, Cicero’s De Republica written in 54-52 BC describes the merits of varying government structures.  Like More’s Utopia, Cicero argues that the city must be grounded in fairness and reason. More even goes so far as to say that in terms of philosophy, “Romans have left us nothing that is valuable, except what is to be found in Seneca and Cicero (More 1).”

The idea of community possessions described in More’s Utopia has much in common with the Spartan city-state depicted in Plutarch’s Lives, specifically the Life of Lycurgus written around 75 AD. Opulence was discouraged in both cultures. Unlike Utopia’s interest in the happiness of individuals, the Spartan warrior-state extolled the virtue of selflessness and sacrifice for the greater good. In addition to these parallels, the Utopians themselves were said to “esteem Plutarch highly (More 1).”

Humanism in Montaigne’s On the Education of Children and On Experience

Unlike More, Montaigne is more atheistic in his approach to philosophy. He makes no mention of the Christian God in the Education of Children essay except to criticize the pernicious effect such superstitious religious belief has upon man’s thinking, saying that the local priest is ridiculous in believing that “God is angry with the human race (Montaigne 63)” when natural disasters occur. This is typical of later humanist thought, which diverges further from Christian theology until eventually dismissing the credibility of traditional Christian teachings altogether. “When (Montaigne) treats moral issues, he almost always does so without appealing to theology (Edelman 1),” instead relying on the ideas of common good, education and and wisdom to provide guidance in morality.

Interestingly, though Montaigne demonstrates thorough knowledge of the classics himself, he advises a new pedagogical approach in his essay On the Education of Children that mainly employed the use of rhetoric, rather than the tradition of reading and by rote recitation. Montaigne admits that he has never settled down to any solid book except Plutarch,” but on that philosopher he finds himself “filling and emptying my cup incessantly (Montaigne 61).” Plutarch is the most quoted person in all of Montaigne’s works, with these references numbering in the hundreds.

The heart of Montaigne’s assertions in all of the Essays seem to coincide perfectly with Plutarch’s teachings regarding the difference between “being” and “existence,” or in other words, the difference in perspective between the mind of God and the mind of man. Montaigne agrees with Plutarch that man has no sense of being, but does exist. This complex theological and philosophical idea also ties in well with Socrates’ “I think therefore I am” philosophy, in which mankind can only perceive what he experiences, which places ultimate importance on the more immediate concerns of the present (as opposed to those of the afterlife).

True to humanist pedagogical form, Montaigne also subscribes to Socrates’ method of teaching, in which he “made his pupils speak first and then spoke to them (Montaigne 55.)” Like Socrates, Montaigne seemed to be impatient with society and its dullness, challenging his pupils through Socrates’ words: “Dare to be wise! Begin now. The man who puts off the day when he will live rightly is like the peasant who waits for the river to drain away. But it flows on, and will flow on for ever (Montaigne 65).”

Likewise, according to Montaigne, Socrates’ advice “to know themselves,” should be of important effect,” as it is “sufficient to make a life completely happy, having no need of any other thing whatever (Cotton 1).”

It is clear, through multiple allusions and quotes from Montaigne and More that they held the works of the Greek and Roman classics in high regard. They argued so effectively, using the philosophies and explanations of these great thinkers, that they inevitably laid the groundwork for change on a nearly global scale. While the exposure of humanist teachings of More and Montaigne was limited to isolated classes and regions at the time of their publication, the eventual far-reaching effect was astounding. This eager acceptance of their ideas, as well as the long-lived persistence of them into the modern age, lends credibility to their groundbreaking literary attempts, and proves that they are well worth study and emulation by humankind even today.

original manuscript
An original manuscript of Montaigne’s Essays (Source: Wikipedia)
Edelman, Christopher. “Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.” Internet Encyclopedia of   Philosophy. University of the Incarnate Word, 20 Jan. 2014. Web. 11 May 2016.


Grudin, Robert. “Humanism.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d.      Web. 11 May 2016.


Montaigne, Michel. “On The Education of Children.” University of Montana. College of Humanities and Sciences UMT, 10 Apr. 2010. Web. 11 May 2016.


Montaigne, Michel de. “Of experience.” Trans. Charles Cotton. 1588. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick     Madden. 13 Sep 2006. 11 May 2016


More, Thomas. “Utopia by Thomas More.” Literature Project. Literature Project, 14 June 2010. Web. 11 May 2016.


Panici, Nicola. “Montaigne and Plutarch: A Scepticism That Conquers the Mind.” Springer Link.             Springer Netherlands, 21 Sept. 2010. Web. 11 May 2016.


Wilde, Robert. “Renaissance Humanism.” About.com Education. About.com, 15 Mar. 2016.         Web. 11 May 2016.


2 thoughts on “A Brief History of Humanism

  1. Pingback: Religious Diversity & What It Means to Be Human

  2. Pingback: Jiwoo Park – Renaissance – EIS Democracy Digest 2022

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