V.1 ‘Humanism’: an educational curriculum

V.1 ‘Humanism’: an educational curriculum

Humanism versus Scholasticism. In textbook literature, one often reads about how Renaissance humanism triumphed over medieval scholasticism. The medieval universities, the story goes, were founded by churchmen and devoted above all to ecclesiastical and theological concerns. In order to inaugurate the modern era, the humanists had to replace the other-worldly focus of medieval scholasticism with the this-worldly intellectual agenda they derived from studying ancient Greece and Rome. They therefore defined themselves in opposition to the schoolmen: above all in restoring higher standards of classical Latinity, in studying the classics as witnesses of a by-gone age which they hoped (in some measure) to restore, and in shifting their focus from the next world to this one and from the natural world to the human one. 

This endlessly repeated binary opposition is often taken to imply that humanism triumphed over scholasticism, driving the schoolmen from the universities, and radically overhauling the curriculum itself and the manner in which it was delivered. Yet the general shape of the academic curriculum was not transformed by this process, nor were the authorities taught or the manner of teaching itself. 

Humanism as an educational curriculum. Here too we must be extremely careful about terminology. 'Scholasticism', as we have seen, was not a philosophy, a doctrine or a system of thought: it was essentially a method for sifting, assembling, organizing and synthesizing the Western intellectual tradition in theology, philosophy, law and medicine institutionalized in the faculties, lectures, textbooks and disputations of the medieval universities. Renaissance humanism was similar. As Paul Oskar Kristeller famously argued in a highly influential article, 'humanism' was also not a philosophical system of a school of thought: at its most basic, it was also ‘a cultural or educational programme institutionalized to a somewhat lesser extent in the preparatory schools and lower, arts faculties of universities, which emphasized and developed an important, but limited range of disciplines.’

'Umanista'. The term itself arose in a university setting. In Italian student slang, the professor of civil law was known as a ‘jurista’, a professor of canon law as a ‘canonista’, and the teacher who covered the ‘arts’ or philosophy curriculum as an ‘artista’. In similar fashion, the term ‘umanista’ was used to designate the professor of the ‘studia humanitatis’. Ancient Roman writers such as Cicero and Gellius had used the term ‘studia humanitatis’ ‘in the general sense of a liberal or literary education’; and this usage ‘was resumed by Italian scholars as early as the later fourteenth century. By the first half of the fifteenth century, the term studia humanitatis came to stand for a clearly defined cycle of scholarly disciplines.’

The studia humanitatis. Kristeller went on to identify the studia humanitatis as a curriculum consisting of five disciplines: grammar, rhetoric, moral philosophy, history, and poetry. Jill Kraye has pointed out that the absence of any texts which enumerate this five-part curriculum,and she also challenges the assertion that the humanists restricted their philosophical studies to ethics and politics (i.e. to othe study of man, politics and society as opposed to the natural world). But the key questions for our purposes are rather these: what was at stake in this curriculum, and how disruptive was it to established learning? 

Further reading and listening

Paul Oskar Kristeller, ‘The Humanist Movement’, in his The Classics and Renaissance Thought (Cambridge, Mass., 1955), pp. 3-23; revd version in Renaissance Thought (New York, 1961), pp. 3-23 and Renaissance Thought and its Sources (New York, 1979), pp. 21-32.

'Jill Kraye on Humanism', episode 332 in Peter Adamson's podcast series, History of Philosophy without any Gaps: available here

Commentary. Howard Hotson (January 2024)