Humanism in English Literature

 Humanism in English Literature

‘Humanism’ is a term freely applied to a variety of beliefs, methods, and philosophies that place central emphasis on the human realm. Most frequently, however, the term is used with reference to a system of education and mode of inquiry that developed in northern Italy during the 13th and 14th centuries and later spread through continental Europe and England. Alternately known as ” Renaissance humanism,” this program was so broadly and profoundly influential that IS one of the chief reasons why the Renaissance is Viewed as a distinct historical period. Indeed, though the word Renaissance is of more recent coinage, the fundamental idea of that period as one of renewal and reawakening is humanistic in origin. But humanism sought its own philosophical bases in far earlier times and, moreover, continued to exert some of its power long after the end of the Renaissance. 
The effect of humanism on English literature was wide and far-reaching. In fact, English humanism flourished in two stages: the first a basically academic movement that had its roots in the 15th century and culminated in the work of SirThomas More, Sir Thomas Elyot, and Roger Ascham, and the second a poetic revolution led by Sir Philip Sidney and William Shakespeare.

Although continental humanists had held court positions since the days of Humphrey of Gloucester (1391-1447), English humanism as a distinct phenomenon did not emerge until late in the 15th century. At Oxford William Grocyn and his student Thomas Linacre (c. 1460-1524) gave impetus to a tradition of Classical studies that would permanently influence English culture. Grocyn and Linacre attended Politian’s s lectures at the Platonic Academy of Florence. Returning to Oxford, they became central figures in a group that included such younger scholars as John Coletd and  William Lily. The humanistic Contributions of the Oxford group were philological and institutional rather than philosophical or literary. Grocyn lectured on Greek and theology; Linacre produced several works on Latin grammar and translated Galen into Latin. To Linacre is owed the foundation of the Royal College of Physicians; to Colet, the foundation of St. Paul’s School, London. Colet collaborated with Lily (the first headmaster of St.Paul’s) and Erasmus in writing the school’s constitution, and together the three scholars produced a Latin grammar (known alternately as “Lily’s Grammar” and the “Eton Grammar) that would be central to English education for decades to come.

In Sir Thomas More, Sir Thomas Elyot, and Roger Ascham, English humanism bore fruit in major literary achievement. Educated at Oxford (where he read Greek with Linacre), More was also influenced by Erasmus, who wrote Praise of Folly (Latin Moriae encomium) at More’s house and named the book punningly after his English friend. More’s famous Utopia, a kind of companion piece to Praise of Folly, is similarly satirical of traditional institutions (Book I) but offers, as an imaginary alternative, a model society based on reason and nature (Book II). Significantly indebted to both Classical thought and European humanism, Utopia is also humanistic in its implied thesis that politics begins and ends with humanity; i.e., politics is based exclusively on human nature and aimed exclusively at human happiness. Sir Thomas Elyot chose a narrower subject but developed it in more detail. His great work, The Book Named the Governor, is a lengthy treatise on the virtues to be cultivated by statesmen. The humanistic educational program set up at the turn of the century was vigorously supported by Sir John Cheke and codified by his student Roger Ascham. Ascham’s famous pedagogical manual, The Schoolmaster, offers not only a complete program of humanistic education but also an evocation of the ideals toward which that education was directed.

Sir Philip Sidney (1554-86) was, like Alberti and Federico da Montefeltro. a living pattern of the humanistic ideal. Sidney’s major works –Astrophel and Stella, Defence of Poesie, and the two versions of Arcadia are medleys of humanistic themes. In the sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella, he surpassed earlier imitators of Petrarch by emulating not only the Italian humanist’s subject and style but also his philosophical bent and habit of self-scrutiny, 
How, it was asked, could humanism be politically active, or “civic,” in a Europe that was almost exclusively monarchic in structure? Sidney and his friend Edmund Spenser sought to resolve this dilemma by creating a form of chivalric humanism. The image (taken on personally by Sidney and elaborated upon by Spenser in The Faerie Queene) of the hero as questing knight suggests that the humanist, even if not empowered politically, can achieve a valid form of activism by refining, upholding, and representing the values of a just and noble court. 

The poetry and drama of Shakespeare’s time were a concourse of themes ancient and modern, continental and English. Prominent among these motives was the characteristic topics of humanism. George Chapman, the translator of Homer, was a forthright exponent of the theory of poetry as moral wisdom, holding that it surpassed all other intellectual pursuits. Ben Jonson described his own humanistic mission when he wrote that a good poet was able to inform young men to all good disciplines, inflame grown men to all great virtues, keep old men in their best and supreme state, or, as they decline to childhood, recover them to their first strength” and that the poet was “the interpreter and arbiter of nature, a teacher of things divine no less than human, a master in manners.” 

Less overtly humanistic, though in fact more profoundly so, was William Shakespeare (1 564-1616). Thoroughly versed (probably at his grammar school) in Classical poetic and rhetorical practice, Shakespeare early in his career produced strikingly effective imitations of Ovid and Plautus (Venus and Adonis and The Comedy of Errors, respectively) and drew on Ovid and Livy for his poem. The Rape of Lucrece. Shakespeare clearly did not accept all the precepts of English humanism at face value. He grappled repeatedly with the problem of reconciling Christian doctrine with effective political action, and for a while (e.g., in Henry V)seemed inclined toward the Machiavellian alternative. In Troilus and Cressida, moreover, he broadly satirized Chapman’s Homeric revival and, more generally, the humanistic habit of idolizing Classical heroism. Finally, he eschewed the moralism, rationalism, and self-conscious erudition of the humanists and was lacking as well in their fraternalism and their theoretical bent. Yet on a deeper level, he must be acknowledged as the direct and natural heir of Petrarch, Boccaccio, Castiglione, and Montaigne.

In fine, ‘humanism’ thus, contrary to recent strictures against it, appears not as ‘top-down’ dissemination but as a practical process of give-and-take between writers and readers. Humanism also prompts Writers to imagine their potential readership in ways which challenge them to re-imagine the commonweal, common good, or imagined community of the realm, and the intellectual freedom of the reader.

Leave a Comment