November 5, 2003
Renaissance humanism today
I think that Renaissance humanist philosophy is often misunderstood; and this mistake matters to me because I favor a revival of the real methods of the humanists. The standard view is that Renaissance humanists taught original doctrines, especially the "dignity of man" that was the theme of Marsilio Ficino's famous oration. They are thought to be "humanists" because they believed in the centrality of human beings as opposed to God.
In fact, Ficino was neither original (in the context of medieval thought) nor especially influential. But Renaissance humanism did introduce a revolutionary change. Medieval scholastic philosophy had involved a particular style of writing. In the Middle Ages, philosophical works were third-person treatises: systematic, abstract, theoretical, and very logically sophisticated compared to anything written in the Renaissance. They included concrete examples, but always extracted from their original contexts to support abstract points. In contrast, Renaissance humanists meant by "philosophy" the dialogues, speeches, and moralistic biographies of ancient times, especially those written by Plato, Cicero, Seneca, and Plurarch. Plot and character featured prominently in these works. Humanist readers were mainly interested in philosophers (such as as Socrates or Diogenes) as role models, as men who had demonstrated virtues and eloquence in specific situations. The works they enjoyed were also full of irony: for example, Plato did not speak except through Socrates, for whom he probably had complex and ambiguous feelings.
In turn, Renaissance humanists wrote, not abstract treatises, but stories told by and about literary characters in concrete situations. Often these works were ironic. Utopia, the Praise of Folly, and the Prince share a surprising feature: people have argued for centuries about whether their authors were serious or joking. Utopia and the Praise of Folly are narrated by fictional characters, distant from their authors. And Machiavelli wrote the Prince for a ruler who was likely to execute him if he spoke his mind. Its real meaning may be ironic.
Today, mainstream moral philosophy is "scholastic": sophisticated, aiming at systematic rigor and clarity, logical, abstract, and ahistorical. But there are also works that try to make philosophical progress by interpreting past works in all their literary complexity, ambiguity, and original context. I'm thinking of Alasdair McIntyre's After Virtue, Martha Nussbaum's Fragility of Goodness, Bernard Williams' Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, and Richard Rorty's Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. These authors have no common theme or message, but they treat philosophy as a particular kind of discipline. They place it among the humanities, not the sciences. In this respect they are "humanist" philosophers in the Renaissance tradition.