3.2: Christian Humanism
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Cultural Context: Christian Humanism
Introduction & Background
Humanism was an intellectual movement that gained traction in Italy during the Renaissance. Rather than focusing on God or the Divine– as was the case with many previous philosophical movements– humanism emphasized the importance of self-knowledge and the autonomous nature of humankind. This movement was typified by a renewed interest in the ancient texts of the Greco-Roman period, such as the works of Cicero and Homer. These famous philosophers and writers of the Classical period were largely concerned with the acquisition of knowledge and cultivation of wisdom. Many ancients believed that intelligence and self-awareness were qualities to be possessed by an ideal ruler. Plato, in his philosophical text Republic, introduces the idea of the “Philosopher King,” a hypothetical political leader with an adept knowledge of philosophy. The humanist movement drew upon these pillars of ancient philosophy and utilized Greco-Roman texts to emphasize the importance of human potential and self-knowledge.
After the humanist movement gained traction in Italy, it spread across the Alps into northern Europe. Around the same time, a derivative of this movement, known as Christian Humanism, emerged as a major school of thought. Whereas humanism was a primarily secular philosophy, Christian Humanism united the humanist quest for self-knowledge with the teachings of Jesus Christ. Many Christian Humanists believed that individuals could grow closer to God through their intellect. In order for such closeness to be achieved, however, people must first be able to read and comprehend important religious texts. Erasmus of Rotterdam, perhaps one of the most well-known Christian Humanists and contemporary of Sir Thomas More, was a proponent of eliminating the scholastic theology that dominated 16th-century Europe. Erasmus, provoked by the inaccuracies in St. Jerome’s translation of the New Testament, published his own version of the Latin Vulgate in 1516. He based this translation on the oldest available Greek manuscript of the New Testament, thus reflecting the Christian Humanist desire to unify intellect and religion.
Rather than translate ancient texts from Cicero and Plutarch– as was the case for many humanists– Christian Humanists lent their linguistic skills to the translation of the Bible and the works of early Christian writers. By translating these texts into the vernacular, individuals became empowered with a sense of theological understanding. Furthermore, Christian Humanism established the foundation upon which the Protestant Reformation would later be built. This increased access to Scripture and greater understanding of Christian texts led individuals to question the legitimacy and authority of the Catholic Church. While many Christian Humanists– such as Erasmus and More– supported reform within the Church, they did not necessarily commend the religious division that ensued. The Reformation, which began in Germany in 1517 after the publication of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, would change the trajectory of European Christianity for years to come.
Christian Humanism in Utopia
Because of Sir Thomas More’s connection to Christian Humanism, many ideas in Utopia are rooted in this intellectual movement. Perhaps the most apparent example lies in Book Two during which Raphael Hythloday describes the educational system in Utopos. He explains that education in Utopia is “no less concerned with morality and virtue than with the study of good literature” (More 113). This emphasis on the cultivation of morality, rather than on the sheer acquisition of knowledge, serves to better the Utopian society as a whole. Because Utopians believe that happiness can only be found in “good and proper pleasure,” their education hinges on the recognition and practice of virtuous, good behavior (More 80). This relationship between education and morality in Utopos mirrors important elements of Christian Humanism. For instance, many Christian Humanists were concerned with cultivating intellect as a way to get closer to the Word of God. By translating important Christian texts, such as the works of Catholic saints, these humanists achieved a greater understanding of what it meant to live a holy, virtuous life.
The Christian Humanist influence in Utopia extends beyond the educational system and into the general Utopian worldview. For instance, Hythloday explains that most Utopians believe “that the soul is immortal, and by the goodness of God destined to happiness; then, that after this life our virtues and good acts will be rewarded” (More 80). This belief is reflected in the Utopian educational system, which emphasizes the cultivation of virtue for the betterment of society as a whole. Such curricula equip Utopians with the necessary knowledge and viewpoints to live moral, virtuous lives, which in turn leads them to the goodness of God. This Utopian worldview reflects the Christian Humanist link between knowledge and proximity to God. Many philosophical themes in Utopia are deeply rooted in the Christian Humanist movement and in Sir Thomas More’s own historical context as a whole.
By Tess Diamond