As our own historical moment interrogates the boundaries of the human with unprecedented vigor, the emergence or at least popularization of the term “posthumanism” may have been inevitable. Of late, the prefix “post” seems to hook up promiscuously to just about any concept one wishes: not only to structuralism, modernism, colonialism, and secularism, but even, improbably, to the “contemporary.”1
Whether this proliferation reveals creative transcendence of past thought or instead a forgetfulness or even denial of historical embeddedness, it surely attests to how routine our own moment’s assertions of novelty have become. “Posthumanism” demonstrably has heuristic value for scholars today who are seeking to move beyond entrenched anthropocentrist assumptions. Long after postmodernism has been encapsulated as an attitude or movement distinct to a span of a few decades, posthumanism may well retain salience as a descriptor for an enduring mentalité
But the application of the term to the thought and culture of the Renaissance risks creating serious confusion. In fact, for those seeking to understand conceptions of the human and the animal as articulated by fourteenth- through sixteenth-century intellectuals, “Renaissance Posthumanism” may rank among the least useful categories of analysis.
Inasmuch as posthumanism has itself been a contested concept, the scholarly community owes a debt of gratitude to Cary Wolfe for defining and deploying that term with exemplary precision. Thanks to his recent What Is Posthumanism?
the way now lies open for rigorous analysis of how this emergent school of thought stands in relation to humanisms past and present.3
It bears mention, however, that the Renaissance, whether construed as periodic concept or cultural construct, receives negligible attention in Wolfe’s book: In fact, the word does not even appear in its index, nor do the names of canonical Renaissance intellectuals such as Francesco Petrarch, Lorenzo Valla, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Desiderius Erasmus, or Michel de Montaigne.4
This may be understandable in that Wolfe succeeds in covering such a range of nineteenth- and twentieth-century authors and musicians and in situating his conceptual framework with respect to Cartesianism, Marxism, deconstruction, cognitive psychology, and systems theory. Surely it would be a mistake to fault him for not making his book sufficiently expansive or complex. As Vergil wrote, non omnia possumus omnes
But for those seeking to define and analyze a distinctly “Renaissance” posthumanism, it is highly problematic that the humanism that Wolfe sets up as a foil resembles only marginally how leading scholars of intellectual and cultural history have used the term with respect to Europe in the period extending roughly from 1250 to 1600. The differences are not mere quibbles: They bear strongly upon how we understand Renaissance thought. That understanding, in turn, may enable us better to comprehend how the “Humanist” movement of that era helped to prepare the way for current discussions of the human, and more generally may prompt us to appreciate our indebtedness to the past for tools and concepts that are too often put forward as unprecedented.6
In identifying a degree of coherence in uses of “humanism,” Wolfe quotes at length from the eponymous Wikipedia entry, including the following lines:
is a broad category of ethical philosophies that affirm the dignity and worth of all people, based on the ability to determine right and wrong by appeal to universal human qualities—particularly rationality…. In focusing on the capacity for self-determination, humanism rejects the validity of transcendental justifications such as a dependence on belief without reason, the supernatural, or texts of allegedly divine origin. Humanists endorse universal morality based on the commonality of the human condition, suggesting that solutions to human social and cultural problems cannot be parochial.7
One must begin somewhere, and Wikipedia may be as good a place as any to eavesdrop on the Zeitgeist as it rattles its chains in the subbasement of contemporary (surely not “post-contemporary”) consciousness. But with respect to the Humanist movement in Renaissance Europe, it is wildly misleading. While many Renaissance intellectuals at times celebrated the dignity of humankind and appealed to the authority of reason, those were but some of the philosophical positions they advocated. These positions were not universally accepted tenets, and indeed were explicitly contravened in works by some of the key thinkers who have been appropriated as poster-boys for anthropological optimism. Second, contrary to the Wikipedian definition, the vast majority of Renaissance Humanists did in fact believe in transcendental justifications and in the partial revelation of divine truth: What they often doubted was their ability to discern that truth with precision, and they struggled with how to apply it constructively in particular situations. Third, following Aquinas and the consensus of Christian theological opinion, by and large they believed that human reason was incapable of empirically proving many of those beliefs that they held upon the authority of the Church. Fourth, with respect to Renaissance Humanists, the claim that “solutions to human social and cultural problems cannot be parochial” is exactly wrong. Instead, one finds a rhetorically based emphasis on the particularity of moral action in discrete situations, a position well articulated in the fourteenth century by Petrarch and widely shared by succeeding generations of Humanists. Wolfe’s own passing references to the Renaissance are similarly misleading. In particular, by treating Foucault’s Renaissance “episteme” as definitive, he reifies an interpretation that leading intellectual historians have utterly discredited.8
The present essay will first of all survey influential interpretations of Renaissance Humanism and highlight how it differs from other historical movements that have been termed “humanism.” Next, the essay will detail some of the conceptions of human dignity that Humanists articulated in the mid-fourteenth through sixteenth centuries. Thereupon it describes how Renaissance thinkers, despite their near-universal acceptance of there being a clear boundary between humans and animals, at times explored the theoretical possibility of that boundary being permeable—a move that was in fact integral to their revival of ancient thought, not a rejection of that heritage. In closing, the essay argues that renewed attention to Renaissance Humanism can enrich current efforts to move decisively beyond the domination of the academy by Enlightenment rationalism, now doing so not only with the vigor of Foucault but with the rigor of systematic scholarly inquiry and documentation.
What Was Renaissance Humanism?
Conceptions of humanism in the western tradition are readily traced to classical antiquity.9
Etymologically, “humanism” derives from the Latin humanus
, meaning “whatever is characteristic of human beings, proper to man,” but in antiquity the word also had “two more specific meanings, namely ‘benevolent’ and ‘learned.’ ”10
In medieval Latin, humanus
as “learned” fell out of usage, a gap reflected today: “In no modern language does a ‘humane’ person signify a ‘learned’ person.”11
For many classical authors, however, and in turn for the Renaissance Humanists, being learned was integral to being fully human.12
Following Cicero, the Humanists often stated that speech is what sets humans apart from animals: Eloquent speech, Cicero had claimed, first gave birth to civilization and has ensured its continuance; and humanae litterae
, a written depository and vehicle of speech, serve as the foundation of learning.13
Yet when the term humanista
appeared in fifteenth-century Italy, it had “no particular emphasis on all the values entailed by the Latin term humanus
in its broadest sense,” but instead meant simply someone who taught what today we might call the classical tradition.14
As Giustiniani laments, “This meaning is unfortunately not familiar today to most people writing about humanism.”15
Prominent scholars of Renaissance thought, above all Paul Oskar Kristeller, have shared this lament and criticized the vagueness with which the term has been deployed. His influential solution was to sever its definition from any given philosophical school or position: “I should like to understand Renaissance [H]umanism, at least in its origin and in its typical representatives, as a broad cultural and literary movement, which in its substance was not philosophical, but had important philosophical implications and consequences.”16
These Humanists tended to be professional rhetoricians, serving either as teachers of grammar and rhetoric or as notaries in princely or communal governments. They advocated a wide-ranging cultural and education program centered on the studia humanitatis
—grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry, and moral philosophy—training in each of which included the study of Greek, and especially Latin, classical texts. Kristeller acknowledged that many Humanists did voice belief in the dignity of humankind and the importance of individual experience. But one looks in vain for someone being identified as a humanista
on the grounds that he espoused such views.
While Kristeller’s definition has provided a baseline for others’ refinements, it tells us little about what made Humanism a culturally influential movement in the Renaissance. As William Bouwsma wrote in 1975, inasmuch as Kristeller’s definition “depends on the identification of a kind of lowest common denominator for [H]umanism, it may also have the unintended effect of reducing our perception of its rich variety and thus of limiting our grasp of its historical significance.”17
A key element missing from it is Humanists’ widely shared view that the encounter with antiquity could yield important benefits for their own era. They believed that the pursuit of eloquence—persuasive rhetoric infused with moral purpose—could enable them to work positive change upon not only themselves but the society in which they lived.18
For pedagogues such as Guarino Guarini da Verona (1374–1460), this meant edifying the children of the elite to become responsible and effective in governing the state.19
Moreover, the values that Humanist education aimed to instill, whe...