English 233:  Introduction to Western Humanities -- Baroque and Enlightenment

Glossary of terms:

the notion of "the humanities":  some history, some issues

The humanities embrace literature (including theology, philosophy and history, as well as fiction in prose, verse or the theater), the visual arts (painting, sculpture and architecture) and music (which, alas, we shall only marginally address in our course).    The basic idea of "the humanities" as an area within a person's overall education goes back to classical antiquity -- the days of the Romans and, before them, the Greeks -- in the millennium between roughly 500 BCE ("before the Common Era") through almost 500 CE.  In fact the term humanities derives from the Latin word humanitas, which designated (1) those powers or capacities regarded as common to, and most characteristic of, "human beings as such," and, secondarily, (2) the cultivation of these aspects of human nature so as to bring them into active realization. 

In this latter sense, humanitas was the way in which the Romans translated the Greek term paideia (pronounced "pie-DAY-uh").  Paideia, (like "pediatrics" and "pedagogue," n term for "teacher" or "tutor") is built on the word pais, meaning "child."  Paideuein mean "to educate, to develop the child," but the term paideia came to incorporate specifically Athenian notions of goal and purpose of this education:  the kind of person it should aim at bringing into being.  Education in Athens was by no means universal:  it was almost exclusively restricted to what the dominant elements in society -- adult males with enough time away from the activities necessary for earning a living [1] -- thought was necessary to produce the kind of person who could take an active part in the affairs of the polis, the city-state, that is, in collectively making the decisions about domestic policy, foreign relations, and delegation of military leadership that would ultimately determine the quality and fate of the community as a whole [2].

(1) of the institutions and customs that made the community what it was -- "Athenian" as distinct from Egyptian or Persian or even Macedonian, Theban or Spartan -- and

(2) of leadership decisions and their outcomes within concrete political and military situations.

What the Athenians bequeathed to Romans as "moral philosophy" included the origins of reflective analysis in the disciplines that today have become the specialized study of the social sciences [3], as well as in ethics and political philosophy (the theory of political legitimacy, obligations and freedoms), which remain today areas within the general rubric of "philosophy." 

The Roman cultural elite, in appropriating the Greek cultural legacy, were far more interested in the practical side of things -- in rhetoric, moral philosophy, and the arts. Interest in questions of natural philosophy re-enters Western Europe at the end of the middle ages, intensifies during the Renaissance, and culminates in the 17th Century.  During the 16th and 17th Centuries, it was regarded as something that an individual blessed with adequate leisure and education should take an active interest in and to which many serious amateurs could even aspire to make important contributions.  That is, in the early modern period of Europe, natural science finally becomes incorporated into the ideal of humanitas[5], re-completing what the original Roman concept had largely left behind in its incorporation of the ancient Greek concept of paideia -- that learning and those habits of mind that should be the possession of all human beings who, by talent and circumstances, are able to realize to the fullest extent possible their human nature.

Roman society, too, was thoroughly dependent on slavery, during the thousand years of its existence.  So it is no surprise that its conception of humanitas was restricted in application to aristocracy.  The vast majority of Roman citizens were regarded by this elite as material to be led, not colleagues in responsible communal decision, and not capable of the pleasures attaching to the full exercise of characteristically human powers .  Only a tiny minority of people could ever achieve the breadth of outlook on the world and the maturity of vision that required the humanities as a condition of its cultivation.  It was ridiculous to entertain the idea that just because an animal could talk, imagine the past and situations that have never been experienced, express emotions, etc., that animal could become a "human being," could "be human," in the sense incorporated in the term humanitas.

It is only during the conflicts in the early modern period over the reincorporation into Europe of the cultural achievements of pagan antiquity that the question gets raised as to whether that learning and those habits of mind that should be the possession of all human beings should really be the property of members of the human species.  Put another way, that question is:  can all human beings (in the sense of members of the human species) be allowed to become human beings (in the sense until now restricted to the economic and political elite)?  An answer that gained support in the course of the 18th Century, in connection with the general but informal cultural "movement" known as the Enlightenment, was "Yes."  Whether this dream will be realized is still today an open question.


1.  Give some thought to what did not qualify as suitable as a candidate for development into the "fully human" within Athenian culture -- before, during, and after the "Golden Age" of Pericles (c. 495-429 BCE).  Athenian economy and society was fundamentally based upon slavery.  Not only did virtually every household (even quite modest ones) depend upon ownership rights in persons outside the family, but the community itself held slaves that it compelled to work the state-owned silver mines of Laurium and, at the high point of the Athenian empire, to do the record-keeping on which the administration of the empire depended.  Women, too, were generally regarded as unfit for education.  It is not that free adult male citizens did no work.  The peasant worked alongside his slaves in tending the grape arbors and olive groves and plots of wheat.  Many urban craftsmen were free citizens, although increasingly it was thought more suitable to a "gentleman's" life-style to purchase slaves to do much of the work in the shop.  It was of course much easier for persons residing in the city to be active in the assembly.  A peasant might have to take off two days work just to attend a single session.  Antony Andrewes estimates that some 45,000 persons were eligible to participate in the assembly, though at any one time only 4,000-5,000 would be in regular attendance (The Greeks, 1967 [Norton reprint, 1978, p. 63]).  Concerning slaves, the same scholar figures that for Attica as a whole (the city itself and its surrounding territory) there were probably "some 80,000-100,000 at the time of Athens' greatest prosperity and population -- an average of about one and a half slaves to every adult citizen, or about one in four of the entire population" of 300,000-400,000 (Ibid., p. 135).

There were of course some non-citizens who were able to participate in some part of the cultural life of the polis.  Much of the foreign trade in Athens was carried on by resident aliens who could almost never aspire to citizenship, which attached to birth.  These individuals, however, were often of considerable wealth, and not only may have secured expensive tutors for their sons but took part themselves in the informal discussions that took place in the agora (city market) on philosophical topics, although they were excluded from participating in the deliberations of the assembly.  And, of course, there was nothing to prevent them from providing a musical atmosphere in their own households, or attending the city's seasonal drama festivals.

2.  Note that this particular Greek notion "human being" is teleological.  A fully realized human being is not a natural object (though certain natural conditions -- inborn potentials -- have to obtain if it is to be possible).  It is in important part something made (an "artifact" in the general sense), because it can come into being only through cultivation directed by in turn by some end or telos.  It is not something that "just is":  it is something that is brought into being for something -- in this case, responsible and competent participation in the vital affairs of a particular sort of community, the polis.  This is what Aristotle is getting at in his famous remark often unhappily translated as "man is a political animal."  This idiom, unfortunately, is likely to be picked up by ears tuned to contemporary English as meaning something like "human beings have an appetite for scheming for public office and political power."  Aristotle means rather to say something like "man is an animal who is by nature suited for life in a polis."  Part of what Aristotle means to call attention to is that the sort of being he is referring to cannot be happy or fulfilled outside or in disconnection from the ways of life proper to a polis:  such an existence will always be foreign to, and frustrating of, his nature.  The conception of polis he is appealing to here is not geographic but organic.  Hence at the same time what he is saying here connects with his view that some people are not instances of "man" in the sense in which he is employing the term.  Women, for example, or males who are "naturally slaves" or "slaves by nature," these are, for one reason or another, by nature not suited to participate in the polis as a citizen.  They have other ends, subordinate to those of "man" in the fullest sense.

One of the stories detectable in the history the world's peoples (in the West as elsewhere) is a continual struggle and discussion over competing conceptions of what form of life among those potentially afforded by exemption from servile labor is proper to "human being."  Citizen of a Greek polis?  Lord of a feudal manor?  Carthusian monk?  Brahmin priest?  Renaissance prince?  Renaissance courtier?  A 13th-century Japanese shogun?  Samarai warrior?  Resident of a Catholic mission to the Indians of Paraguay (a form of theocratic agricultural commune)?  Gentleman farmer in a Jeffersonian commonwealth?  Peasant villager in late 19th-century Russia?  Participant in a voluntary mutual aid society?  Officer of the Nazi SS?  Siberian shaman?  Cheyenne hunter of bison and nightmare to the Sioux?  The answer given will shape the conception of what traits of nature (talents and dispositions) need to be cultivated in order to result in such a person. 

Another story to trace is the running conflict (in the West as elsewhere) between, on the one side, those who would insist on restricting eligibility for some particular ideal what-it-is-to-be-most-human in accordance with the criteria until then traditionally relied on in deciding who is by nature fit and who not, and, on the other, those who insist on "opening this up" to categories of people to whom it, up to that moment, has been denied -- persons traditionally assigned exclusively servile status, or excluded as aliens.  For example, the humanistic ideal of realized human nature has traditionally been the nearly exclusive property of one or another narrowly privileged caste -- the adult male Athenian citizenry, the Roman aristocracy and oligarchy, the European nobility.  But from time to time this reservation of privilege has been challenged.  Others have claimed the entitlement to the same kind of self-development.  To jump to today, in the United States:  Is it utopian to invite anyone and everyone to cultivate the art of constructing a responsible and useable past?  Would it be a waste of resources to make good on the promise to do so, should the invitation be accepted?  Supposing those who accepted the invitation succeeded in the project, would the program be condemnable for "educating people beyond their appropriate station in life?  We no longer believe that those who were relegated to the drudgeries necessary for the leisured classes to exist were themselves genetically incapable of putting such leisure and education to the uses these privileged few proposed for themselves.  Suppose it is possible to afford everyone the leisure required to develop a rich picture of the historical past and to acquire the competence to analyze the issues poses for the present.  But suppose that, as presently constituted, the society we live in has no use for more people who can do these things than it already has on hand.  Should those who already "know the score" feel justified in "keeping the others in their place"?  Would it not make more sense to train them to confine their thinking to what is directly needed on one or another fairly routinized job, and to seek satisfaction in the remainder of their lives in the excitements of the movie theatre, the mall, and marriage?  Return.

3.  What we know as the social sciences did not begin to stake any special claims to professional disciplinary competence until the European Enlightenment of the 18th Century.  Aside from Adam Smith (whose The Wealth of Nations lay the foundations of classical economics), the major founding figures -- Karl Marx, Herbert Spencer, August Compte, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber -- did not emerge until the 19th Century.  And the social science did not become a separate part of university curricula, taught by formally trained professionals engaging in specialized projects of research, until the 20th.  Return.

4.  Beginning in the 17th Century, the natural sciences begin, one by one, to establish themselves as autonomous disciplines, each with its own special traditions of method and its own community of researchers, addressing itself less and less to a wider public of educated people in general, and assuming institutional responsibility for recruiting and training its future members, who, over generations, come to take on the quality of a closed guild of professionals.  First to do this was astronomy, followed closely by physics, followed by chemistry and biology.  This process was long and complex:  a striking feature of the early modern period is the degree to which leading scientists like Galileo addressed themselves to the general public of learned individuals (and the degree to which this public came to incorporate persons of non-aristocratic origin, and women).  Galileo published many of his most important findings and analyses in Italian -- because he wanted appeal to the general audience of educated people in their own right, and partly in order to outflank the professional learned community of his day, the international academic world of natural philosophers trained in scholasticism dominated by Aristotelian assumptions.  These lucid expositions were rapidly translated into other European languages, and drew the fascinated attention of statesmen, lawyers, physicians, clergymen, poets.  Kepler's studies, though, were so esoteric as to have difficulty in finding a public even among professional scientists working within the same Copernican framework.  (Galileo, for one, though in constant correspondence with him, never seems to have read or appreciated his work, which necessarily took the reader through painfully complex mathematical calculations that Kepler had taken some 11 years to work out by hand.)  The point to keep in mind here is that even while some parts of astronomy were becoming unintelligible to all but a tiny audience of highly trained specialists, an active interest in unfolding developments in natural philosophy was regarded as an essential part of humanitas.  Not everyone of course would be carrying out these researches; but a great many would engage in

5.  There is an important complexity in the period to be appreciated in connection with the point that in it is in the early modern period of Europe that active interest in natural philosophy finally becomes incorporated into the ideal of humanitas.  After all, in the first century and a half of this period, this development overlaps with the emergence and spread of the Protestant Reformation and with the mobilization of the Catholic Counter-Reformation.  Important elements in both of these were indifferent or antagonistic to it. 

Given his commitment to an Augustinian vision of inborn human depravity, Luther was hostile to the celebration of humanitas, which struck him as a rehabilitation of pagan vanity and impiety.  (Luther had been deeply repelled by the worldliness of Renaissance Rome when he visited the city in 1510 on a mission on behalf of his monastic order.)  He was also uninterested in the details of creation's manner of operation, considering this a distraction from man's proper business on earth, which was with his proper relationship with his Creator.  And the case of Copernicus, as he saw it, revealed how far reliance on natural reason could lead man astray from the truth attested by God's infallible word.  His response to the news of what Copernicus had published was not wonder and curiosity but indignant dismissal:  the fellow was clearly a madman, and ought to be locked up. 

The Counter-Reformation, too, developed a note of otherworldly piety.  While its view of human nature was more akin to the optimism of Thomas Aquinas (who had undertaken to reconcile the achievements of Aristotelian philosophy with the revealed truths of Christian religion), it was deeply skeptical of any attempt on the part of individual thinkers to call into question the picture of nature ultimately derived from Aristotle, long sanctioned by Church tradition.  Its wariness changed to alarm when Galileo published his Dialogues Concerning the Two Great World Systems, the Ptolemaic and Copernican, which exposed the bankruptcy of the former and the merits of the latter.  Galileo was an archetypal example of a "Renaissance man" -- a man who, trained as a doctor, had made himself into a master mathematician, who had invented important instruments for the investigation of nature in its celestial and terrestrial realms, who enjoyed good eating and fine wines and spirited table conversation, who relished reading and writing poetry, who regarded himself as a committed Catholic, and who enjoyed the prospect of lasting fame earned on the fields of intellectual combat -- a man, in other words, with an broad and powerful appetite.  His bold defense of Copernican novelty and ridicule of the pitifulness of the intellectual attempts to defend the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic model, to which the Church was still unofficially wedded, convinced the Vatican that its general authority within the Catholic world at large could not be upheld without a clear demonstration of its power to dictate the terms of faith.  Its intervention set back progress in natural philosophy for generations in Catholic Europe, and leadership in the emerging natural sciences passed definitively to the Protestant countries -- to England, Holland, and northern Germany.

Yet in private circles and with a certain cautious circumspection, the spirit of amplified humanitas -- an ideal of personal development that included understanding and competence in judgment in history, the arts, and both moral and natural philosophy -- continued to be cultivated within Catholic Europe.  This was most difficult in the Iberian world (Spain and Portugal).  But Italy and especially France would make important (though bitterly contested) contributions to the 18th-century Enlightenment.  Return.

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      Contents copyright 1999 by Lyman A. Baker

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      This page last updated 01 February 1999.