Wednesday, August 27, 2014

In the Renaissance, for Instance...

I’m back from summer break! Speaking of which, if anyone is in New York for the next month, I need some company. On to more pressing matters.

Paul Oskar Kristeller (1905–99) was one of the most striking historians of the 20th century. A Jew born in Germany, he studied under some of the most prominent historians in the world before he fled to Italy and then to the United States. He is famous for two things. First, he compiled the Iter Italicum, an enormous catalogue of Latin manuscripts that were growing mold all over Italy. Second, he upended our understanding of what Renaissance humanism was.

This post is a quick overview of what strike me as Kristeller’s keenest insights. If you can breach the Great Wall of JSTOR, you’ll get much more from the man himself. (The article under “the” is the most important.) Better yet, watch The History Boys, a movie that shows rather than explains what humanism is. It also contains the reference in this post’s title!

I. Renaissance Humanism

The so-called “Kristeller thesis” can be summed up in one sentence: the Renaissance was a change in subject-matter, not philosophy. The philosophers of the Renaissance were anything but united on one worldview. Montaigne had a deeply pessimistic view of human worth, which contrasted wildly with Pico’s exalted view of our place in the cosmos. Humanists were Catholic and Protestant, radical and reactionary. To the extent that the the humanists shared a philosophical basis, it was largely borrowed from Medieval scholasticism and, to a lesser extent, Neoplatonism. But, it’s worth stressing, you learn very little about a humanist’s views from the fact that he was a humanist. You know much more when you learn he was a Calvinist, or a cabbalist mystic, or a Dominican friar.

Frank and John, both humanists, would
have hated each other if they’d ever met.

What did unite the humanists? It seems prosaic at first: they were interested in Greek and good Latin. For the first time in a millenium, antiquity was seen as 1) categorically different from the present order of things and b) a far nobler state of the world. It was the model of good art, good politics, good rhetoric, and good philosophy. (Ancient philosophy, of course, had progressed as far as was possible without the full revelation of Christ.)

Together with this interest was a firm commitment to humanitas. That word, even since antiquity, meant devotion to a subset of the liberal arts: Grammar, rhetoric, and poetry. Greek, long forgotten in the West, returned. Even Hebrew, once the exclusive domain of the Jews, came into academic fashion. In short, there was an academic revolution. Tellingly, there was no word in the Renaissance for “humanism”; that came much later when the Renaissance was reinterpreted as a philosophical revolution. There were only humanist√¶—educated men who devoted themselves to the study of the most human activities.

Humanitas, Kristeller rightly points out, had little to do with a person’s moral development. It did mean cultivation of his soul by means of letters, so that he could live life as less a beast than as a man. This is a concept that has been foreign to us ever since Kant clove the world into moral and amoral halves: that there are experiences that are higher—more human—than others, even though their moral content is nil. I’m too much of a Kantian to endorse that view, but I do think it takes a lack of imagination to fail to see what the humanists were getting at.

And in  contrast to the modern day, when university administrators work tirelessly to explain the usefulness of the liberal arts for a fulfilling career, the whole point of the Renaissance’s liberal arts was that they were the center of a life that soared above the sordid need to work. (Law, the priesthood, politics, and medicine were among the few callings deemed fitting for a free person.) That doesn’t mean that the humanists were aristocrats, but that they had their minds on subtler things than usefulness. Phrased another way, of course, they pursued usefulness in a finer sense of the word.

II. Education

With this picture of the Renaissance in mind, Kristeller opens the way to a radical view of what education can be. First, he says, we ought to lay aside our superstitions about what a non-technical education can do. That means we should be focusing little on career-preparedness, and that we should presume that students who are headed for careers will learn how to be journalists when they need to. (Technical education is obviously a different matter, but it’s not what Kristeller is talking about.)

Even harder to give up is the moral component of the liberal arts. But in general, school is a terrible place to give a child a moral compass. It’s trite by now to point out that plenty of Nazis were far better versed in literature than you or me. And, steering back from Godwin’s abyss, it’s hard to imagine what could constitute a humanist moral education in the first place. Shall we teach morals through philosophy? As soon as a student stumbles on Nietzsche, that’ll all go up in smoke. Literature? Good luck finding a moral in Madame Bovary. (“But”, you say, “that’s why only the right books should be on the curriculum.” At that point, you should give up the pretence of educating children and hand them a catechism instead.) “A humanistic education, Kristeller writes, “provides no more of a guarantee against moral failure than any other kind of education, or than does complete ignorance, for that matter.”

What’s left? As you can probably guess by now, a humanist education can broaden a student’s tastes. It can give him access to a world completely beyond his ordinary experience, but which can also infuse his experience with new and strange meanings. It can expose him to far-off and beautiful things. It can’t teach him how to think, but it can teach him to apply his natural powers of thought in fruitful ways.

Mathematics, though utterly useless for most careers and completely devoid of moral content, is an excellent example of a subject fit for humanist education. It’s hard enough that most children can’t enjoy it on their own, but it’s a source of wonder for any student who’s lucky enough to have a Frizzle-y enough teacher. The same goes, I think, for literature: we teach Chaucer in liberal-arts high schools because it’s a work of great beauty and fun. But it’s also high-hanging fruit, which means that most students can’t pluck it without help. A life with Chaucer might be no different than one without. Or it might be warped into a completely new shape. The only way to find out, of course, is to be taught Chaucer.

The worth of all of this is obviously in question in a world that doubts the existence of higher pleasures, and which has hermetically sealed the good off from the beautiful. But regardless, I think there’s still a place for a humanist education. The disciplines of the Renaissance can, in fact, change our lives, even if they’re no formula for moral goodness, and even though we scoff at the notion that letters are inherently more exquisite than Madden.

I should close with Kristeller’s description of his own education in Germany, which is startling in how sharply it differs from almost any American child’s experience:
The general idea was that the demanding subjects, such as languages, composition and mathematics, required study and instruction, whereas other subjects could be more easily pursued outside of school. My teachers did not think I was unfamiliar with contemporary German literature because I did not have courses on it in school. They thought I could read modern books without guidance, and I did. I also pursued a lot of music and art history, modern history and literature on my own in the time free from class hours or homework. These studies were respected and encouraged by my parents and teachers. It just did not occur to them that every conceivable field of interest should be pursued as a part of the school curriculum or that a young person should not learn anything except what he was taught in school. School instruction was limited to the subjects which were considered essential and required hard work.
This is the kernel of humanism: a love of learning that’s given shape by rigor. It pursues the beautiful, leaves the good to sermons in church, and never allows formal schooling to be the end of education. That’s a finer thing than any philosophical doctrine.