The book ethic and the spirit of humanism

The paradox about Renaissance humanism, that period of European literate culture running roughly from the 14th to the 16th centuries, is that it is both medieval and modern, at once fully medieval and fully modern. A period of both radical change and piecemeal progression. And in the eye of this storm, the book, an object of continuous innovation, transformation and re-invention.

Humanism was as much a medieval landing pad as a modern launch-site. In many ways, it doesn’t even exist, as European thinking, reading and writing had always been humanist, even at the height of theocratic pressure. The Dark Ages had their humanism, the world of Charlemagne and his successors was also a humanist period. Not to mention the celebrated 12th century Renaissance, another humanism which started a series of cultural movements and sparks that accelerated every process which had already occurred in the past, washing itself in the waters of the Renaissance.

Humanism makes no sense outside the written word. It may well have been an attitude, a ethical, esthetic and social stance, but it was first and foremost a literary prise de position.

The idea of humanity first made no sense outside the book. Nulla salus extra litteram. There is no salvation outside the written word, to turn a controversial dictum on its humanist head. The humanists of the end of the Middle Ages grasped humanity through their access to the letters of the ancient past, the celebration of being human as the ancient Greeks and Romans understood it – but – and here’s the catch – through their written legacy. There was no other access to studia humanitatis, the exploration of all things human, the humanist project – except through what the ancients had to say about the human condition, in poetry, philosophy and drama. To recover the humanist core of Europe was to recover its lost communication, the books and pages and letters that had been handed down, often precariously and neglectfully, through the generations.

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