The New Renaissance Humanism: Studying Not the Great Men but the Laymen


While evolutionary psychology may be one of the best ways we have for understanding human nature (whatever that may be) history allows us to take a less-quantitative approach by observing the actions, motives and thoughts of man through time. Presumably because any change to our “nature” would require mass selection over the course of hundreds of thousands of years, the fact that our species is still quite young should be reason enough to believe that if there is anything preinstalled/natural tendencies we could call “nature,” they would make themselves fairly apparent. Regardless as to how one dresses the ape, fills its head, establishes its perception of the true, it is still something being dressed, having its head filled and learning about the world that engulfs it.

Unfortunately, because we will never be able to get these individuals in the room with us the next best way to do this is through analyzing the few records we have available. The obvious problems with this is (1) The lottery of history favors some texts over others and can be indiscriminate about which get lost and which don’t and (2) sometimes it can be really discriminate and save only those influential texts that have risen to the top of the culture. These issues for what they are do not necessarily mean that we are at a total loss though; but it does put us at a handicap.

One of the (many) great things to rise out of the Renaissance era was its Renaissance Humanism that led scholars and writers to pursue mass educational reform not only institutionally but intellectually. One crucial part of this reform was the concept of ad fontes (“to the source”) that rejected the use of summaries and inspired intellectuals to seek out and study the actual source. Instead of reading about the Church’s impression of Aristotle, why not actually read his Politics and construct meaning from it oneself? (It’s worth noting that it was this kind of approach that led to the democratization of the Bible). In addition, instead of looking to a specific thinker as a god-among-men, why not try to look to them as historical figures and human beings with their own faults and biases?

In David Wilcox’s In Search of God and Self (1975), he details Petrarch’s ad fontes experience with Cicero. Thankfully for Petrarch the famous orator’s letters survived en masse and we are not sitting here with a single copy of On the Republic to judge the man.

“Returning from Naples in 1345, Petrarch stopped briefly at Verona to study [Cicero’s] manuscripts in the famous library there. He happened to come across a collection of Cicero’s letters to the philosopher Atticus. These letters are full of gossip and rumor current in the late Roman republic and even now are the source of most of our information about the political machinations of the period leading to the establishment of the Roman Empire under Augustus. Cicero himself had taken an active part in these maneuvers, and the partisan nature of his actions and feelings is evident on every page. Petrarch was dumbfounded and horrified to discover that Cicero, whom he had revered as an exemplar of style, reason, and philosophy, stood revealed as a petty, ambitious, and vain politician interested more in the transitory issues of the day than the timeless philosophical wisdom described in his abstract treatises.

“Petrarch never really recovered from this shock of suddenly discovering a man where he had previous seen a sage. He never fully forgave Cicero for letting him down (64)”

This certainly tells us a lot about Cicero but it hardly gives us any incite in creating a general understanding of an entire people – and let us not forget the basic axiom that drives Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (1980):

“The treatment of heroes and their victims … is only one aspect of a certain approach to history, in which the past is told from the point of view of governments, conquerors, diplomats, leaders. It is as if they … deserve universal acceptance, as if they – the Founding Fathers, Jackson, Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt, Kennedy, the leading members of Congress, the famous Justices of the Supreme Court – represent the nation as a whole” (9).

When assessing any history it hardly does one any good to assume that the whole can be represented by a part as narrow as those capable of rising to the top. Cicero is as representative of the Roman Republic as John Boehner and Barack Obama are to you and I. Compare this to the ability trivial things like graffiti can have in our understanding of a people.

“Contemporary scholars have been drawn to the study of graffiti, interested to hear the voices of the non-elite and marginal groups that earlier scholars spurned and then surprised to learn that the practice of graffiti was widespread among all groups across the ancient world. Today, graffiti is valued for the nuance it adds to our understanding of historical periods.”

What kind graffiti is being studied? The following comes from the Roman town of Pompeii:

I.2.20 (Bar/Brothel of Innulus and Papilio); 3932: Weep, you girls.  My penis has given you up.  Now it penetrates men’s behinds.  Goodbye, wondrous femininity!

I.10.4 (exterior of the House of Menander); 8304: Satura was here on September 3rd

III.5.3 (on the wall in the street); 8898: Theophilus, don’t perform oral sex on girls against the city wall like a dog

VII.2.48 (House of Caprasius Primus); 3061: I don’t want to sell my husband, not for all the gold in the world

VIII.2 (in the basilica); 1816: Epaphra, you are bald!

This sounds more like the things I hear around me when I function in everyday life than anything the philosophers have ever said. For good or bad, this is us.

The reason why I say all of this is because if history is to extend the sentiment of Renaissance Humanism to draw educated conclusions not only about a single individual but as a people as a whole, we need to start reading the writings not only of the Great Men but also of the laymen. We need to dismantle the illusion that every era outside of the present was a great Golden Age to be aspired to. We need to point out that there may very well be a nature to our species that can be traced through time. And we can recognize that for all of its juvenility and faults, it is who we are and reassurance enough to not kick ourselves too badly.

By doing this I believe we can empower ourselves by eradicating/absolving the “intellectual original sin” brought upon us for the assumed “Fall from Intellectual Grace” at some point in undefined time. Instead of always comparing ourselves to an unattainable ideal we could learn to accept our collective limitations while also realizing our collective potential. This is the power to be had in humanizing one’s heroes; the loss of the mythos can at first be frightening but it is a fear that must be overcome for the sake of realizing the self and the whole.

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