Our Debt to Humanism

R.C. Jebb, Humanism in Education (1899)

“Europe owes to humanism the creation of a new atmosphere, the diffusion of a new spirit, the initiation of forces hostile to obscurantism, pedantry and superstition, forces making for intellectual light, for the advance of knowledge in every field, and not merely for freedom, but for something without which freedom itself may be a burden or a curse, the power to comprehend its right limits and to employ it for worthy ends. Take a particular instance. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the so-called science of Astrology held an exceedingly strong position. Universities endowed it with Chairs ; kings and princes consulted the stars in crises of State ; a general in the field was not seldom accompanied by his astrologer ; cities and citizens had recourse to horoscopes in countless affairs of municipal or private life. But from Petrarch onwards the humanists made open war on this flourishing imposture. Or take another illustration of a somewhat different kind. That vigorous and versatile humanist, Poggio, was at the Council of Constance in 1416, and heard Jerome of Prague recant his recantation. Poggio was then, and had been for many years, a lay secretary in the Papal Chancery. But he does not think of Jerome as of a heretic at bay. With a detachment which would have been scarcely possible for a medieval spectator of similar antecedents, Poggio is able to contemplate Jerome simply as a man who is evincing heroic fortitude and thus describes him in a letter to Lionardo Bruni : ‘ There he stood, undismayed, unfaltering, not merely indifferent to death, but ready to welcome it, another Cato.’

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