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  • A Hermeneutic Interpretation of Civic Humanism and Liberal Education
  • John Arthos

Wer sind wir, die wir den Inhalt in uns haben?

—G. W. F. Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Religion, Teil 1

Renaissance scholars have coined the term "civic humanism" for a doctrine that emerged in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, most prominently in the city-state of Florence.1 The ideal of civic humanism, although controversial, has had a powerful influence as a model of education.2 It represents the possibility of a close harmony between two often competing ends; the cultivation of the fullness of the person and the good of the community, the two intertwined in a close mutual embrace.3 Renaissance praise of the vita civilis was, in the first place, an effort to bridge the divide between the vita contempliva and the vita activa. Coluccio Salutati spoke of a summa consummataque sapientia as the combination of a life of service to family and state, and the reflective life of self-formation (in Rice 1958, 39). Although the humanists set up schools and trained youth, they saw cultivation of learning in letters as a process alongside participation in civic affairs, coextensive with the ongoing realization of self and community. Giambattista Vico bound service and learning together in a relation of identity: "It was because of their knowledge of the greatest affairs [eximiam rerum maximarum scientiam] that philosophers were, by the Greeks, called 'politici,' i.e., experts in matters bearing on the total life of the body politic [universarum rerum publicarum]" (1990, 36; 1993b, 62). Salutati studied letters (litterae) and wrote letters (notae), interweaving the active and reflective life. He was chancellor of Florence for thirty-one years, and his prestige in the office rivaled his fame as a scholar. A prominent Florentine duke is thought to have said that one letter by Salutati "was worth a troop of horsemen" (in Kohl and Witt 1978, 83). According to Pierre Charron, practical wisdom is integral to the person, "and may as hardly be separated, and rooted out, as humanity from a man" (1971, II, iii, p. 256). The good conduct of the good man was the "first, principal, and fundamental part of wisdom" (II, iii, p. 252).4 For the humanisti a "complete man" was fulfilled out of the pleasures of reflection and the duty [End Page 189] of service.5 Completeness meant, in this instance, the actualization of the life of the mind and the life of the world as one thing:

The true citizen will love tranquillity, but his own less than that of other good men; he will delight in his own leisure, but not less in that of the other citizens; he will wish for unity, quiet, peace and tranquillity in his own household, but still more for these in the affairs of his city. . . . Wise men say that good citizens should undertake the affairs of the republic and bear the burdens of their patria . . . to maintain the general well-being of the citizens.

(Alberti 1971, 135)

This unity, however, did not mean simply that learning was a prerequisite to good conduct. Cultivation worked from both ends: The judgment cultivated in experience fed the life of reason. Gianozzo Manetti reversed the traditional order of precedence when asked to say what is the duty of life. For him, it was "agere et intelligere," to do and to understand (in Rice 1958, 48). For Petrarch, knowledge is the product of a dutiful, active life, "not the short work of several years, as is perfection in other arts, but the prize of a lifetime of constant and prolonged effort" (1991, I, 12, p. 34). "Humanity" is thus the perfection of the individual as a citizen. The highest good of the individual is honestas, "the pure good desirable per se and, in the service of others, uncontaminated by any selfish purpose" (Lorch 1988, 73–74). Indeed, all Petrarch's virtues are social virtues—honestas, fortitudo, justitia, prudentia, and modestia.

As the humanisti tore themselves away from the ossified intellectualism of the universities, they retained from Christianity a richer sense of the relation between the social and the personal. Cicero, for whom otium and neg-otium were of...


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