Alasdair A. MacDonald, Zweder R. W. M. von Martels, Jan R. Veenstra, eds. Christian Humanism: Essays in Honour of Arjo Vanderjagt. Studies in Medieval and Reformation Traditions. Leiden: Brill, 2009. 492 pp. EUR 99.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-90-04-17631-7.
Reviewed by Patrick Hayden-Roy (Department of History, Nebraska Wesleyan University)
Published on H-German (March, 2010)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
Christian Humanism through the Ages
Christian humanism as a historical phenomenon has traditionally been studied as a subset of Renaissance humanism, gaining notice as an alternative perspective to the more conventional notion of humanism as a secular and secularizing philosophy. The volume under review, produced in honor of the American/Dutch scholar Arjo Vanderjagt, broadens this viewpoint, and views Christian humanism as a phenomenon with a meaningful life from late antiquity into the modern era. As such, this collection provides an encompassing if somewhat bewilderingly diverse set of studies that opens up a multitude of possible new subjects, topics, and approaches to the encounter of antiquity with Christianity. While the preponderance of contributors stem from Dutch institutions, the collection incorporates contributions by significant figures from American, British, and German universities. One cannot help but be impressed by the vitality of intellectual and scholarly activity generated by the institutions of higher learning in the Netherlands. And it is apt that the land of the Brethren of Common Life, Desiderius Erasmus, and Baruch Spinoza should provide the stimulus for a volume on this theme.
The volume presents twenty-eight articles divided into five broad categories: "Christianity and Humanism," "Humanism and Stoicism," "Humanism and Philosophy," "Humanism, Arts, and Sciences," and "Humanist Writing and Education." Though the thematic categories provide a certain integrative function, the enterprise has something of a grab-bag character, especially in the last two categories. More effective at bringing some focus to the work is the editors' introduction, which provides an admirably succinct and informative framing of the theme, and discussion of each article's significance for understanding Christian humanism. As they note, the term lacks a single definition, and the book is loosely focused on the conflicts that emerged between Christian and pagan knowledge within humanism. This loose context is partly a result of the Festschrift format, where scholars contribute some piece of their current scholarly enterprise, but also reflects the intractable nature of both humanism, with its ill-defined boundaries, and the diffuse encounter of Christianity with antiquity that framed and stimulated so much intellectual activity in the centuries from Augustine to the Enlightenment. The topic of the volume sprawls across the centuries, and represents one of the central dynamics of western intellectual life that has still not exhausted itself today, especially in our public life.
Overall, the articles in the collection make clear the degree to which the encounter of Christianity with classical pagan antiquity proved a stimulus for the development of the intellectual sophistication of the former. Since late antiquity, when Christian apologists increasingly found it necessary to explain their faith in terms that took into account the prevailing standards of rationality and philosophical rigor of the Greco-Roman philosophical tradition, Christian high culture had to respond to the demands of the classical legacy, either by refuting what conflicted, or assimilating what could be reconciled. Both tendencies are reflected in the articles. The articles open with Ron Witt's short piece, "Coluccio Salutati in the Footsteps of the Ancients." Salutati's career reflects the tensions humanists experienced when assimilating the legacy of the classical world. Witt shows how Salutati moved from a more stereotypically secular humanist engagement with the struggle to maintain virtue in the face of cruel fortune, a classic Stoic challenge nowhere framed in his early works by Christian concerns, to a "conversion" as a result of the influence of Francesco Petrarca, and the subsequent efforts to reconcile Athens and Jerusalem. This movement of mind from secular to sacred, from concern with the saeculum to the eternal, and from a morality aimed at nurturing virtues of value in this world to ones pleasing to God, describes the tension that animates much of the other thinkers and works investigated in the later pieces. The two pieces that follow exemplify this relationship. Volker Honemann's piece, "Christlicher Humanismus und Liturgie: Heinrich Bebel, Johannes Casselius und Leonhard Clemens verfassen Offizien zu den Festen des Heiligen Hieronymus und der Heiligen Anna," looks at humanist engagement with questions of the liturgy, while Berndt Hamm's article, "Rühmende Memoria: Der Zusammenhang von Verdiesseitigung und Religiosität in der Gedächtnispflege der Humanisten," discusses memorials of the sixteenth century that reflect how secular humanist emphases on fame or glory were shaped by the Christian emphasis on using the memory of great deeds to motivate the living to lead lives of godly virtue. In both cases the intersection of humanist engagement with letters and secular virtue is put in service to Christian worship and piety.
That this synthesis was often fraught with tension is reflected in a number of articles in the section titled "Humanism and Stoicism." The Stoic emphasis on virtue as its own end caused unease among Christian scholars, for whom virtue always pointed to sources and ends beyond the material world. István P. Bejczy's "Virtue as an End in Itself: The Medieval Unease with a Stoic Idea," makes this point, and shows what a variety of responses it generated, while pointing out that in some sense the concept of virtue as its own end proved attractive in the medieval setting, where it could be understood to point toward the contemplation of God, another interesting example of how readily seemingly contradictory principles underlying Christian and pagan precepts could be reconciled one to another. Alasdair MacDonald's "Florentius Volusenus and Tranquility of Mind: Some Applications of an Ancient Ideal," reinforces this point in his discussion of the work of Scottish humanist Gaius Volusenus.
The section that follows, "Humanism and Philosophy," points out the limitations of this interchange, and the failure of the Christian humanist framework to provide a stable basis for guiding human action. Perhaps the most interesting contribution to the volume leads off this section, Marcia Colish's "The De veritate fidei christianae of Juan Luis Vives." Vives's work, Colish argues, reflected the unique circumstances of Spain at his time, with its population of conversos and moriscos, to whom Vives directed his work, and in whom he sought to anchor Christian faith by demonstrating the superiority of Christianity in nurturing virtue. But in pursuing such an agenda he focused not on Christian dogma, but on the demonstrable truth of such an assertion using the tools of humanist rhetoric and rationality. She also points out the degree to which his assertions fail to provide a compelling argument for moriscos to believe in a harmonious fulfillment of their faith in the ideals of Christianity. This same inadequacy of Christian humanist perspective can be seen in the next selection, Peter Mack's "Montaigne and Christian Humanism." That Michel de Montaigne was both a humanist and Christian is undoubted, according to Mack, but for him the two stood apart. Montaigne takes from the ancients a willingness to allow the world to be material, but he maintains a commitment to Christian faith grounded in tradition and authority, so that it lies beyond the questioning of the humanist critic, or the need to demonstrate its truth through humanist learning. The penultimate article of the section, Han van Ruler's "The Philosophia Christi, Its Echoes and Its Repurcussions on Virtue and Nobility," takes the discussion of the Christian humanism of Erasmus into the age of Blaise Pascal and Thomas Hobbes, in both of whose works resonances of the Christian humanist ethos can be read, but whose philosophical pessimism reflects a movement away from the humanist concerns with moral choice and development and towards a more modern perspective, with Pascal's "exclusively religious position" or with Hobbes's "basically anti-philosophical view;" in both cases it did not necessarily pay to be virtuous, a shockingly anti-humanist thought.
Articles in the fourth section, "Humanism, Arts and Sciences," treat often ignored subjects. Though speculative fields of philosophy or the natural sciences were traditionally often seen as marginal to humanism, these selections demonstrate the complicated relationship of Christian thinkers from Augustine, Marsilio Ficino, and Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples to music, astrology, and magic, respectively. John North's article on Ficino, "Types of Inconsistency in the Astrology of Ficino and Others," shows the confusion of positions that marked humanist regard for astrology, whose presence in classical pagan literature was common, but whose determinism made problematic its reconciliation with Christian notions of God's providence and human free will. Ficino's attitude was emblematic of many other thinkers'.
The final section, "Humanist Writing and Education," includes a diverse selection of studies which do not cohere in a clear fashion, but which treat a much more conventionally "humanist" theme, good letters and their instruction. The first two articles, Peter Raedts's "Dutch Humanists and the Medieval Past," and Rudolf Suntrup's "'Höhere Bildung' im 17. Jahrhundert. Die Schola Carolina in Osnabrück auf dem Weg vom humanistischen Gymnasium zur Jesuitenuniversität," both document the humanist interest in history, but also humanists' willingness to perpetuate their own form of historical myth-making to support present-day concerns, an interesting counterpoint to humanist text critical attacks on ecclesiological mythologies.
The abundance of contributions to the volume makes it impossible to encompass in a review their entire substance. A few general perspectives do emerge from the volume as a whole. For one, the sheer fecundity and diversity of the encounter between the classical pagan world and Christianity becomes apparent. Christian humanism represents only one aspect within high culture of that encounter, but the degree to which that has shaped a tradition of reflection on the human condition and the cosmos is noteworthy. On the other hand, the inchoate quality of the volume reflects the diversity of trajectories within the intellectual life of medieval and early modern Europe that this encounter stimulated. And even though the topic itself can no longer be designated "cutting edge," it is clear that it continues to elicit academic study of great rigor and complication, diversity and significance.
Finally, in terms of the quality of the selections themselves, there is some unevenness. A number seem to reflect work in progress, or fragments of some larger projects. At times articles seem to break off midstream, and one wonders whether the exercise of greater editorial oversight in terms of what to include would have been beneficial. In addition, some topics stretch the boundaries of the "Christian humanist" theme, contributing to the somewhat muddy profile of the collection as a whole. But even the least of the contributions contains material of interest for the larger scholarly world, and none of it falls below the standard of a substantial engagement with texts and ideas worthy of study and reflection. Though few readers will find all these articles worth their attention, almost anyone engaged with the topic will find numerous contributions that throw light on their areas of scholarly interest.
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Patrick Hayden-Roy. Review of MacDonald, Alasdair A.; von Martels, Zweder R. W. M.; Veenstra, Jan R., eds., Christian Humanism: Essays in Honour of Arjo Vanderjagt.
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