Creating a Living Canon: The Humanist Project of Uniting Ancient and Modern

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Creating a Living Canon: The Humanist Project of Uniting Ancient and Modern

The humanist preoccupation with the glory of the ancients spans the entire length of the Italian Renaissance and surfaces in nearly all the writers from Petrarch to Castiglione. The precise use of classical writers varies depending on the purpose of the Renaissance writer’s particular work—they are held up as examples to be emulated by historians, as works essential to shaping good character in their readers by the educational writers, and as personal guides in the letters and treatises of the correspondents and philosophers. However, their invocations in humanist texts exhibit a common sense of the rediscovered continuity of human nature, a continuity that had been rashly denied by the monastic tradition of the Middle Ages but was now being revived as part of the humanist project. It would not be entirely accurate to say that the humanists longed for “a return to a better past,” because they largely accepted Christianity as the final truth, and to return to a pre-Christian age would be to return to perhaps a more vigorous secular life, but also to a spiritual darkness. Instead, they aimed to synthesize the learning of the ancients with the modern Christian world and to create a unified literary and philosophical tradition that would link their seemingly disparate civilizations and could be passed on to later generations as a cohesive canon.

The sense that such a unification is necessary for the broader culture because it is essential to the development of the individuals within it is propounded by the writers of the educational treatises, who advocate the liberal arts education as a means to obtaining the character worthy of a ruler and an intellectual. The liberal arts, by their very nature, include the classics—arms and letters for Vergerio, the writings of Cicero and the poets for Bruni, and the intense study of classical languages for Guarino. More than simply advocating their study, however, the educational writers incorporate the ancients’ own educational philosophies and practices into shaping their own programs. Vergerio, for example, writes that “the practice of the Spartans [of putting drunk slaves on display to show the baseness of drunkenness] seems to me by no means objectionable,” and that both Cato and Socrates exemplify the virtue of learning throughout their lives. The foundation of modern education upon tenets of classical educational philosophy exemplifies the idea of a continuous tradition from the Greeks through the moderns.

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