03.07.03, Fubini, Humanism and Secularization

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Charles G. Nauert

The Medieval Review baj9928.0307.003


Fubini, Ricardo. King, Martha, trans.. Humanism and Secularization: From Petrarch to Valla. Series: Duke Monographs in Medieval and Renaissance Studies, vol. 18. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003. Pp. viii, 306. ISBN: 0-8223-3002-4.

Reviewed by:
Charles G. Nauert
University of Missouri-Columbia

Humanism and Secularization is a collection of essays, but two characteristics give it the unity of a single work. First, it focuses on a well-defined and closely-related group of individuals. Second, it presents a consistent interpretation of its rich and carefully analyzed sources. Thus it is a powerful statement of the author's approach to Renaissance humanism, which views Quattrocento humanism as a self-consciously anti-medieval and secular movement among scholars who sought inspiration from the languages and literatures of ancient Greece and Rome.

These essays appeared in Italian as Umanesimo e secolarizzazione da Petrarca a Valla (1990). The translation omits three of the eight Italian essays, but the most important ones are here. Part of the book's unity comes from its sharp focus on two major figures of Quattrocento humanism, Poggio Bracciolini and Lorenzo Valla. Other humanists (Coluccio Salutati, Leonardo Bruni, and a number of lesser-known figures) also receive attention; and there is a sweeping reinterpretation of Petrarch that presents him as a true precursor of the secular mentality of the Quattrocento, cut off from the later humanists by an intervening generation of cautious Petrarchans (Boccaccio, Salutati, and Jean de Montreuil) who tempered or even subverted the latent radicalism of Petrarch but then faced a rebellion by a third generation of radical young humanists led by Bruni and Poggio. Fubini's target is the tendency of much twentieth-century scholarship to minimize or even deny the degree to which Renaissance humanism rejected not only medieval scholasticism but also the whole medieval heritage, including the assimilation of Christianity into European civilization. Briefly stated, his thesis is that the main line of development in Italian humanism, from Petrarch onward, was toward a secularization of European thought and the creation of an autonomous lay culture that sought its moral and intellectual values in classical rather than Christian sources. Humanists employed their mastery of classical languages and literature to attack the credibility of the medieval scholastic tradition and the cultural authority of the clerical intellectuals (mainly mendicant friars) who continued to uphold the values of the Middle Ages.

Fubini is not leading readers back to the nineteenth-century anticlerical historiography that viewed Renaissance humanism as the beginning of modern secularism, but he insists that the humanists were a self-conscious community of scholars who had aims far broader than mere promotion of the studia humanitatis as an educational curriculum. They constituted "a real cultural movement," self-consciously anti-traditional and determined to replace the clerical and scholastic culture of the Middle Ages with a secular one inspired by the great pagan authors of Antiquity. Fubini is indirectly critical of P.O. Kristeller's insistence that humanism was not a philosophy. Perhaps not exactly a philosophy, but it was a movement that upheld a secular, this-worldly moral position that its leaders had discovered in the writings of pre-Christian moralists like Cicero and Seneca. Most of its major figures explicitly rejected the ascetic values of medieval Christendom, a tendency represented here by Poggio's glorification of his status as a layman and his flat refusal to consider becoming a priest, even at a time when he was a functionary of the ecclesiastical establishment at Rome. In the case of Valla, Fubini shows that even when he cited patristic authorities like Lactantius and Augustine to demonstrate that his ideas were not incompatible with Christianity, these citations really emphasized the Fathers' borrowings from their own classical sources and did not constitute a foundation for a genuinely Christian world-view.

The first of these five essays opens by describing a debate between Leonardo Bruni and Flavio Biondo over Bruni's claim that the common people of ancient Rome did not speak Latin but used a vernacular comparable to modern Italian. The Latin language found in the classical authors was limited to the educated classes. Discussion of these opposing opinions takes Fubini into consideration of the whole language question of the Italian Renaissance, including the uneasy relationship between Latin and the vernacular and the conclusion of those who studied the changes in Latin from antiquity through the Middle Ages (such as Salutati) that decline from the linguistic perfection of Cicero's time to the corrupt Latin of modern times was virtually inevitable.

The second essay studies use of patristic references in the moral writings of the humanists. This chapter contains his reinterpretation of Petrarch and his claim that Boccaccio and Salutati transformed Petarch into a model Christian poet and a moral paragon rather than viewing him for what he really was, a determined foe of the whole medieval heritage and the real founder of humanism as a movement toward a new culture founded on the classics. While Petrarch cited Augustine to defend his love of classical studies from conservative critics, his personal letters rarely cite the Fathers; and he openly rejected the hostile judgment on Rome passed by Augustine in De civitate Dei. Petrarch also rejected medieval moral literature, an approach that reappeared in the works of Poggio. Poggio's highly personal Stoic moral philosophy rejected the harshness, asceticism, and pessimism of Christian Stoicism. For him, utility, not abstract principles, constituted the proper foundation of an educated man's morality. Fubini criticizes Ernst Walser's attempt to interpret Poggio as a pious Christian who sought to unite classical moral philosophy with Christian faith. Poggio, he shows, despised the clergy. His dialogue De avaritia is critical both of monastic asceticism and of all attempts to found morality on an inflexible set of rules. Turning to Valla, Fubini also rejects Mario Fois' contention that Valla's famous ethical dialogue, De voluptate (On Pleasure), was an attempt to uphold Christian principles against what Fubini calls "the inevitable 'Averroists.'" Valla shrewdly borrowed traditional moral exempla from Augustine and several classical authors to uphold pleasure as the true foundation for morality. In other words, Fubini demonstrates how Valla subverted his Christian authorities by citing them directly contrary to their own intentions.

The third essay continues to trace the secularization of moral thought by analyzing Poggio's hostility to the popular Franciscan preacher of moral revival, St. Bernardino. Mendicant preaching impressed Poggio as the product of a lust for power, veiled by hypocrisy. He belittled the sermons of mendicant revivalists as theatrical and ineffectual. Fubini's fourth essay is a close study of Poggio's works on moral questions. This chapter also develops further the reinterpretation of Petrarch as a basically secular, anti-ascetic foe of medieval Christian culture. Poggio, who recaptured Petrarch's spirit, is hostile to rule-based morality and skeptical of the church's ability to create real Christians through a combination of ascetic rules and ineffectual exhortations. Reformist exhortations are merely a hypocitical mask for the clergy's avarice and lust for power. Pagan moral thought, he claims, is simpler and more realistic about human nature. Christian perfection is beyond human ability. Poggio's De varietate fortunae depicts a world that is disorderly and not comprehensible by human reason.

The fifth and final essay concentrates on Valla's youthful dialogue De voluptate, which he later revised and retitled De vero bono (On the True Good) in order to mask its radical departure from tradition and its endorsement of a basically Epicurean moral philosophy that took pleasure as the universal goal of all human activity. Fubini contends that the sharply anti-traditional spirit of the first edition remained consistent through all recensions and that the later revisions were made for prudential reasons. Although Valla cites patristic authors (especially Lactantius and Augustine) as well as Cicero, he followed none of them, exploiting the Fathers in support of his attack on philosophical rationalism but rejecting Augustine's subordination of sensual pleasure to the ultimate goal of enjoyment of God. His target, Fubini maintains, is not just scholastic Aristotelianism but Christian theology of all knds. In De voluptate, traditional Stoic rationalism is subjected to attacks by both his Epicurean spokesman and his Christian spokesman. Valla uses Pauline fideism to undermine speculative theology, but his real goal is to uphold "an absolute philosophical rationalism," not to endorse Christian faith. Fubini's essays are backed by an impressive array of citations from the works of the humanists.

The reader may still wonder whether the nonreligious secularism of Bruni, Poggio, and Valla represents all aspects of Quattrocento humanism. Traversari and Manetti come to mind as possible exceptions. But this vigorously argued book, while not returning to the ideologically blinkered conclusions of nineteenth-century anticlerical historiography, constitutes a sharp challenge to the tendency of much mid-twentieth-century scholarship to minimize the secular tendencies in Italian humanism and to transform the classicizing humanism of the fifteenth century into just a new way of upholding traditional Christian values.

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Author Biography

Charles G. Nauert

University of Missouri-Columbia