Important Lessons to be Learned from Civic Humanism

What social movements could learn from the Humanists of the Renaissance

One of the many gifts the Renaissance bestowed to humankind was the birth of Civic Humanism. This discipline evolved over the years into those we find more familiar such as the humanities and the liberal arts. Perhaps the most exciting thing about the beginnings of Humanism was how it came about.

The miracle that led to higher learning

In the final decades of the 14th century, the dictator Gian Galeazzo Visconti of Milan was attempting to build his empire by conquering all of northern Italy. Florence was one of the last holdouts against his forces.

The Milanese armies, who were far superior to the Florentine army, had the city of Florence under siege, and a victory for Milan was imminent. But suddenly, the dictator Visconti died from the bubonic plague right outside of the gates of Florence. The massive army of Milan withdrew, saving Florence from a sure defeat.

The Florentine leaders recognized their incredible fortune and wanted to prevent a future reoccurrence of this event. Florentine chancellors Leonardo Bruni and Caluccio Salutati reflected on why Florence had come so close to defeat.

They concluded that their educational system, which was based on medieval ideas, needed an upgrade. The existing educational approach was not producing city leaders and citizens that were competent and well-rounded enough to withstand a crisis like the Milanese siege.

The Birth of Civic Humanism

The birth of Civic Humanism

Florentine leaders then created a new educational system that would prepare their people for various civic roles. And they called it Civic Humanism.

This new system chose ancient Rome as an inspirational model. They began by focusing on the existing similarities between Florence and ancient Rome. Many of these were based on reading classical authors. From this, they adopted the belief that reading these classics would build a stronger Florence.

Citizens must participate in society and politics

To adequately prepare each citizen for their political role using this new approach, they also revived the ancient Roman view of politics. The Florentines concluded that human development could only be optimized by participating in public affairs and politics.

They viewed politics as an opportunity for significant public dialogue. It was during these discussions that people could debate and learn from different points of view. An education based on rhetoric and philosophy was the best way to communicate effectively.


Florence placed a high value on ethical politics

The objective of this new revolutionary educational system in Florence was to prepare every citizen for its civic role within their society. And they viewed philosophy and rhetoric as the two main categories of education.

Moral philosophy was the basis for making sound ethical decisions. They believed that every decision, especially those of a political nature, was basically moral. The study of rhetoric gave its people the powerful communication skills needed to convey their thoughts and ideas to others.

The Florentine society believes that citizens were not complete until they cultivated the ability to make sound judgments, followed by the powerful skills to communicate them. In Latin, these two skills were referred to as sapientia et eloquentia, or ‘knowledge and eloquence.’

Embracing the classics

The leaders of Florence held tight to the belief that reading the classics was the best way to learn moral philosophy and eloquence. But a massive problem for them was that many of those classics were not readily available.

Unfortunately, many of them were destroyed when barbarians invaded the late Roman Empire. Several others were hastily stashed in monastic libraries and various locations for safekeeping, only to be forgotten and lost.

Fortunately for the Florentines, they did have a small number of classics with which to begin their quest in Civic Humanism. These few classics happened to be available because rhetoric was taught in medieval universities.

The Progression of Civic Humanism

The progression of Civic Humanism

During the early Middle Ages, rhetoric was taught by memorizing long passages of Latin prose that expressed ideas and emotion. This was how a scholar learned to write good letters and make good public speeches as portions of these passages could be pasted directly into them.

The teaching of rhetoric sharply changed later in the Middle Ages. Rather than relying on memorization, students learned how to mimic the styles of the great classical authors. This meant that a thorough reading of the classics was mandatory.

It is important to stress here that these works were read primarily for how they were written, not so much for what was written. The humanists during those days understood that this practice would help them answer the most pressing questions facing their society.

The evolution and structure of Civic Humanism

The basic structure of the Civic Humanist education was, in many ways, a rehashing of the ancient Roman educational system. The system believed by the Romans to be best suited for their citizens was known as the liberal arts. There were seven subjects within these liberal arts, and those subjects were organized under a pair of subheadings.

The first subheading was called the Trivium and contained three subjects. They included Latin grammar, logic, and rhetoric, which were the arts of communication. These eventually became known as the eloquentia of Humanist education.

The second subheading consisted of four subjects and was called the Quadrivium. The topics in this group were geometry, mathematics, music, and astronomy. These subjects were considered to be the content of the knowledge to be communicated to others. They became known as the Humanist sapientia. Humanists later added a few more subjects to this group, such as poetry, history, and literature.

The Humanists referred to their educational system as the Studia Humanitatis, which means the ‘study of the humanities’ or the study of being human.

Lessons Learned from Civic Humanism

Lessons learned from Civic Humanism

The overall objective of this Humanist education was to enable people to achieve their full human potential. When people learn to be their very best, they also become the best citizens.

The leaders of Florence exhibited extraordinary wisdom in preventing future invasions. Rather than building higher city walls or investing in the military, they placed more value on human will and intellect. Here are some valuable lessons to be learned from this remarkable society that existed over 600 years ago.

  • To reach good decisions, one must learn to think properly.
  • To think properly, one must strengthen their sense of logic.
  • The best solutions are those made by groups whose members have the same objective.
  • Different points of view are not attacks; they are new information.
  • The most influential human skill is communication.
  • The ultimate state of humanity is to accept oneself.
  • Wisdom is not judgment; wisdom is the relinquishment of judgment.
  • Dialogue and compromise are the best way to solve problems, not violence.