Humanism

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The noun 'humanism' may refer to any of a variety of views or philosophical positions which, in different ways and for different reasons, give prominence to the abilities and/or welfare of human beings. The adjectives from 'humanism' are 'humanist' and 'humanistic', though the former is much the more common. The word 'humanist' may also be used as a noun to refer to a person who holds humanist views.

Nowadays the word 'humanism' is most often used to refer to the view that all religious beliefs are false and human beings must seek to make progress and achieve happiness through their own efforts. Humanism in this sense, sometimes known as secular humanism, is the creed of many atheists and agnostics, and is promoted in the United Kingdom by the British Humanist Association, which in its own words is 'a national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity' (www.humanism.org.uk).

There are, however, various forms of religious humanism, which give prominence to the abilities and/or welfare of human beings within a framework of religious beliefs. Some forms of religious humanism focus on human welfare, insisting, e.g., that the promotion of human welfare must be the primary purpose of morality. Other forms focus on human abilities, emphasising, e.g., the autonomy of human reason and its competence to resolve issues of religious doctrine without appeal to divine revelation or the authority of the Church. (It is in this latter sense that, e.g., the Cambridge Platonists may be described as humanists.)

Finally, Renaissance Humanism - in this use 'Humanism' is sometimes spelt with an initial capital - is the cultural movement which began in Italy in the fourteenth century and drew its inspiration from the classical authors of Greece and Rome. This movement - its leading figures include Petrarch (1304-1378), Boccaccio (1313-1375), Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), and Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) - was motivated by the belief that the study of Greek and Latin literature would lead to the advancement of knowledge and provide a basis for human progress. The term 'humanist' - or its Italian equivalent umanista - was first applied to the members of the movement because of this commitment to the study of classical literature, which was understood to embody a humanist world view. Renaissance Humanists were almost without exception Christians and so Renaissance Humanism may be regarded as a form of religious humanism. Indeed several popes who reigned during the period of the Renaissance and were sympathetic to the movement's ideals (e.g., Nicholas V (reigned 1447-1455), Pius II (reigned 1458-1464), Sixtus IV (reigned 1471-1481), and Leo X (reigned 1513-1521)) are sometimes referred to as Humanist Popes.

A particular form of handwriting arose with the Renaissance Humanists in which they copied manuscripts before the invention of printing. Developed principally by the copyist, scribe and bibliophile Niccolò de' Niccoli (1364-1437) at the court of Cosimo de' Medici in the first two or three decades of the 15th century, Humanist cursive script replaced Black Letter, or Gothic, as clearer to read and faster to write. It evolved into the Italic fonts familiar to all students - and, in modern form, the handwriting of a few.