What Humanities mean

Written on January 18, 2016 by Susana Torres Prieto in Arts & Cultures & Societies

1127By Susana Torres Prieto, Professor of Humanities at IE University and IE Business School.

We often hear –though maybe less often than we should­– especially in academic circles, the debate about the crisis of the Humanities in our current world. Within academic circles, particularly among Humanities scholars, it bears the grim tint of a lost war against a powerful enemy, the Sciences, as if the Sciences and the Humanities did not share many more things than those that set them apart. Such antagonism, based upon the fallacy of using different and incompatible methods (inductive vs. deductive), easily challenged in the fields of medicine or historical linguistics, or the misrepresentation of truth as something empirically testable has led us, to a certain extent, to the mess we are in now.

As Emilio Lledó reminded us in the speech given on the occasion of his reception of the prize Princesa de Asturias last October, the Humanities are essential for an education for freedom and justice. The term Humanities, as defended by Prof. Lledó, carries within a myriad of meanings that have been added to the original term since its first usage, and whose close analysis would help us understand why they are so radically necessary.

In a recently published book bearing the title The Human and the Humane, the Classics Professor of the University of Southern Denmark, Christian Høgel, traces back the history of the term in order to explain two of the main meanings currently associated with humanity nowadays, namely, human as humane, humanitarian, and human as pertaining to human beings, from which its associations with Humanities as an academic discipline derive.

From the first instances of the use of humanitas in Stoic circles as a term linked to natural law, and therefore as a guarantor of general rights for human beings (27) to the very famous, though often wrongfully attributed, line of “homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto”, a line by a character of Roman comedy by Terence, Høgel is able to navigate through the history of the term, and, most importantly, though its semantic associations in the course of almost 2,000 years to prove a clear point: that the defence of rights and, eventually, as we will see, the defence of peace lies in what makes us human by contrast to other living beings in the world: our capacity for reasoning and, most importantly, for communication.

Probably the first person who made that association, that a morally impeccable behaviour could be taught, and therefore learnt, was Cicero, and to his works and examples Høgel dedicates one whole chapter of his book in which he clearly proves another main point of the book, that the humanitas, in any of the meanings we assign to it today, is a Roman invention. He conclusively demonstrates that, at the beginning, it was the term chosen to translate both the Greek philantropia (meekness) and paideia (education) (44), but that its link to  the defence of human rights is fully Roman, to by precise, fully Ciceronian. Moreover, Cicero admitted that humanitas could be universal and could be transmited. Admittedly, Cicero’s conceptualization of humanitas as an educational concept was to be buried until the emergence of the concept of studia humanitatis in the early Renaissance, and in between the concept of humanitas was going to be used either as an equivalent to ‘meekness’ or ‘hospitality’, or either as a way of defining the non-divine nature of Christ, his humanity. In this fascinating journey through the uses in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, Prof. Høgel uses examples from Lactantius and Petronius, from Thomas Aquinas to Meinhard of Bamberg and John of Salisbury, to explain and lead us to the (re)adoption of the Ciceronian concept in the early Renaissance in the extensive use of the studia humanitatis. And then Høgel explains a fact that is little known today, that the Humanities, as a discipline of study, commenced as a philological endeavour, not a philosophical one. The studia humanitatis was linked to the reassessment and renovation of Latin vocabulary and structures as copied from Ancient sources, and it therefore focused on the study of Latin Classics, regardless of the type of text, in order to achieve a better form of literary language, and, by those means, an educational ideal (102). It would not be until the end of the 14th century when the connection between ‘ideal’ or ‘beautiful’ form of expression linked to a ‘ideal’ or ‘moral’ type of man was made, the same connection of concepts that Cicero, with his Stoic background, had made almost 1,500 years ago. And almost a century more had to pass until the later Humanists, Colet, More and, most importantly Erasmus, in trying to find moral reasons to oppose religious wars in the lines of the Bible, applying, again, a philological principle, the so-called ‘grammatical method’ considered that the study of Humanities, the persuasiveness of the discourse, was the best tool human beings had to avoid bloodshed and to defend their rights (108).

Despite the philological background of his author, this book is not only a detailed and serene defence of philology as an academic discipline (almost extinct today) but an impassioned argument of what is it that links the Humanities and its study to the human-ness in all of us, regardless of our occupation, and why its opposition to any other academic discipline is as inane as trying to separate speech from thought.


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