Philosophical humanism was a strain of Renaissance thought which, like the other strains of humanism, creatively made use of the existing philosophical schools to shed new light on contemporary problems. It was chiefly concerned with Platonism, for in the mid-fifteenth century the Greek works of Plato were recovered in full by the West and began to inject a new spiritual vitality into a Western intellectual life long dominated by the “secularizing” tendency of Aristotelianism.
One prominent example of philosophical humanism is Nicholas of Cusa, who lived from about 1401 to 1464. Nicholas received a degree in canon law, and participated in the Councils of Basel (dealing with reform of the papacy) and Ferrara-Florence (dealing mainly with the reunion of West and East). He was something of a polymath, writing works on theology, canon law, jurisprudence, mathematics, metaphysics, and natural science.
Nicholas was very interested in the question of “how can we know about God,” and to this end he developed his idea of “learned ignorance,” or, the relativity of finite beings’ knowledge of infinite truth. He describes human knowledge as being a “coincidence of opposites,” and pictures the relationship of our knowledge of truth to truth itself as the imperfect coincidence of a polygon whose angles continually decrease with a perfect circle against which it is set.
Perhaps as a corollary of the idea that finite beings should not be overly dogmatic about their claimed knowledge of the infinite, Nicholas developed at length an argument for concord between various seemingly completely contradictory positions. In his dialogue “De pace fide,” he brings together a diverse array of religions in conversation about what, if anything, they can all hold in common. Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Tartar all converse in a friendly manner with each other, dialectically weighing options as they rationally ascend (in Platonic fashion) from the world of mere appearances to the world of the reality, Divine Love itself.
As a Christian, Nicholas of course believes that Christianity is superior and that where other religions contradict it they must be corrected by its authority. However, in a striking move for a man who was not otherwise concerned much with rhetoric (as most other humanists were), Nicholas’ whole dialogue “De pace fide” is based on the ideal of rationally persuading others to embrace one’s own position. In an interesting twist, though, the “rhetoric” employed by Nicholas’ St. Paul in his talks with the others is primarily aimed at their intellects, not their wills, as traditional rhetorical theory held. The conclusion of the dialogue is that despite all their seemingly enormous contradictions, the advocates of all these religions can agree on several core beliefs, including the existence of one God and the necessity of approaching him by faith in Christ. An optimistic conclusion, to be sure, but one fully in line with the best tradition of Christian Platonism within which Nicholas was working.
A second example of philosophical humanism is Montaigne, who lived from 1533 to 1592. Montaigne inherited great wealth from his father, who, uncommonly for a rich man, was very interested in the state of the common people who depended upon his family and made sure that his son acquired that interest as well. Montaigne lived through one phase of the horrific Wars of Religion that tore the Christian world apart in the wake of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, and he is sometimes known as a leading voice of Counter-Reformation “skepticism.” Montaigne’s best known work is the Essays, a lengthy collection of essentially autobiographical reflections on his own life and thoughts, colorfully illustrated with copious citations from ancient sources, which he uses sometimes in creative ways to undermine various certitudes of his contemporaries.
For purposes of this essay, it is important to say that Montaigne is an example of philosophical humanism in the sense that he uses philosophy to cut philosophy down to size. That is, if we may say that Petrarch was a “first order skeptic” in that he might have said “I know that I don’t know,” Montaigne is a “second order skeptic” in that he might have said “I don’t know that I don’t know – so I am just going to take my views on faith.” Obviously this position would result in a much less philosophically dogmatic explication of faith, and in this sense Montaigne’s views are quite contrary to Nicholas of Cusa’s, who thought that the spiritual life was primarily one of intellectual inquiry.
In his essay “On Experience,” for instance, Montaigne develops the theme that man’s best way of knowing anything is his own personal experience, but this is a way fraught with many difficulties which contribute great uncertainty to his quest. He focuses on the uncertainties of the experiential knowledge of doctors, for instance, and with a long digression about his own severe troubles with kidney stones, demonstrates how unreliable it is to take medical “knowledge” as being worth much.
In his essay “On Cruelty,” Montaigne helps to develop the emerging idea of toleration for different viewpoints. Though a loyal Catholic, he is deeply disturbed by the great willingness of many people to enforce their opinions with torture. As part of his philosophical attempt to break down excessive concepts of man’s dignity, Montaigne even dares to suggest that in some ways men are not much better than the animals, who certainly do not treat each other the way men treat each other.
Throughout his essays, Montaigne quotes liberally from a wide variety of ancient authorities, literary and philosophical, and the particular quotations he chooses often serve to undermine traditional confidences. He is fond, for instance, of quoting ancient skeptics, from Cicero to Pyrrho, in order to demonstrate the relativity of our knowledge claims and the ultimate need for faith in God and God’s Church. In another essay, he actually states that our place is simply to accept the ecclesiastical authority placed over us, not to question the extent of our obedience to it. In this way, Montaigne might be seen almost as an anti-philosophical humanist, for even though he is similar to, say, Socrates in questioning the extent of his knowledge, at the same time he is not willing to keep searching for truth once he has destabilized a dogmatic claim sufficiently to establish that our only recourse is to faith.