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The Self-Contradiction of Christian Humanism

Blas Uberuaga

Honors History 101

Section 1

Dr. Henberg

Dec 3, 1989

The Self-Contradiction of Christian Humanism

During the Renaissance, a new term appeared that was used to describe certain people and their work. This term was Christian humanism, and it was applied to some of the greater thinkers of the time. Men such as Petrarch, Pico della Mirandola, and Erasmus have been called Christian humanists. However, the term Christian humanism seems to contradict itself. Humanism is "the cultivation of the human personality so that the individual, with liberated intelligence and talent, could lead a life of dignity, self-reliance, and creativeness" (Classics II, p. 231). Humanism exalts the individual, while Christianity suppresses it. The extent of the contradiction depends on how Christianity is defined. If Christianity is simply defined as a belief in Christ, then a Christian humanist could exist. Humanism, however, developed out of the Middle Ages and, thus, the term Christian humanism, when applied to the Renaissance, should be examined under the medieval idea of Christianity. When examined in this way, I believe that Christian humanism is an outright contradiction and that no person could be both a practicing Christian and a follower of humanistic ideals. Prime examples of this failure to achieve harmony are illustrated in the writings of Pico della Mirandola and Petrarch.

In his Oration on the Dignity of Man, Pico della Mirandola claims that God has given man the power "to be reborn into the higher forms, which are divine." What Pico seems to be saying, or at least how I interpret it, is that man can enter heaven if he desires and works toward this goal, independent of God's help, because God has given man that power. Pico emphasizes the ability of the individual when he says this. This view strays from that of orthodox Christianity which says that the grace of God is necessary for people to achieve salvation. No man can enter heaven without the help of God. This is clearly the opposite of what Pico is saying. Later in his work, Pico describes a three-part philosophy that seems to be his idea of the requirements necessary for a person to achieve salvation. His philosophy consists of "nothing too much," "know thyself," and "Thou art." It seems that Pico believes a moderate life that involves the "investigation of all nature" along with an acknowledgement of God's existence is all that is necessary for a man to reach heaven. These beliefs are very harmonious with the ideas of humanism because they esteem the ability of the individual. Of course, they are in complete conflict wit those of Christianity. To achieve salvation by Christian values, a person is to live at one extreme of the virtues, not at the mean (for example, a person is not to live at the mean of pride and humility, but at the extreme of humility); pray to and worship God, not just believe in him; and follow a type of life that had Christ's life as the model. Again, humanism and Christianity come into conflict with each other.

Petrarch's My Secret shows more clearly how humanistic ideals come in direct conflict with Christian beliefs. This writing is an imaginary dialogue between Petrarch and St. Augustine in which Petrarch compares his beliefs and way of life to the Christian ideals. As he does so, he realizes that his humanistic way of life has led him away from a true Christian existence. Three specific areas that Petrarch examines that are traits of humanism are pride, ambition, and glory. According to Christian theology, people are supposed to free themselves from these traits in order to achieve a life more in accord with Christ. This life emphasizes humility, acceptance of life as it is, and living for the next world, not for glory on earth.

As shown in My Secret, a person who lives a humanistic life ends up neglecting or forsaking his Christian beliefs. Humanistic beliefs praise the abilities of the individual, and such praise will always be accompanied by pride and glory. Christian beliefs move the individual to live a life of humility. Each set of beliefs praise opposite traits in people. A humanist attempting to gain glory is living against the ideal Christian trait of humility. The same can be said of a person driven by pride and ambition.

The term Christian humanism defines an idea that implies a contradiction. I believe Christian humanism is meant to describe a person who has humanistic traits and goals and uses them in defense of his belief in Jesus Christ. However, a humanist can never really live the type of life that Christianity calls us to live. The ideals of Christianity and humanism conflict with each other. A humanist tries to do things that will lead to a life of dignity here on earth, while a Christian lives only for the next world. Because the two ideas are so different in meaning and attributes, I believe a Christian humanist cannot exist. Only if Christianity is limited in its definition can it and humanism exist in harmony.

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Last updated: Mon, 14 Mar 2005 - 0:26:45

 

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