Michael Moore (mimoore@siue.edu)

Southern Illinois University Edwardsville

41st International Congress on Medieval Studies, May 2006

BABEL Panel: Medieval to Modern Humanisms


A Miloszan Humanism?


In fullness now reposes the autumn day,

The grapes are pressed, the orchard is red with fruit

                                                            – Hölderlin

Humanism and the Flowers of Evil

In 2000, the critic George Steiner was invited to look back over the twentieth century, in an interview with L’Express. He pointed to the barbarism of a century marked by death camps, torture, deportation and famine, extending from 1914 to Pol Pot and the Rwandan genocide. The twentieth century proved to be the defeat of civilized culture, according to Steiner: “Education: philosophical, literary and musical culture, did not impede the horror. Buchenwald was situated a few kilometers from the garden of Goethe.” This was decisive: the ideal of humanity developed in the Enlightenment of the Eighteenth century had failed to humanize the world. The humanizing effect of the liberal arts also seems doubtful in the extreme. The humanities have become an isolating preserve in which the world is kept at bay. While reading King Lear or the Fleurs du Mal, we become deaf to the cry in the street. According to Steiner, his best student was the one who completely rejected his teaching and went on to become a doctor, serving the poor in China.

Humanism has been criticized in this way ever since the Second World War. In 1951, the anthropologist Lévi-Strauss argued that Europeans of the Enlightenment, when they spoke of humanity, did nothing more than project their own values and aspirations as an ideal of civilization: “they turned their condition into a model: their customs became universal aptitudes, their values absolute criteria for judging.” So now, in the conditions of “postmodern pluralism” the very concept of humanity seems suspect, unphilosophical, or even undemocratic. Yet Paul Ricoeur pointed to the problem that with the defeat of the Enlightenment it is difficult to theorize, let alone defend, the existence of human rights. A similar problem arises for historians.

The Meaning of the World

A quite different voice was raised in the wake of World War Two in the poetry and essays of Czeslaw Milosz, who endured the siege of Warsaw, and went on to live a life devoted to literature. I wonder if it is possible to outline a Miloszan humanism? The fourteenth-century humanist Nicholas of Cusa once spoke of his mystical search for God as a “spiritual hunt.” Milosz conveyed in many of his poems a similar hunt for the receding essence of the world: – and the effort to close one’s fingers around the past even as it fades from view: recalling days with a fellow poet long ago in Poland, Milosz said: “Great was that chase with the hounds for the unattainable meaning of the world.” Part of this chase for Milosz was always for the difficult, faded being of the human past. Here he finds it captured in an old Dutch painting:

Hans Post, his Brazilian landscapes painted around 1650…what moves me is a contrast between the earth and a group of people dead long ago…Brazilian Indians who disappeared both as particular beings and as a tribe. Solidarity with the tiny figures in whom our hopes and our troubles persisted for a while and can be looked at through a magnifying glass.

Solidarity. The dead have a claim on us with their long-forgotten passions and foibles, their delicate breath can still stir the hair on our necks. This regard even extends to the realities invoked by literature. In the poem “Undressing Justine” Milosz discovers and makes love to a character from an old Polish romance novel. The being of this delectable character is also human, and therefore worthy of being cherished: “Though you never existed, let us light candles / Here, in our study, or in our church.”

Milosz is one of the most important writers on the subject of time and memory since St. Augustine, and his work therefore has the effect on an historian like the smell of woodsmoke on an Autumn day. He was dismissive of those who would find in history the source of a program: “He who invokes history is always secure. / The dead will not rise to witness against him. / You can accuse them of any deeds you like. / Their reply will always be silence.” The dead require us to speak for them. This charge is laid on the poet, and the historian, both of whom are subject to visitations. Milosz found himself continually haunted by the uprising of people out of the past: a woman walking with a red umbrella in a sunlit field or an old priest blowing out candles in a dark church. It could happen as he gathered apricots: “I reach for a fruit and suddenly feel the presence / And put aside the basket and say: ‘It’s a pity / That you died and cannot see these apricots’…”

This is to notice something subtle in the fabric of life, which points back into the depths, and offers itself as a tenuous path toward the meaning of the world. This is the Spur, the vestige, always looked for by the historian. The presence is sometimes felt even at the reading desk of an archive.

What Does Humanism Say?

The Orkney poet George Mackay Brown explained his own work in similar terms: “I have a deep-rooted belief that what has once existed can never die: not even the frailest things, spindrift or clover-scent or glitter of star on a wet stone.” This is the essence of a Miloszan humanism: the endeavor to capture the world of coming-to-be and passing-away, above all, to hold and defend the traces of the fragile “human reed” of Pascal’s famous fragment. To quote the historian Jean Leclercq, “nothing is more constant in history than the ephemeral.” This is a burden that historical research must try to carry, even if it is clumsy, and less capable than poetry of handling those past lives with sufficient delicacy and gravity, or of capturing their reality in fine nets of language.

Humanism is a pilgrimage across the human and natural world; in a search for human dignity and, let it be said, for personal liberation in the study of literature, philosophy and history, especially the literature of the ancient world. Humanism desires to keep hold of the delicate frail things of the world and of humanity. Thus it is not surprising that since the Middle Ages, the study of the humanities has so often had to engage in a confrontation with crude social forces. Study of humanity and the natural world was undertaken to achieve an ideal of humanity in one’s own life, and this is often forgotten by scholars.

In the fifteenth century, humanists such as Jacques Lefèvre d’Etaples combined the cultural harvest of the ancient world (Aristotle, Hesiod) with the mysticism of Jan Van Ruusbroec and the somber piety of the Devotio moderna. D’Etaples became a student of the Dutch mystics while serving as librarian of the Sorbonne, and combined this spiritual quest with classical studies: thus his editions of the Nichomachean Ethics (1497) and the works of Nicholas of Cusa (1517) depict the two wings of his research. Wessel Gansfort, a central figure of the Devotio moderna, could draw on his knowledge of Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca, and even the curious work of Aulus Gellius. Such humanistic combinations served in the nourishment of individuals, as a new, worldly version of the traditional monastic contemplative life (vita contemplativa), or the vita solitaria of the hermits. Renaissance humanism emerged directly out of earlier medieval humanism, and the monastic quest for a philosophical life of direct confrontation with the truths to be discovered in patristic and classical studies.

Medieval Humanity and Humanism

Consider the coiled gloom of Agobard, writing in the Carolingian ninth century: “All lovers of the world, all seekers after trifles or earthly things are enemies of God.” Humanity would come into view for Agobard in commenting on the Apocalypse, on Gog and Magog (Apoc.20, 7-10) only as: “The universal evil which is at work, which gained strength and will gain strength through human beings.” Agobard followed Augustine in regarding humanity as a lump of perdition (massa perditionis). While some will enter the Heavenly Jerusalem, most will remain in that city of evil men, the Civitas Diaboli.

Out of the rocky soil of the ninth and tenth-century monastery, a later flowering of studies emerged, along with a new spirituality : an “integration of [the monastic ideal] to the most lofty and subtle mystical doctrines, the most sublime spiritual experiences with their ancient basis…” In the monastery of Cluny, Carolingian authors such as Agobard were combined in a program of studies with historians and the Greek and Latin Fathers. Books were prized, and highly decorated beautiful copies were made. According to Leclercq, the monks loved “their content, their beauty, their utility. They helped the monks to pray…”. It was at Cluny that the old horror of human depravity was to some extent defrosted, as we can see in the creation of the Feast of All Souls’ Day. The highpoint of medieval humanism came in the culture of teaching and learning of northern France, especially in the cathedral school of Chartres of the twelfth century. Here the Seven Liberal Arts were studied in an atmosphere that allowed John of Salisbury to accept Virgil as a source of ancient wisdom.

Throughout these developments, the reading of Aulus Gellius can be taken as a symptom of humanism. The Attic Nights (Noctes atticae) is a work delectably interesting and unclassifiable, and somehow pointless. The best reason to read it is the intense pursuit of literary achievement and joy; and anecdotal contact with philosophers and other great persons of the classical past. Among the dense forest of citations from classical authors to be found in John of Salisbury, Aulus Gellius occurs frequently, alongside Juvenal, Seneca, Cicero and the historians Josephus, Suetonius, Tacitus, and Livy. While continuing to draw on Carolingian authors in his Policraticus, John turned to classical literature as a source of political knowledge and to support his pursuit of a philosophical life: his endeavor to find an epicurean middle way. We also see St. Jerome emerge as the patron of humanists.

Even while opposing the dangerous and crude political forces of his day, John of Salisbury found it vital to refresh his thinking in the literature of antiquity, and to observe, as if through a magnifying glass, the tiny, long-vanished figure of Cato the Censor, as he appears in the Attic Nights. Humanism, the study of literature and history, became an element of a spiritual and philosophical hunt for the unattainable meaning of the world.