The Sir Thomas More Circle Essay, Research Paper
By the beginning of the sixteenth century, before the deaths of Michelangelo or even Leonardo da Vinci, the renaissance movement in Italy had pretty much run itself out. In northern Europe, however (in Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, France, and England) humanism was just coming into its own. The northern humanists are sometimes called the Christian Humanists, as though the Italian humanists were not Christians, which, as I have said, I think in most cases they definitely were. One modern scholar, Gerald Walsh, defines the Christian Humanists as men who believed it was man’s priviledge to seek happiness in this life. They further believed, according to Walsh, that true happiness was based on reason, but that man best attained the goal of happiness when he was aided by divine grace. This new force of the Renaissance in the 16th century, which came from northern Europe, focused less on painting and sculpture and more on a program of practical reform in a wide range of areas, including religion, education, and government. Yet, as More’s Utopia makes clear, the humanists’ interests in practical reform were in tension with the humanists’ positions as members of the political establishment. They were also courtiers. Nevertheless, let me turn briefly to the humanists ideas for reform as these were put forth by members of the Sir Thomas More circle. You might at some point wish to consider More’s Utopia in this particular historical context.
First and foremost, perhaps, the members of the More circle vigorously supported the general humanist trend away from scholasticism and towards making rhetoric the basic subject of the educational curriculum; and for models of rhetoric they turned (as Petrarch had before them) to the classics, and especially to Cicero. But this return to the classics was not a turn away from Christianity; rather it was an attempt to find material with which to humanize what they took to be the essential Christian message.
Rhetoric, the study of communication and persuasion, was always associated with eloquence, and eloquence, to a humanist, presupposed two things: (1) a noble style and (2) wisdom. Eloquence, then, was the outward beauty mark of inward wisdom. Christianity provided the major source of wisdom and imitation of Cicero provided the noble (beautiful) style.
The impact of the humanists’ program for reform was due in large part to their emphasis on rhetoric, and this impact was deepened tremendously by the availability of the printing press. Desiderius Erasmus, especially, wrote continuously for the press, and the humanists generally were able to promulgate their ideas, their propaganda, much more widely than had been possible in the Middle Ages. They were also helped by the existence of Latin as an international language.
The members of the More circle were vitally interested in educational reform, and this reform, as I have already suggested, centered around a new emphasis on rhetoric and the classics. Because the humanists believed that reason was innate in man’s soul and that man’s will was free, they also believed that men could change from beasts to creatures not too far below God himself. Thus they believed in universal education, and some even believed in some form of public responsibility for the education of those who were unable to afford it themselves. As a rule, they deplored beating or ridicule as a means to compel learning. Their aim was to educate the whole man or woman, and so we often find among the required subjects music, drawing, and dancing, and they generally insisted on some from of physical exercise. Desiderious Erasmus, a Dutch Scholar, and Juan Luis Vives, a Spanish scholar, were perhaps the most active supporters of educational reform.