THE AUGUSTINIANS AND HUMANISM (1)
To apply the term "humanism" to the fourteenth century is using a word that in fact was not coined until 1808 by a German educator, F. J. Niethammer.
Even so, Christian humanism, in the sense of a philosophical union of Christian and humanist principles, has been traced back to at least the twelfth century.
Humanism attained its full bloom in the era of the Renaissance, which began in Italy.
But centuries earlier Dante Alighieri of Florence (1265 – 1321) gives strong evidence of this movement.
Humanism does not elevate ordinary human beings to the status of gods, nor does it deny the primacy of God.
Instead, it seeks to celebrate humanity and place the serving of fellow human beings as one of the highest Christian duties.
A humanist style of approach was nevertheless a prelude to the Renaissance, and Augustinians of this particular approach became influential in the Order of Saint Augustine after the year 1370, particularly in Florence and Rome.
Relative to the size of the other mendicant orders (with the Dominicans and Franciscans generally three times more numerous that the Augustinians), the Augustinians produced far more friar-humanists.
Only an Augustinian would preach on the subject of a return to founding principles accompanied by recommendations to emulate the ethical examples of Aristotle, Plato, Socrates and Pythagoras.
More than any other mendicant order, the Augustinians developed a conception of eremitical (hermit) life that was authentically intellectual. This was a life that Petrarch wholeheartedly endorsed.
By virtue of their legendary foundation in Tuscan hermitages, the Augustinians claimed to be the unchallenged custodians of a classically-inspired life of learning, in a solitude that was a barrier for the distractions and corruptions of urban living.
A number of these humanist Augustinians went on to be elected to the position of Prior General of the Order of Saint Augustine. In humanism, members of the Order of Saint Augustine saw merit and potential for the Christian Faith. They opted to join and contribute to this movement, rather than to ignore or resist it.
Usually they were men who saw the church in need of reform, and hoped that humanism might become part of the change that was necessary for the Church.
In the fourteenth century not much more than a century after its Grand Union, the Order of Saint Augustine lay foundations for its tradition of patronage of and participation in secular learning.
This was immortalised by the association of members of the Order of Saint Augustine with Francesco Petrarch (1304 – 1374) and Giovanni Boccaccio (1313 – 1375), the two early lights of the Renaissance in Italy.
It is therefore helpful to focus on what Petrarch learned from Augustine.
The Augustinian tradition was a strong and vital tradition all throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. Even so, it was eclipsed in the schools by Scholasticism (the philosophy coming mainly from the work of the Dominican, Thomas Aquinas).
From Augustine, Petrarch learned that the only proper study for a human being to engage in was to study oneself, to look within oneself and work within oneself to guarantee eternal salvation.
This idea would eventually develop into the hallmark of humanist belief, the dignity of humanity.
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