Humanism and Neohumanism: Towards a New Renaissance

Dr. Marcus Bussy

Presented at the NHE Global Conference in Australia

By Dr. Marcus Bussey

Humanism was a European intellectual movement that emerged in Italy in the middle of the 14th Century. A number of cities became centres of great intellectual activity – these included Florence, Bologna, Milan, Rome, Ravenna, Pisa and Sienna. The thrust of this movement was a growing confidence in the human ability to understand the world around them. Many thought that this was achieved by going back to the ancient achievements of Rome and Greece but in fact it rested more on the ability to account for what we observed: i.e. a scientific mind was emerging. This mind was bent on improving the lot of humanity. It did not differentiate between improvements in science, mechanics and engineering and improvements in art, music and poetry. What was key was a new aesthetic capacity and also a rationality that was bent on reason and logic. The humanism of Italy rapidly spread throughout Europe and is now associated with the Renaissance. It made it hard to maintain church related dogmas and ultimately lead to the Reformation.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man

The movement was initially Christian in tone, even though the Catholic Church viewed it with suspicion. At times the church even threatened humanists with burning at the stake. Ultimately it was a force that soundly counteracted the dogmas of faith-without-reason. It did keep at its heart a desire to overcome socio and geo-sentiment and saw humanity as one and as ‘the measure of all things’ – best captured in Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man pictured here. There are a number of idle examples of Humanism from this time. Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466/9 – 1536) is one example as is Thomas More (1478-1535) who invented the idea of utopia. Miguel Cervantes (1547-1616) who wrote Don Quixote is another. One of my favourites is Sebastien Castellio (1515-1563) who took Humanist thinking to a new level by arguing that though the human mind can reason well enough it does not have the capacity to determine absolute Truth. For him truth was relative and there was always room for doubt; similarly he argued if we had a just and loving God it seemed illogical to suppose that people who had never heard His message should be sent to Hell by default – this is an astonishing insight for the 16th Century!

The Reformation was in many ways the child of Humanism. It led to some terrible wars lasting over the next 150 years. By the time this was over intellectuals saw the woes of humanity as premised on Christian intolerance. The way forward was a secular humanism which ultimately resulted in both the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. The former was atheistic in tendency while the latter though Christian internalised the religious spirit in the private domain. Both in their own way led to a materialist understanding of reality.

Humanism and the Renaissance are intimately entwined in European history and laid the foundation for the kind of intellectual work that lead to the amazing energy of the last two centuries.

Neohumanism is a reinterpretation of Humanism proposed by P. R. Sarkar (Liberation of Intellect; 1982). It takes the universal aspiration of Humanism, to reach beyond the limitation of humanity and strive for unity at the social level, and suggests a universalism that includes all animate and inanimate existence. Humanity is thus part of a great whole and our job is to increase the radius of our heart’s love. Furthermore, this whole is taken to be conscious, thus human isolation is broken down. We are never alone, as Sarkar insists. Rather we are bound together in an infinite network of relationships that spans material, intellectual and spiritual realities. Sarkar has argued that we will have/are having a new Renaissance as a result of this significant shift in consciousness. The new Renaissance heralds a new dawn in the evolution in consciousness.

This new Renaissance is found in the works of those pushing the boundaries of the knowable, trying to out think thinking, and challenge the ability of any system to be comprehensive, save in its omission of comprehension. As indigenous American pedagogue Sandy Grande argues, “no theory can, or should be, everything to all peoples—difference in the material domain necessitates difference in discursive fields” (2004, p. 166).

Both Renaissances developed new modes of educating. The European Renaissance had the seven ‘liberal arts’ of grammar, rhetoric, logic, geometry, arithmetic, music and astronomy; Neohumanism has the seven ‘liberating rationalities’ of empiricism, service, character development, universalism, ethics, aesthetic science, and spiritual practice. The seven liberal arts are idealist in nature whereas the seven liberating rationalities are pragmatist in nature. This meant that humanism remains an intellectual movement that approaches human social process theoretically and seeks to rearrange the social order politically. Neohumanism on the other hand is a pragmatic movement that constructs reality through physical, intellectual and spiritual activity. This constructive approach Sarkar called ‘cult’ – the root of words such as culture and cultivated.

This rethinking of education pushes us away from a unified worldview to one which is multiple and layered (i.e. deals with the physical, the mental and the spiritual). In this recognition of the layered nature of reality in which ‘diverse movements of the infinite’ generate hybrid formulations, new educational possibilities appear. This new Renaissance also reinvigorates the humanism of the European Renaissance which challenged humanity to see itself as one family rather than as tribal units. Sarkar developed Neohumanism to extend this task of humanism to the entire universe. Neohumanism is one of the voices of the emergent Renaissance of critical consciousness in which human identity expands from tribal allegiance to species, i.e. the humanist project, to a universalist recognition of self as participant and co-creator in the universe of forms.

Dr. Marcus Bussey is a Research Fellow in Regional Futures in the Sustainability Research Centre and a Lecturer in World History and Sustainable Futures at the University of the Sunshine Coast and an Associate at Prout College. His recently completed thesis on educational futures can be found at: