Humanism in the Early Modern World
The term ‘humanism’ was a newly rediscovered idea brought upon to the early modern world during the fifteenth century. It is described as the “manner of seeing the world which, as it’s name implies, placed man rather than God at the center” (928). This rejection of all supernatural powers made for the humanistic viewpoint the authors in the early modern world wrote with. Although many of the early modern world texts we read this semester touched on humanism, the ones that I believe had it be most prevalent were Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron and William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Many look at the humanistic values today as means of describing the way the modern world was built through science. Although there were many things unexplainable by science, the writers of that era had set their world to revolve around the humanistic approach.
Giovanni Boccaccio was a humanist who wrote the well-known story Decameron. The story tells of several men and women who escape the city of Florence during the harsh events of the Black Plague. Amongst the story, the humans chose the way they lived their life. These humanistic tendencies put forth the plot of the whole tale. Their human ability represented the outcome of their personal future. The chaos that followed the Black Plague enabled humans to come together and figure out what they wanted to do themselves. They didn’t rely on the spirituality of God to determine their faith but instead focused on fully embracing their human life.
In Decameron, there are no mystical or magical occurrences. Boccaccio takes us to the very real and cruel setting of Florence during the plague. He captures the horrors within the city through his vivid imagery. Boccaccio writes this imagery by saying, “One day, for instant, the rags of a pauper who had died from the disease were thrown into the street, where they attracted the attention of two pigs. In their wonted fashion, the pigs first of all gave the rags a thorough mauling with their snouts after which they took them between their teeth and shook them against their cheeks. And within a short time they began to writhe as though they had been poisoned, then they both dropped dead to the ground, spread-eagled upon the rags that had brought about their undoing.” (939). This brutal reality we read about allows us to see why humans would think in the ethical way they do. With all of the harsh consequences surrounding them, it’s easy to lose faith and depend on merely your self.
Finally, we see humanism shown as a metaphor when the group composed of ten people flees Florence based on their own decision to. Rather than choosing to stay in the grieving city, they chose to act on free will and not follow the rules already predisposed upon them. The social normality and regulations were all wiped out from their minds as they chose the path of self-governance. The story is almost touching on the term ‘survival of the fittest’ through the characters. Rather than staying and having a feeling of guilt encompass them, they choose a path defining the true meaning of humanism. Although they do feel remorse and sadness over the deaths of people, their primary interest is in saving themselves.
William Shakespeare is another writer during the early modern period that shows the nature of the universe through humanism in The Tempest through several ways. Mostly all of the characteristics of humanism revolve around the protagonist, Prospero. Prospero, followed humanistic values and focused on his own emotions rather than the emotions he should be feeling when believing in a higher power. Unlike Decameron, in The Tempest there is a bit more enchantment in the sense that Prospero uses his magic as a weapon. His books symbolize the power he has and is a metaphor on how he later takes on to be the role of “God” on the island he is stuck on. He uses himself to self govern and dictate the ways of life for others. He commands and punishes the people of the island whenever a situation occurs. I believe Prospero was very power hungry, which led to a lot of decisions fueled by his motivation to be in charge. He describes his past as being the Duke of Milan and how important he was as a prince. I think he still craves this attention and power, which, fuels his negative characteristic traits and touches on humanism. Humanism is what placed an importance for Prospero’s leadership and individualism. Due to Prospero being as power greedy as he was, we can see an example of humanism shown in Prospero’s sole concern for himself. He even calls on the spirit Ariel and she replies by saying, “All hail, great master, grave sir, hail! I come to answer thy best pleasure; be’t to fly, to swim, to dive into the fire, to ride on the curled clouds, to thy strong bidding task” (1097). This shows Ariel’s willingness to obey Prospero due to his power. As the ruler of the island, he wants to take the humanistic approach and live life through his values instead of living by preset rules.
In Act IV, Prospero also disregards the importance of dreams. “We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life, Is rounded with a sleep. Sir, I am vex'd;Bear with my weakness; my, brain is troubled.” (1133). This is an example of a humanistic quote among many that Shakespeare incorporates into The Tempest. There is to be no fantasy that is associated with dreams because of the realistic approach to looking at life.
Overall, we see how Prospero’s life is focused on his self-governance and not the belief of magic or illusion. Perhaps the most important example of humanism in The Tempest is shown towards the end in Act V and the epilogue. In the epilogue we see that Prospero decides to destroy his magic abilities with his closing statement to the readers. “Now my charms are all o’erthrown, and what strength I have’s mine own, which is most faint. Now ‘tis true I must be here confined by you or sent to Naples. Let me not, Since I have my dukedom got and pardoned the deceiver, dwell In this bare island by your sell, but release me from my bands….” (1144). Here, Prospero shows the humanistic values he holds as he focuses on self-government and relies only on himself.
I believe Shakespeare wrote his characters with the humanistic approach just as Boccaccio did in terms of showing that humans would tend to focus on themselves first as opposed to others. There will be people opposing humanism like the character of Caliban in The Tempest, but mostly, texts from the early modern world all have the same ideals. To understand humanism is to understand stressing on the importance of scientific nature rather than focus on the divine. The dignity and worth of all of the characters we read are of utmost importance to them and their dependency on faith seems to be the furthest thing on their mind. The rational thoughts composed throughout the texts of the early modern world all have the same similarities. The search for truth, morality, and reality are all done through the support of human’s best interests at heart.
In conclusion, for all the reasons stated above, I believe the humanistic approach to life was one that could be excellently argued and described. Shakespeare, Boccaccio and many more authors during the early modern world period wrote texts that embodied the philosophy of humanism and showed that modern science was the way to the universe. With humanism, there was to be no idea that the cosmos or supernatural beings made up the world. A person’s dedication and mindset solely revolved around governing themselves and focusing on their own abilities and free will. There is no denying that humanists are similar to naturalists with a focus on the origin of a planet in a rational way. Humanists take pride in seeking knowledge for themselves and relish in the ability to think freely with no rules or spiritual faiths holding them down.