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Facets of Humanism in the Sixteenth Century

Updated on May 7, 2013

Humanism is defined as an emphasis on human learning, reason, and understanding, the beginnings of which are seen most prominently in the Early Modern period but that can also be seen as early as medieval drama. It is during the Early Modern period especially that society and institutions see major shifts in habits of thought, notably with human relationships and feelings. Though there was not always an outright rejection of authority, voices began to at least question such authority. Although humanism is largely concerned with how and why things work as well as an interest in human secular affairs, it also encouraged writers to deal with human emotions: love, pain, and perception of beauty as examples. Effects of humanist thinking are slowly emerging in plays such as the Second Shepherd's Play (c. 1500). The best example, however, of humanistic ideals in regards to secularism and challenges to authority comes to us from Christopher Marlowe's (1564-93) The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (pub. 1604). Other aspects of humanism, the exploration of human emotion, become apparent in sonnet sequences, such as with Sir Philip Sidney's (1554-86) Astrophil and Stella (c. 1580s), and with much of John Donne's (1572-1631) poetry as well. These writers, who were born within approximately twenty years of each other, are very different in style despite all being products of the humanist movement.

Sidney: Imitation and Rejection of Institutions

What is most interesting about this time period is how the "ancient authority" of writers is simultaneously rejected and imitated. This is especially apparent in Sidney. The first work that I will discuss as evidence of humanism during the sixteenth century is Astrophil and Stella, a sonnet sequence which perfectly reflects the growing ideas of humanism in many ways. The introduction to the sequence in the Norton Anthology of Literature states that "poets in this tradition undertook to produce an anatomy of love" (Norton 1084) and this is readily seen in Sidney. In the opening sonnet, the first impression is the experimentation with human emotion, unobtainable love to be exact. That is not all that is apparent here. Sidney speaks of "studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain,/Oft turning others' leaves, to see if thence would flow" (line 5). At this point in time, the old poets are being studied and expanded upon by the new generation of poets. Likewise, line three of the sonnet reads: "Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know," elevating the idea of learning in this time period, of expanding one's knowledge, to be something pleasurable. This is similar to Sonnet 71 in Astrophil and Stella, which is filled with words that imply knowledge and literacy as true goodness.

Part of this reads "Who will in fairest book of Nature know/How Virtue may best lodged in beauty be,/Let him but learn of Love to read in thee,/Stella, those fair lines which true goodness show" (lines 1-4). There is more than just human emotion being played with in these lines, but an emphasis on learning as well. This weight on the idea of learning and knowledge which is so cunningly written with words of love and beauty shows at once two of the ideas that are dominating humanist thought. At the same time, Sonnets 1 and 74 reject the notion of emulating the past, despite their imitation of it: "And others' feet still seemed but strangers in my way./...'Fool,' said my Muse to me, 'look in thy heart and write.' " (lines 11-14). Sidney is openly drawing on previous clich├ęs for ideas and inspiration, but simultaneously rejecting that he is doing so, stating through his poetry that new inspiration should come from one's own "heart" or "art." Sidney explores in his sonnets human emotion and understanding, but also commitment to education and independent thought.

Marlowe: Expansion of Knowledge

Christopher Marlowe, however, took a different approach than Sidney to new learning, but ultimately with the same goal in mind, in his examination of humanist thought: "On the bare surface, Marlowe's tragic vision seems...religiously and socially conventional" (Norton 1107). Obviously, looking deeper, this is not the case. Marlowe explores humanism and secularism, challenging the authority of the church more than any other social ideal. In Faustus, at least, he is not concerned with love and attachment, but rather with the expansion of knowledge, interest in process, and the search for cause and reason. In the opening lines of Scene 1, the audience is introduced to Dr. Faustus, a scholar who is bored with his own intelligence: "Settle thy studies, Faustus, and begin/To sound the depth of that thou wilt profess:/...And live and die in Aristotle's works./...Then read no more, thou hast attained the end;/A greater subject fitteth Faustus' wit." (lines 1-11 1129). Because he has already mastered much of the ancient scholarship, Aristotle, Galen, and Justinian, he is bored. Marlowe's wit here, specifically, is the growth of knowledge and the inquiry that is needed to learn more.

It is one of the most prominent humanistic ideals to observe nature and human behavior, rather than simply accepting the knowledge that is already present. Marlowe has fun with it, however, expanding his rejection of authority to more than just ancient wisdom. His answer, then, in challenging both Latin and Greek scholars and challenging the Church is to simply study demonic art, something that there is no authority on. "I'll have them read me strange philosophy,/And tell the secrets of all foreign kings;" (lines 86-7 1131). Dr. Faustus is a comical, but none the less true, reflection of the learned society at the time. The urge to break away from ironclad institutions is strong, and Marlowe especially goes against it with all his might. In the end, of course, Faustus pays for his curiosity and search for knowledge; in a way it is almost as if Marlowe is saying, "Look what happens when you give in to these institutions!" not what happens if society conforms to them. Marlowe's idea of secularization and human thought is not so much the consequence of what will happen by challenging old ideas, but the freedom one gets by thinking for oneself.

Donne: Human Relationship to the Divine

With John Donne, humanism again takes on a more emotional but realistic appearance. He uses his poetry to comment on society itself. Part of the humanist movement is the relationship to salvation, which appears as the subject of Donne's Holy Sonnets, specifically #10 and #14, where the speaker is conversing with Death and God, respectively. It is not, however, simply humanism's relationship to the cosmos which is being used, as it was in Faustus, but also Donne is placing the lofty, emotional ideas of Sidney on a more realistic level. This is apparent in his poems The Flea and The Sun Rising. He places human passion on a human level, but it is the Holy Sonnets in which Donne writes on a more metaphysical level and explores the nature of humans and divine. In a way, Sonnets 10 and 14 are challenging the dogma of Catholicism by speaking directly to God and Death. With Donne, Death comes down to a human level: "Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,/And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell," (lines 9-10). Sonnet 14 then reads, "Reason, your viceroy in me, should defend,/But is captivated, and proves weak or untrue" (lines 7-8). Here, like with Sidney, is the argument that reason, or knowledge, should govern humanity; reason that comes from within, not without.


Humanist thought began early, but it spiked in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and many different writers used different methods of encouraging its spread. Different writers also seemed to take on different aspects of humanism, either by challenging social norms, rejecting ancient, overarching institutions such as the church and other doctrine, or by questioning human salvation and relationship with the divine. Regardless of which facet of humanism was presented, its nature is made clear through the works of Sidney, Marlowe, Donne, and others from the period, and it is crucial to understand how humanism was expressed and changed throughout sixteenth century literature.

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