“Humanism: In the first place, the humanists of the Renaissance period were students of literae humaniores (q.v.); the literature of Greek and Latin poets, dramatists, historians and rhetoricians. At the Renaissance (q.v.) there was a great revival of interest in Classical literature and thought and this revival was, to some extent, at the expense of medieval scholasticism (q.v.). The long-term influences of this revival were immense and incalculable, and they led to an excessive devotion to Classical ideals and rules in the late 17th and 18th centuries.
Humanism, a European phenomenon, was a more worldly and thus more secular philosophy; and it was anthropocentric. It sought to dignify and ennoble man.
In its more extreme forms humanistic attitudes regarded man as a the crown of creation; a point of view marvelously expressed in Hamlet by Hamlet:
‘…What a piece of work is man. How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty. In form and moving how express and admirable in action, how like an angel in apprehension, how like a god. The beauty in the world. The paragon of animals.’
It would have been inconceivable that anyone in the 14th century should have expressed such a view. Then Hamlet adds: ‘And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?’ And in that one line he summarizes another attitude or feeling, which a man in the 14th century would have responded to instantly.
At its best, humanism helped to civilize man, to make him realize his potential powers and gifts, and to reduce the discrepancy between potentiality and attainment. It was a movement that was at once a product of and a counteraction to a certain prevalent skepticism; a way of dealing with the disequilibrium created by the conflict between belief and doubt. Humanism turned out to be a form of philosophy which concentrated on the perfection of a worldly life, rather than on the preparation for an eternal and spiritual life.
The popularity of the courtesy book (q.v.) in the 16th and 17th centuries, for instance, suggests what a radical change there had been in man’s view of himself. He was increasingly regarded as a creature perfectible on earth. Hence the secular emphasis on courtesy books.
Humanistic ideas and beliefs pervade much other literature of the Renaissance period. Ficino (1433-1499); Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494); Erasmus (1466-1536); Guillaume Bude (1468-1540); Sir Thomas More (1478-1535); Juan Luis Vives(1492-1540); and Montaigne (1533-1592) were outstanding humanists.”
Excerpted from: Cuddon, J.A. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. New York: Penguin, 1992.