Is postulating the existence of a “Mediterranean humanism”, as the present encyclopedia does in its title, nothing more than embarking down an improbable road? But all roads are like this: they do not lead us anywhere when we do not know where to go. In these circumstances, to explore the possible relevance of this idea of “Mediterranean humanism”, it is useful to work towards an explanation of what the idea itself claims to be. In order to do this, we must begin by clarifying the origin of the noun “humanism”, from the point of view of intellectual history.
Man as a category of anthropological philosophy is as ancient as the humanism that is supposed to be his ideology is recent. Yet in the minds of contemporary Europeans, humanism is so closely associated with the Italian Renaissance of the Quattrocento that we almost forget that it did not appear before the beginning of the nineteenth century. And as a result, we obscure the related ideologies that followed from it: the same nineteenth-century Europe that celebrated man by erecting an ideological monument to his glory compromised his integrity by attaching him to a hierarchy of races, at the summit of which the “dolichocephalic” white man took precedence in keeping the world in order.
It is true that the term “humanism” was mentioned for the first time only in 1808, by the reformer Friedrich I. Niethammer in one of his pedagogical works. Entitled Der Streit des Philanthropinismus und des Humanismus in der Theorie des Erziehungs-Unterrichts unserer Zeit [“The Dispute Between Philanthropinism and Humanism in the Educational-Pedagogical Theory of Our Time”], this study was praised by Hegel, a friend of the author, as a plea in favour of the separation of scholarly from practical education, which the philosopher accepted, he confessed, because his “faith in the nobility of classical studies is great” (Hegel: The Letters, trans. Clark Butler and Christiane Seiler, Indiana University Press, 1984, p. 188). From then on, this neologism designated a type of education based on the study of Greek and Roman classics.
Some years after it had taken on this philological significance, the term humanism assumed a philosophical meaning within the Hegelian movement. Among the Young Hegelians, in fact, it was treated as a concept of anthropological philosophy. There is a trace of it in the early writings of Marx, who used it in his Manuscripts of 1844 and in The Holy Family (1845) written in collaboration with Friedrich Engels. According to the young Marx, humanism, as an emblem of hope for the emancipation of man, reached its highest philosophical expression in Friedrich Feuerbach and, politically, in French socialism. Having learned of these debates in Germany, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon did not adhere to this philosophical characterization. The great intellectual figure of the French revolutionary movement denounced, in particular, the mistake of turning this new humanism into a religion for man to worship himself. But if he refused to subscribe to all “deification of our species” emerging in the shadow of the philosophical category, he did not seem to reject its validity, as it was in fact “a doctrine which makes the human person its goal” (P.J. Proudhon, Système des contradictions économiques ou Philosophie de la misère , in Œuvres choisies, Paris, Gallimard, 1967, p. 243-244).
Although it was spread through the various French circles which were concerned with the idea beginning in the 1840s, the noun “humanism” nevertheless did not enter the dictionary of the French language for another three decades. In the Supplément of 1877 [http://francois.gannaz.free.fr/Littre/xmlittre.php?requete=humanisme], the Dictionnaire Littré defines it as both the “study of belles-lettres, of the humanities (humaniores litterae)” and the “philosophical theory that links the historical development of humanity to humanity itself”. The French noun was also put forth as a calque of the German “Humanismus”, assimilating both the philological and philosophical meanings of the word.
The first attestation of the neologism in French academia probably came from the pen of Ernest Renan. Like Proudhom, but for different reasons, the great Semiticist fought against Feuerbach and the Young Hegelians, rejecting their conception of religion as an “illusion” and their “criticism of heaven, criticism of earth” (“Feuerbach et la nouvelle école hégélienne (1850)”). But it was another two years before he included the word humanisme in his lexicon, not to critique its relevance, but to support it through a definition of what he called “pure humanism”, which would be “the cult of everything that appertains to man”, that is, an entire lifetime sanctified and elevated as a moral value. (The Future of Science: Ideas of 1848, trans. Albert D. Vandam, London, 1891, 90 (orig. L’Avenir de la science, Pensées de 1848 , rééd. 1995, 160).
By setting up humanism as the “religion of the future”, Renan was not far from substituting his own morality for religious, in particular Christian, morality. Yet this is what Proudhon had fought against in Feuerbach. But Renan, bogged down by the prejudices of the era, remained attached to the conviction that “there is something of the divine at the heart of humanity” (“Feuerbach…” op. cit.). While he hoped for the advent of “pure humanism”, at the same time he undermined its potential, implementing the same racial conceits in trying to provide his supposedly scientific support to the accepted discourse of colonialism: “The Semitic race,” he declared, “is distinguished almost uniquely by its negative characteristics: it has neither mythology, nor epic, nor philosophy, nor literary fiction, nor plastic arts, nor civil life”; it was a race characterized by the “lack of complexity”, a race “incomplete by its very simplicity […]”; unsophisticated, ungrateful, “similar to those rather infertile sorts who, after a graceful youth, grow into mediocrity in manhood” (“Peuples et langues sémitiques in Judaïsme et christianisme”, op. cit., p. 47).
If, according to the master of comparative philology, “pure humanism” remained the “religion of the future”, this future belonged therefore to Europe, “and to Europe alone” (op. cit., p. 69). As he was the most accomplished of men, the white man had to take up his mission, a kind of a soteriological vocation, to spread the light of civilization over the earth, so that it would benefit the greater part of humanity that was deprived of it. Such was the destiny of Europe, announced by Renan in the guise of a self-fulfilling prophecy: “It will conquer the world and spread its religion, that is, law, libery, respect for men, this belief that there is something of the divine at the heart of humanity”. Turning towards the Semitic races, the closest barbarians, the French scholar warned them: “the future is in progress”. But, he continued to prophesize, they could attain it only by moving further and further away from their Semitic character, which he confused, unsurprisingly, for an expression of primitivism…
Conquering new academic areas, Hegelianism extended the sphere of influence of its conception of history as a realization of the Idea in historical writing. Thus, when Jacob Burkhardt declared that, in each of its periods, civilization as a coherent whole manifests itself in politics, religion, art, and science, while at the same time leaving its particular stamp on social life (The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, II, 1877, p. 185 [the original German edition dates from 1860]), he derived his “spirit of the times (Zeitgeist)” (op. cit., I, p. 68) from the philosophy of history theorized by Hegel in The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807). After their philological and philosophical definitions, the terms “renaissance” and “humanism” were endowed with an historical significance, applied to a particular era: while the “renaissance” accounted for the new era from which the “modern European spirit” (op. cit., II, p. 48) was born, the Quattrocento, “humanism” described the era’s dominant intellectual and literary currents in which man became “a spiritual individual, and recognized himself as such” (op. cit., II, p. 71). For Burkhardt, this emergence of the individual is an act which displays both a radical rupture and a fundamental return: a rupture with the Middle Ages, and a return to Greco-Roman antiquity.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the Hegelian approach to the history of the Renaissance continued to influence the majority of historians. In Italy, for example, it was embodied at its height by Giovanni Gentile, for whom the Middle Ages had debased man and his life in this world, while Italian Humanism re-established the dignity of man and offered to develop the whole potential of the human spirit and of the value of worldly existence. Rare were the historians, such as Francesco Novati, Helene Wieruszowski, or Ernst Kantorowicz, who made the link between the Humanists of the Quattrocento and medieval rhetoricians. Indeed, credit goes to Paul Oskar Kristeller for establishing a connection, both professional and intellectual, between the two literary worlds, in which the similarities identified by his predecessors were more than just epiphenomena. In taking up this route, Kristeller went against his teachers, beginning with Werner Jaeger.
Werner Jaeger in fact theorized that Europe experienced not one but two humanisms, one forming a continuum with the other. While the new humanism was a creation of the great Italian poets at the beginning of the Renaissance, and of the neo-Latin poets and writers rivaling the ancients with their own forms and language, the old humanism found its fullest realization in the paideia, the Greek system of education. Continuity between the two was assured thanks to one ‘renaissance’ succeeding the other. The Romans, first of all, were able to import this mindset by transforming the Greek paideia into the Latin humanitas, in which they themselves formed the ideal manifestation of man. “It is”, Jaeger affirms, “from this meaning of the Latin word, as the spiritual development of man through art and thought and literature, that our concept of humanism and its name has come” (“Classical Philology and Humanism”, in Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 67, 1936, p. 372]). The latter meaning was revived in the Middle Ages during the Carolingian Renaissance, before blossoming in the “great Renaissance” and culminating in the neo-Hellenism of the beginning of the nineteenth century, that is, in German culture. This is why, the philologist explains, “the forms and moulds which the ancient world created as the expression of their highest culture are not for us ultimate ends to attain and to reproduce, but they remain the foundation stones upon which is built out occidental civilization” (op. cit., p. 373).
Amplified by other German thinkers, this enormous epistemological regression (according to Arnaldo Momigliano, a crisis) caused Neuhumanismus to sink into strict racialism and Eurocentrism. We find the diatribes of Renan updated in a new context of nationalist tensions. Jaegar categorically denied that there was any civilization other than that of the West. At the very most he conceded that people outside of Europe possessed a culture, but the study of this was, according to him, surely more suited to anthropology than to history. For, he hastened to add, as a “value, a consciously pursued ideal”, the true concept of culture is foreign to the way we use the word in a manner that is, all things considered, vaguely analogical; “Chinese, Indian, Babylonian, Jewish or Egyptian culture” (Werner Jaeger, Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, vol. 1: Archaic Greece – The Mind of Athens, trans. Gilbert Highet, Oxford University press, 1939, p. xvii). The right to claim genuine culture belongs to the European nations alone, which are called “Hellenocentric” precisely because they have assimilated the teachings of the Greeks. Some, such as the Syriac, Arab, and Jewish cultures, were also exposed to classical Greek culture, but according to Jaeger, their Hellenism remained formal, intellectual, and was thus learned and not assimilated. He could also not grant them the dignity of being civilized nations (Humanistische Reden und Vörtrage, p. 113). This was why, Jaeger concluded, there was no humanism except European humanism.
These arguments influenced an entire generation of German orientalist scholars. Thus Gustave E. von Grunebaum, to give only one example, considered that “the disturbing and stimulating effects of the influx of the Hellenic tradition on the Muslim world of the ninth and tenth and on the Italian of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries are clearly comparable phenomena” and recognized that “in Islam renaissance” was founded on “an upsurge of humanism, the Greek tradition, the scientific impulse, the historical sentiment, the cultivation of reason over against authority” (G. E. Von Grunebaum, “The Aesthetic Foundation of Arabic Literature”, in Comparative Literature, Vol. IV, No. 4, 1952, p. 339), before it retreated. At a time when every colonial empire was buckling under movements for national emancipation led by colonized peoples in a struggle for their liberty and their dignity, he rallied on behalf of those who judged that “it is essential to realize that Muslim civilization is a cultural entity that does not share our primary aspirations [...]” by vehemently denouncing the “basic antihumanism of this civilization”, which, according to him, merely reflects its categorical refusal to examine man “to any extent whatsoever as the arbiter or the measure of things” (G.E. von Grunebaum, Modern Islam: The Search for Cultural Identity, University of California Press, 1962, p. 40).
Turning away from Jaeger and his imitators, Kristeller went in a direction that revolutionized the study and interpretation of the humanist Renaissance. Contrary to the Burkhardtian conception, he explained that the humanism of the Quattrocento was a literary movement dedicated essentially to the study of grammar and rhetoric. Because of this, he refuted the idea that humanism, as opposed to scholasticism, was the new philosophy of the Renaissance, on the grounds that humanism was centred on man while scholasticism was focused on God. He did this firstly by showing that the forays of the majority of Italian humanists into the realm of philosophy were clumsy and superficial, and secondly by noting that humanism could never have replaced scholasticism as a new philosophy, since the latter, along with Aristotelian philosophy, continued to prosper in Italy up to the middle of the seventeenth century. Kristeller again opposed Burkhardt by judging that the humanism of the Renaissance owed a considerable debt to the Middle Ages for its revival from Antiquity. To prove this, he undertook a meticulous philological study, at the end of which he showed how much the classicism of the Renaissance had depended on the Middle Ages, in particular on the French grammatical tradition of classical studies, the Byzantine heritage of Greek studies, and above all, the medieval Italian traditions of ars dictaminis and ars arengandi. He concluded that “the humanists, far from representing a new class, were the professional heirs and successors of the medieval rhetoricians, the so-called dictatores” (P.O. Kristeller, “Humanism and Scholasticism in the Italian Renaissance”, in Byzantion, XVII, 1944-1945, p. 346-374, reprinted in: Studies in Renaissance Thought and Letters, 4 vol., Rome, 1956-1996,1, p. 564).
Kristeller in fact insisted as a reminder that the term humanista was invented at the end of the fifteenth century to designate not the so-called humanists – in the anthropological definition of Burkhardt – but professors of the humanities, by analogy with the positions specific to the medieval university, such as canonista, jurista, legista or artista. In the same vein he associated humanista with the collection of specific knowledge which made up the studia humanitatis, which had been adopted by the future Pope Nicholas V at the beginning of the 1430s as a classification scheme for the library he had compiled for Cosimo de Medici: grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history and moral philosophy.
Having passed the writings of the Italian humanists of the fifteenth through the lens of philology, Kristeller emphasized the idea that the studia humanitatis (an expression that, in its Ciceronian sense of literary or liberal education, first appeared under the pen of Salutari in 1369) was a literary program focused on grammar and rhetoric and distinct from philosophical, mathematical, medical, scientific and theological studies, and, above all, that the “Renaissance had inherited from the later Middle Ages a highly articulated and specialized body of learning” which had been considerably increased by the translation of Greek and Arabic scientific and philosophical texts between the eleventh and the thirteenth centuries (P.O. Kristeller, Eight Philosophers of the Italian Renaissance, Stanford UP, 1964, p. 150, trad. A. Denis : Huit philosophes de la Renaissance italienne, Genève, 1975, 143-158). In recounting the lives of figures such as Pico della Mirandola or Franceso Patrizi (Eight Philosophers, p. 111-114), Kristeller endeavoured to show how influential the Arabic philosophical and scientific tradition had been in the development of the humanism of the Renaissance. Far from putting an end to the medieval Latin translatio studiorum inherited from the Arabs, the Renaissance, on the contrary, amplified it while at the same time updating it. While new works were translated, the medieval Arabo-Latin versions were also adapted to fit the humanist criteria of stylistic elegance. Certainly, since Petrarch, an entire humanist tradition had vilified the medieval “Barbarians”, whether they were Latin or Arabic. This tradition also tried to replace Averroes, the “mad dog”, with the Greek commentators on Aristotle, in particular Alexander of Aphrodisias. But the prestige of the Arabs remained important enough that, for example, on a magnificent bronze relief by Ulocrino (active between 1485 and 1530), considered to be “a product of the sophisticated and learned milieu of Renaissance Venetian humanists”, the same Alexander was represented alongside his master Aristotle, his head covered with a turban! In the cultural and iconographic scheme at work in the context of humanist art in Venice during that period, oriental headgear evoked wisdom; it made the learned person who wore it a “veritable hakim or sage” (D.R. Morisson, “‘Aristotle and Alexander of Aphrodias’ by Ulocrino”, in R. Sorabji (ed.), Aristotle Transformed : The Ancient Commentators and their Influence, Cornel UP, 1990, 481-484 [Pl. p. 484]).
In Venice at that time, where access to the writings of Aristotle and other classical authors came in part from Arabic translations and commentaries, classical and Islamic traditions mixed together. Clearly distinguishing between the two cultures was evidently considered neither important nor even necessary, as we can see from the texts of Aristotle and Averroes in their separate editions in the 1470s, up to the Omnia Aristotelis et Averrois of 1550-52 and 1553-76. It was not only the heirs of the Scholastics who contributed to this editorial tradition, for “even in these earliest editions, the Averroistic Aristotle has its connections not only with the university and with academic philosophy but also with the larger cultural movements of the time” (F.E. Cranz, “Editions of the Latin Aristotle accompanied by the Commentaries of Averroes”, E.P. Mahoney (ed.), Humanism and Philosophy, Leiden, 1976, p. 116-128 [reference, p. 118]). The first “humanist” edition of Aristotle-Averroes dates from 1497; but the past weighed so heavily on Benedictus Fontana, who had supervised it, that despite his enthusiasm, he continued to edit translations of the Latin Vulgate.
The complex and ambiguous relationship of the humanist Renaissance to its Arabo-Latin inheritance is shown in the luxurious illumination by Girolamo da Cremona that decorates the opening page of the Metaphysics, in the printed edition of Aristotle of 1483, which we have chosen to decorate the front page of this encyclopedia. There the artist reproduced the classical iconographic theme of the turba philosophorum (“The Assembly of Philosophers” is also the title of a famous work of alchemy translated from Arabic to Latin at the end of the twelfth century, and introduced into Italian humanist circles by Marsilio Ficino through the prisca theologia): on a balcony, on the right the ancient Greek philosophers are depicted according to the conventions of the fifteenth century, as bearded Byzantines wearing long robes and curious little round and overflowing hats. Immediately to the right of the column that divides the scene, someone who seems to be Aristotle is depicted raising his right hand towards the sky, or towards the title of the work written in the cartouche above; his head is turned towards the person behind him, none other than his own master Plato, while what appear to be his two most famous Greek commentators, Themistus and Alexander, stand at a distance observing the scene with reverence. Immediately to the left of the central column, Averroes is depicted with a generous white beard, his body covered by a long yellow robe, looking at Aristotle from the other side of the pillar. The movement of his right hand indicates that he is participating in the exchange between Aristotle and Plato. This is a gesture of authority which was not unknown to medieval Muslim artists and their Hellenistic models. Averroes is place in a proximity to Aristotle that has been denied to the other Greek commentators. Behind him, on his left, each holding a book, are Avicenna, his head covered by a turban topped with a crown (since, due to a mistranslation, the Latins thought of him as the “king of philosophers”), draped in the robe of an Italian doctor; and, finally, depicted with the tonsure and habit of a Dominican monk, Thomas Aquinas.
This scene, which covers the curriculum of philosophical studies taught in the Italian universities, as well as the interest of some of the humanists in Aristotle and his great Arabic commentator, is a strange contrast with other contemporary paintings, which illustrate: 1) a break with the Arabic inheritance, such as the Three Philosophers of Giorgione (1504-1508), which we agree to interpret, following Arnaldo Ferriguto (1933), as a representation of history and philosophy (emphasized by Aristotelianism, Averroism, and humanism, the latter of which is represented as a youth turning his back on the masters and founders of the two traditions, Greek and Arab); 2) the illegitimacy of the role of the master of the Arabs and of their function as a mediator between Renaissance Europe and Antiquity, as is the case in the fresco of the School of Athens at the Vatican, painted by Raphael (1508), where we see Averroes depicted as a savage Ottoman corsair and portrayed as an intruder into this areopagus of Greek and Roman noble sages; or, more radically, 3) aversion for the Arab thinkers (which was Petrarch’s reasoning for his return to the ancient sources), illustrated by the famous Triumph of Saint Thomas attributed to the Pisan master Francesco Traini, in which the Christian theologian strikes down the Arab philosopher just as Saint George strikes down the dragon of legend. Through one of these sensibilities or another, the humanism of the Quattrocentro is identified with all of these overlapping representations. The illuminations of Girolamo da Cremona clearly reflected these attitudes towards Arab culture, which had been ardently defended by such scholars as Pico della Mirandola.
It was in 1483 that the humanist editors began to increase the corpus of Averroes with new translations from the Hebrew. At the beginning of this return to the Arabic authors, if these latter had indeed been eclipsed, we find patrons such as the future cardinal Grimani and learned men such as Pico della Mirandola, as well as Jewish translators such as Elias Cretensis (also known as del Medigo). This Jewish scholar was himself a humanist; and like his patrons Grimandi and Pico della Mirandola, he took great care not to break the link with the medieval Latin and Arabic past: on behalf of Pico della Mirandola, he explained that the translator should find a middle road between the popular tradition of “verbum et verbo” and the new humanist demand for elegance and eloquence. In this context, translations of Arab works from Hebrew became so widespread that they provoked what has been called “the second revelation of Averroes” (H.A. Wolfson, “The Twice Revealed Averroes”, in Speculum 36, 1961, p. 373-92, the first revelation betting that of the thirteenth century). Notably, since 1497, not only had the Aristotelian commentaries of the great Andalusian philosopher been published, but also his other philosophical writings such as the Destructio destructionum, with commentary by the same Agostino Nifo who, after having rallied to the cause of the humanists, had nevertheless expressed his preference for the Greek commentators on Aristotle. In one way or another, the Arabo-Judeo-Latin lineage continued to be used as an editorial basis for the Aristotelian corpus, along with the commentaries of Averroes, up to the middle of the sixteenth century. The break came with the Venetian edition of 1562, produced by Thomas Junta: for the first time, the premier source of reference for the Aristotelian corpus was no longer Arabo-Latin, but Greek. At the same time, by printing the Greek philosopher conjointly with his Arabic commentary, the editor sought to reconcile the two humanist and academic factions by maintaining that if the Greek commentators had made Aristotle clearer, his Arabic commentators had made an important contribution by exploring the difficult questions that he had left unexplained. Nevertheless, in the second half of the sixteenth century, it was over for the Latin Aristotle, and, even more, for the Latin Averroes: the two lost their status of authority. Judging from the Graeca veritas and by philology, they became two authors among many others. This was a cultural revolution. By removing their aura of authority, the Italian Renaissance laid the cultural and intellectual foundations of modern Europe.
As we can see from the Arabophilia of humanists such as François Rabelais, Guillaume Postel-Vinay, Nicholas Clénard, Joseph Scaligar, and many others, this first period of European modernity did not disclaim the teachings of the Arab masters. “It was generally received wisdom, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, that the Arabs of Spain, brilliantly cultivating the sciences (while Europe was plunged into ignorance), had transmitted a taste for the great works of literature to the West, which then emerged from the darkness of barbarism [...]”, wrote Aimable Jourdain, the founder of the study of the textual tradition of Aristotle. Modern Europe therefore could not have renounced the Arabism of Latin Europe: “By honouring these same Spanish Arabs of the Renaissance, they conformed to a tradition preserved throughout the ages, which transmitted the memory of very true fact. The same opinion was dominant during the seventeenth century” (A. Jourdain, Recherches critiques sur l’âge et l’origine des traductions latines d’Aristote, 1843, p. 5-6). The denial began only in the following century, and, even more, over the course of the nineteenth century when “the Arab philosophers were forgotten”.
Nevertheless, this same nineteenth century, which seems to have invented humanisim only to attribute its uniqueness to modern Europe, did not prevent an intellectual vein, running through Neuhumanismus, from extending the scope of its application to other European and extra-European cultures that had historically experienced Hellenization, whenever and wherever this may have happened. The detour was worth the trouble. It is to this latter affiliation that the present encyclopedia is linked, along with everything to which it pertains: “Mediterranean humanism”, understood in its broadest sense from the fact that it was born from the pioneering foundations of the Greeks.
Multiplied by the forms and expressions that it took during its historical development, this Mediterranean humanism derives its conceptual coherence from its conviction in the unity of man, and from its idea of culture as a second human nature. Yet both concepts of man and culture are Greek. We certainly owe to the Greeks the invention of man as an abstraction, in which the philosophers accommodated man’s unity in his own nature (the famous “human nature = phusis anthropon”) as well as Hippocratic medicine as a physiological and moral foundation (Calame, Masques d’autorité. Fiction et pragmatique dans la poétique grecque antique, Paris, 2005, 237-273). Likewise we owe to them the development of a concept of culture and education that offers to the individual the ability to fulfill his humanity by escaping the clutch of his passions.
The humanist cultures of the Mediterranean assimilated this ideal of knowledge and action when they turned towards Greek antiquity to appropriate its legacy, after they had reached the peak of their accomplishments and had found, in their pursuit to imitate it, the means to obtain their own achievements, never neglecting to cultivate it with their own spiritual conquests. Independent of any geographic concern, it is this cultural orientation and its foundational reference point that we have qualified here as Mediterranean.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, Georg Voigt foresaw the possibility of such a humanism in his book The Revival of Classical Antiquity, or the First Century of Humanism (Die Wiederbeledung des classischen Alterthums oder Das erste Jahrhundert des Humanismus ), published in Berlin in 1859, a year before the masterpiece of Jacob Burkhardt, the third edition of which was translated into French in 1894 under the title Pétrarque, Bocacce et les débuts de l’humanisme en Italie [http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k99784s].
In fact Voigt, who was the first historian to establish that the humanism of the Quattrocento was a literary movement dedicated to a return to Antiquity, is among those who emphasized its limits, even to the point of disputing the validity of the thesis of radical innovation popularized by his friend Burkhardt: “If,” he observed, “we wished to enumerate all the writers of the Middle Ages who read the classics of Antiquity and borrowed from them more or less significantly, we would find ourselves in the presence of a long list of names, many of which are quite respectable, and thus we would almost be led to think, in some measure, that the impetuous zeal with which the fifteenth century undertook to revive Antiquity was superfluous” (op. cit., p. 5). But, he cautioned, this imitation of Antiquity had its limits. Faced with the power of the church, “the efforts of the medieval scholars to restore classical literature to its place of honour remained completely sterile, and had no influence on the general spirit of the age” (op. cit., p. 8). The fact that culture, teaching, and science had been the monopoly of the clergy did not allow for the classical Latin authors who were read in the schools and universities to be studied in and of themselves; on the contrary, they were studied in the service of other sciences, theology and philosophy, to fill in their lacunae and decipher their obscurities, so that they were unable to acquire any independence, not even for such elevated minds as Abelard and John of Salisbury.
But Voigt was not limited to the sole affirmation that the Latin Middle Ages was not ignorant of classical literary culture; among other things, he emphasized that, as an “expression of what was purely human in the mind and in the heart of man, of humanity in its Greek and Latin sense”, the Renaissance was not a European privilege, and even less a privilege of a particular era of European history: “An essentially similar phenomenon”, he explained, “appeared in the ancient world, when Asia was invaded by the tide of Hellenistic civilization and when, despite its pride, Latium in its turn came under the domination of the Greek spirit” (op. cit., p. 4).
Voigt however did not grasp the transhistorical character of this “essentially similar phenomenon”, which, going beyond late Antiquity, was extended especially by the Arabo-Islamic and Judeo-Arab cultures (to say nothing of the Syriac culture), before being introduced into the universities and monasteries of Latin Europe, thus encouraging its intellectual renaissance in a way that cemented the nature of its connection with its Greek heritage. The newly Hellenized cultures shared a whole set of constituent references with those that had been Hellenized in Antiquity: an anthropological philosophy establishing man as its basic unit; a system of education which makes the pursuit of education itself an ideal accomplishment, and which promises that happiness can be achieved here on earth; an awareness of the temporality of history; a memory and an admiration of the ancient heritage; and a tradition of translation which allows for communication with the past, not only to enter into dialogue with the ancients, but also to become a receptacle of universal wisdom. At each step along the way, the written word is at the heart of these humanist traditions, and such graphophilia made them “cultures of the book” in the strongest sense of the term. They also developed the collation of documents for the sake of collation, and textual criticism to the point of making philology the premier human science. In fact, all humanist culture is philological culture, and vice versa. Philology has a remarkable ability to humanize everything it touches. In this regard, all texts are treated with an equal dignity, whether they are mythological, religious, scientific, or literary; in other words, whether they are sacred or profane. And as a practical force, it finds its fullest realization in the collections and libraries which, in an attempt to gather all the books of the world in a single place, endeavour to preserve the greatest achievements of the human mind. It is the means by which literate cultures, staking a claim to it as their own, show to themselves and to others that nothing human is foreign to them.
How does the current editorial framework intend to account for these cultures? How does it anticipate presenting the aspects that unite them without destroying those that distinguish them? How will it emphasize the ways in which they converge without ignoring those in which they are divergent? These questions invite us to be vigilant, by reminding us how closely the way that we exhibit and present the results of our understanding is linked to the way they are produced. Still, we must agree that responding to them in a theoretical manner is one thing, and treating them practically is another. Without seeking to spread the doubt and uncertainty that arise from such questions, the middle road (which is not a compromise) would be to treat them entirely pragmatically.
To comply with the demands of the genre, encyclopedias usually present their contents along two main lines, onomastic and thematic: biographies of historical figures on the one hand, and on the other a synthesis of the historical movements of which these figures were the active agents, or in which they participated. There is no need to engage in lengthy arguments to show that, underneath its modest didactic appearance, this sort of writing process is actually a theory of knowledge. But it also demonstrates the limits and contradictions inherent in the encyclopedia genre, which is scholarly on the one hand and popular on the other.
At the risk of disappointing the expectations of its readers, this encyclopedia diverges from the traditional road marked out by the double biographical and thematic nature of its entries. However, it does not do this for theoretical reasons as much for practical considerations: it is not intended to duplicate all the dictionaries and encyclopedias, specialist and generalist, scholarly and popular, where biographies of the figures encountered here may already be found. Given that a biographical entry is difficult to update, this oversaturation very quickly results in repetition and inconsistency, which the present encyclopedia has sought to avoid.
By resting on a thematic foundation, it has found a way to diversify its subject matter but also to define it more precisely. Without claiming to be exhaustive (which is, of course, an idea foreign to the nature of an encyclopedia), it thus intends to offer its readers more than simple notices, indeed veritable monographs, taking care to combine academic rigour with deep analysis.
In fine the narratological question of “point of view” remains to be resolved. Which should be adopted, contextualization or transversalization? Whether it is to understand our subjects from an endogenous (each culture in and of itself) or an exogenous (cultures considered in their global nature, either partially or totally) point of view, neither the method nor the composition of the entries would be the same, especially as the rhythms and temporalities of the development of the same subjects are not identical from one society to another, nor from one culture to another. Since it leads to amalgamation and anachronism, the transversal approach seemed rather more hazardous, and thus it is the contextual approach which has prevailed.