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Francesco Petrarch, Detail of a fresco by Andrea del Castagno (c. 1450) Uffizi Gallery (Florence)
Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam by Hans Holbein the Younger (1523)

Humanism is a summary term for intellectual currents, some of which are very heterogeneous. What they have in common is that they design an ideal of society and education that is intended to promote the best possible development of the individual personality in the service of the social community. After the old spiritual sources, which were only carried on in tradition without being understood, had finally dried up, a new search for the essence of the human being began. Depending on the ideological position, very different, often completely contradictory models were developed in accordance with the associated image of man. The roots of humanism already lie in antiquity, to which the Renaissance humanism that emerged at the dawn of the consciousness soul age in the time of the Renaissance in clear distinction from the Middle Ages also fell back, which was inspired in particular by Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374) and had its outstanding centre in Florence and radiated from here to the whole of Europe.

„When we look at the more southern peoples, for example, when we look at the folk-soul of the Italian people, we have to do with an interaction of this folk-soul with the individual human being in such a way that what the folk-soul does, what it has to accomplish in a dialogue with the individual soul, flows directly into the sentient soul. So that one can say: In so far as the member of the Italian people is an Italian, he expresses himself out of the character of his people in such a way that the forces of his national spirit tremble, continue to have an effect in his sentient soul. It is with this sentient soul that the spirit of the people, the soul of the people, holds its dialogue. Of course, it must always be emphasised that the individual soul can rise and assume the general human character in every nation. What has been said here about the relations of the folk-soul to nationality applies precisely in so far as the individual in his expressions of life is connected with the folk-soul. And all that which excites the Italian folk soul in the individual sentient soul of the Italian is basically Italian culture. Hence the Italian culture that emerges directly from the passions, which can be traced from the individual popular impulses up to the mighty painting that Dante sketched of the world. This is why what is called humanism was also imprinted on European culture from Italy. The connection of the whole human being with the sentient soul through what one feels, what one has in the impulses of feeling, insofar as this comes to the fore, that flows through the whole of Italian culture.“ (Lit.:GA 64, p. 294f)

In the 16th century, Erasmus of Rotterdam was one of the most respected and influential humanists in Europe north of the Alps.

The term "humanism" was only introduced in 1808 by the philosopher and educational politician Friedrich Immanuel Niethammer (1766-1848) in his pedagogical pamphlet "Der Streit des Philanthropinismus und Humanismus in der Theorie des Erziehungs-Unterrichts unsrer Zeit" (The Dispute between Philanthropinism and Humanism in the Theory of Educational Instruction in Our Time), in which he called for education to be oriented towards the "classical" antique models and the linguistic and literary knowledge (Greek, Latin) necessary for this.

„A time is dawning in which humanity has the feeling that it can no longer reach itself with its insight. A search for knowledge of the human being begins. This cannot be satisfied by what the present is capable of. We go back historically to earlier times. Humanism rises in the development of the spirit. One strives for humanism not because one has man, but because one has lost him. As long as one had him, Erasmus of Rotterdam and others would have worked from a quite different nuance of soul than from what humanism was to them.“ (Lit.:GA 26, p. 150f)

„Thus, what developed from the germs of the Central European world was permeated - I am merely characterising, not criticising, because everything that took place there also brought its blessings and was necessary, was unavoidable in the historical development of Central Europe - it was permeated, infected by legal-political Romanism and Greek humanism, by the Greek spirit-soul concept, soul-spirit concept. And only when the modern international economic element with all that it entailed arrived, was it actually no longer possible to maintain the old things. It was possible to be classically educated and to be ignorant of the scientific education of the newer times, but then one was still inwardly and spiritually a regressor. One could not go with one's time if one was only classically educated, if one did not penetrate into that which the scientific education of the newer time gave. And if one was scientifically educated, if one was familiar with what the natural science of the newer times wanted to bring, then one could truly only go through cultural illnesses, cultural scarlet fever, cultural measles, if one became acquainted with what had become of the old juristic Romanism within the period of time I have spoken to you about. In the old Imperium Romanum, this legal Romanism was in place. Then this Romanesque jurisprudence, the Res publica, or rather the views about it, had propagated itself from the old Romanism, just as the Nibelungen wildness had propagated itself on the other side, through Central European education.“ (Lit.:GA 190, p. 189f)

True humanism cannot arise from recourse to the past, from the revival of old forms that have long since fulfilled their task and exhausted it completely. True humanism can only unfold anew at every moment in the way people encounter each other as human beings, in the way they deal with each other concretely in daily life, in the way they feel, speak and live with and for each other.

„Today there is much talk of humanism in the sense that the truly human in man should be cultivated. Such an aspiration will only be fully realised when it is taken seriously in the individual concrete areas of life. Just think how much more fully and intensely a human being feels his humanity than is the case in the abstract experience of language, which has once brought something quite vivid into the experience of words and sentences. One should not think, however, that someone who says of a picture: I am enraptured, should, at the moment of seeing it, have before him the impression of twitching and of being involuntarily enraptured to the point of convulsing of his limbs. But he who has once vividly felt in the word "rapture" the transposition of this image into the soul, will, when he utters the word, experience it differently from one who has always experienced it only abstractly. In the conventional and scientific speech of the day, the overtone of the soul will necessarily be an abstract one; but the undertone should not be so too. On primitive stages of culture people experience their language vividly; on more advanced ones education would have to see to it that this vividness was not entirely lost.“ (Lit.:GA 280, p. 137)

True humanism requires a cultivation of the heart that is directly intuitive (→ moral intuition) drawn from the spirit.

„The spirit must also penetrate the scientific worldview. And religious life too must be penetrated by that light which can be gained from spiritual science. Take even such things as have been said and meant here today, and which seem to lead the contemplations of the times up into supersensible heights, in such a way as they can be grasped vividly in your imagination. Then you will see that anthroposophical education is not only education of the head, but also education of the heart for humanity. It is already education of the heart. It already serves the whole of humanity, not merely that humanity which could actually die at the age of twenty-seven. It already serves to make man courageous and fit for life throughout his whole life. Education which does not take into account the different tempo of the development of the head and the development of the heart will make him old-fashioned, nervous, inharmonious and torn. Look into life, you will find this confirmed, for life can be a great teacher with regard to the confirmation of that which anthroposophically oriented spiritual science brings down from the spiritual heights. Take everything together that has been spoken, above all when it is spoken from such points of view as today, as spoken to your heart, my dear friends, for the education of our heart through the spirit of the world; and hold together that which is to be the bond which links us together precisely as members of our Movement. Thus let us work together, and thus let us resolve to work on, each in his place, as best he can.“ (Lit.:GA 174b, p. 308)


References to the work of Rudolf Steiner follow Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works (CW or GA), Rudolf Steiner Verlag, Dornach/Switzerland, unless otherwise stated.
Email: URL:
Index to the Complete Works of Rudolf Steiner - Aelzina Books
A complete list by Volume Number and a full list of known English translations you may also find at Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works
Rudolf Steiner Archive - The largest online collection of Rudolf Steiner's books, lectures and articles in English.
Rudolf Steiner Audio - Recorded and Read by Dale Brunsvold - Anthroposophic Press Inc. (USA)
Rudolf Steiner Handbook - Christian Karl's proven standard work for orientation in Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works for free download as PDF.