John Colet and Renaissance humanism
Warlick, Roger K.
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The problem of the dissertation is to formulate the relationship of John Colet (1467? -1519), Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral, London, to the resurgent study of "humane letters" in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. More specifically, the purpose is to indicate what Colet thought humanism to be, what in it appealed to him, and how much of it he took for his own. Further, it is hoped that it may have a more general value in suggesting some of the reasons humanism held the interest it did in ecclesiastical and theological circles, and some of the results to which the pursuit of that interest led. The method of the dissertation is descriptive and historical. The plan of the dissertation is first to discover the kind of humanism which Colet actually encountered in England, France, and Italy--what it was saying and doing, the audience to which it was addressed, and the motives which directed it. Thus a wide variety of contemporary writings and of analytical studies in the Renaissance in general and in humanism in particular are used. Second, the study asks what Colet himself really understood the new "humane letters" to be, what the nature of their appeal was -- personally and ecclesiastically. This latter step has demanded that the bulk of the work be done in Colet's own writings and in other relevant primary sources. Out of the first part of the study the thesis emerges that Renaissance humanism was primarily a literary and linguistic phenomenon, not a philosophical, nor even an aesthetic one. Humanists were craftsmen above all else, skilled in the arts of letter and document composition, who found employment chiefly as personal or municipal secretaries, diplomats, and teachers of the skills basic to their work--grammar, rhetoric, "poetry," and somewhat later, history and moral philosophy. Classical literature and style were increasingly seen to furnish nearly unlimited resources and actual models for the development of these skills. The characteristics of this humanism are then used as the criteria of comparison by which Colet is examined. In exploring the significance of Colet's academic program, both at Oxford and on the continent, we discover that he exhibited a rather definite order in the importance he attributed to his various studies: Christian teaching, humanistic techniques of criticism, platonic studies. Further, his Latin style and even his handwriting suggest that among the current academic schools and fads, it was the humanists with whom he wished to be identified. More revealing than these inferences is the assortment of writers he used in his own studies. They were not the great figures of the previous three or four centuries, but the "poets" of the classical world, especially of Rome, and of the early Church--the latter were significantly viewed not simply as the Church Fathers, but as the "Christian classics." Indeed, for Colet it was only after one had received the teaching of the Scriptures and these Christian classics that he could make proper use of the pagan classics. This seems clearly to reinforce the order of preference already noted in connection with his academic career. It was also the reason why Colet was so careful in defining the ancient authors who should be read by the 153 scholars in his St. Paul's School. Though Colet is often not entirely successful in maintaining this order in his use of the two "classics," both his attempt to do so and the particular historical-textual approach he made to much of the ancient literature--Scriptural, patristic, and pagan classical--all tend to justify the label "Christian humanist" which has been applied to him.
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