BMCR 2016.02.31

The Human and the Humane: Humanity as Argument from Cicero to Erasmus. Reflections on (In)Humanity, 8

, The Human and the Humane: Humanity as Argument from Cicero to Erasmus. Reflections on (In)Humanity, 8. Göttingen; Taipei: R unipress; National Taiwan University Press, 2015. 130. ISBN 9783847104414. €29.99.


Existing studies of the Latin concept of humanitas have tended to focus on individual authors or on specific periods.1 Christian Høgel’s study is an important attempt to map the history of the category from Cicero until Erasmus. Humanitas refers to what is human as well as what is humane: while in his introduction Høgel claims his focus will be more on the latter, the book that follows actually ends up investigating both meanings of the term.

The book is divided into five chapters followed by an epilogue, a bibliography, a list of abbreviations of ancient Greek-Roman sources and an index. After the introduction explaining the aims of this book and setting it within the existing academic debate on humanitas, the first chapter provides an overview of the words meaning ‘human’ / ‘humane’ in various languages and then begins to trace the history of this concept from the Greek world to Terence. Høgel highlights the benefit of his philological approach: “unlike many other studies of concept history, this exploration will be very restrictive in the use of equivalents, i.e. words that are found as substitutes for, or used to denote parts of, the given concept” (23). The risk would otherwise be to make humanitas mean what our presuppositions make us think it means.

Chapter 2 is devoted to Cicero, maybe the most important exponent of humanitas. Rather than following the common tripartition of Ciceronian humanitas into ‘mankind’, ‘mildness’ and ‘education / culture’, the author laudably tries to examine it as one coherent concept. Given the length of the book, Høgel cannot take into account all 229 instances of humanitas in Cicero listed by Mayer,2 but this is anything but a drawback. Høgel’s choice of the most significant occurrences provides the reader with a clear idea of Ciceronian humanitas, a concept that is at once individual and social, legal and educational. An enumeration of all those instances would probably have led to a futile catalogue or a re- articulation of Mayer’s work.

In the third chapter, entitled ‘Implementing humanitas ’, Høgel focuses on the evolution of the concept in the Late Republic and Early Empire. The cases of Vitruvius, Valerius Maximus, Phaedrus, Petronius, Pliny the Elder and Tacitus show that humanitas also became a synonym for clementia : humanitas could be applied to barbarians or even animals; it could refer to an invitation to drink or dine; or even serve as a pretext for succumbing “to the vices of civilization” (73). However, as far as humanitas is concerned, the most important figure of this time was Seneca. In contrast to most —if not all—scholarly discussions of Seneca’s humanitas, this book argues that Seneca, despite employing the term, found it contradictory and thus suggested it was to be avoided. While one might concede Seneca preferred more technical terms and opposed the notion of ‘liberal arts’ implied by Ciceronian humanitas, the suggestion that Seneca eschewed humanitas altogether may be to overstate the case: there are 27 occurrences of the term humanitas or inhumanitas in his work.3

Chapter 4 is devoted to the process of christianizing humanitas : attention is drawn to Lactantius, who first adapted Ciceronian humanitas to Christian principles in Divinae Institutiones. In the view of the church father, in fact, the humanitas of the pagan philosophers was proven to be inhuman and thus needed to be assimilated with Christian misericordia in order to become a positive, significant concept. But as Høgel remarks, texts in which the humane plays any substantial role are thin on the ground after Lactantius—and in the Middle Ages “the tendency, present at least since Petronius, to restrict the meaning of humanitas and to have stand for ‘food and drink offered’ becomes even more evident” (90). In some cases though, Lactantius’ alignment of humanitas with misericordia endured: Høgel cites an exemplary passage from the Rule of St Benedict. Furthermore, in medieval Latin, this term was sometimes used to indicate “Christ’s ‘human-ness’ as opposed to his divine nature” (92), and to mean ‘humanitarian aid’, ‘kindness’, ‘piety’ or hospitalitas.

The last chapter (‘Humanitas as Argument against War’) concentrates on Renaissance humanists, especially Erasmus of Rotterdam. Although there is mention of Petrarch, Salutati, Bruni and Colet, Høgel avers that true Ciceronian humanitas did not make a comeback before Erasmus, in his Querela pacis, where it was used as perhaps the strongest argument against war. While the other humanists usually employed the term in its educational meaning, it was only thanks to the Dutch philosopher—apart from an isolated case in Perotti’s Cornu Copiae —that the concept again combined educational and ethical aspects.

A short epilogue sums up the argument of the book and reasserts the importance of humanitas for the contemporary world.

In general, Høgel’s methodological preconditions and philological approach are convincing and revealing: he is surely right in claiming that law and cultural education are the two fields that “have continuously been involved in discussions, definitions and implementations of the humane” (27). Accordingly, his attempt to create a view that unifies these two fields is commendable. However, excessive synthesis can sometimes be dangerous and lead to some doubtful claims. On p. 83, for example, the author claims that, “in the centuries after Seneca and Pliny, various other writers use the humane, but few with any argumentative purpose or clear agenda”. This might be right, but the reader would perhaps like to know who these writers were and why Høgel asserts that argumentative purpose and clear agenda are lacking. Moreover, even if these authors were few in number, they must have had a role in transmitting the word humanitas if not every aspect of its significance. Similarly, at p. 96 Høgel maintains that “some twelfth-century Latin authors, keen readers of Cicero, would include Ciceronian humanitas in moral discussions, though normally only in passing.” Again, the reader would like to have evidence for this and know their names. But Høgel’s claim that in Petrarch’s works “ humanitas never appears” (103) does not stand up to scrutiny. Of course the importance of the concept in Petrarch’s thought can be questioned, but the word itself appears numerous times (including these passages from the Familiares alone: III.3.8, III.7.2, III.11.8, IV.5.1, VI.3.63).

Minor misprints include “it as hard to say” instead of “it is hard to say” on p. 71 and permanent instead of permanet at p. 77 n. 179.


1. Cf. e.g. J. Mayer, Humanitas bei Cicero (Freiburg im Breisgau, 1951); P. Lipps, Humanitas in der frühen Kaiserzeit. Begriff und Vorstellung (Diss., Freiburg im Breisgau, 1967); R. Rieks, Homo, humanus, humanitas. Zur Humanität in der lateinischen Literatur des ersten nachchristlichen Jahrhunderts (München, 1967); A. Balbo, ‘ Humanitas in Imperial Age. Some Reflections on Seneca and Quintilian’, The Journal of Greco-Roman Studies 47, 2012, 63-94. R. A. Bauman’s Human Rights in Ancient Rome (London–New York, 2000) does look into the concept of humanitas, but only as it has to do with human rights.

2. J. Mayer, Humanitas bei Cicero (Freiburg im Breisgau, 1951), 300-316.

3. Cf. e.g. A. Balbo, ‘ Humanitas in Imperial Age. Some Reflections on Seneca and Quintilian’, The Journal of Greco-Roman Studies 47, 2012, 63-94, esp. 69-81.