Humanism

We read the humanists, in fact, only to learn about humanism; we read the “barbarous” authors in order to be instructed or delighted about any theme they choose to handle. Once we cease to let the humanists’ own language beg the question, is it not clear that in this context the “barbarous” is the living and the “classical” the still-born? It could hardly have been anything but still-born. It is largely to the humanists that we owe the curious conception of the “classical” period before which all was immature or archaic and after which all was decadent. [. . .] When once this superstition was established it led naturally to the belief that good writing in the fifteenth or sixteenth century meant writing which aped as closely as possible that of the chosen period in the past. All real development of Latin to meet the changing needs of new talent and new subject-matter was thus precluded; with one blow of “his Mace petrific” the classical spirit ended the history of the Latin tongue. This was not what the humanists intended. [. . .] From that point of view humanism is a great archaizing movement. [. . .] They succeeded in killing the medieval Latin but not in keeping alive the schoolroom severities of their restored Augustanism. Before they had ceased talking of a rebirth it became evident that they had really built a tomb.

- English Literature in the Sixteenth Century
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