Published: Oct. 19, 2015 By

Humanist Blog

Last week I gave my presentation for the CU on the Weekend series on Why the Humanities Matter. The title was: Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio, and the Birth of Humanism: Why Civic Engagement and Personal Growth Never go Out of Style (a mouthful of a title, but I have never been good at summarizing the title of lectures).

There were 101 people in attendance, which was surprising, considering that we had to switch venues three days in advance, because the rally for Bernie Sanders made the original venue difficultly accessible to the public. The talk was two hours long, and the Q&A extended it another half hour.

I must say that trying to fit the three greatest writers of the late Italian Middle Ages into two hours was not easy. It was also difficult, because I believe in ‘context,’ and giving the context of the late Middle Ages as a vibrant time, similar in may ways to our own period of quick acceleration of knowledge and communication, required that a half hour be dedicated to this contextualization.

Overall, I thought the audience was receptive to my presentation of the three authors as examples of humanistic values. While this is accepted for Petrarch and Boccaccio, it is not as easily attributed to Dante, so I spent a little more time discussing his worldview and the centrality of the poet/author as a sign of this pre-Humanistic tendency in Dante.

What was easier to do, instead, was establish why the values these authors convey still have meaning in our days, in part because of how they embrace these values in their fictional world. Dante’s emphasis on free will as the center for a moral/ethical life allowed him to ‘save’ even those who were not Christian from a meaningless life, while showing that civic engagement was for him among the highest values of a virtuous life. Petrarch was the first modern poet, whose angst gets turned inward, but reveals the lengths to which reflection and self-assessment allow us to grow as human beings. Boccaccio creates instead a community of storytellers who, through their companionship and storytelling, mitigate the suffering that the Black Plague has brought to their city, their lives and, in general, human relationships.

Both the Western Middle Ages and our contemporary age witnessed an incredible growth in material wealth and transfer of information. The three Italian authors responded to this growth by asking their public to participate actively in civic enterprises, by looking inward to find alternative answers to the ‘meaning of life,’ and by comforting each other through social engagement and storytelling. In doing so, they foregrounded many of the responses that are still being actively sought by many people in our own world.


Valerio Ferme
October 19, 2015