humanitas and φιλανθρωπία


Qui verba Latina fecerunt quique his probe usi sunt, “humanitatem” non id esse voluerunt, quod volgus existimat quodque a Graecis philanthropia dicitur et significat dexteritatem quandam benivolentiamque erga omnis homines promiscam, sed “humanitatem” appellaverunt id propemodum, quod Graeci paideian vocant, nos eruditionem institutionemque in bonas artis dicimus. Quas qui sinceriter cupiunt adpetuntque, hi sunt vel maxime humanissimi. Huius enim scientiae cura et disciplina ex universis animantibus uni homini datast idcircoque “humanitas” appellata est.

2 Sic igitur eo verbo veteres esse usos et cumprimis M. Varronem Marcumque Tullium omnes ferme libri declarant. Quamobrem satis habui unum interim exemplum promere. 3 Itaque verba posui Varronis e libro rerum humanarum primo, cuius principium hoc est: “Praxiteles, qui propter artificium egregium nemini est paulum modo humaniori ignotus”. 4 “Humaniori” inquit non ita, ut vulgo dicitur, facili et tractabili et benivolo, tametsi rudis litterarum sit, hoc enim cum sententia nequaquam convenit, sed eruditiori doctiorique, qui Praxitelem, quid fuerit, et ex libris et ex historia cognoverit.

–Aulus Gellius, Noctes Atticae 13.17

Those who have spoken Latin and have used the language correctly do not give to the word humanitas the meaning which it is commonly thought to have, namely, what the Greeks call φιλανθρωπία [philanthropia], signifying a kind of friendly spirit and good-feeling towards all men without distinction; but they gave to humanitas about the force of the Greek παιδεία; that is, what we call eruditionem institutionemque in bonas artes, or “education and training in the liberal arts.” Those who earnestly desire and seek after these are most highly humanized [or “humane”]. For the pursuit of that kind of knowledge, and the training given by it, have been granted to man alone of all the animals, and for that reason it is termed humanitas, or “humanity.”

2 That it is in this sense that our earlier writers have used the word, and in particular Marcus Varro and Marcus Tullius [Cicero], almost all the literature shows. 3 Therefore I have thought it sufficient for the present to give one single example. I have accordingly quoted the words of Varro from the first book of his Human Antiquities, beginning as follows: “Praxiteles, who, because of his surpassing art, is unknown to no one of any liberal culture (humaniori).” 4 He does not use humanior in its usual sense of “good-natured, amiable, and kindly,” although without knowledge of letters, for this meaning does not at all suit his thought; but in that of a man of “some cultivation and education,” who knew about Praxiteles both from books and from story.

–Aulus Gellius, Attic* Nights 13.17 (trans. J.C. Rolfe)

*Attic, adj., of or pertaining to Attica, the region in which lies Athens

Special thanks to Bill Thayer over at Lacus Curtius for his many great works, including the transcription of the text above.


Irving Babbitt has some very interesting things to say on humanism and humanitarianism and their derivative adjectives, and the confusion surrounding the meaning and use of these words among persons who are ignorant of the things themselves.

It seems odd that, though none of us would forgive the inaccurate use of medical or legal terminology by a person ignorant of medicine or the law, and we would even think him absurd to support his usage on his own authority, we permit ourselves to render finely differentiated words blunt and useless by forcing them to fit situations to which they are inapt, alleging no better excuse than that others commit the same fault, rendering the present usage intelligible, as if the present pragmatic goal were the more important, or even the only one to which a word can be put.

Thanks, dear reader, should you ever find me, for being my gadfly.


About philokalos

Philologist, historian, and lover of great books, I started this blog to keep myself alert to the beauty of what I see amid the demands of my work.
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