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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The word humanitas was used by Cicero to describe the formation of an ideal speaker (orator) who he believed should be educated to possess a collection of virtues of character suitable for an active life of public service; these would include a fund of learning acquired from the study of bonae litterae ("good letters", i.e., classical literature, especially poetry), which would also be a source of continuing cultivation and pleasure in leisure and retirement, youth and old age, and good and bad fortune.

Pliny the Younger defined humanitas as the capacity to win the affections of lesser folk without impinging on greater (Ep. IX, 5)

The concept was of great importance during the re-discovery of Classical Antiquity during the age of the Renaissance by the Italian umanisti, beginning with the illustrious Italian poet Petrarch, who revived Cicero's injunction to cultivate the humanities, understood during the Renaissance as: grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, and moral philosophy.

In 1333, in Liège, France, Petrarch had found and copied out in his own hand a manuscript of Cicero's speech, Pro Archia, which contained a famous passage in defense of poetry and litterae (letters):
Haec studia adolescentiam alunt, senectutem oblectant, secundas res ornant, adversis perfugium ac solacium praebent, delectant domi, non impediunt foris, pernoctant nobiscum, peregrinantur, rusticantur. (Translation: "These studies sustain youth and entertain old age, they enhance prosperity, and offer a refuge and solace in adversity; they delight us when we are at home without hindering us in the wider world, and are with us at night, when we travel and when we visit the countryside").
Petrarch liked this quotation. He referred to it often, and where Cicero used the phrase "litterarum lumen", "the light of literature", Petrarch in the margin wrote lumen litterarum alongside and drew a sketch of a lamp or candle the margin of his manuscript. The Liège manuscript is lost and so is Petrarch's copy, but Petrarch's copy "can be shown to be behind all but one of the later manuscripts" and preserve Petrarch's marginal annotations. Petrarch regretted that Cicero had not been a Christian and believed that he certainly would have been one had not died before the birth of Jesus. But four hundred years later, according to historian Peter Gay, in the anticlerical atmosphere of the Enlightenment, the eighteenth-century philosophes found Cicero's eclectic, Stoic-tinged paganism congenial:
The ideal of humanitas was first brought to Rome by the philosophic circle around Scipio and further developed by Cicero. For Cicero, humanitas was a style of thought, not a formal doctrine. It asserted man’s importance as a cultivated being, in control of his moral universe. The man who practiced humanitas was confident of his worth, courteous to others, decent in his social conduct, and active in his political role. He was a man, moreover, who faced life with courageous skepticism: he knows that the consolations of popular religion are far more credulous beings than himself, that life is uncertain, and that sturdy pessimism is superior to self-deceptive optimism. Man becomes man as he refines himself; he even becomes godlike: “Deus est mortali iuvare mortalem,” wrote Pliny, translating a Greek Stoic, “To help man is man’s true God.” Finally, the man who practiced humanitas cultivated his aesthetic sensibilities as he listened to his reason: Cum musis,” wrote Cicero, “id est, cum humanitate et doctrina habere commercium. Virtue, Cicero insisted, is nothing but nature perfected and developed to its highest point, and there is therefore a resemblance between man and God: Est autem virtus nihil aliud quam in se perfecta et ad summo perducta natura; est igitur homini cum deo similitudio.
Cicero’s humanitas . . . reappeared in the first century in Seneca’s claim – made in the midst of a lament over Roman bestiality – that man is a sacred thing to man: “homo res sacra homini”; and reappeared once more in the eighteenth century in Kant’s call for human autonomy and in Voltaire’s stern injunction: “Remember your dignity as a man.” In the beginning of his Meditations, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius elaborated a veritable catalog of qualities which, all together, made up the virtues which Cicero had called humanitas and which the philosophes hoped they possessed in good measure: modesty, self-control, manliness, beneficence, practicality, generosity, rationality, tolerance, and obedience to the dictates of nature.

During the Aufklarung (or German version of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment), the term "Humanität was used to designate the intellectual, physical, and moral formation of "a better human being" (or Humanism) through immersion in the highest artistic and literary achievements of ancient Greece. It is used, for example, by Johann Gottfried Herder in his Briefe zur Beförderung der Humanität and by Friedrich Schiller.

Humanitas, as benevolence, is a cornerstone of the credo of freemasonry. Some orders of freemasonry are called "Humanitas".

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Humanitas" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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