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What is civic humanism?

Civic humanism is the modern term for the moral, social and political philosophy that in the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries began to be articulated in Italian city-states and most notably in Florence.

The term was coined by the German-American historian Hans Baron to denote the new type of politically-committed humanism that emerged in Florence in the wake of the Milanese wars (1390-1402). In his seminal work, The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance (1955), Baron described Quattrocento Florentine republicanism as a happy marriage between, on the one hand, the civic tradition of the late medieval commune, and on the other, Petrarchan humanism and classical learning.

Historically, civic humanism can be described as a political and ideological discourse that draws heavily on the political languages of Aristotelian republicanism, Roman statism and the political experience of the Italian communes. It has been studied in connection to the English civil war, pre-revolutionary America, Montaigne, Rousseau, the French revolution, and the Weimar republic, just to mention a few areas.

Theoretically and methodologically, civic humanism has come to be associated with the Cambridge School, represented primarily by John Pocock and Quentin Skinner. This contextualist approach to historical studies and political theory focuses of intellectual and ideological vocabularies, and the role of conceptual and linguistic change in the study of politics.

In contemporary political discourse, civic humanism has served as inspiration for attempts at reviving classical republicanism, and entered into the debate surrounding communitarianism.


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