The Lost Virtue of Humanitas: The Art of Becoming Deeply Human

The ancient idea of humanitas provides a strong antidote to dehumanizing forces in the modern world.

By David Fideler

In today’s rapidly changing world, it’s vital to pause and reflect on the fundamental aspects of what it means to be human. Two pivotal concepts—humanitas, the essential characteristics of humanity, and eudaimonia, the pursuit of human flourishing and well-being—have not been adequately examined together. These ancient ideas, deeply rooted in our collective history, deserve a closer exploration as we navigate the complexities of modern life.

The Renaissance was a period of cultural, artistic, and intellectual rebirth, which celebrated the human spirit and emphasized the potential of individuals. However, after the Renaissance faded, the world came to be increasingly seen as a mechanical system, reducing humans to mere components. This shift in perception led to a utilitarian view of human life, in which individuals are valued based on their productivity and economic contributions rather than their intrinsic worth (Figure 1). Consequently, the rich tapestry of human existence is continually threatened by the cold, calculating logic of the machine.


Figure 1. Charlie Chaplin in the film Modern Times provides a stunning image of a mechanical world in which workers are reduced to the status of replaceable cogs.

Moreover, our postmodern era has fostered a relativistic outlook, in which objective notions of truth, beauty, and goodness have been abandoned in favor of subjective interpretations. As Nietzsche foresaw, “There is no truth, only perspectives.” This relativism has resulted in a widespread loss of personal and civic well-being, as individuals struggle with the absence of guiding principles and ethical frameworks. Consequently, the pursuit of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful—once deemed a noble aim of human endeavor—has been pushed to the background, with skepticism and cynicism taking center stage.

Humanitas and Eudaimonia: Being Humane and Flourishing

The first step in reclaiming the ideas of humanitas and eudaimonia is to recognize the importance of embracing our shared humanity. This entails acknowledging and celebrating the unique qualities that make us human. The Roman idea of humanitas was largely shaped by the philosopher Cicero (106 BC–46 BC), and it was taken up again in the Renaissance (Figure 2). Humanitas encompasses various attributes, including compassion, benevolence, social responsibility, learning, and wisdom. At its deepest level, it signifies our capacity to cherish civilization and humanity as a whole. While everyone is born human, humanitas is a virtue that is developed over time. In other words, we learn to become more humane as individuals, and certain “humane studies” can contribute to this process.

Figure 2. Cicero depicted as a child reading. The Roman philosopher Cicero drew on Stoic thought to help shape his idea of humanitas, or the essential qualities of a civilized human being. This idea, that humans could become more humane and civilized through “humane studies,” became a foundational idea of Renaissance humanism and led to the invention of what we now call “the humanities.” (Renaissance fresco of the young Cicero reading, by Vincenzo Foppa, c. 1464. Image courtesy of the Wallace Collection.)

Eudaimonia, often translated as “happiness” or “flourishing,” was the end goal of ancient philosophy. Pursuing eudaimonia encourages us to orient our lives toward individual development, well-being, and the betterment of society by developing the four cardinal virtues: practical wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice. This requires a shift away from the utilitarian mindset that prioritizes material gain and superficial measures of success. Instead, a life truly worth living depends on nurturing meaningful relationships, personal excellence, and participating in activities that contribute to the common good.

In the same vein, like the cardinal virtues, the guiding principles of goodness, truth, and beauty can serve as a compass for navigating the moral and ethical dilemmas we face daily, fostering a sense of purpose and meaning. By consciously integrating these ideals into our thoughts and actions, we can counter the relativistic tendencies of postmodernism and encourage a renewed appreciation for the qualities that have historically defined human excellence.

The Lost History of Education: Rediscovering the Original “Humanities”

Education plays a pivotal role in this process, as it equips future generations with the knowledge and skills necessary to cultivate humanitas and eudaimonia. Schools and colleges could once again reemphasize the moral and personal development of individuals, which was the original goal of “the humanities” when they were invented in the Renaissance. This could be done by reintroducing the practical study of ancient virtue ethics, which focused on the development of good character traits. Renaissance humanists aimed to foster the growth of individuals with well-developed characters through the study of literature and ancient philosophy.

A curriculum for this already exists, which could be refined and updated. The ultimate goal of the humanists was to create better individuals, leaders, and a more flourishing society. Though this original aim of the humanities has long been forgotten in academia, its timeless appeal remains evident. Reviving this goal could help enliven the contemporary humanities, which have largely lost their relevance due to the absence of a clear objective.

In summary, restoring the ideas of humanitas and eudaimonia in today’s world and educational system would help protect our collective humanity. By embracing the qualities that make us uniquely human and pursuing personal and social flourishing, we can counter the dehumanizing forces that have permeated our culture. Further, by emphasizing the significance of these enduring ideas, we can lay the groundwork for a more compassionate, vibrant, and meaningful world.


About the Author

David Fideler is a philosopher who writes about how classical and Renaissance ideas can contribute to the world. Editor of the Living Ideas Journal, his book on  the Roman philosopher Seneca has been published in fifteen languages. Founder of the Renaissance Program, David is writing a book on how Renaissance ideas can enhance today’s world.

For Further Reading

  • James Hankins. “The Italian Humanists and the Virtue of Humanitas.” Rinascimento 40 (2020), 3–20.

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