Humanism has been given a wide variety of often vague meanings. Two of these definitions have been more important than any of the others. In what was historically the first of these two meanings, it was employed to characterize the culture of Renaissance Europe. Renaissance students of the literature of classical Greece and Rome—especially Greece—were called humanists. They all would have agreed with the claim of the Greek tragic poet Sophocles: “Many are the wonders of the world but none more wonderful than man.”

Such students of classical literature were optimistic about human possibilities, attended enthusiastically to human achievements, and eschewed what they wanted to dismiss as theological niceties. Humanism, in this sense of the word, was no doubt formally consistent with Christian religious belief ...

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