Classical Humanism and the Challenge of Modernity. Debates on classical education in Germany c. 1770-1860

Research output: ThesisDoctoral thesis 1 (Research UU / Graduation UU)


Classical humanism was a living tradition until far into the nineteenth century. In scholarship, classical (Renaissance) humanism is usually strictly distinguished from so-called ‘neo-humanism,’ which, especially in Germany, reigned supreme at the beginning of the nineteenth century. While most classical humanists focused on the practical imitation of Latin stylistic models, ‘neohumanism’ is commonly believed to have been mainly inspired by typical modern values, ​​such as authenticity and historicity . ‘Neohumanists’ attached more value to the Greeks than to the Romans. Moreover, they were not intent on imitating classical writers, but on historically reconstructing the ancient world at large. Bas van Bommel shows in his thesis that this common view is based on highly selective source material. Whereas ‘neohumanism’ was mainly adhered to at the universities, at the German Gymnasien a much more traditional educational ideal prevailed, which remained remarkably constant between c. 1770 and c. 1860. This ideal involved the prioritisation of the Romans above the Greeks, as well as the belief that imitation of Roman and Greek models brings about man’s aesthetic and moral elevation. Typically ‘neohumanistic’ aspects were almost completely absent in this Gymnasium-based educational ideal. As humanists at the Gymnasien were much more numerous than academic philologists, not ‘neohumanism,’ but classical humanism should be seen as the dominant educational ideal in the period c.1770 -1860. Van Bommel makes clear that 19th century classical humanism dynamically related to modern society. On the one hand, classical humanists were keen on illustrating the value of classical education by using typically modern concepts, such as ‘the public sphere’ or ‘formal education.’ On the other hand, classical humanism succeeded in influencing even its strongest competitors. The German (höhere) Bürgerschule, for example, almost completely derived its educational ideology from the classical Gymnasium. 19th century classical humanism, in other words, should not be seen as a dried-out remnant of a dying past, but as the continuation of a living tradition. Recommendations • Bas van Bommel criticises the widespread tendency among historians to write history on the basis of mere innovations. All sound historiography pays as much attention to continuities as to discontinuities. • Bas van Bommel also advocates a reintegration into modern educational debates of a number of humanistic core values​​ – such as the prioritization of alpha- above bèta-subjects, anti-utilitarianism, as well as a major focus on aesthetic and moral education. Reintegrating those values could significantly increase the quality of modern pre-university education.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Utrecht University
  • Blok, Josine, Primary supervisor
  • Ziche, Paul, Supervisor
Award date22 Oct 2013
Publication statusPublished - 22 Oct 2013


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