How to start a Civic Renaissance: Recover Humanism

Film recommendations, congratulations to recent give away winners + more!

  • How to start a Civic Renaissance: Recover Humanism

  • Movie recommendations: “Socrates” and “The Chosen”

  • Congrats to recent winners of Civic Renaissance giveaways!

  • How can Civic Renaissance improve?

  • This week’s Giveaway—Dignity by Chris Arnade

How to start a Civic Renaissance: Recover Humanism

What does it mean to be human? What makes us different from the rest of creation?

No person’s education is complete without grappling with the question of our humanity. And one cannot answer this question without considering how wise men and women across time and place have answered it for themselves.

For the Ancient Greeks, being human meant being rational and self-aware in a way that animals were not. The Greeks were humanists in the true sense: they saw humans as beings with great potential to make the world around them better and more beautiful.

For the Judeo-Christian tradition, being human means being created in God’s image, a principle that endows each and every member of the human race with an irreducible beauty, creativity, and worth. The divine imprint that each human being bears distinguishes us from the rest of the living and natural world.

It’s important to think about this question of what it means to be human because our answer informs every aspect of how we approach life and how we engage with the world around us.

This question is also essential to what we’ve been reflecting on in the past several issues of Civic Renaissance: how can we start a renaissance today?

Looking at a few of the eras in human history widely considered to be high-water marks of human ingenuity and achievement, we see a recurring theme: the people of these eras held an incredibly high view of humanity. They saw human beings as the pinnacle of the natural world. They celebrated what mankind could achieve. They recognized the many ways that man can make the world better and more beautiful.

In this issue, we’ll look at one famous example of this: the Athenian Golden age.

As we discussed in a past issue of CR exploring the theme of leisure, the roughly 75-year period comprising the Athenian Golden Age is a remarkable testament to what mankind can achieve when a culture is oriented around valuing human dignity and capability:

  • In philosophy, this is the period in which Socrates, Plato and Aristotle taught and wrote.

  • In theater, this era gave us the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides—as well as the comedies of Aristophanes.

  • In history, it gave us the historical analysis of Herodotus and Thucydides.

  • In sculpture, Myron, Polycletius, and Phidias (who sculpted the Parthenon)

  • In architecture, this epoch saw the construction (orchestrated by Pericles) of the beautiful Acropolis and Parthenon, which to this day symbolize the greatness of Athen’s culture, society, and way of life

The Greeks had a high view of humanity, and believed in the power of a single individual to achieve greatness.


In spite of this great success, it’s important to recognize at least two caveats to humanism.

First, a high view of humanity can give way to an idolization of humanity—if this high view is not tempered by humility and a concept of the transcendent.

“Man is the measure of all things,” the sophist Protagoras famously claimed. This became a rallying cry for secular humanism—a view that we can achieve the fullness of human life and potential without a concept of God or the transcendent.

In my view, this is an overly reductive and restrictive vision of humanity. As human beings, we are made of mind, body, and spirit. To deny our spiritual facets is to deny the fullness of our humanity.

We long long for eternity and the transcendent. This is why cultures across time and place create religious traditions, beliefs and rites: cultivating a concept of the divine helps us bring order to the world around us and gives meaning to our lives.

Second, the humanistic project—the freedom to cultivate out hearts, souls, and minds through education and civic participation— has not always been freely available to all.

For example, for all the Greeks’ passion for human potential—through unstructured leisure time— as we’ve discussed, they did not consider all people to be equally as capable of cultivating that potential. For example, Aristotle did not think that women or slaves were “rational” and concluded that they were therefore not fully human.


This way of thinking—this restrictive view of humanity—is immoral and wrong.

It’s a view that, interesting enough, can and has been countered by the humanistic tradition itself: the tradition of paideia, humanitas, civility, the modern humanities, and the liberal arts.

On this point I especially appreciate this insight from classics scholar (and Civic Renaissance reader!) Stephen Bertman’s book, The Eight Pillars of Greek Wisdom: There is a difference between being human and being humane. “As biological beings, we are, de facto, human; but to be humane requires effort.”

We are born human beings, but we become truly human through education—education that cultivates our minds and faculties, that instills in us a love for ourselves and our fellow man.

What do you think is possible if we recover a high view of humanity, personhood, and dignity? How do you think doing so much promote cultural renewal and revival?

Send me your thoughts at

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Cinema recommendations: “Socrates” and “The Chosen”

Continuing on the theme of the Ancient Greek and Christian worlds, I’ve recently watched two items I thought you might enjoy.

The first is Socrates, a 1971 film by Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossellini.

Rossellini was the husband of starlet Ingrid Bergman of Casablanca fame, as well as the father of Ingrid Rossellini, whose book, Know Thyself: Western Identity from Classical Greece to the Renaissance, I’ve recommended before as a wonderful primer.

With a father like Roberto—whose films also include Blaise Pascal, which I’m currently in the middle of watching, as well as films on Joan of Arc and Garibaldi—its easy to understand why Ingrid had a passion for the great conversation! My father’s love of learning and great ideas invariably influenced my love of them, too.

Socrates was beautiful. Condensing the highlights of Plato’s dialogues into a nimble two hours, the film follows Socrates’ life from the end of the Spartan victory over Athens during the Peloponnesian war through to the accusations against Socrates, his trial and apology, and ultimately his tragic and unjust death via hemlock.

My husband and I watched it using the fantastic Criterion channel (essentially Netflix for classic films; very much worth taking a look).

I teared up at Socrates’ death. It was so, so wonderful to watch.

The second cinematic experience I commend you to watch is called The Chosen, a brand new miniseries on the life of Jesus Christ. The series has a high production quality and powerfully depicts the life of Jesus Christ through the eyes and lives of those who followed him.

It brings into view the social and cultural dynamics of the era , such as the relationship between the Jewish religious authorities and the Roman Empire. It also offers a profound look at the life of everyday men and women of the era, and shows why the life and teachings of Christ—one of love, forgiveness, and even harsh truth-telling—were so riveting to so many.

The show slowly weaves together a narrative that reveals why Christ was so threatening to the Jewish religious authorities and Roman legions of his day—and why both wanted him out of the way.

Both Socrates and Christ exemplify humanity. Not only did they teach messages of hope and love, but they also embodied the ideals they stood for—and were ultimately killed for them. Alongside the Buddha and Confucius (I wonder when we can expect a good film or miniseries on these figures! Any suggestions?), Socrates and Christ have much to teach us yet still today.

Reflecting on their lives and teaching in these cinematic experiences reminds us why their ideas are more needed now than ever.

If you watch either of these, let me know what you think in the comments or by emailing me at

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Congrats to recent winners of Civic Renaissance giveaways!

Lost in Thought, a reflection on why learning is good and beautiful for its own sake, y Zena Hintz:

  • Arzoo A, Oxford, UK

  • David P, California

  • Mason R, Ohio

We Need to Hang Out, a memoir on friendship by Billy Baker:

  • Carol L, Wisconsin

  • Judith W, Hawaii

  • Richard T, Iowa

  • Chuck K, California

  • Aaron T, Texas

  • Rita C, California

  • Buck C, Texas

  • Kate L, Vemont

  • Steve W, Maryland

  • Lev Rothenberg, Indiana

  • Linda B, Idaho

  • Art S, Texas

  • Peter F, Kentucky

  • Chirag K, Arizona

  • Wesley L, Indiana

Thanks A Thousand, a memoir on thankfulness, by AJ Jacobs:

  • Jane L, California

  • Rita C, Lousiana

  • Buck C, Texas

  • Arlan S, Minnesota

  • Julie W, Indiana

  • Bob S

  • Mary C, Wisconsin

  • Tracey O, Indiana

  • Angi P, Indiana

  • Maggie S, Michigan

Uprooted, a memoir on farming, community, and caring for place, by Gracy Olmstead”

  • Yitzy M, New York

  • Charles W, Texas

  • Mary C, Alabama

  • Jessica W, Arkansas

  • Kenneth R, Arizona

  • Amy E, Indianapolis

Congratulations to all winners!

For more chances to win books and other giveaways, and for exclusive events and invitations—as well as to support the independent journalism involved in this project—please consider becoming a patron of Civic Renaissance.

How can Civic Renaissance improve?

My hope is that every issue of Civic Renaissance elevates your day and adds value to your life. I would love it to be something you eagerly recommend to others in your life because you’re sure the discussions we foster here can help them, too.

How can we do that better?

What would you like to see in this weekly missive?

What would you like this community to become?

I’d love to hear what you think we do well, what you’d like to see more of, and also how we can increasingly brighten your day with the wisdom of the past and the power of beauty and ideas.

Please send me a note with your feedback, thoughts, and ideas at

This week’s Giveaway—Dignity by Chris Arnade

In Dignity, Chris Arnade takes his camera across America and tells the stories of those dispossessed in our country today.

Arnade’s powerful photojournalism gives names and faces to those in America who are often overlooked and marginalized.

It’s impossible to reflect on the humanistic project—or the project of creating renaissance in our world today—without listening and offering a voice to the dispossessed.

Arnade does precisely this—and does it vividly.

To be entered to win the book, send me an email with DIGNITY in the subject line, and tell me why you’d like to read this book.

Thank you for being here!