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What Does It Mean to Be Human? What Are the Ethical and Social Implications of This Definition? Essay

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Updated: May 30th, 2019

For ages, philosophers, poets, novelists, dramatists, and several literati have attempted to device their own definition of humanism and what it means to be human. The humanism of sixteenth century defined it to be the process of learning, discourse, and reasoning.

Poets during the Elizabethan renaissance have created extraordinary, thought provoking works that explores human nature and the human desire. Often dubbed as the golden age for love sonnets, this essay dwells into the definition of human nature delineated by the three great poets of the time – Christopher Marlowe, Phillip Sydney, and Edmund Spenser.

The sixteenth century works analyzed in the essay are Amoretti by Edmund Spenser, Astrophil and Stella by Philip Sidney, and the poem “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” by Christopher Marlowe. These works are analyzed to unravel the humanist philosophy that the three poets explained.

For example, according to Marlowe, humans feel the beauty of the nature and get a pleasure from observing such the nature as “valleys, groves, hills, and fields, woods or creepy mountain yields” . Thus, being able to feel the beauty is very important .

Philip Sidney provides an insight into what the poet believed to be humanness in his poem Astrophil and Stella. Sydney shows the presence of love as an individual theme and how it helps in addressing challenges of life . For Edmund Spenser, to be human also meant to be free. The poet states that humans should not “suffer tyranny”.

He notes that it is very important for a human to be free and this freedom . I believe the study of these three poems help in understanding the various aspects of humanism as portrayed in the sixteenth century literature. These three poems provide a complete answer to the questions.

The three poets believe to be a human is to understand the beauty of nature and imagine life. However, it is difficult to overlook the ethical and moral issues associated with the definition of humanism that these three poets present. This essay undertakes an assessment of the philosophy of humanism that Marlowe, Sydney, and Spenser present through their poems and the ethical issues pertaining to the definition they present.

According to Philip Sydney, poetry holds the power to move righteous individuals and create virtuous action . Sydney’s philosophy was based on the Horatian formula that the main purpose of poetry was not to delight, but to teach. Most of the renaissance poets emphasized and realized the discursive power of poetry.

Sydney even stressed it to the extent that poetry held a greater discursive and tutorial power and object than philosophy or history. The sonnet sequence that we study for this essay, Sydney’s Astrophil and Stella, is one of the finest specimens of Elizabethan love sonnets.

In this sonnet sequence, Sydney presents the dialectic processes and the literary effect of the poem. In the first sonnet of the sequence, Sydney poses and answers the rhetorical question of the importance of art as an inspiration to good writing. The very beginning of the sonnet describes the steps to inspire literary writing through art:

Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show

That she (dear She) might take some pleasure of my pain:

Pleasure might cause her read; reading might make her know,

Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain;

This presents the climax presented in a rhetorical form to the readers. In latter sonnets, Sydney presents the logical structure and creates a distinction between the agent and the action. The opening sonnet of Sydney also presents the overall subject that the sonnet sequence deals with. The poem is an exclamation of a lover to his beloved and the aim of the sonnets is to express his feelings in the best possible way to this beloved.

The aim is to move her heart with the description of his love-stricken condition. Overall, Astrophil looks for the conventional topics that lovers of the sixteenth century would feel necessary to steal his lady’s heart. Nevertheless, to his dismay, the expressions that Astrophil presents are all ill fitted, and hence he finds himself in a quandary of ideas impregnated with painful details of his present state.

Sydney follows the sixteenth century tradition of presenting humanistic ideas in this poem. He questions rhetoric as a form of humanistic art. The overall story of the sonnet sequence is that of Phip a young gentleman from the country who falls in love with Stella, a proud girl born into aristocracy.

However, Stella refuses to accept his love and marries a rich man. This dejection makes him go through a series of heartache and “coltish gyres”. In the end he realizes that all the aristocratic snobbery is just a hindrance to his talent and ends the sequence with “Leave me, O Love which reachest but to dust” .

Astrophil and Stella precisely describes the sequence of the ideas of humanism preached by the sixteenth century literati. Sydney in this sonnet sequence presents an anatomy of love that experiments with human emotions and reaches out for the unattainable love.

Further, the poem itself explicates the importance of reading the classics, embracing the teachings through literature, and gaining in knowledge: “studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain, / Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow” .

The poem explicates that the older generation of poets should be read and the new generation of poets should be also be read to expand on the meaning of live and love as presented in the third line of the first sonnet: “Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know” (1).

Similar understanding of literature and knowledge is expanded in sonnet 71 of Astrophil and Stella:

Who will in fairest book of Nature know

How Virtue may best lodg’d in beauty be;

Let him but learn of Love to read in thee,

Stella, those fair lines, which true goodness, show.

So while thy beauty draws the heart to love,

As fast thy virtue bends that love to good:

But ah,” Desire still cries, “give me some food.”

The first four lines of the sonnet are an expression of human emotion but also stresses on the discourse and learning of knowledge. The stress that Sydney places is on the concept of learning and acquiring of knowledge.

Further, it should be noted that in the first sonnet as well as in sonnet number 74, Sydney stresses on the fact that one should not emulate the past: “Some do I hear of poets’ fury tell, / But (God wot) wot not what they mean by it: / And this I swear by blackest brook of hell,/ I am no pick-purse of another’s wit.”

However, Sydney himself draws from classic tales and clichés to describe his verse, he advices against the use of previous knowledge and create knowledge of their own. He stresses on gaining true knowledge through the exploration of one’s own art and emotions. This accentuates the importance of learning to humanism defined by Sydney.

The approach adopted by Christopher Marlowe was slightly different from that of Sir Philip Sydney in terms of approach to new learning. In his poem “The Passionate Shepard to His Love” Marlowe adopts hard pastoralism to counter the prevalent trend of poetic expression of soft pastoral life.

In a way, this poem is an exposition into the politics of depiction of pastoral life in sixteenth century and prior literature on the subject. In this poem, he expresses the hardships of pastoral life and the discomforts that the different cycles of nature provides to human existence are described in the poem: “the flowers doe fade, and wanton fields / To wayward winter reckoning yeeldes”.

The aim of the poet is to present a story of two lovers as well as fill the sonnet with mythological lore . These “mythological shards” helps the readers to understand the various social layers of the society that is described in the poem. It helps in identifying the readers with the world the poet describes in the poem.

For instance, the very first stanza of the poem initiates the process of deifying the mistress of the Shepard who will eventually be transformed into a goddess in the final stanza.

However, there are certain constraints encapsulating this change, and the magical powers that will be bestowed on the lovers: “Come live with me and be my love, / And we will all the pleasures prove / That valleys, groves, hills, and fields, / Woods, or steepy mountain yields.”.

The presence of Nature in Marlowe’s poems is stressed upon with the emphasis on words like “hills”, “groves”, “Valleys”, “woods”, etc. The description of the landscape emphasizes on the presence of Nature on human life. Nature is shown in a greater than life figure in Marlowe’s poems. This logically makes the readers believe in the connection between love, human life, and nature.

Leiter points out “Love for Marlowe’s human beings results in a projection of human vitality into nature as though she had expanded in sympathetic imitation of the lovers’ “living and loving.”” . The pastoral imagery described throughout the poem establishes the image of the Shepard’s lover as the floral goddess.

The poem emphasizes on the passion of human beings that ahs been depicted through the pastoral imagery of the sixteenth century literature. The humanism that Marlowe preaches has found its inclusivity in the power of Nature. The emphasis that Marlowe presents in the poem is to “love” and “live”.

The strategy that the poet employs is to make love and life work its way through the pastoral landscape and feel its presence in the embrace of nature. Hence, for Marlowe, these pastoral images have metamorphosed the pastoral images into love. This is why his maiden love metamorphoses as a nature Goddess.

The poem initially begins with an expression of love to the Shepard’s beloved, and then engages in the description of the rustic landscape of pastoral life. The Shepard’s expression of love in the poem, however, remains vague, and Marlowe replaces the popular description of a lover’s lament with the pastoral description of nature. The description of the rustic nature is emphasized in the beginning of the poem:

And we will sit upon the rocks,

Seeing the shepherds feed their flocks,

By shallow rivers to whose falls

Melodious birds sing madrigals.

And I will make thee beds of roses

And a thousand fragrant posies,

A cap of flowers, and a kirtle

Embroidered all with leaves of myrtle;

The poem begins with valleys and hills and transforms into the modern life in beds and table in the second half of the poem. The poem essentially takes a round trip of the countryside and the readers have been transformed from the various facets of country life to the mundane life of city.

The poem exudes in pastoral innocence as a stark contrast to the excesses of courtly world. The rustic pleasures of the shepherd described in the poem, stands as a stark contrast to the aristocratic sports.

The Amoretti has often been considered as an autobiographical account of Edmund Spenser’s love eulogies to Elizabeth Boyle. The poem holds references to Spencer’s ideas of Christian marriage and doctrines related to the gender relations that are considered proper according to the sixteenth century society. The main themes that the sonnet sequence expresses are that of love, liberty, and loss.

The sonnet sequence begins with a “complete series of artistic products” . Spenser definitely uses a literary type language with little artistic variation. In the poem, Spenser stresses on divine, platonic love as a form of human nature. The human passion described by Spenser in the poem transforms into platonic love.

The poem stresses on human love, joy, and misery is seen as analogues to divine love. The poem creates an analogue of human love and divine love and thus, creates a discourse on education through love and redemption through faith.

The Augustine church believed that carnal desire was the ugliest form of human corruption and love should be established between mind and heart and not between bodies. This Augustine belief created a shift in the previous understanding of love and carnal desire as expressed through previous literature.

Spenser’s poetry stressed on the tension between the two concepts of love – platonic and carnal. In Amoretti, Spencer presents the tension between the process of courtship and the wills as a contest between the two lovers and not a process of mutual acceptance of love:

Happy ye leaves when as those lilly hands,

Which hold my life in their dead doing might

Shall handle you and hold in loves soft bands,

Lyke captives trembling at the victors sight.

In the beginning of the poem, his mistress completely helplessly enthralls the narrator; however, by the second stanza, the narrator describes the mutuality of the two lovers in the poem. As the sonnet progresses, Spenser re-creates the narrator’s mistress, who is transformed from a creation of the poet to a status of a demi-goddess.

In the 35th and 83rd sonnets of Amoretti, the mistress is transformed and first becomes an “Angel” and then is described as God: “my soules long lacked foode, my heavens blis” (Spencer 77). In Amoretti 22, Spencer presents the divinity of love.

He stresses on the holy presence in human love: “This holy season, fit to fast and pray, / Men to devotion ought to be inclin’d” . Spencer further states that the praying and fasting is for his “sweet” mistress: “For my sweet saint some service fit will find” . Further, in the 68th sonnet of Amoretti Spencer describes Easter as a lesson that lovers need to draw from the life of Christ and uses a stylistic ruse on his mistress.

Essentially the episode of crucifixion becomes as metaphor for erotic love that creates a vehicle for love. Thus, the love presented by Spenser is one that denotes resurrection rather than passion. Thus, Spenser presents the carnal love as a cause of human failure and degradation. Platonic love is considered by Spenser as a means to achieve divine embrace and shun away the humanistic weaknesses.

Amoretti presents a strong statement of the Augustinian concept of love and human nature is described as one that is corrupt and usually urges for the baser desires of the flesh. However, Spencer stresses on his Augustinian discourse of a love that is above the carnal needs of humans and embraces spiritual love.

The humanistic poets of the sixteenth century usually modeled their writing on the pastoral writing in the beginning of the sixteenth century in order to differentiate themselves from the country discourses.

The pastoral mode of poetry adopted by humanist poets like Sir Phillip Sydney, Edmund Spenser, and Christopher Marlowe therefore stresses on the English humanist education through lyrical print. These works usually emphasized on the economy and temperance of life, and the pastoral features dismissed the formal features associated with the verses.

Further, these writings also delineated the irrelevance of studious learning and acquiring of knowledge. Thus, all the three poems has a hero who belongs to the simple, ordinary folk of the time like the country gentleman in Astrophil and Stella and the shepherd in the Passionate Shepherd. Ethics can be disassociated with the humanist philosophy as the former rejects the naturalistic philosophy.

The humanists delineated little ethical question. The ethical question has not been questioned even in the poems presented by the three poets. However, they showed a strong sense of disassociation from the prevalent societal structure in sixteenth century England.

Works Cited

Benson, Robert G. “Elizabeth as Beatrice: A Reading of Spenser’s “Amoretti.” The South Central Bulletin 32.4 (1972): 184-188. Print.

Brown, Ted. “Metapoetry in Edmund Spenser’s Amoretti.” Philological Quarterly 82.4 (2003): 401-417. Print.

Leiter, Louis H. “Deification through Love: Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love”.” College English 27.6 (1966): 444-449. Print.

Lewalski, Barbara K. “How Poetry Moves Readers: Sidney, Spenser, and Milton.” University of Toronto Quaterly (2011): 756-768.

Marlowe, Christopher. The Passionate Shepherd to His Love. 2005. Web.

Sinfield, Alan. “Sidney and Astrophil.” Studies in English Literature 20.1 (1980): 25-41. Print.

Spenser, Edmund. The Complete Works in Verse and Prose, London: Spenser society, 1882. Print.

Sydney, Phylip. Astrophel and Stella, London: Thomas Newman, 2010. Print.

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