Writer & Sociologist

Aspects of Humanism in Miguel de Cervantes

Jorge Aliaga at La Casona of San Marcos

Humour as a phenomenon of human experience, is much dependent on the development of historical process.  The French, during the XVIII century, laughed over ‘Don Quixote’ as a satire directed against the ‘unenlightened’ civilisation of the Middle Ages, while the English were amused by the comical aspects of its diverse scenes of farce.  Latin Americans enjoyed the romantic Quixote, his ‘anti-heroism’, whereas the Germans in the voice of Heinrich Heine, inaugurated a new conceptual epoch to examine Cervantes literary work.

‘An epoch in which the reader’s reaction to the work has been conditioned by his own awareness that he, just like the demented knight-errant, is a homeless wanderer, lost somewhere between the world as he would like it to be and the world as he knows is to be’. (1).

To introduce our topic: the general aspects of humanism in Cervantes’ work, we must picture the author as a political animal of his time who had to deal, voluntarily or involuntarily, with the kind of queries formulated by Heine in order to create his characters:

If man is lost somewhere between the real and the unreal, surely, he must have been looking for a way out, if humanism was an alternative proposed to improve the human condition of Cervante’s sixteenth century, there is reason to believe that the interaction between the artist and his epoch would be reflected somehow, no matter how clumsily in his artistic creation.  The succeeding paragraphs are intended to test the following postulate: ‘Cervantes was influenced to some degree by the ideas of Humanism’.

Humanism as a system of thought and Literary Critical Movement, was devoted to human interests and literary culture.  However, to understand Cervantes’ approach, his perception of the real and ‘unreal’ world is strenuous. This statement has been expressed by another great representative of Spanish letters.

‘Oh! If we could be certain of Cervantes’s style, his own way of approaching things, we could achieve everything. Because his spiritual summit is governed by unbreakable solidarity and because a poetic style consists of philosophy, moral values, politics and science. If someone could come some day to unveil Cervantes’ style, it would be enough to extend its lines to other problems of humanity and awaken new life.  Then, if there is courage and genius among us we could write in all its purity the new Spanish essay’. (2)

Cervantes did not intend to formulate an analysis of his contemporary society.  He was a man of literature, empirical and learned. Nevertheless, if we explore his work sociologically we can arrive at a clear representation of this society.  Cervantes’ characters, representing different social tiers in many of his works, clearly offer barbed criticism of the society in which he lived.

But our concern is not with the sociologist.  Our enquiry is concerned with the artist, with the man of letters.  However, if humanism is concerned with man rather than God or nature, surely in Cervantes’ literature we can find many examples where man is the central tenet of his work.

From “Don Quixote” I quote the following which reflects an essentially human content:

‘There are two sorts of originals in the world; some who are sprung from mighty kings and princes, that little by little have been so lessened and obscured, that the estates and titles of the following generations have dwindled to nothing, and ended in a point like a pyramid; others who from mean and low beginnings, still rise and rise, till at last they are raised to the very top of human greatness: so vast the difference is, that those who were something are now nothing, and those who were nothing are now something’. (3)

The latter could also be interpreted as the thoughts of one of the most influential humanists in Britain, Sir Thomas More, 1478-1532, who in 1534 refused, as a devout Catholic, to take the oath of supremacy to Henry VIII as head of the Church.  If we agree in our perception, we could say that Cervantes to some degree gave ‘equal’ importance to the different characters in his ‘unreal narrative’

According to Bertrand Russel neither Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) nor Sir Thomas Moore, (1478-1532), were philosophers in the strict sense of the word.  Nevertheless, these great humanists illustrate the temper of a pre-revolutionary age when there was widespread demand for moderate reform.  These were the men who during Cervantes’ time were anxious to spread learning as widely as possible.  If Cervantes was acquainted with the humanist discourse such as Moore’s “Utopia” and Erasmus’ “Enchiridion”, we could assume that their writings on piety and public virtue would have made an impact in Cervantes’ rendering when he considered the human weight of his characters.

Don Miguel de Cervantes had nobility. His ancestors originated from Galicia but had branched out at the time of Don Miguel, into Toledo, Seville and Alcarria.  However, despite Cervantes’ nobility he had encountered economic difficulties: a ‘good lineage ‘ but comparatively poor.  He participated in wars, such as the one against the Turkish Fleet in the Mediterranean and also fought in the battle of Lepanto against the supremacy of the Ottoman navy where he lost his left arm. In 1575 he was captured by Moorish corsairs and taken prisoner to Algiers.

Then in 1607 he moved from Valladolid to Madrid where he was assailed by jealous personal attacks from those who felt victimised by his satire.  All these experiences are reflected in his work.  Cervantes knew the human condition.  It is possible to perceive the humanistic view in his work.  However, he was not anti-clerical.  The fact was that Archbishop of Toledo, Bernardo de Sandoval y Rojas, provided him with patronage, support and protection.

Manuel Durán, who worked under the direction of Américo Castro at Princeton University, researched the ambiguity of “Don Quixote” and has elucidated the following:

‘the relationship between Cervantes and his hero is a strange and wavering one , it should not come as a surprise to us if we subscribe to the theory that Cervantes was trying to express through him a whole side of his own personality’. (4)

If we accept Duran’s suggestion that Cervantes was trying to express through his characters a side of his own personality we must also accept that the personality of Cervantes was at the same time being influenced by the ideas of his time and in particular by the humanist ideas of Erasmus (1466-1536).

What is clear is that Cervantes, influenced by the appeal of Cynic philosophy, placed high priority on the moral category in the life of man, using it as a critique and as a means of improvement for the individual and society.

Forcione has written:

‘That Erasmus saw the strengths and weakness of Cynic doctrine is clear in his treatment of it in the Enchiridion, a work which, in its general philosophical position, was concerned with the proper uses of knowledge and criticism, while also revealing, in some interesting details, a striking kinship with Cervantes’ parable of knowledge’. (5)

Forcione also scribed the following:

‘The spiritual heritage of humanism is,,in fact, visible at the most profound level of Cervantes’ activity as an experiment in narrative, and, in order to glimpse it, we must be fully aware of the generic codes in which his short fiction is conceived and offered to his reader’.  Cervantes proceeds with absolute freedom, combining the ‘traditional forms of disorder’ in ‘El casamiento engañoso y el coloquio de los perros’, and skillful accommodation’ in “La gitanilla’s” complex mixture of ideas and romantic conventions to a hagiographic form in ‘La fuerza de la sangre’, and violent deconstruction in ‘El celoso extremeño’. (6).

A writer is a man, or a woman, of their time.  Cervantes’ Spain appears directly or indirectly in his work, that is to say 16th Century Spain.  In Cervantes’ time no national culture was developing along entirely rational lines.  Magic, mystery, belief in miracles, and the presence of God and the supernatural explained the irrational attitudes of its people, while social context tensions were produced by the fact that noblemen had to find menial jobs, or professions which were not held in high social esteem, in order to survive or starved in dignity. Some preferred to migrate to the ‘new continent’.  These colonies were, in fact, a heaven for bureaucrats, adventurers and travelling salesmen. On the other hand, the lower classes, converted into picaroons, had ‘almost taken over’ whole sections of cities particularly in Seville, enriched by transatlantic trade. Cervantes was fond of this city.

‘He was aware of the pettiness and cruelty of the police and courts system, and sided with the transgressor rather than with the upholders of the law’. (7)

The latter perhaps could be explained by the fact that Cervantes was arrested in Seville in 1597 and spent thirteen months in jail.  In the Prologue to Part 1 of “Don Quixote” he writes:

“You may suppose it was the child of disturbance, engendered in some dismal prison, where wretchedness keeps its residence, and every dismal sound its habitation”.

Would it be ‘reasonable’ to suggest that Cervantes found the outlaws more spontaneous, sincere and friendly than the conventional members of the middle class and the petty noblemen and bureaucrats who had sent him to jail?  But if we give ‘reason’ to the fact that while Cervantes worked as a tax-collector, responsible for handling and accounting goods and money, he was incompetent, ‘more incompetent that any other tax-collector ought to be’, thus the bureaucrats in the royal treasury pursued him for years in order to make him comply with his obligations.  Cervantes’ experiences in life, his human contradictions, it could be suggested, are part of his work.  The latter is left beyond doubt when we read his Prologue to Part 1:

‘Every production must resemble its author’.

Other protagonists of Cervantes’ Spain were the writers, poets and playwrights who abounded in all cities, towns and villages, ‘forming a new group’, stimulated by the printing press and the new readers produced by the scholastic ‘boom’.  The humanist message that could be extracted from Cervantes’ work responded, and was inspired, by the social composition of a multi-cultural giant-region.  This response is not easy to perceive because rather as with Cervantes’ characters, it is ambivalent.

Our author also saw the problem posed by the way we see things: Reality or semblance?

‘How can I be mistaken, unbelieving traitor?’ asked Don Quixote.  ’Tell me, can you not see that knight coming towards us on a dapple-grey steed with a gold helmet on his head?’

‘What I see and perceiver’, replied Sancho, ‘is nothing but a man on a grey ass like mine with something glittering on his head’.

‘Why, that is Mambrinos’ helmet’, said Don Quixote. (8).

The latter is an echo of a central topic that concerned the Renaissance thinkers.  The Renaissance philosophy was to change the relations between the subject and object that was common in the Middle Ages.

‘The mind was a kind of plank in which the marks of reality were imprinted; this and the subject corresponded to each other’ (9).

The latter was the Aristotelian/Scholastic philosophy that was in all minds.  Cervantes, perhaps, knew and approved of such traditional theory but did not use it in his literary conception.  Moreover, humanism had started to give importance to man, breaking their passivity when reflecting on reality and giving instead the opportunity to design it: A reality of their own.

‘Humanism means appraisal and exaltation of human values, of reason, subordinating the rest; it is a new method to observe the world’. (10).

Then, what is distinguishable in Cervantes’ characters reasoning?  The answer ought to be: the use of their ‘experience’.  Clearly, this is proved right in the following passage:

‘I opened, rubbed, my eyes and noticed that I was not sleeping but that I was truly awake; however, I touched my head an my chest to certify if I was the one who was there or if it was an unreal and fake ghost; but my own touch, my own sensation and my own reflection told me that I was there, the same one that I am now’. (11). Translated by the author.

In “Persiles” a similar example is also present:

‘No science, if it is science, lies; deceived is the one who has no knowledge; particularly of astrology, because of the speed of the skies, that takes with it all the stars…’(12).

The Teutonic romantics also viewed ‘Don Quixote’ as a symbol of noble aspirations: justice, heroism and chivalry in the real and daily struggles present in life.  Hegel, Schiller, Goethe, Heine, Grillparzer, Tieck, Sismondi and the brothers Schlegel among others sustained that view.

Professor Mario Cassela of Milan, has given a more philosophical approach to Cervantes’ work.  Casella explains that Cervantes: ‘epitomizes in the form of pure poetry, as he calls the novel in contradistinction to technical philosophy, the essential of the Augustinian-Thomistic tradition in metaphysics, aesthetics, and ethics.  Don Quixote starts from an illusionary love of self because his chivalrous and pastoral illusions so hide the truth from him that he cannot see himself as he ought.  But though illusion bounds his enthusiastic nature, his fight for justice, his refining experiences, his high ideal of love reflected in Dulcinea, his Beatrice, prove that he wants to sublimate blind justice into mercy, sensuous desire into the love of charity, a sinful world into a more palpable establishment of the kingdom of God’. (13)

The Council of Trent in a series of conferences held by the Roman Catholic Church in Italy, between 1545 and 1563, was to define Catholic beliefs and counteract Protestant teachings.  The council established many reforms in church practices and became an important tool in the Catholic renewal movement, the Counter Reformation.  It was the time of the Tridentine Spain.

By the time the councils’ activities concluded, Cervantes had reached the age of 13.  It was the year 1563.  On 26 January 1564, Pope Pius IV confirmed all the council’s decrees and were adopted as part of the Catholic doctrine.  These included among others the granting of ‘indulgences’, pardons from some of the penalties for sins.  The latter is reminiscent of what El Saffar wrote about “Don Quixote”: ‘´wants to sublimate blind justice into mercy’.

Another view of Cervantes is that expressed by Marcel Bataillon:

‘Cervantes is as much a typical representative of post-Tridentine Spain and consequently, we should add, a Baroque man, as Lope de Vega, but he presents another problem.  Which one?  A human mind…’. (14)

Other interpreters, like Joaquín Casalduero, finds in Cervantes’ work, love and womanhood in different shades.  He finds contrast of flesh and spirit. Casalduero also finds a masterwork of the Baroque, ‘rich with humanist past, endless in perspective toward the future’.  Americo Castro’s opinion on Cervantes’ christianism asserts that on occasion Cervantes’ Christianity was more like that of Erasmus than of Trento.

As a philosophy humanism was devoted to human interests including literary culture, particularly classical literature.  In this respect it was the case that Cervantes was not only well versed in classical literature and particularly the works of chivalry but that he experimented with a new ‘style’ in dealing with the epic writing.  For Cervantes was not limited to writing in the epic form.  Cervantes saw that it was possible to write the history of “El Cid” in the epic style.  Thus for the reader the possibility was created of reading with ‘quasi similar’ effect, the true adventures of Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar or the pretended ones of “Don Quixote”.  Cervantes applied the norms of fiction to his works in prose.  It is in this sense that Cervantes, looking back on the, by then, anachronistic romantic literature, began by parodying its bare mannerisms, though “Don Quixote”, as a ‘true knight’, values his honour more than reality itself and hence triumphs over his Creator.  Harvie Ferguson has written: ‘His passion, which is the knightly devotion to chivalric order, creates its own world in opposition to any mundane experience that might deny it’…..’Converted into subjective steps or projected into the world as virtuous deeds, the monk and the knight were carried beyond the social world.  On the one hand contemplation and on the other action transcended the constraints of time and place to reach the realm of pure being; the love and valour which were identified as happiness’. (15)

In the prologue of “Don Quixote” our author writes some lines which can also be examined in the context of humanist thought.  In the prologue he states, ‘Do but take care to express yourself in a plain, easy manner, in well-chosen, significant, and decent terms, and to give a harmonious and pleasing turn to your periods: study to explain your thoughts, and set them in the truest light, labouring as much as possible, not to leave them dark nor intricate, but clear and intelligible: let your diverting stories be expressed in diverting terms, to kindle mirth in the melancholic, and heighten it in the gay: let mirth and humour be your superficial design, though laid on a solid foundation, to challenge attention from the ignorant, and admiration from the judicious, to secure your work from the contempt of the graver sort, and deserve the praises of men of senses; keeping your eye still fixed on the principal end of your project, the fall and destruction of that monstrous heap of ill-contrived romances, which, though abhorred by many, have so strangely infatuated the greater part of mankind. Mind this, and your business is done’.

The last quotation, from “Don Quixote”, gave importance to laughter which in the transformation of feudal society, and as in earlier times, became generally available in opposition to the ‘official world’ which cannot be comic.  Cervantes, Shakespeare and Rabelais during that period, were able to exploit its variable imagery.  In Cervantes’ works we can find that kind of carnival gaiety that mocks the manner of ‘icy petrified seriousness’ proper to serious writing, release from the petrified structure of the feudal hierarchy.  Human personality thus emerged as the privileged subject of world history, but still free of all historical determinants.  The author exists, therefore there is no standard validation against which the self can test itself.  This problem of identity was also the concern of other humanists such as Montaigne, whose psychology bears such a resemblance to that of modern writers.  Erasmus also places importance on to the individual’s inner qualities.  Erasmus saw the necessity of understanding true goodness.  In Forcione’s view the Dutch scholar suggests:

‘that authentic nobility derives from the individual’s inner qualities rather than from his social positions, and speaks of the difficulties that the Christian has in distinguishing goodness and virtue from all the false values which los vulgares, trapped in the shadow of Plato’s cave, pursue madly, as if they were certain and true.  For the humanists, as can be perceived in Cervantes’ works, any evident norm is in the final analysis self-generating’. (16)

For the humanists, the humanist concept represented an ideal of man’s moral and social excellence and this could be attained through the practice of human qualities such as: reason, speech and free will with which he is born.  This formulation was put more plainly by Erasmus: ‘men, believe me, are not born, but rather made’.  And Cervantes contributes to the achievement of that aim, through the, as Forcione put it:

‘tempering and softening in the development of the civilized individual’s personality and manners and a firm opposition in their new educational to any individualistic cult of the self and to the idealization of the human being as a creature who can lift itself above the restraints of ethical and collective bonds’. (17)

More of Cervantes humanism can be perceived in,”Don Quixote”, chapters related to don Diego de Miranda, el Caballelro del Verde Gabán. Cervantes here seems too give a ‘human break’ to his worn out hero.  After the adverse ‘reality’ suffered, by Don Quixote and Sancho, during the entire first part of the book and part of the second, Cervantes places the characters in a family setting, a heaven of peace, a kingdom of silence, a school of ‘good behaviour’.  However, in this hidalgo sanctuary, the heroes regained their dignity only to be confronted later with more vicissitudes.

‘the episodes of the Dukes passed by among fantasy, variants of humour, pain and guffaw, in which more and more the dignity of Don Quixote and Sancho, and even Rocinante and the donkey, grew on the feudal caricature, lazy and spongy, full of emptiness and rottenness, upon, upon the richness of brocades and precious stones’. (18)

Another aspect of humanism in the work of Cervantes is the recreation, stimulated in the sixteenth century by Erasmus, the Italians and the classics, of a dialogue between the noble and the servant. El Caballero y el rústico Labrador.

-Señor, ¿Si será éste, a dicha, el moro encantado, que nos vuelve a castigar, si se dejó algo en el tintero?

- No puede ser –respondió Don Quijote-, porque los encantados no se dejan ver de nadie.

- Si no se dejan ver, déjanse sentir –dijo Sancho-, sino, díganlo mis espaldas.

- También lo podrían decir las mías –respondió don Quijote-; pero no es bastante indicio ése para creer que este que se ve seal el encantado moro. (19).

Finally, I would like to mention a historical fact which can be used as an argument to state that Cervantes´s work was, to some degree, influenced by humanist philosophy. In 1569 the graduate Juan López de Hoyos published a book about Queen Isabel´s funeral.  The book included four of Cervantes’ poems.  The graduate Hoyos, a distinguished Erasmist, seems to have been Cervantes’ tutor as can be assumed by the warm words expressed by him when referring to Cervantes: “nuestro caro y amado discipulo” (“our dear and loved disciple”). (20).

Hoyos influence on Cervantes, if there was one, to use Cervantes’s parody, must be taken into consideration in order to establish the philosophy of Cervantes.  Marcel Bataillon and Américo Castro seem to agree with that perception when they stress the importance of the doctrine of Erasmus of Rotterdam in Hoyos philosophy.  However, we should note that Hoyos influence in Spain arrived late since his religious works were prohibited in that country from 1559.  Therefore, we could conclude by stating that we cannot be certain to what extent Cervantes was influenced by the humanists. Though his early spiritual formation absorbed, if we believed in interaction, values orientated to a Christian spiritual endeavour rather than to the observation of Christian traditional ceremonies.

 Jorge Aliaga Cacho

Master of Arts

University of Glasgow, March, 1994


1 Werke Samtliche, quoted by Alban Forcione in “Cervantes, Aristotle and the Persiles”, p.7, Princenton Uniersity Press, 1970.

2 Ortega y Gasset, José, quoted by Manuel García Puertas in his introduction of “Cervantes y la Crisis del Renacimiento Español”, Universidad de la República, Montevideo, 1962.

3 Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de, “Don Quixote”, pp 146-147, Book III, Chapter VII, Herfordshire: Wordsworth, 1993.

4 Durán; Manuel, “Cervantes”, p.95, Twayne Publishers, New York, 1974.

5 Forcione, Alban, “Cervantes and the Humanist Vision”, p.250, Princenton University, New Jersey, 1982.

6 Idem, p.28

7 Durán, Manuel, “Cervantes”, p.19, Twayne Publishers, New York, 1974.

8 Castro, Américo, “El pensamiento de Cervantes”, p.83, Editorial Hernando, Madrid, 1925.

9 Ibid, page 81.

10 Ibid, page 84.

11 Ibid, page 89.

12 Ibid, page 99.

13 El Saffar, Ruth, “Critical Essays on Cervantes”, p.16, G.K.Hall&Co, Boston, 1986.

14 Ibid, p.16.

15 Ferguson, Harvie, “The Science of Pleasure”, p.106, Routledge, London, 1990.

16 Forcione, Alban, “Cervantes and the Humanist Vision”, p.250, Princenton University, New Jersey, 1982.

17 Iid, p.260.

18 García Puertas, Manuel, Cervantes y la crisis del Renacimiento Español”, p.71, Universidad de la República, Montevideo, 1962.

19 Cervantes, Miguel de, “El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de La Mancha”, Capítulo XVIII, p.208, Clásicos Castalia, Madrid, 1987.

20 Ibid, p.19