In this essay, I want to explore some dimensions of what the term “humanism” means—what it meant in the past and what it means today. In particular, I would like to consider the relation of displacement and humanism—a cultural ideal on the one hand, a social fact on the other. The two seem to have nothing in common. Yet I want to argue that they do; at the dawn of the modern era, a person’s capacity to manage and master displacement formed part of the humanist project, and, I argue, it continues to do so today, but on very different terms. In a world filled with mobile people—economic immigrants and political exiles in particular—an old humanist ideal might help them to give shape to their lives.
Baruch Spinoza was the humanist philosopher whom we immediately think of as experiencing this connection firsthand. He was exiled from Amsterdam because he was accused of heresy, of violating Judaism. From the thirteenth century on, many Christians also began to be persecuted for the same supposed crime, that is, heresy. One of the greatest of Spinoza’s Christian brothers was the Humanist philosopher Pico della Mirandola, who lived from 1463 to 1494, the younger son of a minor aristocratic family driven first from Italy to France for heresy, then imprisoned in France for that crime, who then returned to Florence to die, thanks to the protection of Lorenzo de Medici.