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  • Ilinca Stroe

Romania’s Treasures: the Humanists

Any piece of writing dealing with the humanities must necessarily start out by reminding its readers that the status quo of the humanities today is pretty much at a record low – at least in the common perception. When the present is all focused on digital technology, (computer) science and artificial intelligence (AI), mentioning the humanities draws at the very best a condescending “Oh, interesting...” – with the underlying message that the humanities spell out “losers”, in the 21st century.

We beg to differ. The humanities aren’t just about philosophy, literature, history, languages and art – the seemingly non-profitable areas of human endeavour. They are, essentially, about ideas. And with ideas come ideologies. And aren’t we going to need ideas and ideologies to tackle refurbished nationalisms and authoritarianisms (themselves, by the way, ideas and ideologies)? Won’t we perhaps turn to the humanities to complement (computer) science, “humanise” technology and sort out the many complicated ethical issues of AI?

Our best bet is we will. That’s why focusing on the humanities over the past few centuries in Romania implies, more than an acclamatory parade of names and publications, a review of the crucial ideas which have brought us, century by century, up to the present - up to present Romania and who we are today. Ideas no less than GDPs have shaped nations and peoples, and Romania is no exception. So let us go through an inventory of such foundational ideas to bring to the fore the intellectual input which, over time, has molded Romania – or what we call “the schools of thought” that, put together, should account for whatever Romanians are, do and believe today.

What did people think in 17th-/18th-century Romania, then? Notwithstanding the differences between the three main regions which make up the country (Wallachia, Moldavia and Transylvania), an outline of the mindset of that time comes mainly from four chroniclers: Moldavians Grigore Ureche (circa 1590-1647), Miron Costin (1633-1691), Ion Neculce (1672-circa 1745), and Wallachian Radu Popescu (circa 1655-1729). In epic histories based on lesser sources (whether local or foreign, and oral rather than written), the three Moldavians share the same essential concern and sense of mission: they choose to write down the history of their country because writing is the “wise mirror of the human mind” [1], and future generations shouldn’t be “like dumb, mindless beasts and animals” [2]. Instead, just like the other neighbouring peoples, they should know of their origins and be aware that, irrespective of their province and its political subservience, they are all Romanians sharing the same unifying language originating from Rome – “a broken Latin, just like Italian”.

Politically, two of the four chroniclers supported, in a complicated geostrategic setting where Moldavia and Wallachia were Ottoman vassals and Transylvania belonged with Christian Hungary and Poland, an alliance with the latter and a break-up from the Ottoman Empire. They both dreamed that Moldavia, with a ruling prince advised by a council of boyars, in a checks-and-balances system of sorts, would liberate itself from the pagan Turkish “yoke” and join the Christendom west of the country. That general aspiration, however, didn’t prevent princes of Moldavia from repeatedly attacking and plundering brotherly Wallachia, and vice versa – in a series of tireless regional invasions, skirmishes and battles which all the four historians chronicled scrupulously, accusing the other party of betrayal, foolishness or greediness.

Which takes us to another common trait of the chroniclers, namely their moralising propensity. Indeed, critics have pointed out the old historians’ talent for portraying rulers’ character and personality with surgical precision, cutting right through appearances to get to a defining core vice or flaw. For instance, prince Iliaş was like “a tree in full bloom on the outside, while a foetid lake on the inside”, in Ureche’s records, whereas Popescu makes a fine point of a Turkish pasha’s vanity, when he says the Ottoman had decided to retire back across the Danube with his army because there he had the right facilities “to prim up and dress up again” after a battle. The chroniclers’ “moral scrutiny”, as the critics call it, may well spell out, occasionally, as a tremendous taste for sarcasm and gossip: such and such Moldavian prince, the Wallachian historian remarks, was reportedly assassinated by his wife – “a fine lady indeed, the Moldavian biddy, to have her husband killed”!... [3] In fact, so well phrased are some of the chroniclers’ more memorable descriptions, that contemporary Romanians still use them ironically to refer, for example, to someone easily annoyed (“degrabă vărsătoriu de sânge”, literally “immediately quick to spill blood”), or someone who’s short and/or insignificant but keen on appearing smart and powerful (“mic de stat, mare la sfat”, literally “short of height, but of great counsel”).

Of the three prevailing notions (the unifying Latinity of the Romanians scattered in three different provinces,

the alliance with other Christian nations against the Muslim Ottomans, and the moralising approach to historical characters and events, tinted with sarcasm or not), humanists in Transylvania picked up on the notion of Latinity as defining of “Romanianness”. The so-called “Transylvanian School” of the 18th century drew substantially on (Western) Enlightenment tenets to support the preservation and promotion of Romanianness among Transylvanian Romanians who were in a politically hostile situation, with their rights severely curtailed as subjects of the Habsburg Empire. The five main scholars who constituted the School were Samuil Micu Klein (1745-1806), Gheorghe Şincai (1754-1816), Ion Budai Deleanu (1760-1820), Petru Maior (1761-1821) and Gheorghe Lazăr (1779-1823), whose ideas and work impacted not just Transylvanian Romanians, but also notions of progress and national identity in Wallachia and Moldavia.

A lot more politically active and engaged than the chroniclers, the Transylvanian scholars drafted a memorandum (1791-92) addressed to Emperor Leopold II in which they used solid philological arguments to “enhance the political and cultural prestige of Romanians in Western Europe” [4] and demand rights commensurate to those of the Hungarian nobles and the Saxon bourgeoisie in Transylvania. The strength of their language-based plea should not be underestimated: this is a clear case where a mother tongue with proven Latin origins was employed to win its speakers palpable civic rights, drawing on how prestigious Latin and other Romance languages were in the same historical period. So impactful was the School’s philological argument that, even if it failed to persuade Habsburg rulers, it did lead to the gradual introduction, in Wallachia and Moldavia too, of a Latin-based alphabet instead of the Romanian Cyrillic one used by the 17th-century chroniclers themselves; and it inspired, via scholar Gheorghe Lazăr, who had taken refuge in Wallachia, the introduction of schooling in the Romanian language, in a province where, up to that time, Greek had been the language of education and of the learned classes.

So while the revolutionary potential of the Transylvanian scholars’ work may not have secured the immediate political results it had been intended for, rechanneled into a cultural reform of sorts it obtained effects which were anything but negligible: writing in all the three provinces started being done in the Latin alphabet or a transition (Cyrillic to Latin) one, and education in Romanian started to become available to Romanians of virtually all social classes in Wallachia. With that, the way was half-paved for the subsequent revolutionary project which stormed much of Europe and the Romanian provinces: the French-inspired 1848 Revolution, whose overarching demand was that supranational entities such as the Habsburg Empire itself give way to sovereign national states.

In the Romanian provinces, the masterminds of the “spring of the peoples” (printemps des peuples), as the 1848 revolutions were collectively referred to, were called paşoptişti (“forty-eighters”) and included humanists (i.e. philologists, philosophers, writers, historians and poets) like Alecu Russo and Mihail Kogălniceanu - in Moldavia, Nicolae Bălcescu and Ion Heliade Rădulescu – in Wallachia, and Timotei Cipariu, August Treboniu Laurian and Simion Bărnuţiu - in Transylvania. At the time, the three provinces belonged to three different empires (Ottoman, Russian and Habsburg), so the master demand on the forty-eighters’ list of “principles for the reformation of the motherland” was that the three provinces inhabited by Romanians should unite. Unification was “the cornerstone without which the national edifice would collapse”, as Kogălniceanu notoriously put it in his work, Wishes of the National Camp in Moldavia (August 1848), and one can see how some of the old chroniclers’ remarks bore fruit in it.

Other ideas of internal reorganisation are specified in a defining document of the Wallachian revolution, “The Proclamation from Islaz”, co-authored, one cannot overemphasise, not by professional politicians, lawyers or army officers, but by historian Nicolae Bălcescu and philologist Ion Heliade-Rădulescu. Among those ideas/demands, let us mention the following: administrative and judicial independence for the Romanian people, with no foreign intervention whatsoever; absolute freedom of the press; a general assembly made up of representatives of all the social classes; a ruler elected for a 5-year term from any social class; the eradication of corruption; the accountability of people holding public offices; the abolition of gypsy slavery; free universal education for both sexes; the abolition of the penalties of death and public beating; the emancipation of Jewish people; the establishment of prisons where criminal offenders can reform. (How many of these notions, one might ask, still sound quite contemporary?...)

Anecdotally, accounts about the forty-eighters usually include two female figures, both marginal and yet both inspirational (neither of whom was a humanist, though): Ana Ipătescu, who could hold a gun while emboldening the revolutionaries not to give in to reactionary forces, and Maria Rosetti, who, child in arms, unashamedly went about bribing Ottoman officials to free detained revolutionaries. As Bălcescu poignantly remarked while attending revolutionary proceedings in Transylvania, “women hadn’t lagged behind in either courage or national feeling. They took part in all of their husbands’ perils. From the top of the mountain they would hurl down a rain of boulders which injured enemy battalions. Their songs were no longer of longing and pleasure, but full of patriotism and national pathos.”

Well, the revolutions in the three Romanian provinces were smothered by the concurrent actions of the Ottoman, Russian and Habsburg Empires, in the end. Yet we should not leave them behind before pointing out that they represented the closest point of contact between the humanities and national identity/politics in Romania. After 1848, subsequent schools of thought have tended to be auxiliary, not crucial, to the making of national politics and policies, but at the same time, freed from nation-making responsibilities, the Romanian humanities allowed themselves more diversity and a wider range of intellectual concerns.

Thus, the second half of the 19th century saw several schools of thought, each with its main representative.

Moldavian philosopher Vasile Conta (1845-1882), to start with, published in Romanian and French works like The Theory of Fatalism, The Theory of Universal Undulation, and The Basics of Metaphysics, which expound the main tenets of his thinking: existence is governed by a universal principle of determination whereby things evolve on the basis of causes generating effects. Cause-effect patterns act like “fatal” universal undulations which generate changes and evolution in all matter, replacing old with new, and there’s no such thing as human free will or even divine will – only a continuous metamorphosis of matter under the inflexible law of universal undulation. Conta’s philosophy was labelled mechanist, determinist and materialistic, while his more social ideas revolved around denial of the ethnic minorities’ right to Romanian citizenship and integration, with a marked anti-Semitic element which, sadly and shamefully, would evolve further in early 20th-century Romanian thinking, as we’ll see.

A materialist, too, but of leftist leanings, Jewish-born theorist and sociologist Constantin Dobrogeanu-Gherea (1855-1920) criticised, in Neo-Serfdom (A Social and Economical Study of Our Land Issue), the state of subservience and exploitation into which a faulty land reform and insufficient capitalist means had brought the Romanian peasantry, arguing that the country was “trapped in Feudalism”. Gherea’s book was read by Leon Trotsky himself, who praised the author for the “truly masterly analysis where clarity and simplicity go hand in hand with a genuine Marxist profundity.” [6] Analysis was also Gherea’s strength in literary criticism, where he applied French- and Russian-derived models of literary analysis and sociological criticism, with an overall view that art can only be “art with a tendency”, rooted in social circumstances, rather than aesthetic aspirations, and carrying social meaning.

Conservative literary critic Titu Maiorescu (1840-1917), on the other hand, was Gherea’s most prominent opponent, with a general thesis that art should only be done for art’s sake, and judged by aesthetic standards only, rather than its social(ist) uses. A founder and father figure of the pivotal Junimea Society, the cultural association which nurtured scores of literati, including canon writers like Eminescu, Creangă and Caragiale, Titu Maiorescu also authored the famous phrase forme fără fond, “forms without content”. In his view, the Romanian principalities had adopted a lot of foreign models in all fields, from fashion to institutions, without, however, embracing the core values which had generated those models – hence, forms without content, i.e. appearances emptied of substantial meaning, abounded in the local culture. (Again, one wonders how much of that critique can easily ring true about some of contemporary Romania’s challenges.)

Moving towards the first half of the 20th century, a major influence on Romanian thinking was exerted by

extraordinarily prolific historian Nicolae Iorga (1871-1940), who published a total 1,250 books and 25,000 articles. [7] Initially a young critic who enjoyed some support from Maiorescu’s Junimea, later Iorga moved beyond Junimea’s liberal conservatism to a traditionalist conservatism where he idealised the Romanian peasantry and aristocracy alike, while criticising the middle class for its liberal, non-grassroots ways. He also skilfully employed the domineering figure of Mihai Eminescu, “the national poet”, not as a romantic author, but as a vigorous supporter of Romanian ethnic superiority. Iorga thus reached an “Eminescu-backed” ethnic nationalism with implicit racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic tones. Even so, he stayed away from radical rightist positions, for example criticising Hitler’s regime and expressing admiration, instead, for Italian fascism and its aristocratic authoritarianism.

That was not the case of another extremely influential figure of the same period, philosopher Nae Ionescu 1890-1940), who promoted a self-styled philosophy called trăirism (“experiencism”) that, perhaps paradoxically, turned him into one of the inspiring figures of the Romanian far-right Legion of the Archangel Michael/the Iron Guard. Ionescu’s trăirism should probably be explained starting from his own remark that “learning philosophy is absurd”. [8] Instead of expounding philosophical systems to his university students, he “taught [them] to think. His genius was, above all, Socratic” (which, apparently, explains why he only published magazine articles under various pen names, never a book or a more academic work). He encouraged his disciples to “look for and find the truth on their own” [8], based not on what others told them, but on their own trăiri (experiences). An offshoot of personalism, Ionescu’s trăirism allowed for a rejection of rationalism (perceived as a killer of personal authenticity) and called for exaltation before whatever was unique and “unregimented”.

The combination between Ionescu’s appealing trăirism, his declared mysticism (with the figure of Christ as an arch-example of the redemptive power of suffering), his hatred of Jewish people (whom he regarded primarily as deniers of Christ) and, last but not least, his “robust, magnetic, charismatic personality” proved irresistible to the Legion’s leaders, as they could certainly use his tremendous appeal for their piously rebellious agenda, but also to Romania’s “golden generation” of inter-war humanists. [9] Mircea Eliade, Emil Cioran, Constantin Noica, Petre Ţuţea, all of whom are still landmark mainstream thinkers to contemporary Romanians, were to a certain non-negligible extent Ionescu’s “products”: his ideas of culture, religion, national calling, identity and mission are somewhat reflected in their own thinking and work, despite the nebulous ethical dilemmas that underpinned the professor’s profile. (For example, while a mystic, he was also a womanizer; while anti-Semitic, he ought to have also been responsible for the well-meaning intellectual development of his Jewish students).

Now, having crossed the tumultuous ideological fields of the pre-WWII Romanian humanities, let us focus on a fine, fine trio.

Alice Voinescu – Romanian writer and professor, the first female Romanian PhD

Born: 10 February 1885 in Turnu-Severin, south-west Romania

Died: 4 June 1961 in Bucharest

Career highlights

* 1890-1891: she learned German and French

* 1908: graduated from the Faculty of Letters and Philosophy in Bucharest

* 1908-1910: went on an academic tour of Europe, first to Leipzig University, next to Munich and Paris

* 1913: she was awarded a magna cum laude Doctor of Philosophy degree at Sorbonne, Paris

* 1915: returned to Romania and married lawyer Stelian Voinescu

* 1922: became a professor of theatrical history at the Royal Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts in Bucharest

* 1924 on: broadcasted educational programmes on the radio

* 1928-1939: travelled to France annually to participate in the Pontigny conferences, where she met Roger Martin du Gard, André Gide, André Malraux, François Mauriac

* 1929 on: started keeping a diary, encouraged by du Gard

* 1932-1942: made radio programmes about women’s place in Romanian society, debating whether intellect and femininity were compatible

* 1936: published Montaigne, life and work and contributed to the History of Modern Philosophy

* 1941: published Aspects of Contemporary Theatre

* 1946: published Aeschylus

* 1948: began writing Letters to My Son and Daughter, a fictional work addressed to her imaginary children

* 1951: she was accused of being a monarchist by the communist regime, arrested and detained for 19 months, then placed under house arrest in a village for one more year

* 1954: returned home and worked as a translator


* 1994: Letters to My Son and Daughter was published posthumously

* 1997: her rediscovered diaries were edited and published posthumously as The Journal, where she condemned anti-Semitic propaganda, criticised the Soviet regime, deplored the persecution of the Roma and protested against the societal limitations imposed on women

* 2001: Letters from Costeşti, the village where she had been detained for a year, was published posthumously

She was...

generous, altruistic, dignified and wise, facing with stoic simplicity life’s risks and blows; a refined lady who was extremely dedicated to her students and did her best to support her friends even in times of financial straits and hardship; a passionate opponent of extremism and supporter of the moral cleansing and growth of communism-distorted characters. [10]

Ioan-Petru Culianu – Romanian-American historian of religion, philosopher and political essayist

Born: 5 January 1950 in Iaşi, north-east Romania

Died: 21 May 1991 in Chicago USA, murdered in unclear circumstances

Career highlights

* 1956-1967: studied at “Vasile Alecsandri” college in Iaşi

* 1967: moved to Bucharest and enrolled in the Faculty of Letters, the University of Bucharest

* 1972: was granted political asylum in Italy

* 1973-1976: studied the history of religion at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan

* 1976-1988: moved to Holland, taught the history of Romanian culture at the University of Groningen and published around 30 studies and books, and 64 articles

* 1978: published Mircea Eliade in Italian

* 1983: Psychanodia: A Survey of the Evidence Concerning the Ascension of the Soul and Its Relevance

* 1984: Eros et magie à la Renaissance 1484

* 1987: was awarded a PhD by the University of Paris IV

* 1988-1991: worked as professor of the history of religions at the University of Chicago

* 1990: published Les Gnoses dualistes d'Occident: Histoire et mythes

* 1991: Out of this World. Otherwordly Journeys from Gilgamesh to Albert Einstein


* 1996: Religie şi putere was published in Romania

* 1997: Experienţe ale extazului

* 1999: Păcatul împotriva spiritului. Scrieri politice

* 2002: Jocurile minţii. Istoria ideilor, teoria culturii, epistemologie

* 2004: Dialoguri întrerupte. Corespondenţa Mircea Eliade-Ioan Petru Culianu

He was...

uncompromisingly critical about the Romanian and Soviet secret services which, in his opinion, had orchestrated the December 1989 Romanian Revolution, and relentlessly sceptical about the post-Revolution political prospects of the early ‘90s; a follower and defender of his mentor Mircea Eliade, maintaining, with fairly reasonable arguments, that the master’s far-right leanings had been a youth error. [11]

Mihai Şora – Romanian philosopher

Born: 7 November 1916 in Ianova, Timiş County

Career highlights

* 1927-1934: studied at the “Constantin-Diaconovici Loga” high school in Timişoara

* 1934-1938: studied philosophy at the University of Bucharest with professor Nae Ionescu

* 1939-1945: was awarded a scholarship by the French government and studied in Paris and Grenoble, wrote his first book, Du dialogue intérieur, and joined the French Resistance

* 1945-1948: worked as a researcher at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique

* 1947: published Du dialogue intérieur at Gallimard

* 1948-1951: returned to Romania and worked at the Ministry of External Affairs

* 1951-1954: worked at the Publishing House for Foreign Languages

* 1954-1969: worked at the State Publishing House of Literature and Art

* 1978: published Sarea Pământului/The Salt of the Earth, for which he was awarded the Writers’ Union Prize

* 1985: A fi, a face, a avea/To Be, to Do, to Have

* 1989-1990: was the Minister of Education in the first post-communist government of Romania

* 1998: published Firul ierbii/The Leaf of Grass, for which he was awarded the Writers’ Union Prize

* 2000: openly opposed the extremism of presidential runner-up Corneliu Vadim Tudor

* 2001: published Mai avem un viitor? România la început de mileniu/Do We Still Have a Future? Romania at the Beginning of the Millennium

* 2005: Clipa şi timpul/The Second and Time

* 2012: became an honorary member of the Romanian Academy

* 2016: was awarded the National Order of the Star of Romania by the Romanian Presidency

* 2017-2018: joined the street rallies supporting the anti-corruption movement

He has been...

slightly non-conformist, open to other cultures, a great fan of good coffee and the coffee-drinking routine, dedicated to philosophy as a lifestyle, always eager to observe, analyse and understand what happens around him, interested in reflecting on contemporary issues [12], aware of a duty to serve his fellow citizens and country and trustful about the human potential of his country. [13]

Now, are you ready for a vintage pep talk from the patriarch of inter-war Romanian culture? Ladies and gentlemen, Nicolae Iorga...

Photo credits

Notes & sources

[1] “Miron Costin”. Wikipedia. Accessed 23 July 2018. <>

[2] “Grigore Ureche”. Wikipedia. Accessed 23 July 2018. <>

[4] “Transylvanian School”. Wikipedia. Accessed 29 July 2018. <>

[6] “Constantin Dobrogeanu-Gherea”. Wikipedia. Accessed 29 July 2018. <>

[7] “Nicolae Iorga”. Wikipedia. Accessed 29 July 2018. <>

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