While the word humanism is recent, the idea of humanism is one of the oldest and most transnational worldviews in human history. Most worldviews are defined in terms of the distinctive beliefs they hold, but the principal feature of humanism is not so much its core articles of belief, but the method by which inquiry into the world is undertaken.
The American philosopher Paul Kurtz provided what is perhaps the simplest understanding of humanism when he defined it in terms of its four constituent features. First and foremost, humanism is a method of inquiry; second, it presents a cosmic worldview; third, it offers a set of ethical recommendations for the individual’s life stance; and, fourth, humanism expresses a number of social and political ideals. It is important to note the order in which these characteristics have been listed. Indeed, this order is a result of the seriousness with which humanism takes cosmic and evolutionary time. Number 4 is the least important of them, not because social and political ideals are unimportant, but because the nature and orientation of those ideals have been more susceptible to change over time and between continents. Numbers 2 and 3 are more important because the details of the worldview and the ethical recommendations have greater commonality over time and across cultures.
But the most important single characteristic of humanism is the one that is most impervious to the passage of time. The most constant defining feature of humanism is that it is a method of inquiry. From the Carvakas and Ajivikas in ancient India, from Kongfuzi and Wang Chong in China, from Thales and the Greek thinkers, through the Renaissance to the Enlightenment and on to the 21st century, humanism is best understood as a method of inquiry. The conclusions of that inquiry may change between cultures and between centuries, but the method of inquiry has remained essentially the same.
Symptomatic of the uniqueness of humanism is that for most of its life it has functioned very well without the word. Humanism as a concept has its origins in ancient India, China, and Greece—each one arising independently—but the actual word was not coined until 1808, in Germany. To make things more complicated, humanist existed as a word long before humanism, originating in the Renaissance, although traceable to the Roman word humanitas. But as humanism is defined principally by its method rather than by its conclusions, the lack of a word to act as a catch-all for those conclusions is a trivial issue.
Other philosophers, while agreeing that the method of inquiry remains the single paramount feature, have tried to articulate some general idea of what humanist philosophy would actually subscribe to. The best thought- out was by the American philosopher Corliss Lamont (1902-1995). In an influential account of the philosophy of humanism, one that went through several editions, Lamont outlined what he called the 10 central propositions of humanist philosophy.
- Humanism believes in a naturalistic metaphysics or attitude toward the universe that considers all forms of the supernatural as myth.
- Humanism believes that humankind is an evolutionary product of the nature of which we are a part; it has no survival after death.
- Having its ultimate faith in humanity, humanism believes that human beings possess the power of solving their own problems, through reliance primarily upon reason and scientific method applied with courage and vision.
- Humanism believes that all humans possess genuine freedom of creative choice and action, and are, within certain objective limits, the masters of their own destiny.
- Humanism believes in grounding all human values in this-earthly experiences and relationships, and it holds as its highest goal this-worldly happiness, freedom, and progress—economic, cultural, and ethical—for all humankind.
- Humanism believes that the individual attains the good life by harmoniously combining personal satisfactions and continuous selfdevelopment with significant work and other activities that contribute to the welfare of the community.
- Humanism believes in the widest possible development of art and awareness of beauty, including the appreciation of nature’s loveliness and splendor, so that the aesthetic experience may become a pervasive reality in the life of man.
- Humanism believes in a worldwide democracy, peace, and a high standard of living on the foundations of a flourishing world order.
- Humanism believes in the complete social implementation of reason and scientific method; and thereby in the use of democratic procedures, including full freedom of expression and civil liberties, throughout all areas of economic, political, and cultural life.
- Humanism, in accordance with scientific method, believes in the unending questioning of basic assumptions and convictions, including its own.
The 10th proposition is significant. As with Kurtz’s preference for seeing humanism as a method of inquiry, Lamont is clear that humanism is just as rigorous in questioning its own presuppositions as those of any other system. We may quibble over this or that point in Lamont’s list, but the 10th proposition helps ensure the need for ongoing inquiry as the core humanist process.
Another account of humanism, by the philosopher Mario Bunge, seems at first sight to come from a different perspective than that of Kurtz or Lamont, but in the end it is the similarities that are more significant. Bunge speaks of humanism as involving concern for the lot of humanity. This concern he spells out in what he calls the seven theses of humanism, which go in this order:
- cosmological thesis: whatever exists is either natural or manmade;
- anthropological thesis: the common features of humanity are more significant than the differences;
- axiological thesis: there are some basic human values, like well-being, honesty, loyalty, solidarity, fairness, security, peace, and knowledge, and these are worth working, even fighting, for;
- epistemological thesis: it is possible to find out the truth about the world and ourselves with the help of experience, reason, imagination, and criticism;
- moral thesis: we should seek salvation in this life through work and thought;
- social thesis: liberty, equality, solidarity, and expertise in the management of the commonwealth;
- political thesis: while allowing freedom of and from religious worship we should work toward the attainment or maintenance of a secular state.
Bunge is an advocate of what he calls systemism, which postulates that every thing and every idea is a system or a component of another system. In this way, the first thesis covers the broadest territory, and provides the foundation for the other theses. Looking at it another way, the theses run from the hard sciences through to the social sciences. Interestingly, in the first thesis, which addresses the individual human being, Bunge says what Kurtz also says, namely, the importance of the method of inquiry. From the point of view of time, the focus of inquiry for this encyclopedia, the crucial point of Bunge’s systemism is that it proceeds from sectors in which time operates on a macro scale, to sectors operating on much more limited time scales, well within the human ability to grasp.
Humanism in the Ancient World
Humanism is a collective name that can be given to some of the oldest and most transcultural worldviews on Earth, beginning quite independently in India, China, and Greece. Looking to India first, humanist elements can be found in four of the six classic schools of thought (dar- shana) that make up classical Indian philosophy: the Samkhya, Mimamsa, Yoga, and Vaisesika. They either doubted the existence of any God or gods, or valued the acquisition of knowledge of the world as a worthwhile end in itself, or saw harmonious living within the world as freed from illusion as possible, as a worthwhile goal.
The oldest of the Indian darshanas is the Samkhya school, which was mentioned first in the 4th century BCE, although it had probably been flourishing for a century or so by then. The earliest known Samkhya work is the Samkhya Karika, written by Iswara Krishna about 200 CE. Samkhya thinking developed an elaborate metaphysics that was, broadly speaking, atheistic, recognizing only two ultimate realities: purusa (sentience) and praktri (matter). Praktri is uncaused, eternal, and in a state of constant evolution. It is composed of three essential substances: essence, energy, and inertia. Cosmic history began with these elements being in total equilibrium. Evolution began with the arrival of purusa, and is the principle for which evolution continues. Purusa is itself entirely uncreated and is neither God nor some sort of prime mover, although some strands of Samkhya thinking tend to promote purusa as a variation of universal spirit. It would be a mistake, however, to equate this notion of a universal spirit with God in the Western sense. What divided Samkhya thinkers was whether the notion of God was capable of any proof, or whether it was a mistaken belief. The Samkhya system advocated liberation from the bondage of praktri by knowledge, a liberation best equated with philosophical wisdom.
Standing alongside the classical Indian darsha- nas was the materialist school of thought known as the Carvakas, traceable to the 6th century BCE. Carvaka philosophy shared with other Indian schools the belief that the universe is interdependent and subject to perpetual evolution. But at that point they parted company, holding instead a range of unorthodox beliefs: that sacred literature should be regarded as false; that there is no deity, immortal soul, or afterlife; that karma is inoperative and illusory and matter is the fundamental element; and that only direct perception, and no religious injunctions, can give us true knowledge. The aim in life is to get the maximum amount of pleasure from it. This had various interpretations, from unalloyed hedonism to an altruistic service for other people on the principle that this will maximize one’s own happiness as well as that of others. It will be seen that the humanist variants in Indian thought involved to no small extent a differing view of time, being more linear and embedded in nature.
Other Indian movements of a broadly humanist orientation in India include the Ajivikas and the Sumaniya, about which little is now known. The Ajivikas flourished between the 6th and 3rd centuries BCE, and their influence can be traced for more than 1,500 years. Like some early Jains and Buddhists, the Ajivikas went about naked to indicate their contempt for worldly goods. In the main, they upheld a principle of nonaction, denying that merit accrued from virtuous activity or demerit from wicked activity. Coupled with this was a thoroughgoing determinism and skepticism regarding karma and any sort of afterlife.
Humanist elements can be seen in some elements of contemporary Hinduism. For instance, the Rahda Soami group, which is engaged in building a magnificent temple in Agra, not far from the Taj Mahal, is broadly humanistic in outlook. They disavow caste barriers and undue emphasis on ritual and ceremony, and encourage secular and honest living.
In contrast to India, the humanist strand in China became the principal strand of thought. This is largely, though by no means exclusively, due to the influence of Kongfuzi (551-479 BCE), who is known in West by his Latinized name, Confucius. Chinese humanism is placed squarely in temporal time. Confucius’s genius involved transforming the naturalism and humanism latent in Chinese thinking into the strongest forces in Chinese thought down to this day. He said that maintaining a distance from spiritual beings was a sign of wisdom; he expressed no opinion on the fate of souls, and never encouraged prayer.
Confucius realigned the concept of junzi (chun- tzu in old spelling), which had traditionally meant “son of the ruler” into “superior man,” with the effect that nobility was no longer a matter of blood or birth, but of character. This was a very radical departure from the customary Chinese thinking preceding him. Along with this, he radically transformed the notion of jen from meaning kindliness to the more general “man of the golden rule,” or perfect junzi. Jen was expressed in terms of chung and shu, or conscientiousness and altruism. Confucius spoke of the doctrine of the mean, which essentially meant doing things “just right,” which in turn meant doing things in harmony with the Dao.
The clearest articulation of Confucian values was given in The Great Learning, the classical work of Confucian ethics. Originally part of a large Confucian work called the Book of Rites, The Great Learning was later extracted from it and made a stanDalíone Confucian work. It was probably not written by Confucius himself, but by Zengzi (a disciple) or Zi Si (Confucius’s grandson). The reference to great learning is to distinguish it from small learning, which children are in need of. The power of The Great Learning is that it encapsulates the Confucian educational, moral, and political program in a simple format. First are the Three Ways, or Three Aims: clear character; loving the people; and abiding in the highest good. These Ways are achieved by the Eight Steps: the investigation of things; extension of knowledge; sincerity of the will; rectification of the mind; cultivation of the personal life; regulation of the family; national order; and world peace.
The Three Ways and the Eight Steps encapsulate the Confucian emphasis upon reforming one’s character and building social cohesion and the intimate links between the two notions. Another development of what could be called humanist thinking was developed by Mengzi (371-c. 289 BCE), known in the West as Mencius. The Great Morale (Han Jan Chih Ch’i) involved the morale of the individual who identifies with the universe. There are two ways of cultivating the Great Morale: understanding the Dao, or the way of principle that leads to the elevation of mind; and the accumulation of human-heartedness, or the constant doing of what one ought to do because one is a citizen of the universe. Through the constant accumulation of understanding of the Dao and cultivation of human-heartedness, the Great Morale will gradually develop within oneself. Mengzi also believed the Great Morale was achievable by everyone, because we all have the same nature, one that, at heart, is good. It is important to see how both processes begin with the individual, working on the basic premise that one can play no useful role in society if one’s own personality and family are in disorder. At no point is there any reference to any supernatural order or command morality. Like the Indian humanist systems, Chinese humanism is located within natural time and subject to natural rhythms. It also has important points in common with Mario Bunge’s systemism.
In Greece, humanism can be traced back to the philosophers known as the Presocratics; that is, philosophers active before Socrates. Many historians and philosophers have had reason to admire the general attitude of the Presocratics, even if their actual opinions are of less value than the attitudes that underlie them. Bertrand Russell praised them for not only having an open, scientific attitude of inquiry but for their creativity and imagination. In fact, most of the basic categories of philosophy began with them. The first of them was Thales (c. 624-548 BCE), the man credited as being the father of philosophy. Thales’ claim to fame rests on being the first person to try to explain the world not in terms of myths, but by observation of the world as he actually saw it. Where Homer attributed the origin of all things to the God Oceanus, Thales taught that water was the prime element in all things.
One of the core foundational concepts of humanism as articulated in Greece was the notion of Paideia. The term comes from classical Greek philosophy and is derived from the Greek word pais or paides, which, translated literally, means “boy,” but in its broader meaning can be defined as “education for responsible citizenship.” It was understood by the Greeks that this sort of education was an effective democracy. Paideia had four characteristics: it offered a unified and systematic account of human knowledge; it provided a technique of reading and disputation based upon mastery of language and intellectual precision; it worked on the assumption that the human personality can be improved by education; and it valued the qualities of persuasion and leadership as important for the vital task of taking part in public affairs. The ideals of Paideia were given their best voice by Socrates who, during the trial for his life, declared that the unexamined life is not worth living. These ideals were imitated by the Romans, from whose language the Latin word humanitas comes.
The humanist tradition of Greek thought received a check in the philosophy of Plato, and never fully recovered. Several Hellenistic movements, in particular Epicureanism and Stoicism, reflected important elements of humanist thought, but all had been effectively countered or crushed by Platonism and then by Christianity.
The collapse of the Roman Empire was followed by what might still justifiably be called the Dark Ages. In these long centuries of faith and ignorance, the spirit of inquiry was almost lost in the West. It revived only with the Renaissance. In its broader sense, the Renaissance began with the life of Petrarch (1304-1374) and ended with the death by execution of Giordano Bruno for heresy in 1600, with the most productive years of the Renaissance being the century before the sack of Rome in 1527.
Medieval thinking had been dominated by cultural pessimism: weariness with this world, and a suspicion, derived mainly from Saint Augustine, that human affairs are inevitably tainted with corruption and selfishness. Renaissance thinking, by contrast, was positive and optimistic. While Renaissance humanism differed on many points, it was pretty unanimous in its condemnation of the monastic life with all its implications of defeatism and withdrawing from one’s civic duties.
Humanist thought in the Renaissance is also responsible for some very basic units of periodization of history as developed in the West. The very notion of “Renaissance” came from the idea that this age was the first to rediscover and fully appreciate the cultural grandeur of the ancient world. What happened in between then and now was slightingly dubbed the Middle Ages—those ages of interest only insofar as they stood between the glories of antiquity and the glories of today. We still speak of the Middle Ages, and they have retained in popular imagination the gloomy picture drawn of them by the Renaissance humanists.
The thinkers of the Renaissance saw themselves as the scourge of medieval dogma and the pioneers of a new cultural and intellectual orientation centering on the majesty of the ancient world. The new style of thinking was stimulated by the rediscovery of ancient thinkers, in particular Lucretius, Cicero, and Plato. The Renaissance humanists were optimistic about the power of culture to effect positive social change. At its least helpful, what can be called Renaissance humanism encouraged too backward-looking a stance. The tremendous enthusiasm for the ancient scholars deteriorated into a conservative climate where simple quotation of an ancient authority was sufficient to bring a dispute to an end. Only after the sack of Rome in 1527 did this optimism decline and a return to contemplation and an escape from the world once more became a discernable trend in Renaissance thought.
Very few Renaissance thinkers were atheists: almost all were theists, the majority of them remained Christians, though of heterodox sympathies. Belief in personal immortality came to be questioned, and the understanding of God changed: God was something that could be understood through our learning. Indeed, learning was a deeply pious activity, in that learning about nature meant, ipso facto, learning about God. The influence of antiquity inevitably meant a renewed interest in the pre-Christian ideas of the ancients. Few people declared an overt preference for the pagan ideas, and a rather sophistical justification for interest in the subject developed. The triumph of Christianity, so this argument went, had expunged the danger in paganism, so there now would be little harm in studying it.
The Renaissance was a period of significant historical and scriptural research. For instance, Lorenzo Valla (1405-1457) was responsible for exposing the fraud known as the Donation of Constantine, upon which the papal claims to own its large territories in Italy was based. Valla also wrote Dialogue on Freewill, a frankly skeptical work that is a very sympathetic account of Epicurus. Valla was influential in teaching people the need to read scriptures with a skeptical frame of mind. This religious scholarship of Renaissance scholars was usually undertaken with a mind to reform religion and purge it of its recent and harmful additions. This drive led directly to developing some of the first ideas since the ancient world of religious toleration. This trend came to an end only when the religious reformer Savonarola was burned at the stake in 1498.
The humanism of both the ancient world and the Renaissance were stifled by religious reaction. It slowly rose again to the surface in the 18th and 19th centuries for a complex array of reasons. The Renaissance and Reformation had broken forever the monolithic idea of a single Christian belief that covered the known world, excepting only a few heathens around the periphery. The discoveries of other civilizations by European explorers also showed that people could live quite happily without Christianity. This, along with greater knowledge of the civilizations of India and China, from which Europe might learn, had dramatic consequences for the monoculturalism of Christian Europe. The Enlightenment in Europe (roughly, the years between the 1680s and the 1780s) was characterized in part by the taking to heart of this realization.
It was during these changes in perception that the word humanism was coined, in 1808. Friedrich Immanuel Niethammer (1766-1848) was a German educational reformer who wanted to develop an educational philosophy avoiding the excesses of the Roman Catholic reactionaries and the radicals of his day, known as the Philanthropinists. Niethammer posited humanism as combining the respect for tradition stressed by the conservatives with the innovative education of the whole child, as advocated by the reformers. Niethammer was a close friend of the philosopher George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) and it was from him that subsequent writers, thinkers, and reformers took up the idea of humanism and adapted it to their purposes. By the 1870s humanism was known and used in the English-speaking world. It retained its general use as a catch-all idea for the values of the Renaissance or of the classical world until about the end of the 19th century when the philosopher F. C. S. Schiller (1864-1937) took the word up as the title for his brand of subjectivist pragmatism. From there, American religious progressives took humanism up as the word to denote a brand of nonsupernatural religion as personal commitment in the context of a common humanity. This position came to be known as religious humanism.
It was only after the Second World War that humanism became the most widely used word among secularists, rationalists, and freethinkers. Chief articulators of this kind of secular humanism were Corliss Lamont in the United States, referred to earlier; M. N. Roy (1887-1954) in India; and Hector Hawton (1901-1975) and H. J. Blackham in the United Kingdom. Religious humanists and secular humanists do not differ so much in what they believe. Both groupings are fundamentally naturalistic and reject supernaturalist interpretations of religion. They are also generally opposed to ecclesiastical authority being exercised in society and see science as having constructive contributions to make in science, philosophy, and society. Where they differ is more in their general perceptions of what religion is and what their response to it should be.
Returning to Paul Kurtz’s outline of humanism, we can trace the changes in two of the points and the continuities in others. Item 2, the cosmic worldview, has become more modest and less geocentric, as required by developments in astronomy and cosmology. Item 4, the political ideals, has become inclusive of more groups than earlier humanisms would have endorsed. Toleration of slavery in ancient Greece and the widespread misogyny found in Confucianism and Greek thinking no longer play a part in humanist thinking.
In contrast to these changes, item 3, the ethical ideals, has remained fundamentally the same. The values identified by Solon, Pericles, Confucius, the Carvakas, or the Epicureans still resonate today. Enjoyment of the moment, resistance to the transcendental temptation, love of nature, impatience with display, imperviousness to materialism, respect for learning, civic values, and family responsibility; all were recommended by the ancient humanists and all find enthusiastic support among their contemporary successors.
But it is the first item of Kurtz’s outline that has remained the most constant. The endorsements of skeptical, open-minded inquiry given by Socrates, Wang Chong, and the Ajivika thinker Upaka find direct parallels in the work of Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, and all the other humanist philosophers and scientists who have shaped the modern world. Humanism is first and foremost a method of inquiry, and it is the conclusions of that inquiry that furnish us with our ideas and beliefs. Humanists have always rejected static formulas of thought, or bowing to arguments from authority, or accepting command moralities. In contrast to systems that are founded on acceptance of bodies of thought, humanism assumes that as knowledge comes from humans, it is bound to include some element of error and therefore will be in need of revision as our learning grows. In this way, contemporary humanism can reject the anthropocentric conceit of the Renaissance humanists, the hedonism of the Carvakas, the humorlessness of the Stoics, and still honor their role in the long stream of humanist thought. And as our scientific and philosophic knowledge grows, doubtless some important features of 21st-century humanism will be replaced. But the primacy of humanism as a method of inquiry will remain.
Humanism and Time
We can conclude this general account of humanism by returning to its philosophy of time. Humanist outlooks differ from supernaturalist outlooks in many important ways, and these differences have important implications for their respective beliefs about time. In the centuries before the Copernican revolution, classical Western religions posited a geocentric universe that was both very young and very small and that revolved around one’s own religious heartland and was geared to one’s own needs. This viewpoint became untenable after the 17th century, along with the conceptions of time that attended it. The outlooks that have developed since then, including the humanist ones, have accepted the need for a cosmic perspective, which involves recognizing the relative unimportance of our galaxy, our planet, our species, and ourselves in the wider scheme of things. Baruch de Spinoza spoke in these terms when he extolled the virtue of sub specie aeternitatis, or “under the aspect of eternity.” This cosmic perspective has been reiterated from humanist viewpoints by people as diverse as George Santayana, H. G. Wells, Bertrand Russell, Steven Weinberg, and Richard Dawkins. It is also similar to Mencius’s idea of the Great Morale, mentioned above.
The next major shift in perception came as a result of the breakthroughs in geology and biology in the 19th century; in particular, Charles Darwin’s articulation of natural selection as the means by which evolution takes place. Evolution has demonstrated that human beings must extend their newfound cosmic modesty to the animal kingdom. Ernst Mayr determined four basic beliefs central to theism that were overthrown by evolutionary thinking: belief in a constant world; belief in a created world; belief in a world created by a wise and benign creator; and belief in the unique position of humanity in that creation. Each of these beliefs required a radically different notion of time than is compatible with a scientific account. Once again, this involved a serious recalculation of our understanding of time and the relative position of humanity to time. The ongoing dialogue between evolutionary theory and humanist thinking is testimony to this dynamic relationship.
Finally, the falling away of generally accepted externally imposed goals and purposes in life has stimulated among many humanist thinkers an appreciation of living each moment fully and joyfully. Here some of the more religiously and poetically inclined humanists have helped provide the language necessary to appreciate and savor each moment for the joy it can bring, if only we can look openly at it. This has involved some very creative and significant new understandings of what something like “life eternal” can mean.
See also Bruno, Giordano; Christianity; Confucianism;
Darwin, Charles; Einstein, Albert; Ethics; Farber, Marvin; Hinduism, Samkhya-Yoga; Marx, Karl; Materialism; Presocratic Age; Russell, Bertrand;
Sagan, Carl; Santayana, George; Spinoza, Baruch de;
Values and Time; Wells, H. G.
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