While the word humanism is recent, the idea of humanism is one of the oldest and most transnational worldviews in human history. Most world-views 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 has provided the best 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. Number 4 is the least important of them, not because social and political ideals are unimportant, but because the nature of those ideals has changed most 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 between the various humanist civilizations of the world.
But the most important, because the most constant, is feature Number 1: Humanism is best understood as a method of inquiry. From the Carvakas and Ajivikas in India, from Kongfuzi and Wang Chong in China, from Thales and the Greek thinkers, through the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, to the 21st century, humanism is best understood as a method of inquiry. The conclusions of that inquiry—Numbers 2, 3, and 4 in Kurtz’s definition—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 existence, 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. But as humanism is defined principally by its method rather than by its conclusions, the lack of a word to act as a catchall for those conclusions is a trivial issue.
Another account of humanism, by the philosopher Mario Bunge, seems at first sight to come from a different perspective. In fact, Bunge’s approach ends up saying things similar to Kurtz’s shorter outline. 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, in this order: cosmological thesis: whatever exists is either natural or man-made; 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 everything 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.
Humanism in the Ancient World
Humanism is the oldest and most transnational worldview on Earth, beginning quite independently in India, China, and Greece. The Carvakas were the materialist school of thought (darshana) in India, being traceable to the 6th century BCE. Carvaka philosophy regards the universe as interdependent and subject to perpetual evolution. Other important beliefs include the following: Sacred literature should be regarded as false; there is no deity, immortal soul, or afterlife; karma is inoperative and illusory; matter is the fundamental element; only direct perception, and not 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, on one hand, to an altruistic service of others on the principle that this will maximize one’s own happiness as well as that of others, on the other.
Other Indian movements of a broadly humanist orientation in India include the Ajivikas and the Sumaniya, about whom little is now known. The Ajivikas flourished between the 3rd and 6th 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 that demerit from wicked activity. Coupled with this was a thoroughgoing determinism and skepticism regarding karma and any sort of afterlife.
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 (479-551 BCE), who is known in West by his latinized name, Confucius. 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 chun-tzu, 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 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 chun-tzu. Jen was expressed in terms of chung and shu, or “conscientiousness” and “altruism.”
In Greece, humanism can be traced back to the philosophers known as the pre-Socratics, that is, philosophers active before Socrates. The first of them was Thales (ca. 548-624 BCE), the man credited as being the “father of philosophy.” Thales’s 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.
The other thinkers who succeeded Thales took his thoughts in different directions, but their emphasis on studying the natural world and humanity’s place in it remained the same. The humanist spirit was given its best voice by Socrates, who, during the trial for his life, declared that the unexamined life is not worth living.
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 can 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 at the stake of Giordano Bruno 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: a weariness with this world and a suspicion, derived mainly from St. 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. The very idea of Renaissance came from the idea that this age was the first to rediscover and appreciate fully the cultural grandeur of the ancient world. The thinkers of the Renaissance saw themselves as the scourge of medieval dogma and 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. 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, and the majority of them remained Christians, though of heterodox sympathies. But the understanding of God changed. God was something that could be understood by our learning and study. Indeed, learning and study was a deeply pious activity, in that learning about nature meant, ipso facto, learning about God. 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, and 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.
Contemporary Secular Humanism
The humanism of the ancient world and the Renaissance were both stifled by religious reaction. The dramatic growth in humanism in the modern world is due to the declining power of religion to coerce belief and also the growing power of science to give strong support to Bunge’s cosmological thesis. The revolution in thinking brought on by the Copernican revolution has been profound. No longer can humans credibly consider themselves the center of the universe. Concurrent discoveries of other civilizations by European explorers also showed that people could live quite happily without Christianity. The Enlightenment in Europe (roughly, the years between the 1680s to the 1780s) was characterized in part by the taking to heart of this realization.
If the Copernican revolution greatly demoted humanity’s place in the cosmos, the onset of the Darwinian revolution in the 19th and 20th centuries meant an end to the conceit of seeing humanity as the pinnacle of creation, below only God, in whose image we are made. The current developments in genetics and brain science are certain to challenge those essentialist theories of humanity, which still linger on. So the story of contemporary humanism is the story of the progressive appreciation of humanity’s part in an interdependent system. It is with this insight in mind that Bunge’s seven theses of humanism have their value.
Contemporary secular humanism has been able to organize in a self-conscious way that was not possible for its ancient or Renaissance predecessors. There are now humanist organizations in most countries of the world. This change has been made possible by the coming together of the concept of humanism from the ancient world, the adjective humanist from the Renaissance, and the noun humanism from the 19th century.
Returning to Paul Kurtz’s outline of humanism, we can trace the changes in two of the points and the continuities in the other two. 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 secular humanist thinking.
In contrast to these changes, Item 3, the ethical ideals, have remained fundamentally the same. The values identified by Solon, Pericles, Confucius, the Carvakas, and the Epicureans still resonate today. Enjoying the moment, resisting the transcendental temptation, love of nature, impatience with display, imperviousness to materialism, 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, 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 it 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.
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