‘[Humanism] is older by nearly a thousand years than Christianity… and older by more than a thousand years than Islam. It is richer and more profound than either, and it is as fresh now as it was in its beginnings.’
AC Grayling, Handbook of Humanism
What is perhaps more historically interesting is to take the modern definition of ‘humanism’ and search through history for the presence of the beliefs associated with it. Although the word ‘humanist’ may not have been used to describe them at the time, such beliefs and values can be found spontaneously recurring in diverse communities and civilisations around the world as far back as we are able to look. Humanist thought would appear to be as old as humanity.
For as long as there have been those who have believed in religious explanations for the nature of the world, there have also been sceptics and those who have conducted themselves without concern for the prevailing religious doctrines of the time. These beliefs have existed in parallel alongside religious beliefs as an alternative way of understanding reality. Through much of human history, such thinkers have risked hostility and persecution, and writings that did not support the often dominant religious picture of the world have suffered a history of suppression. However, we are not short of examples of humanist thinking from the past.
In the first millennium BCE, we can see humanist ideas in the writings of philosophers from China, India, and ancient Greece. Followers of the Chinese philosopher Confucius, in particular Mencius, wrote about locating morality in human nature. In India one finds a long history of atheism, a naturalistic view of the cosmos, and the questioning of both the need for ritual and the authority of religious texts and authorities. The Charvaka philosophy, for example, emphasised that this was the one and only life we have, in opposition to the contemporary Hindu belief in reincarnation. Philosophers in ancient Greece, such as Epicurus (c. 341 – 270 BCE), denied the existence of gods who interfered in our lives, and practised and promoted the notion of ‘the good life’ with its focus on human happiness.
Much European classical writing was lost in the ‘Dark Ages’ when Christianity took a hold over the continent. However, features of classical philosophy was still championed by some thinkers in the Islamic world. A more human-centred philosophy flowered once again in the Renaissance with the rediscovery of many classical texts. There was a new emphasis on the value of human achievements in this life rather than it being simply preparation for the hereafter, and this was accompanied by a rising realisation that scientific enquiry provided the best way to answer questions about the world.
The eighteenth century Enlightenment embraced the power and potential of reason to solve our problems. Philosophers David Hume and Voltaire both challenged religious orthodoxies. Campaigners such as Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft pioneered ideas on rights and equalities. Political and social reform became viewed from the point of view of its outcome for society at large.
In the nineteenth century, a more scientific understanding of the universe developed through astronomy and geology, and Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection provided further opportunity for humanist thinking to blossom, while moral philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill offered alternative definitions for the good, based on human happiness.
Although few of the individuals referred to above would have been just like modern humanists, many of the beliefs shared by modern humanists can be traced back long into the past. There is no single origin of humanist thought, nor is it possible to describe a neat, unbroken development of humanist ideas over time. However, a humanist can claim that humanism is a worldview that has endured. The absence of any single source of truth also means humanists are free to choose from a wide variety of historical wisdom. This can include the insights of those who, in many ways, were not humanists themselves. One is able to learn from, in Matthew Arnold’s words, ‘the best that has been thought and said’.
Finally, it is perhaps worth noting that some believe that although the history of humanist ideas might prove to be illuminating, it is more productive for humanists to focus on present:
‘Rather than trying to present ourselves as a venerable tradition of wisdom, humanists should embrace the best of the modern world: progressive ethics, natural science and historical self-consciousness. That way, humanists are in a better position than those religious believers who take advantage of what is modern while pretending to live by something ancient.’
Brendan Larvor, Aspects of Humanism course
Humanism is a forward-looking philosophy.
Question: Which figures from history do you think would have used the word ‘humanist’ to describe themselves if they were alive today?