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Humanist history

Watch classicist Tim Whitmarsh describe the history of humanist thought in the ancient world
We’re often taught to think of atheism and humanism as something that is distinctively modern and distinctively Western. My view is that this is nonsense. Of course different cultures have different preoccupations and see things in different ways, but the idea of scepticism towards the divine, the idea that the most important thing is treating other human beings as human beings, rather than paying obeisance to some deity, some distant deity, that is not simply a modern Western idea.
One of my favourite atheists - we have to be slightly careful with these words because they don’t mean exactly the same thing to us now as they did in Ancient Greece - but one of my favourite atheists was a chap called Diogenes the Cynic. There’s a wonderful story about the time that he went down to the sea and he was looking at lots of dedications that had been put up - dedications to the gods - that had been put up by people that were saved from shipwrecks, and somebody came
up to him and said: “Isn’t it amazing how many people the gods saved?” and Diogenes
replied: “Yes, and it would be even more amazing if we had the dedications from all the people that the gods decided to drown as well.” Another really influential classical philosopher was a chap called Epicurus. Epicurean now means somebody who indulges in pleasure. Now Epicurus thought that happiness was very important but he didn’t think of it as drinking too much, or eating too much, or smoking too much, or whatever, he thought the happiness in fact came from the opposite. He thought it was from detaching yourself from needs like that and living a life of tranquility and serenity.
Now Epicurus had views on the body and the world, which are - with a little bit of extension - what we might call humanist at one level. Because Epicurus thought that the whole world was made of matter and void, that’s to say atoms and the gaps between atoms. He thought that there was no such thing as the soul, he thought there was no such thing as divinity, and he thought there was no such thing, clearly, as life after death. So it’s extremely important that what we do is we think about ourselves, our relationship to ourselves - a strong theme in classical philosophy generally - but also our relationship to our fellow human beings.
Friendship was at the heart of Epicurean philosophy and we tend to think of friendship now as a rather wishy-washy term but the Epicureans took it extremely seriously. How we relate to other people they thought was the most important question in ethics and I think that’s something that many modern humanists would sign up to as well.
We live in an age that values technology, values progress. The present is always sloping into the future. But I think is super important to think about in the past, the past tells us not only shows us where we come from collectively and that’s often a much more complex story than people assume it would be but it also gives you a completely different way of looking at the world.
So much of the way that we approach the world is taught, it’s learned behaviour that we get from the media, that we get from schools, that we get from our parents, and without this ability to change the angle of vision that you get from the study of ancient cultures and other cultures in general, without this it’s very easy to become, if you like, automatised, to believe that your way of seeing the world is the only way of seeing the world. So, as I say, for me studying classical antiquity is a way of really shaking up one’s own approach to the world, and learning to understand that the world can be conceived in different terms.

Tim Whitmarsh is the Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World.

Question: How important is it for human beings to learn about history and to be able to find and make connections with the past?

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Humanist Lives, with Alice Roberts

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