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" and we created you as a being neither celestial nor earthly, neither mortal nor immortal alone, so that you as a free and sovereign artist can mold and model yourself in the form that you prefer; you can degenerate to animal, but you can also rise to the higher, divine kingdom ... You alone have the power to develop and grow according to free will." --Pico della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man, tr. JWG

Innocence (1893) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau: Both young children and lambs are symbols of goodness
Innocence (1893) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau: Both young children and lambs are symbols of goodness

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Humanism is a movement of philosophy and ethics that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and generally prefers individual thought and evidence (rationalism, empiricism) over established doctrine or faith (fideism). The term humanism can be ambiguously diverse, and there has been a persistent confusion between several related uses of the term because different intellectual movements have identified with it over time. In philosophy and social science, humanism refers to a perspective that affirms some notion of a "human nature" (contrasted with antihumanism). In modern times, many humanist movements have become strongly aligned with secularism, with the term Humanism often used as a byword for non-theistic beliefs about ideas such as meaning and purpose; however, many early humanists, such as Ulrich von Hutten, a strong supporter of Martin Luther and the Reformation, were religious.



In 1808 Bavarian educational commissioner Friedrich Immanuel Niethammer coined the term Humanismus to describe the new classical curriculum he planned to offer in German secondary schools, and by 1836 the word "humanism" had been absorbed into the English language in this sense. The coinage gained universal acceptance in 1856, when German historian and philologist Georg Voigt used humanism to describe Renaissance humanism, the movement that flourished in the Italian Renaissance to revive classical learning, a use which won wide acceptance among historians in many nations, especially Italy.

But in the mid-18th century, during the French Enlightenment, a more ideological use of the term had come into use. In 1765, the author of an anonymous article in a French Enlightenment periodical spoke of "The general love of humanity ... a virtue hitherto quite nameless among us, and which we will venture to call 'humanism', for the time has come to create a word for such a beautiful and necessary thing". The latter part of the 18th and the early 19th centuries saw the creation of numerous grass-roots "philanthropic" and benevolent societies dedicated to human betterment and the spreading of knowledge (some Christian, some not). After the French Revolution, the idea that human virtue could be created by human reason alone independently from traditional religious institutions, attributed by opponents of the Revolution to Enlightenment philosophes such as Rousseau, was violently attacked by influential religious and political conservatives, such as Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre, as a deification or idolatry of humanity. Humanism began to acquire a negative sense. The Oxford English Dictionary records the use of the word "humanism" by an English clergyman in 1812 to indicate those who believe in the "mere humanity" (as opposed to the divine nature) of Christ, i.e., Unitarians and Deists. In this polarised atmosphere, in which established ecclesiastical bodies tended to circle the wagons and reflexively oppose political and social reforms like extending the franchise, universal schooling, and the like, liberal reformers and radicals embraced the idea of Humanism as an alternative religion of humanity. The anarchist Proudhon (best known for declaring that "property is theft") used the word "humanism" to describe a "culte, déification de l’humanité" ("cult, deification of humanity") and Ernest Renan in L’avenir de la science: pensées de 1848 ("The Future of Knowledge: Thoughts on 1848") (1848–49), states: "It is my deep conviction that pure humanism will be the religion of the future, that is, the cult of all that pertains to humanity -- all of life, sanctified and raised to the level of a moral value".

At about the same time, the word "humanism" as a philosophy centred on humankind (as opposed to institutionalised religion) was also being used in Germany by the so-called Left Hegelians, Arnold Ruge, and Karl Marx, who were critical of the close involvement of the church in the repressive German government. There has been a persistent confusion between the several uses of the terms: philanthropic humanists look to what they consider their antecedents in critical thinking and human-centered philosophy among the Greek philosophers and the great figures of Renaissance history; and scholarly humanists stress the linguistic and cultural disciplines needed to understand and interpret these philosophers and artists.


Ancient Greece

6th-century BCE pre-Socratic Greek philosophers Thales of Miletus and Xenophanes of Colophon were the first in the region to attempt to explain the world in terms of human reason rather than myth and tradition, thus can be said to be the first Greek humanists. Thales questioned the notion of anthropomorphic gods and Xenophanes refused to recognise the gods of his time and reserved the divine for the principle of unity in the universe. These Ionian Greeks were the first thinkers to assert that nature is available to be studied separately from the supernatural realm. Anaxagoras brought philosophy and the spirit of rational inquiry from Ionia to Athens. Pericles, the leader of Athens during the period of its greatest glory was an admirer of Anaxagoras. Other influential pre-Socratics or rational philosophers include Protagoras (like Anaxagoras a friend of Pericles), known for his famous dictum "man is the measure of all things" and Democritus, who proposed that matter was composed of atoms. Little of the written work of these early philosophers survives and they are known mainly from fragments and quotations in other writers, principally Plato and Aristotle. The historian Thucydides, noted for his scientific and rational approach to history, is also much admired by later humanists. In the 3rd century BCE, Epicurus became known for his concise phrasing of the problem of evil, lack of belief in the afterlife, and human-centred approaches to achieving eudaimonia. He was also the first Greek philosopher to admit women to his school as a rule.


Renaissance humanism was an intellectual movement in Europe of the later Middle Ages and the Early Modern period. The 19th-century German historian Georg Voigt (1827–91) identified Petrarch as the first Renaissance humanist. Paul Johnson agrees that Petrarch was "the first to put into words the notion that the centuries between the fall of Rome and the present had been the age of Darkness". According to Petrarch, what was needed to remedy this situation was the careful study and imitation of the great classical authors. For Petrarch and Boccaccio, the greatest master was Cicero, whose prose became the model for both learned (Latin) and vernacular (Italian) prose.

Once the language was mastered grammatically it could be used to attain the second stage, eloquence or rhetoric. This art of persuasion [Cicero had held] was not art for its own sake, but the acquisition of the capacity to persuade others – all men and women – to lead the good life. As Petrarch put it, 'it is better to will the good than to know the truth'. Rhetoric thus led to and embraced philosophy. Leonardo Bruni (c.1369–1444), the outstanding scholar of the new generation, insisted that it was Petrarch who "opened the way for us to show how to acquire learning", but it was in Bruni's time that the word umanista first came into use, and its subjects of study were listed as five: grammar, rhetoric, poetry, moral philosophy, and history". (Johnson, Paul (2000). The Renaissance)

The basic training of the humanist was to speak well and write (typically, in the form of a letter). One of Petrarch’s followers, Coluccio Salutati (1331–1406) was made chancellor of Florence, "whose interests he defended with his literary skill. The Visconti of Milan claimed that Salutati’s pen had done more damage than 'thirty squadrons of Florentine cavalry'".

Contrary to a still widely current interpretation that originated in Voigt's celebrated contemporary, Jacob Burckhardt, and which was adopted wholeheartedly, especially by those moderns calling themselves "humanists", most specialists now do not characterise Renaissance humanism as a philosophical movement, nor in any way as anti-Christian or even anti-clerical. A modern historian has this to say:
Humanism was not an ideological programme but a body of literary knowledge and linguistic skill based on the "revival of good letters", which was a revival of a late-antique philology and grammar, This is how the word "humanist" was understood by contemporaries, and if scholars would agree to accept the word in this sense rather than in the sense in which it was used in the nineteenth century we might be spared a good deal of useless argument. That humanism had profound social and even political consequences of the life of Italian courts is not to be doubted. But the idea that as a movement it was in some way inimical to the Church, or to the conservative social order in general is one that has been put forward for a century and more without any substantial proof being offered.
The nineteenth-century historian Jacob Burckhardt, in his classic work, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, noted as a "curious fact" that some men of the new culture were "men of the strictest piety, or even ascetics". If he had meditated more deeply on the meaning of the careers of such humanists as Abrogio Traversari (1386–1439), the General of the Camaldolese Order, perhaps he would not have gone on to describe humanism in unqualified terms as "pagan", and thus helped precipitate a century of infertile debate about the possible existence of something called "Christian humanism" which ought to be opposed to "pagan humanism". --Peter Partner, Renaissance Rome, Portrait of a Society 1500–1559 (University of California Press 1979) pp. 14–15.
The umanisti criticised what they considered the barbarous Latin of the universities, but the revival of the humanities largely did not conflict with the teaching of traditional university subjects, which went on as before.

Nor did the humanists view themselves as in conflict with Christianity. Some, like Salutati, were the Chancellors of Italian cities, but the majority (including Petrarch) were ordained as priests, and many worked as senior officials of the Papal court. Humanist Renaissance popes Nicholas V, Pius II, Sixtus IV, and Leo X wrote books and amassed huge libraries.

In the high Renaissance, in fact, there was a hope that more direct knowledge of the wisdom of antiquity, including the writings of the Church fathers, the earliest known Greek texts of the Christian Gospels, and in some cases even the Jewish Kabbalah, would initiate a harmonious new era of universal agreement. With this end in view, Renaissance Church authorities afforded humanists what in retrospect appears a remarkable degree of freedom of thought. One humanist, the Greek Orthodox Platonist Gemistus Pletho (1355–1452), based in Mystras, Greece (but in contact with humanists in Florence, Venice, and Rome) taught a Christianised version of pagan polytheism.

Back to the sources

The humanists' close study of Latin literary texts soon enabled them to discern historical differences in the writing styles of different periods. By analogy with what they saw as decline of Latin, they applied the principle of ad fontes, or back to the sources, across broad areas of learning, seeking out manuscripts of Patristic literature as well as pagan authors. In 1439, while employed in Naples at the court of Alfonso V of Aragon (at the time engaged in a dispute with the Papal States) the humanist Lorenzo Valla used stylistic textual analysis, now called philology, to prove that the Donation of Constantine, which purported to confer temporal powers on the Pope of Rome, was an 8th-century forgery. For the next 70 years, however, neither Valla nor any of his contemporaries thought to apply the techniques of philology to other controversial manuscripts in this way. Instead, after the fall of the Byzantine Empire to the Turks in 1453, which brought a flood of Greek Orthodox refugees to Italy, humanist scholars increasingly turned to the study of Neoplatonism and Hermeticism, hoping to bridge the differences between the Greek and Roman Churches, and even between Christianity itself and the non-Christian world. The refugees brought with them Greek manuscripts, not only of Plato and Aristotle, but also of the Christian Gospels, previously unavailable in the Latin West.

After 1517, when the new invention of printing made these texts widely available, the Dutch humanist Erasmus, who had studied Greek at the Venetian printing house of Aldus Manutius, began a philological analysis of the Gospels in the spirit of Valla, comparing the Greek originals with their Latin translations with a view to correcting errors and discrepancies in the latter. Erasmus, along with the French humanist Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples, began issuing new translations, laying the groundwork for the Protestant Reformation. Henceforth Renaissance humanism, particularly in the German North, became concerned with religion, while Italian and French humanism concentrated increasingly on scholarship and philology addressed to a narrow audience of specialists, studiously avoiding topics that might offend despotic rulers or which might be seen as corrosive of faith. After the Reformation, critical examination of the Bible did not resume until the advent of the so-called Higher criticism of the 19th-century German Tübingen school.


The ad fontes principle also had many applications. The re-discovery of ancient manuscripts brought a more profound and accurate knowledge of ancient philosophical schools such as Epicureanism, and Neoplatonism, whose Pagan wisdom the humanists, like the Church fathers of old, tended, at least initially, to consider as deriving from divine revelation and thus adaptable to a life of Christian virtue. The line from a drama of Terence, Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto (or with nil for nihil), meaning "I am a human being, I think nothing human alien to me", known since antiquity through the endorsement of Saint Augustine, gained renewed currency as epitomising the humanist attitude.

Better acquaintance with Greek and Roman technical writings also influenced the development of European science (see the history of science in the Renaissance). This was despite what A. C. Crombie (viewing the Renaissance in the 19th-century manner as a chapter in the heroic March of Progress) calls "a backwards-looking admiration for antiquity", in which Platonism stood in opposition to the Aristotelian concentration on the observable properties of the physical world. But Renaissance humanists, who considered themselves as restoring the glory and nobility of antiquity, had no interest in scientific innovation. However, by the mid-to-late 16th century, even the universities, though still dominated by Scholasticism, began to demand that Aristotle be read in accurate texts edited according to the principles of Renaissance philology, thus setting the stage for Galileo's quarrels with the outmoded habits of Scholasticism.

Just as artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci — partaking of the zeitgeist though not himself a humanist – advocated study of human anatomy, nature, and weather to enrich Renaissance works of art, so Spanish-born humanist Juan Luis Vives (c. 1493–1540) advocated observation, craft, and practical techniques to improve the formal teaching of Aristotelian philosophy at the universities, helping to free them from the grip of Medieval Scholasticism. Thus, the stage was set for the adoption of an approach to natural philosophy, based on empirical observations and experimentation of the physical universe, making possible the advent of the age of scientific inquiry that followed the Renaissance.

It was in education that the humanists' program had the most lasting results, their curriculum and methods:
were followed everywhere, serving as models for the Protestant Reformers as well as the Jesuits. The humanistic school, animated by the idea that the study of classical languages and literature provided valuable information and intellectual discipline as well as moral standards and a civilised taste for future rulers, leaders, and professionals of its society, flourished without interruption, through many significant changes, until our own century, surviving many religious, political and social revolutions. It has but recently been replaced, though not yet completely, by other more practical and less demanding forms of education.

From Renaissance to modern humanism

Early humanists saw no conflict between reason and their Christian faith (see Christian Humanism). They inveighed against the abuses of the Church, but not against the Church itself, much less against religion. For them, the word "secular" carried no connotations of disbelief – that would come later, in the nineteenth century. In the Renaissance to be secular meant simply to be in the world rather than in a monastery. Petrarch frequently admitted that his brother Gherardo's life as a Carthusian monk was superior to his own (although Petrarch himself was in Minor Orders and was employed by the Church all his life). He hoped that he could do some good by winning earthly glory and praising virtue, inferior though that might be to a life devoted solely to prayer. The methods of the humanists, however, combined with their eloquence, would ultimately have a corrosive effect on established authority.

Yet it was from the Renaissance that modern Secular Humanism grew, with the development of an important split between reason and religion. This occurred as the church's complacent authority was exposed in two vital areas. In science, Galileo's support of the Copernican revolution upset the church's adherence to the theories of Aristotle, exposing them as false. In theology, the Dutch scholar Erasmus with his new Greek text showed that the Roman Catholic adherence to Jerome's Vulgate was frequently in error. A tiny wedge was thus forced between reason and authority, as both of them were then understood.

19th and 20th centuries

The phrase the "religion of humanity" is sometimes attributed to American Founding father Thomas Paine, though as yet unattested in his surviving writings. According to Tony Davies:
Paine called himself a theophilanthropist, a word combining the Greek for "God", "love", and "humanity", and indicating that while he believed in the existence of a creating intelligence in the universe, he entirely rejected the claims made by and for all existing religious doctrines, especially their miraculous, transcendental and salvationist pretensions. The Parisian "Society of Theophilanthropy" which he sponsored, is described by his biographer as "a forerunner of the ethical and humanist societies that proliferated later" ... [Paine's book] the trenchantly witty Age of Reason (1793) ... pours scorn on the supernatural pretensions of scripture, combining Voltairean mockery with Paine's own style of taproom ridicule to expose the absurdity of a theology built on a collection of incoherent Levantine folktales.

Davies identifies Paine's The Age of Reason as "the link between the two major narratives of what Jean-François Lyotard calls the narrative of legitimation": the rationalism of the 18th-century Philosophes and the radical, historically based German 19th-century Biblical criticism of the Hegelians David Friedrich Strauss and Ludwig Feuerbach. "The first is political, largely French in inspiration, and projects 'humanity as the hero of liberty'. The second is philosophical, German, seeks the totality and autonomy of knowledge, and stresses understanding rather than freedom as the key to human fulfilment and emancipation. The two themes converged and competed in complex ways in the 19th century and beyond, and between them set the boundaries of its various humanisms.

Victorian novelist Mary Ann Evans, known to the world as George Eliot, translated Strauss's Das Leben Jesu ("The Life of Jesus", 1846) and Ludwig Feuerbach's Das Wesen Christianismus ("The Essence of Christianity"). She wrote to a friend:

the fellowship between man and man which has been the principle of development, social and moral, is not dependent on conceptions of what is not man ... the idea of God, so far as it has been a high spiritual influence, is the ideal of goodness entirely human (i.e., an exaltation of the human).

Eliot and her circle, who included her companion George Henry Lewes (the biographer of Goethe) and the abolitionist and social theorist Harriet Martineau, were much influenced by the positivism of Auguste Comte, whom Martineau had translated. Comte had proposed an atheistic culte founded on human principles—a secular Religion of Humanity (which worshiped the dead, since most humans who have ever lived are dead), complete with holidays and liturgy, modeled on the rituals of what was seen as a discredited and dilapidated Catholicism. Although Comte's English followers, like Eliot and Martineau, for the most part rejected the full gloomy panoply of his system, they liked the idea of a religion of humanity. Comte's austere vision of the universe, his injunction to "vivre pour altrui" ("live for others", from which comes the word "altruism"), and his idealisation of women inform the works of Victorian novelists and poets from George Eliot and Matthew Arnold to Thomas Hardy.

The British Humanistic Religious Association was formed as one of the earliest forerunners of contemporary chartered Humanist organisations in 1853 in London. This early group was democratically organised, with male and female members participating in the election of the leadership, and promoted knowledge of the sciences, philosophy, and the arts.

In February 1877, the word was used pejoratively, apparently for the first time in America, to describe Felix Adler. Adler, however, did not embrace the term, and instead coined the name "Ethical Culture" for his new movement – a movement which still exists in the now Humanist-affiliated New York Society for Ethical Culture. In 2008, Ethical Culture Leaders wrote: "Today, the historic identification, Ethical Culture, and the modern description, Ethical Humanism, are used interchangeably".

Active in the early 1920s, F.C.S. Schiller labelled his work "humanism" but for Schiller the term referred to the pragmatist philosophy he shared with William James. In 1929, Charles Francis Potter founded the First Humanist Society of New York whose advisory board included Julian Huxley, John Dewey, Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann. Potter was a minister from the Unitarian tradition and in 1930 he and his wife, Clara Cook Potter, published Humanism: A New Religion. Throughout the 1930s, Potter was an advocate of such liberal causes as, women’s rights, access to birth control, "civil divorce laws", and an end to capital punishment.

Raymond B. Bragg, the associate editor of The New Humanist, sought to consolidate the input of Leon Milton Birkhead, Charles Francis Potter, and several members of the Western Unitarian Conference. Bragg asked Roy Wood Sellars to draft a document based on this information which resulted in the publication of the Humanist Manifesto in 1933. Potter's book and the Manifesto became the cornerstones of modern humanism, the latter declaring a new religion by saying, "any religion that can hope to be a synthesising and dynamic force for today must be shaped for the needs of this age. To establish such a religion is a major necessity of the present." It then presented 15 theses of humanism as foundational principles for this new religion.

In 1941, the American Humanist Association was organised. Noted members of The AHA included Isaac Asimov, who was the president from 1985 until his death in 1992, and writer Kurt Vonnegut, who followed as honorary president until his death in 2007. Gore Vidal became honorary president in 2009. Robert Buckman was the head of the association in Canada, and is now an honorary president.

After World War II, three prominent Humanists became the first directors of major divisions of the United Nations: Julian Huxley of UNESCO, Brock Chisholm of the World Health Organisation, and John Boyd-Orr of the Food and Agricultural Organisation.

In 2004, American Humanist Association, along with other groups representing agnostics, atheists, and other freethinkers, joined to create the Secular Coalition for America which advocates in Washington, D.C. for separation of church and state and nationally for the greater acceptance of nontheistic Americans. The Executive Director of Secular Coalition for America is Sean Faircloth, a long-time state legislator from Maine.

See also

Related concepts and philosophies

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