What is Humanism?

Image credit:  Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man (c. 1490) shows the correlations of ideal human body proportions with geometry described by the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius in his De Architectura. Vitruvius described the human figure as being like the principal source of proportion among the Classical orders of architecture. Via Wikipedia

The idea of Humanism

The words humanism, humanist, humane are so widely present and taken for granted in both scholarly and everyday talk that whenever someone is trying to explain what these actually mean, he should recount one very old and long tale. A tale of great and noble ideas that many times revolutionized the way we perceive our human world and considerably increased the extent to which we fathom the depths of the Universe within and without us. But what exactly is humanism? Where does that idea come from? How did it affect us throughout human history and what is humanism today?

One Possible definition

Humanism is a broad system of education, beliefs, concepts, and approaches towards Nature, Man, Society, and their intrinsic interconnections. It praises the development of both individual's mind and faculties as an ideal proportion of intellectual contemplation, cultural awareness, fortitude, mutual empathy, ethics, and aesthetics, all immersed in active social life. Humanism is a way of regarding man as a value, a world within himself, as a mission or goal to achieve by the means of knowledge and culture. As the Renaissance philosopher - Pico Della Mirandola - asserts in his renowned Oration on the Dignity of Man, man possesses free will, therefore he should create himself accordingly and respect the freedom of others. Using his contemporary rhetoric, Mirandola put it approximately like this - one could choose whether to become similar to an angel or to a beast. The pursuit of the Ideal, of deeper understanding, social improvement, benevolence, and happiness is a human right. Moreover, it dignifies the individual while striving to become a complete and better version of himself.

Humanism is a way of view, a rather progressive, rational, and existentialist one. It puts the accent on the important role of personal cultivation, perfection, balance, and responsibilities towards both ourselves and the society we live in. A single man represents the entire humanity as a cell in a more complex organism, hence, by his actions in the world, each of us takes the great responsibility to shape and influence the fortunes and misfortunes of humankind.

Common definitions

Of course, there is not only one way to describe it but many perspectives to the convention of what we call Humanism:

…a commitment to the perspective, interests and centrality of human persons; a belief in reason and autonomy as foundational aspects of human existence; a belief that reason, scepticism and the scientific method are the only appropriate instruments for discovering truth and structuring the human community; a belief that the foundations for ethics and society are to be found in autonomy and moral equality…

– Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy

An appeal to reason in contrast to revelation or religious authority as a means of finding out about the natural world and destiny of man, and also giving a grounding for morality…Humanist ethics is also distinguished by placing the end of moral action in the welfare of humanity rather than in fulfilling the will of God.

– Oxford Companion to Philosophy

Believing that it is possible to live confidently without metaphysical or religious certainty and that all opinions are open to revision and correction, [Humanists] see human flourishing as dependent on open communication, discussion, criticism and unforced consensus.

– Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy

That man should show respect to man, irrespective of class, race or creed is fundamental to the humanist attitude to life. Among the fundamental moral principles, he would count those of freedom, justice, tolerance and happiness…the attitude that people can live an honest, meaningful life without following a formal religious creed.

– Pears Cyclopaedia, 87th edition, 1978

Rejection of religion in favour of the advancement of humanity by its own efforts.

– Collins Concise Dictionary

A non-religious philosophy, based on liberal human values.

– Little Oxford Dictionary

…an outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters. Humanist beliefs stress the potential value and goodness of human beings, emphasize common human needs, and seek solely rational ways of solving human problems.


Etymology of the word Humanism

As it usually happens, etymology brings up the best explanation, elucidating the term as a structure of meaning, built up throughout the ages like a cathedral. The term studia humanitatis dates back as far as the 15th century – the epoch of the Italian Renaissance when a great revival of the Ancient Greek ideals outburst in the south of Europe. The professors, students, and propagators of these ideals were called umanisti. A word that derives from Studia humanitatis, which was denoting the course of Classical studies that consisted of rhetoric, grammar, history, moral philosophy, and poetry – the so-called Liberal Arts. The predecessor of the term Studia Humanitatis is the concept of Humanitas coined by the Roman statesman and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero. Humanitas indicated the idea of the development of human virtue and knowledge in all its form, to its fullest extent. It meant not only the cultivation of compassion, understanding, benevolence, mercy - the qualities associated with the words humanity and humane in their Modern forms but also the active participation in social life, politics, the development of eloquence, and even the pursuit of honor. The source of inspiration of humanitas was the Classical Greek and Roman literature and more specifically the Greek term – paideia. Paideia referred to the upbringing and the education of the ideal ancient Greek citizen as a member of the polis. Its scope was encompassing a wide range of studies from rhetoric, philosophy, arithmetic, and medicine to gymnastics and wrestling. The ancient Greeks believed in the idea that there should be a perfect balance between body and mind, which was expressed by the idea of kalokagathos (beautiful and good).

The Amsterdam Declaration 2002

In 1952, the First World Humanist congress was held with the goal to agree on an international convention of what are the basic principles of modern Humanism. It was called the Amsterdam Declaration. In 2002, the declaration was updated as it follows:

Humanism is the outcome of a long tradition of free thought that has inspired many of the world's great thinkers and creative artists and gave rise to science itself.

The fundamentals of modern Humanism are as follows:

1.Humanism is ethical. It affirms the worth, dignity and autonomy of the individual and the right of every human being to the greatest possible freedom compatible with the rights of others. Humanists have a duty of care to all of humanity including future generations. Humanists believe that morality is an intrinsic part of human nature based on understanding and a concern for others, needing no external sanction.

2.Humanism is rational. It seeks to use science creatively, not destructively. Humanists believe that the solutions to the world's problems lie in human thought and action rather than divine intervention. Humanism advocates the application of the methods of science and free inquiry to the problems of human welfare. But Humanists also believe that the application of science and technology must be tempered by human values. Science gives us the means but human values must propose the ends.

3.Humanism supports democracy and human rights. Humanism aims at the fullest possible development of every human being. It holds that democracy and human development are matters of right. The principles of democracy and human rights can be applied to many human relationships and are not restricted to methods of government.

4.Humanism insists that personal liberty must be combined with social responsibility. Humanism ventures to build a world on the idea of the free person responsible to society, and recognises our dependence on and responsibility for the natural world. Humanism is undogmatic, imposing no creed upon its adherents. It is thus committed to education free from indoctrination.

5.Humanism is a response to the widespread demand for an alternative to dogmatic religion. The world's major religions claim to be based on revelations fixed for all time, and many seek to impose their world-views on all of humanity. Humanism recognises that reliable knowledge of the world and ourselves arises through a continuing process of observation, evaluation and revision.

6.Humanism values artistic creativity and imagination and recognises the transforming power of art. Humanism affirms the importance of literature, music, and the visual and performing arts for personal development and fulfilment.

7.Humanism is a lifestance aiming at the maximum possible fulfilment through the cultivation of ethical and creative living and offers an ethical and rational means of addressing the challenges of our times. Humanism can be a way of life for everyone everywhere.

Our primary task is to make human beings aware in the simplest terms of what Humanism can mean to them and what it commits them to. By utilising free inquiry, the power of science and creative imagination for the furtherance of peace and in the service of compassion, we have confidence that we have the means to solve the problems that confront us all. We call upon all who share this conviction to associate themselves with us in this endeavour.

- Amsterdam Declaration of Modern Humanism

Last but not the least, Humanism gave a great impetus to the evolution of all sciences, especially the way we see Social Sciences today. In such a way, we hold it responsible for the existence our annual conferences. Check out - SGEM Social Sciences and Arts & Humanities, and SGEM Florence Art.
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