History of Humanism

Humanism has reemerged in many different times and places, each time with a unique “flavor”.

  1. Original Humanism

    Many (but not all) traditional cultures were havens for the original form of humanism, which focuses on heroic virtues, and the sensory fabric of human existence. In such a culture, virtue is often discussed, but there are rarely any written codes of behavior.

    1. African Humanism (? – present): This form of humanism still survives in the more rural areas of Africa. It features:
      • an emphasis on family, communal responsibility and hospitality
      • a warrior code focused around bravery
      • an immersion in polyrhythmic music and dance.


    2. Native American Humanism (? – ca.1800):This form of humanism was largely lost in the cataclysmic destruction of traditional Native American life. It featured:
      • a warrior code of loyalty, honor, courage and fraternity
      • a sensitivity to the life cycles and natural rhythms that form the foundation for human life
      • an anthropomorphic conception of the universe.


    3. Heroic Greek Humanism (ca.1200-750 B.C.): Greeks of the Heroic Age had a highly developed warrior code, centered around the concept of arete or human excellence. Components of this included courage, loyalty, generosity, mercy, dignity, decency, honor, stoicism and strength.
    4. African American Humanism (ca. 1850 – 1980):This form of humanism is a uniquely modern version of original humanism. Created from the bedrock of African Humanism, it took form under conditions of extreme oppression (which often give birth the purest expressions of humanism). Although it was a vital shaping influence on America and American culture, it has been pushed towards extinction by a rising tide of materialism. It features:
      • An emphasis on family, community and hospitality
      • A code of fraternity and sorority
      • A personal and humanist form of worship
      • A strong and pervasive emphasis on the arts, particularly music and dance; also oral and written literature, and the visual arts (almost always with a human-centered perspective)
      • An emphasis on sensory experience and life-cycle events.
  2. Classical Humanism

    Classical humanism is distinguished by emphases on philosophy, written codes of virtues and ethics, and the creation of a body of literature and art. It often looks back to a prior age of heroism. It is generally the philosophy of a privileged aristocracy.(The term, as we use it here, describes a type of humanism, and is not exactly contiguous with the Classical Era)

    1. Chou Dynasty (Chinese) Humanism (ca. 1200-200 B.C.):Philosophy has always been crucial to Chinese identity. In the first period of Chinese Humanism, two major schools of thought were developed:
    2. Taoism, the way of virtue. This was a highly mystical and metaphysical look at the basic nature of the universe. It advocated a system of virtue based on harmony with nature. Although too abstract to be truly humanist, the Taoist metaphysics established the foundation for the development of Chinese medicine.
    3. Confucianism, a very different look at virtues and ethics. Confucianism was profoundly humanist, composed (as it was) of hundreds of detailed precepts on the subject of human existence and the social order. Structure, propriety and ritual were the guiding concepts of Confucianism. Like Taoism, Confucianism looked to nature for guidance.
  3. Classical Greek and Hellenistic Humanism (ca.500-30 B.C.):The classical period in Greece, and the Greek-influenced period that directly followed, was the wellspring for philosophy and art in Western Civilization. It featured:
    • Human-centered sculpture and painting, in a increasingly natural and realistic style.
    • A fascination with mathematics and geometry, leading to advances in architecture.
    • The development of the art of drama, and the creation of great works of theater.
    • Writings on the subject of virtue and excellence.
    • The three greatest Western philosophers, and their philosophies:
      1. Socrates: He used paradox and discourse to rid students of preconceptions, and give them a radically different perspective on life. Socrates was very concerned with virtue, but disavowed the codification of the same.
      2. Plato: He developed a mystical and metaphysical view of the universe. The profound truths he uncovered could be applied to any situation. He was to have a profound influence on the later development of Christian theology.
      3. Aristotle: He was concerned with the minute details of human life and the social order. He believed that Divine order was embodied in the physical world, and discoverable though investigation. His “physicalized metaphysics” became the foundation for Western Science.
  4. The Humanism of the Roman Empire (ca. 30 B.C. – 200 A.D.): This period was largely an extension of trends begun by the Greeks. The philosophy, art and literature was all patterned after that of the Greeks. Through the agency of the Romans, Greek humanism was spread to many far corners of the ancient world.
  5. Renaissance Humanism

    Renaissance Humanism generally draws strongly from a classical tradition. It is less concerned with philosophy, and more concerned with the production of great art, music and theater, and with advances in science. It is self-consciously humanist and human-centered. It is often the lifestyle of an intellectual elite.

    1. Islamic Renaissance Humanism (ca. 800-1200 A.D.):Although largely forgotten in the West, the Islamic Renaissance played a crucial historical role. It kept the legacy of Greece and Rome alive, and brought insights of the East to the West. Key elements included:
      • the development of a body of poetry that was simultaneously sensual and mystical
      • the genesis of the rich philosophical tradition of Sufism
      • great advances in mathematics, including the creation of Arabic numerals.


    2. Italian Renaissance Humanism (ca. 1300-1550): The word “humanism” was coined in reference to this period. It was a period of amazing achievements in art and science, producing scores of great writers, painters, and sculptors. Like the Islamic Renaissance, it paid homage to Classical Greece and Rome, rescuing the myths, literature and philosophy of that period from the obscurity in which it languished during the medieval period.
    3. Harlem Renaissance Humanism (ca. 1920-1930): Although brief, this period produced many of the greatest talents in African-American literature (particularly poetry). Instead of referencing Greece and Rome, Harlem Renaissance writers “rediscovered” a semi-mythical version of African Humanism, particularly as seen through the eyes of Senegal’s negritude movement.Aimed at the so-called “Talented Tenth” of the black population, Harlem Renaissance humanism became tainted by accusations of elitism (as was true for many other versions of humanism).
  6. Modern Humanism

    1. Secular Humanism: The best-known modern humanism, secular humanism denies or devalues the existence of a deity, in order to focus attention firmly on the accomplishments of humanity. However, a criticism of the movement is that it focuses more on opposing religion than on supporting humanism.
    2. Religious Humanism: Typically religious humanism is a celebrates human achievement and potential, and concerns itself with human affairs, yet without denying the primacy of God. This category includes Christian Humanism, Jewish Humanism and Islamic Humanism, as well as humanist versions of other religions. This was once an important movement in religion, but has since been eclipsed by the twin rise of secular humanism and anti-humanist versions of religion.


4 thoughts on “History of Humanism

  1. I had no idea Humanism had so many different forms. I guess people sometimes don’t refer to humanist ideas from other cultures by that name. It’s interesting to see how people all over the world have had similar ideas.

  2. Christopher,
    Thank you for agreeing with me that there are different “flavors” of Humanism. Obviously, the last person posting is referring to secular humanists. I don’t need anti-intellectual fundamentalists to agree with everything I say, but to at least acknowledge that there are different types of Humanism.
    In Homer’s Iliad, the heroes of Greece stop their fighting for awhile to celebrate the life of the late Patroclus to compete in games that were just like the later Olympics. Homer’s book is designed in so many ways to show the working of the Gods of Greece. This was an actual religion to them, not just stories, and they built temples to Zeus, Athena, Diana and others. One of the charges against Socrates was that he didn’t pay respect to the Gods of Athens. Many of today’s fundamentalists who hate Humanism are like the Athenians who condemned Socrates.
    The Olympic games started in 776 B.C. and were ended in 393 a.d. by the Roman Emperor Theodosius. Like the suspension of hostilities for the funeral games of Patroclus, the Greeks would suspend hostilities between city-states during the Olympics. Competition was not only athletic but also in poetry-reading and drama.
    The Greek promotion of the fine arts was also legendary. The Romans adopted these customs and carried on the Olympics, employing Greeks as tutors for their children and revering Socrates and other philosophers of the Academy. They had a saying: “A sound mind in a sound body.” Fundamentalist Catholics opposed these sports and cultural activities, and helped plunge Europe into the Dark Ages. The time of renewal of Humanism–“Renaissance” being French for renewal, also promoted the concept of emphasis on the Body, Mind and Spirit. Instead of “pagan” gods, most Renaissance men were now Catholic Intellectuals who walked a fine tightrope with Catholic dogma.
    It wasn’t until the age of Victorian idealism, when people realized that the Industrial Revolution took away a lot of our physical activity, that the Olympics were brought back—starting in 1896. The YMCA started in 1844 in London, and my YMCA membership card states on the back “Body, Mind & Spirit.” Religious Humanism is the “flavor” of humanism promoted by the YMCA, by the ancient Greeks who started the Olympics, and by the Renaissance men of post-Medieval Europe. It is also the spirit of the Shaolin Temple in China, where Chinese Boxing (known now by the inaccurate nickname “Kung Fu”) was developed and systematized in China.
    We were born with a Body, and Mind and a Spirit—or, as many of us prefer to say, a Body, a Mind, a Heart and a Soul. It is when we are pursuing improvement of all of these faculties in a balanced way that we are pursuing a Humanistic lifestyle. Think of how simple this is to relate to when you think of what school was like growing up. Teachers wanted us to do our homework to develop our minds. PE teachers and coaches wanted us to work out and get in shape for sports and recreation. Music and Art teaches wanted us to develop a love for creative activities, and perhaps spend hours perfecting our piano or singing skills. Parents and church leaders wanted us to go to a church, synagogue or temple and study the scriptures of our faith. When you continue this as an adult, and try to be of use to others of yourself, you are a true Humanist. This is the true spirit of classical Humanism in Ancient Cultures. Whether I make money off of my music, art or sport talents, I pursue these things for their own sake because they are peaceful, civilized and wholesome, and keep me out of trouble.
    All other definitions of Humanism are close to this, but incomplete without accepting this simple concept of Body, Mind, Heart and Soul development and discipline. Because the Olympics were devoted to Humanism, and had nothing to do with war, they are truly Humanistic. Kano’s new form of Jiu-jitsu, which replaced killing moves with sportive moves, became the modern Olympic sport of Judo, and is a perfect example of how Humanism is a civilizing influence on a culture. Remove the Humanities and Sports, and a society plunges into the Dark Ages again.
    The heroic virtues you mentioned were sublimated into sports in Classical Humanism, where physical culture and skill were very important. The “sensory fabric” you mention was woven into the fine arts. This is where we get the term “liberal arts”–the arts of the free people (libera) who had the leisure time to pursue the finer things in life. Thus was born the “Humanities.”
    Thank you for sharing your insights into the “liberal arts” of Native-American and African-American cultures. By the way, the Chinese ideograms “Fire and Time” were blended together to refer to the tempering of a person through discipline that would make him/her like tempered metal. The word for this was Kung-Fu, which meant “man at his best” or “skilled man”, and the sage or “Tzu” of Kung Fu was “K’ung Fu-tzu.” We all know him by the Cantonese rather than Mandarin spelling: “Confucius.” What I would like you to add to your blog is the Tang renaissance of 618-907. It is during this period that the Shaolin Temple was founded and grew. The Philosophy of “Kung Fu” is truly a humanistic one, but martial arts are only one feature of this unique form of Humanism.

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