History of Humanism

Norman Rockwell

As a Christian Humanist, a categorization far too many people see as a contradiction in terms, I find the identification of the term “humanism” with modern secular humanism far too confining.  If we take humanism as the study, development and promotion of the best and the most unique traits of humanity, we find it to have emerged in many different times, places and “flavors.”  (This is a repost of an essay from 2004.)

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.

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.

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.

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.

African American Humanism (ca. 1850 – 1980):

This form of humanism was 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.

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)

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: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.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.

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:
    • 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.
    • 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.
    • 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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).

Modern Humanism

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.

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.


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