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Chapter 2: Forerunners Of Humanism

Forerunners of Humanism

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Seven Contributing Ideas

The ideas that make up modern humanism have developed slowly throughout history and will not fade into oblivion just because people may some day cease to use the term “humanist.” Although there were individual humanists throughout the world in each of the past fifty or more centuries, it has been only in recent ones that these ideas have been recognized as forming a point of view, an approach to life.

There are, however, certain specific ideas which have gone into the making of modern humanism. Seven of these, although at some points shading into one another, seem to us to stand out.

As a starting point let us take the idea that this life should be experienced deeply, lived fully, with environmentally sensitive awareness and appreciation of that which is around us. Those of artistic or venturesome inclination, in particular, have had this keen awareness. This earthy state of mind has existed throughout the ages, particularly in many tribal societies.

Another idea is that nature is thoroughly worthy of attention and study. Early philosopher-scientists, among them Aristotle, shaped this notion.

Still another idea is that of confidence in humankind. For expression of this we are indebted in large measure to the to the eighteenth century democrats who had faith that humans can control their own destinies.

A fourth idea is that of the equality of rights among humans. This is part of the democratic ideal and for it we are again particularly under obligation to the eighteenth century democrats. More recently anti-slavery and women’s movements have come to the surface.

Cooperation and mutual aid can be thought of as a fifth central idea. This important theme lies deep in most religions. Early humanists were exhilarated to see it given a new justification through the work of sociologists and biologists.

A further idea is that of evolution as worked out by nineteenth century scientists. Early humanists were quick to realize the implications of development through gradual change.

For a seventh and last idea we have chosen scientific thinking, the need to demonstrate a theory by testing and experience. From this has been built the whole modern rational scientific method of verification by experiment. Perhaps no other idea has been of more practical importance to the humanist movement than this one.

Enthusiasm for Life

Back through the centuries whenever people have enjoyed the sights and sounds and other sensations of the world, and enjoyed these for what they were—not because they stood for something else—they were experiencing life humanistically. Whenever they felt keen interest in the drama of human life about them and ardently desired to take part in it, they felt as humanists.

The Greek and Roman philosophers Epicurus and Lucretius urged their followers to find happiness in the present world, in nature, and in the affection of friends. During the Renaissance there was a general rebirth of interest in the present, of zest for living.

In each age the work of some writers and artists has revealed the beauty and harmony of the world as it is, beauty that might otherwise go unnoticed. Such work has given new insights into the grandeur and meaning of human life as we experience it. Beethoven’s fifth and ninth symphonies, Rembrandt’s portraits, Shakespeare’s plays, and Lou Harrison’s multicultural compositions do this for us.

Nature Matters

Throughout history many have used their intelligence and energies to force nature to give up its secrets. They have done this in order to make life more livable, or because of an inspired, disciplined curiosity. Indians in North and South America and many Asian and African societies focused on understanding and interacting with the soil, sky, and whatever grows and lives.

In the humanist tradition are Copernicus, Galileo, and other investigators who, in the face of indifference or hostility, courageously observed, experimented, recorded, and formulated. Scientifically focused, they took the whole universe as their domain, daring to explore the heavens, the earth, and even humankind.

Protagoras, speaking in Greece in the fifth century Before the Common Era, encouraged people to turn their minds to the investigation of what lay about them. “As to the gods,” he said, “I have no means of knowing either that they exist or do not exist. For many are the obstacles that impede knowledge, both the obscurity of the questions and the shortness of human life.”

Many centuries later Francis Bacon, leading the revolt against medieval scholasticism, urged people to be rational, to look at the world more scientifically.

In philosophy, the materialist and naturalist tradition had sturdy roots in ancient Greece. Early philosophers based their systems entirely on the natural world in founding schools of thought. The naturalists emphasized the sufficiency of nature as a framework for thinking. The materialists developed theories of matter that, in general outline, are little different from those held in modern times. Today these have been developed and blended together. But they barely survived the rise of the Church and the advent of the Dark Ages. In the Western world the modern tradition can be traced through Francis Bacon, Baruch Spinoza, and Charles Sanders Peirce to George H. Mead, John Dewey, Arthur Bentley, and Julian Huxley. Modern refinements have been important but, for this school of thought, nature as the sum total of physical realities still remains the framework.

Late in the nineteenth century Robert Green Ingersoll told thousands of Chautauqua attendees what few had been taught to believe:

When I became convinced that the Universe is natural—that all the ghosts and gods are myths, there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood the sense, the feeling, the joy of freedom. . . . For the first time I was free. I stood erect and fearlessly, joyously, faced all worlds. And then my heart was filled with gratitude, with thankfulness—and went out in love to all the heroes, the thinkers who gave their lives for the liberty of hand and brain. And then I vowed to grasp the torch that they had held and hold it high that light might conquer darkness still.

Confidence in Humankind

In the Western world during the Renaissance there was manifested a new confidence in human powers, but the social implications of this new awareness were first fully faced in the eighteenth century by those who fought for human rights. These leaders felt confidence in what all people could do if given freedom. They had a profound belief in reason, a deep distrust of all tyrannies which control our minds.

These individuals lived in a world where political, economic, and religious power was in the hands of a few. They lived in a time when the dead hand of tradition was strong and that tradition backed by deeply entrenched interests. Classical scholars and priesthoods encouraged respect for divine revelation and discouraged self-reliance. People were told to accept rather than to investigate and to question.

Through the centuries religious leaders had taught that there were laws beyond the reach of reason and that one should follow obediently those who knew and interpreted such laws. They taught that we should concentrate on reaching the next world rather than center thoughts and actions on this one.

We see here two opposing moods: the one for self-determination; the other against it. As John Herman Randall, Jr., has said, history is an alternation of two moods . . . there is the mood of supernaturalism . . . a mood of dependence and self-abnegation, a bitter realization of frustration and failure, in which man’s confidence oozes to nothingness and he feels himself the plaything of forces which he cannot pretend to comprehend.

And there is the humanistic hope “involving the triumphant apotheosis of man, the creator and builder.”

The eighteenth century democrats Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire believed in liberty. They felt that only where people are free are they able to become all they might be. Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson were opposed to all governments, institutions, laws, and customs which restrained the free use of our minds, which imposed arbitrary, unnecessary authority on how we shall think and act.

Thomas Jefferson wrote:

I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand and hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change . . . institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.


We are indebted in large measure to the eighteenth century democrats not only for their concept of political freedom but for the idea of political equality. Not only is there intrinsic value in each of us, but there is a basic human equality among us.

Political and religious leaders traditionally supported the theory of divine right and the notion that some groups were inherently superior to others. Some people with an independent turn of mind—nonconformists who were perpetually getting into trouble—looked at all the kings, dukes, bishops, and priests and whispered the simple questions: What, if anything, makes them superior? What indispensable purpose do they serve?

Mutual Aid

For centuries many religions have advanced the idea that all men are brothers and therefore should help one another. This notion, however, has fared but poorly and still is bravely struggling for survival in a largely callous world. The difficulty lies, perhaps, in that humans have been told merely that it is a duty to feel as brothers and sisters. We have been given no satisfactory reasons.

There are, however, many reasons why the modern humanist is convinced of the value of cooperation. In the first place, concentration of interest in the present, in this life on earth, acts as a dynamo generating the idea that existence should be tolerable for everyone. If this is the only life we can be sure of, let us make it a worthy one, both for ourselves and others.

During the last hundred years, furthermore, the humanist knows that scientists have made clear how cooperation is, in a very real sense, important to survival on many levels of life. Pyotr A. Kropotkin pointed out how crucial to human and animal survival is the exercise of mutual aid. At least one paleontologist found in cooperation the grand strategy of evolution. According to H.M. Bernard’s zoological researches, the development of higher forms of life was made possible by the progressive cooperation of cells.

Things Evolve

Many early Greeks, Asians and Africans did not believe that the world had been created as of a particular date by a deity. They felt that somehow this universe with its wealth of living things had changed or evolved from some simpler forces and material. Certain nineteenth century scientists had come to this view but not until the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species were average men and women faced with the idea of evolution.

In early consideration of this discovery most felt that a common ancestry with animals lowered the human race to a level with them. There were others, however, who sensed that in the idea of evolution there lay cause for special encouragement. While other living things must adapt themselves to nature, must change their own forms, humans on account of their special gifts are able to adapt nature to themselves. The idea that we can consciously turn the process of evolution to our own advantage, to further our own good, to recreate the world and ourselves, is at the very center of present-day humanism.

During the nineteenth century a few thinkers suggested that moral laws have not come to us through revelation. Herbert Spencer’s strong voice announced that these are the results of our experiences in living with one another and are not the precepts of any supreme being. Here we find emphasis on the evolutionary aspect of morality. This too contributes to our philosophy.

Experience Is Our Guide

Gradually we humans have learned to test the truth of our notions by experience. Within recent centuries this practical good sense has developed respect for rational thinking and the scientific method, a method which has served the interests of humanity more successfully, more humanely, and therefore in a sense more spiritually, than any other. Within the past century some of the implications of this method have become widely known and appreciated. Most citizens of the technically advanced countries have at least a vague faith in the practical results of scientific approaches. However, there have never been large numbers who perceived how much value there was in using this method in one’s own daily life, or in the building of a living philosophy. Those who were able to see it as a major tool in their total adjustment to life have been, to that extent, in the humanist tradition.

And So—Humanism

By the twentieth century many individuals, impelled by their own kind of interest in the world around them, had been carrying on a quiet revolution. They had built up for us an entirely different picture of the universe—and of our place in it—from that which had been accepted in the Middle Ages.

The established religions—Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and to some extent Buddhism and Hinduism—had been built around a predominantly static picture. The new picture is so different that many have been repelled or have not been able to bring themselves to accept it. It was the impact of this new knowledge, however, which brought about the transformation of humanism into a relatively clear-cut body of ideas and into organized movements. Humanism has developed as scattered individuals and small groups realized that they had a common bond in their thorough, ungrudging rational acceptance of new knowledge and its implications.

Let us consider certain of the changes brought about in knowledge during the past few centuries.

The earth, this globe of ours, once proud center of the divine handiwork, has lost considerably in geographical importance. Even our sun, itself 109 times the diameter of the earth, is found to be but an average-sized star on the edge of a galaxy of perhaps 300 billion other stars. Beyond this there are likely more than 100 billion other galaxies!

The earth, once thought in Europe to have been created about 4000 BCE, is now known to have a far longer history. It is recognized to have formed 4.54 billion years ago and has reached its present condition through a series of changes and continues in a process of evolution.

And humans, once center, master, and darling of the universe, for whom all else was created, have had to take a more humble position. We have evolved from earlier forms of life and differ far less from our closest living relatives than had previously been supposed. Moreover, the findings of advancing knowledge reveal that each of us is an inseparable unity of body and mind, of thought and emotion.

The “soul,” long believed to be a human’s unique possession, has evaporated into literary metaphor.

When the impact of this new picture was first felt, the implications seemed staggering. How could people accept the new view of humans and their universe? We had lost our security, our importance, we who had been the favorite sons and daughters of the creators! We who were made for a special destiny! Some even feared that our most precious human goals, values, and ideals would lose importance in this new world.

But these implications did not stagger the humanists of a century ago. They had a solid confidence in humanity. To them humankind needed no privileged position in the scheme of things. Having a genuine respect for, and interest in, human purposes and human ideals for their own sakes, they were not upset to find that these are not linked up with any great purposes of the universe as a whole.

Far from shrinking from the implications of biology, anthropology, astronomy, psychology, paleontology, and physiology, they made them the basis of their thinking. They built up from them the philosophy and lifestance of humanism.

The sociologist Frank H. Hankins pointed to humanism as becoming a logical step in the human venture:

Sociological and historical researchers have shown that the essential core of religion is devotion to those social values which bind men together in cooperative effort for group preservation and mutual welfare; and that these values are discovered through human experiences. Among those discovered in recent times are devotion to truth as exemplified in the scientific mentality, the dignity of individual man, and the ideals of democracy. Humanism thus becomes the next logical step in religious evolution; it is the heir and creative fulfillment of the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the democratic revolutions.

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