The Historical Influence of Humanism

July 1997


Olympic gods are clearly creations
Of desperate men's imaginations
And Roman gods only inventions
That served to ease man's apprehensions.
And while these stories may amuse us
They have no power to delude us
Yet the tale of a snake tempting Eve
Is somehow myth we choose to believe.

--Fran M. DeVenuto,
American Atheist Magazine, Summer 1997

To begin my discussion on the historical influence of humanism, I'll quote from the definition given in the Microsoft encyclopedia Encarta: "Humanism is an attitude that emphasizes the dignity and worth of the individual. A basic premise of humanism is that people are rational beings who possess within themselves the capacity for truth and goodness."

During the past four years I've inundated myself in reading about humanism. Independently and through the Humanist Institute I've devoured dozens of books, listened to several lectures, and been involved in countless discussions. My goal has been to internalize humanism, to get a feeling that I have some degree of understanding concerning the central ideas that constitute the humanistic philosophy, to acquire some sense of where the concept of humanism originated and how that concept has impacted history. I suppose what I've been seeking is a secular 'ah ha' experience of humanism, similar to what a religious person might refer to as a 'revelation.'

One such experience occurred just a few months ago while I was listening to a lecture by Dr. Michael Sugrue, a philosopher of history at Princeton. He was lecturing on the problems and the scope of philosophy. In defining physics and metaphysics he discussed the ancient philosophies of Athens and Jerusalem.

In the Greek intellectual tradition, the dispute was between the 'one-world' physics of the pre-Socratic thinkers, which he referred to as the philosophy of Athens, and the "two-worlds" metaphysics of the post-Socratic thinkers, which he labels the philosophy of Jerusalem. He explained that in Western philosophy, Athens represents secular reasoning of the physical, natural ontology, while Jerusalem represents divine revelation, of the mystical, metaphysical ontology.

In Athens the highest virtue was human reason and discourse, while in Jerusalem the highest virtue was faith in divine revelation.

In Athens the representative icon was god-defying Prometheus, while in Jerusalem the representative icon was god-fearing Job.

Athens, then, became the foundation for rational, secular thought, and Jerusalem the foundation for mythical, religious thought.

In the opinion of professor Sugrue, significant philosophical discussions have centered around this basic 'Athens versus Jerusalem' question of 'one world versus two worlds'...secularism versus mysticism.

He concluded this segment of his presentation with the notion that much of the Christian tradition has been an attempt to reconcile these conflicting concepts established 2500 years ago in Athens and Jerusalem!

Dr. Sugrue's explanation struck a responsive chord in me. All of my studies of the past four years suddenly seemed to fall into place and I had one of those rare 'ah ha' experiences. It reminded me of a similar feeling I had maybe 30 years ago while reading Alan Watts book, Man, Woman and Nature. A paragraph somewhere near the middle of the book stimulated a sudden realization of my being at home on this planet, in this universe. I had the feeling then that, along with every blade of grass, every flower, every rock, every animal, I am a significant part of nature.

Professor Sugrue's lecture helped me to understand more clearly how humanism, the one-world Athenian philosophy of naturalism and rationalism, has played a major role in human history and has been a significant stimulus to scientific, social and political progress.

Another lecturer spoke further about the pre-Socratic period. Dr. Darren Staloff, professor at the City College of New York, said the Greek philosophers who lived during the 400 year period before Socrates were primarily concerned about scientific questions, the 'what' and the 'how' of the nature of the universe rather than the 'why.' Their commonality was 'materialism,' looking for the basic material, the unifying factor, of all matter.

For example, Thales (625 BCE to 545 BCE) thought 'water' was the basic ingredient of everything. Thales was the first person on record to be referred to as a 'wise man.' He is also credited with being the first person to correctly predict a solar eclipse, which he did in 585 BCE.

Anaximenes (570-500 BCE) maintained that the basic element of the cosmos was air, which when rarefied becomes fire and when condensed becomes water and earth.

Around 500 BCE Pythagoras speculated that the royal road to truth was understanding the language of mathematics. He postulated the Theory of Numbers, which for Pythagoreans became the ultimate principle of order and harmony in the universe.

And about 400 BCE Democritus (460 BCE-360 BCE) speculated that the ultimate form of matter was the 'atom,' tiny particles that flew around randomly and were too small to be seen. More than two thousand years later, Albert Einstein proved Pythagoras and Democritus had been close to ultimate truth.

The important point made by Dr. Staloff was that none of these pre-Socratic thinkers looked outside 'this world' for an explanation of how it functions. They were 'naturalist,' seeking answers to the what and how of nature and developed what many refer to as the 'this world' philosophy of Athens.

Socrates, famous for his statement, "the unexamined life is not worth living," questioned the Greek myths of polytheism, and as we know was charged with corrupting Greek youth and sentenced to death.

With the death of Socrates, Greek philosophers began to pursue the 'why' question of the universe. Their discussions speculated about the purpose of this world and they searched outside of the natural world for their answers. While pre-Socratic thinkers were concerned with physics, post-Socratic thinkers were concerned about Metaphysics. Mysticism began to dominate their thinking. Judaic-Christian philosophy moved northward, gradually replacing Greek mysticism. For the next 2000 years the 'two world' philosophy of Jerusalem became the focus of the thinkers and rulers. Religion and politics became one, restricting the lives of their subjects and imposing the metaphysical values of their two-worlds idea system. In the post-Socratic era, metaphysics replaced physics and mysticism replaced reason as the dominant thought process.

During those two thousand years the 'peoples of the book,' Judaism, Christianity, and Islam competed for the control of the human belief system in the western world. The emphasis was on 'the other world.' Their basic belief system indoctrinated people with the idea that the purpose of this life was to learn how to live in this world in order to get to the other world and then how to reap the highest rewards and avoid eternal punishment in that 'other world'.

The polytheism of Rome was also intermingled with Asian mythology as Alexander the Great extended the Roman Empire. The Jerusalem Religion of Revelation became part of the mix as Christianity replaced Roman influence. In the 7th century of the Common Era, Islamic legions reduced the influence of repressive Christianity; a few hundred years later the Christian Crusades drove the Muslims out of Europe. The combined powers of the Jerusalem 'two-worlds' concept of myth and mysticism maintained a strong wall of silence around the Athenian 'one-world' concept of reason and rationality for nearly two thousand years.

In the middle of the 1400's a sequence of thinkers and events took place that we now refer to as the Renaissance. It was a renewal of interest in the pre-Socratic questions concerning the what and how of the universe, the role of reason in problem solving, and the significance of the individual in society. The philosophy of humanism was taking shape. Thinkers such as Machiavelli, Thomas Moore, Copernicus, and Galileo thought, spoke and wrote about the independent power of the human brain. The printing press was developed, paving the way for the mass communication of ideas, including a re-birth of interest in the writings of the pre-Socratic philosophers. The Renaissance of Humanism was summarized later, in the 1700's, by the poet Alexander Pope with his now famous quotation, "The proper study of mankind is man." The Renaissance generated interest in the human potential for making decisions and taking responsibility. Renaissance writers openly challenged the power of the political-religious institutions to restrict the thinking, reading, writing, speaking and actions of the populous.

Three philosophers shared a major humanistic influence in the early 1500's. Machiavelli (1469-1527) established the groundwork for secularism in Italy. He examined the structure of political power, writing two famous books concerning how to get political power and how to use it. His first book, The Prince, concerned the ruthless use of power. His second book, The Discourses, was toned down considerably and recognized the need for a more democratic political structure.

Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), a Dutch Catholic philosopher, openly voiced concern about the evils and errors of the church. He wrote concerning the perfectibility of human beings and their power for self-determination. His books were listed in the famous Index of Forbidden Books by the Council of Trent.

Thomas Moore (1478-1535) was an early advocate of religious freedom and democracy in England. He proposed that the fullness of power in any society resides in its members and no legitimate authority exists apart from the common consent of its members. He was beheaded for his thinking by Henry VIII.

These three writers caused serious cracks in the theological wall of enforced ignorance and set the scene for breaking the political power of religion, namely the Catholic church, to control thoughts, peoples and nations.

In their footsteps, Copernicus (1473-1543) proclaimed that the earth is not the center of the universe. Copernicus declared that the sun, the planets and the stars do not revolve around the earth, that contrary to religious teachings the earth is one of several planets that revolves around the sun, and that each planet rotates on its axis.

Galileo (1564-1642) several years later confirmed the Copernican theory and with his telescope further expanded human knowledge of the universe. He fell into conflict with the Catholic authorities and was ordered not to discuss the Copernican concept of the universe. For his scientific beliefs Galileo was charged with heresy and sentenced to life in prison. Three hundred and fifty years later, in 1992, Catholic officials acknowledged the Vatican error.

Francis Bacon(1561-1626) called for the separation of natural philosophy and theology. He fostered interest in natural history, promoted the scientific method of problem solving, and created the slogan "Knowledge is Power." He urged a break with authoritarian religion and a new approach to knowledge independent of theology.

Isaac Newton (1642-1727) developed Calculus and wrote Principia Mathematica, the scientific handbook of the ages. He formulated the laws of motion, and established the experimental method as the basis for true science.

These men of science, condemned by religion for secularizing knowledge, revealed the weakness of myth and dogma, releasing the creative power of the human mind and empowering other thinkers to question religious myths by developing rational solutions to human problems. They constructed the road leading to the Enlightenment, the historical period beginning in the 1600's that Thomas Paine called The Age of Reason. Among the Enlightenment leaders were:

René Descartes (l596-1650), credited by some as the Father of Modern Philosophy. He supported Francis Bacon's conclusions that "true knowledge must come from Human Reason alone." Descartes' most frequently mentioned quotation concerns how an individual can be certain of his or her own existence. He wrote, "I think, therefore I am."

Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) who declared the mind and body were a unified single identity. Spinoza wrote that one of the essential exercises of a sovereign government is the preservation of liberty in religious and political issues. He was charged with being an atheist and was excommunicated by his Jewish Synagogue.

In England in the late 1600's, John Locke (1632-1704) challenged the religious dogma that the soul, spirit and conscience were imprinted with a godly code. He declared that every person's mind is a clean slate at birth, that knowledge is gained only by experience and reflection. He made many contributions to our concepts of what it means to be human; he wrote extensively on the questions of tolerance, goodness, pleasure, and happiness. Locke argued against the divine right of kings and in favor of human equality. He proposed that the chief function of government is the protection and preservation of private property. Thomas Jefferson praised Locke's ideas for the proper role of government and gave credit to Locke as the spiritual guide of the American Constitution.

The principles of humanism developed by the leaders of the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment periods influenced the recognition and acceptance of political structures that enhanced the status of the individual in society, the acceptance of reason as the source of knowledge, and freedom from imposed authority as the right of every person.


As I reviewed the writings of the many people who contributed to the evolution of the Humanist Philosophy, I searched for the lowest common denominator. I wanted to find one or two thoughts that all of them shared. If I could discover what ideals they agreed were important, then I might more clearly understand humanism. I found it was not their religious convictions. They represented a wide range of theology. Some of them were theist, some deist, others agnostic, some atheist. Among them were Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims. I discovered what they did share was an attitude about the value of the individual. They all advocated respect for human dignity, personal liberty, and individual responsibility. They put a premium on reason, rationality and limited political power. The center of all of their concerns was the well being of each person in this life. Their cumulative effect on history was to free people from the restrictive controls of authority, both religious dogma and political conformity. Limitations on political powers developed slowly over a period of several hundred years.

In Babylon, Hammurabi was a pioneer in establishing some limits of government.

In England, the Magna Carta spelled out limits of kings.

The U.S. Declaration of Independence demanded freedom from colonialism.

The French Declaration of Human Rights expanded on human expectations of freedom from excessive government controls.

The U.S. Constitution spelled out the separation of governmental jurisdictions and limited the powers of each, while the Bill of Rights defined and expanded the unalienable rights of the individual.

Abraham Maslow went even further by defining in detail the hierarchy of values necessary for the individual to find satisfaction and happiness.

And it is my conclusion that the ideal form of religious and political organization is one that will recognize, support and encourage conditions that enable the individual to realize Maslow's value pyramid.

The Humanist Idea System, the old philosophy of Athens, putting primary emphasis on conditions in this world, respecting the dignity of the individual, placing reason above revelation and democracy above theology, is stronger now than it has ever been. And it seems to me the 'physics philosophy of Athens' is now successfully competing with the 'metaphysics philosophy of Jerusalem.'

We are deeply indebted to the intellectual leaders of the 14th and 15th centuries for creating a serious breach in the tyranny of the church over the physical and mental life of the human race, a breach that continues to widen and will hopefully result in a worldwide ending of religious tyranny.

In closing I'll paraphrase again from the article on the Age of Enlightenment in the Microsoft Encyclopedia: "The Enlightenment left a lasting heritage for the 19th and 20th centuries. It marked a key stage in the decline of the church and the growth of modern secularism. It served as a model for political and economic liberalism and for humanitarian reform throughout the western world."

That's how I see the influence of humanism on world history. And I propose that the icon for humanism might very well be Sisyphus, the Greek mythological King of Corinth, who tricked death and was condemned to push a rock endlessly up a hill, the rock always rolling back before he reached the top. Each one of us is challenged to travel up the hill of life and simply enjoy the intrinsic rewards of the journey.

--Florien Wineriter
President, Humanists of Utah