Humanism: Europe and the Middle East

views updated

Humanism: Europe and the Middle East

The introduction of the term humanism is commonly attributed to the German pedagogical theorist F. J. Niethammer's 1808 book, which promoted reading of the ancient classics among secondary students as a counterweight to scientific and technological training. The word soon enjoyed wide currency in many European languages, in part because the much earlier Italian term umanista was already used to describe a person committed to the production or study of the artifacts of human culture. In turn, humanism contains echoes of the much earlier Latin ideal of humanitas, humanity or humaneness.

The application of the term humanism has been widely disputed. Some scholars, most notably Paul Oskar Kristeller, insist that it should be employed strictly to denote the intellectual and literary movement associated with Renaissance Italy, and especially Florence, during the fifteenth century and spreading thereafter to the rest of Europe. Others apply a less rigorous definition that permits a broader field of use, both culturally and chronologically. Joel L. Kramer has isolated three features that are germane to a capacious conception of humanism: the common kinship and unity of humankind; an emphasis on paideia, or the shaping of human mental and moral capacities through literary and philosophical education; and the recognition of philanthropia, that is, humane love or love of humanity. An even more general account of humanism permits its application to any position that ascribes intrinsic value to the activity of human beings or to their pursuit of happiness in a human way apart from extra-human considerations. All these ideas of humanism offer useful filters and standards on the basis of which to understand its history. The more capacious constructions of humanism may be best, however, because they enable scholars to find bases of comparative analysis between world cultures across time.

The Greek "Discovery" of Human Nature

The earliest philosophers of ancient Greece directed their attention almost exclusively toward the nature of the cosmos and of metaphysical being. During the course of the fifth century b.c.e., this orientation began to change. The reasons are myriad. Certainly, Greek expeditions (mainly for commercial purposes) throughout the Mediterranean region led to encounters with cultures and social systems that were organized differently than the Hellenic city-state (polis ), and these encounters led philosophers to reflect on the ways in which human beings livedtheir nomoi, meaning conventions or ways of life as well as laws. The rise of medical science, especially the school on the island of Cos that is associated with Hippocrates, highlighted the problems posed by a specifically human sort of nature (physis ), separate and distinct from the sorts of substance that pertained to psyche (soul or mind).

The first group of thinkers to address conceptual problems of the human condition were the Sophists (from the Greek word for wise men ), a term applied to a loose affiliation of teachers and writers who mingled in Athens during the second half of the fifth century b.c.e.. Although divided on most issues of philosophical import, and thus not strictly speaking a school of thought, the Sophists were united in directing their interest toward humanity, and in particular toward the moral, political, and epistemic questions arising from human life. Perhaps the most famous of these thinkers was Protagoras of Abdera (c. 490c. 420 b.c.e.), whose name is associated with the principle that "man is the measure of all things." Although his doctrines must be pieced together from fragmentary sources, Protagoras seems to have embraced a polis -centered form of moral and political relativism and a subjectivist epistemology that endowed human beings with the capacity to fashion their own conditions of life and forms of fulfillment. It is perhaps not surprising that Protagoras was reputedly a counselor to the famous Athenian democratic leader Pericles.

Socrates (469399 b.c.e.) also advanced important humanist themes. While distancing himself from the Sophists, whom he regarded as charlatans, Socrates asserted that virtue was a form of knowledge, and that knowledge was teachable if the correct method (namely the question-and-answer technique of Socratic dialectic) was employed. Even those who might be considered too benighted to know anythingsuch as a simple adolescent slave, for examplecould be shown to possess knowledge of sophisticated abstract concepts. Hence, all human beings were for Socrates capable of knowing goodness and of acting in accordance with it, since this knowledge was imprinted on each and every human soul and could be recovered by means of self-reflection.

A further manifestation of humanistic ideals came from the Hellenistic philosophical school of Stoicism, which appeared in the fourth century b.c.e.. The Stoics upheld a cosmopolitan doctrine of universal human reason and rejected particularistic attachments to place and culture in preference to a generalized care for humanity. This doctrine became popular among Roman thinkers such as Marcus Tullius Cicero (10643 b.c.e.), who posited a general "bond" in human society, among persons who are connected through speech and reason, and from which arose the moral and material fruits of civilized human conduct. The aspirations toward humanitas and philanthropia crystallized in the Hellenistic and early Roman periods.

Tenth-Century Islamic Humanism

In the tenth century c.e., a group of philosophically inclined men with literary training who were associated with the Abbasid dynasty participated in an Islamic renaissance centered in Baghdad. Joel L. Kraemer has claimed for this group of thinkers the mantle of humanism on the grounds that they subscribed to an intellectual agenda that privileged the wisdom of the ancient Greeks, upheld the ideal of "urbanity," and endorsed ideas such as individualism, cosmopolitanism, and secularism, which are commonly embraced by humanists.

Although this humanist movement exercised a limited influence on later Islamic philosophy, it seems to have enjoyed a wide following among both scholars and courtly scribes. In turn, these figures were patronized by some of the most powerful political officials of the Muslim world at the time. Hence, the Islamic humanist revival ought not to be viewed as a tangential or marginal phenomenon in medieval Arabic civilization. Indeed, it helps explain the more advanced state of learning in the East than in the Christian West throughout the Middle Ages.

Twelfth-Century Renaissance Humanism

Christianity, with its orientation toward otherworldly existence and its potential for asceticism and extreme self-renunciation, may seem to be at odds with humanism, yet scholars have repeatedly held that forms of humanism flourished during the European Middle Ages in spite of countervailing tendencies within the Christian faith. In particular, the twelfth century witnessed a renewed interest in human ideals and aspirations not dissimilar to that which had occurred in the Islamic East a couple of centuries earlier.

The humanism of what is called the twelfth-century Renaissance had several facets. One, highlighted by Charles Homer Haskins, whose 1927 book drew attention to this Renaissance, is its similarity to the literary humanism that typified the fifteenth-century Renaissance. Many texts dating to Latin antiquity began to circulate for the first time in centuries, and Latin translations of both classical Greek authors and Arabic commentaries made their first appearance in Europe. Moreover, the revival of interest in classical rhetoric, and in the art of persuasive writing (particularly in the form of letters), emphasized the importance of developing an accomplished literary style and urbane expression.

More recently, Richard Southern has emphasized a second aspect of medieval humanism, which stresses its scholastic base. According to this view, the humanist elements in twelfth-century thought derived from a recognition of human dignity and of the concomitant dignity of nature, both of which were seen as intelligible and capable of being accessed by human beings through the application of reason. The truth that authors sought was, therefore, nothing less than a comprehensive knowledge of the operation of the universe in which humanity itself constituted the noblest (if still flawed, because fallen) of God's creations. This scholastic humanism embraced an optimistic confidence that the acquisition of truth about divine creation was not only possible but constituted a demonstration of religious devotion.

A third facet of twelfth-century humanism was the valorization of human life, which stood in contrast to the despairing, antihumanist orientation of thinkers who devalued and disparaged all forms of earthly existence. This conception of humanism was more minimalist and circumscribed than either the literary or scholastic varieties, inasmuch as it placed heavy weight on the centrality of God to human life. Yet by opposing those who denigrated the worth of all earthly human achievements, this self-consciously Christian humanism upheld the view that works of virtue and intellect could be found even among those who had not accepted (or who had lived before the time of) Christianity and endorsed the idea that although ultimate human beatitude occurred only within the confines of religious salvation, a measure of human happiness could be found in the temporal realm through the pursuit of human (and humane) goals. This definition acknowledged the existence of a human path to happiness that all human beings sought and could know. Happiness was not given to the human race but was something that had to be earned by exertion, and human beings could be fooled or mistaken about the correct sources of happinessfor example, by confusing pleasure with true satisfaction. Hence, happy human existence embraced both active and reflective dimensions: One must do the good (virtue) as well as know the good (wisdom) in order to flourish. Thus, although non-Christians were unable to achieve ultimate salvation, their earthly lives could still have merit. Moreover, in matters of happiness pertaining to the present life, humans could learn equally from the deeds and writings of infidels and from those of believers. Christian authorities would certainly guide humans toward happiness (eternal as well as temporal), but they could usefully be supplemented by studying the acts and ideas of worthy pagans, which also contributed toward instilling in humanity the virtue and wisdom that produced the measure of earthly fulfillment of which humans were capable. This account of humanism, then, can comport with both the literary and scholastic ideas of humanism already discussed.

Christian humanism continued to resonate into the Renaissance, when many of the Italian humanists and their northern successors privileged human dignity because of humanity's creation "in the image and likeness of God."

Modern Humanism

The humanists of medieval and Renaissance Europeand indeed of Greek antiquity and Islamwere driven by spiritual, moral, and cultural ideals and values. In the eighteenth century, another form of humanism, one that adopted a more materialistic stance concerning human perfectibility, emerged. The Enlightenment stressed that the application of human reason, unimpeded by the state or by religious authority, could alone produce human progress in the sense of improved conditions of life for the whole human race. Immanuel Kant's (17241804) plea in his essay "What Is Enlightenment?" for the release of the human intellect from its condition of tutelage into the full flower of its maturity captured this demand for the freeing of the human mind. The French philosophes, such as Voltaire (16941778) and Denis Diderot (17131784), may have spearheaded this position, but it echoed throughout the Western hemisphere during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuriesin Great Britain (David Hume, Jeremy Bentham), Germany (Immanuel Kant, G. E. Lessing, Moses Mendelssohn), and North America (Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson). Whereas the Enlightenment version of humanism was more scientific than literary in its orientation, its demand for an anthropocentric perspective on human affairs, encouragement of creative enterprise, and advocacy of social and political reform marked it as a clear successor to earlier forms of humanistic thought.

The question of what impeded the realization of the humanist project became crucial for humanism in the nineteenth century. For the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (18041872), it was religion that stood in the way of human fulfillment. Although other humanists had questioned whether religious institutions or monotheistic beliefs were compatible with humanism, Feuerbach attacked religion per se. Adapting the Hegelian dialectical method to a materialist metaphysic, Feuer-bach asserted that the supposedly divine object of worship was itself something human, a purely mundane creation. Until human beings realized that they had abased themselves before a fictitious deity that represented nothing more than the sum of humanity's creative and intellectual potential, they would live under conditions of extreme self-alienation and immiseration.

Although he drew on many elements of Feuerbach's analysis, Karl Marx (18081883) found his conclusion that the elimination of religious faith would herald the beginning of human happiness far too idealistic. In his writings dating from the early 1840s, Marx claimed that mere atheism constituted "theoretical humanism." He asserted, by contrast, that communism was "practical humanism" or a truly "radical" humanism. Marx meant by this that the sources of inhumanity were not products merely of the human mind but also of the distribution of property into private hands and of an economic system that forced the vast mass of humankind to toil under conditions of extreme alienation. Communism, which he saw as social ownership of the means of production, would yield the material conditions under which all of humanity could flourish in a free and creative manner.

Humanism in more recent times has been manifested in a number of different movements. In addition to "secular humanism" in the United States, existentialism has been trumpeted as a form of humanist philosophy, inasmuch as it holds that individual human freedom constitutes the source of all authentic human values. For the existentialist, the failure to choose by submitting to the value systems of others (whether churches, nations, or political movements) is a dehumanizing force. In Eastern Europe during the 1950s and 1960s, and in recognition of the rediscovery of Marx's early writings, many socialists reinterpreted their philosophy as a form of humanism, emphasizing the subjective consequences of economic and political oppression. This not only generated a reinvigorated critique of the alienated state of capitalist society but also became a stimulus for communist regimes to loosen their grip on their populations.

See also Classicism ; Existentialism ; Humanity ; Marxism ; Renaissance ; Secularization and Secularism .


Feuerbach, Ludwig. The Essence of Christianity. Translated by George Eliot. New York: Harper, 1957.

Fromm, Erich, ed. Socialist Humanism. New York: Doubleday, 1965.

Haskins, Charles Homer. The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1927.

Jaeger, Werner. Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture. 2nd ed., 3 vols. Translated by Gilbert Highet. New York: Oxford University Press, 1945.

Kerford, G. B. The Sophistic Movement. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Kraemer, Joel L. Humanism in the Renaissance of Islam: The Cultural Revival during the Buyid Age. 2nd ed. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1992.

Kristeller, Paul Oskar. Renaissance Thought: The Classic, Scholastic, and Humanist Strains. New York: Harper and Row, 1961.

Marx, Karl. Early Writings. Translated by T. B. Bottomore. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism and Humanism. Translated by Philip Mariet. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Haskell House, 1977.

Southern, R. W. Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 19952001.

Trinkaus, Charles. In Our Image and Likeness: Humanity and Divinity in Italian Humanist Thought. 2 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Versényi, Laszlo. Socratic Humanism. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1963.

Walsh, Gerald. G. Medieval Humanism. New York: Macmillan, 1942.

Cary J. Nederman

About this article

Humanism: Europe and the Middle East

Updated About content Print Article