Humanity: European Thought

views updated

Humanity: European Thought

Studies of European views of man and of the dignity of man have been central to the history of ideas, and books continue to be published discussing Western or European views of man. Meanwhile, women, lower-class men, and people of color have delved into the scholarship to determine if a thinker's text intended man (homme in French) to be generic as in the Hebrew adam, Greek anthropos, or Latin homo sapiens ; or whether the intention or application was narrowed by sex, rank, class, nationality, or ethnic/racial construct. Of course the androcentric man does emphasize the male in implying humanity. Feminist scholarship, with precedents in medieval and early modern women authors, has sought out instances wherein man androcentrically included woman and the dignity of man the dignity of man and woman. Likewise, with precedents in the sixteenth-century debates between Bartolomé de Las Casas (14741566) and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda (14901572 or 1573) on the humanity of indigenous peoples of the Americas, as well as in the eighteenth-and nineteenth-century movements against the trade and enslavement of Africans, scholars have explored the documents that did expand inclusively the "natural rights of man." Humanity as a term for the human species has begun to be utilized to replace man in discussion of texts that meant by man all humans. The history of the idea of humanity (or philosophical anthropology as Charles Trinkaus labeled it in his "In Our Image and Likeness": Humanity and Divinity in Italian Humanist Thought, 1970) is then a sequel to previous scholarship on the history of the idea of generic man, anthropos.

Universalism versus Particularism

A guiding universalist principle might be that if an idea about man is valid, or if an international law is fair, then it applies to all of humanity. In the postcolonial era, those opposing false universalismwhich intentionally misleads the oppressedhave targeted especially European ideas about man that were meant to apply only to elite European males and white feminists' ideas about women that exploit or ignore women of color. Global feminist critiques, as by Chandra Talpade Mohanty, deconstructed the Eurocentric generalizations about "Third World women" and "First World women." Historical and legal scholarship by necessity covers a spectrum from universalist to particularist, exposing in their wake examples of false universalism. Lynn Hunt's The French Revolution and Human Rights (1996) applies universalism in exploration of origins of human rights in the natural rights document "The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen" (1789) and applies particularism in exposing the policy debates among French Revolution deputies about citizenship rights of the poor and the propertied, the Jews, free blacks and slaves, and women.

In updating the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights" (United Nations, 1948) by the "Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action" (United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, 1995), women planned to realize generic human rights by considering the particularities of women's situations: socioeconomic conditions such as regional poverty and obstacles to women's paid employment; political situations such as men leaving women out of decision making; and bodily factors such as control over health, especially one's own fertility. Emerging is an idea of humanity that recognizes difference.

Essentialism versus Choice

Ancient Greek philosophers from the fifth century b.c.e. onward speculated on the essence of human nature, and Aristotle's views came to dominate in medieval universities. In his four-part theory of causation (material, efficient, teleological, and formal causes), Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.) defined human nature by the end (the telos ) and the form, the fully developed human being; his ideal human was the free, self-governing man who ruled over household and shared community rule in a democratic state. As he noted that a black parent and white parent could mate and produce a child of either color, he viewed all human peoples as the same species. Proposing that all human seeds strive for their full development, which he viewed as male, he thought that women were defective males, but alas the same species. Aristotle's view contrasted with his teacher Plato (c. 428348 or 347 b.c.e.), who in the Republic taught that the only difference between men and women is that one begets within the other; in order to have the best women available and trained to be philosopher-kings, Plato proposed a communal mating and child-rearing system in the guardian class. Throughout the Middle Ages the text of Plato most available was the Timaeus, which suggests that men who misbehave are reincarnated as women; as a result, Renaissance male commentators tended to read the Republic with the misogynist preconception from the Timaeus. When the Republi c was discussed in the Renaissance, there was mockery of Plato's description of women exercising in the nude as men did in Greece. Nevertheless, in a treatise defending the dignity of female humanity, "La nobilita et l'eccellenza delle done, co'diffettie mancamenti de gli huomoni" (1600; The nobility and excellence of women and the defects and vices of men) Lucretia Marinella (15711653) handled the arguments of Aristotle and Plato with aplomb; and the twentieth-century daycare, as proposed in Vladimir Ilyich Lenin's State and Revolution (1917) or as established by many employers by the early twenty-first century, applied Plato's distinction between birth mother and the child caregiver to release parents' talents for the good of the community.

Renaissance humanists were knowledgeable in the debates of ancient Greek philosophers on the essence of human nature and the highest good, but they viewed the essence and highest good within the biblical framework of the Creator God. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (14631494) in his Oration, in stating God's words to androgynous "adam" (before woman was separated), broke with a fixed essence for human nature by emphasizing freedom of will as the essence of human nature. He suggested that humans may choose to lower themselves in imitating animal behavior or raise themselves in imitation of angelic behavior. Pico poses as the highest goal to attempt in one's lifetime to contemplate God, a viewpoint compatible with his teacher Marsilio Ficino's (14331499) proof that the striving to contemplate God in this life suggests that there must be an afterlife where the goal can be achieved (texts in Renaissance Philosophy of Man, 1948).

The rejection of "essences" awaited atheist Jean-Paul Sartre's "Existentialism Is a Humanism" (1946), wherein he declares that there is no essential human nature, but that all persons must choose their own natures. He rejects the essentialist human nature of Denis Diderot, Voltaire, and Immanuel Kant, and follows Martin Heidegger in proclaiming that existence precedes essence. Like Pico, Sartre emphasizes the freedom of the will; unlike Pico, Sartre leaves it up to persons to determine the universalist image of humanity that they believe is best for molding themselves. In dialogue with Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir in the Second Sex (1949) elaborated on the complexities of a woman's existence and the challenges of defining her own essence when woman is seen as "the other" by men and has internalized men's viewpoints. Peoples of Africa and India, freeing themselves from the "otherness" of European colonial rule, extended the discourse to their own definitions of essence in establishing political independence. A diversity of feminists questioned whether there was any common essence to womanhood, and emphasized differences. Sartre's viewpoint of each individual defining an essence as best for humanity gave way to self-definitions particularized to national, religious, and racial communal norms, as well as to self-definitions expressive of multiple identities and of personal individuality.

Potential for Good or for Evil

While the Homeric religion of the ancient Greeks suggested that the gods and goddesses played with human events, the ancient Greek philosophers after Socrates (c. 470399 b.c.e.) analyzed the parts of the human psyche to gain control over human conduct, and debated the highest good (eudaimonia ). The Platonic Academy under Plato sought contemplation of the Forms such as Justice, Truth, and Beauty. Criticized not only by the Aristotelian Lyceum, but also by the Epicureans who proposed pleasure as highest good, and the Stoics who proposed virtue and the highest good, the Academy in its skeptical stage during the second century b.c.e. sought tranquility from doubt. Marcus Tullius Cicero (10643 b.c.e.) passed on the heritage of the Hellenistic debates in numerous Latin dialogues wherein he proposed to fellow Romans of the Republic his goal of studia humanitatis, the studies appropriate to a free citizen. The particular set of disciplines constituting the humanities education have changed over the centuries but retain Cicero's educational goal to develop natural potentiality of humanity. Influenced by Greek Stoic imagery of notions imprinted on the mind, Cicero described the positive potential in human nature as the rudimentary beginnings of intelligence, right reason, or common notions that the mind naturally develops. Lucius Annaeus Seneca's (4 b.c.e.?65 c.e.) Epistles passed down to medieval Christians the identification of common notions with seeds of virtue and knowledge. In this optimistic view of human nature, right reason is an internal access to natural law, and humans know to seek good and flee evil.

In contrast to the Greco-Roman tradition, wherein ethics and law developed without a heavy interference from religion, Hebrew scriptures provided a divinely revealed law code, on which rabbinical discussion ensued in the Babylonian Talmud. A basic premise of Judaism is that the created world of God is good and that humanity in particular is very good: "created in the image of God, male and female" (Gen. 1:26). Psalm one compares a righteous man to "a tree that bringeth forth its fruit in its season," and the prophet Jeremiah holds man responsible for bringing forth sweet good deeds (Jer. 2:21).

St. Augustine of Hippo (354430) reinterpreted Genesis in his development of the doctrine of original sin, a sin Augustine viewed as committed by Adam and passed down to offspring through male concupiscence in sexual intercourse. While through baptism, a Christian overcomes some original sin inherited from Adam through the grace of the new Adam, Jesus, humans are stained nevertheless and must be alert to temptations. In his Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 12241274) utilizes the phrase "seeds of virtue and knowledge" to explicate the basis of natural law within human nature, and Thomism vied with Augustinianism. During the Italian Renaissance, a prosperous middle class rising into the nobility argued that nobility was based not on the "seed of lineage" but on the "seed of virtue." The further optimism concerning potentialities of human free will of the Renaissance neo-Platonists Ficino and Pico della Mirandola helped bring about a reemphasis on Augustinian original sin through Martin Luther (14831546) and John Calvin (15091564) and among Catholic Jansenists.

More radical than the Protestant and Catholic Reformations were the secular authors who attempted to describe human nature independently from the Judeo-Christian tradition. Niccolò Machiavelli (14691527) used ancient models to write about history and politics, and proposed autonomous principles governing the success of a new prince over the unruly human nature of his population. The Enlightenment thinkers sought to define human nature within a pregovernment ancient state of nature suggested by Cicero's description of the origins of government in the common notions of community. Following Machiavelli's negative view of human nature, Thomas Hobbes (15881679) suggested a war of each against all. In contrast, John Locke (16321704) transformed the natural law into natural rights within human nature, and a philosophical tradition developed that attributed ills of humankind to social arrangements. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778) culminated this tradition in looking back to a golden age before inequality became so severe, and suggesting that human communities might make a new social contract, which would provide equality to male citizens. In the nineteenth century utilitarians worked out arrangements for the greatest good of the greatest number; utopian socialists developed schemes for community ownership of property; and Karl Marx (18181883) and Friedrich Engels (18201895) developed a historical theory for revolutionary change to result ultimately in such peaceful relations of humanity that the government would wither away. Twentieth-century behaviorist psychologists continued the nurture versus nature debate on the side of the malleability of humanity, while the testing industry attempted to measure more and more precisely the variations in abilities among students.

While born of a noble Florentine family of modest means, Dante around 1310 in his Convivio (The Banquet ) establishes a clear-cut precedent for a tracing of nobility only to virtue:

Let not those men who are of the Uberti of Florence, nor those of the Visconti of Milan say "Because I am of such a family or race, I am Noble," for the Divine seed falls not into a race of men, that is into a family; but it falls into individual persons, and, as will be proved below, the family does not make individual persons Noble, but the individual persons make the family Noble. (The Banquet, book 4, ch. 20, trans. Sayer, p. 238 in A. Smith-Palmer, The Ideal of the Gentleman, p. 172)

Yet Dante in Paradiso also expresses pride in meeting his twelfth-century noble ancestor Cacciguida. Note the use of race in premodern Europe for a family line or lineage, especially for the distinction between those families of highest social rank and other people. It was in the eighteenth century that race came to be an anthropological term to distinguish body types encountered in different continents. In the early twenty-first century, many scholars viewed much previous discussion of race as pseudoscience and studied instead the "racial constructs" of particular cultures.

The beats of Igor Stravinsky's Rites of Spring (1913), as well as Expressionist art, evoke the transformation of views of human nature by authors exploring the irrational in antiquity as well as in modern clashes of world cultures. Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900) followed Machiavelli in criticizing the feminine weakness of Christianity and seeking to revive the masculine warrior courage of the Romans. Nietzsche provided an image of a human greater than ordinary for whom ordinary morality was too limiting. Such a person might transcend moral convention. Sigmund Freud (18561939) suggested that sexuality pervaded the human psyche. Humanity was driven by the sexuality and aggression of the id; the ego tried to control the id under guidance from the parentally socialized superego. These psychological explorations suggested a more sinister side of human nature, evident in the European colonial competitions in Africa and in the developments of totalitarian regimes in Europe.

Twentieth-century authors had to contend with the realization of the nightmare of two world wars fought on European soil. A revival of Augustinian notions of original sin developed within Catholic and Protestant theologians, yet the Second Vatican Council, 19621965, in its ecumenical discussions, did affirm "that God does not deny the possibility of salvation to all men of good will" (reaffirmed by Pope John Paul II, The Splendor of Truth, pp. 67). Most European theorists of human nature, absorbed in witnessing the atrocities of their times, concluded negatively on human nature. Yet in July 1944, Anne Frank, hoping the Nazis would not find her Jewish residence in Amsterdam, wrote "It's really a wonder that I haven't dropped all my ideals. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart" (p. 287).

See also Class ; Essentialism ; Evil ; Existentialism ; Feminism ; Free Will, Determinism, and Predestination ; Good ; Humanism ; Race and Racism ; Stoicism ; Universalism .



Frank, Anne. The Diary of a Young Girl. Translated by B. A. Mooyarrt-Doubleday. New York: Doubleday, 1967.

Fromm, Eric, and Ramón Xirau, eds. The Nature of Man: Readings. New York: Macmillan, 1968.

Osborne, Martha Lee, ed. Woman in Western Thought. New York: Random House, 1979.

Palmer, Abram Smythe. The Ideal of a Gentleman; or, A Mirror for Gentlefolks: A Portrayal in Literature from the Earliest Times. London: Routledge, 1908.


Cassirer, Ernest, et al., eds. Renaissance Philosophy of Man. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948.

Horowitz, Maryanne Cline. Seeds of Virtue and Knowledge. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Horowitz, Maryanne Cline, ed . Race, Class, and Gender in Nineteenth-Century Culture. Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press, 1991.

, ed. Race, Gender, and Rank: Early Modern Ideas of Humanity. Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press, 1992.

John Paul II. The Splendor of Truth. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Catholic Conference, 1993.

Mohantry, Chandra Talpade. "Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses." In Feminist Theory: A Reader, edited by Wendy Kolmar and Frances Bartkowski. London: Mayfield, 2000.

Nussbaum, Martha. "In Defense of Universal Values." In Controversies in Feminism, edited by James P. Sterba. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001.

Passmore, John. The Perfectibility of Man. 3rd ed. Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 2000. Richards, Graham.

"Race", Racism, and Psychology: Towards a Reflexive History. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Sassi, Maria Michela. The Science of Man in Ancient Greece. Translated by Paul Tucker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Trigg, Roger. Ideas of Human Nature: An Historical Introduction. 2nd ed. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1999.

Tuana, Nancy. The Less Noble Sex: Scientific, Religious, and Philosophical Conceptions of Woman's Nature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

Winston, Andrew S., ed. Defining Difference: Race and Racism in the History of Psychology. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2004.

Maryanne Cline Horowitz