What is Humanism?

Humanism is an ethos, attitude or way of life centered on human interests or values, stressing an individual's dignity and worth and capacity for self-realization through reason and other human skills. It usually rejects supernaturalism, but some religious people consider themselves humanists. (from Humanism - Wikipedia,)


This series of pages is an attempt to find out whose ideas and what ideas over the centuries lead to the current humanist movement. Each person on these pages contributed in many ways to Humanism through their ideas, concepts and thought processes.
Additional resources on Humanism
Council for Secular Humanism Humanism Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
The Humanist Institute Humanism - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Humanist Manifesto III A Quick Index to Humanism Online
Humanism A Definition of Humanism
What is Humanism What's

Some famous Philosophers and Humanists


Born: 384 BCE - Stagirus on the coast of Thrace Died: 322 BCE - Chalcis in Euboea
Famous for: Aristotle studied under Plato but later diverged from some of Plato's ideas. During his years of teaching, he expanded his ideas on Rhetoric. He wrote "The Categories" - a classification of Words. He felt Logic was the equivalent of verbal reasoning. He wrote "Ethics" explaining the aspirations and desire behind man's desire for happiness.
Humanist Ideas: Aristotle saw the universe as form evolving to matter. He had form without matter on one end and matter without form on the other. Everything in nature could be shown on this scale. He also developed a scale of being. The higher being on this scale has more worth, is more organic and cannot evolve. The lower being on this scale has less worth, is more inorganic and can evolve over time.
Noted Sayings: "A man is the origin of his action." (Nicomachean Ethics Bk III, Ch 3) "To be conscious that we are perceiving or thinking is to be conscious of our own existence." (Nicomachean Ethics Bk IX, Ch 9) "The actuality of thought is life." (Metaphysics Bk 1 Ch 7)
Aristotle -- Overview [Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]
Ebook - Aristotle's " Ethics"
Ebook - Aristotle's "The Categories"


Born: 341 BCE - on Samos an Athenian Colony Died: 270 BCE - Athens, Greece
Famous For: Saw atoms as the basic constituent of the world - "uncuttable" units of matter that made up everything. Most of his ideas were considered "ungodly" and destroyed after his death. But, Epicurean communities continued. Most of what is known about his ideas comes from other writings about them by authors such as Leartius, Lucretius and Cicero.
Humanist Ideas: One gains knowledge by relying upon the senses. The gods have no influence on our lives. Pleasure, meaning tranquility, can be achieved by limiting our desires and not fearing the gods or death. His "gospel of freedom" was very popular during his life time. He highly valued the virtues of justice, honesty, and prudence which he thought of as the balancing of pleasure and pain. He believe in the freedom of will.
Noted Sayings: "Death is nothing to us since when we are, death has not come and when death has come we are not." (From Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Bk X, Sec 125.) "Pleasure is the beginning and the end of living happily." (From Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Bk X, Sec 128.)
Epicurus [Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]
Ebook Poem by Lucretius "Of Nature of Things" based on the ideas of Epicurus

Desiderius Erasmusof Rotterdam

Born: October 27 about 1466 Rotterdam, Holland Died: July 12, 1536 Basel, Switzerland
Famous For: Even though he was an ordained priest, he never assumed priestly duties. Instead devoted his life to scholarly study and writing. He was most noted for not taking sides on any issue and advocating education at an early age.
Humanist Idea: Throughout his life, Erasmus maintained a life that was independent of country, academic ties, as well as religious ties. His aim was to have a freedom of intellect and literary expression. As a result, he as both admired and feared by both the religious and the reformers of his day. He also felt that education should be started before the age of seven and continued by encouraging a method of scholarship that was free from medieval traditions which were formal and rigid. His primary goal in life was in the pursuit of pure scholarship. He was against all ignorance and superstition instead wanting to find the truth with out allegiance to anyone or any instititution.
Erasmus - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Erasmus of Rotterdam
Ebook - The Praise of Folly

Giordano Bruno

Born: 1548 - Nola, Italy Died: February 17, 1600 - Rome, Italy
Famous For: He was a Dominican Friar and wandering teacher who stayed a step ahead of the inquisition. He agreed with Copernicus and was burned at the stake during the inquisition for it. He was also famous for his skills with memory. So much so that most people thought of it as magic.
Humanist Ideas: Giordano agreed with Copernicus that the earth was not the center of the universe - the sun was only the center of our solar system. However, he took things further by saying that there is no center or circumference to the universe. He also stated that there were lots of Sun/earth planet stars throughout the universe. Each on under its own power and rotation. This Sun/Earth planet system was his idea of the "fundamental unit of the universe." According to him it is "Platonic love that joins the soul to God through wisdom."
Noted Sayings: "Time takes all and gives all.""The Candle Bearer" 1582 dedication) "There is in the universe neither center nor circumference."("On the Infinite Universe and Worlds" 1584 Fifth Dialogue)
Giordano Bruno - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Giordano Bruno The Forgotten Philosopher

Benedict (Baruch) Spinoza

Born: November 24, 1632 in Marrano, Portugal Died: February 21, 1677 in The Hague
Famous For: One of the three major Rationalists of the time along with Descartes and Liebniz. For acquiring knowledge, he moved away from the sense of perception and replaced it with a "purely intellectual form of cognition." As a model for philosophy, he used idealized geometry.
Humanist Ideas: Believed in a species of monism but claimed there is only one substance. A few of his definitions of this substance are:ID3: By substance I understand what is in itself and is conceived through itself, that is, that whose concept does not require the concept of another thing, from which it must be formed.ID4: By attribute I understand what the intellect perceives of a substance, as constituting its essence.ID5: By mode I understand the affections of a substance, or that which is in another through which it is also conceived.ID6: By God I understand a being absolutely infinite, that is, a substance consisting of an infinity of attributes, of which each one expresses an eternal and infinite essence.
Monism - the doctrine that all of reality is, in some significant sense, one.
Benedict (Baruch) Spinoza [Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]
Ebook - by Spinoza "The Ethics"

Rene Descartes

Born: March 31, 1596 La Haye, Touraine, France Died: February 11, 1650 Stockholm, Sweden
Famous For: Along with Galileo, he provided the foundation for Analytic Geometry. He is credited with the Cartesian coordinate system used in Geometry as well as use of X, Y & Z to identify unknowns in equations. He is also often called the father of modern philosophy.

Humanist Ideas: The philosophical ideas of Descartes consisted of a method of "Hyperbolic Doubt" and the idea that he cannot doubt his existence but can have doubts about anything else. He had doubts about the authority of the philosophy who came before him and which he rejected. He also doubted what his own senses told him. His search for truth and philosophical foundation was in that which was "clearly and distinctly" doubtless. He sees that he himself must be able to think but that thinking is separate from what the body senses. For him it is possible to gain knowledge and understand the material world through mathematics. To gain this true and doubtless knowledge he had a set of methodological rules.1) Never accept anything as true if preconceptions are present in the mind.2) Divide an issue into as many parts as possible in order to resolve them.3) Impose an orderly manner of thought that begins with the simplest and work towards the most complex issues. 4) Completely include all enumerations, and all comprehensive reviews - "leave nothing out."

Hyperbolic Doubt - a systematic process of doubt which determines if a class of knowledge can be doubted in anyway to arrive at a list of beliefs that are true and doubtless.
Noted Sayings: "All that is very clearly and distinctly conceived is true." (Meditation III p 142) "Cogito, ergo sum --- I think, therefore I am." (Le Discours de la Methode, pt 4.) "It is not possible for there to be in us any thought of which at the moment it is in us, we are not conscious." (Oeuvres de Descartes Vol. VII p 246)
René Descartes [Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]
Ebook - "The Principles of Philosophy"
Ebook - "Discourse On The Method Of Rightly Conducting The Reason, And Seeking Truth In The Sciences"

John Locke

Born: August 29, 1632 Wrington, Somerset, England Died: October, 28, 1704 Oates, Essex, England
Famous For:He was trained in the medical arts and was active in the English political arena with the Earl of Shaftesbury. He founded the school of empiricism. He wrote an unused constitution for the proprietors of the Colony of Carolina in 1669.
Humanist Idea: For Locke, "all objects of understanding" can be called ideas which are in the mind. The origin of these ideas comes from human experience. The mind understands these experiences through ideas of it's own operation. "When the mind acts, it has an idea of its action, that is, it is self-conscious, and as such, is assumed to be an original source of knowledge." These ideas come in two different varieties. Simple ideas come from sensation or observation of mental operations as these sensations take place. Complex ideas come from the "processes of combination and abstraction carried out by the mind." These ideas have primary and secondary qualities. He sees the simple idea as a test and standard of reality. "All relation terminates in, and is ultimately founded on, those simple ideas we have got from sensation or reflection." (Essay Bk 2:28:18) "General and certain truths, are only founded in the habitudes and relations of abstract ideas." (Essay Bk 4::12:7)
Noted Sayings: "Let us then suppose the mind to be as we say, white paper, void of all the characters, without any ideas; How comes it to be furnished....To this I answer, in one word, from Experience. In that, all our knowledge is founded and from that is ultimately derives itself." (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Bk II, ch I, p 104) "I think nobody can, in earnest, be so sceptical as to be uncertain of the existence of those things which he sees or feels."(An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Bk IV, ch II, sec. 3, p 631) "Thinking consists in being conscious that one thinks." (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Bk II, ch I, sec 19)
John Locke [Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]
Ebook "An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding Vol. I"
Ebook "An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding Vol II

David Hume

Born: May 7, 1711 in Berwickshire, Scotland Died: August 25, 1776 Edinburgh, Scotland
Famous For: Hume was known to be very skeptical of religion. His thoughts and writings influenced the development of both the school of skepticism and the school of empiricism. As a philosopher, he focused on ethics and political economy.
Humanist Ideas: One of Hume's philosophical positions was that there was a difference between reason and sensation. He tried to prove that "reason and rational judgments are merely habitual associations of distinct sensations or experiences." He also states that "reason can never show us the connection of one object to another, tho' aided by experience, and the observation of their conjunction in all past instances. When the mind, therefore, passes from the idea or impression of one object to the idea or belief of another, it is not determined by reason, but by certain principles, which associate together the ideas of these objects and unite them in the imagination. He also denied the existence of the individual self, maintaining that because people do not have a constant perception of themselves as distinct entities, they "are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions." Hume offered one of the first purely secular moral theories, which grounded morality in the pleasing and useful consequences that result from our actions
Noted Sayings: "Generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous." (A Treatise of Human Nature (1739) Bk I, pt iv, sec vii) "Opposing one species of superstition to another, set them a-quarreling; while we ourselves, during their fury and contention, happily make our escape in the calm, though obscure, regions of philosophy." (The Natural History of Religion (1757))
David Hume -- Life and Writings [Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]
Ebook - "Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion"

Immanuel Kant

Born: April 24, 1724 - Kaliningrad, Russia Died: February 2, 1804

Famous For: Kant was a professor of logic and metaphysics who was very unorthodox in his ideas on religion. He based his view on rationalism over revelation. This prompted King Frederick William II of Prussia to forbid Kant from teaching religious subjects. Kant complied until the king died 5 years later.

Humanist Idea: In Kant's key piece called the Critique of Pure Reason(1781),he examines the bases of human knowledge. In it he specifies two modes of thinking: analytic and synthetic. To Kant an analytic mode of thinking is determined by a proposition in which the truth is self-evident for the reverse would be self-contradictory. The synthetic mode of thinking is determined by a proposition that results from ones experiences.He goes further to add two other types of propositions: empirical and a priori. An empirical proposition depends entirely on one perception through the senses. A priori propositions are not perceived through the senses but are fundamental propositions. Kant considered all objects of the material world as "fundamentally unknowable from the viewpoint of reason." These objects are "merely raw material from which sensations are formed." Kant says that theoretical reason makes it possible to cognize what is as well as practically determining what ought to be. He believed that "Human reason is by it's nature is architectonic." "Reason thinks of all cognitions as belonging to a unified and organized system. Reason is our faculty of making inferences and of identifying the grounds behind every truth."If the statement "Tom is a man" is true and "all men are mortal" is true, then one can infer that the statement "Tom is mortal" is true. This set of references can be continued using reason, to provide higher and higher levels of generality to explain the way things are. We do this by connecting each state with the previous state and the state that follows according to a rule. Combining these into a hierarchy can provide us with a conception of the whole system of nature.

Noted Sayings: Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind of thought is drawn to them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me." (Critique of Practical Reason (1788)) "Morality is not properly the doctrine of how we may make ourselves happy, but how we may make ourselves worthy of happiness." (Critique of Practical Reason (1788))
Immanuel Kant -- Metaphysics [Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]
Ebook - "The Critique of Pure Reason"
Ebook - " The Critique of Practical Reason"

Jeremy Bentham

Born: February 15, 1748- Houndsditch, London, England Died: June 6, 1832 - London, England His estate financed the new University College in London.

Famous For: He was one of the founders of utilitarianism. Spent most of his life writing about legal reform issues. He developed and proposed projects that used "practical" ideas for the reform of some social institutions.

Humanist Idea: "The greatest happiness principle" also known as" the principle of utility. He Felt that the primary motivators for humans are pleasure and pain. The principle of utility is something to which individuals, in acting, refer either explicitly or implicitly, and this is something that can be ascertained and confirmed by simple observation If the pleasure is good, then it is good irrespective of whose pleasure it is. The advantages of this are:- the principle of utility is clear, - allows for objective and disinterested public discussion, - enables decisions to be made where there seem to be conflicts of legitimate interests.
Noted Sayings: "By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words, to promote or to oppose that happiness." (Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789))
Jeremy Bentham [Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]

John Stuart Mill

Born: May 20, 1804 London, England Died: 1873 - Avignon
Famous For: Early in his life, Mill known for having formed a Utilitarian Society. Later he was know for his ideas and writings on the System of Logic which added the theory of inductive proof to the current ideas on terms, propositions and syllogism
Humanist Idea: Utilitarianism - According to Mill there were two types of moral theories: intuitive (without appeal to experience) and inductive (based on experience and observation). Mill came up with the "Highest Normative Principle: - Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness: wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness." Happiness is meant as intellectual pleasures as well as sensual pleasures. To him the principle of Utility was used to assess the consequences of actions but not the motives or character traits behind those actions. Logic -Most of Mill's reputation was for his analysis of inductive proof. The empirical sciences used his set of formula and criteria provided more precise arguments with references to questions of proof or evidence. He developed five methods of induction: the method of agreement, of difference, double method of agreement and difference, of residues and of concomitant variations. The common thread of all these methods was elimination. "We deduce the law or cause of a complex effect from the laws of separate causes whose concurrence give rise to it. Religion - Mill applied his ideas of Utilitarianism and Logic to the question of Religion. He says "In sober truth, nearly all the things which men are hanged or imprisoned for doing to one another, are nature's every day performances" (Essays on Religion, p28). "Let is be remembered that if individual life is short, the life of the human species is not short; it's definite duration is practically equivalent to endlessness; and being combined with indefinite capability of improvement, it offers to the imagination and sympathies a large enough object to satisfy any reasonable demand for grandeur of inspiration. (ibid p 106)
Noted Sayings: "If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind." (On Liberty (1859) ch 2) "The individual is not accountable to society for his actions, insofar as these concern the interests of no person but himself."(On Liberty(1859) ch 5) "Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so." (Autobiography (1893) ch 5)

Thomas Paine

Born: January 29, 1737 - Thetford, Norfolk, England Died: June 8, 1809 - New York City, New York
Famous For: During the American Revolutionary War, Paine wrote pamphlets entitled The American Crisis. It is said George Washington impressed enough to have the pamphlets read to the troops hoping they would also be inspired enough to endure. This included the famous phrase: "These are the times that try men's souls...."
Humanist Idea: Some would say with a mother who was a member of the Church of England and a father who was a Quaker, it is no wonder Paine advocated a liberal world view. He had no use for royalty and viewed government as a "necessary evil." He was an outspoken critic of organized religion. His pamphlet, Age of Reason (1794) was written while he was in prison and thought he would soon be put to death. It is his assault against organized religion. "The opinions I have advanced....are the effect of the most clear and long-established conviction that the Bible and the Testament are impositions upon the world, that the fall of man, the account of Jesus Christ being the Son of God, and of his dying to appease the wrath of God, and of salvation by that strange means, are all fabulous inventions, dishonorable to the wisdom and power of the Almighty; that the only true religion is Deism, by which I then meant and mean now, the belief of one God, and an imitation of his moral character, or the practice of what we moral virtues--and that is upon this only (so far as religion is concerned) that I rested all my hopes of happiness." (Age of Reason - 1794) The story goes that when he was in prison, having been sentenced to death, a prison guard went around marking the cell doors with chalk for those to be put to death. Paine's cell door was open because a physician was treating him. The physician left closing the cell door behind him. The chalk mark ended up on the inside. Paine was thus spared because there was no chalk mark on the outside of his cell.
Deism - the belief in a God or First Cause based on reason rather than faith, distinguishing it from theism. Deism is usually synonymous with "natural religion" in 18th century Enlightenment writings. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Noted Sayings:"These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman." The American Crisis no. 1 (December 23, 1776)) "‘Tis the business of little minds to shrink; but he whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves his conduct, will pursue his principles unto death." (The American Crisis no. 1 (December 23, 1776)) "My country is the world and my religion is to do good." (The Rights of Many Pt II (1792), ch 5) "When authors and critics talk of the sublime, they see not how nearly it borders on the ridiculous." (The Age of Reason (1793), Pt II, Note.)
Thomas Paine - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Ebook - Common Sense
Ebook - The Age of Reason
Ebook - The American Crisis
Ebook - The Rights of Man

K'ung Fu Tzu or Confucius

Born: 551 BCE Lu in northeastern China Died:479 BCE
Famous For: Sayings and biographical fragments contained in the Analects (Chinese: Lunyu) which heavily influenced Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese thought as well as Western thought. These sayings have been re-visited and re-discovered many times over the centuries.
Humanist Ideas: Most of us have seen some of the sayings of Confucius at one time or another. However, a closer look at the collection of his writings called the Analects shows us four of his views that are often thought to be in conflict but in reality are quite complimentary. These four sets of complimentary concerns are Theodicy, Harmonious Order, Moral Force and Self-Cultivation. Theodicy. Confucius seems to view a force called Tian as the absolute power in the universe in three ways: (1) it's alignment with moral goodness; (2) its dependence on human agents to actualize its will; (3) the variable, unpredictable nature of its associations with mortal actors. Harmonious Order. According to Confucius there are three different kinds of interlocking kinds of order; aesthetic, moral, and social. "The instrument for effecting and emulating all three is li (ritual propriety) Moral Force. In Chinese this is known as De. It is the quality of a successful ruler which is allied with morality. Without De a ruler could not rule at all. Self-Cultivation. In the world of Confucius, while every human being is alike at birth, there are two different ways people develop their potential. They are junzi (profound person) and xiaoren (small person). To properly cultivate one's potential, a person looks within and compares itself to the aesthetic, moral and social canons of tradition. "Confucius' vision of order unites aesthetic concerns for harmony and symmetry with moral force in pursuit of social goals: a well-ordered family, a well-ordered state, and a well ordered world. Such an aesthetic, moral and social program begins at home, with the cultivation of the individual." Confucius [Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]
Noted Sayings: "There is no one who recognizes me....I neither resent heaven nor blame humanity. In learning about the lower I have understood the higher. The one who recognizes me - wouldn't that be heaven?" (Analects 14.35) "One who rules by moral force may be compared to the North Star -- it occupies its place and all the stars pay homage to it." (Analects 2.1) "The profound person understands what is moral. The small person understands what is profitable." (Analects 4.16)
Confucius [Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]
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