BOOK REVIEW. HUMANISM; WHAT’S IN THE WORD. NICOLAS WALTER. ISBN 0 301 97001 7 Rationalist Press Association, 1997.
This is a scholarly linguistic history of the changing usage (and occasional abusage) of the words ‘Humanism’ and ‘Humanist’ throughout history and in the present day, written by someone with a clear love of language, and of Humanism.
Cicero’s academy of the ‘Studia Humanitas’ was established to show ‘The art of living well and blessedly through learning and instruction in the fine arts.’ The Humanities were a specialized study field, along with Studia Divinitatis, (Divinity studies). The two were not opposed to one another or mutually exclusive. Most Humanities students were deists.
By the 15th century, the Renaissance scholars revived interest in classical scholarship, and the new Humanities students were scholars of Greek, and Latin language and literature. It is to this period that Nicholas Walter traces the first French use of the word ‘Humaniste’ in the works of Montaigne in 1552; "That fault of theologians writing too humanely is seen more often than that other fault of humanists writing too untheologically."
Gradually the word Humanist came to mean ‘philosopher, philogist, scholar, academic, a person interested in Human nature and history in general. There was no hint of challenge to religion in any of this. In fact, the earliest recorded magazine in English called ‘The Humanist’ was edited by a clergyman, Patrick Delaney, in 1757 on the basis that such a title was (more) "calculated to recommend everything that is amiable and beneficent in human nature than any which writings of that kind have taken up. " Walter adds to this trend; "Those who adopted humanism (humanismus) did so in the sense of the study of the humanities (Humaniora) rather than of devotion to the concept of humanity (humanitat), and certainly not with any sense of hostility to conventional religion."
Walter continues with example after exciting example, including en route, such luminaries as Goethe, and Rousseau. Anyone studying or specialising in subjects other than science or mathematics could be regarded as a Humanist until the late 18th century. In England Samual Taylor Coleridge used the word humanist perjeratively in a scathing critique of the Unitarian Church heresy known as Socinianism. Unitarians proclaimed that there was no trinity o God,, Jesus and the Holy Ghost, so Jesus could only have been human, not divine. Coleridge denounced them by writing that a Socinian ‘is a man who has passed from orthodoxy to the loosest Arminianism, and thense to Arianism, and then to direct Humanism, and is likely to fall off into the hopeless abyss of atheism’. Steadily, Humanism and disbelief were becoming synonymous, but not for all those who used the word Humanism. Karl Marx was wary of Humanism in its new, bold, critical phase of development. "He approved of humanism for getting away from religion, but disapproved of it for not going far enough towards revolution."
Other revolutionary Marxists and many anarchists saw Humanism as a surrogate religion in its own right. Proudhon was the most anti-Humanist of all; "God, according to the humanists, is nothing but humanity itself, the collective me to which the individual me is subjected as to an invisible master ... It is no longer man, it is God. Humanism is the most perfect theism."
Ouch. But perhaps today we are wary of the danger of making a deity of our selves.
In Britain, Walter argues, the fledgling freethought movement, lead by G. J. Holyoake, adopted his new word, "secularism" rather than use deist, theist or atheist, but made surprisingly little use of the word ‘humanist’. One Freethinker, known only as A.C. (No relation) wrote into the National Reformer in 1866 to complain that the title of ‘Humanism’ suggests frailty and crime as well as virtue and rectitude."
The history of the Humanist tradition is a fragmented one; and many organizations using the word do not fit into a linear continuous history. The word Humanism slides in and out of usage constantly, making the book read like the layers of an onion, and something of a maze, but each fragment and strand is deeply fascinating in its own right, and that owes much to the skills of the author. It is not his fault that humanism as a word has a wild and mixed pedigree. For modern Humanists, the key strands are those of Unitarianism and Darwinian science. The Ethical societies founded in Europe and America in the late 19th century to promote Kantian moral philosophy of objective goodness existing independently of religion and divinity, also played a crucial role. The British South Place Ethical Society has its root in Unitarian ministries, which became increasingly secular and more overtly Humanistic. The dismissal of Jesus and the Holy Ghost from the Christian trinity lead to a very logical step for many; to dump the first leg of the tripod too. Even today Unitarians are very close in spirit to the thinking of Humanists as we understand the term. (We had an excellent talk by a Unitarian minister in March 1994). Some Unitarian Churches have predominantly humanistic congregations.
The abuses that the word humanism has received are startling; Hitler, Mussolini, and Scientology used the word in their propaganda at various times. One of Fidel Castro’s inaugural slogans upon taking power in Cuba was; "Liberty with bread; without terror - That is, Humanism."
The book is full of tremendous quotations, many of which it seems shameful to have to leave out of this summary review. Here is one that made it in, from the author, partly quoting Polish anthropologist, Branishaw Malinowski, during WW1. "Even an agnostic has to live by faith, in his case, ‘the faith in humanity and power of improvement’, however much this has been shaken by world war and dictatorship.’ The development of the British Humanist Association is explored, along with the comments of its critics, and those who dislike the word humanism for its complexity, and amorphous ambiguity of meanings. (Walter criticizes other lexicographers, including those of the Oxford Dictionary for being so lazy about their definition of Humanism; The OED only has five definitions; Walter has about a hundred uses).
While Kathleen Nott felt that Humanism was a joke word that depicted "someone who was rude to God or else someone who was kind to animals", Walter retains a great respect for the ‘H’ word. As we can’t control or copyright the word Humanism, we must use it wisely ourselves. Walter concludes his book; "It is up to us to show that our use of humanism is good enough for such a good word."
There have been a few laughable attempts to come up with alternative words. If Paul Kurtz had gotten his way, The Greater Manchester Humanist Group would now be The Greater Manchester Eupraxophy Group, which doesn’t quite have the right ring to it, somehow.
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