Humanist ideas are not a recent phenomenon, but have been around for millennia, says Andrew Copson, chief executive of Humanists UK. He explains why it's worth making a positive choice to be a humanist and recommends a great humanist reading list.
What is ‘humanism?’ Is it just another word for atheism?
It’s not just another word for atheism. The word ‘humanism’, like all words with long histories, has had lots of meanings at different times in different places. In English, it started being used in the 19th century. Since then, it’s had two uses. One is a historical one, to refer back to the culture and scholarship of the Renaissance. We usually call that ‘Renaissance humanism’.
The second use of the word has been to refer to a non-religious worldview: a set of beliefs and values that together constitute a certain approach to life. The precise content of those beliefs and values is up for debate and up for negotiation—just like any idea in the history of ideas. But, broadly speaking, humanists are people who don’t look outside of reality for moral guidance or ways to understand the universe. They try to understand the world that we live in by the use of reason, evidence, and experience all bundled together in the scientific method.
Humanists are people who think that morality is not some unnatural thing that comes from outside, but something that’s in us, having its basis in biology and then built on by culture. Morality doesn’t come from outside, from tablets of stone, but is inside us. It’s generated by humanity itself. When we think about questions like right and wrong, we don’t need to look for rules and commandments and authorities; we need to think for ourselves, about the consequences of our actions, and have a this-world, contextual approach to morality.
“Humanist beliefs are almost like the common sense of large parts of the Western world today”
And, I suppose, there’s also the idea that the universe itself doesn’t have a purpose or a meaning or a direction. There’s no meaning of life, in that sense, but human beings are able from our own capacities to endow our own lives with meaning and create meaning.
So, it’s: science rather than religion in understanding the universe; morality as something natural and cultural rather than something from God; and the idea that meaning is not something out there in the universe to be discovered but something that is created. It’s not a simple thing to describe but altogether those values are what we mean by ‘humanism’ today.
If I’m wandering down the street and I’ve decided for whatever reason that I no longer believe in God—maybe someone I really love has died dreadfully, or maybe I have been reading lots of religious history and have decided that it doesn’t fit with there being a God—what does humanism have to offer me? Why would I come in here and say, ‘Okay I’m going to embrace humanism instead?’
There are a lot of people—especially in the UK and the Western world—who live their lives by a sort of implicit humanism. Humanist beliefs are almost like the common sense of large parts of the Western world today, as they have been in other parts of the world at other times.
But I think that an explicit commitment to humanist ideas or recognition that your own ideas are humanist can be extremely helpful.
For a start, I think that a lot of people—especially if they were raised religious—can be cast a little bit adrift if, as you suggest, one day they just stop believing. John Stuart Mill said, in the mid-19th century, that a lot of people give up their beliefs and then worry that the values will go with them as they are no longer rooted in anything. If they’ve had a religious upbringing and then realise their beliefs aren’t there—if all they’ve ever been taught is that the values of right and wrong are based on these beliefs—they can be in danger of losing that grounded-ness in their lives. If, instead, people realise there are other ideas that they can actively understand and maybe recognise in themselves, that gives them greater moral security.
And in general, I think it’s always good to know yourself, as well.
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The question you’ve asked is not an uncommon one. At an event where I was interviewing him, I asked Michael Rosen, who wrote a book for children on humanism, ‘Why do you think it’s important that people have the word ‘humanism’ to apply to these things? Why is it important that children know this word?’ He said, ‘It’s the same reason that children learn anything at school. When you’re in school, this is the time of the naming of things. And by naming things, you understand things. And by understanding things, you can apply them in your life.’ I thought that’s a good explanation for everyone, actually, not just for children.
So that’s why it’s important. I think we can learn from humanist ideas, not just in their modem manifestations but in their more ancient ones as well. And I think that doing so consciously is better than doing so unconsciously.
What about the actual word? The fact that it’s humanism: is it very much focused on human beings? What’s the attitude towards other animals?
The point of the word ‘human’ in ‘humanism’ is to emphasise human things as opposed to divine things, because the great contrast of the age was between those two ways of thinking. Either you locate your thinking out there in the divine sphere—ever so elevated, looking to the world to come—or you locate your thinking in the human sphere—it’s today, it’s here and now, deal with today’s problems, and find your meaning in this earthly sphere.
The word is a bit of a problem, first of all because humanism isn’t really an ‘-ism.’ It’s not a doctrine that is rolled out. It’s a post hoc label applied to a certain set of pre-existing beliefs and attitudes.
The ‘human’ part of the word also causes difficulty, but I think that humanist thinking has actually broadened our moral sympathies beyond just human beings. Today, a lot of religious people like to say that their theology gives them an environmental bent. But, through most of history, that has not been true. Monotheistic religions have tended to encourage their believers to adopt a grab-it-and-take-it view of the world: the world is there for you to mine and farm and to spoil, essentially, and not to worry because there will be another one to come afterwards.
“Humanists are people who think that morality is not some unnatural thing that comes from outside, but something that’s in us”
Humanist thinking starts to become influential, especially in the 19th century, with people like Jeremy Bentham in the UK. He is the first person to really construct a philosophy of the moral duties that we owe to other animals.
He points out that people have been arguing for a long time about how other animals should be treated, and they always ask, ‘Can animals reason like human beings?’ If so, then we might think them worthy of moral attention and, if not, then we wouldn’t.
But Jeremy Bentham says, ‘the question is not whether they can reason, but can they suffer?’ And he sets off that humanist tradition of moral thinking for the last 150 years in a very pro-other-animals direction.
So, although the word does have ‘human’ in it, actually, because of its emphasis on moral responsibility and avoiding harm and the question of suffering, it has been part of enlarging our sympathies to other animals too.
For a humanist, what is the approach to national borders? If we are all human beings, why are Syrian refugees not allowed to come freely into, say, the UK to take shelter? Does humanism have something to say about how we separate people?
I think it does, very strongly. That’s really apparent today, and it’s true in one of the books that’s on my list. Two strange things are happening today that highlight the importance of humanist thinking in this regard.
Firstly, it’s become even more clear that borders are artificial because we can now, with globalised communication technology, talk to people everywhere. People who migrate are able to keep in touch with people in their place of origin much more easily. And, in fact, through modern infrastructure, they are able to move around a lot more easily, as migrants and refugees are at the moment.
Technology is allowing people to do that and that’s a good thing. It unifies human beings and is also the product of human beings working hard and having the vision to develop these technologies in the first place. Although it doesn’t always seem so, that is actually the good news buried underneath the bad news that is the consequence of that good news.
Secondly, one response to these technologies and this movement of people and of ideas has been a huge resurgence in nationalism, in nativism, and in anti-cosmopolitanism around the world.
Humanism has a great deal to say about that. It has a lot to say about that because humanist thinking stresses the unity of humanity. It was possible—two or three hundred years ago—to believe that human beings were a variety of different tribes and even species. Some Jews and Christians and Muslims thought we are, literally, different creations related to different types of ancient human beings.
“We know that we all are related, not just to each other as human beings, but actually to the rest of the natural world. And that has a way of framing your thinking.”
We know now that’s not true. We know that we have a single origin. We know that we all are related, not just to each other as human beings, but actually to the rest of the natural world. And that has a way of framing your thinking. It can be very powerful if you accept that and look at things through that frame.
So, the essential unity of humanity is important to humanists. The fact that we’ve only got one planet, one life, and one chance should be a motivator to thinking seriously about the problems of the world, and not just throwing our hands up in despair.
But, also, the commitment that humanists have to moral equality between human beings has a political dimension. It’s not just that we should treat everyone kindly, it’s a more urgent call to justice than that, I think. If we take all those ideas seriously together, then we do have the same obligation to a refugee at our borders as to a homeless person in the street around the corner. And I believe that very strongly. That’s powerful thinking and it’s not just at a theoretical level. There are many humanitarian workers who, motivated by these beliefs, have taken them into the world.
Let’s look more at some of these issues as we go through your books. The first one is Two Cheers for Democracy by E M Forster and it’s a book of essays. I think of him primarily as a novelist but it turns out he became incredibly politicised in the 1930s, in the face of xenophobia and totalitarianism. Tell me why this is on your list.
You’ve touched there on why he’s interesting. It’s partly because the context in which he writes these essays, in the 1930s, is eerily similar to the context in which we find ourselves today, unfortunately. Not to be hysterical about it, but a lot of the geopolitical factors are very similar. The crisis of liberal democracy that we’re living through is the same as the crisis of liberal democracy of the 1930s.
You seem to get this cycle in democratic life when people just get bored, almost, of democracy. They just think, ‘it’s hard work and it’s not very glamorous.’ It’s no surprise, I think, that when ISIS are trying to recruit people in Britain and around the world, they make great play of the crusade and dramatic Lord of the Rings-style stuff. Democracy, by contrast, is rather dull. And, although it has great results, these results are the results that people get used to and don’t value in the long term, like peace and security and reduction of inequality. Once you’ve got used to those, you don’t value them.
“The crisis of liberal democracy that we’re living through is the same as the crisis of liberal democracy of the 1930s”
E M Forster is writing in a similar context. You’re right that most people remember him for his novels. His novels are beautiful and every one of them is a humanist work of genius, emphasising the connections between people and what holds us together, relationships, the possibility of human contact. You have that famous phrase from Howards End “only connect” that resounds down the ages. He is a good example of a humanist writer in his novels, for all those reasons.
But he wrote his novels quite early in his life. I don’t think he wrote another one after the age of 45 and he lived to 90. They were over quite quickly, and he spent the rest of his life as a public intellectual.
He’s similar, in that sense, to Bertrand Russell. E M Forster and Bertrand Russell were both patrons of the Humanist Association. They said, at the time, that if Bertrand Russell was the head of humanism, then E M Forster was the heart. And I think that that’s quite true.
The essays in Two Cheers for Democracy span a period of about twenty years—through the 30s and the 40s—and they’re incredibly humane. He touches on the prejudices of the day, the emerging totalitarianisms, and he has a wonderful essay on anti-Semitism. Very gently and with a novelist’s skill, he lays bare how stupid anti-Semitism it is—how baseless and groundless and foolish.
“You seem to get this cycle in democratic life when people just get bored, almost, of democracy”
When you start the essay, you think it’s going to be an essay about being bullied at school, because he starts it by saying, ‘When I was at prep school, it was incredibly shameful to have a mother. The rumour would go round and people would say Smith’s got a mother!’ And, then, when he was at his next boarding school, having a mother was accepted as inevitable but it was shameful to have a sister.
You think this is going to be an essay about irrelevant childish prejudices, and then he says, ‘I thought I’d escaped all of this with school but now today I find, all of a sudden, it’s a terrible shame to know a Jew or to be a Jew.’ And suddenly, it brings into sharp relief the stupidity of prejudice. He’s incredibly good at that.
He writes about dictators. He’s writing, of course, about Mussolini and Hitler. Today, it would be Erdogan and Putin. You can read that essay and it’s the same thing. He talks about how dictators want to grind the people down into a single person but they’ll never win because humanity is stronger than that. Diversity is stronger than that. The liberal attitude is stronger than that.
He’s not a wild optimist. He does think that most of human history is pretty awful and the light is in the bits in between. He thinks there are liberal people who are good in every age but that sometimes they are very few in number.
You said at the beginning that humanism is not an ‘-ism’. E M Forster writes “I don’t believe in belief” but then he says that, unfortunately, that’s not enough at the moment, we do need something to believe in—to counter all the other stuff that is going on.
He says, ‘I do not believe in Belief. But this is an Age of Faith.’ People can’t get enough of it so you have to defensively adopt a creed of your own. I think that’s important. That’s what Forster’s essays make clear. It’s what we’re experiencing again today, and we don’t have the solution to it. There needs to be a drama and romance to democracy that we don’t have. They maybe have a touch of it in America with the idea of the town hall and the ballot box, but it hasn’t done them much good recently. The last people, I think, to have a good, powerful mythos of democracy were probably the Athenians.
The other thing he says is that he “starts with personal relationships”. I found that quite interesting—to dip into the mind of somebody who’s thinking about the same things that I’m trying to figure out. E M Forster is writing almost a hundred years ago, and yet we’re grappling with the same things, ‘The world is really big—if I want to make it a better place, where do I start? Well, I’ll just start with the people around me.’
That’s a very humanist thought as well. Even big lofty concepts like world peace start with our own relationships. There’s nothing coming down from the top. We build it all from the bottom up. Connecting with people, building relationships with people, building social peace and then civic peace and then, hopefully, world peace at the end of it, that’s the only way it’s going to happen.
When Eleanor Roosevelt was drawing up the Declaration of Human Rights, she said that human rights began in the “small places” of people’s lives. That’s the same sort of thinking.
But equally you mustn’t exhaust yourself on these things. Another way in which E M Forster’s values of morality are very relevant is that he’s putting a value on helping others, and doing your best, but he’s also putting a value on making sure that’s not to the detriment of everything else. You still live. You’ve got to keep yourself intact. Harold Blackham—who was one of my predecessors here as Chief Executive of Humanists UK—said, “One has to be friends with oneself before one is fit to be a friend” and I think that’s good thinking.
Let’s go on to your next book: Adam Bede (1859) by George Eliot.
It could almost have been any of her novels, but Adam Bede is her first so I chose that. I remember at Humanists UK when we were celebrating the 150th anniversary of 1859; that was the year Darwin published On the Origin of Species which transformed biology and our sense of ourselves as animals. Also in 1859, John Stuart Mill published On Liberty–again, an incredible work that transformed political and liberal thought across the world.
So, we were celebrating those two books and the humanist philosopher Richard Norman pointed out that this was not fair because, also in 1859, George Eliot published Adam Bede and completely changed the novel. And that’s true. I’m making up for it now by putting it in this list.
“It’s incredible, these complicated creatures that human beings are, born animals, and then throughout our lives we are making a character all the time, we’re developing.”
George Eliot was a great 19th century humanist. She moved from being quite devout in her early years—growing up in a very Christian culture in the Midlands—but then losing her faith. I don’t usually like that phrase, ‘losing your faith,’ because I think you’re gaining something, but, in her case, it’s appropriate. She actually felt this loss of her faith.
She then constructed for herself an almost romantic but humanist creed of duty and personal relationships and moral responsibility. It had a big part in it for freedom of choice. She famously chose to live in a very unconventional way for the time.
What’s so humanist about her novels? In what way do they embody a humanist attitude?
It’s the way they concentrate on character. They are driven by character. If you read Adam Bede, the characters are all so familiar—within a few words. They’ve got huge depth and richness and she really understands people.
I don’t know whether it was being raised in a very stable domestic environment like the Midlands of the 19th century (much like the Midlands today!). Nothing much happens, but what does happen happens within families and relationships.
Although it would be wrong to say that humanism is somehow the deification of human beings—it’s certainly not that, though some of its detractors like to accuse humanism of putting human beings on a pedestal—but one of the things that lots of humanists feel is a fascination with the human being, with their character, and the preciousness of it.
“George Eliot was a great 19th century humanist”
It’s incredible, these complicated creatures that human beings are, born animals, and then throughout our lives we are making a character all the time, we’re developing. We develop through relationships with others but also as a result of our experiences. Everyone is different. And she just observes that beautifully. Her characters are so well drawn.
It’s a good moral universe that she inhabits. There’s peace and a sort of reward for good behaviour in this world, which is something that she thought, by this point, would never come in another world. I also like this call to be happy with a simple life.
But it’s also full of tragedy. In the 19th century, a lot of critics romanticised her novels as being beautifully observed scenes of country life. Actually, there’s infanticide and all sorts of terrible things going on, which they didn’t mention at the time, but now perhaps we do.
We’ve interviewed a lot of philosophers on Five Books and they often recommend George Eliot. They say Eliot was a good philosopher and even translated Spinoza from Latin.
She did. And Spinoza is remarkably influential on British humanism. He is essentially humanist in his thinking. Of course we’re in the 17th century so, like a lot of people at the time, he does believe there may be some divine principle out there moving the universe. His thought is very complicated. He was influential, for example, on John Locke and his idea about the separation of church and state in England. Rebecca Goldstein has an excellent book on Spinoza where she makes it clear just how influential Spinoza was.
Book number 3 is by the humanist philosopher that you mentioned—Richard Norman—and it’s called On Humanism. Is this the book to read if you want to understand what it is?
It is. It would have been easy to give you a list of five books about humanism but humanism is about life, not about humanism. Still, I think it’s only right to have one book.
What Richard Norman’s book does is to lay out the normal beliefs and values of humanists, but he pays particular attention to the making of meaning in life. This is one of the areas that’s really very important today.
This is especially because, in terms of morality, even religions in the West have now accepted humanist principles. If you boil down religious people’s morality today, you find it’s often quite humanistic. It’s nothing like the religious morality of 500 or 600 years ago. In their moral reasoning, religious people often, like the rest of us, will use consequences of actions rather than just adherence to, say, commandments. The effect of humanism on religion and religious morality has been very profound. That’s been a great success of humanist moral thinking in the last couple of hundred years.
“If you boil down religious people’s morality today, you find it’s often quite humanistic. It’s nothing like the religious morality of 500 or 600 years ago.”
But one of the areas where that same effect hasn’t been felt, is in the area of meaning in life. Some people might call it a ‘spiritual’ aspect of their lives, a sense of connection with the natural world, or a sense of purpose: these are all associated with this broad topic of ‘the meaning of life.’
I think it’s important that we engage with that because people do question—not every day, of course—their place in this world, the purpose of their existence, and what meaning they have. And I think that when people think about meaning in the humanist way, they find it very fulfilling. They think, ‘There is no purpose to the universe, but what I’m doing right now is actually making meaning. The worthwhile goals that I’ve adopted, the relationships that I’m forming, the experiences that I’m having, the meaning that I’m giving to those experiences in my mind as I move through life, the story of my life that I’m building in my head—this is all a source of meaning.’
They don’t think about that idea every second of every day, but it’s in the back of their minds and they proceed through their lives on this basis. I think that that’s a powerful humanist idea that has not yet had its day.
Richard Norman, in his book, engages with this very well and he—not uniquely but perhaps unusually—focuses a lot more on the arts and the creative side of human life than he does on science. I find that appealing, personally.
He thinks that the arts can give us this meaning and fill the void?
Yes, I think that’s true. And not just visual arts but also the novel, film, music, and all the rest of it. There’s also a world of aesthetics beyond arts that we create. The aesthetic appreciation of the natural world can also offer that sense of connection, that sense of timelessness, of stepping outside of yourself, that is very fulfilling and gives a warmth and a colour to life. Richard Norman understands that.
Next on your list is His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy.
The three books are incredibly rich and dense—full of allusion and cultural references. I think I could read the passage where they go through the underworld every day of my life and still not feel like I’ve picked up every important aspect or cultural reference in it. Philip is brilliant, of course, and we’re all looking forward to his next book at the end of this year.
I was too old to read these books as a child, so I read them as an adult and loved them. They are three of the few children’s books that I read as an adult that made me feel like a child. Our former education officer here—Marilyn Mason—wrote a lot about moral education for children and was in her late fifties when she read His Dark Materials. And she said the same. When Lyra is riding on the polar bear, she said she could imagine snuggling into the polar bear’s fur. So, the first thing is that they are brilliant stories.
“The children in these stories are brave, they try hard to do the right thing even though it’s difficult, they’re concerned for others, they’re loving, and they question authority in order to do the right thing. They are just excellent moral exemplars.”
The relevance to humanism, however, is in the values that the children model and in the themes that the stories explore. There’s always a worry, when it comes to non-religious morality, that somehow it will become strict utilitarianism and dry consequentialism. The idea is that, somehow, moral education in a non-religious sense might lose some of the story aspect that religious moral education has often had: the parable aspect.
I think that that’s complete nonsense. The humanist moral education of children doesn’t lose any of those things. But I agree that moral education has to have warmth and colour and depth and story attached to it. So, I think if you were going to tell children stories, then these stories are brilliant ones.
The children in these stories are brave, they try hard to do the right thing even though it’s difficult, they’re concerned for others, they’re loving, and they question authority in order to do the right thing. They are just excellent moral exemplars.
Other children’s books often have children behaving in terrible ways. Philip himself has acknowledged that his HisDark Materials is, to some extent, a response to the Chronicles of Narnia which has children behaving in all sorts of slavish ways, obeying authority because it is authority, and setting all sorts of poor moral examples.
The children in Philip’s books are thoughtful, intelligent, and morally concerned. They are motivated by love and loyalty. And they are very complex. He doesn’t shy away from the moral complexity, the difficulties of choice, the lesser of two evils. That is also something that comes up in his books. There is no perfect solution, you struggle to truth.
They are very real even though, in another sense, they are completely fantastical, as all children’s literature should be. The morals are good. They are about seeking an integrated, honest, eyes-wide-open life. The theme is good too: the defeat of God, the defeat of authority, the opening of our eyes to the realities of the universe and living facing it squarely on.
Did he explicitly have a humanist message in mind when he was writing it?
Philip’s mind is too broad and the story is too wide-ranging to be confined to any one worldview! He is a member and a patron of Humanists UK and all the messages in his novels and all the themes are very humanist ones. But he’s not preachy. Good children’s authors can’t be preachy. I guess the messages are there for those who want to hear them and discern them.
I remember listening to it with my kids in the car, and wondering, ‘Is he very religious or very unreligious?’ It was hard to figure out.
His stories are full of what you might call religious themes. He famously loves Blake. He uses creative and very spiritual language in his writing and deals very well with the intangible.
But I think we’re wrong to associate those elevated ideas and cultural concepts purely with religion. As Richard Norman says, that language isn’t just religious language. It’s an essential part of human experience—that religions have purloined and that we have got to reclaim. I think Philip does that really well.
Can you say a bit about the way he deals with ‘sin,’ because that seems to be a central theme?
Philip’s ideas about sin, in particular, and right and wrong, and the nature of the human being are really important. They are a powerful part of his stories, although they’re definitely subtext for children and not right there in the text.
He nevertheless got into a bit of trouble for them. His books were banned in Catholic schools and decried by Catholic educationists because they killed God—the ‘Authority’ in his books—and also because of the perspective they take on sin and the human person.
For example, a veil is thrown over it, but there’s a point in the book where it seems as if Lyra and Will are physically intimate. It’s done in a very natural sort of way and it’s portrayed as this wonderful and beautiful thing, because what human beings are about is the connections between us. The idea that Philip is representing is that the point of human life is to develop, to grow, to mature. That can be intellectual—in thinking about the world in a curious and realistic way—and it can also be emotional—living an integrated life, self-actualising. It’s about being the best person you can be and living to the fullest that you can live.
“If you want salvation from outside, you have to believe you’re not capable of it yourself”
If there is no other world in which completeness will be attained by human beings in the life to come, whatever completeness there will be will have to be attained in this life. The key concept is that we should try to achieve our fullest development.
The view, in Philip’s books, is that we have the resources in us for this. His narrative romanticises it. We are cosmic beings and there’s this dust that binds us all together and is part of our life force and gives us consciousness. We open our eyes and we are part of the universe.
The Magisterium, in his books—which he says is not necessarily the Roman Catholic church but certainly reminds me of it and I think reminded the Roman Catholic church of itself—is an organisation that is dedicated to preventing that sort of self-realisation, that self-development and that self-actualisation. They have a view that people are fallen. They have the same Adam and Eve story in this fictional universe that Christianity has in our world. Eve is the great villain which, of course, pans out into woman as the great villain. And everything stereotypically about women, like that sense of human nurturing and self-development that we’ve talked about is also completely out of the question.
The Magisterium is, like the Roman Catholic church in our world, run by men and they want to prevent this sort of full physical, emotional and mental development.
And so, quite specifically in the first book, they have invented a way to essentially stop puberty—although it’s heavily coded in the text. They cut human beings off from their demons, in this plot that they have. It’s all an attempt to stunt this human development and hold people back, instead of being able to realise their fullest self. To tie them back, instead, to a vision of human beings as in need of saving by an external source. It’s self-development versus salvation from outside. If you want salvation from outside, you have to believe you’re not capable of it yourself.
Of course, no human being can be completely self-sufficient. We are all embedded in human relationships and social contexts and all the rest of it. But what’s important, I think, is to understand that the help that we can seek is from other people, not from nonhuman sources. That’s the difference.
Your last choice is The Works of Mencius. Tell me why this millennia-old book made the list.
It’s a very common misconception that humanist ideas and humanism itself is purely a recent, modern, European phenomenon. In fact, the ideas that we talked about at the beginning–that morality is a natural thing, for example—can be found around the world and across time. You find them in ancient China, you find them in classical India, you find them in ancient Europe.
Of course, there are large parts of the history of the world where we don’t have them—either because they’re not there, or because there is no surviving writing, or because the historical record has been censored. Christians and Muslims, in particular, went through long historical periods where they just loved to destroy books as their favourite pastime. A lot was destroyed.
But almost everywhere that we have a record of ideas, humanist ideas have been present. I chose Mencius because he’s a good illustration of that. He was a follower of Confucius, 2300 years ago, but with some slightly different ideas than Confucius.
“It’s a very common misconception that humanist ideas and humanism itself is purely a recent, modern, European phenomenon.”
To stereotype, Confucius thought that people needed to be controlled and needed hierarchy and that they were not essentially good. Mencius did not believe that. Mencius thought that human beings were essentially good and, given the right social conditions, they would choose the good. He seems strikingly ‘modern’ and very much in tune with today’s humanist ethical thinking. He’s almost like a Chinese David Hume. They are separated by 16 centuries but their thought is strikingly similar.
In speaking about the natural basis for human morality, Mencius gives the example of a child falling down a well. He says, ‘When a child falls down a well, what do people do? They don’t just run away, they run towards it.’ They almost can’t help themselves–it’s something they just do. And he observes this and builds part of his moral philosophy on it. He says this is the natural tendency of mankind.
And they do it purely out of instinct, not out of hope for any reward.
Exactly. Of course he says these tendencies have got to be developed. It doesn’t just come naturally forever that you always do the right thing. You’ve got to think about it, and you’ve got to build on it. But he says that when people are given the chance to do that, and when they’re encouraged to do that, they will be good.
And I think that idea is one that is at the heart of humanism and contrasts so much with the Christian idea that people are basically bad and fallen and need to be controlled, constrained, and instructed. I chose Mencius just to remind us that this idea is older than a lot of the religious ideas that hold sway all over the world today. It’s not just modern. It’s a timeless idea that people have always come to when they’ve looked at the facts and thought for themselves about the nature of human beings. I think that’s one of the reasons why humanism always will be an approach to life that is part of our experience and our culture and society in the future, even if things turn out as badly as they could in E M Forster’s wildest nightmares. It will still be with us because it’s not only an optimistic and values-led approach to life, it has its basis in truth—the truth about our own nature.
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