Skip to main content

What Is Humanism?

ISSUE:  Spring 1930

Humanism has become a word of increasing importance amongst intelligent people. It is not important because it denotes, as Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick hastily assumed in an article in the December Harper’s, a new effort to eat one’s cake and have it too, an effort to accept naturalism while denying the consequences of acceptance. No, it is important in our day precisely because it is basically, uncompromisingly anti-naturalistic, while not founded upon miracle, nor upon unsifted tradition, nor upon the supposed universal consent of long-past generations of men, nor upon alleged evidences of providential design in the structure of the universe, nor upon any ground less firm, less acceptable, less verifiable than real, immediate human experience. Its sole ultimate warrant lies in experience, and its value arises from its solid justification of man’s persistent sense that his life is important, is significant, is purposive, is spiritual, and may lead, if directed aright, to enduring happiness.

The word itself is comparatively new in the English language, as such things go. The Oxford Dictionary records no instance of its use earlier than 1812, when Coleridge employed it to designate the belief that the nature of Christ was merely human. And as late as 1877 John Addington Symonds, in the “Renaissance in Italy,” felt constrained to defend himself for his use of this new word with a German, or pedantic, sound. By that time, however, humanism was fairly established both as the designation of the creed of classical humanists—for which Symonds found it indispensable —and as the equivalent of humanitarianism. In these senses, diverse though not wholly unrelated, it continues to be used, and to that extent is a fluid term. But in 1908 Professor Irving Babbitt, of Harvard, vigorously protested, in the interest of clear thinking, against this unnecessary double service to which the word has been constrained, and attempted to restrict it to a single definite meaning. No one, of course, by argument or force can prevent the misuse of words; but for this proposal there was everything to be said. Moreover, Mr. Paul Elmer More had, for several years before 1908, been writing virtually in terms of the distinction made by Professor Babbitt; and the work of these two men has since gone together, in the gradual elaboration of a critical philosophy, to give humanism its real and full meaning and its present importance.

In the beginning the distinction attempted was simply this: ‘humanist’ and ‘humanitarian’ have always had different meanings, and there has been no tendency to confuse them, or to regard the former as merely a short and convenient equivalent for the longer word. But if we need these two words, each for its own meaning, we equally need two words as different in meaning to designate the creed of the humanist and the creed of the humanitarian. Humanism and humani-tarianism satisfy this requirement; and the former, then, should be restricted to its obviously proper use. So restricted, it stands broadly for the constant efforts of humanists to define the characteristic excellence of man, and to guide men towards its achievement. And from the time of Socrates until the present day humanists have continually returned to the law of measure as the fundamental precept, obedience to which will bring men into fulness of life. “Nothing too much” had become a proverb when Socrates conversed in the public places of Athens. Aristotle wrote his “Ethics” around it, defining human excellence precisely as the middle position between two extremes equally vicious. Horace gracefully practiced and taught the middle way, and gave us the phrase for it which we still use—the golden mean. In that phrase, if anywhere, is summed up the common sense of civilized mankind on the subject of the good or happy life. Several of the sayings of Pascal may serve here to illuminate its import:

Grandeur is not shown by being at one extremity, but in touching both at once, and filling the whole space between.

When we would pursue the virtues to their extremes on either side, vices present themselves, which insinuate themselves imperceptibly there, in their insensible course towards the infinitely great, so that we lose ourselves in vices, and no longer see virtues.

Excessive or deficient mental powers are alike accused of madness. Nothing is good save mediocrity. To leave the mean is to leave humanity. The greatness of the human soul consists in knowing how to keep the mean. So little is it the case that greatness consists in leaving it, that it lies in not leaving it.

That is humanism, in its constant, most general form. The Renaissance was a humanistic movement in so far as it was an effort to call men back to a due balance from a barbarous extreme of otherworldliness, which had abundantly proved itself to be vicious in its effects—one of which was a tendency, to provoke equally barbarous extremes of passionate reaction or rebellion. The chief glories of modern civilization are the fruit of this effort—the witness to its need and to its success. Eventually, however, with the rise of physical science and of materialistic naturalism, the western world was led in an uprush of blind hope into a new barbarous extreme of earthliness. This was felt to be tragically dehumanizing in its effects, and the Romantic Movement of the early nineteenth century was a genuinely humanistic effort in so far as it was a protest, looking towards the recovery of balance, against the mechanical conception of the universe. Carlyle was one of its leaders, and his conception of the hero and of the hero’s place in life was one of his deeply felt reactions motivated by humanistic considerations. Carlyle, however, complained that though men listened to him eagerly, they did not follow his guidance—and this was true. And in general it was true of the romantic writer:! that they did not check the dehumanizing tendencies of thtir age. There was more than one reason for their failure. The movement was, like the Renaissance, complex, so that no simple generalization can account for it. Many were so swayed by the dominant thought of the time that they ended by really strengthening it —merely substituting a sentimentalized naturalism for mechanistic naturalism. Others, like Carlyle, felt strongly and, in general, truly, but were powerless to translate their emotions into thought and concrete proposals. Something different from finely rhythmical or rhetorical vapourings about the undying grandeur of the human spirit, and so forth, was required—and was not, on the whole, forthcoming.

Arnold, as is well known, ascribed the failure of the Romantic Movement to the fact that its leaders did not know enough. Arnold himself was clear-sighted and informed, and was consciously and determinedly humanistic in his criticism and in much of his poetry. Not the least valuable of his endeavours was the effort—notably in his essays on Wordsworth and Emerson—to distinguish and save what was fruitfully and profoundly significant from the already crumbling fabric of romanticism and to connect his own work therewith. Nevertheless, Arnold failed as completely as the enemy could have desired to check the overwhelming current of naturalistic thought, and the equally overwhelming confidence of men that the progressive improvement of life’s material circumstances was surely ushering in an era of perfect earthly felicity. The reasons need not now be asked, but it must be said that even had he had better opportunities for his real work, greater forcefulness, and deeper insight, still, he would inevitably have failed to alter the headlong course of nineteenth-century thought and activity.

Other voices of protest there were, but it remained for Mr. Paul More and Professor Babbitt, in the opening years of the present century, to make themselves the inheritors of Arnold’s task and, in their own country„ the critical but true inheritors of Emerson. In so doing they had to make it clear why the Romantic Movement, despite the sound aims and true insight of some of its leaders, had ended by playing into the hands of the enemies of man, and they had also to make it clear that the task of humanism in our day must be one of opposition to naturalistic thought and to the encroachments of science just as, in a former day, it was one of opposition to a barbarous, dehumanizing extreme of otherworldliness.

It would have been astonishing had they been at once successful in these tasks, and especially in the latter. For the onward sweep of ‘modern science’ through the nineteenth century seemed irresistible, and was in fact magnificent in its great succession of triumphs—though it did at the same time provoke sporadic passionate reactions, in their nature very like those provoked by mediaeval Christianity. The latest of these in America is Fundamentalism, to whose real meaning, and importance as a warning, our leaders of opinion have been apparently about as blind as were mediaeval leaders in the face of essentially similar phenomena. The suggested parallel can be pushed much further. Our modern conviction has been that in the methods of physical science we have at length obtained the key, to absolute knowledge of reality, and that only time is required to complete the picture already familiar in its general outlines and finished as to certain details. The basis of this conviction has been the marvellous success which has attended the application of scientific discoveries;—transforming the material circumstances of our lives in countless ways which have come home to everybody. The basis, in other words, has been undeniable evidence, so impressive that we have been ready to believe every claim reputably made for science and everything reputably said in the name of science.

A great deal of nonsense has been gravely uttered, by Huxley and his successors down to Mr. Walter Lippmann, about the grand manner in which the modern man, under the salutary guidance of science, has repudiated the principle of ‘authority,’ demanding ‘evidence’ for all of his beliefs. This is nonsense because no one thinks of denying that men in every past generation of which we know anything formed their beliefs in terms of what they took to be ‘undeniable evidence.’ But they were wrong, we now say, they were credulous, they believed whatever their masters told them. Yet the rapidity with which ‘modern science’ changes—advances, as we put it—proves nothing so cogently as that we have not the slightest ground for imagining that our ‘undeniable evidence’ will long be regarded as conclusively supporting the inferences now generally drawn from it. Why have we accepted those inferences?— Because of our faith in ‘science’; because, since it has told us much, we have concluded that it can tell us everything. We have, in short, changed our masters, but we have not repudiated the principle of ‘authority.’ It is operative amongst us to precisely the same extent, and in precisely the same way, that it was operative amongst men eighteen hundred years ago or eight hundred years ago.

And what have our new masters told us? They have required us, in the name of intellectual honesty, to believe that the world we know is the accidental consequence of ‘matter’ somehow set in motion, and moving eternally in obedience to unalterable laws, but to no end. We ourselves are not merely caught in this purposeless round—we are a part of it, and an insignificant part—helplessly going through our appointed motions like marionettes. But since, at the same time, we have ourselves discovered the ‘undeniable evidence’ leading to this conclusion, along with many other wonderful facts enabling us more and more largely to control our environment according to our wishes, it also follows that we are on the road to a perfect and perfectly happy existence. Only a few months ago Mr. Bertrand Russell said: “International government, business organization, and birth control should make the world comfortable for everybody. . . . With the problem of poverty, and destitution eliminated, men could devote themselves to the constructive arts of civilization. . . . The road to Utopia is clear.”

Can these extraordinary, these absolute extremes of pessimism and of optimism both be true? Can anyone not blindly enslaved by the authority of ‘modern science’ believe either of them to be true? The effort, indeed, to digest this and other contradictions of ‘modern science,’ which are no less complete, can logically issue only in the contempt for truth; and in fact America’s ‘foremost sage’ and certain associated sages have endeavoured to erect what looks suspiciously like the contempt for truth into a philosophical principle. So desperate a proposal should incline men, not to resigned acceptance, but to earnest inquiry, into the real nature of science. This is not an excessively difficult question. Modern science arose as an effort to see how far the structure of the universe could be described mathematically. The attempt could not be pushed far without abstraction. Accordingly those elements of experience which could not be reduced to mathematical terms were simply discarded— with results so wonderful that a strong prejudice inevitably arose in favour of the tractable elements of experience as alone ‘real.’ A strictly, analogous difficulty and consequent prejudice appeared in biology, and, later still, in anthropology„ where ‘man’ became promptly and oddly synonymous with ‘prehistoric man.’ In biology what has been needed is a generalization which could account for man in terms of the amoeba, or vice versa;—and the attempts to satisfy this need have been equally remarkable from whichever end the problem has been attacked. Either man is merely an intricate and exaggerated amoeba—merely a complicated receptacle of the ‘life-force,’ as has been seriously urged— or the amoeba is ‘potentially’ man, whatever that means.

Are these prejudices rational?—are they necessary? They are not rational; they are not necessary; they are the consequences of a misplaced faith and are requisite—not to science—but simply to the overgrown and baseless pretensions of science. Everybody now recognizes, I imagine, that because Mr. Henry Ford was able to make cheap automobiles it does not necessarily follow either that his cheap motors were certainly the last word in cheapness, or that this singular person himself was thus proved to be an oracle of absolute truth of whatever kind. But the question about science is really no other than this. The criterion of science is whether or not its predictions answer to experience— whether or not its generalizations are, as we say, verifiable. When the generalizations yielded by a given method of analysis do answer closely, to experience we have what we are pleased to call ‘science,’ but we do not even then have absolute knowledge;—there always remains, not simply the well-known ‘margin of error’ which may be reduced, but also the fact that successful results have been obtained only by discarding certain intractable elements of experience in favour of others not more ‘real’ but just more manageable. Furthermore, because a provisional and imperfect knowledge of certain phenomena has been obtained by the use of an appropriate technique, it does not follow that this technique has thus been proved to be an infallible method, of universal validity, for distinguishing truth from error, or the real from the unreal. The technique is valid, in so far as it really works—but the sole test of that is experience. When a technique results in the ‘discovery’ that man is simply an intricate and exaggerated amoeba, we have learned something of great importance about that technique, but nothing of any importance about man. For, in general, when discoveries go counter to experience we may be perfectly sure that we are confronted, not by science, but by delusions born of misplaced faith. And, in general, we may be perfectly sure that we are suffering from a radical misapprehension of the nature and possibilities of science if we imagine, for example, that science can tell us anything of positive importance about the distinctive qualities of man and about man’s ultimate destiny. We should remember that without man we should have no science; that our existence as responsible, purposive, intelligent beings is the indispensable condition which alone makes science, or even the hope for science, possible; and that naturalistic thought, consequently, whether contingent, mechanistic, or vitalistic, derives not the slighest support from ‘modern science.’ The naturalism now current amongst us, as a matter of fact, depends upon misunderstood science which already is itself largely out of date.

Comprehension of the real place of science in human life, then, throws us back, for any profitable understanding of man, upon the consideration of him as a being anterior to science, beyond the boundaries of science. For such an understanding we must consult the whole body of accessible, recorded human experience, and in this endeavour we may —indeed, we must—include ‘modern science’ as one of the facets of human experience, but as only one, and perhaps not the one which can tell us most. This conclusion or some real approach to it is, I believe, being reached to-day by an increasing number of educated and intelligent people, and particularly by those who know most about very recent science, and who know best that the cause of science itself will be aided, not hindered, by a better understanding of its limitations;—an understanding which, for one thing, will enable men sharply to distinguish science from the dubious activities and propagandas of educationists, sociologists, behaviourists, psycho-analysts, and other gentry who are nowadays trading upon the authority of ‘modern science.’

And it is this conclusion or, as I say, some real approach to it which is now turning attention to humanism. For twenty-five years ago or more, when every active influence was powerfully operative in favour of unlimited confidence in science and in favour of the complete externalization of life, Mr. Paul More and Professor Babbitt had the insight to see through the pretensions of science and to realize that what was needed, even more than it had been a century earlier, was a new humanism. There were then few to hear them, and fewer still to believe that they were not simply voices from the dead past, as it was popular to say. Mr. More has amusingly told—in the twelfth volume of his “Shelburne Essays,” “The Demon of the Absolute” (1928)—how he “used to solace himself with the boast that he was at once the least read and most hated author in existence.” But he and Professor Babbitt had a firm grasp of the fact that the world did not begin anew in 1859 or thereabouts, a clear sense of the degradation of modern life being accomplished in the name of science and progress, and immediate knowledge of the reality of spiritual experience; they had strength, persistence, and the courage of their convictions; and they steadily proceeded through the years to lay the foundations and build the superstructure of a new humanism, inspired by the fundamental humanistic law of measure, or balance, but new in that it was formulated in the light of present circumstances and needs. And the consequence is that now, when attention is being turned to humanism, we have at hand not only the means of distinguishing the real thing from the still-flourishing humanitarianism which too frequently masks itself under the same name—we have at hand also a humanistic interpretation of life carefully, scrupulously built up through a long series of critical and historical discriminations, in which the effort is everywhere evident to take into account all of the facets of human experience.

To attempt here, even in outline, to set forth that interpretation and what it implies is not possible. But much that is central in it was admirably expressed in his own way. by a Cambridge Platonist of the seventeenth century, Benjamin Whichcote:

It is not possible for a man to be made happy by putting him into a happy place, unless he be in a good state. A man is not happy in the state wherein he is not qualified. We are not capable of happiness unless we be restored to in-nocency by repentance and renewed in part. . . .

For man’s misery and harm doth not proceed from abroad, but arises out of himself, and is not by positive infliction. Men run upon mistakes: the wicked and profane think that if God would, they might take liberty to gratify and please themselves, and no harm done; and that it is the will of God only, that limits and restrains them; and they think that they were out of danger, if God would forbear a positive infliction; and that hell is only an incommodious place, that God by His power throws them into. This is the grand mistake. Hell is not only a positive infliction; neither is it possible that any man should be so miserable as the hellish state makes him, by any outward place only, but by the misery that ariseth out of his own self. For if omnipotency should load me with all burdens; if I were whole in myself, I could bear them, but if I be faulty and guilty, then I have a wound within me, and I have nothing in myself, that is true to myself.

This is not quite our language, nor the language of the new humanism, but the sense of man’s nature and earthly situation expressed in these words is renewed in every generation amongst those who reflect, and is supported by an overwhelming weight of experience. “The grand mistake” is the self-flattering belief that man’s troubles and griefs are imposed upon him from the outside, and are removable if only he can change this, that—everything except himself. He tries, how hard! and how unsuccessfully! only to learn, if he is one of those who can learn, that his troubles and griefs arise from within, that he is inwardly unsound, and that the renovation required is the reformation of himself. It is not an easy lesson. Nothing valuable is easy. The delusions born of pride are only cast off in humility. But this, no less to-day than in the past, remains true: that not the possession of ‘advantages,’ be they what they may, renders a man happy, but only the right use of circumstances. And the certainly right use to which any circumstances can be put is the derivation thence of knowledge concerning ourselves, leading through self-control to ordered inner activity and serene detachment.

Detachment! But what I want, cries the ‘natural’ man, is freedom to satisfy my desires. Yet that is precisely the path wherein success is fatal. Desires grow by what they feed on, and end by enslaving us to ephemeral distractions which merely dissipate the self. The happiness which all men want is, within measure, attainable, but men are not born with an instinctive knowledge of that which will secure it to them. They are in fact born blind and must, as we say, make the best of themselves. It can be done. They are born creatures of impulse chasing will-o’-the-wisps, but by the self-control which alone makes practicable discrimination between impulses, and by the discipline which alone makes possible an enlightened or wise discrimination, they may become men of character, whose serene detachment is all compound of the only, true happiness of man—the liberation of that which is timeless or eternal in him.

Man, in other words, is born with a divided nature. There is a conflict within him between impulse and judgment, between a worse and a better self, between passion and restraint, between that which seems to link him with the beast and that which the generations of men have agreed to call God-like. The acceptance of this dualism is the distinctive attribute of the new humanism and is that which makes it uncompromisingly anti-naturalistic. It is possible to stop, as Socrates apparently did stop, with the positive lessons of earthly experience, refusing to carry the implications of man’s dual nature beyond those bounds. And here, as the reader of his books will find, Professor Babbitt desires to stop, as may others in our day. But Professor Babbitt candidly recognizes, with Mr. Paul More, that the implications of dualism are in deep and full accord with the historic Christian interpretation of life. Sound humanism does in fact lead unescapably to the religious attitude towards life, and justifies man’s sense that he is a being not only purposive, intelligent, and personal, but also spiritual.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading