Defining Humanism

When attempting to define humanism, the most obvious and immediate reference point is undoubtedly the humanists of the Renaissance. It was at this time that the very word “humanist” entered the English language, apparently under the influence of the Italian coinage umanista, meaning “student of human affairs or human nature,” attributed to the Italian poet Lodovicio Ariosto. In this use, says the Online Etymological Dictionary, “the original notion appears to be ‘human’ as opposed to ‘divine,’ that is, a student of the human achievements of the pre-Christian authors and philosophers, as opposed to the theological studies of the divines.” A humanist, then, is one whose interests and studies are focused in the world of the productions of the human mind.

It may further be extrapolated from this concentration on the achievements of mankind that the humanist is concerned with providing human answers to human problems. In his book on the World of Humanism, Myron P. Gilmore describes the Renaissance humanists as “an aristocracy of the intellect, the first apostles of the salvation of society by the use of human reason.” The otherworldly orientation of the Middle Ages has certainly been exaggerated. It would, therefore, be an exaggeration to emphasize too greatly the Renaissance humanists’ departure from the earlier, ostensibly more theologically inclined thinkers of the medieval period. There was, however, a definite trend toward a greater faith in the abilities of human reason that is evident in humanist thought. According to Paul Tillich, for example, it was precisely the “detached scholarly attitude toward the contents of the Christian faith” engendered by the Christian humanism of Erasmus which led to his conflict with Martin Luther.

Yet the existence of such a perspective as the “Christian humanism” of Erasmus is evidence that the humanists’ faith in human reason need not necessarily exclude the Christian’s faith in the revelation and workings of God. Writing of his early twentieth century revival of humanism, Irving Babbitt argued that “humanism . . . may . . . work in harmony with traditional religion.” Babbitt reasons that humanism is a supplement to religion, perhaps even a necessary one given the predominance of secularity in the modern age. While “it is an error to hold that humanism can take the place of religion” and “religion indeed may more readily dispense with humanism than humanism with religion,” says Babbitt, humanism serves religion in a number of ways.

Perhaps the most important way in which humanism can act as a supplement to religion is in forming a conduit by which individuals of various faiths can meaningfully interact and cooperate on matters of shared concern. Babbitt notes that “the Catholic Church has . . . been well inspired in rounding out its religious doctrine with the teaching of Aristotle and other masters of the law of measure.” The phrasing Babbitt uses here is perhaps questionable, as the medieval Catholic philosophers were not so much “rounding out” Catholic doctrine with Aristotelian philosophy so much as they were allowing that philosophy to form the non-Christian foundation upon which the Christian faith could build and thereby bring human knowledge to completion. Babbitt is right to assert, however, that because of this addition of Aristotle’s philosophy to the particulars of Catholic doctrine “it follows that the Catholic and the non-Catholic should be able to co-operate on the humanistic level.” For cooperation between two groups to take place, there must be a certain shared foundation of ideas and interests. The “humanistic level,” to use Babbitt’s terminology, acts as that shared foundation for the Catholic and the non-Catholic as well as for the Christian and the non-Christian more generally in its emphasis on the good of mankind and the ability to human action to achieve this end.

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