Humanism definition,meaning in history and characteristics

by Ralph Monday

Humanism is a term applied to the social philosophy and literary culture of the Western world from approximately 1400 to 1650, particularly in Italy where the Renaissance began before spreading to other European countries.

This was the beginning of Renaissance Humanism which «rediscovered» the ancient classical learning of Greece and Rome and began to view pagan writers and thinkers in a favorable light, especially in regard to the secular outlook illuminating human experience in contrast to the dominant world view of medieval supernaturalism.

The Greek and Latin classics, humanists believed, held all the lessons that one needed to learn in order to lead a moral and productive life.

Indeed, the majority of historians will agree that the emerging world view of humanism stood almost exactly between medieval supernaturalism where every aspect of experience was controlled and influenced by otherworldly beings, and the modern scientific and critical attitude regarding the physical characteristics of the universe.

During the zeitgeist of the 14th to 17th centuries, the world was changing, new ideas emerged to challenge long held beliefs as philosophical and scientific ideas rapidly progressed. In regard to this changing world, Kreis states that:

Perhaps the most we can assume is that the man of the Renaissance lived, as it were, between two worlds. The world of the medieval Christian matrix, in which the significance of every phenomenon was ultimately determined through uniform points of view, no longer existed for him. On the other hand, he had not yet found in a system of scientific concepts and social principles stability and security for his life. In other words, Renaissance man may indeed have found himself suspended between faith and reason. (Renaissance Humanism)

The impact of this radical new world view was such that the powerful fist of medieval supernaturalism began to weaken.

In its place the secular world of the here and now gradually superseded the old mystical paradigm, and the value of life and experience in this world was recognized as containing its own inherent worth in direct contrast to the Church’s promise of some future reward in a shadowy afterlife to come.

For centuries the influence of St. Augustine of Hippo had been a dominant teaching of the church, that the material world and mankind was fallen and corrupt, and that the only value of this world and life was as preparation for eternity. Indeed, «[r]eliance upon faith and God weakened. Fortuna (chance) gradually replaced Providence as the universal frame of reference.

The present world became an end in itself instead of simply preparation of a world to come. In reality, as the age of Renaissance humanism wore on, the distinction between this world (the City of Man) and the next (the City of God) tended to disappear» (Kreis).


Characteristics of Humanism

Major philosophical beliefs of Humanism embrace concepts such as a naturalistic metaphysics which holds that the supernatural is a created psychological human myth, Nature is the complete totality of being composed of matter and energy in an eternally changing universal system, and that Nature being a microcosmic part of the larger macrocosm, exists independently of any mind, whether human or a fabricated supernatural consciousness.

Within this framework, science coupled with human reason is the primary methodology for constructing an interpretation of ultimate reality and embraces the paradigm that humanity is an evolutionary product of the natural system, that mind and body are indivisibly joined in a symbiotic relationship, indeed that mind is a function of the biological system that underlies consciousness and personality, and that consciousness cannot survive after death (Lamont).

The focus on man and his capabilities is the central concern of Humanism, in particular the idea that human beings possess the potential of solving problems through a rigorous application of reason and the scientific method. Humanists reject the religious concepts of determinism, fatalism, or predestination, and instead believe that human beings are the shapers of individual destiny.

Ethics, appreciation of beauty (aesthetics), and morality are created human values that are best expressed within earthly relationships and experiences, and the highest goal of life is happiness and success, fulfillment in this world and progress for all humanity irregardless of religion, race, or nationality.

This would best be achieved by a global establishment of democracy, the end results being world peace and the production of a high standard of living for all on the planet.

In summation, Humanism is a new philosophy that superseded the dominant mode of the interpretation of reality according to a supernatural medieval church model. And replaced that «ideal» with the concept of man as the measure of all things.

As such, it is the beginning of Modernity and the Age of Reason concept that all human beings have the right of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, not in some promised unknown future paradise, but in the here and now as shapers and interpreters of self-destiny.

Works Cited:


Kreis, Steven. «Renaissance Humanism.» The History Guide: Lectures on Modern
European Intellectual History.
 13 May. 2004. 03 Sep. 2005 <>.
Lamont, Corliss. «The Philosophy of Humanism.» 19 October 1997. From the Pulpit. 03
Sep. 2005 <>.