History of Humanism: The Other Garden of Eden
June 6, 2012
Most people on the planet today—and well over 80% of students attending Utah State University—believe in both life after death and the existence of the supernatural, with fervor and conviction, beyond the shade of a doubt. These are the two core aspects of Faith: the existence of life after death, or immortality, and the existence of supernatural beings.
This is the first part of a series in which I will profile the backgrounds of some of the great thinkers who deserve acknowledgment and gratitude, for having the courage to rebel against cultural damnation and suppression, and for building the framework for a positive philosophy of life, known in our century as Humanism, or positive atheism. My goal here is to show that Humanism is an important and ancient school of thought, a respectable and venerable tradition. Drawing from the earliest Greek philosophers to various modern thinkers like Einstein, Kurt Vonnegut, Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov, the basic tenets of Humanism are the result of thousands of years of philosophy. It is now a bold and powerful non-theistic way of thinking about life, whose waters run deep.
Part One: The Other Garden of Eden
Even thousands of years ago, long before the existence of Christianity or Islam, the world still rumbled with man’s horror and awe about the supernatural. In the days of ancient Greece and Rome, human sacrifice, apocalyptic fervor, and religious division were everywhere. Superstition and myth were the central source of explanations for things, and for the meaning of life. Mankind slumbered in sweet dreams of the Divine.
The basic ideas of Humanism first arose in the Garden of Epicurus, a quiet and thoughtful philosopher, who bravely discarded mythical illusions in favor of waking up. Wake up, he said, to the wonder and mystery of Nature. He taught a naturalist ethics, a philosophy that celebrated human existence, emphasized the necessity of moral health and cherished the crucial importance of intellectual pursuits.
Why the importance of these things? Because he was a Deist; to Epicurus, the gods may have created the Universe, but now they are distant and uncaring. The idea that the soul survives forever is only illusion and wishful thinking. Death, Epicurus said, is harmless and natural. When it’s over, it’s over.
Death is nothing to us. For what has been dissolved has no sense-experience, and what has no sense-experience is nothing to us.
But this by no means enables any dark immorality, as is so commonly supposed. Like modern-day Humanists, Epicurus was no nihilist. He taught that death should inspire us to seek higher justice, pleasure, tranquility and peacefulness. He was one of the earliest thinkers to point out the Golden Rule, which is present in most religions as well.
The justice of nature is a pledge of reciprocal usefulness; neither to harm one another nor be harmed.
No pleasure is a bad thing in itself. But the things which produce certain pleasures bring troubles many times greater than the pleasures.
The just life is most free from disturbance, but the unjust life is full of the greatest disturbance.
He also considered reason and philosophy to be of prime importance. Using our intellect gives us control over chance, over the chaos of the world. Only by thinking carefully about the big issues of existence – by thinking for ourselves—can we gain control and power over our lives, which would otherwise be dictated by the whims of blind culture. Though his theories about the natural world lacked the power of modern scientific method, and thus seem quite absurd and outdated, Epicurus was inspired with scientific curiosity…
Chance has a small impact on the wise man, while reasoning has arranged for, is arranging for, and will arrange for the greatest and most important matters throughout the whole of his life.
Years later, Titus Lucretius Carus (c. 99-55 B.C.E) wrote a beautiful ode to Epicurus that changed the world – according to a new Pulitzer-prizewinning book by historian Stephen Greenblatt, this poem revolutionized and modernized the Western way of thinking. “The copying and translation of this ancient book fueled the Renaissance, inspiring artists such as Botticelli and thinkers such as Giordano Bruno; shaped the thought of Galileo and Freud, Darwin and Einstein; and had a revolutionary influence on writers such as Montaigne and Shakespeare and even Thomas Jefferson.” (Amazon.com). Many of the names in this list are well-known as part of the lineage of Humanism inspired by Lucretius and Epicurus.
Lucretius speaks of early (though admittedly flawed) atomic theory, complete with hints at evolutionary biology. In his epic and beautiful poem, On the Nature of Things, Lucretius seeks to free mankind from the terror of the gods and the priests of ancient Greece and Rome – to soothe the conscience of mankind (and, surprisingly among the male-centered Greeks, womankind) after so much supernatural abuse.
When in full view on the earth man’s life lay rotting and loathsome,
Crushed ‘neath the ponderous load of Religion’s cruel burdensome shackles,
Who out of heaven displayed her forehead of withering aspect,
Lowering over the heads of mortals with hideous menace…
Now this terror and darkness of mind must surely be scattered,
Not by rays of the sun, nor by gleaming arrows of daylight,
But by the outward display and unseen workings of Nature.
After shaking his head at the terrors religion had caused to Rome, such as the “darksome deed” of child sacrifice of the virgin Iphianessa, Lucretius considers positive alternatives offered by a materialist conception of things. He works around the atomic theory of earlier Greek thinkers. Lucretius calls atoms “seeds of things,” and continues to describe a primordial form of evolutionary biology – and the human morality which it implies.
Childrens’ caresses too easily sapped the proud spirit of parents.
Neighbors in those days, too began to for friendly agreements
Neither to inflict nor receive any hurt, and asked for indulgence
Towards their women and children, as with cries and gesticulations
And in their stammering speech they tried to explain to each other
That it is right that all should pity the helpless.
And although harmony could not be won in every instance,
Yet did the greater part observe the conventions uprightly;
Else long since would the human race have been wholly abolished,
Nor could their seed till this present day have continued the species.
With these ancient minds, we see the birth of non-religious “spirituality” long before the rise of Christianity. In the earliest days of mankind’s civilizations, some thinkers dared wonder at the gift of one brief mortal life, a Universe without fairies and ghosts and gods. Immortality and supernaturalism, the great legs of religion, are not – and have never been – necessary for a sense of wonder and meaning. In this naturalist tradition, Humanists continue today to hold the torch.
(To be continued…)
This post originally appeared on the USU Reason website.
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About the Author: Alex TarbetAlex Tarbet is a humanist who studies aesthetics and history at Utah State University. Part of his focus is on the relationship between Blues music and philosophical themes of evil. He writes for USU Reason.
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