What in the world is “humanism”? Does it have to do with anthropology? Is it egocentrism? On the first day of class, I had no idea. I had vaguely heard the term before, but it was just one of those words that made enough sense in context that I didn’t question it. Another term like this is individualism. When I first think of “individualism,” the ideas that come to mind are self-expression, but also self-absorption, but its actual meaning is a little hazy. However, for many people today (particularly those in politics), humanism and individualism are not only clear ideas but hot-button issues. Two of the people who seem to have influenced much of what is now thought as “humanism” and “individualism” are Friedrich Nietzsche and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
I was curious about how these men interpreted individualism and humanism. By reading part of Nietzsche’s most famous book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, I was able to discover that Nietzsche saw much of establishment, government, and society as negative, saying “a state, that is the coldest of all cold monsters” (Nietzsche 44). And Nietzsche was not only against government but also against organized religion and said that he thought that the Church was “inherited dogma” (Fulford). Nietzsche developed many of his ideas from Emerson, who embodied a “new concept of individualism,” (Fulford). Emerson also saw society as a conspiracy against the individual. Emerson’s and Nietzsche’s concepts of humanism and individualism seem to be the most common definitions of the terms today, but the original Renaissance ideas were markedly different.
Individualism in the Renaissance “stressed uniqueness, genius, and full development of one’s capabilities and talents,” (McKay 413). Classic humanism and individualism focus on human nature and interests, with humanists reading the classics in order to gain insight into the nature of people, rather than the nature of God. However, humanists still were strongly Christian, and their worldview was a synthesis of Christian ideals and new, humanist concepts (McKay 413). Petrarch, often considered the father of humanism, served the Church for his entire life (Wikipedia) and there were many Christian humanists (McKay 416).
In addition, a document from 1793 suggests that humanism makes up the heart of the Church of England, saying “The orthodoxy of the Church of England he calls a compound of… humanism and Catholicism,” (Johnson).
So now I wonder how humanism and individualism evolved from their original meanings to how Nietzsche understood them, and how they are understood today. It seems to me that humanism and individualism have adapted to the changing nature of society, and that perhaps Nietzsche and Emerson were adapting the terms to fit what was happening in the world around them, and also reconciling the philosophies with their own personal worldviews.
- Caplan, Bryan. “Self-Reliance and Creative Destruction.” Econfaculty. Center for World Capitalism, 1996. Web. 6 Feb 2012. <http://econfaculty.gmu.edu/bcaplan/davis2.htm>.
- Fulford, Robert. “Fulford: Carving a Nietzsche.” National Post. 24 Jan 2012: n. page. Web. 6 Feb. 2012. <http://arts.nationalpost.com/2012/01/24/fulford-carving-a-nietzche/>.
- McKay, John. “A History of Western Society” 4. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008. 412-418. Print.
- Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. London: Heron Books, 1971. Print. (Originally published from 1883-1885)
- Campbell, Alexander, William Kimbrough Pendleton, and Charles Louis Loos. The Millennial Harbinger, Volume 2. Bethany, VA: Printed and Published by Editors, 1831. Web. <http://books.google.com/books?id=AOYqAAAAYAAJ&pg=PP7&source=gbs_selected_pages&cad=3
- Johnson, J. “Analytical review: or history of literature, domestic and foreign, on an enlarged plan.” English literary periodicals. 15. (1793): n. page. Web. 9 Feb. 2012. <http://books.google.com/books?id=Z_0vAAAAYAAJ&dq=humanism&source=gbs_navlinks_s>.
- “Petrarch.” Wikipedia. N.p., 07 Feb 2012. Web. 12 Feb 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Petrarch>.
- Petrarch. N.d. Painting. http://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/francesco-petrarch-284.php