The Times They Are A-Changin’ – Especially When it Comes to Humanism

Petrarch - click on image to view source and read bio

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.




  1. mollyageofreason

    Hi Natalie! Really good blog post! I also never really new what humanism and individualism meant, only just inferred their meaning. One thing I hadn’t realized is that individualism doesn’t necessarily get along well with the idea of society- I’d always just assumed it was about making yourself as good as you can be, using your natural talents. Thanks for teaching me otherwise!
    Just kind of a clarification thing, in your quotation from John in the second to last paragraph, about the church of England, it says, “he calls a compound of…” I was wondering if “he” is referring to John, or to somebody speaking about the Church of England in John’s book?
    Thanks, and great job on your blog!

  2. natalie518

    Thanks for the comment Molly!
    As I said in my post, I was definitely surprised at the actual meaning if individualism within society. Rather than being around the idea of making yourself the best you can be, individualism is centered around the value of the individual as opposed to society (or at least that was the way Emerson saw it).
    As to your question, the “he” in the quote is a man named James Edward Hamilton, and he is speculating on various aspects of Christianity
    Thank you again for the comment.

  3. brianthemathematician

    Hey Natalie, this seems like it has some really good ideas! I was wondering if you think that in the future, humanism and individualism will become indistinguishable from each other, as you seem to believe that they are closely related. Is it possible that one day, we may have no understanding of the difference between them as they will have become one and the same?

    • natalie518

      Hi Brian, thanks for the comment.
      Of course, it is impossible to know what the future of humanism and individualism will be like, but I do have some thoughts on the matter. I think that the two concepts are closely linked and at times are indistinguishable. However, I think that their connotations within society may prevent humanism and individualism from becoming essentially the same idea. I think that individualism is sometimes seen as being “about making yourself as good as you can be, using your natural talents” (as Molly said above), and I don’t think that humanism is necessarily seen this way. However, undoubtedly people’s mindsets and views will continue to shift and that will shape the future of humanism and individualism.
      Thanks again for the question!

  4. becca0906

    Hi Natalie! Great job on your blog post, it gave me a lot to think about. I really liked your conclusion. How did you come up with the topic of individualism and humanism as they relate to each other? It seems like it was a very interesting topic and applies well to today’s society. Another question I had reading your article was what is individualism and humanism like today?
    Awesome job! I really enjoyed reading this blog post.

    • natalie518

      Hey Becca, thanks for the comment!
      I originally was interested in individualism in general, and in doing supplemental reading came upon some articles about Nietzsche and Emerson. The two men had ideas about both humanism and individualism, which is how I came up with the topic to write about.
      As to what humanism and individualism are like today… that is a harder question to answer, because (as can be seen in my and other people’s blogs) the actual definitions of the concepts are very different from the way the concepts are perceived in society. Some people see humanism as a terrible idea with un-American ideals, while others view it as a great philosophy. The same goes for individualism – there is much dispute today.
      Overall, I would say that both humanism and individualism are seen differently today than they were originally.
      Thanks again for your questions!!

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