The Philosophy of Humanism



07 November 2017 Philosophy

The Philosophy of Humanism - Professor A C Grayling, New College of the Humanities


Professor A C Grayling treated an avid BRLSI audience to a real tour de force through more than two millennia of Humanism, from its roots in the philosophy of classical antiquity; in particular the thinking of Socrates, Aristotle and the Stoics and its subsequent development from the Renaissance and Enlightenment to the present day.


Professor Grayling outlined a remarkable ‘hinge’ in history that marked the transition from a divine and ritualistic life in Antiquity to the emergence of three remarkable thinkers, Siddhārtha Gautama (the Buddha), Confucius and Socrates who explored existence through reason and ethics.


It was in this remarkable period of history that humanity began to play an active role in exploring and defining ethical and moral codes through reasoning and dialogue, resulting in the shift from predetermined divine decrees and virtues of the warrior to civic virtues by approaching the question of what it means to lead a good life.


Human lives were no longer predetermined but were imbued with personal responsibility to oneself and others in a civic community, where humanity gave meaning to its existence. As an amusing interlude Professor Grayling pointed out that the average human has only 9,600 months on this earth, 3,200 of which are spent sleeping, another 3,200 are spent carrying out routines which leaves only a third for leading the good life. Yet, he concluded that it was not only the quantity of life, but its quality in its vivacity and intensity that made for a good life.


Humanism then is an expression of fellow feeling, the courage to explore life oneself, whilst having mastery over oneself. The courage to approach situations with an openness and a suspension of judgement creates the opportunity to see the world from a personal, rather than dogmatic perspective. For example, how aware are we that 70% of the UK’s fresh water is imported in form of fruits and vegetables from countries that themselves have water issues? Is it surprising that water will be the source of future conflicts as it constitutes only 1% of the world’s mass?


Over the course of history it has been ideologies that have given rise to the most significant conflicts, such as religious and political persecutions where the many simply follow the few without exploring issues for themselves. Nevertheless, humanity overall has made significant moral progress over time, including the abolition of slavery, equal rights, political participation and so on. Yet it is important to draw a distinction between ethics and morals. Ethics, from the Greek ethôs, signify the character of a person and their Eudaimonia (good spirit), striving for excellence or Arete. This contrasts with the concept of Morals, from the Latin mos, moralis, which translates as etiquette, manners, conduct. The former represents a deeper notion of being, a fundamental ground of the person, whereas the latter is socially situated.


The relevance of philosophy to the human condition is that it asks the most fundamental questions such as ‘what does it mean to lead a good life?’ or ‘how should I lead my life?’


Answers to these foundational questions were answered by Socrates,’ the unexamined life is not worth living’ and the Oracle at Delphi, ‘Know thyself’. These encourage humanity to exercise wisdom in the exploration of life and in the choices we make.

However, such answers are not abstract but focus on the individual – The meaning of life is what you make of it. In other words, it is our quest to finding meaning in our lives through the way we live life that throws open countless ways of leading a good life.