The ancient roots of humanism

Andrew Copson in New Humanist:

NewHUmanistPaganAtheistThe humanist approach to life is sometimes seen as a very recent thing – the product of the Enlightenment of Europe, rooted in the modern West, dependent on the Christian tradition for its context and content, even (in the allegations of its detractors) parasitic on that tradition. Nothing could be further from the truth and regular readers of New Humanist will be no strangers to the timeless and global nature of the humanist world-view. Long before there was Christianity, the beliefs and values that constitute humanism had formed the perspective of millions of people around the world in Europe, Asia and China, to name just those regions from which we have ancient written records. “Who is it paints the peacocks, who is it makes the cuckoos sing?” asked the materialists of the Charvaka school in India 2,300 years ago, answering, “There exists here no cause except nature.” They were rigorous naturalists, seeing no need for belief in gods to explain reality, and their anti-clericalism is as fierce as any espoused by the partisans of the French Revolution. When the Chinese teacher Mencius, a disciple of Confucius at about the same time, sought the explanation for human morality, he hypothesised no divine law-giver but saw human morality as natural, rooted in our biology, in our instincts: “The feeling of commiseration is the beginning of humanity; the feeling of shame and dislike is the beginning of righteousness; the feeling of deference and compliance is the beginning of propriety; and the feeling of right or wrong is the beginning of wisdom. Men have these Four Beginnings just as they have their four limbs.” As the influence of these Chinese and Indian manifestations of humanism spread on the other side of the world, in ancient Europe, too, we can trace a full-blooded humanism.

In his excellent book Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World, Tim Whitmarsh focuses specifically on atheism in ancient Europe. Ancient Greek and Roman atheism has been sidelined, he believes, because it has been in the interests of Christians for the past 1,500 years, as it is today, to pretend their faith is timeless; because it is in the interests of atheists to claim their beliefs are cutting edge, the products of a modern scientific approach; and because generally we have lost popular knowledge of the classical world throughout our culture. He wants to combat this, both for the truth’s sake and to give back to the modern non-religious something of their heritage.

More here.