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Humanist Quotations

Not all the thinkers quoted below were humanists, but their beliefs might be described as broadly humanist.  Many lived long before they could safely be atheists, and the word ‘Humanism’ would not have been part of their culture. Nevertheless, their ideas can still inspire humanists who will find in them much that is familiar and supportive.

More quotations can be found in the Thinkers’ Guide to Lifeand longer humanist extracts in the Humanist Anthology. A dazzling selection from the works of Harold J Blackham can be found in Blackham’s Best.

 

Contents

Humanism
Why are we here?
Happiness
Problems
Doing the right thing
Friends and other people
Other animals
Freedom
Knowledge and doubt
Religion and faith
Death

 

Humanism

“Humanism is about the world, not about humanism.”
– Harold Blackham

“A humanist is someone who does the right thing even though she knows that no one is watching.”
– Dick McMahan, New York humanist, 2004

“Humanism is the belief that we can live good lives without religious or superstitious beliefs.”
– British Humanist Association, 2003

 

Why are we here?

“Wear a smile and have friends; wear a scowl and have wrinkles.   What do we live for if not to make the world less difficult for each other?”
– Attributed to George Eliot

“The value of life lies not in its length, but in the use we make of it.”
– Michel de Montaigne (1533-92), Essays

“Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it?   This is how I answer when I am asked – as I am surprisingly often – why I bother to get up in the mornings.   To put it the other way round, isn’t it sad to go to your grave without wondering why you were born?   Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be part of it?”
– Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow, 1998 

 

Happiness

“Reason, Observation and Experience – the Holy Trinity of Science – have taught us that happiness is the only good; that the time to be happy is now, and the way to be happy is to make others so.”
– Robert Green Ingersoll, The Gods, 1876

“The happy life is to an extraordinary extent the same as the good life.”
– Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness, 1930

“The secret of happiness is this: let your interests be as wide as possible and let your reactions to the things and persons that interest you be as far as possible friendly rather than hostile.”
– Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness, 1930

“It is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself.   Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving, it consists in professing to believe what one does not believe.”
– Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason, 1794

“The things you really need are few and easy to come by; but the things you can imagine you need are infinite, and you will never be satisfied.”
– Epicurus, Principal Doctrines, C300 BCE

 

Problems

“Nothing in life is to be feared.  It is only to be understood.”
– Attributed to Marie Curie (1867-1934)

“If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favourable.”
– Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE)

“It is only those who do nothing that make no mistakes.”
– Attributed to Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)

“Whenever you have a mishap, remember to ask yourself how you can make use of it.”
– Epictetus (1 st Century CE)

“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.  And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is because they only know their side of the question.”
– John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, 1863

 

Doing the right thing

“Of moral purpose I see no trace in Nature.  That is an article of exclusively human manufacture – and very much to our credit.”
– T H Huxley

“The crucial test of ethical values is whether they apply to strangers, and those afar, not just in our midst.”
– Bernard Crick, Essays on Citizenship, 2000

“Do not do to others what you would not like for yourself.”
– Confucius, Analects, C 500 BCE

“Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.”
– John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, 1863

“Repay injury with justice, and kindness with kindness.”
– Confucius, Analects, C 500 BCE

“Always treat people as ends in themselves, never as means to an end.”
– Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, 1785

“…one ought always to ask oneself what would happen if everyone did as one is doing; nor can one escape from that disturbing thought except by a kind of self-deception.”
– Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Humanism, 1946

“…virtue is attended by more peace of mind than vice, and meets with a more favourable reception from the world.  I am sensible, that, according to the past experience of mankind, friendship is the chief joy of human life and moderation the only source of tranquillity and happiness.”
– David Hume, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 1748

“Just as the sun does not wait for prayers and incantations to persuade it to rise, but shines anyway and is univer sally loved, so you should not wait for applause and praise in order to do good; but be a voluntary benefactor and you will be beloved like the sun.”
– Epictetus, 1 st Century CE

“As man advances in civilisation, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him.  This point once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races.”
– Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, 1871

“The only possible basis for a sound morality is mutual tolerance and respect: tolerance of one another’s customs and opinions; respect for one another’s rights and feelings; awareness of one another’s needs.”
– A J Ayer, The Humanist Outlook, 1968

 

Friends and other people

“Of all the means by which wisdom ensures happiness throughout life, by far the most important is the possession of friendship.”
– Epicurus, Principle Doctrines, C300 BCE

 

Other animals

“We should be bound by the laws of humanity to give gentle usage to these creatures.”
– David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, 1752

“The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but Can they suffer?”
– Jeremy Bentham, Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1789

 

Freedom

“As it is useful that while mankind are imperfect there should be different opinions; so it is that there should be different experiments in living.”
– John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, 1859  

“I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed.  I want the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible.  …But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.”
– Mahatma Gandhi, (1869 -1948)

 

Knowledge and doubt

“No one was ever injured by the truth; but he who persists in self-deception and ignorance is injured.”
– Marcus Aurelius (121 – 80 CE), Meditations

“The wisest is he who realises, like Socrates, that in respect of wisdom he knows nothing.”
– Plato, Apology (C 375 BCE)

“A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.”
– David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 1748

“It is wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”
– W K Clifford, The Ethics of Belief, 1877

“It is wrong for a man to say that he is certain of the objective truth of any proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty.”
– T H Huxley, Agnosticism and Christianity, 1889

“Rationalism is an attitude of readiness to listen to contrary arguments and to learn from experience… of admitting that “I may be wrong and you may be right and, by an effort, we may get nearer the truth.””
– Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, 1945

 

Religion and faith

“How much reverence can you have for a Supreme Being who finds it necessary to include such phenomena as phlegm and tooth decay in His divine system of creation?”
– Joseph Heller, Catch 22

“Religion: a daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable.”
– Ambrose Bierce (1842 – 1914)

“About the gods, I am unable to know whether they exist or do not exist, nor what they are like in form: for there are things that hinder sure knowledge – the obscurity of the subject and the shortness of human life.”
– Protagoras (482-414 BCE)

“God is a hypothesis, and, as such, stands in need of proof; the onus probandi [burden of proof] rests on the theist.”
– Percy Bysshe Shelley, Note on Queen Mab; a Philosophical Poem, 1813

“If the gods have the will to remove evil and cannot, then they are not all-powerful.   If they are neither able nor willing, they are neither all-powerful or benevolent.   If they are both able and willing to annihilate evil, why does it exist?”
– Epicurus, C300 BCE

“Faith: a firm belief for which there is no evidence.”
– Bertrand Russell, Human Society in Ethics and Politics, 1954

“When I ceased to accept the teaching of my youth, it was not so much a process of giving up beliefs, as of discovering that I had never really believed.”
– Leslie Stephen, The Aims of Ethical Societies, 1900

“My country is the world, and my religion is to do good.”
– Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man, 1791

“The gods we make in our own image are tribal gods. They tell you how very, very little you should tolerate outsiders, who are less favoured of the Lord. Amazingly, there are no recorded cases of the holy man going up the mountain and finding that it’s the others who are right. It always turns out that God wants unbelievers to suffer, and what could be more noble than to help him a little? When religion rules, toleration disappears, for you cannot cherish the verdict of death to the infidels, yet also tolerate those who disagree – for those are the very same infidels…”
– Simon Blackburn, member of the Humanist Philosophers’ Group, Independent on Sunday, 2004

“A good world needs knowledge, kindness and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after the past or a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men…”
– Bertrand Russell, Why I am Not a Christian, 1927

“People who are always praising the past
And especially the time of faith as best
Ought to go and live in the Middle Ages
And be burnt at the stake as witches and sages.”
– Stevie Smith, poet

 

Death

“I was not and was conceived.
I loved, and did a little work.
I am not, and grieve not.”
– W K Clifford

“Why should we postpone our joy to another world? Let us get all we can of the good between the cradle and the grave, all that we can of the truly dramatic.  If, when death comes, that is the end, we have at least made the best of this life.”
– Robert G Ingersoll , 1900

“Death is nothing to us: for after our bodies have been dissolved by death they are without sensation, and that which lacks sensation is nothing to us.   And therefore a right understanding of death makes mortality enjoyable, not because it adds to an infinite span of time, but because it takes away the craving for immortality.”
– Epicurus, Principal Doctrines, C300 BCE

“The old must always make way for the new, and one thing must be built out of the ruins of another.   There is no murky pit of hell awaiting anyone.”
– Lucretius (C95-55 BCE), On the Nature of the Universe

“The wise man neither rejects life nor fears death… just as he does not necessarily choose the largest amount of food, but, rather, the pleasantest food, so he prefers not the longest time, but the most pleasant.”
– Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus, C300 BCE

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