Humanist ideas have probably been around as long as humans. Certainly some of the ancient Indian, Chinese, Greek and Roman philosophers were expressing humanist ideas as long as 2,500 years ago, when they suggested that humankind alone is responsible for human welfare and that morality arises out of the need to live together harmoniously.
Confucius, the Chinese philosopher who lived around 500 BCE, was a great moral teacher who tried to replace old religious observances with moral values as the basis for social and political order. When he was asked if he could sum up “the true way” in a single word, he replied, “‘Reciprocity’ is such a word.” Confucius, like humanists today, did not see “the true way” as following religious codes, but as based on reason and humanity, stressing the importance of benevolence, respect for others, and looking pragmatically at individual situations rather than blindly following traditional rules. Confucianism had many interpreters and followers and it was the official philosophy of China until the upheavals of the twentieth century.
India has a long history of wide-ranging philosophical and theological discussion, and some of the ancient philosophical schools expressed sceptical views about the existence of gods or the soul or how the universe came to be. Atheism, materialism, questioning the need for ritual and the authority of religious texts and priests, and occasional hedonism, have been part of the Indian tradition of philosophy since the Vedic period, 1000 BCE or earlier. These aspects contrast with the asceticism and mysticism which are more familiar features of Indian philosophy to most Westerners.
In 700 BCE Brihaspathy wrote:
“No heaven exists, no final liberation’
No soul, no other world, no rites of caste…
How can this body when reduced to dust
Revisit earth? And if a ghost can pass
To other worlds, why does not a strong affection
For those he leaves behind attract him back?…
While life endures, let life be spent in ease
And merriment; Let a man borrow money
From all his friends, and feast on melted butter.”
Buddhism, a non-theistic religion with strong moral principles, was born in India in about 600BCE. One of the principles of Buddhism is to work for the betterment of life in this world, something that humanists also believe in.
The Charvaka philosophy, which existed in India in about 400 BCE, was summed up by the twentieth century humanist, M N Roy: “Morality is natural, it is a social convention and convenience, not a divine command. There is no need to control instincts and emotions; they are commands of nature. The purpose of life is to live; and the only wisdom is happiness.”
Greek and Roman Philosophy: the roots of Humanism in Europe
What knowledge can we human beings achieve? When we think something, how can we know whether it is true? Trying to think deeply and clearly about ourselves and the world in which we find ourselves is called Philosophy. As long as people have thought, some have thought philosophically, but the Greeks invented Philosophy as an academic study 2,500 years ago.
Democritus thought that the world we know through our senses is all there is, and that it works naturally without any prior plan, and thus was remarkably close to some ideas of modern science and Humanism.
The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca (2BCE-65CE) wrote, “Religion is recognised by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful,” and said, “The time to live is now,” something believed by all modern day humanists.
The questioning of conventional beliefs and the interest in how to live a good life of philosophers such as Democritus, Epictetus, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Lucretius, Epicurus, Protagoras, and Socrates was remarkable, and achieved without the knowledge and experience we have acquired only comparatively recently. In many ways these were the forerunners of modern Humanism.