November 1992

Humanistic Elements in Classical Philosophy

Summary of the lecture by Peter C. Appleby, Ph.D., at the monthly meeting of the Humanists of Utah, October 8, 1992.


The antecedents of humanism can be found in the Golden Age of Greek Philosophy. It is not like modern humanism but has humanistic characteristics. Institutions in the Greek world had become more complicated and they developed new ways of thinking, having doubts about Homeric philosophy, the mystery religions and the various Heroes. This new thinking did not abandon religion per se but was developing an urge to follow science, intelligence and the recognition of the power of reason.

The beginnings were in Mylesian philosophical thought (Thales, 640 BCE), that questioned evil and speculated about organic evolution (Anaximander). Xenophanes (580 BCE) attacked anthropomorphism: “If cattle had hands and drew pictures of Gods, Gods would look like cows,” concluding that Gods are of our own making.

The Pythagorean Society (Pythagoras, 497 BCE, was a mathematical genius) tried to understand the world quantitatively, a kind of humanism, but still was concerned with a mystical religion, or theism.


Parmenides (515 BCE) was a philosophical rationalist, stating that the real is rational and the rational is real. “It is the same thing that can be thought and that can be.” He claimed that an understanding of the world has to be under control of reason and no other criteria should be considered.

Democritus (460-370 BCE) speculated on the theory of evolution and physics and attacked religion and superstitions. He believed that observation and reasoning is the source of knowledge about the world.

Sophists schools trained young men of Greek society to become rulers. They saw human life as malleable: we can shape and control our own lives, a kind of modern humanism. (Plato despised them as morally irresponsible because tools were put in the hands of leaders without telling them what to do.)

The first notable humanist of whom there is a reliable record was Protagoras, (c 450 BCE) a Greek teacher and philosopher whom we know from Plato’s dialogue. Protagoras formulated the famous dictum “Man is the measure of all things, of things that are that they are, and of things that are not that they are not.” This statement was at the time a daring and unorthodox thought. For such iconoclastic sentiments, the Athenians accused Protagoras of impiety, banished him, and burnt his works in the market place after sending around a herald to collect them from all who had copies in their possession.

SOCRATES (470-399 BCE), PLATO (384-345 BCE), AND ARISTOTLE (384-322 BCE)

These three men were not really humanists, but humanistic elements are seen in their philosophy. They were religious but contemptuous of the idea that truth comes to us through supernatural or other religious means. Their position was that we can best understand human values by studies of what humans are good at doing, and that the essence of human nature is known from observation and studies of what humans are. Aristotle’s Naturalistic Ethics separates his philosophy from Plato and Socrates.

A number of other Greek philosophers in the fifth century BCE showed humanist tendencies in that they, too, concentrated on the analysis of manrather than on the analysis of physical nature, as the earlier generation of Greek thinkers had done. Most of them were Sophists, that is, wandering “teachers of wisdom” who discussed practically all the major issues that have ever arisen in philosophy.

Plato’s criticism and satirization of the Sophists made them the foil of a fellow-Sophist, the wise and loveable Socrates, the intellectual and moral hero of the Dialogues. Socrates expounded typically humanist maxims such as “Know thyself” and “The good individual in the good society.” While believing in a God himself and having hopes of immortality, he tried to work out an ethical system that would function independently of religious doctrine. Through the chief Socratic dialogues of Plato there is an abundance of mellow ethical philosophy, relevant for humanism, that can be sifted out from the frequently super-naturalistic and anti-democratic currents of thought in these works.

Aristotle was the most universal of Greek philosophers, a student of Plato and tutor of Alexander the Great. He was the first great naturalist in philosophy and gave power to the life of reason by clarifying the laws of logic. Also, he was a founder of science as an organized body of fact, and he explored and extended practically the whole range of knowledge as it existed in his day. His ethics stressed the happiness of humankind in the here and now and that the human mind was able to attain moral truth without any supernatural help.


A set of philosophies pessimistic in character developed after the conquests of Alexander the great and the later deterioration of the empire.

One was that mankind lives in a tough world and must accommodate to the harsh realities of life.

In 341 BCE, Epicurus defined philosophy as “the activity which, by means of words and arguments, secures the happy life. He advised his followers to pay attention to practical questions to overcome the sources of stress and anxiety coming from death and the gods. It was a kind of negative happiness which comes by understanding what is around us. Gods? Evidence is slim. It was a non-religious kind of humanism: “Where you are, death is not; where death is, you are not.”

The Cynics were despised among the Greeks (cynics meaning “the dogs”). This ascetic philosophy taught that humans should get along with as little as possible. This forces attention on a more cosmopolitan outlook and curtailed expectations.

Skeptics thought that there is very little that human beings can know. They said that reason and observation only leads to the conclusion that the senses are confused, so the solitary concern here is about the sources of information.

The Roman Stoic philosophy stressed cultivating the greatness of the soul. Stoicism is not an irreligious philosophy, it is an ideal of the unity of all processes going on around us, and that humans should live in harmony with what ever happens. There is a deep religious element to Stoicism with a broad cosmic attitude. It is both optimistic and fatalistic.


The ancient world has made a contribution to humanism in that it was neither irreligious nor anti-religious but brought about new ways of thinking. Human beings gradually became aware of the self. One conclusion was that when listening to the gods, we are only listening to human beings.

A question from the audience asked for clarification of hedonism. Dr. Appleby replied that it is an ethical doctrine with a primary aim to search for pleasure. The positive way of obtaining this goal is to know what kinds of pleasure are worth pursuing and what kinds are not. (It can be orgiastic in nature.) The negative approach is to eliminate the source of pain. With freedom, this can be difficult and even the act itself quite painful.

After more general discussion, Professor Appleby ended with the comment: “It is hard work to think for oneself.”

–Bob Green and Willa Mae Helmick

Organizational Humanism

The American Humanist Association (AHA) and the Humanists of Utah (HoU) have cooperative roles in promoting the growth of the Humanist philosophy. The AHA has been promoting humanism nationally since 1941. It publishes theĀ Humanist, a magazine of Critical Inquiry and Social Comment, a bi-monthly. On alternate months it publishes theĀ Free Mind, a newsletter for the AHA membership. The AHA has also produced 63 half-hour television series and a 45-minute video for home and group use that defines humanism and how it relates to public issues. AHA maintains a list of expert speakers who are available for lectures and debates and is affiliated with several national and international organizations developing cooperation and extension of the humanist philosophy. During the past 50 years AHA has established a national reputation of respectability for humanism.

Humanists of Utah is standing on the firm foundation of the AHA and is in the process of establishing an image of respectability within the State of Utah. In less than two years HoU has gained recognition for the publication of a monthly journal, the Utah Humanist, exploring the philosophy of humanism; has attracted a large audience for monthly meetings that present scholarly speakers addressing the various issues of humanism; provides a counselor-leader for the various ceremonial stages of life; and is in the process of providing every public library in the State a copy of Corliss Lamont’s Philosophy Of Humanism and a 1-year subscription to the Humanist magazine.

The Humanists of Utah Board of Directors urges Chapter members to become members of AHA to give support to the national and international growth of the humanist philosophy. Membership in AHA includes a subscription to both the Humanist and Free Mind plus a copy of Corlis Lamont’s book.

Humanists recognize that humans determine the moral principles by which they live and take responsibility for their own lives and are involved in efforts to solve the many problems that confront humanity. Your participation in both the AHA and HoU helps greatly to build the humanist organization nationally, internationally and locally.

–Flo Wineriter and Ed Wilson

Another Way to Define Humanism

In Grassroots News, the monthly newsletter of the Chapter Assembly of the AHA, September 15, 1992, there appeared an article from Quest And Controversy, the publication of The Humanists of Riverside County, CA. In this article, the editor mentioned that he had received a call from”…(a member who) had mentioned that she was a humanist in a group and a stranger asked, “What do they do?” …(She) was prepared to define humanism but that wasn’t the question. What occurred to her was the splinter organizations, the separate ways of the various freethought groups, the internal functions and meetings that had little meaning beyond the meeting itself…(She) didn’t say how she responded but she obviously didn’t like her reply—or non-response.”

The author went on to ask: “What is it that we do—what is our purpose?”

I suggest that we stop and think before we get into a paroxysm of self-criticism just because we can’t run off a list of activities. Did this questioner and the member know enough about humanism to ask and to answer? I don’t know, but it seems to me that what is important is the fact that it bothers people and it is therefore pertinent to ask: Is humanism an activity to be defined as “something we do?”

I suggest we examine humanism, as an organization, and other organizations that we might compete with or be compared to. Now there are too many service clubs, fraternal orders and other such groups to list. But what do they all have in common? They have requirements for membership. One just can’t say, for instance, “I’m a Rotarian.” A humanist can say “I’m a humanist” without any external requirements.

Then there are all the many religions. They all have a defined organizational structure, membership requirements and theologies. How does humanism compare to those? Humanism is free of structure, requirements, or theology.

Humanism is like nothing else. Why expect it to behave like a stereotype? Humanism doesn’t have a claim on anything of its own because humanism is that which the world accepts as knowledge.

Humanism begins each time someone uses the scientific method to find answers to questions on how the universe works and the other existential problems and accepts the answers which come.

I restate the question of “What do they (humanists) do?” to “How do humanists live?” which makes much more sense and quite possibly is what the questioner really wanted to know.

I suggest an answer which comes from an article in the Free Mind, the newsletter of the AHA. Maxine Negri, Chair of the Commission On The Defense Of Humanism, in her monthly column titled “Humanism in Action,” wrote of a couple who, having been members of Atheists United in Los Angeles, are now members of the Humanist Association of Los Angeles. These two are volunteers at various social service agencies, she is full time and he does what he can after his work. The author states: “in…(their) orbit, words without action are insufficient. Although fully appreciative of the power of words to inspire action—whether for good or bad—for them, the deed is the reality.”…

One member of the couple is quoted: “We haven’t needed someone else’s ‘scripture’ or even our own freethought philosophy to convince us that the work we do needs doing. What it all boils down to is the simple human logic of helping where we are able, living the best we know how in this one and only life we believe exists, and doing it for no other reason than it is ‘right.'”

I have just completed the report of the lecture on Classical Philosophy and, suddenly, 2400 years disappear and right here, right now is the manifestation of that philosophy!

In the same issue of Grassroots News, Don Page, the new Editor of The Humanist, is quoted as stating that he wanted the magazine “to reflect the fact that humanism is an ontology and not just a philosophy.” He wants to present humanism ‘in practice’ rather than simply ‘in theory,’ and this means “it must deal with everyday issues facing individual persons and families.” The dictionary definition of “ontology” explains that it is from the Greek infinitive “to be”; “the discipline which treats of the fact and nature of being.” In other words, in personal terms, humanism is a state of being. The two humanists from Los Angeles are this kind of humanist.

This kind of humanism is more than “something they do,” it is “something they live.” The fount of their doing is from what they are.

The President of the AHA, Suzanne Paul, has asked us to “rethink why we exist and for whom.” It seems quite plain to me that we are the inheritors, as Dr. Appleby intimated, of the humanism of Classical Philosophy. Humanism as an organization exists to facilitate the act of becoming a humanist.

–Bob Green

More on Classical Philosophy

When reviewing Corliss Lamont’s book I came across some comments about the influence of Classical Philosophy on modern Humanism. Several paragraphs seem pertinent to Professor Appleby’s lecture.

(Naturalistic humanism) considers that man, the earth, and the unending universe of space and time are all parts of one great Nature. The whole of existence is equivalent to Nature and outside of Nature nothing exists. This …(Humanism) has no place for the supernatural, no room for super-physical beings or a super-material God, whether Christian or non-Christian in character. But (it) does not, like the more naive type of atheist, go about shaking…(its) fist at the universe.

He writes this about Epicurean philosophy:

Epicurus had strong ethical grounds for preferring a materialistic (humanistic) system, since he wanted to see men live in the light of reason and without fear. Accordingly, he tried to eliminate apprehensions about the supernatural by teaching that there were no deities who intervened in human affairs and that mortal men had no existence after death. This negation of religious doctrines was a prerequisite, in the judgment of Epicurus, for attaining individual happiness on earth. Such happiness he defined in terms of the more refined pleasures, guided by wisdom and adjusted to the hard realities of life. The Epicureans placed affection, or friendship among the highest goods of experience. Epicurus himself retired to his garden to live quietly, abstemiously, and nobly, achieving a kind of philosophic saintliness. Yet Epicureanism had come to mean generally the pursuit of sensual enjoyment; the philosophy par excellence of wine, women, and song. And Epicurus remains perhaps the outstanding example of a great philosopher who has been perpetually misunderstood.

Corliss Lamont then adds a ringing injunction to humanists:

Philosophy’s constant involvement in the issues that mean most to men and in the defense of truth is dramatically brought out in the career of Socrates…The powers that were in ancient Athens accused Socrates of corrupting the minds of youth by raising too many thought-provoking questions and giving those questions unorthodox answers. Rather than remain silent or compromise, Socrates defied the authorities and drank the hemlock. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” said Socrates in his final remarks to the judges, as recounted in the Apology. “I would rather die,” he continued, “having spoken after my manner, than speak in your manner and live…The difficulty, my friends, is not to avoid death, but to avoid unrighteousness…No evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death.

Then and there, in the year 399 B.C., Socrates once and for all established a moral imperative for philosophers: that no matter what the personal consequences, it is necessary for them to exercise their freedom of speech and stand firm for what they consider the truth and the right. Indeed, no man has a philosophy worthy of the name or has achieved full stature as a human being unless he is willing to lay down his life for his ultimate principles.

–Bob Green

Naturalistic Humanism

Since the noun “humanism” can be used in so many different ways, we often add the adjective “naturalistic,” to suggest a self-sufficient world-view that doesn’t require the intervention of any deity. That’s because we haven’t been convinced by the arguments for the traditional Western God – an All-Good, All-Powerful Person.

However, some Naturalists, past and present, have attached non-traditional meanings to “God:”

  • Epicurus: Gods exist…but are indifferent.
  • Spinoza: God is nature…but exhibits no will, no purpose, no design.
  • Deists: God began the world…but the world is on its own; scientific laws prevail.

Poetic usages that have been observed:

  • God is our higher self.
  • God is the spark of goodness in people.
  • Gods and Goddesses of old are often used in a playful manner to evoke liberating insights.

While Humanists don’t usually use the word, “God,” since they can say anything that’s important to them without using it, they concede that a poetic or non-traditional usage of the word need not conflict with Naturalism – the claim that any process in the universe can be explained without recourse to non-natural forces.

  1. Naturalism is an open investigative project that explores the four working assumptions of modern science. The challenge is to establish the following sequence without resorting to a personal deity or an immortal soul to fill in the gaps:

    From as primordial explosion…
    a physical universe,
    From a physical universe…
    a web of planetary life,
    From a web of planetary life…
    the human mind,
    From the human mind…
    art, religion, law, science.

    The enterprise is successful so far: a seamless flow of natural causation seems to link everything. The origins of life and mind become clearer each day.
  2. While some people imagine that a naturalistic philosophy is a pessimistic one, we relish the challenge of living with the naturalistic and impersonal world-view created by science:
    • There was a time when I was not, and a time will come when I will cease to be.
    • What will I do with the short interval that constitutes my entire existence?
    • I will write a life story that makes my interval a story of high purpose and significant meaning–a moment of grace, tolerance, exuberance, joy.
    • I am a child of the stars: the planet, my home; all life, my body; the entire human species, past, present, and future…in my awareness.
  3. When we naturalists turn our attention to the pressing issues of the day, our judgments are not clouded by non-naturalistic assumptions. Also, we grant that social, economic, and political questions are so complex that people of good will and intelligence can honestly disagree. That said, most naturalistic Humanists accept the following agenda:

Caring about those alive today, we

  • Reach out to assist the needy in body and spirit so that those individuals can become truly self-sufficient
  • Promote effective support groups for those struggling with addictions
  • Fight unwarranted intrusions of the state into matters of privacy, such as abortion and euthanasia
  • Root out racism, sexism, homophobia, and stereotypes about disabled persons.

Caring about future generations, we invite serious dialogue between representatives of religion and Humanism in order to:

  • Reverse a population-pollution explosion that threatens the web of life on which a future generation will live and move and have its being
  • Establish a just and self-sustaining society that can protect the carrying capacity of the only home the human species can ever call its own.

Source: Humanist Community, May 1992

Ted Turner’s Ten Voluntary Initiatives

Ted Turner, at a 1988 National Press Association meeting, claimed that an alternative to the Ten Commandments found in the Bible is in order. Mr. Turner is the 1990 recipient of Humanist of the Year from the American Humanism Association. Below is his list.

  1. I promise to have love and respect for the planet earth and living things thereon, especially my fellow species–humankind.
  2. I promise to treat all persons everywhere with dignity, respect, and friendliness.
  3. I promise to have no more than two children, or no more than my nation suggests.
  4. I promise to use my best efforts to save what is left of our natural world in its untouched state and to restore damaged or destroyed areas where practical.
  5. I pledge to use as little nonrenewable resources as possible.
  6. I pledge to use as little toxic chemicals, pesticides, and other poisons as possible and to work for their reduction by others.
  7. I promise to contribute to those less fortunate than myself, to help them become self-sufficient and enjoy the benefits of a decent life, including clean air and water, adequate food and health care, housing, education, and individual rights.
  8. I reject the use of force, in particular military force, and back United Nations arbitration of international disputes.
  9. I support the total elimination of all nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons of mass destruction.
  10. I support the United Nations and its efforts to collectively improve the conditions of the planet.