Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Humanist Anthology

Humanist Anthology
© 1995 ed. Margaret Knight and revised editor James Herrick
220 pages

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of Mankind is Man.
Plac'd on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic's pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest,
In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;
In doubt his Mind or Body to prefer,
Born but to die, and reas'ning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much:
Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confus'd;
Still by himself abus'd, or disabus'd;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of Truth, in endless Error hurl'd:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world! - Alexander Pope

In a creative mood a few months back, I began assembling a personal anthology of sorts -- collecting philosophical articles, essays, quotations, and poetry that I have found to be inspirational, highly informative, or otherwise helpful in my philosophical-spiritual journey. Thus, I was quickly interested by this book's title, as it seemed similar to what I was doing with my own reading. Humanist Anthology collects religious, scientific, philosophical, political, and literary essays and quotations with a humanistic theme ranging in time from what Karen Armstrong called "the age of transformation" to the end of the 20th century. Authors included exhibit a good deal of diversity: there are obvious choices like Voltaire and Robert Ingersoll, not-so-obvious choices in Seneca and deists, and at least one questionable choice in Herbert Spencer. (I will be cautious in criticizing this: I associate Spencer with the inequality-justifying ideology of Social Darwinism that soils Darwin's name, but Spencer's own views might not have reflected the view of the robber barons and neo-conservatives who espouse it under a different name.)

Themes and some contributing authors to them include:
  • the necessity of free Reason as a means of finding the truth and guiding our lives. (Voltaire, Thomas Paine)
  • the feasibility and indeed superiority of ethical systems based on reason and empathy instead of "revealed" and supernaturally-based premises. (the Stoics, Jeremy Bentham, Charles Darwin, G.E. Moore)
  • criticism of organized religion, particularly Christianity given that the majority of authors included were western thinkers (Mark Twain, Bertrand Russell)
  • criticism of the idea of a benevolent god (Robert Ingersoll, Mark Twain)
  • criticism of pro-deity arguments (T.H. Huxley, Robert Ingersoll)
  • the role of wonder (Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell)
  • the importance of idealism (Sir Julian Huxley, M.N. Roy)

There's a fair bit of balance here. Contributions are sometimes short, sometimes long: a scoffing paragraph by Twain on religion may follow a passionate plea by Ingersoll for the liberty of thought, again followed by a more serious and involved essay on the substance of ethical living and how one may define "good". Although there are many famous names here, there are also more anonymous ones whose words reveal fascinating lives -- like a French abbot (Jean Meslier) who for years had been a closet skeptic, who used his death to apologize to his flock. The book itself is not self-congratulatory: it doesn't just offer a humanist more eloquent expressions of his or own beliefs. The works here often made me reflect on my own views, and I felt reproached more than once -- mostly by Seneca. The inclusion of humanistic politics was particularly interesting. I think highly of the book, for it is such a marvelously Humanist work -- collecting not only the views of religious skeptics and curmudgeons but of passionate idealists like Ingersoll. Today's humanism could do with more passion.

I would recommend the book to any reader with a high-school reading level, including to religious moderates. Alas, I fear you will be unable to find the book, for it is out of print and used copies on Amazon are being offered for perhaps too high a price. I will be working with the book over the weekend and hope to produce a list of authors included and the works cited for the benefit of those interested who cannot find the book. The results will be posted on my philosophy and humanities blog.

Oh, unhappy human kind
In those grim gods, your own creation,
What anguish for yourselves you find,
For babes born what tribulation!
Not palms in prostrate prayer outspread,
Not all the blood on alters shed
Is piety, but that calm mind,
Whose fruit is tranquil contemplation. - Lucretius, translated by J.S.L. Gilmour and R.E. Lantham


  1. Sounds interesting. I certainly call myself a Humanist but I doubt if I could define what I mean by that. Maybe reading this book will help?

  2. Perhaps. The book's contents are mostly related to a simple (sometimes simplistic) definition of humanism in that it is a philosophy/life stance that states that the primary interest of humanity ought to be itself, and that the good life can be achieved without resort to supernaturalism.

    I often operate from a broader definition of humanism that is an affirmation of humanity and life: the anti-supernatural element is included, but not of importance. If the natural world is so majestic, not only do I not need the supernatural, but I don't need to spend my time arguing against the supernatural. The majesty of life speaks for itself, as does the human experience. Who needs fantasy when novels based on the human experience exist?

  3. I'm going to check it out at amazon now. Do you have a Amazon referal settup so you get credit for purchases?