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A brief history of Humanism

The modern conception of the humanities had its root in the classical Greek paideia. This was a course of general education dating from the sophists in the mid-5th century BC, which prepared young men for active citizenship in the polis, or city-state. Cicero's humanitas (literally, "human nature") was a program of training proper for orators, first set forth in De Oratore (Of the Orator) in 55 BC. In the early Middle Ages the Church Fathers, including St Augustine, who was himself a rhetorician, adapted paideia and humanitas to a program of basic Christian education. Mathematics, linguistic and philological studies, and some history, philosophy, and science were included.

The word humanitas dropped out of common use in the later Middle Ages but underwent a flowering and a transformation in the Renaissance. The term studia humanitatis ("studies of humanity") was used by 15th-century Italian humanists to denote secular literary and scholarly activities (in grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, moral philosophy, and ancient Greek and Latin studies) that the humanists thought to be essentially humane and classical studies rather than divine ones.

The emphasis on virtuous action as the goal of learning was a founding principle of humanism and, though sometimes sharply challenged, continued to exert a strong influence throughout the course of the movement. Later humanism would broaden and diversify the theme of active virtue. Machiavelli saw action not only as the goal of virtue but also, through historical understanding of great deeds of the past, as the basis for wisdom. Endorsements of active virtue would also characterize the work of English humanists from Sir Thomas Elyot to John Milton. They typify the sense of social responsibility, the axiomatic association of learning with politics and morality, that was the core of the movement.

The Humanist Tradition ... from British Humanist Association

Western Europe has a tradition of non-religious thinking that can be traced back some 2,500 years to the philosophy of the Ancient Greeks. However, this way of understanding the world, of finding meaning in life, and of grounding moral thinking can also be found in China and India and many other cultures. You can trace the movement of humanist ideas through time in the following sections.

Ancient philosophy
The roots of humanism in China, India, Greece and Rome.
Renaissance
How the Dark Ages ended, and science and the arts began to flourish.
Enlightenment
The rise of reason and scientific thinking.
19th century freethinkers
A time of political and religious turmoil and the development of modern social science.
20th and 21st century humanism
Modern humanist thinkers.

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