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Humanism: a global heritage

By Aqua Koroma

Humanism is a diverse and international movement, and humanist beliefs have been found across continents and cultures for over 2500 years. Whether or not these beliefs have been defined by those who have held them as ‘humanist’, they reflect ancient and global traditions which have contributed to humanism today, emphasising reason, compassion, and human agency, without reliance on gods.

Mencius (372-289 BCE), a Chinese Confucian philosopher who believed that human beings have an innate capacity for goodness. He famously used the example of the child at the well, arguing that a person’s natural response on seeing a child about to fall into a well would be ‘a feeling of alarm and compassion’, and a desire to help motivated by this, not by self-interest.

Humanism and humanist thinking are indigenous to many different cultures, though expressed differently and to varying degrees. Nonetheless, common themes such as altruistic morality, an emphasis on human agency and welfare, equality, the entitlement to rights and freedoms, and an evidence-based or naturalistic approach have been found the world over.

Essentially, humanists believe that people have an innate capacity for goodness, and advocate for an environment where human flourishing is possible. Humanists do not believe in an afterlife, where punishment for evil or rewards for doing good in this world will be heaped upon an individual after death. Instead, their focus is on being the best human being one can be to others, here, now, and in the one life we have.

The European Tradition

Concerning the gods, I have no means of knowing whether they exist or not or of what sort they may be, because of the obscurity of the subject, and the brevity of human life.

Protagoras (c. 490–420 BCE)
Six Tuscan Poets by Giorgio Vasari, 1544. This painting depicts Guittone d’Arezzo (c. 1235–1294), Cino da Pistoia (1270–1336), Francesco Petrarca (1304–1374), Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375), Dante Alighieri (c. 1265–1321), and Guido Cavalcanti (c. 1255–1300). Francesco Patrarca, or Petrarch, is often credited with initiating the Renaissance with his rediscovery of the works of Cicero.

Renaissance humanism

While the word ‘humanist’ has been used to refer to different movements throughout history, from its earliest usages the label has often had a sense of the humane and the secular. The first English appearance in print of ‘humanist’ appears to be in 1589, during the period known as the Renaissance: a borrowing from the Italian umanista. This in turn was derived from studia humanitatis (the study of the humanities), an intellectual movement that emerged in Italy during the 14th century.  This term encompassed the advancement of classical culture and the study of five subjects, inspired by the Roman orator, Marcus Tullius Cicero. These were grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, and moral philosophy. Shifting study away from religious topics to focus on humanity itself, the word humanism came to be understood more widely to refer to the study of subjects other than theology.

Central to the Renaissance (or ‘rebirth’) was the rediscovery of the classical world, and an admiration for the culture and learning to be found there. According to historian of the Renaissance Paul Grendler, its development ‘articulated new moral and civil perspectives and values offering guidance in life’, and would help give rise to the so-called Age of Enlightenment. Although connections can be made between the approach of the Renaissance humanists and modern humanists, modern humanist thinking, in its naturalistic, ethical form, has a much deeper history.

The School of Athens by Raphael, 1511. Ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus is pictured at the bottom left, in blue. Epicurus (341–270 BCE) rooted his philosophy in the pursuit of happiness and freedom from causes of anxiety. Epicurus rejected superstitions about divine punishment or life after death, focusing instead on friendship, pleasure, and balance.

Ancient Greece and Rome

While most of these Renaissance scholars were religious (and therefore outside of the modern definition of humanist), their emphasis on human reason and creativity as a means of knowledge and discovery was significant. So too was their rediscovery of the classical world, which had included much humanist thinking.

The works of Roman statesman Cicero provided insights into the philosophies of stoicism, Epicureanism, and scepticism, while poet and philosopher Lucretius, in his De Rerum Natura, illuminated the thinking of Epicurus and Democritus. In her Humanist Anthologyhumanist psychologist Margaret Knight included these and other classical thinkers such as Thucydides, Seneca, and Epictetus to outline a canon of humanism as old as the written record.

Histories of Western humanism encompass this Renaissance rediscovery of the classical world, and the later period known as the Enlightenment, as the spurs that gave rise to modern humanism. However, despite popular belief that European settlers introduced humanism to the global populace, humanist thinking had long been present in other countries and cultures.

India and China

In The Discovery of India (1946), humanist and first Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964) located ‘a powerful wave of materialistic philosophy, agnosticism, atheism’ in India’s philosophical heritage.

Humanist thought in Asia has a long, distinguished history, traceable to hundreds of years BCE. This encompasses humanistic elements in the philosophies of Confucianism and Buddhism, as well as explicitly agnostic or atheist schools of thought, like the Lokāyata and Ajñāna of India. Nicholas F. Gier has described Buddhism and Confucianism as ‘humanistic in the sense that neither view requires divine aid for attaining liberation or achieving the good life’. Further, in the path towards enlightenment, Buddha embraced skepticism. Skepticism, from the Greek term skeptikoi, is adopting an enquiring state of mind, challenging the status quo or dogmatic establishments and concepts, and thus advancing critical thinking. Buddha utilised such a mindset to reject beliefs imposed by authoritative figures, scriptures, hearsay, or legends, thus attaining liberation and self-actualisation, with the freedom to experience life, determine what is good or bad, what is conducive to self-growth, and how our actions affect others.

Lokāyata and Ajñāna

Who colours wonderfully the peacocks or who makes the cuckoos coo so well? There is in respect of these things no cause other than nature.

Adi Shankara, ‘Chapter II: The System of the Lokāyatikas’ in Sarva-Siddhānta-Saṅgraha (8th century)
Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya’s Lokāyata: A study in Ancient Indian Materialism (1959) meticulously traced the presence of the Cārvāka or Lokāyata philosophy in India, which can claim a rich and ancient tradition of rational and materialist thought.

Ancient India had a number of skeptical schools of philosophy, including perhaps the best known: Cārvāka, also known as Lokāyata, or ‘philosophy of the people’. While no Cārvāka manuscripts survive, they were widely referred to in other texts, particularly by those who opposed them. As Indian humanist M.N. Roy would write:

The teachings of those early speculative rebels are almost completely lost. Only the general drift of the currents of their thought can be approximately inferred from the works of their orthodox opponents.

Traced to as early as 600 BCE, the Cārvāka philosophy was materialist: it prized sensory perception, and rejected any idea of reincarnation or life after death. The Cārvākas (like the Epicureans) promoted instead the pursuit of pleasure and happiness while alive on earth. The dominant religion of the time was Hinduism, but a belief in karma and reincarnation was widely accepted across almost all schools of thought. The Cārvākas’ rejection of this made them particularly radical but, as the Lokāyata name implies, probably widespread, and likely influential.

Ajñāna was another of the unorthodox (nastika) systems of ancient Indian philosophy, centering scepticism and adopting an agnostic approach to all knowledge.

Confucius and Mencius

Confucius (551–479 BCE), late 14th century. Confucius, wrote Herrlee G. Creel, ‘took as his basis… neither theological dogma nor religious hope but the nature of man and society as he observed them’.

Confucius (551–479 BCE) did not regard himself as a prophet, but as a transmitter of existing, ancient, and deeply rooted Chinese ideas. The philosophy which came to be known as Confucianism, best seen in the Analects, emphasises the cultivation of virtuous behaviour and the right way to live well in society.

Mencius (372-289 BCE), considered the most influential Confucian after Confucius, believed xing or human nature has an innate capacity for virtuousness, with our hearts already tuned for recognising and observing moral virtues and conduct. However, he also acknowledged that human nature is complex and fragile, and external influences may erode this goodness from us. To counter this, he actively sought to elucidate the basis of Confucianism to all, promoting the importance of education, self-development and reflection, community and family, and the creation of an environment which supported human flourishing.

Humanism in Africa

The claim, made by many scholars, that African morality is founded on, or derives from, religion cannot, in my opinion, be upheld, if by morality we are referring to social principles and norms that guide the conduct of people in a society.

Kwame Gyekye, ‘African Ethics’ in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2011)

In modern times, African humanism has found proponents in figures such as Tai Solarin, Wole Soyinka, Leo Igwe, and Roslyn Mould, and through the work of the Association of Black Humanists in the UK. There is, though, a long and rich history of humanist thinking in Africa, including lesser known but deeply rooted traditions such as those of the Asante of Ghana with their practices of Akan humanism.

Akan humanism

Akan humanism is not commonly known, however, its indigenous inception dates from before the 13th century. Though some African scholars, such as Bolaji Idowu and John S. Mbiti, have argued that African morality is almost always based on religion, others, like Joseph Buakye Danquah and Christian Abraham Ackah, have challenged this assumption, arguing that human welfare and community need are key determinants of Akan ethics. Ackah, a Ghanaian sociologist, was himself a life member of the Ethical Union (now Humanists UK) from the 1950s.

Cover and inside page of Kwame Gyekye’s An Essay on African Philosophical Thought: The Akan Conceptual Scheme (first published 1987). In closely examining indigenous African philosophy in this way, Gyekye sought to show ‘the universal character of the intellectual activity called philosophy’, and ‘to demonstrate that there were… thinkers in Africa’s cultural past who gave reflective attention to matters of human existence at the fundamental level’.

The non-religious roots of African ethics have been further explored by Kwame Gyekye, the former professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Ghana, who has written that in the Akan moral system:

good or moral value is determined in terms of its consequences for humankind and human society. All this can be interpreted to mean that African morality originates from considerations of human welfare and interests, not from divine pronouncements. Actions that promote human welfare or interest are good, while those that detract from human welfare are bad. It is, thus, pretty clear that African ethics is a humanistic ethics, a moral system that is preoccupied with human welfare.

Akan-made human figure, pottery. © The Trustees of the British Museum, licensed CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Gyekye notes that ‘while Akan ethics is not a microcosm of African ethics, there is nevertheless evidence… that indicates that the values, beliefs, and principles of Akan ethics reverberate mutatis mutandis on the moral terrains of other African societies’. Indeed other scholars, writing on varied African cultures, have argued the social and communal basis of ethics and morality across many different groups.

Another Akan concept explored by Gyekye is that of ‘personhood’, distinct from an individual’s fixed status as a human being. Akan personhood is developed through the exercise of virtuous and useful behaviour; the process of becoming a person. As Ajume Wingo has explained it:

For the Akan, personhood is the reward for contributing to the community and the basis of the individual’s moral worth is located in an independent source—a common humanity.

Ajume Wingo, ‘Akan Philosophy of the Person’ in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2017)

Gyekye puts the human capacity for reason and reflection at the heart of this – a very humanist ideal of thinking for oneself and acting for others.

Although Akan humanism does not require the rejection of religion, the ethical and moral bases of the philosophy are rooted in the good of the wider community, within which perceptions of what is right and wrong, good, and bad, are nurtured.


African humanism is primarily and philosophically realised in ubuntu: a Bantu word meaning ‘humanity’ or ‘humanness.’ Often explained by the phrase ‘I am because we are’, ubuntu is community-based thinking, rooted in the idea (like Akan personhood) that our humanity is developed through community and connection with others. As Clive Aruede of the Association of Black Humanists puts it:

Ubuntu means ‘I am, because you are’. Ubuntu is part of the Zulu phrase ‘Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu’, meaning that we are human only through the humanity of others.

‘Let’s talk about the African and Asian origins of humanism’, Humanists International

A global tradition

We accept that morality is inherent to the human condition, grounded in the ability of living things to suffer and flourish, motivated by the benefits of helping and not harming, enabled by reason and compassion, and needing no source outside of humanity.

We affirm the worth and dignity of the individual and the right of every human to the greatest possible freedom and fullest possible development compatible with the rights of others.

Declaration of Modern Humanism‘, Humanists International, General Assembly, Glasgow, United Kingdom, 2022

Across continents and cultures, and for as long as we have records of it, humanist thinking – rooted in reason, compassion, and community – has been present. Far from being a modern invention, or imposition, humanism has emerged naturally as a way of understanding the world and structuring human life and society: a diverse and truly global tradition.

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