At last, the Supreme Maker…set [man] in the middle of the world and thus spoke to him:
“…O Adam…trace for yourself the lineaments of your own nature. I have placed you at the very center of the world, so that from that vantage point you may with greater ease glance round about you on all that the world contains…It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine.”
–Pico della Mirandola, “Oration on the Dignity of Man” (1486)
Pico’s “Oration on the Dignity of Man” is often referred to by historical authorities as ‘The Humanist Manifesto,’ and expounds on his view of man’s unique position in the cosmos. If you’ve never read it before it’s worth your time. Less than twenty pages long, I first came across Pico’s ‘Oration’ as a freshman in college, taking the honor student version of Western Civ. I was enamored with his positive conception of what man was and what he could be. As a Renaissance thinker, Pico dumped the ‘man is vile and sinful dirt’ perspective, and opted to see man as the most blessed of all creation. This view eventually came to be known as Christian Humanism. After reading Pico, John Stuart Mill, bits of Pascal, and a couple utopian novels I decided I was a humanist. It would be over a year until I was exposed to Humanism, with a capitol ‘H,’ also known as Secular Humanism.
Wikipedia defines Secular Humanism as:
…asecular philosophy [that] embraces human reason, ethics, and justice while specifically rejecting religious dogma…as the basis of morality and decision-making.
Though it posits that human beings are capable of being ethical and moral without religion or God, it neither assumes humans to be inherently evil or innately good, nor presents humans as “above nature” or superior to it…[Humanism] emphasizes the unique responsibility facing humanity and the ethical consequences of human decisions. Fundamental to the concept of Secular Humanism is the…viewpoint that ideology — be it religious or political — must be thoroughly examined by each individual and not simply accepted or rejected on faith…Secular Humanism is a continually adapting search for truth, primarily through science and philosophy.
In short, people are capable of making a better world, and everyone should examine closely every belief they hold. It continues to surprise me how much Humanism appeals to me. Around the time I realized my Christianity was the convergence of probability and geography (just as Hinduism is for Hindus in India and Islam for Muslims in Pakistan), I rejected the idea that postmortem transcendence of any kind was contingent upon my religion (as opposed to my faith).
This eventually led me to the conclusion that humanity would never yield to the sweeping characterizations of ‘good’ or ‘evil.’ ‘Flawed’ seems like an appropriate term, as does ‘complex,’ but it seems silly to talk of people like glasses of water, which can be contaminated and rendered wholly poisonous with the addition of a little cyanide. Instead, I tend to think of people as paintings, statues, or archeological finds that require care and restoration. Thus, Humanism, with its moderate, yet optimistic view of mankind and its commitment to thoughtful and honest discovery appeals to my core beliefs of humanitarianism and intellectual integrity.
The only problem? I’m not yet willing to completely reject the concept of faith or belief in the supernatural. I don’t believe in doing anything ‘on faith alone,’ but I am not an empiricist. I believe that everyone has faith in something, be it a deity or their own positive estimation of mankind’s ability to discern truth and triumph over his more bestial nature. It is Pico’s oration which brings me full circle, back to little ‘h’ humanism, so that I hold, however tenuously, onto a belief in something angelic.