Human-centered ideologies have been popular among various philosophers and religious leaders since at least 1500 B.C.E. While Humanists today might credit any number of these figures as a contributor to contemporary Humanist thought, no one proto-Humanist philosopher is seen as the creator of Humanism. Instead, many Humanists point to the ubiquity of humanist ideologies across time and place as a sign that such a system of looking at the world is natural, rational, and self-evident.
Humanism in the East
Around 1500 B.C.E., the core components of the Rig Veda, the first of the Hindu Vedas, were being written. The Rig Veda deals heavily with skepticism and contains one of the earliest recorded declarations of agnosticism:
“But, after all, who knows, and who can say
Whence it all came, and how creation happened?
the gods themselves are later than creation,
so who knows truly whence it has arisen?”
Later Indian philosophical systems similarly rejected the supernatural in favor of human-centered philosophies. The Lokayata school of Indian materialism, whose texts were primarily written after 600 B.C.E., sought to establish universal truths gained through the knowledge available from the material world.
Around the same time, Zoroaster was developing a philosophy in Persia that acknowledged a supreme being but understood every person as an autonomous moral thinker who is wholly responsible for her or his choices in this life. At the same time in China, Taoist teacher Lao-Tzu was spreading his philosophies based in human values rather than supernatural edicts.
Greek philosophers, too, were attempting to understand the world through the lens of human reason and abilities, rather than through the supernatural workings of gods. Several hundred years later, Epicurus, writing in c. 300 BCE, rejected the possibility of an afterlife and questioned whether it is reasonable to believe in a god that either allows evil or is powerless to stop evil. Epicurus famously advocated practices that minimized physical suffering.
During the Middle Ages (c. 400 C.E. – c. 1400 C.E.), humanistic ideologies flourished in the Islamic world—particularly the values of reason and of freedom of speech. Like the philosophy espoused by Lao Tzu centuries earlier, early Islamic humanism was typically marked by a belief in a deity that gives free will and free moral discernment to its creation. Rationality and freedom of speech were emphasized on the grounds that humans must embrace their responsibility to exercise such traits.
Humanism in the West:
As Zoroaster and Lao Tzu were developing similar philosophies in the East, Greek philosophers were rejecting the supernatural and embracing empirical, observable knowledge as the best way to understand the universe. Anaxagoras, one of Socrates’s famed teachers, used scientific inquiry to gain knowledge about outer space and the nature of the universe. He hypothesized that the universe has always existed, but once existed as small fragments in a chaotic mass. His materialist worldview led to a death sentence in Athens that sent him into exile.
Cicero (106-43 BCE) is often credited as having coined the term humanitas, best defined as that which distinguishes humans from all other creatures: the ability to reason, to speak, and to create laws that allow them to live in peaceful societies. Humanitas referred to both the human ability for scholarship and reason—the pursuit of knowledge and the study of the liberal arts—and to benevolence, the ability to live in peace with others under rule of law.
By the early 1800s, "humanism" was primarily used in English to connote education—namely, the revival of classical learning. However, in the second half of the 1800s, the French Enlightenment wrought changes to the meaning of the term. As many grass-roots philanthropic and benevolent societies cropped up during this time, humanism became tied to efforts at human betterment and the spreading of knowledge.
Ultimately, humanism came to refer to a specific ethical philosophy of humankind: a philosophy centered on human needs and abilities, purposely distanced from the supernatural.
"Rig Veda Manuscript," (public domain)