From Humanism to Neohumanism

Garda Ghista

In his article, “On humanism past and present,” Perez Zagorin asks the question: Is there a place for humanism in the 21st century?  While asking this, he simultaneously defines humanism as the stance of regarding “the life and happiness of human beings as a supreme value to be cherished and promoted in every possible way.”[1]

“Sarkar takes the humanism of Zagorin one step further
and says we must include the rights of all living beings
and even the geological crust of the earth.”

Looking back through the annals of time, we find several versions of the concept of ‘humanism,’ starting with its birth in Greece during the fourth and fifth centuries BC, during the lives of Plato and Aristotle.  According to Zagorin, it was the Sophists who originated the concept of humanism. While they did not use the term ‘humanism’ (in fact, there is no Greek equivalent for the term), yet the Greek philosophers discussed the ideas and concepts of humanism as it later came to exist.  After Plato and Aristotle, other philosophers continued to develop the concept; however, they considered the study of humanism to be restricted to the elite of the society, the “free men of aristocratic background and independent means who had the leisure for the pursuit of excellence.”[2]  Defects abounded in this early Greek concept. Not only was it restricted to the elite of society, it also accepted both slavery and perpetual war as permanent features. The Greek humanism seems woefully inadequate. Today people want inclusivity, democracy, egalitarianism, and perhaps even a soaring ideal to fill the abyssal void brought on by the rampant materialism of the 20th century.

Romans, as Zagorin reminds us, were one of the most predatory peoples in the history of civilization, quite similar, in fact, to the predatory peoples of the United States today. It is called Empire. The famous Roman orator Cicero gave a clear, new definition to the term ‘humanism,’ calling it “an educational and cultural program and an ideal expressed in the concept of humanities.”[3]  It referred to the study of several extant disciplines, such as history, literature, philosophy, rhetoric and public speaking. Along with these ‘humanities’ subjects, Roman humanism also included values such as “humaneness, philanthropy, benevolence, kindness and gentleness.”[4]

Moving onwards we come to medieval humanism, as expounded by the British philosopher R.W. Southern. Medieval humanism comprised of a so-called renewal of civilization following the collapse of the Roman empire and paganism. This renewal referred to the new Christian and feudalized society, and universities of that period came to imbibe the three dominant disciplines of liberal arts, law and theology. The study of Aristotle’s writings formed the intellectual base of this new scholastic humanism.  A further concept that evolved simultaneously was the belief in the inherent dignity of human nature, the “grandeur of the universe, the principles of nature, and the divine purpose of … creation.”[5] Once again, however, as in the original Greek humanism, the medieval concept was exclusive and reserved primarily for clergy studying in universities on their way to becoming theologians, teachers or higher-level government employees.

According to Zagorin, the Renaissance humanism that developed in Italy during the 14th and 15th centuries became the most powerful and most influential. It was not anti-religious; however, it centered increasingly on human beings and morality in relation to human beings rather than on human beings in relation to religion.  The dignity of human beings and the idea of humans’ free will and consequent choice to perform good or evil became the prime points of Italian humanism.  Like Greek and Medieval humanism before it, Italian humanism was likewise restricted to the elite of the society. It had no utilitarian value for the masses.  However, for future aristocracies, Italian humanism had a lasting influence, as it established the study of languages, literature, philosophy and classics as being the base of a sound university education.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, humanism became still further removed from religions and came to be associated with deism, religious indifference or atheism.[6]  The fundamental principle of the dignity of man remained at its core, but humanism during this period became increasingly merged with philosophies that even denied religion and denied any connection with God.  Reason and science began to replace beliefs and superstitions, and since God came in the category of belief, He was thrown out.  Human beings became kings of the world. There was nothing above and beyond humanity.

The 19th century saw a virtual collapse of the ideas of humanism due to rapid development of the physical and biological sciences as well as the evolution of social sciences such as economics, political science and sociology.  Thus the original humanistic disciplines that formed the core of Roman and Medieval humanism became just a small segment of a now vastly expanded liberal education. Existentialists such as Friedrich Nietzsche hastened the fall of humanism by challenging the philosophical belief in truth. Sigmund Freud, by putting huge emphasis on the irrationality and sexual drives of human beings drove a still deeper nail into the coffin of humanism. [7]

By the 20th century, not only did man stand apart from God, but he ceased to be a unique being. The humanistic concept of the dignity and nobility of man was largely dropped after the horrors of World War I, which shattered the faith and idealism of millions.   After World War II, French thinkers evolved an anti-humanistic mindset, vividly represented by Jean-Paul Sartre, whose critics considered his philosophy as ugly and meaningless, although he claimed that his theory of existentialism was a type of humanism.  These new ideas propagated by French philosophers spread outside France in the Western world in the name of postmodernism. According to Zagorin, Sartre’s so-called humanism is a degraded humanism bereft of all meaning or beauty, with the premise being that there is no God, that man is simply thrown into existence and makes his own choices in life for better or for worse, moral or immoral. There is no substance, no depth, and certainly no morality in the humanism of Sartre. Jean Beaufret asked his mentor Martin Heidegger the question: How can we restore meaning to the word ‘humanism’? Heidegger responded with the idea that all types of humanism – Greek, Roman, Christian or Marxist – put man at the center of life, with man determining his own fate. He said that this belief has led to the destruction of civilization and moved philosophy away from the study of Being. Heidegger called this a disastrous step.[8]  Thus the French philosopher Vincent Descombes wrote, ‘Humanism became a term of ridicule… to be entered among the collection of discarded ‘isms.’”[9] Descombes and Foucault are the best representatives of modern anti-humanism. Foucault became famous by writing about the “death of man.”[10]  Scholars have since pointed out numerous flaws in Foucault’s thinking, including his statement that humanism is a recent invention.

Despite the latest input of philosophers such as Foucault, Descombes, Heidegger and Sartre, Zagorin believes that a new humanism is possible.  He describes it as potentially being a concept beyond Western ideas and moving towards universality. He also believes it must come to grips with religion, that there must be some kind of accord, or understanding, between humanism and religions, because today both the state and religion accept the basic tenets of religious, political and intellectual tolerance and pluralism.  Zagorin says that intellectuals can agree to disagree and live peaceably with one another.  For example, politics and religion both espouse freedom of conscience; thus, these commonalities between the two fields can be emphasized in the new humanism.  Zagorin proposes that the new humanism be based on the fundamental concept of human rights as expressed in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, where these rights are defined as “equal political, social and economic rights for all human beings, regardless of race, color, religion and ethnic membership.”[11]  He extends the definition of human rights beyond the UN Declaration to include equal citizenship, peaceful change, complete freedom of religion along with the conscious efforts of all towards a greater understanding of various religious communities. Zagorin also wants the study of humanism to include discussion of how science and technology have affected society and how to restore human values such as environmental ethics. He believes that humanism can be revived to once again assert the dignity of man while having human rights at its core. He says, along with the French poet Francis Ponge that “man is the future of man.” [12]

The Indian philosopher, Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar, has indeed restored the ideal of humanism. He has redefined the term ‘humanism’ and renamed it as Neohumanism. Neohumanism is something glorious, something exalted, and hence in complete contrast to the various ideas of anti-humanism that have pervaded the late 20th century. Sarkar’s concept of Neohumanism also contrasts strongly with Zagorin’s vision of a new form of humanism to be based on the core value of human rights and freedoms.

Sarkar sees the fundamental problem in society as being a lack of adjustment between the internal and external worlds of human beings. In Chapter 1, “Devotional Sentiment and Neohumanism,” of his book The Liberation of Intellect: Neohumanism,  he explains how the inner psychic movement of human beings is rhythmic, how a part of what happens in the external world adjusts with that inner psychic rhythm. When events in the external world, i.e., our daily lives, are not adjusted with that internal mental rhythm, then people feel varying degrees of discomfort.[13].  For example, when a person feels uncomfortable with a particular person and very comfortable with another person, Sarkar attributes this to a lack of parallelism between the inner and outer rhythms.  When there are no clear guidelines to follow in the external world, then people lose mental balance.  Sarkar further says that when more intellectually developed people come in contact with uncongenial environments, they have increasing difficulty in adjusting with those environments. Hence, while there has been substantial intellectual progress via technological and medical inventions as well as many other areas of study, there is often a lack of synchronization between the ongoing speed of the external world and the speed of the internal world.  Not only is there a difference in speed but also in rhythm.  For this very reason, Sarkar says, mental illness has substantially increased in our societies as compared to centuries or millenniums ago.[14] Sarkar further says the reason so many philosophical models have failed in the past is because they ignore fundamental principles. For example, the world is full of diversities – “a panorama of variegated forms and colours, diverse varieties and expressions.”[15]

Another fundamental principle is dynamism, which he says is the beginning and end of human existence. When a philosophy lacks dynamism, it becomes a great disservice to society and leads people on the path of dogma.

Sarkar says that the highest sentiment in human beings is the devotional sentiment, also known as mystical love. He calls it the “highest and most valuable treasure of humanity.”[16]  This element of devotion must be carefully protected from the onslaughts of materialism and narrow, fissiparous sentiments; hence, we need to build a protective fence around this mystical consciousness, just as we would place a small piece of mesh fencing around a frail, tender plant to protect it from encroachment by big weeds or from being crushed by a person walking by.  Sarkar asks the question: what is this protective fence?  He says, this fence comprises a proper philosophy that will create a parallelism between the internal spiritual world and the external material world, and will further serve as a constant source of inspiration for human beings.

Sarkar discusses various limiting sentiments such as geo-sentiment, which refers to a person’s love for the land or locality in which he was raised. From within geo-sentiment emerge various   sub-sentiments such as geo-patriotism, geo-economics and geo-religion.  The defect of these geo-sentiments is that they keep people confined to a particular part of the world, inside a small box.  This goes against the very fundamental nature of human beings, which is to expand, to be always in a state of dynamism.  According to Sarkar, the role of the devotional sentiment is to “transform the sense of worldly existence into the supreme spiritual stance.”[17] This devotional sentiment is part and parcel of all mystical traditions. When a materialistic philosophy has narrowness of thinking such as the geo-sentiments above, then there will be an imbalance between the inner and outer worlds.  The result will be psycho-physical imbalance or mental illness. For this reason, despite that some people accumulate vast wealth, they continue to have nothing because they suffer from the deprivation of non-parallelism between their internal and external existence.

Sarkar gives the example of another sentiment called socio-sentiment. Here, the person is not considering a physical region or territory to which he has special affinity. Rather, he is concerned with a particular social group such as a racial, ethnic or religious group, to the exclusion of all other communities. The defect here is that in the name of defending the interests of his own community, he often will not hesitate to trample upon the well-being of other communities.[18]  Socio-sentiment has caused innumerable wars and divisions in human society. Again, remaining inside one sentiment leads to staticity and dogmas.

Along with geo- and socio-sentiments, Sarkar talks about the human sentiment, which refers to people who have shed copious tears for suffering humanity but who, after shedding those tears, will sit down to a delicious non-vegetarian meal of fish, cow or pig flesh. Yet, that fish, cow and pig also felt extreme pain and suffering before being killed. They did not want to die. Like human beings, animals also want to live out their natural lives in peace. From a rational standpoint, human beings need to maintain their physical existence; however, this can be done by consuming plants, which have a lower development of consciousness. Sarkar says that the deep concern for the well-being of other human beings has led to the philosophy of humanism.  What is required, he says, is to take that humanism one step further and extend it to include all living creatures. At this point, human existence will “have attained its final consummation.”[19]   He writes:

“…in the process of expanding one’s inner love to other creatures, there should be another sentiment behind this human sentiment, which will vibrate human sentiment in all directions, which will touch the innermost recesses of the hearts of all creatures, and lead one and all to the final stage of supreme blessedness. All molecules, atoms, electrons, protons… and neutrons are the veritable expressions of the same Supreme Consciousness. Those who remember this reality, who keep this realization ever alive in their hearts, are said to have attained perfection in life. They are the real devotees…When this devotional process is elevated to a devotional sentiment, a devotional mission, to the realm of devotional ideation – when the underlying spirit of humanism is extended to everything, animate and inanimate… I have designated this as Neo-Humanism.  This Neohumanism will elevate humanism to universalism, the [feeling] of love for all created beings of this universe.”

The real task of human beings, according to Sarkar, is to advance psycho-spiritually towards the Supreme Consciousness while imbibing neohumanistic ideals. To practice Neohumanism means to constantly strive to build a social structure based on universalism. So long as human beings maintain narrow sentiments, there will be imbalance between the inner mental-spiritual rhythm and the external material world.  It is the devotional sentiment, the devotional wealth in human beings, reflected by the neohumanist mindset, that will move humanity forward and protect its inner vitality.

We have elucidated herein the stages of humanism throughout the history of Western civilization, and witnessed substantial changes in its definition and interpretation leading up to the anti-humanism of the late 20th century. Zagorin offers a new humanism based on the principle of human rights. In contrast, Sarkar takes the humanism of Zagorin one step further and says we must include the rights of all living beings and even the geological crust of the earth. This very transformation of humanism into Neohumanism is contingent upon a transformation in the heart of humanity.


[1] Perez Zagorin, On humanism past & present, Daedalus; 9/22/2003.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

[12] Perez Zagorin, On humanism past & present, Daedalus; 9/22/2003.

[13] Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar, “Devotional Sentiment and Neo-Humanism,” (Chapter 1) in The Liberation of Intellect: Neo-Humanism, Kolkata: Ananda Marga Publications, 1982, p. 1.

[14] Ibid, p. 2.

[15] Ibid, p. 3

[16] Ibid, p. 3.

[17] Ibid, p. 4.

[18] Ibid, p. 5.

[19] Ibid, p. 6

Copyright The author 2011

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