Humanism is a moral philosophy that places humans as primary, in range of importance. It is a perspective common to a wide range of ethical stances that attaches importance to human dignity, concerns, and capabilities, particularly rationality. Although the word has many senses, its current philosophical meaning comes into focus when contrasted to the supernatural or to appeals to higher authority. Since the 19th century, humanism has been associated with an anti-clericalism inherited from the 18th-century Enlightenment philosophes. In the 21st century, Humanism tends to strongly endorse human rights, including reproductive rights, gender equality, social justice, and the separation of church and state. The term covers organized non-theistic religions, secular humanism, and a humanistic life stance.
The term “humanism” is ambiguous. Around 1806 Humanismus was used to describe the classical curriculum offered by German schools, and by 1836 “humanism” was borrowed into English in this sense. In 1856, the great German historian and philologist Georg Voigt used humanism to describe Renaissance Humanism, the movement that flourished in the Italian Renaissance to revive classical learning, a use which won wide acceptance among historians in many nations, especially Italy. This historical and literary use of the word “humanist” derives from the 15th-century Italian term umanista, meaning a teacher or scholar of Classical Greek and Latin literature and the ethical philosophy behind it.
But in the mid-18th century, a different use of the term began to emerge. In 1765, the author of an anonymous article in a French Enlightenment periodical spoke of “The general love of humanity . . . a virtue hitherto quite nameless among us, and which we will venture to call ‘humanism’, for the time has come to create a word for such a beautiful and necessary thing.” The latter part of the 18th and the early 19th centuries saw the creation of numerous grass-roots “philanthropic” and benevolent societies dedicated to human betterment and the spreading of knowledge (some Christian, some not). After the French Revolution, the idea that human virtue could be created by human reason alone independently from traditional religious institutions, attributed by opponents of the Revolution to Enlightenment philosophes such as Rousseau, was violently attacked by influential religious and political conservatives, such as Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre, as a deification or idolatry of man. Humanism began to acquire a negative sense. The Oxford English Dictionary records the use of the word “humanism” by an English clergyman in 1812 to indicate those who believe in the “mere humanity” (as opposed to the divine nature) of Christ, i.e., Unitarians and Deists. In this polarized atmosphere, in which established ecclesiastical bodies tended to circle the wagons and reflexively oppose political and social reforms like extending the franchise, universal schooling, and the like, liberal reformers and radicals embraced the idea of Humanism as an alternative religion of humanity. The anarchist Proudhon (best known for declaring that “property is theft”) used the word “humanism” to describe a “culte, déification de l’humanité” (“cult, deification of humanity”) and Ernest Renan in L’avenir de la science: pensées de 1848 (“The Future of Knowledge: Thoughts on 1848”) (1848-49), states: “It is my deep conviction that pure humanism will be the religion of the future, that is, the cult of all that pertains to man — all of life, sanctified and raised to the level of a moral value.“ 
At about the same time, the word “humanism” as a philosophy centered around mankind (as opposed to institutionalized religion) was also being used in Germany by the so-called Left Hegelians, Arnold Ruge, and Karl Marx, who were critical of the close involvement of the church in the repressive German government. There has been a persistent confusion between the several uses of the terms: philosophical humanists look to human-centered antecedents among the Greek philosophers and the great figures of Renaissance history, often assuming somewhat inaccurately that famous historical humanists and champions of human reason had uniformly shared their anti-theistic stance.
Sixth-century BCE pantheists Thales of Miletus and Xenophanes of Colophon prepared the way for later Greek humanist thought. Thales is credited with creating the maxim “Know thyself”, and Xenophanes refused to recognize the gods of his time and reserved the divine for the principle of unity in the universe. Later Anaxagoras, often described as the “first freethinker”, contributed to the development of science as a method of understanding the universe. These Ionian Greeks were the first thinkers to recognize that nature is available to be studied separately from any alleged supernatural realm. Pericles, a pupil of Anaxagoras, influenced the development of democracy, freedom of thought, and the exposure of superstitions. Although little of their work survives, Protagoras and Democritus both espoused agnosticism and a spiritual morality not based on the supernatural. The historian Thucydides is noted for his scientific and rational approach to history. In the third century BCE, Epicurus became known for his concise phrasing of the problem of evil, lack of belief in the afterlife, and human-centered approaches to achieving eudaimonia. He was also the first Greek philosopher to admit women to his school as a rule.
Ancient Asian humanism
Human-centered philosophy that rejected the supernatural can be found as early as 1000 BCE in the Lokayata system of Indian philosophy. In the sixth century BCE, Taoist teacher Laozi brought such philosophy to China, where Confucius also taught secular ethics. The “silver rule” of Confucianism, from Analects XV.24, is an example of ethical philosophy based on human values rather than the supernatural. Also in the sixth-century BCE, Gautama Buddha expressed, in the Pali literature, a skeptical attitude toward the supernatural:
Since neither soul nor aught belonging to soul can really and truly exist, the view which holds that this I who am ‘world,’ who am ‘soul,’ shall hereafter live permanent, persisting, unchanging, yea abide eternally: is not this utterly and entirely a foolish doctrine?
Renaissance humanism was an intellectual movement in Europe of the later Middle Ages and the Early Modern period. The 19th-century German historian Georg Voigt (1827-91) identified Petrarch as the first Renaissance humanist. Paul Johnson agrees that Petrarch was “the first to put into words the notion that the centuries between the fall of Rome and the present had been the age of Darkness.” According to Petrarch, what was needed to remedy this situation was the careful study and imitation of the great classical authors. For Petrarch and Boccaccio, the greatest master was Cicero, whose prose became the model for both learned (Latin) and vernacular (Italian) prose.
Once the language was mastered grammatically it could be used to attain the second stage, eloquence or rhetoric. This art of persuasion [Cicero had held] was not art for its own sake, but the acquisition of the capacity to persuade others — all men and women — to lead the good life. As Petrarch put it, ‘it is better to will the good than to know the truth.’ Rhetoric thus led to and embraced philosophy. Leonardo Bruni (c.1369-1444), the outstanding scholar of the new generation, insisted that it was Petrarch who “opened the way for us to show how to acquire learning”, but it was in Bruni’s time that the word umanista first came into use, and its subjects of study were listed as five: grammar, rhetoric, poetry, moral philosophy, and history.”
The basic training of the humanist was to speak well and write (typically, in the form of a letter). One of Petrarch’s followers, Coluccio Salutati (1331-1406) was made chancellor of Florence, “whose interests he defended with his literary skill. The Visconti of Milan claimed that Salutati’s pen had done more damage than ‘thirty squadrons of Florentine cavalry.’” Contrary to a still widely current interpretation that originated in Voigt’s celebrated contemporary, Jacob Burckhardt and which was adopted wholeheartedly, especially by those moderns calling themselves “humanists” Most specialists now do not characterize Renaissance humanism as a philosophical movement, nor in any way as anti-Christian or even anti-clerical. A modern historian has this to say:
Humanism was not an ideological programme but a body of literary knowledge and linguistic skill based on the “revival of good letters”, which was a revival of a late-antique philology and grammar, This is how the word “humanist” was understood by contemporaries, and if scholars would agree to accept the word in this sense rather than in the sense in which it was used in the nineteenth century we might be spared a good deal of useless argument. That humanism had profound social and even political consequences of the life of Italian courts is not to be doubted. But the idea that as a movement it was in some way inimical to the Church, or to the conservative social order in general is one that has been put forward for a century and more without any substantial proof being offered.
The nineteenth-century historian Jacob Burckhardt, in his classic work, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, noted as a “curious fact” that some men of the new culture were “men of the strictest piety, or even ascetics.” If he had meditated more deeply on the meaning of the careers of such humanists as Abrogio Traversari (1386-1439), the General of the Camaldolese Order, perhaps he would not have gone on to describe humanism in unqualified terms as “pagan”, and thus helped precipitate a century of infertile debate about the possible existence of something called “Christian humanism” which ought to be opposed to “pagan humanism”. –Peter Partner, Renaissance Rome, Portrait of a Society 1500-1559 (University of California Press 1979) pp. 14-15.
The umanisti criticized what they considered the barbarous Latin of the universities, but the revival of the humanities largely did not conflict with the teaching of traditional university subjects, which went on as before.
Nor did the humanists view themselves as in conflict with Christianity. Some, like Salutati, were the Chancellors of Italian cities, but the majority (including Petrarch) were ordained as priests, and many worked as senior officials of the Papal court. Humanist Renaissance popes Nicholas V, Pius II, Sixtus IV, and Leo X wrote books and amassed huge libraries.
In the high Renaissance, in fact, there was a hope that more direct knowledge of the wisdom of antiquity, including the writings of the Church fathers, the earliest known Greek texts of the Christian Gospels, and in some cases even the Jewish Kabbala, would initiate an harmonious new era of universal agreement. With this end in view, Renaissance Church authorities afforded humanists what in retrospect appears a remarkable degree of freedom of thought. One humanist, the Greek Orthodox Platonist Gemistus Pletho (d. 1952), based in Mystras, Greece (but in contact with humanists in Florence, Venice, and Rome) taught a Christianized version of pagan polytheism. ..
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