Convergence of Humanism & Evolution


Opening Remarks

Welcome everyone and thanks for coming on a rainy morning when you could easily be snuggled in bed doing a crossword or engaged in activities that could help our national birth rate. I realize I am keeping you from the cocktail hour but I have no intention of being brief!


I hope that everyone walks away with having learned something of worth and feel better for the education in the bargain.  In one of the great malapropisms of all time the infamous Robber Baron Cornelius Vanderbilt , the acme of self-satisfied ignorance remarked when a friend told him that Lord Palmerston said it was too bad a man of his ability had not had the advantages of formal education.  To which Vanderbilt thunderously replied, “You tell Lord Palmerston from me that if I had learned education, I would not have had time to learn anything else.”!!

To those of you that do believe in the supernatural and have faith my advice to you is its going to be a bumpy ride, so buckle up! 

This is being recorded for the BCHA You tube channel and can soon be accessed on that for any references or source materials.  One might think that since posterity is tugging at me via the camera that I will moderate my usual stridency, not a bit of it.  I know some viewers will be offended, in fact some people are just determined to be offended and make a personal profession out of it.  My kindly advice to them is, to grow a broader back and a thicker skin!


It needs to be stated at the outset that the story I am about to relate to you contains mostly men.  The reason for this is that for much too long women were kept down by a religious and governmental oppression in many areas of the world and this continues today in far too many places.  It denied them the educational opportunities needed to make an impact in the world of natural sciences and humanism.  Women have not been left out from this story however and I will give them their rightful due.

Main Body

Ten score and five years ago two of the greatest bipedals ever, were born on opposite sides of the pond.  One a poor farm boy, the other a privileged patrician.  They never met but they had a meeting of the minds.  Abraham Lincoln taught the world a civics lesson never to be forgotten.  Charles Darwin taught the world where we all come from.  Their combined message is Humanism writ large.

How did we as a species get to these two terrific men who gave their wisdom and made it a legacy for each of us, for eternity?

Geoffrey Chaucer’s invitation to travel is now extended to each of you, “Come along with me to places we have never seen before and to people we could otherwise never have expected to know.  We are surely sundry folk and we shall meet sundry folk even more exotic than ourselves.  By aventure and happenstance we have fallen into fellowship.”

I propose to take you on a whirlwind journey through the minds and accomplishments of mankind’s mischief makers.  Starting with the finished products of Lincoln and Darwin and reeling back in time to the near starting point.  Then I will pivot and swerve back to antiquity before bringing us all back to that near starting point.  My sense of matters temporal is disjointed for the simple reason that I want to create a void and fill it in.  This way of storytelling keeps the boredom at bay I have found.  And being boring is the only sin I believe in.

Albert Camus in his essay The Rebel wrote, “Already, as we can see the great problem of modern times arises: the discovery that to rescue man from destiny is to deliver him to chance.”

Lincoln and Darwin rescued us from destiny, a destiny that meant we were all cared for and watched over by a celestial overlord.  They furthermore delivered us to chance, the chance to make our own mark with no guarantees.  The universe after all owes us nothing.  It is indifferent to our presence.  We must find and create comfort by and for us with our loved ones and fellow humans all sharing this tiny blue sphere.


Lincoln the autodidact, learned with a sense of wonder and curiousity about humanity and the world.  He chose to become a lawyer and studied philosophy, history, archaeology, literature, politics, economics, and many other fields to be the best lawyer and person he could be.  Never losing his footing with Americans of all walks of life he used his vast store of knowledge to help all he could and never to hurt another.  Tested at every stage of his life with poverty, the deaths of loved ones, the madness of a Civil War and the madness of Mary Lincoln, he triumphed and now rests in the breasts of all humanity.  What was his secret?  What made him succeed where others have not?  Lincoln knew what he wanted and knew how to bring others along for the ride.  He was the greatest political persuader we have ever known.  He could make you laugh, learn and love with the savvy of Socrates.  Stories, fables and inspired speeches all were in his quiver.  It was said he had a story tailor-made to every possible situation in life.  A story that everyone could relate to and everyone would want to be a part of.  Lincoln’s secret was that he was Humanism’s greatest ever ambassador.

Darwin started out with every advantage and appeared to his family that he was an abysmal disappointment.  His fortune changed when he landed the job of gentleman companion on board The Beagle.   Exploring on shore to escape the harsh personality of the ship’s captain (a pro-slaver), he soon found himself challenged intellectually in ways he had not anticipated.  He was up to the challenge. 

Proof positive is in the introduction to The Origin of Species and says so beautifully that which scientists have traditionally not been gifted at. 

“As many more individuals are born than can possibly survive: and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected.  From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form.”

Interestingly, the word evolution does not appear in Darwin’s writings until 1871’s “The Descent of Man” and 1872’s 6th edition of “The Origin of Species”. 

Though Darwin’s message was a lightning bolt to the old order, by all accounts everyone who ever met him came away with the same opinion of the man.  He was a true gentleman.

Both these comets, these celestial celebrities, learned the lessons of humanity exceedingly well.  They also learned them from those that came before.  Allow me to introduce some of them to you.  This is, by necessity of time, a truncated list but will still serve to amply illustrate the theme of this presentation.


By the way you may be interested to know that evolution as a theory was first propagated in the late 18th century and lasted until Darwin’s book.  Evolution was held by some Protestant sects on the basis of Adam and Eve being white and therefore where did all the other races come from?  They must have evolved, was their reply.

August Weismann, 1834-1914, a German whose late 19th century ideas preceded the rediscovery of Friar Gregor Mendel came up with the Weismann barrier of inheritance.  Egg and sperm cells are agents of heredity but not somatic cells (cells of the body).  Weismann was a great defender and evangelist in Germany of Darwin.


 In addition there was the biologist Ernst Haeckel 1834-1919, also German, who widely and consistently defended Darwin.  Haeckel though was more in tune with a Lamarckian view of the evolution of species (more about Lamarck later).  Interestingly he was the first to coin the term First World War in an interview with a journalist in 1914.


Alfred Russel Wallace, 1823-1913,  defended Darwin in writing and in public debates upon his return to England in 1862.  They were good friends but they did differ.  Wallace was a believer in spiritualism, séances and phrenology.  Whereas Darwin emphasised competition between individuals of the same species to survive and reproduce, Wallace emphasised environmental pressures on varieties and species forcing them to adapt to their local environment.  Late in life Darwin established a very generous financial pension for Wallace who never made much money from his work and writings thanks largely to his spiritualism which was greatly derided.  Wallace was also against compulsory smallpox vaccination and paid a price in the scientific community for that stance.  At the time the germ theory of disease was new and far from accepted by all.  Also, the human immune system was not well understood.  He also believed that delivery of the shots was sloppy and unsanitary, which it was.  This was the only point which the British Royal Commission adopted from his objections along with weaker penalties for non-compliance.  Wallace warned about deforestation, soil erosion and the impact of invasive species as early as 1878.  This was long before Rachel Carson’s environmentally eye-popping “Silent Spring” in 1962 about DDT and other pesticides.


Dutchman, Jacob Moleschott, 1822-93, was a physiologist and philosopher who studied at the University of Heidelberg.  All hell broke loose when his book “Der Kreislauf des Lebens” – The Circuit of Life published in Mainz in 1852 came out.  He stated that animals have evolved over time and managed to do this naturally.  He did not specifically say that god was not needed but implied it.  Offended university, political and religious leaders forced him to resign.  He got a teaching position at the University of Zurich and later a Professor of Physiology at the University of Rome where his lectures were popular and his important research on diet earned him respect and many honours.  He did not assert the impossibility of a spiritual life but explained the ORIGIN and condition of animals by the working of physical causes.  He did not elaborate on a mechanism for evolution.


“Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation” anonymously published in 1844 was a runaway Victorian bestseller but reviled by Anglican clergy.  Not until 1884 was it revealed that Scottish journalist Robert Chambers was the author.  He suggested everything in existence has developed from earlier forms; the solar system, Earth, rocks, plants, corals, fish, reptiles, birds, mammals and ultimately man.  He used a mechanism called Spontaneous Generation but cited questionable experiments that claimed to generate insects via electricity.  He used geology and the nascent fossil record of the day to demonstrate a progression from simple to more complex organisms, finally culminating in man.  Regrettably, he said Caucasian European man was the pinnacle of this process.  He said god could not have intervened for all the countless small and ongoing changes in the rational world as it greatly detracted from his foresight and lowers his intellect to ours.  Following his publication there was increasing support for ideas of the coexistence of god and nature with the deity setting natural laws rather than continually intervening with miracles.  Darwin credited this book with preparing people for the shock of evolution but it was only partly successful in this.  Interestingly “Vestiges” outsold Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” until the early 20th century.  It also gave Alfred Russel Wallace his first inkling in believing in evolution.


“Vestiges” was in the vein and spirit of the Frenchman, Jean Baptiste Lamarck, 1744-1829,who had long been discredited by intellectuals by the 1840’s.  Evolutionary hypotheses were exceedingly unpopular except among political radicals, materialists and gasp- atheists!!  The seminal geologist, Charles Lyell, 1797-1875, had thoroughly critiqued Lamarck’s ideas in the second edition of his monumental work, “Principles of Geology”.  Lamarck had great disdain for the chemistry of Antoine Lavoisier, father of modern chemistry, who was sadly guillotined by the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution.  Instead Lamarck believed in alchemy and the 4 ancient elements of earth, air, fire, water.  He asserted that the natural elements of fluids in living organisms drove towards greater levels of complexity – a circumstance he called Steady State Biology.  Coupled with his Adaptive Force of organisms to their environment by use or disuse of organs that made them adapt.  This idea was dismissed for a very long time by biologists and geneticists.  However, his idea of Soft Inheritance is growing in the field of epigenetics, which is the study of heritable changes in gene activity that are not caused by changes in the DNA sequence.  Cells can be changed from outside the cell over time and with spatial control.  The DNA is unaltered but affects DNA by preventing the expression of genes so the relationship of the genotype to the phenotype can be altered even across generations by experience within the lifetime of the individual.  This new understanding of biology has led to calls to reconsider Lamarckian processes of Soft Inheritance.

There was another Englishman, Robert Edmund Grant, 1793-1874,a professor of Comparative Anatomy at University College London who was a large influence on the young Charles Darwin at Edinburgh University where Darwin went of his first flora and fauna hunts with Grant and was his most promising student.  Grant promulgated the view of Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hillaire, 1772-1844 the French zoologist with similarities on evolution to Lamarck and who was a member of Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt in 1797.  Geoffroy’s theory which is not believed today by any mainstream biologist stated that the environment causes a direct induction of organic change.  Lamarck believed a change in HABITS is what changes the animal.  Grant was a radical thinker and very well connected.  He was an atheist when it was rare and in the West risky to be one.  He first proposed in 1826 his speculation on evolution which went further than Geoffroy or Lamarck but is not a complete theory of evolution.  He accepted a common ancestry for plants and animals.  His geological study of successive strata seemed to show a progressive natural succession of fossil animals which, “have evolved from a primitive model” by “external circumstances” – a Lamarckian statement.


Erasmus Darwin , 1731-1802, the grandfather of Charles, was an inventor, poet, physician, natural philosopher, translator and slave trade abolitionist.  He turned down King George the III’s offer to be his personal physician.  His most important work, Zoonomia, written in 1794-96 contains a system of pathology and a chapter on Generation – which anticipated and pre-dated some of the views of Lamarck and which foreshadowed the modern fact of evolution.  Erasmus being well over 380 pounds, he stopped weighing himself at that weight, when on house calls as a doctor used to send his equally large carriage driver inside the house first to see if the floorboards would support his weight. 


Erasmus based his hypotheses in turn upon David Hartley’s, 1705-1757, psychological Associationism which states that man’s brain is determined by past experience, causing vibrations in the brain on account of its heat and pulsation of its arteries.  Sensations which are often associated together become each associated with ideas corresponding to the others and the ideas corresponding to the associated sensations become associated together – sometimes so intimately that they form what appears to be a new simple idea.  Hartley frequently uses John Locke’s phrase, “association of ideas”. In the free will debate Hartley came down firmly as a determinist.

Next, we have a giant of science, a man who bestrode the earth with his genius.  But he fell into obscurity due to his cantankerous, argumentative personality that greatly upset his contemporaries who wrote him out of the history of the day.  He gave us the word “cell” based on their resemblance to a monk’s cell.  Robert Hooke, 1635-1703, who wrote the amazing book Micrographia in 1665 using the fairly new Dutch invention the microscope, as well as the telescope.  Hooke is responsible for giving us the concept of extinction of species, which astounded Europe.  He also gave us the early understanding of fossils and Charles Lyell drew heavily upon his inspired work.  His crucial collaborative work with Robert Boyle led directly to Boyle’s Law. In fact Hooke really did have the best attempt pre-Darwin on the idea of evolution.  He theorized on species mutations over vast periods of time.  He even gave the example of domesticated dogs and how they were bred for changes.  Hooke’s idea though was rejected as it was ahead of its time and he did not fully develop it including the lack of the mechanism we know as natural selection.  European society was not ready to accept the dangerous idea that god’s plan was not perfect.  He was not given proper respect for his intellect and ideas until the 20th century.  We do not have a reliable likeness of Hooke because Isaac Newton destroyed the only known painting of him as a way to obliterate an obstreperous  rival.


It is at this point that I make my temporal swerve.  We have gone back to the modern near starting point for Evolution.  Hartley was a contemporary of the great and influential political philosopher John Locke, whom he admired and incorporated into his writings.  Please remember Locke as he is my pivot point between antiquity and the modern near starting point.


Perhaps it would now be helpful to define Humanism.  Humanitas, whose Latin meaning is: human nature, civilisation and kindness. 

Humanitas was used by Cicero, 106-43 BCE to describe the formation of an ideal speaker or orator who he believed should be educated to possess a collection of virtues of character suitable for an active life of public service.  It is learned from the study of Bonae Litterae – Good Letters, i.e. classical literature, especially poetry.

In the power struggle with Mark Antony that Cicero lost, he ran from Rome but was caught at Formia halfway between Rome and Naples where he hoped to board a boat to Macedonia.  A freed slave of his brother gave him up to the Roman soldiers and had his head chopped off while offering it to the soldiers through his litter.  Cicero had tried to preserve the Republic and Octavius, later Caesar Augustus had attempted in the Roman Senate for 3 days to prevent Cicero’s name being added to the list of those to be killed.  His last words were, "There is nothing proper about what you are doing, soldier, but do try to kill me properly." His head and hands were nailed to the Rostra (large platform) which faced the Roman Senate and was a kind of people’s speaking area, in the Roman Forum for all to see, so that all would fear dissent.  Antony's wife Fulvia, took Cicero's head, pulled out his tongue, and jabbed it repeatedly with her hairpin in final revenge against Cicero's power of speech.

But Pliny the Younger, 61-112 CE, defined Humanitas as the capacity to win the affections of lesser folk (that’s us slobs by the way) without impinging on greater folk.  Guess which definition I prefer out of those two!


Definitions are tricky stuff.  Define happiness, love, god, jazz.  The late US Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger was asked to define pornography in a ruling from the bench in the 1970’s and famously wrote that he knew it when he saw it!  Definitions, are just like beauty, in the eye of the beholder – which is an expression dating from the 3rd century BCE but its current modern form comes to us from Margaret Wolfe Hungerford’s 1878 novel Molly Bawn.

Benjamin Franklin, in 1741 wrote:

“Beauty, like supreme dominion

Is but supported by opinion”

Humanism has ancient and global roots and traditions.  One example is from India and is known as the Carvaka School.  A senior contemporary of Gautama Buddha was Ajita Kesakambali who led the Carvakas in the 6th century BCE.  They were sceptics of religion in all its forms.  Buddha drew upon their written works in the form of aphorisms.  Amazingly materialist schools existed in India before them but these schools wrote nothing down.  The Hindu creation myth epic poem, The Mahabharata, the longest poem in the world and over 8 times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined!  It has a character named Carvaka who is a villain in order to disparage all Carvakas and non-believers.  Their philosophy disappeared mysteriously in the 12th century CE and is now a fringe school of thought.  Their most memorable quote, straight out of Monty Python, is, “If the mind could exist without the body, why not mangoes hanging in the air without mango trees.”


The Laughing Philosopher Democritus, 460-370 BCE and his teacher Leucippus came up with the Atomic Theory.  We know how Democritus was inspired to think of this amazing worldview.  One day he went to the beach on the Aegean Sea and sat watching not the waves but the sand dunes.  He saw how they shifted and sorted and how each one was different even though they were all made of the same thing, sand.  The word a-tom means, that which cannot be cut.  Each grain of sand was an integral part of the whole.  He applied that to every material thing.  It left little room for the gods who were remote to him as well as unnecessary and uninterested in the affairs of humans. 

Leucippus imagined cutting a piece of wood so many times that it could no longer be cut, leaving us with atoms!

Strangely enough I used to wonder how many cuts it would take to get to just one atom.  The answer I got came from Dr. Carl Sagan.  On his wonderful show, Cosmos, he had an apple pie baked for him at Cambridge University, the first place in the world to understand the makeup of an atom.  He took his knife and cut a slice and cut it in half a couple of more times.  Then saying the knife was too dull and the pie too crumbly he said the number of cuts in half required to get to just one atom would be about – 90!


Another global example was the Epicurean School which also taught sceptical thinking was a substantial and long-lived body of work in the Mediterranean that spread throughout the Classical world.  Founded in 307 BCE by Epicurus, 341-270 BCE, who was an atomic materialist following in the footsteps of Democritus, Epicurus attacked across the board superstition and divine interaction.  Today we use the term Epicurean or Epicurean Delight and it generally refers to eating and drinking well.  Epicurus believed that pleasure was the greatest good and the only way to attain it was to live modestly and to gain knowledge of the workings of the world and the limits of one’s desires.  This leads a person to a state of tranquility and freedom from fear as well as absence of bodily pain.  Tranquility and no pain he said constitute happiness in its highest form.  It is not hedonism, pleasure for pleasure’s sake.  Originally it was born as a challenge to Platonism and later it became the main opponent of Zeno’s Stoic School.  Epicurus believed in staying well away from public life and politics.  Many chapters of this school sprung up in Greek and Roman cities and the best known proponent was the 1st century CE Roman poet, Lucretius, 99-55 BCE, whose monumental epic De Rarum Natura – The Nature of Things is the best known poem of that philosophy with a great deal of support given in it to atomic theory of life.  This poem had only one remaining copy by the time it was rediscovered in 1417 by the humanist papal secretary Poggio Bracciolini in the Bavarian monastery of Fulda.  All the other copies had been systematically burned by the Roman Catholic Church.  This one copy was secretly hand copied by Bracciolini and sent to his friend Niccolo Niccolini where it is now preserved in the Library San Lorenzo in Florence next to the famed Duomo cathedral.  I went to see this copy last summer and with white gloves and no photos allowed and sharing the experience with a researcher from Oxford University we saw a document whose style of handwriting was directly developed into the font we all recognize, Italics!

Other famous Epicureans include the Roman poet Virgil who gave us the creation myth epic for Rome, The Aeneid, itself an extension of the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey poetic epics.  Thomas Jefferson said that he was an Epicurean. Interestingly Epicureans believe in the existence of gods, plural, but gods were made of atoms just like anything else.  Gods lived too far away from Earth to have any interest in man so it did no good to pray or sacrifice to them.  Gods did not create the universe and did not punish or bless anyone but gods were very, very happy and we should strive to reach this goal.  They rejected immortality and mysticism and suggested the soul was as mortal as the body. 

One great surviving quote that comes from Epicurus who inspired that quote with this one.  ‘Death is nothing to us, for that which is dissolved, is without sensation, and that which lacks sensation is nothing to us.”  From that we get an Epicurean epitaph put on ancient Roman gravestones for Humanists and still used today at Humanist Funerals, “Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo.”  “I was not, I was, I am not, I do not care.”  Contrast that with Julius Caesar’s, “Vini, Vidi, Vici!”  “I came, I saw, I conquered!”

Or this lovely bit or prose from Lucretius which defies death.

“I have escaped your ambush, O Destiny, I have closed all paths by which you might assail me.  We shall not be conquered either by you or by any other evil power.  And when the inevitable hour of departure strikes, our scorn for those who vainly cling to existence will burst forth in this proud song: Ah, with what dignity we have lived.”

Epicurus put great store by developing strong friendships as the basis for a satisfying life and it is best summed up by a quote from the Roman orator, statesman, patrician, Cicero (chickpea, just to keep him humble!) , “Of all the things which wisdom has contrived which contribute to a blessed life, none is more important, more fruitful, than friendship.”  Cicero though considered Epicureans too focused on pleasure and lacking in duty. 

In Dante Alighieri’s, 1265-1321, Divine Comedy, Canto X Inferno, Epicureans are located within the 6th circle of Hell and are the first heretics seen.  Similarly, the Jewish Mishnah (which means repetition) of the oral traditions, started in 200 CE by Rabbi Yehudah haNasi, which was prompted by the fear that oral knowledge would be lost over time.  The Mishnah, says the Epicureans are among the people who don’t have a share of the “World –to-Come” in the messianic era.

One can always tell how effective a Humanistic worldview is by the amount of vitriol hurled in its direction.   If there is no reaction though, then Humanism can’t be that potent a reply to the faithful of the world. 

Lastly, I’ll leave you with the riddle of Epicurus which is a classic of the problem of evil in the world with respect to god.  “How can god allow evil?  He can stop it but he does not, making him useless in human affairs.”


Humanism dropped off the edge of the Western world during the decline and fall of Rome and the West.  Hey, it was called the Dark Ages for a reason.  It did however stay alive in the Abbasid dynastic period of Islamic rule from their capital in Baghdad.  They had a House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikmah) and a school of medicine, Jundishapur, in current SW Iran, both of which took in refugees from as far away as China and northern Europe.  These people were valued for their knowledge and willingness to teach and grow in their disciplines.  More than tolerated by the Muslim rulers they were in fact encouraged.  The caliph or chosen one was in fact superior in rank to the imams and overruled them with respect to these foreigners.  Early pressures from the Christian Crusaders and its evil twin the first fundamentalist movement in Islam meant an end to active promotion of secular life in the empire’s capitol.  It all came to a screeching halt though when Hulagu Khan, grandson of Genghis, arrived in 1238 CE and bathed Baghdad in blood and tossed all books in the Tigris where they were lost forever.  Then the imams could press their power and say it was the foreigners who brought this disaster upon the faithful by their infidel ways.  The Caliph was checkmated and the House of Wisdom and the School of Medicine were never rebuilt.   Islamic ruled areas went into a steep and ominous decline from this point.

But by then the West was back from the brink of ignorance and rediscovered their ancient patrimony.  Thanks to the Reconquista of Spain from 1200 onwards Western scholars were able to find the lost treasures of Greece and ancient Alexandria.  Translated from the Arabic by Jewish scholars in famous libraries like Toledo this knowledge spread like spring and soon universities were started in Europe, with Bologna being the first.  Of course many Western monasteries had held on to books from antiquity but only Irish monks could read Greek in the West.

Enter Francesco Petrarch,  Father of Modern Humanism, who was a Christian but a humane one, a rarity for his time and place.  He coined the term, “Dark Ages”.  He is considered the first tourist as he climbed Mt. Ventoux in Provence, France at over 2,000 metres, for pleasure and not for the glory of god or the church.  He lived from 1304-74 and his discovery in Liege, Belgium  after being lost for 1000 years of two of Cicero’s letters is the actual starting point of the Renaissance or rebirth in 1333.  A further discovery in 1345, in the church library of Verona which you can still visit today yielded a much larger haul of Cicero’s letters and the letters that Cicero collected from others.  So he is also the Father of the Renaissance.  Thankfully he is only the father of 2 movements and one short of a trinity.


His work Secretum Meum, (My Secret Book) points out that secular or worldly achievements did not necessarily preclude an authentic relationship with god.  He said god gave us vast intellectual and creative potential to be used to the fullest.  Interestingly he gave up his priestly order because he fell in love with Laura de Noves from Avignon, a married woman, to count Hugh de Sade, you guessed it, an ancestor to the infamous Marquis de Sade.  Refused by her, he channeled his frustrated passion into poems and wrote 366 of them.  He was so talented in poetry that he perfected the sonnet and Shakespeare studied Petrarch’s sonnets thoroughly before attempting his own.

The one sour note in Petrarch’s career was upon his return from Avignon in 1353, where he had tired of the hypocrisies at the Papal court, he took a job as a diplomat for 10 years for the Despot of Milan, Cardinal Giovanni Visconti and then his succeeding brother, until the plague arrived and Petrarch left for Venice with a guarantee of a home and that his extensive library would remain in Venetian hands after his death.  Unfortunately, it did not as much was lost and sold off to various interested parties.

His autobiography completed in 1372 is the first in 1000 years since St. Augustine’s.  Could he rightly be called the Father of Autobiographies?  We just can’t avoid a trinity can we?  We are all triune in some way I suppose!

Together with Giovanni Boccaccio, 1313-1375, another poet and author of the “Decameron” as well as a third poet, Coluccio Salutati, 1331-1406, who was the Chancellor of Florence and therefore in a significant position of power in which to advance Humanism, these three men popularized the use of the common folk’s language, Italian which was the beginning of the end of Latin.  Salutati also did something else of importance; he brought in the first Greek scholar in 1397 to teach Greek to the hungry students of the West.  Together with more discoveries of Cicero’s letters by Salutati we have a man who has been forgotten but who gave us an enormous legacy.  Florence's principal nemesis during his tenure, Giangaleazzo Visconti, Dictator and Duke of Milan, once remarked that just one of Salutati's letters could "cause more damage than a thousand Florentine horsemen."  Visconti died suddenly while besieging Florence to expand his Milanese empire in 1402 and the empire collapsed!


The Decameron of Boccaccio tells 100 love stories by 10 people (7 women and 3 men) who are taking shelter in a Florentine villa during an outbreak of the Black Death of 1348.  The tales range from the erotic to the tragic with plenty of wit, practical jokes and life lessons.  Hugely popular and influential with the most literate city in the world.  Florence had a 60-70% literacy rate among men who could read it and a smaller percentage of women who could.  A friend of Salutati, Boccaccio stood up to the church who wanted to supress his work especially on Classical Mythology which were of course pagan in nature.

His other great work was “Famous Women” De Mulierbus Claris, biographies of 106 women historical and mythological, good and bad, the first time in Western literature a book was devoted exclusively to biographies of women, (contrast that with Plutarch’s lives).  Again the Church hated it, and again it was a huge bestseller all over Europe!


Dante Aligheri, is a fourth agent of change in the Renaissance but contributed less to humanism than the other three Italians mentioned here.  He did write in Italian and did privately espouse a more human approach to public affairs but was not active in trying to promote humanistic affairs.

Humanism with some success in scope of reach and of time was a specific plan to be used in school curriculum as a counter to the Catholic Church’s method of teaching called Scholasticism which was at its core a technique to defend its dogma from critique.  Scholasticism used inference to resolve contradiction after careful analysis and opponent’s rebuttals.  It was in use from 1100 to 1700 with a longish period of decline after 1500.  The inferences were always in the church’s favour though and were backed by threats of excommunication if you wavered from their chosen inferences.  A further drag on scholasticisms legacy is that it debated things remote and removed from human affairs, for example the number of angels on the head of a pin and other such piffles.

Scholasticism’s most famous figures include; St. Anselm of Canterbury, Peter Abelard of the University of Paris, William of Ockham (yes he of the famous Ockham’s razor or Rule of Parsimony), St. Bonaventure, and Thomas Aquinas.  Both the Lutherans and the Calvinists adopted Scholasticism and tailored it to their theological needs, by having inferences drafted in their favour!

Italian Humanists to the rescue!  Petrarch and the lads introduced additional subjects into the old Trivium curriculum and called it Studia Humanatatis.  The trivium only had grammar, logic and rhetoric and was a preparatory for the Quadrivium which consists of: geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and music.  The trivium dates back to before Plato’s time.  The new Humanist curriculum introduced: history, Greek language, moral philosophy, and most importantly poetry.  Their curriculum gained wide acceptance with the elites and merchant middle class as it offered more variety and depth.  The Trivium later became known to us all as the Humanities!!


The next famous Humanist was Desiderius Erasmus from Rotterdam, a Catholic priest, social critic, theologian, and teacher.  Called the “Prince of the Humanities” he lived from 1466 to 1536.  Born a bastard as his father was a priest and his mother was the maid.  They raised him until they died of plague when he was 17.  Erasmus promoted religious tolerance.  His important but flawed Latin and Greek editions of the New Testament were informed by his humanist techniques and his Bible was the template for many, many copies including the King James Version.  He was critical of the abuses and corruption of the church but kept his distance from Luther and Melanchthon and their Protestant Reformation.  Erasmus angered both Catholic Popes and Protestant Reformers with his middle way of tolerance and gradual reform. 

He was also gay and fell in love with a fellow canon, Servatius Rogerus, writing him a series of passionate letters in which he called Rogerus, “half my soul”.  “I have wooed you both unhappily and relentlessly.”  Erasmus was even sacked from a teaching position with a pupil by the father who had suspicions of a liaison.  Later in life though, after years of chastity he wrote condemning sodomy and praising sexual desire between a man and a woman in an exclusive marriage.

His fame for moderation and compromise is summed up in his antipathy to the death penalty, “It is better to cure a sick man than to kill him.”


The religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe were a setback for Humanism.  Mayhem, murder and massive power plays meant Humanism was not yet ready to take centre stage BUT it was making subtler inroads at this time of chaos, inroads that would pay dividends later when the religious fanatics lost out to secular power and authority.  Manners, dress, the arts and music were all infused with some degree of Humanism by this time. 

As an example of the challenge humanism faced we need only look at the fate of Galileo Galilei 1564-1642, and his house arrest from a conviction of “vehemently suspect of heresy” by the Roman Inquisition in 1633 led by Cardinal Vicenzo Maculani, a harsh man who only decided against torturing Galileo because he was too old and too ill.  But Galileo refused to buckle under the threat of torture and only after the verdict was read did he swear that he “abjured, cursed and detested” his opinions on the planets and Copernicus.  Still, when all of the court was packing up their papers and starting to leave the trial chamber, according to two later accounts, one in a book and the other in a painting a year after his death, legend says Galileo looked up to the sky and down to the ground, and, stamping with his foot, in a contemplative mood, muttered, Eppur si muove, that is, And yet it moves! He died under house arrest with cruel restrictions placed upon the elderly man that included no family visitors and no books for reading.  He did however write one of his better books during this confinement, “Two New Sciences”, covering the strength of materials and the motion of objects.  Despite a papal publication ban the manuscript made its way around Europe before being published in 1638 in South Holland where the writ of the Inquisition had little influence.


Michel de Montaigne, a Frenchman who lived from 1533-1592 and who invented the essay (which means attempt) as a popular literary genre.  He is thought of as the Father of Modern Scepticism.  He pushed forward the early gains of Humanism.  Perhaps the most erudite man of Europe he was quietly brilliant, preferring not to show off his vast knowledge and insight. Having come from a rich family and having lived in Italy when his father fought for King Francis the 1st of France in Italy, Montaigne returned to France with the firm intention of bringing refined Italian culture to France.  A huge proponent of individual free will and applying philosophy to make better every day moral judgements.  He wrote of philosophy in a way to make it a daily necessity of everyone not just the elite and he achieved the Humanist revolution in philosophy in this way.  “For philosophy, which as the molder of judgement and conduct will be his principal lesson, has the privilege of being everywhere at home.”

As the mayor of Bordeaux for two elected terms he influenced a large city in the ways of humane treatment of their fellow citizens.  Montaigne helps us answer- How to stay free, how to maintain our humanism in front of all the threats and dangers of fanaticism.


Montaigne’s example of being an autodidact or self-taught, was a huge influence on the next and final person to carry Humanism forward to the modern near starting point.


Benedict Spinoza, 1632-1677, I am using his chosen new name after he was viciously excommunicated by the Jewish Synagogue in Amsterdam and he decided to ditch the Hebrew name Baruch.  I have read the excommunication order and it is a most disgusting document full of curses and venom, enjoining god to keep him eternally in pain and torment.  Here is an excerpt from that diatribe of the United Congregation of the Portuguese Jews in Amsterdam of July 27, 1656. 

“Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down and cursed be he when he rises up. Cursed be he when he goes out and cursed be he when he comes in. The Lord will not spare him, but then the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smoke against that man, and all the curses that are written in this book shall lie upon him, and the Lord shall blot out his name from under heaven. And the Lord shall separate him unto evil out of all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant that are written in this book of the law.”  It concludes with this warning and rule to the faithful.

"That no one should communicate with him neither in writing nor accord him any favor nor stay with him under the same roof nor within four cubits in his vicinity; nor shall he read any treatise composed or written by him."

Why was Spinoza excommunicated?  He was accused of three heresies, The Law of the Torah (all 613 of them) is not true, the soul dies along with the body and god exists only philosophically.  Why was he the only one for that period to get this hateful expulsion order?  Because some years earlier, from Spain to Venice there had been a nasty and protracted bitter dispute amongst rabbis about these very things.  Through threats of shunning and loss of income the hardline rabbis had won out against the doubting rabbis and all further attempts at dialogue on the nature of god and the Torah were forbidden.

Spinoza was a 16th century genius who lived an exemplary life and earned money as a lens grinder for little pay and unfortunately, the small ground bits of glass made their way to his lungs and killed him at 44 years of age.  But not before his writings electrified all of Europe and soon after, the New World.  Spinoza gave us a worldview that allowed for all manner of fair treatment of each other without resorting to any deity.  His notion of god was of the realm of nature that neither promotes nor opposes human values and not pantheistic as many have claimed.  I get this from Camus.  Two letters that have survived from Quakers in Amsterdam show that in the year just after his excommunication, Spinoza, who was doing translation work for the Quakers, was friendly, positive and honest.  Spinoza’s interest in Cartesian philosophy as well as his willingness to read and debate with Quakers led directly to his losing faith in Judaism.

From Spinoza we get to John Locke who adored the writings of Spinoza.  Locke who lived from 1632-1704 gave us a way of thinking that put the power of accomplishment and knowledge in the hands of humans.  It further gave license for humans to use power in a way not considered before, by allowing for us to decide for ourselves how we wish to be governed.  Gone was the need or sheepish acceptance of a god mandated and endowed monarch.  We could stand on our own two feet and make decisions however imperfect and answer for them to the public.  On the heels of the English Glorious Revolution of 1688, that newly empowered the Parliament over the new king, William of Orange.  This was a heady time when change was happening at a quickened pace. 

Science was making strides.  In particular, geology was the first science to shake the earth to its core.  Minerals were being mined on a larger scale, roads were being improved, canals were being dug, bridges were being built, and industry was moving out of the cottages it had been in for centuries.  Hamlets became villages, villages became towns, towns became cities and cities became metropolises.  This new wealth that was admittedly unevenly spread was still enough to change the world.  There was money to be made and lots of it!  The church and landed gentry had new competitors for power and influence, the nouveau riche.  With expanded education and an expanded moneyed class there was no stopping the industrial revolution.  After all, every European empire was competing against every other.  This was no time to hold back progress for the sake of piety and priests. 

The full partner in all of this was the period we all know and love, the Enlightenment.  Soon it had successful adherents in the country given its name by Thomas Paine, The United States of America.  I don’t need to recite the roll call of greats from that period as I would be wasting your time.  I think it important to mention however, that the only trinity I believe in, and celebrate, is that of the triple towns of the Enlightenment: Paris, Edinburgh and Philadelphia. 

Allow me to say that the time for challenging god was ripe.  Western society had paid a huge and treacherous price to afford them the chance to get to that point.  Everything we had gained can be summed up in a short phrase, an Attitude Adjustment.  Enough of us had lost our fear and gained our humanity.   “We have nothing to lose but our chains.” as Rousseau said although he meant only the ancient regime of the monarchy but we can appropriate the quote to suit us nicely.

By the time Lincoln and Darwin came screaming into the world, enough of the world was ready to finally listen.


I will finish up with 5 portraits of women who were fundamental to our modern way of life.  It is time to give the women their due in this lecture.  Perhaps I have left the best for last?

Hypatia, 350-415 CE, from the Greek city of Alexandria in Egypt, philosopher, astronomer, mathematician, in fact a Mother of Mathematics and the leader of the Platonist Academy in Alexandria.  Flayed and then torn to pieces by the fanatical monks of Cyril, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Alexandria.  The monks by the way were living in isolation in the desert and were specifically brought in to kill this woman and deliver the city to faith as controlled by twisted virgin men who probably couldn’t get laid if they tried!  For a truly great movie experience I recommend the contemporary film called, “Agora” with British actress Rachel Weiscz,  in the role of Hypatia.  You can watch it on Netflix.

Mary Wollstonecraft, who lived from 1759-1797, wrote an awe inspiring twin set of books as a reply to the astonishing happenings of the French Revolution.  These books were the “Vindication of the Rights of Man” in 1790 and “Vindication of the Rights of Woman” in 1792.  These were both written as a riposte to the conservative reaction to the French Revolution captured by Edmund Burke who was against the overthrow in France.  Burke who had supported the Americans in their Revolution and had to be protected from a mob at his home in London for that support, turned against the French Revolution when the women of Paris marched King Louis XVI from Versailles to Paris in October 1789.  His written tour de force pamphlet was called, “Reflections on the Revolution in France”.  Burke, who is known as the Father of Modern Conservatism, would have detested the modern Republican Party in the USA with its idiotic Tea Party and Christian Moral Majority wings, lost the debate to Wollstonecraft and Thomas Paine.  Sadly she died in 1797, shortly after giving birth to Mary Shelley who as a teenager wrote the classic novel “Frankenstein” a tale of humanity rejecting otherness and the price to be paid for that lack of humanity.  Mary Wollstonecraft had written a call to arms for all women, everywhere, for all time.  Hugely popular right from the day it was first published, it was picked up and carried by those who came after her.  Even today it rings true and sweet for the cause of the liberty of women.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 1815-1902 was the most fearless defender of women the world had yet seen.  Growing up with an excellent education with boys and girls she won prizes and saw her family slave freed in New York in 1827.  When she married she had the vows changed to take out a, “promise to obey”.  A believer in homeopathy being her only quack pursuit, well no one is perfect.  At the World Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840 in London, along with Lucretia Mott she was devastated when the convention voted down attempts by women delegates to speak and vote and even to sit with the men.  This orchestrated misogyny was thanks to the clergy who were very prominent at the convention.  This spurred on her ambitions leading to the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 that had the famous Declaration of Sentiments that has a preamble mirroring the Declaration of Independence.  In part let me quote from it, ``The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world. `` This Declaration was signed by 68 women and 32 men.  It opened the Women`s Suffrage Movement with the wide publicity it received.  Her great friendship and partnership with Susan B. Anthony lasted through all manner of tests including Stanton`s insistence on an all or nothing approach to women`s rights versus the more conservative suffrage only approach championed by the rival women`s suffrage association.  Eventually merging into the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1890 with Stanton who had opposed the merger being the first leader thanks to Anthony.  Her biggest challenge to the unity of the movement came when she published, ``The Woman`s Bible`` in 1885, a strident denunciation of the patriarchy of the bible.  Anthony tried to dissuade her from spending time on it and the majority of members in NAWSA voted against the book thereby indirectly censuring Stanton.  No matter, she published a second edition in 1898.  Stanton countered attacks by women readers, writing "the only difference between us is, we say that these degrading ideas of woman emanated from the brain of man, while the church says that they came from God."  Although Stanton did not live to see universal suffrage she did have a wonderful victory at the 1893 Chicago World`s Fair.  A petition of mostly women numbering over 100,000 got Congress to vote in favour of closing the World`s Fair on Sundays.  Stanton disproved the claims of these Sabbatarians.  Neither Jesus nor Paul advocated keeping a Sabbath.  Calvin deferred a sermon to attend a Sunday play and Martin Luther favoured dancing rather than keep a Jewish code.  Elizabeth Cady Stanton`s efforts paid off and although many exhibits were closed the Fair stayed open on Sundays, the only day working families had off!


Marie Sklowdowska Curie, 1867-1934 , was a genius winning two Nobel prizes in 1903 for Physics and 1911 for Chemistry.  Originally from Poland she lost her faith early on when both her mother and sister died.  Her father a teacher of physics and math was an atheist.  She was married in her blue laboratory outfit in a civil ceremony as both her and her husband Pierre wanted nothing to do with a religious wedding.  Discovering the elements Polonium, in honour of her partitioned homeland and radium she noticed that radium killed cancer cells faster than normal cells.  The Curies did not patent their discoveries and the new industry being built on them did not compensate them much.  Only after her husband complained in 1903 to the Swedish Academy of Sciences that Marie`s name had been left off the prize list did the academy put it on.  Pierre was alerted to this by the one academy member who favoured women`s rights.  After Pierre was killed by a horse carriage fracturing his skull in 1906 devastating Marie, she was awarded full professorship by the University of Paris, a first for a woman!  The French Academy of Sciences however snubbed her by just one vote in 1911 and it would not be until 1962 that they finally admitted a woman to their ranks.  The press had written against her because she was both a foreigner and an atheist.  But when she got the second Nobel Prize later that year the same press hailed her as a French national hero!  Early in World War I she devolped and trained 20 mobile X-ray trucks for helping to diagnose soldiers in the field, with a further 200 radiological units set up at field hospitals close to the front.  Over one million men were treated because of her and she got zero recognition for this work from the French government.  She gave much of her first Nobel Prize money to friends, family, students, and research associates. In an unusual decision, Marie intentionally refrained from patenting the radium-isolation process, so that the scientific community could do research unhindered.  She insisted that monetary gifts and awards be given to the scientific institutions she was affiliated with rather than to her. She and her husband often refused awards and medals.  Albert Einstein reportedly remarked that she was probably the only person who could not be corrupted by fame.


Margaret Sanger, 1879-1966.  Seeing her mother go through 18 pregnancies with only 11 surviving birth and then her mother dying at a premature 49 Margaret resolved to fight for women`s control of their own bodies.  Her extensive nursing work in the East side of New York City further steeled her to the necessity of fighting for birth control.  In 1916, Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the United States, which led to her arrest for distributing information on contraception. Her subsequent trial and appeal generated enormous support for her cause.  In 1921, Sanger founded the American Birth Control League, which later became the Planned Parenthood Federationof America. In New York City, she organized the first birth control clinic staffed by all-female doctors, as well as a clinic in Harlem with an entirely African-American staff. In 1929, she formed the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control, which served as the focal point of her lobbying efforts to legalize contraception in the United States.  Over the course of her career, Sanger was arrested at least eight times for expressing her views during an era in which speaking publicly about contraception was illegal. Numerous times in her career, local government officials prevented Sanger from speaking by shuttering a facility or threatening her hosts.  Sanger did have a dark cloud in her efforts though in that she was a firm believer in eugenics including sterilization and segregation for the severely retarded.  She did not support the policy to the same degree as the Nazis.  Surprisingly she never supported abortion, at first because in her early life it was a dangerous procedure and later because she believed life should not be stopped once it was conceived.  She died of heart failure about a year after the landmark case that was the culmination of her career, Griswold v. Connecticut, a landmark case in which the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the Constitution protected a right to privacy. The case involved a Connecticut law that prohibited the use of contraceptives. By a vote of 7–2, the Supreme Court invalidated the law on the grounds that it violated the "right to marital privacy".


Of course each of you has their own humanist you most admire and you should feel free to share that pride every day of your lives.  It could be a teacher or a friend or maybe a relation.  Whoever it is, celebrate their contribution.  It is with joy that we have made it this far in our lives and in our society.  We have a ways to go but we can all contribute. 

Christopher Hitchens used to say that, “All religions are equal glimpses of the same untruth.”  I hope today you have seen that reason and thought are equal glimpses of the same truths.

Bringing this lecture to an uplifting close is a short poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 1807-1882, who wrote such epics as The Song of Hiawatha and Evangeline;

“Humanity with all its fears

With all its hopes of future years,

Is hanging breathless on your fate.”

Thank you all so much for your kind attention and if time permits I would love to answer any questions you may have or hear any comments that will illuminate us all.