Cultural and Literary Humanism

The label “miscellaneous” might seem derogatory, but it isn’t meant to be such. The types of humanism covered in this section are the types which are simply not commonly thought of when humanism is discussed. They are valid categories, to be sure, but they aren’t the focus of most of the discussions on this site.

Cultural Humanism

The label of Cultural Humanism is used to refer to cultural traditions which, originating in ancient Greece and Rome, evolved through European history and have come to be a fundamental basis of Western culture.

Aspects of this tradition include law, literature, philosophy, politics, science, and more.

Sometimes, when religious fundamentalists criticize modern secular humanism and accuse it of infiltrating our cultural institutions for the purpose of undermining them and eliminating all vestiges of Christianity, they are actually conflating secular humanism with cultural humanism. True, there is some overlap between the two and at times there can be quite a lot of similarity; nevertheless, they are distinct.

Part of the problem for the argument made by religious fundamentalists is that they fail to understand that humanist traditions form the background of both secular humanism and cultural humanism. They seem to assume that Christianity, but especially Christianity as they perceive it should be, is the only influence on Western culture. That is simply not true — Christianity is an influence, but just as important are the humanist traditions which date back to Greece and Rome.

Literary Humanism

In many ways an aspect of Cultural Humanism, Literary Humanism involves the study of the “humanities.” These include languages, philosophy, history, literature — in short, everything outside of the physical sciences and theology.

The reason why this is an aspect of Cultural Humanism is that an emphasis on the value of such studies — not simply for material gain but instead for their own sake — are part of the cultural traditions we have inherited from ancient Greece and Rome and which have been transmitted through European history.

For many, the study of the humanities could be an important virtue itself or a means to the development of an ethical and mature human being.

In the 20th century, the label “Literary Humanism” was used in a more narrow sense to describe a movement in the humanities which focused almost exclusively on “literary culture” — that is to say, the ways in which literature can help people through introspection and personal development. It was at times elitist in its outlook and even opposed to the use of science in developing a better understanding of humanity.

Literary Humanism has never been a philosophy which has been involved with such humanist programs like social reform or religious critique. Because of this, some have felt that the label misuses the word “humanism,” but it seems more accurate to simply observe that it uses the concept of humanism in an older, cultural sense.