Humanism can be defined as "an outlook that emphasizes human capabilities and concerns". This outlook has two key implications.

Firstly, humanism asserts the importance of secular matters. During the Middle Ages, scholars focused primarily on sacred matters (the Bible and theology), while giving little heed to secular matters (those concerning human beings and the human world). Secular matters include science, social science, and human-focused philosophy and art. By assigning value to these subjects, humanism affirms the worth and dignity of human beings, thus contrasting sharply with medieval proclamations of humanity as inherently base and sinful.2

Secondly, humanism asserts the importance of critical thought. "Critical thought" denotes that an individual's beliefs are based on careful reasoning, as opposed to unquestioningly accepting the claims of an external authority (e.g. superstition, religion, government). A society that values critical thought features a rich diversity of ideas, as opposed to a unanimous view based on tradition, creed, or propaganda.2

By valuing critical thought, a society asserts that individual human beings have the capability to achieve great things with their minds (e.g. discover scientific truths, devise great forms of art, build a flourishing business); thus does critical thought fit neatly into the outlook of humanism.

The Western Inheritance

Throughout history, the growth of humanism was sharply limited in most societies. Humanism emerged to a much larger, more vigorous degree in ancient Greece than anywhere else, such that society was thoroughly transformed; this unique historical development is sometimes known as the "Greek Awakening" or "Greek Miracle" (see Greek Awakening). Humanism was the engine that propelled the Greeks to unprecedented innovation in such fields as science, mathematics, government, and art.

During the Middle Ages, human-focused scholarship and art languished, and critical thought was often brutally suppressed. Humanism was finally reawakened by the scholars of the Renaissance, and thereby inherited from ancient Greece by the modern West. This priceless inheritance finally allowed Europe (and its colonial offshoots) to continue down the intellectual trails blazed by the ancients (see Enlightenment).1,2,4

A major factor in the triumph of humanism during the Renaissance was the fifteenth-century invention of the printing press, which allowed classical literature and Renaissance humanist writings to spread rapidly across Europe. Another key element was the rise of the middle class, which possessed the time and wealth to become literate and pursue scholarly activities. Throughout the Middle Ages, literacy (and therefore all written knowledge) had been largely monopolized by the clergy, thus limiting the ability of the general population to create and spread alternative ideas.

It should be noted that the term "humanism" is often used to specifically denote the revival of humanism by Renaissance scholars. The foundation of this revival was a return to the study of classical literature, which is replete with humanist values (including critical thought and attention to secular matters).2 This literary focus was so fundamental to the humanist revival that sometimes "humanism" is used simply as a synonym for the study of classical literature.

Despite a newfound appreciation for secular subjects, humanist thinkers generally remained devoted to religion, and many continued to study the Bible and theology extensively. Humanism did not entail the discarding of these subjects, but rather the addition of human concerns to the scholarly menu.5 This is also true of artists, who continued to depict religious figures and scenes despite the embrace of a physically realistic visual style.

1 - "Humanism", Encarta. Accessed May 2009.
2 - "Humanism", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed May 2009.
3 - "Western Painting: Renaissance", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed May 2009.
4 - "Middle Ages", Encarta. Accessed August 2009.
5 - "Renaissance", World Book Encyclopedia. Accessed November 2009.
6 - "Social Science", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed November 2009.
7 - "History of Science: the Rise of Modern Science", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed November 2009.
8 - "History of Education", Encarta 2004.
9 - "Renaissance", Encarta 2004.
10 - "Education", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed November 2009.