There are two sorts of humanism (though the two strands are often intertwined): a humanism of constraint and moderation that talks of nature and limits; and a humanism of self-creation and productivity that speaks of progress, industry and science. Plato epitomizes the first and Marx the second.
What Is Humanism?
Humanism was originally an educational program, termed the studia humanitatis, based on grammar, rhetoric, poetry and moral philosophy or ethics. Its goal was the development of excellence in writing, speaking and morals. Many of its ideas can be traced back to Plato’s Republic. But, in addition, humanism was and is seen as a normative point of departure, a perspective that prioritizes human concerns, interests and flourishing above all else. Humanism can be theological, but it cannot be theocentric. It can be spiritual, but not self-abnegating; moral, but not moralistic. Humanism is anthropocentric, placing human beings at the center of morals and meaning. Non-human animals, gods and goddesses and everything in between is of secondary concern. Humanism focuses on the faculties that separate humans from other animals: our reason and our capacities for choice and autonomy: faculties that we have a responsibility to develop to their fullest capacity. What differentiates classical from modern humanists, however, which human capabilities they believe are most important and precisely how they believe we should develop them.
Plato on Self-Control and Human Limits
For the ancient philosophers, the preeminent human faculty was intellect or nous. But how exactly could one lead a primarily intellectual life? The answer, they believed, was to limit one’s appetites and desires through discipline, self-restraint and moderation, a concept they called sophrosyne (σωφροσύνη), which figures prominently in Plato’s Republic.
Plato criticizes democracy and the individual that democratic governments create because of their lack of sophrosyne, or self-moderation. Democracy represents a steep falling away from the ideal state of aristocracy. There is no distinction between necessary and non-necessary desires within a democratic society. Freedom may be the guiding ideal of a democratic government or soul, but no one desire within the soul holds sway over any of the others. The democratic man indulges any urge that arises within his consciousness indiscriminately: one moment, he pursues sex; the next, he plays sports; the next, he consumes poetry or philosophical treatises. His many activities give him the appearance of cultural virtuosity and great-souledness, but, in reality, having blurred the distinction between necessary and non-necessary desires, and lacking any desire that coordinates the soul towards an overarching aim, the democratic man is of lower status than the oligarchic man. The democratic soul is a manifestation of arbitrariness, a disjointed alternation of psychic energy towards whatever individual desires the moment calls up. This soul is not harmonious and, since harmony is the most important indicator of justice, the democratic soul and society are ranked next to last when it comes to political and psychic greatness. As Plato puts it, “And so he [the democratic man] lives, always surrendering rule over himself to whichever desire comes along, as if it were chosen by lot. And when that is satisfied, he surrenders the rule to another, not disdaining any but satisfying them all equally.”
For the Greeks, humanism meant self-restraint and living in accordance with one’s predetermined limits—which was necessary for the flourishing of intellectual life. Modern thinkers often cast doubt on this humanism of moderation and focus on a more expansive vision of human capacity and life. Marx is one such thinker.
Marx’s Theory of Human Nature
Marx’s view of human nature is heavily indebted to the philosophical anthropology of Feuerbach. Through a method he calls transformative criticism, Feuerbach inverts Hegel’s idealism and posits that man is a natural animal who relies on his sensory apparatus to cope with nature and the material world. He arrived at this idea via a circuitous critique of Hegel’s philosophy of religion: Feuerbach argues that God is a projection of human capacities taken to their maximum. God merely possesses the same qualities humanity as a whole possesses, of which humanity has divested itself and from which humanity is alienated. He calls these qualities the species-being. For Feuerbach,
Every limitation of the reason, or in general of the nature of man, rests on a delusion, an error. It is true that the human being, as an individual, can and must—herein consists his distinction from the brute—feel and recognize himself to be limited; but he can become conscious of his limits, his finiteness only because of the perfection, the infinitude of his species … The divine being is nothing else than the human being, or, rather, the human nature purified, freed from the limits of the individual man, made objective—i.e. contemplated and revered as another, a distinct being. All the attributes of the divine nature are, therefore, attributes of the human nature.
Marx picks up Feuerbach’s idea of naturalized humanism, including the idea of species-being, but adds quite a few modifications.
Marx endorses human plasticity and a historicized view of human nature. Though human beings, qua animals, have a certain set of capacities and instincts (Kräfte, as Marx calls them) the actualization of these powers and instincts is what structures human nature and that is, in turn, determined by the socioeconomic context. Thus, actually existing human nature—as opposed to the general structure that human beings have as biological animals—is determined by the socioeconomic mode of production under which humans happen to live: “The essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In reality, it is the ensemble of the social relations.”
For Marx, labor is the main activity through which man constructs his human essence and externalizes his species-being. This process of labor and creation perpetually spurs new needs in human beings and thus continually incentivizes them to engage in creative activity. For example, when human beings created transportation that allowed them to travel further than they could walk, this induced the need to create faster forms of transportation, and then to make said transportation safer, etc.
Marx also transfers the concept of alienation from the religious and psychological sphere to the social and economic one: for Marx, alienation is the result of the fact that man’s creative capacities are limited and circumvented by the need to subsist within the capitalist economy. Marx thought that the abolition of capitalism and the advent of communism would abolish the artificial limits on human creative flourishing by removing the division of labor and the coercive effects that followed:
For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.
For Marx, extinction of the division of labor and the freedom that opens up allows for the actualization of the higher parts of human nature, while, for Plato, it provokes undisciplined pathology.
The Ancient Cosmos vs. the Modern Universe
These two visions are rooted in different views of the universe. Most ancient thinkers were committed to an organic theory of the universe, in which the cosmos functioned as a living organism, with each individual part contributing to the functioning of the whole. Reality was organized around a fixed hierarchical structure in which each type of being had a specific role to play. The goal of both people and planets was to operate in accordance with a fixed nature that contributed to the structure of the whole and mimicked the eternal world or law that gave it life.
Each person or object was to strive towards perfection within its own limits—to attempt to step outside one’s assigned position was a mark of hubris and folly.
As George Santayana puts it:
An inexhaustible divine energy—so the system ran —poured perpetually down into the chaos of matter, animating and shaping it as well as that torpid substance would permit. At the bottom or centre there was little life, but it stirred more actively and nobly at each successive level, somewhat as the light of the sun floods the ether absolutely, the air variously, the sea dubiously, and the earth only darkly, with a shallow warmth … All levels of being were good in some measure, each after its kind.
The ancients (with the partial exception of the atomists) venerated permanence and fixity, eternal forms and species, a timeless universe and an unchanging God. By contrast, Marx’s view of the universe was Newtonian and Darwinian—gone was the purposeful cosmos that allocated humans a special place and a role to which they were to submit themselves. The universe was shorn of purpose but open to progress, adaptive change and perpetual evolution.
Belief in man’s unlimited productive capacity has had deleterious effects on our dealings with the natural world. The idea that we have the godlike ability to use technology and instrumental reason to bend the universe to our will is one of the reasons why we are currently dealing with anthropogenic climate change. The Greeks preached a humanism that was self-critical and self-limiting—they believed in the possibility of failure, defeat and decline. Many modern liberals and socialists have forgotten this. But we would be wise to heed the ancients, as the virtues they extoll are timeless. Now, more than ever, we need less self-confidence and more sophrosyne.