“What a piece of work is a man,
how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties,
in form and moving, how express and admirable
in action, how like an angel
in apprehension, how like a god!”
(Hamlet Act 2 Scene 2)
Shakespeare’s monologue from Hamlet encapsulates the essence of what today we call Humanism. With layers of meaning, irony and transcendence beyond the religious understandings of his day, his words assign us a place in nature as ‘paragon of animals’ with the potential to aspire towards higher ambitions. Of course, what Shakespeare defines as ‘this quintessence of dust’ might today be more evocatively seen as ‘stardust’.
Shakespeare did not know or create our modern concepts of Humanism, yet his words symbolise the potential of Humanism to arise from pre-scientific or other archaic understandings of the world and evolve into a movement that hopefully inspires human beings to strive for betterment through science and human rights.
Yet as the world struggles to cope with the coronavirus crisis, we are reminded of the limitations of so much human activity and aspiration. Economics, politics, the rise and fall of empires – all contain the hubris evoked in the 1818 poem by atheist and lover of humanity, Percy Bysshe Shelley, writing of ancient ruins:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings,
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Such is a sobering thought regarding the transitory and brief scope of individual humans to make a positive, permanent mark upon the universe around them. Carl Sagan rescues us from the deceit of nihilism by locating us within the very fabric of the universe:
“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” (Cosmos, London: Macdonald, 1980, p. 233).
Humanist Merrill Miller documents US swimmer Diana Nyad as noting that atheists can, ‘feel wonder and awe at the grandeur of the natural world without the need for a higher power‘. As an atheist and lesbian, Nyad offers a personal and individual perspective. Perhaps all Humanists can appreciate the diversity, uniqueness and special nature of the universe that is contained within each of us.
© 2020 Geoff Allshorn