Secular Humanism in Literature

By McGovern, Edythe | Free Inquiry, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

Secular Humanism in Literature


McGovern, Edythe, Free Inquiry


When secular humanists consider writers and their works, it is common to concentrate attention on philosophical authors of non-fictional material. However, there are also a great many writers whose novels, plays, and poems are forceful statements of secular humanism. And these fictional pieces, frequently reaching a wider audience than the more esoteric works, deserve our attention.

We are talking here of literature in the strict sense of that term, that is, "fictional material which has lasting value and universality." Certainly there may be some overlap, as in the case of Mark Twain, who created in many genres, or George Bernard Shaw, whose Prefaces and Epilogues are more philosophical treatises than integral parts of the plays in which they appear. But even with such writers, their most persuasive secular humanist sentiments are expressed in their fictional pieces.

Perhaps because fiction does not require strict factual or historical accuracy, but instead encourages the widest range of creativity, the writer has the power to present a point of view with emotion. Then through plots, themes, and characters the reader (or viewer in the case of drama) is led to draw certain conclusions. The more talented the author, the more skillfully he or she leads readers to accept ideas, some of which we may call secular humanistic ways of looking at life.

To begin, let's consider an author who has survived the perils of time, William Shakespeare. There has been some conjecture about the Bard's religious preference, but all we can say for certain is that he was not a Puritan. We know that by his characterization of Malvolio, who appears in Twelfth Night as a genial warning of what will happen to theaters when the Puritans come to power.(*) He could have been a secret Roman Catholic like his mother, Mary Arden, but at least publicly he probably subscribed to the Anglican church of Queen Elizabeth, upon whom he and his company were dependent even for their license to perform. How then can we think of Shakespeare as a proponent of secular humanist philosophy? If we remember that great artists reveal their deepest convictions, sometimes even unwittingly, through their creations, we must examine his work for revelation of his underlying views, some of which are very familiar to secular humanists.

It is a fair assumption that adherents of all faiths tend to revere clerics. Yet, Shakespeare's characterizations are quite unflattering. In Romeo and Juliet, for example, Friar Laurence, who marries the young lovers secretly, is less than forthright with their parents, deals in strange potions, and admits having his own agenda to end the feud between the Capulets and Montagues. But all his plans go awry. Surely the dedicated holy man should have been successful, but his prayers for a good outcome apparently fall on deaf ears.

Next, there are Anglican clerics shown in a somewhat unflattering light, such as when the Archbishop of Canterbury, in the quasi-historical tragedy, Richard III, is asked by Buckingham (Richard's ever-ready aide) to bring one of the young princes from the Tower of London, where he has taken sanctuary against his evil uncle. At first, the Archbishop demurs, but is quickly persuaded by Buckingham's spurious argument that "he has heard of sanctuary for men, but not for children." Of course, the Archbishop's hope is that, once Richard has eliminated all those who stand between him and the throne and becomes King, he will be rewarded.

Further along in the same play, the unscrupulous Richard appears publicly with a cleric at each side to reassure the citizenry that he is "on his knees at meditation . . . with two deep divines . . . praying to enrich his watchful soul, a book of prayer in his hand, true ornaments to know a holy man." If we remember the masterful Olivier version of this play, we will also recall that Richard is a murderer, a usurper of the throne, a complete villain. Parenthetically, we might want to note here that Shakespeare altered historical fact in order to make Richard appear so evil, Since he is in the end vanquished by Richmond, who in truth became Henry VII, the grandfather of Queen Elizabeth I.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Secular Humanism in Literature
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.