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.

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