WHAT exactly is humanism? What does it mean, not as a word in a dictionary but as a cause to which people are committed? What does it come to in doctrine and as a plan of life?
Questions such as these were fairly easy to answer not long ago. One could say, "Humanism means concentration on the educational value of 'the classics,' especially those of Greek and Roman antiquity," or, "Humanism is studious interest in 'the humanities,' branches of study including languages, literature, art, mathematics, philosophy, and excluding the physical and social sciences and theology," and then add that according to the humanists, faithful preoccupation with humanism yields the highest standard of excellence in thought and conduct.
Thus it was yesterday. Today so simple an answer will not do. Deep-going differences have developed in the meaning of humanism that must be taken into account. There are competing humanisms. Moreover, new humanisms are coming into existence out of the turbulent social movements that agitate the contemporary world.
In a sense all humanisms, past, present, ancient or modern, may be said to have one thing in common. They all aim at the fulfillment of the distinctively human potentialities. However, as we shall see, each humanism develops the agreed upon aim in a way radically divergent from the rest, indeed, frequently in a diametrically opposite direction. This raises the question whether they actually start from an original unanimity. The thoughtful reader should find it worth while, even rewarding, to decide this question one way or the other as he studies the subject.
Various as contemporary humanisms show themselves to be they do seem to stem from the same root idea or ideal. Take as a convenient illustration two statements, one by the Catholic, Jacques Maritain, the other by the non-theistic Unitarian, Curtis Reese.
The following quotation is from Jacques Maritain's discussion of the inherent ambiguity of the term humanism: