Western Europe has a tradition of non-religious ethical thinking that can be traced back some 2,500 years to the philosophy of the Ancient Greeks. This way of understanding the world, of finding meaning in life, and of grounding moral thinking can also be found in China and India and many other cultures. Since the time of Erasmus and Galileo, many of the great philosophers, scientists and moral thinkers were essentially humanist, looking for meaning in the world around them, thinking for themselves, and pushing forward human knowledge.
Throughout recorded history there have been non-religious people who have believed that this life is the only life we have, that the universe is a natural phenomenon with no supernatural side, and that we can live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. They have trusted to the scientific method, evidence and reason to discover truths about the universe and placed human welfare and happiness at the centre of their ethical decision making.
Many people have thought and expressed humanist ideas over the centuries. Though some of them may have believed in a god or gods, they were thoughtful, humane, open-minded people, and many of them fought against the ignorance and religious bigotry of their day, sometimes taking considerable personal risks to do so. Many of the great philosophers, scientists and moral thinkers were essentially humanist, because they did not accept traditional beliefs but thought for themselves and pushed human knowledge forwards.
A perfect example of this is demonstrated in this excerpt from Plato’s Symposium.
In his speech, Aristophanes is providing us with an explanation of why people in love say they feel “whole” when they have found their true partner. It is a feeling, he later goes on to describe as a “riddle that cannot be explained.” I’m sure we have experienced that at some point in their life.
It is said that Aristophanes struggled to deliver his contribution to Plato’s Symposium on the nature of love, because of a particularly bad bout of hiccups.
“Humans have never understood the power of Love, for if they had they would surely have built noble temples and altars and offered solemn sacrifices; but this is not done, and most certainly ought to be done, since Love is our best friend, our helper, and the healer of the ills which prevent us from being happy.
To understand the power of Love, we must understand that our original human nature was not like it is now, but different. Human beings each had two sets of arms, two sets of legs, and two faces looking in opposite directions. There were three sexes then: one comprised of two men called the children of the Sun, one made of two women called the children of the Earth, and a third made of a man and a woman, called the children of the Moon. Due to the power and might of these original humans, the Gods began to fear that their reign might be threatened. They sought for a way to end the humans’ insolence without destroying them.
It was at this point that Zeus divided the humans in half. After the division, the two parts of each, desiring their other half, came together, and throwing their arms about one another, entwined in mutual embraces, longing to grow into one. So ancient is the desire of one another which is implanted in us, reuniting our original nature, making one of two, and healing the state of humankind.
Each of us when separated, having one side only, is but the indenture of a person, and we are always looking for our other half. Those whose original nature lies with the children of the Sun are men who are drawn to other men, those from the children of the Earth are women who love other women, and those from the children of the Moon are men and women drawn to one another. And when one of us meets our other half, we are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy, and would not be out of the other’s sight even for a moment. We pass our whole lives together, desiring that we should be melted into one, to spend our lives as one person instead of two, and so that after our death there will be one departed soul instead of two; this is the very expression of our ancient need. And the reason is that human nature was originally one and we were a whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called Love.”
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