Comparing the Secular Humanist, Machiavelli and the Religious Humanist, Erasmus

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Comparing the Secular Humanist, Machiavelli and the Religious Humanist, Erasmus

One can often identify a person's political, religious or cultural orientation by his or her reaction to certain words. A case in point is the expression "secular humanism." For religious conservatives those words sum up much of what is wrong with contemporary society.

Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary gives several definitions for humanism, a word which made its appearance in 1832. The first is "a devotion to the humanities or the revival of class, individualistic and critical spirit, and emphasis on secular concerns characteristic of the Renaissance." Renaissance is capitalized. Another definition reads as follows: "a doctrine, attitude, or way of life centered on human interests or values, especially a philosophy that usually rejects supernaturalism and stresses an individual's dignity and worth and capacity for self-realization through reason."

Ousted from power and in exile from Florence, the city where he had served as a diplomat, Niccolò Machiavelli wrote a famous how-to-do politics book called The Prince. That was nearly 500 years ago and yet it holds a prophetic relevance for own age. Machiavelli fits both parts of our definition of humanism. On one hand, he was versed in the classics and inspired by his study of the government of Republican Rome and his own experience; thus he fits into the Renaissance period. On the other hand, he could be called a secular humanist because he rejects the authority of religion; he trusts his own reason and informs us that he will deal only with "the truth of the matter as facts show it" (34). Most people today would agree with him that the state needs to restrict the power of the church. ...

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...nt that held the political power. Machiavelli saw the need for liberation--liberation from religious ideology; what counted in politics was getting the job done. Religion was unnecessary, only to be used as a kind of smoke screen for the real business at hand. Erasmus' used scholarship and wit to attack ignorance and corruption. He did not give up on the establishment nor did he turn his back on his faith.

Both blind religious faith and cynical secularism threaten us today. Because I live in a society that claims to be religious, but operates according to secular principles I suppose that I fear the latter more.

The current disillusionment with politics shows all too well that Machiavelli has, in a sense, won. We assume that morality and religious convictions do not play an important role in politics. We are only beginning to reap the fruits of that victory.

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