The Great History of Humanism

Original title: La grande histoire de l’humanisme

Publication Date:

April 2024



Original language and publisher

Territories Handled

Worldwide excl. French


History, Philosophy

The Great History of Humanism

Original title: La grande histoire de l’humanisme


Where does humanism begin and end? The history of the word itself is that of an anachronism: it was invented at the end of the 18th century to name the vision shared by those scholars who, four centuries earlier, as devotees of Greco-Latin antiquities, had rehabilitated the power of reason in understanding the world and defining the goals of human existence. Petrarch, Boccaccio, Dante, and later Leonardo da Vinci, Erasmus and Rabelais, among a hundred others, embodied this hope that, without calling into question the foundations of the Christian religion, man could also achieve salvation on Earth and improve himself.

But just as the term was being coined, another page was turned: that of the Enlightenment, the rejection of the sovereign power of the Church and the monarchy. Modern humanism, secular and republican, is embodied in law and politics, proclaiming the equality of citizens, tolerance and the possible harmony of nations.

Humanism is an idealistic vision of history, in which the centrality of man and the assurance of his universal progress are the driving values. Yet history itself has never failed to put these values to the test. The 19th century dreamt only of progress, but also stripped humanism bare: Charles Darwin challenged human exceptionalism, Karl Marx enounced a bourgeois ideology, Friedrich Nietzsche mocked all humanist morality. And the worst is yet to come: how, in the 20th century, can we believe in human reason after the slaughter of one and then two World Wars? How can we believe in progress when the machine created by man threatens to enslave us and destroy the planet?

In 1966, Michel Foucault wrote that man, as master of his own destiny, has never been anything but a mirage, an illusion. That was a bit hasty. Even dismayed by the powerlessness of human beings to govern themselves, even in the face of the worst threats, 21st century thinkers have to recognise that man is, more than ever, responsible for himself and his environment.

How can we fail to be humanists?

Contributors: Hugo Albandea, Blaise Bachofen, Abdennour Bidar, Brigitte Boudon, Jean-François Dortier, François Dosse, Léo Fabius, France Farago, Michel Faucheux, Olivier Grenouilleau, Cédric Grimoult, Benoît Hervieu-Léger, Nicolas Journet, Catherine Halpern, Étienne Helmer, Antoine Lilti, Régis Meyran, Éric Pommier, Jean-Yves Pranchère, Clément Quintard, Frédéric Rognon, Jean-Christophe Saladin, Enzo Traverso, Pierre Vesperini, Valentine Zuber.


Table of contents

How can you not be a humanist? Nicolas Journet

What is humanism? Abdennour Bidar

The ancient roots

Were the Greeks humanists?        Étienne Helmer

Confronting Christianity Interview with Pierre Vesperini

The complete man according to Cicero Brigitte Boudon

Around the Renaissance

You are not born a man, you become one Jean-Christophe Saladin

Montaigne, the sceptic Jean-François Dortier

Hobbes, the pessimist Laurence Hansen-Løve

John Locke, the liberal Clément Quintard

Debates in the Age of Enlightenment

The legacy of the Enlightenment Antoine Lilti

The forgotten half of man Michel Faucheux

The sources of human rights Valentine Zuber

Two versions of human perfectibility Blaise Bachofen

Kant and universal peace France Farago

Abolishing slavery: a moral consensus Olivier Grenouilleau

Facing the age of progress

Utilitarianism: an unscrupulous morality?  Christophe Salvat

Karl Marx and human rights Jean-Yves Pranchère

Nietzsche and the illusions of morality Jean-François Dortier

Did Darwin destroy the human race? Cédric Grimoult

Disillusionment and dead ends

Freud and man in the grip of his impulses Hugo Albandea

The mirage of colonial humanism Régis Meyran

Humanism and the crimes of the 20th century Interview with Enzo Traverso

The erasure of man François Dosse

Humanism in the face of technoscience Frédéric Rognon

The renewal of humanism

Making development more humane Catherine Halpern

Securing the future of the Earth Éric Pommier

The Care, a feminine humanism?  Nicolas Journet

Does transhumanism make man obsolete? Léo Fabius

Humanity put to the test by anti-speciesism Benoît Hervieu-Léger

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